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Title: Sea Yarns Author: John Arthur Barry * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1302931h.html Language: English Date first posted: May 2013 Most recent update: May 2013 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of 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 of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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The Last Voyage of Martin
The Sultan's Egg
Ormon the Gulfer
The Looting of the Ly-Chee
At Mat Aris Light
The Birthday Pearl
Six Seamen and a Menagerie
In Care of the Captain
The Branch Bank at Mooroobin
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 suit 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 45° 15' east longitude, 36° 13' 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,' &c.
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 born 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 legs, 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 cleanest 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.
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 to 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 one 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.
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, cockbiling 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 77° 39', latitude 15° 20'. 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. Everywhere 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 seafaring 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!
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, &c. 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° 5' east, latitude 29° 10' 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-locker, 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 bobbing 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 clouds 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.'
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 red-whiskered, 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 opportunity.'
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 and 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 to 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.
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-masted 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-piggledy 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 fore 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, &c., 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.
People thought it very strange that Roland Haynes should go to sea again, it seemed such an absurd thing for the owner of one of the finest farms in the county of Salop so to do. But when his wife died, Roland became restless, and his life grew a burden to him. He felt stifled and oppressed, and the sight even of the laurels and laurustinus bushes around the house became hateful. He strove against the feeling with all his might; but do what he would, his thoughts and desires wandered away back to the old days of tall ships, and stormy winds, and wild waters, and all the majesty and beauty of the great ocean on which his early life had been passed. He heard calling to him 'the moanings of the homeless sea,' and went to it.
'Jim,' he said to his reformed scapegrace of a brother, 'I'm off to sea again. I can't stand this place, now Alice has gone. Do your best to look after it. I know I can trust you as myself to take good care of Nora. I'll be back again in a twelvemonth.'
So Roland left the diamond-latticed, black-joisted, rambling old Clayhorns, as the place was called, where generations upon generations of stalwart yeomen had lived and died, satisfied with their lot, and innocent of the wandergeist, and went off to see if salt water could allay his perturbed spirit. In most households, but perhaps not for very many years, a wanderer will make his appearance. Roland had been the first of his race, and the simple inlanders deemed him as in some sort possessed.
One morning, rising a boy, he had left the old Clayhorns, and the little village of Hampton-Kirby, nestling amongst its chestnuts and elms, only to reappear a bearded man, grave and bronzed, bringing with him a sweet young girl-wife. He had thrown himself headlong into life's battle, emerging chastened and successful. Therefore, he was received back into his inheritance with open arms, and all people, except his brother James, rejoiced.
So the wanderer settled down, as he thought, to pass the remainder of his days quietly on the broad pasture-lands of Clayhorns. But they were all dead now, all except James and little Nora, his one child, who was just twelve when her father left. And every time he returned she was a year older. He sailed his own ship, and could afford to choose his freights and measure his absences.
A year to a day, almost, and Nora, at school in Shrewsbury town, would be driven to the station, sure of seeing there the bold, handsome face she loved so well and missed so bitterly, and of being folded to the broad breast of the wanderer before all the sympathising crowd, who would remark one to the other: 'It be Capt'in Roly a-comed whoam from zee to 'is little gel.'
Then came the run home for a brief two or three months' holiday, a time in which Captain Roly and his daughter were all in all to each other and inseparable. These were the epochs that in those days she measured her life by.
When Nora was sixteen, her father, departing as usual, said: 'I'm getting tired, my darling. This shall be my last voyage. I'll come home and stay there, see my pet married—not to a sailor, though, I hope—and, in God's good time, have my bones laid alongside those others in the old churchyard over yonder.'
So he sailed away on his last voyage, as he promised it should be. But he never came home any more; and neither of Captain Roly nor of his good ship the Wrekin could any tidings be heard. Money was not spared in the endeavour; but the only scrap of news gained was that the Wrekin had been spoken in such and such a latitude and longitude on her passage to China, 'All well.'
A year went by—a year of mourning and broken-hearted wretchedness for poor Nora, and then James Haynes—pretty certain, this time, that his brother was not above-ground—came out in quite a different character. He who had always been so quiet and unassuming, as befitted a man who has had his chances in the world, and tried, and failed miserably again and again, suddenly grew big and blustered, boasting of what might have been, and what yet should be. Briefly, there was no will discovered; and presently, scoundrel James laid claim to the whole estate, on the ground of Nora's illegitimacy. Proceedings were at once taken by both sides, for Squire Melton and the Vicar, and a few other of Captain Roly's old friends at Hampton-Kirby, were quick to espouse the orphan's cause and compass the downfall of the usurper. No marriage certificate could be found at the Clayhorns. All we knew vaguely, and as dropped by themselves, was that Nora's parents had been married in Ireland; therefore, in that country a search was carried on.
Meanwhile, Nora left Clayhorns and came to live with us in the adjoining hamlet of Wrockwardine. My mother was a far-off cousin of Captain Roly's, as everybody around called him; and I had sailed two voyages in the Wrekin myself, and but for an accident, should have gone the last as chief-officer of her.
It may perhaps be imagined, then, how we petted and condoled with pretty Nora when she came to us for refuge from the harsh unkindness of her uncle, and one of the farmwomen he had installed as housekeeper at Clayhorns. From both her parents James had received nothing but benefits; yet he never seemed to tire of taunting the girl about the mystery surrounding their union, a diversion in which his creature joined con arnore. So, as I have said, Nora came to us in our little cottage at Wrockwardine.
Many a time she would exclaim: 'I know there was a will! My father told me so. He even told me where he kept it—in the "Sultan's Egg," which no one but himself could open. But the egg has gone. He must have taken it to sea with him. But oh,' she would say, 'never mind the will! Let everything go, if we can but find the other paper. Where were they married?' And the poor child would cry as if her heart was breaking.
But look as they might, search where they would, they seemed never able to discover where Captain Roly had found the beautiful, dark-haired, blue-eyed girl that he had brought home with him after those long years of absence, what time the May flowers and violets were blowing at Clayhorns, and all the land was quick with spring.
Never a very communicative man, he appeared to have confided the story of his wooing to nobody. His wife had been equally reticent, whether of design, or of pure unconcern at what people might say or think, was difficult now to guess. The only thing that came to light during these investigations was actual proof of a will having been in existence, thus confirming Nora's story. Agents unearthed a firm of lawyers in Chancery Lane who remembered drawing up such an instrument for Roland Haynes just about the time he returned to the old life. But they positively refused to commit themselves to any statement as to its contents. They could or would remember nothing. Captain Haynes had applied to them as a stranger, not a client. They had obliged him; and he had gone his way, taking the duly witnessed document with him. Nora had seen him place it in the Sultan's Egg—a curious piece of Eastern workmanship, of which more anon. Probably, so the gossips said, the captain had put his marriage lines there also—always supposing them to have had existence—and James had made away with the lot.
Meanwhile, I, having my living to get, went off to sea, leaving Nora, then a tall slip of a girl, all legs and wings, so to speak, at home with my mother and a spinster aunt, both doing their best to spoil her. On my return, eighteen months later, I found the case 'Haynes v. Haynes' still unsettled, and Nora, by some magic process, transformed into a very beautiful and stately young woman, whom I was actually afraid to offer to kiss until she took the initiative.
Injunctions and all sorts of other things had been served upon James Haynes, who, however, still held possession, and, to all appearance, was master at Clayhorns. The lawyers, so far as I could understand, had taken the case from court to court, had dropped it in a certain one, and now wanted more money to begin over afresh with. Nora's friends had already spent a large sum in defending her rights without any prospect of repayment, and they were beginning to get dubious. Also, there was some talk of James's marrying his housekeeper, the ex-farm labourer before spoken of.
So the years went by quietly and uneventfully enough at our little cottage. Nora seemed fairly happy, and was the joy and delight of the two old people. I had succeeded well in my profession, and was now master and part owner of a smart barque sailing out of Bristol.
Squire Melton was dead, and the Vicar had left the district. 'Haynes v. Haynes' had stopped for good, apparently, in whichever of those courts the lawyers had left it last when funds fell short. James still held the property, was married, and had a son. It seemed a poor lookout indeed for Nora's ever returning to Clayhorns as its mistress. People, generally, when they thought of the affair at all, accepted the state of things as settled. And willing enough though many undoubtedly were to help to remove the slur cast on her parents' memory, no one in that community was rich enough to start the case again.
That Nora at times still felt it acutely, we at Elm Cottage knew only too well. Her faith in and love for her lost father were strong as ever. At each return her questioning eyes would meet mine, but always in vain. Beyond that last brief message from the sea, I could hear nothing of the fate of the vessel whose rigged namesake we could see from our windows.
At last my mother died. The old home was broken up; and in pursuance of a scheme long looked forward to and prepared for, I asked Nora to be my wife. We had, in the good old-fashioned sense of the word, been courting ever since I came back from that West Indian voyage to find her shot up and moulded into the prettiest girl for fifty miles around the Wrekin. So, without any backing and filling, she just said 'Yes;' and a week afterwards I took her on board the Daphne and sailed for Hong-kong, via Singapore, as a honeymoon trip. Having now got things a little clear and shipshape, I am going to tell you by what curious chance the fate of Captain Roly and his good ship, and the fair fame of his wife and daughter, were, after all these years, made manifest.
We had passed Anjer, and were lying becalmed in the island-dotted Strait of Banca, when, one morning, the cook suddenly discovered that he was out of coal. Ordering the boat to be lowered, I told the second-mate to take three hands and pull to the nearest island for a load of wood, either drift or from the bush. On their return, and whilst they were handing up their cargo just abreast of the galley, Nora, walking forward and looking curiously at the assortment of planks, trunks of trees, and such-like rubbish that they had collected, suddenly cried out to me, standing at the break of the poop: 'Oh Harry, Harry, my father's ship!'
Thinking the sun had been too much for her, I ran to where she was pulling away at a bit of plank which stuck up from the heap. It was one of the head-boards of a ship that her eye had happened to light on, and on which, in large black letters, was printed 'Wrekin. Lon.' The rest was broken off. But that it was a portion of Captain Roly's old ship there could be no doubt whatever. In the first place, the name was a peculiar one; then it was not, in those days, very often that a vessel carried her name on her head-boards; the beading had once also been gilded, as was that of the lost ship's. No one amongst the boat's crew seemed to be certain as to the precise spot it had been picked up in. But presently a boy who had accompanied them remembered pulling it out of the sand on the little beach where they landed. He had noticed the lettering, which indeed looked remarkably fresh, but had thought no more than that the plank would make 'fine kindling chips for the doctor.'
We then set to and overhauled every splinter of the stuff; but, with the exception of a bit of spar and a fragment of a grating, there was no sign of any more ship's furniture. However, I was quickly in the boat, and, with Nora, who wished to come, heading for the island. I eyed it curiously as we approached. It was only a rock, hardly more than a quarter of a mile round, but fully a hundred feet high, and covered everywhere, except at the little white beach, with tropical vegetation. Stepping ashore, we examined every nook and cranny, but without making any further discovery.
For my own part, I did not think that the Wrekin could have been wrecked either here or in the vicinity without some one hearing of it. Besides, these narrow seas were, as a rule, too well charted for skippers to run against any unknown danger. As I pointed out to Nora, who was unreasoningly certain that we stood near the very spot, if not actually on it, the board might have floated in hundreds of miles from either the Indian Ocean or the China Sea, to its last resting-place on this little islet. Also, most vessels passing Anjer were noted, and their destination ascertained. Inquiries, I recollected, had been specially made of the Dutch authorities, and they replied that nothing had been seen or heard of the Wrekin.
But Nora was not to be convinced. 'My poor father's bones are lying with his ship somewhere near this rock, Harry,' she said, wiping away the tears. 'Providence led me to see that piece of wood. It was no chance. Surely we can find out by some means. And, oh Harry,' she whispered, 'perhaps the secret of his marriage and the will!'
'Even so, Nora,' I replied. 'The papers were pulp long ago, and digested in fishes' bellies. Nothing of that sort could stand such a soaking.'
'All the salt water in the ocean would never destroy the contents of the Sultan's Egg, Harry,' said she. '"Air-tight, damp-tight, and dust-tight," I once heard father say, when he was showing it to the Squire.'
'But how on earth are we to find out, Nora?' I asked, perhaps a little vexed at her insistence, and knowing, as I did full well, that Captain Roly would never run his ship slap into a place like this.
'If it isn't too deep,' said she, 'couldn't some one dive? Or stay; we might drag with hooks, as I once saw people doing in the Severn.'
'And then?' I asked.
'Well, then, if we find that the ship really is there, go to Singapore and hire a professional diver, and let him go down.'
I confess this rather staggered me. Nora appeared to have the affair quite taken for granted, besides developing suddenly a fund of resource I had never given her credit for. All the business I had in Singapore would only take a couple of days at the most to transact, and here was my lady playing Old Harry with the voyage. 'Well, well, dear, we'll see,' I answered. 'Meanwhile, I fancy there's a breeze coming off the Sumatra coast.—Pull back sharp, Mr Brown, and get the deep-sea lead. We may as well find out what water we've got here.'
Twenty-five fathoms—twenty—eighteen—sandy bottom. Then, as we pulled round to the Banca side, it deepened again to twenty-five; and, before another cast could be taken, the boat's keel scraped over a reef running out, as we saw, for a considerable distance.
'By jingo!' exclaimed the second-mate as he picked himself up—for he had been standing with the lead in his hand, and the shock had capsized him—'there's a pretty customer for a ship on a dark night and everything set.—Is it charted, sir?'
'Sure to be,' I answered shortly, seeing Nora's eyes fixed on my face. 'I don't remember it, though. Let's get on board. Here's the breeze at last.'
Hastily taking its bearings, I ran down into the saloon to find the islet on the chart. Sure enough, there was the black dot—Pulo something or other—and soundings given as 'deep water' all around it. Not a vestige of a reef for miles. Looking at the date of the chart, which was an Admiralty one, I saw that it was not yet twelve months old.
'Can it be possible,' I thought, 'that Nora is right after all? No reason why, because the Daphne's on the safe side, with twenty fathoms under her, that the Wrekin shouldn't have been on the wrong one, with a stiff breeze, a dark night, all plain sail, and a poor lookout for white water. Besides, perhaps, then, it wasn't to within feet of its present height. A ship hitting it would go down like a stone, with everything standing.'
Communing thus with myself, and staring at the chart in no very satisfied frame of mind, in comes Nora, and putting her arms round my neck and kissing me, asks, 'Well, Harry?'
'I'll do it, dear,' I made answer. 'We'll leave the Daphne in Singapore, and hire a diver, if there's one to be had, and come back and see what we can find. The firm will be vexed at the delay, I expect; but I fancy my share in the old hooker's enough to carry me through.'
'I shall sleep easier to-night, Harry,' she replied, 'than I thought I should.'
Not much relishing such discoveries in a main ocean thoroughfare, until our arrival at Singapore I kept a man with his eyes skinned on the foreyard in the daytime, and the lead going pretty constantly both night and day right along.
I had imagined that there would have been no trouble about getting a diver amongst the natives, who are almost born in the water. But I was mistaken. When they heard the depth and the position, not one of them volunteered, although I offered an exorbitant price. Finally, tired of arguing with them, I did what I ought to have thought of before—I went to the captain of the Cordelia sloop-of-war, to whom, amongst others, I had reported the discovery of the reef. To him I told the whole story, and he became interested. 'I can't go with you,' he said; 'I wish I could. But we've been ordered up to Canton on special duty. The natives would have been useless at such a depth, even if you had persuaded them to go. Can't do anything, you see, without the dress in that water. However, I'll lend you a capital diver and all the paraphernalia. We have a couple of turn-outs here, as it happens. In return, you can buoy the reef for me. I shall go and have a look at it directly I come back. Word has already been sent to Anjer, so that there is no present danger to the incoming shipping.—You say you have a boat. Well, get her alongside in the morning, and we'll fix the pumps and things for you.'
Had there been only ourselves, I should have made shift with the Daphne's long-boat; but, knowing that it would be useless to think of leaving Nora behind when bound on such an expedition, I hired a good-sized cutter with a comfortable cabin, which I was lucky enough to drop across laid up in the harbour.
I took with me the second-mate and four A.B.s, in addition to diver Williams of the Cordelia, whose kind captain wished us all sorts of good fortune as, next morning, she steamed away from us round Cape Romania into the China Sea. We had a quick run down to the Strait, and, on the second night, were all camped comfortably on the sandy beach, with the cutter moored snugly alongside a little natural pier of rock. Next morning, a most unlucky accident happened. Williams, espying a couple of wild pigs, and, sailor-like, starting full tear after them, slipped and fell on the rocks, breaking his arm just above the wrist. Fortunately, the second-mate was a capital bone-setter, and soon had the limb fixed up again. But, apparently, we might as well have stayed in Singapore as be where we were with our crippled diver. Of course his advice would still be very valuable; but in diving—as some of us presently discovered—an ounce of practice below is worth tons of advice given from above. However, under Williams's instructions, we commenced to sweep for the wreck out of the cutter's boat.
We tried the reef-side of the islet first, and worked the whole day, Nora following us on foot along its rocky shore. We had no success; and as this was the part in which we might reasonably have expected to find some traces, I retired that night pretty certain that ours was a wildgoose chase. But Williams, who—barring that propensity to race after things—turned out a most intelligent fellow, was not a bit discouraged. He took no more notice of the pain he must have suffered than of a mosquito bite, and insisted on using his sound limb at every opportunity.
'Lor bless you, sir,' said he, 'I've been down to wrecks—ships as 'ave been seen to sink—an' not found 'em within half a mile of the spot. There's all sorts o' strong currents an' rips below there, as keeps movin' 'em bodily in course o' time. Why, she might be half-ways across the Strait by this.'
But on the morrow, still sweeping near the reef, only farther out, our drag suddenly held fast—caught so tightly that all our strength barely sufficed to bring it up. With it came a broken spar—a piece of a royal-yard, to which hung a lump of rotten canvas.
'That is her!' cries Williams.—'What water? Twenty-five fathom—it's deepish! She's upright, I reckon, or near it, an' if her top spars 'ud been standin', their trucks wouldn't be so very far off this boat's bottom.'
Now, getting the cutter out, we dropped a grapnel, and, after some fishing, it hooked firmly, so that we couldn't move it even with the winch. This was the line that, but for the accident, Williams would have descended by.
The question now was, who would take his place? Not a soul of us had the least experience, and we eyed the dress, boots, helmet, back and front weights, pipe, and all the rest of the outfit, doubtfully. Everything was ready. But, notwithstanding Williams's earnest explanations and assurances, there were no volunteers. It takes pretty strong nerves to imagine one's self pottering about at the bottom of one hundred and fifty feet of salt water amongst dead men's bones, sharks, devil-fish, and all sorts of outlandish things, in such a grotesque rig. Nor does it increase one's confidence to know that, if something goes wrong with the pipe amongst rocks or splintered wreckage, one's time in this life is strictly limited to a minute and a half, with perhaps a few odd seconds thrown in.
Nora stood by, pale and anxious, but saying nothing.
At last, the second-mate, a very plucky, strong, young fellow, said that he would try. We got him dressed, put the helmet on; the men at the pumps started the air, then the face-glass was screwed up, and down the ladder he stepped very cautiously. When the water rose to his neck, he stopped, still grasping the ladder and guide-rope; then he signalled to be pulled up. We thought he was ill; but it was only fright. He was pale as a sheet and trembling all over. Nor would he venture more. There was nothing for it, I saw, but to try myself. I didn't like it; but the sight of poor Nora's disappointment gave me courage. For a few minutes I hung on to the ladder irresolutely, more than half-minded to give the signal; then, happening to look up, I caught a glimpse of a white, anxious face gazing eagerly over the rail, and I let go. Physical pain was the first sensation, on recovering from my fright at feeling myself swooping so swiftly down through the thick, opaque greenness. My ears felt as if they were being pierced by redhot needles, and my head as if it would burst. I was dropping at a good rate, clutching the guide-rope, but it seemed an age before my feet touched bottom.
I fell on my knees, and then scrambling up again, gazed curiously around. All pain was gone, and had it not been so, the scene around me was strange enough to banish all thoughts of any. I stood on the poop-deck of a large vessel, but for a slight list to port, nearly upright. Our grapnel had hooked firmly around the spindles of the wheel, which latter was sound and intact as on the day it was placed there. Her main and mizzen, lower and top masts were still in their places, with their yards hanging at all angles. Giant seaweeds, whose tendrils and flags drooped in thick masses, grew luxuriantly everywhere aloft, whilst amidst these submarine groves flitted thousands of rainbow-hued fishes. A dim, green light—in which, for a limited distance, I could see distinctly enough—pervaded everything. Suddenly I felt a sharp twitch on the life-line; this was Williams signalling to know if I was safe. Duly replying, as agreed upon, I walked to the side and looked over into a clump of huge sponges growing almost to a level with the rail. Putting out my hands to a white object that caught my eye amongst them, I grasped a human skull. Ugh! I had had quite enough for a first attempt, and giving a couple of tugs on the line, was soon at the surface again.
Heavens! what a relief it was to have that face-glass unscrewed and drink in great draughts of pure air! Nora screamed when she saw the blood oozing plentifully from nose and ears as they removed the helmet, and prayed me to abandon all thoughts of returning. But Williams explained that this was invariably one of the effects of a first descent, and congratulated me upon my success.
I found that whilst I had been below, some of them had been busy getting an anchor out to wind'ard, and so steadying the cutter that she was, what with the grapnel and it, practically immovable.
'Be careful, sir,' whispered Williams, as I prepared for another expedition, 'if you're agoin' into the cabins, as you doesn't get the pipe jammed amongst luggage or such-like. If the life-line's foul an' you can't clear it, cut, an' we'll send down another."
So, presently, down I went again, but not so straightly this time. For some reason or other, the guide-line sagged, and I hit first the gaff, then the spanker-boom, but, rebounding like a cork, was soon upon deck. Williams was 'tending,' as he called it; and answering his signal, I walked to the break of the poop and tried to take in the scene. But my range of vision was too short to see for'ard of the main-mast.
I could see the wreathed masts rising through the dull green into masses of rotting wreckage above; but not until I got on to the main deck, nearly waist-high in ocean foliage, could I recognise the outline of the long-boat on the main-hatchway, the galley, and the two other houses. Everything above the foretop was gone, and hanging in a lump. Close on my starboard had risen a great gray wall, which at first puzzled me, until I remembered the reef. Doubtless, the ship had struck it first end-on, and then gradually shifted into her present position. As yet, although tolerably certain that this lost vessel really was the Wrekin, I wished to make quite sure, so turned to the front of the poop, where, I knew, should be inscribed in raised letters, 'The Sea is His, and He made it.' Like all the rest of her, this part was covered with trailing seaweeds and star and jelly fish; but after working away for a while, I felt the first two words, and was quite satisfied.
I stood against the quarter-deck capstan some considerable time, calling up all my courage, for I hated to enter into the blackness of the saloon opposite me. But it had to be done if I wanted to get what I came for. It was like plunging into a tunnel. There was no more seeing than there is in a pitch-dark room. Touch was the only guide, and lucky it was for me that presently returned to my memory the bearings of the place and every berth and locker in it. Keeping one hand on the slimy backs of the table seats, I groped slowly along, pausing often, past the passenger berths towards Captain Roly's stateroom, right aft.
In the saloon there was no vegetation to speak of; but cold, slippery shapes seemed to touch my hands now and then, and strange lithe bodies to twine about my arms and legs. Horrid fancies, too, came into my mind that the pipe would presently get foul of some of these creatures, and that they would eat it through, and leave me to join the dead people around with the ninety seconds of life I carried in my dress. The fact of the matter was that I had fallen into a state of deadly terror. My nerves were failing fast, and I actually screamed inside the helmet. I felt that in another minute I should faint, when, like the grateful recovery from some frightful nightmare, came the tug at the life-line from above, asking for news.
Replying with three pulls, which told them I was in the cabin, and reassured, I groped my way into the dead captain's berth. The door was wide open, and it seemed to me like entering a tomb. Then summoning up heart of grace, I felt about for the swinging cot I knew should be there. It was empty, and so rotten that it fell to pieces under my touch. With a sigh of relief I turned to where the captain's desk was fixed against the bulkhead. It also was empty and dilapidated.
As I paused irresolute, some long heavy body slid slowly across my shoulder. Involuntarily raising my hand, it encountered a rough, cold skin. I imagined I saw weird forms circling about me, and fierce eyes glaring in at mine out of the suffocating darkness. My fit of fright was returning, and I felt the perspiration bursting forth at every pore. But I was loth to depart without making a thorough search, doubting much whether I should have sufficient courage left to make another descent. So, pulling myself together, I went down on my knees and groped carefully about on the port side, to which, as I have already said, the Wrekin had a slight list. The first thing I dropped across was a sextant, easily identified by its shape. Then my searching fingers closed upon a skeleton hand lying alone. Then, as I worked farther along, my heart beating violently, and every nerve strung to its intensest pitch, I found more bones, some loose, others taking the form of still connected ribs and vertebras. Without a doubt, these were the remains of my old friend and captain, whose daughter was waiting expectant above in the daylight.
Still on, until, in the extreme corner, I touched something smooth and oval, that slipped from my grasp and rolled away. Securing it, and feeling the polished surface with the delicate fingers of one blind, I found at each extremity a small knob not much larger than a pin's head. Then, satisfied that this was indeed the famous Egg, so often and so minutely described to me, I rose, and, with what speed I might, prepared to leave that sad abode of sudden death. I had reached the door, when, moved by a sudden impulse, and almost as feeling the grasp of those poor skeleton fingers around mine, and drawing me back, I returned, and repeated aloud the office for the burial of the dead at sea.
Coming on to the main-deck out of that gloomy sepulchre, where, doubtless, in their berths lay many more dead men's bones, was like emerging into some beautiful garden, and as I ascended with my precious freight, I felt like one who has had a weight lifted off his soul.
If Nora had so wished, I would have returned and brought up her father's remains. But she would not hear of it. 'Let him rest,' she said. 'It would have been his own desire. Let him rest until the sea give up her dead. Then will they all rise together, and not leaderless on that awful day. Are we not told that "out of the darkness and out of the Shadow of Death" He will bring them in His own good time.'
Vainly, on the return trip, did we attempt to explore the secret of that great oval box of silver, over a foot in length, and the translation of whose name in Javanese is 'The Sultan's Egg.' Once, out hunting at Solo—a city and district far inland in Java—Captain Roly had the good fortune to render service to the native Sultan by stopping his runaway horse, and thereby probably saving his rider's neck. Amongst many other curios presented by the grateful potentate, the Egg was chief. That the trick of its opening was connected, somehow, with those two little projections at each extremity of the thing, seemed probable. But pull and press as we might, we made no impression on the lustrous surface, hardly stained by its long immersion, and on which not the slightest hint of seam or join was apparent. Certainly its contents, whatever they might prove to be, would be found intact.
Unwilling, though sorely tempted, to deal violently with it, we put it on one side until our arrival at Singapore. There, taking it to a celebrated Malay dealer in curios, I asked him to open it if he could. Looking at it appreciatively, he said that he could. Then he tried, with just the same amount of success as ourselves. Thereupon, he affirmed that the spring was broken, and that the only way of obtaining the contents was to cut it in twain. Having no time to spare, I told him to do the best he could with it. Possibly, I thought, knowing the skill of Eastern workmen with such things, and perhaps unable himself to open it, Captain Roly, on that last fatal trip, had brought the Egg with him for repairs. But this was of course merely a guess.
In it we found, besides the long missing will and the marriage certificate, together with many other valuable papers, a number of uncut precious stones, and a collection of jewelled ornaments, worth a considerable sum. The will left everything to Nora, with the exception of two hundred pounds per year to be paid to James Haynes out of Clayhorns. But the great prize of all for Nora was the piece of rough blue paper, legal testimony of the marriage of Roland Haynes with Alice M'Carthy at the parish church of the island of Innishboffin, off the west coast of Ireland. No wonder that all search had been in vain!
On opening our mail at Hong-kong, a great surprise met us: James Haynes had drunk himself to death. By his will, a copy of which was addressed to Nora, Clayhorns and everything appertaining thereto was left to her, except, curiously enough, a legacy of two hundred pounds per annum to his wife.
Also came a letter, written almost at the last, repenting him of the evil he had wrought her, and solemnly declaring his innocence of any destruction of the will. He added, too, that, so far as he knew, his brother's marriage had been perfectly legal; all that he had stated and upheld in contradiction thereof being merely the effect of malice and envy, for which he prayed most heartily to be forgiven, as he hoped to find forgiveness elsewhere. It was a tardy atonement, and we were almost miraculously, as it happened, independent of it.
We found, on our return home, that the widow had already left the old farm. She has long since married again, on the strength of her legacy, which is as regularly paid as if lawfully due.
Visitors to Clayhorns always ask inquisitively respecting two objects in the little museum there. The first of these is a diving suit, complete in all its parts, that hangs upon the wall, and which was acquired as a memento from the captain of the Cordelia. The other is a great egg-shaped vessel of silver, that has evidently been cut in two and the parts reattached by hinges. Even our youngest children know and can tell the story of the Sultan's Egg.
'Well, I reckon the claim's about worked out. Only a patch after all. What do you think? Not that that matters much.'
'Maybe another few weights left in the cracks; we can clear up in the morning,' I replied, answering my mate Amos Ormon's ungracious speech as we sat outside our tents and smoked in the moonlight after supper.
In front of us, a quarter of a mile away, loomed a high range of scrubby hills, at whose foot, over shingly bars, ran Wild Horse Creek, a tributary of the Georgina.
Prospecting in half-hearted fashion, after many disappointments, here at last we had struck promising colours, pegged out a claim, sunk many shafts without much luck; and then, in the very last one that our rations would run to, bottomed on a patch worth the having. Our camp was in as secluded and solitary a spot as could be found in North-western Queensland; for, although the country was known to be auriferous, so few and far between had any finds been made that gradually prospectors had given it up in disgust, and moved on to the Cloncurry and other fields towards the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Amos Ormon was an old 'Gulfer'—a name by which the settlers and bushmen around the shores of the Carpentarian Gulf are locally known—I had met and worked with for a short time as mate on the Gilbert diggings, whither I had drifted from a coasting brig that her skipper had managed to stick securely on the Horseshoe Reef, off Tribulation Island. I was mate of her; and the Cooktown Marine Board—although I had not been on deck at the time of the accident—having suspended my ticket for six months, I determined to try my luck ashore for at least that period.
Of my present mate I knew little. People in the bush work alongside each other for years in ignorance of the slightest personal detail. About forty, stout and 'nuggety' of build, with a flaming shock of red hair, thick fleshy nose, face burnt to a permanent brick colour, mouth hidden under a heavy moustache that lay almost white against the brown skin, and a pair of small, light-blue eyes, Amos hailed for an Australian native. But I always doubted this, because at odd times he rolled his 'r's and burred them in a way that few men do unless to the manner born—between, say, Tweed and Tees. His temper for the most part was a cold and saturnine one, and there was no cordiality between us, although I strove by working my hardest to keep my end of the log up, and atone as much as possible for the lack of that practical experience as a miner that my companion possessed in a very high degree. A peculiarity of Ormon's was to look as if he was always brooding over something—always turning some project over and over in his mind with a ponderous secretiveness that feared discovery. Only a mannerism, likely enough, but an unpleasant one. Had there been any chance of getting a better mate, I would have long ago left him. But the majority of the Gulfers on these tucker diggings—for they were little else—were as rowdy and drunken a lot of scoundrels at the time I write of as Australasia could produce. Though peculiar and often disagreeable, Amos was a big cut above any of the alleged diggers I had as yet come across, who, the greater part of them, struck me as in search of most things except gold.
My mate made no reply to my last remark, only smoked and pondered, whilst the moon rose higher, turning from yellow to white, and pouring floods of light over the flat at our feet, showing the red heaps of mullock from many 'duffers' stretching up from the creek-bank to the last shaft just in front of us—our 'golden hole.'
It had been a good season; grass was plentiful, and the steady klop-klop-klup of our knocking horse-bells came pleasantly to the ear in token of steady feeding; whilst the warm air was laden with the thick, heavy perfume of many species of beautiful flowering scrub. Our tents were pitched in the shade of a clump of bloodwoods and Moreton Bay ashes, and just in front of them was a rough erection of four forks and rafters, bark-roofed to form a sort of cooking-place. Underneath this was the always smouldering fire, the camp oven, billies, pan, and other utensils. Another similar structure, only covered in with bushes and furnished with table and seats of split slabs, served as dining-room. In all these matters Ormon was most methodical and painstaking. Remnants of food bring ants about a place, and one, even, of those insects in his tent made him restless and uncomfortable. As to his personal habits, they were those of a cat. He would wash himself a dozen times a day, always preferring to get away out of sight to a water-hole in the creek; the least smudge from pot or billy on his fingers made him palpably uneasy until it was off; and he spent all Sunday combing and brushing, clipping and cleaning about his body, in an excess of fastidiousness that would have been remarkable even in civilised places, but that a thousand miles from them, in the heart of the wild bush, was simply wonderful.
Under the rude table in the dining-shed was 'planted' our most unexpected find, some thirty pounds' weight of nearly pure gold. I had sent up the first greenhide bucket full the preceding morning from a depth of fifty feet, seeing nothing out of the way in the usual mass of clay and water-worn gravel through which I had worked in one corner of the shaft until I struck bed-rock of granite from which the pickpoint bounded with the solid-sounding, unmistakable jar that echoes 'true bottom' to the miner's ear. But, as I was saying, I had shovelled the dirt into the bucket and sung out to 'Heave up!' possessing not the slightest suspicion that the stuff was thick with gold. So little had we seen of the noble metal for many a day that I simply worked away mechanically and without interest; having resolved, too, that, now my 'suspension' was expired, I would at once be off to sea again. Digging, I presumed, was all very well where one was getting something, if only tucker. But for weeks we had not made an ounce, and into the bargain worked like niggers and lived like Chinamen—principally on tough kangaroo meat, birds, and rice. My clothes were patched with gunny-bags, my boots all uppers, and, taking it full and by, I was about satisfied that I was not meant for a bush life.
Therefore, you can imagine my surprise when, as my shift finished and Ormon hove me up, the first thing to catch my eye was a big panning-off dish half-full of dull yellow lumps and specks in all imaginable shapes and sizes.
Characteristically enough, my mate had said not a word to me, toiling below, of the riches he was washing out of each bucket I sent up; and even now, as I stared in wonder at the pretty show, there was no answering gleam in his cold eye, no smile under the white thatch of his lips.
'Lower away,' was all he curtly said, after we had poured the gold into a stout sugar-bag and covered it with mullock. 'I expect it's only a patch. Don't try to wash anything till my shift's over. If anybody passes, tell 'em we're scarce makin' tucker.'
The foot or so of wash-dirt on the bottom was soon cleaned up. Then we put in a drive, but there was nothing but heavy clay and rock. On every side it was the same; and by sundown my mate had quite satisfied himself that our find was but one of those rare pockets dropped upon now and then, but for the presence of which there seems nothing to account, and that led no farther.
'What's about the value of the gold we've got?' I asked presently.
'Nearly £1400,' he replied, 'taking it at £3, 17s. 6d. per ounce. Your share'll be, at that rate, close on £700. Not bad for a new chum like you, is it?'
'Capital!' I exclaimed buoyantly. 'I was thinking of making off to sea again; but if we can keep going in such fashion I'll stick to you a bit longer. Shall we try another shaft to-morrow?'
'Clean up the one we're at first,' said he; 'we might ha' missed a little on the bottom. And as for sticking to me, why, as regards that, you can clear out as soon as you like. I don't want you, I'm sure.'
'Nor,' I replied hotly, 'do I want to force my company upon any man. We'll settle matters in the morning, then, and I'll get my horses, and leave.'
He was silent at this, apparently rather surprised to be taken so shortly at his word. Perhaps, now, it was the sense of having money in view that prompted me to so sharp an answer after often in times past letting similar remarks go unnoticed; but, in any case, I was very tired of the self-absorbed, taciturn, unsociable fellow, and, gold or no gold, had made up my mind to stand no more of his company and the hard, squalid life I had led of late.
'Well,' said he at last, turning towards me with a sullen note in his voice, 'I expect we'd better clean up first. There may be more there 'n we think for. Then we can divide the lot. I'm goin' to stay on a bit longer yet; but I can work single-handed as well's with a mate.'
'All right,' I replied lightly. 'For my part, I'm off somewhere to get a square feed and some decent togs to wear—Brisbane, most likely. And now, as there's about as much flour left as'll make a small damper, I'll mix one up and put it in the ashes.'
'Right,' said he, but still in surly accents; 'and I'll take a rifle and see if I can't pot a kangaroo along the creek.'
I baked my damper, and setting it on its edge to cool, presently turned in. But Ormon had not come back when the Cross told me, through the open door of my tent, that it was midnight. Towards morning, however, waking, I could hear the incessant grinding of teeth that always marked his sleep—a horrid noise resembling nothing so much as the sharpening of a cross-cut saw.
I didn't turn in any more, but lit a pipe and strolled away over the ridges, thinking what I should do with all that money—pleasurable thoughts, accentuated mightily by the feel of my rags and nearly naked feet, not to mention a stomach that looked forward doubtingly to its breakfast.
Ormon had shot nothing, and our breakfast of damper, rice, and sinewy kangaroo meat, some days old, made me in no way regret the resolution I had come to.
My companion was morose and preoccupied as ever. But so pleased was I at the notion of being able to get away, with a pocketful of money into the bargain, that I took little notice of him, and felt intent only on finishing work and making a start for fresh and livelier scenes.
I descended first, and sent up some score of buckets full of dirt that had been left from the last drive we had put in. Then, carefully cleaning the bottom, even to picking out the wash from crevices with my fingers, until the rock was bare as a new-swept oven, I sang out to heave up the bucket, which was only about three-parts full.
'Better put the tools in,' said Amos, his head hanging over the shaft; 'they won't be wanted there any more.' So, hitching shovel and driving-pick to the rope, I watched the lot go swinging aloft, feeling glad and pleased that our partnership was ended, nor experiencing the slightest inclination to stay and search for more gold.
Presently, to my utter bewilderment, I became aware that Amos was taking the rope off the windlass.
'Hello!' I shouted. 'Have you forgotten that I'm here yet?'
Without making any reply, he kept on at his work, whilst strange suspicions and surmises flashed through my mind. In a minute or two more I saw him come to the edge of the logging and look down. Somehow, I felt I was putting a most useless question even as the words left my mouth and I asked, 'Why don't you lower the bucket?'
'Because I'm not going to pull you up,' he replied calmly. 'Did you think I was such a fool as to go halves with a new chum like you? All I took you as mate for was to get your luck. No men is luckier than new-chum sailors on a diggin's. Well, the luck's come, and I'm goin' somewhere' (mimicking my words) 'to find a square meal and decent togs. You'll stop there till somebody comes along or the shaft caves in. The chances are that you'll stop there altogether. You've always been growlin'—growlin' about your belly—since I knowed you. Well, you'll have somethin' to growl about now in real earnest.'
'Well, but, Amos,' I cried, now thoroughly scared, 'it's murder. A man might as well be in his grave as here. Better take your rifle and shoot me at once as leave me to linger miserably. Hang it, man! lower the rope, and quit fooling in such a fashion.' These last words I spoke with a degree of assurance I was very far from feeling.
'I ain't foolin',' he replied promptly. 'I wasn't built that way. But I should be a fool to pull you up and make you a present of £700.'
'I'll take five,' I cried desperately, feeling that the brute was in deadly earnest.
'Four—three!' I shouted after a pause, as I saw the black dot of his head shaking in dissent. 'There,' I continued, 'for God's sake pull me up, and you can take the lot!'
But still his head wagged to and fro decidedly. 'No,' he said, rising and looking down at me over the empty windlass barrel; 'it ain't good enough. Once begin a contrack, and you've got to go through with it. But,' he continued, speaking slowly and deliberately as ever, 'there's one thing I'll do for you if you really wants it.'
'Well,' I asked hurriedly and a little hopefully.
'Well,' he continued, 'you asked me to shoot you just now. If you asks me again, and you'll stick the candle on the wall, back o' your head, I'll put a bullet through you clean as a whistle.'
For a minute I was too astounded at the coldbloodedness of such a proposition to utter a word. All I could do was to stare up at him stupidly as he stood there, his features clearly outlined now against the patch of blue sunlit sky, with his heavy moustache looking like a curved chalk-line drawn across his face under the thick-spreading nose.
'Very well,' I shouted all at once in a sudden access of fury; 'shoot and be d—d to you, you murderer!' Almost as I spoke he disappeared, and I guessed he had gone to fetch his rifle from the camp. All the same, I had not the remotest intention of being made a target of, hopeless as my case seemed. And I was perfectly convinced that shoot he would, and with as little compunction as at a kangaroo. I was but five-and-twenty, and at that age life still feels sweet, even when things look most gloomy. So, without more ado, I crawled backwards into one of the drives, and lay there with my head just inside of it, and screwed up towards the top of the shaft. Presently I saw a shadow cross the light, and heard the rattle of a riflebutt.
'Hello!' he hailed. 'Where's that candle? I can't see. Changed your mind, eh?' he continued, as his sight, becoming accustomed to the darkness, made out that the bottom was empty. 'Well, so long; I can't wait here all day. I'll put the money to good use—better 'n you'd ha' done. Sailors never have much sense, anyway. You've got your chance, and we may meet again bimebye.'
'I'll live to see you hanged yet!' I shouted.
'I can't spare the time just now, as I've got to pack up,' he replied; 'but if you say another word I'll fill you in.' And, as if to emphasise the threat, some great lumps of mullock came tumbling down the shaft. I burst into a cold sweat at the notion; for there was plenty of loose earth above that a strong man like Ormon could perhaps have buried me under in an hour or two. And, anyhow, if I came out of my tunnel, he might shoot me easily. Therefore I held my peace, and heard him walk away without taking other risk than cursing him most heartily under my breath. After a while I heard the sound of horse-bells, and knew that he was catching the animals—two of mine, two of his own—preparatory to packing up and making a start.
He came near me no more; but for some time I stayed under cover, thinking perhaps he might change his mind and empty a rifle down the shaft before leaving. Presently, however, I smelt smoke, and, looking up, could see a cloud of it blowing across overhead. Evidently he had fired the camp, together with such articles as he found he could not conveniently carry. Coming out of my burrow, I stood in the middle of the hole and stared about me in a dazed sort of way, as if I had never seen the place. Indeed, I was utterly taken aback and dumfounded at the extraordinary turn things had taken with me during the last hour. Even now I was almost incredulous, and would not have been surprised to see Ormon appear with the saturnine grin his face sometimes wore, and busy himself fixing the rope again.
But as the day wore on any such vague hopes left me, and I felt there was nothing for it but to meet my doom with what courage I might. No more hopeless case could well be conceived. The hole, nearly fifty feet in depth, was untimbered (being fair standing-ground in dry weather) and composed of stiff red clay and small gravel. It was, for a prospecting shaft, rather large—some five feet by four—oval in shape, and with sides almost perfectly plumb. Any attempt at climbing them was quite out of the question. Even with tools to make footholes it would have been a risky, if not impossible, business. Also, if it came on to rain—a heavy thunderstorm would suffice—most probably the whole shaft would cave in and bury me alive. I had never been in a really tight place before. But still, I could not for a time think of anything but the amazing treachery of my mate, nor quite recover from the stunning sensation that overpowered me when certain that I was deserted and left to perish miserably in that dark hole; and as I squatted on the rock floor I swore that if ever a day of reckoning came between us two, it should be a hard one for Amos Ormon. Human help, I knew too well, was almost out of the question in that secluded corner. Even if travellers came up Wild Horse Creek, only a quarter of a mile away, I should be none the wiser. I might yell myself hoarse without being heard, or at most be put down for a howling dingo. Besides, the main track to Birdsville—a slight and unfrequented one—ran along between the Creek and the Georgina, miles off. All these facts had been coursing athwart my mind mechanically as I sat and stared at the patch of sky that capped my prison, barred black against the blue by the barrel of the windlass. I had a pipe, some tobacco, a small knife, and a box of wax-vestas in my pocket. On a ledge over one of the drives was a piece of candle about eight inches long. Terribly hungry, I bit a small chunk off. It tasted more of resin than anything else, and I put it aside for future use, just then preferring a pipe. As I carefully shredded tobacco, four crows came and perched on the windlass barrel, and, peering down with ghastly white eyes—one variety of the Australian crow has white eyes—and heads cocked to one side, quark-quarked interrogatively, and then muttered to each other quite plainly, 'Wonder how long he'll last.' 'Not very long.' 'We'll pick his eyes and tongue out by-and-by, when he gets weak enough.' At least that's the sense I made of their low mumblings and mutterings as they stared ghoulishly into the shaft. High aloft an eagle-hawk poised on stirless pinions, as if he knew that he too had an approaching feast in view. But the crows worried me with their continuous low rumbling palaver, broken occasionally by an impatient croak, and I shouted at them till they flew away. They soon, however, returned; and, as I sat quite still, one of them dropped a stick straight upon me to see if I was yet a fair subject to operate on. As I gave no sign he fluttered down a few feet, but flew back with a harsh croak of disappointment when I raised my head. More than once or twice as the afternoon slowly passed, during long spells of quietness, did the cunning black watchers let fall their test-sticks in similar fashion.
The tobacco soothed and calmed me, besides easing the gnawing pangs of hunger. As to thirst, I was secure from that. In one corner of the shaft, at minute intervals, a solitary drop of water fell and soaked away through a crevice in the rocky bottom. By kneading some of the tough clay into the shape of a basin, I had already caught enough for a drink. But I was not thirsty. It was damp and cool enough down there. I was desperately hungry, though, and would have tackled even a crow could I have laid hands upon him. Instead, I chewed another inch of my candle-end. It tasted more palatable at this second essay, and I wished there had been a larger supply.
Do my best, I could not make up my mind to die. The thing seemed quite unreasonable whilst my body felt so active with life and freedom smiled so near. In vain did I try and compose myself to meet the inevitable becomingly, renounce all worldly thoughts, and turn my mind to preparation and prayer. Instead, wild schemes of vengeance upon Amos Ormon flashed across my brain, mingled with acute agonies of regret for pleasant possibilities lost in the treasure he had robbed me of.
And so the daylight passed; the gloom grew thicker; the black watchers, with a parting growl and a muttered promise to return early, flew off to their roosts; tock-tock-tock-tock, measuring the minutes, fell the drop of water; the moaning howl of a dingo came from the deserted camp, followed presently by an outburst of yells and cries betokening a full pack. And I sat there in the darkness and sucked gingerly at my remnant of candle, and watched the stars come out, and tried hard, but as yet in vain, to realise that my doom was indeed upon me, racking my brain instead to find some means of escape. But I could think of nothing that would enable me to scale those smooth prison walls my own hands had helped to fashion; and presently, aided by hunger, solitude, and darkness, cold Despair laid her chill fingers upon my heart as the long-kept-at-bay conviction that I must surely die tore its way into my soul. A most shockingly incredible and awful thing seemed my fate to me, and one that all the strong life and nature within me rose in wild protest against. And I raved and shrieked until the howling wild dogs ceased their concert in a fright; beat head and hands upon the rough, pick-grooved walls; kicked at them in insensate fury; and for a time became to all intents a raving, foaming maniac, maddened not so much by the fear of death as by the dreadful impotence to gain the life that lay visible within the few feet a child might almost hurl a stone to the summit of.
I suppose that at last I must have fallen faint and insensible from exhaustion, and remained so for hours, as when I came to myself again the moon was shining almost directly down the shaft. Lying on my back, feeling stiff and sore, I was staring hopelessly up at the great white orb, when all of a sudden she was blotted out by something that nearly filled the mouth of the shaft, whilst upon me fell showers of clay and gravel. Jumping to my feet in alarm, I snugged into a corner and stared wonderingly aloft to where, as well as I could make out, the hindlegs of some large and powerful animal were playing a tattoo on the sides of the shaft as they hung down it, accompanied by the most hideous bellowings and screamings. That a horse or a bullock had slipped into the hole was my first notion. But neither of those animals could by any possibility, I fancied, make such extraordinary and barbarous noises as the brute above me was doing.
As, scared and wondering, I was about to retreat into a drive, thinking that presently the thing would come down by the run, there fell on my ears a chatter of human voices sounding sharp and shrill above the din of roarings and gurglings. Then, all at once, came a great noise of pulling and shouting, and little by little I saw the animal, still complaining bitterly, pulled to the surface amidst much vociferous talk and laughter.
Now, thinking it my turn, I yelled at the top of a voice made strong by hope of succour. For a minute there was dead silence; then I saw several black and turbaned faces poked cautiously over the edge of the shaft where the moon made things light as day to my eyes.
'Hi, yah?' asked a voice. 'Who dar?'
'Me! me!' I replied hysterically. 'For God's sake send a rope down and pull me up!'
At this there was another outbreak of clamorous strange language, not a word of which could I understand as I listened with my heart beating my ribs black and blue, and the sweat rolling off me in fear of being left to perish. And never voice of mistress to lover sounded sweeter than when, after a minute, some one shouted:
'Ar ri! you wait—mendee windeelas.' And I heard a knocking and hammering, and saw men raising the windlass standards and replacing the barrel that the beast had knocked over in his struggles.
And presently down came a line of different-sized ropes knotted together, into which hastily putting a bowline and seating myself therein, I was, with much grunting and heaving, at last safely landed. As I stood up, weak and trembling, the dark-faced men who surrounded me fell back to right and left in something like dismay. And, as I afterwards discovered, not altogether without cause, for—hatless, shoeless, my clothes in ribbons, head and hands and feet bleeding from many self-inflicted cuts and bruises—I must have made a wild and forbidding spectacle. But food and a nip of good whisky that some kind soul produced, together with a wash in the creek, soon revived me sufficiently to tell my story to Shahbaz Khan, a great, handsome Afghan, owner of the camel-train, to whom I owed my rescue, who listened, stroking a long black beard with many expressions of sympathy and disgust.
By the merest chance, it appeared, they had that night camped on Wild Horse, intending to proceed after an hour or two's spell. Then one of the camels, straying, had slipped into the shaft, and so saved me from a most miserable fate. The train consisted of forty animals not long landed from a British India steamer at Cooktown, and was bound to Eucla, in South Australia, thence to the new goldfields in the West. The men who had arrived with the camels from Aden were a wild enough looking lot; but the rest were old hands in the country; some of them even had been digging on the Palmer, and were well able to appreciate the treachery to which I had so nearly fallen a victim. Nor ever could I have conceived such friendly goodwill, help, and sympathy as I met with among these kindly people, upon whom Australians generally look with aversion and dislike. Before I had finished my meal new clothes were being got ready for me out of Shahbaz Khan's stores, so that I was speedily rigged anew from head to foot; and not that alone, but rugs and blankets and provisions were brought and packed; each of these dark Samaritans vying with each other in being of service. And as at dawn the long train moved off, headed by the big bull whose curiosity had been the cause of my rescue—angry still, with much throaty gurgling and grinding of teeth—the chief, before mounting his riding camel, shook me by the hand and put into it two one-pound notes, listening the while silently to my heartfelt thanks. Then said he, speaking very slowly, but in good English:
'Fare thee well, my brother! Evilly hast thou been entreated. Maybe in days to come thou shalt meet thine enemy and repay him with usury the ill he hath worked upon thee. Then—what saith thine own Scripture—eye for eye, tooth for tooth? And as for thanks, thou owest me none. "Succour the afflicted and distressed, whether by reason of hunger or by reason of thirst or of wounds; those that fall into the hands of robbers and are left empty by the wayside, the poor and the friendless. So shall it be with thee hereafter." Thus commandeth our Prophet. In his name—the name of Allah the All-Merciful—fare thee well!'
And so saying, that Christian and gentleman—as I understand the meaning of these words—swung on to his camel and made off after his people, leaving me full of gratitude and wonder for such charity as assuredly few, if any, of my own colour would have shown me.
Feeling still sore and weak, I walked up to the site of our old camp, where a big heap of stuff yet smouldered amongst the poles and boughs of the dining-place. In it I recognised portions of my tent and blankets; also the shaft-rope, burnt nearly to tinder. With gratuitous cruelty and meanness, Ormon had evidently thrown all my little possessions on the fire—the pocket-book containing the few treasured home-letters and photographs; the tin case with certificates and discharges; comb and brush, towels, &c. And I swore as I poked about the pile that, if ever I got the chance, I would not forget my friend Shahbaz Khan's injunction respecting repayment with usury.
On the spot where my tent had been pitched I found, however, a small folding looking-glass and a copy of Monte Christo that had been amongst my belongings. Opening the former, I started back in dismay at what I saw. The peaked beard I wore was flecked with white spots here and there, whilst one side of my moustache was altogether white, the other gray; and dabs of white showed on my thick black hair like patches of paint. It was long before I mustered courage to look again; and I really believe that this wound to my vanity touched me more nearly than the murderous treachery of my mate and the loss of the gold. You see, I was young, and generally thought good-looking; and to suddenly know myself disfigured—spotted like a native cat—gave me a sore shock. Perhaps this matter accounted partly for the compassionate gaze I had noticed in the dark eyes of my friends, the camel-people yonder; for no man seeing me but might well guess that the bleaching had been sudden and recent, inasmuch as no person in his senses would grow hair in such piebald fashion on lip and chin. Without a doubt, now must I go clean shaven for the rest of my days—a prospect that was far from pleasing to me. But now to find the author of all this misfortune, or at least to raise the hue-and-cry after him over the whole of Northern Queensland! So, stiff and sore though I was, I set forth on my sixty-mile tramp to Jubilee, the nearest township. But, what with new boots, cut feet, and the heat and reaction consequent on my mad fit in the shaft, I made but a very poor stage that day; nor, unaccustomed to walking, did I do much better on the next one. And it was quite a week before I entered Jubilee. Here my first proceeding was to report in full to the police, of whom there were a sergeant, three troopers, and a black tracker. Then I bought a razor, and nearly cut my throat during my first essay at shaving.
The police were confident of soon laying their hands on Ormon; and they scoured the country far and wide, besides setting the wires to work wherever possible. But a fortnight passed and no news could be heard of him.
'He's gone out back,' said the sergeant; 'right away across into the Territory. But I've sent word to the S.A. police, and they're all on the watch for the beggar. You'll see him swing yet, my lad, if you'll only have a little patience.'
All very fine; but my money was done, and I must get work or starve—there being no Shahbaz Khans amongst the Jubilees that I could see. So I started off for the coast, stone-broke, but hopeful of finding a job somewhere on the road. But it seemed that Amos Ormon had taken all my luck as well as my gold with him. Always I was just too late or a considerable time too soon. And everywhere, as I passed, I made vain inquiries respecting a stout, red-headed, fair-moustached man, with three or four horses. Nobody had heard of or seen him; and it was almost as if the earth had swallowed him the day he rode away from the burning camp on Wild Horse Creek. Everywhere, to those of the police who had not already received particulars—and they were few and far between, at isolated outposts—I told my story. Thus, swagging along from station to station, township to township, I had at least the poor satisfaction of knowing, when I finally reached the sea at Cardwell, that I had made Queensland too hot to hold any ordinary man answering to the description of my late mate. In my own mind, however, I was pretty well convinced that, long ere this, he was in one of the southern colonies, if not out of the country altogether. A most excellent bushman, with four horses, all good of their kind, arms, ammunition, and money, he could, in that lost week, have crossed by back tracks and unobserved to any point of the compass he wished. He neither drank nor gambled; also I knew, from stray words let fall in his less dour moments, that he was a man who, like many professional miners, had travelled far and wide in the practice of his calling, deeming no spot too distant, no hardship too great, when once the magic voice of gold reached him across seas and deserts, fever-stricken lands, and hostile tribes. And still, in spite of all, I thought we might yet meet again. Meanwhile the first fierce desire of vengeance had calmed down to a steady glow, burning always brightly and enduringly, but yet not absorbing my mmd to the exclusion of aught else.
And ever as the years went by in varying fortune, mostly poor, some sudden turn or look about a man passed in a crowd, the sight of a red shock of hair, the sound of a deep, slow-speaking voice, now and again enabled me to feel in quickening pulse and thickened breath that if ever the moment of reckoning arrived the payment would be heavy, the creditor pitiless.
As I said before, since the day, now seven years ago, that my mate had left me to die at the bottom of the shaft on Wild Horse Creek, Fortune had been far from kind to me. For a time I had followed the sea; then, leaving it, I went on to the diggings again—west to Coolgardie, outside to New Guinea and Sud Est; but never more than making a living, and not too good a one at that.
And at last, stranded in Brisbane, I had shipped as quartermaster on a small London barque called the Ulundi that had put in for some repairs on a passage from Foo-Chow to Melbourne, with tea. From the latter we went to Colombo, thence to Port Elizabeth in South Africa, taking a cargo of coffee; loaded wool at the port; and had now come round to Capetown to fill up for home. As we lay in the bay, under the shadow of the mighty rock, our topsails loose, and cable up-and down, the captain was growling to the mate about the non-appearance of a passenger.
'Why the deuce,' the old man was saying, 'can't he go home, like any other decent body, in one of the mail-boats! I hate passengers—'specially in a ship that ain't meant for 'em. He's bringin' his servant, too, the agents tell me—as big a swell as his master, I suppose.'
'Ay,' replied the mate, taking his cue; 'and the saloon's chock-a-block with luggage, and the lazarette with private stores—cases o' wine and provisions till further orders. Must be well in, whoever he is. Do you know anything about him, sir?'
'Party the name o' Sinclair,' replied the captain testily. 'One o' those gold and diamond fellows, like Brown and Healy and that lot. Gammons he wants a long sea-trip for his health. One comfort—the agents made him pay through the nose. I'd take his passage-money cheerfully for two years' wages.'
As he finished speaking a small steam-launch left the shore and was soon alongside. There were only two men in her, and as they came up the gangway I had a good view of them. The first was a stout, portly, clean-shaven, dark-haired customer, dressed all in white, wearing a diamond ring on his finger and diamond studs in the stiff shirt that ran into the blue silk cummerbund around his waist; tanned shoes, cut low, showing red silk socks, Panama hat, and a big cigar completed the outfit. The other carried a portmanteau, and was a youngish-looking Malay—evidently the servant.
'Stinkin' nigger!' muttered the skipper, sighting the latter, as he walked to the break of the poop and bawled, 'Heave away there, for'ard! Sheet home as soon 's the anchor's off the bottom. Steward, show Mr Sinclair to his berth.'
Meanwhile the latter leaned against the quarterdeck capstan, puffing at his cigar, and shaking his hands—which had become soiled by the manropes—as a cat does wet paws. But now the steward advanced, all deferential smiles and inquiries, as befitted one with handsome tips in view, and the three left the deck as I went to the wheel; whilst under jib and staysail the ship's head fell off, topsails were sheeted home, fore and main tacks boarded, and sheets brought aft, and the Ulundi, with the wind no more than free, stood out of Table Bay into the great Atlantic.
Very few vessels of the Ulundi's size can afford to carry quartermasters. But then, very few vessels steered as atrociously as she did. Time after time her owners had attempted to remedy the defect, but to no purpose. Whether, amongst a dozen other assigned causes, there was something wrong with her lines; whether the foremast was too far for'ard, or the mizzen too far aft, mattered little; the fact remained that she steered like a driven turkey after sundown. In heavy wintry weather off the Horn it took two men sweating in their shirt-sleeves to keep her within a handful of points each way. In light and moderate winds she was all her time trying to slip off or up in the most aggravating fashion. No matter how closely you watched her, she'd best you sooner or later. Going along quiet and steady at half-a-spoke or so each way, you'd think that at last you'd found out her soft side and could afford to let your eye leave the card for a moment. Then all at once you'd feel her swing away from under you as her head fell off three or four points or came rushing up into the wind; and then the fun was only beginning. Gentle helm she took no more notice of than a bolting horse with the bit broken. Hard up, hard down, and her head spinning as if on a swivel in wild dartings to one side and the other for five and ten minutes, was the rule before she could be induced to come to her course again. The officers swore, and so did the helmsman; but, unless new to the vessel, the former never volunteered an exhibition of their steering. There are few things at sea more perilous or heart-breaking than a thoroughly bad-steering ship. Thus the Ulundi seldom kept her company, fore or aft, two successive voyages.
Naturally, being at the wheel so much, I saw a good deal of Mr Sinclair. For hours he would lie in his deck-chair alongside the binnacle, sometimes reading a trashy 'yellow-back,' but oftener pondering, with brooding, light-blue eyes fixed on vacancy, and a long, thin-lipped line of mouth tight shut. Early in the passage he and the captain had concluded not to suit each other, and now seldom spoke. To the officers a curt nod was his only greeting. He smoked incessantly the most expensive cigars, but I never saw him offer anybody one. Waited upon hand and foot by his Malay, Ali, his slightest wish seemed to be forestalled, his least want understood.
Of course, the Ulundi being the daisy she was to steer, I had little time to study faces, or anything else besides my helm. Still, as day after day that wrinkled, naked, impassive countenance met my eye, there seemed a curious, uncomfortable familiarity in it that grew upon and puzzled me mightily, in addition to spoiling my steering as much as was possible. Thus, being preoccupied, and letting the barque go off on her capers much more than usual, I one day, for almost the only time, lost all control over her. Mr Sinclair, as he watched the wheel and the ship's head alternately, seemed interested in the play, and stared hard at me as I swore under my breath, whilst the skipper stood grimly and silently by, until, after an exciting ten minutes, I brought the beast to her course again. Then, turning to me, the old man remarked sorrowfully, 'Well, Davies, it's the first time I ever knew her to get away so badly with you.'
At the mention of my name I saw our passenger start slightly and give me a steady, searching glance from his cold blue eyes as he half-rose from the chair that, taken up with the struggle between ship and helm, he had turned round facing the wheel. As I met his gaze a strange notion took hold on me; and over those thin, cruel lips I drew, in my mind's eye, a heavy curve of flaxen moustache; in lieu of the black hair I placed a coarse, red shock; took furrows out of the forehead, seams out of the full cheeks, crow's-feet away from the temples, and Ormon the Gulfer stood before me. The next moment I laughed the idea to scorn as I watched him lie back in his chair and motion to Ali to come with cigars and soda and whisky. To my astonishment, as the Malay mixed the drink, his master pointed to me, saying in his deep voice, 'Take it, quartermaster. It'll do you good after that tussle. She's as bad to hold as a buckin' brumby.'
As he spoke an undefinable something in the manner and tone of him, no less than the bush allusion, thrilled me through and through, making suspicion leap hot to my heart again as I waved the proffered glass aside and bent eyes I felt growing fierce and eager upon the compass.
'Against the rules, eh?' said Mr Sinclair indifferently, as the mate explained. 'Oh, all right. Only it's such a picnic steerin' this bitch of a ship that I thought you might make an allowance.'
The mate—a quiet, elderly man—frowned and moved away without reply; whilst, my relief appearing, I gave up the wheel and went for'ard for a think and a smoke.
But I could come to no solid conclusion except that a fancied resemblance might, if I was not careful, get me into trouble. Still, with it all, there was a persistent, haunting feeling at my heart that my quest was ended, my quarry marked down; and, to strengthen this almost certainty, I noticed, to my secret joy, that, when my wheel came round again, Sinclair, whilst pretending to be absorbed in a book, was furtively studying me, feature by feature. I managed, however, to look as stolidly unconcerned as any other man might have done; nor did the doubting frown escape me with which he at last finished his scrutiny and turned to his reading in earnest. Something, I supposed, in voice or feature—called up by the name, perhaps—must have struck him for a moment as familiar. His doubts, however, were, I fancied, only partially set at rest. Still, it would have been strange if in the gaunt, brownfaced, middle-aged man, with hair almost white, he should have recognised anything of the bearded, fresh-coloured, new-chum sailor he had robbed and left to die so miserably in the Australian bush. Not could he have been expecting any resurrection of the kind; and here I, of course, held the advantage over him, being ever on the watch. Nor did I trouble my mind as to his motives in disguising himself—if such had really been his idea. Men, especially as they grow older, often shave clean; and as for the hair, when I remembered how Ormon the Gulfer used to dress it, and soap it, and endeavour vainly to darken and force it into some kind of shape, I was not surprised that when able to afford a wig he should have done so. And, indeed, as a matter of fact, he was now a far better-looking man than he had been seven years ago, to say nothing of the added consequence given to his bearing by the wealth that he evidently possessed. Still, could that glossy, black headpiece, consorting none too well with the light brows and pale-blue eyes, be a wig? By no stretch of imagination, however, could I conceive of that flaming, turbulent, crimson shock submitting to any dye, no matter how powerful. However, I thought I should soon be able finally to solve that puzzle. Meanwhile a fact accidentally came to my knowledge that helped not a little towards converting belief into stubborn certainty.
Being at the wheel one night when the second mate was relieving the chief, and the former appearing almost before the bell had ceased striking, the mate remarked jokingly, 'Now, that's the smartest relief I believe I ever had! What's the matter? Killed anybody in your time, and can't sleep for thinking about it, eh?'
'No; but I believe that infernal passenger's conscience is troubling him. The beggar's grinding his teeth all night long,' replied the second mate wrathfully. 'I never heard such a row in my life. I'm going to ask the old man to let me change into another berth. Ugh! You listen to him as you go by. It's just like a fellow chewing gravel.'
And as he spoke I seemed myself to hear the horrible grating noise again, as many a night I had heard it proceeding from the tent on the banks of Wild Horse Creek. The very next day I was present at an altercation between the steward and Ali.
'Allus water, water, water he's a-wantin', quartermaster,' said the former, appealing to me'. 'Sez his boss can't do without lots o' water. Well, all I knows is, I've been wi' passengers afore this—swells an' toffs among 'em, too; but I've never seed 'em forced to wash their 'ead an' 'ands an' face a dozen times a day, to say nothin' o' baths without number. Why, the condenser's kep' agoin' for nothin' else.'
Here was another trait retained by the Amos Ormon I remembered. Still, there were probably more people than one in the world who ground their teeth in sleep and cultivated an inordinate fancy for washing themselves.
Ali was Capetown bred and born, and had, I found, been not long in his present employ. He was a smart young fellow of about twenty, and particularly expert at grooming his master, an operation that took up a good deal of his time through the day. For me, as it happened, he had a particular regard, because more than once at the beginning of the passage I had interfered—remembering my obligations to men of colour—between him and certain of the crew who, after the manner of their kind, thought that anything black was made to be knocked about. Thus Ali was grateful, and would, I thought, answer a simple question I meant presently to put to him.
During the day all hands had been busy scraping paint off the front of the poop, and giving it a priming coat of red, preliminary to a final dressing of white.
And when, as, in the first dog-watch, I sat smoking on the after-hatchway, and Ali came hurrying past bearing a great can of hot water, I stopped him and abruptly said, 'Ali, what's the colour of the boss's head when his wig's off?' he first gasped in surprise, then showed all his white teeth in an appreciative grin, and silently pointed to the paint glowing with a fine flare of red in the sun. I was thoroughly satisfied.
All this time the Ulundi had been making more or less erratic headway, mostly with light south-east winds, until she got well over towards the South American coast. Apart from the steering trouble, she was a good little ship enough to be in; officers and crew worked well together, and the provisions were above the average. Perhaps out of the whole ship's company I was the only really unhappy man, pondering as I did night and day on some means of paying Amos Ormon what I owed him, and seeing no chance.
I don't think I wanted to kill him; but I certainly did want to get a bit level—make him feel something of the pain and agony he had caused me, and—yes, decidedly—force him to disgorge my seven hundred pounds, with liberal interest added.
But for all the prospect I could see of doing anything of the kind, I might as well never have discovered him. All day long, with intervals for meals and groomings, he would lie in his chair thinking, reading, and speaking to no one but Ali. Such an unsocial customer had he proved himself, together with a tendency to insult coarsely both captain and officers, that they had practically sent him to Coventry—rather, it would seem, to his satisfaction. He smoked incessantly, drank a good deal of light wine, but never sufficient to be overcome by it; and at times, leaving his chair, he would pace the deck for an hour or two, pausing now and again to thoughtfully finger his upper lip, as I had on many an occasion seen him do in camp when a moustache grew there. And often, watching him, I noted several little familiar mannerisms that, had I needed additional proof, would have been of value. But I was long ago satisfied. Once or twice I fancied, when his eyes met mine, that I detected something like speculation in their cold, shallow depths, as of one struggling with some half-formed, elusive memory of feature that perhaps, as I had thought before, the similar name and avocation of his victim had called into existence. In vain I racked my brains for some feasible project that should bring us face to face and alone, with no one to interfere when the row began. I could think of nothing. And then Providence took a hand in the game.
In making this remark it must be understood that I mean nothing irreverent. I am getting an old man now, and doubtless some of the loose sailor speech of earlier days still hangs about me—at least, so the friends and relations who found me out when my luck turned are always telling me; but so far as His name is concerned I have in my wildest talk been more careful than most seamen.
In about twenty degrees south, then, one day it came on to blow heavily from the southwest, with a sea gradually getting up of a size one might expect perhaps off the Cape or across the Southern Ocean, but hardly in the Trades, or what ought to have been the Trades. Presently, with an ever-falling glass, the wind hauled astern, and, under a couple of lower topsails and a foresail, her captain ran the Ulundi before it when she ought to have been hove to. But he had left that too late, and was now frightened to attempt it. So, with two men at the wheel, bareheaded, the sweat raining off them, and every muscle strained to the thrusting spokes, the barque raged along, nosing wildly a couple and three points to each side of her course, and kept at that only by dint of downright hard bullocking.
Early in the afternoon the gale increased almost to a hurricane, and it became evident that the foresail would have to come off, keeping her bows down as it was, and doing far more harm than good. It was a big sail, and for a long time all hands fought at it without avail. Even the cook and the steward had volunteered and were on the yard. One minute, watching from the weather helm where I stood, it would appear to be conquered; then, all of a sudden, the great breadths of hard, wet canvas would thunder out from under the men's grasping fmgers and shake the barque in every timber of her. Nor did we dare to luff and touch her up, and thus spill the sail, or keep away, as one might do in a decent-steering ship. Give the Ulundi a point, and one never knew when she'd stop; and with such a sea as rolled its mountainous crests astern of us, all our efforts went to keep her stern to it.
Close to the wheel, anxiously glancing now at the compass, now at the great spar dotted thick with clawing, straining bodies, stood the captain and the mate. The second mate was already aloft. Of Sinclair nothing was to be seen; but, poking above the half-closed hood of the companion, I caught a glimpse of Ali's face quite green with fear. And still the foresail flapped and thundered, whilst the Ulundi shot up one big comber and rushed down another all a-smother with foam and water up to the coamings of her hatches, and lying over so heavily at times as to dip her port foreyardarm.
'They want more beef up there!' shouted the captain suddenly. 'Quartermaster, you and Hendricks had better run along and give 'em a hand, or that cursed sail'll never come in;' and so saying, he stepped to the weather side of the wheel, whilst the mate gripped the lee spokes.
Hendricks—an ordinary seaman picked up at Capetown, and my lee helmsman—ran for'ard, very glad to get away, for the sight of those roaring walls of water towering over his head had been making him sick with fear, and during the last hour his eyes had been constantly turned over his shoulder.
If I could help doing so I never went aloft in oilskins; thus, as I clawed along the weather deck, I paused for a minute in front of the house that we quartermasters shared with the carpenter and the sailmaker, to take off coat and overalls and throw them inside. Hendricks was already in the fore-rigging. Suddenly I heard a terrible cry, and, looking up through the blinding spray and foam that arched over the ship from wind'ard, I saw a most shocking sight. Once more the foresail had escaped and was thundering and bellying with cannon-like explosions from a yard that tossed crazily to and fro, held only by the lifts and braces. The great iron truss or crane securing it to the mast had carried away; and even as I stared the big sail and its yard swung round to the wind, lifts and braces snapped like threads under the tremendous pressure, and the next moment the spar and its human freight were blown away like an insect-covered twig into the seething cauldron to leeward.
Probably the yard snapped the forestay; for, whilst I gazed, there was a dreadful crashing of timber, as the foremast with all its spars and yards fell fair over the forecastle-head in one great heap of ruin. Instinctively turning aft, as I felt the ship stop almost dead, I saw a huge black-green water-mountain hanging over the stern, and under its shadow the captain and the mate, still at the wheel, with their faces turned back and upwards as if fascinated. Then, just as the avalanche descended, I bolted into the little house, closed the door, and throwing myself into a lower bunk, clung to the stanchions with might and main. Another second, and I heard the thunder of the great comber aft, mingled with the crashing of more spars; then, with a burst, the water was upon me, and I was choking and stifling under, it seemed, tons of it. Thinking I must be overboard, I let go my grip, rose, and grabbing something else, presently found my head clear, and that I was hanging on to one of the iron girders forming the framework of the house roof. The water had made a clean sweep right through it, in at one end, out at the other; and as I drew myself up, panting and exhausted, I saw that the Ulundi was a hulk. Main and mizzen masts had snapped off just below top and topmast crosstrees respectively, and gone clear of the hull. Big seas broke inboard amidships and for'ard, for she had slewed round to the wind, and her after-part was comparatively clear of water. Clinging as I was to the iron frame of the roof, my situation was precarious, and, watching my chance, I dropped down and crawled aft amongst an indescribable mess of gear and ship's furniture, which, washing about fiercely, gave me no end of trouble to get through. The poop ladders were gone, of course, but I managed to clamber up there without them. To my surprise, I found the skylight and companion intact; but wheel, binnacle, boats, and all else were swept away, the davits of the latter being twisted like corkscrews. The port mizzen rigging lay across the deck; but the shrouds had gone in the eyes on each side of the mast-head and let all the spars float clear off. The same thing, apparently, had happened at the main, for the big barrel of it stood up naked to the splintered summit, whilst its rigging swam in long black trails empty to leeward. To my delight, I saw that the gale had blown itself out, for the lowering sun was trying to peer through ragged drifts of wrack, and eyes of blue dotted the sky here and there. The wreck, too, rode high; and, though a big sea still ran, I fancied she was tight. For'ard there was a tremendous raffle of spars and gear now washing along on each bow, but I could hear no bumping.
So occupied had my mind been with the dreadful catastrophe and the suddenness of it that I had completely forgotten all about Sinclair and Ali. Indeed, I had taken it for granted that I was the sole survivor on the Ulundi. But now I recollected that the others were probably below, and that if they had stayed there they might still be alive. Finding the hood of the companion jammed, I was forced to get on to the quarterdeck before I could enter the saloon.
The ship had a heavy list, making me think some of her dead-weight below had shifted. The light was dim as I stepped over the washboards, up to my knees in water, and groped my way carefully along, holding on to the table, and with all sorts of stuff washing against my legs in response to the sharp, jerky motion of the hull.
Seeing that the decanters were still in the swinging tray, I took a long drink out of the first one to hand. It proved to be brandy, and did me good. Then I shouted aloud; but, save the creaking and complaining of the barque's timbers that filled the whole place, I could hear nothing. Suddenly, as she gave a heavy lurch, some soft object washed up from leeward and was blocked against me by the backward roll. Stooping, I caught hold of it, and up popped poor Ali's black face—a nasty sight. But the spirit had put heart into me, and I made shift to drag the body on to the table, the head, meanwhile, lolling unnaturally, as if hung on hinges—a thing that made me sure the neck was broken. Had his master met a similar fate? I wondered, as I looked anxiously about me. But the dusk had come; and, for all I could see, there might be another body washing about to leeward or stuck amongst the furniture. So, making back to the pantry, I got a box of matches, and after a lot of trouble lit the big lamp that hung from the deck over the saloon table. Then, seeing nothing, I tried the door of the berth I knew to be Sinclair's. But it would not open, feeling not as if locked, but rather as if some heavy mass were against it. In the pantry I had noticed a nearly new tomahawk used by the steward for opening cases. Getting this, I attacked the upper panels of the door, and soon had a hole big enough to put my head in. It was too dark, however, to make out anything. But imagining I heard a groan, I went to work again, and after a while had a space chopped down right to the obstruction, that I now felt to be a great, heavy chest, which, fetching 'way, had effectually blocked the door from the inside. By the light of the saloon lamp I could see, as I stepped through the breach on to the box, a spacious, well-furnished cabin, with, right in front of me, an empty swinging-cot; a handsome wardrobe stood along one side, its doors wide open, displaying much clothing that shaped out fantastically to the list of the ship. As I stared around, a groan, apparently under my feet, made me jump. It was dark just there, and striking one of my long wax-vestas and looking down, I beheld a ghastly face glaring full at me out of senseless eyes whose whites, showing horribly, sent my memory flashing away to the fixed regard of the crows on the windlass barrel at Wild Horse Creek, what time they gloated over me in anticipation. The body lay on its back, with both legs jammed between the big chest and the door. The head, I saw, as I gazed till the match burned my fingers, was covered with a crop of vivid red hair cut close to the skull, whilst along the upper lip grew a curve of white bristles—testimony to the lack of Ali's razor. All the colour had gone from the face, leaving it pallid and shrunken, and for a minute I thought the man was dead. But as I struck another match and lit the cabin lamp he groaned and beat his one free hand on the floor; the other hand and arm seemed doubled up beneath him. There, then, at last, was my enemy, brought to book through no effort of mine, and apparently in a very sorry plight. And, strange to say, as I stood there and looked down at him, crippled, helpless, almost dead, all that desire of vengeance nursed so carefully through the years vanished, leaving in its stead merely a weak sensation of pity. This struck me as curious and disappointing. But without pausing to analyse my emotions, I threw all my strength into the endeavour to pull the chest away from the sufferer's legs. I might as well have tried to move the ship. In vain I tugged and pulled; the thing never budged an inch. Resting after one of these attempts, I was startled by a voice saving, 'You'll never do it, Frank, without a lever.'
Looking round, I saw that life had come into Ormon's eyes and a little colour into his face; saw also that he knew me for his old mate.
'Both my legs are broken, I think,' he went on presently. 'I was trying to get out when I heard the row on deck, and that cursed box broke its lashings and pinned me here. Where's Ali? And what's happened?'
As I lifted his head and gave him to drink of brandy and water, I answered him briefly, and then made my way on deck for something to help me to move the chest. Both wind and sea, I found, had gone down a lot. The night was clear, with stars; and as I threw a swift glance round the horizon, my eye caught the loom of a dark mass on the port quarter that looked uncommonly like land. But I was in a hurry; and luckily coming across one of the long handspikes that used to stand in a rack around the mizzenmast, I returned, and by aid of it and strenuous effort, at last prised the box away sufficiently to allow of my drawing Ormon from between it and the door, shocked to perceive as I did so that not only were splintered bones projecting through the skin just above one knee, but that the other leg also seemed terribly injured. He fainted as I pulled the mattress out of the cot and got him on it the best way I could. Some more brandy revived him; but he was evidently suffering intense agony. Still, he insisted on my telling him how I had escaped from the shaft. And then, in words broken by gasps of pain, he said:
'I've had nothin' but good luck since. Don't think I'm sorry, because I ain't. It was my chance, and I took it. I'd do the same again to-morrow if it had to be done. Didn't I tell you I'd make better use o' the money than you could? I'm worth twenty thousand pounds to-day. Hard lines, though—ain't it?—gettin' jammed by that infernal chest. It's only quartz specimens from different claims I'm interested in, and that I was taking home to float a few companies with. I told the fools to stow it in the hold, and they put it here instead. I knowed you some time ago; at least I had a good notion it was you, and of late was almost certain of it. Cursed if I don't think I'm goin' to croak this trip! I can feel cold creepin' up me inside. Put your hand under my shirt and take out what you find there.'
Obeying him, I drew forth a small bag of wash-leather fastened to a gold chain he wore around his neck. It seemed to the touch full of different-sized pebbles.
'There's between ten and twelve thousand pounds' worth o' diamonds there,' he said faintly. 'Take 'em; they're yours. And they're honestly come by. Now open that desk and you'll find pen and ink and paper. Write that I, William Sinclair, of Johannesburg and Kimberley, leave you, Frank Davies, all shares, stock, and mining scrip, &c., that I'm possessed of. You might as well have it as any one else. Now let me try and sign it.' And by a great effort he guided the pen along the letters of his name, and then fell back in another faint.
The motion of the vessel was now much easier, owing not only to the sea having gone down, but because most of the forward wreckage had cleared itself, and thus allowed the bows to rise and fall freely. But still she rolled heavily enough to send the water and debris splashing up from leeward almost into the berth; and from where I sat wiping the cold sweat off the dying man's forehead I could see through the hacked and battered door dead Ali moving restlessly on the table under the lamplight.
Suddenly Ormon opened his eyes and ceased his stertorous breathing. Looking fixedly at me, he grinned and said slowly, 'Well, after all, I'm glad you got out o' that hole. Such a chump as you was, to be sure! And what wouldn't you do to me when you caught me, eh? And now you've got me proper—and I've made you! You'll be all right,' he continued faintly, as a tremor convulsed his limbs; 'I can hear 'em comin' now.' Raising his hand to his head, he felt the coarse bristly hair with a petulant frown on his face; and I turned to get the black wig I had noticed in an open case. But when I looked again the eyes were fixed and staring, the jaw fallen, the end arrived.
Even as I covered his face I heard the sound of voices hailing, and, going on deck, found that the dawn had broken, and that close alongside lay a small steamer; whilst not two miles away was a thickly-wooded island, with high up its sides a cluster of white houses.
This turned out to be Fernando Noronha, the penal settlement of Brazil; and the steamer was the one that brought the convicts and soldiers their monthly supplies from the mainland.
The Santa Anna towed the Ulundi into Pernambuco, whence, taking passage to London, I soon discovered that Ormon's estimate as to the value of the diamonds was, if anything, under the mark. Realising on them, I proceeded to the Cape, and there also found that Mr William Sinclair's name was well known as a lucky mining speculator on the Rand, where, although not a popular man, he was looked upon as a fair and capable one. And his investments were all genuine, solid, and realisable. Thus, after all, it will be seen that my mate atoned fully enough, after a fashion, for the theft of my luck and my gold, and without any necessity on my part for application of the lex talionis, as laid down by my good friend Shahbaz Khan—may his shadow never grow less!
'Mastah, mastah, you no lemember me?'
'No,' I replied, peering out of my bunk at the yellow, slant-eyed face that looked down at me and then to the door as if fearful of something behind.
'No lemember Cabbagee Jimmy, eh? Long time ago, Austlalia—Mellyong—station—dlought—eh. Now lemember, eh?'
And while the man spoke there came to mind memories of a far-away land, of torrid heat, of dead and dying sheep and cattle, of all the horror of an Australian drought, with amongst them one grateful recollection of a patch of verdure, sole thing, almost, that made life endurable at desiccated, God-forsaken, hateful Merryong. Why, of course, I remember 'Cabbagee' now, and how patiently during all those long rainless months he strove to keep the station in 'green stuff,' carrying water to the ash-heap called garden, morning, noon, and night, in his struggle against nature in that drear western wilderness.
And now, as I sat in my pyjamas on the edge of my bunk and looked at the bullet-headed ugly beggar, I felt quite pleased at the unexpected meeting, little thinking that it would turn out so badly for poor Jimmy. I suppose my face showed my thoughts, for he grinned, exhibiting all his discoloured fangs of teeth as he said 'All-li! Me cook's mate. S'pose steward catch me here he givee me hell! No gammon! Me see you come on board. You look out! Bad lot sailah fellah. All Amoy men. You no tell I say,' and, drawing a long finger suggestively across his throat, Jimmy disappeared.
Talk about the world being wide! Why, it was about ten years ago since, giving up squatting in disgust, I had gone back to my old profession, medicine, and practised mostly ever since in Sydney and Melbourne. Now, taking my first holiday in the East, I must needs stumble across 'Cabbagee Jimmy,' transformed into cook's mate of the Ly-chee, a coasting steamer in which I was making a trip from Singapore to Swatow. And as I sat there, through my mind ran thoughts of these long-gone dreary days of hopeless struggle with drought and disaster on ever-dry back-creeks; of the sultry stifling weather with never a break for months whilst ruin was spelling itself slowly out, and the stink of rotting carcasses mingled with that of the gidyea. Merryong, yes, I 'lemembered' all right now! But what did Jimmy mean by his warning? It might be serious, and perhaps I had better tell the skipper at once. So, getting on deck, I ascended to the bridge. It was a beautiful morning, and the Ly-chee was punching along with the coast well in sight on the port hand, and a whole crowd of Chinese trying to put some kind of order into the cargo which lumbered the craft fore and aft.
I was the only white passenger; but occupying a large deck cabin next to me were three Chinese gentlemen who I had heard were going to start business in Swatow as bankers. And, to judge from the pile of iron-bound boxes that filled a spare berth, they seemed to have brought lots of stock in the shape of dollars with them. They were quiet folk, well-mannered after their fashion, courteous and polite, but unable to speak a word of English, even the vile 'pidgin' universally in vogue, therefore our intercourse was limited.
Nothing was farther from my mind than to pose as an alarmist. Moreover, I had my doubts as to how the skipper, who was inclined to be bumptious and to fancy that he and his little iron tank owned the ocean, would take any warning from a stranger and a new chum. Also, I knew that times were quiet, gunboats plentiful, and pirates fast becoming an anomaly. Still, the ex-gardener of Merryong's words, few and slight as they were, had carried conviction with them. I had seen, too, that Jimmy was badly frightened. Therefore, considering all this, I felt it my duty to tell the captain our conversation word for word. He received it very much as I expected he would, perhaps rather more so.
'Pooh,' said he with a supercilious laugh, 'the fellow was only taking a rise out of you. Of course, some years back, we all had to go armed and keep a bright lookout. But now—why, I don't think there's a pistol amongst us! It's only raw passengers that get scared. My crowd's all right. They were especially recommended by Liuchang, the company's compradore. Nor, in any case, would they be game to play any hanky-panky on me; I'm too well known. The other passengers, yonder, have got about thirty thousand taels on board, and you bet they wouldn't have shipped with me if they'd had any doubts. 'Bliged to you, mister, all the same. But don't be alarmed, nor raise a scare amongst the others if you can help it. You'll see Swatow, and the Ly-chee too, safe enough.' Which, after results considered, has always struck me as a good example of one of those random remarks that, after the event, one thinks a most perverse and unkind fate must have put into the speaker's mouth.
Besides the captain and myself, the only other Europeans on the Ly-chee were the two mates and the chief engineer, the second being a Malay of peculiarly villainous aspect.
Of course, my story being thus made light of by the captain, I could not very well, even if I had wished to do so, have gone with it to his subordinates—all the more so as their personalities were in no way inviting; the two deck officers being merely Straits Settlement beach-combers, hunted by the police into so much activity as would earn them a few dollars for a spree before the next bout of loafing. This much a friend in Singapore had told me; adding, however, for my comfort, that they would serve as well as the best for a short passage. The engineer was of a different stamp—a big Aberdonian, and a decent man enough; but one who I felt would be little inclined to trouble himself with anything out of his own beaten routine.
I, however, determined to have another talk with Jimmy, and see whether I couldn't get something a little more definite from him. But he fought very shy of me; and it was late that night before I succeeded in cornering him alone in the bit of a sentry-box they called the pantry.
'Now, Jimmy,' I said without preamble, 'let's hear all about this business. You know!' and I took up a knife that lay handy and put it to my throat. 'Come on; fire away. I'll see that nobody does you any harm. What are your Amoy friends up to—a bit of piracy, eh?'
'No savee; no savee,' replied Jimmy, turning actually green with fear, whilst showing the whites of his eyes in a horrible manner as he stared over my shoulder. 'What you wantee? Me cook's mate. No savee,' he continued as, turning, I found myself face to face with the steward, a tall Chinaman with a long, broad, red scar running down the side of his left cheek from ear to chin, giving him a very truculent look.
'Me steward, sah,' said he, darting a most malignant glance at Jimmy. 'Sheef steward. You wantee watah; me blingee you. Sodah-wattah, blandee, leemon quash, whissakkee; all bling s'pose you wantee.'
Just at this moment up came the second engineer with a badly-torn finger; and, realising that I had somehow got Jimmy into trouble with my evidently-overheard question, I took the evil-faced Malay into my berth and dressed the wound. 'Are there many Amoy men on board the Ly-chee?' I asked presently.
'None at all, that I know of,' he replied. 'Why do you wish to find out?'
'Curiosity only,' I said carelessly; 'I'm studying the different types of Chinese. That's all.' He grinned and said: 'Well, you'll probably have a good chance if you're going in for that sort of thing. Can't say I'm fond of them myself. I'm Batavia-born, and that's a cut above a Chinaman, isn't it?'
'Very much so indeed,' I replied politely, although the man was uglier even than poor Cabbagee Jimmy. 'Then you can't give me any information about the men we have with us now?'
'None,' said he; 'and perhaps it would be as well,' he added, with a nasty look in his snakelike eyes, 'if you were not too inquisitive. There's a hint worth all you've done for my finger,' and off he went to his engine-room again, leaving me with a firmer opinion than ever that there was mischief brewing on board.
That same night, sitting on the deck enjoying the cool breeze blowing off the land, I was startled by seeing what appeared to be a big fire right ahead, which burnt for a minute or two and then went out.
'It's a junk showing a flare,' I heard the second mate say to the captain on the bridge immediately above me.
'Blast 'em,' growled the skipper; 'the brutes are always getting in the road! I've run a few down in my time, an 'll serve this fellow the same if he doesn't clear out,' and seizing the siren-wire, he loosed a blast that made me start.
It was dark, but away in the east astern a lightening of the sky showed where the moon would soon rise. 'Port your helm!' shouted the skipper presently to the Chinese quartermaster.
'Portee!' replied the man from where he stood at the wheel, right aft; for the Ly-chee was an old-fashioned tank, built before the days of 'midship' steerage.
All at once, looking up, I saw that the bridge was crowded with men, their dark forms outlined against the sky. There was a scuffle; the report of a pistol; then another; then the sound of bodies crashing on to the cargo fifteen feet below.
As I jumped to my feet the Ly-chee slowed, and I heard a shot in the engine-room. Before I could decide on anything, there was a rush of men against me, and I was forced back in my chair, and tied so thoroughly, hand and foot, that I lay like a log. Then the steamer stopped altogether, and lay gently heaving to the swell. I called to the captain, but there was no reply. Also, I saw the bridge was empty. Astern, the moon had risen like a globe of palest, purest silver. A little way from me the Chinese passengers were screaming. I had never heard men scream before, and it made me shiver. It was exactly the long-drawn screaming of a pig when he first feels the knife. And, as yet, nobody had touched them. But the crew, headed by the Malay and the steward, were breaking out the boxes of dollars and piling them on deck. Upon these their owners now flung themselves, heedless of the kicks and knocks which presently left two of them senseless alongside their treasure.
Meanwhile, the steward, as I shouted again for the captain, came to me, and remarking blandly, 'You makee too muchee low,' he coolly bent my head back over the chair, and already had the edge of his long, sharp knife against the skin of my throat when the Malay, noticing him, crossed over and pulled him away from me, saying something to which the other assented, but with evident reluctance.
'He wants to study,' said the brute with a grin, 'wants to pry into the formation of your trachea and jugular (he had, I was told afterwards, been a pet pupil of the Raffles Institute in Singapore), but there's lots of time. And you'd better keep your tongue between your teeth.'
The decks aft were now nearly as light as day; and as the steward walked towards the group busy about the boxes, I saw the one Chinese passenger who was still conscious, though badly bruised was bleeding from several wounds, rush forward and clasp him round the legs with both arms. As he squatted there, quite silent at last, and with a laughable look of pleading misery on his upturned features, the steward, after gazing at him for a moment, suddenly forced his head back and plunged the knife into his throat. Rolling over and over in his death agony, the unfortunate wretch brought up against my chair, where he lay with a horrible gurgling and bubbling that made my very heart sick to listen to. The other two, his companions, still lay senseless. As I gazed, fascinated, at the horrid spectacle at my feet, with a great creaking of mat-sails and bamboo spars a junk drew alongside and made fast to the Ly-chee. Evidently this was the one whose signal-light we had seen. Hurried greetings seemed to be exchanged, and all hands began to transfer the silver on board the new-comer to the sound of a grunting hi-ya song. The thing beside me had ceased gurgling and gasping, and the moonlight fell on a corpse lying in a thick, black pool that slowly spread about my feet. Although unable to stir, I could view all that passed, and looked anxiously for 'Cabbagee,' but he was nowhere to be seen.
The Malay engineer and the long steward were undoubtedly the leaders in this bloody tragedy; and a feeling akin to despair took hold on me when I reflected that, from what I had seen of their tender mercies, probably my own time was near at hand. And, but for the mulish obstinacy of the captain, all might have been prevented! I had no less than three Colt's revolvers with ammunition in my cabin trunk, two of them presents from friends in Singapore to others in Swatow. What might we not have done by a timely display! And now; oh, the pity of it! I wondered whether they intended to kill me where I sat. I wondered, too, I remember, whether it would be of any use telling them that as a doctor I could make myself useful to them if they would spare my life. Not very heroic this, perhaps; but then, again, there's nothing heroic either in having your throat cut like a ration sheep's. I was prepared to go great lengths in the way of eating humble-pie to avoid any such a fate at such hands. Having finished transshipping the silver, together with some of the casks and cases off the maindeck, the pirates, rather to my surprise, dragged along the two as yet unconscious passengers, and threw them heavily on to the junk. Then at last, from somewhere or other, suddenly appeared Jimmy. Fumbling about, apparently to see that my bonds were secure, I heard a zip as one of the strained coil strands flew asunder to the touch of a keen knife. Then came an imperative call, and he fled swiftly into the shadow's cast by the junk's great sails just as the steward and the Malay walked up to me. The moon was under a cloud; but they carried a lantern, by whose light they viewed me all over, soon discovering the knife and the cut rope. I saw the steward examine the knife closely whilst the Malay knotted me up afresh, and more tightly than ever. Then the steward, taking a thick silk kerchief from around my throat, proceeded to effectually gag me. And, seeing that I was not to be done to instant death, I said never a word.
'Good-night, doctor,' remarked the Malay. 'Personally I don't wish you any harm; but you've seen too much. According to my calculations, the Ly-chee will blow up in about a couple of hours. And, anyhow, you'll make a better ending than if Kwa Fung here had his way with you. Good-bye,' and the pair turned and went. A few minutes later I saw the dark sails of the junk swaying to the wind like the wings of some great night-bird, as she glided past the Ly-chee's stern, leaving me alone and helpless with the dead. Save for the ripple of the little waves against the bows, and the grind of chains as the sea twisted rudder and wheel alternately to port and starboard, the ship was silent. In vain I strained my gaze down on to the maindeck, where, amongst the dark hollows and crannies of the cargo, I knew the captain and second mate must be lying, dead or desperately wounded. I could see nothing. For a while I sat there, swathed in ropes, helpless as any mummy, staring over the moonlit sea. Then all at once, as I caught sight of a dark speck far astern, knowing it for the junk, I remembered the Malay's last words, and my thoughts fled to the engine-room; and in fancy I saw the big Scotsman lying there dead, and the fires roaring fiercely under the newly-filled boilers, fast generating steam for whose force there was no outlet but a general burst-up. About another hour and the explosion would take place! And, whilst the cold sweat burst from every pore, I strained and heaved at my bonds until they cut deep into my flesh and I was near choking. Alas! they never slackened an inch. Even the chair was immovable—lashed to the vessel's rail. Before leaving, the pirates had run up the trysail and jib; and these filling all the starboard tack, the steamer was drifting rapidly away seaward from that low, dark line under the moon that I knew must be the coast between Hong-kong and Swatow.
How long had the junk been gone, I wondered. Was my time nearly up for saying good-bye to this world? I must try and pray. But, do what I might, I could not keep my attention fixed. All my soul seemed in my ears; and to the sound of a louder creak amongst the cargo, or a shriller note of the wind in the rigging, my nerves leapt and thrilled expectant of the last dread moment. Truly the sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell came about me, and yet I could not, as I felt I ought to do, make my peace with this world and prepare my soul for the next one. From where I sat, the glass skylight of the engine-room was all aglitter in the pale sheen, and on this my eyes became fixed with a dreadful intensity, until at last the gleam of the glass seemed to burn them like an incandescent fire. The breeze was cold, but my clothes were wet through with sweat, and I could see it dripping from my finger-tips like water on to the deck. Brave men are said to have waited for death with indifference, fearing nothing. But I think that, in most cases, they had company. And, believe me, it is a very terrible thing to sit bound, helpless, dumb, alone, expecting eternity with each passing moment, and with the agony of a great fear in full possession of both soul and body. I think that if I could have cried aloud, have cursed, or wept, or prayed with an audible voice the strain had lightened. But the gag, although soft and not hurting much, allowed me only the making of inarticulate groans, as I panted for breath and stared with eyes that felt like hot coals, ever fixed fascinated on the moonlit glass of the engine-room. Presently I somehow fell to thinking of a favourite collie-dog I had once owned at Merryong, who, every time he wished to attract my attention, used to beat my legs with his long tail. I fancied that he was doing it now. With an absolutely physical wrench I tore my hot eyes away from the skylight and looked down.
The breeze had freshened considerably, making the Ly-chee tumble about a bit. And with the increased motion the dead Chinaman was rolling slowly to and fro, and bumping his head against my bound ankles. And the shock of meeting those upturned, staring eyes, and the terrible face with its lips curled, grinning back from the stained teeth, and the great gash in the throat opening and closing in ghastly protesting fashion, saved me, I verily believe, by the consideration of a fresh horror, from becoming a raving lunatic.
I do not know what period of time went by while, the awful anguish of expectancy broken, I dreamily and with senses in some sort numbed, stared back at the staring dead man. But I remember wishing I could speak to him, and ask him to lie quietly and leave me alone, wishing too that I could move my feet out of his way and out of the black pool that was gathering around and over the toes of my canvas shoes and spoiling them. But, all at once, there fell on my ears a sound that made me raise my head, and sent a wave of life and hope pulsing through every artery in my body in response to the regular thump, thump of a steamer's screw. Twisting my head round, I saw both her lights coming right down upon the Ly-chee, and distant a bare mile. As she approached I could distinctly make her out to be a long, low, double-funnelled boat going through the water at a great rate. Suddenly I lost the green light. She was keeping away! Then the red one disappeared. She was passing. Thump! thump! thump! hammers beating on my heart; and the stream of sparks from her funnels flying into my brain. Impotently, as I realised the full misery of the thing, I groaned and panted forth hoarse noise, audible, perhaps, a yard away. Impotently I writhed and struggled till the taughtened ropes reached the bone on legs and wrists. But ever fainter and fainter came the thump of the screw. And as despair, utter and complete, settled once more into my soul, my head fell on my breast, and once more I entered the dark valley of the shadow, from which I had emerged only to partake of the bitterness of a new death.
Sitting there, scarcely conscious, and with my eyes shut, I suddenly felt that some strong, strange light was beating on their lids. Looking up, I saw that the whole ship and the sea round about it were enveloped in a bright white glare that seemed to dart into and rest on every part of the Ly-chee. In my first surprise I imagined that this perhaps was but a blaze preparatory to the explosion I had been so long expecting, a notion as instantly dismissed, as I heard, almost alongside now, the loud thumping of a screw, and saw the steamer, not two hundred yards away, playing on the Ly-chee with her searchlight. Then, as if thoroughly to bear into me the blessed truth, a voice hailed, 'Steamer ahoy!' But I could give them no signal. And during a few minutes of such agonised suspense as I know I shall never be permitted to pass through again—God being too merciful for that—I heard the sweetest music the world then held for me, the swift cheep through their blocks of a boat's davitfalls. Then it seemed but a second or two until hearty, wholesome English faces were looking into mine, and ready hands cutting away at my bonds and removing the gag, whilst there came to my ears, as if from a very far distance across the sea, expressions of wonder, execration, and pity. They told me afterwards that before I swooned, as I did directly they assisted me to my feet, I muttered the one word, 'Boilers!'
When I came to myself again it was sunrise, and I was lying on a mattress spread on the after skylight of H.M. gunboat Psyche, my wrists and ankles swathed in bandages, and the taste of strong brandy in my mouth.
'The infernal villains!' exclaimed the captain, as to him and his officers I told my story, brokenly, and with long pauses, for I was weak and feverish. 'But, if we have any luck, we may punish them yet; the wind's been against them all night. Where'll they be, Mr Courtenay?'
'Off Tin-ko Point, sir,' replied the first lieutenant, 'by my reckoning.'
'Exactly the place I had in my mind,' said the captain. 'We can fix them up yet, I do hope and believe. Now,' he went on, addressing me, 'don't exert yourself. The doctor, here, says you'll be all right in a day or two. There's the Ly-chee just astern of us. Her captain and one of his mates we found dead, stabbed and shot, thrown off the bridge, as you told us, amongst the deck cargo. Another white man lay in his bunk with his head smashed to pieces. The engineer was lying across one of his cylinders, shot through the heart. As for the boilers, well, my chief tells me that as they were worn to the thinness of brown paper, and liable to go at any minute, it was simply a miracle how they stood the extra pressure, and with the valves wired down into the bargain. We buried all the dead at daylight. And I hope,' continued he—looking very grim as he gave the order 'Full speed ahead!'—'that we'll be able to do more burying, but of another sort, before night.'
By breakfast time it fell dead calm, and our hopes rose as, keeping so close inshore that we at times could almost have thrown a biscuit on the rocks, we flew along the coast, leaving the Ly-chee with her salvage crew to come on at her leisure.
The Psyche was one of the new torpedo gunboats, with engines of nearly 5000 horse-power, drawing only ten feet of water, armed with quick-firing guns and five-barrelled Nordenfelts. And as I looked ahead and saw the mounds of white water rising from her bow, and felt the decks quivering underneath me, and knew she must be doing a good eighteen knots, there filled my soul, for the first time, a savage longing for vengeance on the bloody and murderous authors of all my sufferings throughout that past but never-to-be-forgotten night.
Late that afternoon a large junk with all her sweeps out was sighted just winding a thickly-timbered cape which they told me was Tin-ko.
If, indeed, this was the craft we were after, then our luck was undoubtedly in. But, of course, I could not recognise her again. All hesitation, however, on that point was soon set at rest, for, when we rounded Tin-ko, we found the chase had anchored, and that a big boat full of men was hurriedly pulling for the shore. Getting his glass to bear, the captain sang out to me, 'Is there a half-caste or Malay amongst the crowd?'
'Yes,' I replied, 'he was the assistant-engineer.'
'And a Chinaman with a scar like a broad burn across his face?'
'The steward,' I said, 'and, with the other, the ringleaders of the whole affair. Can you see the two prisoners?'
'No,' said the captain. 'But they may be in the bottom of the boat. Ready with the port Nordenfelt, for'ard there, and fire when you're loaded. I think they're in range.' Rising on my elbow as the gun crashed, I saw the bullets splashing white water all around the boat, between which and ourselves every moment decreased the distance, at the tremendous rate we were going, shoaling our depth, too, as I could hear every minute by the cries of 'And a half-eight!—quarter-less-seven—six fathoms!' that reached me from the chains.
All at once I saw the captain touch the telegraph and motion to the helmsman. The Psyche slowed, then came round on her heel, broadside on almost to the boat, which, by now, was close in to the rocks. Crash! crash! crash! pealed the whole port battery; and when the smoke cleared away only a couple of black heads were visible, bobbing up and down amongst the wreck of the boat, smashed literally into matchwood, while from the leadsman came a short, quick cry of 'By the mark, twain!' It was a splendid piece of work, and we had just two feet to spare between our bottom and the rocks of Cape Tin-ko.
'Only just in the nick of time,' said the captain, walking along from his bridge to where I lay. 'Now, doctor, I think you can cry quits. As for the silver, probably that's gone, although there may be just a chance that when they saw our smoke they left it on board the junk. We'll see, presently, when the boat returns. Yes, of course, I'm sorry for your man and the two passengers. But we couldn't stop to discriminate, you know. Another three minutes and they would have been in the bush yonder. Let us hope that fortune has been kind, and that "Jimmy" at least may be one of the survivors.'
But, strangely enough, the pair turned out to be the Malay and the steward, and both so badly wounded that they only lived a very short time after being put on board the Psyche.
Meanwhile, the gunboat had steamed alongside the junk, only to find her, with the exception of a few odds and ends of the stolen cargo, quite empty. Already, the cutter was under the davitfalls, and being hooked on, when a shout of surprise from the men in her caused me to follow their pointing fingers towards the bows of the junk, where, apparently just come to the surface, floated a dead body.
'By Jove, sir,' suddenly exclaimed the first lieutenant to the captain, 'both her anchors are on deck. What can she be riding to? There's something curious about that.'
'Get on board,' ordered the captain to the young sub. in charge of the boat, 'and haul up her cable. Pick that body up as you go, and bring it back with you.'
After some trouble, the men hove up the stout coir hawser, at the end of which they found securely lashed not only the boxes of dollars but two more bodies—those of poor Cabbagee Jimmy and one of the Chinese passengers. Of the latter also was the corpse that had slipped its moorings and risen to tell us, it almost seemed, what had become of the money. On none of the bodies was any mark of mortal wound; and, without a doubt, the three unfortunates had been bound alive to the rope and thrown overboard, thus not only making more room in the boat, but enabling the steward to punish Jimmy for his attempts to befriend me.
Some years have gone by since I found myself the sole survivor of the looting of the Ly-chee. But, even now, at long intervals, I wake from my sleep o' nights with a start and a shudder, as, in my dreams, bloody memories flit across my brain. Nor, somehow, can I ever bring myself to sit in a lounge chair, or tolerate the sight of white canvas shoes. I have heard people, noting these peculiarities, remark that I am affected. Perhaps you, who know, may agree with me that there is some little reason for such affectation.
An ideal night in the Indian Ocean, with the stars looking as big as saucers, throbbing away up there in the blue from one horizon to the other; and the sea, a wondrous mass of iridescence through which the sharp fore-foot of the Cape Liner shears, sometimes with a noise like the tinkling of numberless little glass bells, at others with a hoarse rush that casts great blobs and flakes of living light into the air, to fall again in radiant showers of opalescent beauty into the creaming mass that glows and seethes under the bows.
The wind was right aft, and the fore-staysail, hauled down, made a comfortable nest on the fok'sle-head. In the folds of this I lay back and smoked, gazing now on the wonderful spectacle outboard, now up at the big lamp that hung from the fore-topmast-stay, looking mean and yellow, by contrast, under the pure starlight, and wondered mightily the while whether I should ever find my Kaffir.
In vain I had attempted to raise a loan upon him in Melbourne, where, after a series of mischances, I had, one winter, found myself remarkably hard up.
What people I knew—very few—who had any money laughed cheerfully at my proffered security, and refused to invest. Even those who had no money—the great majority—laughed also. With one exception; he was a newspaper-man—at least he wasn't permanently on any staff—but was what is vaguely known as a 'literary contributor.' And he paid my passage in that White Star boat and gave me a few shillings over, leaving himself and his wife and family pretty well cleaned out until pay-night.
But Osborne had the spice of romance, accentuated in his case by dabbling in psychomancy, odic forces, and such stuff. Also, just then, he had constant employment, along the wharves, lumping cargo at one shilling per hour, and sixpence overtime. And he was, into the bargain, expecting a boom in the literary-contributor business. Evidently that was the only thing that made him uneasy at leaving Australia. He was afraid the boom might commence during his absence, and when he would be unable to take advantage of it.
'Anyhow, there's "copy" in the business, old man, if there's nothing else,' said he, as he ran over from the 'Loch Lee,' alongside which famous clipper he was slinging bales of wool, to say good-bye. 'Still, if I were you, in spite of the odic premonitions you have told me so much about, I wouldn't be too sanguine with regard to dropping across that nigger. Five years, you know, is a good time to have neglected him. Still, I have hopes. So long! And good luck!' Yes, it was almost five years to the day since, weary and disheartened by a run of bad fortune, I had come in with a prospecting party from Bechuanaland, and, perforce, taken a job with a Dutch farmer not far from where Johannesburg was, even then, growing into a city on the Rand of White Water.
My boss wasn't a bad sort of fellow—for a Boer. But if I had not been able to speak a little Dutch, I should never have stood a show of getting work from him. After a few months, it happened that he and some others made a long trek down to the Bay (Port Elizabeth). I went, too, and was glad of the chance, for I was getting tired of life on the grass veldt; tired of scabby mutton and square gin, and of having nobody to talk to but 'Aunts' and 'Uncles,' and big-headed young Dutch bucks full of gas and blow at the expense of 'Britishers.'
Camping one night on the Vaal River, a Kaffir, old and evidently very ill, came up and begged for something to eat.
But the Boers only swore at him for a black schepsel; and one of them gave the poor wretch a cut over the legs with his bullock-whip that made him jump again. Then he went away and lay down under a great, shady, broad-leaved tree some three hundred yards from our camp. After supper I carried him a quart of tea and something to eat.
But he was too far gone to do anything but sip the warm sweet stuff; eat he could not. He, however, was very grateful.
'You are a good man, Bass,' said he. 'Not like those Dutch aasvoyels (vultures) over yonder. I am a Swazi, and thought to die in my own land, and lo, I die where I lie. But before I go I will make you rich. Never mouthfuls of drink shall be paid for like these. Listen, my son! Two moons ago I worked in the Company's Kraal, and dug for the white stones that shine in the dark when the white man polishes them, and are worth many cattle and many guns.
It came to pass that on a day I found four—four, mark you—all at once. Two were big as the biggest mealie-ears, and two were bigger again. Close beside each other they lay in the nest that they were born in at the making of the world, and there, my son, I found them, even I, old Goza, whom the Pale Man (death) hath gripped. And as I picked them up, so, one after the other, I swallowed them. And now they light up, may be, the darkness of my belly. But they are sharp and cold, I feel them even now!' And a grin passed like a sudden flicker of firelight into a dark corner across the wrinkled leathery old face as he patted his naked stomach.
'Ay,' he continued, as I stared at him, then gave him another mouthful of tea, 'I swallowed them. And high though the fence and watchful the guards, I escaped from the big Kraal. Take them, my son. Would that I had never seen them; very heavy they be in the new nest that they have made for themselves. Hearken! when I go, which will happen when the first light shines across the veldt behind yonder koppie,' motioning towards a peculiar flat-topped hill some quarter of a mile away, 'and the aasvoyels have laagered-up and gone, turn back from them, and come here, and cut into me quickly, and take out the four white stones—stay, you may feel them even now!' And he seized my hand and pressed it hard against his stomach, and peered into my face with eyes fast losing their life and fire.
But I could feel nothing, and I said so.
'I can!' replied he, smiling grimly.
'Bury me where I lie, white man,' he continued. 'See, I chose the spot clear of roots, so that water may not follow them into the grave and give the jackals food before their time. Bury me as I sit, and facing the sun, so that my spirit may walk straight to its own land. Promise me this thing, my son, and on a day, not too distant, it shall be very well with thee.'
I promised the poor old chap of course, and he seemed as pleased as Punch; and as I left him he started humming a strange sort of chant. Listening for awhile, I went on, and turned into my hammock swung under the disselboom of our wagon.
Knowing, as I did, that almost all Kaffirs are liars of high degree, I didn't feel inclined to put much faith in the diamond business. Moreover, I had no wish to lose my passage, as assuredly would be the case if I lagged behind to dissect my friend. Also, he had chosen the most awkward possible time in which to die—just as everybody was on the alert to inspan and prepare for the day's trek.
But perhaps the heaviest argument of all against the likelihood of the thing consisted in the fact of my having seen the fence he said he had climbed—the big barrier that the illicit diamond buyers had forced the De Beers Company to erect around their shoal of amalgamated mines—fourteen feet of galvanised iron with three barbed wires strained along the top of it. Why, a lizard couldn't have scaled it, much less a worn-out old Kaffir!—we call them all Kaffirs there, Pondos, Baautos, Bechuanas, Griqnas, and the rest. However, as I turned over and fell asleep, I determined to at least go across in the morning, and if he had pegged out, as he said he would, bury him as I promised, diamonds or no diamonds.
I slept late, and was only awakened by old Oom Hendricks shaking me. 'Almachte!' he growled, 'Arise, and don't let the blessed sun of the Lord God roast you alive!'
Until after breakfast there was no chance to slip away; for, like the others, I had my share of camp duty to perform.
But at last I managed to get over to the tree. Sure enough, there lay my Kaffir, already stiffening, with the flies beginning to swarm in black clouds about him.
However, going to the wagon, I got a spade and a pick, and despite the jeers and laughter of the Boers, when they saw what my intentions were, I planted the poor old beggar pretty deep, huddled up, and with his face towards Swaziland. Just at that time I didn't feel inclined to do any more towards proving my legacy.
Perhaps, as I trampled the earth upon him, some faint notion possessed me of returning in the future; for I took bearings from the big tree, noticing especially, as I did so, a curious triangular patch of white stone near the summit of the koppie.
But in Algoa Bay I got a ship and came across to Australia, and as the years passed the remembrance of the incident grew weaker; still, strange to say, at long intervals a sort of feeling would momentarily seize upon me, taking full possession of my mind, and urging me vehemently to go and dig up what was waiting for me under the old tree.
It was a haunting sort of sensation, quite too vague to define, a kind of small pressing inward voice that kept on telling me that I was a fool for neglecting such a chance of fortune. But as I noticed that the phenomenon generally occurred when I was hard up, I put it down to natural causes. Osborne, however, was otherwise impressed, ascribed it to 'a reaction of psychic will-matter,' and wrote a paper on it.
Indeed, if it had not been for that kindly enthusiast I hardly think I should ever have been bound Africa-ward to look for a five-year-old dead Kaffir.
And as I lay on the fok'sle-head and smoked, and thought of what an awfully forlorn sort of hope it was, growing more forlorn and more doubtful with every gliding heave of the big steamer that brought the testing of it nearer. I got up, and, knocking the ashes out of my pipe on the capstan, called myself a fool and several other things. It was the purpose with which I had started away that appeared so much more idiotic here, within eight hundred miles of Cape Agulhas, than it had done on Sandridge pier.
Amongst the saloon passengers was a Mr Johnston, formerly a free-selector in New South Wales. He had emigrated many years ago to South Africa; and there, after some time spent in hunting and digging, he finally settled on a large farm in the Transvaal, where in those early days good land was to be had for half-a-crown an acre.
He was a big, jolly, frank, outspoken man of about fifty-eight, a widower, with one child, a pretty girl of eighteen, who accompanied him. And he was now returning to his adopted country with a fine selection of stud rams and ewes for his flocks up there on the high veldt of the African tableland. In my former wanderings I had often heard his name mentioned as a 'suspect,' and an object of dislike to the Boer government at Pretoria. Indeed during the war he was more than once nearly shot out of hand, not only for his opposition to being 'commandeered,' but for the remarkably free way in which he aired his opinions on the subject of Boer and Basuto—Dutch liege though he nominally was.
Happening once to attract his notice by something I said respecting the sheep, whilst I watched him feeding them, we used often after that to have a yarn together.
With pretty Mary Johnston I also exchanged at odd times a word or two when she brought for'ard dainties for her pet-ewe. And one day, in very rough weather, the vessel, diving, took a tremendous sea over her fok'sle-head, and Mary, venturing alone along the deck, was caught by the rushing torrent, and swept like a feather into the main-rigging. Luckily, to escape a wetting, I had jumped upon one of the main-hatch sheep-pens. It was a long bound from there into the rigging; but in those days I was young and smart, and I managed it just as the weight of water was proving too much for her. Another minute and she would have let go and been carried overboard. It really was a narrow shave, so narrow that the skipper, watching from the bridge, grew pale and trembled, thinking that all was over, as his fingers pushed the telegraph to 'Stop.'
Old Johnston didn't say much. But I felt that if I should want a friend in Africa, I had one ready-made—perhaps a couple.
'Come up and see us, and stay with us,' said he, some days afterwards. 'I've got two places, you know, now. But I'm mostly at the old one, near Ermelo. Come whenever it suits you, and I'll promise you shan't be sorry; I've got to take these jumbucks right round by Durban in the coasting steamer, or I'd say come at once. But there's only Kaffirs at home. However, remember you're expected sooner or later, and the sooner the better.'
And when Mary shook hands with me, and timidly seconded her father's invitation, there was a look of shy pleasure and earnestness in her brown eyes that sent a curious thrill to my heart.
And presently, whilst we rounded the Green Cape Light, and glided slowly into full view of the white houses lying cuddled up under the shadow of the mighty rock, old Johnston came for'ard again, and asked me point-blank if fifty pounds would be of any use, just as a loan, for a few months, or a year or so. Because, if that should happen to be the case, I had 'only to say the word, my boy.'
Of course they knew I wasn't quite a Rothschild, travelling steerage. But I had no intention of allowing anybody to discover how really hard up I was, least of all the Johnstons. So I merely thanked him for his kind offer, and said that I had enough for present purposes; which was strictly true—only the present was limited.
Curiously enough, when once ashore, I didn't seem to be in any hurry to seek the spot where lay my fortune. And, in spite of several recurrences of the impalpable sensation before alluded to, I stayed pottering about the town.
At last, in that snug hostel, the 'George,' I one day met an old mate who was just returning to the diggings after the inevitable spree. He knew, so he said, of some alluvial up Rustenburg way, and pressed me to accompany him.
So I went. The place turned out bare tucker. But, after a lot of knocking about, we did happen to drop on a patch that gave us a hundred pounds each by the time it was worked out.
Then Jack Williams, my companion, got a bad touch of fever, and we both cleared off to Johannesburg for a spell.
Being in funds again, I had quite forgotten my mouldering Kaffir, lying all the while not very far away, just on the edge of shade, and clear of root-channels, waiting patiently with his face towards Swaziland.
Then, one afternoon, returning from the hospital, where I had been to see how Williams was getting on, whom should I run against but Johnston.
The first salutations over. 'Come along,' said he, 'I'm off home to-morrow to the new place near Klerksdorp. Mary's there; and she'll be glad to see you. Come you must!'
For a while I hesitated. Williams I knew was going back to Capetown directly he got better; so that really there was nothing to keep me. Then I thought of Mary, and consented.
Early next morning we started in a buggy drawn by two capital horses.
During the second day's journey the country began to look changed, although it was faintly familiar; and I presently realised that we had struck very nearly into the old track over which I travelled with the Boers more than five years ago.
But so great were the alterations in the landscape, that for some time I was doubtful. Everywhere the ground had been rooted up by prospectors; then, after a bit, the mullock heaps disappeared, giving way to farms and fences dotted over the level grass veldt, with here and there plantations of blue gum saplings.
'Lots of colonials round these parts,' said my companion, pointing to the snug homesteads with a smile of satisfaction. 'We've secured amongst us most of this district—bought it from the shiftless Boers with their scabby flocks and lazy, dirty ways. No (in answer to my question), there's no gold been found, so far. These old shafts, back yonder, are where they've been looking for a lost lead from one of the big mines at the Rand—the Geldenhuis. But apparently it didn't come this way.'
It was dark on the third day when we drove up to a comfortable-looking stone house, and received a warm welcome from Mary, who, I fancied, seemed more than merely pleased to see me.
When I rose in the morning and went out for an early smoke, the first object to catch my eye, just outside the garden fence of smart, white-painted palings, was the koppie—the identical stony, flat-topped hill of that long-ago trek.
It, as well as its surroundings, was changed. Many gaps and cuttings in its sides showed where the materials for the snug buildings around me had been procured. But for the white, three-cornered patch, plain, if not plainer than ever, I doubt whether I should have recognised it again. As it was, I knew that I could not be mistaken. I looked for the big tree, but saw no signs of it. Only the long veldt grass, and the so-familiar gum leaves on many saplings shimmering in the morning sun.
After a time, and with some effort of memory, I decided that, as nearly as possible, the spot on which the tree had stood was now occupied by a rustic summer-house, built in what was evidently the middle of Mary's flower-garden.
And then, as I caught the flutter of a white dress through a leafy alley-way of vines, I started in pursuit, and, for the nonce, once more consigned my Kaffir to oblivion.
Each day I stayed on at Draakenspruit the more deeply I felt that I must either win Mary Johnston or die a bachelor. And, as time passed, I flattered myself that, as the phrase goes, I was not wholly indifferent to her.
But I was afraid to speak. Her father was, I knew, one of the richest settlers in the Transvaal; owning, besides a couple of fine farms, many shares in some of the best mines on the Rand.
No, I must go away at once; and, somehow, by hook or by crook, do what so many were doing just then—find gold, and plenty of it. Then I might, without misgiving, return and claim Mary.
Forty pounds out of the one hundred had gone to Osborne in Melbourne, leaving a remainder in hand of about an equal amount. Clearly, I must depart before I made a fool of myself. And that I had sternly resolved on not doing. But when a pretty girl is one of the factors in a resolution, it is an utter impossibility to forecast events.
And, one evening, sitting in the summerhouse, exactly over the spot where I reckoned my Kaffir's bones should be; the odour of orange blossoms heavy on the warm air, and the great white lilies outside looking like cups of frosted silver in the moonlight; things, somehow, fell out as I intended them not to do.
I had been telling Mary of my intention to trek to the new diggings in Manicaland; and when I saw the sudden pallor steal over her face, and the look of pain and sorrow that crept into her dear eyes as she turned them upon me, I forgot all my self-imposed caution, and, there and then, awkwardly enough, I daresay, when I come to think of it, blurted out that I loved her, and her only of all women in the wide world.
And presently, she nestled closer to me and shyly confessed, in reply to much questioning, that, ever since that stormy day on board the steamer, when for a minute she lay faint and trembling in my arms, she had thought of no one else—nor, indeed, ever before.
And then I kissed her again, and told her that now, more than ever, I must leave her to search for fortune, knowing, as I did, that her father would never consent; and that what I was doing was altogether wrong; and that I ought to have known better. But she was so happy she only laughed, and said that her father could refuse her nothing—not even a hard-up digger-man.
I, however, was very doubtful; and when I heard the old man's voice calling us in to supper, I jumped like a fellow at the first touch of a cold shower on a day with the glass at one hundred and ten degrees.
That night I plucked up courage and told him I loved his daughter; and that there was nothing I wouldn't do to win her.
He listened smoking, and not interrupting. Then as I finished, he shook his head, and said, not unkindly, 'I'm afraid it won't do, lad. By your own account you've been wandering about the world, come-day go-day fashion, with sometimes a few pounds in pocket, and more times nothing. Now, s'pose I let you have Mary, how am I to know that, as soon as I am gone, that wild strain won't show up again, and make you shift your hurdles till everything's frittered away? No, you're only a stranger yet—great as the service you've done us—and Mary's all I've got, and I mean to take care of her. But,' he continued, after a pause, during which I kept silence and strove to hide my chagrin at the exact justness of his remarks, 'if you honestly think you can steady down—why, I must admit that I like what I've seen of you very well—and there's the place over at Ermelo, you can manage that for me. I can't always be running back'ards and for'ards. I'll give you a hundred a year and found, and after a bit, why, we'll see. I don't think I can say fairer just now.'
This was, in reality, more, in every way, than I had any right to expect—was, in fact, a very handsome offer. But I was in a terrible hurry to make Mary my own at once, and the very idea of such a humdrum sort of waiting vexed my inmost soul.
Still I had the grace to thank him. But I'm afraid not very heartily; for he said, with a twinkle in his eye, 'Ay, lad, I was young once myself, and as hot-blooded, and strong, and impatient, but, at long and last I had to calm down. And a man can't rush his pile. You might trek away—(I had mentioned my notion of trying the new field)—t' other side of Mashonyland and prospeck for years and years, and return, if you ever returned, a lot poorer 'n you started. The steady, constant worker's the one that gets home first, after all's said and done. I've found that out.'
All at once, as he finished, there flashed through me, like a mild shock from an electric battery, the old warning feeling that now or never was the time to look up my Kaffir. And, taking the risk of being laughed at, I told Johnston the whole story.
'Terrible romancers, Kaffirs,' commented he as I finished. 'And some of them would play a practical joke like that with their last breath. And there's one tribe that makes a practice of always cutting their dead open after death to let the spirit escape. Your friend may have had that notion in his cunning old head. Of course he possibly was telling the truth. But I doubt it. Ay, there was a big tree, I recollect, growing right in front of the house. I grubbed it to make more room in the garden. About three or four hundred yards from the koppie? Why, that'll be slap in the middle of Mary's flower-beds. You'll have to talk that matter over with her.' And he laughed, as he added, 'Never mind your Kaffir. Think over the offer I have made you just now. Take your time. And you'll get more by Ermelo farm than ever you will by rooting up poor Mary's flowers.' And the old man laughed again as he went off to his room.
Next morning at breakfast the subject cropped up again. Old Johnston had been thinking, and had made up his mind that the outermost branches of the tree would have just covered the lily plot, Mary's especial pride.
This, I believe, was meant purely as a joke on his side.
But Mary, who had been eagerly listening, at once insisted on a thorough search being made. Much more wonderful things, she vowed, had happened. Did we think that because the poor Kaffir was black he was therefore devoid of all gratitude? And dig I must. And if I didn't, she would. Lilies! What were they compared to diamonds the size of mealie-ears—and bigger! And she thought, too, that I was right and her father mistaken; for she remembered seeing a great stump once, where the summer-house now stood, when she came over from Ermelo, quite a little girl, shortly after old Johann Weenen sold the farm. So, partly to please my mistress, and partly to set at rest for ever that indescribable monitor, spoken of many times in this history, I dug in the bed of great lilies—dug them all up till they lay in rows of bruised and shattered loveliness on each side of the deep wide trench I made in the soft mould—with my trouble for my pains.
Fain would I then have desisted, but Mary would have me explore the floor of the little summer-house in which only last night we had talked of love.
So, to please her this time wholly, I dug in a half-hearted fashion, and old Johnston, laughing at the madness of the thing, went inside, followed presently by Mary to get a can of beer for her workman.
Three feet down in the stiff blue clay I came across something that made me ply pick and shovel frantically. And by the time Mary and her father returned I was almost out of sight in a deep hole that nearly took in the whole floor.
'Good Lord!' laughed Johnston, 'you surely never planted him as deep as that.'
'No, I answered, popping up. 'I can't find him, unless, indeed, his bones have turned into this stuff,' handing him, as I spoke, half-a-dozen specimens in which one had to look very closely to see the quartz—so thick was the gold. The old man whistled loud and long, as he fingered them lovingly, and as scarcely able to believe his eyesight.
'So it's here,' he exclaimed at last, 'the lost lead runs they've been trying to trace from the Rand. Well, who'd have dreamt of such a thing! No farming now, I suppose. Eh, lad? Why, it's a regular jeweller's shop! And looks like dipping into the horse-paddock, too! No mistake about its being the true reef. My boy, I shouldn't wonder if you've dropped on to one of the best things in the district. And that's saying a good deal, let me tell you. Good old Kaffir! He did mean business, after all then, in a way! And so did we! For before we finished the work begun that morning, Johnston and I took £25,000 each out of the claim, and then sold our interest for as much again. People over there still talk with respect of the rich Geldeuberg Mine, although there have been heavier finds since, but nothing like at such shallow sinking.
Of my Kaffir not the remotest trace was ever found in all the turning-up the country presently got. Nor did I ever experience a recurrence of that strange feeling impelling me to go and look for him.
But, as Osborne says, who can doubt for an instant that his was the psychic force exerted in some extraordinary and persistent manner to bring to pass that dying promise of his: 'And on a day, not too far distant, it shall be very well with thee.' And, as Osborne puts it again, who can doubt that my Kaffir made his reward take the form it did; because he presently discovered that, in the matter of the diamonds, I should be simply standing in the position of a receiver of stolen property. And we all agreed that it was very curious that this aspect of the case had never struck any of us before.
But I will scoff no more. For I am not quite sure that in this story I have rendered my Kaffir full justice. The question is really such a perplexing one that I have decided to leave it open.
Mary and I were married in Durban, and we took our honeymoon trip to Australia. We chose it for various reasons; but chiefly to bring the Osbornes back with us. They were to have the Ermelo farm as a gift from me. Also I was taking Osborne a convert. One evening, coming on deck, I found my wife watching the splendour of the swirling fire in the wake of the screw, boiling like a huge cauldron of liquescent opals, and with a light by the glory of which one could see to read the smallest print.
For a while we silently gazed together. I was thinking, for my part, of another night not so very long ago, when, from the other rail of this same ship I sat and watched the jewelled water and called myself names for having ventured on a wild-goose chase.
Presently Mary slipped her hand into mine, and said, 'Jack, dear, I've been thinking.'
'Yes, my love?' I replied, with the due deference becoming a fortnight-married man.
'Yes, Jack,' she answered earnestly, 'and I've made up my mind to agree with your friend, Mr Osborne, that we owe all our luck and all our happiness to your poor old Kaffir.'
'But what is "psychic force," Jack?'
'My dear,' I said authoritatively, 'there goes four bells—time for you to go below, out of the night air, and turn in.'
My friend Harding was head-keeper of one of the finest lighthouses in the world, and I was free of it at all hours. But it was o' nights that I loved best to join the old man on his watch, and sit on the balcony and gaze out at the great ocean illumined at minute intervals by the flood of white radiance that seemed to pour forth a greeting to the silent ships as they passed and repassed, or came straight for the harbour-mouth.
Harding was a square-built, gray-haired man with a strong, determined face, all browned and wrinkled by sun and storm, and eyes that burned like live coals under shaggy white brows.
At odd times, athwart the concentrated beams that seemed to hit the far horizon, would sail ships, glorified momentarily as they passed through, with every spar and sail and rope sharply outlined by the sudden brilliance; but more often they slid along between light and water, ill-defined phantasmal blobs of smudge, out of which, when the fancy took them to make their numbers, would spout forth many-coloured fires, all incomprehensible to the untutored eye as the dim fabrics they proceeded from.
But Harding and his assistant signalmen read off ships and numbers as easily, apparently, as if it was broad daylight; and the telegraph would repeat at intervals: 'Large square-rigged ship with painted ports, steering E. by N. Made her number 23,745.' Or, it might be, 'Steamer, black funnel with white band, brig-rigged, deep, bound south, showed no number.' But nothing large or small ever escaped the eagle lookout kept from that eyrie on the great cliff, where the only sounds that broke the long night silences were the wash of the waves on the rugged kelp-grown rocks four hundred sheer feet beneath and the subdued hum of the big dynamo in the basement.
This, you will see, was no isolated light stuck forlornly hundreds of miles from any where. It was an establishment over which Harding presided—quite a little settlement of government offices connected with the important department of harbours, rivers, and trade. His salary was high; so was the efficiency of the service he headed. And he was not averse to a little judicious praise now and again. On one of these occasions I had said something respecting the speedy identification of a foreign cruiser, and the prompt wiring of details to the capital whilst yet the war-ship crept quietly in as if desirous of escaping attention, and little guessing that, long ere she reached the port, a score of nine-inch guns, to say nothing of submarine mines and Brennan torpedoes, would have blown her to atoms had she disregarded the challenge of the warned guardship at Inner Point. Well, I had complimented him on the ceaseless vigilance maintained, and he chuckled, well pleased, and hemmed, and remarked, 'Now that reminds me!'
Usually a taciturn man, and one engrossed in his business, he was difficult to 'draw.' Often enough he had said as much before with no result; often matters had followed well worth the hearing. In any case I knew silence was best.
It was a wild night, with a 'southerly' blowing great guns, keeping the sea flattened into a vast milky-white expanse of foam, that kept up a long-drawn, continuous roar at the foot of the cliffs in fitting accompaniment to the shrieking blasts that wrestled and tore around the great tower, as if striving to shake it from its foundations deep down in the solid rock.
'Come along to my room,' said Harding at last, after a good look around, 'and we'll have a pipe and a glass of grog whilst I tell you about another lighthouse I ran, and another man o' war that I watched some twenty-five years ago now.'
Descending into his private snuggery beside a bright fire, I took one of the big arm-chairs whilst Harding operated with hot water, case-bottle, lemons, and sugar, and, after fixing matters to his satisfaction, filled his pipe and said:
'Ay, it must be about five-and-twenty years now since the day I sat on the steps of the Sailors' Home in Singapore stone-broke. I'd been first-mate of a ship called the Star of Africa that the skipper'd managed to run slap on to a rock in the Straits of Sunda. It wasn't my fault, nor did I lose my ticket like the captain. All the same, I found it precious hard to get another ship.
'Owners as well as masters have fads and prejudices in this respect—not perhaps as regards a first time. But this happened to be my second wreck running. So my luck, you see, was dead out. Actually but for bananas I might have starved. Bananas and water fill up and satisfy right enough, only it takes you all your time to keep the supply going. Presently, as I sat there, digesting my second or third breakfast, out came the Master-intendant, and said he: "Harding, if you stay here till the moon turns blue you'll never get a ship. But a billet's turned up that, perhaps, is better than nothing. The Dutch," he went on, "have built a lighthouse somewhere down yonder on the Bornean coast, and a second keeper is wanted, wages eighty guilders a month and rations. It's the merest fluke that I happened to hear of it. Will you take it?"
'"Would a duck swim?"
'"All right, then, come along to Van Veldt & Co.'s office; they'll take you on my recommendation." The Dutch agents did so without question. More, they paid me a month's wages in advance, and sent me in one of their steamers round to Batavia, where I was to get fresh orders. Arrived there, I was kept waiting a month. But as I had good quarters and plenty to eat and drink, I didn't mind a bit spending my "dead horse" in this way. One day, however, I was told to get my belongings on board a little fore-and-aft schooner which had been loading stores for the newly-built lighthouse.
'We were ten days on the passage; and when we brought up at our destination, and I saw what I'd come to, I'd have taken ten days on bananas and water to get away again.
'From a thickly-wooded point a reef ran nearly three-quarters of a mile out into the Macassar Straits. At the extreme end of Mat Aris—as the point was called—stood the lighthouse. You'd ha' laughed! Imagine a sort of shed, shaped like one of those oval-topped meat-safes, built on a platform resting on piles forty feet high. That was all. From the shed there ran a corduroy bridge with a handrail, some thirty feet back shoreward, to another and a larger platform where, in a large hut, we were to live. The only way to get down to terra firma was by ladders. At low water all you could see was mud, and dozens of alligators that used to come down a river close to for salt-water bathing. Everywhere, almost down to the sea, stood great trees one hundred and fifty feet high, growing close together, elbowing each other so to speak; and, as if that wasn't enough, creepers, ferns, and undergrowth of all descriptions filled up every vacant chink between them. On this impenetrable face of woodland the efforts of the workmen and builders had merely left a slight scratch—even by this rapidly greening over. Nature heals her scars in that country almost as soon as received. The light itself was merely a big lantern carrying eight wicks, kerosene fed, and hung to the roof of the meat-safe. That it had been badly wanted, primitive as it was, the remains of several vessels emphatically witnessed.
'My boss was there already, a cross-bred, surly-looking customer—father Dutch, mother Malay. She kept house for us—a skinny old hag, with a nose like an eagle's, and a bigger moustache than I could boast of in those days. Her son's name was Peter—Peter Klopp.
'Presently the schooner went away and left us. And what a life it was! Nothing to do after trimming the lights of a morning and sweeping bucketsful of moths out of the round-house, except sit and smoke and look out across the Straits to Celebes—just a blue line of high mountains in the distance—sleep, eat, watch the ships coming and going, or pull faces at the monkeys up amongst the tall trees that waved their heads seventy feet above ours.
'At times the traffic was pretty thick; it was always peculiar. Junks from Swatow, bound for Amboyna and Ceram for sandalwood, swallows' nests, and bêche de mer; "country wallahs" from Penang and Singapore, going round to Banjermassin for coffee and rice; steam tramps from Australian ports loaded up to their gunwales with coal for Manila; and smart little topsail schooners flying any flag that took their fancy, and ready to pick up anything that wasn't too hot or too heavy for them, from a bushel of nutmegs to a holdful of "blackbirds." But, with the exception of a Dutch gunboat, the Bliksem, acting as a sort of sea-patrol, which called on us at long intervals, we had no visitors at Mat Aris Point.
'Peter and his old mother I soon discovered were confirmed opium-smokers, and when they went in for a regular spree, and began to suffer a recovery, they made things hum in "Monkey Island," as I called it. Once I was fool enough to interfere and stop Peter from choking the life out of her. For thanks, the pair turned on me; but I managed to dress them down, although Peter nearly got his knife into me. And I can tell you,' laughed Harding, pausing in his story, and rising to conjure again with the kettle and other adjuncts, 'that two to one, with precious little room, and a break-neck fall if you're not careful, isn't as funny as it might be.'
Having replenished the glasses and refilled and lit his pipe, Harding proceeded:
'Well, after this I could see that the two had taken a down upon me; and as I, on my part, was heartily sick of the whole contract, I told, the officer who commanded the Bliksem, next time she called, that I wanted to leave; and that the sooner he found a substitute the better I should be pleased. For answer he called me an English schelm, which means rascal, and told me that I had agreed for two years, which was a lie, and that there I should stay. Also, that he'd make it his business to see that I didn't get away.
'Seeing that escape, for that's what it really came to, by water was not to be thought of, except by swimming, and the sharks pretty well put that out of the question, I determined to see what the land side was like. A muddy-banked river emptied itself just below the lighthouse, and this one day I started to follow up. But I didn't follow long. I don't believe I got a mile before I was mother-naked, and nearly bitten and stung to death. Every bush and shrub, nay, the very flowers seemed to carry a thorn. And what with fire-ants, mosquitoes, leeches, centipedes, stinging flies, and, worse than all, a blamed caterpillar that drops on to you off the leaves and sticks hairs into you that break off in your flesh and fester, I can assure you it was the roughest picnic I ever had. Why, I almost thought I could hear the alligators chuckling as I made home again. Certainly Peter laughed for the first time since we'd been mates on Monkey Island when he saw the plight I was in.
'A day or so after this the gunboat sent her gig ashore again, and, from the hammock I had slung in my portion of the big hut, I could hear much laughter amongst the Dutchmen as Peter detailed my adventure. I heard also allusions to some other verdomde Engelander; and a long talk about the light and bearings, the gist of which, for want of a more intimate knowledge of the language, escaped me. Next morning I saw Peter marching off along the narrow strip of bank that separated bush from sea with a tail-block over his shoulder, and though wondering mightily what he could be up to, I wasn't going to show any curiosity. A tail-block, by the way, I ought to tell you, is the common block that you reeve a rope through, only to one end of it is attached a long "tail" of plaited stuff, usually by which it can be made fast to a spar or bolt, a-low or aloft. Very little gave me food for thought in those days, and I puzzled over this till Peter came back, and, rummaging amongst the stores, walked off once more with a coil of new ratline-line, and in the same direction.
'He did not appear at dinner, and as I finished my mess of rice, salt fish, and pickled mangoes, I said to the woman, "What's become of Peter?" "He's gone to set a trap for an orang-outang whose tracks he saw at the foot of the ladders yesterday," she replied, grinning and leering. "And," added she sarcastically, "if you don't believe me, go and look, only leave your clothes behind, most misbegotten of English fools."
'Peter came home that evening, and in the interest created by a new visitor in those waters, and whose acquaintance I at once sought some means of making, the incident of the tail-block was completely forgotten.
'Dutch soundings, it appeared, having been found so unreliable as to bring a good few British vessels to grief, that government, characteristically enough, had despatched a vessel to correct them without giving the Dutch notice, or saying by your leave, or anything else.
'And although we, or rather I, was unaware of it, H.M.S. Badger had for some time been thus engaged at the upper portion of the Straits. Now she appeared off Mat Aris busy, in sporting parlance, wiping the Bliksem's eye, very much to the disgust of the latter's officers, whose specialty, if they possessed one, was supposed to be surveying.
'The Badger was a paddle-wheeled, brig-rigged old tub, sure enough. But she was British; and as I stared and stared through the glasses at the white ensign and the good red cross flying from her peak, I was often tempted to swim off to her as she puffed and churned away, fussing around after her boats like an old hen after her chicks.
'But when I looked at the black three-sided fins sticking up at high-water right alongside our piles, I felt my toes tingle, and thought better of it, trusting that some day she'd send a boat to give us a call, when I determined that go I would if all the Dutch in the East Indies were to try and stop me.
'That Peter guessed my thoughts and notions I could see from the mean, yellow-brown, grinning face of him. And I'd try to get his dander up sometimes. "Look at that, Peter," I'd say. "That's my country flag. There's no slaves underneath its folds, sweating and toiling, half-starved and taxed to death's doors like there is under yours. Hip! hip! hooray! Rule Britannia and God save the Queen! and confusion to all half-breds." He didn't understand all of it, of course, but he used to shake his fist at the Badger, and look as nasty as a hatful of snakes.
'Twice whilst I was on watch—as we used to call the intermittent, sleepy lookout we kept at Mat Aris—the Bliksem boat came ashore, and I could hear the officer and Peter each time having a long confab together. During the night the old wife always used to have coffee ground and hot water on the fire, so that we could make our own if we wished for a drink.
'One night, shortly after the Dutch officer's last visit, coming in and rousing Peter to take his watch, I brewed myself a cup before turning in. It tasted very bitter, and I didn't finish it, but almost before I'd time to undress I was dead to the world. I woke in a fright, dripping with sweat, and shaking all over. Now, in the lighthouse was a bottle of lime-juice I'd brewed myself; my throat was as dry as the lubricators of a collier's engines, and the thought of that drink tantalised me till I made shift to crawl out of my hammock and stagger along the bridge to the little house, where also was a "chatty" of cold water.
'To my utter astonishment, on looking up, I saw that the light was out. Opening the door, I entered, and, half-choking, felt for the water-bottle. It was empty. Striking a match, I saw that the floor was soaking wet. Putting up my hand to the wicks, they only frizzed and spluttered at contact with the flame. Also the spare lantern that we always kept ready trimmed had disappeared.
Stepping outside on to the platform, I stared around, headachy and very shaky still. The night was black as pitch—one of those nights you often get out there, that feel almost like black velvet, and as thick. And there wasn't a star to be seen, as sometimes happens at the change of the monsoons. The jungle, too, was still as death—there was no sound on land or on the sea. The whole world seemed fast bound in sleep and darkness. Presently my eye, roving along shore, came to the gleam of a light some half-mile away, about on a level with where ours should have been, only much farther inland—a big light I saw it was, as my eyes got the sleep out of them, and burning steadily.
'As I stared, puzzled beyond expression, I all at once heard the sound of muffled snorting and churning faint in the distance—a noise as if a shoal of grampuses were coming down the Straits.
'Listening and staring, there suddenly rose to mind fragments of the first talk I'd heard between Peter and the Dutchman about lights and bearings. Then, somehow, came a connection between that and the tail-block and the coil of ratline stuff. Then, I don't know how it happened, but in a second—perhaps you've experienced something of the kind—my brain seemed cleared of cobwebs, as if a broom inside had been swept across it sharply, and the whole plan lay before me plain as mud in a wine-glass. And I laughed; yes, sir, I assure you, I did, for I saw my time had come at last. The puff, puff, and wheezy panting was sounding nearer; and, looking steadily and hard into the distance, I could see a long way up the Straits a shower of sparks like a swarm of fireflies, but which I knew marked the whereabouts of the Badger, burning Nagasaki coal.
She was approaching obliquely, over from the Celebes side, heading about west-sou'-west to pick up Mat Aris light; then, according to the sailing directions, she would straighten up west-by-sou, keeping the light four points on her starboard bow to clear the reef. Now, with the light in its present position, she would, if unsuspicious—and it was the merest chance that anybody on board observed the change—crash right on to the outermost edge of the reef, and go down in deep water, as others had done before her. It was a trap conceived with perfectly diabolical cunning and ingenuity, the site of the false light having evidently been determined most carefully and scientifically, not too far to excite the lookout's distrust, and yet near enough to half-a-point to prove effectual. Puff-puff, churn-churn, pant-pant. Another twenty minutes, and it would be all up with H.M.S. Badger. But, knowing exactly what to do—holding two honours and the ace, so to speak—I was as cool as a cucumber, and, except for that trembling about the legs, my own man again. That I had been drugged or poisoned by an insufficient dose I more than suspected. Just then, however, I didn't bother my head about that. I wanted to renew the light on Mat Aris. Round the caboose in which the lantern used to hang, as I've told you, for all the world like a leg of mutton in a meat-safe, ran lockers filled with tins of kerosene, waste, rope, oakum, and such matters. Knocking the heads of a couple of the tins in, I poured the oil over all liberally, saturating everything. After this, a match was all that was needed, and before I was half-way along the bridge the flames were six feet high. Just looking in her den to see that the old lady wasn't there, I went down the ladders like a lamp-lighter, and ran along the bank towards where I knew the false beacon must be, swung high aloft in some tree.
'Over logs and stumps I stumbled, looking back now and again at the big, tall glare till, rounding a point, the dense forest shut it from sight. Getting along somehow, I stopped at last and listened. But I could hear nothing of the Badger. Inland, however, high overhead, hung the light. Pulling out my sheath-knife, I made for it, headlong through bush and briar. As I guessed, it was hung to a tree; and, feeling all round, I soon found the rope belayed to a root, and before you could say "Jack Robinson" I'd slashed it through, and was watching the lantern coming down by the run when a fellow jumped out of the dark, and muzzled me round the throat. "Hello, Peter," I said, as I returned the compliment, "you see the coffee wasn't strong enough." I hadn't time to say much, being very busy, for the brute, in spite of the opium, was stronger than I thought, and I weaker. Down we went, rolling over and over, whilst, to make things warmer, the lantern capsized, and setting fire to the coarse grass, it blazed up all about us. Also the woman, with a big club in her fist, was dancing around screeching blue murder, but frightened to hit, so closely entangled were we. I still grasped my knife. I could see Peter's also gleam as we turned and writhed. Presently I felt a sharp pain in my shoulder, and knew I was stabbed. That made me real mad; and as we rolled away a bit from the fire, the hag made a smack at me, but missing, caught Peter on the point of the shoulder, causing him to drop the knife. He stretched out to recover it, and I got home on him till I felt the wooden haft jar against his ribs.
'He went limp all in a minute, exactly like one of those bladders the children play with if you shove a pin into it. Well, we'd rolled down a bank into a bit of a swamp, and when the hag saw what had happened she gave one yell, and jumped fairly on top of me, and got her stick to work in great style. As you may imagine, I was by this pretty well knocked out, and I don't know how matters would have gone, only that a boat's crew of Badgers just then came on the scene, and dragged the hag off me, swearing, kicking, and striking right and left until one of the men gave her a poke with a bayonet, when she suddenly calmed down, and started to raise the Malay death-wail.
'And she had cause too, for Peter pegged out before we got him on board. Mine turned out to be nothing much worse than a flesh-wound, although I'd lost a lot of blood from it.
'As you may guess, the skipper of the Badger was in a pelter when he'd heard my story. Certainly I had no witness, and the hag kept her mouth as close as a rat-trap. But we got over that. There was a Malay interpreter on board, and he gave the captain a hint. So, when the woman heard that she was to be taken back to Perak, her native place, and there handed over to the tender mercies of the Sultan—at that time our very good friend—she made a clean breast of everything, including the attempt to poison me with the juice of the klang-klang berries. Four hundred guilders was the price of Peter's connivance, and promotion to one of the Java lights if the plan succeeded.
'This confession of the hag's was a bit of luck for me, and Captain Cardigan complimented me in presence of the ship's company on the way I'd behaved, having undoubtedly saved the Badger, whose officer of the watch was steering by the false light when it suddenly disappeared. The captain also said that he would represent my conduct to the Admiralty. And that he kept his word,' said Harding, as he rose to 'go on deck' for a minute, 'my presence here proves. If you'll refill the kettle, I'll be back again in a very short thus.'
'Ay,' replied Harding as he reseated himself, in reply to a remark of mine, 'I was lucky. But you mustn't think that I came here straight away. This—the prize of the service amongst the lights —is my sixth. So, you see, to some extent I've worked my way up, helped, of course, by the little matter I've been telling you, and together with what in my young days was called a very fair education. Well, the captain of the Badger—he's a rear-admiral now—wasn't the man to sit quietly down and let the Dutchman go scot-free. But not a stick of the Bliksem was to be seen throughout the Straits of Macassar. Still we kept on searching till, at last, the skipper of a country wallah told us he'd seen her off Breton, an island round in the Banda Sea. Sure enough, one morning, there we found her, at anchor off a native town. Now she was both faster, carried more men, and was more heavily armed than we were. But Captain Cardigan had made up his mind that there was to be no international row over the matter. It had to be settled as privately as possible, and strictly between the two ships.
"So, with the men at their quarters, guns run out, and the old Badger stripped for light, we ranged up to the Dutchman in great style, with the hag in full view on the quarter-deck, and ordered—ay, ordered—the Bliksem's captain to come on board. And whether it was the sight of the hag, or that they were unprepared, I don't know, but, sir, he came, he and his first-lieutenant, and they were received at the gangway as if they'd been princes of the blood.
'Then our skipper and the first-lieutenant and the Dutchman all went below. What passed there I don't know; but presently they came up again—the Dutchman looking very sour. Then our gig was piped away, and the whole party got into her. I managed to slip in too, and off we went to a little lump of an island "pigeon-shooting," as I heard the first-luff whisper to the doctor.
'Well, the two skippers and their lieutenants put their hands in their pockets, and strolled away into the bush. Presently our second-luff and the doctor, each carrying a hand-bag, strolled after them. Nobody else left the boat. In about ten minutes we heard a couple of shots, then two more. "Sport's good!" said one of the middies. But the master, who was in charge of the boat, never winked.
'After a while the party came strolling back again. But Van Helder, the Dutch captain, walked lame, and had his arm in a sling. And there was blood on the doctor's hands as he washed them in the sea. Also, as we pulled on board again, I noticed from where I sat that our skipper had a neat round hole through his cocked hat, and that the gold lace on his right shoulder epaulet was badly damaged. As they were getting aboard their own boat, I looked at the Dutch lieutenant—he was the same fellow who'd called me an English rascal at Mat Aris— and I said in the best of his lingo that I could manage, "At any rate that's one Dutch rascal who'll think twice before he sets traps for a British man-o'-war again."
'His hand went to his sword like a flash. But our second-luff, who understood, tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to the boat, and, with a black scowl, he got in.
'Also the hag was politely escorted down the gangway and transhipped. We had those Dutchmen fairly cowed, bluffed by our audacity and their own bad conscience.
'No, I never heard a word about the affair afterwards. I stayed with Captain Cardigan until he was promoted to the Polyphemus corvette, and I dare say I might have stuck to the service, only my shoulder was always a bit stiff, and got rather worse, if anything, as time went on. So I left, and, through the Captain's influence, got a light, and then others, and so on here. Now, it's a wild night, and you'd better turn in here till morning. No use trying to get back to town. I'm going to the telephone to talk to the pilot station.'
So I went to bed, and dreamed of Mat Aris and the hag, for whom I took Harding when he woke me for morning coffee.
It's my birthday,' said Bob Panton, master and owner of the pearl-shell lugger Daisy, then lying at anchor off Somerset on her return from a trip about Torres Straits. 'It's my birthday,' repeated he, bringing out a 'square-face' of Hollands. 'We'll have a nip all round, and then we'll open a shell each, just for fun, and to see what sort of luck I'm to have this next year.'
The five blacks and the one other white man that constituted the Daisy's crew duly drank the skipper's health in half-pints; and then, laughing, each man chose the biggest oyster he could find—all about the size of soup-plates.
Four were blanks, and they all watched Abdallah, the new hand, as he slowly opened the great bivalve. Then came a shout as he presently held up a pearl, pear-shaped and almost as big as a hazel-nut, the finest gem on record yet found in those seas.
'Good luck indeed!' quoth Bob Panton as the chorus of admiration subsided, and, pulling out a bundle of ten dirty one-pound notes, he handed them over to Abdallah, saying, 'Take these for yourself, lad. I'll double it if this turns out as A1 as it looks.'
'And now I'll get up another square-face, and we'll wet the little stranger properly, and christen it the "Birthday Pearl." And they did so to such purpose that, bar Abdallah, there was no sober man on the Daisy by eight bells that night.
In the morning, when Captain Bob Panton came on deck, Abdallah was missing. So, as presently discovered, was the big pearl that Panton had left in a small wooden box in his berth. So was the Daisy's dingy that had been towing astern.
Bob Panton sold his shell, and offered a reward of £50 for the thief. But, though all the southern police were put on the qui vive, nothing could be heard of the Birthday Pearl nor of Abdallah. And at last there were people found who did not scruple to hint at birthday hallucinations, born of 'square gin,' on the part of Captain Bob and his crew.
But Panton took the matter to heart, and got on the spree; spent his shell-money, and more; sold his boat, pulled himself together, and started off in pursuit of Abdallah, with ever before his vision the virgin sheen of the great pearl, his for a few hours only, convinced that until he recovered it luck for him, either in this world or the next, was out of the question.
* * * * * *
When old widower Wilhelm Itzig, the watchmaker and jeweller at Port Leichardt, died, his native-born son, Hermann, came home from a wandering life of droving and working upon stations, and, returning to the trade he had been taught, mended the Leichardt clocks and watches with an indifferent measure of success, being at best but a botch.
The little shanty, dignified with the title of shop, stood apart from the rest of the township, and quite close to the beach. And but for an old tin sign, with upon it 'Hermann Itzig, working jeweller,' and an old clock and three empty watch-cases in the window, there was nothing to distinguish it from any of the other straggling 'humpies' that went to make up the nearly deserted Queensland seaport.
'How much, John?' Hermann was asking of a half-starved, unkempt-looking black man, a fortnight after the finding and losing of the Birthday Pearl, shining mildly now in the gloom of the stuffy little inner room of the shop by the beach.
'Won 'undreed, two 'undreed-feefeetee, sar,' replied Abdallah, eyeing the gem as Hermann rolled it to and fro in the palm of his hand.
'Don't you wish you may get it, my boy,' replied Hermann, laughing. 'Ask a thousand whilst you're about it, John. Why don't you?'
'Ver' fine pul, sar,' replied Abdallah, cringing. 'Some day get mooch more dan t'ousan' for 'im.'
And young Hermann, although knowing little of such matters, thought, as he noted its soft lustre and flawless shape, that possibly his customer might be right.
His hand closed on the pearl. Said he, 'I'll give you twenty. Haven't got another cent anyhow'—which was the truth.
But Abdallah raised his eyes and hands to heaven in mute appeal at such an offer.
'You'll either take that or nothing,' said Hermann, suddenly producing a revolver and pointing it straight at the other's head. 'You stole it, you beggar; you know you did, up the coast somewhere—Thursday Island or Somerset, likely. Here, think yourself lucky to get so much.' And Hermann handed over four five-pound notes.
'Take them,' said he, seeing that the other made no motion, 'or I'll have you up to the police barracks in a quarter less than no time!'
There was murder in Abdallah's eye. But he put out his hand.
'Now clear straight out,' said Hermann. 'There's the Barcoo alongside the wharf. If you take my advice you'll get away in her. So long, old man!'
As he turned away, putting down the pistol, Abdallah sprang on him like a tiger, drawing his sheath-knife as he did so—for he was clad like any coasting sailor, in a suit of belted dungaree. Hermann reeled and fell, the knife descended again and again as Abdallah struck in his blind rage, and presently the body underneath him grew limp and motionless.
Rising and striking a match—for night was coming on, and the small room was nearly in darkness—Abdallah searched until he saw the Birthday Pearl lying near the bed, gleaming up at him out of a little pool of blood.
Wiping it on the blankets, also his knife, he turned and fled towards the long jetty where lay the s.s. Barcoo, already clanging her second bell, a better man by twenty pounds than when he entered Leichardt that night, with a useless fortune in his pocket.
Next morning, somebody coming into the shop with a Waterbury to mend found Hermann lying senseless and nearly dead from loss of blood. None of the wounds, however, had touched any vital part; and a month in the local hospital restored him to health again. For reasons of his own, he had professed himself unable to give any description of the assassin. Illicit pearl-buyers on that coast were looked upon with great disfavour, for the reason that every inhabitant who could afford it had shares in some venture connected with the fishery—that is, the pearl-shell fleet. The pearls themselves were but a by-blow of the industry—conspicuous more by their rarity, except in the shape of almost worthless 'seed,' than anything else.
But the glamour of the big gem had entered into Hermann's soul, as it had into Panton's and into Abdallah's; and presently, selling out his stock for a few pounds, he too moved on in pursuit, impelled, to boot, by a sharp feeling of revenge for loss of blood and money.
Meanwhile Abdallah, journeying southward, made no more attempts to dispose of his treasure. But, sewing it in a little bag of black calico, he hid it away artistically in the meshes of his thick hair, where with a touch he could assure himself of its safety. He was a man who had travelled far, and knew many things—knew more than Panton or Itzig; but travel had not shut out inherent superstition. And he began to look upon the big pearl as a charm, an amulet, that, worn always, would protect him and bring him much good fortune. At various times, in the absence of any distinguishing marks of caste or dress, he had been taken for a Malay, a Hindu, and a Kanaka.
But Abdallah was none of these. He was an Arab from Muscat, who had in his time worked amongst the rotting oyster-heaps of El Bouruk on the shores of the Persian Gulf, had seen big pearls, and possessed a fair notion of their value. Hence he was well aware that he had a prize that would make a sensation in the world, and one whose owner would be unable to hide his light under a bushel—so far as the police, at least, were concerned.
Nor did he imagine for a moment that Panton would sit down quietly under his loss. Of Hermann he thought no more—dead men tell no tales.
So he travelled round to Adelaide, thence by sea up Spencer's Gulf to Port Augusta, where he joined the camel-trains of Hafiz Khan, the rich Afghan who brought the wool down from the arid interior to the tall ships lying in the river.
* * * * * *
Into Sydney shortly came Hermann Itzig, with the desire for vengeance still hot, but purse low. His guarded inquiries soon let him into the knowledge that the police were on the watch, and had at least twenty men shadowed on suspicion, and waiting the arrival of Panton.
Seeing that so far as his own claim was concerned the case was hopeless, he gave it up. But not until he had satisfied himself that Abdallah was not in the city did he for a time relinquish the hope of getting even with him for that little matter of the knifing in the hut by the Leichardt beach.
Later, falling in with two of his countrymen bound for the West Australian goldfields, he joined them. The trio were lucky, and made each a fair pile. After a hurried visit to the Fatherland, which he left also hurriedly, convinced that for the Australian-born a military despotism was a most unsuitable form of government, Hermann Itzig, returning, bought a station 'up north' in South Australia, and after a while began to prosper considerably. But often to him came dreams of the big pearl, shining with its mild and tender light as he had last seen it—an episode in his life that, but for certain pains of frosty mornings, he might have almost come to regard as apocryphal. A stern, resolute man, he was incapable of forgetting an injury; and ever and anon, principally in the winter, he sent agents to work to hunt up Abdallah, meaning, when found, to deal with him after his own fashion.
But when a black man, or a yellow, chooses to hide himself amongst others of his colour, the search is apt to linger and become monotonous.
* * * * * *
And so Bob Panton found it.
Received by the police with open arms and a whole tribe of dusky nomads—Manila-men, Kanakas, Javanese, men from the spurs of the Hindu Kush, others from the palm-groves of Kandy and the plains of Central India—he could identify none of them. The police had done their best, stimulated by the reward. But the vagueness of the description baffled them. There were so many black men with sharp aquiline features and good teeth, who spoke very little English, and usually wore European clothes. And at last they gave it up as a bad job. So also did the authorities in Melbourne and Adelaide, whither Bob Panton journeyed on his quest, with hopes growing weaker and weaker.
Superstitious in his way as Abdallah, he had quite made up his mind that unless he recovered his Birthday Pearl, no luck would ever again cross his path in this world nor, possibly, in the next; and, strong in his belief, he spent every penny he possessed in the fruitless search, finding himself at last 'on the wallaby' with a swag upon his back—he, Bob Panton, once master and owner of the smartest little lugger around Torres Straits.
Fain would he have returned once more to his old haunts on the Queensland coast; but he well knew how useless that would be, penniless as he was. And he had seen enough of beachcombing in his day, so had no stomach for that game.
And he worked about from station to station under an assumed name, with the splendid memory of his loss abiding ever upon him, until what preachers call the 'finger of Providence,' and lesser men 'luck,' brought him to Weetah, which was the name of Itzig's station, far to northward of the Burra.
Here there was a drought prevailing, and men were sinking wells. Panton knew little about the business; but, falling in with a mate who did, he took a contract to put a well down on an out-of-the-way part of the run known as the Sandalwood Ridge.
They struck water at a shallow depth, much to Itzig's delight. Then they built a hut for a shepherd and yards for the sheep, laid troughing, and made everything ready. And, just as they finished, there came a rainfall measurable in feet.
But Panton, in place of leaving, took other work on the run; whilst at Sandalwood the water stood undisturbed, and tall grass grew about hut and troughs, and the yards fell to decay, for nobody ever went that way now feed and water were so plentiful elsewhere.
* * * * * *
Meanwhile Abdallah, earning good wages as a first-class driver, made money on the camel-train; and presently, leaving Hafiz Khan, he bought a tilted cart and two horses, and took out a hawker's license, and began life on his own account, secure in the strength and continuance of his luck.
He wore the pearl, now in a little leather bag, hung round his neck by a silver chain. And he worshipped it as his god. Nothing but good fortune had been his since the night he had sneaked into the Daisy's cabin whilst the drunken snores of her crew broke the still air, and taken the gem—his own: had he not found it?—from off the cabin table.
And ever since then had he not thriven—thriven until his outlandish signature was beginning to be known at the big bank in King William Street almost as well as that of Hafiz Khan?
And when at rare intervals he allowed his eyes to feast on the soft, lucent iridescence of the wonderful talisman, his belief grew stronger than ever that his Kismet was bound up therein; and that, compared to the power and magic of his treasure, Allah and all his works were as naught. And, indeed, Abdallah had long ago abjured the teachings of his Prophet, conforming to the demands of Australian inland civilisation in the matters of drinking rum, smoking, swearing, and eating flesh, both clean and unclean, with the utmost indifference—exactly the same as any Christian.
So utter was his faith in the efficacy of the gem that if any slight mishap befell, such as the losing of his horses or the breaking of a spoke, he ascribed it to his inconsiderate attempt at Leichardt to get rid of it to the young man whose body had made a sheath for his knife. It was a punishment meted out to him by his divinity.
Many months passed away; he made money, and travelled far and wide. Then, in an evil hour for himself, he travelled still farther, and fell into a trap set, all unwittingly, for him by two men whom he had injured, and from which all the power of the Birthday Pearl was unable to save him. One hot summer day, making for Weetah head-station, he lost his bearings, and at sundown, he and his horses being parched with thirst, was very pleased to strike the Sandalwood Ridge, with its covered well of still water, sheltering hut, and abundance of feed.
* * * * * *
'I think,' remarked Hermann Itzig to his overseer a month or two afterwards, 'that we may as well, perhaps, put a flock at the Sandalwood.'
'Very well, sir,' replied the overseer. 'I'll send Bray here out to do up the hut and yards.'
'I'll drive him out,' said Hermann. 'He's one of the men who worked there, isn't he? I want to have a look round. See that the big water-bag's on the buggy. I don't suppose the stuff in the well's any too good by this time.'
'What's that?' asked Itzig of Bray, alias Panton, as, at the end of their twenty-mile drive, they caught sight of something white and round close to the well.
'Tilted cart, I should say,' replied the other, peering under the flat of his hand.
As they drove up, two big eagle-hawks and some crows flew off the carcasses of a couple of dead horses.
Close to the door lay another corpse—that of a man—a man with strips of dry black flesh hanging from his bones.
'Great heaven!' exclaimed Itzig, 'what's the matter here?' But Panton made no answer. He was staring intently at the shrivelled features of the dead man. As he gazed he saw something shine from between the skeleton fingers of one clenched hand. Stooping, he drew it out with a cry of astonishment—the great pearl, Abdallah's god, appealed to in vain during his last agony.
'My pearl!' exclaimed Hermann.
'No—mine!' said Panton. 'My Birthday Pearl that Abdallah here stole from me!'
'Are you Panton, then?' asked Hermann.
'Yes,' replied Bob, 'I am. But what do you know about the matter?'
Then Hermann told his story, waiving all rights, if any belonged by reason of the wounds that ached yet in the winter mornings. He could afford to. But what had killed man and horses?
There was a little water left in the bottom of the well-bucket. Hermann tasted it, shook his head, and spat it out. Alongside the bucket lay a native cat, dead. At the troughs, dry now, were others; also crows, all dead.
'I prefer our own water,' said he. 'Empty the whisky out of that bottle in the buggy, and fill it from the well. I'll fix this stuff up when we get home. That pearl's worth a lot of money. A good day's work for you. And for me too, perhaps, if my notion turns out correct. Copper's not so low as it was.'
Analysis disclosed the secret. The well had been bottomed on a very rich vein of copper ore. The water had become so impregnated with the mineral as to become highly poisonous. A thirsty man and thirsty horses might as well have drunk a strong decoction of arsenic.
It required a deal of persuasion to make Panton part with his pearl. Even as Abdallah, he was minded to make a fetish of the thing—it was so pure-looking, and shone with such a mild graciousness, that it seemed very hard to relinquish possession of it. Also, it was his birthday gift, and was bound to bring him luck.
But at last wiser counsels prevailed. Messrs Storr & Mortimer gave £2500 for it, and with this money Panton bought a partnership in Weetah. The lode at 'Poison Well' may be worked yet. At present prices it might pay. And what eventually became of the Birthday Pearl I know not. I note, however, that at the last London wool sales Messrs Itzig & Panton's clip averaged the top price of the season.
Some of us had been working along the Overland Telegraph Line, others of us prospecting for gold about the Northern Territory. Then the six of us forgathered at old Jack Hanley's boarding-house in Port Adelaide, and talked over what we'd do next. A couple were for going up to try our luck on the Echunga diggings; but that notion was overruled by a majority. Lots of schemes were mooted. At last Tommy Cubitt said, 'Well, boys, what d' ye say to another trip on the briny? We're all sailors; we're all mates; all strapping, able-bodied hearties, and fit for any chance. I've had two years o' damper and mutton, blacks, Barcoo rot, and the rest of the general cussedness of the Australian Bush, and I think three or four months of salt sea-breeze won't harm me, or any of us, for that matter.'
'Second the motion!' said Jimmy Lascelles laconically.
'Third it!' said Jack Meredith, who was Lascelles' particular chum, a big, loose-limbed giant of a man, whose style and speech, in common with some of the rest, smacked unmistakably of English public school and London Clubland.
'Fourth and fifth it!' said the brothers Reggie and Alf Sheldon, as they hummed the first verse of the latest popular ditty heard at the 'White Horse Cellars' the night before.
'Carried nem. con.,' concluded the reader's very humble servant, the writer. 'And what part of the world would your Royal Highnesses of the sea be pleased to choose for this pleasure-trip?'
'As it happens,' said Cubitt, 'it's Hobson's choice. There's only one vessel in port wanting hands. She's a barque of about eight hundred tons, named the Atlanta, bound for 'Frisco. She wants six A.B.s. I saw a German chap out of the house here had just signed on board.'
'She's a Yank, then,' remarked Lascelles. 'But what's the odds?—Well, boys, shall we see what fortune's got in store for us on the banks of the Sacramento?'
'Jack—Jack Hanley—you black-a-vised old Shylock!' roared Cubitt, as the proposal was unanimously assented to, 'bring a bottle of beer for each of us, and one over to drink yourself thirsty again in wishing us luck and a long passage. Come now, step out! No advance-notes in this crowd, you know.'
'No,' said Hanley, a dark, burly Irishman and ex-sailor, as he came in laden with bottles; 'an', begorra! afore ye've done wid the Atylanta ye'll be sorry ye didn't shtop wid ould Jack and trusht him to git ye a dacent ship.'
'Why, how now, you bow-bellied and be-whiskered prophet of evil!' exclaimed Meredith, 'what's the matter with the packet? Have you been trying to Shanghai some greenhorns aboard, eh, and got rousted by the Yankee skipper?'
'Not me, captain'—lots of people got brevet rank at Jack's as long as their money lasted—'but I know what them Yanks is, wid their knuckle-dusters an' revolvers an' belayin'-pins, an' what-not. You must remimber I'm an ould packet-rat meself. Sure, I was wid Bully Barton three toimes acrosht the Western Ocean in the Black Ball Line. An', anyhow, the Atylanta's got a bad name. Dreckly she brings up at the semaphore her crew, ivery man-Jack on 'em, swims ashore an' up the Bush for their mortial lives.' And as he finished speaking Hanley grinned in sympathy with us; for well we knew that if he so wished he could put his hands on them, and that probably as soon as the barque sailed the missing men would be gathered under his wing.
'Well,' said Meredith, 'I'd like to see 'Frisco again. I haven't been there since the sixties. Had a good time there, too. Know lots of people up and down the coast, from San Diego to Vancouver. What do you say, boys: shall we go across to the semaphore and aboard this man-eating ship of old Jack's, and see what we can do with her?'
'Yes,' replied Captain John H. Snaggs to Meredith's question anent wanting hands. 'I kin do with a half-dozen. But they must be rale grit. Loafers ain't no account on board o' the Atlanta.'
'Well, sir, I think we all know our work,' said Lascelles, 'and therefore ought to be able to worry through anywhere. So, if you're agreeable, captain, we'd better sign on.'
'All right,' replied the captain, leading the way into the saloon. 'Only, mind, if you ain't all A1 you'll find I'm a bit of a horse myself; an' as for the mate, he's a reg'lar tiger; second's got a lot o' the alligator about him; "Sails" an' "Chips," too, are fair cautions; in fact, the whole of the afterguard can bite.'
'Yes, yes,' remarked Cubitt blandly, with his natural drawl intensified, 'we understand, captain; quite a menagerie, so to speak, and with all due respect.'
At this the skipper looked black, but only gave a grunt that might have meant anything.
As we left to get our traps a boatload of men came on board, and the skipper, looking over the rail, sang out to them, 'Now then, there! hop along quick an' lively, ef you wants to keep a clean skin. Man the windlass an' heave short on the stabboard chain!'
'Doesn't look very promising for a quiet life that hooker,' remarked Reggie Sheldon, laughing, 'what with a tiger, an alligator, a horse, and a couple of unclassed specimens warranted to bite.'
'Oh, that's only Yankee blow,' replied Cubitt. 'I've heard that sort of thing before. All the same, there may be some fun, and it's just as well, perhaps, that we should all bring along our "guns," as Captain Snaggs'd call 'em.'
It was sundown ere we returned to the Atlanta, getting the rough side of the skipper's tongue as we dragged our dunnage for'ard, and, in obedience to orders, proceeded to heave up our anchors, we six manning the port brakes of the old-fashioned windlass. Our shipmates appeared to be all foreigners—Germans, Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes. Presently one of us struck up a chanty; but a tall, lanky, hatchet-faced man, with a long curved nose and watery eyes, who turned out to be the mate, shouted out, 'Naow then, drop that! Keep your wind to cool yer soup. Yer'll want it all afore we're done with yer.'
'That's the tiger,' whispered Meredith.
'A blue-nosed one, by his growl,' replied Cubitt, alluding to the Nova Scotian twang in the mate's speech.
Another hour, and under all plain sail we were dropping down St Vincent's Gulf. And at eight bells we mustered aft to be drafted into watches. By an exceptional piece of luck the whole six of us got into the same watch—the mate's. Man for man, the foreigners were a bigger lot than we were; and the second-mate, who had been ashore and was more than slightly muddled, chose them all.
We of the port watch got the first four hours on deck, and as I went to the wheel I heard the second-mate, who had just come from rounding up his crowd and getting their names, complaining to the mate. 'Blarmed,' said he, 'ef I don't think I've picked all the dashed Dagoes in the ship. Say, Mr Hanks, will ye swap dogs? Ef there's one thing I do hate, it's a Dutchman; an' so fur's I kin make out, every one o' my crowd 'll say yah sooner 'n yes.'
'No, I won't swap, Mr Maggett,' replied the mate, 'although I don't doubt your lot's as good's mine, which is all bullock-drivers instid o' sailor-men. A nice contract I'll have to lick 'em into shape, I reckon. I'll just be about makin' use of 'em by the time we get to 'Frisco. But I allow to be able for the job, eh, Maggett?'
'None better, sir,' replied the latter obsequiously. 'There ain't many atween here an' Cape Cod knows more 'n Hiram Hanks how to roust a loafer up to the mark. Bet your life on that!'
The pair were standing near the wheel, and evidently talking at me. None of the three figureheads of the Atlanta's executive were in any way prepossessing. But that of this man Maggett was positively hideous, so covered was his face with a mat of vivid red hair, out of which peered, either side of a snub bulb of a nose, two cold, blue slits of eyes. He was a type of a certain class—the Irish-American—and I pitied his watch.
Presently he went below, and the captain coming on deck, he and the mate stood talking to the pilot. I noticed that the carpenter was keeping watch with us. Probably the sail-maker would do the same by the starboard one. Both these men were sullen and sulky Down-Easters from about Martha's Vineyard or Salem, and could be thoroughly depended upon to back up captain and mates through thick and thin.
At twelve o'clock the second-mate, without giving the watch below a chance to appear, went into the fo'c'sle, and we could hear him raging and storming at the foreigners to an accompaniment of kicks and thumps that showed Mr Maggett was losing no time. Our side of the topgallant-fo'c'sle was separated from theirs by a bulkhead, and when I got below I found Meredith and the others overhauling their chests for cartridges and seeing that their pistols were clean and ready for action.
'Just in case of need, you know,' Cubitt remarked. 'I see that all our friends aft carry a "gun;" and although there's no necessity for us to let them discover that we do the same, still it's as well to be prepared for accidents. I was going to sell mine to Jack Hanley. Glad I didn't now. You chaps all got one?'
We had—some of us a pair, and plenty of ammunition to boot.
Very evidently we had fallen in with a real bad ship, and it behoved us to walk warily, just as much so, indeed, as if we were being shadowed by Blacks on 'The Overland,' or tramping through 'snake-country' by night. Perhaps some of us had been bullock-driving: but we also knew our work as seamen too well to allow ourselves to be worried by tiger, alligator, or horse. Our spells of Bush-life had given us broader, wider views of men's obligations with regard to each other, a portion, certainly, of which was to put up with no such nonsense as our shipmates were evidently resigned to.
'The chap who relieved me at the wheel,' remarked the younger Sheldon, 'was only half-dressed, and his nose was bleeding from a smack of the alligator's fist. I gave him the course—sou'-sou'-west. But he was too scared to speak; so the skipper walked over and pulled what was left of his nose till he squealed again. A nice packet this is! I wonder what the pilot thinks of it all?'
But whatever may have been Mr Jones's thoughts, he kept them strictly to himself, and stepped into his cutter next day with as hearty a farewell as if the Atlanta had been one of his favourite Orient clippers instead of the 'hell afloat' she was so unmistakably to become. Cubitt, who knew the pilot slightly, shook hands with him as he was going over the side, and said, 'Tell old Jack Hanley that we've got into a regular blooming menagerie here, but that we think we can hold our own till we get to 'Frisco.'
Mr Jones grinned, nodded, and winked, conveying fully that he quite understood the position of affairs, and wished us all sorts of luck.
'Now then, you there!' suddenly shouted the skipper, 'can't you find anythin' better to do than yarn on the quarterdeck? You're too far aft, my man.—Mr Hanks, you'll have your watch gittin' a top-dog if you don't mind, sir.'
'Very sorry, captain,' replied Cubitt, who was a powerful, athletic fellow, grim-visaged from the slash of a Peruvian cutlass received whilst serving as a lieutenant in the Chilian navy; 'but, you see, I'm not used to big ship style.'
'Well,' returned the skipper, somewhat mollified by the compliment to his old tub—for she was little better—'I guess me an' Mr Hanks 'll take ye in hand an' larn ye sea-politeness. As a rule, we can't abide greenhorns: but in your case we'll make an exception;' and he stroked his goatee and chuckled at his own wit, yet not without a sharp glance of suspicion at its object. Nor was he unjustified in his doubt; for Cubitt had been chief mate of ships that would have almost taken the square-sterned, bluff-bowed Atlanta for a long-boat. Indeed, the whole six of us were 'passed men,' holding either masters' or mates' certificates in the British merchant service. Not that we gave ourselves airs on that account; we had all been before the mast as well as on the quarterdeck ere this when necessity—or, in at least the case of two amongst us, sheer caprice—pressed. But, on the other hand, we were determined to put up with no nonsense in the matter of being knocked about by Messrs Snaggs, Hanks, and Maggett.
On the second day out we cleared the land; and that evening, with Cape Borda light like a little star astern, it came on to blow so heavily that all hands had to be called to snug the Atlanta down. And now the two mates, for no reason that I could see except that the captain encouraged and approved, condescending once or twice even to take part in the performance, began to cut capers amongst the starboard watch to a tune none of us had ever heard before. How the men stood it puzzled us. But they did, and, chewing stolidly on their quids, pulled and hauled to the accompaniment of kicks from the mate's heavy sea-boots or punchings from the almost as heavy fists of the second.
I went up with one of the sufferers to furl the foretop-gallants'l; and as we lay out on the yard I said, noticing that his eye was swelling, 'A pretty rough sort of hooker this we've got into, mate.'
'Yah,' replied Hans, tenderly feeling the damaged optic, 'dot segond-mate hit like von kig vrom a 'orse—mit not?'
'Don't know,' I replied, 'and don't mean to let him try. We're not going to allow any of them to play with us as they 're doing with you. Englishmen don't like getting black eyes and bloody noses for nothing. Apparently you people don't mind it so much, eh?'
'Dese Yanks all de same,' replied he. 'Often I schwear I never go in anoder von of dem. Ach Gott, nein! Bresently, by-und-by, it goms your durn. You see!'
'Not much,' I answered, laughing, 'or there'll be wigs on the green!'
But Hans, or Wilhelm, or Carl, or whatever his name was, only grinned, and soon, as we afterwards discovered, went straight to the mate and told him what I had said, in a vain attempt to curry favour with his persecutors.
Presently, though he never lifted his hand to us, Mr Hanks began to work us up in great style, stopping our afternoon watch below, and giving us all the dirty, disagreeable jobs he could think of, whilst the skipper looked on and grinned approvingly; and the sail-maker and carpenter lazied about, ever on the watch to report any growling to their superiors. However, wanting no rows, we stood it all quietly enough. The food was good and plentiful of its kind, so on that score we had nothing to complain of. And one day Mr Hanks, seeing us submissive and quiet, and thinking, perhaps, that the foreigners had for the time received their share of hard knocks, in an ill-advised moment made the mistake of rapping Meredith sharply over the knuckles with a belaying-pin to hasten him in some job he was at, treating him at the same time to a choice assortment of the best Bowery. Without a moment's hesitation Meredith hit out from the shoulder, and sent the mate sprawling along the deck. Rising, Hanks made a rush at him, only to receive another and a heavier dose of the same medicine. Waiting for him to rise again, Cubitt, intently watching, saw the mate's hand sneaking round to his hip-pocket. A warning shout to Meredith, and the latter in a second had his knee on the prostrate man and the half-drawn revolver flying overboard. Slowly Hanks got to his feet, wiped the blood from his face, and glared at Meredith. Then he made a sudden run aft, but Meredith stopped him.
'Wait a bit,' said he; 'don't be in such a hurry. You know, Mr Hanks, you mustn't break English knuckles like you do those made in Germany. The English article won't stand such usage even by a "reg'lar tiger." There's six of us here, Mr Hanks; and if you play tricks on one of the six you've got to reckon with the half-dozen. Remember that, Mr Hanks, and go and tell the skipper all about it if you like.—Have I put the matter straight, lads?'
'Quite right, old man!' he answered, as, with eyes darting murder at us in every glance, Hanks walked slowly aft, whither the sail-maker and the carpenter had already run and roused out the captain and the second-mate. A minute later the whole gang were in deep consultation upon the poop.
By this time each one of us had secured our pistols, ready for the shooting-match that we felt was almost inevitable. Indeed, so certain was the starboard watch that presently bullets would be flying that they had drawn off in a body and taken shelter in the fo'c'sle.
But, to our intense astonishment, there was no row. To us this quietude, knowing the men with whom we had to deal, seemed unnatural. It scared us much worse than a volley would have done. However, we went on with our work, albeit keeping a remarkably sharp eye lifting aft. But nothing remarkable happened. Certainly, the skipper and the second-mate made a rush amongst the cowering foreigners and kicked and punched them on deck again. But that was a mere everyday incident. The second-mate—Mr Hanks had gone below to repair damages—walked about amongst us scowling vindictively but saying nothing.
'Now, what is their little game?' exclaimed Meredith as eight bells struck and we went below for the first dog-watch.
'Can't understand it at all,' replied Cubitt; 'but you may bet your life there's something not too brilliant a-brewing. Why, in a well-ordered packet the decks fore and aft ought an hour ago to have been full of corpses. But, oh, Jack! those were two lovely smacks. The tiger won't be able to see a hole through a ladder for a blue moon.'
'By Jove!' chimed in Lascelles enthusiastically, 'what a sweet and happy accident it is that we can sport a "gun" each! Shouldn't wonder if there's wild work on this hooker before the trip's over.'
'"Wish it would come,' said young Sheldon. 'I hate waiting for the expected. I'd like to see the five of 'em show up and have it out with us straight away.'
'That they never will, now, I'm convinced,' remarked his brother. 'But look out for tricks, boys. Nothing'll be too nasty for the afterguard after this evening. The whole menagerie 'll bite and scratch, but strictly on the sly. We must keep our pistols on us, and always handy for a pull.'
'True for you, Reggie,' said Lascelles. 'Semper paratus must be our little motto from this out, or some of us 'll be losing the number of their mess. It ain't pleasant. But what can we do?'
That point was soon to be decided; for that night in the middle-watch, a stiff head-breeze blowing, and the Atlanta foaming along full and by, she suddenly, with a great flapping and slatting of canvas, came up in the wind, whilst to our ears, as we lay snatching forty winks in sheltered nooks about the deck, came the sharp report of a pistol-shot from the poop.
Cubitt should have been at the wheel; but, rushing aft, we found him and the second-mate—who was keeping the first's watch for him by reason of the latter's sore head—rolling over and over across the gratings in front of the wheel. Seeing at a glance that our man wanted no assistance, for he was uppermost, and knocking Maggett's head in a steady, business-like way first against the skylight, and then against the sharp curved tails of the big brazen dolphins that supported the binnacle, I put the wheel hard over, bringing the ship to the wind, and picking up as I did so a revolver lying close to the spokes.
'The beggar drew and fired point-blank at me,' said Cubitt, rising and leaving the alligator quietly lying there. 'Look here,' he continued, taking off his sou'wester and showing us a hole through the crown, into which he stuck his finger. 'We had a few words about the row yesterday, and then, without a moment's warning, he pulled on me. But I guess his head 'll ache worse than mine, close call as it was for my brains.'
'I'm just wondering,' remarked Lascelles as he dragged the second-mate to his legs and seated him against the skylight, 'whether the very best thing we can do isn't to take charge of this old dugout before she gets too hot for us altogether.'
'Waal,' drawled a voice behind us, 'is that so? Naw, I guess you've got this chicken to reckon with fust. Stand clear, for I'm agoin' to kick!'
It was the skipper in his drawers, and with in each hand a heavy 'navy' presented at our group.
'Kick away, old horse!' exclaimed Meredith, suddenly whipping out his own pistol and putting it to the captain's head. 'Do you think no one's got a gun but you? You're the Horse, ain't you? Well, Mr Horse, kick away. The Tiger and the Alligator have had a turn. It's yours now. If you and the rest of your cursed menagerie let us alone we'll do our duty as sailor-men should. But if you interfere again with one of the port watch, by the Lord! we'll fill you all as full of lead as a first-class swell coffin.'
It was a clear night, with a young moon peeping over the leech of the main topsail, and shedding a mild light on the patch of deck just right aft where we stood; and by this it was easy to see the dazed stare of baffled fury mixed with astonishment that came into the skipper's eyes as, involuntarily lowering his arms, he glared around, meeting everywhere the levelled muzzle of a revolver. In the silence you could hear the passionate grating of his teeth as he tried to control the fury of resentment that raged within him. Close to sat the second-mate, conscious now, but very sick, with his head resting on his hands, and red drops dripping from nose and mouth on to the white paint of the skylight.
'It's mutiny—rank mutiny!' exclaimed the captain at last in a hoarse whisper, as, shifting his pistols into one hand, he with the back of the other wiped some flakes of foam off his long goatee. 'A put-up job!' he continued. 'And, by the livin' Jehoshaphat, if ever you live to git to 'Frisco you'll swing!'
'See where that murdering animal put a bullet, skipper,' said Cubitt, showing his hat. 'And don't talk rubbish about mutiny. D'ye think that men like us are going to be made targets and chopping-blocks of like those Dagoes yonder? Not much, we ain't! You and your lot behave yourselves, and you'll find us the whitest crowd you ever sailed with. But if you keep on hanky-panky, why, then you'll have to suffer accordingly. Peace or war, captain?' But the latter's passion was too great for words. For years his reign of terror had probably been so undisputed that he at last had thought himself a sort of sea-omnipotence. The shock of this rude awakening nearly killed him, and all he could do was to wave his arm for'ard as a signal to us to clear. But as he stood there, his thin, sallow face working and twitching wickedly in little pulses, and a line of white foam showing between his parted lips, he looked such a dangerous customer that, when surrendering the wheel to Cubitt again, I took the lee side, each of us keeping one hand on a pistol whilst steering with the other. It was, I saw, very close on eight-bells, and presently, striking it, a German came yawning, and surprised to find two men at the wheel. 'Vat is de madder' he was beginning, when Cubitt stopped him with 'Full and by—as she goes!' and we walked for'ard, keeping a wary eye on the skipper and the secondmate, who were muttering together at the break of the poop, Mr Maggett carrying a bandage on his head the size of a turban.
'Well,' remarked Meredith as we sat on our chests discussing the situation, 'things are developing, boys. I really think Lascelles' notion that we should take charge altogether and sail the Atlanta to 'Frisco on our own hook not half a bad one.'
'If we don't do something of the sort,' said Cubitt, 'we'll go to leeward flying, for the old man and his lot'll never rest easy till they've squared yards with us. Couldn't you see it in his face to-night? Still, you chaps know there's precious little law for a sailor in 'Frisco—or, rather, there's plenty of law but very little justice. And, in any case, it's rather a serious thing this seizing a ship at sea. Our words won't count a straw against the afterguards'. And remember, lads, that every sneaking Dutchman in the starboard watch 'll back the brutes up through thick and thin.'
'I'm not sure of that matter of sailor law, at least in our case,' said Meredith. 'If we had always been plain A.B.s and nothing more I wouldn't give a fig for our chances. Ten years hard 'd be the least I should expect. But you've all got your papers to show. Besides, although I don't want to brag, I really have some influence in 'Frisco, especially amongst the large merchants, also with the better class of journalists. I don't particularly want it known that I've been masquerading before the mast in the Atlanta, and should prefer to get quietly away; but if the worst comes to the worst, why, really, I believe I can pull the six of us out of a pretty bad scrape, and perhaps cook the skipper's goose and that of his mates so effectually as to prevent them from ever getting another ship.'
Now, this seemed pretty tall talk to us. Of all our crowd, Meredith and his chum Lascelles were the only ones who were at all reticent as to their past. The rest of us talked and yarned of our homes, our people, and our lives unreservedly enough. But with the other two there were limitations which no one cared to try and get over; and, all through, it seemed to us that the pair were not quite like ourselves, adventurers of necessity. They had met the four of us at Alice Springs, whither they had come from Port Darwin with an overlanding party in search of new country. The Sheldons, myself, and Cubitt had been prospecting in the Macdonnell Ranges. Meredith and his friend seemingly took a fancy to our company, and left their own for it. We were together some weeks. Then they left, promising to look us up again in Adelaide, and form an expedition of any kind anywhere. And a pretty little expedition it promised to become, so far as, at present, I could see!
However, Meredith's promises, unsupported as they were by more than his bare word, cheered us somewhat. There was a distinct and powerful personality about the big man that made one feel he never spoke without ample security; and although nobody asked any questions, I think we all felt that here was a sort of background providence that would see us safely through our troubles.
That day the Atlanta was very quiet; the decks were redolent of friars' balsam; and the sight of the two mates, one with thickly bandaged head, the other peering out of black-and-blue lumps of flesh where his eyes should have been, made even the stolid foreigners grin secretly. The skipper paced the poop, apparently deep in thought, and I noticed that, in place of smoking his cigar, he was viciously chewing it. This I took to portend squalls. We of the port watch went about our work as usual, only with glancing, restless eyes, and hands ever ready to the butts of our pistols. Altogether it was a curious turn-out; also an unpleasant one.
A week passed in comparative quiet, varied only by little, mean attempts at assassination, such as letting go braces o' dark nights whilst some of us were aloft on the higher yards; and once Lascelles and myself, furling the main-topgallant-s'l in a heavy squall, and being nearly jerked overboard by such a trick, drew our pistols, and by common consent fired towards the spot where the braces led. Next morning we noticed that the sail-maker carried his arm in a sling. But we made no inquiry; nor, curiously enough, did any one aft ask what strange impulse had seized upon us to practise shooting in the dark and from aloft. Henceforward we were less troubled in respect of such trecherous contrivings. Of all these little incidents, however, Meredith kept a faithful log, omitting nothing. But the state of continual tension was beginning to tell upon our nerves badly. Below, we moved in constant watchful dread of some cunning trap being baited for us; aloft, ere lying out on a yard, it behoved us to look well to seizings of lifts and foot-ropes, and to keep our grip tenacious as fish-hooks lest the stay we trusted to should suddenly play us false. Only once had we actually disobeyed orders, and that was when they told us to get over the side on stages and scrape paintwork. The vessel was going a full eight knots, and we absolutely declined to commit suicide in any such stupid fashion. However, they did not persist in the attempt; but we saw the skipper grin, well satisfied, as he retired to add another to the doubtless already numerous entries in the log-book dealing with our crimes.
'All the belaying-pins in the Atlanta couldn't have held those stage-ropes from slipping if we'd gone,' remarked Meredith; and we knew that he was perfectly correct in his judgment.
It is hard to say how matters would have ended, or how the general flare-up we were prepared for would have come to pass, as, after all, it arose out of a business that we need not have meddled with, and certainly got no thanks for doing so.
Truly, if our lines were at this time cast in troubled waters, surely were those of our next-door neighbours—the starboard watch—in raging seas. What the people aft failed to inflict upon us they took out of these unfortunates. But at last it appeared that, submissive and long-suffering as they had thoroughly proved themselves, still there was an unguessed-at limit, crossing which meant danger. And one day, the watch being a few minutes late in showing up, the second-mate thought fit to do as he had often done before, and, entering the fo'c'sle, proceeded to perform upon them tooth and nail in his character of alligator. This time, however, whether it was that Maggett exceeded, in their opinion, all fair bounds, or that the psychological moment had arrived, he, after a minute or two, was cast out upon the deck bleeding from half-a-dozen knife-stabs. Rising, he had just strength left to stagger aft and tell a story which sent the skipper, mate, sail-maker, and carpenter racing for'ard, where presently some very murderous work began on that side of the fo'c'sle. For a while we stood listening to the groans, curses, and pistol-shots. Then said Meredith, 'Why, they're slaughtering those fellows like so many pigs. I think we'd better take a deal. I fancy I see a way by which this may be made to lead straight into our hands. Come along!' So in we dashed. The four from aft had got the foreigners penned up in and under bunks, and were serving it out to the faint hearts in great style with belaying-pins. Evidently the watch had at first shown fight, for a couple with knives in their hands lay dead on the floor, which was slippery with blood. The remainder, seeing us with firearms, took courage and rallied, whilst the afterguard, caught between the two parties, fought like fiends. Luckily for us, the smoke and the inherent gloom of the place spoiled any attempt at aim, that Cubitt got a bullet through his arm, young Sheldon was shot through both cheeks, and there were some minor wounds. Lascelles—who was at the wheel, and who, on hearing the fray, had made the Chinese cook take his place, and presently joined us in the rush which finished the business—was also unlucky enough to be stabbed by the carpenter, but it was little more than a flesh-wound, and as we bound our prisoners we saw that they had not by any means escaped scathless. The skipper had a bullet in his shoulder, besides a couple of broken ribs. One of the mate's arms was hanging loose at his side, and Chip's face had been battered by a German till it looked like pulp. In addition to the two dead men on the floor, we found another mortally wounded, lying in his bunk as he had been shot. Taken all round, it had turned out a very bloody little fight; and it struck me once or twice that we had done wrong by interfering. However, it was too late now to say anything. Fortunately the elder Sheldon was rather more than a botch of a surgeon, and by Meredith's orders—for he took charge at once, and quite naturally—we brought all the wounded into the saloon for Sheldon to attend to.
'Thank the good God,' said the skipper piously, as Sheldon, after some rather spiteful probing with a pair of carpenter's calipers, at last discovered the bullet—' thank the good God the whole posse of ye'll most undoubtedly swing now! Why, ye'll be lucky if you ain't lynched!'
After their wounds were dressed we locked our prisoners into their berths, and with Meredith as skipper, Lascelles first-mate, and myself second, made a fresh start, so short-handed that even the wounded had to steer and take a lookout. Of these the second-mate's case was the only critical one; his carving had been done with a will. Naturally we were apprehensive regarding the outcome of all this business. At least four of us were. As to Meredith and Lascelles, they seemed quite unconcerned, and scouted utterly a proposal made by us that we should presently leave the ship and make for some of the islands of the Hawaiian group, passed nearly a week ago.
'It would be madness, nothing less!' protested Meredith. 'Just as we are beginning to get along so nicely, too! Why, it would amount to a full confession of guilt, and we'd be hunted down with a price on our heads! Can't you see, we're on top now—have got a good grip of the situation. Besides, look at the novelty of the thing! In place of doing what you fellows suggest—exactly what your average crew would think of—we carefully sail the ship to her destination, and call the law in to decide between us.'
'And against us, most likely,' put in Cubitt. 'I've heard that owners and underwriters in most of the States can get any verdict they wish recorded against the fo'c'sle seamen.'
'Well, yes, at one time,' admitted Meredith, 'but it's rather different now. The press is only too glad to get hold of such a story as I'm preparing, ready for the first reporter who steps on board. Now, you fellows had better trust to me. It's a stiffer contract than I bargained for, but I can pull you through. And Lascelles 'll help me.—Won't you, Jimmy?'
'Why, of course, old man. What d' ye take me for?' replied his chum. 'But I think you'll be able to state a very good case single-handed.'
So we gave in to these two, but not without some inward qualms when we thought of what sort of a reception might await us at that destination now approaching very close.
Next morning we buried the three foreigners. Meredith, attired in the uniform of a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve, read the burial service in a most impressive manner, whilst Lascelles and myself, dressed up in serge suits with anchor buttons in honour of our new ranks, stood by. Also, Meredith had the wounded prisoners, with the exception of the second-mate, who was not fit to be moved, brought on deck to witness the ceremony.
The skipper and the mate, as they were assisted to seats close to the gangway, whispered together and looked curiously about them. The pair seemed rather broken up, and were very quiet and subdued. The carpenter, with his bandaged face, was at the wheel; the sail-maker we had also made turn-to. It really appeared as if we had reduced the menagerie to subjection.
It was a beautiful day, bright with sunshine; a gentle breeze rippled the water musically against the barque's bluff bows as she lay nearly stationary, with her fore-topsail aback and the Stars-and-stripes at half-mast The ship was very quiet, and Meredith's voice sounded loud and clear as he read the solemn words of the service. As the grating tilted, and its threefold burden plunged heavily into the sea, I looked at Snaggs' face; but, save a sneering grin, it showed no sign of emotion. But when, presently, the carpenter left the wheel, and Snaggs asked the course and found it still NE. by E., I heard him swear, and noticed a puzzled expression come over his face. He was doubtless surprised to find her still heading for 'Frisco, after making certain that we had intended to run away with her and try to sell or wreck her. I saw him, too, staring suspiciously at Meredith's uniform as he was taken below again. And, for that matter, we also were surprised at our skipper's turn-out; knowing, however, that he was the last man to wear anything to which he had no right. Nor did any of us think fit to ask questions. Only our confidence in our captain seemed increased by the incident. The following day we sighted a steamer, which proved to be a big tramp bound from Samoa to the same port as ourselves, which she would reach a week at least before us. By her Meredith sent on a formidable heap of letters and a copy of his private log duly attested by all hands, which writings doubtless had much to do with our reception when at last we brought up inside the Golden Gate.
The first man to step on board was the editor of one of the big 'Frisco dailies, who shook Meredith warmly by the hand, greeting him as an old acquaintance, at the same time picking up a paper from a pile he had placed on the skylight, and laughingly pointing to an article with headlines in such huge type that from where I stood I could easily read, 'Six Sailors and a Menagerie! How the Six Tamed the Wild Beasts of the Atlanta!! A Floating Hell Hailing from 'Frisco!!! The Shambles of the Atlanta!!!! Wild Work with Snaggs, Hanks, and Maggett!!!!' and then column after column of what proved to be in the very best style of lucidly descriptive Western journalism.
'It's all right, gentlemen,' said the editor as Meredith introduced us; 'you've got the voice of the city with you to a man. It's been a reg'lar snap for the Herald, too. And to make sure, I've engaged the very best counsel to be had for money. We're not taking any risks. No more,' he added significantly, 'are the owners. They mean fight. Got the police flag up, I see! That's right. You're all real grit every time. Ah! here they come.' He alluded to the police, who, with an inspector at their head, now took charge of the ship, which was surrounded by steam-launches and rowing-boats filled with curious people. But these, with the exception of many of the leading men in 'Frisco, who came to see Meredith and ask if they could be of use, the police kept at a respectable distance. As it was, when our prisoners were produced the Atlanta's saloon was crammed so full of reporters and eager busybodies that there was scarce room to move. Snaggs still wore his arm in a sling; but the others had made a quick recovery, especially Maggett, who for the last few days had been so violent as to compel us to put irons on him. Snaggs, of course, gave us in charge for mutiny on the high seas. But both he and the others were far from easy in their minds, if one could judge from their hang-dog looks. About the last thing they expected was to have the tables turned upon them in this curious fashion.
Ashore, bail to any amount was offered for us by Meredith's friends, amongst whom we presently found ourselves billeted in most hospitable fashion. Meanwhile, in the matter of bail at any rate, the skipper and the mates' party had done as much for them, and they also were at large, but unable to show their faces on the streets for fear of violence, so high did public feeling run against them. On the other hand, we were mobbed enthusiastically, and made popular idols of—a process also not without its disadvantages.
At last we found ourselves in a police court. And I must say that although, with the rest of us, I was not very much surprised—the fact having of late become common property—to hear Meredith sworn as 'Sir John Meredith, a Baronet of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland,' yet I opened my eyes widely enough to hear his chum answer to the style of James Henry Churchill Lascelles, Baron Ulleswater, a Peer of the United Kingdom.'
The official mouthed out the titles with a democratic relish, and 'Jimmy' turned lobster-red as he replied in the affirmative to the indictment, whilst the crowd fairly gasped with delight as it suddenly realised the comical incongruity of the whole tiling.
'The lawyers insisted on it, y' see,' said the editor of the Herald, who sat close to me. 'His lordship bucked like a young steer when he knew about it. No, Meredith didn't give him away, you bet. Some globe-trotting tenderfoot recognised him, and it came to Coke & Dixon's ears, and they played the thing off for all it was worth. And that's a Jew's eye, my boy. And they 're right. See what a fight the other side made before Meredith and his friend had a say. Now, look at 'em! Why, sonny, if you'd ha' all been plain Jack-tars I wouldn't have given a rotten fig for your necks. Not much! But Sir John could ha' pulled you through. He's got a fine record amongst us here in 'Frisco. And when it comes to a British peer! Why, consider the menagerie euchred hands down.'
And so it proved; although the sentences, to our thinking, were ridiculously light. Snaggs got three years' imprisonment, and was fined one thousand dollars; Hanks two years, and five hundred dollars; Maggett eighteen months, and five hundred dollars; the sail-maker and carpenter twelve months each. And at the same time the judge administered to us such a sharp reprimand anent taking the law into our own hands, and seizing the ship vi et armis, all by reason of other people's misdemeanours and the punishment thereof by the properly constituted authorities—to wit, the captain and his officers—that I fully believed, before he had finished, everything that my friend the editor had told me, and that we really had need of all the influence that could be brought to bear for us. However, we won, very much to the disgust and surprise of other menageries whose masters, even at the present day, taking warning by Snaggs & Co., fight shy of the British sailor-man, fearing lest they may ship a party of 'blasted aristocrats' to turn the tables on them as we did on the afterguard of the Atlanta.
Amongst 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 eighteen, 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. Besides poor young Badegge, who was nobody's enemy but his own, 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 tout court, would smoke a cigarette and toss off a glass of champagne; 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 them afterwards in the privacy of their cabins.
At Naples among others, there came on board for the second saloon a young Frenchman, apparently pretty 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 outré 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 smiled 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 so 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 Trebizond had lost a diamond necklace and a set of priceless pearls; Lady Trotter de Globe was minus her family 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 complicate 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 afore-mentioned. 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 jewellry 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, &c. 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, Mr Johnson was, neverless, 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-out, 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' 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; whilst on his part, Mr Johnson, removing the powerful magnifying glasses he had worn throughout the interview, smiled in 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 à 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, Dolly'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 doubtfully. 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 lunch 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 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 it after the keys? No, I can't believe 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 the watching detective's brain, and ere night he managed to have a chat with the quartermaster.
'Yessir,' said the latter, in answer to a question. 'Poor chap, 'e thinks a lot o' that cheer. I've got to put it in 'is berth every night, so keerful as if it were med o' glass. You see, 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, 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 docteur,' said he, 'je crois bien que, depuis que j'ai pris votre dernière mixture, je me fais plus de santé.'
'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 gray 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 revolver 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; whilst 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, &c.—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. 'And if any of those old cats in the saloon make a row, Tony, I'll tell some funny little stories I've picked up amongst 'em that will make 'em glad to leave Australia by the next boat.'
'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 Watson 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'honneur. 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 là 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 jewellry 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, and— 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 difficult; 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.'
'The man at Mooroobin's shot himself, Chesney; and you have to take charge. For goodness' sake do the best you can for us, and see if you can't change the luck!'
In such words did I receive my promotion as manager of a branch of the Bank of New Carpentaria at a far-inland Australian township. Some people might have been proud of the chance. But I was not particularly so. Indeed, I would much rather have stayed at headquarters in Brisbane. Mooroobin had a shocking reputation amongst us. In the two years since the opening, four managers had come to grief there. One poisoned himself with strychnine; one died in delirium tremens; one wandered away into the bush, to be found dead and almost naked weeks afterwards. And now, to finish up in sympathy with them, Mostyn must go and blow his brains out! No wonder that I did not show much elation as the chief spoke, or that my fellow officials took as solemn a farewell of me as if it were for the last time.
When I eventually reached Mooroobin I did not altogether wonder at the way those other fellows had carried on, for a more hopeless place you never saw in your life. In the heart of the back-blocks, nearly two hundred miles from the nearest railway, dumped down on a bit of dusty plain fair in the sun's eye, stood the couple of score or so of shanties that constituted the township.
To every point of the compass, far as the eye could reach from the highest elevation attainable, stretched a sea of brigalow and mulga scrub interspersed with great swamps of polygonum, or, as the local term went, lignum. A deep crack in the earth, running in tortuous bends no one knew whither, was called the Mooroo River. At times there was water in its bed—perhaps once in three years; at others it was merely a dusty, burr-lined furrow, with sides rounded by the trampling of stock passing through in hundreds of thousands, both sheep and cattle, on their way to southern markets. And indescribably dreary and mean as the place seemed, in reality, so far as our business went, it was of importance, as being not only the centre of a vast pastoral district, but including within its boundaries a new and promising goldfield. The bank itself, like many of the others, was a 'frame structure'—that is, one formed of boards brought up by teams from the railway terminus, and each piece marked ready to put into position; the roof was of galvanised iron; and there were, in addition to the business apartment—furnished with a broad counter, a few desks, and a second-hand safe—a couple of small bedrooms. Both my accountant and myself slept in the house, but had our meals at the hotel across the road—a nondescript building of iron, weather-boards, round saplings, and calico. There were other three 'hotels,' varying little in style of architecture, but all giving the pas for fashion to the 'Imperial;' in which the bank manager took his meals in the 'parlour,' mostly in solitary state, except for the company of a million flies, unless a 'boss drover,' the ubiquitous 'commercial,' or a stray squatter or two should happen to drop in.
Rolleston, my assistant, was a nice lad of about nineteen, drafted out of the head office to gain experience. A native, and an uncommonly good-looking one—blessed, too, with a huge fund of animal spirits that enabled him to cheerfully swallow flies, and treat fleas, ants, mosquitoes, dust, heat, and the general abomination of the place in a Micawber-like spirit that made me envious—he speedily explored the resources of the surrounding country as regarded social pleasures.
'Mostly bachelor stations,' he declared after a few Saturdays and Sundays of conscientious riding in every direction. 'Awfully slow shops, where they can talk nothing but stock, stock, stock; live like hermits; up at daylight, to bed at dark; no music, no singing, no nothing.'
'No girls anywhere, Charlie?' I asked.
'Only at Flett's,' he replied, the quick blood crimsoning in his fair checks. 'My word, Esth—Miss Flett—is a beauty, if you like. Better come out and see her for yourself,' he added, noticing my rather incredulous smile.
'I've seen her brother,' I answered, 'and don't think much of him at any rate. You know, of course, he is a customer of ours, and a precious bad one at that. From what I can make out, Mostyn advanced him more than his whole place and stock are worth; and now he wants more money still. He certainly won't get it from me until I can be sure of how matters really are at Koortani. I expect I shall have to visit the station presently, but not altogether to see Miss Flett. And, Charlie,' I continued, 'if I were you I wouldn't get so thick with them. It will be rather awkward— won't it?—if the bank has presently to take possession. I have no objection to an occasional visit; but I don't care about this Saturday till Monday morning business you are going in for of late.'
Perhaps I spoke rather sharply, but I disliked William Flett intensely, even from the little I had seen of him at our first interview, in which he had, when refused an advance on a block of freehold already held by us at what I had ascertained was more than its value, asserted that 'the bank was robbing him.' Charlie made no reply, but I could see that for the rest of the evening he was thoughtful— a rather unusual mood for him.
To my surprise, the next morning Miss Flett herself turned up, and attempted to succeed where her brother had failed. It being a slack time, Charlie had gone over to Bundarubba, a township of much the same size and quality as our own. Thus I was quite alone when I saw a woman ride up to the door, and, springing lightly off a bay horse, tie him to the rail, gather her habit over her arm, and enter the bank. About twenty-two or twenty-three years of age; tall, with an almost perfect figure; dark oval face, out of which flashed a pair of great black eyes; a large but well-formed mouth full of fine teeth, now showing in a pleasant smile as she met my, doubtless, inquiring gaze. Esther Flett was, as Rolleston had said, a beautiful girl, and quite unlike anything I had pictured to myself from my knowledge of her uncouth brother.
'I have come,' she began at once in a clear, loud voice, 'Mr Chesney, to apologise for William's behaviour the other day. I'm afraid he must have been too long at the bar of the "Imperial" yonder. Anyhow, he's sorry now for what he said. And he made me promise to ride in and tell you as much. And, Mr Chesney,' she continued, leaning both arms on the counter and smiling most bewitchingly, whilst making great play with those wonderful eyes of hers, 'you really must let us have that five hundred pounds on the Wilga block. Surely you couldn't refuse such old customers as we are?'
Although only a few years older than herself, I was born a long way north of the Tweed, also was rather unimpressionable as regarded the sex—with one exception. And the latter fact it was, perhaps, that enabled me, having recovered my first surprise, to answer coolly enough, 'Thank you for the apology, Miss Flett. I should have thought more of your brother, however, if he could have seen his way to bring it himself. As to the advance, I regret to say that the utmost I can promise is to lay your proposal before my directors.'
I suppose the tone I spoke in sounded final—I know I tried to make it so—for, as I finished, the full voluptuous lips tightened gradually, whilst in the middle of the broad, low brow appeared a deep vertical furrow, and the big eyes simply blazed with fury as her gauntleted hand pressed the silver hammer of her whip deep into the soft pine barrier between us.
For perhaps a minute she stood staring intently at me. Then all at once the great threatening frown relaxed and smoothed out, the fierce light in her velvety eyes smouldered down, the scarlet curve of her lips showed again, and, with a laugh, she said saucily, 'Well, Mr Chesney, you're a hard man. I suppose we'll have to go over to Mr Mayhew at Bundarubba—the opposition pawnbroking establishment, you know—and see what he'll do for us. Poor Harry Mostyn wouldn't have served me so meanly.'
'And where is poor Harry Mostyn now, I wonder?' I asked grimly, and perhaps pitilessly, as she lowered her veil and turned away.
'At rest, I hope and trust,' she replied in a low voice, facing me and crossing herself devoutly. And for just one moment I felt myself a brute. Then, mindful of the look, by turns cajoling, languishing, tempting, then almost tiger-like in its intense fierceness, that I had seen in those eyes of hers, I turned impatiently to my ledgers as she sprang into her saddle and cantered away down the street in a cloud of dust. But I could not fix my attention on the work, as ever between my gaze and the long columns of figures rose that beautiful face, one minute distorted by passion, the next shining in careless smiles. Truly an extraordinary creature to find in such a place!
Just then an old hawker came in with a bundle of dirty cheques on half-a-dozen different banks that he wished to place to his credit.
'I met that Flett gal,' he presently remarked, with bush freedom, as I carefully scanned his paper. 'She was goin' like thunder down the road yonder. 'Speck,' he continued, chuckling, 'she'd been tryin' to work the horacle off on you same's she used to try it on afore with the others. You bet she's a smart un is Esther! So was her dad. I knowed him thirty year ago—ole Flett—when he was carryin' on the roads. Made a bit o' money them days wi' loadin' at five pounds a ton. Then he took up Koortani, an' got switched to Susie Penton as kep' the "Bushman's Joy" over at Pine Ridge. Ay, ay, I mind him well. Hard ole nut he was. But, from all I can hear, it's close up a cooey with the station.'
'Cheques are all right, Dickson,' I said presently, 'except this one of William Flett's. Account's overdrawn here. However, it's on the New Guinea branch at Bundarubba. There may be enough to meet it. Better take it to Mr Mayhew and see. I can't touch it.'
'Well, blow my Moses!' exclaimed the old man, in huge disgust. 'Now, I wonder who rung that thing in to me, knowin' my eyes is gettin' cronk? Well, well! it's only thirty bob, so it won't make nor break me. Catch me takin' paper o' Bill Flett's if I'd knowed it. Not much! Why, even in his bes' days you couldn't trust ole Pablo, an' his son's a dashed sight slipperier!'
'Pablo!' I exclaimed. 'Why, that's a foreign name—Spanish or Portuguese?'
'Well,' replied old Dickson grumpily as I handed him his deposit receipt, 'wasn't ole Flett a furriner? A Spanisher, or a Maltee, or a Carthelic, or somethin' I forgits what now. An' his proper name wasn't Flett neither, but Valetto. Then in time they shortens it same as it is now. Can't ye see the furrin blood in the children? That there Bill's mean enough to skin a flea for the sake o' the taller. But the gal ain't bad-'earted. There's no traveller ever leaves the station wantin' a bit o' ration when Miss Esther's about. Well, I mus' be gittin'. Got to push on to Cubby to-night. So long, mister.'
'Yes,' the sergeant said, 'I expect it's safe enough. The district's a quiet one; and even if anybody knew, they wouldn't be likely to meddle. Still, if I were you, I'd feel more comfortable if somebody was in charge —say Mr Rolleston, now? Of course Cat-eyed Jim's right as rain. So are all the drivers on the line. And'—
'I've got to obey orders, sergeant,' I replied, 'exactly the same as yourself. Only my bosses are stricter, if anything, than yours. I confess I'd be easier in my mind if there was a man with the money. But the people below say expressly to book as ordinary merchandise through Cobb & Co.'s agent. So there you are! I'll just put the stuff in a couple of boxes—two thousand five hundred pounds in each—and send them away. As it came safely, so it may return.'
Some weeks after Esther Flett's visit the sum of five thousand pounds had arrived from the capital in anticipation of a contingency that never came off. I am writing of the time of the '93 banking troubles. During these a run was fully expected by the parent bank and its country branches—fortunately very few in number compared with some of the others. Therefore, all precautions had been taken to provide against such an event. But although the public rushed other and larger banks, they never once troubled that of New Carpentaria. Now, so much specie being unnecessary, in addition to the rather large sum in hand for gold buying, I was about returning my share of the defence fund to headquarters. Hence my talk with Sergeant Devine on the veranda of the 'Imperial.' Besides myself, the sergeant, of course Rolleston, and, at the last minute, Cobb & Co.'s agent, I was perfectly certain that no one knew the gold was to be despatched. On the boxes were merely the letters 'B.N.C.' in black paint; and in the way-bill was an item, 'Bank of New Carpentaria, Brisbane; two packages.'
As at ten o'clock one dark night the coach stopped opposite our shanty, and Rolleston and I carried the boxes out and stowed them away in the body of the vehicle under a mass of mail-bags and parcels, Cat-eyed Jim—so called from his supposed ability to see in the dark—chuckled, and remarked from the box-seat that he'd 'take 'em for his year's little cheque, strike him bandy if he wouldn't;' whilst a Chinese, the only passenger inside, grunted and swore as the corner of one dropped on his toe.
In another minute the whip cracked and the four fresh horses plunged away with the mass of steel springs, hickory, and leather that went to make up the Royal Mail, as if it were a feather-weight behind them.
Of Miss Flett I had of late seen nothing, for she seldom came into the township. Her brother, however, had often been at the 'Imperial'—a tall, awkward, knock-kneed fellow, swarthy as a gipsy, and even in his cups dour and sullen. But with it all there was a look of his sister about him, especially in eyes and scowl. I never spoke to him, and on his part he seemed anxious, if anything, to avoid me. Nor was ever any reference made to that errand of his sister's. Rolleston, I was sorry to notice, continued his visits to Koortani. But of course, beyond a certain limit, my authority carried no weight with him. In his own time he was able to do as he pleased. And I was grieved to perceive that every minute he could spare was passed at the station which, only a couple of miles from the township, was so easy of access, well supplied as he was with horseflesh by the Fletts. Of late Charlie had changed from the light-hearted, cheerful lad of former days into a morose, gloomy-tempered one, whose rare laughter sounded forced and unreal. He grew thin, too, and all the bright colour forsook his cheeks; he lost his appetite, and, as I could plainly hear, moaned and babbled in his sleep.
'The first calf-love,' said Devine, one of the few men with whom I enjoyed a chat. 'Takes 'em all so. It's like prickly heat—throw cold water on it and it'll itch the more. Best way to let it run its course. The young woman up there's only playing with him. It's her nature to. Last time she had the manager. No go this shot—eh? So took second best.' And the sergeant laughed and darted a quizzical glance at me as we sat smoking in his quarters.
The third morning after the departure of the mail I was awakened by some one pounding heavily on the door of the bank. Rising and unlocking it, I saw the sergeant, his eyes sparkling with excitement as he exclaimed, 'Mr Chesney, the coach has been bailed up and all the money stolen!'
For a minute I thought he was joking. But a second look at his earnest face undeceived me. Hurriedly dressing, I followed Devine over to the 'Imperial,' where at a table sat Cat-eyed Jim, very pale and worn, eating ravenously; whilst about the room and doors, early as it was, clustered Mooroobin—man, woman, and child—black, white, and yellow.
'Now,' said the sergeant as at last Jim, with a sigh of repletion, leant back in his chair, 'let's hear all about it.'
'Well,' said Jim, leisurely shredding tobacco into his palm as he spoke, 'you know since the company shifted the stage it's a good thirty mile from 'ere to Deep Crick. Howsomever, I gits to the Crick about 'arf-past three. It were a fine night enough; an' I whips my 'orses up the steep bank outer the dry gully, when, jest as I gits to the top an' stands for a spell on the cleared line, a 'orseman comes outer the scrub to the right 'and an' shouts, "Bail up, or I'll blow a 'ole through ye!"
'"Oh," sez I, larfin', an' thinkin' it was one o' the blokes from the stage lookin' fer 'orses, "shut yer silly mouth; do, an' don't go actin' the goat at this time o' night." Well, I 'adn't 'ardly spoke when bang goes a pistol, an' ping goes a bullet jest parst my ear'ole. Well, a joke's a joke; but yer knows, sargint, as there's a meejum.'
Pausing at this, the cat-eyed one commenced to deliberately fill an old briar pipe whose bowl bore signs, in charred and ragged edges, of many a windy night. I was writhing with impatience.
But the sergeant, touching me on the shoulder, said, 'Give the beggar rope or he'll turn dog on us and sulk like a Jew lizard. I know him. He's had a pretty tough length to split, too, these last twenty-four hours. Patience!'
Amongst the crowd at the door I could see Rolleston's white face peering with eager, haggard eyes. Over all their heads the flaming sun rested on the top of a clump of silvery brigalows somewhat higher than their fellows, and shot hot beams across on the iron roofs; the hum of early legions of flies filled the room, foul with overnight fumes of rum and tobacco; on the veranda squatted a dozen black fellows with their gins, stolid and speechless except for an occasional grunt of 'Gib it bacca?' 'Gib it chillin'?' It was only 5 A.M., but I knew that the mercury was rapidly climbing up the nineties, for already the crowd was sweating freely, and glasses were beginning to chink and clatter in the adjoining bar. But at last Jim got his pipe in going order, and resumed:
'Well, as I sez, there's a meejum. An' two quid a week don't run to bullet-'oles. So when I sees another 'orseman ride outer the scrub an' collar the leaders, I chucks it, an' ups with my 'ands. Inside I hears John Chinaman screechin' like a bloomin' 'possum as the fust feller hauls 'im out an' ties 'im up like a killin' wether. Meantimes, t'other feller's got the 'arness off o' them 'orses quick an' lively, an turned 'em loose inter the scrub.
'"Come down outer that, driver!" is the nex' performance. Down I comes. It's dark o' course. But it ain't so dark but what I kin see they've got thick black veils on, an' that one o' their 'orses 'as four big white stockin's. John's a-grumblin' an' cursin' like billy-ho, an' one o' the chaps fetches 'im a wipe over the nut that quietens 'im. Then they ties my 'ands —soaked green 'ide strips, all nice an' ready— marches me away inter the scrub, an' lashes me up 'ard an' fast to a saplin'.
'"If it's the mails yer after," I sez, "take what yer want, but don't destroy nothin'. That'll make it all the easier fer ye bimebye when ye gits yer fifteen stretch fer rob'ry hunder harms."
'"Shut up, ye cat-eyed cow!" sez one perlitely, "or Cobb & Co. 'll 'ave a drivin' vacancy."
'So I shuts up. Then they marches John off inter the scrub on t'other side o' the road, drags the coach outer sight, an' presently I 'ears 'em go tramplin' off down the bed o' the crick.
'Well,' continued Jim after tossing off a tumbler of rum and water, 'arter a bit I starts cooeein' like anythin', an' John he answers from t'other side. An' I thinks, "Surely somebody mus' come along presen'ly an' 'ear the shivoo the pair of us is makin'." But you knows traffic is scarce this time o' the year, an' I got that 'oarse I 'ad to give in at last. Likewise the greenhide ties begins to dry and shrink an' cut like blazes. All that night an' nex' day till sundown we was there till Bill an' Joe from the changin'-stage, gettin' scared at no mail a-comin', started out to look fer 'er, an' picks up 'er tracks; an', a bit arter, 'ears John a-singin', off his 'ead. Presen'ly they 'ears me likewise a-ravin', bein' pretty bad with the 'eat an' the cuttin' o' them 'ide strips. 'Owever, arter a drink o' water an' a mouthful o' johnnycake, I soon bucks up to the mark, an' leavin' John to go on to the change-hut, I gits Bill's 'orse 'an comes along 'ere like thunder. The mails ain't touched, ne'er a bag of 'em. All that was took is Mr Chesney's two boxes. Enuff, too, I 'speck!'
'Evidently they knew you, Jim,' remarked the sergeant, motioning for silence as a babble of comments and guesses broke out amongst the crowd when those inside retired and related what they had heard. 'Are you sure you didn't recognise either of the fellows—their voices, now?'
'Couldn't swear to neither of 'em,' replied the driver. 'An' as fer their voices, why, they didn't talk much, an' then they mumbled and muttered like as they 'ad the toothache awful bad.'
Half-an-hour after listening to Jim's story, the sergeant, myself, and Boney the black tracker were cantering along towards Deep Creek.
'What's the weight of five thousand sovereigns, Mr Chesney?' asked the sergeant as we sped through the bush, following Boney, in short cuts that took miles and miles off the distance.
'About as much as one man could carry, and give him all he knew how,' I replied.
'Umph!' said the sergeant, relapsing into silence, and evidently thinking hard.
Landscape there is none in far-western Queensland—only a monotony in greens, differing in shade from the silvery-sage of the brigalow to the deep, dull hue of yarran and mulga, with an occasional brighter glimpse of drooping wilga or lightwood. At times across the track taken by Boney on his old flea-bitten grey, a mob of kangaroos would go thud-thudding, or a flock of emus waddle swiftly with outstretched necks and quivering bodies; whilst now and again a score of white tags would flash out of sight as we disturbed a colony of rabbits feeding on some sandhill. At times we travelled over miles of lignum swamps, rough and honeycombed with holes out of which grew thick clumps of wiry polygonum, whose tender tops, when green, stock are fond of; then for miles again our course lay through scrub. Umbrella-mulga and the evil-smelling gidyea, with its yellow blossoms; feathery brigalow; an occasional leopard-tree; emu, cotton, and budda bushes with leaves of deep green, shining as if newly lacquered; willow-like wilgas and spiny needle-woods, together with dozens of minutely-flowered shrubs, mostly bearing blossoms of a white and lilac colour, that no botanist has yet named. Squatter pigeons whirred like rockets from the seeding brigalows; thousands of pink-breasted galahs rose from the nardoo patches to the sound of our horses' hoofs thumping on the sandy soil. And always above us the hot sun and blue sky; ever to right and left, ahead and behind, the monotony of greens.
'You're certain, Mr Chesney,' asked the sergeant, breaking silence after his long spell of thinking, 'that nobody except us three—yourself, I, and Mr Rolleston—knew that the gold was to leave at any particular time—say a day or so before it was actually put in the coach?'
'Positively certain,' I replied.
'Umph!' muttered the sergeant once more.
All at once with a quick wheel Boney bore to the left through a clump of hop-bush, and, before we knew it, we cantered out into the main road. Then, descending and ascending the banks of a dry creek, in another minute or so we were at the scene of the 'sticking up,' with the black fellow off his horse and nosing about like a hound at fault. At fault, decidedly; for though he could show us where the bushrangers had waited on their horses till they heard the mail coming, he could do no more. There were tracks in every direction around where the released coach-horses had fed on the scanty tussocks and then wandered down the creek-bed, probably looking for water after their heavy stage.
'Baal mine tink it find that pfeller,' said Boney after circling about for an hour or so. 'Too much yarraman tinna [horses' feet] alonga this country.'
Certainly Boney was not the black tracker of fiction, able to run a lizard's trail over a mile of rocks at a full canter! At the changing-place—merely a rough log hut, rougher stable, and a small paddock—whither we presently rode, we found only the Chinese and Bill, one of the grooms, whose mate, Joe, had gone on with the coach.
The former was quite recovered, and showed us with pride and exultation a ten-pound note, half-chewed, which at the first alarm he had stuffed into his mouth. But to all Devine's inquiries as to his having recognised the men it was simply, 'No savee.'
And yet it was from 'John' that the sergeant obtained the clue that led to the final discovery and its accompanying tragedy. As, after a rough meal, we were about to depart, I saw him beckon the sergeant, and, with a grin on his lemon-coloured visage, whisper something in his ear, to which Devine only answered severely, 'Rot, John! You've been dreaming. D'ye take me for a new chum?' At which John only grinned the more, and blandly remarked, 'All li! You no b'lieve me. You tink Ah Kee fool—eh?'
And I noticed that the sergeant bothered about no more tracking, but whistled and talked and chatted in a way that bothered me not a little, full of concern as I was, and anxious to be doing something towards finding the lost money. Half-way to Mooroobin, Devine and the tracker struck off across country towards a mining township lately sprung up some forty miles distant, leaving me to jog home alone and in a very bad temper.
Of course I was not to blame, for I had executed my instructions to the letter. And amongst bank servants, as with seamen, it is a pretty safe maxim to 'obey orders if you break owners.' Still, I knew—none better—that, although my superiors said never a word, the business was very far from conducive to promotion, and the consequent possession of the only girl in the world.
Since the days of the 'Kelly Gang' it was the most important haul of the kind—indeed, almost the only one—and therefore made some noise in the colony. The Bank of New Carpentaria offered one hundred pounds reward; the Government followed suit with a similar amount. But the robbers had disappeared utterly. Nor in the whole district could any horse be found carrying four white stockings. And if Devine suspected anything, he kept his own counsel very closely.
Matters presently became more complicated. Mayhew, the manager of the New Guinea branch at Bundarubba, rode across one Saturday to condole with me on my ill fortune. At least that was his ostensible mission; but in reality he was only too pleased to get a chance of crowing over one of the opposition men, and one, too, who had diverted a lot of business from his bank to the Bank of New Carpentaria. However, I received him hospitably, and listened with the best patience I could whilst he laid down the law as to the safe conveyance of specie, and remarked that in the course of a similar New Guinea transaction such a loss would have been impossible, all its officers being allowed a free hand in taking any precaution they might think fit.
'Why,' said he, 'I've got three thousand pounds in gold now at home that I am going to send down next week. But, you bet! M'Grath and a loaded "colt" rides with it in the coach. Indeed, I don't know that, now, after your affair, Chesney, I won't apply for an escort.'
When, however, poor Mayhew reached Bundarubba next day he found his accountant, M'Grath, strapped to his bed, blindfolded and nearly dead from suffocation by gagging with a towel. Also, the safe had been opened and looted bare of every coin it contained.
Late on Saturday night, it appeared, Mr M'Grath, while reading in bed, heard a horse stamping outside on the veranda, as at times stray ones would do, seeking refuge from mosquitoes. As he opened the door to drive the intruder away, two masked men had rushed in, and in five minutes had him fixed up very snugly. The building stood well back from the street, and was nearly hidden by trees, so there was no fear of the robbers being disturbed by the occupants of any of the straggling residences around.
As to the men, M'Grath could give positively no information whatever. The whole affair was so sudden that, as he expressed it, 'Be jakers! it was all over in a flash—so it was. An' me lyin' trussed up nate loike a turkey at Christmas-toime.'
Then for a while the district fairly swarmed with police and trackers, who scoured the scrub for miles around. But they found nothing except the visionary 'clues to the perpetrators of the daring outrage' that the metropolitan papers credited them with.
About this time I received a second visit from Esther Flett. Of late we had been buying a fair quantity of gold; and even as she entered the bank young Rolleston was busy weighing a parcel that had just come in. He looked up as she walked over to the counter, and I caught the swift, alluring, passionate glance she shot at him out of her splendid eyes, and noticed how the lad's colour came and went, and heard the delicate scales chink in his trembling hands. But the woman was a born actress, and the next minute she was speaking to me in the quiet, subdued voice of a client aware of being deeply on the wrong side of the ledger.
'My brother is unwell, Mr Chesney,' she said, with a deprecating little smile and downcast eyes, 'and as we are thinking of putting Koortani in the market and leaving the district, he asked me to call and ascertain the total amount of our liabilities with your bank. Of course,' she added hurriedly, 'we should be quite unable to redeem the whole of the original mortgage. Still, the sale ought to enable us to pay the greater part of it, together with the interest up to date.'
Now, I was very angry at the manner in which she had snared, and, as I was only too certain, was playing with Charlie, solely, I thought, for her own amusement, and nothing more serious. Thus there was perhaps a spice of exultation in my voice as I replied, 'I am afraid, Miss Flett, that, with respect to Koortani, the time for entertaining terms from its owners has long gone by. Indeed, I have quite lately received advices from headquarters intimating the directors' intention of presently taking over the station and installing a manager of their own.'
I had expected, and perhaps rather wished, to provoke an outburst with this bit of information. But, to my surprise, she only laughed carelessly, and looking me full in the face, replied quietly, 'Dear me! How kind of them! Well, then, I suppose the sooner we start for Western Australia the better, if you are going to put a bailiff in. Nor need we trouble about liabilities now. Many thanks, Mr Chesney. I was sorry to hear of your misfortune. I hope you haven't debited that to the Koortani account! Good-morning to you.—Au revoir, Mr Rolleston,' she continued, crossing over and shaking hands with Charlie. 'Will would like to see you at the station to-morrow, and will send a horse in. You know we may not have many more chances of meeting if the bailiff is so soon to arrive.' And, giving me a parting nod of indifference, she glided out, followed by Charlie, who put her on her horse and stood talking for a few minutes.
'Was that a fact about the bank taking over the station?' he asked as he returned.
'Of course it was,' I replied gruffly. 'Do you think I would be likely to joke on such matters?'
'I'm sick and tired of this business,' he replied irrelevantly. 'I'm going to sling it. I'll send in my resignation next week.'
'Yes, do,' I said angrily, 'and follow the family to Western Australia. Don't be so silly, Charlie,' I continued in a softer voice, for the sight of the boy's face drawn with grief distressed me more than I cared to show. 'Are you going to ruin yourself utterly for the sake of a woman like that?'
'I won't hear a word against her, Mr Chesney!' he exclaimed, stiffening defiantly. 'She's an angel, and I'd follow her all over the world. What I've done has been for her sake, and of my own free will.'
'Well, I don't see that you've done very much except make a fool of yourself,' I replied dryly. 'Better go back to your work.'
The next evening Devine strolled in.
'I suppose,' he remarked after some talk, 'that you'll be sending gold away soon. I've noticed you've been buying pretty freely of late. And if so, I wish you'd do me a favour.'
'Yes,' I replied, 'I have a parcel ready now, as far as that goes. And this time I'll see that it gets to the railway in safety, anyhow. But what's the favour?'
'Well,' replied the sergeant, 'I wish you not to let a soul know about the matter except myself and—oh yes, of course, Mr Rolleston. Fact is,' continued Devine, 'I've got an idea, and perhaps if you'll help me to work it out, between us we may chance to recover that five thousand pounds. You'd not object to that, would you?'
'Indeed I wouldn't,' I replied. 'But this idea, now?'
'Well,' he went on, slowly puffing at his cigar, 'I'd rather not tell you the whole theory I'm building on, if you don't mind. It's a sort of trap, in fact. Probably it may fail. Still, you can help me to bait it. The coach comes through on Saturday night, under the altered table. Well, we can put the gold on board, and you'd better come yourself. Oh yes, and Mr Rolleston also. There might be some fun. Steele, my trooper, is back from Trycutta, and we'll leave him in charge of the bank. So that'll be safe enough. I've been waiting patiently for this chance, and meanwhile allowing others to try their luck. I don't promise, mind, to restore the lost money, but if you'll follow my lead I think there'll be a bit of a show.'
'Very well,' I replied after a few minutes' thought. 'It's a responsibility on my part— leaving the bank, I mean. But I'll chance it. It can't hurt me more than the first mull. But why bring Rolleston?'
'Well, you see,' said Devine in a preoccupied sort of way, slowly, and as if searching for a reason, 'he's young, and the experience may be of use to him in the future.'
'Oh, very well,' I made answer; 'please yourself.' All the same, I couldn't just then see the force of his reasoning as regarded Charlie. And Devine pressed the point, too. 'The youngster,' said he as he turned to leave, 'may not be willing to come. But, remember, I depend on you to see that he does. You need not say that I shall be with you; indeed, I don't mean to show up till the coach reaches the bridge. Bring your pistol. Of course I'll see that there are no other passengers. However, don't forget it's only an experiment.'
Next day, as Charlie and I packed the gold—nearly five hundred ounces—I mentioned that I had decided not only to go myself, but to take him also; and, far from showing any unwillingness, I thought from his manner that he rather enjoyed the idea of the trip. In the evening he asked and obtained permission to ride out to Koortani, as he would be unable to go there on the following Saturday.
'I hope we shan't be stopped this time, anyhow,' he remarked as we drove the last nails and painted the 'B.N.C.' on the cover of the box. 'I expect I had better bring my sixshooter, though, in case of an accident.'
The driver of the mails this night was a stranger, Cat-eye being on a fine and long-sustained spree at Bundarubba and various bush 'pubs.', where callers 'shouted' willingly and often for the hero of the 'sticking-up at Deep Creek.'
At the approach to the long, white, wooden bridge that crosses the Mooroo, and that nobody ever uses except in those infrequent years when, fed by flood-waters from the wide flats, the dry gully assumes for a brief while the size and rolling volume of a great river, the mail drew up, and, with a word to the driver, Devine sprang to the box-seat, whilst the coach, turning off, lumbered down the steep bank and up the other side. Almost any bush whip prefers earth under his horses' feet to planking.
'Another passenger,' remarked Rolleston, peering out into the darkness, dimly lit by a second-quarter moon.
'Good-night!' called the sergeant from under the leathern hood. 'I'm going a bit of the way with you—just for company.'
'Police protection,' laughed Charlie back again. 'No need this time. I'll bet you a new hat on it!'
'Are you certain?' asked the sergeant sharply, turning to where the pair of us sprawled amongst a litter of mail-bags, boxes, and parcels.
'How could I be?' replied Rolleston, with, I thought, a defiant note in his voice. 'And, anyhow, it's nice to have you, you know, sergeant.'
'Umph!' grunted Devine discontentedly, and said no more. The coach lamps shed a splash of yellow on either side, falling now on some wheel-grazing tree-trunk, now on a bare patch; then for miles together thrusting vainly into solid masses of black scrub that seemed to stand up in the night like built walls. The leather curtains were looped up all around, for the air was full of heat, as, in spite of the nest of springs underneath us, we banged and jolted and bumped over ruts and ridgy swamps hard as road metal with twelve months of drought. At times we plunged into soft sand, and then the noise of our progress deadened; you could hear how still and calm the night was, broken only by the driver's hiss and cluck of encouragement, or the sharp crack of his whip and the admonition to 'Git up, Jerry! Whitefoot, up! Star! Plover! Git hup!'
Bump, bump, swing, swing, jerk; sixteen ironshod hoofs beating out a rough tune to an accompaniment of wild lurches and swayings, and slipping of stiff limbs braced against slippery cushions. Then suddenly I awoke from a restless, comfortless doze to the sound of the grating, hissing brakes as the coach took an almost perpendicular position, and the horses, backed into their breechings, slowed down to a walk.
'Deep Creek at last, thank goodness!' I muttered.—'We'll have a snack and a stretch presently, Charlie.'
'I'm ready for both,' he replied sleepily, gathering himself up from the bottom of the coach.
Looking out, I saw that the little moon must have long set; but the stars gave a faint light. Panting and straining, the horses were breasting the thirty-foot bank at the top of which, according to custom, was their five minutes' resting-place.
'S-s-s-s! Plover! Star! Tchk! tchk! Jerry! Together now, my beauties!' and with one mighty drag the coach stood on level ground again.
'Come along, sergeant,' I called to his back on the box-seat. 'I think it's a fair thing for a taste of "John Walker."'
Following on my words like an echo came a sharp, stern order from ahead of 'Bail up, there! Up with your hands! Quick!'
Then, on top of the driver's oath of dismay and astonishment as he raised his whip, I saw a streak of flame spurt out of the scrub and heard the report of a shot, followed instantly by two more from the box that made the startled horses plunge and rear all of a heap in their traces. Then Charlie, with a cry that came to my ears like a death-wail from the intense misery of it, leapt clean over the half-door. Across this I also scrambled the next minute to find him supporting a body in his arms, covering its face with kisses, and moaning, 'Oh Hetty! Hetty! And you promised you wouldn't—you promised you wouldn't!'
Close by stood the sergeant silently surveying the scene, his smoking revolver in one hand and his left arm hanging down in a curiously limp fashion.
'Will you please bring me one of the lamps, Mr Chesney?' he said, striving, as I could hear, to speak calmly. 'My arm is broken, and I wish to see who did it.'
'Oh Charlie!' exclaimed a voice that made me jump again as the light fell full on a beautiful pain-racked face and great staring black eyes, 'Oh Charlie, I'm dying! It serves me right, too! But you—poor lad! No, never mind; it's no use,' as with frantic fingers he strove to unbutton the vest at a spot that showed already a big purple stain. 'Poor lad! poor lad!' she repeated as, putting up a hand, she gently stroked his cheek; 'I've ruined you, Charlie dear, and broken my promise—and I die.'
Her broad felt hat with a fringe of crape attached had fallen off, and a great mass of hair flowed in black waves over the lad's knees as he knelt supporting her head and shoulders, a world of agony in his smooth young face finding expression only in little inarticulate moans and choking noises—a spectacle that stirred my soul to tears as I turned aside.
Presently the sergeant spoke for the first time.
'Ask her where the money is, Mr Rolleston,' he said in low, cold tones, 'before it's too late.'
But Charlie never heeded. Esther, however, heard him, and, opening her eyes, made an effort to raise herself, saying as she glanced around, and with a faint return of her old manner, 'Why, it's Sergeant Devine! And the obliging Mr Chesney too! I never thought, sergeant, you could shoot so straight. Have you done for my brother also?'
'I think he got my second bullet,' replied Devine calmly. 'But he's not in sight just now. I'm sorry I shot you, Miss Flett. Still, you know, men and women dressed alike are much the same in the dark. If you are badly hurt—which I hope isn't the case—wouldn't it be as well to tell Mr Chesney where the money you stole last month is planted?'
For answer she looked up into the sergeant's hard set face with a mocking little smile on her own, from which, every now and then, Charlie so tenderly wiped the death-sweat. Then, as she half-turned and saw me kneeling, gazing at her with God knows what emotions of sorrow and pity and regret at work within me, and showing in my eyes, her hand feebly sought mine; and, obedient to a look, I knelt still lower and put my ear to her mouth, just catching a faint whisper of 'Under the big stone in the Koortani dining-room fireplace. Good-bye! Be good to poor Charlie.'
Then a convulsive tremor shook her frame, her head sank back again in the lad's arms, and a wild and wayward soul fluttered forth into the warm, close night.
'She's gone, Charlie, poor old chap!' I said as I spread a handkerchief over the calm white features and took the weight of the body out of his arms.
'Gone!' he replied vacantly as, without resistance, he gave way to me and rose to his feet. 'Gone!' he repeated. 'Then I'll follow her.'
As he spoke he snatched the sergeant's revolver from his hand, clapped it to his head, and the next minute fell dead across the corpse of Esther Flett.
As the sergeant and I stood there, stunned at this fresh tragedy, the driver, who had sat all the time like a statue, uttering a cry of horror, brought the whip down on his horses and galloped away from us, never halting till he covered the five miles to the changing-stage, where he told such a tale as sent the two grooms racing thence along the road to look for us. And, that nothing should be wanting to complete the sad business, on the next morning the trackers found William Flett lying wounded to death a mile or two down the creek-bed, his horse feeding near him, and another one caught in a bush by his bridle not far away. This last was Esther's favourite, Nero; and around his legs were sewn four stockings of white stuff so neatly and closely as at night to simulate well enough such natural markings.
Under the great hearthstone at Koortani we found not only the money belonging to my own bank, but also that of the New Guinea people—every sovereign of it.
Since that time, however, the B.N.C. has never had a branch at Mooroobin. Not a man in the service but would sooner leave at a minute's notice than attempt to take charge of one.
I went there once after I was married; and before I left I visited the three graves that stand side by side in the open at the back of the township, fenced from straying goats and sheltered from the scorching heat by a clump of drooping wilgas that Devine, with much care and trouble, planted and fostered.
He is an inspector now, and long ago transferred to the capital; and frequently when I meet him we have a chat over old times. But of that midnight tragedy at Deep Creek we never speak. Once only I asked him a question.
'You remember the Chinaman?' he replied. 'Yes? Well, when he whispered to me that day at the thirty-five-mile stage he said, "One feller no man. One allee same girlee. Me feel the ling on fingah while she tie lope." The rest, of course, was simple guess-work. God knows I was sorry enough that it turned out so badly! I'd ha' cheerfully gone without a braided jacket if some other body had done the shooting. Still—well, you know,' he concluded after a long pause, 'perhaps it was better so for the three of them.'
And perhaps it was.
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