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Title: Short Stories Volume 2 Author: John Arthur Barry * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1301631h.html Language: English Date first posted: April 2013 Date most recently April 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.
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The Last Voyage of Martin Vallance
A Limited Company
On The Five Mile Beach
The "Lady Macquarie"
The Salvation of Marouba
A Chinese Charter Party
Baleston's Secret Reef
The Story of Neebyne
Of Isaiah and the "Heart's Desire"
A Square Deal
I had been at sea eight years. As a boy, innate love of romance and Marryat's novels had sent me there Otherwise, there was no particular necessity for such a step. My father held the living of Compton-on-Tor in South Devon, and was rich enough to have given me a choice of professions. Nor in all those eight years did I once encounter the romance I had fondly imagined was the inevitable lot of the seafarer—the romance of incident. Indeed, a more humdrum, matter-of-fact life could scarcely be conceived, with its inevitable recurrence of headwinds and fair, gales and calms, long passages and short. Actually, so far as my memory serves me, throughout those years the most exciting matter that happened was the carrying away of an upper foretopsail-yard. Still, if I was not altogether satisfied with the regular routine of the hard monotonous profession I had so wilfully chosen, I loved the sea itself beyond anything, and was never tired of studying its myriad moods, and attempting to interpret the language of many tongues with which it spoke to the wanderers upon its mighty breast.
Although 'a passed master,' I had not yet been lucky enough to get a much better billet than a second mate's. Ships, comparatively, were few, and officers as plentiful as blackberries in a good season; and I was considered fortunate when a berth as second mate, and £5 per month, was offered on board the Antelope, a 1000 ton ship bound from London to Freemantle in Western Australia. I hardly took the same view of things, and had quite made up my mind, as it was rather late in the day for choosing another path in life, to do as so many others were doing, and 'change into steam.'
Five-and-twenty shillings per week, after eight years' servitude given to the mastering of an arduous and fatiguing profession, and one in which the disparity between remuneration and responsibility was so vast, appeared, even to my mind, to leave something to be desired, As for romance, that had all been pretty well knocked out of me, and I had ceased to look for or expect anything of the kind. The ocean, clearly, had altered, and been modernised to suite the times—brought, so to speak, sternly 'up to date,' and had, save for a few rare outbreaks, taught itself to recognise that fact, and behave as an everyday, commonplace piece of water should. This, at least, is what I thought whilst I paced the Antelope's deck as she went roaring down the Channel with a fair wind behind her, her Plimsoll mark just awash, and the three lower topgallant-sails standing out against the clear sky like concaves of sculptured marble. About the ship and my shipmates there was nothing more particularly noticeable than there had been in half-a-dozen similar ships and ships' companies I had sailed with. Of course, in detail, they varied; but, take them full and by, skipper, officers, crew, routine, rig, and provisions, there was the usual family likeness. Merchant captains commanding vessels like the Antelope are as often as not, in these modern times, gentlemen. Captain Craigie was one; and the chief mate, Mr Thomas, was another. Both were scientific and skilful navigators, and both officers in the Royal Naval Reserve. The ship herself was a flying clipper, steel built; crew mixed; provisions fairly good; every prospect of the usual dull and eventless voyage to 'Down Under' and back again. It was my last at any rate, and it has given me quite enough to talk about for the rest of my life, and especially when any one happens to remark in mine or my wife's hearing that there is no romance in the sea nowadays.
I am not going to say anything more about the Antelope just now, because this story doesn't concern her very much, and after I left her so suddenly, Captain Craigie and three of her men were the only recognisable members I ever saw of the ship's company.
And now, having cleared the way a little, I will heave ahead with my yarn, by reading which you will see that, even in the present prosaic age, curious things may happen to those who do business in great waters; and may also realise that Mother Ocean has lost nothing of her old-time power, when she chooses to exert it, of staging romantic scenes, and incidents grotesque and tragic and mysterious.
* * * * * *
We had called at Capetown, after a fairly quick run from the Lizard, to land a few passengers and take in a little cargo; and, in place of keeping away to the southward, the captain stood away along the 26th parallel. In doing this he ran a risk of meeting with light and unfavourable winds. But that was purely his business. We were just now in that sort of No Man's Water between the Indian and South Atlantic Oceans shunned by sailors, and used only by a few steamers. Our position at noon had been 45deg. 15min. east longitude, 36deg. 13min. south latitude, or about 1300 miles from Capetown. The night was dark and squally when I came on deck to keep the middle watch, and as I stumped the poop, listening to the wind, that seemed every now and then to shrill with a deeper note in the roar of it aloft among the canvas, there came a cry of 'Light on the lee bow, sir!' from the man on the forecastle head, an ordinary seaman. But peer as I might, I could see no light. So, descending the poop-ladder, I walked along the main-deck, and jumped on to the rail just before the fore-rigging, and leaned out-board in order to get a better view. The seaman stood on the break of the forecastle, a dark figure rising and falling with the vessel's head against the patchy sky. 'Where away, my lad?' I asked. 'There, sir,' answered he, pointing.
I was only holding on, carelessly enough, to some of the running gear—jib-halyards probably, and not to the standing rigging, as I should have done. I stared and leaned over further still. 'A star, you mutton-head!' I exclaimed, as my eye caught what he was after—the yellow glint of Antares, just on the extreme rim of the horizon. The words were scarce out of my mouth when I felt something 'give' aloft, and in a second I was in the boiling, foaming backwash of surge alongside.
As, gasping and choking, I came to the surface again, the first thought that flashed across my brain was that the ship was still reeling off her thirteen knots, and that I, Martin Vallance, was no better than a dead man. Swimming with one hand I squeezed the brine out of my eyes with the other, but so dazed and stunned was I by the amazing suddenness of the affair that I could see nothing, looking, possibly, in quite the wrong direction. There was a nasty, short, choppy sea on, too, and I found it took me all my time to keep afloat. Then I raised my head and shouted, but with poor heart. I knew so well the almost utter uselessness of it. What merchant seaman under like conditions ever gets picked up? And I mentally followed the course of events on board. The lookout—a lad on his first voyage—after a minute's gasping astonishment, roars, 'Man overboard!' The watch on deck, skulking in snug corners, rush sleepy-eyed to the rail and stare. In my case as officer of the watch, it was worse than any one else's. Most likely the mate would have to be called before any measures were taken. Certainly the fellow at the wheel might put it hard over, but that would do no good. And by this time the ship would be a full three miles away. Probably after some twenty minutes' hard work with covers and gripes, a boat would be lowered, pull about aimlessly for an hour, and then get aboard again. In the morning the log-book would show my epitaph: 'On such-and-such a date, longitude and latitude so-and-so, a gloom was cast over the ship, etc'
All this worked in my mind as, turning my back to wind and sea, I swam slowly and mechanically along, thinking whether it might not be as well to throw up my hands at once and go down instead of lingering. But I was young and strong; and, heavens! how passionately the love of life runs in such a body when there seems to be a chance of losing it! And surely, I thought, there must be a buoy or two somewhere. So I kept on. Fortunately I had only light shoes in place of sea-boots, but my peajacket felt as if it were made of sheet-lead. The first sudden shock and surprise over, my thoughts turned to, and worked collectedly enough, even to the extent of arguing, pro and con, whether or not it was worth while to go to the trouble of taking my coat off, as I could have done, for I was at home in the water. Presently, standing up, I strained my eyes in another long look around. But I could hear nothing except the moaning of the wind, see nothing except the white tops of the short waves as they came, snarling and hissing around me; these, and, overhead, the vast concavity of ragged darkness, lit here and there by a few stars. I stared in the direction I now knew the ship should be. But there was no sign. A man's vision in a tumble of a sea has not time to settle itself to reach very far. Still, I thought I might have seen a light had they shown one. As I turned, with a short prayer on my lips, determined that I should swim till I should sink from pure exhaustion, I heard something come down on the wind like the cry of a child—'Ma-ma-ma a-a!' changing into a long querulous bleat that seemed very familiar. Staring intently in the direction, after a while I made out some dark object, now looming as big as a boat on the crest of a wave, now hidden altogether in a water-valley. A few minutes more and I was alongside it, clutching the wet and slippery sides, whilst from its interior proceeded a volley of plaintive callings. I recognised the thing now; and as I caught hold of one of its stumpy legs and dragged myself on top, and lay at full length, panting and nearly spent, I blessed the sailor-man who had made such good use of his opportunity.
Whilst in Capetown the captain, who was ailing, had been prescribed a diet of goat's milk and rum, or, at least, frequent doses of the mixture. The rum we had plenty of aboard; and the skipper soon got a fine goat, newly kidded from one of the farms round about. He also bought from an Indian trader, then in harbor, a four-legged massive animal-pen, iron-barred, strong as a house, and almost big enough for a man to live in. This structure, its supports 'razzed' by our carpenter, and at first placed aft, was presently, because of Nanny's wailings when, every night, her kid was taken from her, shifted forward and lashed on the pigpens close to the door of the topgallant forecastle, in which the sailors lived. Now what annoyed us aft annoyed Jack forward just as much, and there were consequently growls, deep and long, from the watch below. And I saw what had happened as clearly as if I had been there. In the rush and hurry consequent upon my tumble things had been thrown overboard at random; and a sailor seeing his chance, slashed through the lashings of Nan's pen, waited for a weather roll, and with a push, gave it a free passage. Flush with the rail, as it was, its own weight almost would have taken it over. Thus in one act did the ship lose an officer from aft and a nuisance from forward. And even whilst lying across the bars that formed the front of the cage or pen, dripping like a wet swab on to Nan, who, silent now, was trying to nibble my toes, I could well picture the skipper's rage when he missed his goat. Of course he would be sorry for me too. We had always been good friends. But then I would be replaced at once (there were in the Antelope at least three mates before, the mast), the goat not at all.
Luckily for Nan and myself, too, the pen had fallen on its back, and rode face to the sky, so high and dry except for a swish of spray now and again, that I had no need to loose the canvas curtains which were made to fasten over the bars in bad weather. Putting my hand down, I felt her skin, warm through the wet hair, and you wouldn't believe how grateful that touch was to my chilled and sodden body; ay, and how comforting, also, in my heart, just now so utterly devoid of hope, was the sense of that dumb companionship. And though I knew that, barring something very like a miracle, my hours were numbered; still, compared with my condition so lately, here was at least a reprieve. I have already said that the Antelope, in place of stretching away to the southward for a westerly wind, as most vessels would have done, had kept well up towards the Indian Ocean, making in fact, a nearly straight line for her port. This was in one way a gain for me, in another a distinct loss—the former by assuring me of warm and most likely fairly fine weather; the latter by taking me quite out of the track of outward or homeward bound shipping. Had I gone overboard amongst the huge, ice-cold combers of the South Atlantic in forty-five degrees or thereabout, I should have been food for the fishes long ere now. All these matters I turned over in my mind as I lay at full length, with room to spare, and gave Nanny a hand to suck, and heartily longed for daylight.
As the night slowly passed, the jump of a sea that had been shaking the soul out of me went down perceptibly; the wind, too, blew warmer and more lightly. Of seeing the Antelope any more I had no hopes. By the stars I could tell I was drifting to the northwards, and quite away from her course. Still, the captain might stand by through the night, and a lookout at the royal mast-head might possibly sight me. A forlorn chance! And, indeed, when at last the sun rose gorgeous out of a great bank of opal and purple, and balancing myself like a circus man, I stood up and took in the horizon, and the sea that ran to it, foot by foot with my smarting eyes, I could see nothing. Nanny and I were alone on the wide and empty ocean, and evidently travelling in the set of some current. And it was owing to this, probably, that I was not sighted in the morning; for the ship had actually shortened sail and stood by the whole night through, tacking at intervals, so as to keep as near the spot as possible. So they told me afterwards. It was more than many a captain would have done, goat or no goat. And I was the better pleased on a certain very momentous occasion, of which you will hear in due course, to be able to make my acknowledgements to my old captain and thank him for his humanity; also to help him a little in his own time of need, in a different fashion. However this last is an affair that concerns not the story.
Of Nan, previously, I had never taken much notice. Now, as I looked down, I saw that she was a great strapping lump of an animal, in fine condition, with a well-bred, good-tempered head, bearing a short, sharp pair of horns; and a queer squab of a tail that she carried in a jaunty sort of curve over her backbone. She was mostly black in colour, with a big white patch here and there, and she kept her legs straddled to the heave of the sea like an old sailor, and stared up at me, with a pair of big, black, bewildered eyes as who should say: "Where's my child? And what's become of the steward? And what's this row all about?' And, sad and sore as I was, I couldn't for the life of me help grinning as I looked at my shipmate. All at once, under-neath her, I caught sight of three circular brown objects; and suddenly I felt hungry. All day long the skipper used to stuff Nan with white cabin bread, lumps of sugar, fancy biscuits and such like, for she'd eat anything. And at times the men, perhaps by way of contrast, would throw her a bad biscuit out of their own barge. At the present moment there were three of these under Nan's feet. I stretched an arm down, but could not reach them by a full six inches. Nor could I open the door, forming as it did half of the front of the pen, without the risk of Nan jumping out. At last, after many vain efforts to finger them, taking the kerchief off my neck, I tore it into strips, joined them, and bending my knife to the end, managed to harpoon one. It was soft; and sodden with sea water, and full of dead weevils; but it tasted delicious. I offered a bit to the goat, but she only studied at it and stamped her foot, snorting indignantly.
'All right, my lady,' I said; 'perhaps your stomach won't be so proud as time passes!' And I secured the others in the same fashion, and stowed them carefully away in my pocket.
It was a real comfort to have something to talk to, although it could only answer me with impatient coughings and cryings as it scuttled to and fro, standing up now and then to nibble and pull at my clothes through the bars. Even that took away the dismal sense of loneliness and desolation induced by the look of an empty ocean all round running to an empty sky.
And now the weather took a thoroughly settled sort of look—blue sea, blue sky, and the sun just hot enough to be grateful. A light but steady breeze blew from the southwest; and in place of the short choppy waves of the previous night was a long, oily, unbroken swell, over which we rode fairly dry, and showing two feet of a side, with, clear of the surface, a couple of stumpy outriggers, where the carpenter had cut down the tall legs of the pen when it came on board the Antelope. The two lower ones were of course, under water.
Since meeting with Nanny I had felt quite hopeful, almost cheerful, indeed. Twenty-four, strong as a young horse, sound as a new bell, with eye of a gull and digestion of an ostrich, doesn't stop in the dumps very long under any circumstances; and I sat in the sun, and stared round the horizon, and talked to Nan, whilst our ungainly craft tubbed about, yawning, and slueing, and lolloping over the regular seas. Still, the salt biscuit had made me thirsty, and my throat was like an overboiled potato, when, towards midday, clouds began to rise in the west, slowly at first, then with such rapidity that all the sky in that quarter soon became as black as an ink-pot. I had just taken a dip overboard, and was munching a finger's-breadth of biscuit to still the inward grinding, when, as I glared thirstily at the huge darkness that was creeping gradually over all, black and dense, as if it meant to blot out sea and sky for evermore, my eye caught a glimpse, on the edge of the storm curtain, of something showing white against the gloomy background. Standing up, I saw it more plainly. It looked like a ship's royal or a boat's sail. That it was no flicker of sea bird's wing or breaking crest of a wave I was certain; although even as I told myself so, it was gone—engulfed in that profound blackness, beginning now to enfold me and spread to the farther horizon, whilst streaks of vivid lightning and low mutterings of thunder heralded the approaching storm.
The wind had died entirely away, and the gloom was so thick that I could hardly see to cast adrift the curtains of the pen and fix them snugly over the bars. But for these things—made to protect Nan from the spray on the Antelope in heavy weather—we should have been done, for I was certain that enough water was going to fall in the next few minutes to sink the cage. As it was, I felt nervous about the result. I had thought there was no wind in the storm. But I was wrong, for presently a low, white mound showed itself advancing from the edge of the horizon, quite discernible with the play of the lightning upon it, and travelling swiftly towards me, roaring with a mighty noise of wind and water as it came. Thunder pealed and crashed as if the foundations of the ocean were breaking up, whilst the heavens glowed with such continuous flames of electricity as made the eye wither to look upon. I had never in all my experience seen anything like this. And I pretty well gave myself up for lost—feeling in that moment neither hunger nor thirst—as the wall of wind-swept water roared upon us and took the pen up and threw it in the air, and whirled it round and round, and hither and thither in a cloud of spume and hissing pelting foam, till, as I lay, my hands gripping the legs of the pen and my toes stuck through the canvas cover, I grew sick and dizzy with the motion and turmoil, and expected each minute to feel the cage capsize, fill, and go down. But with that first great wave the worst was over, and Nan and I were still rightside up.
And now, at last, down came the rain, not in drops, but in solid sheets as fairly bore me flat, beating the breath out of me as I stretched face downwards and listened to the water pouring off me like a cataract. But I was glad, for I knew the fall would quiet that venomously hissing sea that seethed and raged so close to my soaked and battered body. As the first weight passed I opened a corner of the tarpaulin and peered at Nan. She was crouching in one corner, and there was far more water washing about than I fancied the look of, considering I had nothing I could use as a bailer. Also, the pen had sunk appreciably under the added weight of fresh water and salt.
In an hour the storm had gone, the sun shone out, and a nasty tumble of a sea got up, one of these criss-cross seas that seem to come from all quarters at once—a sea that speedily made a half-tide rock of my refuge, and threatened to fill it completely in another hour or two more. As to wind, there was none to bother much about; and I was getting the benefit of the released sea, held so long under by its iron hand. Presently, to avoid being swept off, I had to change my position, and now I stood on the bottom leg up to my waist in water, and hung on to the top one—a precarious business, to say nothing of sharks, Every few minutes a couple of chopping seas would make a rendezvous of the pen, and, meeting, would break clean over it, half smothering me, and, as I could plainly feel, each time putting more water inside. At this rate of going, I considered that less than an hour would finish matters, unless the wretchedly wild sea went down.
I had been straining my gaze to the horizon, when, gradually bringing it round, I saw something over my shoulder that made me actually yell with the surprise and delight of it. There, not two hundred yards away, nodding and dancing to the chop, was a fine big lump of a cutter-rigged boat, her foresail hauled down and partly hanging in the water over her bows, the mainsail and gaff heaped along the boom. Over the latter spar leaned a couple of men clad in blue cotton dungaree, looking straight at me but giving no sign. Their features were dark, and as their arms hung over the sail the sunshine glittered on some bright objects, apparently held in their grasp. Climbing on to the pen, I shouted at the top of my voice and waved my arms. But they never stirred, and I thought I could make out, even at that distance, a sneering expression on their livid faces. Again I yelled; ay, and cursed them, and shook my fist at them, for the boat was passing me, blown along before the wind—passing me at right angles, a beautiful model of a craft, her white side with its narrow gold beading, glistening wet to each heave of the straight stern. A regular dandy of a boat, never built, it struck me even at that moment, to be carried on shipboard. My God, how swiftly she was getting away from me! Evidently there was only one thing to be done, but I hesitated. The stolid cruelty of those dark faces scared me. Would not such villains be apt to take pleasure in repulsing a drowning man who has come to them for rescue? Then I laughed aloud.
What could it matter how the end came, when come it must if I stayed where I was? And without further thought I stripped, plunged, in and swam for the boat. I was weaker than I thought; and the cross sea took a lot of getting through. Also, the boat was further away than I supposed her to be, and had it not been for the sail acting in great measure as a drag, I doubt whether I should ever have done the swim. As it was, when at last I grasped the sodden canvas, all I could do was to hang on to it, panting convulsively, and not knowing when boathook or hand-spike might descend on my head. A minute or so's rest, and then, painfully crawling over the bows mother naked as I was, I staggered aft. The pair still stood in the same position, close to each other, staring steadfastly seaward, their backs towards me, in the natural, easy posture of men resting. Were they drunk, or blind, or deaf and dumb? I wondered as I stood there, on the break of the little half deck, staring down at them. And then, my eyes travelling along their bodies, a great hot sweat broke out, tingling like prickly heat all over me, and I reeled back in dismay as I saw that from the hips downwards, they were the color of saplings charred by a bush fire!
Black as ink, without a stitch of clothing, ran four straddling, shapeless stumps that had once been thighs and legs—black as ink they ran into the foul rain water that washed between them in the boat's bottom. A truly desperate and awful sight, and one that made me feel sick and ill as I gazed alternately at the burnt supports and the fleshy trunks above them. The horrible spectacle took all the stomach out of me, perhaps because that organ was so miserably empty just at the moment. Anyhow, it was some minutes before I mustered courage to step across and face that grisly pair. God only knows what colour their skin had originally been, but now it was a horrid purplish blue. They had stiff, scrubby black hair and beards, and were so much alike they might have been brothers.
In more than one place on breast and arm I caught sight, through the slashed dungaree, of scarce-healed wounds, telling of wild work not long since. On each hip lay, in its curved sheath, a murderous-looking knife; and from a steel cuff on each of their wrists hung a small chain—some of the links fused and melted as if in a furnace. These were the bright objects I had noticed. And they doubtless formed a key to the tragedy, or at least to part of it. Snugging their boat in the terrible storm of the morning, the pair had been struck by lightning and instantly shattered and withered as I now beheld them. But before that? I could not give a guess even—mutineers, pirates, convicts? Well, here was romance at last, of a sort, good measure, heaped up, more than enough to satisfy me for those humdrum years that had passed! The boat was larger than I imagined. Decked better than half way her length, giving her a cabin with handsome doors, facing a space aft—a sort of well, wherein was a small binnacle, and around which ran lockers—I should have taken her for a pleasure boat, built for use and rough weather; or one belonging to some Government official who had to run out to sea, or down a harbor to meet ships. Certainly no sort of vessel that I was acquainted with carried such a craft on her deck. But, wherever she hailed from, she looked a sound, fast, wholesome boat, and more than a handful for any one man to manage; also, decidedly not the property of those two silent ones. All these thoughts passed through my brain in less time than it takes me to put them down. Indeed, whilst thinking, I was busy hauling the foresail on deck, not without, I must confess, more than one or two nervous glances over my shoulder. Then stepping gingerly aft, I looked around for the pen, having no idea of deserting a shipmate in distress. For some minutes I could not see it; and when at length I picked it up, I was astonished to find what a distance away it was, and what a mere speck it appeared on the sea. Taking its bearings by the compass, I paused, reluctant with disgust, at the next job on hand. But it had to be done. I wanted that mainsail, and yet I hated to touch those forbidding figures gazing silently over the sea with lowering, hideous faces.
Easing off the mainsheet, I thrust the boom to leeward. But they were not to be got rid of in that fashion, and they hung on with a terrible tenacity that dismayed me. As I stood watching, in half-hearted fashion, the boat gave a sudden swerve, bringing the boom back again, and causing the bodies to hit the side of the cutter violently; and, to my horror, the lower parts of each of them snapped short off carrot-wise, whilst the trunks swayed to and fro like pendulums on the spar. This sort of thing was not to be borne, and, with desperate energy, I picked up the halves—they were as light as corks—and hove them overboard. Then, grasping the body nearest me, I dragged at it, having to exert all my strength to make it let go its hold, and served it the same way, the belt and sheath slipping over the exposed hip bones, as I did so. Tackling the other one, I pulled too hard, and it came away with a swing, and, turning, flew to me resting on my bare breast.
Shaking myself free with a shout of terror, I pitched it overboard. I was trembling all over and the sweat ran down my body in streams Never, in my worst nightmare, could I have imagined such a gruesome contract as the one I had just finished. With a feverish eagerness to be gone, I cast the gaskets loose, hoisted the mainsail, rattled the foresail up, got the cutter before the wind, and kept away for Nan and the pen—bearing a good couple of miles ahead.
She steered like a clock; and though the breeze had dwindled to a mere light air, she slipped through the easing tumble at a rate that soon brought me alongside my first refuge. 'Hurrah, Nan, old woman!' I shouted, whilst I quickly got into my clothes; 'here we are again; never say die; for neither of us were borne to be drowned!' 'Ma-a-a-a,' bleated poor Nan as I rolled back the tarpaulins and, with some trouble threw open the big barred door. On my calling her she was out on the top of the cage in a second, and after just one sailor-like stare around, watching her chance, she hopped into the boat as clean as a whistle, although it stood full four feet above the cage, and bad footing both ways. A rather dilapidated-looking goat she was, too, with chafing sores on hips and shoulders, and her coat all brine-roughened and matted. But there were lots of life in her still, and she made the deck rattle as she scampered fore and aft, bleating at the top of her voice.
Dowsing the sails, I made fast to the pen for a time whilst I did a little exploring with a view to food and drink, which, Heaven knows, we both needed badly.
First, with a bucket, I baled the water out, not liking the feel of the greasy splashing between my logs, any more than the suggestive dark color of it. Then, opening the door of the little cabin, I crouched in, closely followed by Nan. The interior was low, and dimly lit by a couple of glass bull's-eyes in the deck. There were no bunks, but all around ran a cushioned seat, covering, as I soon found, lockers full of odds and ends. On the floor were some rugs and blankets; an empty demijohn, smelling of rum; some tin pannikins and plates; mats of Indian manufacture; long black Trichinopoli cigars; woven bags of grass, containing betelnut and withered areca leaves for chewing, together with many more signs of dirty native occupation. But everything was scattered about in the wildest confusion. A handsome little lamp swung from a bracket, and lighting it with a match from a big tin boxful in one of the lockers, I was enabled to see more clearly. And now I noticed ominous black patches on the brown leather of the cushions, and the floor was simply piebald with them. Also, I picked up a couple of great sheath knives covered with rusty-brown stains from haft to point. Undoubtedly there had been murderous work done in that little sea-room. Opening some of the lockers, I found preserved meats, a few bottles of rum, a great bag of cabin biscuits, a lump of cold salt junk on a tin dish, a jar of some sort of wine, another of molasses, more cigars, a whole cheese, a string of onions, and one locker was nearly full of sweet potatoes, at which Nan sniffed approvingly. Perhaps what pleased me most of all was, lashed right in the eyes, a big cask of water, which, on sounding, I found over half full.
Carrying an armful of provisions, I went out, glad to breathe the fresh air after that of the cabin, which smelled stifling with an odour of rum, stale cigar-smoke, murder, and sudden death.
But Nan seemed uneasy, and in place of eating the potatoes and biscuit covered with molasses (one of her special weaknesses) she started to butt me and sing out complainingly. At last, losing patience, I was about to tie her up, when my eye fell on her udders, swollen near to bursting: and, sailor though I was, I felt that something wanted easing. So, taking a basin, I set to work, awkwardly enough I dare say, but effectually; and Nan, relieved, presently made great play with her food.
And what a meal that was! Never have I eaten one like it since! Nor, I suppose, shall I ever eat such another—I mean with the same, relish and appetite. For twenty-four hours nothing had passed my lips but a nugget or two of brine sodden, weevily biscuit. And now, cold junk, potted ox-tongue, while Peak and Frean's best ship's bread, raw onions, and cheese, all washed down by copious draught's of Nan's milk, mixed with a little rum! I had never drunk such a brew before, but I argued that what was good for the skipper couldn't very well hurt a second mate. And very capital tack, too, I found it. After stowing, tier upon tier, such a feed as one never gets the chance of eating in the same style in a lifetime, I cleared away the things; moored afresh on a bight, ready to let go at a moment's notice; and fetching the cushion I could find out of the cabin, and placing it on a grating close to the tiller, I lay down, first drawing the mainsail over the boom, to form a sort of awning. But for a while, tired as I was, I couldn't sleep. I was young and thoughtless, and, like most seamen, although far from irreligious, still extraordinarily shy of making any show of devotion, openly or otherwise.
As I lay there, however, and there passed through my mind the wonderful series of what one might almost fairly call miracles by which I had been preserved and brought to my present hopeful and comfortable position, when destruction seemed so inevitable, and so near, I all at once felt impelled to get up on my knees and thank God heartily in as suitable words as I could muster, for the mercies I had experienced at His hands since plunging overboard in that dark middle watch. I am sorry to say that, notwithstanding the stock I came of, it was an unwonted exercise. But I felt all the better for it, and lying down again, went off at once into a sound but not altogether dreamless sleep.
BIG GAME IN MID-OCEAN.
I had slept long indeed, for when I awoke, mightily refreshed, the stars were paling before the approach of a new dawn creeping up the eastern sky. A cool and gentle breeze was blowing from the south, and I put on my coat and vest that I had hung up to dry. After attending to Nan I had a biscuit and a cupful of warm milk, which ever since, by the way, I have infinitely preferred to cow's. As yet I was undecided what to do, although now with a good boat under my feet. Southward lay the ships. But there, also, lay the bitter weather and the high seas, necessitating such constant vigilance as, with so scant a crew, must end in mishap dire and complete unless very speedily some vessel were sighted. The boat, too, was rather large for one man to manage with comfort in anything like a sea-way; and the lighter the wind and warmer the weather, the better, I judged, would be the chance of eventual escape.
Of my position I was, of course, uncertain; nor, though I overhauled the cabin again more carefully, could I find an instrument that might enable me to take an observation. My one chance, it seemed to me, was to get far enough north so as to cross the track of Australian steamers. I would have given my little finger for a sextant. But the boat evidently had carried a purely native crew, wherever they had come from, and I must think myself lucky to have a compass even. And in any case, I could hardly keep going night and day; so, actually, as long as I made lots of northing, it mattered little about a degree of drift one way or the other.
As the sun rose I cast off my moorings and made sail on the boat, waving my cap to the pen, heaving gently on the swell, a black spot in the red pathway of the orb, never doubting I should see it no more. It had served me well, and I felt like parting from an old friend as we headed away nearly due north, with a flowing sheet, the cutter leaning over to it like a dog to a bone, and Nan standing under the foot of the foresail—a fine figure of a goat, now with filled-out sides and glossy hair, chewing her cud and keeping a sharp lookout to windward. Without a doubt I owed my life to her, as but for the sound of her calling to me from the sea I had never seen the pen, swimming away from it as I was, and nearly at my last gasp. Once, when the water began to come in so rapidly, just after the storm, the thought had crossed my mind of how much lighter the pen would float if Nan were out of it. But the notion was no sooner conceived than put aside, with the conviction that no good fortune could ever attend such a miserably ungrateful action, either in this world or the next.
In my rummaging I had come across a couple of short clay pipes, quite new, also a stick or two of ship's tobacco, far more to my mind than the rank cigars. And now, as I sat at the tiller and smoked, whilst the boat ripped through the blue water, I felt pervade me a joyous sense of hope and exhilaration indescribable, setting me to sing and whistle to the mere thrilling of it. Nor did my imagination play me any tricks concerning those two grim and blasted ones. If I had not, by any reason, been able to get rid of them, it might have been otherwise. But, then yards away, glistening wet with spray, was the boom to which the fiery bolt had fastened them, the good Kauri pine of it buckling to the tug of the sail, and all around the warm steady breeze and the blue sky, and the water and the life in it. You see, I was young and healthy, with a perfect digestion; and I had company, also good food and drink. All the same, I shunned the darksome little den of a cabin, close and vile smelling. Nor was there any need for its shelter, the weather keeping gloriously fine: the wind through the day steady but light, dying away at sundown, and giving place to soft airs, which scarce rippled the water heaving gently on the dark blue overhead studded with great constellations that glowed and burned and palpitated with a nearness and brilliancy I had never seen equalled. What puzzled me was that, search as I might, I could find no clue to ownership about the boat or her belongings. Nowhere aboard of her was as much as a printed letter. On her stern she carried, in place of a name, a gilded device of a rising sun and the same, in smaller size, was on each bow. She was copper-fastened throughout, and the tiller, of solid brass, was a fine piece of work running in a graceful curve to a dolphin's head. The sails were of light but very strong cotton; her spars of that grand wood, the Kauri pine of New Zealand. From a few indications about her, legible only to the eye of a seafarer, I judged her of French build. And in that at least the sequel proved me right.
A week passed without my sighting anything, the weather fine, but the winds growing perceptibly lighter, when one morning, taking my customary look around before casting off, I spied a gleam of canvas in the north-east.
But I could make nothing more of it till noon, by which time I had risen the object sufficiently to see that it was a small painted-port brig under topgallant sails, topsails, and foresail; and judging from the way her head fell off and came to, with a seeking sort of motion that reminded me of a dog nosing after a lost scent, steering any way. And as I neared her I saw she was as sailors say, 'all anyhow.' Only one small dingey hung at her davits; no smoke poured from her galley funnel; no faces looked over her high bulwarks. A pretty creature of a brig, too, of some 300 tons, with a yacht-like bow, and clean run aft to a square stern; masts painted a buff colour tapering away up to gilded trucks; lofty and squarely rigged—too much so for my fancy—her copper glistening in the sun like a new kettle at each lazy roll, and all about her, to a sailor's mind, a touching air of loneliness and desertion, accentuated rather than relieved by the outstretched arm of a white female figurehead.
'A derelict, for a dollar, Nanny,' said I, luffing up as we got closer. 'Anyhow, I'll hail her;' and I shouted out, 'Brig ahoy!'
'Listening, I imagined I heard some sort of reply, sounding muffled and dull.
'Brig ahoy!' I roared again. Is there anybody on board?' And as I sat and stared, all at once, over the rail, for'ard of the main-rigging, came a head and stared back at me—a great round black-and-yellow head with eyes that glowed like balls of fire, and a big, open, red cavern of a mouth, showing white teeth, long, sharp, and cruel, and that answered my hail by such a deep savage roar, as made me jump to my feet and exclaim, 'The devil, Nan! If that's a specimen of her crew, I think we'll clear!' And Nan seemed to be of the same opinion; for, meeting those fierce green eyes, she gave a lamentable bleat and scuttled aft, and crouched between my legs as I hurriedly put the helm up and, very slowly, for the wind had nearly died away, drove astern. As I passed the brig's quarter I observed a rope's-end towing overboard, and having some desire to see more of this strange business, I caught hold, and finding it came handsomely off the deck, veered away until brought up, when I took a turn round the iron traveller of the foresail. Jumping to let go the gaff-halyards, I was startled by a voice overhead, and looking up, I saw a man's face poking out of the two little stern windows—a furiously red, choleric face, fringed with bristling white whiskers; a stiff grey moustache sprang from under a big hooked nose; and from the shelter of shaggy eyebrows gleamed a pair of deep-set, light blue eyes.
'Hi, hi, you, sir!' roared the voice. 'Confound it, are you deaf? Why, by gad, he's got my boat! What are you doing with my boat, eh, eh?'
Too much taken aback by this second surprise to answer at once, all I did was to stare at the astonishing apparition, as it returned the compliment with interest, framed like a picture in the small port which it almost filled. Was the vessel bewitched? Tiger amidships and madman aft; or both together? Or were they one and the same being? I protest that something of this kind went to make up the notions that floated through my brain at the moment, mingled with memories of sea stories I had heard—strange weird stories of haunted vessels wandering on unknown seas, manned by evil spirits, able to change their shapes at will.
And I must have shown it in my face, too, for the other one grinned as it shouted: 'Well, when you're done looking frightened, perhaps you'll come aboard and let us out. How much longer are we to be boxed up in this hole, eh, eh?'
'Can't say, I'm sure,' I retorted, finding my voice at last; 'you've got a deck passenger I don't much relish the cut of,'
'Why, confound it, sir! I crippled'—the face was beginning, when suddenly, at the other window, appeared another face—a girl's face, pale but beautiful, lit by great dark-brown eyes; a perfect nose, lips arched like a Cupid's bow over double rows of pearl, and a voice that rang sweet and firm and true as she interrupted the other.
'No,' said she eagerly as I gaped in amazement, looking, I dare say, foolish enough, 'don't come on board—at least not yet. Tippoo is only lame. He'd hurt you—he's become so savage since'—and here I saw her face blanch and a sort of shiver pass over it as she continued, more hurriedly, seeing, I suppose, the utter bewilderment impressed on my features as I stood holding on to the forestay and gaping up at her: 'There's no one here except my father—Major Fortescue—and myself. Our crew left us in that very boat, after shutting us up in here, trying to set fire to the brig, and letting Tippoo—that's the tiger—loose. My father shot some of the men, and afterwards smashed Tippoo's leg. But where,' she suddenly broke off, 'did you come from?' eyeing Nan with a swift look of surprise as the animal came and took up her place alongside me and bleated loudly at the strange faces.
'I was second mate of a ship,' I replied shortly, for I was all athirst to hear more; 'I fell overboard; and after drifting about with Nan here, I found the boat and two dead men in her.'
'The infernal scoundrels!' shouted the other head from its window; 'the murdering thieves!—There, there, Helen, you are so impatient! Can't you let the man tell his story without constantly interrupting him!—Yes, sir,' he went on, his face turning so purple with rage at the remembrance of his troubles that I thought he'd choke every minute—'yes, sir; nothing but misfortunes since we left Colombo! First the captain died, then the mate. Then I look charge (she's my own ship, sir, cargo and all). Then the brutes of niggers mutinied' (I hardly wondered at it), 'and wanted to leave, saying the ship was doomed. I put two of 'em—the ringleaders—in irons with my own hands Then, sir, one night they locked us up here and got the boat overboard, but not before I'd shot four or five of 'em, Gad, sir, if they hadn't cleared I'd ha' potted the lot at short range! They tried to set us afire, too. But it rained; and I kept 'em jumping with my big express; so they didn't do much at the fire business. And they let Tippoo loose—as quiet a cub as you ever saw—until, well, he's a man-eater now, and I daresay you'd better kill him before you come on board. No trouble; I broke his leg the other day. I'm glad my boat's proved of service to you, sir; and, eh, eh'—putting a glass to his eye— 'gad, yes, your goat also.' All this he paid out as fast as he could reel it off, bringing up with a sudden sort of a gasp, quite plain to hear.
As he finished speaking, with a loud roar, there sprang on to the brig's taffrail a three-parts grown tiger, lashing his tail in fury and swaying unsteadily on three legs to the motion of the vessel! His near front leg he kept bent upwards, with all that part between the knee and claws hanging loose. His regard was fixed on Nan, who shivered and bleated in terror. Fearing that he was about to spring, I slipped my line, and seeing that presently there would be some manoeuvring, I hoisted the mainsail and foresail, put the helm up, and a light air filling the canvas, the cutter began to draw ahead.
'Don't desert us!' exclaimed the girl appealingly.
'No,' I said. 'I will not. But I don't quite see how I'm to get on board whilst that brute's there.'
'Can you shoot?' she asked.
'I'll try,' I said, 'although I haven't had much practice at big game. However, if you'll lower me down a rifle and some cartridges I may hit him.'
At this both heads withdrew, and in a minute or two the Major—to call him as I always did henceforth—had a stout line out of the window with some kind of firearm dangling from it. Giving the boat a sheer, I took her right across the brig's stern, not without some apprehension of the tiger's making a flying leap; but, owing to his broken leg, perhaps, he only growled in a menacing, low, throaty note. Clutching the gun and a bag of cartridges attached thereto, I drew out again from the Hebe—the brig's name in gilt letters on a blue scroll athwart her stern—and loaded. As luck would have it, I was not only something of a shot, but understood how to handle a rifle, and I heard the old Major grunt in a disappointed sort of a manner as I shoved the cartridges in.
Jibbing, I got the cutter round with her stern to the Hebe's, and taking careful aim, fired—and missed. The motion of the boat had been too much for me, and I saw the bullet knock chips off the rail a full foot to port of the brute, who at once disappeared.
'Never mind!' shouted the Major as I told him. 'Follow him up! He's cunning after my hitting him. Make the goat bleat—that'll fetch him!' That I could do at any time by simply ma-a-ing to Nan; and drawing ahead, I presently got another shot as the tiger, unable to resist the sound of the bleating, came to the rail amidships where I had first seen him. This time I was sure of a hit, for I heard the thud of the heavy bullet and the fierce growl as the brute fell back. It was getting late in the afternoon, and quite tired of this game of hide-and-seek on the high seas, I determined, in the face of this last successful shot, to try and end it. So, making the long painter fast to the brig's main-chains, I scrambled into them, rifle in hand, and cautiously peered over the rail. There lay the tiger biting savagely at a wound in his shoulder, from which blood oozed in a thick stream. With a good rest for my rifle, I made no mistake this time, but sending the bullet into his head just below the eye, had the satisfaction of seeing him roll over and stretch out dead.
On Board the "Hebe."
Stepping on to the brig's deck, I looked around with not a little curiosity—after making quite sure that the tiger was dead. Almost the first thing to catch my eye was a great heap of oakum, old canvas, all well tarred and half consumed, lying on the main hatch, between a big pair of wooden chocks, evidently formed for the reception of just such a boat as lay alongside. The fire had burnt through the tarpaulins and charred the hatches but had been extinguished before doing further damage—a very narrow squeak though. Close to the forward end of the hatch was a little galley; farther along, a good-sized deck house, painted white: and the after-ends of both these structures were fairly riddled with bullet-holes. And everywhere about the deck lay scattered bodies—fragments of human skulls, vertebrae, arms, and thighs, many of them crunched and broken, but all clean picked and dried by the hot sun. Still, the planking thereabouts looked like the floor of a slaughter house, and the smell was an equal proportion of dissecting room and menagerie combined.
There was no poop to the brig. The space was taken up by a house running right aft to the wheel, with a narrow alley-way on each side between it and the bulwarks. A handsome brass railing ran round the top of this sort of poop, to which there was no entrance from the quarter deck. But I noticed a couple of small windows in its front with the glass in them smashed. Houses and fittings were immensely strong and built with great solidity. Heavy semicircular double doors, fronting the wheel and binnacle, gave access by a few steps to the cabin; and these doors had been secured by a kedge anchor and a couple of spare chain topsail-sheets in such a fashion that, opening outwards as they did, it would be an utter impossibility for any one within to move them. Indeed, it was fully a quarter of an hour before I was able to open them myself. But at last I flung them wide and pushed back the hood of the companion, and stepped aside, waiting with some curiosity the appearance of the prisoners.
First to emerge was the old gentleman whose features I already knew so well—a tall, rigid figure, dressed in a long frock-coat of some thin, dark material, immaculate linen with large diamond studs and sleeve links, polished tan shoes, and a solar-topee as big as a bee-hive—altogether a most amazing spectacle under the circumstances.
Introducing himself as Major Fortescue, late of the 14th Bengal Native Infantry, he shook hands and, stepping to the taffrail, sniffed and snorted, and drew great breaths of air into his lungs, saying: 'Killed the beggar, hey? Well done! By gad, it's a treat to get out again!' Then, catching a whiff from the maindeck: 'Piff, pah! how those brutes smell yonder! Must get them cleared away presently.'
'How long have you been locked up down below?' I asked as we ascended the little ladder to the top of the deck-house, I meanwhile keeping an eye lifting for a sight of the girl, and wondering what was delaying her.
'Eight days,' said the Major, answering my question. 'Eight interminable days! Luckily we had plenty to eat and drink. But the heat was infernal! I've been coffee-planting in Ceylon. Gave it up, after a year or so. Doctors advised a sea voyage for my daughter, who had been ailing for some time. So I bought the Hebe here, and loaded her with coffee for the Cape. Meant to sell ship and cargo there, and go home in the mailboat. Nice mess it's turned out to be! Nothing, sir, but bad luck! Third week out the Captain took ill, lingered another week, and died. That was bad enough! Then the mate fell from aloft and broke his thigh; mortification set in and he died. Light winds, mostly ahead, and calms all the time. Then, sir, the colored crew—ten of 'em—got rusty—swore the ship was accursed, and what not. But I know the nigger, sir; and I bounced 'em up to their work. You see, there wasn't another white on board now. But the serang, or boatswain, as you'd call him, knew how to sail the Hebe; and as I was a bit of a navigator, I thought we might pull through. But the brutes jibbed; and I had to knock the serang and the Tindal—his mate—down, and put irons on them for drawing their knives on me. I dragged the pair into 'the bathroom there'—pointing to a little sentry box of a shop on the port side of the quarter-deck—'and locked them in. But that night, Helen and myself being both below, the beggars rushed aft, let the two out, and fastened us up in the cabin. Then the brutes started to get the boat overboard, stockpiling the main yard, as you see, and putting a tackle on it, whilst I was making good practice at them with my heavy express through those front windows. Gad, sir, it reminded me of the old Mutiny days! I drove 'em into the deckhouse and out again. I had lots of ammunition, and didn't spare it. Four, I know, I accounted for. But then night came, dark as a dog's mouth, and it was only guess-work; and they got the boat over in spite of me. And before they went they lit a roaring fire on the hatch there, and loosed Tippoo, whom I was taking to a friend in Capetown. Helen and I did all we could to get out; but the house was too solid, and you can't cut teak with a table-knife. And all the time the fire was flaming and blazing in such a fashion that it seemed as if nothing would save us from being roasted—not alive; I would have taken care of that—when down came a perfect deluge of rain and extinguished it. By then the boat must have been out of sight, or, surely, they had returned and finished their work. Helen couldn't bear to think of the tiger eating those bodies whose remains you see there; so to please her, I tried to shoot him—an ungrateful act, as but for his scavengering they might have bred a pestilence. But after getting hit he went into his cage, and only came out o'nights. He was a quiet tractable creature enough—we had him from the time he was a cub—but after his first taste of human flesh, of course, blood-thirsty as the rest of his tribe. And the niggers reckoned on this when they let him go, well knowing what an excellent sentry he'd make over us. Well, sir, I think that's all for the present;' and the Major turned and looked at me, a fine, well set up, soldierly figure of a man, but one you'd sooner expect to meet in a military club than on the deck of a derelict brig in the Indian Ocean.
I was going to make some remark, but just then I became aware of a graceful figure that had stepped up alongside us, and was holding out her hand to me, and looking at me scrutinisingly with those wonderful deep-brown eyes of hers.
A very gracious presence indeed was Helen Fortescue as she stood there, clad in a close-fitting dress of some soft gray stuff, with narrow white cuffs fastened by silver buttons at the wrists. Under her collar was knotted a blue silk kerchief, and on her head she wore a round straw hat trimmed with ribbon of the same colour. And she looked as dainty and fresh and spick-and-span as her father; indeed, the pair might have gone as they were to the swellest of garden-parties. Neither beauty nor age in distress was there a sign of! And still, they must have had a pretty trying experience.
All this time Nanny had been bleating loudly from the boat, missing me: and as we three walked on to the main deck, the girl—she was only about twenty—picking her way repugnantly, I jumped over, and placing Nan in the chains, which in the Hebe were large and roomy, I easily lifted her thence on board.
'Poor Tippoo, a bad ending for you!' the girl said as we passed the tiger. 'I had him when he was not much bigger than a kitten,' she explained to me. 'And until this awful voyage'—and she looked around shuddering—'he was quite a pet, fond of me, and very quiet.'
'Perhaps, Mr Vallance' (I had told him my name when he introduced himself), here put in the Major very politely, 'you would not mind helping me to clear up these decks a little whilst Helen gets us something to eat? I am sorry to have seemed inhospitable. But, really, all we had to offer below was some cold preserved stuffs and bitter beer. Our water gave out yesterday, and we had no means of cooking anything in the cabin. It was a great oversight on my part forgetting to bring a spirit-lamp. By the way, I once knew a Colonel Vallance— old crony of mine—Somersetshire man, I think. Any relative of yours?'
I replied that I thought he most likely was, as I had heard my father talking of a militant branch of the family settled near Taunton. This seemed to please the old boy excessively and he rather dropped the curt, somewhat high and mighty style he had hitherto affected. But the question almost made me laugh, so ludicrously inapposite did it appear to our surroundings. However, we turned to with a will, triced open a big port there was amidships, dragged Tippoo over and through, and sent his collection of bones after him.
'That,' said the Major as he kicked a skull into the water, 'was Lal Mohammed the cook's, and a better hand at a curry never lived.'
'Where are the other boats, Major?' I asked presently as I bent on a bucket, and the Major stood ready, broom in hand and sleeves rolled up to scrub whilst I drew water.
'There never were any more,' replied he. 'When I bought the Hebe she had lost all her boats in a storm, and none were procurable in Colombo, except the dingey yonder. So, acting on my agent's advice, I purchased the one you picked up from a French builder in Point de Galle. I always kept her well stocked with provisions, ready for an emergency. You found, I think you told me, plenty left?'
I said I had, and as we worked described the state of the boat more particularly than I had hitherto done.
'Aha!' said he, chuckling. 'Like Tippoo, the lot made a bad end. There must have been five or six in her; one or two, probably, wounded in the dark, for I kept at 'em, There was a nice breeze springing up as they left, I remember, because of their fanning the fire. By-and-by they became hungry and thirsty, and they tackled the rum. Then the Nagapatam and the Tanjore men got drunk; knives were drawn, and they went for each other. Presently the serang and the tindal found themselves the only survivors of the fight. Those were the two fellows you found on the boom—the ringleaders, the ones I put in irons. I can see the whole affair as plainly as possible. And I am pleased, sir, for they are an uncommon bad crowd. Fancy a nigger drawing his knife on me!'
'I think I'll pass the boat astern,' I said. 'Perhaps we may get her up later on. But I doubt it. She's too heavy.'
'Very well,' he replied; 'I don't want to lose her. Still, if we can't lift her, she must go. Can't tow a boat like that if heavy weather comes,'
' No,' I thought to myself as I took the painter aft; 'there'll be other matters we shall lose if it comes on to blow!' and I glanced at the spread of canvas aloft, flattening itself into the masts and then suddenly banging out again. The painter was too short to give her drift enough, I found; so, for the present, I hauled in and bent on to it the rope's end I had hung on to before I boarded the brig, which happened to be the sheet of the main trysail boom.
When I came for'ard again matters looked more ship shape. The decks, though far from clean, were at least clear; there was also a cheering sound of dishes rattling in the galley. And as I peeped in with an offer of help, I saw Miss Fortescue, busy in front of the stove, with a big white apron on.
'No, thank you,' said she, smiling, when I volunteered. 'I'm a soldier's daughter; and I'm glad to say that he brought me up to be useful as well as ornamental.'
'That's so, Vallance,' said the old chap, at work alongside with a basin of soap and water. 'Helen's not quite a ti-tum-tiddedly girl, as I call 'em—only able to strum on the piano, talk nonsense, and be more or less saucy to their elders.—And' (to his daughter), 'my dear, I think, as you and I at least have had enough of the cabin, and the night's fine, we'll take tea on the deck house.'
'Very well, then,' I put in; 'and while it's preparing, don't you think, Major, I might as well clew up and furl those topgallant sails? It won't take me long, and we can't be too snug.'
'Certainly, if you think it necessary,' replied he. 'Sorry I can't go aloft; but at all events I can pull and haul as well as any two Lascars.'
So pretty soon I was perched aloft on the fore top-gallant yard, and quickly had the sail snugged. Then down I came and clewed up the main, helped by the Major, who well justified his boast, for he was a muscular, hearty old man. When I reached the deck again it was still light, and I found that the others had set out quite an appetising repast on the roof of the after-house. Camp-stools and a table appeared from somewhere; and as I took my place I felt rather ashamed of my sun and salt stained attire, compared with these well-dressed people, and the appurtenances of civilisation surrounding them; unable either, at times, to realise that the brig had lately been the scene of a terrible tragedy, and that the calm, scrupulously-dressed old gentleman sitting opposite me had been one of the chief actors in it, shooting down his fellow creatures like rabbits. A tight hand the Major, without a doubt; and perhaps, I thought to myself, it wasn't such a wonder, considering that his 'niggers' should have preferred his room to his company and his 'bossing!' All the same, I couldn't forgive them for trying to roast his daughter, whose soft eyes, as I now told my story in a more connected form, rested on me, I thought, with looks of sympathy and interest.
'By gad, sir,' commented the Major as I finished, 'as narrow an escape as I ever heard of in my life! And the goat—why, she saved you!'
'How glad I am, after all, that they did take the boat!' said the girl gently; and the tone in which she spoke made my heart jump. Then the talk drifted.
'Yes,' said the Major, 'I gave £700 for the Hebe, and the cargo's worth another £1200. But I would gladly take her price now for the lot, and cry quits. I'm afraid, as a speculation, it's going to turn out unsatisfactory. We're nearly seven weeks out to-day. Where we are I don't know. My last observation made us longitude 77deg 39min, latitude 15deg 20deg, But Heaven only knows where we've wandered to since then! We'll see to-morrow, anyhow. Helen, my love, this curry is not up to Lal Mohammed's. He was an artist; and I'm half sorry now I potted him.'
I stared, but I soon realised that the Major was quite in earnest. Glancing at the girl, I saw her smile faintly as I caught her eye; and I blushed, feeling that she read my thoughts in my face. Honestly, I was inclined to be vexed at the self-absorbed particularly about trifles shown by a man who had just narrowly escaped from a very unpleasant adventure, to put it mildly, and who was probably on the eve of others. Also, with my sodden clothes and bare feet, I was ill at ease in such fine company. You will remember that I was young, and that I had seen little of the world beyond my ships and my father's vicarage. Thus the Major's pernicketness (I can find no better word) half amazed, half disgusted me; and I think, I repeat, that his daughter saw it, and also intuitively guessed how I felt respecting that matter of outward seeming; for she said presently: 'Mr Vallance, I have taken the liberty of making poor Captain Davis's berth ready for you. I'm almost sure his clothes will fit you. I found some, nearly new, and put them out. You have had a much harder time than we two, so will you please go and try the things on, and then take, a rest.'
This was thoughtful indeed, and I said as much, adding that, not knowing the moment the long spell of fine weather might break, I meant to sleep on deck. Even now there was a light air sneaking about that it might pay to trim the yards to. But my ideas jumped well to that notion of a clean rig-out, and I made my way down (for the cabin was really below the level of the deck) into a very handsome, little sea-parlour, lit by a swinging lamp; for it was by this dark under hatches, although a nearly full moon had risen, and on deck it was almost as bright as day. I found the berth and the clothes—a good suit, of light tweeds; and not only these but a full equipment of underclothing and a pair of canvas shoes. And everything fitted fairly well. There were razors too, and being able, as most sailors are, to shave by touch alone, I soon had a week's stubble off my chin. There was a glass, but the berth-lamp was too dim. However, I made a fair job of it, and what with that and the clean shift, felt a new man all over.
When I went on deck again the pair were still sitting in the moonlight. Miss Fortescue, as I stood before them, just stared as at a stranger, then smiled; and the Major, putting up his glass, remarked: 'Well, by gad, here's a sea-change, eh, eh? Why, now, that's something like, eh, Helen?'
Then for an hour longer, all the wind having died away, we sat discussing our chances of finding help to work the brig; and the Major dozing off after his last glass of wine, we two others talked together like very old friends—she telling me about the dismally dreary time they had of it below after the mutineers left the brig, together with something of their former life, from which I gathered that the Major must be fairly well to do. She herself had left England to join him at her mother's death, being then a mere child. Three years ago her father had retired on half-pay; but in place of settling down comfortably, he had chosen to roam all over the East, carrying his daughter with him; speculating a little, and, until this last venture, apparently making money.
And presently she drew me on to talk about the dear old people at home, and the quiet parsonage, and the village buried amongst apple orchards, and the deep lanes of hazel and hawthorn, far from the sound of the sea. And she listened, it seemed to me, with something of eager longing in her eyes, as of one who asked nothing better than such restful life in such a land. Every where was almost absolute stillness. Not a sail stirred. The water was like glass, without a ripple. Over the royal mast-head swam the moon, making of the brig a silver model swimming in a silver sea. Opposite to us the Major breathed heavily; between us Nan chewed her cud, stopping at times to nose the delicate white hand that played amongst her hair.
For long the silence reigned unbroken, the girl gazing out to sea with fixed, unconscious eyes; myself watching the perfect features thrown into full relief, as her hat, tilted back and allowing a few stray curls to wander down the broad, white forehead, brought the sweet face out of its shadow. Our mutual reverie was interrupted prosaically by the Major choking with a horrible sound that made us start. And then we found out how late it was; and the Major called for hot water, and insisted on brewing a night-cap. So Helen and I went to the galley together and revived the dying fire, and filled the kettle and brought it aft. Then I bundled a mattress and some rugs up from the skipper's berth; whilst the others with many good-nights, went below to their own—the Major sleepily asking to be called if a change came. 'Helen can steer, mind you,' said he; 'and so can I. We'll keep watch and watch when the wind comes, Vallance,'
And I replied formally and obediently, 'Ay, ay, sir!' smiling to myself at such a soldier-like formula, and thinking that it would be very long before I got tired of at least one of my watch mates. Ay, verily, this last trip of mine was making up abundantly for all the eight years' dullness of sea-faring I had been wont to wonder and grumble at!
Alongside the little bathroom was a snug corner, sheltered from the dew by the over-hanging edge of the deck-house. There I spread my mattress, and stretching out, lit one of the Major's cigars and thought of many things, but mostly of the fairest girl I had ever seen—his daughter Helen.
Then, dozing, I heard the clip, clip, of Nan's hoofs along the deck as she searched for me, and presently snugged down like a dog at my feet. I had many dreams that night; but all were pleasant, and athwart them all moved a woman's face—the face I had watched so long in the moonlight. Yes, I was indeed far gone in my first love!
We lose the Major.
I awoke at daylight, after a very sound and pleasant night's sleep. No one else was stirring, and I had a good wash, lit the galley fire and a pipe, milked Nan, and went on the forecastle-head. The weather was still the same, and the brig had not steerage-way on her. Running out to the jib-boom-end I got a good view of the vessel, and thought that the Major had bought her a bargain—for a prettier model of a little ship I had never clapped eyes on. Coming inboard, I looked into the forecastle—the large house on deck. But there was nothing to be seen save the usual array of bunks, a few bags, one chest, and any number of native mats, pipes, etc. The after bulkhead was full of bullet-holes, evidently made by heavy metal (four ounce, as I found later on), for many of the balls had gone clean through the galley first and then into the forecastle. No wonder the poor devils left hurriedly under such a bombardment. And except Tippoo's great cage—larger than Nan's even—there was absolutely no shelter about the decks for a crowd of men.
That mainyard all askew offended my eye, and setting to work, I presently squared it by the lift and braces, and running aloft, sent the tackle down knowing it was quite useless for three of us to attempt to heave-in a two-ton boat, even with the help of the winch. By the time I had arranged these little matters the sun rose red and very angry-looking, with the whole eastern sky aflame—promise of a regular scorcher of a day. There was a small furled awning aft, and I cast it adrift and was spreading it, when Helen Fortescue came on deck.
'Oh,' she said, glancing forward and aloft as she shook hands, 'how busy you have been, Mr Vallance! I feel quite a sluggard. My father is not awake yet. The excitement of yesterday has tired him, I think. Now I will go into the galley and see about breakfast.'
I noticed that she had a pair of rough gloves and her apron ready to put on; and it struck me forcibly as she walked forward, with her fine lithe figure adapting itself unconsciously to the light roll of the brig, that there, indeed, was a girl with no thought of shirking work about her, good blood showing in every feature and trait—ready, with the man she loved, to meet any hap the world might hold for them.
Presently up came the Major, looking brisk and lively, and cocking a sort of soldier-sailor eye knowingly aloft and around.
'Hot day, sir,' he said; 'hot as blazes;' and without further ado he hopped on to the rail and began tying the awning-points. Then we stood aft looking at the boat.
'Yes,' said the Major, 'she must go as you say. It would take all the hands that are away to hoist her in. Oh, well, some poor devil, even as you did, may drift across her. But we'll let her hang on for a while anyhow. Help may come.'
'Shall I take anything out of her?' I asked.
'Not a thing,' replied the Major. 'You know what somebody—I forget who said about casting bread upon the waters. By gad, sir, when you came across our stern yesterday, I was flabbergasted to see my boat again, with such a big loaf in it. I wonder whether the thing could possibly happen twice?' and the old chap laughed, not being able to see into the future. And in view of his Christian-like behaviour in the matter of her stores, I refrained from pointing out that his parallel wouldn't stand good, for in the former instance boat and bread had been sent adrift without any consent of his.
It was very awkward having no door in front of the deck-house, as everything had to be brought aft by the narrow alley-way between it and the bulwarks. So, while the fine weather lasted, we decided to take our meals under the awning. Thus we breakfasted, with much talk of our position, not at all uncheerful. I was pleased to find that there were two sextants on board; also that the Major, with some foresight, had kept the chronometer going. After the meal I suggested that we should clew up the foresail, and the Major assenting, we had a half-hour's heavy pulling, after which I went aloft and in some sort managed to stow it—a regular hard weather stow—frapping a lump of canvas to the yard wherever I could get a hold. It was a big sail, and took me a long time to handle, even in such a fashion. But I managed it at last. And when I came down, although pretty well knocked up, it was in much better humor with the brig under a couple of topsails and fore-topmast staysail; and for after canvas I could set the mizzen, close reefed.
Miss Fortescue was at work in the cabin, and the Major sat at the galley door peeling sweet potatoes, making things look a bit homelike, although the white shirt, solar-topee, yellow boots, and diamonds put a touch of incongruity into the scene that made me nearly laugh outright.
'I'm an old campaigner, Mr Vallance,' said he as I approached, 'and I've seen some ups and downs in the world. But I can assure you, sir, that I don't think I ever felt so glad as I did when you appeared under the Hebe's stern and came to the rescue. Let me tell you, sir, it was a plucky thing in you to board the brig, as you did; with a wounded man-eater at large on her decks; and if I haven't, Mr Vallance,' he went on, much to my discomposure, 'thanked you as I ought to have done, I sincerely apologise, and in my own and my daughter's name do so now;' and rising, he made me a most genteel bow, whilst all the potato-parings: went out of his apron, greatly to Nan's delight. Returning the Major's salutation to the best of my ability, we shook hands, and I felt that last night I had done the old man an injustice in thinking him either selfish or unfeeling.
At six bells (11 a.m.) a gentle breeze sprang up and sent us through the water at a three-knot rate and presently the Major, sending Helen to the wheel to relieve me, brought up the sextants and, with no little show of pride, began to screw the sun down.
'You take the other one, Mr Vallance,' said he, 'and check me. I'm not a professional, you know,' he went on squinting through the glasses, 'but I don't think I'll be far out.'
But it was all I could do to take my eyes off that most graceful form of a helmswoman, swaying her lissome shape to the working of the spokes as if to the manner born, glancing at me now and again, with a sort of shy smile that seemed to my sanguine heart already to hold affection in it as well as friendship.
'Eight bells! Eight bells!' simultaneously from each of us and away we went below to work out our reckoning. As luck would have it, and to the Major's extreme delight, there was only about a mile difference between us. Our longitude was 66 deg. 5 min. east, latitude 29 deg, 10 min. south, by which it will be seen that the brig's progress since the Major's last observation had been mostly all westing, which was so much the better for us. Getting out a chart, I found our position on it, making us on a west-by-south course, 1500 miles from Cape Agulhas, and only 120 miles east of the island of Rodriguez. But there was nothing to call there for. And these at least; if my memory serves me aright, were the results of my first sights taken on board the Hebe.
The wind was westerly, with a little northing in it; and bracing the yards in, we found the brig would easily lie her course with a few points to spare and that, even under such short canvas, when we managed to get a cast of the log—Helen at the wheel, holding the glass—she was sailing no less than six knots. This was truly wonderful; and I realised that I was on a clipper, and the fastest one I had ever been shipmates with.
'She steers beautifully,' said Helen, when I offered to relieve her, 'and I like being here. Of course the boat bothers her a little; and I suppose, if it comes on to blow, it must go.'
'I'm afraid it must go in any case,' I replied. 'But there's no particular hurry; and any minute something may heave in sight.'
Opening a little signal-looker, I took from amongst the flags a small British merchant ensign, and asked the Major if I might hoist it as a distress signal (I had done nothing whatever hitherto on the Hebe without first consulting him).
'Do exactly what you think proper, Mr Vallance.' he replied, setting down a great round of boiled beef that he had brought from the galley. 'You're our practical man, although, as you see, you're not going to have the navigation part of the business all to yourself;' and he chuckled, and stood watching as I bent the flag on, union down, and hoisted it half-way up the signal-halyards, rove at the end of the mizzen-gaff.
'There,' said I, 'if any ship sights that, she'll know that we want something, even if our canvas isn't enough to tell her.
'My father thinks navigation is his strong point,' remarked Helen, with a smile, as the Major tramped back to the galley. 'This is not his first trip to sea, you must know. Once he owned a share in a Calcutta steamer, and made a voyage in her. He took up the science then; and when poor Captain Davis and Mr Skinner, the mate were alive, he always used to help them in their observations.'
'You must have had a very anxious time with so much sickness on board,' I said.
'It was indeed a terribly anxious time,' replied Helen. 'The captain died quietly one night, without anyone knowing it at the moment. But Mr Skinner was delirious for some days, and kept constantly calling for me, never seeming easy unless I was with him.'
'Was he a young man?' I asked, with a sort of empty feeling somewhere inside me. 'No, poor dear, he was not,' answered she, smiling. 'Old enough to be my grandfather, and quite gray. But,' she added, perhaps on seeing how my face lightened, 'I was very fond of him, and of the captain too—who leaves a wife and child at Point de Galle.'
After dinner, finding that the brig steered a bit wild without any canvas aft, I set the mizzen—a mere rag with its close reef, but quite enough. Then whilst the Major took the wheel, I slung a pair of binoculars across my shoulders and went on to the main royal yard in order to get a good look round. I have said, I think, that the Hebe was lofty—over-sparred, indeed, in my opinion—and from the elevation I had attained she seemed a mere toy of a vessel underneath me. To set the mizzen I had been obliged to remove the awning, and thus had a clear view of her decks, looking solitary enough; for Helen had gone below, and the only person visible was the old Major, making a very different picture to his daughter, as he stood bolt upright like a sentry on duty, one eye on the compass, the other on the weather-leach of the main-topsail. As, presently, I swept the sea-line, some low, black object jumped into the field of the glass. For a time I worked away at it, but without avail. It might be a capsized boat, or a buoy, or a lump of wreckage—more likely the last—for anything I could make of it. It was broad on the weather bow; and hailing the deck, I motioned the Major to keep the brig off a few points until she pointed straight for the thing. Then making sure there was nothing else in sight, I descended and told the Major, who became quite excited and called his daughter. But we had not risen it from the deck yet. Indeed, from the smallness of the object, I did not expect we should until close upon it. Helen and I went on to the forecastle-head, there to get a better view; and all at once, she cried: 'I see it; it's a bit of a ship!' But, using the glass, the thing looked strangely familiar to me.
'By heavens!' I exclaimed suddenly, 'if that's not mine and Nan's old pen, call me a Dutchman! I ought to know it!'
And so it proved to be; and as it came washing and bobby heavily by, we went aft again, and had a good view. It was just as I left it, floating face upwards; and it took very little imagination on my part to stretch me on it drenched and gasping and to feel once more the comfort of touch that Nan's warm flesh gave to my chilled body.
'By gad!' exclaimed the Major after a long stare through his glass, luffing to his course, 'fancy a man on that thing, wallowing about in mid-ocean with a goat for his crew, and a lump of sodden biscuit in the lazaretto! Why, Vallance, you must have thought our boat the outcome of a miracle! What did you do?'
'Well, Major,' I answered after some hesitation, 'I went down on my knees and thanked God for sending her to me, as well as I could manage it.'
'The very best thing, too, you could have done,' replied the Major heartily, and rather to my relief. 'It's only on some such occasion that we sailors and soldiers ever think of Him.'
Towards evening the breeze freshened a bit, and we held a council. My opinion was that through the night we should heave-to, as the mere keeping of any sort of watch was, with our numbers, out of the question. It would, I argued, only entail an amount of fatigue rendering us useless and knocked up in case we should be called upon suddenly to make some supreme effort.
But the Major was opposed to this view completely. 'We are three,' said he. 'Four hours each. Constant lookout, night and day. Helen can do her share as well as any of us. We must keep going.'
I was about to expostulate, when a glance from Helen decided me to remain silent. Besides, was not the Major owner and skipper too? And anyhow, what business had a poor devil of a second mate, whose clothes even didn't belong to him, to interfere in the matter? But it angered me to think of a girl like Helen Fortescue having to stand at the wheel until she was ready to drop. However, I thought it wise to lie low and let the Major see how the thing would work, especially as he would take the first watch from eight o'clock till twelve; and I had an idea from the look of the sky, that ere then there might be a change. And presently, after getting a spare line and bending it on to the boat's painter, in place of the boom-sheet, so as to give her a fair drift, I relieved the Major to go and get his tea below. It was already nearly eight bells, and he was soon on deck again. 'I shall let her go, Vallance,' said he, pointing to the boat, 'if the wind freshens any more. We can't have her tailing on to us. It will mean another half-knot. Besides, it'll make a difference in the steering.'
In the cabin I found Helen waiting tea for me. For the size of the brig, it was really a large apartment, running her full width, but for two state-rooms aft, two forward for the officers, and a box of a pantry. Handsomely panelled and carpeted, well lit, with plenty of glass and silver-ware on a broad sideboard, it looked especially snug and cosy; fairly cool, too, with the bull's-eye windows along the upper part of the house all open. But the principal attraction to me, although noting these details with a careless glance, was the girl, her hair gathered into a mass of dark, shining coils around the small and shapely head—the first time I had had a good view of it without a hat on—who smiled a welcome to me across the well-spread tea-table.
'My father,' said she after we talked a while, 'thinks it possible, apparently, that we three can carry the Hebe to Capetown; and although I did not like to tell him so, I hardly think it likely. Do you? '
'Not unless we get a fair wind, and one of about the strength of this, all the way there,' I replied, laughing; and even then, keeping regular watch and watch night and day, only our skeletons would be left by the time we sighted Agulhas. It sounds feasible enough theoretically, but practically, even with the small canvas we carry now, there would be constant callings for all hands. The brig is heavily sparred, and even to trim the yards in any sort of a breeze would take the three of us all we could do. In fact, watch and watch, as we are now means night and day work for all of us.'
'I thought as much,' said she, 'and saw you were going to protest. But when my father has set his mind on a thing, it is better to let him try it. When he sees that it will not act, then he will be the first to acknowledge it.'
'I have the next watch—the middle one,' I said presently. 'That leaves me to call you. How shall I manage?'
'If you will stamp on the deck,' she replied; 'my berth is there, you see, exactly under the wheel. I am a sound sleeper, but I think I shall be able to hear you. If I do not—well, you might run down and knock at the door. It really does seem absurd? All of us ought to sleep on deck within easy call. But father does not care about the open air at nights; nor, to tell the truth, do I. What a crew!' and she laughed merrily.
'Yes, even were we three tough and seasoned sailors,' I said, 'it would be as much or more than we could manage to work the Hebe to Capetown. But now!'
'I loved the sea,' said Helen, 'and I love it still. But I do not think, if we get safely to any port, that after this experience, I should care about trusting myself to its tender mercies again. It has not used me too well. And, as you know the voyage was planned especially for my benefit. Doubtless my health is as good as ever now; but at what a terrible cost!' and she shuddered as at evil memories, and I saw tears rise to her eyes.
'It was all the fault of those rascally Lascars,' I remarked after a pause, 'You would have done well enough with white seamen. Think of the brutes leaving you to roast alive!'
'Yes, it was cruel,' she answered. 'Still, Mr Vallance, my father, though generally the soul of gentleness with his own colour, like many old Indians has no patience with the native; and when the captain and the mate died'—
'Yes,' I said quickly, for I had thoroughly imagined, long ere this, the sight of the Major bossing his 'niggers.' 'But why, I wonder, did they not put yourself and the Major into the boat, and themselves stick to the brig?'
'Doubtless they would have done so,' said Helen; 'but, as I heard them say over and over again, they imagined that a curse lay upon the Hebe, that a fearful plague was stowed away amongst the coffee, and that we were doomed to wander about the sea until all died.'
'A prophecy pretty well fulfilled in their case, anyhow,' said I. 'And now I think I will go on deck and turn in, or my watch will be out.'
For a few minutes I stood talking to the Major at the wheel. The wind was steady, the brig lying her course and going through the water in good style, although, as I judged, bothered by the swing of the boat behind her. Getting the side lights out, I retrimmed them and put fresh oil in; then going on to the forecastle, I lit my pipe, and after having a long look round, carried my mattress from the quarter-deck and sat down and smoked, Nan, as usual, lying at my feet. The night seemed fine enough for anything, and the barometer, as I had glanced at it before leaving the cabin, was, if moving at all, on the rise. Still, instinct at times, if rarely, is more to be depended upon than any mere instrument, and I felt somehow that a change was pending—of what nature I could not be sure. However, pretty certain that not much harm could come to us aloft, although a reef in each topsail would have added to my sense of security, I lay down.
Finding presently that there was rather too much wind for comfort rushing out of the fore-topmast staysail, I shifted my quarters on to the maindeck, and took shelter under the lee of the forecastle. Here I spread my mattress afresh, and pulling a rug over my head to keep off the moonbeams, I dozed off to sleep, my last waking thoughts being that the wind had taken a shriller note up there in the rigging, causing the Hebe, hitherto as upright as a factory chimney, to have a slight list, so that before midnight it was just possible I might find myself in the lee-scuppers. But I was too nearly asleep to go to the trouble of another shift. And I dreamt—naturally enough perhaps—that I was once again on the pen with Nan, only this time the water kept pouring in in such volume that I could plainly hear it above all the raging of the storm; and I lay listening to the noise of it, and of Nan's wailings as she vainly strove to free herself. I awoke suddenly, bewildered, to find myself and the decks a-wash, Nan bleating on the spare spars to leeward: the brig flat a-back and nearly on her beam-ends and a full gale of wind roaring and yelling aloft.
Staggering to windward, I ran aft. There was no one at the wheel. Putting it hard up and slipping the becket over a spoke to keep it there, I raced forward, and flattening in the staysail sheet, had presently the satisfaction to feel the Hebe paying off and the sails filling again. Back to the wheel, and in a few minutes I had her again on her course. Lucky it was that we had no more canvas set, or it would have been 'Good-bye, Hebe!'
But where was the Major? Not forward, I was nearly certain; and surely he would not have gone below without first calling me! I had left a clear sky, when I fell asleep, beginning to fill with moonlight. Now it was covered with dark cloud?, and there was, too, quite a tumble of a sea on. And where was the Major? All at once, glancing astern, I, notwithstanding the gloom, saw that the boat was gone, and I started as if I had received a galvanic shock with the premonition of evil that suddenly struck me. Then I stamped violently on the deck. But my shoes were too light; so, catching up the grating, I rammed away with it until a tall figure rose through the companion. At first I thought it was the Major's. But a voice, singularly unlike his, with the suspicion of a laugh in it, said . 'It is only 2 o'clock yet, Mr Vallance!' And then I saw that it was his daughter.
'Will you please see if the Major is in his berth?' I said. 'I have only just come to the wheel. Waking, I found the ship a-back and the boat gone.'
Without a word she sped below again.
'No,' she said, reappearing presently, and speaking with a sort of despairing quiver in her voice, 'he is not in the cabin. Can he be forward, do you think, Mr Vallance?'
'If you will take the wheel, I'll search the vessel,' I replied. And as she came to me and grasped the spokes I could hear her bravely attempting to choke back a sob. Longing to take her in my arms and comfort her—for, instinctively, I felt that the worst had happened—but without, trusting myself to speak, I raced to the galley. Empty! So was the forecastle! So was every corner about the decks! The Major and the Hebe had parted company. Certain of this, I let go the maintopsail-halyards and hauled on the clew-lines until I got the yard as far down as I could. Then backing the fore-topsail yard, I practically had the brig hove-to, Next taking out the port side-light, I carried it aft, and bending it on to the signal-halyards, ran it up to the gaff-end. Then going below, in a minute I returned with the big express rifle and all the cartridges I could find, and loading, began to fire rapidly. All this I did with such desperate energy as left me breathless. Nor all the time did the dim figure at the wheel move or speak. But now, as I stood beside her, she exclaimed in an indiscribable accent of misery and distress: 'Oh, my father! my dear father!'
'Let us hope for the best, Miss Fortescue,' I said. 'I believe myself he is in the boat, and that if it was light he would still be in sight. Evidently finding that it interfered with his steering, he was leaning over—having hauled up the boat—and had just cast adrift the end of the painter when he overbalanced and fell. Look;' and I pulled in the rope that I had myself bent on the night before—a piece of stout, new line, its end still retaining the half shape of the carrick-bend I had used to fasten it. So I tried to cheer and comfort her, although, God knows, my own hopes were of the slightest. The Major may have hit the boat in falling (and this was my chief fear), or she might have slipped away too rapidly for him to swim to her. And he was far from a young-man; also, I supposed, short-sighted. But as I took her away from the wheel and secured it amidships, and made her sit down on the raised grating, I did my best to appear hopeful—nay, certain of seeing the boat with the Major in her again at daylight; pointing out, too, that the squall—for it was nothing else, although a precious heavy one—was now over, and that we could not be very far from the spot, with the Hebe making no progress.
And talking thus, firing at intervals out of the big rifle—the same that had done such dire execution amongst the crew—I gradually drew her to think more hopefully; although, as I sat close beside her, I could feel a shudder pass through her frame every now and again, and the sight of the set, pale face, staring always astern, made my very heart sore.
Thinking, from her frequent shivering, that she might feel cold, although the night was a warm enough one, I ran down and got a wrap and placed it over her shoulders where she sat; and, as she thanked me, I could hear that she had been crying quietly to herself. And presently she rose and asked me if she couldn't be of some use; and I, knowing that occupation of any kind would be good for her, asked her to get more cartridges, if she could find them, also to trim the red light, which I now hauled down, as it was burning dimly. Then, dark though it was, for the moon was hidden behind a heavy cloud-bank, I slung on the binoculars and went aloft, more for the sake of doing something than because I thought it of any avail. What I wanted to know was, how soon after I left him did the Major go overboard? It was a question no one could answer. But I was afraid not very long; and in that case it must have happened some hours—hours during which the brig, before the shifting squall struck her, was probably coming to and falling off, but still making headway.
And stare as I might, all that the glass gave me was a heaving field of black water. After that fierce and sudden burst the wind had fallen quite light, although I fancied there was more to follow before very long.
By the time I readied the deck Helen had fixed up the lamp and got it ready to hoist. She also handed me a few cartridges, saying that these were the last. But beyond one swift glance at my face in the red glow of the lamp as we stood facing each other, she asked no questions. Truly it was a brave heart! I only hoped it would not break with the long, miserable waiting for a dawn that seemed as if it never meant to come again.
But it came at last, as most things must, and once the first faint streaks showed, it seemed only a minute until the whole eastern sky was alight with color. Swinging into the rigging, I was soon perched in the main-royal yard, sweeping the horizon with my glasses.
All around, except where that gloomy cloud-bank still kept its position to the north, the ocean was clear—too clear, alas! Free from the least speck. But I waited for the sun to fully show himself before descending. And even then, when there was no excuse for remaining longer, I hung aloft, dreading to go down and face those eyes, following my every motion so hungrily from the deck.
I need not have been frightened. Helen Fortescue was of the wrong material to make a scene, young as she was. But when I saw what that night's waiting had done for her, I protest I felt ready to set her an example, and cry out and shed tears myself. And I think she must have seen something of the sort in my face, for as she came forward she put her hand in mine and said: 'No hope? No; I feared there could not be!' And when I, being unable to speak with the sight of the great sorrow in that haggard, woe-begone face, could only point to the dark and threatening cloud-bank, as much as to say, 'He might be there,' she but shook her head sadly, saying: 'I fear not. Heaven help me, I have lost my father, the only friend I had in the world!'
But at that I found my tongue, albeit just then an unsteady member, and said: 'Not the only one as long as I am alive, Miss Fortescue;' and, moved by strong emotion, I carried the hand I still held to my lips. I saw a faint tinge of colour came into her face as she slowly withdrew from my grasp. But she simply said: 'Thank you, Mr Vallance. I am sure of it.' And seeing that she looked at the companion with a sort of longing in her eyes, I gently supported her trembling footsteps to it, and closed the doors behind her as she went down the little stairway thinking that she would wish, as much as possible, to be alone with her sorrow. And, I can tell you, my own heart was heavy enough that morning as I went forward to light the fire and feed Nan. I had begun to like the Major, spite of his crotchety ways, and I missed his rather imposing presence about the deck. Nor had I much hope of his safety. Yet often his speech about the boat, and his refusing to let any of the things be taken out of her, recurred to me with a kind of insistent idea that, although unconsciously, he must have had some kind of provision of what was to happen, and that ergo he should be in her at that moment.
'Bad and unsatisfactory logic, Nan,' I said, going back to my old habits. 'God help him! I'm afraid we shall never see the poor Major any more.'
MY SWEET SHIPMATE
Helen did not stay below very long; and when she reappeared, although still haggard and tear-worn, she looked more composed and resigned. But although she spoke little, she insisted on getting the breakfast ready and busying herself about galley and pantry as usual.
Seeing this, and that it would not take much to start the tears going again, I once more went aloft with the glass to get a lookout; and presently away on the port bow, I saw the white glimpse of canvas—just enough to swear to, but no more. When I was on the royal yard a faint breeze came along, and descending, I clapped a jigger on the fore-topsail-halyards and started to mast-head the heavy yard. Helen hearing me, came out to help, putting all her weight into the pull when I gave the word. But as I might have known, it was too much for us. So, procuring a notched-block, I led the jigger-fall to the winch, and with Helen holding on, I managed to in some sort get the yard nearly up. We served the main one the same way; and presently Helen brought my breakfast to the wheel, eating as I noticed, nothing herself. During the morning the vessel I had caught sight of turned out to be a small barque coming directly for us. And indeed the spectacle of the Hebe in such weather, under her too badly set bulging topsails, to say nothing of the reversed ensign blowing out from the halyards, and general all-round look of forlornness, would have been enough to attract a ship's attention and make her alter her course in any seas. As the two vessels neared each other the stranger backed his mainyards and lay-to within a couple of hundred yards of us—a pretty enough picture of a modern iron clipper, wedge-shaped, wire rigged, and steel-strapped, as she rolled lightly, showing her bright-red composition-painted bottom glistening wet to the meeting of the black topsides, whilst her snow-white canvas billowed tremblingly from lofty royal, double topgallant and double topsail yards down to her great courses, as if in protest of delay. She swam light, with her Flimsoil mark well out of the water, and looked to be in ballast, or very nearly so. Two persons stood on the poop; and one of them, a redwhiskered, red-faced, stout man, after a long stare at the Hebe and her fair helmswoman—for I had been busy about our yards—hailed.
'What brig's that,' he shouted, 'an' what's the matter wi' ye?'
In as few words as possible I told him, asked if he had seen anything of a boat adrift, and wound up—almost hopeless as I knew it must be—by asking him if he could spare us a couple of hands.
I cared nothing about his name or whither he was going; but he replied: 'This is the Aurora o' Glasco; five-an' forty days out; bound to Calcutta. Nae, I hae na seen your boat? An', mon, I can tell ye that there's nae mair cats aboord here nor there's mice to catch. I've only aucht for'ard, a' told. Ye can count 'em for yoursel'.'
And truly, there were exactly eight bearded faces gaping at us, all in a row, over her rail.
'That's a gey queer story o' yours, mon,' he continued; 'an' if ye've nae objections, I'll just come aboord o' ye, an' hear it mair to richts.' And I saw him cast another searching glance at the Hebe as he spoke.
'You're welcome,' I replied shortly; and in a minute or two a gig with a couple of men and the speaker in her was pulled alongside the Hebe. Coming up the light ladder I had thrown over, he gave a quick, rather suspicious glance around the decks, but made his best shore-bow as I introduced him to Helen. Presently the three of us went into the cabin, where, producing decanters and glasses, I told my story more fully, interrupted by exclamations of astonishment in very broad Scotch—the broadest Aberdeen could produce, I think.
'Weel,' said he, 'I'll be keepin' a smatrt lookoot for your boatie. I wish I could do mair; but ye'll ken yoursef—nane better—that merchant ships are na muckle ower-manned thae times; an' I'm afraid ye'll no be gettin' help unless it's frae ane o' thae passenger steamers or a mon-o'-war. An' it'll mebbe be a month afore ye sicht ane or ither o' 'em; but if the leddy' (another bow to Helen) 'wad accept o' a passage to Calcutta, she's welcome, vera welcome, an' Peter Macalister o' Newburgh—that's me—will be pleased mon to hae her. An', he went on, turning to me, 'if ye like, Maister Vallance, ye can come wi' us. But ye see, ye're a sailor-mon, an' can mak' shift weel aneuch wi' a soond ship and twal months proveesions until help comes. Nor can the leddy's bein' awa frae ye mak' any possible differ in the result, ae way or t'ither. An'—an'—weel ye ken'—and the skipper suddenly stopped as if he had been shot, whilst Helen, divining what was coming, and what I never dreamt of, albeit my heart was in my boots, rose, her cheeks all aflame, and replied:
'Thank you very much, Captain Macalister, for your kind offer; but I could not think of leaving the Hebe as my friend, Mr Vallance, stays by her. Besides, would you advise me to desert my poor father's property when, perhaps, I may possibly be of use to Mr Vallance in helping to save it?'
'Vera true, my dear young leddy,' replied the worthy skipper, getting redder than ever, but obviously impressed by the latter view of the case; 'it was just my ain bairns at hame that I was thinkin' on when I spoke, an' how I wadna muckle relish the notion o' ane o' them driftin' aboot the sea wi'— But there, there,' he broke off, feeling himself probably on perilous ground again, 'it's nae business o' mine to intefere wi'. A' I can do is to keep a gude lookoot for the Major, an' that I will wi' pleasure. An' now I think on it, when we left Capetown they were expectin' Her Majesty's ship Alexandra in every day, a'most, frae the colonies—Australia, ye ken. If ye could but speak her ye'd be richt. Ye hae Greenich time aboord, ye say. Weel, I'll stand by ye ti'l noon, an' we can compare oor observations. An' i' the meantime, if ye like, I'll hae my men help ye pit a reef in thae big tops'ls o' yours, an' snug yon foresail. Ye'll be a' the easier, gin it comes on a bit o' a blaw, ye ken.'
Thankfully accepting his kind offer, the four of us, reinforced by another two from the Aurora, put a single reef in each of the Hebe's topsails, and restowed the fore-course. By that time it was close on noon, and the captain, bidding us a hearty farewell, went aboard; and presently, discovering that our chronometers and position were exactly alike, he braced his yards up, dipped his ensign three times in token of farewell, whilst a hoarse roar of a cheer arose from the men in the barque's fore-rigging, as she stood across our stern with her port tacks aboard, and gradually faded away to a white speck on the horizon.
I think we felt lonely as we watched her, each probably fancying that it might perhaps be long before we saw the faces of our kind or heard familiar speech.
'How glad I am you did not accept the captain's offer!' I remarked presently to Helen, as she left the wheel for a minute to give me a pull on a brace. 'I don't know what I should have done, all alone on the Hebe—gone mad, I expect.'
She blushed as her eyes met mine, and replied, smiling faintly, 'Captain Macalister evidently thought it would be a correct thing for me to do, and was within an ace of plainly saying so. You see, Mrs Grundy's influence extends even into the Indian Ocean. Perhaps the Captain was right; but I could not bear the thought of leaving the Hebe. It seemed almost like an act of treachery to my poor father to desert her at the very first opportunety.'
This time, you will observe, there was nothing about me; but I was satisfied, nevertheless; possessing my soul in patience until the right place and moment should arrive, as arrive I felt, by now, they surely must.
Four days went by uneventfully, and I found we were making southing rapidly, so much so that I reckoned another twenty-four hours would bring the Hebe well within the parallel of Cape Agullhas, and actually not many miles from the spot of ocean in which I had fallen overboard from the Antelope. During the nights our drift was inconsiderable, and always to the westward. Since the Aurora left us there had been heavy rain-squals. To avoid these—although Helen wished me to come into the cabin—I had cleared out the deck-house forward, and in it on wet nights I pitched my camp. Lonely as it might be aft for the girl, I wished above all to refrain from anything that could bear the faintest resemblance to intrusion. And I think I did right; although Helen seemed just the least bit offended with me. However, the weather generally kept so fine that I was able to stay on deck aft most nights. Wet or dry I would have done so, but that, once coming up, and finding me there in the rain, she very decidedly expressed her intention of staying in it also, unless I either took shelter below with her or forward with Nan.
Although subject to intervals of brooding sadness, the girl had regained much of her cheery, hopeful nature, and used to keep me sweet and pleasant company whilst we sailed the brig, sometimes into the small hours. Then, she went below, after giving me a hand to swing the yards, and as I lay down for a brief rest with Nan at my feet I would go over our talk together, treasuring up every kind word, every deep and moving glance of my sweetheart's—for that such she was I more than hoped, although neither time nor place served to put the matter to the test. Of seeing the Major again I had quite given up all expectation. Helen, as she told me, had not another relative in the world. Clearly, at the very first opportunity I must marry her, and take her home to the vicarage. What should we do for a living? (I never in this connection thought of anything the Major might have left.) Well, there was a farm that I was to have worked, had I not chosen to seek a livelihood instead on 'these barren fields of wandering foam.' The lease would shortly be up, and I could resume it for myself and Helen; and it would be hard indeed if I couldn't knock some kind of support out of it without having to come to the old people for help. What! Why, the cider alone from the big orchard at Birch Grove ought to keep us!
And so I dreamed, building my castles in the air. Romance! Why, air and ocean in these days were filled with the glamour of it—and of my new love!
We were very much together during this time. How could it be otherwise? And the more I saw of her the more I discovered what a fine character it was; what a noble soul and a stainless mind gave grace and light dignity to the beautiful being that I felt myself gradually gaining possession of.
But always—although in talking to you of her I have called her 'Helen'—it was, between us, Miss Fortescue and Mr Vallance. Most punctiliously did we keep up appearances; and if our eyes now and then spoke a language unmistakeable, they were quickly lowered. Still, often, when her soft white hands met mine as we pulled on a rope together, and the breeze brushed a stray curl of hair across my cheek—often, I say, did I feel the need of self-control merge into a very torture of refraining from taking that graceful, yielding form into my arms and there and then declaring my love. But ever I fiercely fought against such temptation and beat my heart back into subjection, gaining the victory, looking at the last to my reward.
About this time it was that, being becalmed one evening, I sighted on our starboard beam a boat about three-quarters of a mile away. The Hebe herself was motionless, or nearly so; but the boat seemed drifting astern pretty quickly, probably in the set of some small current. In Helen's eyes, as she gazed, there was a perfect fever of sympathy and pity. And I could see that she yearned, as it were, to the sight of the helpless, tossing thing, and presently she spoke, almost to herself, but not so low as to prevent me catching her exclamation: 'If there should be any one sick and helpless—nigh dead in her!' And I knew by the sob she gave as she turned her eyes away that she was thinking of her father.
It was a mad thing for me to do, but I could not stand idly by and witness her distress, so I said: 'If you will help me to lower the dingey, I'll pull over and see if there is anybody in her.' In a moment she jumped into the davit-falls; in another four or five I was pulling across the calm water. And then it seemed to dawn on her what a fatally foolish action her silent urging had led me into; and I saw her wave her hat, and heard her voice coming to me in recall. But already I was half-way; and, determined to allow no room for after self-accusings or regrets, I kept steadily on until I was alongside the little derelict. Looking over into her, I saw something that made me start back with fear and loathing; for there, prone in the bottom, lay four bodies, their features undistinguishable from decay; and, worse than all, scattered about there were terrible signs that, before their own deaths, they had been driven to the last dread resort of the castaway, But for these ghastly, mutilated fragments, there was not a thing in the boat with the corpses save the oars. Two of the men lay under the midship thwarts, nearly doubled up, as if their last moments had been spasms of a agony; a third was right in the bows, eyeless from the attacks of sea-birds—a shocking and heart-rending spectacle—with features run together and discolored until the face seemed a hideous and putrid mask, mocking all semblance of humanity. The fourth corpse lay right aft on the grating, in much similar case to the other, only that in his hand he grasped a bare sheaf knife. All four, from their clothes, were men before the mast. There must, I could too easily see, have been others. Ugh! it was a gruesome sight; and giving the boat a shove off, I had slipped my oars to return, when, sloping to my push, she came round, stern towards me, and, to my unutterable horror, I read on it the words, 'Antelope—London.'
I think, without using any extravagant figure of speech, I may say that, as my eyes caught the above inscription, my very soul shook within me at the new and terrible interest raised by it. But what could I do? There was the boat and its burden floating softly away! If I had possessed an axe, or any tool whatever fitted for the work, I would have pursued it, and driven a hole through its bottom, and let those rotting corpses sink to the depths below rather than wander the ocean in such terrific guise. But I had nothing; and the idea of groping for her plug beneath that festering mass repulsed my imagination to the verge of retching. And now glancing towards the Hebe, I noticed with a thrill of alarm, how distant she appeared to be, looming indistinctly, a pale smudge, the very phantom of a ship, athwart a mist that was fast rising off the hot, oily water, Even as I stared there came to my ears the faint report of a gun, then another, and another, bearing something in the sound of them to my ears of quick impatience and distress.
MY SWEET SHIPMATE.
Rapidly the smother thickened as, forgetting aught else, I pulled madly towards the noise of the shots—all the guide I had, for the brig was by this time invisible and but for those dull echoes out of the mist I should have been quite bewildered as likely as not making away from, in place of to, the Hebe. And how I blessed the presence of mind in my darling that had induced her to think of the only possible mode of indicating her whereabouts Even when actually close alongside, almost hitting her, so thick was the fog, but for the report overhead I must have missed the vessel.
As I clambered on deck a dim figure came swiftly towards me, making with wide-open arms as if to embrace me then all at once, with a quick cry, it seized both my hands, exclaiming: 'Oh, I thought I had lost you, and it nearly killed me!' Then, still holding my hands and laughing and sobbing hysterically, she led me aft, and brought food and drink to me, all the while, by turns, upbraiding herself for sending me on such an errand, and giving thanks to God for my safe return. And, secretly, it made me proud and happy to see such depths of emotion stirred for my sake in one usually so calm and self-possessed. But not until I found her at last, soothed and tranquil would I tell her the result of my trip, and then not in full although I think I need not have feared, had I so wished, seeing that for a time all things seemed swallowed up in deep thankfulness for my rescue and unharmed presence beside her.
But what of the Antelope? What awful misfortune could it be that had overtaken her, to send that ghastly boat-load of corpses to roam the sea unburied? Whatever it was, it must have been disaster, sudden and pitiless. For a moment it struck me as just possible that this very boat might have been lowered for me when I fell overboard, and that the ship had failed to pick her up. But on going back and thinking over the state of the weather at the time, I saw it was well-nigh incredible such a thing could happen. And surely I must have seen something of them next day! No, I felt certain in my own mind that the Antelope had come to grief in some terribly complete manner—a foreboding, as you will see later, fully realised.
A day or two after this incident, whilst at work in the galley, I heard Helen, at the wheel, cry out and point away on the port bow.
Jumping on to the forecastle-head, I saw a vessel which, like the Aurora, had altered her course to speak us. This one, however, had crept up during the night, unperceived until now. We still kept our distress signal flying—not so much with the hope of speaking ships and borrowing men as to obtain information respecting the long-boat. Truth to tell, I think we were getting a little careless as regarded the keeping a strict, lookout, especially after our experience with the Aurora. Evidently, to get the loan of men from any ordinary vessel was well-nigh hopeless and, unaided, I began to think that our chances of arriving at Capetown, or anywhere else, were quite problematical, even if the weather held as fair as it had done for so long, which was quite too much to expect.
Within the last few days we had, too, struck an easterly current, and the Hebe's drift o' nights was pretty considerable. Clipper as she was, the brig, under her present canvas, was heavily handicapped. Nor, even with Helen for a relief at the wheel, could I sail her day and night. In fact, I never seriously attempted to do so.
From aloft I could now see the stranger plainly—a huge mass of canvas that at first it rather puzzled me to define, so bizarre did it look. But. presently, as she swam more plainly into view, I made her out to be a four-misted barquentine, with enormously square fore-yards and towering main, mizzen, and jigger masts clothed in great stretches of fore and aft canvas, whilst from between them, and off her bowsprit and jib-boom, sprang regular flights of staysails and jibs—on the whole a very remarkable figure of a ship, I had, however, seen the rig before, mainly in timber-vessels hailing from Puget Sound or Vancouver, and had never felt any inclination to be shipmates with three forty-foot booms on a craft that a jib might shake all the sticks out of her at once. As I watched her she bluffed till her widespread wings fluttered and shook like those of some monstrous sea-fowl preening itself then jibbing, she hoisted British colors and headed straight for the Hebe, although on the other tack she would have passed quite close enough to speak us.
Scanning the eastern horizon, I saw athwart the sky a faint stain of smoke, evidently from a steamer, but too far away to tell just yet in what direction she was travelling.
For the last couple of days we had been steering a south-west course, the wind allowing us to look up no higher and that morning, for the first time, I had noticed such a marked fall in the barometer as set me seriously thinking of obtaining help to put an extra reef or two in our topsails, and also get the dingey on board, for we had let it tow astern ever since my mad trip after the derelict boat. At the best ours was only higgledy-higgledy sort of navigation; and although far from tired of it in such company as my beautiful shipmate's, I would have been heartily pleased to see four or five strapping A.B.s dumping down their round-bottomed bags in the Hebe's forecastle, swarming up her ratlines, and putting all she could carry on her. However, the vessel and cargo I had by this time got to look upon as a kind of trust committed to my care for Helen and myself, and I was determined to take no risks. Help, I argued, must come at last, if only by means of vessels reporting me at their destination and meanwhile I would do the best I could, without killing myself by unnecessary labour and worry. Truly, I had seen enough of ocean's awful work lately to make me careful and that last experience! Why, even still, o' nights, I awoke wet with cold sweat, after dreaming that I was in the dingey, lashed alongside the other boat, with her dreadful, gruesome crew of dead and rotting men, whilst through the haze afar off came to me Helen's voice crying faintly and more faintly as we drifted away from each other.
As the Barquentine drew closer, she let go the sheets of her three for and aft topsails, letting them hang to the crosstrees in great bunches of canvas. Then, squaring her fore-yards and hauling her tremendous booms amidships, she lay stationary, or nearly so, not a hundred yards away. Big and heavy as she was, her crew handled her like a top. Of fully 1200 tons burden, she was down the water aft, with a sheer in her from the elliptic stern to well forward of the fore-rigging, curving to a fine, free, gamecock-headed, graceful bow, which, added to her immensely lofty, raking masts and spreading breadths of canvas, gave her in some measure, to my eye, in spite of the red ensign streaming from her halyards, the air of a great bird of prey about to pounce on the naked, defenceless Hebe.
All at once, amidships on her decks, I caught sight of something that made my heart jump half-way to my mouth. The object was the stern of a boat, with on it a large gilt rising sun—an emblem the memory of which I was not likely to forget.
I said nothing to Helen, who, having helped me to back our main-topsail, was now standing near me; but taking the glasses, tried to make the thing out more plainly. Yes, there was no doubt about the device; but then other boats besides the one might carry such a mark. And, owing to the deep shadow cast by the main-boom and part of the sail, I could observe only a portion of the stern; the rest lay almost in darkness.
The barquentine was strongly manned, for fully five-and-twenty faces peered at us over her bulwarks. And such faces were they that, as I glanced at them, I made up my mind at once, in this case at least, to forego my usual application for assistance. There was not a single white man amongst them—American negroes, Kanakas, Malays, and half-castes of varying grades of yellow, from that of a new saddle to the deeper tint of a roasted coffeebean. No, no, I wanted no such cattle as those on board the Hebe!
On a small monkey-poop, but for which she was flush fore and aft, stood a group of three men, all whites, who devoured the Hebe with their eyes, staring aloft and around in a gaze that came always back and settled on Helen and myself and Nan, who, as was her custom now when anything was to be seen, stood near us, her two fore-feet cocked up on the brig's rail, and by the expression of her knowing face, criticising the stranger with might and main.
'Hello!' shouted one of the men in response to my hail of 'Barquentine, ahoy!' 'What's the matter with the brig? Where's your crowd got to? And what do you want?'
The speaker was a tall, sunburned, not ill-looking man, with black moustache and whiskers, clad in a sack suit of gray tweed, wearing a Cape 'smasher' hat of soft felt, and puffing leisurely at a big cigar. He might have been an American or an Englishman from his speech; as a matter of fact, he was, as we learned later, an Afrikander—father and mother Dutch —Algoa Bay born.
Very shortly I gave them the headlines of our story; asked the usual question about the boat; and explained that I'd be obliged for as much help as would shove another reef in our topsails.
As I finished, the man, without giving me any answer, turned to the others; and the three conversed apparently with some little excitement, to judge from their animated gestures. Then the tall one shouted: 'No; I haven't seen any boat like the one you describe; but we'll keep a good lookout. Who did you say was in her when she went adrift?'
Now, I had not mentioned that any one at all was in her. And my eye wandering, whilst he spoke, over the barquentine, I noticed that the main-gaff had been quietly lowered until the sail completely hid the boat; and this rendered me more than ever suspicious that there was something wrong. However, I replied that it was just possible that Major Fortescue, the owner of the brig, might have been in the longboat.
'You ain't sure about the matter, then, eh?' asked the tall man.
'Well, no,' I said; 'we can't be sure, as nobody saw him go overboard. Still, there's every chance he did manage to pick her up and get into her.'
At this they had another confab, two of them apparently urging the speaker to do something that went against his grain. As they spoke they pointed to the brig repeatedly. It was all very curious; and I would have given much for a clear view of her decks, beginning to suspect, as I did, that they had the boat, and were simply arguing as to the advisableness, or otherwise, of sticking to it.
The vessels had by this drifted another hundred yards away from each other; and I was keeping an eye to the group aft, when all at once a startled exclamation from Helen drew my attention to a scuffle on the forepart of the barquentine. Then in another moment I saw a man, clad in a suit of bright blue dungaree, shake himself clear of the crowd, knock a couple of them head over heels, and jumping on to the stranger's rail, plunge overboard and swim for the Hebe.
'Martin! Martin!' suddenly screamed Helen, grasping my arm with both hands, 'it's my father!'
For a second I was thrown all aback with disbelief, for I had not seen the man's face, so quickly had the occurrence taken place. And how Helen could be so sure of the thing bothered me. But she kept repeating, 'It's my father! my father!' with a very insistence of certainty that there was no resisting. Glancing at the head of the swimmer, bobbing up and down in the little waves, my first notion was to jump for the dingey's painter, slip down it into the boat, and scull to the man's assistance. But just then I noticed the barquentine lowering her quarter boat, and by the shouts and commands, plainly audible at that short distance, I made out that, at all risks, the escaped one was to be captured and brought back again. So, pausing right at the taffrail, I bent another line to the one already fastened to the painter, and telling Helen to run below and bring up the big express rifle, I let the dingey drift down towards the swimmer, who, I could see, was going well and strong. And now that I had a good view of his face coming towards me, I saw that it really was the old Major himself.
The barquentine's gig was, with three hands in her, pulling for the man, who had already covered half the distance between the vessel and the Hebe's dingey, but who, of course, stood no show against such odds, and was being rapidly overhauled. Asking Helen to tend the line and keep veering it out, I caught up the rifle, and taking careful aim, so as to injure none of the men, I sent a bullet clean through the bottom of the pursuing boat making the white chips fly where it struck.
At the sound of the report the men ceased rowing and stared about them in astonishment, one of the fellows dropping his oar overboard in his flurry. By this time I saw that the dingey had drifted almost on to the Major, and that, bar accidents, he was safe. I, however, stood by for another shot. But the men in the boat had evidently had enough. One fellow was trying to stop the leak with his cap, whilst the others pulled back to the barquentine. Satisfied, I turned to watch the Major, and presently saw him clutch the side of the dingey, drag himself over it, and fall into her bottom, whilst Helen and I pulled like mad people on our line till we got him alongside. Then in a jiffy I was into the boat, helped the Major thence into the chains, and so on deck. He was well enough, apparently; and although blown by his swim and panting with the excitement of the chase, he found strength and breath to shake his fist at the barquentine—now hurriedly making sail—and swear terribly at her, even with Helen's arms around his neck and her sweet face pressed close to his purple unshaven cheeks. And what a figure of a Major it was, with the thin, blue cotton suit, a world too short for him in all ways, clinging tight to his dripping body; his thick gray hair and long moustaches all ruffled and unkempt; hatless, shirtless, bootless, glassless! All at once catching sight of the rifle, he made a grab at it, aimed, and pulled the trigger; but it was empty; and with a growl of disgust, he flung it down again.
Happening just at this moment to look forward, I saw something that made me shout with surprise and delight. There, on the starboard bow, not more than a mile away, and steaming straight for us, was a great ironclad cruiser all aglitter in the sunlight with polished steel and brass and winking eyes of glass, a big mound of white water rising on each side of her lofty stem, volumes of smoke pouring from her cream-coloured 'thwartship funnels, spiteful little guns peering over her military tops, and from her halyards—held straight out like a painted card by the wind of her speed— flew the red cross flag of the British navy: altogether a most majestic and convincing sea-picture.
As I gazed an inspiration came to me, and turning to where the Major stood, alternately raving at the barquentine and caressing his daughter, I touched him on the shoulder, saying: "Look, Major! We shall have her alongside directly. Had you not better go below and dress to receive her officers? She'll fix those friends of yours up presently.'
Slueing round, he stared for a minute in a bewildered sort of manner at the war-ship, as though hardly able to believe his eyes. Then, with a comprehensive glance at himself, he bolted down the companion like a rabbit into a burrow, followed almost at once by Helen.
In twenty minutes the ironclad was close abreast of us, the wash from the enormous mass making the Hebe roll to it as if in a sea-way. And as I looked up at the grim gun-studded sides, the crowds of hearty, wholesome English faces gazing at us over her rail forward; her uniformed officers quietly pacing the quarterdeck; the scarlet-coated sentry, rifle on shoulder, doing his march to and fro the bridge before the conning-tower; listened to the short word of command, the shrill pipe of the boatswain, and the hoarse roar of his mate's leathern lungs—as I took all this in, I say, I felt my heart swell with such mingled feelings of pride of country and security of knowledge that at last our troubles were over, that scarcely could I find voice enough to answer the hail of the whiteheaded captain as he leaned over the bridge towards me.
Before, however, I had a chance to explain things very fully, up came the Major, spick-and-span once more even to his glass, such good time had he made below—so far at least as concerned his outward appearance. But his temper seemed very little improved, nor was his eye impressed by the spectacle of the sea-dragon and her great crowd of faces all with their regards bent on him. Catching sight of the captain, he shouted in a voice hoarse with passion, whilst Nan, in her usual position, chewed her cud contemplatively at his side: 'I appeal to you, sir, as a British officer, to stop that ship from escaping,' making a wild flourish of his arm towards the barquentine as he spoke. 'They're pirates, sir! They've stolen my boat, and my diamond links and studs—a present sir, from the Viceroy of India himself when I cut down the nigger who tried to stab him at Rawal Pindi. Why, damme! it's robbery—barefaced robbery on the high seas. Stop 'em, sir! And if they won't stop, sink 'em! Why, by gad, sir, they put me in the fok'sle with a lot of infernal niggers, and made me—me—John Fortescue—after holding Her Most Gracious Majesty's commission for twenty years—wash their blasted plates and dishes for 'em!'
At this I saw a great, wide, silent grin ripple across the Jacks' faces forward, like the sudden wash of a short sea over a moored buoy. But aft no one so much as smiled. And suddenly it struck me that amongst those brown and bearded figures crowding the forward deck were one or two who—as they made curious grimaces, slapped their bare and mossy chests, and, as it were, itched all over to attract my attention without trenching on discipline—seemed wonderfully familiar. But before I could place them in my memory the captain of the cruiser spoke. 'Be sure, sir,' he replied courteously, 'that you shall have every satisfaction, as soon as I learn your story. Meanwhile we will signal the barquentine to heave-to;' and turning, he said something to another officer beside him.
In a minute a boat-full of men dropped into the water, whilst a string of bright flags fluttered up the warship's halyards; in another two or three it was alongside, and there clambered on board the Hebe a young lieutenant—a typical British navy man, clean-shaven, bright-eyed, alert.
Stepping aft, he saluted us, saying: 'Captain Murray's compliments, gentlemen, and will you both come on board Her Majesty's ship Alexandra?'
As he spoke Helen rose through the companion beside him, radiant and smiling, her soft brown eyes, sparkling with joy and affection. And though palpably astonished at the lovely apparition, the young fellow rose to the occasion, as the Major introduced him, and said something nice about such an unexpected honor and pleasure; adding that, as his instructions were to presently return and hold the brig until things were settled, Helen had better accompany us to the Alexandra. At that moment there was a loud report from the cruiser, and a long curl of smoke went eddying from her side.
'Ah!' exclaimed the lieutenant, 'the barquentine won't pay any attention to our signals apparently: That will help her to understand what we want. Have you a gangway for the lady, sir?' he asked. 'If you have, my men shall soon put it over.'
There was one lashed on the forward house, a very comfortable one; and at a word some of the men tumbled up and had it over the side, themselves remaining to see that the brig didn't run away during our absence. Then, offering his arm to Helen, he helped her down the step with a grace and ease, and skill born, I doubted not, of long and constant practice at Sydney, Auckland, Hobart, and other stations whose fair ones love everything able to sport the sign of the crown and the foul anchor, from the captain to the last-joined midshipman, with an energy and thoroughness that make those ports, par-excellence, the happy hunting grounds of the service.
The Major—still grumbling, but in a lower, quieter note now that the first blow-off of angry steam had escaped—and myself followed; and the boat was about to push off, when Nan, thinking we meant to desert her, gave a dismal bleat and clattered down the steps, landing neatly on the knees of one of the Jacks.
'Let her come!' said the Major to the lieutenant. 'Let her come! You'll have the whole of the Hebe's crew together then.'
The lieutenant sat next Helen, and was evidently making the most of the short time at his disposal. But you mustn't think that I was the least bit jealous of his good-looking face and spruce uniform. Not I! Too often had I seen the love-light in my girl's eyes for that; and even now I caught a look in them, as they momentarily met mine, that assured me of my being able to laugh to scorn the wiles of the whole British navy if necessary.
On the quarter-deck of the Alexandra we were met by the captain himself, who conducted us to his private cabin, whence, presently, we could hear the thumping of the twin screws as the war-ship forged ahead again. Refreshments were placed on the table; and, by the captain's wish, I began our story, telling it shortly and with few details, to the time of the Major's losing us, when he took it up.
His tumble had happened, it appeared, exactly as I guessed. In the very act of unbending the painter, overbalancing himself, down he went. He shouted on coming to the surface, but, of course, in vain. Then, giving up all hopes of regaining the brig, he swam after the boat, already some considerable distance away, and at last reached her, but too exhausted to do anything more even if he had known how. When daylight broke he could see nothing of the Hebe. She must have been, he thought, sailing for some time after he fell overboard, for then there was no sign of any squall rising. Nor did he ever once hear the report of a gun. But in any case, without his glass, even by day, he would probably have been unable to discern the brig at a distance.
Quite ignorant of how to manage the cutter, he appeared to have sailed eratically hither and thither until picked up by the barquentine. And then, to his rage and disgust, the captain affecting altogether to disbelieve his story, and remarking that he was probably an escaped convict from the Andamans or some other penal settlement, confiscated his boat, jewellery, and clothes—which latter he had taken off and dried, putting on instead one of the dungaree suits left by the mutineers—and sent him forward into the forecastle. But there—and the old Major turned a rich purple, whilst every hair in his moustache visibly quivered and bristled with rage as he told it—the men, finding him useless for practical purposes, made a 'Jimmy Ducks' of him, forcing him to scrub, wash up, sweep decks, and generally wait on them. At first he had indignantly refused; but after the 'niggers' had manhandled him pretty severely, and, as one might guess, put him in actual fear for his life, he had thought it best to submit, until at last came the chance of escape from the Oceana Smith, late of Vancouver, B.C., but now the property of a Dutch-English firm in Capetown.
'From beginning to end of both your experiences, interest and romance run each other close,' remarked the captain as the old gentleman finished; 'and I can, in one detail, cap yours, Mr Vallance, with regard to the Antelope. About half way between here and Cape Leeuwin, we picked up one of her boats with Captain Craigie and three seamen in her, all nearly spent. Originally there had been 10 in her. These were the survivors. And I am afraid after what you tell us about the other boat that the four with us are the only ones who have escaped out of the whole ship's company. The Antelope caught fire, the flames spreading so rapidly that any preparations as regards provisions, etc., were out of the question. All that could be done was to pull clear of her as soon as possible. A terribly sad and sudden affair! The men recovered, and have joined the Alexandra; but their captain is still under the doctor's care. Now shall we go on deck and see what Major Fortescue's friends are doing? I think,' continued the fine, hearty-looking old officer as he offered his arm to Helen, 'that I heard my first lieutenant say our shot seemed to have done what our flags could not.'
Nearly a mile away lay the Oceana Smith, her three after-masts naked but for the topsails hanging in lumps at their heads; her foresail, fore-topgallant-sail, and royal were all clewed up; topsail-yard on the cap—everything about her betokening surrender, unconditional and complete. At quarter speed only the Alexandra steamed alongside and hailed. The same tall, dark-whiskered fellow (pointed out by the Major as her captain) replied, staring hard at his late captive standing near the first lieutenant.
'Come on board, sir,' said the latter, when his question relating to the barquentine's name and port had been answered, 'and bring this gentleman's property with you; also your ship's papers.'
'I'm a British subject' (his name was Van Beers), replied the other sulkily, without stirring; 'and I'll see what Hofmeyr and a few of them have to say in the House about my being shot at, first by him' (pointing at me), 'and then by you, in this free-and-easy fashion.'
'Come on board, sir, at once,' repeated the lieutenant sternly. 'Or do you wish me to send a file of marines for you?'
Seeing that there was no help for it, the other got into his gig, and in a few minutes was conducted by a sub-lieutenant to us on the quarter-deck, carrying with him the Major's clothes and fallals all intact.
During the sort of informal courtmartial now held upon him by the captain and two of his lieutenants, the fellow protested, notwithstanding the indignant snorts of the angry Major, his belief that, when he picked him up, the latter was no better than an escaped convict who had stolen both boat and jewellery. If, he argued, making a decided point, there had been any ship's name, even, on the boat, he might have believed the story. But what with the quantity of provisions in her, the traces of occupation by several men, and the improbability of any vessel carrying such a craft upon her decks as asserted by the Major, why, he acted, he submitted, as most captains would have done in his place. As it was, his quarter-boat had been ruined by a shot from the brig; his voyage delayed by the action of the cruiser; and, taking things all round, he hoped, when he got back to Capetown, to receive thumping damages against both the owner of the brig and the government. And actually, when things came to be dissected coolly, it seemed, somehow, that Captain Van Beers' defence was not wholly without reason, nor his threats without possible foundation; nay, that, in one way of putting it, he held the big end of the stick. Captain Murray evidently thought so; for, after an aside with the Major, and another with Van Beers, the latter came forward and apologised handsomely to the Major for his unfortunate mistake. And when the Major, accepting his excuses, asked the captain to keep the cutter as some return, not only for picking him up, but for the injury sustained by the Oceana's quarter-boat, I think every one felt relieved.
'A very palpable scamp!' remarked Captain Murray as he watched the 'British subject' pulling off to his ship. 'And if we had not come up, Major, you'd have lost both boat and diamonds. I have heard of this firm as being anything but particular. The chances are, he would have seized the brig and claimed salvage but for us. How quickly he took to his heels! You see, Major, it's only in sea novels that the British navy man romps over the merchantman's decks and bullies him half out of his life. If that fellow had not been placated, very probably some Capetown attorney would have presently given H.M.S. Alexandra more trouble than enough; ay, and quite likely they'd have brought an action against our young friend here yourself, as responsible owner of the brig, for an unprovoked and murderous attack on a boat's crew. Really, the affair has ended in the best way it could.'
The Major acquiesced, not very cheerfully, though. He badly wanted to teach those 'confounded' niggers manners. And he never, to his dying day, forgot the indignities put upon him in the Oceana's forcastle; always, when spinning the yarn in after-days, omitting any mention of the scrubbing and plate-washing.
'I think, Major,' said the commander of the war-ship as we steamed back to the Hebe, 'that we are going to have some heavy weather, or I wouldn't mind giving the brig a tow for a day or two. But if I put five hands and a bo'sn's mate aboard of her under Mr Vallance here, as skipper, that number should be ample to take her to Capetown. Of course, you and Miss Fortescue must be my guests as far as there, at any rate. Both of you have had quite enough of adventures for a spell, I am sure.—I am sorry to say, Mr Vallance,' he continued after the Major had thank-fully accepted the invitation, 'that Captain Craigie is still too low to see any one. He, however, sends his regards, and says how rejoiced he is to hear of your safety, and that he hopes to meet you at the Cape.'
This was all very well; but the losing of Helen's company was some what of a facer. However, what could I do except acquiesce with as good a grace as possible! Also, had she not called me 'Martin' twice! And when at last the luggage having been put into the man-o'-war's boat, and the time came for saying farewell, had she not said, her hand close grasped in mine: 'Come to us quickly. I shall feel each day a month until I see the Hebe again. Although you are losing your shipmate, do not believe but that she will hold you fast in her memory!'
I had something particular to say in reply but just then the Major's voice broke in upon us with, 'Now then, Vallance ,my boy, time's up! A fast and pleasant trip to ye. Don't call me a deserter; but I've had enough of the Hebe. We'll sell her at the Cape, and all go home together. Gad, sir, no more sea! I'll buy a farm first!' And so on. and so on, until he was in the boat. Still, I was very well satisfied; for even his parting words sounded not without promise as regarded the future
Thus it was in good spirits that I mustered my new crew—and yet not all new, for the three 'Antelopes' made part of it—and roused them round with a 'Cheerily, lads! let's shove the canvas on her—everything she can carry! Those kites up there, are getting blue-mouldy for want of loosing!'
With a rush to the sound of my voice they jumped into her rigging, cast adrift, sheeted home, and hoisted, till under every rag she had, the Hebe lay over to a light breeze as she had not done since I knew her.
The cruiser had stood by us. And now, after watching our start, her great screws began to thrash the water into foam once more; once more the bow wave rolled up till its salt spray wetted the royal arms blazoned in blue and gold at her head; the red cross flag dipped; the Major and his daughter standing on the lower bridge, waved to us; from somewhere in her vast interior a band struck up 'Home, Sweet Home;' and my eyes grew a little dim as I hauled our ensign down for the last time, and the big battle ship drew majestically ahead after playing her part, to us, of ocean Providence.
Nan stood with her feet on the rail chewing her cud serenely; and to add some slight favour of the comic to it all, the burly, bearded 'Antelope' at the wheel, pointing with his great forefinger to the goat, grinned, and said: 'Her looks A1, Mr Vallance, sir. It were me as give the old gal a free passidge; an', by what I hears, I never done a better night's work.'
'No, Johnson, you never did,' I replied. 'I'm in your debt, and won't forget it; although, remember, it wasn't altogether for my sake you gave Nan a roving commission.'
I don't think, dear reader, that I have very much more to tell you; and if I wind up in the orthodox fashion—getting old fashioned now for a story of to-day—it's because I see no way, even did I so desire, of escaping such ending. I am not altogether a convert to the new style of story beginning abruptly with 'Smith was sick,' and ending quite as abruptly with 'Smith died.' Therefore, I shall work this one out right to the pealing of those wedding-bells with the sound of which I finished my last voyage as a sailor.
At Capetown we found Helen and her father, together with my old skipper, all staying at the house of a hospitable friend of the Major's (the same to whom Tippoo had been on his way when fate overtook him). Our adventures had naturally got noised abroad somewhat; and when we made our number to Green Point, our entering into the harbour was a sort of triumphant procession of small boats and steamers.
Happening, as we luckily did, to hit an empty market, the Hebe's cargo sold very well. And the brig brought more than the Major gave for her; thus I found the old gentleman in the best of tempers. Nor, in all ways, ever did course of true love run smoother than mine and Helen's. The Major, after satisfying himself respecting that little matter of kinship with the Somersetshire Vallances, gave his consent at once. Helen's I won one moonlit night, under a clump of pink and white oleanders in our host's garden, finding that I had made no mistake, and her heart had long been mine. All I had to press for was an early day. And we were married at old St. George's the very next day, all Capetown coming to the wedding, together with the captain and officers of H.M.S. Alexandra. Captain Craigie acted as my best man—weak still, for their privations in the boat had been awful. 'Vallance,' said he as we parted, 'I shall never forget your kindness.' (I had been, curiously enough, through influence exercised by one of those other Vallances, then resident at Port Elizabeth, instrumental in procuring the captain a billet, in the South African 'Harbours and Rivers') 'But give the sea best, my lad. It's used you well on the whole. Don't tempt it any more. It's not to be trusted; see how it's served me!'
I don't know whether Nan can be reckoned as a bridesmaid, or rather matron; but certainly she was present at the ceremony. And besides wearing a silver collar, a present from the Major, some of the Capetown lasses had taken her in hand and gilded her horns from truck to keelson, making a very gorgeous goat of her.
The Major's gift to us was a cheque on the Standard Bank of South Africa for the whole value of the brig and her cargo, running into four figures whose initial number exceeded 'one'!
And taking Captain Craigie's advice, my own notions tending that way, to say nothing of Helen's I gave up the sea. For a twelvemonth we stayed at Compton-on-Tor with the old folk. Then the Major, buying a great turreted straggling place he called the 'Bungalow,' at Combe Moham, facing Torbay would have us to live with him and make his home ours. He is still hale and hearty and spends much of his time at a certain club over in Torquay affected by the old Anglo Indians who abound in that beautiful health-resort; and there, amongst these companions, he spins his tales of the Mutiny and the incident of saving the Viceroy's life. But the favourite with his military hearers is the story of his cruise in the Hebe, which, by dint of time, much embroidery, and frequent telling, has assumed dimensions and aspect unrecognisable by any of the other actors therein. Nan, too, is well and thriving demeaning herself as a goat with a history should do; looked up to by the Bungalow dogs, whom she keeps in order, and greatly respected by the domestic animals of Combe Moham.
And o' nights, sometimes I lie awake and listen to the sea calling at the tall red cliff, feeling a faint thrill of the wild longing that ever, now and again, comes to the land-dweller whose way aforetime has been upon the great deep. But at such moments I turn to Helen, lying at my side, or put my hand down towards the cot of my year-old son. And the sea calls still!
But not for me, not for me! I have made my last voyage.
Among the saloon passengers of the Illimani, ere she was a fortnight out, little Miss Agnew had become quite a pet. "She was such a dear—so natural, so really chic!" said the ladies; while the men enjoyed to the full her utter or assumed lack of conventionality. She was a fresh-coloured girl of about 18, handsome enough, after a robust, dairy-maid fashion, with full red lips, white teeth, and black eyes, under a shock of curly hair, that shrank from no man's gaze.
Miss Agnew had come on board at the very last moment, with an uncle and aunt to see her off; also a note from the owners, commending her to the captain's care. Popularly it was known that she was a rich squatter's daughter, returning home after a long visit to England. Her sole occupation of one of the best berths in the ship, as well as the possession of plenty of spare cash, gave some reason to the rumour of wealth. It was also whispered that she had been expelled from more than one fashionable school. But nobody seemed to think much the worse of her for that.
This trip the Illimani happened to have a rather aristocratic passenger list for Australia. There were an incoming governor and his countess; another couple of stray peers and peeresses; a rich baronet and his wife, and several gentlemen, middle-aged and elderly, making the round voyage for their health's sake—that is, the sake of a long and uninterrupted steady drinking. And with these, at times, nothing loth, "Dolly," as she was called, would smoke the cigarette and toss a glass of champagne, being looked upon with a lenient eye by her female friends, not only on the plea of her being an "Australian tomboy," but for the sake of the little scandalous tit-bits she was able to retail to then afterwards in the privacy of their cabins.
At Naples among others, there came on board for the second saloon a young Frenchman, apparently pretty well ill with asthma; so much so, indeed, that he seemed able to do nothing else but lie in his deck chair all day long, covered up with rugs. Quite a curiosity, too, was this deck chair, massive but light, folding up into a compact compass, curiously carved, and made of neither cane nor canvas, but of stout olive wood, with big, bulging arms, and a thick, curved back. And Monsieur Deschamps seemed to set great store by it, for always, when the day was over, and he walked feebly to his berth, the quartermaster carefully folded up the chair and carried it to its owner. At first people laughed. But cranks and eccentrics are so plentiful on such ships as the Illimani that far more outre things ceased to attract attention, and Deschamps and his chair soon became part and parcel of the daily and weekly monotony.
Curiously enough, among all the passengers, there was no one with a sufficient knowledge of French to interpret between the sick passenger and the Illimani's doctor, or the stewards, or anybody. And this was awkward; for Monsieur Deschamps was unable to speak a word of any language but his own. This matter presently coming to Dolly's ears, she volunteered to "have a go." "I was," she said, "a couple of years at school at Rouen, and if I can't patter their lingo, I reckon I'm due for the leatheriest medal on board this canoe." So tripping across the bridge that separated the two classes, Dolly went up to the invalid and began—much to everybody's admiration,—to discourse with eloquent volubility and gesture. Listening a minute, the Frenchman appearing to recognise the real thing at last, sat up and waved his hands and shrugged his shoulders, and with a delight and gratification beautiful to witness. And after this, nearly every day, Dolly went along and cheered the poor fellow up, interpreting his symptoms to the doctor and his wants to the stewards.
In most ocean liners there is posted up somewhere a notice advising passengers to deposit their valuables with the purser for safety during the voyage, a small percentage being charged for the accommodation. Many people object to paying this; others are too lazy to go to any trouble; others too careless. So that very often until something is missing, the caution is a dead letter. It was soon on the Illimani. But one morning Dolly, returning from her usual visit to her French friend, found, the saloon a scene of utmost confusion—ladies running about with empty jewel cases, stewards protesting, purser threatening, and the chief stewardess in hysterics.The Countess of Trebiord had lost a diamond necklace and a set of priceless pearls; Lady Trotter de Globe was minus her fainily jewels, sapphires, opals, and diamonds valued at £3000; the Honorable Mrs. Monopole's diamond earrings (they were fashionable then) tiara and necklet, were gone. In fact, it appears that nearly everything worth having was gone. There was a lot of paste and Palais royal imitations—beautifully done—but all such had been rejected with the nice appreciation of an expert, or at least an intimate. And, to complete matters, nothing was forced—every lock intact and the keys in their owners' pockets. The excitement and commotion were intense. The captain alone kept calm; and when the male relatives of the victims talked about suing the company, he suavely drew their attention to the notice aforementioned. Dolly was demurely sad, and condoled, even wept, with her aristocratic friends. Her own things, a set of pearls and a few diamond ornaments, she explained, had been in the purser's big safe from the commencement of the voyage. Her uncle had insisted on it.
But who was the thief?
Public opinion pointed to someone among the stewards. And the first thing done was to ransack the "glory hole," as their quarters were called. Nothing was found. Then "search law" was proclaimed throughout the ship, much to the indignation of the second and third classes. It took some considerable time to overhaul the effects of nearly 400 people. Nor was it a pleasant matter, as the purser, the chief steward, and their assistants discovered. Not a trace of the lost jewelry was to be found. But the captain grew anxious. He had been quite certain that the things would be found. Although he was not liable, the ship's reputation would be ruined so far as carrying passengers was concerned. And this was a serious consideration. Still, what more could he do? Then suddenly he remembered that Watson was waiting at Colombo to go on with him to Melbourne. If anybody could help it was Watson. Wherefore those who troubled about the daily runs, noticed that the Illimani was being driven at almost top speed across the Arabian sea. In these days she was a decidedly uncomfortable ship within—suspicion, writ large on every face of all her great company, each one, doubtful of his neighbour and all secretly watching, and so it seemed, thinking about the reward offered by the victims and the executive of the Illimani—£500—contributed to by captain and ship's boy alike, and very, willingly. Dolly Agnew gave £10 to the fund; and her friend, Monsieur Deschamps, when made aware of what was going on, insisted on putting down his name for £5. But nothing came of it.
At Colombo—reached after a record run—there was indignation when it was found that the captain had stopped all shore-going, and also barred the usual crowd of dealers, jugglers, etc., from coming near the ship.
Only one passenger came on board at Colombo—an old, grey-haired, grey-bearded man who walked with a stoop, and peered dimly at people through tinted spectacles. He was accepted as a tea-planter, an old friend of the captain's going to Australia on business. Speaking little himself, a perfect godsend to the ship at large, and into his ears was dinned by the passengers again and again the story of their losses and wrongs.
"Well," asked the skipper, a few days later, as Mr. Johnson strolled into the former's state-room, "any news yet?"
"Not much," was the reply, "only that you've got at least one artist on board—one of the most skilful cracks men in London—which is saying a good deal."
"Which is he?" asked the captain. "Some fellow in the steerage, I suppose?"
"Not much," replied the other, laughing. "The only wonder is that he is not in the saloon here. It's the fellow in the second who gammons sick, and sits in the big chair all day."
"Ha, ha!" laughed the captain, "you're out of it this time, old man. That poor chap's a Frenchman—can't speak a word of anything else!"
"Is that so?" replied the other calmly. "Well, in any case, he's the man who can tell you where the stolen stuff is."
"Nonsense," said the captain. "He's never been for'ard the whole passage. Why, if it hadn't been for Miss Agnew talking to him, he'd have had to stay dumb altogether."
"Fine-loolking, fresh complexioned rather Jewessy, culy-haired girl, lots of side and sauce—No. 27, port side?"
"Right," replied the skipper. "Australian native. She's in my charge. Knows her way about, though, too well to want any looking after."
"H'm!" grunted his companion, lighting a fresh cigar. "You told me, I think, that you had searched the ship?"
"Every corner and every soul on board," replied the captain, proudly.
"Tchk, tchk," said the other, between tongue and teeth. "What a pity! Tony Jenkins is a genius, though! A commoner would have chucked the things overboard. Not Tony; he's too much of an artist to stand any waste of that sort. Yes, I should say there was a chance. When you first broached the matter I thought it was only a bit of amateur aristocratic kleptomania. I see now that it's thorough business—business sweet and hot; a well-considered, long-thought of, cleverly put-up job. Thank your stars, my boy, that I happened to be where I was, or you'd have lost your billet to a certainty."
"Well, Watson—yes, of course, Johnson," said the captain, changing colour as he thought of the fix he was in, and saw no way out of, "there's the reward, you know. And—"
"Don't want a penny," replied the detective. "This is purely a little private affair between ourselves. I'm on official business, and shouldn't have meddled but for old acquaintance's sake. You did me a good turn once. I'll return it now—if I can."
Next morning Mr. Johnson managed, casually, to have a talk with Dolly, who came up to where he sat in the sun, looking very old and feeble; to ask his opinion on the quality of the saloon tea, which, she averred, "wasn't fit for pigs to drink." Later she confided to her friends that he wasn't a bad old josser, and that she rather thought he'd been a gay sort of a chappie in his day; while on his part, Mr. Johnson, removing the powerful magnifying glasses he had worn throughout the interview, smiled into his beard, and muttered, "The scar's there all right, but fainter than when I saw it last. Clever! Clever's no name for it! No use looking through their berths, I suppose. However, I may as well have a try. I'll bet the stuff's neither there nor on their persons. If not, where then? A sum in induction, a la Sherlock Holmes!" And "Mr. Johnson," generally supposed to be the cleverest and keenest of Scotland Yard, puckered his brows over the problem. During dinner he managed to slip into, and with practised hands ransack, Polly's berth. But he found nothing at all incriminating in the single-cabin trunk, unless a bottle of hair depilatory and another of dye could be deemed so. The clothing was all of good make and quality, and as the intruder noted the carefully worked initials, "D.A.," on everything, he shook his head donbtfully. Under the circumstances a mistake was a very serious matter. And the Illimani was rapidly nearing the Australian coast. If he was to make a coup, he had no time to lose. Monsieur Deschamps occupied a deck chair aft; and while its occupant was at luncheon in the second saloon on the following day Mr. Johnson made as free with his belongings as he had done with Dolly's. And with a little more success. In the pockets of a pair of old trousers he found a tiny key, with only one ward, at the sight of which his eyes glistened. "M-m," he muttered, as he stepped out on to the empty deck, "the rest of the bunch are overboard, I suppose. Over looked this one, evidently. Didn't think Tony was so careless. But what's he done with the stuff? Sent the watching detective's brain, and it after the keys? No, I can't be lieve that, after going to so much trouble."
One morning, listlessly observing the little procession emerging from the invalid Frenchman's cabin, as usual—first, Monsieur Deschamps, walking very slowly, and holding on tight to things in his path; then the quartermaster, laden with chair and rugs, mounting up to the second promenade deck—an idea flashed across ere night he managed to have a chat with the quartermaster.
"Yes, sir," said the latter, in answer to a question, "poor chap, 'e thinks a lot o' that cheer. I've got to put it in his berth every night, so keerful as if it was made o' glass. You sees it ain't no common chair, that one."
"Well, I'm ready," said Johnson to the captain shortly after this. "You've been very good, and haven't bothered me much. Now, I want your help. You must get the doctor to send for the Frenchman to the dispensary on some pretence or other. Then Miss Agnew must be called to interpret. Presently we two will drop in, and then—well, if I'm right, you'll see some fun. If I'm not, there'll be wigs on the green. But I can't put it off any longer, although not as sure as I'd like to be. Once we get to Albany's the fat's in the fire; for I cannot wait to shadow people, nor can you very well prevent the Westralian passengers from landing."
As the captain and Mr. Johnson strolled into the dispensary that evening, Monsieur Deschamps was speaking. "Mais oui, Monsieur la doeteur,' said he, "je cirois bien que, depuis que j'a'i pris votre derniere mixture, je me fais plus de sante."
"He says," translated Dolly, "that since he took that last medicine he feels much better."
"Hello, Tony, old man," suddenly exclaimed the detective, who had been standing in one corner of the rather dim room. "I'm sorry to hear of your,—your being ill. How do you like the sea?"
"Jim Watson!" shouted the sham Frenchman, as he stared from the clean-shaved, hawk-eyed, massive-jawed man before him, to the grey wig, beard, and spectacles on the deck.
"And how's my little friend, the Kid?" continued Watson, stepping to the door and noting, with a breath of relief, the colour fade out of Dolly's cheeks and the familiar, hunted look he knew so well steal over both their faces. "No, you don't!" he continued, suddenly whiping out a revlover and presenting it at Tony, whose hand was quietly stealing around to his hip pocket. The other laughed carelessly, and, taking a cigar out of his case, lit it; while Watson, turning to the astonished skipper and doctor, said: "Allow me, gentlemen, to present to you Mr. Anthony Green, alias Jenkins, alias Deschamps, and a dozen others; and Master William Dawson, better known as the Kid, the Dinah, Young Dutch, etc., the former gentleman leading artist of his profession, the latter the best female impersonator of the day. Now, Tony, where's the swag?"
"Curse you, Watson!" replied the elder of the pair calmly, but with an ugly look in his shifty grey eyes. "Find it if you can! I won't help you!"
"Same here!" exclaimed the ci-devant Dolly, with a laugh.
"Good boy," said Tony, approvingly. "Kept eyes and ears open, eh?"
"You bet!" replied the lad, defiantly, sitting back, crossing his legs, and puffing away at a cigarette; regarded by the poor captain with a fascinated stare of amazement.
"Well, Jenkins, come now—the swag!" exclaimed Watsan impatiently.
"Find it," replied the other laconically.
"All right," said Watson, playing his doubtful trump. "Captain, will you kindly have "Monsieur Deschamps's chair brought in here?"
"The devil!" shouted Jenkins. "Never mind troubling. How did you find it out? All right; I pass. Watson, you've spoiled one of the best things of the century. Well, I suppose we can go now. I don't fancy anybody, will bother either of us, from what the Kid's told me off and on," and he chuckled. "I suppose," he went on, "that we may as well keep up the fiction till we get to Albany, eh, Watson? But think of all my time and trouble and ingenuity wasted. Think of that lovely chair and its secret hiding places. Hang it! I could almost cry over the thing, Watson."
"Or shoot me," replied the latter, laughing grimly, as he replaced his disguise.
"Well, yes, at the moment," admitted the other. "But it's all over now. I never bother about spilt milk. You know that, Watson. All the sparklers shall be back before eight bells to-night, parole d'bonneus. Doctor, I feel so much better that I don't think I'll require any more medicine. Miss Agnew, I know I can trust you to smooth matters over with our aristocratic friends la bas. Have you finished with us, Watson?"
"Provisionally," replied the detective. "I don't suppose the captain here wants more fuss made over the matter than can be helped. And the doctor will keep silent for the ship's sake. I'm of Miss Agnew's opinion, that the ladies for'ard will be only too pleased to get their jewelry back again. Of course, if we had long to wait it would be different. But we shall be at Albany to-morrow; and that young scamp's, presence among them won't matter much for one night more."
"Look here, Watson," put in "the Kid," "if you're not civil I'll tell tales before I go yet."
"But," stammered the captain, speaking for the first time, "I say, Watson, where's our guarantee? Of course you may trust Mr. — um — Jenkins — er — Green, there, an — this er' — young man, or girl, or what ever it is, and take their words. But I'd like something—"
"That's all right," interrupted Watson, cheerfully. "I know my mark. I'd trust Tony up to any sum, once he's given his word. Believe me, it will be all serene, and neither of them will blab. They've been fairly beaten for once at least."
"Thank you, Mr. Watson, for your good opinion of me," said Tony, pausing at the door and bowing politely. "You will see, I hope, that it is deserved. Au revoir!"
And sure enough, some time and somehow, before next morning, each of the despoiled ones found her property returned intact. Explanations, of course, were demanded; but all at once the thirst for them dropped; and "Dolly" laughed mockingly at the glances of fear and abhorrence darted at her by whilom friends and confidantes. On all sides it was agreed that for the sake of the ship and the captain, the affair should be hushed up. It was dilficult; but Watson, with the aid of a stowaway, who was working his passage as deputy assistant fourteenth steward, and for a consideration acted as scapegrace, managed it.
"Keep the chair, Watson," said Monsieur Deschamps, as he went over the side at Albany, "It will remind you of the prettiest bit of work you ever did."
It was generally agreed on board the Bucephalus, passenger-cargo boat, bound from London to Auckland, N.Z., that Bostock was "a bit of a crank." Bostock was one of us four passengers, an elderly, grizzled, sad faced man, with a suggestion of the sea about him, and the last person in the world you'd have taken for a company promoter. Still, so far as we could discover, that was his only business in life. Not that he spoke much. Indeed, it was some time before we could make out what his object was in poring for hours over charts and papers, working out calculations with a stumpy bit of pencil, and, as we saw, now and again drawing what looked like a fleet of ships and then presently erasing it, glancing around suspiciously as he did so. Otherwise he seemed rational enough, and as neither Martin, Miller, nor myself, who were the only other passengers, ever disturbed him or tried to penetrate his secret, if he had one, we in due time learned all about it, and could, had we so wished, have taken a great number of shares in the "Southern Ocean Salvage and Towage Company, Limited."
It all came out in the smoke-room one night. We three others were having our modest nip or so of whisky at one of the tables. Bostock, as usual, was sitting at another, busy over his eternal papers and calculations, when suddenly he startled us by requesting us to "drink up and have one with me." This was so unexpected—as hitherto he had shown no sign of any social hankerings—that, as I say, we were quite surprised. However, we accepted his offer, and as we drank together he let himself loose, or, as Miller, who was a Sydney man, concisely put it afterwards, "gave himself clean away for all he was worth and qualified himself for Gladesville."
"Now," said he, tapping a pile of papers with his forefinger, "I suppose you chaps have been wondering a bit what my little game was? No, no," he continued, as we faintly disclaimed any such interest, "it's no use puttin' it off like that, because I could see as you was fair bustin' with curiosity. Now, I'll tell you what's the matter, and if you like to take a hand in the venture, why, you'll be welcome. I've been tryin' this couple o' years to' float the thing in London and New York, but it didn't seem to catch on. Now I'm going to Australia and New Zealand to see whether they've got more sense there than in the Old Country or the States. For them that 'll put their stuff into it there's fortunes lying ready, and only waitin' to be grabbed. There," he continued, as he handed to each of us a printed sheet, "is my prospectus.
Read it, gentlemen, and tell me what do you think of the spec." Briefly, it was a proposal to raise a fleet of a dozen powerful tug-boats, with whose aid to salve derelicts in the Great Southern Ocean. Other schemes of a similar kind, it was admitted, had been before the public. But this one differed from them all, inasmuch as the promoter claimed to possess the knowledge of where to lay his hands on, so to speak, a deposit of derelicts—crowds of them all massed together in a particular portion of the ocean, and simply awaiting the arrival of those powerful tugs to be towed into port and realised on. The capital required was £20,000, offered to the public in £10 shares.
The prospectus was not a flowery and artistic production by any means, but one evidently drawn up by the rugged-faced man with the anxious eye, who, when we silently returned the papers, received them with a pathetic sort of acquiescent nod as of one well accustomed to the discouraging process.
"No," said he, "of course not. They'll none of 'em believe such a thing possible. And Ned Jenkins bein' dead I've got no witness. But it's true as gospel, nevertheless. There they lie, rows and rows of 'em, and clumps and clumps of 'em, from schooners and brigs to barks and full-riggers, with here and there a steamer. Some of 'em mere hulks with nothin' standin' 'cep' perhaps a jaggy stump o' lower masts, their decks awash, an' their plankin' rotten as a pear. There's others, again, showin' fine and high out o' the water with sails and gears almost as they was abandoned; some with a list tellin' o' shifted cargo; other on a level keel, upright as a house; others keel uppermost. Iron ships and wooden ships is there of every rig and build under the sun, and carryin' every freight that was ever carried, from coal to 'general,' from lumber to wool, tea, coffee, jute, any produce raw or manufactured, as you could well mention. And there they lie," he continued, with a wild gesture of disappointment, "in a patch of not more 'n a mile or a mile and a half square, some of 'em so close that you can step across a dozen o' their decks. And there they lie, and will lie, apparently, till the Day o' Judgment, waitin' in vain for somebody to come along and take holt o' the great fortunes laid up for 'em by the winds and currents in one little corner o' the ocean that only two men ever clapped eyes on." And hurriedly putting his papers together, Bostock went out on deck.
For a few minutes none of us spoke. Then Martin, significantly tapping his forehead, remarked, "Poor old chap." Then the skipper presently coming in for a yarn and a smoke, we told him about the business, and he laughed heartily. "Why," said he, "I've heard of the man. There were paragraphs in some of the shipping papers about his mad story. Little did I think, however, that I should ever carry him on the Bucephalus. Derelicts, indeed! And such a mob of them, too. Well, that must be a curious corner of water they've all got together in. I'd like to see it."
"But supposing such a thing were possible, captain?" asked Miller, as the steward answered the bell, "there would be money in poor Bostock's scheme, wouldn't there?"
"Undoubtedly there would," replied the skipper. "But the story's preposterous on the face of it. Think how the oceans are traversed nowadays; crossed and recrossed, and crossed again. Consider that if every vessel left her track like a ruled line on a slate, plain to view, how much of blank space except what's filled by ice and snow at the extreme north and south there'll be. The cheek of asking people to put their good money into such a wild goose affair! Still, I suppose he believes it."
"Says he's seen 'Derelicta,'" I answered. Whereat the skipper, laughing again, drained his glass and went on the bridge.
Next night, his reserve once more broken through, Bostock proved more communicative. Evidently, notwithstanding our so patent, if silent, disbelief, it was a relief to him to unburden his soul, certain of, at all events, not being openly derided—an experience, this latter, as one could well guess, of very common occurrence.
And we gathered that he had for some years been a resident of one or more of the groups of islands close to the southern limit of permanent human inhabitation. He mentioned no names, but I thought from what he let drop that he must have meant the Falklands. Then, one day, whilst out fishing, himself and his partner had been blown off the land and far into the inhospitable ocean wastes, ice-haunted, that wash the apocryphal shores of Antarctica. Then, after days of vain endeavour to make head against the northerly gale, and when almost at the last gasp with cold and hunger, they had awakened one morning to find themselves surrounded by a great fleet of dead and silent shipping, imbedded not in ice, but in thick masses of the giant kelp, growing so tall in places as to overtop the cutter's mast.
"Durin' the night," said Bostock, "we'd floated along a sort of channel in the big weed and brought quietly up against a painted, port—iron ship—that from her looks hadn't very long joined the company. She had a heavy list, and nothin' above her topmasts; was wheat-laden, and had evidently shifted it and been abandoned. Close to her was a lump of a steamer, lookin' like a lump o' rusty iron. Alongside her again was a Yankee four-masted fore-and-after, lyin' on her beam-ends, and the kelp growing over her deck cargo of soft timber. Many of 'em—and, as I tell you, they stood thick for a mile or more around—would doubtless have sank there and then, only for the great stalks and leaves that upheld them.
"We got food in plenty from the painted port ship. Her name was the Clarissa, of Glasgow; and in her fo'c'sle were a couple of skeletons, picked clean by rats. For three days we stayed by her till the gale blew itself out, sheltered almost as securely as if we'd been in harbour. And I can tell you it was a curious thing to watch the big seas come rolling in on that patch o' weed and curl over and break weakly against it, taking no effect on the ships, except to give 'em a gentle heave, whilst the gale yelled about their upper works doin' a bit o' damage, where there was yet room, carrying away a spar or a lump o' flappin' canvas. It was the height o' summer in those latitudes just then, you must remember, and wonderfully warm, considerin', in the middle of the day. And in such seasons I won't say that the patch don't move a few degrees one way or the other. Ordinarily, however, I'm pretty certain that it's practically motionless. And another theory o' mine is that it's comparatively shallow all over—a sort o' ocean mud flat, in fact.
"I was for stayin' a while longer and doin' a bit more explorin', but Ned was scared, likewise sick with what we'd gone through in the cutter. So we set out homeward again, and a pretty picnic we had. Which is neither here nor there. Only when at last the islands showed up I was alone, and Ned was lying stiff and cold in the little cabin under the half deck."
"Thus, speaking with much certainty and precision, did Bostock tell his strange story. And without a doubt it made an impression on us. But not to the extent of filling up applications for shares in his adventure. Very evidently the poor chap had suffered in that boat whilst making to his bleak island home, with for only company the body of his dead mate. And in those lonely night watches strange imaginings had come to him, to be afterwards solidified into actual facts by his disordered brain.
This was the captain's theory. He had entered whilst Bostock was telling the yarn, and had heard most of it. And asked he, presently—
"How do you account for such an accumulation of wrecks at a certain spot in so curious a fashion, Mr. Bostock?"
"I don't try to account at all," replied Bostock rather gruffly, for the captain smiled superciliously as he spoke. "But," he continued, "if you'll look at any current chart you'll see that the trend o' most o' the world's ocean drifts is south. Also, in the cases of many of 'em, dischargin' right into the big Antarctic drift itself."
The captain was about to reply when all at once the thump, thump of the steamer's screw ceased, giving place to a curious stillness that brought us to our feet in an instant with a vague presage of disaster. Only by those who have experienced it can be realised the strange feeling imparted by the sudden stillness of that tireless throbbing that by long custom and hearing seems almost to have become an integral part of one's self.
Presently it transpired that our main shaft had developed a serious fracture, and one that might take some time to patch up sufficiently to carry us to our destination. And in a couple of days we had expected to be round the Horn.
All the canvas—a, pair of small try sails—the Bucephalus carried was at once set, and, she took as much notice of it as a drifting haystack might have done, whilst we sagged steadily along southward to the accompaniment night and day of clinking hammers and chisels from down below there in the narrow passage where lived the great cracked bar of steel that had so dismally failed us.
The weather, however, kept wonderfully mild for the high latitudes we were gradually getting into. "Exactly like that summer in which Ned and I found the ships," remarked Bostock, who, as time passed, grew more and more excited.
"We're in the Great Brazilian Current now," he continued; "and if the engineers don't hurry it will carry us across the weaker one of Cape Horn right to the Antarctic Circle." And he seemed vastly pleased at the idea.
Presently, to his delight, we over took an old derelict bark, down by the head till the water washed well up the foot of the foremast, and with only the stump of her lower masts left. She was drifting along covered with weed and barnacles, and to the skipper's huge disgust she one night nuzzled up alongside and seemed inclined to bear us company. "She's making for the big crowd," exclaimed Bostock gleefully, "and thinks we're bound there too. Well, there's as fine ships as this amongst 'em."
"Oh, shut up, do," said the skipper, angrily, as the hands got fenders our for the derelict to scrape against. "You sicken me with your rubbish. I'm a believer in Jonahs from this out."
But Bostock only grinned and eyed the battered old hulk affectionately as she lifted her streaming stern to the great southern swell and ground white splinters out of the fenders. There was no wind, nor was there any ice in sight. Said the skipper—"I'm not an explorer, and don't care a dump about the South Pole. But I believe if we keep on going we'll get there. Never have I heard of such an open sea in fifty-nine."
"Exactly the same—" Bostock was beginning, when the skipper, weary and worried in these days, stopped him with an abrupt, "Oh, damn," and walked away.
But at last one evening the engineers reported that their work was nearly finished, and that the next day the Bucephalus would, so to speak, regain her lost soul, and be once more a sentient, controllable being, in place of a mere inert mass. Some time in the morning watch, sure enough, I was awakened by a long-missed sound, the churning of the screw under my head. And even as I listened Miller plunged into the berth, exclaiming, "Get up, man, get up. Here's 'Derelicta' close to us!"
Running on deck I found nearly every soul in the ship staring at a big dark patch on the port bow, and could hear Bostock's voice in loud, wild rejoicings from somewhere for'ard. It was light as day, and the Aurora Australis was flashing and coruscating across the sky after a fashion I had never dreamt of. Ahead of us, and just under our bows, clear at last, the old bark forged along as if in haste to reach a long delayed goal. Out of the dark, oblong mass that lay like a blot on the sea, shining under the flaring sky, sprung a wild confusion of intermingled lines, impossible to mistake for anything but the spars and rigging of a great host of vessels. As we very slowly drew nearer a suppressed murmur of excitement and awe filled the steamer's decks, as her crew took in the full meaning of the view right before then and gazed eagerly on the lost argosies of many seas, with their rich cargoes, carrying, too, many of them, perhaps, the bones of their dead seamen, and all at last finding this quiet haven at the end of the world.
With the lead giving us only an average of only ten fathoms on a muddy bottom, we steamed slowly round the patch of huge sea plants, whose leathery fronds and branches at times nearly brushed our upper bridge, and in whose midst, securely cradled and upborne, lay, exactly as Bostock had represented them, a perfect navy of ships taking a last rest after their ocean's wanderings. So closely packed were they that as we passed we could hear a strange, low sound, as of distant surf on a rock bound coast, made by the chafing of their hulls as they lifted to the gentle swell. Here and there at intervals were narrow breaks in the impenetrable elastic hedge, and through one of these we presently saw our own derelict pass to her rest in a most purposeful but uncanny fashion.
Indeed, the scene and its surroundings were uncanny to a degree, and in a while rendered all the more so by a thick, low-lying fog, above which protruded only the loftiest of the forest of masts, some still bearing rags of royal or skysail, others rocking broken yards to the swell, others naked.
Suddenly the engine-room gongs jangled, and the Bucephalus, turning on her heel, moved off through the smother at quarter speed.
"Not good enough," remarked the skipper some hours later, "to loiter about a mysterious hole like that. Not knowing what might happen to a ship, and we've lost too much time as it is. But where's Mr. Bostock? I'm going to stand champagne and a big apology."
Neither high nor low, however, on board the Bucephalus was our fellow passenger to be found. Nor could anybody except one of the quarter masters cast any light upon his disappearance. This man, happening to have his eye on the old derelict as she entered the patch, said he was almost certain he had seen a figure standing on her rail and waving a hand in farewell to us. At the time he thought his imagination was playing him a trick. He did not think so now, nor did we. Nor did we. Twelve months later a well equipped steamer left Buenos Ayres to search for "Derelicta." But it never reached within ten degrees of the spot where the summit of the extinct volcano sends up sixty-feet roots of giant kelp to form a refuge for deserted waifs and strays of ocean. Past and west stretched a lofty ice barrier, far within whose protecting girdle, perhaps, still exists that strange and eerie gathering, dreams of which at times come to me, together with a vision of poor Bostock wandering with his papers from ship to ship, alone amongst the noises and the rats and the dead men, sole share holder in the company he had striven so long and so vainly to float.—"Sydney Mail."
It was Saturday night at Willimindonga. The "boys" had been hard at work all the week lamb-marking, only finishing the last mob at sundown. Eighty-nine all round they penned out, which was pronounced good, considering the season and the quantity of maiden ewes. Anyhow, it was over; there had been no "breaks" to signify; all the lambs had mothered well; the boss was pleased, and content reigned generally in both "house" and barracks, as, after a good clean down and a feed, the inmates of the latter tenement drew around the blazing brigalow logs in the wide hearth for a smoke and a yarn, before turning in.
"Late breakfast, I suppose?" asked Allardyce of M'Gregor, the overseer.
"Yes," replied the latter, "I told the cook. You're entitled to an extra snooze after a month's camping. Not that it's really good for you, y'know; it only gives you a false notion of unwonted luxury. Anyhow, if you can't sleep you can feel there's time to pull the bindies out of your hands and arms."
The jackaroo grinned. "I'm stuck as full of 'em as that swaggie's blanket," said he. "You remember the chap that camped with us the other night, and told us such yarns of the time when he was hard up down the country. Well, when he was rolling up his swag next mornin' I asked him why he didn't take the burrs and bindies out? 'Pooh,' says he, 'they're a luxury. Look 'ere, sonny, if ever you goes on the wallaby never pick your blankets, or people 'll take you for a new chum. Besides, them prickles keeps fleas an' varmin away.'"
"Hard-up, was he?" said a deep voice out of the shadows. "A lot such as he know about being hard up."
"Well, anyhow," replied Allardyce, "he was forced to sleep out and go round the cheap restaurants begging for a feed. And I don't suppose, Courtney, you were ever more gorgeously hard pushed yourself than that amounts to."
"Lucky beggar," said Courtney, "able to beg and grow fat on it! Hard up! Why there's few people know the meaning of the term they use so freely."
"Tell us your experience, old man," said M'Gregor. "Well, don't mind if I do," replied the other. "The story may do good, and learn you youngsters that there are lower depths than cheap cook shops."
The speaker was the store and book-keeper of Willimindonga—a stout, grey-haired, bald-headed man. Years ago he had appeared at the men's hut in a state of desperate destitution, got a job at shearing, proved himself willing to do anything he could turn his hand to, was "offside" storekeeper for a couple of years, and, at last, was promoted to the office. Once a twelve month he got a fortnight's holiday, drew £30, and went away—no one knew for certain whither. And for ten years he had never once failed to turn up to the minute, a washed-out feeble simulacrum of himself, but still fit for duty. Undoubtedly, as manager M'Pherson put it, he was a gentleman, if only judged from the fact that he never sneaked back to the station before he'd suffered his recovery. And this was high praise indeed, if not altogether a logical induction.
"Yes," said Courtney, as he lit his pipe with a glowing brand, "I don't mind telling you the yarn, such as it is. Perhaps it ain't a very creditable one. But although you mightn't think it, I was young then, and cocky; also whilst the £500 I brought with me lasted, no end of a swell, or a fool, whichever you like. Well, the money went like smoke; and I had nothing but a miserable £25 a quarter to depend on. And even this was always mortgaged to old Isaacstein, the Jew, for a consideration of 50 per cent. Very quickly I sank into a chronic state of hardupedness and seediness, relieved on certain mail days by brief flashes of plenty. Once the remittance failed to arrive. I owed Isaacs the usual £12 10s; and I hadn't a sou. In vain I tried to get a pound or two from him—he wouldn't part a penny, for all the stuff he'd had out of me. 'I lents you a fiver on dat ring, an' if the monish—mine £12 10s—not come by next mail, I sell him,' were the best of terms he'd offer. It was a fine diamond, valued at eighty guineas, that I had stuck to through thick and thin, for the ring had belonged to my father. Even by this time I had slept out in the Fitzroy Gardens and on the Yarra wharves; watched my toes as they encroached on the pavements; my trousers fag at the bottoms like bunches of eschalots; gone round the dirt boxes at midnight fossicking for scraps; and all with eighty guineas' worth of diamond tied up in a corner of my hanky. So you may bet I wasn't to let an old beast like Isaacs best me out of it so simply. Besides, I felt, somehow, that if I parted with the stone for good, any luck I might in future ages be due for would be hopelessly discounted. But old Ike was only playing me. I hadn't got to the door before he relented, and, not wishing to loose such a golden goose, called me back, and gave me the fiver and the regulation voucher. Next mail the money came, and I squared up and got my ring back again, only presently, to return into the old beggar's hands. He had quite fallen in love with the stone, and over and over offered fifty pounds for it. But I wouldn't sell. And at last he got mad and nasty about the thing. You see, it was awfully tantalising to him to have it, as it were, continually dangled before his eyes, yet never able to get a lasting grip on it. And, after a while, he refused to even lend on it, so angry was he. Of course Isaacs wasn't the only Jew in Melbourne; but I never tried any of his brethren when he failed me. Instead, I determined to clear out. Mind you, boys; I tried to get work at clerking. But all the quill-drivers in the world seemed just then to have made Melbourne their headquarters. The model lodging-houses, and the wharves, and the parks were full up, they even overflowed into the Yarra. Well, I left at last, worked my way round to Sydney as a fireman in the old Kalamanzoo, and, heavens, what a trip that was! When I landed at the foot of King-street I had exactly sixpence and my ring. I found Sydney just as bad, if not worse, than Melbourne. Hard up! Why in the capital of New South Wales I've chewed bark off a tree in the Botanic Gardens, like a blooming rabbit, to ease my unfortunate binjie. I couldn't beg; nor could I get anything to do. One day, I remember, I found a saddlestrap, and I tied it round my waist until I must have looked a dashed hornet. And still I stuck to the old diamond. Sydney actually was far worse for me than Melbourne; because, you see, in the latter place I knew my way about, and could often manage to get a full belly by nightfall. For instance, there was one boy I always depended upon for a good-sized crust. He'd come along bound for his school, up Carlton way, with a big lump of bread and butter smothered with sugar; by the time he'd got about half the distance he'd have the crumb pretty well scooped out, and then he'd throw the crust away. I used to shadow him, and picked it up mighty quick, I can tell you. One day, though, he turned and saw me. Next morning I noticed that there was a good thick salvage of crumb left, together with a suspicion of butter and sugar. A charitable-souled lad that! But I was too ashamed to follow him any more. Then there was a favourite dirt-box at one of the restaurants. They used to put it out of doors about midnight; and what I raked out of it sometimes almost amounted to a square meal by itself. Hard up! I don't think anybody's been harder up than I have. If so I'd like to meet him and compare notes. Hard up with a proud stomach as well as an empty one is simply awful! Of course, if I'd ha' known as much as I do now I'd ha' been off to the bush like a redshank. But like most new chums I had a notion that the bush was little else than kangaroos and blackfellows—a drear wilderness where one would be worse off than in the city even. In Sydney once—it was in Beat-street—I ran butt up against a man I'd known in Melbourne, and brought a letter of introduction to, and stayed with at his Toorak mansion. I suppose I looked like a scarecrow, and a thundering poor one at that, for all he could say was "Good heavens!" And then, as his hand dropped to his pocket, I cleared. That's what I mean by a proud stomach. Fine weather I used to sleep under a thick bushy tree in the gardens, clambering over the gate at the Circular Quay end after dark. The bark was sweet and juicy, and many a night I chewed myself to sleep on it to stay the cravings of hunger. In wet weather I had a shelf of rock overhung by another just inside of Mrs. Macquarie's chair, and in the den formed by the two I made a nest of old newspapers and leaves. Last time I was down—three, sprees ago—I went and had a look at my initials cut there, and also tasted the bark. I sobered up on those memories. Once I spent two whole days and nights in my shelter cave; pelting rain all the time. But the larder was full, for I'd picked up a couple of loaves, some remnants of poultry, and a few apples that had been slung overboard from the Oroya—the very boat, by the way, that I came out in as a saloon passenger. Funny, wasn't it? Damp? Why, yes, of course, the tucker was damp after floating about alongside before I could grab it. But I was damp, too. Food and man fitted well. Nor was there any necessity for salt, as you, so humourously remarked, Mac."
"Can't make out how you managed to stick to the ring the way you did through it all," remarked Allardyce, who had been intently listening.
"Well, I hardly know myself, old chap," said the other. "Still I did it, though it was a tight pull to feel that little lump knotted in the corner of the hanky, and have to take in hole after hole in my saddlestrap. Hard up!
"Well, I soon tired of Sydney and the cave-dwelling and greenwood tree business. Nor was there anything to do for a man whose one qualification was the ability to write a decent hand. Clerks—heaven help 'em—weren't wanted any more than down south. In the Domain and the minor parks you could find 'em stretched one at the foot of every tree; and twice or three times a week they'd turn up along the fore-shore, limp and sodden, and lifeless. And, anyhow, quarter day was getting due, and I must be making back. This time I was lucky. I fluked into a chance to work a passage as fifteenth steward's loblolly boy on board one of the White Star boats, where, if I had some nasty jobs, I also had three square meals a day. In fact I was eating at every show I could get, so that I was in pretty fair buckle when I landed at Port Melbourne. I hadn't a maravedi, but I stowed away on a truck on some tarpaulins and sneaked a passage up to town at the Government's expense. Considering, however, that the truck was full of unslacked lime, and that, in addition to being nearly stifled and blinded, my clothes, such as they were, were utterly ruined, I think the authorities got the best of the deal. I slept in a stack of timber on the New Zealand wharf that night, and in the morning, after helping to moor one of the boats, a lumper 'shouted,' and I made my breakfast off some cheese and crackers in the threepenny bar of the 'Sir Charles Hotham.' Then I struck a bee-line for the G.P.O., intending to have a good time for a fortnight, anyhow. First thing I'd made up my mind to do was to get some decent clothes, take a room at the 'Grand,' and have a rattling meal straightaway, with, perhaps, a pint of fizz, coffee, liqueur, and a 'Henry Clay' to follow. Conceive my horror and dismay on finding, in place of a remittance, a formal letter from my lawyer, informing me that the money invested on my account had been utterly lost in the Baring smash. You could ha' knocked me down with a feather. Indeed, I flopped all of a heap on to the vestibule floor, and sat there for a while thinking. Then I got up and went to old Isaacstein's. He grinned when he saw me. But he would lend nothing. He also swore hard and fast that I was £5 in his debt. Which was a lie. 'No,' said he, 'if you vos starve, I not give you another 6d, sho help me Mosesh! But I buy that ring, less the fiver—buy him right outs. De time for de remittanash is pasht, an' by geminy I don't believe as you gets any more, neither! You is stone broke, eh? Vell, suppose you sell dat ring, you comes to me. But not one red cent to lend on him.'
"Well, that night, after taking up more holes in my strap than, I'd had to do for a long time, I toddled off to my old rubbish-box at the restaurant in Little Collins-street. But my luck was decidedly out; the place was shut up and empty, and losing all heart, I crouched down on the step with the key of the street and an empty belly, and felt that on the morrow either my ring must go, or must bear me company into the Yarra. When I had money I was careless of it, lavishing it right and left; therefore I had no friends and but few acquaintances; these latter, parasites accustomed to watch and wait for my periodical emergings from a chrysalis state. It was one of this crowd that I met next morning as I was on my way to a respectable jeweller's, having at last made up my mind to finally part with my ring, seeing no prospect if I pawned it of ever being able to redeem it again. I knew little of the fellow, not even his name; but he stopped me after the first doubtful stare, and laughed. Then I remembered I had often seen him at Isaacstein's. 'Hello,' said he, 'you look sort of all anyhow! It's between times with you now, I suppose, eh? -Well, many's the drink I have had at your expense. Come now with me. I ain't proud.'
"Not caring much what I did, I went, and we had several drinks, also some breakfast. And, presently, I not only told him what I was about doing, but showed him the ring, and mentioned how loath I was to part with it.
"'I know the stone well enough,' said he, as I finished. 'Old Ike wanted it badly at one time. He's cooled off now a bit though. I've got an idea. Would you like to get even with the old sweep? If you would, I'll help you. He's squeezed me, too, but not in the way he has you. Come along to my den in Flinders-street, and I'll show you what I mean. I'm a working jeweller, you know—not watches or anything of that sort, only cutting and setting stones.'
"At the shop, Fletcher—that was his name—produced a box with, in it, what I took to be half-a-dozen very fine diamonds. He laughed. 'They're only paste,' said he, 'but the very best Palais Royal make. I'm setting them for Passementerie and Co., the people in Bourke-street. Now watch!' And in a minute he had the stone out of my ring, and one of the false ones in its place. I could have sworn that the loose one I held in my hand and this other were exactly similar, so close was the resemblance in brilliancy, size, and shape. "'Now,' said Fletcher, 'you've got the Jew. If he tested the thing he'd find the swindle out, But he'll never dream of doing so. He's handled it too many times for that. Of course you'll have to let him do you out of a fiver, but you'll come out top dog on the transaction in any case, although you won't nearly get the stuff back that he's bled you of. And you'll have to give me £3 10s—the price of the paste. I won't ask for another penny, because it's not every day one gets such a show as this.'
"Well, I hesitated, but not for very long.
"'Aha', my friend,' said old Ike as I untied my hanky, 'I knowed you vos come back to your Isaacstein,' and he grinned—'Long time I vant that stone! Get him at last, eh? Vell, vell, I suppose I sees your face no more never again, eh?' 'And he poked fun at and chaffed me all the time he was counting out the money—£45. As for the ring, he put it in his safe without giving it a second look. From the shop I went to Fletcher and paid him; then to the railway station, took a ticket for Sydney, and I've never crossed the border since."
"'And the diamond,' asked someone, 'have you got it yet? And did it ever turn the luck?' For answer, Courtney opened a locket attached to his watch chain, and shaking it, an object, that gleamed and glittered in the lamplight rolled on to the cloth.
"That's it," said he. "And as for luck? Don't you think this is a shade better; anyhow, better than chewing bark and fossicking in dirt boxes?"—"Pastoralists' Review."
As Ming, the Chinese gardener at Tabarowie, paused from his labour, and leaned on his spade, and glanced somewhat despairingly around, it was suddenly borne in upon him that a strong remedy was needed. His reputation and his billet alike were at stake. Six weeks, and as yet the sole return for his toil was a bed of poor, miserable cabbage seedlings. Never before had he known his efforts to be so meagrely rewarded. But the soil of this place, albeit well-looking enough, seemed to defy him, Ming, of whom it had been proudly said in his native village— far away on the hills of the Upper Yang-tze—that he could almost grow garden stuff on the barren rock itself. Perhaps, however, this especial piece of country was accursed, and if such should be the case, he supposed it would be useless to ask the white devil who owned it to supply him with the means of appeasing that other devil who was answerable for its sterility. Still, something ought to be done. If he could only speak the language, and convince these people of how much better in every way it would be for them. Still, a white child! Well, in any case, it would be only an experiment. But it was worth trying. All at once, as he thought his thoughts out there in the hot sunshine, the cry of an infant came to his ears through the French windows of the house, and as he resumed his digging his narrow black eyes gleamed, and he struck up a shrill little chant invoking the Earth Devil to have patience yet a short while, and his anger should be appeased and then he (Ming, his ever faithful servant) would, in return, be able of his skill and knowledge to make the earth yield her fruits to him, as, until now, had always happened. Such, was the substance of Ming's song as he drove his tool viciously into the whitey-brown soil; a squat, yellow-faced, slant-eyed man, with a big pigtail coiled neatly under his ragged straw hat, a great heavy jaw, and a bulbous nose spread over an upper lip, from which sprouted, straight and stiff as the bristles of a coir broom, some score or so of black hairs.
Presently a tall, thin, melancholy-faced man strolled out of the house and lit a pipe, and stared around with lack-lustre eyes, closely inspected the bed of little cabbages, shook his head despondently, and opined aloud that "they'd never come to anything." Ming grunted. "I'm afraid, John," continued Mr Raymer, that you won't be able to make much out of this ground. Too much lime in it, y' know. A lot of manure might better it, but I don't know. Well, they say a chow can grow cabbage anywhere, but I think you're licked this time, John." Ming grunted again. It was all he could do. A late arrival, he had, as yet, not acquired a word of the language. At this moment he was at the bottom of a hole whence a good-sized sapling had been grubbed, and he was "running" the roots and pulling them out whilst Mr Raymer gave him his opinions upon the best and most approved means of growing vegetables in the Northern Bush.
"Of course, he doesn't understand a word, Jane," said he, as a careworn, faded and prematurely old-looking woman came hurriedly to his side. But that doesn't matter. He's a demon to work, although I'm beginning to think we'll never eat cabbages of his raising. I wish I'd put the new house down on the flat, Jane, instead of up here by the creek. The soil's much richer on the plain. How's Emily?"
"Just about the same, Fred," replied his wife with a sigh, as she peeped over the edge of the circular basin-like hole at Ming, still working away, and shrilling in a funny, thin falsetto, weird invocations to the Earth Devil, and veiled promises of something good that should be presently offered for his acceptance. With some slight variations and diversity of sex, Mr and Mrs Raymer had all their unfortunate married life been asking each other the above question about their children and receiving the same answer, until the inevitable end came, and death relieved their suffering offspring one after the other, and all at nearly the same age. And now Emily, the last of ten, was—although the parents strove as they had ever done to shut their eyes to the truth— well on the way to rejoin her lost brothers and sisters. No wonder the pair looked worn out and weary of life. Since their marriage it seemed to them that they had experienced scarcely a moment's rest by day or by night; never had their house been free from sickness or death; sorrow always abode with them, and mourning appeared their natural lot latterly, the birth of a child was a more legitimate subject for grief than its so certain passing after the allotted three years of misery. Truly a heavy burden had these poor creatures borne! And Ming, ceasing his song and looking up at the lined-worn faces and faded eyes and grey hair, and listening to the fretful wailings that came from the house, perhaps guessed something of the desperate tragedy of nigh on to a generation of hopeless suffering and loss represented by those nine little fenced in mounds close to the site of the old homestead. He may have done so; but the yellow face remained calm and motionless as that of the Sphinx, the cold, black eyes as inscrutable in their stare, whilst coming out of the hole he began to carefully take its covering of bushes from off the bed of cabbage seedlings, wilted, supine and whitened by the great heat of the day, giving place now to a fresher air.
Tabarowie was a cattle station on the Linda, and the nearest township was nearly eighty miles away. There, on his marriage, Raymer had settled and taken up the run at first hand, and had from a business point of view, done very well, might, indeed, have saved money but for the incessant expenses arising from the misfortunes of his lot; expenses, however, that were incurred ungrudgingly as each poor soul appeared and raised false hopes and then faded away; misfortunes that, contrary to precedent, were not left to the woman alone to battle with, but shared in loyally and lovingly by the man. And now it seemed to their too-fatally practised sight that the time had come to part with yet another, and their last one, of their flowerets to the remorseless reaper who called for them with such grim, persistent punctuality. But as the days went by and He still delayed to claim his due, whilst the child herself seemed to thrive as those other weaklings had never done, long lost hope took hold on the parents' hearts and sprung up therein, and lingered, at first doubtfully, and then with stronger, firmer growth. Also, later on there came to the station a great German scientist, claiming hospitality for the night. And the doctor, interested in the story already heard from neighbours, after a long and close examination, pledged his reputation— which was world-wide—that barring accidents, the child might very well live to make old bones. Also, going to look at the site of the first homestead, the scene of so many arrivals of little travellers on life's journey, and so many swift departures with so little ground covered, he, after sniffing suspiciously at the mud-banks in the wide river, where the alligators dozed in the sun and noting the woolly mist that hung about the bends, shook his head and remarked to his traveling companion—that "Id vos biddy de squadder did nod go oop ze 'ill longvoredimes; zo dere vould be less leetle craves down zere an' more chiltren in ze 'ouse mit." But to the Raymers he said nothing of this; and Mr Raymer often regretted that he had not picked out a spot in which to build the new house somewhere along the fat alluvial flats that were to be met with here and there along the river. So might he have had a good garden and something to show for Ming's exertions. Meanwhile, Ming himself worked doggedly on with all the characteristic stubborness of the race. But he was very angry, enraged against the implacable Earth Devil who took no heed of promises, and therefore refused to let the plants do other than just shoot up miserably, and then, in spite of all Ming's care and attention, fade away and die, exactly as those little human plants of the Raymers had done. And the child, Emily, a small, pale, fragile being, much given to solitary communion with herself and lonely little wanderings around the homestead, followed often by hungry glances from the narrow black eyes, unwinking and opaque, of her father's gardener, seemed to take an instinctive shuddering dislike to him, and always avoided his presence as much as possible. Then, one day, Mr and Mrs Raymer, driving together on the run, as was at times their wont, the two native girls busy washing at the creek that flowed past the homestead into the river below; and the one white servant, whose special charge Emily was, in bed with a touch of dengue, Ming looking around his garden, the scene of so much irresponsive toil, heard the Earth Devil calling insistently. The land lay steeped in the warm fervour of the far northern semi-tropical afternoon! There was no breath of air, yet the broad leaves of the bananas kept up a curious vibrating rustle; a great coral tree glowed like a mass of flame in the centre of the garden from a Bohemia sapling; a long yellow and black iguana stared at the man out of eyes wondrously like his own. Listening intently, Ming, with his hands on the heavy grass mats that enclosed the verandah, could hear no sound but the voices of the black girls chattering at their work along the creek, that and the noise of the Earth Devil calling for the sacrifice so long delayed. All at once, raising the screen, Ming entered the darkened room in which he knew little Emily was sleeping through the heat of the day.
* * * * * *
When, later on towards evening, the Raymers drove round the end of the garden, they met Ming with his yoke carrying water and chanting a shrill triumphant strain as he swung past them. I never, saw such a man," said the squattor, "he seldom seems to take a minute's rest. Will he ever grow us anything, though, I wonder? Still if he doesn't, it's a comfort to have him about the place. And see, Jane, he's filled up that old stump hole at last, and dug a new bed around it and transplanted all those miserable little cabbages into it. I've often asked him what made him leave it open so long, but he'd only grunt." And the pair laughed cheerfully at Ming as he trudged to and fro with song and brimming buckets.
* * * * * *
The whole district turned out to look for the lost child, but without avail, and at length it was unanimously agreed that she must have wandered down to the river and fallen in, or been snatched off the bank by an alligator. Also was Ming conscious that his experiment was but partially a success, inasmuch as only on one portion of the garden is he able to produce those splendid cabbages that have made Tabarowie famous throughout the territory. The devils who control the destinies of the men in the Middle Kingdom, are satisfied with no half measures, and, as Ming more than suspected, nothing short of an offering of one of his own kin and colour would have sufficed to fertilise the whole garden. Still, after all, it was worth trying.
Christmas Day; and on the edge of a thick brigalow scrub a man and a woman sat on a fallen log. From a circular open space in front of them rose a tall mound of red clay, about whose base a few scattered sheep cropped the scanty herbage, while the rest of the flock camped in clusters, their sides heaving with the fierce heat of the December noon.
Here and there about the ragged edges and rain-guttered declivity of the miniature hill lay bones bleached to the whiteness of snow.
The man was well dressed in cords and boots, his linen was spotless, and a valuable diamond glistened in his blue silk scarf. He might have been 30, and but for the thin line of lip under the moustache, the shifty gray green eyes, and the weak chin, was decidedly good-looking. To a tree close by a horse was hung up, whose appearance and furniture were alone a guarantee of its owner's social position.
The girl, for she was little more than 16, narrowly escaped being beautiful. As it was she was only pretty, with her sunburnt cheeks, light-blue eyes, and the fine "svelte" figure of the exceptional bush native. To below her waist from under her old cabbage-tree hat fell, uncombed, untended, a great mass of golden hair. Lips faultless in their curve, and a firm, resolute but beautifully-rounded chin redeemed the short, thick nose, and gave strength and energy to a face whose expression was never at any time commonplace. Her voice, ordinarily soft and pleasant, was now harsh with excitement as she spoke, chipping, meanwhile, nervously at the log with a small tomahawk.
"So," she was saying, "you've done with me now, have you? And you're going to get married and bring your wife to Oomooloo, where you always promised I should be. A pretty fellow you are for a poor girl to trust to! And what do you think father and mother 'll say when they find out, as they're duty bound to do."
"Pooh!" replied the man, laughing carelessly. "I'll very soon square them. You don't understand business. A cheque 'll do that any day. Besides—but there!" he continued, with an accent of assumed tenderness that made the girl start as if something had bitten her, "it's yourself I'm thinking of, Lizzie. I suppose I'm a scamp. But what can I do? You know the fix I'm in. There's the station mortgaged over head and heels, and the only way to clear myself is to marry money. I've got the chance now. Surely if you're as fond of me as you used to say you were, not so very long ago, you won't try and spoil things. Come, give me a kiss and let us part friends." The girl stopped her restless chopping, and looking straight into his eyes read there, ere their shifty gaze fell before her own, only the eager desire to be rid, as soon as possible, of his broken toy.
"I tell you, George Morris," she answered at last, rising and choking back a sob as she spoke, "that it's useless your coming coaxing and tempting with your soft voice and loving ways any more. I've just seen right clear through you. God help me! And I took a thing like you for a man! And you promised you'd marry me, and I was fool enough to believe you! Yes, you may smile, and you may square the old people. But so sure as you bring that other woman home to the station, you look out! Only yesterday I loved you, and would ha' licked the dust off your boots if you'd asked me to; but now I'd sooner jump head first into the spring over yonder than touch your hand—you liar, that goes under the name of gentleman!" And as the spoke with the concentrated energy of despair, she drew a common cheap gold ring off her finger—one of those that bear the motto "Mizpah" in raised letters on their outer edge—and hurled it towards him. It fell in the scrub, far beyond where he stood, pale and sullen under the biting scorn of her words. "Take your ring!" she cried passionately; "all I hope now is that your child will die before it lives long enough to find that it had a fool for its mother and a 'gentleman' for its father."
"You can throw it in the Spring, if you like, my girl," he retorted brutally; "but I tell you what it is—if you're going to cut up rough in this way about a trifle, I shall be forced to run you all off the station. And, by G—d, I'll do it, too! Already, if it hadn't been for me, your people would have been ruined and penniless. I'll give you all a 'Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year' if you're not more careful."
But to this threat the girl made no answer. Calling her dog she moved away towards her sheep, her head bent, and her whole body shaking with the hysterical sobbing she had been long struggling to suppress.
"D—n her!" he muttered, with a cruel gleam in his false eyes, as he clutched his heavy whip tighter. "If I thought she was going to make mischief—" Then he laughed carelessly, and, mounting his horse, rode off.
And, actually, he seemed to have little to fear. Lizzie Moulton's father and mother were, he well knew, exactly the kind of people that, by the aid of money, he could mould to his will. Indeed, some time ago, with the very need in view that had just arisen, he had lent them certain small sums against the selection and the sheep. Illiterate, stolid bush folk, purely animal both in manners and in morals, be felt small doubt as to their ability and willingness to implicitly obey his prompting. Indeed, he had a shrewd suspicion that already they more than guessed how matters stood between their daughter and himself.
"It would be awkward though—d—d awkward!" he muttered as he canted along on Elsinore, "if she were to come over and open out before Florence! Gad! what a row there'd be!" And uncomfortable visions flitted through his mind of the calm, cold, emotionless indignation of his promised bride in the loveless marriage he was about to contract; together with the hot anger of her stern, gray-haired old father should his victim, in spite of all he could do, keep to her word.
"I must ride over and see old Moulton tomorrow," he muttered to himself, " and tell him that if he doesn't muzzle Miss Lizzie I'll put the screw on. Gad! who'd ha' thought looking at them, that she'd ha' turned Turk on a fellow the way she did!"
Accordingly, next morning, he called at the selection. As he approached the miserable hut, and noted the broken fences and gates, reeking cowyard, and utter neglect everywhere apparent, he could see Lizzie carrying the little basket containing her lunch, and followed by her black-and-tan collie, moving off after her flock, just released from their yard on the opposite ridge. To some men this would have been an uncomfortable errand. But he did not feel it as such. And being met half-way as soon as, with the brutal frankness inherent in the man, he stated his business, a bargain was soon concluded; and as George Morris replaced his cheque-book he felt morally certain that the cunning looking, squalid couple who had just greedily grabbed the price of their child's dishonour might be thoroughly trusted to make her hold her tongue. And as far as he was concerned he judged correctly.
Thus, with a mind at ease, he turned his horse homeward, raising his hat with exaggerated and triumphant courtesy as he passed the girl, flinging her also a "Good morning, Lizz," to which she never raised her head.
And presently "Morris, of Oomooloo," went "down below"; and a little later the society papers, so-called, under the heading, "Morris —Dansert," gave long and glowing accounts of the grand wedding between the only daughter of "the well-known Sydney financier" and the "enterprising pioneer-squatter from the Far West." The list of wedding presents alone took up two columns, and among them occurred the item, "Bride to bridegroom, massive opal signet ring, engraved "Mizpah."
Meanwhile Lizzie Moulton took her sheep daily out, across plain and through scrub, and rested during the heat in the shade of the brigalows at the foot of the great red mound—"the Spring," as it was called thereabout—within whose concave summit rippled and simmered the warm thick mud, tenacious as birdlime, in whose horrible depths she had once been nearly engulfed. Her dog one day chasing a rabbit, the creature had sprang nearly into the middle of the basin. Unable, or unwilling to stay his headlong course, Towser followed, and, too late perceiving his mistake, howled in terror for his mistress.
A stunted box-tree grew near, and stretched one limb almost half-way across the gruesome crater. Without a moment's hesitation the girl, seizing the branch, swung out on it towards her faithful servant. When within arm's length she felt she dared go no farther. The bough creaked and bent under her weight. The dog was sinking fast, howling no longer, but making a dismal groaning in his throat, and with a despairing look in his upturned eyes, a mute appeal that haunted her for days after; then quite suddenly and noiselessly he disappeared.
An awful horror of the Thing seized upon the girl as she strove to pull herself backwards and slipped off, hanging by her hands alone, while the viscid, slimy ooze seemed to leap up and grasp her by the ankles. Luckily she was light, and active at a cat, and at last, with hands torn and bleeding, and boots gone, she had gained the bank, and there realised for the first time in her life what it was to lie down, holding fast to the root of a tree for fear the world should slip away from her—nearly to faint, in fact.
It was at the spot of this great mud-spring that she had first met George Morris, and listened to his guileful flattering tongue, and believed in him, and trusted in him, as do all women, gentle or simple, in the man they once give their love to fully. And here, sheltered from all observation by the shade of the thick growing brigalows, silver-leaved and bushy-topped, they spent hours together; hours in which to the simple girl the world seemed a very much more joyous and glorious world than she had ever imagined it could possibly become.
One day, as they sat together, all at once something had rolled down the steep clay sides of the mound nearly to their feet, startling them. But it proved to be merely poor Towser's skull, bleached and bare, that, according to its wont with the remains of its victims, the Thing had belched forth again from depths of unknown horror. This—as is the case with all these mud-springs—it was accustomed to do piecemeal at long intervals.
And Lizzie remembered well how, as she related her narrow escape, her companion had laughed at her, and made light of the matter in his lordly fashion; telling her also that below there, according to the legendary lore of the local blacks, lived in the slimy depths a gigantic crayfish ever on the watch for prey.
In those first days she had looked upon her lover as a god; his slightest wish was law to her, and of his affection she had felt absolutely secure. If at times she had ever become frightened and doubtful because of the social distance which she had sense enough to know existed between the owner of great Oomooloo and the daughter of a poor selector, she had read enough of the rubbish of cheap romance to believe that nothing was more common in the every-day life of the world, as there set forth, than for the duke to marry his game keeper's daughter.
Very rude and very sudden had been the awakening—hardly, indeed, as yet realised to the full. And though nothing now, save sorrow, was associated with that repellent and lonely spot, for so long love's trysting-place, it seemed so much in keeping with her present state of mind—one of hot hate and bitter resentment towards her betrayer—that day by day her steps involuntarily led her to the thick scrub, every tree in which she knew so well.
It appeared strange that, with such an upbringing as had been here, any sense of moral responsibility should exist at all in the girl's mind. Yet such undoubtedly was the case, and to a very large extent. As for the parents, they utterly refused to acknowledge—were, in fact, quite unable to realise any such feeling on their daughter's part, and openly jeered and flouted her when she demanded at least sympathy at their hands. People, these, with all their natural selfishness and heartlessness increased and strengthened by the knowledge of their being at the mercy of the man who had brought to their child misfortune of whose magnitude they seemed to have no conception.
After all, perhaps, it was more the sense of having been so shamefully deceived and sold, rather than from any higher source of feeling that had aroused the passionate indignation of the girl and caused her to fervently vow revenge on her betrayer. There seemed only one way in which this could be carried out.
And to make her forego that it took her parents a week of reproaches, threats, and promises. But at last a consent was wrung from her; and, her word once passed, they well knew she would at all costs keep it. Thus they rested satisfied, and reckoned they had well earned the balance of the promised cheque.
So when Mr. and Mrs. Morris returned from their honeymoon to Oomooloo they were not disturbed in any way.
Once or twice, while following her sheep, Lizzie had caught sight at the pair as they rode out together, he passing at times with a brief nod, at others with head averted; his wife—a thin-faced woman long past her prime—with a careless, supercilious glance that made the girl clench her hands in impotent rage.
As she had prayed and hoped, her child was born dead. In her life the event made no change; in herself a wonderful one. From being merely pretty with an animal prettiness, the girl became beautiful with a sort of etherealised unearthly beauty that made her parents stare at her agape and marvel as to "what had come to Liz."
She seldom spoke now, but would at times break into fits of hysterical laughter. Beyond, however, opining that "the gal was gettin' a shingle short," neither father nor mother took much notice of her. She was a capital shepherd, and that was all they cared about. Old Moulton, in addition to a partial quittance of his debt to the squatter, received many privileges as to the running of stock, and other matters, which made the station hands wink knowingly at one another whenever the selector's name or that of "Mad Liz.," as gradually she came to be called, was mentioned.
But Lizzie was not mad—yet.
The Morrises had been absent some months, and meanwhile extensive improvements had been made at Oomooloo; pedigreed stock bought, new fencing erected, and many other indications given that George Morris had lost no time in utilising his wife's dowry. Late in the summer they returned to the station, she apparently the same cold, unimpassioned woman as ever, he full of plans for the further development of his property, that seemed to keep him almost wholly away from his wife.
"You need not wait for me, as I shall not be back for lunch," said George Morris to his wife one roasting hot morning. It was Christmas Day come round again.
"Surely, George, on this day you might manage—" began Mrs. Morris.
"Can't possibly," interrupted her husband. "There's no Christmas in the bush, you know; and I must go out to the back of the run. Back, though, for dinner, I hope. Good-bye."
But Mrs. Morris simply nodded her head, and returned to her book, bitterly vexed with herself for even the few pleading words that had almost involuntarily escaped her, and for any result from which she well knew the day had long gone by—nay, since their marriage, had never existed.
That evening Lizzie, returning with her flock past the Spring, saw a saddle horse tied up to a tree at the foot of the mound. As she recognised Elsinore a strange light came into her eyes, and her heart beat fast.
Suddenly she heard a muffled shout from the top of the big red hillock. Flying up its steep tides like a goat, she beheld a sight that seemed to turn her instantly into a statue, as she stood motionless on the bank and stared before her with dilated eyes and parted lips. Hanging on to the furthest extremity of the bough she knew so well, and which was bent like a bow under his heavy weight, up to his knees in the seething mud, was George Morris. Close to him, plunging and struggling, was a big ram that Lizzie's trained eye recognised at once as the 600-guinea ''grand champion" of the recent metropolitan show, which she had quite lately seen and admired on its way from the little township to Oomooloo.
Evidently the animal had by some means escaped from its little paddock at the head station, and in an endeavour perhaps to make back to its old home had fallen into the Spring. There Morris had by chance found it, and rushed to the rescue, even as Lizzie had once rushed to Towser's.
Like a flash this explanation of the scene passed through the girl's brain, instantly succeeded by the memory of the heartless fashion in which he had once mocked at the story of her own peril in the same spot. Then she became conscious that a voice was crying—
"Lizzie, for God's sake! Don't you hear me? This limb is cracking, and I'm afraid to move lest it break altogether, and let me down into this infernal stuff that keeps dragging at my legs. Run and get the reins and stirrup-leathers off Elsinore, and throw them over to me. Make one end fast to the tree, and I may be able to pull myself out. Run, Liz., run!"
And still the girl stood motionless, staring at the pale, agonised face with the wild, terror stricken eyes—that face she had once thought godlike and loved so dearly. "Run, Liz., run! For heaven's sake, run! I'm sinking!"
Then all at once she awoke, and turned and fled down the bank in such mad haste that Elsinore, snorting with fright, broke her bridle, and cantered away through the scrub.
But she took not the slightest notice of the horse. Stuck in the log that they two as lovers had sat upon many a time, she found what she wanted—her tomahawk; and with it she sped back to the Spring.
The ram had disappeared, and the man, now up to his waist in the cruel mud, hung with arms rigid as rods of iron to the bough that already, at the butt, showed ominous fractures in the smooth gray bark.
Laughing frantically, and without casting a second glance at Morris, the girl hewed with all her might at the nearest break, heedless of the tempest of oaths, cries for mercy, wild entreaties, and wilder promises that poured from her victim as he realised his fate. At last, with a crash, the bough straightened and sprung clear away into the gargling ooze, which the next moment surged round the neck of the doomed man. He was silent now; but the utter and awful despair in his eyes as they presently caught those of his destroyer seemed to fascinate her and draw her towards him.
Ceasing the shrill laughter she had hitherto kept up, and with her gaze still fixed steadily on his, she advanced step by step until her feet touched the black mud of the pit. Then, all at once, noiselessly, and as if plucked downwards by some huge invisible hand, the terrible head disappeared leaving nothing in its place save the slimy surface of the Thing, heaving contentedly in slow, greasy dimples and bubblings.
Pressing a hand over her brow, the girl stepped back, and then, with a shrill cry, hurling her tomahawk at the pit, she rushed shrieking away through the driving rain that ushered in that Christmas night.
* * * * *
It rained steadily for days, and troopers white and troopers black confessed themselves equally at fault. George Morris, of Oomooloo, had disappeared utterly and entirely, leaving no clue except the dumb and useless one of Elsinore arriving home the next morning with her furniture wet but intact, except for the broken bridle rein.
Presently, as is usual in such cases when the body is missing, all sorts of rumours began to spread. George Morris had been seen on an outward-bound liner; a man had met him in London; yet another in New Zealand. And time passed, and the impassive, middle-aged woman whom he had married for her money, and who had taken him because he was the only man who had ever asked her as wife, gave up all hope of ever seeing her husband again, and donned widow's weeds. Also, Oomooloo, "that splendidly improved Western station property," was put in the market.
"If he's dead—why, he's dead, Flo," remarked old Dansert philosophically to his daughter. "If he ain't, that advertisement should bring him back.
Long ere this the butt of the severed bough that had overhung the fatal spring had put forth a bunch of tender, pale-green suckers; and the Thing itself, according to its custom, after working its will upon its prey down in its uttermost depths, had cast up sundry odds and ends of bones which as the mud caked and dried and fell away from them showed clean and white. Then, on a day, sitting in an arbour clad with clinging passion-vine, Mrs. Morris became aware of voices close to, one remonstrating, the other insistent. The next moment then stood before her a tall girl whose hair, fantastically decorated with corella and white cockatoo feathers and delicate pink-tinted, purple hearted desert roses, fell in great tangled masses down her back. One of the gardeners followed closely.
"She would come, ma'am," he said apologetically. "It's only mad Liz, Moulton, as I dare say you've heard on, ma'am. There's no 'arm in the poor creetur; but it's a sin an' a shame that them people of hers should let her go wandrin' about the country the way she does." Then, turning to the girl, he said: "Come away, Lizzie; come with me an' I'll give you some pretty flowers to twist in yer 'air."
But still Lizzie stood staring intently at Mrs. Morris. Her once rosy cheeks were pale and thin; her sunken eyes were surrounded by great black rings that intensified the mad fires burning in their depths. Crooning a low, wailing sort of a song, she begun to fumble at a bag she wore suspended by a string around her neck.
"Take her away, Johnson!" said Mrs. Morris sharply. "She may be dangerous. I wonder at your allowing such a person to enter my garden. Take her away at once!"
"He was my George before he was yours!" exclaimed Lizzie suddenly and defiantly. And she laughed wildly as she continued: "You should have seen his eyes when the limb went, and the big crawfish that lives in the Spring got hold of him and dragged him down. Ugh!" and she shivered.
"What does the creature mean, Johnson?" asked Mrs. Morris. "Did you not hear me tell you to take her away."
But Johnson, who knew things that his mistress did not, had turned pale, and looked as if he were going to be very ill.
"I'll come, Tom," said Lizzie, "as soon as I've shown her the present my George sent me the other day. I thought at first that it was my own pretty one that I threw at him and could never find since. Only this one's bigger, and has got a stone in it. But the reading on it's the same—'The Lord watch between me and thee when we are absent one from the other,' he told me it meant. The Spring sent it to me. But I don't think it's my own one, unless George has been doing something to it down there."
All this time she had been unfastening the string that closed the mouth of the bag. As she finished she brought out the skeleton of a human hand, bleached to the whiteness of ivory, and upon one distorted finger of which there rattled loosely a massive gold ring set with a great opal that, all its fire and sparkle gone, shone dully in a sunshaft that, shooting through the foliage, gleaned brightly on the graven device—
"This is the seventh duffer running I think, Frank—isn't it?" asked a good-looking, fair-haired, blue-eyed young fellow of his mate, as the pair sat under a bough shed, erected over the windlass to keep the sun off them whilst they worked at their claim.
"About that," replied Harry Meredith's partner laconically. He was elderly, stout, and red—red-faced, red-haired, and red headed, with a full fan-shaped beard, that fell over his chest, and shone and glistened at times like a sheet of flame.
The pair were prospecting one of the roughest coastal ranges of New South Wales, and from where they sat they could see, 800ft below them, the ocean washing a long white strip of sandy beach and spreading away in miles of blueness to the horizon, whose rim was broken here and there by the white wings of ships or stained by a long trail of smoke.
"I think, old man," continued Harry Meredith presently, "that we've done a fair thing by this rotten country. Colors! Colors! Colors everywhere—and nothing else! Why, we might just as well go and dig on yonder beach amongst the sand—better, perhaps, for we know there's gold on the seashore along this coast."
"Not on that beach," replied his mate, nodding towards the shining belt of sand. "Further along to'rds the Richmond and Clarence perhaps. But if you looked all your life, you'd never rise the color down yonder."
In making this assertion, however, certain as it seemed, Frank Johnson forgot to allow for the vagaries of Fate.
"Well," exclaimed the younger man, impatiently rising and stretching himself, "what d'ye say? Off to the briny again—if we can get a show? Here we are—no tucker to speak of, no money; turnouts that, all put together, wouldn't bring five bob in Paddy's Market! I don't see anything else for it, do you?"
The other thoughtfully stroked his beard, and shook his head, and gazed abstractedly across the South Pacific. Then, said he, "All right, Harry, my son. What mus' be, mus' be! But not deep water?"
"Damn deep water," replied the other, emphatically. "The coast—if we've got to work for our tucker. Come, along; let's roll up bluey and clear out o' this God-forsaken hole! We can leave the tools and things just as they are. We'll never want 'em again, anyhow." Another assertion, this one, Fate was very derisively to set at naught.
But Johnson, although with no thought of ever returning, and simply from innate love of order, collected picks and shovels, hammers and gads, unwound the rope from the windlass and coiled it up, unshipped the barrel and hid it in a clump of bracken, and then carried everything into the stringy-bark humpy that the prospectors had built for themselves ere they began their vain quest for fortune in the Razorback Ranges. Not until everything was in order, and the place swept out and the door secured, did Johnson, who had turned a deaf ear to the grumblings of his eager mate, announce that he was ready for a start. "You never know, lad!" was all the reply he made to the other's reproaches for lingering so long. "Sides, it looks shipshape and decent for the next poor beggar that comes to try his luck."
"New South Wales hasn't very many as big fools as us in it," commented Harry sarcastically, as, shouldering their swags the pair began to descend the mountain towards the Five-mile Beach, from which they meant to strike inland for a cattle station, where they knew they would at least be sure of a good supper and breakfast, with, too, something extra to carry them on the next day's tramp.
Barry and Frank had been mates for some years by sea and land—now working on stations, fencing, ringbarking, shearing, any thing; anon taking a trip to sea on the coast or deep water, and then having, as now, a spell at digging. Well met mates they were too—the young one impulsive, eager, hasty; the elder, in spite of his prevailing redness, deliberate, calm, methodical—a trusty and needed brake on the common fortunes of the firm.
But hitherto all their adventuring and roving on either element had never brought them much recompense; although in the bush and when prospecting they toiled like fiends. Still, ill luck during the partnership seemed to take a delight in pursuing them and claiming them for its own. Did they just complete a big contract of fencing at a good price, and lift their cheque, then, before they got to the bank, the station "went bung;" did they take a droving job, a drought set in, and they lost their stock on the roads; did they tackle prospecting for a season, it generally panned out results equal to those in the Razorbacks. Indeed, Mother Sea, rough though her service and meagre though her wage, was, so far, the only one of all their numerous strings to labor's bow that had ever given them the command of ready money.
Harry Meredith was the son of a Tasmanian farmer, who came to grief though bush fires and bad seasons. Eventually this killed him and his wife leaving the boy heir to several mortgages. One of the chief claimants in the estate was a small shipowner, and he sent Harry to sea on a ketch. He was then 15, and his wages amounted to nothing a year and find himself. So he cut and ran, and joined a "limejuicer"—Anglice, British deep-water vessel—at Port Chalmers becoming in due course an A.B., and a very smart one too—also a well-starved one. In Well-street Sailors' Home he had foregathered with Johnson; and the lithe, active, smooth-faced, vehement youngster and the great, square-shouldered, thick-set, taciturn red man had joined issue.
Such makeshifts amongst the world's flotsam happen often, and, now and again, disparity of age notwithstanding, turn out to be of the kind that David called upon the mountains of Gilboa to testify to, what time Saul and Jonathan were found amid the slain.
Perhaps never since their first meeting had the two friends been in such straits as when, after a long, rough tramp, they at last reached Newcastle, and made their way to a familiar boarding-house whose proprietor at once set at work to find berths for them. And presently he succeeded in shipping them on board an old barquentine called the Amazon that arrived in ballast from a New Zealand port; and whose crew, her articles having expired, promptly left her as soon as her anchor was down.
However, there was plenty of men; and Harry and Frank, with four others, soon dumped their belongings into the vacant fo'c'sle
"Been on the coast afore?" had asked the only one of the former crew sober enough to speak to, in reply to a question of Harry's respecting the Amazon!
"Dozens o' trips," replied Harry, some what scornfully.
"You might fancy you ha," answered the other. "but you ain't begun to think you knows anythin' 'bout coastin' till you've been a trip in 'er," and the man grinned, and spat, and rattled the loose silver in his pocket as he turned to rejoin his shipmates in the "Fortune of War."
The Amazon, it appeared, was bound to Rockingham Bay, Northern Queensland, for a cargo of timber and had only put into Newcastle for provisions and water, after a passage of record length from Hokitika.
Harry and Frank soon found out what was amiss with their new home. She leaked like a sieve; also, the captain drank heavily; indeed, he was rarely sober. The mate, a stolid Swede, drank also, when he could get the liquor, but never so deeply as to render himself incapable of attending to the navigation of the vessel and keeping her crew to the pumps, watch in and watch out.
The fo'c'sle was a leaky den; and as the Amazon ratched slowly up the coast in the teeth of a head wind, so comfortless, wet, and grimy did it become, that, more than once, the two mates caught themselves wishing for their clean and airy little hut on the Razorback, where they had never worked as hard at gold seeking as they had now to do at water pumping.
One night the wind suddenly rounded into the eastward, and blew with hurricane force, sending the Amazon nearly on to her beam ends, and shifting the ballast over to port.
And as the ship lay over, with green seas pouring across her decks, all hands were ordered into the hold with shovels to trim the ballast, an awful job in the darkness, lit by dim ineffective flickerings of wildly swinging lamps, a scene rendered almost awe-inspiring by the hollow booming of the waves against the vessel's exposed side, and the loud creaking and groaning of the hull as it shivered at each fresh shock, whilst the black figures of the men scrambling and shoveling for dear life at the summit of the great ridge of shifted earth and gravel that kept the vessel from rising, looked like those of demons engaged in some weird ocean orgies.
Suddenly a yell from the mate of "All hands on deck!" came down the after-hatchway. There was a note of terror in his voice that thrilled.
The men nearest the ladder made a rush. Harry and Frank were working some distance away for'ard, and only heard the cry indistinctly. Frank had paused a minute to take breath, and was examining a handful of their ballast, holding it close to a lamp.
"I say," exclaimed Harry, "these fellows aft have all cleared out! Hadn't we better follow 'em? What are you piping there? Fancy you're prospecting, eh? By Jingo, it strikes me you won't want for water to wash it presently, unless this blasted old barge soon gets on her legs again."
"I've seen worse looking stuff than this," replied Johnson, meditatively, "an', if I'm not much mistaken, that's a bigger speck than you or me's come across in our travels o' late years," and as he spoke he held out on his palm an object the size of a hazel nut, that gleamed with a dull yellow gleam under the yellow light.
"Good Lord!" exclaimed Harry, peering. "Surely it ain't—"but at this moment a tremendous crash was heard above, and the vessel seemed to wrench herself with one huge effort on to an even keel, throwing the two men, as she righted, over to port, and bruising and half smothering them under the ballast as it rolled back into its place again.
Very soon they were on their legs, and, shouting encouragement to each other, they made for the hatch and clawed their way on deck. The night was black as ink, it was pouring with rain and the wind howled with a triumphant screech in the sound of it as it took hold on them and lashed the rain at them and tried to beat the breath out of them. Hanging on to anything they could clutch, and keeping close to each other by touch, they shouted long and shrill. There seemed, despite darkness, a curious clear feeling aloft, and one of emptiness about the decks.
"The masts are out of her," exclaimed Harry.
"That's so," shouted Frank in return, "and everybody else, too, I think. Swept her decks clean."
Slowly and painfully they groped their way aft, climbing over fallen spars and gear, encountering nothing human, hearing nothing but the roar of wind and water.
Bulking high as she did the Amazon, although spray and foam flew in one almost unbroken sheet over her decks, took but few heavy seas onboard, and the two managed presently to push the hood over the after companion and descend into the cabin.
But the little place was close and stuffy, and only lingering long enough to take a drink out of a bottle of gin in the swinging tray, they went on deck again, preferring to be drowned in the open.
And here they crouched close together in the narrow alley-way to leeward of the after-house, sheltered to some extent from driving rain and the wind by the wreck of the mizzen-mast which had fallen partly across it.
Had there been a hope of finding anybody alive they would have gone for'ard and searched fo'c's'le and galley. But they were sure that any survivors would have been aft. All they could do was to wait for daylight. They knew they were drifting fast inshore, and expected at any minute to hear the booming of the breakers along the coast.
The night seemed endless, but the dawn broke at last—a grey, cheerless rain-swept dawn, breaking on a scene of ruin and disaster wanting nothing to make it complete.
The fore and main masts had, with all their gear, fallen clear of the hull and disappeared completely; the mizzen, with its topmast, lay fore and aft inboard; the galley had been swept bodily away, together with the bulwarks, from abreast of the main-rigging right to the fo'c's'le head. Nor was there any more sign of life about the decks than there had been through the night.
It blew harder than ever, and as the dawn grew into daylight the two saw the land close to them, and for the first time heard above the howling of the gale the muffled roar of the wind-smitten sea upon sand, and knew that in another hour or so they would be amongst the breakers.
As the sun rose higher Johnson suddenly turned to Harry, and exclaimed, "Why, it's the old shop! I can see the humpy. And there'll be gold on the beach presently if there never was afore. I wonder if she's goin' to give us any show at all?"
And, apparently, the Amazon was; for she drove steadily in, with wind and tide helping her, until she got amidst the big rollers, and these took her in their arms and laid her flat on her bilge about 100 yards from the land. Then they pounded her along, breaking her back, but sending her so nearly high and dry that Harry and Frank managed to unlash themselves from the rail where they had been by turns half-drowned, bruised, buffeted, and suffocated by the tons of water that poured over them. Then, watching the undertow, they let themselves drop, and ran for dear life, and won the race by a few yards, and fell panting on the hot, dry sand of safety and the Five-Mile Beach. They found their old hut untouched; also some smoke dried lumps of wallaby meat, which they cooked and ate, whilst they sat and watched the Amazon's bones being broken far below them.
Later that evening, when the tide went out, they descended and got a good supply of provisions out of the wreck. They also washed a few dishes of ballast, and found a couple of large specks. Next day they made a cradle and a wheelbarrow, and set down steadily to work. It only wanted a week or so till Christmas, and the pair thought it just possible they might raise a cheque for the occasion out of this sea-borne alluvial. The working of the Long Arm of Coincidence had put faith into them, and they now believed that Providence was about to interest itself in their favor.
And, indeed, it seemed as if such was the case, for the ballast went a little over an ounce to the ton. There was about 100 tons of it, and they worked night and day till it was all finished.
And on the very night they put their last load through it came on to blow, from off the land, and the Amazon shifted her crippled empty old carcass out into deep water and sank.
The next morning their first visitor since the wreck came along. He was an old stockman-digger. And as he saw the tools and signs of recent labor, he laughed and exclaimed, "Not bin lookin' fer gold here, surelie? Never was, nor never will be! Better move along an' try somewhere's else."
"No," replied Johnson, combing at his great beard with his fingers. "I don't believe there ever will be. And I think that we'll take your advice and shift away. We'll get down to town for the holidays."
"Well, old man," said Harry as, a little later, they started, "our luck's changed at last."
"An' hard it must ha' been," replied his mate thoughtfully, "seein' as it drowned six men an' a cook afore it could be done."—Sydney "Evening News."
"I say, boys," exclaimed Mowbray, looking up from his newspaper, "we ought to have a try for this new rush up there in the North-West. Listen: 'One man in two days won thirty ounces of almost pure gold obtained at the bottom of a shaft twenty feet deep in moderately easy sinking. As yet there are very few diggers on the field, but as steamers are being put on from the southern colonies . . . um . . . um. Men are warned against . . . (oh, yes, of course) . . Bids fair to be the biggest alluvial find seen in Australia for many years. King's Sound is the nearest point to make for by water to the new field, which is situated at the foot of the Leopold Ranges in the Kimberley District of Western Australia.'
"Boys," continued Mowbray conclusively, as he put down his paper, "we should even now be on our way to this new El Dorado. We've been long enough waiting for a show. Let's clear. I'm full to the brim of loafing around here."
Paxton laughed ironically as he dug his bare feet into the warm sand upon which the three of us were lying after our bath, "It's two thousand miles," said he. "But of course that's nothing. And the fare's at least £30—steerage. Not to mention such trifles as tucker and tools. Oh, yes, let's go right away. What's the use of putting it off and shilly-shallying about here."
"Paxton," retorted Mowbray, "you're an ass. How much money have you got?"
"Three pounds and some small stuff," replied Paxton, grinning. "Call it three ten altogether. About enough to shout a decent dinner on."
"And you, Iredale?" said Mowbray, turning to me.
"A fiver," I replied, "at the outside."
"Well, I daresay I can muster as much as both of you put together," said Mowbray. "And we'll start as soon as we can fix things up;" and jumping to his feet he executed a pas de seul along the beach, whilst we looked on, wondering whether the sun had not been too much for him.
"But," I remonstrated, as presently he calmed down a bit, "Paxton's right enough, old man. It's a deuce of a distance. And fares at the start are sure to be high. You know how the companies slap it on in a case of this kind."
"Fare me no fares," exclaimed Mowbray. "And let the company keep their iron screw-pots. We'll sail our own ship. There she is. Slow perhaps, but sure. Likewise coffee in the morning and no fore-royal! Look at her! There lies the Argo that shall bear us to the Golden Fleece of—er—Thingumbob."
And as we followed the pointing finger across the water and our minds fell into line with his, we fairly yelled with laughter and rolled on the sand in ecstasies of it. Ah, me! we were young in those days and cared little how the world went, looking on it simply as a great playground in which to cut our capers, sometimes at other people's expense, more generally at our own.
Just now we were "camping" on the shores of one of the many picturesque coves and sea-arms that scallop the great main harbour of Port Jackson. Whilst the New South Wales summer heats are at their height this camping business is a favourite one with even rich people, who, taking servants, tents, and boats, choose some favourite spot and spend a Bohemian time, almost always either on or in the water. Also there are impecunious people who, attracted by the free life and the cheapness of living, quit the city and make their home in some secluded nook. This latter was our case.
We had no servant, and only one tent, and a crazy old boat, and no money worth mentioning; our combined stock of clothes could have been carried in a sugar bag, and so we had left the stuffy boarding-house and hot dusty streets to become "campers." And for many weeks we had led a savage sort of free-and—easy life down here at little Blue Pointer Bay, with a bag of potatoes, another of flour, half a chest of tea, and lots of sugar and tobacco as the main-stays of our commissariat. Fish we could always catch; and on one or two occasions they—in the shape of sharks—nearly caught us. Now, however, the trio, especially Mowbray, were getting restless and dissatisfied, as was only proper. No thoroughly healthy young fellow can put up with the lotus-eating business for an indefinite time.
Blue Pointer, so called as being a favourite haunt of the shark known by that name, was really a small cove with a narrow entrance, through which a view of the main harbour was just obtainable. Steep sides clothed thickly with straggling gums, stringybarks, and other eucalypti, ran down to a single sandy beach and big rocks on which oysters grew in thousands. On the opposite side to where our tent was pitched—some hundred yards across—was a dilapidated wharf, and moored to this was the object Mowbray had apostrophised.
Imagine a broad, ungainly old tub of a paddle-wheel steamer, raw and rusty for lack of shelter from the sun; her funnel red with rust, and the Muntz metal on her bottom showing the colour of verdigris. And this was the craft that Mowbray proposed we should take the sea in. Was it any wonder we laughed?
Two or three years ago a company had endeavoured to form a "sanatorium" on the opposite rocks; had cleared some scrub, built a jetty, and purchased a boat to carry visitors about the harbour. But alas! the project languished for lack of funds, and at last the promoters faced the Insolvency Court, and the creditors tried to realise on their assets. But no one wanted either land or wharf, or steamer. And there they lay unkempt, untended, uncared for.
We, as long as we had been there, had never been on board of her. But now, finding that Mowbray was in most determined earnest, we got our boat and sculled across and examined the Lady Macquarie. Still on our two parts with little or no severity of purpose.
"Ladies' Cabin. No Smoking," was the first thing that caught our eyes as we stepped on the lower-deck. This cabin was simply a portion of the deck, around and up the centre of which ran benches, whose sides were formed by windows of pretty thick glass which could he opened or shut at pleasure like those of a railway carriage. At one end were doors. The other end, the men's cabin, was exactly the same, only there were no doors. In the centre stood the steam chest, funnel, etc., and down a square open hatchway surrounded by a sort of iron fence were the engines. Above this deck was another, reached by steps on the outside of each paddle-box, furnished with seats down the middle and along the sides; also with two little windowed hutches for the helmsman, one at each end; and above all was a roof of galvanised iron, through which the smoke-stack protruded some six feet or so. Dust and dirt were everywhere. Spiders had spun their webs in long festoons about the ladies cabin; and as flying foxes could not enter there by reason of the doors being closed, they had taken up their abode in the men's part, where they could fly in and out at will. And here the brutes hung in clusters from the battened ceiling, sleeping until the time came for their nightly forays amongst the gardens and orchards of the upper harbour.
"A regular jolly menagerie, by jingo!" exclaimed Paxton in disgust, as he made a kick at a big rat that came out of an open locker and leaped on to the wharf. "And how those infernal foxes stink! A nice crowd to go to sea with-eh, Mowbray?"
But Mowbray was all over the shop, poking and prying into every corner, sticking his knife into planks and chipping iron rust off stanchions.
"Sound as a bell," said he at last, "so far as I can see. Dive down below, like a good fellow, Paxton, and have a look at the old girl's engines."
"But surely you don't mean it?" asked the other with a laugh. "And, anyhow, old as she is and poverty stricken as she looks, all our available capital wouldn't buy her."
"Don't intend to buy her," replied Mowbray decisively. "We'll borrow her and pay for her out of the pile that we are going to make at Kimberley. Got enough to get coals and tucker with, haven't we? What more do you want? I'll slam her round in a fortnight, even if we can only knock six out of her. And it'll be fine and calm inside the Barrier. Safe as a house! I don't know that I'd tackle the Leeuwin in her. But t'other way'll be a picnic."
"You're a genius," muttered Paxton. "All the same, you'll have us in Darlinghurst gaol if you don't mind."
"Exactly what I was thinking," I put in. "I don't quite know what a ferry boat would run into. But, making all allowance, I should say nothing under five years hard."
"Oh, rats!" retorted Mowbray, appropriate enough. "She's got no owner anyhow to prosecute. She's an unrealisable asset, to be divided probably and s
amongst fifty people. And what's everybody's business is nobody's, as we all know. They'll never miss her. Why, she's been here for at least four years. However, have it your own way, boys; it shall never be said that I led you into mischief."
And when Mowbray thus affirmed, we knew that if we didn't go he'd go alone rather than knuckle down, even if he got no further than the Heads. So we saw nothing for it but to humour him, for we were mates who never went back on one another. So Paxton dived into the dark and grimy hole where the engines lived, and I, under Mowbray's direction, punted along her sides in our boat and peered into the boxes to see whether the floats were all there, and prodded a knife into her at the water line to feel if she was rotten, whilst Mowbray took out his pocket-book and made notes.
"Engines are all aright," reported Paxton presently. "High pressure and obsolete, but strong—Davidson of Glasgow. Take a couple of gallons of oil and a day's work, though, before they'll move. Main shaft's an inch thick in rust, and the cylinders want packing."
"Well, you can fix 'em up and drive 'em, can't you?" asked Mowbray.
"Oh yes" replied Paxton resignedly. "although by profession I'm only a mining engineer, I can do that much. Likewise I'm not too old to learn the stone-breaking or oakum-picking trades."
"Great Jerusalem!" exclaimed Mowbray, laughing gleefully. "Were there ever such ingrates? Here am I putting you in a way to make your fortunes, and you only gibe at me. Don't you see, stupids, that we must do something? And that soon. I'm rusting, same as the Lady here. So are the pair of you. Now I'll bet you the best dinner in Australia—which isn't, after all, up to very much—that I pull this contract off safe and sound."
"Wager," exclaimed the pair of us simultaneously. "And let us hope," I added, "that it won't turn out one of hominy."
We were all three young in those days!
No more secluded and quiet spot could have been found in the whole harbour than Blue Pointer. Very few people ever came there, and, because we had taken possession of the only sandy beach, campers never. At most a few men gathering flannel flowers in the scrub for sale in the city, or a party of boys snake-hunting, were the sole visitors to our retreat. That was the reason we had stuck to it for so long.
And now we messed about the old Lady Macquarie all night without interruption. Mowbray got some two-inch planks and set me to fix up a sort of hatch over the engine room. An architect, he said, ought to be able to build anything. After that he brought bricks and galvanised iron with which to make a bit of a cooking place. And all the time, he himself was busy bringing in coal, that he got in bags under pretence of wanting it for a steam yacht—beef, pork, and biscuits.
He worked like a horse, and by the mere force of his irresistible personality, presently, as he always contrived to do, made us as cocksure of success as he was himself. And not only that, but he managed to gradually persuade us that, instead of committing a felony, we were actually benefiting the unknown owners of the Lady by cleaning their boat, taking her for a cruise, and thus stopping her from going to rack and ruin.
Of course, you will think we were a very weak-minded pair of young men. But then, you never knew Mowbray, with his handsome face, laughing eyes, and tongue that would coax flies off a tin of jam. A gentleman-adventurer, pure and simple, Frank Mowbray! And when Paxton, with his first-class certificates from the Technical College and the School of Mines, and I, with my six years' experience in old Plaistow's office, could find neither machinery nor town halls to erect, and met Mowbray one day out shooting at a station we were visiting, we took such a fancy to him that we had been a great deal together ever since.
Four years ago that was; and except when we two were at work—for we did get a job now and then—or Frank was away digging, droving, "sailorising," or exploring in the Back Blocks, we were inseparable. Paxton had "people" in New Zealand. But Mowbray and myself were pretty well alone in the world.
Never shall I forget the night on which, everything being ready for as mad and reckless an expedition as even Mowbray could have invented, we made a start. Of course we had routed out all the foxes and cleared the old girl down as well as we could. But the men's cabin was stacked up with coal, and the ladies' with a most curious mixture of provisions. Being double-ended, her bow for the time was of course the way she was heading. Mowbray was at one of the wheels, Paxton in the engine room, and I was standing by as deck hand, fireman, and general rouseabout. Steam was up, and smoke was pouring from the long-empty funnel into the midnight-air.
"All ready," shouted Mowbray down the voice tube to Paxton.
"Ay, ay," replied the other.
"Let her go, then." And the old thing, trembling in every fibre of her, answered the thump of her engines with a loud chuff-chuff, chuff-chuff, that made the hills echo again as she moved slowly and unwillingly into the stream.
"Merciful heavens! what's that row?" shouted Mowbray. "Stop it, Paxton. Do you want to rouse Australasia?"
Chuff-chuff, chuff-chuff, snorted the Lady deliberately, and with emphasis. Clickety-clack-thump went the engines, whilst the paddles hit the water and smashed it into foam with a noise like big cataracts rushing over a thousand feet of rocks.
Mowbray was still yelling to stop the row; and at length Paxton came up, black as a sweep, and completely, helpless from laughter.
"What's the matter now?" he managed to get out at last, addressing me, startled just as much as Mowbray by the infernal din. "They all do it these old high pressure tubs. I thought you knew. Why, of course they'll hear us right down the harbour and far out to sea. Go and tell Frank I can't stop her coughing. Indeed, she's rather out of practice from being laid up so long. She'll do better yet."
Mowbray swore when I told him. "Old beast!" said he, "she's nearly made me jump overboard, thinking the boiler was going. No fear of collision, if that's any comfort! All right Pax, old man, throw her wide open and let her rip!"
But there was no "rip" about the old Lady. All the steam in the world couldn't have knocked more than six out of her. And even at that her ancient frame quivered and expanded and rattled, whilst bolts and stanchions, loosened by the long drought, asserted themselves in every note of metallic clangour. Sometimes the hoarse throaty cough died away into a half-throttled asthmatic wheeze, sounding as if she were at her last gasp; then she'd pant violently, and having thus, as it were, cleared her throat and chest, she'd presently rise into the loud, deliberate, sonorous chuff-chuff by which she seemed to beat slow time to her slow progress through the water.
"Well," exclaimed Paxton, "If she isn't making a fine show of us I wouldn't say so! I've got sixty-five pounds on, and it strikes me that's quite enough for the boiler. It'd be almost a mercy if Mowbray would pile her up on the Sow and Pigs yonder."
We were just passing that lightship, guarding its pinnacle of rock and reef, and so close that we could plainly see its crew of two as they came up and stared curiously at us. Abreast of Watson's a steam collier stole silently along showing a monstrous height of bow and a stern nearly a-wash. A moon had risen and was giving a faint light. Presently the coal-man shifted his helm and ran over. "Hi," he hailed, "where are you off to? This ain't the way to Parramatta or the North Shore. You'll get lost."
"Shan't ask you to show us the road, anyhow," replied Mowbray.
"Oh, all right," replied the other, "don't get your shirt out! And give her some balsam of aniseed—a pint every half-hour to begin with. So long." And amidst much laughter she forged ahead.
Above us I could hear Mowbray muttering to himself his opinion of all coal tramps, qualified by references to our late visitor the reverse of flattering.
By this time we were lurching about in the strong swell that rolls in between the mile-wide gap of Sydney Heads; and as for the first time in her life the Lady gained the open ocean, she squatted and bobbed and ducked to the short seas as if begging them to deal gently with a poor old recluse dragged very unwillingly from her retreat on the calm and placid waters of the inner harbour. With us she remonstrated by panting and groaning worse than ever as she flopped along, leaving a foaming wake behind her as broad as the Thames Embankment.
For side-light we had an odd pair that Mowbray had picked up for a song; and for a white one we had hoisted a large hurricane lamp to the pick-staff that rose from the end we'd made her bow. Indeed, it was wonderful how Mowbray had spun out the £16 or £17 of which our whole capital consisted. Of course we were dead broke now. Also pirates of a sort. But we had a ship under our feet, such as she was. And if, as an inscription on the upper deck told us, she was "licensed to carry passengers only within the harbour waters of Port Jackson and its tributaries," then perhaps, as Paxton remarked, we were entitled to a certain amount of credit for proving that she really was capable of better things.
Mowbray, who had been, in coasting vessels, in many capacities, knew the accepted courses by heart as far as Somerset, which port, however, was his limit. He knew, too, the lie of the land and its marks right along, and by the help of a second-hand compass and an old chart he'd picked up in a pawn-shop, had not the remotest doubt of being able to get through without accident.
Towards morning Paxton brought the Lady to quarter speed, which practically meant just holding her own, and we had a good feed of corned beef, potatoes, tea, and bread and butter. Far astern we could see the reflection of the South Head light; on our port hand, quite close, hung the bold loom of the coast to the northward of Narrabeen.
"My word," said Mowbray, as, lighting our pipes, we made ourselves comfortable on our camp mattresses spread over the seats, "we've come like a house a-fire. She's a clipper and no mistake! But the row the old daisy kicks up, Paxton! We must keep out to sea or we'll rouse the coast. There's a whaling station somewhere further on, or used to be, and, by Jupiter, if they hear us they'll sharpen their harpoons and have their boats in pursuit all right!"
"How about keeping watches?" asked, Paxton, after we'd laughed our fill at Mowbray's notion.
"Oh, one man four hours," replied Mowbray, "in fine weather. Just give me and Iredale a wrinkle or two down in the engine-room and one can steer her and feed the furnace. She'll keep it up chinkety-chunk-bang, chinkety-chunk bang, till we get to Somerset, and thence across the Arafura and Timor Seas—all fine-weather water. Then into the Indian ocean—just a corner of it to cross—and there you are at King's Sound."
"And then?" I asked.
"Oh, why, trust in providence, of course," replied Mowbray. "See how it has stuck to us so far. Well, if one of you chaps'll take the wheel, we'll start the waggon again. N. by E. ½ E. will be the course till we get abreast of Port Stephens, anyhow, although I hae ma doots' about this compass of ours. She don't seem to agree with any bearings that I know. So we'll keep clear of all the corners for fear of cutting into them."
Soon after daylight we were met by a man-o'-war painted white and rigged as a bargue—one of the old, obsolete Australian Squadron. But very pretty to look at for all that. She was making for the Heads under easy steam, and crowds of men were doing something about her decks to the lively music of drums and fifes. We passed close to her; but she took no notice whatever of us as we went chuffing along, doubtless a most dirty, disreputable object.
After breakfast, Mowbray and Paxton fell fast asleep, and myself in the little box on the upper deck steering, I noticed a full rigged ship coming straight for us. All at once she let go her upper-t'gallant and top-sail yards and began to clew up her courses and haul down her staysails, whilst at her peak fluttered a flag of some sort. However, considering it was no business of mine, I kept on our course, thus presently bringing her close abeam.
A short, stout man, brown-faced and grey-whiskered, was standing aft, and seeing that I meant passing, he roared out, "Hi! hi, tug ahoy, where the devil are you going to? Back her head and stand by for our line!" Seeing that he was labouring under a mistake, I came out of my box and waved my hand to him as we slowly chuffed away.
But he beckoned and stamped and got so excited that I ran down and slowed the engines and woke Mowbray, thinking that perhaps something was wrong. "Now then," roared the man, hanging over the stern of his ship, "aren't you going to hook on? D'ye think I want to ballyrag about the coast for a week in these light winds?"
"Can't you see that we are not a tug, stupid?" replied Mowbray, who had ascended to the upper deck. "Some people can't tell the difference between a P. & O. boat and a canvas dinghy."
"What the blazes are you, then? And what are you doing messing about here and answering my signals, if you aren't a tug?" stormed the other.
"We're-er-a first-class excursion steamer," replied Mowbray gravely; ''and we're going round to Newcastle on special service to bring the Governor home. And we're bound to time. So long!"
At this a snigger of laughter arose from the fore part of the ship, where the crew had congregated, whilst their captain, evidently for the first time—so eager had he been to get a towline fast—took a comprehensive stare at our poverty-stricken, woe-begone appearance, and with a gesture of disgust roared some orders to his men.
"Full speed ahead!" shouted Mowbray down the tube as well as he could for laughing. And as the ship's yards began to rise off their caps, and sheets and tacks to be hauled aft again, we splashed solemnly off, hiding ourselves in a cloud of noisome black smoke, through which we dimly heard a volley of deep-sea blessings.
"If we go on as we're doing," remarked Mowbray, "we'll make a sensation and excite public curiosity. Good job there's some extraordinary and ancient arks on this coast. Nothing, though, reckon them all round, fit to hold a candle to us. However let's lie as low as we can, or we may yet again have to submit to the indignity of being taken for a tug."
Fine weather prevailing, we flopped along, sometimes pretty close in, but mostly quite away from the steam track, content to see the blue loom of the land, and put in now and again to pick up a mark—a mountain, a, promontory, a group of islands, a lighthouse. By day, inside of us, we could sight the trailing smoke of the intercolonial steamers; o' nights their lights came and went.
And we began to get quite fond of the old Lady, and forebore to abuse her, or to feel ashamed of her rusty iron and blistered woodwork, ungainly shape, and grotesque puffings and pantings. Nor did she give us any trouble. She steered like a boat in smooth water; start the engines, and she'd potter away with the wheel amidships and keep her course within a point or two each side, even if there was no one to watch her for awhile. For a change, at times, we used to slew her round and try her with the other end foremost. But she never minded a bit. Deliberation—stubbornness, Mowbray called it—was her chief characteristic. And nothing we could do would put her out of her stride. One day Paxton worked her up to ninety pounds of steam, but though she trembled and lamented, and at last fairly roared in protest, she never moved a foot the faster. Hitherto we had no chances of judging our craft's qualities as a sea boat. Right from the start—and now Moreton island, which meant Brisbane, lay just in sight on the port bow—both sea and wind had been scarcely stronger than under the sheltering hills of Blue Pointer.
On the evening, however, that we passed Sandy Cape it came on to blow from the eastward with every appearance of a dirty night. Of course we could have run into the bay and sought shelter, as we saw many other vessels doing—steamers, ketches, and schooners. But there was one fatal objection. We had no anchors. Nor apparently had the Lady ever carried any, as there was no provision on board in the shape of a windlass or capstan for ground tackle. Paxton suggested tying her up to a tree somewhere inside. But Mowbray said there were no trees anywhere near the water. Only mangroves, which were bad things to moor to. Actually, therefore, the best thing we could do would be to keep at sea.
In another hour or so we had no option, for the gale hit us and blew us before it like a cork, faster than our engines could ever have sent us. You see, the top-hamper of upper and sun deck caught the wind in great style, and we went sailing away into the Pacific Ocean at a full eight. But presently the sun deck, which was only of galvanised iron, left in a fierce squall that, broad as she was, put the Lady's rail three feet under water. Also a heavy following sea began to rise, travelling as fast and faster than we did. And matters began to look uncomfortable, not to say serious.
Once we changed ends and tried steaming slowly head to wind, not wishing to make South America. But a few minutes of that was quite enough, and, we turned tail again. Luckily, no matter how much water came on board there was nothing to keep it there. The great open gangways, made for landing stages, and the iron railings all around her deck allowed free egress. The only dry spot was the ladies' cabin with the sliding doors and the thick glass windows, themselves protected by canvas blinds.
In the men's cabin our remaining precious coal was all washing to and fro in the darkness. Nor could we save it, for as the sea got higher the old girl commenced to wallow and tumble and roll in a fashion that made it as much as a man's life was worth to do anything but hold on grimly up above.
Sometimes one paddle wheel would be racing almost out of the water, then the other would lift, then she'd give a yaw, and a comber catching her a resounding slap she'd nearly stop as if to consider the matter, and then with a stifled indignant sort of choking grunt, she'd chunk away again. Mowbray was at the wheel, and doing his best to keep her before the sea. But good steering was a thing of the past. Her rudders had never been intended, any more than herself, for such weather, and it was as much as she'd do to answer either of them, although we tried them both.
Paxton, of course, had left his grimy hole, or he'd have been drowned with the hatch off, whilst with it on he'd have been smothered. But at intervals the pair of us would, at the risk of our lives, grope our way below, at times up to our waists in foaming water, and, opening the little scuttle that led to the bunkers and furnace, one watching his chance, would slip down and stoke.
Speaking for myself, I must say that as I hung on to one of the stanchions watching the great seas rolling up astern and flinging themselves in roaring fury over the boat, I never expected to see the light of another day. And each time we sank, smothered in spray that flew clear over us down into one of the big creaming gullies, I held my breath and strained my eyes through the hurly-burly, to watch whether or not we began to wearily climb the opposite hill. In very derision the waves seemed to roar "Go faster! go faster!" as they hit the Lady with great shocks and clashes that I believed must soon inevitably sweep the whole superstructure away.
In the little round house, close to which Paxton and I stood, we could see Mowbray's pale face under the wildly swinging lamp as he ground at the wheel and tried to steady her somewhat whilst the gale shrieked past us, tearing the smoke from the funnel and hurling it in black patches to leeward. Once as she got clear away from her helm and we rolled heavily between two tall combers that met each other and broke just beneath our feet, covering the boat in a mass of foam, showing pale through the gloom, I heard Paxton shout in my ear, "So long, old man She's going!" But the next minute the Lady rose in a blind groping kind of way, as a drowning man rises and fights for breath, and, shaking herself, panted stertorously ahead with the old clickerty-clack-thump.
"A tight squeak—that one!" yelled Mowbray. "But we'll get through all right. You couldn't kill her with dynamite!"
And indeed the man who built her had made faithful work, for many a big ship would have found it hard to take the punishment meted out to the despised old ferry-boat that night.
Towards morning the blow seemed to abate somewhat of its fierce vindictiveness, and by sunrise the worst of it was evidently over. All the same, we were still forced to run before or rather with the sea. Nor had we more than a vague notion of our position. Steering a course had been quite out of the question during the night. As Mowbray said, he'd had enough to do trying to keep the wind at the back of his head without bothering about the compass. That we were well out in the Pacific seemed a certainty. Also, that unless we could procure coal from somebody we were likely to stay there. To add to our plight, we presently found that, although the ladies' cabin had withstood the heavy blows of following seas, some of the windows, breaking, had let the water in and considerably damaged our stock of provisions. Decidedly it behoved us to keep a bright lookout for assistance in some shape or form before we began, as Paxton said, "to do a perish!"
That evening, however, the weather moderated, and we cleaned and dried our compass, which was badly damaged by salt water getting through the front of the binnacle, whence the glass had long disappeared. Nor, as I have remarked, had we much faith in the instrument itself, for which Mowbray had paid five shillings at an old marine store. However, we headed the Lady due west in the hope of finding at least some part of the continent between Thursday Island and Cape Howe. We had sustained, all things considered, wonderfully trifling damage. Actually our sun-deck, some seats, and some floats off the starboard paddle, together with a few panes of glass, made up the sum total. But I think we were all pretty sick of the experience, to say nothing of having to go on less than half rations, and losing every scrap of coal except the little that remained in the bunker.
The next morning at sunrise Mowbray sighted an object that puzzled us; for though it was undoubtedly a ship, she looked to be ashore in mid ocean. At first we could only make out her three royals leaning towards us at a sharp angle, exactly as if a sudden squall had caught her before there was time to let fly the halliards. But gradually we rose all her other canvas, and through a pair of old binoculars belonging to Paxton we saw that she was lying over with a heavy list, and that she was quite motionless, although a smart breeze was blowing, and the sky gave promise of more to come, from the east'ard this time. Nearer still, and we could distinguish that she had four boats out astern.
"On a reef, by Jingo!" exclaimed Mowbray; "must be a part of the Great Barrier. Look, there's a patch of broken water beyond her again. And she's got a flag at half-mast! Red, white, blue. French, by Jupiter! Fire up, Pax., old man, and don't spare the coal now! I've got a notion there's money in this. Oh, the luck of it!—the luck of it!"
Our leader's excitement was contagious; and as we chuffed and snorted towards the ship we were all agog with expectation, for as might be easily seen, neither by aid of canvas nor of boats could the vessel be got to move an inch.
"Now," said Mowbray, "if the old Lady can pull John Crapaud out of that mess we're made merchants. Can she pull, Pax.?"
"Better than she can steam," replied the engineer, with a grin. "She's about thirty-five horse-power, I should say, and I'll make her do all I know or shift something. Can you speak French, Mowbray?"
"Not a syllable," replied the other. "Can't you or Iredale No? Well, never mind. Trust me with the contract, and I'll do my best to put it through. Spare me enough steam to let her know we mean biz," and he jerked the syren string, causing the Lady to utter a long, wild shriek, that rang out across the sea like the despairing wail of some mammoth curlew.
As we ranged alongside a smart-looking, white-painted iron ship of about eight or nine hundred tons, a crowd of faces peered at us over the lee rail, and we were greeted by a perfect babel of voices. Her yards were trimmed against the wind, and every sail was flat aback; but her nose was stuck hard and fast, although she was evidently afloat aft.
"Ship ahoy!" hailed Mowbray. "You've got into a nice fix there? What'll you give us to pull you off?"
"Yaze, yaze," shouted a man, vehemently throwing up his arms and staring at us with a face full of wonder, as well he might. "Pull off, pull off," and he signed to some of the raving lunatics, six of whom immediately scuttled around, and by their united endeavours threw us a small heaving line.
"For heaven's sake," yelled Mowbray, "keep those men quiet, can't you? I can't hear myself speak. Look here, we'll drag you out of that for five hundred pounds."
But if the din had been great before, it was now simply outrageous. Every-one on board seemed to be shouting, cursing, protesting, dancing, and making all kinds of extraordinary gestures in their excitement. "They understand all right," said Mowbray, grimly. "And by heaven's they'd better look sharp. See, she's beginning to bump pretty heavily to this easterly swell. There'll be plates to mend presently."
The man who had first replied to our hail was at the gangway—a dark whiskered, scrubby-haired, bullet-headed customer—and he wrung his hands and screamed, "Sacre nom! Oh-h-h! Voleur! Cochon anglais!"
"What's that " asked Mowbray, pricking up his ears. "Cochon's pig, ain't it? All right, Mounseer! Stern easy, Pax., and we'll gammon to clear."
But as the paddles revolved the fellow roared: "Vate! Von leedle vile" and rushed away returning in a few minutes with a tall, very thin man, whose feeble steps and pallid features spoke of recent severe illness. There was silence as he came to the side and said to Mowbray in very good English, "I am part owner of this unfortunate vessel, sir. In addition to being sick with fever, I was up all last night and had fallen so fast asleep that I did not hear of your approach. My captain here (pointing to the dark man) tells me that you ask five hundred pounds for pulling us off the reef. He thinks, too, that is a prodigious sum—far too much in fact."
"Your captain makes a mistake sir," replied Mowbray, politely lifting his cap, "Seven hundred pounds is the sum. It was five originally. But he called me an English pig just now. Presently I shall go away altogether, and you will lose your ship. By the look of things she will break up tonight."
The man stared up at the sky and around for awhile, and spoke a few angry, words to the skipper. Then he said—"I suppose you know ships don't usually carry any quantity of cash. How am I to pay you, even if you do succeed."
"Where are you from and bound to?" asked Mowbray.
"Saigon to Melbourne," replied the other, "with tea and part of original cargo from Marseilles."
"And your agents?" asked Mowbray. "Meteyer & Sons," replied the other, "Melbourne and Noumea."
"That'll do admirably," said Mowbray; "I know the firm well, and the head of it personally. Now look here! You give me your order, payable at sight and duly witnessed on Meteyer and Sons, for seven hundred pounds, and I'll save your ship and cargo—worth at the least, I should say, ten thousand pounds. Why, you're getting off cheaply. The Admiralty Court would award us a couple of thousand. But we don't want to go to law over the business. We've come a long way from home on the chance of a job, and had a pretty rough time of it, as you can see. And we're in a hurry to get back again. Now, is it a bargain, or shall we leave you to yourselves?"
"It's a bargain," replied the other. "Pull us off and you shall have your order." Then, seeing perhaps some doubt in Mowbray's face, he added. "On the honour of a Frenchman!" and bowed quite grandly. Whereupon Frank did the same, and sang out like thunder for a hawser.
"What water have you got for'ard?" he asked the captain. But the other only shook his head.
"Good Lord!" exclaimed Mowbray. "And he calls himself a sailor! Made him pay for his pig though—eh, lads? Teach him manners next time. But Paxton, make the old cow scratch gravel!" he whispered hoarsely. "I can see he don't think we can do it. Let's show him his mistake. Take the axe and break up the seats, Iredale, they're varnished and'll burn like kerosene. We'll have that money or rip the soul bolts of the Lady."
Very fortunate for us there were two pairs of big iron bollards on each side amidships, that had been used in making her fast to wharves and landing-places. And from each pair we now led a steel hawser running from the Ville de Nantes' quarters. And fastening them with a half-hitch and the ends seized back, Paxton sent his engines slowly ahead till the wire ropes grew rigid as fiddle strings.
"Oh ye gods and little fishes!" exclaimed Mowbray as the tethered Lady strained and panted and snorted and lashed the water into swirling mounds of froth, and I chopped up seats and handed them down to Paxton. "Send her boys! She's not at her top yet surely? Seven—hun—dred pounds! That'll be £233 each and a pound over for the skipper!"
The engines rattled and crashed in a mad fashion we'd never heard before, whilst the boat trembled and groaned in every plank of her. Evidently something had to go or come presently.
"There!" said Paxton, coming up wiping his wet black face. "She's got more steam on than the blooming gauge will register, anyhow. Better get out of the way, because, in the nature of things that boiler can't stand much more. The last coal's in too. By heavens, look at that wire! It was never made in Germany. Bet your life on that!" And indeed, under the tremendous strain, the big steel rope was slowly being stretched till the "lay" of it was straightening, and the strands beginning to stick up broken ends like bristles on a worn out brush. "Heavenly sailor!" groaned Mowbray suddenly, "It's all up with us! Look at those cursed bollards drawing. And there's nothing else that could begin to hold her!"
And, as we watched with blank faces we saw that all four of them were slowly but surely bending over and ripping the deck planking as they bent and drew by inches at a time..
At that moment a shrill cheer came from the ship, repeated again and again like the crowing of a farmyard full of roosters, and with a sudden rush the Ville came at us full pelt, and would have destroyed us there and then, only that, released from the terrible strain, the Lady tore wildly ahead, actually for a few minutes whirling the big vessel after her like a straw. Then the port hawser parted and, watching my chance, I knocked the other off the now nearly horizontal bollard, while Paxton, rushing, below, blew off the steam with a noise like the roaring of hungry tigers.
"God bless you, old girl!" exclaimed Mowbray as soon as he could make his voice heard, patting her salt-encrusted side affectionately, "I knew it would take something better than a Frenchman to stop you, once you got properly on your tail."
But the Frenchmen had completely changed their attitude. Nothing now was too good for us. Provisions, coal, water—anything we wished for we were welcome to. Champagne was opened in the saloon for Mowbray, and bottled beer and whisky was handed over to us. And yet, would you believe it, they never, until Mowbray enquired, thought of sounding their pumps to ascertain whether, after nearly twenty-four hours of sticking on a reef, she was making water or not! Fortunately she turned out to be as tight as a drum.
Before we left her we corrected our compass by swinging the Lady and comparing it with one borrowed from the Ville. We tried three times, and the difference between us was always three points. Therefore we resolved to take that as a permanent variation, and thankfully remembered we had given the coast a wide berth. We discovered too, that we were over a hundred miles W. by S or S.W. by our compass from that same coast, and that the nearest land was still Sandy Cape. Armed with this fact we left quite assured, more especially as we had resolved to return to Sydney and thence journey to the diggings in the legitimate manner we could now well afford. Besides, as men of substance, the rape of the Lady Macquarie began to hang uncomfortably on our consciences. And presently, as the Ville bore up on a due S. course, we chunked off, to the sound of much crowing and the waving of many caps, at nearly an acute angle for that land out of sight of which we felt by no means comfortable. We made Cape Byron in safety; and, thence a fortnight saw the Lady at her old moorings again in Blue Pointer, and as no one had jumped our camp we set up our tent once more on the little beach. Nor do I believe that anybody ever missed the Lady during the eventful month in which she took the outer ocean. Or, if they missed her there were no complaints.
Truth to tell, each of us three had our doubts about that order of the French owner's—doubts, however, that we hid securely in our own breasts. And I think that one of our greatest surprises was when Mowbray returned from Melbourne (whither he worked his way as third assistant second class steward of the Burrumbeet) with a banking account and a pocket-book full of money. There had been no trouble at all, Meteyer and Sons paying promptly when they read the Frenchman's letter accompanying his order.
And we stood him that dinner that we had never dreamed of being called on to pay for.
Also, in deference to some scruples about borrowing of the Lady, we made careful inquires as to her owners. But finding that at least one hundred and fifty people claimed an interest in her, we decided not to disturb them. Nor did we go to Kimberley, out of which the bottom fell shortly afterwards. Nor has anyone molested the old paddle-wheeler since. She still lies mouldering in the quiet haven between the steep hills thickly wooded, that keep all rude winds and waters from her. And at intervals I run down from the busy city and sit on her sides and fish for bream and mullet, and think of the high old times we had on that hare-brained cruise of ours that ended in so much better fashion than we deserved.
'Ever taken a mob of sheep? know anything about the work, eh?' asked Landers, of Marouba, as he looked sharply at the man who, holding a lad of about five by the hand, stood facing the squatter. 'Nothing whatever,' replied the traveller. 'I have only been in the country a few weeks. But I suppose I must make a beginning somewhere.'
'Well,' reported Landers, 'you're not going to make a start on my sheep, anyhow;' and he was turning away when a little girl who from behind the shelter of a trellised vine had been eyeing the pair of dusty wayfarers, suddenly advanced towards the boy and offered him a fine bunch of grapes. As the children stood there together they formed a strong contrast; the boy dark, tall for his age, and slender, with clear-cut features, and proud backward set of a small, well-shaped head; the girl about the same height and age, with a rose and cream complexion, masses of fair hair, and soft blue eyes, holding the grapes towards which the other cast a longing glance, but made no attempt to take.
'Yes, Frank, you may have them,' said the man, and the boy, lifting his cap not ungracefully, and muttering a few words of thanks, took the fruit, whilst his father, stooping, lifted the heavy carpet-bag that he carried in lieu of a swag, and turned to depart. Suddenly a thought seemed to strike the watching squatter. 'Hi,' said he. 'Look here,' as the traveller paused. 'You're evidently a bit above the common run; and that's a fine little chap of yours. I'll give you a show. Gentlemen when they're thoroughly broke, like you seem to be, don't make bad shepherds. Go down to the hut yonder and camp. You can come to me in the morning.' To this the man merely bowed, and moved off with his bag, limping as he went—a tall, grey-haired figure, with bent shoulders and a sad face, in whose features, however, could be traced some faint resemblance to those of the boy's, who, sturdily upright, walked at his side, eating the grapes, and every now and again offering some to his companion, only to be declined with a weary shake of the head.
'A rum pair, Allie,' said the squatter, as he took his little motherless daughter into the house. 'But they've both got breeding of a sort. What sort only time will tell. If it hadn't been for the young 'un I wouldn't be bothered. Nice boy, eh, Alice?'
'Nice boy, papa,' repeated the little girl, laughing. 'If face cleaner, Alice kiss him.'
'The deuce you would, miss?' replied her father, caressing her flaxen hair with his great strong fingers. 'I suppose you'll be thinking about marriage shortly, eh?'
'Yes,' answered his daughter promptly; 'marry nice boy, bimebye, when I grow up big.'
In such fashion did 'Edward Brown' and his Son Frank make their first appearance at Marouba. At that time the station was only partially fenced; and presently the new hand was given a flock of sheep at a place called the Rocky Ridge, some twelve miles or so from the homestead. And, here, in a fairly comfortable, two-roomed hut, lived the father quite alone, his son having been taken to the homestead as a companion for Alice Landers. Nor did the silent, reserved, brooding man seem to feel the separation. Indeed, he appeared thoroughly pleased at being left in solitude, seldom even asking the ration carrier who came out once a month after the boy's welfare. But a better or more careful shepherd never lived, and whilst other men got lost, or boxed their flocks, after the manner of all shepherds from the time of Bo Peep down, 'Rocky Brown' never was known to give the least trouble.
On his side the boy Frank grew into a tall yet sturdy stripling, his face fulfilling generously the promise of his childhood. Passionate, headstrong, yet gentle and affectionate, prone to fits of temper that soon passed and left him bright and gay as ever, he was undoubtedly, as old Landers put it, 'full of "blood" to his finger-tips.' And often the squatter wondered what the secret history of his silent shepherd might be. Of his earlier days, of course, Frank could know little. Nor did he care to speak of them. Only to Alice he had once told a wonderful dream of living in a great house, surrounded with servants; of a beautiful lady who at times petted and played with him; of one night awaking and seeing his father by the side of his bed; of a hurried journey through the dark wet streets; of many travels by land and sea. But his memories of that time were dim and unreliable, and Alice laughed and called it all a 'fairy tale' he could never be induced to either repeat what he had already told her, or to search their childish depths for more. And although at times he would, as he grew older, ride out to the sheep station to see his father, it was very apparent that if there was little more than mere toleration on the one side, there was little or no affection on the boy's part. Nor was this to be wondered at, with the cold, cynical, morose character of the father, who, spending all his wages in books, lived the life of a recluse, seemingly impatient at the presence of all visitors, and at that of his son more than any. The elder Brown had leisure now to do pretty much as he wished. Marouba was fenced into paddocks, in which the sheep ran at large, and Mr Landers had prevailed upon Brown to select about a couple of hundred acres around the old station—just sufficient to protect the hut and yards from being taken up. And here he brooded and read day after day, living his own life unmolested, a silent, melancholy recluse, with a reputation on the station as being something of a 'loony,' albeit, as even the most ignorant could not fail to see, a gentleman.
Meanwhile the years went by; and his son at fifteen was in the barracks amongst jackaroos and others as assistant overseer—almost a man grown in strength and figure, and, in spite of his youth, the smartest hand on Marouba amongst stock, also a general favourite with his fellows. During the last few years his little playmate had been at a Sydney boarding school, only coming to a station at holiday time. Now she had left school, and remained permanently at home. As with Frank, she had sprung up wonderfully, and in stature and appearance was a young woman—and a very pretty young woman at that; also with all her childish partiality for the lad unimpaired by absence, and as strong, or stronger, than ever. Nor was Frank slow to reciprocate; so that the pair were together much more than old Landers, had he noticed it, would have approved of. But he had other matters to think of; was indeed struggling bitterly for existence. There had been a twelve months' drought in the district, and Marouba had lost heavily in stock. Not that this was a new experience, only, on this occasion, there was no money to buy more. Also the old squatter had backed bills that to meet had taken every penny he could raise, and he was almost constantly in the capital interviewing people whom he imagined might be willing to help him to that £10,000, without which he knew Marouba must go. Thus Frank and Alice had plenty of opportunities for their love-making—for, by this, lovers they were, firmly declared as such to each other in many a moonlight stroll around the homestead garden, or where, further out, in the horse-paddock the tall belars stood like huge funeral plumes, through whose tops the wind sighed mournfully as their footsteps fell noiselessly on the aromatic carpet of dry needle-like leaves. Then, suddenly, the storm burst.
Frank, coming in from a long day's ride over the dusty, carcase-strewn paddocks, had strolled up to the house after dinner, pretty certain of finding Alice waiting for him, as usual, at the low paling fence, or on their favourite seat under a big fig tree. Sure enough, there she was; also motherly Mrs Johnson, the housekeeper, who, however, soon feeling that she was the superfluous third, soon retired to her room, whilst the lovers paced slowly in the warm darkness along the road to the township. 'I'm going to tell my father, Frank,' said the girl, seriously, as he kissed her, 'I suppose he ought to have known about our engagement long ago; but I really forgot, and I'm certain he's been worried of late. And I expect you'll have to tell Mr Brown, too.'
Frank laughed. 'My father won't trouble his head, dear,' said he. 'He'd hardly look up from his book at the news. But with yours I'm pretty sure there'll be a row. Better wait till the rain comes Allie— if it ever does—and then we can tackle him together. Shouldn't wonder, though, if he'd ask us to wait a bit, perhaps even a year,' continued Frank, dubiously, as they sat down on a big log, 'although you're sixteen, aren't you, Allie? And I must be quite that, if not more.'
'Yes,' replied his sweetheart. 'You're rather changed from the little dusty-faced boy I gave the grapes to that day at the house yonder. How well I recollect it, and my telling papa, even then, that I meant to marry you.'
And so they talked through the summer night, with their strong young arms around each other, taking no heed of time, in the magic of the old, old story, that since the beginning of the world people have been telling as brand new and original. Then, all at once, a harsh stern voice broke in on their sweet nonsense and, starting to their feet, they found the story had reached ears it was not meant for. Returning unexpectedly, and growing impatient at her absence, John Landers had come out to find his daughter. Already in a very bad temper, by reason of the total failure in procuring financial assistance on this last trip below, his anger rose to fever height at the spectacle the stars had shown him as, guided by Alice's white dress, he had crept noiselessly towards them along the dusty road. Almost foaming with rage, he had hurled recrimination, invective, and coarse abuse at the pair standing silent before him, until fain to stop from sheer want of breath. But he had said more than enough for the passionate lad, who, turning, suddenly clasped Alice to his breast, and kissing her before her father's eyes, exclaimed hoarsely—'Don't forget" me, darling. I'll come back for you some day and plunged into the scrub and disappeared.
Three or four months went by, and no word had been heard of Frank. Told of his son's flight, the solitary, out there off the selection, showed neither curiosity nor any other emotion. And the ration-carrier who brought him the news remarked to his mates in the hut that night that 'ole "Rocky" seemed to be breakin' up a lot; an' he wouldn't be surprised to find 'im pegged out any minute.'
Alice, however, fretted, and grew pale and worn, and between herself and her father the bond of affection and good companionship that had always existed in such an eminent degree grew strained and thin. Then, one day, opening the mail-bag, she found a letter addressed to herself, and bearing a curious, three cornered stamp. It proved to be from Frank, who, it seemed, had gone to South Africa, where, just then, Johannesburg was springing up in the desolate Rand, and men had begun to talk gold instead of diamonds. He wrote in good spirits, and with all the hopefulness of youth; told how he had worked his passage over; hoped soon to make a 'pile,' and return to claim her; breathed love and constancy in every line. And to poor Alice the letter was like water to one dying of thirst. Her father saw her reading it, and scowled from under bushy grey brows. But he never spoke until she said, in a somewhat trembling voice, 'It's from Frank, father. Would you like to read it?' Then, with a gruff negative, he rose and left the room. Truth to tell, he missed the lad more than he cared to admit, even to himself. Also, he admired his pluck in clearing out at a minute's notice in the way he had done —a thing he never dreamt him capable of, thinking that, at the most, he would only have gone to his father, which, as a matter of fact, Frank did. But, as he wrote to his sweetheart, to meet with such a reception as drove him away again that same night.
Time passed, and there came no more letters. Nevertheless, Alice wrote by each rare mail. The drought held, too, and although not of late in his confidence, the girl knew by her father's worn and haggard looks, and dim eyes telling of sleepless nights, no less than by the aspect of things outside, that matters were very bad with the station. And her heart ached as she noticed how gradually the old hands that she had known as a little girl disappeared, and how quiet and still the usually busy place became o' mornings when a solitary rider, or perhaps a couple, crept slowly away on their half-starved animals, in place of the dozen who had been wont to saddle up, with much cheerful bustle of horse and voice and barkings of newly-loosed dog's.
Just at this time John Landers, riding despairingly about the run, and returning home one evening, turned aside from the track to call upon old Brown, whom he had not seen for months. Approaching the hut, the first thing he perceived was a fine collie, lying stretched out at the end of its chain, and apparently dead. But as the squatter jumped off his horse, the dog, with a feeble whine, raised its head and tried to stand upright. It was, however, too weak, and staggered and fell, gazing appealingly at the man with staring eyes and protruding tongue. An overturned basin, dry and empty, lay near, and the unfortunate animal in its starved and parching agony had scratched great holes in the sandy soil around its kennel. Drawing a little water from the iron tank the squatter gave it to the dog, and then pushed the door open and entered, with already some suspicion of the truth—a suspicion soon confirmed as his gaze fell on the motionless figure which, with head dropped on its breast, sat at the table in the big armchair that had been sent from the homestead for his use. The atmosphere was close and heavy, and many flies buzzed about the room. Coming nearer, Landers lifted up the head with the handle of his riding whip, and shuddered a little as his eyes met the staring wide-open ones of the dead man. The latter's hand still grasped a pen. Ink and paper and an apparently completed letter lay before him on the table. Taking out his handkerchief the squatter bound up the fallen jaw and closed the eyes, and laid the head back upon the pillow of the chair. The face looked peaceful enough now that death had smoothed out many of the deep lines and furrows, making it seen comparatively young again, and bearing a stronger resemblance to Frank than ever, in spite of the almost snow-white hair and beard.
Seated on the table the squatter read the letter. It ran:—
'My Son,—I feel to-night that the end cannot be far off. I have waited long and patiently for it, nevertheless at times sorely tempted. Although much hesitating as to the wisdom of writing this letter, I finally decided to do so, having made up my mind to give you the benefit of the doubt, and thus it naturally follows that I do not wish you to drift mere flotsam about the world, as there is every appearance of you doing at present. Some day or other you will probably receive this letter. When that time comes you will travel straight to this place and dig down some three feet or so alongside the sill of the door leading from living-room to bedroom—on the side of the former. There you will, if you are lucky, find your patrimony. Some of the things I bought for your mother. Others she robbed me to buy for herself. It was her idea of collecting a fortune within a narrow compass so as to enable her to leave me for the man of her choice. On the very night she intended to take them to him I stole the key of the safe from her and took them and you. Finding she came to him empty-handed the man left her almost without a word. She was not a good woman. She is dead many years ago. So is everyone, even remotely connected with us. If you are wise you will never seek to raise the veil that hides my past life. Even should you wish, I question whether at this distance of time you could do so. Your mother was not one of the best of women. Lest you, in your ignorance, should be disposed to undervalue the collection, I may as well say that for the smaller of the two tiaras alone I paid Storr and Mortimer over £9000. Roughly speaking, I should appraise all the stones at fully £30,000. Your Mother was a rare judge, and always selected the very finest in the market. Long ere you get here it is just possible that this hut may have been burned, or in some manner destroyed, and that nothing may remain for your guidance towards the finding of the treasure. That will be your fault or your misfortune—either way you choose to look at it. Otherwise, however, follow my simple directions and you will find what I have hidden. As to what use you make of your property—well, that is your business, bien entendu. As I think I have remarked before, there have been more virtuous women than your mother. Still, as you see, and because others have said so, since you resemble me somewhat I give you the benefit of the doubt and subscribe myself Your Father.'
Three times over, and each time more carefully the squatter read this remarkable letter, and each time as he finished it, although his glance often wandered towards the bedroom open door, he muttered more emphatically, 'Rubbish!' 'Gammon!' 'Mad!' Then going outside he picked up an old fire shovel and with all his strength lifted the flooring boards in front of the partition between the two rooms. Then suddenly desisting he called himself names. Then, hunting about he found a long iron bar, sharp and broad at one end, pointed at the other, such as is used by fencers for sinking post holes, and with it he chiselled the hard earth floor up and threw it out with the old shovel, working till the sweat dropped off him and his light clothing was wet through to his skin. And as he toiled and alternately paused to wipe his streaming face and curse his credulity, or steal a doubtful glance at the grim, silent figure sitting in the chair, with pallid features and swathed jaw, there arose all at once apparently from the corpse a long drawn, thin moan that made the squatter drop his tool and jump as if shot. The next moment, however, he saw that it was the poor dog, which entering the hut had crawled to its dead master's feet and was after the manner of its kind thus giving expression to his grief. For a few minutes John Landers, now pretty well unnerved, was for relinquishing the quest altogether. It was nearly sundown, too, and a long ride yet lay before him. Then, catching sight of the letter, and thinking what the truth would mean for him, he began to delve again, but in a half-hearted way, very different to his first attack. The mournful ululation of the dog filled the little room with sound and got on his shaken nerves so that he carefully avoided turning his back to the quiet figure at the head of the table, from which, in spite of himself, he could scarcely keep his eyes, whilst the crackling of the iron roof overhead contracting in the lesser heat of evening sounded in his ears like volleys of musketry.
Suddenly, as quite disgusted with himself for noticing what were undoubtedly the ravings of a lunatic, he was about to discontinue his useless toil, the ragged shoulder of the shovel struck some soft object. Dropping on his knees he scraped away the earth with his fingers and presently found that he had hold of some kind of package. But so tightly had the soil formed around it that many minutes passed ere he was able to dig and pull it clear. Then, by the fast fading light, he saw that what he held was but an outside covering of stout black oilcloth, within which, as with trembling fingers he ripped it open, was disclosed a small bag of very thick leather securely tied at the neck with waxed twine, and whose contents tinkled metallically. A few slashes of his sharp penknife and the mouth came open. Reversing the bag he gently shook it and out on the oilcloth poured a stream of white and glittering radiance that seemed to illumine the gloomy hut as it sparkled and glowed as it coruscated over the black background, making the astonished squatter involuntarily step backward and stare at the throbbing mass as at something uncanny. But presently recovering he handled with feelings of wonder and delight the superb tiaras, pendants, rivieres, crosses, collarettes, rings, studs, all so set as to show little but the superb beauty of the stones. And the dead man there had lived all these squalid years with in his possession this huge potentiality of enjoyment! And as his glance followed the thought his scalp crept with horror, and a cold sweat broke out on his brow, as he saw that now the eyes of the corpse had by some means become again wide open, and were apparently fixed with a steadfast regard upon the jewels. Then for actually the first time he remembered that he had no right to the smallest one amongst them. They were Frank's—the boy whom with oaths and almost blows he had driven from him because he wished to marry his daughter. The irony of it all! To be thus played with by fate! And he set that heavy lower jaw of his more firmly and scowled defiantly at the corpse, and sweeping the collection into the bag he refastened it and carefully putting the earth back in the hole and relaying the flooring boards removed as well as he could all traces of his recent occupation. The dog had through sheer weakness ceased his dreary howling; and, first placing the bag of jewellery in the large saddle pouch he always carried, he returned, and after some search found a lump of cooked corned beef which he cut up and fed to the animal. Even in the rage that possessed him as he realised—for his mind was quite settled as to the future—that fate was about to make a thief of him, it was characteristic of the man that he could still find occasion to minister to the starving dog.
It was now almost dark, heavy drops of rain, too, were beginning to fall, and after casting one more look around the hut, the squatter, calling the dog outside, mounted his patient horse and rode away homeward.
The rain that evening as it happened proved the break up of the long and terrible drought. For one week it fell in sheets, and 'Rocky' Brown had not lain in the station burying ground any time until over his grave, as over the whole of Marouba, grass and spring flowers were growing thickly. Also, to the surprise of those who had opined that 'Marouba Landers must be on his last legs,' new stock was bought, both sheep and cattle of the best breeds procurable for money, whilst sundry important improvements long, and to all appearance hopelessly, talked of were at once put in hand. Those miserable bills, too, had been met and redeemed; and although, as may be well guessed, the squatter kept his own counsel, it somehow got about that the altered state of matters at Marouba was the effect of an English legacy. A large and wealthy firm of wholesale jewellers and money lenders in the southern capital might have, however, had they so wished, enlightened the district as to the nature of the squatter's windfall. Still, freedom from money troubles, added to good seasons, and a thriving and valuable property had, it seemed, only altered John Landers for the worse. Marouba was dearer almost to the man than his daughter. And to save the station he had given that self-respect without which no man worthy of the title can possess any peace of mind. And knowing, as he did, that his name was quoted far and wide as a synonym for honesty and uprightness, John Landers' conscience sickened at the truth, and gave him no rest. Not being a hypocrite by nature, the mask fitted badly, and showed the suffering in the face it should have hidden. Therefore, when his friends heard that he and Alice were going to take a sea trip for a change, they opined that it was about the wisest thing he could do, because, for a certainty, 'poor old Landers was getting very shaky of late.'
Of Frank, since that letter from Capetown, Alice heard nothing whatever. She was now nineteen, tall, and with a face that had not belied the promise of its early youth. And though suitors were not wanting for the heiress of Marouba, Alice Landers still remained heart-whole, and faithful to the memory of the handsome, bright lad who had promised to some day return and claim her. Child, almost, though she had been at the time of that last parting, she was one of those rare children who feel deeply, retain early impressions, and never forget them. Between father and daughter Frank's name was never mentioned, but he knew perfectly well how often her absent lover was present in her thoughts, and had never once intervened in favour of any one of the suitors who had paid court to her at Marouba. Indeed, the squatter often thought regretfully of Frank himself; but never as regarded restitution, even had such been possible. He had saved the station, and was now suffering for having done so. And it was not likely that he was going to place himself in the power of a passionate and headstrong young man, who would probably with a word scatter his good name to the winds, and hold him up to the world's contempt as a thief and a cheat.
This New Zealand trip that he and Alice were now taking was merely a pretence to get away for awhile from amongst the well-known scenes and faces that continually served to remind him of his crime. Bodily he was well enough; it was the mind diseased that was making him look old and haggard, bowing the broad shoulders, and turning the grizzled hair to white. Off Gabo Island the weather became very thick and the Bunya's engines were slowed down to half-speed. She was a comfortable old boat, and, besides Alice and her father, there were only some dozen or so of passengers in the saloon. Dinner on this especial evening was just over, and the stewards were beginning to clear away, when there was a sudden tremendous crash—the Bunya came, as it seemed, to a dead stand, throwing her people about the cabin in heaps, whilst, to add to the confusion, the lamps went out. In the rush for the deck that presently took place, Alice was separated from her father. Nor did she see him again until she saw him being carried past her by two seamen, who, in reply to her agonised questioning, told her that the gentleman had fallen down the iron ladder of the bridge and had been knocked senseless. Fortunately the sea was smooth, and the ship they had run into—a great steel sailing vessel—so little damaged that she had got out all her boats to aid in taking the people off the luckless Bunya, cut down to the water's edge, and now sinking slowly.
On board the Mersey, Alice, who had been in another boat, found a doctor busy about her father—still unconscious, but breathing heavily. All that night she watched by his side, and even then was loath to leave him until the doctor insisted on her going on deck for a little fresh air. It was nearly a dead calm, and the big 'sailer' rolled solemnly on the swell with a great noise aloft of gear and empty canvas. Away to port, quite close aboard, lay a long stretch of sandy beach, backed by lofty mountains. Despite weariness, from her long vigil, added to the reaction of the previous night's excitement, Alice looked about her with all the natural curiosity of the inland-bred girl. The decks had just been washed down and swabbed dry, and the watch, with its officer, were busy about something for-ard, where, also, she discerned little groups of Bunya people. On the short poop of the big cargo carrier, she at first thought herself quite alone. Walking aft, however, she saw a young man, something in whose dark handsome face, as he carelessly leant over the now useless wheel, drew and irresistibly attracted her regard. He evidently belonged to the Mersey, for his blue trousers were rolled up showing a shapely leg and foot, innocent of stocking or shoe; his blue jumper, open at the throat, exposed the bronzed neck, whilst a Glengarry cap hardly covered a forest of thick black curls. His gaze was fixed aloft, on the leaches of the shaking royals, and not for a minute or two was he aware of Alice's presence, so quietly had she crept aft. Suddenly, meeting her intent look, he flushed and instinctively removed his cap, and the action instantly sent the girl's thoughts back through the years towards a picture of a small and dusty wayfarer standing in the hot sunlight, of a little girl holding towards him a bunch of grapes, of a doffed little cap with a broken peek, of a few shy, boyish words of thanks. All at once, as a look of half incredulous recognition gleamed in his eyes, he hesitatingly pronounced her name; and then she knew that, in truth, her long lost sweetheart stood before her. Often had she imagined this meeting, but never in such a fashion or place. And almost before she realised it, Frank had taken her hand and was eagerly scanning her face, whilst question and answer followed thick upon each other. He, it appears, was only working his passage to Australia in the Mersey, which he had joined in Port Elizabeth, after a long spell of unsuccessful prospecting and hunting in the interior. Indeed, as he told Alice, with the old, cheery, bright laugh she remembered so well, for the most part of the time he had been where mails were impossible, and for the rest he had seldom possessed the price of a stamp. But, in any case, he was always delaying to write till he had some thing to say about that pile. And that Frank was no more a laggard in love now than when at Marouba was very apparent, for soon he was seated with Alice on the skylight, with his arm around her waist and his lips pressed to hers. Not a word had he said about his father; and Alice, in the excitement of the meeting, had almost forgotten her own. Suddenly the breakfast bell rang loud and insistent below; steps were heard ascending the poop ladder, and Alice, starting up, disappeared like a flash down the companion, whilst Frank walked over to the quarter and pretended to look for wind.
When Alice reached her father's berth she found him conscious, and, although unable to get up, able to talk more cheerfully than she had known him to do for months. Still, the grave look she had seen on the doctor's face as she entered rather puzzled her. Presently, and with much inward misgiving, she told her father about her meeting with Frank. To her infinite astonishment he appeared delighted beyond measure, and, to add to her bewilderment, he asked after awhile, 'Do you still wish to marry him, Alice?' and on her replying in the affirmative he seemed more pleased than ever; also, he wished the ceremony to take place at once. The captain of the ship, he knew, was legally able to act as a clergyman at sea; afterwards, if they wished, they could get married over again. Alice demurred to such haste, and pleaded for, at least, delay until they could reach Sydney; but on her father urging the point as one he had set his heart on, and declaring that it would do more than anything else towards his recovery, she consented. Then the captain and the doctor were sent for; also, presently, Alice, from her seat at the saloon table, saw a steward with an astonished face escorting Frank to join the party. Writing materials, too, were being taken in, for what purpose she could not even guess. But in the midst of her joy and gratitude an impalpable undefined shadow seemed to hover. The doctor and the captain now left the berth, and Frank remained alone for a time with her father. At last he, too, came out, and, looking graver than she had ever seen him, said, as he kissed her, 'We are to be married at once,, dearest. Your father explained, didn't he? It's just a fancy of his.'
Then in another minute, it seemed to Alice, she found herself and Frank standing before the captain, with a few of the Bunya's passengers in the background. The door of her father's berth was wide open, and propped up by pillows he was looking eagerly on. Listening, as in a dream, she heard the captain read the service; heard her father give her away; felt Frank slip something on her finger and prompt her, and presently awoke to the fact that people with strangely sober faces were congratulating her, and that a few women were kissing her as if they would rather cry over her. Then, catching sight of her father lying back pale and gasping for breath, with the doctor at his side, she rushed in and fell on her knees beside him, and put her arms round and pressed her lips to his cold ones. He smiled faintly at her, and with an anxious look whispered 'Frank!' And as her husband bent over the dying man she thought she heard him mutter—although Frank always said it was only her imagination—'You'll never tell her?' to which her husband solemnly whispered, 'So help me God, never.' Then, as the ruling passion of his life asserted itself, the old squatter cried aloud with his last breath, 'I saved the station; it's all yours Frank; take care of it! New tank must be put in the ten-mile pad—'
CHAPTER I.—A Grim Consignment.
"I've got a charter for the Daphne at last," said Staunton, "I want a chief mate. What d'ye say, Ned, will you come along for a trip? I don't think this mining business of yours is any too brisk, eh?"
I was sitting in my little office in Castlereagh street, Sydney, when my old friend and fellow shipmate of days gone by abruptly entered with his news. Twelve months before this I had "given the sea best," and knowing some thing of mining and minerals had put up my shingle and determined to try and make a living ashore. And with soon poor results that in addition to being, as the legend on the entrance declared, a " mining broker," I was also pretty nearly a financial one in the slang acceptance of the term. Sick, too, I was of the dust and eternal racket of trams and 'buses, and the mongrel life of second-rate restaurants and boarding-houses. Indeed, that very morning I had been seriously considering whether it would not be desirable to take up my old profession again, poor one as it was. Thus Staunton found me in the proper humour.
"Where are you off to?" I asked as banging the door of the den we adjourned to the Metropole in search of a couple of the Manhattan cocktails for which that house is noted.
"China first," he replied, "and then any where. Since I've had the schooner messing round this coast I've hardly cleared tucker and wages with her. And I don't mean to return in a hurry if there's anything at all to be found out yonder. Kong Mow and Co., Lower George street, are the people who've taken her up. I thought once I'd go a long way before I'd work for Chows. But needs must, and their price is about ten times Sydney rates. So I closed. They're slinging cargo aboard now in a great style—sandalwood, trepang, and other rubbish. Well, what d'ye say, old chap? Is it a deal?"
"Come like a shot," I replied. " Just give me time to sell my two chairs, table, and letter copy press and I'm with you, up to the neck. Damn a city life; I'm full of it!"
Staunton laughed and shook his head as he replied: "All very fine, but if we had a thousand a year, or even five hundred, we'd sing a different song, I expect."
In twenty-four hours I had assumed my duty as mate of the big topsail schooner which had been Staunton's home for the last three or four years. A fine boat she was, too—flush fore and aft; heavily sparred with double top sail and topgallant yards, and masts whose after rake well set off her clipper bows, sheering away to a counter like a yacht's. She was Baltimore-built, and Staunton had bought her for a song off the rocks of Cape Bowling Green when she was expected to go to pieces every tide. The Barnabas S. Brown was the most fitting name her late owners had apparently been able to find for the beautiful fabric the builders had planned with loving care of graceful lines. And Staunton's first proceeding had been to have her rechristened. She was of a little under three hundred tons, and known around the Australian coast and East Indian seas as a "flier."
Kong Mow and Co. had a supercargo on board, and I had nothing to do with the lading, which consisted, as Staunton had said, mostly of beche-de-mer from the South Sea Islands, and sandalwood from Western Australia. But presently that was all stowed; and then arrived hundreds of wooden boxes—averaging, the largest of them, some six feet long by three deep—that the lumpers regarded suspiciously, and sniffed at, and spat as they handled. Some were made roughly of pine, others more elaborately of hardwood, with brass clamps at the corners. And all bore an inscription in straggling black and red Chinese characters.
"What's in those cases?" I asked of the supercargo as he stood at the hatchway rapidly noting details in a pocket-book.
He was a short, slim Chinese, apparently young, and with a full, smooth, yellow face, out of which stared inscrutable, long, black, opaque eyes. His dress, from the silk puggareed Panama on his head, stiff white shirt, gold-studded, and running into the crimson cummerbund at his waist, down to his small yellow boots, proclaimed him something of a dandy, whilst his English was as faultless as his attire.
"Property for which its owners have no further use, and is therefore being sent home," he replied with a grin that showed a set of teeth gleaming white under a little bristly moustache. "Manifested as 'Chinese Remnants,' Mr. Mate. And I can recommend them as good cargo. Not very lively, perhaps; still a long way before brick, or salt, or railway iron." And he grinned again.
"Some b—y Chinee stinkin' rubbish or other," muttered a man close by, stopping to hawk and clear his throat, "I got a whiff of it just then as near choked me. Smells like like—why, for all the world like a bloomin' boilin'-down fact'ry."
"Oh, it does, does it, my man?" grinned Mr. Ah Chong beckoning to the stevedore in charge. "Then don't bother about stopping to inhale it any longer. Your nose and your pocket are evidently at war."
And presently, as I noticed the fellow trudging off along the wharf with his coat spread over his shoulders, I suddenly became aware that a few minutes ago he and I were both employees of the one firm, and that it behooved me to mind my own P's and Q's. All the same, there seemed something humiliating in the business—this new aspect of it, I mean, showing that in a Christian land, with its Aliens Restriction Bill in full force, Yellow should still have the power to sack White at a moment's notice.
"No," agreed Staunton, "it does rub the fur on a fellow the wrong way. But it can't be helped. There's twenty shillings to Kong Mow's pound; and as regards stores and stuff the firm is liberality itself. And wages! What white shipowner, d'ye think, at this time o' day'd give the mate of a schooner like the Daphne fifteen pounds a month? And as for myself, why, what with charter money and wages combined, I stand to make quite a decent thing out of it. All I've got to do is to sail the ship. That fellow Ah Chong's got to come along and look after the cargo, about which I know nothing. In fact, it's the rosiest billet I've come across for many a long year."
But just before we sailed, and as the hatches were being fastened down, Staunton came on board in a different temper, and calling me into the saloon began to swear and laugh at the same time.
"What d'ye think, Harvey?" said he. "we're full up with dead men—two hundred and fifty, no less! And there's another one to come—a regular howling bobby-dazzler of a skeleton. Must have a berth all to himself, if you please. Not that I care a damn! But if the men get to hear of such company they'll clear out o' the Daphne like so many red shanks. Think I'm tight, I suppose," he continued, seeing my expression of bewilderment, "but you're wrong, old man. You ought to know me better than that! Tell you how it was. I was up at our precious owners' just now—you know the place, a rookery with three big China jars in the window, and inside a fine assorted stink of rotten fruit, and opium, and dried fish, and camphor, and Chinkies. So presently old Kong himself came along, rubbing his hands and glaring through his goggle horn specs, and told me about this gilt edged skeleton passenger, who is, or rather was, of all people, a Japanese dignitary or noble of some kind. It seems that years ago he came over sort of incog., died, and was duly buried. Now his family want his bones, and as a pure matter of business our firm procured them, and for a certain sum have agreed to deliver them safe at Yokohama. Well, I rather demurred at taking luggage of that description into the cabin here, and suggested stowing it away below. But the old Chow shook his head.
"'No can do,' said he. 'All Chinaman down there. Japan man no likee. He wantee alone. S'pose put 'em togedder fightee like hell.'
"'What do you mean?' I naturally asked. 'There's no Chinamen on the Daphne, except Ah Chong, that I know of.'
"The old rascal grinned more than ever, and I could hear the clerks sniggering at their desks as he replied, 'Oh, yes, two hundred and feefty all go back 'long-same home. All-li, Captin; no makee noise. Welly quiet now. No singee, no talkee.'
"Just then," continued Staunton, "who should come in but my beautiful Ah Chong, and when he saw that his boss had let the cat out of the bag he soon explained matters. It seems, Harvey, that Chinese can't rest out of their own country. And thus, at some time or another, each one who dies and is buried expects, and hopes that, eventually, his bones will repose under the soil of his native land. The remains of those who can afford it are sent as soon as possible—that is, as soon as the flesh has parted from the frame and the skeleton is left. But in the case of the poor it may be years before some of their charitable brethren dig them up and ship them oversea. Sooner or later, however, almost surely their turn comes, whether buried in city cemetery or in the heart of the wild bush, a thousand miles up country. Kong Mow and Co., it appears, hold the sole forwarding agency of this business for Australia, and at long intervals despatch a shipment similar to the one we have on board."
"Now I know where that curious odour comes from that pervades the vessel!" I exclaimed. "Pah! it's enough to turn one sick! No wonder the lumpers smelled a rat."
"A Chinaman more like!" put in Staunton; "and when we get his Japanese lordship in her the variety ought to be enough for any average nose. However, it's too late to back down now. If they were the bones of dead devils instead of dead Chinkies I'd take 'em at the price. One hundred pounds is the sum the Jap's relatives give on delivery, and Kong offered it to me as a private venture if I liked to run round to Yoko. with him, promising, besides, a freight from there down to Singapore. My agreement is to deliver cargo at Hong Kong, Amoy, Foo-chow, and Shanghai; and if we have any luck at all I'll put another fiver a month on to your screw out of my own pocket. So don't look so glum. Not a soul'll know anything about the bones except yourself, and me, and Ah Chong, who, I suppose, 'll have to live in here and mess with us. Good job he's civilised—at any rate, skin deep!"
CHAPTER II.—The Daphne's Bulkhead Breaks.
An hour or two later a covered spring-cart drove alongside with a long box of much the same oblong shape as those other ones in the hold. In this case, however, it was composed of some very light thick wood lacquered all over a fine, smooth, brilliant red, upon which shone many emblems and characters in gilt. Amongst them appeared those of a stork standing upon a tortoise, vases, sprays of flowers, and a couple of elephants, besides much zigzag writing—all very fine and glittery, and doubtless setting forth the titles and virtues of the deceased, much as does the Christian coffin-plate. At each end of the box, too, were gilt handles by which to carry it. It was light enough, and a couple of men soon had it stowed away in the spare berth next my own.
"Now that's a decent turnout," remarked Staunton. "I can't say I care about a cargo of 'em like we've got below, but to a swell, hermetically sealed-up passenger like that I haven't any objection."
The second mate was a nice, gentlemanly young fellow called Noyes, quite a big ship man, and very obviously at a loss for awhile on the Daphne. We had cleared the Heads of Port Jackson, set the watches, and got everything licked into shape fore and aft, when Noyes, who had been having his tea, came on deck, and presently remarked that one essential difference he found between big and small ships was the stuffy odour below.
I could hear Staunton, standing close by, snigger at this as he answered, "Oh, you'll soon get used to the 'ancient and fish-like smell'—sandalwood and trepang mixed gives a true Chinese bouquet"
"Umph," said Noyes, considerably more "hot" in his random guess than one would have imagined possible, "if I were asked I should define it as Chinese charnel house, and a pretty fresh one at that." And when I presently went below I thoroughly endorsed his diagnosis, for the wind, was ahead and the cabin full of an unmistakable odour of corruption coming through from the hold. Very evidently some of our freights' bones were yet "green." It was not pleasant, and more than once as I turned uneasily in my bunk I cursed the heathen faddists who could not rest in peace where they had been planted, but must e'en have their rotting remnants disturbed, and, for the sake of a mere foolish sentiment, made the means of annoying people. Ah Chong, too, as was only perhaps natural to such a specimen of New China, scoffed at the notion, and, without prejudice, openly damned the ancestral flavour which refused to be combated by pastilles or Florida water. The supercargo was a capital and advanced tribute to the missionary enterprise that had snatched him as a child brand from the burning, educated and bred him to the tenets of the Christian faith, all at immense expense; and with the result of producing a cynical and semi-cultured, yet, as will be seen, bold and daring, individuality that jeered equally at Christ and at Confucius.
After the first night below, and especially as the Daphne began to make no thing and heat, most of us slept on deck. The men for'ard, we saw, did the same. And amongst these there was much growling, which was not to be wondered at, seeing that in the poky forecastle, separated only by a thin bulkhead from the coffins piled up against it, the odour must have been terrific
"Well," I heard one man say to his mate, "if that there smell belongs to them sea-slugs an' rubbitch, it's my last trip along wi' the likes ov 'em. A good honest stink like guanner or phosphets I don't mind; but an howdacious, high-minded, bullyin' stink, like this 'un, as gits into a man's tucker an' then follers it inter his mouth an' down his throat inter his belly an' stops there is simply hell!"
"That's so, Bill," replied the other. "I've worked among guanner, an' been shipmates wi' tons ov it; an I've work at kemikil fact'ries, an' tannin' fact'ries, an' got actshilly to like the smell ov 'em. But anythin' so constant an' aggrawatin' as the stink purceedin' from the perticklerly rotten lot o' goods in this 'ooker's 'old knocks me fair bandy."
We had, as we thought, a particularly good lot of men; and, as they were well fed and well treated, the growling never, for a time, got be-aft the foremast, or at most the galley door, where the watch would sometimes stand and sniff and beg of the cook with much terse salt-water profanity to keep all high-class seasoning out of his work, as such luxuries didn't agree with poor sailors.
"Just as well they don't know," remarked Staunton. "Where ignorance is bliss, &c., meets this case, anyhow. No, of course, they couldn't clear just at present, but they might cut up rough, and make matters unpleasant for us. And to tell the truth, Ah Chong, I'm getting a bit surfeited myself with breathing and smelling this open graveyard sort of aroma that seems to encompass us day and night, blow high, blow low. Hang it, we'll never get the Daphne sweet again! She's thoroughly soaked in it, so to speak."
Ah Chong grinned as he deftly rolled a cigarette between lithe brown fingers and replied,
"This is the second trip I've made with it. The first lot, though, were more seasoned. These are too new—some of them at any rate. She was an old steam tramp. We had four hundred packages of remnants. We had heavy weather off the coast, and the cargo shifted and smashed. Bones all mixed up anyhow. Deuce of a job boxing them up again. Couldn't discriminate—of course. Put them back hurriedly—Sin Fat and Kow Ling and Wong Tan all of a jumble. Crew refused duty. Mostly low Irish, and they nearly went mad with fright. Oh, a devil of a mess!" And the supercargo grinned again as he turned in his hammock, whilst Staunton looked decidedly uncomfortable at the thought of possibilities.
With the wind on the quarter, as it had been of late, and the Daphne roaring along, her big main-boom guyed well out, her foreyards checked, and a glorious noise of rushing swirling water at her bows, the discomfort to us aft was of course much lessened. But the crew suffered proportionately, for the Daphne took playful splashes over for'ard that prevented sleeping on deck as when the weather was lighter. Thus, the four men of the watch below in their dingy, cramped quarters, with scuttle on, the lamp burning, and no ventilation worth speaking about; were half-suffocated. Naturally they complained. And Staunton did the most be could for them. Which took the shape of an extra tot of rum at 8 bells in the forenoon in addition to the one they already had at night. As a rule, for extra grog the average British merchant-seaman will suffer many things. And so it proved in our case; and had not the unforeseen happened, the crew of the Daphne might never have discovered the source of their annoyance and served us as they did.
We had picked our way safely through the Banda, Arafura, and other reef and islet dotted seas, and emerged into the comparatively open waters of that of Celebes, when, all at once, we caught the north west monsoon blowing dead against us and raising a sea into which the schooner plunged her nose till her bowsprit cap was out of sight, and green water knee-high came swooping aft and outboard through the iron network that there took the place of bulwarks. I am not sure whether I have mentioned that the Daphne was by no means a full ship—indeed, the cargo scarcely half-filled her hold. On the ballast was stored the sandal wood; then came tiers of bagged beche-de-mer; then, extending from the main hatch to the forecastle bulkhead, were the cases of "remnants," stored six deep, and chocked off with dunnage—i.e., blocks of wood jammed between the cargo and the side of the vessel.
Lying in my berth one morning, and trying what strong negrohead might do towards minimising the all-pervading smell that one never got used to, and that as time passed seemed to become even worse, I all at once felt the Daphne give a tremendous plunge, followed immediately by a dismal crash. Jumping out, I saw that the fore-topmast had gone, and with the topgallant and royal masts and all their gear was hanging over the port bow. The bowsprit, too, had snapped short off, and with booms and sails dragged away to leeward. Luckily the foresail kept her head to wind, or the schooner would assuredly have had her decks swept. But the most curious part of the affair to me was that, instead of paying any attention to the roaring orders of Noyes, who had the deck, the men were congregated—both watches apparently—around the open scuttle of their hatchway. Running forward, I asked, perhaps rather forcibly, if they were deaf; adding sundry other emphatic questions suggested by their attitude, which was one of disgust and astonishment.
"Keep yer 'air on, sir," replied one of the fellows, more respectfully than the words denote. "A bloomin' wreck, is she? Then wot's made 'er so 'cept them there blarsted, stinkin' skellingtons wot's just been an' took charge o' our fo'c's'le. Bli' me, but it's a wonder we've got this fur as well as we has!"
"Tut, tut, men!" I shouted, at once guessing what had happened. "Scared by a few dead Chinkies' bones! Come along now and get this wreckage inboard! What! Call yourselves sailors, and frightened so easily?"
"All very fine," replied another surlily, "but it makes me nigh spew, it do, to think as we've been breathin', both sleepin' an' wakin'—ay, an' by God! eatin', as you might say—the rotten, sweatin' bones o' dead men—an' them men Chinamen! Ugh, if I'd only ha' knowed!" And the fellow made a wild gesture of horror and repulsion that actually took me aback with the crude energy of dismay expressed by it.
By the time Staunton had arrived on the scene, and was beginning to bullyrag, when I stopped him with a look. The men were dangerous, and it behoved us to pick our phrases. Also before the last speaker had put his case so plainly I must admit that I had never for a moment considered upon the matter from such a point of view. Perhaps if I had been living in their close and fetid hole I might have felt as they did. And as this thought flashed across my mind it troubled me somewhat, and made my task of persuasion all the more difficult. But at last they turned to, sulkily enough, whilst in a few words I enlightened Staunton, who had been striving hard to keep his temper, ignorant of the necessity there was for doing so.
CHAPTER III.—We Make a Raft.
Unfortunately we carried no spare span of sufficient size to replace the topmast, but we made shift after some hours of hard work to rig up the topgallant and royal masts on the head of the lowermast and set a couple of sails upon them. For'ard, too, we managed so as to be able to set two jibs in addition to the fore-staysail; but the men obstinately refused to inhabit their forecastle again, and remained stubborn, sulky, and hard to handle. It seemed that as the watch were having their dinner at seven bells preparatory to coming on deck, the Daphne, giving that terrible lurch already noted, had flung some of the cases with such force against the bulkhead as to smash it and send one or two out of the upper tier into the forecastle—a fall of 8ft or so. Thus, to their dismay, the four men had suddenly found themselves overwhelmed by a shower of rotten human bones, gleaming phosphorescently in the dim interior and rattling dismally as they were flung about by the motion of the schooner. As Staunton admitted, when, later on, we went down and saw the mess of ribs attached to pieces of back bone, shins, arms and hands and feet, most of them shining in spectral patches, whilst out of the bread barge a yellow skull grinned up at us from amongst the biscuits, it must have been very unpleasant.
Meanwhile the men had made for themselves a shelter adjoining the galley, and between it and the main hatch—a tent-like construction of canvas and the remains of the longboat, which latter had been knocked to smithereens by some of the falling wreckage from aloft. Crippled as we were, our progress was slow; and it was not until the 12th April, two months out, that we cleared the northern end of Palawan, and passing between the Big Calamaines, laid off a straight course across the South China Sea.
To add to our troubles, of late the Daphne had been making water freely, and the pump work was tiring and incessant. Probably the bumping of the spars when the bowsprit went had started a butt somewhere for'ard. But despite our most strenuous efforts we could not discover the leak. In the least bad weather, too, the men's shelter was wet and comfortless; and they growled and sulked to the verge of mutiny. Especially did the fact of Ah Chong being treated as a passenger and living in the cabin seem to irritate them after their discovery of what we had so vainly hoped to keep secret. And many were the insulting remarks dealing with his country, his ancestors, his parentage, and his own personal characteristics loudly muttered in that worthy's hearing by the angry crew. But the supercargo only grinned and smoked, calm, imperturbable as ever.
"They're not so bad—yet—as my low Irish," he remarked once, "because they're not so frightened by superstition. A thoroughly superstitious and well-frightened low Irishman is the most dangerous animal the world has up to the present produced." All the same, on each hip, under the double breasted coat of heavy silk he generally wore, were two significant bulges which I knew denoted the presence of a brace of revolvers that he never put aside even in his sleep.
Noyes, too, when he found out the origin of the smell he complained so bitterly about was angry, and vowed that had be known he would never have troubled the Daphne. But his chagrin was principally through having been kept in ignorance of the fact whilst we three in the secret had been at some pains to explain to him the malodorous properties of the sea slug, and so forth; and he soon recovered his usual good temper, and proved a true comrade to the end of the adventure. Alarmed at the way the water kept coming in, we had provisioned and furnished our one remaining boat—a fine large cutter—and kept her slung outboard on the davits ready to be lowered at a moment's notice. And this precaution it was that probably tempted the Daphne's crew, worn with incessant pumping, and labouring under a perhaps not altogether ill-founded sense of injury, to do as they did. Thus, one fine, calm middle watch, Manila bearing abeam and to starboard about a hundred miles, coming on deck to relieve Noyes I found him tied hard and fast to the missenmast, gagged with a lump of oakum, and the boat, carrying all hands and the cook, gone a good two hours. It was, however, a scurvy trick to have played upon us, seeing that the ship was practically sinking, and we were not only without means of leaving her, but far too few to work the pumps and keep her afloat for any length of time.
For some days there had been a lull in the monsoon weather; now there were signs of it beginning again. And hourly we could see and feel the Daphne getting lower and lower in the water. Obviously a raft was the only resort left to us. And it was in our favour that we were in trading seas and liable to be picked up at any moment, although for days we had sighted no ship. At last sounding there was 6ft. of water in the well. Certainly we had no time to spare. And the four of us set to work within an hour of the time I had discovered poor half-stifled Noyes. But we were terribly short of material. Casks are fine things to help form a raft; but vessels carry their water in iron tanks nowadays—good floatable things, too, when empty, but generally inaccessible. And when we had lashed three spars together trianglewise and secured the rest of our scanty stock of hatches and grating athwart them the result was but a mean-looking fabric to meet the rising monsoon with. There was plenty of sandalwood below, but it was in solid, heavy, short chunks, roughly squared, and quite useless for our purpose.
The boxes would make a fine platform— high and dry," remarked Ah Chong at last.
"Damn 'em!" replied Staunton. "They've brought us enough bad luck!"
"Well," I said, "then it's time to see whether they can't do us a good turn. They're exactly what we want. I don't believe the schooner 'll keep afloat another hour. And the wind and the sea are both rising." So, seeing there was nothing else for it, Staunton presently gave in, and we broke out dozens of the coffins from the main hatchway, hearing the water washing to and fro under the cargo beneath us to every sluggish heave of the doomed vessel.
There was some talk of emptying the bones overboard; but we found that their weight gave needed stability to our raft as we placed them two tiers high all over it, lashing them tightly down with running gear to the spars and then adding a sort of parapet round the whole, secured in similar manner. Then, just as the dawn appeared, we launched it across the rail and let it tow whilst we hunted up provisions, water, and other necessaries. It rode fine and high on the lumpy sea—a strange looking structure enough with its three cornered platform of long narrow boxes laid fairly even, and out of which, about the centre, sprung a royal yard, stayed fore and aft, and meant presently to carry a sail. However, it was the best we could do, and very soon we were glad to get on it and cast off, for the Daphne was going down in real earnest now—head first. It was a sorry sight to Staunton, and, indeed, to all of us as we stood watching whilst the schooner slowly rose her stern to us, rolled heavily to port, then to starboard, and then, as a protesting shudder seem to run through her, she gave one final lurch and sank like a stone, leaving us floundering in the swirl, and surrounded by all sorts of loose gear, together with dozens of boxes of "remnants" that frantically bobbed up and down as if imploring to be taken in out of the wet. All at once, close to where I stood, rose on end a bright red case, its gilt handle protruding temptingly within easy reach. I immediately recognised my neighbour the lordly Jap, and something impelled me to catch hold and pull him on board, where he lay shining in all the bravery of his gilded inscription and scarlet jacket.
Ah Chong nodded approvingly. "Another asset," said he, "and an important one. It's not every castaway crew that can put their cargo to the use we've done ours. But won't we have a picnic if the water gets into it and the weather turns real hot, as it's apt to do about these parts!"
"Upon my word you're a Job's comforter!" said Staunton fretfully. "And, Ned, surely we've got enough rotting rubbish underneath us as it is without adding more to the pile."
"Don't know what made me pull him out," I replied. "However, he's tight as wax, sweet as a nut, and will do to sit on—if for nothing else."
"Besides, Captain," put in Ah Chong, "you forget he's worth £100 to you in Yokohama."
"Yes," sneered Staunton, "c.o.d. I presume you know, though?"
"Certainly," replied Ah Chong blandly; "cash on delivery, of course. And your private venture. But there's just a chance that he will be delivered. As for these others, why, it doesn't matter one bit. We're insured right up—and a trifle over. No doubt their relatives 'll howl; but Kong Mow & Co. will be nothing out of pocket."
All this time we had been hard at work getting a gaff topsail fitted with halliards and sheets, so that it would set in somewhat ship shape fashion to our mast, bent tack upper most. And with this we drove along to the southward before wind and sea at quite a three knot rate. We were going back the way we had come. But that troubled us little. There lay the land. And the most barren patch of it would be preferable to this creaking, evil smelling fabric. Staunton steered with a 12ft. oar made by splicing together a couple of inch boards out of one of the coffins; as for the rest of us it took all our time running hither and thither, tightening up the numberless lashings that so rapidly worked slack. More than once or twice we thought the whole concern had gone to pieces when one of the following seas would hit it a great thump aft as a hint that we were not going fast enough to please them. Luckily they were mostly round-topped ones and seldom broke over; also what water did find its way on board soon drained off again. Still everything was soaking wet, and we had reason to bless Noyes's foresight in suggesting before we left the schooner that provisions, ship's books, instruments, &c., should be stowed in a big galvanised iron case with a sliding lid, which after having emptied it of cabin bread we lashed at the foot of the mast. But for this precaution we were utterly undone. And, as it was, throughout the night we could spare no moment for food other than a biscuit each, although we had plenty of tinned stuff. Towards morning the breeze dropped, and at sunrise it was nearly a calm. Then as we ate our breakfast the day grew hotter and hotter, and the stench from the dead men's bones around us became well nigh insupportable, fortified as it was by the warm sea water which had soaked through on to them, and now oozed out in horrible slimy tricklings all over the raft in such fashion that there was no getting away from it. Even Ah Chong, who had worked all night like a Trojan, turned green, and swore at high pressure, and presently became very sick, an example promptly followed by the rest of us, so that our meal did us no good at all.
"Oh, damn 'em!" gasped Noyes, "let's sling the lot. We'll catch typhoid, leprosy, small pox, or something, if we stick to this boneyard much longer."
"We can't," replied Staunton, busy with a corkscrew and a bottle of brandy. "Or if we do we'll be awash on the hatches. And directly the wind comes and the sea gets up again we'll have to leave. There, take a nip of this all round. It may counteract the effect."
The spirit did us good, and sitting on the only clean spot on the raft—the Jap's lacquered jacket—we tried a second breakfast. But it was hard work getting it down. Our water was contained in a breaker holding some forty gallons, so we were fairly well off in that respect. Besides, as it was just about the change of the monsoons, we knew we might expect rain storms, and heavy ones at that.
"I wonder what's become of those fellows in the cutter," remarked Ah Chong. "I never thought they were the kind of men to desert us as they did."
"I believe it was fright, sudden and desperate, that seized upon them," said Noyes, who, so busy had we been kept, had never found time for details. "I was looking out over the quarter when that big Tasmanian, Ben, mauled me; and before I could shout, another fellow shoved the wad of oakum between my teeth. 'Tell the skipper and the mate and their Chinee chum,' said Ben, 'as we're full up o' their cussed hooker and her cussed, stinkin', rotten cargo. So we're goin' to make a shift for ourselves afore the end comes, when the ghosts as owns them bones'll drag ye all to the bottom with 'em. We don't know where we're agoin' nor nothin'; only that we'd sooner take our chance than stay here. You've served us a dirty trick. Now I reckon we're quits. So long!' And then," concluded Noyes, "they tied me up as you found me."
"Well," commented Staunton, "if they'd been a lot o' Dagoes they couldn't ha' done me a worse turn. I'm a dead marine now, right enough! The Daphne wasn't insured for a penny. Poor old thing! one imagines the character of her last cargo broke her heart. I think, boys, we might empty this top tier all round. It isn't a nice job; but we've lowered at least 4in. by reason of water draining into the boxes; and getting rid of so much weight will about bring us right again for to-night's fight against wind and sea."
Decidedly it was not a nice job! but we went at it, nevertheless, breaking off the lids of the coffins and throwing the contents over board. In some we found a perfect skeleton; in others merely a mass of yellow bones, mouldy and honeycombed, that floated around the raft whilst the newer and heavier ones sank at once. It was midday, and as we worked the sun beamed down upon us like a flame; whilst all around us in the heat rose a thick steam of flavour indescribable. But at last we finished, replaced and relashed the empty cases, and with one accord voted ourselves a nip of brandy to settle our stomachs.
By observation at noon we were 300 miles N.N.E of Palawan Island, and a little more due west of Mindoro in the Philippines. We had enough provisions and water for three weeks with economy; but that our raft would go to pieces in the first really rough weather none of us doubted, if indeed we did not before then succumb to some dreadful fever as Noyes prophesied.
The heat becoming unbearable, we had just agreed to lower the sail and, risking suffocation, spread it as an awning, when all at once Ah Chong shouted and pointed to where, far away to the northward, a small speck showed.
"A junk, I think." said Staunton in a disappointed tone after a long look through his glass. And such it proved to be. And as the day wore on we saw that it would pass us at quite close quarters. There was little or no wind; but the current was strong, and fetched it along at fully four knots, floating light and high, two masted, with big mat square sails flapping idly from one side to the other.
"By heaven!" suddenly exclaimed Staunton, "she's empty—a derelict. And just as well perhaps! We stood a chance of having our throats cut otherwise. We must get to her, though. It'll never do to let her pass us like that. I'll swim across and bring her alongside."
"Not with that fellow for company," I remarked, pointing to a big black fin that suddenly made its appearance between the junk and us. Staunton's face fell as he saw the shark. Then, seizing the loose planks broken from the coffins, and that we had used to strengthen our "parapet," we furiously strove to guide the raft towards the junk now reeling along nearly abeam, and only some 200 yards away; but we might as well have attempted to propel an ironclad with broom handles, and we soon gave up and stood watching helplessly. Now, the junk sheering mockingly towards us and ogling us out of the scarlet white-rimmed eyes that ornamented her bows; now, more great triangular fins that, attracted doubtless by the discharge of our gruesome cargo, closed the sea between as and comparative safety.
CHAPTER IV.—The Pluck of Ah Chong.
At this moment Ah Chong began to throw off his clothes. "Its no use trying to swim," said he, " but I'll have a try to paddle. Here we are surrounded with canoes, and nearly let a chance slip because we couldn't see them." And as he spoke he dragged out one of the largest cases we had emptied and lowered it into the water, where it floated fairly tight. Then whilst we held it he got in, his weight sinking the thing till the edges of it were almost dipping, and we urged him to give up the idea.
"I can do it," replied he shortly, squatting amidships, knees to chin, mother-naked, and with a long splinter for a paddle.
"You're a brick, Ah Chong!" exclaimed Staunton, "but you'll never reach her. Come back, man! Look at the sharks!" But for sole answer the supercargo flourished his paddle, and with steady strokes sent his coffin-canoe towards the junk. The sea was as smooth as a pond certainly; still the risk was a shocking one, and one that, even had we been as light men as Ah Chong, I much question any of us would have cared to take. And it was with beating hearts and straining eyes that we watched the naked figure of him shining like new copper as his paddle rose and fell, well knowing that the least slip, the slightest leaning to one side, would be the signal for a cruel death to the intrepid man. Half-way across now—and the sharks, six of them, ranged up, three on each side of him—looking to us at the distance as if he were actually sitting on the water.
"Talk about pluck!" muttered Noyes. "By G—d he deserves the Victoria Cross!"
"And a Chow!" muttered Staunton back again without turning his head. He was only fifty yards from the junk now. But the sea-tigers were gradually closing on him, swimming high, too, and showing a ridge of black back on the surface, so that he seemed from where we stood to be almost beating the leading ones with his paddles.
Then he commenced to sing—a shrill sort of chant rising almost to a scream, then subsiding to a low drone. An eerie performance under the circumstances, but one that made the brutes sheer off a little. He told us afterwards that it was "From Greenland's Icy Mountains," as he had been taught the tune at Sunday school in Swatow. And Staunton said that, if such was the case, it was no wonder the sharks were scared. But no thought of such trifling came to us just then as we stared eager and breathless. Another ten yards! He was heading straight for the 'midships and lowest part of the junk. Would he try to turn and lay his craft quietly alongside, we wondered, knowing that a touch almost would capsize it? But he never altered his course a hair's breadth, and paddled away, running smack end-on into the junk. Then we all at once saw his body rise like a yellow flash in the air, hang for a second to the rail, and then disappear over it, whilst a swirling rush of foaming water and gleaming bellies and chips flew up as the baffled monsters made their too long deferred charge. And as presently we saw Ah Chong bustling about trimming the sails to catch a faint air that had sprung up, and watched the junk's head turn slowly towards us, we cheered him again and again.
Half-an hour afterwards she was alongside—a big lump of some 80 tons or so, decked aft for half her length, and from there open nearly to the bows. And in that open space, as making fast to her we jumped on board, there met our eyes a most amazing sight, and one that held us dumb with the horror of it.
Upon the closely-laid stone ballast was stretched a man—a white man—on his back amid a pool of dry blood. One hand clutched a heavy revolver, the other rested on what looked like a great fish of solid gold, most richly chased. And everywhere around were strewn massive urns, censers, candelabra, sprays of lotus flowers, and tall lanterns, all gleaming in the afternoon sun with a brilliancy that fairly took our breath away in its suggestion of riches illimitable.
The silence was broken by Ah Chong, who, leaving the tiller, had been carefully dressing himself.
"There are some more dead men under there," said he, pointing to where from the door of the half-deck protruded a leg clad in blue cotton.
"Very likely," replied Staunton, finding his tongue, "but what in the devil's name does it all mean?"
Ah Chong shrugged his shoulders as he replied.
"Can't say for certain. He could have told us"—pointing to the leaden-faced, black bearded figure—"but surely all that stuff is Japanese—the loot of some of their temples probably. The fools thought it was gold when it's only bronze—valuable of course, but not worth dying for."
But Ah Chong, clever as he was, did not know everything.
"Well," remarked Noyes, "I must say our luck seems curious this trip. No sooner do we get out of a boneyard than we hit on a shambles. Look for'ard there! More slaughter!"
And, indeed, under the small forward decking we could see dimly another corpse or two. Reluctantly, for the weather was tropical, and the men dead for some time, we dragged no less than five on to the ballast. Three were those of Chinese, the others Japs. And in the after cabin, for such it was, and furnished partly in European fashion, we found more plunder—all of the same character, and nearly all of the same peculiar whitish-yellow colour which to my eye suggested admixture of much gold. The body of the white man was clothed in wide silk trousers and jacket, but the pockets were empty of everything except revolver cartridges. He had been killed by a double edged broad knife, whose bronze hilt still stuck straight up from his breast.
"It was thrown probably," remarked Ah Chong, " but he did some great shooting first. Must have been more people. Cleared, I expect. You see there is only a small sampan left. And junks of this size always carry one large boat at the least."
The five men—all dead of bullet wounds—we threw overboard. But we could not serve the European so. His stern, scowling face, with its staring black eyes, and white teeth showing from the fallen jaw under the thick moustache, seemed to defy us even in death to treat his remains otherwise than with respect. So we laid him in one of the empty coffins, ballasted with stones, and I read the burial service over him, caring little just then whether he was martyr and murderer; although as I finished I saw Ah Chong's lip curl in an amused smile.
By the time we had made a clearance, and hoisted our precious tank on board together with the Jap, or "Old Red Hundred"—as, with reference to price and colour, we called him latterly—it was getting dark. The wind, too, was growing stronger, and the sky gave every promise of a wild night.
"Thank God!" exclaimed Staunton fervently as at last we cast off and looked back at the raft beginning to toss and tumble in the fast rising sea. "Never was I so glad to say good-bye to anything. If it hadn't been for you, Ah Chong, the lot of us before to-morrow morning broke would be no better than those dead bones yonder. She'd never have stood the weather that's coming."
"Well, it was a close call," replied the supercargo meditatively as we all stood watching the raft. "I couldn't have gone another ten yards, for the water was just coming in top and bottom. I was cramped, too, from sitting all in a heap so deucedly long. But for the thoughts of the sharks I should never have been fit for that jump. Lord! didn't they make a dash as I rolled down upon the dead man. "But," he concluded philosophically, "I was past being scared by that time."
Presently, leaving Noyes at the outlandish, awkward tiller, the rest of us went into the cabin and had something to eat and drink both badly needed. Then I relieved Noyes, and the other two commenced to reef the sails by tricing their bamboo ribs up like window blinds and lowering away on the halliards. By the time we had snugged down it began to blow from the south'ard pretty heavily. But our curious craft proved herself a very excellent sea boat, if not exactly a clipper. And our present condition, compared with what it might have been, filled us with thankfulness.
As Staunton had predicted, the change of the monsoons was about taking place, and before half a gale from the S.E. we ran, shaping a course for Japan, whither, by Ah Chong's advice, we determined to make.
A closer examination of the booty convinced me that not only from a collector's point of view were many of the articles, such as the candelabra, some of the great urns, &c., almost priceless, but that the greater number contained so little alloy as to be practically far purer gold than, for instance, our own English sovereign. As for the big fish—that looked like a dolphin—it was, without any doubt at all, composed solely of the precious metal. It weighed perhaps 150lb.—not solid, but of quite a 2in. shell.
CHAPTER V.—Where the Loot Belonged.
At first my friends were incredulous. But with the aid of certain tests I presently made—helped by a small assaying case, my companion in many a prospecting trip, and that I happened to have put in my pocket just before leaving the Daphne—I finally succeeded in convincing them. Then took place much and earnest consultation as to the best way to benefit ourselves by such a windfall. And without any hesitation I must here confess that, could we have seen that way, we would have taken it. But in whichever direction we looked there stood a prison, and worse, at the end of it.
"No," said Ah Chong at last, and very regretfully, "one cannot dispose of such things. Nowhere in the great East could it be done with safety, especially situated as we now are. Some rich shrine or temple has been raided, and by this time the hue and cry has spread far and wide; ships also perhaps in pursuit. Actually, my friends, the safest and best plan would be to throw them overboard at once. Still, who knows? There may be a big reward. That is why I more than ever advise making for Yokohama. There is a British Consul there. Trust nobody else. As for myself, my special task is done. Had the Daphne lived my instructions were to have accompanied you to Yoko., obtained the promised freight for you, and returned home by the Sagami Maru, or one of the other mail boats. However, I mean to see this business out now. If you take my advice you'll bury all the stuff beneath the ballast. Should we be caught with it, a posthumous clearance of character will not completely atone for the short shrift an enraged crew of Japs would probably deal out to us."
"But," I said, "don't we run a risk as it is? Suppose this junk is recognised as belonging to the robbers? How then?"
"Very unlikely that she should be," replied Ah Chong. "She differs in no respect that I can see from dozens and dozens of other trading junks except by the appointments of her cabin. And it was precisely by choosing such a vessel for his purpose that the promoter and leader of the adventure showed his wisdom. A yacht, or almost, indeed, any other kind of craft, might have been noticed; but a junk was a pea in a bushel of them. Where he was making for when the row happened, or how it happened, of course I can't pretend to say. Probably they quarreled over the division of the spoil, and being a quick man with his "gun," as the Americans call it, he shot the others down whilst they were thinking matters over. Still, I fancy a few must have got away; or perhaps they were but his paid servants, and he detected them just as they were making off with the plunder; or—well, there's no end to the guessing; nor possibly will the exact truth ever be known.
The above conversation took place that night around the tiller, in front of which stood a broad binnacle-box containing a fine new compass. We had fetched some cane chairs up, preferring the deck to the blood-stained cabin, and lay about smoking, whilst the big ungainly fabric lifted her tall stern to the seas, her creaking sails looming in the darkness like the wings of some huge bat, and the dim reflection of the great lantern on her soaring bows seeming as if set on a steep hill.
The next morning, taking Ah Chong's advice, we planted the treasure in a sort of cave that with no little trouble we worked in the ballast; but first we wrapped it carefully in a lot of old silk hangings all covered with many-coloured figures that we found in the cabin, and that the supercargo said had probably been stolen from the temple and used for a similar purpose by the robbers.
Then we stood out to sea, sighting the Babyan Islands that same afternoon, and steering nearly N.E. to keep well to windward of the great Lu-tchu chain, and so clear of all coasters in the Eastern Sea. Although by choosing this track we lost the monsoon, still the prevailing winds continued from S. and E. Nor, with the exception of a few steam tramps and a country wallah or two, did we meet any vessels. The junk was well found in provisions; but of papers or documents of any description there was not a scrap.
In thus making for Japan we had no settled expectation except the fair certainty of Staunton getting his freight money for "Old Red Hundred," together with the off chance of a reward for the recovered loot in which all might share. Although knowing little of the country or its customs, Ah Chong imagined that such a complete and desperate raid must have made a profound impression on the Government and the people in spite of the fact that modern Japan was credited with small care of creed—Shinto or Buddhist.
Without further incident, after a three weeks' passage, we one evening crept cautiously up Yokohama Bay and dropped anchor off the Bund, along whose fir-clad length lights from clubs and hotels were beginning to shine. Close to us was a fleet of exactly similar craft to our own, and our advent seemed to excite not the faintest curiosity.
As arranged long before, Ah Chong at once went ashore in the sampan to see Sun Kum Wing and Co, the agents for Kong Mow, and consignees of "Old Red Hundred."
It was very late before he returned; but when at last he appeared in, for him, a state of excitement, his news made up for any delay. All Japan, nay, the whole world, it seemed, was ringing with the successful and sacrilegious attempt that had been lately made to plunder not only the great Higoshi Hogwanghi shrine at Kyoto, but the Imperial palace itself. The sacred city was in an uproar; and because it was rumoured that a European had been the prime mover in the affair, tourists were obliged to flee for their lives from Kyoto; but the most interesting part of Ah Chong's story was that, in addition to a reward of $10,000 offered by the Japanese Government for the recovery of stolen property, the Marquis Katsura Gara, one of the wealthiest of the nobles, had not only supplemented that sum by a similar one, but added thereto as much again for the apprehension of the thieves. And, curiously enough, our red-coated Jap, with whom we had been at no little trouble to keep company, was the very relative for whose remains the Marquis had sent to Australia. Also many of the candlesticks, urns, &c., &c., now snugly stowed away under our ballast, were, it seemed, votive offerings presented to the shrine by the late noble man whose bones had so narrowly escaped ever reaching their native land again. Three gun boats, Ah Chong went on to say, were scouring the coastal seas, stopping and examining all vessels; and a host of native officials as well as foreign adventurers were making it their business to try and earn the handsome reward. Everywhere, too, the telegraph had been set at work, and all the civilised world over a description of the stolen articles was in the hands of the most skilled detectives available.
"Well," said Staunton as Ah Chong finished, "you see honesty is the best policy after all. Ah Chong was quite right. And when it pans out perhaps the value is merely a sentimental one, eh, Ned?"
"We'll say so, at any rate," I replied, "although as a bit of an expert I should think the big fish alone, melted down, would fetch more than the reward. However, considering everything, we haven't done so badly, seeing that a month ago our assets were a lot worse than nil."
"Yes, a thousand pounds each and clean hands is perhaps better than treble the sum with the ever-present fear of a tap on the shoulder," answered Staunton.
Then ensued a friendly dispute over the share and share alike business as propounded by the latter. Noyes maintained that having lost his ship, Staunton was entitled to at least half the reward, the remainder to be divided amongst the other three. And without much argument this was voted fair, the discussion being abruptly brought to a close by Ah Chong's suggesting that it might be as well to get the money before talking about its division. In regard to that, however, we experienced very little trouble, as the enclosed extract from the "Japan Sun" will show:—
"Seldom has a more curious story of the sea come to hand than the one brought to this country by Messrs. Staunton, Harvey, Noyes, and Ah Chong—captain, chief and second mates, and supercargo respectively of the schooner Daphne, belonging to Sydney in New South Wales. Leaving that port a couple of months ago with, amongst her cargo, many cases of Chinese remains consigned for interment in their own country, the Daphne in the course of her voyage was dismasted, sprung a leak, and was then deserted by her crew, who, taking the only boat with them, left their officers on board. The schooner being in a sinking state, the only thing left to the latter was to make a raft. This they did, using as principal part of their material the boxes of dead men's bones, and on these committing themselves to the mercy of the waves. But now came the crux of this extraordinary story that has set all Japan and the East talking. After some forty eight hours on this gruesome raft they encountered a derelict junk to which Mr. Ah Chong (who, as well as being supercargo, also represents Messrs. Kong Mow and Co., the well known firm of Chinese merchants) in the most plucky way paddled himself in a coffin through a drove of sharks all thirsting for his blood. And, incredible as it may seem, on this junk helplessly drifting about the ocean our castaways discovered the treasure of the recently looted temple and Mikado's palace at Kyoto, respecting the mysterious attack upon which and the barbarous murder of the four priests we have had so much to say of late. The dead body of a European, besides those of some Chinese, was also found on board under circumstances that pointed to a fierce fight having taken place amongst the thieves. Guessing at something near the truth, the four men with praiseworthy alacrity at once headed their novel craft for Yokohama, and yesterday restored the treasure to its custodians from temple and palace respectively. The promised reward, amounting to $20,000, was the same evening paid over in the presence of the British Consul, supplemented by a present of another $1,000 from the Marquis Katsura Gara, the body of whose uncle—the late Daimio of Tokugawa, who some years ago died in Australia—these brave and conscientious men had, through numberless difficulties and dangers, succeeded in bringing safely with them. The Marquis, we must not omit to mention, had, with that fine public spirit for which he is so eminently distinguished, already added to the Government reward a further sum of $20,000—half to be paid on recovery of the priceless votive offerings made by his ancestors, the other half on apprehension of the thieves. To-morrow we hope to lay before our readers a more detailed account of what Japanese of all sects cannot but regard as a very wondrous interposition of Providence on behalf of some of the most cherished treasures of their Sacred City."
On a day strolling around one of the prettiest of Adelaide's many pretty suburbs, I paused for a minute before a cottage that especially took my fancy. Built of rough stone, it was surrounded on every side by broad verandahs, from which French windows gave access to the living rooms. Everything about the place that was not of stone was of polished hardwood, lending a look of solid worth to the house that struck one as forcibly as a placard with "Nothing shoddy here" might have done. In front a smooth lawn sloped down to the road, and from its centre rose a tall flagstaff with yard and stays and halyards, all "according to Cocker." On each side of this grew a couple of fine white cedars, and scattered here and there about the green turf blazed beds of scarlet, geraniums planted in the shape of anchors and horseshoes, sometimes single, at others interlaced. At the sides, running back behind the house, one caught glimpses of pink almond flowers and the dark greenery of olives. Over the verandah, right amidships of the front wall, was carved the life-sized head of a thoroughbred horse that at a glance could be seen to be the work of no mean artist, and not merely mason's stuff. On each of the stone pillars of the wide unpainted gate gleamed in gold letters the legend "Cavalier," with, for a miracle, no following "Cottage."
"Some bookmaker's place, I suppose," I muttered, perhaps rather enviously. "Still, he's got a good notion of how to do things. And, if he isn't a horsey man, I'd swear he's a sailor man, for no other ever rigged that flagstaff." Thus thinking, and gazing across the glaring hot white of the dusty road over the fast-growing hedge of young pittosporums into the cool, dark depths of the broad verandahs, I was suddenly startled by a voice full of laughter, exclaiming—"Well, when you've done taking the shop out of winding, Mr J. A. Barry, perhaps you'll step inside and get a nearer view. At your old games as usual, eh?"
Turning in no little confusion, I saw, leaning over a side entrance that I had not observed, a stout, red-faced, grey-whiskered man, dressed in white, who grinned as he saw my obvious bewilderment. "Well, well," he remarked, stepping into the road, "the memories of some people! How about the old Poinsettia, and the whist and euchre o' nights in the chartroom, hey? Remember the time we were nearly ashore under Cape Bowling Green, and you thought the moon was rising in the west for a change?"
"Why, it's Captain Cresswell, as I'm a sinner!" I exclaimed.
"Sinner you may be," replied he, chuckling, "but captain am I no longer. But come in out of this blaze and get wet. The old woman and the kids are about somewhere, and 'll be only to glad to see you. We've none of us forgotten the good turn you tried to do me once upon a time. Come inside, man, and, as the Turkeys say, 'consider my house and all I have your own.'"
I am a lonely man and homeless, and it was inexpressibly pleasant—for a time, at any rate—to meet the warm greeting of motherly Mrs Cresswell, and the hearty noisy one of such of the elder children as remembered me, together with the so evidently sincere pressing on their parents' part to "let the mail steamer go, and stop for a week—a fortnight—a month," at this snug and pleasant home.
And still I was puzzled. When I had sailed from Australia for England, comparatively only a short time ago, I left Cresswell behind me a broken man, with certainly not more than £20 in the world. For 25 years he had been in command of one of the company's steamers running along the Australian coast, and had never met with a mishap of any kind. Then, one night, groping along in a fog, the old Poinsettia touched bottom off Sandy Cape, and crumpled a couple of her bow plates. At the inquiry that followed the Marine Board thought that a caution would meet the case, in view of the master's long career and splendid character. But his employers thought otherwise, and "with the utmost regret were compelled to decline availing themselves of Captain Cresswell's further services." As a passenger I gave evidence, happening to have been on the fo'c's'le-head when she struck. Also the first person to notice the light peering through the fog down upon our decks. The skipper was fast asleep at the time, after a continuous 48 hours' bridge. The, mate was in charge, but only half-awake, having had little rest since leaving port, where, he had worked cargo for two successive nights and days. And the crew were pretty well knocked up from the same cause. The course given should have carried us two miles clear of the reef. But it didn't and why didn't it? Well, neither the Marine Board nor anyone else have as yet solved that puzzle. It's one of those things, you see, that, as Lord Dundreary used to twiddle his whiskers and say, "No fellah, y' know, can e'vah understand." This happened years ago now, and still those steamers keep doing it. It must be pure cussedness on their parts cussedness or currents. However, the Poinsettia came off handsomely, and a day or so afterwards we were safe in Port Endeavour dry dock. Repairs might have cost the company £50. The affair cost Cresswell his livelihood. We made a subscription for him, but when I left he was still unsuccessfully "looking for a ship." And, as I said before, I was puzzled. And Cresswell saw that I was, and enjoyed it, and chuckled till I thought at times he would choke. Mrs Cresswell, too, smiled mysteriously now and again, as she bustled about with decanters and ice, till the dimples on her pleasant, comely face deepened in silent appreciation of the coming explanation.
"Did you think now," asked the captain, as we sat with filled glasses and going cigars, "that this place belonged to a sailor?"
"Well," I replied, "I was rather doubtful until I saw the horse's head and the horseshoes as a set-off against the mast yonder, finally, I fancy, however, I came to the conclusion that probably a retired trainer or a bookmaker lived here."
"A good many people do," replied the captain, laughing heartily. "And there's not many who know the why and the wherefore. But I bought the ground, and built the house, and laid the whole thing out myself—ay, and worked on it, too."
"And a capital job you have made of it.'' I said. "Legacy, I suppose?"
"Not half a legacy. Nobody ever left me a copper in their lives," said the captain. "Luck, my boy. Luck and 'Cavalier' over our heads there! However, it's no use backing and filling about like this. So here goes:—
"Before you started for home, as you may remember, I was pretty nearly on my uppers. Nothing to be had anywhere. At all the shipowners or agents it was the same. 'Sorry, captain, but we've no vacancy just at present. Nor, I'm afraid, are we likely to have any. All our boats are full. And there are more officers on our lists than we can find room for.'
Well, of course, I knew what that meant. It meant that, after 25 years' sailing out of the same port, with only one black mark on my master's certificate, I'd got to starve, so far as a billet on the bridge was concerned. So I gave up bothering them any more. But the missus and the kids had to be kept alive somehow—if only on quarter rations. So I went into the fo'c's'le again at £5 a month. And, by G—d sir, it was a bitter, bad time, I can tell you. But it had to be done. Why, no one would give me a chance again even as third. Well, of course, you see, I couldn't blame strangers. I was 55 last birthday. And a man's age comes against him these times, at sea as elsewhere. Still, it was rough to hear, now and again, passengers I'd carried say to each other as I passed, dungaree-clad and black and grimy: 'Dear me, isn't that poor old Cresswell that used to run the X. Y. Z.'s boats for so many years? Drink, I suppose. Well! well! terrible thing, ain't it, when a man gets down as low as that?'" And the captain paused in his story, whilst a gloomy look came over his jolly features, as, shaking his head, he repeated softly "A bitter, bad time, and no mistake." Then, as his glance went round the handsomely appointed, spacious room, and out through the windows on to the pleasant garden, and back again to the wife sitting calm and smiling at her work table, he straightened himself, and continued, cheerily: "Well, things went from bad to worse. And actually we thought that Emma there would have to do what she wanted from the first, and take a billet as stewardess on one of the boats. That would have been the dead finish. With Em. slop-dashing and her old man sea-navying—perhaps on the same boat—and the kids farmed out, I might reckon I'd about messed things up sufficient to jump overboard.
"But, thank God, there's some Christians in this world. You remember Frank Hollis, the tug-boat man? Yes; well, he was going round with us one day to the Melbourne Cup. I was on the Cassiopeia then—donkey man. And often I'd carried Frank up and down the coast when master in one or other of the X. Y. Z. steamers. Well, one day I was hard at work packing the cylinder of No. 3 steam winch, when up comes Frank. 'My God! Cresswell,' says he, 'is this you?' 'It's me, Mr Hollis, right enough, and worse luck,' said I. 'But needs must when the rent, and the butcher, and the baker, and all the rest of 'em's got to be kept going."
"'Tch! tch! tch!' says Frank. 'I'll give those X. Y. Z. people a bit of my mind when I get back. I heard they'd sacked you for ripping a plate off one of their old barges. But I never imagined it was as bad as this.
"'The Poinsettia was no barge, Mr Hollis.' I said, bristling up like an ass. "Fourteen—"
"'Aye, aye, captain,' said Hollis, laughing as good-naturedly as anything. "She was all right enough. Many a night I've watched you slamming her along, and making a record for your company. But that's neither here nor there, just now,' said he. 'I'm going over for the Cup, and I ain't ready to talk biz till I see Circular Quay again. You call at my office, captain, soon as ever your ropes are fast at Sydney wharf, and, please the pigs, I'll have news for you. Don't forget, now—Sussex street, you know. A tug ain't a liner, but she's bread and butter with, maybe, a smear o' marmalade and a few sardines. So long, captain,' and away the old chap toddled aft again.
"Well, the outcome of the business was that Hollis gave me charge of the Emu, one of his best and newest boats, at £10 a month. Of course, it wasn't much, come to look at it now. But, then, to us it seemed a fortune. And, thank God! I've been able to do Hollis a good turn since—saved him, in fact, from going up King street. However, that's nothing to do with this yarn. Only if he wanted a thousand or two, or three, he should have it to-morrow, and pay it back when he could or never.
"And, curiously enough, my first job was the Poinsettia. We found her about 50 miles out, flopping about in a heavy seaway, with her propeller blades gone and her deck cargo overboard. Well, we took hold and dragged her in all right, the job costing the X. Y. Z.'s a nice little cheque. And on the next trip, Wiedermann, the man who succeeded me, rammed her up against the West Solitary, and She sank in 40 fathoms.
It was wet, hard, monotonous work this tugging business, keeping out at sea for days together, and then, likely as not, just as you'd sighted a vessel, up would come an opposition boat and rate, and perhaps beat, you for the prize. Still, it was heaven compared with my last billet, and I was only too glad to have it and be able to keep full bellies and clothing and schooling going on at home.
Presently, however, a new company commenced business with more powerful and swifter boats than ours, forcing us to keep still further out in search of a job. Shipmasters nowadays, you see, at present low rates, will often tow 80, 90, 100 miles, where once they'd sooner have beat for a week against a head wind than pay the big sums asked. Well, one day I'd been knocking about on the track of the West Coast sailers, some of whom we were expecting to show up every minute, when right away on the rim of the horizon I caught a glimpse of white canvas. 'There's one, and chance the ducks,' I said, and we went for her full pelt. But when we got closer we saw she was derelict. A fine big iron ship with the fore topmast and main and mizzen t'gallant masts out of her, jibboom and bowsprit hanging across the bows, and so deep that the water was washing half-way up her painted ports.
"Of course, salvage was the first thought in all our minds as we ranged alongside the forlorn-looking creature, where she lay quietly rolling with a heavy sluggish movement to the fine-weather swell. Caractacus was the name on her bows, and, so far as we could see, there was no sign of life about her. But as we chunked astern there suddenly rose a strange sound from her decks that made us stare at each other inquiringly.
"'Why, there's somebody on her after all,' said the mate, and with that he made a spring off the port paddle-box fair into the mizzen rigging. A minute afterwards he looked over the side and shouted, 'A horse.'
"Sure enough, when presently I got on board, I saw the animal's head and neck poking out of his house, built across the main hatchway. Poor beggar! he was glad to see us, too, and kept stamping and whinnying and making funny little noises, for all the world as if he was trying to tell us so. He was thin as a lath, and he'd chewed a great round hole through the bars of his stall. Luckily for him there was hay in the bales stacked on the hatch, and he'd nibbled at that till he'd eaten as far as he could reach. But thirsty! I believe he'd have drunk till he bursted if we'd let him have his fill. Evidently the ship had taken no heavy seas over, for matters about her decks were pretty right. Aft the berths were cleared out, except for useless odds and ends. And this, together with the empty davits and overhauled falls, showed that her crew had got away and had plenty of time to do it in. But she was a fine ship, and the 'London' on her stern meant probably a general cargo. It was enough to make a sailor's mouth water, the thought of the thumping sum she'd be worth to us once alongside the quay or at anchor in the bay.
But already old Martin, my mate, had got the sounding rod to work and drawn it up, showing more water than the iron had room for—8ft full by the mark on the dry line. Also, the wind was beginning to rise a bit, and the sky to give promise of a dirty night."
At this moment the sound of a gong rang through the house, and said Cresswell: "Well, of all the long-winded yarns! Dinner, by jingo! Can't stay? Want to catch your steamer? But you must stay and hear the finish, and then, if you like, you can clear out and put it into one of those yarns of yours that I drop across now and again. I tell you she won't start before midnight, and I'll go down to the Semaphore with you. Here, Gerald," as a fine-looking lad of 13 entered, "take a cab to the Exchange and ring up Elder Smith's and find out what time the Himalaya gets away to-night. And now for a bath, and then we can have dinner with a clear conscience."
The captain proving right, and my boat not sailing till the small hours of the morning, it was with a mind at ease that I did justice to a very excellent meal, washed down by some of the finest claret I ever remember tasting. Truly, I thought, though still unenlightened, the old skipper's lines had fallen in pleasant places. Then, after dinner, out in the broad verandah, with our coffee and cigars, whilst the cicadas shrilled in the cedars, and the faint perfume of the almond blossoms hung in the air, and the moon rose, casting grotesque shadows over the garden, I patiently awaited the solving of the riddle.
"Where was I?" began the captain. "Oh, aye! Well, it was getting late, and though it seemed a sinful shame to let such a fine slant go, there appeared nothing else for it. You see, there were only five of us all told, and to start the pumps and try to get that great body of water out of her was utterly impracticable. Perhaps if she hadn't been taking any more we might have tackled the job. But, as we soon discovered, it was coming in at a good 6in an hour. Still, I decided to stand by her. Martin thought it probable she'd founder, during the night, especially if the sea continued to rise, as it gave promise of doing. About her decks and lockers—save the binnacle stand and a few trifles of side-lights, buckets, oils, paints, and such like stores—there was little worth salving. However, we got what we could, including a couple of anchors. Then the horse. Well, it would mean a heap of work to get him and his box on to the Emu, where was none too much room as it was. Still, it seemed cruel to leave him to drown. He had his head and shoulders out of the hole he'd eaten in the pine bars, and as I paused doubtfully, he kept on making those curious little grunting noises. And when I rubbed his nose he nuzzled it against my breast and looked at me out of great shining eyes, as much as to say: 'Surely, you ain't going to leave me behind, are you?' And at last I says: 'No, old man; I'm d—d if I do! I don't suppose you're worth much more than your hide, and that's mostly in holes (he'd chafed a lot) but dry land and grass and running water you shall see some day if I can help you to it. Get a tackle on that mainyard, lads, and lets try if we can't shift poor old Carbine here over the side.'
"And, my word," continued the captain as he lit a fresh cigar and gazed contemplatively at the smoke curling away in the moonlight, "we did have a handful before we'd finished. The derelict, deep as she was, played up rare capers to the wash of the rising seas that now began to break in showers over her decks, and with every wild lurch she gave she threatened to make matchwood of the little Emu. Three or four times Bob Martin cried to chuck the contract, and the engineer came up and wanted to know what was shifting his main shafting and generally breaking up his engine room as wood bumped and ground against iron whenever the moribund Caracticus got a chance to hit us. But once I'd taken the job in hand I was determined to see it through. And I did. And most fortunate for me was it that I did, for if I'd jibbed on it we certainly wouldn't be sitting here to-night."
"Well, of all the tantalising yarn-tellers," I remarked, as the captain paused awhile, "Cresswell, you're the prince and chief. When are you coming to some place through which I can see light. Is it possible that, after all, you stuck to your horse who, proving a real Carbine, wins yon immense stakes, or did he turn out a wonderfully valuable animal? And, going on the turf with your share of the salvage money, did you—"
"My dear boy," chuckled old Cresswell, "I never saw a horse race in my life. But, steady, let me spin the cuffer in my own way, and turn the strands in as neatly as I can. Well—astonishing, ain't it, how many wells get into the running part of a yarn?—at last we got the gee-gee safety landed, and his box lashed just be-aft the tow-bridge. Then, hoisting our lights, for it vas dark before we'd finished, we lay quietly, head to wind and sea, to leeward of the derelict. She, by now, quite suddenly, had taken a strong list to port, and was making shocking bad weather of it. In the middle watch it began to blow very heavily, and from the bridge I could see by the faint moonlight that now and then peered out of the ragged cloud drifts, the pale sheen of the wreck's main and mizzen lower topsails and fore-course apparently sticking out of the tops of the combers with no sign of hull below them. Spindrift was rattling in sheets high over the dodgers that sheltered me, forcing me to constantly turn my smarting eyes away from the derelict. On one of these occasions when I looked again she was gone. All in a minute, clean as a whistle, thousands upon thousands of pounds worth had disappeared. And although I expected little else, I couldn't help giving a swear or two at such rotten luck. In fact. I was in a bad temper, not improved when, after rolling and squashing before it all night, what should I see as I entered the Heads but the opposition, boat, the Koala, with a 2000-ton German on her hook—a ship I'd been especially on the watch for. And here was I coming home with nearly a week's coal gone and nothing to show for it but a half-dead moke, and as much coarse salt on my funnels as would turn a mob of bullocks into corned beef.
Of course, I expected nothing less than chaff, if not the sack, when I reported at the office. And, certainly, at first, Hollis did pull rather a long face, but that was more through thinking of the splendid chance we'd lost of making a big salvage. Then all at once his clerk, a youngster who, I fancy knew more about horse racing and tote shops and suchlike than he ought to have done, spoke up. 'Caractacus?' said he. 'Why, sir, that's the ship that was bringing out Mr Lanyon's horse he bought in England, Cavalier. Gave 5000 guineas for him to Lord Westmorton. He's out of Boadicea, she once won the English Derby, y'know, sir—by Vercingetorix. And Cavalier, they say, is to be entered for the Summer Cup and Midwinter meeting here. Shouldn't wonder, sir, if Captain Cresswell hasn't done the next best thing for us to bringing the ship in.'
"Well, it actually proved so. You know what Australians think of a good horse? Yes. And Lanyon was a rich man, and a liberal one, and delighted at the rescue of an animal he expected much from. My share was a hundred pounds. Everybody on board the Emu got something. And Hollis got enough to buy another tug with. Also the papers made much of the business. There was my portrait, and the horse's, and the pictures of the Emu and the Caractacus lying alongside each other, with 40ft seas rolling and foaming over the pair of us. There was also a bit of a sketch of my goings on since I got the run from the X. Y. Z. And altogether I was quite a popular character, and felt prouder even, than when I'd first shipped my gold shoulder tags and sleeve stripes as master in the old company."
And here Cresswell paused as if making an end, and filled his glass from the syphon, and chose a cigar, as his wont was, slowly and with deliberation.
"Now! now!" I remonstrated, 'a hundred pounds and some libels in the weekly newspapers don't account for all this 'Cavalier' business I see around me. Talk about great circle sailing! Upon my word, we'll be back again at Cape Bowling Green presently!"
The old man laughed quietly as he replied: "Try another drop of that Walker. It's over ten years since it saw the distillery. And it's been seasoned in sherry casks ever since. Milk's a fool to it. No danger of tasting anything like that at the Himilaya's bar. I'm going to put you up a couple of bottles to take with, you. They won't last long if you're as impatient to get at the bottom of 'em as you are for me to bring up before the cable's clear."
And I, seeing that remonstrance would only spoil all pleasure of telling, and knowing that the innermost kernel of the thing couldn't now be very far off, did as I was bid, and, lighting a fresh weed, possessed my soul in patience.
"Now," continued Cresswell presently, and very unexpectedly, "did you ever happen to take a ticket in one of these horse sweeps that go on pretty well all the year round?"
"Dozens," I replied, promptly, "but I never won anything."
"Well,'' said the captain, "some time after the affair I've been telling you about, my mate on the Emu, Bob Martin, bought one in the name of his youngest kid, and won £300. Naturally, this started me, especially as just then I was well able to spare the pound. Well, sir, to bring up at last all sanding with a round turn, I drew a horse. And, by Jimmies, what horse should I draw but Cavalier! And he won his race by a cable's length to spare. Now d'ye begin to see how the milk got into the cocoanut? But wait a bit. The net amount of the Sweep cheque was £4000. D'ye remember when the great gold discovery at Mount Cashel took place? Well, a man—an expert I'd often carried to and from colonial ports, and one of the original proprietors of the mine—let me in amongst the 'first robbers,' and now I'm worth, I suppose, full and by something like £40,000. Remember, though, it was all Cavalier and the luck he brought me for taking him off the derelict that dark and stormy night in the Southern Ocean, when I didn't believe he'd sell hide and bones and box for thirty bob. When I'm over yonder, east, I never miss paying the old chap a visit. He knows me, too, like any Christian—better than many Christians did once—and he'll slew round in his stall, and slip his nose into my hand, and grunting confidentially into my ear, and look at me with those melting big eyes of his earnestly and intelligently as if he knew exactly what he'd done for me, and wished to tell me all about it. And I got Missonetti to carve the old boy's head in Bowral trachyte, and stick it up outside there. He's in oils, too, inside. And, well, that's the yarn. Now go and work it up, shipshape fashion, into something fit to read."
"All right,'' I said, "I'll try."
SECOND OF THE URANIA.
For many days I had been tramping round the London docks, from Katherine's to Tilbury, looking for a ship. But no one seemed to want a mate or a second, or, in fact, anything at all in the way of officers. And my clothes were getting shabby, my boots worn and thin, and the bottoms of my trousers beginning to fag out like a bunch of ropeyarns—a very sure sign, this last, of a southerly wind in their pockets.
This particular fine midsummer afternoon I had been doing the South-West India Dock, and, after a score of rebuffs, I brought up in despair, and took a seat on the platform of one of the hydraulic cranes, in front of a big iron sailer, to think things over a bit, and have a rest.
I sat down and mechanically watched the ship. As I could see, she was nearly ready for a start, with her sails all bent and her cargo under hatches.
Urania was the name on her bows, and she was a big lump of a vessel with lofty spars and square yards, straight-bowed and round-sterned; some 1,800 tons or so I guessed her at.
As my eye listlessly took in these details, two men came down the gangway and stepped on to the dock. One—the taller of the pair—wore a frock coat, patent leather boots with great spats, and a bell-topper hat. He was a sandy-whiskered, red-faced customer, with small, cold, twinkling blue eyes; and, spite of his swell, long-shore rig, labelled sailor all over to any man who used the sea.
His companion was a shorter, stouter man, clean-shaved except for a heavy reddish moustache completely hiding his mouth, but with the same peculiar restless blue eyes as the other. He was dressed in a suit of tweeds and hard-felt hat, and, as unmistakably as his companion, bore about him the stamp of a seafarer. The men were brothers.
They stood talking in low tones at the foot of the gangway. Presently odd words came to my ears. The tall man was speaking. 'Sign on in the morning,' I heard. . . 'Foreigners to a man . . . wait till we get to sea . . . know all about it . . . then any poor swab'll do . . . we've only our two selves to consider . . . ay, ay, you'll be as wise as myself then . . . always an inquisitive dog.
The speaker laughed, and was stepping briskly off, leaving the other standing there with a puzzled expression on his rather heavy features, when moved by some sudden impulse, I stuffed my pipe away, and cut across his path, mouthing for the twentieth time that day the sickening question, 'Want a mate or a second, sir?'
He stopped instantly, his dancing little eyes playing all over me, from well-worn cap to worn-out boots, as he pulled at his straw-coloured beard and took my measure.
'Ticket?' he asked sharply, at last. And out from my breast pocket came the thin tin case containing discharges and my chief mate's certificate.
'Um, um,' he muttered, as he just glanced at the latter, and then ran through the long list of 'V.G.' mate's discharges that I placed in his hands.
'I could do with a second, if Mr Baleston there hasn't got one in view. On your uppers, eh? Glad to take anything, I s'pose, eh?' His manner was distinctly bad, almost insulting, and I had hard work to stomach it, as I answered surlily enough in the affirmative.
'Want a second mate, Mr Baleston?' he sung out. 'This chap's papers are all right. Anybody you know for the job, eh?'
'No,' replied the mate, approaching and taking stock of me, much as the other had done. 'There's dozens of 'em at the office, though. Still, I suppose this man'll do as well as any of the rest.'
'All right,' said the captain—for such he was—turning to me. 'Be on hand at Green's in the morning, and you'll get first show.'
'Baleston, Baleston,' remarked the grey-haired old Home superintendent, when I told him the captain's name. 'Why, yes, of course I've heard of him. He's one of your advanced, newfangled navigators—goes in for hydrography and half-a-dozen different ologies, and all that sort of thing. Unlucky beggar, though, in spite of his scientific fads. Lost a ship, I recollect, some years back, for the same firm he's with now—Shroud, Catblock, and Co., isn't it? He got the sack at last. And now, you say, they've given him the Urania. Well, I only hope he'll have better luck with her! Curious how forgiving some firms are!'
Next morning, in company with a crew composed wholly of Germans, Swedes, and a couple of Norwegians, I found myself on the Urania's articles. Not that I cared much about the nationality of the crowd, for just then I felt willing to get away in a ship manned by baboons, so long as I was at sea. Nor ever did I experience more pleasure than in seeing the well-known greens and whites of the channel landscape slip by, outward bound.
FELONY ON THE HIGH SEAS.
To me Captain Baleston seldom or never spoke except to give an order. And of this I was glad, not in the least liking his haughty style. About the steering he was most particular, sending man after man away from the wheel until he found four to please him, and these he made quartermasters.
'Well,' I thought to myself, as I watched him hovering about the compasses and comparing them critically, you don't mean to take any risks, this trip foreigners or not.'
The mate, I now discovered, was but a puppet in his hands, a mere tool, with opinions and ideas moulded absolutely on his brother's; he regarded the captain as a little marine god from whose lightest word and act there was no possible appeal.
Frederick Baleston was nevertheless, a good seaman and a first-class navigator, doing almost all this part of the ship's work, whilst his brother fiddled about with his scientific instruments—of which he had a large stock—determining the heat of the sea at various depths; noting soundings; and perfecting an instrument to supersede the deviascope, and automatically correct compass errors in iron and steel ships. But with all this preoccupation nothing escaped the ever-shifting glances of those small sharp eyes. With a look they appeared to take in every detail alow and aloft; and was there the least thing lacking, the intolerant acrid voice quickly made itself heard, as well to his brother as myself.
One other matter he was to a degree particular about in addition to the steering. Never in all my time at sea had I been on any vessel where the boats were kept in such a complete state of preparation as the Urania. Water, provisions, compasses, charts, masts—all their furniture, in fact, was seen to constantly. Also, at regular intervals, the watches were called to swing them out, on which occasion the Captain himself narrowly inspected davits, falls and other belonging gear.
'Decidedly,' I said to myself for the second time, 'this man takes no risks. If he has once lost a ship, it couldn't have been for want of looking after her. Or, perhaps, all this care is the outcome of the experience gained in that disaster. Anyhow, it's satisfactory.'
One evening, having had tea, as usual, by myself, I went out to relieve the mate, who had finished his some time before. I was suffering from toothache that night, and finding I had forgotten the silk kerchief I used to tie round my face as some protection from the air, I presently slipped down the poop ladder and into my berth on the starboard side of the saloon.
It was a few minutes before I could lay my hand on the thing in the dark. Then, just as I was pulling my door open, I heard voices in the saloon, and the rustling of papers. I don't know why I didn't boldly go out at once. But I hesitated for a minute, and heard the Captain say to his brother, 'Where's Morris?'
'On deck.' replied the other. 'He relieved me ten minutes ago.'
'That's all right then,' said the Captain. 'He's no more brains than a serving mallet, and not two ideas above his work. All the same, I don't want him, or anyone else, to hear what I'm going to tell you.'
Just here, I decided to stay where I was.
'I suppose you can guess,' continued the skipper, 'from what I've already let drop, that this won't be a long voyage?'
'Well, yes,' assented his brother, I've thought as much. But I never knew—'
'No, I didn't intend you should,' interrupted the other, brusquely, 'till the time was close at hand. I want one man, at any rate, besides myself, who won't lose his head when the pinch comes and who will back me up all he knows how. That's why I brought you out of the County of Durham. Now, do you see, this is our exact position at the present moment. In 30 hours we shall be there.'
Peering through the crack in the not-quite-closed door, I saw the Captain bending over a chart with a pair of compasses in his hand. On the other side of the table sprawled his brother, staring intently at the point indicated. Over their heads swung the lamp, making a big patch of white light on the table and paper.
'And there,' went on the Captain, with a modulated accent of triumph in his voice, 'as nearly as I can judge, at about, four bells in the middle watch the voyage ends.'
No glimmering of his meaning as yet reached my brain. I simply thought the man was mad—mad as a hatter—and that his brother was only humoring him. But I was presently undeceived.
'There, you see,' said the Captain, '31deg 15min W. 42deg l0min N. That's the exact spot in which we leave the good ship Urania with her valuable cargo,' and he laughed silently—'insured for £75,000 in London, Paris, Bremen and Hamburg
Now at last, I understood, or thought I did. He was going to scuttle the ship. I had heard of such things happening in bygone days. And, yet, one can't bore holes in iron or—'
'But—but,' stammered his brother, bending low over the chart, there's nothing there.'
'Look at this,' said the captain, unrolling another map. What do you see at the same spot?'
'Broken water. Doubtful,' was the answer.
'Exactly, only it isn't among the doubtfuls at all,' continued the other. 'Although the bat-eyed survey people couldn't find it, I did. When I was in the Blink Bonnie, trading to the Western Islands, I spotted it first. Water only breaks with a S.S.E. wind—perhaps not more than two or three times a year, and then very slightly. Well, I reported it; and the Falcon was sent to look for it. But in vain. So, although on the strength of my assertion they marked it temporarily on the old maps, you see it's been taken off the latest Admiralty chartings. I've seen it once or twice since.
'One trip in the Bonny it fell dead calm within a couple of hundred yards of where I knew the thing to be. So I sculled myself over to the place, and looking down I saw four big, broad, wide-gapped fangs of rock sticking up to within some ten feet of the surface, and shoals of fish playing about the weeds that covered them. Bah! I know of lots more uncharted peaks and prongs—especially in the China Seas. I don't report them all.'
And the Agenoria affair?'
'Something the same,' replied the skipper with a laugh. 'A private reef. Now this is the kind of thing you'll read in a week or so:—
"Curious Coincidence.—Some years ago Captain Baleston, well known for his valued contributions to marine hydrography, reported broken water and presumably, therefore, a rock or rocks—as existing in a certain spot in the North Atlantic. The authorities at once investigated the matter, sending H.M.S Falcon, whose officers, after a thorough search, assured themselves that no such danger to navigation was so be found. Naturally, Captain Baleston imagined he must have been mistaken. But, quite recently, being in command of a fine vessel, the Urania, he unfortunately demonstrated the correctness of his original discovery by running her on the very same reef that he reported to the authorities so long ago, which it appears is almost on the track usually taken by sailing ships bound to the Cape. Much sympathy is felt for the Captain, as his misfortune is undoubtedly owing to official incompetency. Fortunately no lives were lost. The vessel, we hear, was fully insured and doubtless her master will be held free from all blame in the matter."
'It's a wonder the navy men didn't drop on it,' remarked the mate, who had listened to his brother with open-mouthed admiration.
'Not a bit of it,' returned the other. 'They might have sounded and sounded for years without being any the wiser and ships might sail within a foot of it and never suspect its existence. And —well, it wasn't until afterwards that I took the trouble to verify my present bearings beyond all doubt. So it's just possible they may not have been within a degree of the exact spot.
'Then I got into my present employ and finding that such a secret might prove valuable, I said no more about it. I made money out of the Agenoria affair; and so did they. Now this is their last sailer—all the rest; are steamers. They were offered £3 a ton for her the other day—considerably less than her hull alone cost. So, as old Catblock put it, better turn her into a fixed deposit at 400 fathoms. The chances are she'll hang when she takes the reef. But, even if she slips off again, her fore-compartment will give us ample time to get clear.
'If she hangs she will break up in a few hours, so it matters little one way or the other. You'll take a couple of thousand out of the job. I shall make enough to give up the sea and devote myself wholly to some new inventions I have in mind. Now that's all. Oh, when you relieve Morris put a new compass the—Thomson one —in the binnacle. I want her steered like a steamer for the rest of the time.'
Well, here was a pretty kettle of fish indeed! But I had no leisure to think it over. Already I had been far too long away from my post; and I was glad as I presently heard the mate go into his berth and close the door. Peering, I saw that the Captain had also left the saloon. Now was my time evidently, and I slipped noiselessly out and made for the main deck entrance. Just as I gained it I turned and saw the Captain staring hard at me.
By this time I was in the shadow of the little alley-way, close to the pantry, and whether he had recognised me or not was doubtful. He might have come out of his berth, the door of which was close to the head of the table, before I had got the whole length of the saloon. In that case he must guess where I had been and what I had heard. But from his attitude I was inclined to think he had only just caught sight of me.
However, I lost no time in getting on to the poop.
As I tramped backwards and forwards I fell to considering over what I had lately heard. What was I to do in the matter? Was it any concern of mine at all?
An appeal to the crew was not to be thought of. The chances were that they would not believe me and, even if they did, I knew the Germans and the rest too well to think they would dare interfere. The more I thought the matter over the less I saw my way out of it. Doubtless, the insurance companies and the underwriters would lose heavily. But I had myself to consider. And if I held my tongue before the act, I was well aware that it was of no use letting it wag afterwards. I was on the horns of dilemma, and at last I made up my mind to take a seat between the prongs and lie low.
A FRILLED NIGHTCAP.
At ten o'clock as I walked to the bell and struck it, the Captain, tossing away his cigar stump, suddenly came up to me and asked quietly, How much did you hear, Mr Morris, when you were in your berth, whilst, my brother and I were talking?'
For a moment I was taken flat aback. Then, evasive words of subterfuge rose to my lips. But suddenly the notion came into my mind that now, as he knew so much, it would be far better to have it out and done with. Thus I replied after the momentary pause, speaking quietly as himself, 'Well, sir, pretty nearly everything that was said, I imagine.'
'So?' he replied. 'And what do you think of the affair, looking at it from a speculative point of view?'
'I think,' I replied boldly, and staring him squarely, 'that it's about the most cunning, rascally scheme of wholesale robbery I every heard of and that if I had anyone besides myself who had heard as much as I heard, penal servitude for life would be the share of its promoters.'
'Aha,' replied he, 'I'm glad you see your weak point. You're alone, fortunately, and no statements you could make would be entertained for a moment as against my name and reputation. You've more sense than I credited you with. I thought when I picked you off the dock a week ago, starving and shabby that you were the common type of sea dog who is only too glad to bark when he'd told, and leave well alone.'
This made me angry, and I tried a chance shot with, 'Anyhow, Captain Baleston, you'll hardly attempt the game now, whilst I'm with you. And perhaps, in port, I may find somebody to at least believe me as far as a sworn statement will go respecting the nature of your cargo.'
It was a rash and utterly reckless speech, but I was pleased to hear his teeth gritting against each other with rage, and know that my wild words had hit a mark.
Taking a few paces along the deck he looked into the binnacle, muttered something in German to the man at the wheel, and came back to me, saying—
'You shall have £500 to stand in with us?'
'Far too much for a mere sea-dog with no more brains than a serving-mallet,' I replied politely. 'Thank God,' I continued, I'm a fairly honest man, and want no share in such tricks as you've made your money by, and which'll yet land you behind iron bars!'
'Another £500 for poor old honesty,' he retorted, in a jeering tone, 'and that's as far as I'm inclined to go. You'd better take it. But please yourself.'
'Not for fifty times the amount,' I replied, angrily. 'And now wreck the ship, if you dare! You won't find it such simple tea-drinking as the Agenoria business seems to have been. Now you can do your worst, and plague on you and all such cursed pirates!'
I was by this time thoroughly vexed and losing my temper.
As I spoke the captain walked away, and disappeared down the companion, making no answer whatever. Presently, looking through the open skylight, I saw him come out of his stateroom and pour whisky from the decanter in the swinging tray. He took nearly half a tumblerful—neat. Then he went into his brother's berth and I could well imagine the pair plotting to counteract this unexpected check.
At eight bells, when the mate relieved me, I could detect nothing out of the common in his manner, which was always pretty cordial. As was my invariable custom before turning in, I mixed myself a tumbler of grog, taking the whisky out of the same decanter I had seen the captain use.
Then I went to my berth, and—first, however, doing what I never had done before—viz., slipping the bolt of my door I lit my pipe and the lamp, undressed, and lay down to think matters over.
Gradually, I became aware of a sense of lethargy taking possession of me, accompanied by a not unpleasant feeling of drowsiness. My pipe fell out of my mouth on to the floor, and I watched unconcernedly the hot ashes making little black holes in the strip of carpet. Presently the smell of the smouldering wool became disagreeable, and I wished to rise and extinguish it.
To my dismay I found that I could move neither hand nor foot, My brain was active as ever, but all power of slightest motion had completely disappeared. I imagined at first that I had received 'a stroke' of some mysterious description. But, in that case, I argued, surely I should feel sick and ill. And I never felt better internally. I made tremendous efforts to stir—a finger even—but without avail.
What was this dreadful thing that had come upon me in a flash, and without the least warning? Probably it would disappear as quickly. I was lying on my side, facing the door. Over the latter was a glass fanlight that moved on a 'midship swivel. A noise at this made me look up. It was turning, and the next moment I saw the captain's face framed in the square aperture. He was grinning, with a row of white teeth showing under his straw-coloured moustache and I caught quite clearly the dancing devil in his eyes as he fixed them intently on mine.
For fully three minutes we stared at each other. I tried to speak; but, to my horror, tongue and jaws refused their office. Presently the face at the fanlight disappeared, with a noise as of a person stepping off a chair or a stool. There was some whispering outside, and all at once I saw my door giving slowly but surely. The bolt was but a flimsy thing at best; and now, under heavy pressure, it first bent, then the brass socket carried away, and the door flew open, disclosing the two Balestons.
'He's all right, Fred,' said the skipper. 'Let me introduce you to the gentleman who's going to play up with us in such style. Your grog was doctored, Mr Morris; the nightcap had a frill to it,' he went on, as, one at my head, the other at my legs, they lifted me out of the bunk like a log. 'And now you're going down amongst the dead men, to tell 'em the Urania's coming. Gently through the door, Fred, or you'll bump his head.'
Out on the quarterdeck, with the fresh breeze blowing cool on my face, they carried me. It was dark, much darker than when I came below, and clouds were gathering over the stars. Between them, panting, they hoisted me on to the rail just be-aft the main rigging.
'The beggar's heavy,' exclaimed the Captain, 'and he'll make a devil of a splash! Take the t'gallant halliards, Fred, and shove the bight of 'em round him under the arms, and we'll lower him down easily.'
The mate, who had not spoken a word, silently obeyed, whilst the other held me half on the pin-rail, half on the t'gallant one, in a reclining posture, with my back against the rigging. Again and again I strove to utter a cry; but my tongue felt like a lump of lead in a throat swollen to the verge of suffocation. In vain my despairing eyes—the only members I could use—swept the deck, Not a soul was to be seen, not a sound heard except the steady hum of the wind as it blew under the foot of the mainsail.
The high break of the poop sheltered us from the sight of the helmsman, even had the darkness not sufficed. Gazing outboard, my glance swept the black waste of white-tipped furrows, and the bitterness of death entered into my soul, as already I seemed to feel them closing over my dumb and helpless body.
'Better take a round turn,' muttered the captain, 'or he'll slip before we're ready. Now, then, good-bye, good-bye, Mr Morris. A thousand pounds or Davy Jones! Yow chose the last. You've got no choice left. Take a turn under the pin. So, together! Over he goes!'
As he spoke, the pair pushed and lifted together, and I fell about six feet with such a shock as seemed to bring some slight sense of feeling into my numbed limbs. As I hung there, already the sliding waves washed up to my knees. Lower still, and they were breaking over my head and shoulders, whilst I swallowed big mouthfuls of bitter salt water. Why did they not let go, I wondered?
Ah, now I knew! The round turn had jammed under my arms, and they were pulling and hauling furiously on the single part they still held. All at once—in a second—hanging one moment under water, the next hove up by the roll of the ship, I vomited violently and suddenly, with a dreadful tearing sort of pain, there came back to me the use of both limbs and voice.
But even as, with a gurgling, half-choked cry, I raised my hands to clutch the rope, it cleared whilst released, I sank, to rise again the next moment breathless, panting, beating the water wildly, and only dimly conscious of a dark patch bulking high, with one twinkling light, like a yellow eye, ever receding, and glaring at me there, left struggling alone to perish miserably.
As soon as I recovered my voice I shouted and screamed at that pitiless eye lifting and lowering in the Urania's stern as if nodding a ponderous farewell to me, swimming wildly, helplessly after it in all the strength that supreme fear of death gives.
But with my first collected thought came back the utter futility of what I was doing, and I suddenly ceased to breast the curving waves that met and broke smarting and stinging over face and eyes, and turning my back to wind and sea I let myself float at random.
In the water I had been at home all my life, and now lightly clad in under-flannels, and feeling fairly warm I had no doubt of keeping afloat, if I wished, for many hours. And I determined, at all events, to wait for the dawn, before dropping to those dreary depths below. At last I saw the eastern sky grow grey, and watched the sun rise with the resigned gaze of a man who knows that, beyond all doubt, it is to be the last one he will ever see.
I raised myself as high as I could, and stared steadily around the horizon. Empty from rim to rim! A lovely morning, too!
Stay! a black object was bobbing away scarce half a mile distant. Certainly it was not a boat; and yet it rode high and had a massive look with it. Well, at any rate, it was worth investigating; and with slow strokes I swarm towards it. Drawing nearer, I recognised the object. Yesterday, during my morning watch, we had passed it—the half of a ship's lower mast with yard, top, and topmast—rigging attached.
Almost mechanically I swam alongside it and caught hold of some of the gear, climbed up, and sat on the rim of the top whilst the hot sun warmed my sodden limbs, and sent the chilled life-stream once more coursing through my veins.
Was it worth while, I wondered? I was fair in the track of ships. And it was no use throwing away a chance. A few minutes ago I was knocking for admission at the very gate of death, and now—. Well, then, till to-morrow at any rate.
AN OCEAN TRAMP.
Judging from its appearance, I thought the wreckage could not have been in the water very long—perhaps a fortnight or so. And as I perched on the top I wondered about the ship that had come to grief, and whether this was the extent of if, or had worse happened. But first, thirst, and then hunger, soon put an end to any thoughts or cares except personal ones. The sun's heat, grateful for awhile, now was so intense that every few minutes I had to slip down and soak to obtain relief; and as the day dragged slowly along, and my sufferings increased, I began to doubt whether I should be able to hang out to my set limit— another sunrise.
One thing I had noticed was that, evidently in the set of some strong current, my spars were making an easterly drift of fully a couple of knots per hour. But there was no great comfort in that; although at a rough calculation I reckoned I could not be at this moment more than a hundred miles to the westward of the Azores, if so much.
The day wore on; and, worn out with all I had gone through, towards the middle of the afternoon I gave up any continuous and useless staring around the horizon, and, taking a few turns about my waist with a length of rope, I stretched out along the incline of the topmast rigging and dozed off into an uneasy sleep. I woke with a start.
The sun was still a couple of hours high. I had slipped down the trailing rigging till my knees were awash. But what had disturbed me? Something, I was certain, for the sound of it was in my ears still. Hurriedly throwing off my lashings, I crawled on to the rim of the top, and only a few cables' length away was a big steamer coming along, her screw kicking up white water behind her as she towered flying light, with rusty wall-sides 20 feet high.
Owing to my position, I had been quite hidden from the sight of those on board. But eyes were on the wreckage; and almost as soon as I showed my body on the top I heard her engine bells clanging, and could see her gradually slow down, until she came gliding along with her sharp tall bows nearly overhanging me, whilst her screw squashed and whisked astern to stop her way. There was no need for hailing or talk, and in a very few minutes a boat was in the water; a few more, and I was in her and, without help—such momentary heart had my rescue put into me—able to climb up the gangway ladder of the Norseman.
Once on deck, however, I staggered and would have fallen but for the arm of a short, stout, red-faced man who held me up and led me into the steamer's saloon, where food, drink, a hot bath, and some clean clothes soon made a new man of me.
Captain Craigie and his chief officer listened to my story with interest, but also an amount of incredulity that I was not altogether unprepared for. Not that they said openly I was lying; but from an unmistakable coolness in their manner as I finished, I could see they thought so.
Perhaps if it had been any other but Baleston who was concerned they might have been more ready to credit the yarn. But Baleston had a reputation. Also that secret reef affair, I could see, by the stare and half laugh passed from skipper to mate, would by no means go down.
'If I've been close to there once, I've been close to there fifty times, and never seen anything,' remarked the former when I put a pencil on the chart as nearly as I could make the spot bear from our present position.
'A very curious story, Mr Morris,' he continued, coldly, and regarding me with evident disfavor. 'However, it's no particular business of ours. You're welcome to a passage as far as Belize—our first port of call. I hope you may be able to get a ship there.'
I could almost have cried with rage and vexation as he went on deck, followed by the mate.
At a glance I saw I was on board a cargo tramp of some 3000 tons, and an eight knot speed, doing her best. Her bridge was stuck far away for'ard, and the rest of her was mostly hatches, steam winches, and a grove of ventilators amidships.
The sun was setting as I went below again, and in a very sour temper—first telling the steward not to call me for tea—went to the berth assigned me and turned in for a good sleep, which I badly wanted. It seemed to me that I had been asleep only a few minutes when I felt a hand shake me, and a voice shot loudly in my ear. Half awake, I turned and said something uncomplimentary to the disturber of my rest, who had struck a match and was lighting the berth lamp.
'I've come to ask your pardon, Mr Morris,' said somebody who, presently, as I sat up in my bunk rubbing my sleepy eyes, I saw, to my great surprise, was Captain Craigie himself. 'I confess I didn't believe a word of your yarn,' he went on; 'and I know you saw it but we've just had an accident. Run down a boat belonging to the Urania. Only one man saved. He says Captain Baleston was in her. Says, too, that the Urania went on to the reef right enough. Will you come on deck and see him.
Would I not! In a jiff I was into my clothes and out of the saloon at a half run. The night was dark as pitch with splashes of electric light here and there about the ship. A stiff breeze was blowing dead ahead, with an awkward lump of a cross-sea on. The Norseman's engines were stopped and the big steamer rolling uneasily and giving a dive now and again that sent white water seething aft along her iron decks.
At intervals her siren blared, making noise enough to wake the dead, whilst blue lights shed a ghostly glare over the sea and ship. As I hurried for'ard I noticed davitfalls hanging slack, and knew that a boat was battling away somewhere in the black smother outboard.
On the lower bridge I found a dripping creature, wild-looking and pallid, who shivered and gesticulated and shrank back when he caught sight of me. I knew him at once for one of the Urania's quartermasters—the man, in fact, who had been at the wheel when I and her Captain were having our momentous talk.
As I came into the light the chief mate stepped out of the chart-room and shook hands, saying something handsome at the same time—I forgot but to similar purpose as the skipper. Anyhow, between the pair of them I felt a man again; which was more than I had done when I turned in eight hours ago.
Carl Hansen hadn't as much English as would bail up a cow. But the second engineer was a Hamburger, and interpreted. From Hansen's statement, boiled down, it appeared that in the middle watch that very night, or actually only a few hours ago, the Urania had rushed on to reef, her fore-topmast going at the same time. The alarm and terror of the crew were intense. The Captain and mate, however, kept quite cool, and in no time the two quarter boats were lowered and, with all hands, pulled away from the wreck, Captain Baleston taking charge of one, his brother of the other.
The former, the quartermaster said, had seemed terribly cut up about my loss, and the ship was searched from end to end in efforts to find me. In the darkness the boats had separated. Under sail, the port quarter boat had been running at a great rate when, without a second's warning, the Norseman's bow had cut her fair in halves. Hansen had been saved by a miracle. A bundle of fireman's sweat-rags happened to be towing overboard amidships. Blindly sweeping past, the lump of stuff, just awash, had touched him; and, with a wild, outspread, drowning clutch, he held the rope and was presently drawn up—the only one, as it proved. There was not, he said, even time for a shout before their doom was upon them.
Warmed and fed, he went more into detail. For two hours before the Urania took the reef, the Captain had fidgeted about the binnacle, altering the course now and again by as much as a quarter of a point, but never leaving the compass for long. The night was fine with a smart breeze, and the ship had everything set when, about four bells, she struck, appearing, Hansen said, to glide and bump and glide and then, heeling over just a little, she lay fairly quiet, giving now and again a lift for'ard, and seeming to wedge herself more firmly amongst the rocks. Actually, though, so sudden and unexpected had the whole affair been, and so complete the preparations for departure, that some of the bewildered crew hardly realised what had happened until they found themselves pulling away into the night.
Captain Craigie was in his room over-hauling charts. As presently I entered to his call, he looked up, saying, 'I've found the map marked "Broken water. Doubtful." It's seven years old, though. And on none of the latter ones is there, any allusion to such a thing. Now, Mr Morris, I'm going to have a look at this private reef of Baleston's—he won't have need of it any more—and I fancy somewhere about W.S.W. ¾ W. should put us pretty close to the spot from here. What do you think?'
'Thereabouts,' I replied. 'But at best it's only a needle-in-a-haystack business, unless one could get the bearings exact, or see something in the shape of white water.'
The captain nodded in agreement, and coming out on the bridge, gave orders that presently sent us going slow, and well to the westward of south.
A MATTER OF £4,000.
All the rest of that night I never left the bridge. To Baleston and his fate I hardly gave a thought. He had served me very badly; and though when paddling about waiting for daylight to drown myself I had freely forgiven him his wickedness, I found it difficult to do so now when dry, full-bellied, and my own man again.
But, I desperately wanted to find that reef, and so render my story complete, rounded off and beyond cavil. Therefore I kept my eyes skinned, at times even journeying up to the lookout nest on the foremast and sweeping the sea with a night glass—all trouble I might have saved myself. But there it is! One never knows! Towards morning we ran into a smooth sea, the wind shifting to the nor'ard and coming very light.
All through the ship was more or less excitement and watching; the grimy firemen, even, when they came off duty, pausing to cast bloodshot glances around, whilst the Norseman forged slowly ahead as if herself in doubt of hitting something that might not agree with her. At dawn nothing was visible; but as the sky astern of us grew all aflame, the look-out man from his canvas nest cried, 'Sail on the port bow!' followed immediately by an exclamation from the mate, who continued, as he stared through his glasses, 'A derelict with her fore-topmast gone. Down by the head like a pig, and with a list on her like a rotten haystack!'
"The Urania!' I shouted a moment later, in loud exultant tones. "Hard and fast on Baleston's reef!'
'By heavens, you're right, sir, I do believe,' said the captain, as I handed him the glass. And as we drew nearer, beyond all doubt there was the murdered ship—a forlorn-looking object enough, with her foretopmast, t'gallant and royal masts hanging over the foc'sle-head, her stern cocked up, and her nose down as if just about to take the deep final dive of all. And around her the little waves lapped brisk and smiling in the sunshine, but giving no hint of the treacherous trap underneath that gripped her with its iron teeth.
Steaming alongside we gazed at the poor thing in pity, mingled with a detestation that found vent in low curses from more lips than mine. Meanwhile, the captain, watching her intently with his head on one side, and a long end of grizzled moustache between his teeth, suddenly ordered his gig into the water.
'We'll have a squint, Mr Morris,' said he, 'at what's got hold of her. Bosun, put a hand lead in the boat, and—yes—get up the 6-inch steel hawser and the 12-inch manilla. I may want them.
Pulling round the Urania's bows we saw, looking down through the clear water, that she had been driven over a sort of rocky platform and through a pair of great perpendicular rocks as clean as a thread through a needle. But these, forking higher than the approach to them, kept her nose well up, and against one of them she lay over, resting upon its thickly-weeded contour, standing out in plain relief to her bright red bottom.
'One hour of a fairly stiff breeze,' remarked the captain, and she goes to pieces. But, hang me, if I think that, so far, she's mortally wounded. Sink or swim, I'll have a bid for her. Let's get aboard and sound the well.'
I brought the rod and carefully lowered it down. Two feet! And on a list! Salvage smelling high! Twenty minutes afterwards, and the Norseman, with her engines at full speed ahead, and the 6-inch steel rope fast from her after bitts to the Urania's mizzen-mast was scratch-pulling all she knew how.
The first five minutes' drag took no effect. At the second the steel rope snapped like a rope yarn.
'Coir 12-inch to the front!' was the order. Men worked like Trojans with that smell of salvage in their nostrils.
'All ready below, Mr Carmichael?'
The chief engineer nodded.
'Let her rip then.'
Ting-a-ling—ling—ling—clang! went the gongs, the great rope straightened out its crackling curve, dense volumes of smoke poured from the Norseman's squab stacks, the whole iron fabric of her trembled, her engines rattled and clattered and thumped, the coir strained and cracked, strained and grew smaller and smaller until of only the thickness of a man's wrist.
'Send them for all they're worth, sir,' said the captain to the chief.
'Stand clear the hawser there for'ard! Something's got to go in a minute!'
But it was the Urania that came.
'I suppose you'll run her into Fayal or Gibraltar, sir?' asked the chief mate a little later, as with sails furled, and for'ard wreckage clear, the Urania lay alongside; whilst we in the Norseman's cabin drank whisky and soda, and the crew tossed off their nip of rum in honour of the occasion.
'Please the Lord and the weather,' said Captain Craigie piously, with a shrewd smile, 'I'll never cry crack till I get to Falmouth.'
During the passage the captain and myself had one day taken a notion to overhaul some of the Urania's cargo. The first case was full of grindstones, so was the second and a third all unnoted in the manifest. The skipper looked blank. But, presently, we made out enough to show us that though there was under hatches a very large proportion of these, useful but not particularly valuable articles, still the bulk of the cargo was genuine 'general.'
Messrs. Shroud and Catblock, the owners, answered Captain Craigie's telegram in person; and at first seemed inclined to give themselves airs. This was before I had been introduced to them. Not that I said much. I left it all to the skipper, who took them into his room, where the trio stayed a long time. When the two owners came on deck again they looked like men just recovering from a severe illness.
'Settled by private contract,' remarked the captain, coming up to me and slapping me on the back, as the two swindlers he had brought to book went over the side silent, downcast, sulky. 'No Admiralty Court and Elder Brethren are to have a finger in this pie,' he continued. 'And I let them off far more easily than the judge and jury before whom, if everything was to be done according to Cocker, Messrs. Shroud and Catblock should make their appearance. I suppose I am compounding a felony. But I'm going to take all chances as to that. Briefly, then, the Urania and her cargo is to be sold for the benefit of the owners, officers, and crew of the Norseman. Luckily I'm half owner myself, and I can answer for my partner. We all divide pro rata.'
Here the captain paused for a moment to thoroughly enjoy my, I daresay, rather blank look. Then he laughed and continued, 'Also, for the late second mate of the Urania I've got a cheque in my desk below to the tune of £4,000. Will that do? I held out for five, because I know it's a rich firm as well as a rascally one. However, I remembered that they'd have another party to settle with directly, if the mate's boat ever turns up; so I knocked off the thousand.'
Four— thousand—pounds! It took my breath away. Of course I never expected nearly such a sum, my hopes seldom soaring above a quarter of it at the very outside. —Harmsworth Magazine
"You're good to the blacks," I said to my friend, as I watched a mob of them getting rations from the storekeeper of Neebyne Downs Station. "Better than my neighbours," replied Roland Farrer, laughing. "And especially to one of 'em, eh, old girl?" and as he spoke he patted a hideous ugly grey-haired gin on the head. She was sitting on the verandah, decently clad, and smoking a short black pipe, whilst she watched her wild and nearly naked compatriots as they stood around receiving their doles of tobacco, flour, sugar, and meat.
"My word," replied the old creature; looking up at him with the eyes of a faithful dog, "you cobon budgeree (very good) mine bin all right long time now. All alonga me," and she pointed with unaffected pride to the others, "you gib it that pfeller pelenty tucker?"
"That's so, old girl," laughed Farrer, "if it wasn't for you I'd see 'em further first. You're their good genius, and they know it. Only fancy, Morton," he continued, as we strolled up to the house, "if it hadn't been for that old shrivelled-up lump of black humanity, I should probably be humping my swag to-day in place of being owner of one of the finest stations in Cooksland. All right; I'll tell you the yarn after dinner. There goes the first bell, meaning a wash and clean shirt. Over at Cooroobin yonder, my brother Jack's place, they dress for dinner. But this being a bachelor's diggings we don't keep it up. No fun in midsummer I can tell you, with the glass far above the nineties."
Dinner finished, my host and I went out on to the broad verandah and lit our cigars. Before us in the ruddy after-glow lay mile upon mile the park-like expanse of famous Neebyne Downs, carrying its 250,000 sheep and 10,000 head of cattle. A property worth a pound a head all round if it was worth a penny. And what connection there could be between it and an old black gin puzzled me not a little. Tall and lithe, his sharply-cut features browned to the hue of a coffee bean, broad-chested, narrow-flanked my host struck me as being the beau-ideal of an Australian squatter as he sat back in his chair and stretched out his long legs, and for a while gazed in silence over the broad acres that spread towards the pathway of the sun.
"It was in the early seventies," he began at last, "that the bad time came to Neebyne—a time the like of which you travelling Englishmen can form only a faint idea of. For nearly two years there had been little or no rain; grass was a thing of the past, also water; and, worst of all, our overdraft wasn't big enough to make it worth the bank's while to finance us. So it foreclosed, and by doing so killed the poor old dad. I was eighteen then; Jack, my brother, a year younger; and there we were, with but a fiver between us, told to clear off the place that over a score of years ago our father had pioneered and settled, upon which we had been born, and where both father and mother were buried. Hard luck, wasn't it? And the hardest part of it was that, young as we both were, we knew that, given one or two good seasons and a little working capital, we could easily have cleared off the debt.
"Well, the chap they sent up to take charge offered us a horse each to carry us away. But we were too proud to accept anything, and, rolling up our swags, we just cleared out from the old homestead to seek what fortune might have in store for us.
"Friends, did you say? Oh, yes, lots who'd have given us a job of boundary riding or overseeing. But our stomachs were too high for charity of that kind, and our hearts hot with a sense of injustice. Young and foolish, of course. But, still, wait till you hear the end and you'll say that after all we might have fared worse than trust to Providence, or fate, or luck, call it what you will, that eventually came to us in the shape of poor old Gnan yonder. But at first those who have the handling of such matters rubbed it into us properly. To begin with, I don't think we'd tramped more than a couple of miles past the Neebyne boundary fence when the rain, after its long spell started at last and fell steadily for a week.
"And in the old shepherd's hut in which we had taken refuge, drenched, hungry, and footsore, both Jack and I, grown men as we rated ourselves, cried our hearts out with grief and rage as we listened to the roar of the water on the iron roof and thought of our lost birthright and all that the rain would have meant to us a week earlier when we could have borrowed £5000 so easily on the strength of it.
"When the weather cleared we tramped doggedly on towards the coast, saying little to each other, but thinking, I knew well, of the already green paddocks and full tanks and waterholes on the old station we should never see more, and whose every acre we had galloped over as children. At last we reached Port Endeavour. And, my word, I can tell you that 200-mile tramp took most of the stuffing out of us, accustomed as we were to the saddle from our earliest days.
"Often previously we had been in the capital with our father, driving down four-in-hand with the black boys leading spare horses, and entering the place in style. Now, smothered in mud and dust, a couple of wretched scarecrows, we slunk past the big hotel where we had always put up on such occasions and took refuge at a boarding house on the waterside in Sailor Town.
"We had no settled plan except perhaps to get as far as possible away from Cooksland and all persons who knew us.
"Be this as it may, nobody could have been more surprised than we were to presently find ourselves at sea, and bound for Tchio, in New Caledonia, to load nickel ore. Men, it appears, had been scarce in the port when we landed there and put up at the boarding house, and the rascally crimp who kept it, seeing his chance, shanghaied us in the most approved style. Indeed, we never recovered from the effects of the drugged drink until the coast lay miles behind us, and the mates, with oaths and threats, were rousing us out of our bunks to get aloft and shorten sail.
"She was a Norwegian barque, called the Ellen, of Stavanger, and all the English on board was so broken that we had a world of trouble in convincing her people that we were not sailors. Once, however, they took the thing in, and realised they had been done by the rascally crimp, they proved not bad fellows at all. And, as we were young and strong and willing, they appeared to come to the conclusion that they might be able to make some use of us presently.
"Nor, indeed, were we ill-pleased. Neither Jack nor I were sick; and although a sea voyage was about the last thing that could have occurred to us, we were at least clear of the land that had so failed us in the time of our utmost need."
Here Farrer paused to light a fresh cigar and fill his glass and mine from the decanter on the table between us. A full red moon had risen over the rolling downs, and was staring at us with great round, hot face. A gentle breeze was rustling in the shady brigalows that grew close up to the garden fence, bringing to us the scent of gum blossoms from the creek, whose long line of timber seemed to brush the moon's lower limb with shadowy plumes. The night was full of sounds. Somewhere in the distance a solitary curlew screamed vehemently; nearer at hand the little bird that bushmen call the "shepherd's companion" piped in a low clear note with tuneful insistency, "sweet little creature; pretty, sweet, little creature." There was a sound of bells, too, in the air, and of falling water, the first from the browsing bullocks of some teamster camped away on the distant travelling stock route, the last from the artesian bore that near by lifted its liquid cone to fall in rythmic gushings and gurglings before sweeping through miles of trenches to water thirsty paddocks far away. The soft warm air was full of business, subdued and harmonious, but incessant, on this typical spring night in far inland Australia.
"Well," continued my friend, "I believe we should eventually have made sailors, Jack and I, for we were active as cats, quick to pick up the work; and buck as she might, the Ellen couldn't make us lose our feet either alow or aloft.
"But the Fates had other views for us. A week out a north-west gale arose, and blew us back on to the coast; and although we did our best to make headway against it, we found ourselves slowly but surely losing ground every tack we went. You see, the Ellen was in ballast, and, flying light, showed a side like a house to the wind. So we had no chance, and, presently, one night she went boldly ashore on a little beach situated, as I discovered long afterwards, just this side of Cape Catastrophe, on the Carpentaria border. Jack and I kept close together when she struck, and seeing she was going to pieces like a bandbox, we agreed to jump and swim for it. There was a deuce of a sea running, but although considerably knocked about, we both got ashore, or, rather, were flung there, arriving within a few minutes of each other. It all seemed simple enough, and we were astonished to find that only four besides ourselves of the crew of thirteen had managed to do likewise. The balance came to us during the night—corpses amongst the wreckage. At daylight we buried them. Nobody had the remotest idea of where we were. Save for the spot we came ashore at, the coast was a dismal rock-bound mass of cliffs bordered with thick scrub. We were almost naked, bruised, and hungry. The rain poured in torrents; and we had no means of lighting a fire.
"The four Norwegians made up their minds to follow the coast line. True to our interests, Jack and I struck inland, vowing as we shook hands with our mates never to trouble salt water any more.
"As it happened, so we heard months later, there was a cattle out-station only a few miles along; so, whilst they were in comparative comfort and shelter, we were tramping through the thick tropical scrub and getting worried almost to death by leeches and stinging trees.
"All at once in a deep gully we saw smoke, and making our way towards it we came across an old black gin lying apparently dead in a bit of a wurley constructed of a few boughs and pieces of bark. In front of the wretched attempt at shelter, nearly extinguished by the rain, smouldered a few live sticks. At first we thought that the gin was gone. Her head seemed to be smashed, and her face was covered with clotted blood. But after carefully washing it and bandaging the wound with a bit of one of our shirts, and warming her at the fire we had made, the old girl revived and sat up and began to cry and chatter a little.
"Familiar with the blacks from infancy, able even to make ourselves partly understood in more than one of their dialects, we soon discovered that for some trivial fault her lord and master had stretched her out with a blow of his waddy, and, leaving her for dead had gone off with the remainder of the tribe. Wuurk Gnan (the Gurgling Stream) was her name, she told us, as the three of us squatted over the fire, a most curious trio, and without a doubt, a savagely hungry one.
"Luckily the gin had a tomahawk, and with it Jack and I went off to see whether we couldn't find a possum in some of the hollow trees around. But we were unsuccessful in getting anything but a few miserable native cherries and such like rubbish. Gnan, however, to our astonishment, had also been fossicking, and had killed a big carpet snake, which, roasted on the coals, made us each a good meal. I have had many a swell feed since then," laughed Farrer, as he reached for a fresh cigar, "both in Paris and in London, but nothing to equal that grill of old Gnan's.
"Of course, when a bushman's belly is full, the next thing is a smoke. And even here Gnan was not to be beaten. Fumbling about in her dillybag she produced a stumpy black clay and a bit of twist tobacco, and, taking it in turn, we passed the pipe around, despite the weather, in great peace and comfort.
"Often have I thought since of what a curious party we must have looked sitting at the big fire in the rain, Jack and I bare headed, and barefooted, clad in the merest rags, and marked plentifully with bruises and scratches received whilst coming through the surf, old Guan wrapped in a mangy skin cloak, her wizened leathery face surmounted with our bandages and a lot of red clay that she had daubed over them, and through which the tips of her wool stuck up in the most comical fashion as she squatted there and chatted to us in a mixture of hideous 'pidgin' English and native talk.
"She wanted to know where we were going. But as we hadn't the slightest notion ourselves, we couldn't tell her. The only thing that seemed quite clear to the pair of us was that, so far as the sea was concerned, our career was at an end. We were both quite agreed as to that; nor did our future trouble us much now that we had lost Neebyne. As experienced bush men, we knew that we could get work on some station at fencing or bullock-punching or horsebreaking, and that there was little in the management of sheep and cattle that would come amiss to us. But our work must lie far distant from the old home and the district where our father's name had once been so familiar and carried such weight. Much of which we gravely expounded to the old gin as we sat in the warm tropical drizzle that filtered down through the thick foliage overhead. I don't suppose she understood any of it, but she grunted appreciatively at intervals, and when, the absurdity of the thing striking us, we burst into a roar of laughter, she joined so heartily that the tears ran down her wrinkled cheeks,
"All at once Jack, who had been idly rummaging in the old girl's dillybag, made of vegetable fibre plaited into Bennit, exclaimed, 'I say, Roley, isn't this gold?' holding up, as he spoke, a little bit o quartz shot thick with dull yellow particles. 'Wish I had a ton of it,' I replied after a good look, for I had seen specimens often before, 'I wonder where the old lady picked it up, and whether there's more there?'
"When we asked her, Gnan pointed about south-west, and gave us to understand that she had found it on a hill, and that there was more there, 'cobbon big pfellar gibber sit down all-a-same yonder.' Which, translated, meant that there were lots of big stones of the same kind as the bit we had. Pressed farther, she declared that it was a good month's journey to the place. One day, a long time ago, it seemed she had followed a wounded wallaby to the top of a big scrubby hill, and there had seen plenty of the stuff. More, if we wished, she would show us the place, because, being officially dead, if she returned to her tribe, her husband having by this taken another wife would be very careful to put more weight into his waddy at the next attempt. Therefore she, as it were, being unattached, had lots of time on her hands.
Well, you see, knowing the blacks, and that they were all apt to say what they thought would please you, we were pretty doubtful. Still, it was a chance, and it might turn up trumps. And if it did—. So, eventually, we decided to put our trust in Gnan; and next morning we started on our trip. And such a trip! Actually, we never knew where we were, for Gnan resolutely avoided even the slightest settlement there was in those days in the shape of a few scattered cattle stations. Consequently we had to work jolly hard for our tucker. But Gnan was a grand old forager, and where we should otherwise have starved she often kept the larder full. White grubs out of the iron bark trees, fat and tender; iguanas, snakes, possums, duck and emu eggs, native yams, and now and again, but very rarely, a kangaroo that we had crippled and run down formed our main provisions. But there were days upon which we went very hungry indeed. An when I look back at that journey through some of what was then the wildest country in Australia, and think of the two boys and the old gin, three savages together, it seems like a nightmare, although at the time I don't think we minded it very much.
"By-and-bye Gnan headed towards the west, and we began to get into thickly timbered ranges; and presently Jack gave expression to a feeling that had been creeping into my mind for the last few days.
"Hang me, Roley,' said he, "if I don't think the old lady's making towards our own district. A pretty lark it would be if she'd only led us this dance to bring us out at Neebyne?"
"However, it was no use jibbing now; and with failing hopes we continued to follow Gnan's tortuous course, until one night we camped at the foot of a tall scrubby hill, and she complacently informed us we had reached our destination.
"Next morning we scrambled up through the thick brush, Gnan leading, until we reached the summit, which was a little more open, and completely covered with a quartz reef of the sort that miners call a 'blow.'
''Very often these are 'buck' or barren. But Gnan's was not of that kind, for as soon as we began to fossick around we saw gold everywhere through it; aye and lying in some places in the shape of almost pure slugs, with scarcely any stone about them. It was a real treasure house. For a while, however, we scarcely realised what had befallen us, or that this thing meant Neebyne, or perhaps more than Neebyne. As for Gnan, she was quite unmoved, and when presently Jack caught her round the waist and began to dance wildly, whilst I executed a fandango on my own account, the old girl squealed with fright imagining we had gone stark, raving mad. And—well—I think that's the yarn. You passed the place yesterday on—"
"What!" I exclaimed, "not the great Mount Merce Mine?''
"The same," replied Farrer. "You know, of course, that the whole hill has turned out more or less rich from top to bottom, Jack and I sold some shares only lately for £150,000. But the most curious part of the business to me has always been that the place wasn't above 40 miles from Neebyne on a patch of country quite worthless for pastoral purposes, and that had therefore never been taken up. You can understand now why I've a kind of sneaking regard for the blacks, can't you?"
When the plague broke out at Port Sirius, the ketch Heart's Desire was lying alongside one of those small wharves that, jutting out here and there in the most unexpected places, that form such a feature of the Sirian foreshores. Also Bob Vance, master of the ketch, was scared of the plague; so was Bill Sands, his mate, and the two men and a boy, who made up the complement of the little vessel. And when the "bubonic" was definitely traced to rats, they were more scared; for the Heart's Desire was a very old and favourite haunt of the vermin, until now unnoticed, unmolested.
'Cats is the thing, Bill,' muttered the skipper, 'We mus' get some pussies, an' take 'em with us this trip. You an' me'll scrimmidge aroun' ashore ternight a tabby-'untin'.'
But other seafaring folk had been ashore with the same object, and cats were as scarce as asparagus in winter. Thus the skipper returned unsuccessful, The mate was about doing the same, after a long and weary search, when pausing to reconnoitre a large villa, into the grounds of which he had stepped over a low fence, he heard a purring, and then something rubbed against his leg. Looking down, he saw in the half light a great black cat which, instantly catching up, and placing in his bag, he made back to the ketch with.
Half-way there he met a policeman, who demanded, suspiciously, to know the contents of the bag.
'It's only a cat,' said Sands; 'we've got rats aboard o' our ship, an' the missus bein' scared o' the plague, made me take puss away with me this trip.'
'Right oh,' said the constable, after feeling the bag inquisitively, 'but they say as it ain't rats now; its fleas as innokerlates yer with the germs. So I reckon you'd best get some tins of insecktercide afore ye sail.'
'What's yer givin' us?' retorted the mate, derisively, as be turned away. 'Fleas! Why don't yer say cockroaches at oncest? Or bugs? 'Cause our ship's full o' them—chock up to the 'atches.'
'Black's a colour I can't abide,' remarked the skipper, stroking a red promontory of a nose reflectively, as he stared at the big cat, who, undismayed at his kidnapping, stood proudly on the cabin table, and turning to each in turn, appeared to solicit admiration. 'It's a nob's cat, too,' he continued as he unbuckled a leather collar, studded with silver stars, and bearing a nameplate of the same metal, from round its neck. 'However, 'arf a loaf's better'n no bread. You've bin luckier'n me. When I found I couldn't nip a cat, I goes to a man I know'd, an' tried to buy his little tarrier dawg; but, Lor bless yer, tarriers is like cats—there's a run on 'em, an' the chap 'ad sold his'n long ago. Ay, that's a bloomin' swell puss, Bill, right enough! Shuldn't wonder if he'd be missed. It's just as well mebbe that we're goin' out with the mornin' tide.'
And the next morning, whilst the maddest policeman in Cooksland was frantically searching every ship along the foreshores of Port Sirius, there appeared in the morning papers:—
'Lost from Asbestos Villa, large Black Tom Cat. Answers to the name of 'Isaiah;' same name on collar. Forty pounds reward on conviction of the thief, if stolen. Half that sum, if only strayed, to the person who returns the animal.' And a disconsolate spinster lady was driving about from one police-station, to another imploring stolid inspectors to turn out the whole Force to the rescue of 'Isaiah, a thoroughbred Uranian, prize-taker at four Metropolitans, the finest cat in Cooksland.'
Meanwhile, 'Isaiah,' or 'Ike,' as the crew of the Heart's Desire called him for shortness, when they discovered his sex and the name on the collar, was outward bound for Russell Bay in the hold of the ketch. He proved an adaptable cat enough, but he caught no rats; seemed, indeed, to spend all his time in playing with the cockroaches, which, after a while, he devoured. And he lost his plumpness, and grew thin and bony, a very skeleton of a cat. Otherwise he was full of life and energy, and showed a particular attachment for his captor, followed him everywhere he went, and insisted on sleeping at the foot of his bunk nights, rather to the mate's discomfiture, because the skipper had told him gruesome tales of how cats, and especially Black Toms, were given to sucking the breath of sleeping men. Therefore be discouraged "Ike" with thumps and kicks from taking up any share of his berth. But 'Ike,' although dislodged for the moment, was back again as soon as the mate's first snore betokened safety. Two days out, a head wind arose, and blew heavily—so heavily that the Heart's Desire made little or no way, and was uncomfortably wet. Most cats would have stayed below in the small cabin, which, though it stank aloud, and was full of vermin was still dry. But 'Ike' couched on top of the galley, and kept a fixed look ahead. Whereupon the crew took a dislike to him, swore he could 'see the wind,' and begged the skipper to 'give him a passage.' But old Vance at once pointed out to them that to throw a cat, and more especially a black one, and a Tom into the bargain, overboard would probably end in the destruction of them all. This, he said, was a well known fact, proved again and again. He reminded them, too, of the plague and that 'Ike ' had on the previous day caught a rat, and held it until the boy killed it with the ship's broom. So the men gave in, but, nevertheless, eyed the cat distastefully as he squatted on the galley behind the funnel, drenched with spray, but ever staring ahead out of eyes that were mere green slits. The mate, it should have been remarked, equally with the skipper, took 'Ike's part. Said he! 'Say what yer likes but sence he's been aboard, he's kep' they blasted cockroaches from eatin' of my toenails, same's they used to do. Which is to his credit, seein' I rouse 'im out o' my bunk every chanst I gets.'
Nevertheless the wind still blew from dead ahead, watched steadily by 'Ike,' except during brief intervals for refreshment in the shape of cockroaches. And at last, as provisions and water began to run short, the skipper determined to 'bout ship, and, making a fair wind of it, put into Green River to refit. But, to the dismay of all hands, the wind promptly went round with them, and once more blew hard in their teeth. Two days of this, and then it fell a dead calm, and the Heart's Desire lay and baked in the sun not far from a big sailing ship in the same predicament. Presently lowering a boat, they pulled over to the vessel, and borrowed some provisions. The captain of the sailer, however, having heard of the plague at Sirius, would not allow them on board, and when Sands asked him if he would accept a fine cat as a present, he laughed the offer to scorn.
He wanted nothing hailing from an infected port, and thanked the Lord aloud that he was bound south. And, after a while, a light breeze filling his lofty royals, be drew away, leaving the Heart's Desire quietly roasting in the midsummer heats, midway between Fort Sirius and Russell Bay, her destination. Between the two was only a distance of 90 miles; yet they were already ten days out. And only too well justified forebodings of the 'sack' at the end of the voyage assailed the ketch's executive.
But now Sands fell ill; he complained of being griped; and, after a while, to the terror of his mates, a large swelling appeared under the right arm. This, as everybody knew, was an absolutely sure sign of the dreaded plague. Only there was one of the A. B.'s who said he thought the 'bubo' should be under the arm. But the mate himself was perfectly convinced that his time had arrived; was also certain that his punishment was directly connected with 'Ike,' who, when he took to his bed in great pain, accompanied him, and squatting on his feet, listened with a solicitous face to his groans. The skipper, too, did what he could by way of comforting the sufferer. There was on board a brand new copy of the Bible, which the boy's mother had given him when he first joined, and out of this old Vance read portions haphazard to the sick man; at one time be would be in 'Revelations,' at another in 'Judges.' The skipper was a grizzled, stout-set man of sixty, with a face like copper, one eye, a voice like a circular saw in green timber, and a very limited knowledge of letters. But he knew his duty to an old ship mate, and he sat there in the stifling den, and stuttered and stumbled hoarsely alike over genealogical tables, threats of hell-fire, and gracious promises of redemption. And at intervalshe wiped the sweat off his red, hot face with a great yellow kerchief, and paused to inwardly swear at the weather.
But the crew were weary with a voyage that seemed to them endless, accustomed as they were to short runs of a few days up Farmer's Inlet or round to Green River. And they wanted to get home to their wives and families; they were also, with the exception of the man who had doubts about the proper position of the mate's bubo, desperately frightened. Short shrift would Ike have had could they have laid hands upon him, for they looked upon him as the cause of all their troubles. But Sands and the skipper stuck to the black cat, the former especially averring solemnly that if anything happened to Ike, his own existence, already drawing to a close, would be cut prematurely short. However, save to catch and scrunch any cockroach that might creep out of the vessel's timbers with sinister intent on the mate's toenails, Ike seldom stirred from his nest among the frowsy blankets at the end of the bunk. The calm still held, and the Heart's Desire having got into the current off Cape Brownlow, was nearly out of sight of land, much to the disgust of all hands, with whom such an experience had for years been quite exceptional.
But for their long offing they would not have met the R.M.S. Carpathian, and signalled for assistance with the dirty old ensign at half-mast. Slowing down, and crossing nearly alongside, whilst her rail grew white with curious faces, tier upon tier, the big steamer hailed.
"Sick man. Can you spare a doctor for a few minutes?" shouted old Vance, in reply.
There was a momentary consultation among the uniforms on the bridge, then the engine-room bells clanged "Stop!" a boat dropped into the water, and in a few minutes a gilt edged medico sprung upon the low deck of the ketch.
'Plague, eh!' he exclaimed, rather taken aback. 'Are you sure? Where Is he? No, I'm d—d if I do!' as, poking his head down the hatchway, whither old Vance had motioned him, he hurriedly drew back. 'Smells like a pest-house, indeed. Bring him up, and lay him on the hatch.'
So, with the help of another man, poor Sands was carried up the steep steps. For a minute or two the doctor eyed him narrowly. Then inserting a clinical thermometer into his mouth, he consulted it, and exclaiming, 'Why, it's nearly normal!' he pulled aside the mate's under-vest.
'There's the bubo, Sir,' said old Vance, solemnly, pointing to a tumour, red and inflamed, on the left forearm. The doctor grinned. 'A big, blind boil, you idiots!' said he, as he slashed a lancet across it. 'Plague be d—d. Man's blood's in a bad state, that's all. Bilious, too. Give him some castor oil. Got none? Well, I'll send you some. And don't go stopping Her Majesty's mails again for nothing,' and off he went. Sands, who had, when they first brought him on deck, appeared in a state of collapse, upon hearing this, sat bolt upright—he only sign of life he had given except a moan when he felt the steel—and stared around incredulously, whilst Ike arched his back and curved his tail as if he understood. From the mail steamer came a ripple of laughter across the water; Vance swore aloud; the mate in a strong voice called for water to wash his shoulder; and the boy, sniggering, was promptly cuffed by a sailor. Presently the boat returned with the medicine and some provisions, and a crew that chaffed.
But this was only an episode in the serious situation in which the Heart's Desire found herself by reason of, as now even the skipper and the mate believed, the black cat. And yet they were loth to give Ike 'a passage.' And all hands were agreed that it was merely a question of colour. For two days another head wind had been buffeting the ketch', when an inspiration took hold on the skipper. In the cabin was a large bottle of strong 'Condy's Fluid.' Dragging Ike from his usual occupation of 'watching the wind,' old Vance put him in a bucket, and fairly flooded him with 'Condy,' rubbed him with it, and rolled him in it; and soaked him in it, until all the gleaming black began to turn colour, eventually drying into a dirty brownish red.
'An' if that don't have no effeck,' said the skipper, whilst all hands watched the disgusted cat as, in place of going on deck, he made his way forlornly to the mate's bunk, 'why, we'll have to 'ang him.' An hour afterwards the wind shifted, and late that night the Heart's Desire was anchored in Russell Bay discharging her long delayed cargo.
Meanwhile, some 300 black cats had been vainly delivered at "Asbestos Villa," and the police had, with the exception of the man who met the mate and missed fortune on that luckless night, given up further search, notwithstanding that the reward for recovery alone now stood permanently at £40.
But Constable Higgs still haunted the foreshores and the coastal shipping, and softly whispered: 'Isaiah, pretty puss!' to every black cat he came across.
Thus it happened that when the Heart's Desire arrived (having carried a fair wind all the way from Russell Bay) Higgs was on the wharf; but he never gave a second glance at the iron-rust coloured Ike, who sat on the skylight, and listened attentively whilst Mr. Sinclair, the owner, or owner's agent—no one ever seemed quite clear as to which he was—with much polite vituperation sacked both mate and skipper for having taken a month to do a week's trip in.
That night, Mrs. Sands, among much else, told her husband the story of the 'Forty-pound cat,' which was common property along the water frontages of Port Sirius. And Sands, listening, went to the door and called Ike, who had followed him from the ketch, and had received but a cold welcome from the mate, who was more than ever absolutely certain the animal was the cause of all their misfortunes. Then, while his wife and daughter fell upon Ike with hot water and soap, Sands rummaged in his round-bottomed bag until he found a silver-mounted collar, which, after polishing, he put in his pocket, and went further along the bay to the skipper's cottage. And there, over a pint of rum, the two seafarers took sweet counsel together.
* * * * * *
'That animal is not my dear Isaiah,' remarked an elderly benevolent-looking lady, staring through her pince nez, at a big gaunt cat, portions of whose fur showed rusty red and others black, and which two old seamen had just produced from a basket.
'Take it away, men,' she continued severely. 'I will not be tormented any more. The poor darling has gone, and I have now quite given up all hopes.'
'Beg pardon, mum,' replied the elder of the pair, a man with a big red face and one eye, 'but would you please squint at that there collar on his neck where it sez 'Hysier' as plain to see as the galley funnel?' and taking the collar off, old Vance offered it to the lady, who seized it and scrutinised it eagerly.
'It is my lost one's collar,' she almost screamed when certain of the fact. 'Oh, you wicked, wicked men to kill my lovely cat, and then try to impose upon me with a beast like that. Isaiah would have recognised me and flown to my arms in a moment. Eliza,' she continued to the maid who stood demurely by, 'send James here at once, and you ring up the police station and tell them to send some men without delay.' Her voice shrilled as she spoke, all traces of kindliness vanished from her features, and her grey corkscrew curls of a bygone age shook with anger and indignation.
Poor Sands lost his head, and plumping down on his knees begged piteously for mercy. But the skipper, backing to the door, shut it, and roared: 'It's Hysier, mum, his own self. I'll swear it on the 'Oly Scripshers. We wouldn't kill no cat for its weight in dimonds. Just 'old on standin' fer five minits till Bill there spins the yarn, an' I'll bet the 'ole Heart's Desire to a canvas dingy as how ye'll pity us, mum, when you 'ears o' the orful luck that there Ike—Hysier, I means—has been the cause o' bringin' on us. Now, then, Bill—'
At this moment someone appeared in front of the long French windows that gaze on the garden, and exclaiming, 'It's Mr. Sinclair,' the old lady beckoned him to enter. Mr. Sinclair, as well he might, looked around him in astonishment at the mate, still on his knees, babbling of a first offence, and pleading for clemency; at old Vance, who had taken to shouting with damnable iteration 'It's Hysier hisself, mum,' at the irate mistress and the sniggering maid; at the big, gaunt cat, assiduously licking its face. In their present state of mind, with fear of the police predominating, the men hailed the sight of their late employer with pleasure, and with one accord asked him to 'put a word in for them.'
Eventually, with much stumbling, Sands told the story we know, Vance corroborating at intervals. And just as he finished, Isaiah was observed to be dragging something from under an ottoman. It proved to be a large basket, softly quilted inside, and within this he curled himself up, purring contentedly.
'Eliza,' said her mistress, solemnly, 'it must be Isaiah, after all. He knows his bed. Not one of the hundreds of cats we have inspected ever did such a thing. Presently, when he quite recovers from the unspeakable trials and privations he has undergone at the hands of these superstitious, but, on the whole, I think, kindly and well meaning sailors, he will probably recognise us. Mr. Sinclair, I must ask you to be so good as to reinstate them in their old positions on the vessel. I do not think that the one will ever steal a cat again, or the other become an accessory after the fact.'
And she was quite right, for though there are rats still to be found on the Heart's Desire (of which and several other small craft the lady of Asbestos Villa was the actual owner) both skipper and mate would suffer torture ere they would again bring a cat aboard the old craft.
'Well, of all the confounded cheek as I ever heard of, this takes the cake!' And the speaker, a tall, thin man of about sixty, with a brown, hard-looking, square-jawed face, surmounted by a great shock of grey hair, threw himself back in his chair, and stared sternly out of cold blue eyes at the young fellow, who, from the opposite side of the table in the cabin of the schooner 'Casuarina,' then lying in Port Sirius, New South Wales, had calmly asked him for his daughter. 'Why,' he went on, presently recovering from his astonishment, 'you've clean forgot yourself, Bob Drake—or I s'pose,' he added with a sneer, 'I should say Cap'en Drake. Because years ago I took ye off the 'Vernon' an' sent you to sea, an' made a man of you, and at long last put ye in charge o' this ship an' paid you like a dook, d'yer think that gives you a right to, as cool as a cowcumber, come and ask me for my only daughter? For two pins I'd sack ye at once.' And Amos Priddy, retired master mariner, and owner of the topsail-schooner 'Casuarina' and half a dozen smaller craft, stood up and laughed with a short derisive bark.
The other, a smart, handsome, young sailor, also rose, and, undeterred by his companion's passion, said quietly:— 'I don't deny, sir, that I've something to thank you for. But I think that fourteen years of faithful service isn't a bad set-off. I've saved a bit of money—not much, as you know—and got my master's ticket. We've loved each other—Mabel and me—since we were so high, and I don't quite see why we shouldn't set married without waiting any longer.'
At this matter-of-fact statement Priddy's rage overcame him, and he absolutely danced about the little apartment.
'Oh, you don't, don't you!' he raved. 'You don't see any difference between the daughter of a man with twenty thousan' pound and a miserable scallywag of a State orphan, with no come from no go to, as thinks because he's made a couple o' vy'ges as skipper that he's admiral o' the fleet. Why, damn me,' he continued, 'you must be a cussed socialist or somethin' o' that kind! Pack your traps, you scoundrel, an' get ashore quick an' lively. I'll send another man aboard to take your place in the morning. An' by the Lord, if I catch you sneakin' round my house I'll shoot you like a dog!' And, so saying, the irate owner sprung up the companion and on to the little wharf, alongside which the 'Casuarina' was lying, whilst Drake, who had expected nothing else, went on deck, and presently bent pennant D (which in sea-talk signifies 'No') on the signal halliards, kept it hoisted for a minute or two, and then hauled it down. His gaze was fixed on a small house among the fig trees on Peacock's Point, and he smiled as he saw a blue handkerchief waved from one of its Windows, This is love-talk, and signified, in this instance, 'Well, it can't be helped. I'm ready when you are, dear,' The crisis just passed had long been foreseen by the lovers, and provided for.
Boy and man, young Drake had, as he told Amos, served faithfully, and his master had proved a hard and exacting one. The little chap, taken from the State training ship, had passed the first years of his servitude in grinding misery. Then, by sheer force of character, aided by intellectual capacity of no mean order, he had gradually forced himself into notice, and for some years had been Priddy's most trusted servant. Amos was a sweater of the first grade—'a real hard case,' as even his few intimates called him—and Drake would have left his service long ago but for sunny-haired, blue-eyed Mabel, who, ever since as a small and tarry boy he was wont to be sent up to the house to chop wood and do 'chores' generally, had secretly played with him, and comforted him with stolen delicacies. Since then the girl had made several trips in her father's vessel, including one never-to be-forgotten one on the 'Casuarina.' But the old money-grubbing widower had been blind to the Cupid-play under his nose. Thus the scene just described had taken him utterly by surprise; and as he strode homewards up the steep road he was all on fire with anger and determination to give his daughter the 'rounds of the kitchen.'
The 'Casuarina' on this especial trip was bound for Norfolk Island with a general cargo and one passenger—a passenger, on this occasion, as it happened, after Bob Drake's own heart, and, despite Amos' threats, midnight found the young man throwing Moreton Bay figs at his sweetheart's window. Experience had taught him that they were superior to gravel, making less noise.
'I'm locked in,' whispered Mabel, her face appearing dimly from among the passion vines that enshrouded the casement, a good 8ft up.
'Jump!' commanded Bob, after a minute's thought.
First came a big bundle, which he caught. Then came Mabel herself, whom he also caught, but whose weight sent the pair of them to grass.
'He's been a good old dad to me,' panted the girl, as she hung back reluctantly.
'But a jolly bad boss to me,' replied Bob, grimly.
'And he beat me when he came home this afternoon,' said Mabel, coming forward again,
'That settles it,' said Bob, as taking her arm and bundle, he kissed her, and led her to where the Chinese cook held the dingy at the wharf, for the schooner had been hauled into the stream after dark.
No sooner had they stepped on deck than, without orders, the sails fell from the yards, and were as silently as might be sheeted home. The mooring rope was slipped from the buoy, and the 'Casuarina' glided into the fairway like a white phantom, whilst old Amos, under the influence of rage, a certain amount of remorse, and more rum toddy than usual, snored unconsciously.
The old man slept late, and, missing the usual 'morning' of rum and milk that Mabel was accustomed to bring to his bedside, recollected hazily that he had boxed her ears, and called her an assorted lot of bad names, and then got up and went to the window. The schooner's place was empty. He rubbed his eyes and roared for the housekeeper, a decent Scotch body, who had been stewardess with him when he was in steam on the coast, and worshipped Mabel.
'Where's the schooner?' he shouted, and then, instinctively, 'Where's Mabel?'
'Hoo am I to ken whaur the schooner is?' she replied, looking in reprobation at his shirt tails. 'But I'll ca' Mistress Mabel.' Back she came presently, her old face blanched with fear. 'Her bed's no been sleepit in!' she exclaimed. 'Ye miserable auld wretch, ye lifted yer han' to her yester' een, an' noo she's gane, an', wi'out a doubt, drooned hersel. Ye ha' gude cause to be 'shamed o' yersel, ye auld scoundrel.'
At any other time this tirade on the part of one who for years had been submission itself, would have as completely staggered him as Drake's business had done. But, just now, guessing instinctively, as he did, how matters stood, he felt that he had no time to waste over details.
Hurriedly dressing, he rushed down to the port, and on board of the 'Bantam,' an old racketty tug that belonged to him. 'Got steam up!' he shouted to the amazed skipper, smoking an early pipe aft. 'I want to catch the 'Casuarina,' No steam! Look sharp, then; there's no time to lose if you want to keep your billet.'
'There's the 'Stormcock' over yonder,' replied the other, surlily. 'She's got her steam alright, besides going two to our one. Take her.'
For a minute Amos hesitated—but only for a minute. To charter the other boat would mean money. And he believed his own tug quite capable of catching the runaway. Thus it happened that because all hands on the 'Bantam,' among whom, owing to the arrival on board of a well-known police officer, a suspicion of the truth had spread, worked with might and main to hang back—here a leaky joint, there a cylinder to be packed—it was midday before the tug was wallowing and wheezing down the harbour.
Meanwhile the 'Casuarina,' having cleared the heads, was before a freshening westerly sailing into the wide Pacific.
Quite recently, when the Reverend Henry Spicer—the solitary passenger aforementioned—had waited on Amos Priddy for a subscription to the Melanesian Mission, Amos had repulsed him with such scorn and contumely as made the parson very angry indeed. Thus Drake found him not at all unwilling to grant the favour he asked at his hands, which was merely to at once marry him and Mabel.
'You see,' said Bob, in homely style, 'the fat's in the fire now. The old man's pretty sure to hunt after us, and perhaps catch us. But when he does, Mabel'll have to be Mrs, Drake, or I'll know the reason why.' And Mr. Spicer, looking at Bob's face as they walked the deck together, decided in his own mind that, had he seen fit to refuse to perform the ceremony, he would have had a very hard time of it.
Coming on deck just after washdown, Mabel found the schooner tearing along with the wind on the quarter, and with every stitch set from fore-royal to flying jib, from top-gallant staysail to gaff topsail, although the wind was evidently strengthening and beginning to sing shrilly through the taut rigging, whilst every now and again a little splash would come over the weather bulwarks and trickle slowly across the white deck into the lee scuppers. The sun shone gloriously, the air was like dry wine, porpoises leapt and gambolled on each bow, the little galley funnel smoked cheerily, and Ah Fee grinned out of the door through which came the smell of breakfast. It was all a familiar enough sight to the girl, who, standing up to windward, a fine, alert, handsome figure of young Australian womanhood, with flushed cheeks and gleaming eyes, had forsaken all for love, and thought all well lost.
During breakfast they could hear the mate—old Harry Howe, who had been mate when Drake was a boy—taking in the foreroyal, flying jib, and gaff topsail; and thus eased, the schooner settled steadily to work on nearly an even keel,
'We'll be married at six bells, dear, said Bob, as they rose to go on deck. And Mabel nodded and blushed, taking it all as a matter of course; for the routine had long been arranged between the lovers.
At 11 o'clock, then, the 'Casuarina' was made gay with the Commercial Code, also a sort of reading desk was improvised with packing cases covered with the Australian ensign. At this the Rev. Mr. Spicer officiated, whilst the crew of four men, the cook, and a boy, all in their Sunday go-to-meetings, formed an interested and appreciative audience. Old Howe gave Mabel away; the men cheered; the Reverend Spicer (he was sixty if a day) kissed the bride, and everyone wished the newly-wed ones all sorts of good things, They had just finished drinking the health of Captain and Missus Drake, proposed with solemn incoherence by the mate, when Mabel's quick eye caught sight of a smudge of smoke astern. Her husband, following her gaze, saw it too, and, taking his glass from the cleats, he stared awhile. Then be sent Howe up the main rigging. When the mate returned, he reported with a sympathetic grin: 'It's a tug, Cap'en, and if I'm not mightily mistook, it's the ole 'Bantam' a-comin' up as fast as her 'ealth will allow her. Shall we set the kites again, an' give 'em a good run for ther money?'
Drake nodded assent, and looked rather anxiously up at the dog vane, and then he and Mabel and the parson went below to a little feast improvised in their honour by Ah Fee.
* * * * * *
All one day and night the 'Bantam' had bucketed away ere catching sight of the 'Casuarina,' and Amos was beginning to think be must have missed the schooner, when the special look-out man picked her up. 'She's a-signallin' of us, sir,' he added, presently, breaking in on Amos's triumphant exclamations. Snatching the glass out of his hands, the old man levelled it across the bridge-rail, and gazed intently. Then, his face growing black with passion, he straightened himself, shook his fist at the schooner, rammed the telegraph over to 'full speed ahead,' and burst into a torrent of imprecations that made the police officer at his side, seasoned vessel though he was, open his eyes in amazement. Amos had suddenly recollected the calling of the 'Casuarina's passenger, and understood the meaning of those flags as well as if he had been there.
'I'll give him seven years' hard,' he yelled; 'take him back in irons, constable. Pity abduction wasn't a capital crime, so as he could swing for it. An', by Gosh!' he concluded, ' the wind's hauling to the east'ard, and in another hour we'll have him. As for that jade, I'll put her in a convent to cool her hot blood a bit.'
But the policeman said nothing. He was very sick, and preferred leaning over the rail to discussing family matters with old Priddy. True enough, the wind was coming dead ahead, and the 'Casuarina' could be seen bracing her yards up.
'We've got her,' roared Amos, rubbing his hands in ferocious glee, as the tug approached near enough for the figures on the schooner's deck to be clearly discerned, 'An' by G—d!' he continued, 'if they don't stop we'll run 'em down.'
The 'Bantam' was now within a quarter of a mile of the schooner, which was going close hauled, when all at once the latter's yards swung round, over, too, went her main-boom, and back she came, bearing west by north, tearing past the tug at a pace that soon left the latter far astern.
The skipper of the tug grinned, as he muttered to himself: 'You don't catch Bob Drake with a pinch o' salt. It's going to blow like hell, too, or I'm mistook. Stand clear for squalls from the boss now.'
Aloud, he said to the storming owner: 'I reckon, sir, we'd best be getting back. There's a heasterly gale comin'; coal's pretty near out, an' the ole 'Bantam' ain't built for sich 'eavy weather as is brewin'. That there Bob Drake knows all that as well as we does, an' can play hidey go seek with us all over the shop. See, he's shortenin' sail now.' For answer, Priddy consigned him and Drake and the schooner and the tug to the alleged hottest of all known places.
But now a big sea began to get up, and the 'Bantam' had her decks swept repeatedly, and every movable thing carried off them, The night fell dark, dreary, and tempestuous; and the little craft tossed from one great comber to the other with groaning timber and paddles anon whirling in the air, and then buried over their tops, made terrible weather of it. Far on the port bow, as darkness set in, they could catch a glimpse of white, like the wing of a seabird, showing the position of the 'Casuarina.' Midnight found the tug in a most perilous state. Her engines had broken down altogether, the starboard paddle-wheel was a wreck, the cabin half full of water, and the only place of refuge was the bridge, to which clung the salt-encrusted, storm-blasted men, whilst the helpless fabric under foot reeled and swung, and was hurled like a cork hither and thither, now in a valley deep down between hills of pouring blackness, now buffeted by their phosphorescent crests, till she appeared part and parcel of themselves.
'For God's sake, sir,' shouted the skipper into old Priddy's ear, 'let me try a blue light. I've got some 'ere dry yet. If the schooner don't help us, we're all dead men.'
'Die, and be damned!' yelled the other, savagely; 'd'ye think I'll knuckle down to him?'
Even as he spoke a roaring comber leapt at them, and tore away the little shade deck under which they had hitherto found scant shelter; tore away, too, the funnel of the tug, and then swept triumphantly into the darkness. Lucky for them that, many years ago, on the banks of a northern river, men had worked well and truly, and for the honour of their craft, on the 'Bantam,' or she would have gone to the bottom there and then under the dreadful impact.
But when the water cleared away, and the bruised and dazed men recovered their senses, they found their number two short. The unfortunate policeman had gone, and so had the engineer, their last cries unheard among the dreadful clamour of wind and sea. The locker in which the signals were kept was still intact. And presently a fierce blue glare lit up the disastrous scene. The captain of the tug had at last defied his master. But Amos, his form bowed to the howling blast, lashed to the bridge, and with a life buoy under his arms, said never a word.
It seemed scarce a minute ere there shot up an answering signal, and the hearts of the watchers on death were comforted by the sight of the "Casuarina" under a lower topsail, a storm staysail, and just showing a shred of sail aft, all outlined in vivid fires, and almost, as it seemed, on top of them. A faint cheer broke from the tug's bridge, and her skipper, as he shouted, "Well done, Drake. Oh! the brave lad!" could almost have sworn that among the voices raised in praise was that of old Amos himself. All through the morning hours the "Casuarina," handled with most consummate seamanship, kept close to the wrecked tug. And to those miserable ones clinging to their frail holding, now barely visible amidst the fierce waters, the waves seemed to diminish in violence, and to roll with more rounded summits, until the dawn broke, a result due, as they presently discovered, to Drake's having used every drop of oil he could lay his hands on. Presently the watchers saw the schooner's boat lowered with infinite care and patience into the great seas, and, with Drake at the steering oar, make for all that remained of the tug. Then, one by one, at long intervals, the survivors jumped into the strong arms held out to receive them as the boat alternately came alongside or was swept away to leeward. And at last, after an exhausting, dangerous, and heroic work as ever happened in the history of the sea, the rescue was made, and Amos and his companions landed safe on the 'Casuarina's deck.
Soaked to the skin, his hair and face white with brine, his eyes staring and bloodshot, and with the look in them of the man who has been facing death for hours, Amos, as he was taken out of the canvas sling by which—so weak and worn were the rescued ones—they had been hoisted on board, suddenly felt soft arms round his neck, soft lips pressed to his cracked and crusted ones, whilst his daughter's voice sounded in his ears pleading for forgiveness. Casting a look to where the 'Bantam's' mast was now alone visible quivering like a reed against the dull glow of sunrise, the old man smiled sourly; then he held out his hand to Drake, standing near by, and said: "Well, damn it, Bob, after all, you're a man, an', what's better still, a seaman whose like'd be hard to beat. S'pose we call it a square deal."
"The Pastoralist Review."
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