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Title: Short Stories Volume 4 Author: John Arthur Barry * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1305571h.html Language: English Date first posted: September 2013 Most recent update: September 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 Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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The Tale of a Tomahawk
The Two Maritana Miracles
The New Manager
Until the Time Appointed
Told by a Trader
John Hall Master Mariner & Millionaire
A Mid-Sea Meeting
The Quest of Yar Khan
Of the Luck that Laura Brought
How Law and Order Came to Bandarooba
Waajil, in the Central Division of the Colony of Carpentaria, was known throughout the length and breadth of the district as a "hard" station. And by common consent, the nomadic population of the bush had tacked the opprobious adjective "hungry" on to its owner's name. "Hungry Morgan of Waajil" was how he was invariably spoken of, not only by the wandering swagmen whom stern necessity drove to his station, but by his neighbors, with whom he was almost as unpopular.
His father had purchased Waajil with money made on Gympie diggings, and in the course of years formed it into a very fine property, hard drinking, hard swearing, hard riding scamp though he was. Nor could anyone hint at his possession of that cardinal sin of the bush—meanness. "Black Morgan" his men had called him; and whilst they feared his appalling temper and the long lash of the big stockwhip with which in his fits of anger he practiced upon them, still they knew that he would sooner die than defraud them out of a penny they were entitled to. And his rage over, he was always ready to pay liberally for his "fun." Also, he fed his men well; and Waajil for many years bore the reputation of being, if a bit rough, still a place one could live on.
But when the old man, full of years and rum, was carried to the station burying-ground and planted under the shady wilgas, and Mathew, his son, came down from the little cattle station on the Gulf that his father had given him as a start in life, and took charge of Waajil, there were changes with a vengeance. All the old hands were dismissed; wages lowered 25 per cent, rations cut down to the lowest possible point, and bought of the very worst quality. The "ten, ten, two and a quarter" of the old regime, with in reality "the run of your knife," so far as meat was concerned, gave way to an allowance that left the men perpetually hungry. Also the new Morgan sacked the cook, so that everybody had to "do" for themselves. For there were men found to work under such conditions— wastrels of the bush, who would stay for just time sufficient to recover from some drunken spree, and then shoulder their swags and off again on the wallaby.
And Mathew Morgan, now a dark, dour man of seven and thirty, mercilessly worked the material at his command, poor as it was, and tried very hard to get the value of his miserable wages and starvation rations out of it. The great bell rang o' mornings long before the eastern sky showed the slightest streak of grey; and in the dark shivering figures emerged from the wretched hut, known by courtesy as the "men's quarters," and straggled about picking up wood to boil their quart-pots with, whilst many of them, too tired the night before to bake johnny cake or damper for the morning meal, simply turned over on their couches of gum leaves and slept till the second bell clanged at sunrise, and brought them out with axe, or hoe or bridle, as the case might be, to work at clearing, burr cutting, or drafting, at some distant sheep yards.
The overseers were of the class known as "working," great, coarse, strapping fellows, whom Morgan took care to feed and pay fairly well, inasmuch, as unable to be all over the run himself, he was forced to have someone to trust to as far as he allowed himself to trust any living creature.
Of course, there were men who got sick of the place in a day, and who, Australia being a free country, humped their swags away the next morning. There were others who, despite the driving and the short commons, remained some time, cursing the while the master who ground so much unaccustomed labor out of their unwilling hands. These, however, were generally men with whom adjoining squatters would have nothing to do at any price. And their surprise was great at the way Morgan and his overseers would succeed in knocking the sweat out of such wastrels upon whom good food and kind treatment only had the effect of making them lazy and saucy to boot.
As time went on, the better class of swagmen, knowing that it was utterly useless to think of obtaining food, shelter, or work there, gave Waajil a wide berth. But even then Morgan often happened to catch them on the run, across which he was accustomed to ride day and night. On one occasion he found a traveller camped in a river bed, evidently intent on a spell, whilst his horse was eating Waajil grass. Upon demanding the agistment shilling which he invariably extorted on such occasions, the trespasser said nothing, but turned his pocket inside out. He was a small, thin, active looking fellow, whose bare arms and breast showed unmistakenly the marks of his former profession in many tracings of red and blue ships, flags and anchors.
"Broke, eh?" remarked the squatter, with a sneer. "Well, then," he continued, picking up, as he spoke, a new tomahawk, that lay on the unopened pack, and little dreaming of the momentous issues that the fates had hung on that small axe, "I'll take this instead of the money."
"No, you don't, you mean hound," exclaimed the man, stepping forward as Morgan remounted, "how am I to get along without a tommy?"
"That's your business," replied the other, "you should have thought of that before you came stealing my grass."
"Why, you mus' be 'Ungry Morgan hisself," said the traveller, "there, ain't, another man in the colony'd do wot you jus' done. By the Lord, if they'd had you in some places I knows on they'd ride ye down like a Yankee main-tack. 'Ungry Morgan, yah!" and the man made a gesture of infinite disgust.
"No cheek, now," replied the squatter, frowning angrily, or, I'll drive your horse to the pound. Saddle up and clear off the run, and think yourself lucky."
"Well," said the other, catching up his bridle, and speaking with excessive and labored politeness, "you 'ave got the weather bulge on me at present, Mister Morgan, of Waajil. An' I don't expec' as I'll ever git the chance o' squarin' yards with you respectin' that there new tommy as you've hannexed. But if so be as I should—well, then, stand clear! So help me," he added, as the squatter rode off without taking any further notice of him, "if the grass was only a bit drier I'd have the worth o' that tommy out o' your blooming station. Well, of all the mean things I ever struck, that beats 'em clean."
Once, a year, when shearing was over, the owner of Waajil was accustomed to pay a visit to Endeavour, the capital of the colony, staying there some three or four weeks. Except to his agents, he was known to nobody in the city; and even they were ignorant of his address, all letters being forwarded to his private box at the G.P.O.
This particular season the clip had been a very fine and heavy one, and in place of selling locally, as usual, the agents had chartered an American sailing ship, which, amongst other produce, carried the Waajil wool to London.
"She takes it for less than any British bottom would do," explained the agent to Morgan, "and she'll be Home just in the nick o' time for the February sales. I thought it too good a chance to lose, and the Hoboken seems fast, and has just been surveyed, and pronounced tight and seaworthy."
Morgan nodded his head. "Only remember that I want a shilling," said he, as he turned to leave the office, "if Waajil wool ain't worth that much a pound, clean and bright and sound, without a break, it's worth nothing. Mind and mail that reserve Home now!"
"Blow him and his reserve," muttered Mr. Combing (of Combing, Locks, and Company). "I'd sooner do business with his old father fifty times over. He'd be satisfied with the market price. And take it, and have done with it, and stand 'cham,' on the strength of the sale, too. That chap thinks nobody else can grow wool but himself. He's sly and deep and mean as they make 'em is this one! Why, hang me, if he's ever offered me a drink since I've known him, and I remember him a boy at 'King's,' over yonder. I fancy, though, that he lets himself go when he's down here. Looked just now as if he's been out all night." and the stout old broker stared after the retreating form of his client with an eye of high disfavor. In those days they managed few business matters in Endeavour without the aid of copious libations.
* * * * * *
In the sailor town of Port Endeavour are dancing saloons frequented almost solely by seamen. In one of them, known as the Royal Sovereign, a recently paid-off crew were making things lively, careening over the long floor, each with his arm round a woman's waist. A couple of waiters from the adjoining bar handed incessant drinks, whilst a squeaky fiddle and jangling piano in one corner supplied the dancers with music. All were smoking, and many were drunk; the benches around the walls were crowded with sailors and women, who applauded the dancer's with polyglot cries of encouragement.
Every nation in the civilised world seemed represented. There were Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Italians, Spaniards, Britishers, Americans, and men of color ranging from Negroes and Kanakas to Lascars and Maories. The noise was deafening, a very bable of languages, through which the musicians, madly as they played, had hard work to make themselves heard.
Seated on one of the benches, with his arm around the waist of a rather pretty German girl, was a man in whom Mr. Combing would have been rather puzzled, indeed, to recognise his late visitor and client. Dressed in a suit of shiny serge slops, peaked cap, and crimean shirt, and drawing steadily at a short, black wooden pipe, was Mathew Morgan, the owner of Waajil, who, of all places, had chosen Sailor Town in which to "let himself go." At his feet were two large pewter pots full of ale, from which he and his partner helped themselves freely. At a glance it could he seen that he was in his element. He, usually so grim and silent among his men, with nothing but black looks for the best of them, was here babbling in talk to the girl beside him. His gestures were animated, and he laughed often. It was just such a scene and place as his father would have loved to disport himself in. Only the old digger would have been throwing his money about with the most spendthrift of the homeward bounders. His son showed not the slightest disposition that way. Indeed, his drinks had been "shouted" for him and his companion.
Presently there was a fresh inrush of seafarers, and one of them, after a while, drifted to a vacant seat near the squatter. For a time he did not notice him. Then, happening to turn, his eye fell on the couple. Morgan had now the girl on his knee, and was talking and laughing away at a great rate. Staring as if unable to credit his eyesight, the man leaned over and listened.
"Me no sailor?" The squatter was saying, imitating his companion's broken English. "How do you know?"
"Look at hands," replied the other jeeringly, as she pointed to his brown, but soft and evidently well, kept, ones. "No tar touch them," she continued, "No fear, you no sailor man."
"What am I, then, since you are so dashed knowing?" asked the other.
"Oh, some bushy or other, I 'spect," replied the girl carelessly, "come to town for a spree down. Now you shout," and she pointed significantly to her empty pot.
But the squatter promptly declined. "I've been ashore too long," said he, "and I'm stone-broke. To-morrow night, perhaps, if I can raise the wind."
"You's a shyster," replied the girl, indignantly, jumping off his knee; "money you 'ave got! I felt it in your pocket 'ust now. You let other fellow shout, shout you so much as they like, and never offer one drink to nobody."
* * * * * *
"By the Holy Poker, that settles it," muttered the listener. "I was pretty certain of 'im afore. But now I'm dead sure. An' 'Amburg Anna there seized 'im to a T, she did! I guess I'm jest about seein' my way to get upsides with you now, Mister 'Ungry, for the trick you played me last year."
A few minutes more and he might have been seen deep in talk with the master of the house, a rascally looking Jew; and to their counsels was presently summoned "Hamburg Anna," who, a little later, went up to Morgan and asked him to have a dance with her. Later, much later, past midnight, in fact, and when all the people who were sober enough had gone to their homes and their ships, the Jew was serving drinks to the three in his own little parlor, a close stuffy den, the air of which, after a few minutes, seemed to make Morgan sleepy, for he all at once fell back on the frowsy sofa, breathing stertorously. The girl glanced at him with contempt, intensified as the Jew searched the insensible man's pockets and produced nearly two pounds in gold and silver, but no scrap of paper of any description.
"You mistake make; he no sailor," said she. "He no good on a ship."
"Oh, that's all right," replied the man, handing her one of Morgan's half sovereigns. "You keep your mouth shut. Now go home and go to bed."
Outside the night was close and hot. The moon had risen, showing, not a hundred yards away, the gleam of water and the rigging of tall ships lying at the wharves. The deep silence of the middle night was upon the port, broken only by the rattle of some distant steam winch on a vessel working overtime at discharging her cargo, or by the toot toot of a steamer's syren as she moved cautiously up the harbor to her berth from the open sea. And not a soul noticed the hand-cart that presently left the Royal Sovereign with a drunken seaman lying upon a new mattress, whilst near him gleamed those sure signs of the outward bounder—a new tin hook-pot and pint. The man who pushed the cart whistled the tune of "Shenandoah" as he went, whilst the one on the bed snored heavily.
When Mathew Morgan awoke, with a head like lead and a throat like a cat's tail, he found himself lying in what he thought for a minute was one of the bunks in the men's hut at Waajil; also, he imagined, that an earthquake was in progress. As he lay there in a half-comatose condition and stared at the swaying ceiling above him something crawled up his neck and cheek and balanced itself on his nose, something large and brown, with goggle-eyes, and long feelers that it protruded and withdrew in a tentative sort of manner, as if considering the wisdom of any further advance. It was only a big, harmless, inquisitive cockroach, but the man gave a yell and jumped up and shook himself, while the insect fell with a sounding flop on the floor and scuttled off in dismay.
At that moment a door opened, and there entered a tall, powerful man in dripping oilskins, sou'wester, and sea boots. Without a moment's pause he seized Morgan by the neck and propelled him with kicks many and severe out of the door and on to the deck of the ship, "There, you blasted lime-juice scowbanker," said he "I'll larn ye to skulk when it's all hands. Up ye gets now, an' on to that maintaups'l yard, or, by the 'tarnel, I'll break every bone in that fool carcase o' yourn."
It was blowing half a gale of wind and the crew were furling the fore and main upper topsails. But Morgan knew nothing of that. He only saw some men perched precariously on a lofty stick from which rolls of canvas banged in thunderous fury, as, with shouts of encouragement to each other, they tried to grasp and subdue them. Spindrift flew in sheets over the weather-rail, and at each dive the vessel gave a cataract of ice-cold water came surging up to his knees.
"Now then," roared the man, returning from the opposite side of the deck; "ain't ye up aloft yet, eh? What yer garpin' at?" And without more ado he hit Morgan in the face, knocking him head over heels into the water that seethed along the lee-scuppers.
The bath cleared the squatter's bewildered brain as nothing else could have done, and the sight of the blood; pouring from his nose roused the fighting instinct within him. So that, picking himself up, he flew furiously at his assailant. But he was weak from the effects of the drug given him, at the Royal Sovereign, and the footing was deceptive and uncertain. Thus, the struggle was short; and presently, bruised and bleeding, he was being dragged by one leg the whole length of the deck to where stood a man dressed in black watching another who moved a wheel to and fro. This much Morgan saw as he was pulled to his feet and heard his captor say, "A regular bully-boy this, cap'en. One of the rowdy dowdy packet rats, I guess. The new crowd seem pretty well smoothed down now, only fer him. Sez he ain't no sailorman. 'Spose he only come fer a picnic like, an' not fer keeps."
The captain, a tall man with hard, blue eyes, thin lips, and face clean-shaved but for a reddish goatee, looked at Morgan as he stood holding on to a backstay, bareheaded, his clothes torn, bleeding and soaked.
"If y'arnt a sailor, then, what are ye?" he asked.
"I'm a squatter, a sheep farmer," replied Morgan sullenly; and by G—d you shall smart for this kidnapping business before I've done with you. I'm worth forty thousand pounds and I'll spend it to the last farthing to have satisfaction."
"Who got him, Mr. Higlow?" asked the captain.
"I ain't sartain," replied the officer, "but I guess he's one of that lot that Sharky Isaacs picked up for us. You oughter know, Simms," and he turned to the man at the wheel. "Didn't the cap'en give you considerable of a free hand in this biz o' gittin' men?"
"Ay, ay, sir," replied Simms, " 'e were one ov 'em, right enuff. An' if 'e ain't no sailor it warn't my fault. What call'd 'e 'ave to be messin' round in a sailor's togs, an' carryin' on top ropes in a sailor's dance room?"
At that moment Morgan caught sight of the name "Hoboken" on a couple of lifebuoys that hung on the taffrail. "Why," he cried, "I'm d—d if this isn't the same ship that's taking my wool home—800 bales—W over M. The W's for Waajil, the name of the station, and the M for Morgan, my own. Ah, won't I make you smart for this. I tell you what," he shouted in his excitement; "this little bit of fun'll cost you dear! I'll have you all in gaol yet, and the value of your infernal ship won't pay my damages. Put back and bring me to Mr. Combing, my agent, and see what he's got to say about it!"
At the mention of the agent's name the captain's lank jaw dropped ever so slightly, and for a moment the possibility of a hideous mistake flashed across his mind. But a glance at the disreputable, object before him brought reassurance. Besides, if it should be a true bill, the sea was wide and deep, and London many thousand miles away.
"You're tonified some, stranger," he replied contemptuously. "But we've only your word for all this high falutin' sort of fairy story. If you're a rich farmer, what was ye doin' in that one-horse, low-down shanty, anyhow; an' rigged up, same as ye was, in imitation of a sailor? If ye had a witness now, or any writings to prove—"
"I'm almost sure that man knows me," interrupted Morgan, who had been staring at Simms with a look of puzzled recognition. "I can't place him, but, likely enough, he's been on my station."
"Gammon," surlily replied the helmsman, thus appealed to, "I seen you fust larst night at the Royal, a cuddlin' of 'Amburg Anna, as reg'lar a bloomin' shellback to look at as ever made a pier 'ead jump at Blackwall, or roared 'Aul out to lee'ard' a comin' down Channel in winter with a dirty stockin' roun' his neck. Garn!"
"I reckon that yarn o' yourn won't wash," remarked the captain at this. "It makes me tired, that squatter biz does! Now, you git, en' if we kin make a sailor o' you we'll allow to do a fair thing by you in wages. If we can't, why, then, you're dollars wasted, an' we'll take 'em out o' your hide. Git!"
"But I tell you—" Morgan shrieked, half beside himself with rage, then the big mate's relentless vice of a hand gripped his neck and shot him for'ard. Here he was introduced to the second officer, just down from aloft, who, saluting him with a curse, ordered him to tail on to the topsail halliards if he didn't want to feel as if he'd been struck by lightning. And Simms, watching from the wheel, muttered to himself, "That there tommy o' mine's gittin' paid for, arter all! By gum, though, e'll make it 'ot for some of us bimebye." Then, as his eye fell on the captain, also watching the shanghaied man, something told him that any eventuality of the kind would be amply provided against by one word from him.
And now began for the unfortunate squatter a very bitter experience indeed. Discovering that, unless he was a past master in the art of sham, he was, as he declared, utterly ignorant of the whole business, and did not in reality know one end of the ship from the other, the men, mostly a hybrid lot of scamps, made him their slave and butt. They nicknamed him "Forty," because of the ill-timed allusion to his money. And the man who, until now, had been a law only to himself, dared not even by a look protest against the indignities heaped upon him. The bread and water of affliction was his daily diet; clothed in the insufficient rags flung to him by his masters, he had to hold himself ready to jump at their slightest call, day and night; he never sat to eat until all were finished, thankful if they had left scraps enough to satisfy his hunger with.
Not all at once had his spirit been thus broken and his stiff back bent. It had taken weeks of ill-treatment before he recognised the futility of "bucking against odds," as his persecutors put it. But at last he gave in, content to await that revenge, thoughts of which kept him warm in the icy winds of the Southern Ocean that cut into his half clad frame like knives.
The captain never noticed him by word or look, but the two mates, each in his watch, hazed him remorselessly all day long—for, he never went below—whilst at night, if anything was wanted by a man, a slung sea boot fetched "Forty" out of his bunk to get it. But for the sweet hope of vengeance, the hell in which he lived must have proved too much for him.
The only Britisher in the crew was Simms; and as time passed he began to vaguely perceive that the price he had exacted was too high, and altogether out of proportion to the slight inconvenience he had been put to that day on Waajil. Also he knew, none better, that if the captain once began to think, or even entertain the least suspicion, that the kidnapped man's tale was true, Morgan's life would not be worth a minute's purchase; and then he, Simms, would be, to all intents and purposes, a murderer. Thus, presently, stirred with some feeling of compunction for the mischief he had worked, as far as he dared, he interposed between the unhappy squatter and his tormentors in the foc's'le.
But the men were a bad lot; incompetent, too; so, that, after their "bucko" officers had been pounding them on deck, they thought it only fair to take it out of "Forty" as much as possible when they got him below. Nevertheless, Morgan was grateful, and his heart warmed to the sailor as it had never done to any human creature yet except himself. And always that vague sense of their having met before haunted him. Like most men bred amongst stock, he had a good memory for faces, and had he been in his ordinary state of mind would, doubtless, have recalled the incident, and long ago told the captain everything, thereby, perhaps, at the same time convincing the American, and assuring his own doom.
But presently the end came.
* * * * * *
They had turned the Corner—rounded the Horn—and were making north about, when, one night, Morgan, who had been called up to trim the lamp in the mate's berth, heard a tremendous grinding crash amidships, the shock of which threw him on his knees. There was a fresh breeze blowing at the time, and as he staggered through the alley-way on to the deck, he stood helpless and bewildered, staring aghast at the scene of ruin and confusion that the light of the young moon disclosed. All the lofty heights of canvas and spars from the heads of the three lower masts up had fallen, some over the side, some inboard, while a huge mass bulked high half across the cut down Hoboken, which, even to his inexperienced eye, was sinking rapidly.
Almost by instinct he groped his way across the falling spars and gear to where the sharp stem of the steamer that had wrought the mischief was slowly backing out from the Hoboken's crushed and riven timbers, her siren shrieking wildly, lights springing up from both her sides, and hoarse orders and oaths sounding from her lofty decks.
All at once a man rushed up to him, shouting, "Is that you, Forty? I been lookin' all over the shop for you. Quick now! She's sinkin' like a stone! Can you swim? No! Well, I can. Come over this way. Now shove this belt on. I shook it outer one o' the saloon berths." Whilst speaking, Simms, for it was he, took the life belt off his own body, and put it around Morgan's. "Now," he went on, "foller me, and jump clear out as ye can, or she'll drag us down. Most of the chaps is under the wreckage. There's all your wool gone, sure pop! But, never mind, there's plenty more agrowing on the sheep's backs at Waajil. Don't you mind me now?" he continued, as he led his companion to the almost submerged rail, "I'm the chap as you took the tommyhawk from that day, camping in the paddock. An' there's no denyin' I've done you a d—— bad turn for it! All the same, I ain't agoin' to have you drowned into the bargain, if I can 'elp it. Now, jump like blazes arter me, an' then strike out and away from the ship. The steamer's boats 'ull sure to be round presently and pick us up. Well, so long, if we doesn't met again. Shake?" and to the query Morgan put out his hand and gripped the sailor's hand hard and in silence, and was glad for ever after that he had done so.
Of late he had begun to almost doubt his own identity; despair had taken firm hold on him and possessed his soul with a sort of sickening conviction that he was doomed to remain ever an outcast and a wanderer—a squalid and homeless servitor of other men. And here, face to face with death, came grateful recognition. As in a flash he remembered it all now, and could almost have laughed aloud, as the huge severity of the punishment he had endured was borne home to him—three months of hideous and brutal slavery for one act of petty meanness out of thousands. Still, to his own astonishment, he had forgiven the man who had worked him such woe. More, he was beginning to wonder if people were justified in calling him "Hungry" and a "nigger driver," and his station a "workhouse," as he had often heard they did. Hard and sharp he knew he was, and had been proud of the fact. But the experience of the past months had knocked all the pride out of him. He, too, latterly in the silent night watches had found time for some reflection and searching of heart, and he knew that he was a changed man—whether for better or worse he was not quite certain. And here he was, up to his chin in water, battling furiously with the waves that dashed at him and flung brine into his smarting eyes, and tried to get down his throat and choke him, and would quickly have made an exit of him but for the lifebelt that the other man had robbed himself of for him.
He had jumped just behind Simms, but could see no signs of him, or hear ought except the roaring of water as he struggled blindly ahead. Once he thought he heard a shriek of despair close to him, but the little moon gave so feeble a light as to be almost worse than none. Presently his arm struck a floating spar, and, dragging himself upon it, he stared around. At first, panting with exhaustion, and half blinded, he could make out nothing at all. Then he saw the steamer's lights, quite close by; also other lights dancing about. He shouted wildly, but the wind bore his voice away from what he was now certain must be boats searching for any survivors. Of the Hoboken herself he could see nothing. Presently he heard the shrill screaming of a siren, and gradually the lights made towards the steamer. She was recalling her boats. And as he realised this, and the bitterness of death, trebly accentuated by the nearness of help, seized upon him more forcibly than ever—he alternately wept, and raved, and prayed, and cursed.
"All right, mate," shouted a gruff voice all at once out of the gloom, "we're a comin'," and a boat pulled up from behind him, and he felt somebody grab hold of him and drag him off his spar, and then he lost consciousness for a while. When he recovered he found himself on the steamship City of Teheran, bound to Auckland (N.Z.).
There were but two other survivors, so awfully sudden had been the catastrophe that sent the ill-fated Hoboken to the bottom, and both of them—an Italian and a German—were so terribly injured by falling spars as to make their recovery very doubtful. Truly his revenge had been more complete than he would have either dreamt of or wished for.
Having no mind to tell his story to the Teheran's people, he kept his own counsel. And, inasmuch as he was the only one who could testify—none knowing better, for they were amongst his special cares—that the Hoboken on the night of the collision was showing no lights, the steamer's officers treated him particularly well; clad him decently, and offered him a wage as assistant to the man who looked after some cattle and horses they had on board.
Shortly before they arrived at Auckland the two seamen died of their injuries, thus leaving Morgan the only survivor out of all the Hoboken's company.
From the New Zealand city, after giving evidence before the Marine Board in his character of rouseabout of the Hoboken, he took a steerage passage to Sydney in one of the Union steamers, landing there after such a four months' experience as had—whilst sprinkling his hair with grey, and bowing his back, and hardening his hands,—begun already to effect a radical change in the hard nature of the man.
* * * * * *
"Now," said Mr. Combing, as he read a note from Morgan, asking him to call at the Metropole, "there'll be the deuce to pay about that Hoboken wool. Under insured, too, a couple of thousand! He's bound to swear it was all my fault; and we'll lose his clip. Oh, hang it, let it go then! In any case, there's no satisfaction in working for a sour, mean cuss like that. If he starts naggin', I'll just give him a bit of my mind that'll surprise him."
But, to Mr. Combing's astonishment, not only was there no "naggin'," but the loss of the £2,000 was dismissed with hardly a word. As if this were not miracle enough; his client actually invited him to stay and dine with him—gave him a good dinner, too, with plenty of that dry, old Heidsieck that the worthy broker's heart delighted in. His client, it appeared, had been from home—away on a tour—and was only now returning to the station. And although Mr. Combing had hazarded no remark on the subject, he privately thought that it must have been a curious sort of tour that could not only send comparative youth well on towards middle age, but apparently change the nature of a man into the bargain. But he said nothing, not even when the squatter handed him a long list of station requisites to be forwarded at once to Waajil; and he noticed that every item, especially that one of rations—heretofore a byword for rubbish—was to be of the best quality.
Only when he got outside did he relieve his feelings with a long, loud whistle, and the remark, "Well, now, I wonder where that tour took him to? If I knew the place, there's a few other folk in this city I could recommend to make it with advantage."
But neither Mr. Combing nor anyone else ever knew.
* * * * * *
It was breathlessly hot, and the metallic chirring of the cicadas rang through the still air till the whole bush seemed to vibrate with it, as two nomads met on the dusty track, and—as if by mutual consent—turned off and made for a shady mulga, cast their swags from their tired shoulders, took a sparing drink at their water bags, filled their pipes, and prepared to exchange the news of the wallaby track.
"Where did you call larst?" inquired one presently.
"Waajil," replied the other, glancing towards some well-filled ration bags tied to his swag.
"Yah," exclaimed the first speaker; "Ungry Morgan! You never got that tucker there, I'll swear."
"'Ow long since you bin to Waajil?" asked the other.
"Why; it must be hover a year ago. An' got 'unted off wi' dogs afore I'd time to open my mouth, So I just took my 'ook, an' I sez, 'No more Waajil for this chicken,' and I mean it too, you bet."
"Don't you make any mistake, mate," retorted the nomad; "that sort o' game's all changed sence Morgan come 'ome from his tower, Waajil's up to the knocker now. Kitchen and a cook; and travellers gits their suppers and breakfus' without a word; ay, an' a bit in the mornin' to carry 'em along the track. New buildin's there is too, an' a 'ut fer strangers, cumfable as ever you seen, An' wages—for them as likes work—right up to distrik rates. Take it from me, mate, there ain't a better shop in the West than Waajil, An' there ain't no 'Ungry Morgan' no more! Don't you never miss givin' it a call when yer a passin'."
The Maritana, a steel sailer, of 1500 tons, bound from Algoa Bay, in ballast, to Newcastle, New South Wales, had crept safely through Bass Strait, and, rounding Cape Howe, was now, under very short canvas, making up the coast to her destination in the teeth of a strong northerly. The captain and his officers were all strangers in Australian waters, and kept their ship much closer into the land than she had any business to be, considering the state of the weather. At sundown on this especial day the wind all at once shifted to south-east, and blew stronger than ever in thick, blinding squalls of rain; whilst the Maritana, under three lower topsails, and flying light, jigged and reeled unsteadily through the blackness. The skipper had been able to get no observations at noon; but from the glimpses he caught of the coastline, imagined himself to be abreast of Jervis Bay. About, midnight a far-off light was sighted that the mate and he agreed must be at the entrance to Port Jackson. Afraid of over-running Newcastle if he kept on at this rate, he, after awhile, hove his ship to under the lower main topsail, reckoning, at the time, that he must be fully thirty miles from the land. It was blowing now harder than ever; one watch had gone below, and the other was sheltering aft from the sheets of spindrift that, high as she bulked, flew thickly over the ship from the fo'c's'le-head to taffrail. The skipper was on deck attempting anxiously, but in vain, to peer through the heavy darkness in the direction he knew the land to lie. He was far from easy in his mind at being so close to a strange coast on such a night; and once or twice he started as he thought he heard the ominous noise made by waves on a rock-bound shore. Then, satisfied that it was only the rush of the seas alongside, and the hungry moaning of the wind amongst the naked spars and gear aloft, he resumed his unsteady pacing up and down the short poop. All at once, and just as he had determined to go below and take a short rest, there came a sudden shock, that made the Maritana tremble, as she heeled over slightly, broadside on, and remained motionless whilst great seas swept across her lofty rail. The next minute, however, she bumped again and again, the whole length of her, and then seemed to slip over into deeper water. Conceiving that he had safely cleared some hidden reef, and was in soundings, the captain ordered an anchor to be let go. But the cable snapped like thread, and the ship, forced along by the sledge-hammer blows of the big seas, soon took the ground again, finally becoming motionless, apparently in the very midst of a roaring mass of breakers, which, though invisible in the darkness, could be heard to right and left in booming thunder.
The Maritana had already slewed round some what, so as to be nearly bows on to the shore; her decks were untenable, and the crew had climbed into the rigging, expecting every minute that the vessel would go to pieces; and here deafened and bewildered by the dreadful crushing chorus around them, they hung on, striving to pierce the dense gloom ahead, that to their imagination concealed a range of lofty and perpendicular cliffs, at the foot of which their vessel lay grinding her plates to bits. But as the night wore on, the Maritana seemed to become comfortable, also more upright, and beyond a shiver when, now and again, an unusually heavy sea hit her, was almost motionless. And when morning at last broke, the castaways saw to their utter astonishment that the ship was on a small sandy beach not two hundred yards in length, but from each extremity ran out lines of grim reefs, over whose black and jagged teeth the surf still ran in masses of foaming madness.
Just across the upper margin of the beach, cuddled into a sheltered hollow, lay a little hamlet that as the hot summer sun rose reflected his rays cheerfully from its roofs of galvanised iron. To make matters, if possible, still more grotesque to those who had been so long waiting in the Valley of the Shadow, there presently rushed past, quite close at hand, a pulling locomotive, drawing a train of cars, whose windows were blocked with heads as the passengers stared in wonder at the no less surprised seamen. Never perhaps was such a shipwreck, for, except a smashed boat and some missing odds and ends from off her decks, the Maritana was absolutely intact alow and aloft; also, to add to the completeness of the thing, her crew, at low water, got out a ladder and dropped dry-footed on to the beach, and were welcomed by the people of the township to hot breakfast at their homes, and long cool drinks at hotels in which to toast their wonderful luck in having hit Australia in one of her few soft spots, when a few yards to the right or left must have meant instant annihilation. And all this, which is the first miracle, is matter of history.
The Maritana was "abandoned to the under writers," who, however, did nothing, because of some legal impedimente to be first overcome. Thus there was presented the extraordinary spectacle of a full-rigged ship, with only her lower maintopsail set, and, but for her rusty, weather worn sides, looking to all intents and purposes as much a-taunto as when she left the docks, settling in her sandy bed and staring at the town with a comical look of surprise; nearly dry at low water; at high with the waves curling white to the beach rods in front of her bows.
* * * * * *
From far inland stations, right away in the furthest back blocks, nomads were flocking to the Capital. The winter was approaching, and the Government had started relief works. Two shillings per day, the merest pretence of work, and "whips" of the best tucker was incomparably better than "humping bluey" for worse than nothing, and more often than not an empty belly into the bargain. So they came in shoals to shovel sand, and haunt the foreshores of the harbour, a, for the most part, dirty, frowsy, battered, Falstaffian army, lightly burdened by swags, empty in pocket, as in reputation; the offscourings of the great Bush. Thus it happened that one cold, damp evening, no less than six nomads, making city-ward in companies of three, foregathered on a scrubby knoll overlooking the Marltana. Nor, amongst the six could they muster food enough for one; neither money to buy any; neither as much tobacco as would fill a pipe. They had already vainly attempted to exploit the township. The people there, however, had of late lost many things at the hands of exactly similar vagrom men; therefore would have none of them: also a trooper had sternly moved them on, and intimated that he "meant to keep an eye on the push."
Thus they sat on their meagre swags, tired, hungry, and footsore, and each in turn cursed the township, the constable, the country, and the "Gover'ment," more particularly the "Gover'ment." Then, all at once, one, struck by a sudden bright idea, exclaimed, "Mates, it's goin' to rain 'eavy afore sundown. Le's tackle that there ship. She'll keep us dry. An' I don't believe as there's a soul on board of 'er. I only seen one bloke, an' he come away an hour ago."
"Righto!" replied the others with one voice, as, following their leader, who was known as "Billy the Mouse," they plunged along through the sand, and, presently, one at a time, ascended the rope ladder that hung down the Maritana's starboard side. It was now raining; the tide was coming in fast; had, indeed, wetted the last man to his knees. The decks were slippery with salt slime, the gear blackened with damp and disuse, and hanginig in bights; deck-houses and deck furniture rusty and forlorn. Instinctively the nomads made for the saloon. The watchman had locked the doors before going ashore, and it took them some time to get in. But, once there, they found warmth and comfort, and food and drink. Then, lighting a fire in the cabin stove, they feasted on white biscuits and cheese and tinned things, washed down with bottled beer and rum; whilst outside the wind rose, and the sea began to slap the Maritana's steel cheeks with great resounding slaps, and the solitary sail, alternately filled as its unbraced yards caught the breeze, or collapsed aback in shocks that sounded like muffled explosions to the ears of the merry nomads around the saloon table.
But they took no heed of anything. Seldom, indeed, had their luck fallen in such pleasant quarters. And they laughed, and ate, and drank, sprawling on the comfortable settees; and they sung strange bush songs about squatters and sheep, and the "Wallaby," and they smoked long Trichinopoly cheroots, of which someone had found a bundle, and enjoyed themselves very thoroughly. An unkempt company with matted hair and beards, and clothes long lived in by night and day; grimy, sour-smelling, unshorn men, answering only to "Billy," and "Jimmie," and "Tom" and "Jack," qualified mostly by some expressive adjective. Men who, in their own vernacular, had "no come from and no go to;" who were at home when their hats were on; by turns "sundowners," of the inland bush, and loafers around the restaurants, and wharves, and parks of the capital.
Meanwhile, the wind rose to a gale, blowing steadily from the south-west; also it was, as it chanced, the time of the highest of the spring tides. And the Maritana, loosened in her soft bed by the working together of wind and wave, moved uneasily, as the water, rushing down through the sandcracks, got under her keel, and so lifted her, little by little, that, at last, her bows floated. Then the twisting of them raised the stern, until, with one final wrench, she shook herself free altogether, and gradually coming round before wind and sea, and drifting within a yard of a sharp-toothed rock, went tossing like a cork away into the South Pacific, carrying with her, locked fast in a drunken sleep, the most curious crew that ever sailed salt water.
* * * * * *
THE SECOND MIRACLE.
"Snowy" Jack was the first one amongst the nomads to come to himself. An old man with a hooked nose and little blue eyes, cunning and pig-like; bald but for a fringe of dirty grey hairs; a long beard, white but for long streaks as of iron-rust; face leathery, tanned, full of deep wrinkles and furrows, strangers to soap from their birth almost. Sitting up, he stared bewildered around the saloon. The swinging lamp burned with a sickly yellow glare in the dawn that entered through the broken door and the poop skylight. On the floor, rolled to and fro with each sharp, jerking motion of the vessel, lay "Billy the Mouse," and "Boko Jimmy," and "Rusty Frank," and all the rest of them. Painfully, and with a deadly feeling off sickness, Snowy got on his feet, and staggered outside, and gazed in speechless amazement at the endless expanse of grey, foam-tipped rollers; at the leaden sky that met them; at the Maritana nosing about as she scudded before the gale, coming to and falling off with half the compass to spare on each side, and taking green seas in turn to port and starboard and over the quarter, neither able to run fast enough to escape them, nor to lie close enough to the wind to make any weather at all of it.
The sun had been up some time, but was hidden behind the bank of clouds. Snowy cast his bleared gaze towards where he thought the land should be, but nothing met it save the same grey waste of heaving furrows. He felt ill, but he crawled back into the saloon, and with volleys of oaths aroused his companions. "The blanky cow of a ship's been and runned away with us! Git up ye loafin' swine an' come an' look fer the land, an' let's try an' pull 'er 'ead round fer Hostralier agin." And they came out and wallowed about in the scuppers, shockingly sick; and called upon God to strike them blind and paralytic—a ghastly, grimy, sodden company that the Maritana flung hither and thither as if ashamed of, and drenched, and spurned contemptuously about her decks.
Towards evening, wind and sea going down somewhat, they made shift to pull themselves together, and drink rum, and hold council on their plight. With one consent they put the whole fault on the Mouse—the ferrety-eyed, undersized, tallow-faced little man who had first proposed taking refuge on board.
"S'elp me," he protested, shrilly, "I thought the blanky thing was a fixchure! Stop 'er! 'Ow kin I stop 'er enny more than you kin? Strike me pink, I'd sooner be on a 'ot track with a hempty water bag an' no tucker than in sich a bloomin' mess as this!"
"Well," said Boko Jimmy, a long, lean, cadaverous loafer, with one malignant eye (whence his nickname), and a dirty hole where the other should have been, "pulled up she's got to be, some'ow. 'Ere we are hout on the wild an' foamin' hocean, an' gittin' further away every minnit. Aint none of us sailors enuff to know 'ow to stop the blanky beast a-tearin' an' a-tossin' hoff with us like she's a-doin', an seems like to keep on a-doin' ov till we're all starved inter skillitons?"
But the others only stared vacantly at the bewildering maze of lofty spars and gear, and shook their heads. None of them knew anything about the matter, or, indeed, about much else except the best stations on far back bush tracks at which to get "a feed," or the best bends along inland rivers in which to camp and catch fish. They were all men over fifty, and for many years had scarcely ever, and then only under pressure of direst circumstance, done any harder work than cut a few burrs. So, at last, resigning themselves to the inevitable, they, never dreaming even of setting a watch for passing ships, returned to the cabin, and slept and ate, and drank and smoked, and played euchre with tattered, grimy packs of cards they produced from their swags, whilst the Maritana drifted, for the most part, aimlessly about; but, owing to a northerly current, making, on the whole, despite all changes of wind, an average north by east course, sometimes nearly in sight of the coast, at others well out. And, curiously enough, neither could a couple of tugs that had been dispatched in search of the missing ship see anything of her; nor, for a long time, did any traces whatever of her turn up; therefore it was generally supposed that she had gone down on that night of storm during which she broke away. Meanwhile, the nomads having eaten out the cabin supplies and drunk all the rum and beer, were reduced to salt pork and beef and very hard and often weevily biscuits, fare that after their first feastings, they resented. Otherwise, they had become in a measure familiarised with their situation, and had explored every nook and cranny they could gain access to. The maintopsail sheets having, somehow, been let go, the sail, one stormy night, blew to ribbons, the remnants adding not a little to the forlorn appearance of the masterless ship. After a while, the weather became fine and hot, and the six lounged and slept about the warm decks till the pitch in the seams stuck to their decayed clothes, and abstracted fragments every time they rose. Tobacco was getting scarce and precious, and they stole it from each other during the night, and then fought and nagged savagely; and old Snowy, and the Mouse, and Boko, being the strongest, thumped the other three out of the saloon, and forced them to take shelter in the forward house, or crew's quarters; made them, also, do what cooking there was, and generally fetch and carry for them. And all of them grew, day by day, frowsier, and hairier, and dirtier, and more greasy, and altogether so squalid and malodorous, as to perceptibly taint the Pacific breeze.
At length an Island trader, heading towards the coast for a land fall, sighted the derelict, and bore down on her. Backing his foreyards close along side, the skipper of the Dancing Jane and his crew stared in amazement at the six scarecrows, who peered down at him over the Maritana's lofty rail; at the ship herself, rusty, weather stained, listed to port, her sails lumping loosely in the relaxed gaskets; shreds of her topsail waving forlornly; and from her hawse-pipe a remnant of chain cable banging with every roll against her bows.
"What's the matter?" hailed the skipper, his first astonishment over, and finding nothing better to say.
"Matter enuff," replied Boko surlily, as he glared with malevolent eye; "this blanky thing bolted wiuh iva weeks ago. We've got nawthin' but blarsted salt tucker an' biscuits with blanky grubs in 'em. We're about full up, we are; an' want to get back to the bush ov Hostralia agin; which, if it ain't much chop, at least knows enuff to keep itself still. If yer can find the track back agin, boss, yer'd best take us with yous. We'll jist chuck our swags together an' climb down if yer'll come closer."
"Hold on!" exclaimed the skipper hurriedly, "I ain't taking any passengers just now. You've got provisions and water, haven't you? Yes, well I'll report you when I get in, and they'll send a steamer to you."
"Oh, cuss that game!" exclaimed old Snowy, wagging his head angrily; "jer think we ain't 'ad 'bout a fair thing o' this blanky salt picnic? 'Ow do you know as a storm won't sink us afore you gits to land. A pritty nice sort o' Crischun you are to gammon you ain't got room! Le's git on your boat, an' we'll chanst all that."
But the captain of the Dancing Jane hesitated. "It's the rummiest yarn I ever heard," said he to the mate. "D—d suspicious all round! It's my belief there's something wrong. I don't like the looks o' the crowd, either. Nor the stink o' em."
"It's all a lie from start to finish," said the mate. "Did one ever hear the like! A ship goin' ashore in that fashion without stranding a rope yarn; and then o' six Bushies gettin' on her, an' her gettin' off in the night, an' sailin' away with 'em. Let 'em rip, sir. I can see mischief in the beggars' faces. They're escaped gaol-birds, that's what they are, or looks is very deceivin'."
"By jingo, I believe you've guessed it, Brown," replied the skipper. "Round with the fore-yards, lads." And as the nomads saw the Jane slipping off, and realised that she was leaving them, they ran forward on to the fo'castle-head, and rained such torrents of threats and blasphemy on her crew as made mate and skipper more than ever sure that the former's diagnosis was the correct one.
A couple of nights after this it came on to blow great guns from the eastward, with a sea to match; and before the two the Maritana drove with swept decks straight for the coast she had kept away from so long and so luckily. She hit it at midnight, stern first, and, this time, on solid rock near Port Hacking. Her stern struck on the reef, her three masts went crashing over the side, her plates cracked and broke like iron pots, deckhouses and galley went like feathers; while the nomads, all together now, crouched and shivered in a corner of thc saloon, dumb with terror at the fearful racket around them—the din of the smashing ship and the combined rushing and roaring of the wind and the great seas that swept over her. Still the after part held together; and when morning broke, and the Six made shift to crawl up the companion, they found that, whilst all the rest of her had entirely disappeared, the poop had been hove right up on the roof, and wedged firmly there. Almost overhead, and hardly a hundred yards away, towered lofty cliffs, with a little beach beneath them; and, at low water they saw to their joy that they would be able to walk ashore, almost as dry as, weeks ago, they had walked on board. Sure enough, at mid day, they rolled up their swags and clambered down the Maritana's side, and across the slippery rocks, until they reached the bench, where, with one accord, facing towards the poor remnant that had made their salvation, they solemnly cursed it and all ships, and the sea, and all men that used them; and then, turning their backs upon the storm-washed shore, they straggled slowly inland, with bowed shoulders—six thankless, worthless, dingy souls, all unwitting of the second miracle.
Boorali was considered by everyone who had to do with it, except the shareholders, an ideal station. For the people of the neighboring township there was practically open house kept; the employees were well fed, well paid, and not overworked; the small holders on the run were never interfered with when using the station water or eating the station grass—or even when, as was rumored, appropriating the station sheep. It was a very fine station indeed, except, as already mentioned, for those financially concerned. And these, for the most part, lived in the United Kingdom—a very long way off indeed, in the days of which we write. Certainly, they were represented in Endeavor, the capital of the colony, by a board of directors—all most worthy and conscientious old gentlemen. But these had their own businesses to attend to; and although they met once a month with the utmost regularity, and pocketed their three guinea fees with equanimity, not one of the four seemed to care about undertaking the long journey into the interior to personally discuss why, good seasons or bad ones, the Boorali properties never paid a dividend, large or small.
Of course, even in those days, there were returns made up on the main station and forwarded at more or less regular intervals to the board in Endeavor, which, after reading, as duly forwarded them on to the one in England, which as duly printed them for the edification of the shareholders. And from these it appeared that in bad seasons, which, of course, predominated, as they always do, the stock simply vanished in tens of thousands, for want of grass and water, and that in good ones the animal, vegetable, and other pests, such as dingoes, kangaroos, wallabies: burrs (both Bathurst and clover), grass-seed, prickly pear, wild indigo; fluke, footrot, and worms, made any chance of profit impossible. Such was the unvarying tenor of the reports; although the cost of upkeep and the rate of wages never appeared to diminish.
And at last the British directorate lost all patience.
* * * * * *
One fine hot morning in December, a fortnight or so before Christmas, a man, riding one horse and leading another, entered Coolibah, the nearest township to Boorali. Choosing the smallest hotel out of the half-dozen that with some scattered stores and houses made up the main street, he rode into the yard and saw that his horses were watered and sent to a paddock. Then, lounging into the bar with his pack he called for a drink, and invited the landlord to also partake.
"Far to Boorali?" asked the stranger, as he meditatively sipped his glass of "English."
"Lookin' for a job?" replied the other, in true bush fashion.
The stranger nodded affirmatively.
"Thought so," said the landlord, in drawling approval of his own farsightedness. "But it ain't no sorter use goin' out to the station to-day, 'cause the station's comin' here. You see," continued the landlord, as his guest motioned him to refill the glasses, "always to'rds Christmas there's a big cricket match atween the stations an' the township. Ginerally lasts three days—an' sometimes they makes the bloomin' week of it. Oh, high old times we has, I can tell you. What's that you say? Mus' be a fine station? You bet, it is just that. See this 'ouse? Well, I made it at Boorali in three years."
"Hard graft?" asked the other laconically.
"'Igh prices," replied the landlord, "an' other little matters. Fifty pound a mile for skelliton fences—pine posts 12 foot apart an' five wires—soon runs inter money. You bet!"
"I should imagine it did," replied the stranger drily. "Wouldn't mind a few miles myself at that rate."
"Well, well," said the landlord patronisingly, "I daresay there's a show for somethin'; but I think the work now in that line's mos'ly repairin'. 'Owever, there's generally a couple of the overseers stops here, an' I'll put a word in for you."
The traveller thanked him, and remarked, "I suppose the manager doesn't come in to play cricket?"
"'Im!" exclaimed the landlord, aghast. "'Im play cricket! Why, he don't know a bat from a ball. 'E don't worry about such matters. 'E's a wirtuoso."
"A what?" asked the other, in a puzzled tone.
"A wirtuoso," repeated his host. "Which means somebody as draws an' paints an' makes werses. You see, Mr. Vere-Stackpoole don't take no part much in the management. 'E's got a manager under 'im, an' two assistant managers, an' six or seven overseers. Why, sometimes you'd never know 'e was on the station for weeks together. 'E keeps in his studio, as he calls it, and don't worry his head about what goes on outside of it."
"Umph!" grunted the stranger. "Must be a fine place to work on, as you say."
"Fine's no name," exclaimed the landlord enthusiastically, as in a fit of abstraction he filled the glasses once more. "Cricket an' croquet all the summer; claret cup an' all sorts o' flash drinks for the swells—the P.M. and the surroundin' squatters an' their fam'lies, stayin' at the homestead for weeks at a time. Then in winter there's football, an' lashin's of drink in 'ut an' 'ouse all the year round. Never was such a station as Boorali!"
"No, I should imagine not," replied the other, as he paid for the drinks, lit his pipe, and, going out, sat on a bench in the verandah facing the street. He was a short-set man, with tanned face, a remarkably white set of teeth, grizzled hair, beard, and moustache, and a small, sharp pair of blue eyes. He might, from his dress, have been a shearer, a drover, or just what he assumed to be, a "traveller" looking for a job.
As he sat and smoked and pondered, a cloud of dust at the end of the street—it was over a mile in length—caught his eye, and presently, led by two four-in-hand drags, came a crowd of horsemen.
"Here's Booraii going a-cricketing," he muttered, with a grin. "Why, hang it, there can't be anybody left in the station, except, perhaps, the 'Wirtuoso' himself!" As the cavalcade broke up, and made for the different hotels, the sleepy little township seemed transformed. Six or seven young men dismounted in front of where he sat, and, shouting for the groom, rushed tumultuously into the bar, and called for drinks. From snatches of talk he gathered that in addition to cricket, there were to be races, and that the "fun" would last a week.
That night Boorali let it be known to the full that it was visiting Coolibah. So much so that early next morning, long before sunrise, the stranger had caught his horses, saddled, and packed them, and was on his way to Boorali. The price of his supper and bed he left on the table in his room, quite certain that it was useless to attempt arousing anybody belonging to the house. At the end of a ten-mile ride he came to a dilapidated fence that a slatternly boundary rider's wife told him was the boundary of Boorali. Inside the fence the grass was plentiful and green. Evidently a good season. The stranger, leaving the road, struck across a paddock to look at some sheep. The mob, he found, was composed of wethers, ewes, lambs, and a few rams. At a tank, half-silted up, he found three full-woolled ewes rolling; out of the bog he pulled four more that had evidently been there some time—perhaps for days. His face grew very black as he remounted and noted the utter neglect everywhere apparent—the great groves of burrs, the luxuriant patches of "pear," and the fences smashed by fallen timber, and showing wide gaps of broken posts and wires.
The homestead was like a small village, but a deserted one; and not until after some search could he find anybody to tell him where the men's quarters were situated. At last, however, glancing into a building, he discovered a man asleep on a couch. On a table were scattered many books—ledgers, journals, etc. Among them stood a half-empty brandy bottle. Evidently this must be the station office. As the traveller stared around the man awoke. "Hello!" he said, "what do you want-a job of bookkeeping or burr-cutting, eh?" And, sitting up, the speaker, a dissipated-looking young man, grinned and helped himself liberally out of the bottle. "I'd prefer the first, I think," replied the traveller, "knowing, as I do, more about double entry than about burrs."
"The deuce you do!" exclaimed the other, with animation. "Then I'm hanged if you shan't fix up these books for me. I've been waiting months for some fellow who understood the business to come along. I was going to Coolibah with' the others, only the returns were nearly due down below. There's always a row if they don't get 'em in time. Not that they're any the wiser for having 'em. See?"
"All right," replied the other. "But aren't you the bookkeeper?"
"Accountant," corrected the man, as he again applied himself to the bottle, and this time pushed it across to the traveller. "No; I ain't. The chief accountant died six months ago in Coolibah Hospital, and the assistant accountant cleared out with the petty cash and anything else he could lay his hands on. So the bosses gave me the billet. I am the head storekeeper. I told 'em I knew precious little about bookkeeping. But they said I'd be sure to pick it up in time. So, knowing they didn't want a stranger, I took the job on. But it's been a tight pull to get these returns out, I can tell you. Besides, I don't fancy, somehow or other, that the books themselves are quite right since Sinclair—the chap who died—left."
"I don't think they are," replied the traveller grimly, as he turned over a few leaves, "considering that apparently you've forgotten to make any of the accounts balance."
"Oh, that'll be all right now you've come," said the other cheerfully. "You'll be the assistant accountant. See? By the way. what's your name—Brown, Jones, or Robinson?"
"The last," was the prompt reply; "Alexander Robinson, of Bamba Station, Victoria, and the new manager of Boorali."
The other's jaw dropped for a minute, and he looked foolish. Then, glancing at the well-worn clothes of the visitor, and out to where the patient horses hung at the fence, he recovered himself, and said: "Come, my good man, none of your bluff here! It won't do! If you want a job, I've offered you one. Take it, or leave it; but you'll have to behave yourself."
"Go and tell Mr. Stackpoole that I want to see him," said the other sternly, his eyes flashing like sparks of blue fire.
The man cowered and shrivelled. He seemed by a momentary insight to realise the position.
"It's God's truth?" he asked, cringing.
For answer, the stranger took a paper out of his pocket-book, and said, "Read that!"
Glancing at the contents, the "accountant" muttered, "I thought it couldn't last much longer!" Then to Mr. Robinson, "If I tell you the whole business, will you let me off? The others roped me into it. As God's my judge, they did! Sinclair knew it, and it drove him to drink and death."
"Well, well," replied the other impatiently, "what is there to make such a fuss about? Only a story of waste and extravagance; a mismanaged property; defrauded shareholders and an incompetent head—all bad enough, of course. But nothing to make you look as if you'd committed murder. Go and tell the manager I want to see him at once!"
The other hesitated. Then he blurted out, "He isn't here, sir. He left twelve months ago, and we've never seen him since."
The new-comer whistled long and loud. "How did you manage?" he asked suspiciously.
"No trouble," said the other; "he was always a hermit, and sometimes kept in his house for days together. He had a studio and a laboratory, and an astronomical outfit, to keep him busy. He seldom or ever saw visitors; and he left all the entertaining and that sort of thing to us."
"And a very good job you made of it, no doubt," remarked Mr. Robinson, cynically. "And then, when the manager vanished," he continued, "you fellows kept carrying on? And you expect me to believe this cock-and-bull story, eh? I tell you what, young man, the whole business looks very fishy, and one the police must have something to say on. I'm off to Coolibah now to interview the managers and assistant managers, and assistant deputy-overseers, and all the other dignitaries; also the police."
But when Mr. Robinson reached the township he found that a "bush telegram" had preceded him, and that the responsible station officials had disappeared as totally as their late manager seemed to have done. The police came out, and ransacked the homestead and grounds; but of the missing manager no trace was found, Then Mr. Robinson took things in hand, and made them "hum" to such a tune as fully justified the English directors in their choice of a man to look after their interests. But Coolibah and the neighborhood sulked for a long time, and until they realised the fact that the station was being run on permanently economical principles, and that, so to speak, the notice was up of "No Admittance Except on Business." A long time after the new manager took possession an old dry well, not far from the homestead, was being deepened, when the workmen found the skeleton of a man, and alongside it a shattered and rusty sextant. The unfortunate "wirtuoso" had evidently emerged one night to "take a star" by whose aid to work out some of the intricate problems he so delighted in, and, forgetting the old shaft, had fallen fifty feet and broken his neck.
As eight bells in the afternoon watch struck a hundred feet below him, a seaman who had just finished putting some tarred parcelling in the wake of the main-royal backstay where it touches the topmast-crosstree outrigger took a look around before descending from his perch.
It is a habit constant and engrained in the race—this long, steady stare around the rim of the horizon at irregular intervals when aloft. There are more surprises at sea than ever came out of Africa; and no one knows what minute the terrible and mysterious element may choose for springing a specimen of them upon her sons. Therefore they are incessantly on the look-out, and more especially when engaged high in air amongst the intricate combination of running and standing gear, spars and canvas, that crown the hull of a sailer.
The Minerva at this time was braced up against a pretty stiff south-easter which had caught her in the teeth whilst stretching over from mid-Atlantic to round the Cape of Storms on her passage to New Zealand. Her upper topgallant sails and royals were stowed; thus the seaman had a clear field within his vision. It was a dull day, with short intervals of brightness in the sky here and there that lit the ocean in confusing patches, leaving the rest lead-coloured. Suddenly the man, staring under the flat of his hand, stood up and stretched his head eagerly forward, as he imagined he caught sight of some small white object far away on the port bow. But the glimpse was momentary and elusive, leaving him very doubtful. At sea, however, doubt more often perhaps than elsewhere spells disaster to somebody. And though it was by this time the man's watch below, taking the marline-spike from around his neck and clove-hitching its lanyard to a backstay, he made his way on to the upper topgallant-yard, and thence, after a brief, dissatisfied stare, higher still to the lofty royal. Standing here with one arm round the mast, he once more strained his eyes over the tossing waste of waters wishing to make sure. And at last, in a patch of momentarily bright sea, he saw the thing he was looking for hove up—a white chip that, to any but a sailor's glance, would have meant only one of the million crests of the million breaking waves that washed the sky on every side.
Bending down, and turning his face aft, he roared, "Deck ahoy!"
"Aye, aye," shouted back a man who paced the clipper's poop to windward, pausing and looking aloft.
"Boat about four points on the port bow, sir!" sang out the sailor. Going to the rail the other stared. But unable to see anything he ascended the mizzen rigging with a glass under his arm. Not, however, until he reached the top did he pick up the object tossing helplessly amidst the choppy seas. Then, as he waved his hand to the helmsman, the Minerva fell off before the wind. "Steady!" And as the ship's bows came slowly round towards the boat the man at the main, with a human life to his credit, clawed down the rigging and went below.
As the Minerva approached the little derelict was seen to be a ship's quarter-boat. The mast was stepped; and at first sight she contained nobody.
"There's something hanging over the side!" exclaimed a sharp-sighted passenger.
"Only a fender," replied a sailor.
"A man's arm, by heavens!" exclaimed the mate, taking his eye from the glass. "Shall we lower our gig, sir?"
"Of course!" said the captain; "only, I'm afraid we're late. Starboard braces there, and back your fore-yards, Mr. Ismay!"
The boat was some fifty yards away, a most pathetic picture with that naked brown arm and hand showing against the white paintwork, and at intervals springing out with a sort of beckoning motion when she gave an extra pitch that indescribably accentuated the sad meaning of the thing. And at such times to the staring crowd on the ship there seemed to be at the bottom of her a confused heap of men and sailcloth.
Sure enough, as the gig took hold and towed the other boat to the Minerva's hastily lowered gangway, it was seen that, besides the one to whom the arm belonged, huddled up in all sorts of positions amongst the folds of a big sail were four more bodies. A terrifying and pitiful spectacle indeed, and one that caused an indefinable, curious sort of sound, half groan, half curse, to rise from the Minerva's crew as they clustered in the main rigging and at the head of the gangway, whilst the bodies were carried up and laid in a row on the quarter-deck.
Steam happening to be on that day in the donkey-engine, the boat, a fine new one, was soon whipped on to the main hatch; and before the doctor (a passenger) had finished his examination the Minerva had braced her yards up again and was lying as near her course as she could get.
Four of the men were quite dead—had been so for days. But in the fifth—the one whose hand had hung over the boat—a spark of life still lingered. Such a feeble spark, that it took a fortnight ere it burned steadily enough to allow of his coming on deck. A tall, thin skeleton of a man, with grey hair and beard, and sunken eyes and hollow cheeks, and limbs that trembled with his voice when he spoke.
Also suffering had apparently numbed the cells of memory, and his mind, so far as concerned the past, was an utter blank. He knew neither his own name nor the name of the ship the boat belonged to, nor anything that had happened to him in the past—near or distant. God's finger had touched his brain, wiping it clean, as a schoolboy sponges an hour's work off his slate. Nor was there any clue to the names or belongings of himself or those dead men with him. The boat's stern bore no sign of ship or port, and her furniture of oars, mast, sail, etc., told nothing whatever. As for any remnants of provisions or water there were none. Around his neck, attached to a chain, his rescuers had found a gold locket containing the portrait of a handsome woman, apparently of about seven or eight and twenty, an age that, spite of his grey hairs, the doctor said the man himself had barely passed. But of the picture the man could give no more account than of aught else. That he was a sailor was evident by his very first glance aloft and around him, and as evidently, from the quality of the serge clothes and the underwear found upon him, an officer. The latter was all carefully marked with the letters "E. S."—drawers, socks, and singlet alike. The bodies of the others had been dressed in the usual nondescript rig of merchant Jack all the world over, but mostly in heavy, cold weather stuff. Thus it was argued that the disaster might very probably have occurred amongst the ice; and, from the utter lack of preparation in the boat, very suddenly.
As the days went by and the man returned slowly to health and strength it soon became apparent that, if one side of the slate had been wiped clean, there were still odd patches left on the other.
But these, strange to say, were connected solely with the details of his profession. Nor did this knowledge return all at once, but by degrees, and on occasion given.
For instance, one night watching the mate working out calculations connected with correcting the chronometers by a lunar observation, just taken, he suddenly remarked, "I can show you a much simpler formula, if you'll allow me." And then and there, greatly to the mate's surprise, he did so.
"Now, surely," said the latter, "if you can recollect a thing like that, learned probably years ago, you can remember matters that have happened quite lately?"
But the other only shook his head despondently. Still the doctor had great hopes of his patient eventually recovering. And the latter tried hard to help him by eagerly adopting every suggestion, But all to no purpose. The most abstruse problems in scientific navigation he presently solved with scarcely an effort. He could not for the life of him, however, remember his own name, or a solitary particular connected with his past life.
And this question of a name was one that puzzled his friends. A man may not travel nameless through the world, no matter how heavily misfortune has laid her hand upon him.
Now, rather curiously, the name of the sailor who first discovered the boat happened to be Emerant Spurrell—his initials, therefore, corresponding to those on the rescued man's clothes, And someone, noting this, suggested, half in fun, that the rescued one might do worse than borrow the name of the person to whom, without a doubt, he was indebted for his life. This coming to Spurrell's ears—indeed, he happened to be at the wheel when it was mooted—he at once made a formal offer.
"With all the pleasure in life, sir," said he. "I can easy get another. An', anyhow, it's only a purser's name. I've had it three v'y'ges now. Used to belong to a shipmate o' mine—a Bluenose chap from Halifax, Novy Scotia. He fell off the foretaups'l-yard o' the old Tweed and broke his neck. We was chums, so I took it 'Hin Memorium,' as it says on the gravestones ashore."
Thus, amidst some laughter and joking, and the castaway himself proving quite willing to appropriate this sort of ownerless name, none the less so that it was by no means a common one, he became forthwith Mr. Spurrell. And in honour of the occasion jolly old Captain Britton opened champagne in the saloon and made a little festivity, and all the people did their best to cheer up the unfortunate. And presently, when the latter rose from his seat to thank them, his voice for awhile failed, and he stood there silent, gazing at them, his features working with emotion. A tall, spare, yet well-shaped figure, clean-shaven now but for a thick white moustache, and bearing a look of premature age in the lined and wrinkled face, upon which with merciless claws the sea had set her sign-manual, strangely contradicted by the fire and energy that shone in the dark blue eyes. And although his close-cropped hair was grizzled, and the broad shoulders bowed, taken by and large, the newly-christened was even yet a decidedly handsome man, as standing there he, presently finding his voice, thanked the people in a few well-chosen words for all their kindness.
"A smart, fine, strapping young fellow of twenty-eight or thirty at the out side," whispered the doctor to the captain. "That's what he was a few weeks ago. Take my word for it—incredible as it seems to you all."
"Good Lord!" groaned the other, compassionately. "It's terrible! And a passed master too, or I'll eat my hat!" he added, somewhat consequentially, and in a tone signifying that the fact made the matter infinitely worse.
"The trouble is to know what to do for him," continued the doctor. "If it was in the old days with a crowd of passengers, why, we could have raised a thumping sub. But there's only five of us on the Minerva. I'll give a tenner with pleasure. But even if everybody goes level, what is it?"
"That's so," replied the skipper, shaking his head. "Poor chap! poor chap! I caught him yesterday looking at that picture in the locket, and the striving agony of his face made my heart ache. But he's plucky with it and keeps his torture well under, doesn't he? Look at him laughing and chatting so pleasantly now."
"Aye," said the doctor, "and that bears out what I say about his age. It would have either killed an older man or sent him raving mad. But this one will recover some day, I believe. And quite suddenly, perhaps—all in a minute. It may be years, though, ere the memory of wife, or children, or sweetheart, and his lost ship and all the hard, bitter time of his last voyage returns to him, and when it does it may possibly kill him."
"D'ye think he'd know his wife, or—or—any of his friends, if he could see them now?" whispered the skipper.
"I'm certain he wouldn't," replied the other, decisively. "It'll take more than a once familiar face or even a voice to penetrate the darkness. Possibly if, now, we could transport him in sleep back to the boat again amongst his dead companions, the sudden shock when he awoke might effect a cure. On the other hand, it might prove fatal."
"And of course he's changed out of all knowledge," said the captain.
"Aye," replied the doctor; "his own mother wouldn't know him. We ought to have taken a photo, when we got him first. And even then it would have been late. Since that time the change has gone on gradually. It has stopped now. Only age will make further alteration; and most likely for the better."
"Well, well," said the skipper, "we must see what can be done. Ismay is leaving us at Adelaide to get married and settle ashore. If this chap had a ticket he should have the berth at once. I must have a talk with the Marine Board. Surely they'll make allowances in such an extraordinary case."
It presently happened that just after rounding the Cape of Good Hope the chief officer of the Minerva, the Mr. Ismay alluded to, had the misfortune to break his leg. Captain Britton at once asked Spurrell to take the vacant place. And the latter accepted eagerly, fulfilling its duties with that quiet precision born solely of intimate knowledge. Nor, although realizing his terrible position only too well, did he allow his mind to dwell upon it more than possible. Still in lonely middle watches with the Roaring Forties booming aloft against the rigid hollows of the top-sails, and shrilling amongst the maze of rope and wire, whilst behind them thundered the huge combers of the Southern Ocean, at times the helmsmen would notice their officer suddenly stop in his fore and aft tramp and with a wild gesture of dismay throw up his arms and lift a white, despairing face skyward. But even as weather-wheel was muttering sympathetically to lee one—"Poor chap! he's a-tryin' to get it back again and can't," the mate would bring himself in hand once more and resume his interrupted pacing. As the doctor said, a wonderfully brave and strong-minded man must this be, cast up suddenly, as it were, naked, bewildered, and with no more Past than a new-born babe to begin the world afresh!—nor possessing aught except the professional instinct that had so curiously survived the shock to which things of so much more import had succumbed.
Off St. Paul's, in a terrific gale, the Minerva carried away her fore-topmast. During the blow, the captain being unwell, the acting mate had full charge of the ship, working her with a skill and care beyond praise. Then, when the weather moderated, his management of the ticklish job of sending down the spars on the fore and getting a new topmast in its place—a matter requiring in a seaway the utmost practical skill—more than satisfied Captain Britton that in this come-by-chance officer he had picked up a treasure, indeed.
"Ismay's a good man," remarked the skipper to the doctor, "and I've no fault to find with him. But, compared to the other, he's like a turnip-lantern to an electric light. Ticket or no ticket, a seaman of Spurrell's sort sha'n't want a berth as long as I've got a say in the Blue Star Line. I reckon myself a fair practical hand, but damme, doctor, if I think I could have turned out such a ship-shape job of that foremast in the time!"
"His way with the men is capital, too," replied the other. "I notice they simply jump like monkeys at his least order. Nor do I ever hear him swear. Nobody will be more pleased than myself, captain, if you can secure the billet for him. I'm sure you'll never regret it. I have some friends at court over yonder, and I'm going to do all I can. I've taken a great fancy to the fellow, apart from the natural pity and sympathy we must all feel for the terrible blow he has suffered and is bearing up so stoutly and bravely against."
And both captain and doctor, being men of action, when presently the Minerva dropped her anchor at the Semaphore, and later towed up the river to Port Adelaide, they lost no time in setting things going.
Australians as a people are perhaps the most helpful and sympathetic of all, not only in cases of public distress, but in individual ones as well Their newspapers, too, are ever ready to aid freely in any good cause, Thus, some of them, after publishing Spurrell's story, opened a subscription list for him which found many contributors. Also the authorities, although at first demurring, finally gave way to public opinion and vice-regal suggestion and consented to allow the strangely afflicted and yet thoroughly capable man, if he could, to pass at once through the grades of second mate, chief, and master The examination lasted three days, and at the finish the members of the Marine Board declared themselves more than satisfied with the results, and complimented Spurrell and handed him the certificate without which all his proficiency would have been useless.
This success cheered him as perhaps nothing else could have done. A livelihood was now, at least to some extent, assured. After all, the sea had not robbed him of everything. Meanwhile, his friends were still busy on his behalf; but only presently to realize that their efforts were quite hopeless. What can one do when there is absolutely nothing to go upon—not the slightest clue? Each year there are scores of missing ships gazetted; but without name, or date, or departure, it is hard to identify any particular one whose very officer himself is unable to assist you in the slightest degree, and who if he saw his own name in print would not recognise it. So, after awhile, the matter dropped, and the new man, as he felt himself to be, with for a Past a perpetual puzzle, and a Future that promised little but emptiness, became gradually resigned as well as he might to dree his weird. But even to his iron will the struggle at times to avoid despair was a terrible one. Had he unfortunately been a man of leisure, and able to brood over his troubles, he would probably have killed himself. Two things saved him: the constant occupation demanded by his post, and the ability to command sleep at any moment—the latter a gift not measurable by any money value. And to outsiders the new chief mate of the crack clipper appeared simply as a grave, courteous, somewhat reserved, gentlemanly man, whose lined, careworn face and grey hairs contrasted strangely with his clear eye and light step.
Between himself and his captain existed a very sincere regard, for Spurrell knew that had he by ill chance fallen into different hands his fate might have been a thousand times worse. Therefore he was grateful. And a first officer who feels that way can save his superior a vast deal of trouble. Also on his side the old skipper had the highest admiration for the skill and expertness that the other showed in his profession. So the pair agreed together very well indeed. Thus, when the Minerva arrived in London, Captain Britton represented his mate's case in such wise to the owners as induced them to confirm the latter's appointment. Of course the story had preceded him. Nowadays a few curt words by cable, flashing over continents and under oceans, deal with a case like Spurrell's and make the news world wide. So a score of women, whose husbands in some capacity or other were "missing at Lloyd's," interviewed the man—all ignoring details, and each hoping he might be hers. Imagine his distress at such an ordeal, and the tension on his strung nerves as he glanced at each fresh arrival and compared the face with those other features indelibly burned on his brain, only to meet the blank stare of mutual disappointment.
"God only knows whether it's my wife's picture or not!" he exclaimed once, pitifully, to the captain. "You have all taken for granted that such is the case. It may be a sister's or a sweetheart's for aught I can tell. What an existence is mine!" he continued, bitterly; "nameless, without kith or kin, ever vainly groping in the blackness of a lost past teeming with vague fancies that appear only to vanish as soon as formed! God help me, sir, I sometimes wish that you had left me to perish in the boat along with those others!" And the mate bowed his head on his arms in an attitude of despair.
"Nonsense," replied the other, speaking over a lump in his throat, for it was rare indeed that the self-contained, calm, grave chief gave way to such an extent. "Don't say that. God in His own good time will clear away the raffle and coil down all the gear in its proper place. I was beginning to hope that you had made your mind up to wait patiently. And I have an idea," went on the old man, eagerly. "Listen. We'll get hundreds of photographed copies of the one in the locket and with a brief request printed on the back of each, and send them all over the country to all the police stations—they're the likeliest places—and see if we can't hear something of the original. She'll hardly have changed much in the time, anyhow."
This rather crude notion of the captain's was accordingly carried out, but with the only effect of accentuating the former worry and distress. Replies and photographs arrived in heaps from most of the seaports of the United Kingdom, the former, as often as not, having nothing at all to do with the matter in hand; the latter as much resembling the copy as, to quote the incensed skipper, "a purser's shirt on a handspike resembled a main-topsail." Also many of the women who had obtained a picture, and, by a curious optic delusion, recognised their own features therein, came in person to Spurrell's lodgings, and when rejected, still unconvinced, claimed travelling expenses on a high scale. The affair had a comical side, but it struck neither Captain Britton nor his mate in that aspect, and the pair were only too glad when the Minerva was once more bowling down the English Channel outward bound.
Two more years went by, and Captain Britton, resigning to take the billet of ships' husband, and bringing all the weight of his influence to bear on the company he had served so long and so well, was enabled to secure for Spurrell the vacant post of master of the Blue Star liner.
In these latter days of tremendous competition, and freights narrowed to the merest selvage of profit, speed, in the case of the "sailer" especially, is the only way to spell profit. And Spurrell, well knowing this, and favoured by a run of luck, made such passages in the Minerva as broke every record, and also brought grist to her owners' mill. Any fool can "crack on"; but it takes a wise man to know when his ship is doing a fair thing and is unable to stand another yard of canvas.
Spurrell possessed this gift in a very eminent degree, and if he took in sail it was to increase speed—paradoxical as this may seem to the uninitiated—not to slacken it. Many a man carries his foresail until it does more harm than good, when, if stowed, the log would show an extra half-knot. And Spurrell sent the old Minerva until her name and her captain's became as household words amongst the world of seafarers and shippers, as much in British as in Antipodean ports. Thus, when the Blue Star Line owners began the inevitable "turning into steam." Captain Spurrell was the man selected to command the first boat—a 4,000-ton cargo-passenger—twelve-knotter. The Minerva was sold to a Norwegian firm, and the steamer named after her. Belfast turns some fine work off her stocks, and the new Minerva was one of the finest. From her hydraulic cranes to her side-light towers, from her electric installation to her triple expansions and steam steering-gear, all her furniture was of the best and latest. A fine and spacious saloon amidships with a couple of score of roomy berths proved an attraction to travellers tired of the cat-swinging accommodation of the purely passenger lines. And at one end of the saloon, occupying the whole of a panel of polished bird's-eye maple, Spurrell had hung an enlarged and very fine framed photograph of the picture in the locket. Some day, he thought, one or other of the people he carried might recognise the smiling features which, without possessing any claim to beauty, yet by their winning, pleasant expression caused many a man to pause and involuntarily smile back and think he would like to know this "friend o' the capting's, sir," as any of the stewards could tell him she was. As a matter of fact, John Dibbs, the boatswain of the Minerva, was the only man on board who, knowing his captain's story, felt no doubt as to whom the portrait represented. But Dibbs—who had parted from one name with as much facility as he had picked up another—kept his mouth shut. And if rumours of the captain's misfortune now and again leaked out it was through no fault of his. Ever since the day he had stood on the old Minerva's main royal yard and sighted the white chip of a boat floundering about with its ghastly cargo he had conceived a sort of humble proprietary affection for the man his keen sight had rescued. Thus when, after the manner of merchant seamen, the rest of the old crew had scattered, John Dibbs, promoted to be quartermaster, stuck to the ship voyage after voyage, rising to be boatswain as soon as Spurrell took command; and, now, moving with the same rating into the great steamer. There he was a personage with a uniform, and three mates under him, who flew at the sweet chirpings of his silver whistle. The comfort and advantage to the rest of the executive of a good boatswain on board a ship passes all understanding. And John Dibbs turned out a very first-class petty officer, and was accordingly respected and esteemed, both by the Deck, who trusted him implicitly, and by the Engine-room—although between these powers there was at times the feud that seems inevitable.
With his passengers the captain was a favourite. Although somewhat grave and reserved, he yet showed all possible concern for their amusement, safety, and comfort. And this reputation having preceded him, the Minerva's saloon on her maiden trip was filled with a very superior class of people to those generally found on a freighter. And it was confidently predicted that the Minerva's time would not be so very much behind that of the subsidized liners on the shorter route. Presently events happened that made this prediction far more than fulfill itself.
If Captain Spurrell was more particular about any one thing than another it was in the matter of keeping a look-on. On no man-o'-war could a sharper double watch have been maintained both by night and by day than on the Minerva, and to lounge or drowse and fail to report a light or a sail from high forward bridge or forecastle-head before it was seen from amidships was an almost unpardonable fault. By some of his officers this "fad" was looked upon as an excess of precaution, although John Dibbs could have given them a reason for it if he had so pleased. The boatswain knew his commander was thinking of the plight he had himself been rescued from by virtue of a sharp glance shot as a mere matter of habit, not of duty; knew, also, that it was the same spirit of compassion for all castaways that made him on each voyage run as close as he dared to those lonely mid-ocean rocks such as St. Paul's, Amsterdam, Kerguelen, etc., on which men are wrecked and left to eat their hearts out in misery and despair for months together.
During the summer of 1896, as all seafarers will remember, the ice in the great Southern Ocean floated farther and in heavier masses to the northward than had ever been known before. Thus when the Minerva, staying nowhere, and still with half-full bunkers, came tearing along the 44th parallel on her way, this time to Port Chalmers, N.Z., she presently found herself going at quarter speed, dodging the great bergs as they drove solemnly up in scores from their homes around the shores of Antarctica to warm their frozen toes in the Gulf Stream.
And one fine, bright day, the big steamer making along a wide lane between ranks of glittering ice mountains, a shout arose from her fo'c's'le-head as, on turning a corner, a ship suddenly came in sight. She was sitting nearly upright on a long, low, curly peninsula of ice only a few feet above the water, and attached like a tail to a massive berg resembling an alligator in its outlines. The vessel herself was bedded to the lower edge of her painted port streak; her topgallant and royal masts still hung in a glistening maze of wreckage adown top and lower masts; her jibboom, snapped short off, trailed on the ice, whilst her empty davits and overhauled falls told their own story. Frozen snow covered her decks and yards and gear, and the pale sun lit her up with a cold white glitter, in which the only spot of colour was the galley funnel that stood tall and black amidst the dazzle. She was a large, square-rigged iron ship of some 1,400 tons or so, and she looked inexpressibly lonely and forlorn sitting there as she had sat for years, perhaps, in the regions of perpetual ice and snow that girdle the Southern Continent, until the massed bergs, moved by some mysterious impulse, had simultaneously broken camp and sailed away into strange waters.
As the Minerva slowed down and became stationary opposite the curious scene a few of the passengers requested the captain to let them go in the boat that was being prepared to discover, if possible, something respecting this white waif, for news of whom far-away souls might be still hungering. This is every shipmaster's duty, and no man felt it more particularly his own than the captain of the Minerva, who himself took charge of the boat. Coasting along the curved outline of the tail, a slippery and dangerous landing place was found at its extreme tip. Up this the captain and Dibbs scrambled, with another seaman or two carrying shovels and picks, and three or four of the most determined of the passengers, whilst the rest stopped in the boat. There was no trouble in ascending the hard snow-bank that had drifted along her sides, and so over her rail inboard. But the spades had to be used before access could be gained to the saloon doors from the break of the poop. Meanwhile, one of the men had been busy clearing the ship's bell of ice, and he, presently deciphering the inscription, shouted, "Diana, of Cardiff!" and struck eight in reply to the steamer's time just then sounding. And the people on the wreck started nervously and stared aloft as the strokes ran sharply back from the berg above them. Despite the bright sun and the calm sea there was something inexpressibly solemn about the whole scene. "Just like opening a vault," whispered one passenger to another, with a shiver. At last, filing through the narrow passage, they stood in the saloon, a fine large sea-parlour, well lit now the snow had been cleared away from the poop skylights, and with everything apparently in place and order. The lamp still swung unbroken from the deck; the decanters in the tray still contained liquor; a piano stood against the after-bulkhead, some stray music-sheets lay near it upon the carpet, and a fine clock hung against the polished panelling of the mizzen-mast, making the hour twelve. Five or six shut doors along the side of the saloon gave on to berths. Some of these were empty, others seemed exactly as the occupants had left them, suits of clothes depending from the wall, nautical books and instruments on shelves, pictures and photographs stuck here and there. Evidently these had been inhabited by the ship's officers.
"I've been for'ard," whispered a sailor to Dibbs, in an awestruck voice, "an' right from the fore-mast to the eyes of her the decks is ruz like the roof of a 'ouse. She's been nipped bad. An' down in the fo'c's'le is four or five dead men lyin' among blocks ov ice as come through a big gash in the port bow. You'd best tell the skipper."
The latter had, on first entering, stared around with a puzzled, curious glance, and made his way straight to a large cabin right aft, remarking, "I must try and find the ship's books." And here, presently, the boatswain found him, seated at a table, a log-book open in front of him, and with a bewildered kind of expression in his eyes as he looked up from his reading. "Diana, of Cardiff!" he muttered; "Semple, master; salt laden, from Sharpness to Melbourne. And the date of last entry is June eight years back! Why, John, that would be almost exactly the time, wouldn't it?"
"It would, sir," replied the boatswain, knowing very well what the reference meant. "But surely, sir, you don't mean as this craft have been setting here all them years." The captain made no answer, but, rising, went hither and thither about the berth, taking up things and laying them down again in an aimless, uncertain sort of way. "More light!" he exclaimed, presently, for the place was dim by reason of the snow drifted against the stern windows. Striking a match, the boatswain lit a large Rochester lamp, that burned as if only just trimmed, and shed a fine light around. The captain was standing in the centre of the room, his brows knit painfully and his gaze wandering in anxious fashion from object to object. A passenger entered and stared around curiously; and presently, his eye catching sight of a silk curtain attached by rings to a brass rod, he suddenly drew it aside, revealing a large oil painting of a woman and a child, the latter a fine-looking boy of about three or four.
"By Jove!" he exclaimed, "it's the lady in the Minerva's saloon—only a bit older"
The lamp cast its soft rays full on the picture as the boatswain and the passenger stood and looked at it. Suddenly a strange voice behind them said, "It's Bessie and little Frank!" and, turning, Dibbs was just in time to catch the captain in his arms as he lurched headlong over towards him quite insensible and motionless.
Placing the body on a couch, whilst his rugged face grew pale with excitement, he sent one of his mates to hail the steamer for the doctor.
"It's his own ship!" be exclaimed to the wondering group of seamen and passengers in the saloon. "Eight long years ago, an' to come acrost her this way! What did the old skipper say, only that the Lord'd sort out the raffle in His own good time? An' He's took all them years to do it! But it's come at last, straight jinkum! An' if our skipper here gets his memory back, blest if I don't join the Salvation Harmy!"
The doctor was a young man, and in front of this sudden responsibility he became flurried. "Its serious," he said, "A fit of some kind. He must be taken on board at once,"
"Not a bit of it, sir," replied the boatswain. "It's his last show for pullin' up his lost bearin's. Put him in his cot there, where p'r'aps he's swung many a time afore, an' let him see the things he's been used to in the old days when he wakes, an' the chances are that his memory'll retarn with the sight ov 'em."
"But I say he must be taken to his own ship, where I can make a proper examination," exclaimed the other, angrily.
"An' I say he sha'n't!" retorted the boatswain; "an' Mr. Locker'll back me up, won't you, sir?" he added, appealing to the chief officer, who had arrived in the second boat. "Mebbe," he continued, "his mind's overhaulin' of itself even now. What's more, I don't believe it's any fit. I seen fits afore. Why, he's asleep 'ard and fast. An' I don't leave him till he wakes neither."
"There's something in what the bo'sun says, doctor," remarked the mate, looking anxiously at the captain, who certainly appeared to have fallen into no more than a very sound slumber. "And if this really is the ship, preserved by almost a miracle amongst the snow and ice, that he once commanded, and in one of whose boats he lost his memory, why, it might be better, as Dibbs says, to let him open his eyes on old associations."
"Oh, very well," replied the doctor, huffily, "only remember you take all responsibility."
So they lifted the captain into the cot he might have slept in eight years ago, and turned his head so that when he awoke the picture should be the first thing to meet his gaze.
"There's dead men in the fo'c's'le, sir," said Dibbs, as he sat and watched the captain's calm face. "Killed lying in their bunks, some of 'em, Brown tells me. She must ha' got jammed in the night most likely. An' then, thinkin' she were goin' down, all han's took to the boats. But, instid o' sinkin', she worked up on to the ice, an' in time bedded herself like she is now, an' got carried away south to the big pack an' stayed there."
"Likely enough," replied the mate, "It's a curious thing, though, all the same, if she should turn out to be his ship. But with that picture before me I can scarcely doubt it." Picking up a pair of fine marine glasses that the captain had dropped when he fell he read an inscription on a silver plate, "Presented to Captain Edward Semple, of the British ship Diana, by King Oscar II of Sweden and Norway, for rescuing the crew of the barque Ellen, of Hammerfest, under circumstances of the greatest peril and difficulty.
"That, I suppose, is his proper name, then?" remarked the mate, "and not Spurrell. Wonder where he got that one from? "
But the boatswain apparently was not listening, for he made no reply. In the Diana's lower forecastle was a dismal sight. The iron plates on the port side had been smashed and turned inwards on the men as they lay in their bunks, killing three, it must have been almost instantly, and hurling three more terribly wounded out on to the deck, only to be smothered under great fragments of ice that were forced violently through the wide aperture. And all the bodies now, both above and beneath, were coated in thick ice in such wise that the drawn features and contorted limbs could be as clearly seen as if embedded in glass. The Minerva's men had shovelled the snow away from the big, square scuttle, and taking it off allowed the sun, now overhead to stream down and fill the forecastle from end to end, revealing things so that every feature of the entombed dead men stood out with ghastly distinctness. Here you might note where the sharp and jagged iron tore its way through the breast of one; there, where the cruel plate forced down had cut clean through the legs of another. And on every white face was the impress of sudden terror and agony, emphasized by staring eyes and open mouth. Standing there it was easy, indeed, to imagine that dreadful midnight shock, the wild dismay of the survivors of the watch below as they rushed on deck, the grinding and clashing of ice against iron, the banging and clattering aloft of canvas and falling spars, whilst the upheaving of her planks and girders till they resembled a hog's back under the pressure told of damage irremediable to frame and hull.
No power or skill of seamanship could have saved her once the ice let go its grip, for from galley to bows all her bones were crushed and broken in addition to the great rent that lapped the water-line. And yet, after all, the ice had not loosened, and she had been preserved and borne up in safety all these years by the Hand of God for a purpose of His own! Very many matters that on land would fill columns of the newspapers and be deemed most strange and most wonderful happen at sea and pass unchronicled other than by a curt paragraph in the "shipping news." This meeting with the Diana was one of such incidents.
"Put the hatch on again, men," said the mate, in a low voice. "Those poor fellows can't do better than where they are. Presently, perhaps, they will make back whence they came, and stay there frozen hard and fast till the Resurrection, kept sweet and fresh to answer their names when the last watch is mustered."
Coming on deck Mr. Locker looked anxiously at the Minerva, her engines idle for the first time since leaving London, and her firemen crowding the rail and gazing eagerly at the stranded ship. On the promenade deck there was a flash of colour from women's dresses; on the bridge the second mate stumped to and fro, the sunlight catching the polished binnacle and telegraphs, and flashing the reflection on to him, so that he appeared as if enveloped in a haze of yellow flame. The avenue of bergs had split up and scattered, some hanging together, and making fantastic groups and chains, others moving slowly along in solitary state before the light S.E. breeze. Altogether the scene, to one situated so as to take in the whole of it—the castaway sitting upright, solemn, glistening in her spotless robes on the tail of the sprawling berg that sloped away from her into the grotesque caricature of some huge saurian; the big, black steamer lying just opposite, a thin flag of smoke creeping out of her tall, buff funnel, blue starred; the sunshine and brightness everywhere of that exceptional Southern day; and the fleecy, floating monsters, spired and turreted, dotting the bluish-green water under a cloudless sky—altogether the scene, I say, to the spectator would have been an impressive and beautiful one, even for such a capacious stage.
But Mr. Locker, as was perhaps natural considering his responsibility, saw only a delayed steamer and some nasty lumps of ice; the derelict he regarded as a tragical nuisance, and the weather he sniffed at suspiciously as too good to last. Besides, he was genuinely grieved and solicitous about the captain, whom, although only on his first trip with him, he already liked and respected.
The hours passed slowly until it became late in the afternoon, and the mate fretted and fumed, and the doctor sulked, whilst the passengers wondered; and the engineers exulted and made the most of their unexpected chance, twisting like acrobats in and out amongst their cooling cylinders, valves, pistons, eccentrics, shaftings, and bearings; tapping, tightening, oiling, and screwing. And throughout the slow hours the captain never stirred an eyelash; and often John Dibbs, motionless at his side, anxiously leant forward to make certain the regular, though faint, respiration had not completely stopped. Then, all at once, as the sound of the steamer's bell striking eight for the third time that day came across the water, the captain opened his eyes and fixed them intently on the picture, and with an expression in them that the boatswain had never seen there before—one of infinite peace and content.
"Bessie!" he whispered, presently. "And little Frank!" Then, sitting up, he looked at the boatswain and smiled, saying; "John, I fancy I must have slept."
"Aye, aye, sir," replied John Dibbs; "I fancy so, too. Only a little matter o' eight hours right off the reel."
"None too long, John," replied the captain, getting off his cot, "to recover the loss of eight long years."
"Is that so, Captain Semple?" asked the other, with emphasis, his face lighting up as he spoke.
"It is so, thank God," replied the captain, reverently. "Directly I stepped on board this ship a curious feeling crept over me of having been here before. In the saloon it became stronger. In here stronger still. Then when I saw Bessie there and Frank I felt sick and ill with the certainty that the time appointed had arrived at last. Did I faint, John?"
"Doctor said it was a fit," said the boatswain, shortly. "But I knowed better. Wanted to take you to the steamer, I put my pawl on that, an' Mr. Locker backed me up. But the missis, sir?" he asked, anxiously, "and the young 'un?"
"Alive and well, I'm sure," said the captain; "something tells me so. I have had dreams, John, and I saw my girl and the boy as I left them last in the little Welsh village under Cader Idris. And Bessie turned and smiled at me—which I take for a good sign. Do you know, John, that I served in this ship from apprentice to master, and that I was married in the saloon yonder? Little wonder is it that the foul hawse in my brain cleared at the sight of the old spot again! Give me your arm, I feel a bit weak and shaky yet. And, oh, that awful time in the boat!" And the captain shuddered and his face blanched as recollection's light came streaming strongly into the long-darkened chambers of the brain. "Mr. Locker, I'm going on board," he continued, as the mate came forward and congratulated him on his recovery. "Will you please get all the things out of my old berth yonder into the boat? I'll send you another one and more hands. Ah, yes, the poor fellows in the fo'c'sle? Still there; you say? A wondrous thing, indeed, after all these years. Yes, you did quite right not to disturb them. Now, doctor, will you kindly see me on board the steamer? John, let that picture be your especial care, I'm still feeling a little mixed. Poor old Diana! It went to my heart to leave you on that terrible night! And to think that I should find you only to leave you once more alone with your dead seamen. Fourteen years, boy and man, I called you my home. Farewell now for ever. You've done your appointed work and given me my lost life back again. Farewell, old ship!" And being by this time in the departing boat, he took off his cap and saluted the derelict.
Two hours afterwards the Minerva's screw revolved, and her ensign fluttered thrice from her peak halliards whilst her siren blared as many times in shrill farewell to the silent, lonely ship, flushing a rosy pink in the setting sun, and looking inexpressibly solemn and tragic to those who now knew her story and the secret of that icy sepulchre where her men lay awaiting the Last Day, staring with wide-open eyes.
That evening, after dinner, the captain told his story to a full saloon of wondering people, both seafarers and passengers of all degree. Told it from the minute the Diana, one thick, dark night, was caught and crushed in the ice; of how, thinking she was foundering, the crew, terrified at the dreadful fate of those others, rushed the boats, taking their officers with them by main force; of how, amongst the grinding ice, after the first few hours they got separated; of his subsequent sufferings in the boat and the death of his companions, ending when he awoke to consciousness and a lost lifetime on board the Minerva. He spoke of his desperate struggles to avoid the despair ever tugging more or less at his heart during those dark years; he told of the firm, true friends his misfortunes had found for him; and, lastly, with a catch in his voice and quivering lips, he spoke of his dear wife and his by now eleven-year-old son, expressing his certain faith that, as it had pleased Almighty God in such a marvellous fashion to restore his memory, He would not leave His work half done, but would very presently crown it by a joyful reunion.
And when he finished, standing upright at the head of his table in the crowded saloon, amongst all his hearers was scarce a dry eye.
As he sat down there was a long pause, broken only by the sobbing of the women. Then suddenly the sweet shrilling of a silver pipe sounded through the ship, followed immediately by a long, hoarse roar from the boatswain, just outside, of "Three cheers for Captain Semple, an' the missis, an' the kid!" responded to as if by magic from a hundred and fifty throats rising from engine-room to bridge and back to saloon again and again, till the great ship rang to the storm of voice, and her look-out men watching the tall bergs glimmering pale through the darkness fancied they saw them shiver and tremble as the sound smote their cold breasts.
Such was the manner of the second christening.
"What can we get out of her at a pinch, Mr. McPhair?" asked the captain, later, as the chief engineer entered his state-room.
"Weel, sir," replied the other, cautiously, "she's offeecially eendicated a twal-knot boat, which means thirrteen at the vera ootside, ye ken. Whiles I might knock anither half oot o' her. However, it's mair a question o' coal nor aught else. The engines is gude enough."
"It's exactly 5,900 miles from where we are to Otago Harbour," replied the captain; "I want to get there in a fortnight. Can't you help me?" McPhair gave a long, low whistle, pocketed both hands, and had already begun to set his hard face into even more than its native stubbornness, when suddenly he remembered, and, looking up and meeting the captain's gaze, opened his heart and responded as far as in him lay to what he saw there.
"If I canna'," said he, taking out a hand and gripping the other's warmly, "there's nae ither body can." That was all he said. But by-and-by the captain heard sounds far below amongst the machinery that he had never heard before. A heavy jar of flowers on a table first quivered and then began to dance a reel; the ship shook as if all her bolts in all her plates were being loosened; whilst the usual dull thump, thump of the engines was exchanged for a sharp, metallic, clashing rattle. Coming out on to the bridge and looking for'ard he saw two great mounds of white water on the bows, each as high as the foot of the lighthouses, and that so steadily kept their place as to appear motionless, although all the time pouring away aft in streams of foam.
"I'm afraid something must be wrong in the engine-room, sir," remarked Mr. Locker, as he braced himself to the vibrating bridge.
"I think not," replied the captain, smiling in the darkness. "Ask the quartermaster to see what we're doing under forced draught."
"Sixteen and a half, sir!" reported the mate presently, with a note of awe in his voice. "Engines must ha' run away from old Mac!" But suddenly, by the chartroom lamps, catching sight of the captain's face, he understood; and, being comparatively a young man, he took off his cap and waved it, and exclaimed, "Hurrah, sir, ten days of this will bring you to the cable and good news from home!"
"Please God it may!" replied the captain, fervently.
"Light is bright to starboard—and all's well!" chanted a man in tones sounding clear and mellow above the rush of water and clash of steel and brass, answered instantly by, "Light is bright to port—and all's well!"
And all was well.
"Now, does any man want a good billet—a real, rosy chance?" asked Captain Gower of the twelve seamen who constituted the crew of the schooner Alert, just then lying at anchor in a beautiful bay on the east side of Aoba, in the New Hebrides,
"There you are," continued the skipper, waving his arm comprehensively towards the shore, "a fine house to live in; wives by the dozen to pick an' choose from; nothin' much to do, an' a climate as can't be beat in the South Seas. Fifteen quid a month is the wages, and a percentage on every ton of stuff that's got in. An' what can the heart o' man desire more?"
"Christian burial, captain," replied a voice; "a thing which ain't to be found inside of a nigger."
"It was his own dashed fault entirely," retorted the captain. "If he'd kept off the grog he'd been alive and kickin' at this present minute. Any man as likes to live square and keep a sharp eye on the niggers can do as well—better a lot than I'm able to, even as master o' this craft."
"Then why don't you take the job, captain?" asked the same voice. "Less jaw, Bill Jones," replied the latter, hotly, "You've got far too much o' what the cat licks her face with. Now, lads, I'll give twenty pounds! That's the last penny. Old Jack the Whaler was only gettin' the fifteen. But it's an important station, and I know the firm want to keep it going, so I'll spring the other fiver an' chance the row.
"That's right, Mister Scott," he continued, presently, and with emphasis on the handle, as after a pause I came out from the group of men gathered at the break of the little poop, and signified that I would take his offer, "You're just the man I was hopin' for. You've had a boat o' your own, an' ain't got no business here afore the mast in mine. Only a few months, an' with luck ye'll be able to start again."
"A lot o' luck!" croaked the irrepressible Jones, whilst the remainder of my shipmates looked at me much as they might at one about to commit suicide.
But I cared little, I was fairly young, confident in an extensive knowledge of other islands, and thought it curious if I couldn't manage to rub along on Aoba, despite its bad name and the old sailor's blood not more than just dry on the veranda over yonder. Only a short time before this I had owned as fine a schooner as the Alert, with which I had been trading between Fiji and the Solomons—some day I'll tell you how I lost her—and I felt it hard lines to have to begin again in the fo'c's'le. So, as you see, at the five-pound rise I accepted the post so lately vacated by Jack the Whaler, clubbed and eaten a few days previously. This had been the first news brought on board by old chief Teroa as we dropped anchor in the bay. And of course the store was looted—every article cleared out by those bad, wicked men from the interior. Luckily he, Teroa, had managed to save the building, for which he hinted we owed him something more than gratitude.
"As thick in it as the others," commented Gower to me, after, ironically complimenting Teroa on his intervention. "Found poor old Jack tight I suppose, and the trade lying all about nohow, the niggers did, and weren't able to resist the temptation. Curse it, you couldn't expect anythin' else at the price! However, we've got lots of stuff, Scott, an' 'll soon set you up again. But you'll have to keep an eye liftin'. If they'll eat a tough, dry morsel like old Jack, they won't think twice about goin' for a young an' fat 'un like you. Hang me if I don't think Teroa's mouth's waterin' now!"
This was decidedly unkind of the captain after getting him out of his difficulty as I had done. And to punish him I affected to be frightened and to reconsider my decision. Nor would I finally make up my mind until he offered me as a parting gift a fine Tranter's revolver, with holster and belt, the possession of which I hinted might settle my doubts. After this he forbore chaff, and we loaded a boat with trade and pulled ashore, taking the precaution to have another one as a coverer full of armed men.
But nothing could have been more cordial than our reception at the beach by crowds of natives, who willingly assisted the crew to carry the cases and bales of stuff up to the store. Nor was anybody guilty of having the bad taste to refer ever so distantly to its late owner, now in all probability part and parcel of themselves. The building was of very thick slabs well fitted together, and provided with massive doors and shuttered windows, the whole surrounded by an old palisade of sharp-pointed saplings. A coat of whitewash made from coral lime gave the house the look of a birthday cake, and, so far, I was well satisfied with it. The situation, too, could not be better—on a sloping knoll commanding a fine view of the beach and the palm-fringed bay, whilst farther out still, like a dome of indigo, loomed lofty Aurora Island. Close by to the left, but invisible by reason of dense plantations of cocoa and sago palms and bananas, lay the native village. At the back gentle hills ran gradually up to the great mountain 3,000ft. high, and everywhere about the former one could see patches of taro, yams, etc., surrounded by woven pig-proof hedges and stone walls. Never, I thought, as I stood on the veranda and looked around, had I in my Pacific travels seen anything more beautiful. A creeper had overrun the palisade and poured perfume on the fresh morning air from millions of small, pink, trumpet-shaped blossoms; crotons, with leaves curiously striped in red, and black, and yellow, nodded to the sea-breeze; and just behind the house flamed a clump of scarlet hibiscus mingled with prickly pandanus.
Gazing at the peaceful scene and letting my eyes wander away to the deep blue of the water that kissed the snowy beach, both contrasting so sharply with the sombre background of natural forest, relieved here and there by the lighter green of cultivation, it was difficult indeed to believe that one stood in cannibal-land surrounded by fierce savages thirsting for blood, and only kept at bay by the hope of presently finding another victim unprepared. Hard indeed to realize all this, until my glance presently fell on the great broad patch of brown that marked where the people of this island paradise had so lately clubbed my predecessor.
"The brutes!" growled Gower, coming out of the store from which a door opened on to the two-roomed living-house, "they might ha' left the copra an' stuff. Not a scrap! Downright mean that, I call it. You'll have to buy it all over again, for, o' course, they'll come sneakin' back with it presently."
Around the fence sat rows of the peculiarly light-skinned Aobans, male and female, chattering away to each other, the former dressed chiefly around their wrists and ankles with boars' tusks and strings of shells; the latter wearing a double-tailed kirtle of plaited grass just big enough to swear by.
Gower was in a hurry to get away; so that evening he went on board, promising to return in a couple of months. Also, he declared his intention of asking the first warship he met to call and hold an inquiry into the murder of Jack the Whaler.
I won't deny that as the men, just about sundown, solemnly and silently shook hands with me and trooped off to the boat I felt lonely. But I wasn't going to show it, and said "good-bye" cheerfully enough.
Old Jack, it appeared, had been a confirmed bachelor and woman-hater, so that there was little show of comfort or cleanliness about the single room he made serve for all purposes. Except Teroa, all the natives had gone. But that grey old scamp hovered around cackling in "sandalwood" English about the wonderful things he was going to do for me presently; and, on the strength of them, begged first a stick of "bacca," then a pipe; then, unsatisfied, he took a fancy to a knife, at which imposition on good nature I drove him forth with profanity into the night. Evidently he was taking my measure in view of future operations, As to the length of his foot I was quite satisfied. In his younger days he had been "recruited" for Queensland, spent three years on the plantations, and learned more there than is fitting any savage should know and live. And when I noted how his bleary, bloodshot old eyes had snapped at sight of my well-stocked store-room I instinctively felt that the chances were he could, if he so pleased, tell a story in which those alleged hill-men who had swooped down on poor Jack would bear an extraordinary likeness to some of his subjects we had that day seen around us.
Yes, decidedly it was lonely. The place was so still; no noise on sea or land—there is no surrounding reef at Aoba. Absolute silence everywhere on this first night as I sat eating a supper of sardines and biscuits, washed down with gin and water, by the light of a couple of candles stuck in bottles. A rat ran across the floor and made me jump again as I caught its shadow. Decidedly this wouldn't do. I must have company. The place was too quiet altogether. After a while I went outside again and sat on the veranda and smoked and watched the Alert's riding light, and thought with something like regret of my vacant bunk in her snug fo'c's'le, of the fellows playing euchre and yarning, and of how Bill Jones was probably just now prophesying my speedy absorption into savage muscular and adipose tissue. Then I discovered that I was sitting nearly upon that dismal, dark-brown patch, and I shifted hastily away to the other end of the veranda, hating myself all the time for having to do so. In my ten years of life as a sort of second-class gentleman-adventurer I never remember my nerves being so much out of tune as they were that night. At last, getting sleepy, I went to bed, or rather lay down all standing, as we say at sea, on a pile of mats and rugs, with my two revolvers handy, and never woke till sunrise.
I knew the Alert was to have sailed that night. All the same, when I rose, the bay looked miserably empty, lacking the schooner. Throughout the morning I was busy unpacking cases of axes, tomahawks, mirrors, clocks, tobacco, beads, and all sorts of "Brummagem" stuff. Then I had a wash, put on a suit of white ducks, broad-leafed Panama hat, and canvas shoes, stuck a cigar in my mouth, and, quite tired of "baching," went down to the village to look for a housekeeper. The Aoban maidens are, perhaps, the prettiest and most graceful of all women in the Western Pacific. Thus it was presently quite a matter of embarrassment to pick and choose amongst the crowd of laughing, chattering, dark eyed belles, who seemed to know intuitively what I wanted.
"Me wifee you? Missi make it all ee same white Mary," said one of the prettiest of the lot, with fine, regular features, beautiful teeth and eyes, and a complexion not a bit darker than a Spaniard—nay, much less so than many.
"Halloa!" I said, rather taken aback, "is there a missionary here, then? And where did you learn to speak so finely, my pretty fair maid?"
Then I discovered that a missionary came over now and again from Espiritu Santo, twenty-five miles away, on a boat trip around these smaller islands. On one of these occasions he and his wife had taken Kuahua home with them, and she had stayed at the mission station for some time. Well, I cottoned to the girl at once, and all the more so when I learned that she had only one relative—an uncle—in the whole tribe. I had seen too many married traders eaten out of house and home by hordes of hungry hangers-on, all claiming kinship, until at last the luckless one had to take to the beach stone-broke. No, certainly, I had no mind for that sort of thing. Nor much, indeed, to be tied up hard and fast to any island girl, no matter how good-looking she might be. But I knew enough of "Missi" to be sure that, unless the thing was done properly and on the square, there'd be the deuce to pay. Some traders are always at loggerheads with the missionaries, not scrupling to tell them what they think of them in language more plain than polite. This I have found is a mistake. Missi—barring a few fads—is as often as not a real good sort, and when you've got him on your side you stand a better show to have your copra-house full than the other fellow who cuts up rough at religion.
As luck would have it, I could talk the Mota Island dialect pretty fluently; and as this is a sort of Pacific Volapuk—at least in many parts, of which I presently discovered Aoba to be one—I got on like a house afire.
And the more I yarned to Kuahua the more I was attracted by her. Not even when I discovered that the uncle in question was that cunning old badger Teroa was I to be choked off. And, on her part, the girl seemed to have taken an equal fancy to me. By this time all the others, thinking, I suppose, that the matter was settled, had drawn away, leaving me and Kuahua sitting together on a log lying upon what was really the central green of the village, although so shrouded were the huts in thick foliage that only a bit of thatch was visible here and there through the bananas and pandanus leaves. Still, everywhere around I could hear chucklings and low whisperings that assured me of many hidden watchers. You might think, perhaps, from her preliminary speech that Kuahua was a forward minx, and one only too apt to take the initiative. But when we dropped the "sandalwood talk" and started on Mota I found, on the contrary, that she was a modest little thing enough, and one, too, with an innate love of fun and chaff, that had prompted her to make that somewhat startling advance to the stranger. Well, I thought there was no use in beating about the bush. I looked forward presently to having a ship of my own again, and didn't see why, like so many other skippers, I shouldn't have a home and a wife and family to welcome me back after my trips. So I asked her to send her uncle up to the store, gave her a kiss in token of a bargain made, and strolled off again.
I didn't know the etiquette of Aoba as regarded taking a wife from amongst the daughters of the land. But one thing I was sure of, knowing her precious uncle as I did, and that was that I should have to pay through the nose for her. And so it proved. Teroa was at the store nearly as soon as I was. And the airs the old villain gave himself were wonderful to witness. You'd ha' thought the place belonged to him. This wasn't good enough, and that wasn't of first quality, and so on till at last he got me wild, and I threatened to brain him with a tomahawk. Then he became a little more moderate, and at last the deal was concluded for some two pounds' worth of trade, which, of course, I debited to wages account in my books.
After he had been gone an hour a whole crowd of girls arrived with Kuahua. She had dropped the kirtle she wore when I first saw her and now, in honour of the occasion, sported an old, dirty print skirt, put on wrong side foremost, and a dungaree jumper that it struck me might well have been the property of the late whaler. Her long, black hair was stuck full of orchids and flame flowers, and looked just then the best part of her, for they'd painted one side of her nose red and the other white, and her cheeks were streaky with black and yellow. However, I took delivery; made a little speech, and handed out some two-pound tins of treacle and a score or so of ship's biscuits as my contribution to the wedding feast. And they all sat down in a circle and then and there started operations. First unscrewing the lid, one dipped her finger in the molasses and licked it clean, and by that time the tin was round again. They were all young things about the same age as Kuahua, fifteen or sixteen, and the noise they made was something astonishing, especially when one tried to come the double by dipping out of her turn. The biscuits they took away with them, and the empty treacle-tins I saw afterwards cut up for ornaments.
As soon as they were gone I got Kuahua to wash herself; and having some ready-made stuff amongst the trade, I rigged her out till she looked as nice and pretty as ever. I also changed her name to Alice, her own, so far as the pronunciation went, being too much like the call of a crow to suit my fancy. I didn't expect she could cook enough to keep herself warm—so very few native women can. But to my astonishment she fried a fish and some bacon and made some scones for dinner in a style that would have been hard to beat anywhere. And she bustled about, fixing things, and unpacking the bit of furniture and my few books like a born housewife, till I blessed Mrs. Missionary, whoever she might be, and realized that, apart from the question of looks, I had acquired a real treasure, and a dirt-cheap one at that. Nor did I think any the worse of her because more than once she returned to the question of our being properly married, "just like white people." And I promised faithfully that the first time "Missi" came around she should not only be married but christened into the bargain. At this she was so pleased that she came to me and put her arms about my neck and kissed me on the mouth, the first time she had done so of her own accord, and promised to be a good wife to me all the days of her life. And—well!—one can't knock about the Islands for years without meeting all sorts of women from fair to precious bad, but I never remembered coming across one before like Alice. And it seemed absurd to think that a few weeks at a mission station could have knocked all the savagery out of her. Of course, my being able to talk to her was a big pull. But I still fancy she must have been what scientists call "a sport"—must have thrown back to some remote ancestor—perhaps one of the crews of De Quiro's or Torres's ships.
Presently, taking a sharp, three-cornered scraper, I went on to the veranda and worked away at the nasty brown patch. But the wood was soft, and I found that, no matter how deep I went, the stain showed the same, nay, brighter, Rising from my knees, I met Alice's eyes fixed on me with a strange expression in them, and as they met mine the warm, rich blood rushed to her checks, and she turned abruptly away. But I said nothing. Only, oddly enough, it struck me for the first time that, if what I suspected were true, then my newly formed family connection was not of the most reputable.
That afternoon the stuff began to come in, and right up till dark there was a constant procession to and fro along the path from village to store. Much of the copra, tortoiseshell, etc., had, I was certain, been under my roof before, and was now being repurchased. Still I made no remark, and took all that was offered—at my own price. And long ere we finished the Aobans were quite satisfied that, though fair as fair went in such matters, I was by no means a softy or a new hand at the game. Of course there were growlers. But I formulated my scale of barter, and told them to like it or lump it, because it was fixed and changeless, as the laws of the Medes and Persians we used to read about at school. Jack the Whaler, I soon found, had given them spirits in the shape of gin, and there were frequent calls for "Squareface"—so named from the square-sided bottles that the liquor is generally put up in. My firm, however, had set its veto upon both strong waters and firearms. Thus there was more grumbling. But, having a monopoly, I kept a tight hand on them all, and by sundown could say I had done a capital day's work, both for myself by getting married, and for my employers by recovering at a quarter of its original cost most of the stolen produce. And how comfortable the house looked! What a contrast to last night!
On the table a nicely-cooked meal ready on a snowy cloth, white curtains draping the windows and pretty mats the walls, a fine kerosene lamp showing plenty of light, and, last but not least, Alice, as clean and dainty as a brown pigeon, waiting to pour out the tea. Never for years had I felt so contented and comfortable as when, after supper, the pair of us lay outside on the long canvas lounge-chair whilst I smoked and listened to her prattle, some of it childish enough, but some of it full of grave matter concerning mainly our two selves and the prices of produce.
For a few weeks life was a pleasant dream, carrying only one trouble—old Teroa. For many reasons I did not wish to fall out with him: but felt that sooner or later we should come to loggerheads. And, one day, returning home from pigeon-shooting, and finding Alice in tears and her uncle, three parts drunk, rummaging in the store from which he had already helped himself to a liberal bundle of stuff, all tied up and ready to take away, I kicked him out of the yard and told him never to show his face near the place again. I also confiscated his plunder and the bottle of gin that he had abstracted from the single case I possessed. The old scamp, I found, had watched me off and then threatened to beat Alice and take her away from me.
All this to make her give up the key of the store of which, at last, he possessed himself by main force. It was a great solace to me, as I listened, to think that only that very day I had put on a pair of heavily soled Wellington boots. But Alice was desperately uneasy, and insisted that I should never go abroad, even for my morning dip, unarmed.
Shortly after this we were fishing one moonlight night just outside the narrow opening that led into the bay, when a sound of loud singing fell on our ears, and a big double canoe came flashing along from the south'ard, a score of oars rising and falling as one, whilst the rowers sang, in Mota:—
See, the Gospel ship is sailing
Straight to Canaan's happy shore;
Thousands she has safely landed,
Still there's room for thousands more.
"Missi! Missi!" shrilled Alice, and the passing canoe stopped instantly, a few strokes sending our own alongside it.
A tall, thin, grey-bearded white man rose from a lounge-chair in the stern and greeted us as Alice introduced me. At first his face was hard and stern, and he viewed me with marked disfavour. But as the girl finished a rapid explanation he thawed and shook hands. He was, it appeared, on his way from Pentecost to Santa Maria Island, some fifty miles distant. "I have been far from well of late, Mr. Scott," he said, "and perhaps may never return. So, if you'll come on board, I can marry you at once, as Kuahua—the best girl in this group or, I think, any other—tells me you are both anxious for a legal union."
This was a bit sudden, certainly. But as I never meant to back out, I came up to the scratch straightaway.
Everything was done in due form, even to the ring, I luckily happening to have a tortoise-shell one on my little finger that fitted. Then Missi prayed and the Santo boys sang a hymn, and then Missi (the Rev. George Cleveland was his name) at my request christened my wife—a ceremony that seemed to give her even more pleasure than the marriage one had done. Then the missionary, standing up, as we all knelt, solemnly blessed us, and fervently prayed that long life and happiness might be our portion. And although the whole business was altogether out of my line, I can assure you I was rather impressed, whilst Alice simply blubbered aloud.
We had by this time drifted well clear of the land; there was no breath of wind; the full moon shone on us, making things as light as day where we floated in a sea of liquid silver; in front or us rose the great mass of Aoba silent, lofty, and mysterious-looking, its deep gullies shadowed in profound blackness, whilst, here and there, protruding spurs and shoulders stood out a shimmering maze of soft, pale, green woodland under the moonbeams—a scene I have never forgotten.
Now the missionary drew up a certificate of marriage, which Alice took with a pride there was no concealing, whilst the boys, many of whom knew her, offered their congratulations. And then, after some talk—during which Mr. Cleveland, who seemed one of the real good sort, and not too fond of preaching and advising at a fellow, as are so many of his cloth, promised to give us a call if he ever returned—the oars of the big canoe cut the water again, and the boys striking up "Jerusalem the Golden," off they went like a shot.
So I, Tom Scott, was married at last! And I swear to you that as I clasped my pretty little wife in my arms on the great, white, quiet sea and listened to the words of the old hymn, sung though they were in a strange tongue, yet coming sweetly enough to us across the water, I somehow felt better and happier than I had done since I heard them so many long years ago as a child at church far away in dear old England.
But I soon had more stirring matters than my marriage to think about before the honeymoon was over. Coming out one morning I saw a schooner at anchor in the bay, and presently heard from a sub-chief named Matakisala—a good customer with whom I was on friendly terms—that she had landed a trader and stores. Teroa, it seemed, had promised the new arrival all sorts of fine things if he would only set up amongst his people. And, as earnest, the old villain had already with a gang of natives commenced to erect a house for the stranger. This was serious news for me, more especially when I discovered that the vessel belonged to a Sydney firm which was in direct opposition to ours, so far as the Island trade was concerned. My employers were Brisbane merchants, and had worked up a good business with much trouble and perseverance against these people, in spite of the latter's open disregard of the prohibition respecting drink, ammunition, and firearms which gave their agents a tremendous advantage over those of the more conscientious firm. So I well knew there were lively times ahead. Nor was I mistaken. Never a customer came near my store now. But all night long from the village proceeded the sound of drunken revelry and the discharge of guns. So, pocketing my dignity, I one morning strolled along the beach to the opposition shop, curious to see how matters were going.
To my astonishment I found that the trader was a rank new-chum—a big, fat, puffy-faced, helpless sort of creature. And he had been giving out goods on tick! No wonder I couldn't do any business! Cases of old muzzle-loading muskets, warranted to burst in a week; others of "Key" gin, kegs of gunpowder, together with all sorts of German-made rubbish, lay about in fine confusion. The trader—Lawler was his name—couldn't speak a word of any of the ten thousand languages in the Islands. Nor had he even the cheap gift of "sandalwood" talk. So that a more poor lost sheep you couldn't well imagine—surrounded as he was by crafty and treacherous savages. What sort of bowels the schooner's captain must have had to go away and leave a man like that in such a position it beat me to conceive.
As I arrived, it appeared that Lawler had shut down on any further tick He wanted copra and shell first. So far he hadn't got a pound of either. Old Teroa was bossing the show, sitting on the rough counter and demanding "Squareface." He was for buying a bottle at once, and proffered a bunch of bananas for it! But even Lawler wasn't that far gone, and refused his modest deal. Then Teroa got nasty, and, giving me a vicious look, seized a bottle out of one of the cases that had been opened, and cleared with it.
I expected to see Lawler pursue and recover the thing, if not thrash the thief into the bargain. But judge of my surprise when the fellow only smiled and said: "Well, I suppose it won't do to offend the chief. He'll settle for it and the other goods he's had all right. Treat 'em civilly. That's my plan. Kickin' don't pay hereabouts." And he sniggered in a style that at once showed me how the land lay. However, opposition or no opposition, I wasn't going to see him robbed right and left without making an effort to stop it. But I might as well have spared my breath.
He knew this and he knew that. I had been too hard and strict with the natives, therefore they were all coming to his store. I had kicked the chief, thus ruining all chance of business for my firm, and so on and so on.
"You come here givin' me advice," he concluded. "Well, if that ain't a good 'un! Why, look at these, an' then tell me as I ain't goin' the right way to work. The cheek o' some folks!" And the poor fool produced a bundle of sheets of foolscap covered with the names of natives set against the amounts debited to them, and all nicely titivated off by lines ruled in red ink. Well, he got my monkey up properly; and after letting him know in very forcible terms what his fate would presently be, I walked away home and told Alice all about it
"They'll kill him, Tom, pretty soon, now he won't give them any more stuff," said she, calmly. "That's why Teroa persuaded him to settle here. Well, that'll be so much the better for you, won't it?"
"All very fine, Mrs. Scott" (she dearly loved the title), I replied. "But hang it, he's a white man! And you know we can't stand by and look on, although he is such a confounded fool!"
"Suppose we interfere," replied my wife, sagely shaking her head, "we'll get our own goose cooked too" (she had already picked up some slang from me, and could twist it into Mota quite easily). "And once they smell blood, one white man won't satisfy 'em. Bet your life on that, Tom! Then they'll go for us. Matakisala won't help us. He's just as bad as Teroa, although he seems so soft and nice that butter won't melt on his tongue. It was he who killed Jack on the veranda."
"Why, I always put that job down to Teroa," I said, surprised.
"Oh," she said; "Teroa held his arms whilst the other clubbed him. You never asked, or I would have told before. We girls heard all about it. This way it happened:—
"'Good day,' says Teroa, coming up where Jack sat over there peeling yams. I got fine lot shell; you come along down to my house and see.'
"'Oh, go to blazes!' says Jack, very cross. 'Your shell no good—all bad colour and cracked.' Then Teroa gammon to slip, and he fell on top of old Jack and held him tight. And then Matakisala come out of the bush, and one—two—poum! poum! all over!"
"Oh," I said, "that was it, was it?"
A couple of evenings after this, learning "from information received" that matters were coming to a crisis below there, I took one of the Winchesters, buckled on my revolvers and a belt of cartridges to fit the lot, and despite the entreaties of my wife went off like a silly ass to make one last attempt at saving my rival.
Rather to my surprise there wasn't a soul about the place.
"Halloa," said I, entering the store, "all your friends deserted you, eh?"
"Not much!" said he, with that aggravating snigger of his." They've only gone to get themselves up for a grand dance they're to give me to-night."
"Oh!" said I, smelling a rat. "Now, you take my tip and come home with me, or you'll be dead meat before the morning."
"Garn!" he grinned, in his nasty, flash, Sydney fashion. "What yer givin' us? You're the sort as makes mischief, you are, maskeradin' around, piled up to the teeth with guns an' pistols."
"You won't come?" I said, desperately.
"Not half a come," said he, "Think I'm scared, like you?"
"Then God help you," I replied, solemnly, "for I can't! Listen to the brutes howling, and the drums beating as a signal for your slaughter."
"Oh, give us a rest!" he exclaimed, impatiently. "They're only preparing for the dance."
But as he spoke he came to the door and looked out, and I thought I detected an uneasy note in his voice. It was nearly dark now. And from the village, about five hundred yards away, we could see advancing a yelling, dancing crowd, amidst which here and there glittered newly-lit torches, whilst ever the big upright drums before the council-house boomed monotonously,
"I must go an' meet 'em, I suppose," said Lawler, but in rather a doubtful tone.
"If you do you'll never come back alive," I replied,
"Won't you keep me company, too?" he asked, in a mocking sort of voice that yet held a tremor in it.
"Not to-night, thanks," I said. "However, there's still time for you to clear if you know when you're well off."
But he shook his head, and, diving into the store, returned with a bottle in each hand and advanced towards the mob, now lit up by dozens of torches, whilst I slipped into the scrub and peered from behind a tree. There was just a doubt, and I thought I'd like to make sure. Before, however, he got close up to the crowd he must have seen something that frightened him, for I saw him suddenly drop the bottles and run back towards the store. The next minute they were upon him; there was a shriek or two, and a scuffle as of a lot of dogs worrying a 'possum; then the crowd divided and disclosed something white that, even as I looked, writhed feebly along the ground.
The rifle was at my shoulder with finger pressing the trigger; and in another second I should have made a fool of myself, when I saw Matakisala rush up and drive a big spear clean through the prostrate body, pinning it to the earth. Then, whilst a mob of boys slung it to poles and carried it away towards the village, the rest with shouts of triumph rushed to the store. The tree behind which I stood was close to the end of the building that faced the bush, The house had been slung together in a hurry to protect the "trade," and was composed mainly of reeds and palm-leaves. And as I now ran past this end to gain the denser shelter of a big clump of bananas, and so by a roundabout route home, a thought struck me and, returning, I lit a match and applied it to the reeds. Already the interior I could hear was full of savages, and my heart leapt as I remembered the gunpowder and made hot foot for cover. But so dry were the walls that they flamed up like kerosene, giving such a vivid and sudden light as disclosed me to some of the Aobans as they streamed out from the store in dismay. Yelling with rage, a score or so of them gave chase and, almost before I knew it, they were at my heels, The bush was thick, and, fearful of getting surrounded, I turned a little and steered for the beach. Here it was lighter, and soon arrows began to sing by me, whilst presently what I had apprehended came to pass, and many black figures appeared on the beach ahead. Knowing the bush paths so well they had taken short cuts and were now between me and the station.
I didn't want to shoot. But, as I am a poor runner and was nearly winded, I saw there was no help for it. Already one arrow had grazed my shoulder in token that my pursuers meant business, and I could hear others, now with a bullet or two, coming thicker and thicker. So, turning, I fired a couple of shots at the nearest niggers. But the starlight was bad to aim by, and I missed. The crowd in front was approaching, and matters, I thought, looked none too well for trader number two. Just then the burning store flamed up fiercer than ever, and seizing my chance as the savages showed up against the red glow, I dropped on one knee and gave them half-a-dozen plumbers that made them scatter shrieking for the shelter of the scrub, whilst almost like an echo of my shots came a fusillade ahead. Flash after flash streamed from the dark belt of bush bordering the beach; and as I soon turned my fire on that mob they, too, presently broke and fled.
"Come along, Tom!" cried a well-known voice, as I toiled through the sand. "Get up here, and you'll run better."
"Why, Mrs. Scott," I panted, as, joining her, we both made tracks for the station, "what brought you out shooting on a night like this?"
"Good thing I did come, I think," replied Alice, skipping along in front. "If I hadn't you'd never have reached home."
"Tut, tut," I replied, severely, for it's bad policy to encourage any woman in too good an opinion of herself. "I was getting along nicely when you made all that noise."
She laughed, and was about to speak when a tremendous report, followed by another, seemed to shake the island to its foundations. My wife squealed and ran back to me, and I was pleased to be able to carelessly remark: "Only poor Lawler's powder, Mrs. Scott, and I hope some dozen or so of your gentle countrymen with it."
I was glad when at last, unmolested, we gained the house, for I felt weaker than I cared to admit, the arrow wound having bled freely. At first Alice turned a sort of nasty slate colour when she saw the ragged tear, and examined it eagerly and minutely for a minute or two. Then, as the blood came back to her face, she said: "My word, Tom! I thought for a bit it was dead-man-arrow. Suppose it was, you snuff out like a candle. But it's only a fish one—all right!"
The Aobans, it seems, lay their war arrows in a piece of putrid human body till the barbs get thoroughly impregnated with the poison. A scratch from a point so prepared is held to be venomous enough to insure a most painful death. Fishing arrows, such as Alice pronounced my wound to be made by, are of course innocuous, and as soon as it was dressed with Friar's balsam and bandaged, except for a slight stiffness it felt as right as ever.
Down in the village they were kicking up an awful row, yelling and wailing and drumming.
"I suppose we'll have 'em here presently," I said.
"Not to-night," replied Alice, unconcernedly getting tea ready. "Eat t'other fellow first. My people never like dark. Too many wicked spirits go about. Come early to-morrow morning, I think, Tom, we'd better get off in a boat. No use stopping here. We can take a canoe and go over to Missi's place. I know the way all right."
"And leave the store and trade and everything to those cannibals yonder? No, Mrs. Scott, I'm blowed if I do!" I replied, angrily.
"All ritee," said Alice, with resignation, and dropping into "sandalwood," which she knew I hated to hear her at. "Aoba mans kaikai (eat) us plenty morrow. Plenty angry Teroa. Matê, matê (kill), you—me. Burn Tomkotta—Alice all ee same rat!" And she pointed to the thatched roof. My face fell as I followed her uplifted finger. Decidedly she had put it on our weak point. Still, I couldn't make up my mind to abandon so much property without a struggle. And after a good deal of argument I brought Alice round to the same view of the question. At least she agreed with all I said. But I could easily see that she was quite hopeless. Still, she went to work willingly enough to help me strengthen the place to the best of our ability. That fatal mass of reeds and grass overhead, covering the whole building, dry as tinder, and resting on a network of split bamboo equally dry, appeared, however, to paralyze all our efforts. And her prediction as to the Aobans burning us out like rats and then killing and eating us seemed in a fair way of fulfilment. A single fire-stick thrown from the scrub that ran right up to the back of the house would set everything in a blaze.
After we had done all we could by way of carrying water from the little spring, boring loopholes in the slabs, and strengthening bars and bolts, Alice went to bed and slept as calmly as a child. It was not so on my side. I knew that we could save our skins even now if I but said the word. There were lots of canoes on the beach, and nothing would be easier than to steal one whilst the savages were absorbed in their horrid ceremonies, whose wild accompaniments of yells and drummings fell on my ear throughout the night as I prowled about restless and uneasy, not at all appreciating this rude break in our honeymoon.
Just before sunrise the fun commenced with a volley of bullets and shot that rattled against the slabs and sent Alice flying for her rifle. Then a blazing lump of matting wrapped in a stone was flung on the roof. To our delight a very heavy dew had fallen over night saturating the surface of the thatch, and the fire merely fizzled and went out. Of course we knew that this was only a respite till the sun grew stronger. Still it encouraged us. Another bit of good luck now happened. Seeing a suspicious shaking amongst the tall crotons that grew along inside the yard fence I, out of mere curiosity, took a snap-shot at the place. Whereupon out sprang that treacherous devil, Matakisala, stood upright for a moment, and then plunged over full length, pulling at the tough-stemmed weeds with his fingers, and sticking his toes in the soil till he dragged himself nearly to the spot on the veranda where he had clubbed the poor "Whaler." And just there he died, apparently in great agony, shot through the spine.
There was a tremendous lot of noise and smoke on their side, but no damage done except to themselves and the rotten old muskets into which they put half a fistful of powder for a charge, with, generally, the effect of sending the marksman head over heels. Three or four I picked off through exposing themselves in this way. Alice, too, at the front of the house potted others by firing at the smoke; and presently their first enthusiastic opening cooled down considerably. But they yelled and shrieked out threats to us in Mota of what they would do in the sweet by-and-by; and at intervals a flaming test-message dropped on the yet damp thatch. As for the round bullets, moulded out of soft lead, they simply flattened against the iron wood slabs like so many bits of dough. And to our delight the day kept dull and the sky overcast. Once or twice I caught a glimpse of Teroa and shot at him without effect. They now set the low stockade on fire, and the palm palings burned away in no time, leaving only a line of smoking black embers in place of the beautiful flowering creeper This was a foolish move on their part, destroying shelter from which they might have annoyed us. But they wanted to see something going, and their yells of delight at the achievement were deafening.
Matakisala lay stretched out face downwards, his brawny, tusk-banded arms extended, and the stiff ridge of hair the Aobans affect, reaching from brow to crown, sticking out like the old-fashioned pompon on a soldier's hat. From below his narrow girdle of matting a dark stream slowly oozed, and already the ants were busy with him. Particularly friendly he had seemed, all the time doubtless watching for a chance to work the "Whaler" oracle on me. Nor had I forgotten the way he skewered that poor fool Lawler.
At this moment I caught sight of a bit of Teroa's ragged, grey beard poking round the trunk of a hibiscus sapling. I was about to fire when a sudden idea struck me, and I called Alice across to my side.
"Mrs. Scott," I said, "you're not a very good shot, but do you think you could make a hole in that lovely uncle of yours if you got a chance?"
"I'd try hard, Tom," she said, indignantly. "He'd soon do the same for me. And you didn't say I couldn't shoot last night."
"All right, then, my dear," I replied, "you watch through that corner while I open the shutter so as to give my other voice a show. If I could only patter your lingo we'd have the old rat sure. Do you ever talk Mota amongst yourselves?"
"Very seldom, except to strangers," replied Alice; "Missi and a few of the ships' men and traders."
"Well," I replied, "I'm going to try what I can do, anyhow. Keep your eye on that lump of rock there. If I have any luck you'll see Teroa make a run for it presently, and then you pot him."
It was a long time since I had practised my ventriloquial powers, and by disuse one is apt to lose the hang of the thing altogether. But now, essaying a preliminary attempt, to my great satisfaction I found that I could throw my voice into the bedroom and round the house in such wise as startled Alice half out of her wits. But, when I rapidly explained, her admiration knew no bounds, although she still seemed to think there was something uncanny about the matter.
Then, opening the shutter very quietly, I sent a call from behind the rock, imitating Alice's voice as much as possible, and ending in the long-drawn, peculiar wail that with the natives is a sign of pain or trouble:—
"Uncle! Oh, my uncle, come and fetch me. I'm frightened and want to get away—O—oh!"
The old savage's head popped fully into sight at this, and I could distinctly make out his amazed look as he stared at the big boulder whence the voice seemed to proceed.
"Come, oh, my uncle," I wailed again. "My leg's hurt by a bullet and I can't walk—O-oh!"
"Where are you?" shouted Teroa, dropping on his belly amongst a lot of thick brush. Alice translated, and I quickly replied in Mota: "Here, here, behind the stone. Come and carry me away, oh, my uncle!"
"Yes, yes, I come," replied Teroa, this time in Mota, "not to carry but to kill, oh, wicked one!" And at that he crawled out of the bush on all fours, going rapidly, gripping a short, broad-bladed knife between his teeth, and looking for all the world like a big yellow pig with a white head and a bone in its mouth.
The distance might have been twenty yards; he was already more than half-way across, and I had caught up my own rifle, when bang went Alice's from the corner, and Teroa rolled over and over as does a rabbit shot at too short range.
"Well done, Mrs. Scott," I shouted, firing again as he rose to his knees and tried to make off on one leg, dragging the other after him in such fashion as showed a broken thigh-bone. The second shot hit him in the shoulder, and bowled him over motionless. Then there was a rush of a dozen men, who caught him up and carried him off, losing three of their number in doing so.
This business got the besiegers' backs up properly, and a regular hailstorm of bullets and arrows came at us, mingled with burning lumps of mat and sennit that stuck all over the roof. Suddenly I noticed a cloud of dark smoke float away over the tops of the trees.
"We're done, old woman!" I exclaimed, as wild yells of triumph emphasized the fact. "It's caught at last!"
"Look! look, Tom!" shrilled Alice, in answer, from the front of the house. "There's a ship—a big, big one!"
Rushing across the room I peeped out and saw the finest and most tantalizing sight the world could show me just then—a British man-o'-war letting go her anchor in the bay, the red cross flag fluttering at her peak halliards. Directly I clapped eyes on her I knew her for the Scylla—a heavily armed cruiser sent out from England to take the place of an old-fashioned corvette, and a share in the dual control with France over the New Hebrides.
If they could only be brought to understand the extreme tightness of the hole we were in! But perhaps, and most likely, they, complete strangers as they were, would think that all the row was merely made by natives fighting amongst themselves. Had Gower and the Alert, I wondered, met the warship and, as he promised, sent her to inquire about the murder of Old Jack? But all that would take time, and we—Alice and I—had none whatever to spare. Already a large circular opening had burnt in the thatch and was smouldering overhead, whilst thick smoke began to fill the house. And all around us the savages were yelling like demons, darting from tree to tree and firing incessantly.
"It's a case, Mrs. Scott!" I exclaimed to Alice, who was busy chucking at the fire ineffectual dippers of water, which returned on our heads in a black stream, "We'll have to run the gauntlet to the beach—make a bolt for it. And a jolly poor show we'll stand! You buckle on this revolver and take your rifle, and come when I give the word."
Before opening the door however, and venturing on our terribly forlorn rush down the half-mile of rough scrubby country between us and the sea, we commenced a heavy fusillade to clear, if possible, the dodging niggers in front of the house. Lumps of burning thatch were now falling plentifully into the living rooms, and I knew we could not delay much longer.
Suddenly, pausing for a minute to refill the magazine of my rifle, my gaze instinctively seeking the warship, I saw that she had her boats in the water; and even while I looked a cloud of white smoke curled from her bows, followed by a thunderous explosion louder than that of Lawler's gunpowder. The next minute I thought an earthquake had burst at the rear of the house, whilst a thick rain of rocks and branches and leaves and a human limb or two came showering down through the burning roof. Running to the back window I saw in place of the clumps of trees and underbrush that had offered such fine cover for our foes only the big pit that a 6in. shell makes at a mile range into soft soil.
It was a lovely bit of practice, indeed, and as I learned later was due to Gower—himself an ex-R.N. gunner—who, at once, guessing pretty nearly the state of affairs, had begged permission, and with his own hands laid the piece. He had, it seemed, left the Alert at Aneityum, and, at the request of the man-o'-war's captain, come along as pilot and prosecutor in one.
"Thank the Lord," said he, as ten minutes later he came charging up the hill with the Scylla's bluejackets. "Thank the Lord the store's safe, anyhow! But it was touch and go!"
So it was, without a doubt. The sailors, however, soon had the roof off, and a temporary one fixed of old sails and tarpaulins. Teroa was picked up still alive, but he died that night And the Aobans had received a lesson that I don't think they'll ever forget. The little picnic I've been telling you about happened over seven years ago, but I've never had one of them look crossways at me since. People said I'd be sorry for staying and settling on the place. But I never have been. I'm my own boss now, with a couple of smart boats, each bigger than the Alert; no end of a plantation, a fine house (iron-roofed, though), the best wife in the Western or any other Pacific, and a family of youngsters all steps and stairs, and a shade lighter-coloured than myself. And sometimes Mrs. Scott remarks thoughtfully as she watches them—she speaks "real" English now, and only nags at the servants in "sandalwood": "Tom, my dear," she'll say, "that was a regular bobbydazzler of a honeymoon we had in the old house, wasn't it?"
"Well you can put it as you like, but I call it a shame! What d'ye think I'm to do here without a ship, or any chance of getting one for a blue moon, eh?"
The speaker, a solidly built man of about fifty, with pleasant red face fringed by grey whiskers and keen little blue eyes, spoke angrily, and emphasized his words by bringing his fist down upon the table with a bang.
"Sorry, Captain, I'm sure," responded the man addressed, carelessly. "But here are our instructions, plain enough, to pay off the Bolivar as soon as she arrives—all hands and the cook—and sell the ship. The owners, you see, are well within their rights, The time you signed for is up. The vessel's hardly earned her keep. Good-day, Captain." And the agent for his London owners rose in token that the interview was over, whilst John Hall went out and stood in the hot sunshine and looked listlessly down the long, sandy street of Port Elizabeth on Algoa Bay, South Africa, and watched the natives, bullock teams, dust storms, stray dogs and goats that seemed to make up the place in those days, before the diamond diggings assumed their later magnitude and importance.
During that same month, and whilst the Bolivar yet lay at anchor waiting for a new owner, arrived tidings of the first find on the Vaal River—a three weeks' trip from the port. And as the shipless skipper lounged around waiting for the coasting steamer that was to take him down to the Cape, and listened to the wonderful stories of fortunes already made on the Orange River and at Hopetown, he suddenly decided to "have a slap at the thing" himself.
"I ain't a lucky man, not by any means," said Captain John, as he asked his chief mate to join him in the adventure. "And I've just got about enough to land me at the place. However, I'll trust in Providence, even if Rhode Island don't bring me up. What d'ye say, Brown? Will you risk it?"
But Mr. Brown would not. And he tried hard to dissuade the old skipper from facing the fatigues of a journey that everybody said was terribly rough and toilsome. Captain John, however, had made up his mind, and go he would, and go he did.
And eventually, to his great surprise, his luck turned in such fashion that when, three years afterwards, he appeared in Cape Town he owned, besides an account at the "Standard" of close on £80,000, shares in Bultfontein and some other mines that presently proved worth double and treble as much.
Of course Captain John returned to England. But it is doubtful whether he realized the possibilities of his wealth, inasmuch as all the use he made of it was to build a house. Buying a piece of land in Kent, close to Deal, and overlooking the Channel, he erected on it a plain, four-roomed cottage, fronted by a great flagstaff. And half-way up this, on a platform which he called the main-top, he would sit for hours and watch the ships in the Downs as they dropped anchor or made sail outward and homeward bound. An old woman kept house for him and the only remnant of kith or kin he had been able to find—a bright lad of twelve, whom he had discovered reduced to drudge at a private school by reason of long-unpaid arrears. Captain John's widowed sister had died whilst he was groping amongst the "blue ground" away out there on the Vaal in the stifling heat and dust of the diamond quarries, leaving her only child to the tender mercies of an acquaintance. The latter simply sold what little there was; and, with the proceeds, sent the boy to a boarding-school, paying a couple of years in advance, and considered he had done all that could be expected of him. Leonard Oliver went to school now in the old town at the foot of the cliffs; and his one ambition was to be a sailor like his uncle, to whose yarns he was never tired of listening.
And all this time Captain John's shares in those rich claims out yonder were increasing in value daily, nay hourly, in such wise as presently forced him to realize that he was becoming an absurdly rich man. But with it all he was not happy. He lost flesh, too, and could not sleep o' nights; grew restless and utterly discontented with his life. And still he was a strong, hale, and hearty man of his years; sound as yet in wind and limb. But, puzzle as he might, he was unable to lay finger on the secret of the trouble and unrest that worked within him like a fever.
The great Voorooinzigt Company, in which he had many shares, had latterly made him a director; and presently a summons came to him to attend a meeting at the London office. The Earl of Glenavon and his son, Lord Comorin, were two of his fellow-directors.
"What do you do with all your money, Captain John?" the latter nobleman asked, laughingly and familiarly, for the two had seen much of each other "over yonder," and the Earl himself, quite apart from certain obligations, thought highly of the old seaman's frank simplicity and straightforward honesty.
"Upon my word, very little, I'm afraid," replied the Captain, in a melancholy tone. "You see, until lately I've hardly realized the idea of having more to spend than I can manage. I suppose now my whole keep, and Lenny's schoolin' together, don't cost more'n a couple o' hundred a year at the outside."
At this the Earl and his son both burst out laughing. "Well, of all the old misers!" drawled the latter, in his languid, pleasant voice. "Come, now, this won't do at all. And you're not looking up to the mark either. You must have something to interest you. What's the best thing for him, father? Go in for experimental farming; lease a theatre; start a newspaper; speculate in South American mines?"
But the Earl shook his head whilst closely scrutinizing the old skipper, and replied: "None of those will suit our friend's case, Clarence. Build a ship, I should say, and go to sea again, would be nearer the mark."
As he spoke the Captain's face flushed, a new light came into his bright blue eyes; and, seizing the Earl's hand and shaking it heartily, he exclaimed, "By George, sir, you've hit it! That's the thing I've been pinin' for and never knew what ailed me. Why, I feel better already. I'll have a clipper built to my own order if it costs me£10,000. Dash it, money's some use, after all, when you can find anybody to put you in the right way of spendin' it."
"Glad you like my prescription," replied the Earl, laughing good-humouredly. "It struck me you were moping ashore here. Build your ship, by all means. You can afford to pay for a hobby. And then sail away round the world. By gad, I half wish I could come with you!"
"And nobody would be more welcome than the pair of you," replied the skipper, joyfully. "A better mate than Lord Comorin, there, ashore no man could ask, either on the veldt, down in the workings, or at a pinch with an I.D.B. And I'll be both proud and happy to have him and his father for a trip round, say, the two Capes—Good Hope and Horn."
But although the Earl only laughed and, whilst thanking the skipper, explained how impossible such a lengthened holiday would be, his son, who had no very particular duties to keep him at home, and who had already developed a very pretty capacity for roving, promised to think it over and let the Captain know before his ship was built.
Being in London, Captain John thought he might as well have a look around the docks. And it was whilst wandering amongst the shipping that an idea flashed across his brain. It would take a long time to build a ship—months of waiting must elapse. Why not buy one and have done with it? He could, he knew, go to an agent and in a few minutes have his choice of scores. But, no, he would poke about a bit first, and see if he couldn't find one for himself And, at last, in the South-West India Dock he came across a pretty clipper-built, full-rigged, wooden ship that he thought would do. In the mizzen rigging was stuck a board bearing a notice to the effect that, if sufficient inducement offered in the way of passengers and freight, the Wyvern would be dispatched at an early date for Delagoa Bay, the nearest point to the new African gold-fields.
"About 1,000 tons, I should guess," said Captain John aloud, as he stood on the wharf and looked her all over. "Just a nice size—maybe, though, she'll run to 1,200."
"Eleven hundred and eighty's her register," remarked a voice at his elbow.
Turning, the Captain saw a seedy-looking man, a sailor evidently, but one pretty hard up, for his well-worn serge coat was buttoned round his neck, and his boots were in places open to the weather. As he glanced at the Captain's face he gave a start, and was walking away, when the old man blocked him and, staring at him closely, remarked: "Well, what next, I wonder? Good mates must be plentiful when Jim Brown's in shoal water.
"I didn't think you'd recognise me, sir," replied Brown, shamefacedly, "I wasn't sure, either, about you till you turned, although I thought I knew the figure. Yes, mate of her was the last billet I had—over nine months ago. I was hoping that somebody'd bought her, and that you were going skipper of her again. A sweet little ship. Owner's broke. That's only an agent's flam—that notice. Lord, if I was only back again with you, sir, in the old Bolivar!"
Brown spoke hurriedly and nervously; the other, meanwhile, noting the attenuated features and scantily clad form of his once smart chief officer.
"Well," said Captain John, at last, "I may get her yet. And—but, there, never mind ships now!" And producing a big pocketbook he counted five five-pound notes and gave them to Brown, saying, "I'm in clover, my lad, just at present. Take these—strictly as a loan, mind. Get some togs and a general overhaul, inside as well as out, and then come to me at the Blue Boar in the Strand. Dinner at six sharp,"
Brown tried to thank the old skipper, but something seemed to choke him, and the former, shaking hands hurriedly, jumped on board the Wyvern determined to have a good look around her. Pausing a moment, his eye took in with pleasure the fine, broad sweep of white planking sheering ever so gently away forard. Could he but have seen what things were to happen on those same spacious decks; a few months hence!
The ship was bought with the least possible delay, and now Captain John was in his glory. Seldom passed a day that he was not on board, where Mr. Brown, aided by the boatswain, Pugh, held full charge. And never since wealth came to him had the old skipper been so happy as when, with coat off, shirt-sleeves turned back over the elbows, and ruddy, cheery face, beaming with pleasure, he superintended the riggers whilst they set up, cut, spliced, and rove new gear under his own sharp eyes, A gang of painters, too, were at work on the hull and spars: carpenters caulked and payed the decks; and shipwrights were busy about her bottom. The nondescript animal was already gone from her bows, and in its stead was a graceful female figure clad in flowing robes of purest white bordered by a broad band of gold, whilst three stars of the same colour shone from a fillet round its brow. One extended arm pointed ahead, the other clasped a small shield with, in gold letters, the new name of the ship—Countess of Glenavon. And, altogether, the old Captain was mightily proud of this figure- head, which had been carved from his own design, and actually was a very fine piece of work, such as one rarely sees in these days of the twopenny-halfpenny fiddles and dolls that builders stick on a ship's nose.
At last it was all over, and the Countess floated out of dock, as everyone who saw her declared, the prettiest picture of a sailer in the Port or London, At first Captain John had not intended putting anything more than ballast in her, but after a while he decided, and wisely, that it might be perhaps as well to have some definite object on such a voyage as he contemplated.
And as freights were scarce and poor, alternating mainly between salt from Sharpness and railway iron from London, he determined to load her himself with a general cargo for China and Japan.
And how Captain John (captain and owner, master mariner and millionaire) exulted in doing exactly what he pleased, subject to no bossing from owners, stevedores, or ship's husband; taking in just as little or as much as seemed good to him; trimming the Countess any way he wished—down by the head or up by the stem—actually, and not provisionally, a King on his own quarter-deck!
Lord Comorin had been on board once or twice, but had not yet quite made up his mind, although admiring the Countess immensely, and fully appreciating the compliment to his dead mother. Comparatively poor people, the Glenavons had profited not a little through their elder son's connection with Captain John. The latter had found Clarence on the Vaal, practically "a broker," just about the time his own fortunes were on the mend; and, taking a fancy to the young man, had "put him on" to several good things which the pair had worked together. And once Comorin had, without a doubt, saved the other's life by shooting an illicit diamond buyer they had captured, just as the latter was about to stab Captain John, But long before Kimberley attained the proportions it eventually did, and crowned Captain John's speculations with fortune, Comorin was summoned home to his mother's deathbed, Still, the former had more than once given his absent friend "tips" that had been worth thousands on the London market, besides nominating the Earl to a seat on the directorate of the Voorooinzigt, in itself a position of opportunities. It will thus he understood that Captain John was deservedly a persona grata with the two Glenavons.
Just then, as it happened, seamen were the reverse of plentiful, and Captain John had much difficulty in obtaining the class of men he wanted for the Countess. Foreigners he did not care about. But of the twenty men he at last got together four were Germans and three Swedes. The steward was a Chinese of Ningpo, a taciturn, inscrutable-faced personage, speaking very fair English, and whose discharges said all sorts of good things about him. As cook there shipped a Scotch negro—at least he claimed Greenock as his birthplace—named Macalister. And these were the only two men of colour in the Countess's company. The second mate, Hargraves, was a rough-and-ready sailor of the old school, hating steam and all new-fangled patents that tended to lessen hands.
Leonard had implored to be allowed to come, but without avail. He was too young, said Captain John, and should go to a first-class boarding-school at Margate. But almost at the last minute Lord Comorin arrived, helped in making up his mind by the family doctor, who had advised him to avoid the coming English winter.
A head wind meeting the Countess in the Downs, she lay there for forty-eight hours amidst a fleet of outward-bounders. Then, the wind shifting with enough easting in it to run down Channel, she at last spread her wings, making such a beautiful picture, with her spotless masts and yards and canvas towering aloft from the dark hull, gold banded, as sent even hardened seafarers to lean over the rails of their ships and stare at her as she surged past them after a fashion that clearly showed she held the heels of all that fleet, at any rate. Lord Comorin was in ecstasies, never having been at sea before under such a spread of canvas; and as for Captain John, his face showed plainly enough what he felt, pacing the bridge with an eye now away aloft, now over the side.
A few nights after this, while the Countess was foaming and snorting her way across the Bay, Captain John was awakened by hearing somebody light the lamp at the head of his bed. Sitting up, half asleep, and expecting to see Mr. Brown or the second mate bringing news of a change, he rubbed his eyes in astonishment, then stared hard and rubbed them again as his gaze fell on the tall, slim, fair-haired figure of a boy standing by his swinging cot.
"Lenny!" he exclaimed, still thinking it all a dream.
"Yes, uncle," answered the lad, in a peculiarly pleasant voice." And I hope you won't be angry; but I couldn't stay behind, so I made up my mind then and there to go with you."
"But, blow it all!" exclaimed Captain John, in a bewildered sort of way, "how did you get on board? And where have you been since?"
"I gave Big-eared Bill £2 to run me round in his lugger," exclaimed Leonard Oliver, simply, as he got hold of his uncle's hand; "then we hove her to about a quarter of a mile away, out dinghy, pulled alongside, and I crept over for'ard, and then dodged aft and into the empty cabin next to Lord Comorin's. I used to come out of a night and get something to eat in the pantry. You're not angry, are you, uncle?"
"A nice kettle of fish this is!" exclaimed Captain John, in a tone he vainly endeavoured to render fierce. "You young scamp! You—you—! Well, upon my word! If only I had Mr. Big-eared Bill here now! The biggest rogue in Deal! And you cut and ran from your school all standin'! A nice to-do's about you at this very minute. Back, sir, by the first steamer."
But the lad had caught the twinkle in the Captain's eye, and in a minute his arms were round the old man's neck. And in his heart of hearts the latter was thoroughly glad and pleased to see Leonard, the parting with whom had been the one bitter drop that qualified the delightful prospect of finding himself afloat again.
Of course people were astonished, none professing themselves more so than the second mate, who, in fact, rather overdid it, until he felt Captain John's sharp gaze suspiciously fixed on his face, when he suddenly became dumb. At which the Captain grinned, remembering that Leonard and Mr. Hargraves had been cronies at home. But he inquired no further, being well content as it was.
They had mostly fine weather and fair winds until near Trinidad—almost, indeed, within sight of the island—when it fell calm. And, for the first time, Lord Comorin—although careful not to say so—began to wish that the Countess carried a screw and a set of engines.
With blistering paint and heated decks, day after day, night after night, the vessel lay sweltering on an oily sea, moving so little as to be unable to get away from the accumulation of empty bottles, tins, and galley débris that clung to her sides and drifted with her. It was temper-trying weather. But Captain John was cheery and genial as ever, and his officers, taking their cue from him, did their uttermost to make the hot, monotonous time pass as lightly as possible.
Lord Comorin had brought with him a great assortment of firearms. Rifles for big game carrying explosive bullets; rifles for small—"Winchester," "Express," "Martini-Henry"—a regular armoury. And with these much firing was carried on by all hands, Captain John giving money prizes to the crack shots amongst the crew, of whom, curiously enough, Mac, the cook, and Hip Yong, the steward, turned out the best marksmen.
For some reason Lord Comorin had taken a dislike to the silent, noiseless, spotless Chinese who, with his smooth, yellow face, stealthy gait, and long, cunning, opaque eyes, seemed ever on the watch to anticipate every wish and thought of his master.
"A daddy of a steward," said Captain John; "I never had one like him. Why, if you're thirsty, he sees it in your face; hungry, a snack's ready for you; and his pantry's a picture."
"A yellow snake," replied Comorin. "Ugh! he gives me the shivers with his cold, passionless, orange mask, and his creeping ways. I've seen lots of Chinamen before, you know, but never one quite like Hip Yong."
"Pooh, my dear boy," laughed the old skipper. "It's this calm and heat that's stirrin' your bile up. The fellow's what he looks—a waitin' machine, and a dashed good 'un at that."
"Don't know so much about the machine part of him," retorted Comorin, irritably; "I happened to have my eye on him the other night at dinner time when you were telling us about the value of the cargo—of the packages of jewellery, and the ton or so of silver bullion consigned to that Chinese firm at Shanghai—and, just for a second, he dropped his mask, and I can tell you I didn't fancy what I saw beneath it."
"It's the nature of the animal," replied the Captain, carelessly. "Likely enough he's been a pirate in his day. Lots of those Ningpo chaps have. Naturally, his eyes sparkled at my talk. But, there, sooner than he should annoy you," concluded the old man, kindly, "I'll send the beggar for'ard, and bring that ordinary seaman, I forget his name, aft."
But, of course, Lord Comorin would not hear of such a thing; still, he could not help allowing the steward to notice the aversion with which he regarded him.
But now such a terrible thing happened as threw all petty squabbles between cook and steward, or anybody else, into the shade.
The calm had continued a week; and the sea itself to the weary eyes that watched it appeared to be growing thick and slimy as it spread its still and shining surface, undimmed by the slightest stir, from horizon to horizon. Fore and aft all hands aboard the Countess slept about the decks o' nights, forecastle equally with saloon being uninhabitable because of the heat they were saturated with.
And this night young Leonard, shifting from place to place, clad in pyjamas, and carrying with him only a rug, upon which to lie and pant, had at last taken up a position at one end of the bridge, just enough within shadow of the poop awnings to keep the beams of the full moon off his face. The ship's head lay nearly due east, and she showed to the bright white light like a silver model floating in a silver sea. Her courses were hauled up as snug as buntlines and clew-garnets could make them. Upper topgallant and topsail yards were on their caps, and all fore and alt canvas hauled down, so that the moon from about the height of the foretop raked every corner of the ship, leaving no darkness on the main deck. From where he lay Leonard could see the black opening of the forecastle-head awning, underneath which the crew rested, except, at least, "Mac," who had, of all places, chosen the main staystail netting, close to the galley funnel, along which he spread at full length, a white shirt-sleeve with black ends hanging over at each side.
It was intensely quiet, and but for a slight click now and again, when floating tin or bottle snugged closer to the Countess's copper, there was absolutely no sound athwart the heated air. The ship, perfectly upright, lay as if in dock. Leaning across the farther end of the bridge, Leonard noticed Mr. Brown, whose watch it was, and whom he presently saw peer cautiously into the bridge-house to find the time from the big clock over Captain John's cot. Then, emerging, he noiselessly went away under the awning to seek his relief. No bells had been struck lately on account of Lord Comorin's complaining that they awoke him from the rare snatches of sleep he was able to obtain. Even Lenny, young as he was, had found it impossible to get any rest during such weather, in which the least exertion forced one to wring the perspiration out of one's sleeping-suit. But after a while the boy felt he was dozing off; for, his eye resting on the rail amidships, he suddenly saw a long, thin, black object appear above it and quiver curiously in the moonlight. It looked to Lenny exactly like an elephant's trunk. And this it was made him certain that at last he was falling asleep, because there are no elephants at sea; and he closed his eyes and curled up comfortably. Then something, he could not explain what, impelled him to open them and stare for'ard again. To his surprise there were two, three, four more hovering, twisting trunks reaching inboard almost as far as the netting in which Mac lay. Also, what were those curious, grasping, heaving things that seemed to mark the white rail with black lines right to the fore-rigging?
Lenny sat up and rubbed his eyes, Yes, the things were there yet And, surely, the ship was slowly listing, whilst, as it inclined, some great hulk seemed to swell up over the rail—a shining, heaving, black mass, out of which crept many more stealthy, quivering trunks.
The boy had opened his mouth to shout when he heard a frightful yell, and saw the cook bound out of his net, leap off the top of the galley and gallop aft, narrowly evading one of the long, lithe feelers that made a queer, curling little snap at him comically, like a new chum's first attempt at cracking a stock-whip, but that caused Lenny's blood to run cold with the deadly suggestiveness of it. Then, as the ship awoke amidst a murmur of roused sleepers, the huge mass, gripping and clawing at the rail, tumbled inboard with a shock that made the Countess tremble as if she had struck a reef, flinging, as it fell, its horrid tentacles abroad in all directions.
The crew, drowsy, and by instinct, had made aft, those on the starboard-side fairly on top of the monster; and Lenny, fascinated, saw men shrieking with terror caught up in those frightful arms like leaves by the wind and hugged helplessly to the centre of the quivering folds whence glowed two great eyes, round and fierce, and protruded a big, curved beak that opened and shut with a sharp, clapping sound, accompanied by a prolonged hissing, loud as that made by a small steamer "blowing off."
"My men! my poor men!" exclaimed Captain John as, after the first moments of utter stupefaction, the full significance of the thing burst upon him, "Under cover, everybody!" he continued, with a roar. "Clarence, your guns! Quick! Here's a squid as big as a house come on board!"
Picking up Lenny as he spoke, he pushed him into the bridge-house, where, already together with Lord Comorin and the two mates, were those of the crew who had not made back to the forecastle or been seized by the octopus.
Luckily there had been shooting through the day; and some of the rifles were still in the bridge-house. The door was closed; but, very soon, Lord Comorin had found the piece he wanted, an elephant gun taking a four ounce explosive bullet. In front of the house, facing for'ard, were four bulls'-eyes of extremely thick glass, with circular brass shutters inside that could be screwed almost air-tight if needed, At present all these stood open, and Comorin, pushing the barrel of his piece through one, took quick aim and fired, hurled back violently against Brown by the recoil of the heavy rifle. "A hit!" shouted the Captain, looking through another of the portholes. "Holy sailor, what a brute! Let him have it again! That sickened him. Oh, my poor men! My poor Lads!"
Evidently, in spite of the jelly-like substance of which the beast's body was composed, the shot had taken effect, for it beat the deck frantically with its tentacles, and suddenly shooting out a pair grasped the foremost shrouds of the main rigging and lifted part of its huge bulk into a nearly upright position, exposing to view three motionless forms still inclosed within the deadly grip of as many feelers. As it stood swaying there in the moonlight the big rifle roared again; and, this time, those watching saw the curved beak and fierce eyes suddenly disappear—blown clean away; the tentacles slowly relaxed their hold on the rigging, and the upper part of the body fell heavily to the deck.
At this moment Pugh, the boatswain, rushed from the forecastle with a great, broad axe, and, despite warning shouts from Comorin, began to cut and slash at the tentacles, followed presently by the carpenter and others similarly armed. But in a second Pugh was encircled by the next feeler to the one he had severed, thrown to the deck, and the breath nearly squeezed out of him, whilst the discs or suckers on its under side brought blood wherever they touched his flesh—the spot looking as if it had been rasped, Pugh being freed after not a little difficulty, the men went to work with more caution, and, evading the convulsive writhings of the arms, at last succeeded in releasing their unfortunate shipmates—dead, of course, and with ribs and arms all crushed and broken,
"It's not a true octopus," said Lord Comorin, "although certainly belonging to the same family of devil-fishes. I spent a season once on the coast of Florida and saw something of them there. But I think they rarely grow to such a size. Why, this brute must weigh two or three tons. See, he's got a back-bone and rudimentary ribs!"
"Curse him!" replied Captain John, bitterly, "Three good men he's taken. Did ever anyone hear of the like, boardin' a ship in such a fashion? Why, Clarence, only for you and that young cannon o' yours I'm jiggered if he wouldn't ha' held full possession. Well, of all the messes! Unlash a couple of the deck-ports there, and cut him up, and shove the murderin' beast over in lumps. Ugh! It makes me feel sick to think of it!"
It took all hands working until morning to get the deck clear of the mass of viscid, blubbery body that encumbered it, piling up as high as the topgallant-rail. And even then there was life in the creature, as evidenced by nervous twitchings and shiverings and feeble graspings of severed members. Twenty-two tentacles, ranging in length from 7ft. to 15ft., they counted belonging to this monstrous cephalopod, whilst Lord Comorin made its diameter nearly 30ft. A terrible object at any time, but as a visitor to an unprepared merchantman possessing a simply unlimited capacity for dreadful mischief.
Rather curiously, the three dead seamen were all Germans; they were buried at sunrise, and the last green glint of their weighted canvas shrouds had no sooner disappeared through the quiet water than, without the least warning, a light breeze sprang up and dispelled in some measure the deep gloom that hung over the ship. The thing had been altogether so weird, unexpected, and terrible, that the men were thoroughly scared. To fall from aloft or overboard would comparatively have been a trifle. But to be killed by a monster, repulsive and loathsome to a degree—worse than a shark, because strange and uncommon—shook the very souls of the men, and played the mischief with their nerves for a long time after the occurrence. And perhaps the most terrified of all, although from a different cause, was Macalister. When turning in his netting and meeting the glare of the brute's eyes he had given the yell that, forestalling Lenny, roused the ship, his ideas extended no further than an assurance that the devil was coming aboard in person. Later—his brain throwing back perhaps to some dim memory of fetishism and the power of Obeah—Macalister conceived the idea that Hip Yong had so ordered matters as to have the monster produced especially on his account. This belief, whilst it had the effect of suddenly making the cook exceedingly civil to the Chinese—accepting with a deprecatory grin any insulting allusion the other saw fit to drop concerning his work—also set hard the feeling of hate already existing in his heart towards Hip Yong.
After this incident fair winds rapidly sent the Countess along to Cape Town. Seamen were scarce here; so, in place of those lost, Captain John shipped four Malays who, if they wished, were to be discharged at Singapore. Here, at Cape Town, too, there was some talk of discharging Hip Yong; but Comorin did not press the matter, and it unfortunately came to nothing. And, presently, it was noticed that the steward and the Malays had a good deal to say to each other at odd times, also that the latter were the recipients of many dainty remnants from the saloon table, besides other "menavelings," that by rights should have gone into the boatswain's mess. This matter rendered Hip Yong unpopular with Pugh and his mates—the carpenter and the sailmaker.
The Countess made a fine run across the Indian Ocean right to the entrance of the Straits of Sunda. At Anjer they brought up for fruit, fresh water, and to replenish the hen-coops. Thence through the Banca Straits, threading groups of lovely islands, light breezes brought them to the great border city. Lord Comorin and Lenny were all a-glee with their first view of the East, and eager to see everything they could. And one day, penetrating into the native quarter and calling at a Chinese tea-house for refreshment, they came across Hip Yong deep in talk with a trio of bull-headed, powerful-looking ruffians, who, the steward said, had contracted for the ship's washing. They, however, appeared to Lord Comorin fitter to contract for cutting the throats of the ship's company. Still he thought little of the incident just then.
At Singapore the Malays had professed themselves willing to continue the voyage. So, as they were efficient seamen, they were kept on the articles. At this Pugh was disappointed. He had a "down" on "colour," and had conscientiously done his best to make the lot of these aliens uncomfortable to them on board the Countess, but apparently without avail. And for further aggravation there was also the matter of those often untouched pies, fowls, and other luxuries in the gift of Hip Yong that, shunted from their proper track, found their way into the dingy paws of the Malays.
"Blessed if I can understan' it," muttered the boatswain, thoughtfully, to himself. "Chinkies and Malayers never chummed up afore, as I remember seein'. There's a leg o' mutton an' a rattlin' big blue-monge jist gone into their berth! A darned shame I calls it, an' fer two pins I'd hup an' tell the old man so, although he do think such a lot o' that cussed yaller toad. It's onnat'ral; an' I'd like to know what that there Hip Yong's little game is. If they wos townies o' his'n I'd not think so much of it. Mac swears that dashed steward gives 'em grog, too. But, by jings, if I kin only ketch him at it I'll run him afore the skipper. You bet, I'm a-goin' to keep my eyes skinned for a bit!"
Nor was this process wholly without result.
One starlight night, passing through the Fo Kien Straits before a very light breeze, Amoy somewhere on the port bow, and the Countess dodging along at about four knots, there was a commotion for'ard. Seven o'clock dinner in the saloon was just over; and scattered about the poop in lounge chairs Captain John and his guest, with Mr. Brown, now off watch, lay and smoked. Leonard paced the deck with Mr. Hargraves, listening to a long yarn of shipwreck in the North Sea.
Suddenly on to the poop burst Pugh, propelling a Malay, whose shirt-collar he firmly gripped with one hand whilst the other held a red lantern. Bringing up in front of Lord Comorin and Captain John, the boatswain, still clutching the Malay, exclaimed, "Now, then, ye coffee-coloured swab, just you explain to the Captain what you means by signalizn' out o' the foretop in such fashion. Not for nothin' you've been linin' them ribs o' yourn all this time wi' saloon tucker, is it? But I cotched ye at larst. I knowed there was some uncommon crooked traverse ye was workin'!"
"Bring him into the saloon, bo'sun," said Captain John, rising. "I don't quite understand yet,"
So down the companion-stairs they went, Pugh still taking extraordinary care of his prisoner "The brute," he explained, "tried to stick me, but I got the knife an I chucked it overboard. An' I'm runnin' no risks. He might have another, you see,"
Under the light of the saloon lamps it could be seen that the Malay was a stout, thick-set customer, with a coarse, bristly moustache, and teeth blackened by betel nut. He was clad in blue dungaree, and on his hip lay an empty sheath His black eyes sparkled fiercely, and his thick-lipped mouth was forced into an ugly grin by Pugh's vice-like grip,
"Now, then, let him go," ordered Captain John. "There may be nothin' in it, after all."
"Catching moths," put in Lord Comorin, ironically, as he presently left the saloon, whilst the Malay glared around and exclaimed:—
"What I do, eh? Mastah, that man chokee me!"
"Aye, aye," replied Captain John. "But what were you up to, eh, with a light in my foretop?"
"Mudder an' fader live Mantu. Me makee light show me all right."
"Good son," remarked the Captain, taking up the lantern, a common bull's-eye, with a piece of transparent red paper pasted over the globe. "Honour thy father and thy mother, eh? And what fine eyesight they must have, eh? Able to spot this thing thirty -five miles away."
At this the Malay scowled, whilst Captain John continued, blandly: "Sure, now, mudder an' fader ain't somewhere between here and the mainland, eh? How did you manage to nab him, bo'sun?"
"Why, sir," replied Pugh, "fact is, I was keepin' my eye on 'em all, I couldn't unnerstan' how them an' the steward come to be so thick; an' them always gittin' stuff from the saloon table, an' coddled up as if they was little Mahomets. So, arter muster at eight bells, I was goin' for'ard to see if the lookout was relieved when I twigs my noble here crawlin' up the port fore-riggin', 'Well,' I thinks to myself, 'he's got grog planted up there somewheres'—nothen' wuss'n that comin' into my head. So up I goes to starboard; werry cautiently pops over the rim o' the top an' peeks round the mast, an' finds 'is majesty a-wavin 'is lamp, fust up and down, then crossways. Presently I fancies I sees a blue light 'way a-beam. But it's gone in a secon'—too quick to make sure. Then I slips down again and waits for my choc'let friend on deck, an' collars' im an' he tries to sting, an' got consid'able the wust of it."
Captain John looked very grave as he said to Lord Comorin, who had just returned to the saloon, "Clarence, I hope you've got all your shootin'-irons ready. If this business comes off it'll be a more serious one than the squid's. I was on this coast in the sixties and can pretty well guess what's the matter. Mr. Brown, you and Pugh with Chips and Sails put the Malays in irons. And, to make sure, you can do the same by Hip Yong, as they've been so friendly together. I wish somebody'd told me of that before. However, all we can do is to keep a bright look-out and—" But ere he could finish there was a heavy, crashing noise for'ard that shook the Countess from stem to stern, accompanied by a terrific medley of wild yells, screams, oaths, and pistol-shots.
"By George, they're here already!" exclaimed Captain John; whilst the Malay, taking advantage of the confusion, bolted along the saloon towards the quarter-deck. Quick as thought Lord Comorin levelled a revolver he had in his hand and fired. The man had reached the mizzenmast, but there he turned, threw up his arms, and fell flat on his face, his fingers digging into the pile of the thick carpet.
"I've been busy," said Comorin, coolly, "hunting up all my battery and stacking it and ammunition in the bridge-house. Now we'd better make for there. I left Lenny and Hargraves on guard. Come on!"
Pugh had already gone; and the three rushing up to the poop found it clear, but all the fore part of the ship seemed thick with a mob of shouting Chinese. The helmsman had disappeared; and the ship coming up in the wind was aback—a matter, however, of not much moment, as by now she had scarcely steerage way upon her. As they reached the bridge-house Pugh and Macalister ran up the poop-ladder and joined them. The boatswain was panting and held a capstan bar upon which the house-lamp shone, showing the lower portion wet with blood and black with hair.
"It were a big junk run smack into us, sir," he gasped, "an' full o' men. Direckly them Malayers felt her hit us they gets their knives to work amongst our chaps. Chips an' Sails is lyin' dead in the after-house. Some o' the others is aloft. I had a job to get back, I can tell ye; an' half-way I meets Mac givin' 'em gip wi' the galley poker. Look out, sir, here they comes."
"Turn that lamp down," said Lord Comorin, as bullets began to thud on the front of the house. "Thank Heaven I renewed my ammunition at Singapore! Give me the big magazine, Lenny, and let's see what our friends think of explosive bullets."
The howling rabble were now streaming along the deck, some beating tom-toms, others flourishing swords and spears, and the effect of the fusillade that Comorin poured into them point-blank at short range was terrific—every bullet finding a billet before the mob broke for shelter, pursued by a fresh volley from Macalister, who took Comorin's place at the one open port.
In the meantime they could hear by the bumping and creaking that another junk had come alongside, this time on the quarter. In the back of the bridge-house there was only one port as against four in front. At this Macalister was stationed with a Winchester, and he soon had the new arrivals looking for something to put between themselves and his deadly aim. Although there was no moon, the night was peculiarly clear, and by the light of the stars it was quite possible to do some very effective shooting.
Meanwhile, such of the pirates as were armed with muskets peppered away at the bridge-house, against which, being fortunately built of oak planks, stout and thick, the round bullets simply flattened and fell back on to the deck. The place itself, however, was too crowded with seven people in it, and there was scarcely room to stir. Still, it was the only available spot from which to make any sort of defence. The saloon with its skylights, doors, windows, and companion they could have hardly held for an hour. Comorin had realized that at once; and whilst the Malay was under examination an undefinable suspicion induced him to remove the guns from the spare berth in the alley-way where they were generally kept. To his surprise he had found Hip Yong there, already getting the weapons together. Without awaiting explanations Comorin had pitched the steward headlong out of the door, carried the half-dozen or so of guns up to the bridge-house, and set Leonard and the second mate to guard them whilst he returned to the saloon, "just in time," as he said, "to pot the Malay."
"We're in a tight place," said Mr. Brown, coughing with the smoke of which the little house was so full that its occupants could scarce see each other.
"Aye, sir," replied Pugh. "'Mudder an' fader' ha' got it in fer us all right. Dash me if I don't think we'll ha' to make a break for it yet, an' see how many yaller-bellies we can give an account of."
"The firin' may bring help," remarked Captain John. "I thought this sort of business was pretty well all over by now."
"So I fancy it is, except in special cases," said Lord Comorin, stanching the blood where a bullet had hummed through the port and skimmed the lobe of his ear, "Shouldn't wonder if that beast of a steward hadn't got the whole thing cut and dried before we left London even. Where's the silver stowed, Captain?"
Captain John chuckled as he answered, "Right in the square of the main hatch, in four casks packed with cement top and bottom. They'll hardly drop to that But there's lots more valuable stuff on board. I wish to Heaven I'd got rid of the steward when you wanted me to, Clarence. A nice mess I've led you into!"
"It would probably have come to the same thing," remarked Lord Comorin, as Leonard tied the kerchief around his head and over the damaged ear. "By hook or by crook he'd have sent word to his friends here. Cunning beggar—see how soon he won the Malays over!"
Underneath them in the saloon they could hear a great noise of looting; for'ard some of the pirates had taken the fore hatch off and seemed to be getting portions of the cargo out and putting it on board the junks, of which no fewer than four were now alongside. The bombardment of the bridge-house still continued, principally from the shelter of the galley and the forecastle. There was also shooting going on aloft at some of the crew who had sprung there for refuge at the first alarm. At least a score of corpses lying about the deck showed that the fire of the besieged had not been without effect. But there must have been fully a hundred pirates on board the Countess; and as the night wore on matters looked very hopeless.
"They may take what they want and leave us," said Captain John, doubtfully, as he opened a bottle of champagne—a dozen of which by great good luck happened to be in a locker under one of the seats, together with a few tins of oysters.
But Pugh shook his head, "I reckon not, sir His lordship an' Mac there've downed too many of 'em fer that. And the beggars ha' smelled blood. I don't believe, barrin' us, that there's one o' the hull ship's company alive this minnit. Our only chanst is a steamer comin' hup an' scatterin' the warmint. Mac, ole man, cudn't you put a pill into that there steward for us?"
The cook grinned. "Can't see, massa bo'sun," said he, as he reloaded his rifle. "Bimebye marnin' come, an' if Mac's eye cotch top of him dam ugly yaller nose, he never play no more low-down tricks on Scotch gemman ob colour."
Whilst eating and drinking they had screwed up the brass shutters of their loop-holes. Long ago the glass in them all had been shivered to atoms, thick as it was. And now, so continuous was the hail of bullets that there was a very certain risk in opening any of them to get a shot through. Presently there came a lull in the continuous thump, thump of lead against brass and wood, and Lord Comorin cautiously opened his port for a chance. He had scarcely fired when a bullet came through the aperture, grazed his knuckles, and, glancing off the trigger-guard of the rifle, buried itself in the chest of the second mate who was standing a little to one side. With a cry of "I'm done!" the unfortunate man staggered and fell against Mr. Brown, who laid him gently down as he breathed his last.
"They've got a marksman amongst them!" exclaimed Lord Comorin. "He fired at the flash; and he's using conical stuff too. Hip Yong practising, I expect. Poor chap, poor chap," he continued, as he clanged the shutter to, turned up the lamp, and knelt beside the second mate, whose head Leonard, pale, and trying hard not to break down, was now supporting. "Well, he's gone, sure enough. Mac, cease firing. We can't take any more risks of this kind. When daylight comes we may be able to run our account up before we peg out—if that's going to be the end."
"Upon my word, Clarence!" exclaimed Captain John, "you take things mighty cool. Curse the yellow sweeps, I'd give them ship and cargo, too, with a good heart if they'd let us have a boat and cry quits. Somehow, since that squid boarded us I'd a notion our luck was broke for the trip. And, now, here's poor Hargraves dead, with God knows how many more good men outside. Give me a pistol, Clarence, and let me at the murderin' pirates!" And poor Captain John rose, his face working dismally with rage and pity.
"Steady does it, sir," said Pugh, respectfully, backing against the door. "If we rushes, we rushes in a heap. An' if there was any wind I don't know but we might do wuss. But there ain't—not a stir—or we cud rush a boat, up sail, an' give them reptiles a run for it. As it is, altho' it's close quarters 'ere, an' middlin' 'ot too, still it's afore lyin' outside wi' yer throat cut like a bloomin' sheepses."
There was no resisting such logic as this, and with a groan the Captain fell back into his seat again, looking quite broken up.
Since Hargraves's death the fusillade had been in great measure discontinued, and by the shouts and singing it could be heard that the pirates were very busy getting out cargo and transhipping it into their junks. Nor, on their side, had the defenders of the bridge- house assumed the offensive again. Lord Comorin considered it wiser to wait for daylight than go on snapping away at chance shots, with the effect of only drawing heavy return fire that might do more damage.
And at last daylight did come filtering slowly through the barely unscrewed rims of the brass shutters—just let up a few threads of the big screws by which they were fastened into their metal framework—disclosing a sorry sight.
On the floor lay the dead man, the breast of his white jacket all crimsoned with his lifeblood, and his bald head showing over the edge of the tablecloth they had spread across him. Alongside the corpse, his features pale and drawn, slept poor Lenny. On the little settee that ran round three sides of the house sat Lord Comorin, his smoke-begrimed face swathed in a bloody bandage. Mr. Brown had fallen asleep, snoring stertorously with his head on his shoulder. Near him, his weary eyes wide open, and plucking nervously at his lips, was Captain John. Pugh and the cook sat on the floor against the door, nodding till their heads knocked together. The place smelled vilely of gunpowder; a champagne bottle, half-full, stood on a small table close to a couple of chronometers and many packages of ammunition; some empty oyster tins and fragments of biscuit littered the carpet, and everywhere lay expended cartridge cylinders. From the ceiling the lamp hung, burning dimly for lack of oil. The Captain's cot had been taken down and thrown out on to the bridge to make more room; and a bullet had smashed the face of the big round clock that hung on the opposite wall.
Lord Comorin started up and looked around. He was a tall, slight man, with fair hair, mild brown eyes, and delicate, almost effeminate, features, utterly lacking in any indication of the splendid courage, resolution, and indomitable energy possessed by their owner. With his drawl, his listless manner, and general air of debility, "never," as Pugh remarked tersely to Macalister, "was there a greater sell than his bloomin' lordship when he took the fit to come out of his shell."
Which apparently was at a time like the present.
Arousing his companions, he gave Mr. Brown, Macalister, and Pugh a repeating rifle each. Then the four, boldly throwing open the door, stepped out on to the bridge. A mob of Chinese were around the main hatch, pulling up cargo by the aid of ropes. Alongside, amidships, was a junk, and they had utilized, amongst other things, three or four casks of cement to make a platform to receive the cargo on. Across the foretop-mast stay a man hung doubled up, the legs of another protruded over the top in a manner there was no mistaking the significance of. Aft the ship was nearly clear. Almost everybody was gathered around the fore and main hatches, busy as ants, and disdaining help of winch or tackles. Standing on top of the boatswain and carpenter's house was Hip Yong, smoking a cigar and screaming orders. Great patches of blood stained the decks; some wounded men lay about, but the dead ones had been removed. All these things the four took in at a glance.
For a few moments they were unperceived. Then, as the pirates ran for their arms, the four fired volley after volley into them, dropping them in dozens, so thick were they, before any attempt at reprisal could be made. Hip Yong had leapt off the house, apparently unhurt by the first discharge, although both Lord Comorin and Macalister had paid him special attention,
"There he is again!" exclaimed the former, "making away for'ard. Pot him, Mac! My rifle's empty." But the smoke was too thick, and the cook missed, for they saw Hip Yong run aft again, shoving cartridges into a breechloader as he sought shelter in the galley.
"Cuss 'im!" shouted Macalister, in disgust; "that yaller devil's fetish too strong. No bullet kill him!"
As he spoke a man shot past them out of the bridge-house, down the ladder, and along the main deck, A wounded pirate rose to his knees and tried to grasp his legs as he ran. But the other, half turning, lifted a short, heavy knife, and clove the man's head fair in twain, Then, without pause, he made into the thick of the crowd that had huddled behind the houses for shelter from the bridge fire.
"Great heavens!" exclaimed Comorin, the first minute of bewilderment over, "it's Captain John running amuck with my big scrub-knife. Come along, boys; load as you go!" And without further words the four ran down and after the Captain, whom Lord Comorin had thought asleep and would not have disturbed to take part in the reconnaissance.
A junk was on each bow packed high with cargo and men. Forty or fifty Chinese were crowded between the foremast and the break of the forecastle, and amongst these Captain John, bareheaded, with wild shouts and oaths, was slashing with might and main as they gave way before him, some jumping on to the junks, others running under the forecastle. The four coming up and firing rapidly completed the panic started by the sudden and desperate onslaught of the Captain. And had there been no others to deal with, his mad rush backed up by the constant and fatal shooting might have won the day.
But presently Comorin saw the mate stagger and fall, whilst bullets from aft began to hum about his own ears, The two junks on the quarter had vomited forth a body of pirates, who were deliberately firing at the little party as they showed to one side or the other of the men's house. And the fellows in the for'ard junks seeing this, and recovering from their confusion, were, under the leadership of a couple of the Malays, preparing to board again.
Captain John, gasping for breath, his clothes like a butcher's, stood leaning against the capstan. Mr. Brown had got on his knees and was making shift to crawl towards, him, when a long, straight sword flung spear-wise by a Chinese from the Countess's rail penetrated his back and literally pinned him to the deck. Instantly Lord Comorin, who was busy slipping cartridges into his Winchester, levelled the piece and shot the man through the throat. Throwing his hands up, he fell backwards overboard between the ship and the junk. Meanwhile, Macalister and Pugh were dodging about the foremast, firing aft at the advancing foe. Suddenly out from the galley jumped Hip Yong, and with a magazine rifle began shooting as fast as he could pull the trigger. A bullet stung Lord Comorin's shoulder; another cut a groove through Macalister's woolly scalp. Pugh lost a finger.
Howling with rage and the pain of his wound the negro threw his rifle down, and with a lightning rush caught Hip Yong just as the latter was making back to the galley. The steward screamed like a trapped rat as the cook, grasping him round the neck, dragged him to where some spare spars were lashed, and there, bending him over the end of a boom, choked him to death, whilst Pugh and Lord Comorin, back to back, discharged their heated rifles fore and aft.
The boatswain was cursing to himself under his breath all the time, and firing his final filling rather wildly. Comorin, his usually pale features flushed, teeth set hard, and a fighting scowl on his brow, discharged his last cartridges coolly and deliberately as if shooting for a battue wager in the Glenavon covers. But matters could not be more desperate. Macalister, still hugging Hip Yong, was simply cut to ribbons; Mr. Brown was past hope. Captain John, although busy with the for'ard boarders, was bleeding from a dozen wounds. The scrub-knife, double-edged and heavy, his only weapon, was but a poor defence against spears and bullets; and the other two, powerless to help, saw him presently sink under the living wave that now rolled over the forecastle-head.
"If we could but gain the bridge-house again!" panted Lord Comorin, throwing aside his useless rifle and wrenching a sword from the grip of a Chinese killed by Captain John in his first onslaught.
"Too thick, I reckon, sir," replied Pugh, calmly. "I see as the young 'un's got the door shut, though. They've apperiently forgot all about 'im. 'Owever, we'll charge the varmints, if you think's it's any good. Hello! by crikey! What's up now? What guns is them?"
Boom! boom! boom! as he spoke, came three roars from seaward. The junk on the starboard bow, a big lump of some eighty tons or so, seemed to leap in the air, bursting like twine the heavy coir lashings that held her to the Countess, and then fell all to shreds and tatters of mutilated men, timber, and miscellaneous cargo, which scattered in a horrible sort of spray over the ship.
Then, like magic, the rest of the pirates fled to the remaining junks, cast off, put out their sweeps, and began to pull frantically towards the coast, leaving Lord Comorin and Pugh utterly bewildered at the suddenness of the thing.
Boom! boom! boom! Nearer still; and the pair, staggering on to the forecastle-head, saw close to them a big white steamer, from whose bow issued puffs of smoke, whilst, now astern, now ahead of the fleeing junks the sea rose in graceful curving mounds.
And even as they gazed one of the pirate vessels upheaved and dissolved into a mass of floating débris.
"Good practice and heavy shell," said Lord Comorin, faintly. "And, oh, if she had only come up an hour ago."
"Full speed ahead," exclaimed Pugh, in ecstasy. "No more wasting shot. Ram, by George! Look, sir—my lord, I means, only you're such a tearin' 'ero as I forgets myself—look at 'er. Swish, swash! What price pirates now? How about 'mudder an' fader,' eh?" And the boatswain clapped his blackened and bleeding hands as he watched the warship ram and sink in succession the two remaining junks, the shrill cries of whose crews came plainly across the quiet water, mingled with the rattle of machine guns, as the cruiser trained them mercilessly on the swimmers.
Going across to where Captain John lay, they found him still alive, but unable to do more than open his eyes and look at them.
"It's all right now," said Lord Comorin, cheerily, as he endeavoured to bind up some of the worst of the other's many wounds.
"Too late," whispered Captain John, feebly. "Where's Lenny?"
But the boy was already picking his way along the decks towards the little group, and was soon kneeling by his uncle's side.
Meanwhile, the warship had steamed nearly alongside and lowered a couple of boats. And presently some small brown men in naval uniform boarded the Countess, holding up their hands in astonishment and chattering furiously at the sight of the shambles that met their gaze fore and alt; Approaching the spot where Captain John lay, with his head on Lord Comorin's lap and Lenny holding his hand, one of the newcomers said, in capital English: "You've had a lot of trouble here, I'm afraid. We apparently just came up in time—for you, at least, I am the second lieutenant of the Japanese cruiser yonder—the Fatsizio. Are all your men killed? As for the pirates," glancing seaward out of sharp beads of eyes, "I don't think they'll trouble people any more."
"Yes," replied Lord Comorin, "I fear we are the only survivors. Anybody else left, Pugh?" he asked of the boatswain, as the latter came out of the men's house, looking sick and faint.
"Not one, my lord," replied Pugh, hoarsely. "Carved into mincemeat inside there, an' three shot aloft. That makes up the tally o' the A.B,'s. Sails an' Chips, o' course, was done long ago, an' then the two mates. Oh, good heavens, was ever such a cussed massacre afore?" And Pugh sat feebly down and put his hands before his eyes.
The other Japanese, who turned out to be a surgeon, was in the meantime busily attending Captain John, to whom he had administered a cordial that seemed of service, for the old skipper's eyes brightened and the shrunken look went out of his face.
"Can't we move him?" asked Lord Comorin, anxiously. "If we could but get him on board your ship out of sight of this infernal mess."
"He hasn't ten minutes to live," whispered the doctor. "All your English College of Surgeons couldn't help him."
And indeed, almost as he spoke, the flicker died away. Captain John raised himself a little, looked at Lenny, weeping silently, and then at Lord Comorin's sad features; at the dead bodies all around. Then his gaze fell upon poor Brown, from whom Pugh had drawn the sword and composed the corpse decently.
"I'm going, Clarence," he whispered. "It's been a bad job. Forgive me for bringing you into it. Sell the ship and see that the bosun there, and the widows and orphans, never want for anythin'!"
Then he began to wander, and his talk rambled away to the old days in South Africa, when he and Lord Comorin had faced fate together. All at once he broke off, raised his head, and shouted, with a voice startling for the loudness and intensity of it: "Ready about! Hard—a—lee! Raise tacks and sheets! Mainsail haul!" And then, giving a feeble wave of the hand as a sign to put the helm over, he fell back dead—a mariner to the very last and with the spirit of his business still strong upon him.
He was a neighbour of mine, the old sea captain. He said he didn't think of going afloat any more. Why should he—a bachelor comfortably to do, and with the best housekeeper in Bow to look after him?
Imagine my surprise, then, when one evening, hailing me over the privet hedge which divided our little gardens, he said in an excited yet half shamefaced sort of a way that he had made up his mind for another trip—had even now 'got a ship,' and was to start almost immediately.
'Deep-water, I'm thankful to say. The East Indies and China. A fine clipper barque. I never asked for her. They just let me know—the old firm—that if I was minded to sight blue water again they could accommodate me. I'm not an aged man yet. Only 50, though my hair is so gray. Do you good to come, too, instead of sitting in that office all day long.'
I was, at that time, a shipping clerk at one of the new 'homes' for seamen in London. Sure enough a few days after this up come the captain and his men to sign articles.
'Name in full, Captain Dunlop, please?' I said, seeing that he had written his initials only before the surname, getting another form ready as I spoke.
'Christmas Seagiven,' replied he promptly enough.
'Born at sea on a Christmas morn?' I remarked, smiling.
'Not a bit of it,' answered he very gravely. 'Come in to-night and I'll tell you.'
So when the editor of the Queenslander was good enough to ask me to take a hand in the preparation of the annual literary feast that he delights to set before his readers, I all at once bethought me of that long ago evening at Bow, haven of retired merchant skippers, in the snug little cottage; of the curio-laden walls, the great half-model on the mantelshelf, the cheerful firelight glancing from the polished copper kettle on to the case-bottles and tumblers on the table, and illumining the hale and handsome features of the old sea captain as he bent forward, tongs in hand, to pick the needful coal for his pipe.
I remember, too, as I sat and waited, wondering at the magic power of that sea which could draw a man of his age out of such comfortable quarters.
I tell his story in my own words.
* * * * * * * * * *
The good ship Perseus had just left the south-east trades. She had lost her headway at the same time, and was simply wallowing around at random with an awful slapping of clewed-up sails and gear, and tin dishes in the galley.
It was in the second dog-watch, quite light as yet, and both watches were lying about for'ard waiting until eight bells and 'Grog ho!'—for the Perseus was a good ship, grog every night; butter, 'plums' and currants, vinegar and mustard; plenty but no waste.
Aft stood the captain and the mate, now looking up anxiously at the darkening blue of the sky, now over the side at the oily gurgling pools which circled and eddied in the swell left by the lost wind.
'Not much use boxhauling the yards about, Mr. James,' said the captain at length. 'It's a regular Irishman's hurricane at present—fair up and down. However, we musn't growl. The sou'-easters served us handsomely.'
'Eight bells, sir,' sang out an apprentice from the other side of the poop.
'Make it,' replied the mate.
As the boy walked towards the bell a sudden confused hubbub and bustle for'ard caused him to halt. Exclamations, oaths, and then a patter of bare feet on wood, as the ship's company came rushing aft in a body.
'What's up now!' sang out the captain as he saw all hands invade the sanctity of the quarter deck, gallop furiously up the ladders, and swarm on to the poop itself.
'What is the matter!' echoed Mr. James, catching hold of one of the fellows as they pressed on towards the taffrail. 'Have you seen the devil for'ard there? Or is the ship on fire?'
'Ay, ay, sir,' replied the man, who appeared half crazed with terror. 'There he comes now,' pointing to a tall white object, just visible in the dusk, advancing slowly along the main-deck.
'What is it, Mr. James?' asked the skipper, peering for'ard, but also backing aft along with the mate.
And for bonnie Annie Laurie
I'd lay me doun an' dee,
quavered shrilly up into the calm night air from the figure, which had paused irresolutely just in front of the quarter-deck.
'A stowaway!' exclaimed the skipper with a sigh of relief, but omitting to mention his authority. 'The devil don't sing!'
'No sir,' put in one of the men, 'he's no stowaway. He come over the bows right into the middle of us on the fo'k'stle head.'
Like dew on the gowan lying
Is the fa' o' her fairy feet,
shrilled that unearthly voice once more as the second mate, coming out of his berth, found himself face to face with its owner.
He was a surly old North Country man, this officer, and demanded he:
'What game's this? Are ye goin' daft, wi' yer screechin' on the quarter-deck, an' wi'out yer claes? Eight bells isna gone yet. Which of ye is't any way? I'll get yer grog stopped, my man, for this!'
Thus speaking, he came closer, peering, and then, with a scared oath, retreated slowly up the poop-ladder.
'What is it, Mr. Munro?' inquired the captain, walking for'ard.
'Nane o' ours, sir,' replied the second. 'It give me a bit turn, the creature's face. It's flesh an' bluid, though, I do believe.'
'Well, well,' said the other, who had got over his first fright; 'bring one of the binnacle lamps along and let's explore the mystery.'
Followed by the two mates and a long string of others, the skipper walked straight up to the figure, now leaning against the quarter-deck capstan. A man certainly. A living skeleton, quite naked but for the remnants of a pair of trousers, with the light of madness in its sunken shining eyes. A long fair beard fell down on to the bare chest, and, with hair of the same colour all tangled and matted, sparkled saltly in the lamp rays.
'Run for'ard, some of you,' said the skipper after a pause, 'and see if there's a boat or a raft hanging about the ship anywhere. Mr. James, will you call the doctor?—if he's sober.'
Then, with kind words and gestures, they strove to lead the unfortunate creature into the saloon, whose cheerful lights shone along the deck. But resisting every entreaty, he clung to the capstan and fondled it, and called it endearing names, and would not be parted from it except by force.
It was a painful, ay, a terrible, sight, and the rough seamen around—their superstitious fears calmed by the present discovery, made fast to a rope's end which had been towing overboard, of a couple of hencoops roughly lashed together—felt awed and moved at this eloquent reminder from the great ocean of what might be their own fate at any minute.
The Perseus carried one passenger, a doctor, experienced and skilful, but given to periodical 'drunks.' Luckily, he had recovered from his last one sufficiently to be of use; and under his directions they at last succeeded in getting the castaway into one of the spare berths, where, after administering some broth, the doctor had the satisfaction of seeing him fall into a deep sleep.
'No wonder the men were scared, Mr. James,' remarked the captain as he looked at the hen-coops tied feebly together with strips of clothing. 'I felt that way myself for a while. But, good God! what must the poor devil have suffered? Will he ever regain his senses, d'ye think, doctor?'
'Tell you when he wakes,' replied the latter. 'It's a most interesting case. Man's been for a fortnight without food. He's weaker, physically, than a new-born baby. And yet you saw how the mind's distemper raging within gave him strength. The chances are that if he does recover his memory 'll be a mere tabula rasa—a blank.'
'God forbid!' exclaimed the captain fervently. A week passed before the Perseus again caught a dependable wind. All that time the stranger lay and babbled wildly of many things, but mainly of 'Annie' and of 'Dot.'
The doctor, taking an interest in his patient, and forswearing grog, watched him and tended him skilfully and incessantly until he took a turn for the better. And one breezy sunny morning, the fluted cliffs of Tristan d'Acunha bearing broad on the port bow, and the Perseus surging along with a sparkling wake of crisp white and tender blue, in which Cape pigeons, gulls, and mollyauks screamed and dipped and scrambled, the convalescent, weak and wan, and faltering of speech, but 'clothed and in his right mind,' was carried on deck.
But ere this, bit by bit, his story had been learned. His name was Dunlop, and he was a civil engineer going out to take charge of some extensive irrigation works in Victoria. With his wife and their only child, a boy of 3 years, they had taken passage in a vessel called the Western Empire, a fine fast sailer, nearly new and only on her second voyage to Melbourne.
One evening, a fresh breeze blowing, while Dunlop was sitting smoking on the broad rail at the gangway, one hand holding by a line of the running gear, suddenly he felt something give aloft, down came the rope, and, losing his balance, he fell overboard. He had time only for a single cry, but as he rose astern he could hear the hoarse shouts of 'Man overboard!' Could see the black loom of the ship hove up in the wind with a letting go of sheets and halliards and a flapping and banging of canvas; then, between towering walls of water hurrying along, each doing its best to overwhelm him, he got bewildered and no longer knew in which direction to look for her. He was a splendid swimmer, but the sea was too high for him, so desisting from the struggle he contented himself with keeping afloat and waiting for the boat that he thought must surely come. At this moment he found the first hencoop. Getting astride it, he listened with agonised intensity for the splash of oars or calls of rescue, shouting himself at intervals. The darkness gathered more thickly about him. His voice, the only thing audible save the angry hiss of the waves as they swept over him, sounded hollow and unnatural in his ears.
All through the long watches of the night he clung to his frail support and strained his eyesight, and shouted until he could shout no longer. Fortunately both air and water were warm, or he must have perished.
As the dawn broke and the sun rose, lighting up the vast sailless waste of watery furrows, he realised to the full what pretty nearly everybody knows nowadays—that he who falls overboard from a merchant vessel is nothing better than a dead man. There may be just one chance out of a thousand in a calm and by broad daylight; in the night, unless God work a miracle, as in his case, none whatever. Whether they lowered a boat or not he was unable to say. Probably they did, and after pulling aimlessly about for half an hour gave it up; whilst, as the 'official log' has it, 'the ship proceeded on her course.' For which quotation, and an addendum to the effect that the incident ' cast a gloom over the remainder of the passage, the missing man being a general favourite,' see almost any newspaper's reports of the incoming shipping. Later on he picked up another hencoop, and formed the frail raft we have described.
God was very good to him. Once he caught an albatross asleep, and, after a fierce battle with the great bird, the scars of which were yet scarce healed, he killed it.
Think of the struggle in mid-ocean between the naked perishing man and his iron-beaked adversary, of the wild screaming of the thing, and the rushing of its huge pinions as it beat and clutched and tore at its captor!
During part of his awful experience frequent showers fell, so that he suffered little from thirst. How long he had been floating about, half dead, half mad, wholly hopeless, when the shock of his raft against the bows of the Perseus aroused him from a sort of trance, he had not the remotest idea—certainly more than a week.
As time went on he improved rapidly, developing from a skeleton into a man of magnificent physique and almost Herculean strength. 'Pooh!' said the doctor one day, eyeing him. 'Another dose like that wouldn't hurt you now—with me to pull you through at the end of it.'
He was a man, too, of culture and trained intelligence, whose opinion on many subjects was in itself a liberal education to listen to.
Thus the little group in the cabin became much attached to their rescued passenger. Even the crusty old second mate went so far as to remark, 'He's a mon, ivery inch o' him, tho' he did coom aboord on us like the divil.'
But, in head winds, or calms, it was pitiful to see him. He roamed the ship like a caged animal, watching the water, watching the sky, with a passionate eager look in his eyes that told its tale to every one. Then, when with a couple of white hillocks pouring away from each side of her forefoot the Perseus laid her course, his post was aloft scanning the horizon in search of the ship that held those who were so dear to him.
The Perseus being bound to Sydney, the two vessels were probably running along much the same parallels, although the captain's opinion was that the Empire had kept more to the south, and that their chances of sighting her were extremely slight. Besides, he knew her, and knew that she was the faster vessel of the two.
But Dunlop never relaxed his vigilance—always the pale expectant face set steadily eastward.
* * * * * * * * **
On Christmas Day, and when half way across the Southern Ocean, it came on to blow heavily, with signs of more, and the Perseus, under her three topsails and foresails, roared along like a steamer. 'Off again, Mr. Dunlop,' said the skipper as, coming on deck, he espied the former with his glass slung over his shoulder ready to ascend the weather mizzen-rigging. 'I'm afraid it's of no use, though,' he continued; 'the Empire got too great a start for us. I suppose it's not much use wishing you a "Merry Christmas" whilst the wife and the youngster are away. But let me hope that before the New Year's far gone you'll be together again. A fortnight of this, and the old Leeuwin'll be astern.'
'Thank you, captain,' replied the other as he stood on the shear-pole. 'Yes, please God, I shall see Annie and the boy before very long. They will thank you themselves then, captain; I can't do it nearly enough without their help.'
'Pooh! nonsense! man,' growled the skipper as he squinted aloft. 'Mind, now, and keep a good hold up there, unless you're hankering after another trip on a coop. I can't venture a boat in this sea.'
'I'll look out this time,' answered Dunlop as he sprang up the rigging on to the topgallant yard, where, seated with one arm around the tie, he worked away with his binocular.
'As usual, I suppose?' queried the captain at luncheon time. 'Nothing in sight? I never remember, in all the runs I've made across here, falling in with so few ships.'
'I fancy I saw something right ahead, replied Dunlop. 'But a squall came along and hid it. Anyhow, it wasn't a ship, or at least not one with her sails set. It seemed merely a black spot under the gray sky.'
'Might be a derelict, though,' remarked the captain. 'Send a man aloft, if you please, Mr. James, and tell him to keep his eyes skinned. Deuced ugly thing a derelict pottering about right in our track, I can tell you, Mr. Dunlop. Might just as well run slap into a rock.'
Before the meal was quite over the second mate put his head down the companion with: 'Theer's something 'bout a point on the lee bow, sir. Looks to me like a ship with the sticks outen her. Ye can see her off the fo'k'stle-head now.'
In a minute the others were on deck. Sure enough, there was the object Dunlop had first discovered, little more, as yet, to the untrained eye than the dark spot it had appeared to him, but rising fast as the Perseus drew nearer. Now the mate jumped aloft with his glass, and presently came from him:
'It's a big ship dismasted and nearly awash.
Closer and closer drove the Perseus, keeping a weather helm, and with every glass in her focussed on the wreck, over the greater part of which big seas were arching in glassy deluges.
Mr. James had come down and joined the watchers on the poop.
'By heavens!' he suddenly exclaimed as a watery sun-glint shot out of the ragged lowering storm-clouds,' there's people on her!'
As, still keeping her helm up, the Perseus approached with foresail clewed up, topsails on the caps, and reef-tackles hauled out, a pitiful spectacle presented itself.
Over the hull of a large ship, her decks nearly level with the water, the sea was making clean breaches. About 8ft. of each mast was left standing, and the wreckage, with a confused raffle of ropes and rigging, rose and fell and dashed on board as each sea broke over her. Aft and amidships was nothing but an incessant curling up and falling in sheets of foam of heavy combers.
The topgallant-fo'k'stle alone formed a little island of refuge which, though swept at intervals by showers of spume and spindrift, had as yet escaped the thunderous masses that roared across the rest of the vessel. From the stump of the shattered bowsprit a hawser had been carried round the remnant of the foremast and back again. To the part of this extending along the fo'k'stle deck, some 90ft. perhaps, five men and a woman were fastened. The latter's long black hair streamed with the wind off her shoulders, whilst clasped in both arms to her breast she held a bundle. Possibly the poor wretches shouted. But if they did the relentless gale blew the words back down their throats. There was no mistaking, though, the eloquent dumb appeal of waving beckoning arms and hands; and once the woman lifted the bundle from her bosom and opening it showed a child. It was a sight agonising in the hopelessness and the misery of it.
At this moment a voice as of a mortally stricken man, so full of anguish was it, sounded in the captain's ear, making him start as if bitten by a snake.
'My God!' it said, 'My God! It's Annie!' Turning, he saw Dunlop, white as death, and shaking in every limb as he pointed with extended finger towards the wreck. He said no more, but stood motionless, staring fixedly at the huddled up figures through whose bodies the hawser seemed to run as if they were strung on it, whilst every now and then, the seas rising higher a green one would break over their refuge and sweep them all swinging off their feet.
'Never mind,' said the skipper after a pause, and in a voice he in vain tried to render confident, 'don't take it to heart so. We'll hang about until this bit of a blow's over and then we'll get 'em off all right. It's sudden death to lower a boat now.'
But the other replied only by a groan.
'Run up the ensign, Mr. James,' shouted the skipper,' and let those poor folk see that they've got Englishmen to deal with! God knows it makes my heart ache to know we can't give 'em better comfort than that. But I must think of my own men's lives first.
'Call the hands,' he continued, 'and let them stow the foresail and mizzen-tops'l, and close reef the fore and main ones. Tell 'em to stand by to heave the ship to. I'll stick by 'em as long as a plank of her holds together. And, by heaven! if all the Royal Navy was here in suchlike weather they couldn't do more! A falling glass, too!' he muttered to himself. 'And only this morning, Christmas morning, I was promising him he should soon see 'em! God help us!'
Little need was there to 'call all hands.' A great thrill of sympathy and pity had run through the Perseus and brought her men crowding aft, eager to hear their captain's determination. A ringing cheer escaped them as the mate repeated his orders, and they sprang aloft like cats. Had the skipper called for volunteers to man a boat he could have had them twice over.
'Ay, Billy,' said an old sailor to a young mess mate who indignantly demanded of him why that step was not taken at once, 'so the skipper would; only, ye see, he knows his business, an' you're just a-beginnin' to larn it. But I'll tell ye. Fust an' foremost, no boat, 'cept a lifeboat, 'd live in the sea as'll be on in another half hour. Second, if she got to the hull over yonder she'd never get no closer'n a hundred yards of her, an' a precious lot o' good 'd be done then. Thirdly, Billy, afore we'd got clear o' the Pershoos we'd be all afloatin' bung up an' bilge free among them combers, as that last one, ye'll notice, precious nigh took the galley away wi' it. Not but,' he concluded sententiously, getting a grip of the bunt of the foresail with his horny old fingers—'not but what I'd go, Billy, if I was axed.'
The Perseus was now crossing the wreck's bows perilously close, her yards covered with men getting in the canvas preparatory to bringing the ship to. The captain, standing at the break of the poop, his attention taken up with the work, had forgotten his unfortunate passenger, when a loud shout from the man at the wheel caused him to run aft.
'He's gone, sir!' exclaimed the fellow excitedly, pointing to a heap of clothes on the deck. 'He went all on a suddent. Shoves a bowline in one o' them there royal sheets, then into it an' dives off afore I seen what he was up to.'
A glance at the slowly paying-out line, another to where, on the summit of a white-crested billow, floated something whiter still, and the captain understood. A few more minutes and the Perseus, head to wind, lay like a duck amongst the big seas, only taking in one now and again—making, in fact, what seamen call 'good weather' of it.
In the morning, before the wreck was sighted, the watch had been busy unreeving the mizzen-royal sheets and reeving new ones. The old ones neatly coiled up still lay on the poop. An end of one of these Dunlop had secured around him before taking his mad leap into the boiling sea. A couple of men attended to the line, which paid slowly, so slowly, out, as the desperate swimmer battled with the seething waves, half the time hidden from sight in the roaring chasms, his position only defined by a swooping flock of gulls and a single albatross, which latter, on extended wings, hovered just above him.
'Pull him in!' exclaimed the mate presently. 'It's a sin to see a life thrown away like this. Mortal man can never fight such a sea. Why, the weight of the rope he's towing is enough to sink a horse.'
'Leave him alone!' commanded the captain. 'I tell you at the very first tightening of that line he'd throw it off altogether. Some purpose he had in his mind when he took it. Not for himself, I'm sure. Bend on the other sheet, and get up a coil or two of that small running-gear we unrove yesterday, and fake it out along the deck.'
'You're right, captain,' said the doctor, 'I know him. If mortal man can do it, he's the one. Never bother yourself about the weight of the rope, Mr. James. He doesn't feel it any more than you or I would a piece of twine. It's not that I'm afraid of. It's the bitter foam and spray in his mouth and his eyes and his ears.'
Picture to yourself, if you can, the scene. Under the lowering sky a leaden white-tipped sea off whose lofty surges the furious wind blew the foam like smoke; then the wreck, at moments invisible under a smother of spray as wave after wave crashed over it; to leeward the Perseus, looking gaunt and bare under her two rags of canvas, the gale shrilling wildly through her rigging, now riding high on top of a big billow, now hidden to her mastheads between a couple, her ensign drooping motionless in the sudden calm, then streaming bravely out again, a patch of red against the dark background of sky, as, rising, the vessel felt the wind; the group on her poop, with their gaze travelling from the wondrous swimmer to the line dragging out ever more slowly, making the watching of it like viewing the lingering agonies of a dying man.
The afternoon wore on. More than once they thought it was all over, and were preparing to haul in the lifeless body, when some one would catch a glimpse of the struggling form still heading for its goal. A longer interval than usual had elapsed since sighting the swimmer when, through a rift in the sullen sky, a sudden shaft of sunlight shot down full on the wreck. At the same time, too, came one of those pauses common enough in the heaviest gales. A man shouted and pointed. A cheer that was half a groan rang out as a white figure was seen to drag itself slowly and painfully along the hawser towards the woman, never pausing at any of the others, three of whom now, in the new light, it could be noticed hung limply doubled over the rope.
'See! he's a-cuddlin' of her, an' kissin' of her an' the kid!' exclaimed one of the men. And his mates pulled their sou-westers further over their foreheads and swore passionately for the very pity of the thing.
How he got through the terrible sea bursts, the sweeping raffle of rigging, and the deadly barricade of broken spars will never be known. The love that filled the great heart of him did it, and carried him scathless through the valley of the shadow, through the 'many waters' that 'cannot quench love,' to die beside his wife, the mother of his child. With breathless interest they watched what followed. They saw Dunlop take the skirt off his wife's dress, she helping him, and wrap it around the boy. Then, holding the child in his arms, he made the end of the rope he had brought with him fast about its body, and when all was ready held it towards those on the Perseus with much the same appealing gesture as his wife had done before.
'Look out there at the line!' almost screamed the mate; 'he's going to throw the child clear of everything!'
Suddenly Dunlop and his burden disappeared.
'Stand by!' sang out the captain; 'he's only gone to give it a fair start; watch the woman!' And, sure enough, in a minute or two she waved her arms towards the Perseus, and 'Pull!' yelled the skipper, and they pulled like furies, whilst Dunlop crept back to the side of his wife. The lull was over now, and the wind raged and the sea ran as wildly as ever. It seemed hours before a little white something, tossed from comber to comber like a bird's feather, came in sight. No one thought of the wreck now. Every eye was fixed on the second mate, who, with a bowline around him, stood in the mizzen-rigging, and into whose arms presently, as the ship descended between two sloping hills of water, a curving billow nearly dashed the child.
'Dead of course! What else d'ye expect?' said the doctor as he looked down on the body—stripped perfectly naked by the sea, and with a red-raw rope-chafe under its arms on the delicate white skin. 'It was only madness to attempt such a thing. The life must have been beaten out of it in the first minute.' But even whilst speaking he caught it up and ran away with it to his own berth, followed by half-a-dozen volunteers bearing the hot water he had called for. Taking the water, and locking the others out, he went to work, not appearing again on deck until evening. Then the first look at his face was enough.
'Thank God!' cried the captain, grasping his hand, which he shook heartily.
'Yes, he'll do,' answered the doctor, hastily withdrawing his fingers and shaking them. 'A narrow squeak, though! But he's not got his father's constitution for nothing. As fine a three year-old as ever you saw. Wreck broken up yet?'
The wreck had not broken up. But the Perseus had increased her distance so much as to render glasses necessary to discern at one end of the hawser Dunlop and his wife, apparently clasped in each other's arms, then the three limp bundles hanging over it. The other places were vacant. The boy (as he told afterwards) remembered his father imploring those yet sensible in turns to let him fasten one of them on the line with him. But they refused. They were apathetic and resigned. They would sooner die where they were than have the breath crushed out of them in that roaring caldron. Better so, probably. The extra weight would have snapped the rope or drowned both.
There were a couple of 12-pounder guns aboard the Perseus. The captain ordered them to be loaded as quickly as possible. It was still day light when, as the ship rode on the top of a big sea, he gave the signal to fire, and as the reports echoed sullenly over the water, himself dipped the ensign three times. It was at once the requiem of those 'faithful unto death' and the salute to the rescued. 'If I could but think that they'll take it as a sign the child's safe,' said the captain, 'I'd feel more satisfied. I believe those two can die happy, knowing so much. Heaven help them! It's going to be a terrible night'
Already he had done more than many a shipmaster would have dreamt of doing. But still throughout the long night he kept the Perseus hove to, with lights hanging fore and aft her. Next morning the wreck was gone—not a vestige left—and the child was crying for its mother. All the name they knew him by was his pet one of 'Dot.' It was the only one he recognised himself. Therefore the captain, who, finding that he had no other relatives, eventually adopted him, had him rechristened 'Christmas Seagiven.'
A Merry Christmas to you, my readers; but more especially to those who, in times past, have been 'down to the sea in ships,' and have 'done business in great waters.'
What a figure it was! Squat, bow-legged, round-shouldered, with great bare chest, on which the hair grew like moss on an old wall.
Imagine such; and then crown it with a bullet-shaped head covered by a thatch of rough, crisp, hair growing down to a fierce, wrinkled, mahogany-hued face with broad thick nose gleaming redly out of a wild tangle of beard and moustache; whilst from under curling purthouses of bristles twinkled a pair of small blue eyes, piercing, but not unkindly.
Always, no matter what the latitude or the weather, the heavy knotted feet were bare, and the shirt-sleeves rolled high on the brawny arms with the big hairy paws swinging half-closed at the end of them. He was one of the old school of British seamen—now, more's the pity, nearly extinct—their "blood," as they used to put it, "Stockholm tar, every hair a ropeyarn, every finger a marlinspike."
The rest of his shipmates, mostly beardless Cockneys, were wont (in view of his often expressed hatred of steamers and all their ways) to tease him, and ask why, if he was so fond of them, he did not return to the "wind-jammers" of which he boasted so much.
"Hoots!" he would cry on such occasions, in that strident voice of his, harsh with the harshness born of many years of wind and salt water, "Hoots, ye meeserable pack o' things that canna knot twa yarns the gither! Sailors! (with an unutterable note of disdain in the roar of him) ye ca' yersels! Ay, sailors wi' a brume an' a bucket o' soojee-moojee to scrub pentwork wi'! Men as kens naething aboot their trade, an' wad be sore puzzlit to pit a short splice intil a rope. But that I'm gettin' auld, the noo, an' my poor teeth's wearin' awa, I wadna be seen wi' the likes' o' ye! I'd gang back to canvas the morrow's morn! But I canna tackle the leevin' there as I could ance. That's the reason ye see me here scrubbin' an' moiderin', an' pentin', an' messin' aboot like ony auld wife intil a new hoose. It's joost the saft bread, ye ken, au' the bit stew, an' the menavlin's frae the cuddy table. I'm fair shamed to hae to say it. But it canna be helpit! An' I'll do a day's wark yet wi' the best o' ye. Yet!"
Now, amongst the steerage passengers of the ss. Pretoria, homeward bound from Capetown, was a young woman and her little boy. He was a pretty sunny-haired, fair-faced child, about four years old, and big for his age. And, much to their disgust and surprise, passing over all the smart-looking youngsters amongst the crew, who would fain have made a pet of him after the manner of their kind, he fixed his affections solely on "Old Scotty"—uncouth, hirsute, harsh-spoken, old shellback though he was.
Also, when the gay saloon people who, at times, made incursions from their own parts on to the main deck, would praise the little chap's beauty, and make him presents of cakes and sweeties, he only unwillingly suffered their caresses, and at once ran with his spoils to Scotty, leaping up to twine his arms round the sunburnt bull neck, and burying the bright curls in the old serge jumper and hairy breast.
As for Bertie's mother the less said the better. She was more often to be found amongst the officers' cabins in the alley-way than in her own proper place.
Consequently the child was utterly neglected; and Scotty not only took upon himself the washing and curling of him, but also the feeding; putting aside titbits from his own meals for the boy, which the latter ate in great content perched on his guardian's knee.
And whilst these duties were toward, woe betide the thoughtless one who forgot the presence of innocent childhood in the grimy forecastle lumbered up with steam winches, huge cables and whatnot; for, to use Scotty's own word, "he wad just straighten him oot like a gib doon haul!"
Also he made Bertie a neat serge jumper and cap, both with the ship's name thereon, and a blue diamond cunningly worked on a white ground. And when the bell rang to muster on Sunday mornings the youngster, holding hard by one of Scotty's horny fingers, would also trot aft and present himself at the starboard lifeboat for inspection, a breach of discipline enjoyed by everyone.
Now it happened that, on a day, with a calm sea, wind abeam, and light, and the Pretoria's smoke lying like a dark cloud bank far away to leeward against the clear blue of the horizon, that the chief officer, having the bridge, chanced to look astern.
What he saw there made him call the captain hurriedly; and in his turn he stared long through the glasses.
Yes, there could be no further doubt about the matter. It was unmistakably the s.s. Serpentine of the opposition Red Diamond Company's line. Moreover, as all men knew, she was a "goer."
Presently, the chief engineer, red-whiskered, glorious in gold braid, and hailing from Aberdeen, joined the pair. He shook his head as he gazed.
"I can see the red diamond on her funnel," he said. "It's gettin' plainer every meenit. I ken her engines brawly. They're triple expansion, an' the vera latest fashion. It's the Serpentine withoot a doubt, an' she'll overha' us afore the middle watch."
"We'll give her a run for it, Mr. Macpherson," exclaimed the skipper, all alert and lively. "Champagne in your messroom, and rum in the stokehole, tell 'em, if your people 'll do their best. I wouldn' care so much if it was any other boat. But I know Brown's been gassing about what he'll do with us. If we could only keep him astern until we get to Teneriffe, eh?" and the skipper rubbed his hands and looked up inquiringly into the tall chief's face.
"I canna answer for that much," replied the latter cautiously, "It's a lang step to Tanneriffe. But we'll do oor best," and throwing away his cigar, and unbuttoning his coat, he prepared to visit the engine-room and personally supervise operations. So, in a while, the whole ship began to throb and quiver and jump in a style that excited the wonder of the passengers, whilst ever thicker and blacker poured the great stream from her stack, and a quartermaster, dropping into the forecastle for a yarn and a smoke, told his friends that the skipper was throwing the old barge wide open, and that in his opinion kerosene would be called for before the job was finished. And the A·Bs. thanked their stars that the wind was light, for your steamboat sailor loves not the setting of canvas—would, had he his own way, carry nothing above the funnel.
Only old Scotty looked longingly up at the great squareyards on the fore, and grunted disconsolately, and told his mates once again of the ever-famous race home from Foochow with the first teas of the season, and how one could track his ship, the dainty little Ariel, from Anjer to the English Channel by the line of sten's'l booms she left in her wake.
So all night long the Pretoria trembled and shook as with ague, and her propeller thundered in a whirling Charybdis of seething foam, and raised great mounds of liquid, roaring fire each side her stem; whilst buckets of oatmeal water, liberally laced with limejuice and rum, went down to the perspiring demons of the stokehole and bunkers.
When the morning broke nothing was visible save against the far blueness astern a faint smudge like the phantom of a cloud.
The skipper was delighted, and spoke to the steward concerning wine for the engineers' mess.
But the cautious chief, as he wiped the glistening Krug off his moustache, observed to his pallid, cleanshaven subordinates crowding around him with bumpers:
"I tell ye, lads, Brown's na pushin' her. It's me that kens her engines. They're the best that auld Napier e'er pit intil a boat; an' that's talkin'. The drink's gude, though. Smith ye'd best let her doon a bittie in yer watch. We'll be a' the better o' some steam in resairve. Suner or later, Brown'll come past us like a fleein' pieman."
But Captain Brown seemed in no hurry, and pretty well kept his distance. The fact was he would have been pleased enough to show the Pretoria his stern, and know he could do so at any minute.
But, owing to an oversight, his bunkers were not as full as they should have been, and he had no wish to put into Teneriffe to refill, as the Pretoria always did. He, therefore, contented himself with his usual runs, determined to come up and overhaul her within a couple of days' steam or so of the island.
As time went by the chief suspected the state of things, but did not acquaint the skipper with his notions, and the latter, pleased with the efforts of his engineers, kept up the mess supplies awhile longer. In a few days the sight of that faint blotch astern, with, now and again, a black dot showing through the glass, grew familiar to the Pretoria's people, who boasted loudly and congratulated each other. And the first and second saloons gave the officers a grand dinner, at which much wine was consumed in healths.
And not to be behindhand, the steerage feasted the crew and petty officers, and there were scenes of revelry from forecastle-head to alley-way doors.
Gradually, as they went north about, the S.E. trades began to freshen and the sea to get up a bit. Canvas was put on the victorious Pretoria, and the engines kept once more at their usual speed.
"Not such a flyer after all, Mac," remarked the skipper genially. You mustn't, it seems, believe every fairy tale you hear concerning these wonderfully fast boats, eh, old man?"
The chief grinned under his moustache, and rather hoped that Brown would soon take it into his head to make another push. The weather was hot, and the champagne frappé.
One night, with a full red moon rising and showing like a globe of molten copper just over the rim of the great black and yellow funnel, the wind soft and steady abeam, the big steamer creaming swiftly along, her decks full of people, laughing, talking, and promenading up and down, or gathered in knots here and there, there followed close on the cry at the half-hour from the forward bridge of "Lights bright and all's well!" a startling yell of "Man overboard!" giving the lie with a wild, desperate intonation to the call of the lookout.
"It's little Bertie!" shrilled a voice out of the sudden stillness, as the side grew black with crowding clusters of men staring hard at the silver dazzle streaming towards the moon, whilst women shrieked and wrung their hands and ran to and fro.
Suddenly, along the narrow track of light the watchers saw a small dark object slide rapidly past, and a great roar went up, with a thrusting out of pointing arms, and eager craning of heads. Then there was a rush of many feet as the crowd poured jostling and shouting through the hot alley-ways right aft. The engines ceased, and a curious hush fell on ship and sea, Then through the black mass at the taffrail there rushed a man with a lifebuoy in his hand, parting the crush right and left with powerful shoulders. For a second or two he stood gazing under the flat of his hand; then, with one exclamation of "God A'mighty!" leaped far out and clear of the sparkling smother which the propeller was beginning to churn up at "Full speed astern!"
"Lower away the starboard lifeboat! Lively there, my lads! Stand clear, please, gentlemen!"
But, alas, as so often happens, there was something wrong. Gripes wouldn't come adrift in spite of dozens of tough fingers working at them, and had to be cut. Then the falls, of new rope, had swelled with the last shower and wouldn't travel through the sheaves. And all this in face of the weekly drill, when the men marched to their stations, had a good five minutes' look at their respective boats, and were then dismissed again.
Thus it was fully five and twenty minutes before the falls were unhooked and the boat got away. And what do not so many minutes mean at such a time if not the difference between life and death?
And so it seemed in this case, for, although another boat was lowered and cruised about for awhile, picking up a couple of lifebuoys which had been thrown over, no sign was visible across all the waste of moonlit sea of those they sought. For nearly an hour the big steamer slowly drove to and fro and round and round in widening circles, signalling the boats towards each imaginary object which the glasses disclosed. But it was all of no use; and, at length, getting ,them on board, the monsters of iron and steel in their den below again clashed and thundered with quickened pulses, and the Pretoria's stem once more sent up two mounds of frosted silver to cream away in delicate lacelike patterns of snowy foam on a ground of deepest blue, whilst the careless mother of the lost child was carried to her berth in hysterics; and his mates in the forecastle were saying to each other, "Poor old Scotty!"
During all this time nothing had been seen of the Serpentine. But on the following afternoon the black speck and the flag of smoke astern again hove in sight, and began to large so rapidly that the chief came to the conclusion that Brown had finally made up his mind. But the captain of the Pretoria was on his mettle now, and sent his boat for all she was worth—sent her until the affrighted passengers thought she was entered for a marine hurdle race, so prodigious were the leaps and bounds she gave; sent her until her firemen had to be handed up, looking like dead niggers out of the stokehole, and her trimmers fainted in the bunkers.
And, in spite of everything, the Serpentine gained every 24 hours, until one morning a string of bright colours went fluttering up to her mizzen topmast head, which, being interpreted, meant "Ease down. Want to speak you."
But our captain on the Pretoria only dipped his ensign, and remarked that he was far too old a bird to be caught by any such sea chaff as that.
And the engines wrangled and tore and thumped down there more furiously than ever, and shook the teak decks until blocks, cunningly laid in aforetime to hide cavities jumped out of them, and people could scarce keep their feet. Also, that night, curious things were cast into the blazing, fiery furnaces, before which strove like demons all the engineers except the chief, who kept cool and watched his engines and prophesied to himself.
And perhaps he was the only one in all the ship's company who, next morning, was not utterly amazed and disgusted to see, a couple of miles ahead, the Serpentine rolling easily in the light swell, her topsail yard on the cap, trysails brailed in, nearly smokeless funnel, and a request to "Send a boat on board" pulling gaily at her signal halliards.
The passengers and crew of the Pretoria, watching anxiously, heard the sound of cheers come faintly across the water against the wind. The excitement increased as the boat drew alongside. But when the second officer stood up, holding aloft little Bertie, who clapped his hands and nodded to the three hundred roaring faces over the rail, people went fairly wild. Men climbed the rigging in swarms, clustering like bees along the bowsprit, whooping and cheering and waving hats and handkerchiefs towards the Serpentine, now just abeam, and replying with hoarse, joyful screechings of her steam horn.
Quickly the news penetrated below, and from rarely explored regions came trooping all sorts and conditions of men, unseen before, and who visited upper airs but rarely, until decks and bridges, fore and aft, were one mass of hysterically cheering humanity.
* * * * * * * * * *
This is the extract from the official log of the Red Diamond Company's s.s. Serpentine, brought back with him by the second officer of the Pretoria:—"Tuesday, 27th March, lat. 15·26 S., long. 1·23 E., wind S.S.E., light, with smooth sea; course, N. ½ W., magnetic. At sunrise this morning, a passenger, looking through his glasses, drew my attention to a curious object bearing about three points on the port bow. Kept away, and presently saw that it was a life-buoy, containing an apparently dead body. Lowered dingy and picked up a child firmly lashed on buoy with a pair of braces and a long leathern belt. Child quite insensible. Had on jumper with s,s. Pretoria, also an old guernsey bearing the same name. In half an hour, the doctor succeeded in reviving child (a fine, strong, boy) whose first cry was for 'Cotty,' who, he said, had swum with him for a long time, and then, after securing him in the way mentioned above, and putting his own jersey over him, had kissed him and gone away, saying he was going to fetch the ship to him. But 'Cotty' had never returned any more. Shall put the child on board s.s. Pretoria, now in sight ahead.
"Off Canary Islands, April 9, '93."
'Yes, Sir Henry, only too pleased to oblige you if possible. Had enough of the sea professionally, eh? There's a vacancy for chief now on the Babylon, if you feel that way inclined.' And the senior owner of the famous 'Ruins' Line (so nicknamed because all its ships were christened after ancient cities) chuckled jovially to the young man sitting opposite him in that private parlour into which, a short time before, he would have had as much chance of being invited as to Buckingham Palace.
Only a week or so earlier he was simply Harry Weyland, 'second of the Babylon.' Now, by one of those transformations, not by any means confined to romance, he had become Sir Henry Weyland, of Weylandscourt, Bart., with an income of £5000 a year.
'Yes,' continued Mr. Murrage, 'we are quite willing, if Ainslie thinks it's practicable. And I don't see why it shouldn't be.'
He touched a bell, and a clerk appeared. 'See if Captain Ainslie is below,' said Mr. Murrage, 'and if so, ask him to kindly step this way.'
Captain Ainslie, of course, had heard the story of his late second officer's translation; of how his two cousins lost their lives on Monte Rosa; a third by a terrible yachting accident in the Solent; then of the death of their father—all within a fortnight; and the consequent accession of Harry Weyland to one of the oldest baronetcies in the United Kingdom.
After a hearty greeting, and an explanation with regard to Sir Harry's proposed scheme, the captain of the Babylon stroked his beard reflectively and said:
'Yes, 22deg. 13min. S., 47deg. 15min. W. ought to do. That's pretty well the centre of the South Atlantic. I think I can manage my share. Wind and weather favouring, I'll be there on the 14th. That'll give Siddons plenty of time. You'd better let him know at once, as he sails—let me see—to-morrow, or the next day rather, allowing for the difference. Aha!' continued the jovial skipper suddenly, with a light breaking over his heretofore rather puzzled countenance. 'Now I see your little game, Master Harry! Why, of course! I forgot they were coming back in the Troy. Oh, decidedly, my boy, we'll be there. And you're going to shanghai them back again to their own country, eh? But if you're in such a hurry why not charter a steamer?'
'Well, Captain,' replied the young man, flushing a little. ' I'd sooner trust the old Bab. Besides, you see, there are associations connected—'
'Say no more, my boy,' exclaimed Ainslie, laughing. 'I see; I see. Well, we'll do our best to deserve the honour. Let Siddons know without delay.'
And presently Captain Siddons, of the sister ship City of Troy, taking in her last few bales of wool alongside the Circular Quay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, was astonished by the receipt of the following cable:—
'Can you meet the Babylon in 22deg. 13min. S., 47deg. 16min. W. on the 14th January to tranship passengers? Reply.'
'This is a go!' said Siddons as, more than equal to the emergency, he, after a few calculations, sent back the answer:
'Yes; 14th, at noon (ship's time).'
'If confidence can do it Siddons is all there,' remarked Mr. Murrage as next morning he showed Harry Weyland the reply.
'I wonder, by the way,' he went on, glancing curiously at the new baronet, 'how the young lady and her mother will fancy being carried back to Australia in that sort of high-handed fashion? Does she, for instance, know of the change in your prospects?'
'No,' said young Weyland, smiling happily as the colour came and went in his bronzed handsome face. 'That's my Secret. You see I became engaged to her a couple of trips ago. Her mother didn't by any means approve of the affair.'
Mr. Murrage took a pinch of snuff, and nodded his head repeatedly as much as to say, 'I should think not indeed.'
'Mrs. Travers owned stations and things,' continued Harry, 'and they were very well to do people indeed. But these last bank smashes have completely changed that. They have saved very little out of the wreck, so Ju—Miss Travers—tells me; and are now returning to live with a married sister here, a poor lookout. Miss Travers does not like London. She is Australian-born. And I intend staying there some considerable time. I am sure that they'll be only too glad to change ships and return. I have arranged matters with the married sister. She appeared rather relieved.'
'Well, but,' persisted Mr. Murrage, 'why not tell them now, and stop them in Sydney, and thus let them escape all the bother and worry of a trip to such and such a longitude and latitude?'
The young fellow laughed.
'Julia loves the sea,' he said. 'She would like to pass her time on a sailing ship between London and Sydney. She had a chest over here, and coughs and things. The doctors told her she couldn't have too much sea. Besides, I look upon the thing as an A1 copper-bottomed Surprise. Think of it a moment! I gained her love as a sailor's loblolly boy—a poor greaser with £5 a month, at every man's beck and call, and with a hole 5ft. square to live in—(Harry had noticed those emphatic head-noddings awhile ago, and was repaying them)—called by courtesy "the second officer's quarters." No wonder the poor old lady looked coldly at me, was it? Now I meet them on the high seas in the same good ship, a baronet, with a state-room, two—three of them engaged, and enough money to buy my mother-in-law some of her stations back again, if she wants 'em. Why,' he concluded with boyish exultation, 'I call it splendid! Think of the trip we'll have on to Sydney, the surprise of people there, the congratulations! Of course,' he added after a pause, and with a glance at his mourning, whilst the old man looked at him half-envyingly, 'I'm sorry for those other poor chaps. But I'd only seen them once. And they never troubled themselves about me one bit. Yes, I could charter a steamer, as Ainslie said yesterday. But I prefer to finish the story in the same old ship it began in, and that's been my only home for six years. Romantic notion? Well, perhaps it is rather. Only one would think that six years in any of the "Ruins" should have knocked most of the romance out of a fellow.'
'Well, well,' said old Murrage with a sigh, taking no notice of rap number two. 'Perhaps you're right, you're young, and strong, and rich, and ought to have a good time before you. Oh, as to terms; no, we couldn't think of charging you anything over the cost of the cables. You served your indentures and us faithfully and well; and you must allow the firm to make you a present of all the accommodation you may require on either ship—suppose we call it a wedding present?' And the old gentleman bowed with old-fashioned courtesy as he rose and rang to give his instructions to the clerk.
* * * * * * * * * *
Meanwhile the captain of the City of Troy scanned his few saloon passengers with no little curiosity in the endeavour to discover those on whose behalf his owners were going to so much expense and possible delay. He finally decided on two stout gentlemen, who appeared fidgety and impatient, and who, moreover, had only joined the ship off Watson's Bay at the last possible minute. And these in his mind's eye he saw tapped on the shoulders and hailed in the Queen's name in mid-ocean with a suave invitation to return to the land they had been so eager to see the last of.
To the sad-looking woman and pretty girl amid ships in the second cabin he never gave a thought. The Traverses had saved so little out of the almost utter ruin that befel when the Bank of Carpentaria suddenly stopped payment that they had been unable to afford a first-class passage. And poor Mrs. Travers passed her time chiefly in contrasting the disagreeables of their present trip with that other one in the Babylon some twelve months before, when she and Julia had reigned supreme in the saloon surrounded by all sorts of comforts and luxuries.
Her only consolation now was that Julia would not meet 'that young Weyland' for at least many months to come. More than ever was she determined that that stupid engagement must be cancelled. In Julia's making 'a good match' in England lay her only hopes for the future.
Julia Travers was a charming girl of 18, tall and graceful, and with a fair fresh face, frank dark-blue eyes, and a complexion born of the Monaro Highlands. Devoted to her mother, the only effect of their reverses had been to make her more than ever considerate and forbearing towards one in whom misfortune found material very yielding. Forbidden even to think any more of her sailor lover, she nevertheless stood strong in her resolve to abide by her plighted faith. And she looked forward with an enduring terror to the moment that should bring the final struggle for supremacy between that loved mother and herself.
They were the sole passengers in the second class—merely a house or cabin amidships—and the time passed slowly enough. Certainly, they were invited aft more than once. But Mrs. Travers could not endure the thought of going on sufferance where she felt she ought by rights to be altogether. The Troy was now rapidly nearing the latitude of Cape Horn; the weather and prevailing winds were favourable, and Captain Siddons rubbed his hands and smiled as he totted up each day's run and felt pretty certain of being able to make good his rather boastful reply to the cable. On the City of Babylon, also, matters were going well. Apart from a strong liking for his passenger, Captain Ainslie felt that, to some extent, his professional reputation was pledged to place his ship on the intersection of those imaginary lines if not at the exact hour named by his so confident colleague at least very close to it.
The crew, too, had heard a rumour of the contemplated mid-sea meeting; and they seconded their skipper's efforts by cheerfully box-hauling the yards about in light winds, or standing by to jump aloft and take the canvas off when she could bear it no longer. Most of them were old shipmates of Weyland's. He had always been a favourite; and finding now that his promotion to the rank of 'swell' not only made no difference in his bearing towards them but that many a bottle of grog came for'ard at his expense they simply swore by him.
At last the day arrived: and noon found the ship, as nearly as human calculation could put her, on the very spot. But not a sail was in sight; and as the skipper presently sang out to 'make it eight bells' (12 o'clock) he chuckled, and remarked that it wasn't always good policy to count one's chickens before they were hatched. By this he was understood to refer to Captain Siddons.
More disappointed than he cared to show, Weyland took his glass and climbed on to the main-royal-yard. There was a fine fair breeze, and the skipper, after a long look around, hailed:
Then followed a string of orders. 'Clew up the royals and stow them. Topgallant's'ls, too. Lower away topsail-yards, and haul out the reef tackles! Down jibs and stay's'ls! Furl the courses!'
All the rest of the day the Babylon lay with the wind shrilling through her naked spars, keeping tryst; and with a score of eager eyes watching for the first glimpse of lofty canvas hurrying up from Southern seas of ice and naked lands. And all through the night she lay, falling off and coming to, coming to and falling off, with a long line of lights hanging from her mizzen-peak-halyards, and every two hours making her number to the stars in balls of fire—blue, green and yellow—a sight to bring ships in haste from any horizon.
Until noon of the next day she drifted to and fro, seeing nothing. Then the log-book was brought out and the proceedings duly entered therein, and signed by Weyland and the skipper and his chief officer for the satisfaction of the owners.
'Never mind, lad,' said the skipper, trying to comfort his passenger, whose face showed his feelings. 'It's only a matter of Siddons not being up to time while we are. We'll meet him to morrow or the next day. It's been blowing about here—look at that swell, and probably that's what's kept him back. Although, mind you, I never thought that the Troy was the boat for all weathers that this is. With dead square yards now, or the wind the least bit free, she'll do. But on a bowline—well, I don't want to boast, but she'd be nowhere alongside of us.'
And as the days passed, and no sign of the meeting ship, he still spoke cheerfully. 'He's been blown away back to the s'uth'ard,' said he. Or he's lost a stick, and gone into Rio or Bahia to refit. No fear of anything worse. Siddons is too old a bird to be caught napping much.'
And, disappointed at the miscarriage of his so carefully planned surprise though he might be, Harry Weyland was too thorough a sailor to feel much alarmed and not to make allowance for the thousand-and-one chances of the sea.
One dark starless night in the tail of the south east trades he had gone for'ard on to the foks'le to, as he often did, smoke a final pipe before retiring. It was so dark that, although he knew the lookout man must be within a foot or two of where he stood, he could see nothing of him; and the light of the match as he struck it seemed feeble amidst the opaque folds of blackness.
Suddenly, without a moment's warning, there came a shock that sent him flying across the anchor over to the port-rail. All about him was a sound of crashing and rending; he felt himself being swept off the foks'le-head, and instinctively reached up and grasped one of the ropes, amongst which he seemed enmeshed.
The next instant something cracked, and he was borne swiftly along, swinging in mid-air. Well for him, just then, that he was sea-bred. By the very feel of the thing to which he hung he know it must be a foot-rope, and he worked his way in, whilst the yard creaked and swung wildly overhead.
It seemed a long journey into the rigging. But he got there at last, and rested, aching, breathless, and bewildered, with the sharp, short struggle for life.
That there had been a collision of some kind he was certain. And that he was on the wrong ship seemed equally sure—a ship very low in the water to judge by the height of her yard-arm, off which he had just stepped.
Descending cautiously, he found himself landed over his knees in water amongst a litter of broken spars and sails and running gear that seemed to fill the decks.
It was a warm night, with a gentle though steady breeze. He hailed repeatedly but received no answer except from sounds that puzzled him excessively—low chirpings and twitterings as of many birds disturbed on their roosts.
Presently, as he clambered and worked a course that instinct as much as anything told him was aft, he stumbled over a soft object that grunted and flapped away.
The vessel had a heavy list to port, and, getting up to windward, he found the decks a little clearer. But he was, for a time, a blind man, and obliged to feel every step in a darkness full of low flutterings, and chirpings, and whistlings, with, now and again, the shufflings of large bodies that avoided him and grumbled.
Although naturally a bold and fearless man, he felt scared at the noises, and the woolly darkness, and the utter strangeness and suddenness of the whole affair, and many times he paused to listen and feel with his heart going sixteen to the dozen. And. presently, coming bump against the pump brakes, which had been left rigged, he shouted out in actual fear as something alighted on his shoulder, and a harsh voice croaked in his ear, 'Well I'm blowed! What is all the row about? Bless my old soul! Kiss poor Polly.' Then he laughed just a little hysterically, and called himself names for not having guessed the so-evident mystery sooner. An Australian trader, undoubtedly; a derelict, and with all the usual homeward-bound crowd of birds and animals loose around the decks.
With Poll still balancing on his shoulder, and airing a vocabulary which, though mixed, was a comfort to listen to, Harry, after discovering that the mainmast was gone close to the deck, proceeded on his difficult way.
Presently he caught a faint ray of light from the front of the saloon, and, pushing open the door, he passed up the alley-way, and, entering the main cuddy, stood in amazement, scarce believing his eyesight as he stared and stared again.
At one end of the table sat Julia Travers, reading aloud by the lamp overhead, which, at every languid sickly roll of the ship, swung to and fro in its brazen gimbals. Opposite, on one of the settees, lying on a heap of shawls and pillows, was Mrs. Travers. They both looked ill and wan, and Julia's voice often trembled as she read. So hushed was the inner saloon that the listener could distinctly hear the grand old words of comfort for those in peril on the sea as they fell from his sweetheart's lips.
He could understand now why the tryst had not been kept.
As he came forward into the lamplight the cockatoo flew on to the girl. She looked up, dumb for a minute, then with a cry of unquestioning joy rushed into the young man's arms sobbing:
'Saved! saved, at last! Mother, God has answered our prayers!' whilst Poll fluttered about the pair and produced his choicest titbits at the top of his voice.
Mrs. Travers's greeting was, however, by no means enthusiastic. She, indeed, looked almost as if she would much have preferred Providence to have taken some other way of answering their prayers. And as she told Harry that she was glad to see him one would have imagined from her manner that he had dropped in late for afternoon tea. And Harry, bold in the possession of his Secret, was so cordial and affectionate towards the old lady that she became more than ever curt and suspicious.
'Now where are the rest?' said he presently. He could understand the ship being deserted, but not how this helpless pair came to be left behind, whilst a British seaman lived.
'Everybody's gone, dear, except ourselves,' answered Julia as she nestled close to him, unmindful of her mother's disapproving looks, and shyly touched him now and again on the hands and face to make sure, as it seemed, of having him in the flesh beside her.
'Three weeks ago we ran into an iceberg, and a dreadful hole was made in the ship. Two of the masts and half of the other fell down, and the poor captain and the first mate were killed—swept overboard. All the crew were foreigners, and Mr. Marshall, the second mate, could do nothing with them. They said the ship was sinking, and when the wind went down a little they took the boats and tied Mr. Marshall's arms and legs and put him in one. Mamma was very ill just at that time, and they wouldn't take her. They wanted me to come; but, of course, I wouldn't. Mr. Marshall begged them to either take both of us or put him on board again. But they refused, and told him they wanted him to navigate the boats. But, Harry (with a sudden start of recollection), where did you come from?'
'Well,' said Harry, smiling, 'I think you might have asked that before. Did you hear no noise during the night?'
'Yes,' replied Julia, 'there was a bumping and cracking somewhere, and I ran upstairs and called out. But as everything was quiet again soon I thought it was only another lump of ice. If I had only imagined it the dear old Babylon I believe I should have jumped overboard to get on her. More than once or twice things have knocked against us. And on one occasion I thought I heard voices, and screamed. But it was of no use. And I think we had become so resigned that we were past taking much notice of things, expecting, as we did, to sink suddenly at any minute. The ship looks horrible in the daylight—all forward is under water. And, O Harry,' whispered the girl, 'I heard some one say that three men were killed in their beds by the iron plates that the shock broke. And they must be there yet. I have seen them in my dreams floating about in their iron coffin—for their house is full of water,' and the girl hid her pale face in her lover's breast, unheeding the sharp ejaculation of 'Julia!' from her mother, as Mrs. Travers rose so visibly angry that Harry thought it wise to retreat for a short time.
So, getting a lamp out of the steward's pantry, after an infinity of trouble he got hold of one of the fore-clew-garnets and hoisted it under the fore-yard. But it burned so dimly as to be quite invisible, and after repeated efforts he gave it up. There seemed to be more water now for'ard than when he had boarded her. But, until daylight, he could be certain of nothing, not even that the Babylon was standing by. That she was not much damaged was most probable, and that only in her top hamper. Still, Harry thought that, considering all things, they might have made a signal of some kind. It was a fine night, although the blackest he ever remembered seeing. What disquieted him more than anything was the feel of the Troy under his seaman's feet—the slow, sickly lurch over, over, over, and the slower, hesitating, half-hearted way in which the mortally wounded thing recovered itself. And he feared that the moment was fast approaching for her to settle down altogether. Therefore he prayed heartily as ever did the Iron Duke for daylight. Returning to the saloon, he found that Julia had lit a fire in the grate and heated some coffee and tinned soup. There were plenty of provisions of all kinds, she told him; and neither they nor the creatures she had liberated, and that she fed daily, had wanted for anything.
Long before it was due the three were on the poop watching for daylight; and, as it broke, they saw the reason of last night's wondrous darkness. Piled in great white masses around them, hiding the closest objects from view, was an immense fog bank. No wonder, thought Harry, that he neither heard nor saw any signals that the Babylon might have made, and that his own attempt was a failure. It was the first time he had ever experienced such a phenomenon in those latitudes, and he knew how rare it was.
During the early morning the breeze had died away. But as the sun appeared it freshened, and slowly drove the fog before it in a thick curtain that rose out of the water like a wall.
Like all other parts of the ship, her poop was encumbered with wreckage; and as it grew lighter Harry saw that the mizzenmast and its yards lay nearly fore and aft the deck. The main had gone over the side, where the greater part still dragged. And everywhere, amidst the smashed spars and indescribable raffle of gear, fluttered hundreds of birds—diamond sparrows, pink breasted galahs, gorgeous lowries and king parrots, whilst close to the wheel, looking meditatively at the rising sun, stood a couple of big emus. The great white cockatoo, the only one of his kind on board, had mounted to the cap of the foremast, and there screeched a harsh greeting to the new day as his wont had often been from the summit of some tall coolibah in far away Australian river bend.
'Can you see the dear old Babylon anywhere?' asked Julia as the horizon cleared, answering her own question as she cried joyfully, 'Yes, I see her now!' and pointed to a pyramid of white canvas, not more than three miles off, and coming rapidly down upon them. As they watched, Harry in a few words told the astonished women the story of his Secret and the great Surprise that had only miscarried to give way to one still greater.
Mrs. Travers, although soured somewhat by illness and misfortune, was a lady, and therefore escaped the mistake of being too effusively cordial. But she could not help showing by the new light in her face and the new alertness in every gesture how pleased she was. And when the Babylon's boat came alongside she looked a younger woman by ten years.
Hearty and cordial were the greetings between the captain and his old passengers.
'I must take my creatures,' said Julia Travers.
'We'll catch them, my dear,' said the gallant old skipper. 'But how about the birds?'
'I think,' said Harry, 'that the poor Troy's sinking fast. She'll go down presently, and then they'll all fly off to our ship.'
'I don't know about her sinking so quickly,' replied the captain. 'She's a mass of watertight compartments for'ard. However, we'll get the ladies off at once.'
Twenty minutes' scramble and the animals were secured, and, with Julia and her mother, put on board the Babylon.
Then the boat with Captain Ainslie and Harry returned to the derelict.
Presently the watchers saw a cloud of smoke ascend, there was a sharp explosion and an upheaval of water; and, when the air cleared, there was only to be seen a boat rocking violently, and a flock of frightened, bright-hued birds making swiftly for the tall spars of the Babylon.
William Connolly, better known along the Border by the whites as "Ginger," and by the blacks as "Murrgie Murrgie" (Red Man), had been on the spree.
A notable character this amongst the Alsatians of the Australian Hinterland, and one hard to mistake, with the big determined features of him, and the huge beard flowing in volume of silky redness breast-deep. Renowned, too, from the Paroo to Auldabinna, from the Diamantina to the Gulf, for horsemanship, as a marksman, and as an implacable foe to the blacks since the time they speared his mate, Rody O'Connor, on the Overland Telegraph.
And now, after a fortnight's drinking at the sign of the Packhorse, a far-western Border shanty, he had sobered-up, and was ready to take the track towards sunset once more. "We're outer meat, Bill," said the landlord of the shanty, on this particular afternoon, "an' I wish you'd take your rifle an' go and get a turkey or two afore you starts. I seen a lot at the Two Mile this mornin'."
So, Connolly, mounted upon the quickest of his horses, set forth, not thinking that he was at the beginning of an adventure set apart for him that he might, in future, discriminate between niggers of one sort and niggers of another.
This is a way that Providence sometimes takes with minds untutored, and incapable of appreciating a lesson otherwise than by actual demonstration. It was late before "Ginger" came upon the birds. Riding as near as he dared, he dismounted and began to stalk.
The long grass completely hid him from the covey, now slowly approaching to the beckoning of a red silk handkerchief fastened to the muzzle of his rifle.
At last; three fine big bustards in a line, and the piece lowers gradually! Few things seem more sure than that there will be fresh game on the table of the Packhorse for breakfast. But suddenly his arm is seized with a fierce, vice-like grip that makes him shout with the surprise and pain of it, as, turning, he stares up into the long idiotic face of a camel who uncloses his teeth and grins.
The birds fly heavily off across the plain, whilst, smarting and angry, Ginger hits the animal a smart blow on the head. There is an explosion, and the camel totters, falls on its knees, and rolls over with a bullet in its brain. Fortunately the horse, accustomed to the sight and smell of the brutes, had not stirred, and its master, seeing some Afghans coming full speed to cut him off, made for it at his best pace. They were three big fellows. Two ran towards the camel, whilst the third, fleet of foot, got to the horse first, seized the bridle, and flourished a long knife that glittered uncomfortably. "Give me that horse," panted "Ginger," "or I'll shoot!"and he levelled his rifle.
"Dog!" shouted the other, making a stroke at the barrel. But, before it fell, a bullet from the Winchester sped through the Indian's side, and would have killed another man had there been one behind.
The rest were close up; but, swinging into the saddle with a yell, Ginger galloped off. He had shot blacks by the score, and it did not strike him as anything out of the common that fleeting glimpse of a dark, turbaned form, writhing and pulling up tussocks of grass in his last agony. He had seen that sort of thing many a time at the Back of Beyond, and doubtless would again. And, had he thought it, he would probably, to use his own expression, have "downed" the other pair with as little compunction. But at present, as he pulled his horse, and jogged steadily homeward, his dominant feeling was one of vexation at the loss of the birds, and it was too late to try again.
"Give us a drink, Mac," said he, as he hung his horse up, and lounged into the bar. "That wretched campbell's nearly chawed the arm off me."
"Where's them turkeys?" asked Macarthy in a disappointed tone.
"Couldn't get none," replied the other, tossing off the rum; "but had sport all the same. Potted a campbell an' a bloomin' Hafghan as tried to chop me in halves with a young sword."
"Then, me bowld bhoy," said old Mac, grimly, "if ye've done so much, ye'd besht to clear afore ye're made into a corpse. Don't go an' think as it's blackfellers ye're afther playin' thricks wid; bekase it aint. An', if ye takes a fool's advice, ye'd best git at oncest, now direckly, immejit—if ye aint pokin' a bit o' fun."
"Bah," said Connolly, "I shan't hurry fer a darned nigger. An' it was his own fault. Shouldn't ha' been so infernal spry with that there big Dover, aflashin' it at a feller; and I seen by his eye that he meant biz."
"An' ye aint slinging borack, then, Ginger?" asked the old publican anxiously.
"D'ye call that borack?" asked the other, baring a muscular arm, mostly with hair, and pointing to two rows of red indentations, big and square, showing out strong against the white flesh above the elbow.
"There," continued he, "that's where the beggar pipped me; an' I up an' smacks 'im over the 'ead with the rifle, an' she goes off, an' down he goes— wallop! Then a nigger runs an' collars the ole moke; an' I had to shoot agen. Why, man, if I 'adn't they'd ha' made sossidge meat outer me." And he laughed till the great beard rose and fell, sparkling over the great chest.
"Niver ye mind," replied Macarthy, glancing uneasily across the bush. "I knows 'em. An' I've been in their country an' fit agin 'em. I tell ye they aint not a bit like the common run o' blacks. When I was in the ole 92nd they'd give us hot coffee, fair an' square in the open, man to man. Beggars to shoot, too. Best thing ye can do, my son, if ye haven't been gammonin', is to write down to the nearest undertaker an' order yer coffin. Either that or mizzle; vamose this ranche—pretty quick! An' then the chances is as they'll folly ye."
"Shoo," said Ginger, strolling out on to the verandah. "What an ole croaker it is! Black niggers!"
Biz—z—z—ping—crack, came a bullet out of the mulga scrub that loomed black in the evening light opposite the house, knocking chips off a post within a foot of Connolly's nose.
"They mean biz, my son," remarked Mac, with a chuckle, as the big bushman drew rather hurriedly back towards the bar. "An' it's not the worsht job in the world that I'm expectin' a few of the lads over from Hanken's station to-night; or, mebbe, them Afghans 'ud be for carrin' us two lone men by assault. But I think, all the same, that ye'd betther slither as soon's it gets dark." It may be observed by the curious reader that, in the above conversation, no reference of any kind was made to the majesty of the law. As a matter of fact, the Packhorse was far on the outer side of "police" protection. With the exception of a solitary trooper, 150 miles away to the eastward, there was no law but that of each man for himself. It is so still in all sparsely settled and comparatively new lands.
* * * * * *
"It is the first time I ever knew thee to miss an easy shot, Yar Khan," said a grey-headed Afghan reproachfully. "The blood of thy brother should have kept thy rifle steady and thine eye keen. And now the Dog of an Unbeliever who slew him has departed. Follow him, thou! But return not unto thy brethren until the reproach that lieth heavy on thy soul be lifted off. What sayeth their own scripture, 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?' What also sayeth the blessed Koran? 'Woe unto the shedder of innocent blood, for his end shall be hard.' Go, my son; and, for a token, thou shalt bring back with thee that great red beard dyed deep in the heart's blood of the slayer of thy brother. Also be cautious, lest thou art taken, for, then, assuredly, thou hangest. Swear it and depart."
The young Afghan—a mere youth—who stood leaning on his rifle with features downcast and moody, looked up, and his dark eyes flashed.
"I swear it," he answered simply; and falling on his knees, the old man blessed him, and once more bade him set forth on his quest.
* * * * * *
Meanwhile, urged away by the impetuous warnings of old Mac, still half incredulous of further trouble, and wholly defiant, Connolly was travelling leisurely westward.
"Go down to the Big Smoke," had advised Macarthy; "and as you're pretty well a limeburner why, I won't see ye short o' a tin-poun' note or two. Ye'll find it besht to kape where the crowd is, me bhoy, for a while, or call me chump."
But the other only laughed.
"Garn," said he, "I'm due at Goboolooboo in a fortnight. Got 30 young uns to break for ole Dwyer there. Two notes a head and tucker. Too good a slant to chuck away for a bloomin' nigger."
But, more to please the old man than otherwise, he rode away at midnight.
And often, whilst at work on old Dwyer's colts and fillies, he would laugh to himself at Mac's fears and many cautions.
He had pocketed his cheque, and was sitting on the stockyard rail, debating whether he should journey next up to the Barcoo for the early sheds, or further out still, to prospect for opal—when there was a distant report, and his tall "Yankee" felt hat went sailing gracefully across the yard.
"Zounds!" exclaimed Connolly, thrusting a finger through the bullet hole. "Them jokers 'll have to be more careful where they're a-firin'." Then, to young Dwyer, that evening, "Look 'ere! Is this some o' your work? I seen you goin' away with a rifle this mornin'. D'ye think a man's a bloomin' crow 'cause he's settin' on a fence, eh?" But young Dwyer swore by all his gods that he hadn't fired a shot that day; and he brought his "Deadly Daisy" in proof, still full of long brass-clad cartridges, just as he had taken it out after breakfast, in fruitless search for a scrubber of a bull.
"It was that nigger, I expect?" said young Dwyer; "I passed him camped at the Bore over yonder—one of those Afghan-hawker chaps. Most likely he was trying to pot a galah for his support. Dead shots, those fellows—can down a swallow on the wing. Curious how he missed you, Ginger!"
But Connolly grew suddenly thoughtful; and, taking his rifle, went out for a stroll, finding nothing but the burnt embers of a little fire; hearing nothing save the rushing fall of the big Bore under the stars.
And Yar Khan, a with a sob, cast his rifle into the depths of a lignum swamp where frogs bellowed and bralgas bugled through the night, and around whose edges the yellow gidyea blooms stank in the sultry air; for, now, he knew for certain, that eye and arm were bewitched; and that, should steel prove no truer, then would he never again see his brethren.
As for Ginger, he bought a big savage dog from Dwyer and tied it to his tent door every night when he camped.
He had an idea that he was being shadowed, and felt uncomfortable.
And when, one night, awakened by Soolem's groans, he went out and found him dying in a series of convulsive fits, and imagined he caught a glimpse of a figure gliding away into the scrub, he seized his repeater and blazed all round at random. When a man does that sort of thing he is scared. Connolly was scared. He was more so when, at sunrise, he came across his two horses with their throats cut.
He was still on Dwyer's run; and, catching a "sneaker," one of the very mob he had broken in, he rode for his life, night and day, to where—the antennas of civilisation—a pair of steel rails, lean and glistening, pushed their length into the wilderness.
"I'll take old Mac's advice," he muttered. "I'll go down to the Big Smoke an' 'ave a spell. I've never bin right since that last spree. A feller imagines things when the grog's bad." Which was not only ingratitude to the owner of the Packhorse, but a vain deceiving of himself. And Yar Khan wandered many days disconsolately among stations and townships, selling trumpery out of a basket, seeking always, but beginning to think that he should look upon his father's face nevermore.
Then, upon a day, came a note in an unknown hand, superscribed, in addition to the English address, in the vernacular, "To the Avenger of Blood." It ran
"Brother, he whom thou seekest abideth here, in the city by the sea."
Now, Ginger Connolly, having recovered his fright amidst crowds, joined a union and worked on the wharfs, determined not to return to the bush until his little affair had blown over. And he never noticed a small black boy who, night and day almost, dogged his footsteps on pretence of selling bootlaces.
It was no trouble, even in a city, to keep well in touch with a figure remarkable as that of Murrgie Murrgie, remarkable anywhere, but especially so amidst the clean-shaven faces of the town-bred people.
And as time passed he felt secure, and boasted to his mates as they worked together in darksome depths of great ships' holds of his doings in the Back-Country.
New Year's Night was wet, and the sidewalks of the city, under the verandahs, were crowded. And Connolly, sauntering along in the crush, now in the full glare of some electric lamp, now in darkness, suddenly felt as if one had thrust a red-hot iron into his side followed by a warm running down his legs! Then the crowds, and the sloppy streets, and the lighted windows, reeled, and swum, and faded away into pitchy blackness.
When he came to, he was in a hospital ward. "Glanced off the third rib," remarked the doctor, phlegmatically, "or—"
"There's a black man here been inquiring for you, Connolly," said the nurse, when she saw he was stronger. "Would you like to see him, if he calls again?"
"But her patient shuddered, and said "That's the feller as stuck me! He's follerin' me all over the world. Catch him!"
And the nurse, accustomed to such men's fancies only smiled; and, when he insisted in idiomatic Far Out talk, applied an extra blister.
Meanwhile Yar Khan began to more than ever believe that there was witchcraft in the matter, and to doubt whether he should ever again see his brethren, and gather with them round the far camp fires of the Inner Wilderness. The days and the weeks passed, and Connolly, weak and wan and shrivelled, but with his mind made up, came out of the hospital. Australia, it was evident, was no longer safe ground for him.
It irked him to leave it. But it was better than leaving this life, as, he was now pretty well assured, he should do if he stayed.
Whilst lumping on the wharfs he had made friends with the second steward of one of the steamers that call at the Cape of Good Hope on their way to England.
With this man's help he got a chance to work his passage in return for looking after some high-class sheep that were on board, bound for Port Elizabeth.
But, before sailing, he determined to alter his appearance beyond all recognition by means of a "clean shave," a proceeding every whit as distasteful as leaving his native land.
"A lovely beard, sir," remarked the barber, perhaps a little suspiciously, as his scissors shore the flaming fleece. ''Almost a pity, sir, ain't it, to 'aye; it hoff? Shouldn't wonder if you caught a nasty cold, now."
"If I keeps it on I shall cert'nly ketch one." replied Murrgie Murrgie, chuckling grimly. As he left the shop, a small coloured boy entered, and bought a packet of cigarettes. Then, espying the remnants of the great beard, he begged for them, and tying them up with a bootlace, took them away.
And Yar Khan, pining in his dingy lodging, felt his heart leap and grow lighter as he received the bunch of silky hair, and hid it in his breast; and saw the camp fires of his brethren coming nearer and smelled the smell of the camels.
But further, yet much further, must he journey ere the redeeming of his oath.
The captain of the Mombassa did not take kindly to coloured labour; and but that Dost Mohamed, the big merchant and dealer in curios, exerted all his influence, coupled with sundry offerings of virgin opal, emu eggs, and native weapons, Yar Khan had never, unaided, obtained a berth as "doctor's boy" on board the Mombassa. But so it fell out. "Who's the nigger?" asked Connolly, smooth-faced and sea-legged, as, one day, Yar Khan passed him on his way to the saloon, bearing a basket full of coloured potions for overloaded stomachs.
"Oh, one o' them Malays, or Kaffirs, or somethin' o' the sort," replied the lamp trimmer, who was no ethnologist. "There's lots of the beggars at Cape Town. The ole man's givin' of 'un a passidge to 'blige his uncle, Dost Mohamed, the party as keeps the curio shop in Lower George-street."
"I hates all niggers, worse'n a black snake," said Connolly viciously, as the look of apprehension passed out of his face.
And Yar Khan's eyes gleamed, and his heart beat quick against a lump of something soft inside the breast of his snow-white jacket, as he caught the sense of the words. And more than once or twice, o' nights, when all the great ship was still, but for the measured rhythm of steel pulses far below, would he glide into his victim's berth and gloat longingly over the half-naked body tossing restlessly in the tropical heat of the stifling alley-ways, and hunger for that last strong stroke in which there should be no failure. Sorely tempted he was to, there and then, thrust the long keen knife home, an inch below the newly healed scar that seemed to blush a fiery red on the white skin under the intent gaze of those fierce eyes.
But, mindful of his father's warning respecting the gallows of the unbeliever, ever ready to receive the shedder of blood, he held his hand. After all, such matters are as God wills them.
Now it was the time of the blowing of the monsoons in the Indian Ocean—more particularly of that, one known as the North East.
And it blew strong and heavy; and the Mombassa, flying light, with half a cargo of wool, and some butter, and a few thousands of frozen carcases, made wild weather of it.
So Black Draught (as he was called) was kept going late and early between dispensary and saloon.
And, one afternoon, the Mombassa shipped a great green comber over her nose, which swept resistlessly aft, carrying with it a curious medley of third-class passengers, and stud rams and ewes, and coils of rope, and spare spars.
And a pen containing the Emperor Golden Mop III. hurled Yar Khan down, and fell on top of him, and jammed him and his basket against the iron-railing of the quarter-deck, and would have very quickly crushed the life out of him, but that Connolly, sailing along on another royal pen, jumped off and dragged him out of the hurly-burly at the risk of his own limbs, whilst his raft, with its woolly aristocrat, shot down into the saloon and smashed thing's.
"Broken thigh, and serious internal injuries" was the doctor's verdict on Yar Khan, amongst other and minor casualties. And the doctor spoke sorrowfully, for he had found poor "Black Draught" exceptionally docile and intelligent.
Amongst the Mombassa's passengers there happened to be one who had grown tea far to northward of Darjeeling. He had also left the best part of his liver, aforetime, in Indian lowlands.
Coming to the starboard hospital one day in pursuit of the doctor and a mixture, he listened, first unheeding, then with curiosity, to Yar Khan, in the delirium of fever, giving a minute history of all that had befallen in the twelvemonth passed since the slaying of his brother. And he told the story well and emphatically in the language of the Hill men, understanded of the tea-planter. Then, suddenly pulling from his breast a bunch of bright hair, he waved it aloft and screamed:
"Behold, O Allah! I die! I die! I die unredeemed, with no man to bear the tidings to my brethren across the Black Water! O accursed one! Would that I had stabbed thee as thou slept. Three times I failed, and many times since, through my own faint-heartedness. And now I die unredeemed of brethren."
"Umph!" muttered the tea-planter, "that's a curious yarn, anyhow, if he isn't raving,"
"Of course he's raving—mad," replied the doctor. "What's that he's got hold of? a bunch of oakum? Well, it doesn't matter. He can't last through the night, poor beggar!"
And the man whose liver was all abroad grunted assent; and Yar Khan, exhausted, returned his treasure to its hiding place next his heart.
That night, after talking long with his friend the lamp trimmer, Connolly turned in, and, unable to sleep, lay awake, listening to the faint crashing of the engines, and thinking longingly of the great land behind and the wild freedom of the old Border life, now so far away.
And presently he became aware of some evil thing in the gloom, so that, hot though the night was, he shivered.
"D— the sea and all ships!" he muttered. "Dry land and a good horse for me! Day nor night there's no rest in these things with the racket as goes on. No wonder my nerves aint what they used to be. I'll turn out and see if I can't got a nobbler from somebody!" and he pressed the electric button alongside his bunk, and sat up, and stared at a dark face drawn and distorted by pain and hate, and with a gleaming knife gripped between its teeth.
As he gazed, fascinated at those menacing eyes, glaring out of the flood of light, full of fury and the rage of impotence, he felt as if struck by a sudden and undeserved fit of the "horrors." He had, in his time, seen snakes, and black cats, and things, after a prolonged burst, but nothing to come up to this. And he stared in a stupid unbelieving sort of dismay as the figure dragged itself like some wounded animal across the sill of the berth, hung there for a moment, and then rolled inside, and, staggering to its knees, made a feeble thrust at him, huddled up in the lower bunk, and scared half out of his wits.
But the spell was broken, and with a yell that brought the watch flying aft, the bushman rushed on deck, whilst Yar Khan, with a last despairing cry of "Allah!" collapsed, and gave up his quest in this world.
* * * * * *
"Never go back to Australia, whilst there's an Afghan left in the land," said the tea-planter to Connolly, "or (he had been in the bush himself, and, therefore, knew how to speak to its men) as sure as the Lord made little apples your cake's dough any minute! Better come up to Mashonaland with me. I think it'll turn out a fine country for tea."
So Connolly went; and the pair found other matters to think of besides tea-planting on the banks of the Shanghani. And they joined the Company's forces and starved, and fought Loben's impis over and over again. And, participating in the plunder, such as it was, got a farm each, and are there still. And Connolly often tells the story to the settlers around Rhodesia of how "them murderous niggers over yonder nearly done 'im bad."
And from the Paroo to Hergott Springs the camp fires of the alien still light up the drear Australian plains; and an old man strokes a long white beard as he watches the camels cropping the spiky spinifex and mutters often under his breath, "There is but one God and Mahomet is His Prophet. His will be done."
"Laura, I utterly forbid you to think any more of John Sutton. He’s only one remove from a ruined man. A pretty market to bring your pigs to, indeed!" and Mrs. Devine looked angrily across at her daughter, who flushed all over her fair face at the rough speech as she retorted, "You thought the market good enough once, mamma, when Bolero was clear of debt, and John making his £2000 a year. Now he’s in trouble you want me to throw him over. Only the other day he said that’s what it would probably come to."
This was a most injudicious speech, and roused the elder lady’s ire to a still greater pitch.
"Oh," she exclaimed shrilly, "he did, did he! Well, that only shows how wonderfully little respect he has for me, and how he would have served me if I ever had the honour of becoming his mother-in-law! Thank heaven there’s no chance of that happening now! Both your father and myself have quite made up our minds on that score. Indeed, he’s hurrying up the directors to foreclose on Bolero, and take possession as soon as possible. Now, Laura," she pleaded with an almost laughable change of tone and expression, "why can’t you be reasonable, and do as we wish you to?"
"Marry Stephen Brown for the sake of his half dozen stations and the big account that father is always talking of," replied the girl defiantly. "I hate him!" she added. "He’s an old man, too—an old reprobate, indeed, if what people say is true. No, mother, if I can’t have John I’ll certainly do without Stephen," and so saying Laura Devine opened her book and affected to pay no further attention to her mother, who alternately coaxed and threatened.
Mr. Devine was manager in Centralia of one of the most important and largest branches of the Bank of Carpentaria, and two years ago both his wife and himself had been only too pleased to sanction the engagement of their daughter with a man formerly regarded as one of the most enterprising and successful young squatters in the district. But even in that short time misfortune had overtaken John Sutton. To carry out certain improvements he had borrowed money from the bank, confident of being able to repay it when due. But, alas, for his hopes! From the very day, it almost seemed, of the bank’s advance the Fates took his case in hand, working towards his ruin. If adjoining stations got rain Bolero got none; although for two years a partial drought prevailed, Bolero was a dry, bare patch where others at least managed to keep their stock alive. Diseases hitherto unknown in the district showed themselves amongst his sheep, and stayed there in place of spreading to his neighbours’. His bad luck became proverbial. And as time passed, Mr. and Mrs. Devine showed John more and more of that portion of the human anatomy known as "cold shoulder." Laura alone remained steadfast, and because of his very misfortunes, and because she loved him, stood all the more firmly by the man of her choice.
Laura Devine was just 19, one of those blondes rare in Australia, with a perfect complexion, whose clear delicate pallor, just tinged on the perfect oval of the face with the bloom of a ripe peach, no climate appears able to deteriorate. Her figure was good—lithe and willowy, yet with plenty of room in it. But the crowning glory of the girl was the great mass of hair—the colour of the burnished chestnut what time its gaping shell shows the fruit inside—that lay coil upon coil around the well poised head. Perhaps, though, Laura’s eyes more than any other feature enchained the beholder’s regards. You don’t see such eyes more than once or twice in a lifetime—eyes of that blueish-green with iridescent glowings and alternations of colour to be observed in the opal under certain lights. John Sutton used to swear that he could see to read small print in the dark by them; but then John had more imagination than the average pastoralist in love. Anyhow, looking at Laura’s eyes and hair, one forgot altogether, or, rather, neglected to notice, the large thoughtfully curved mouth and the nose and spacious chin, both a thought too masculine. The father, William Devine—"Bank of England Bill," as he was irreverently termed by outsiders—was a portly, bow-windowed, stubborn-minded, pompous individual whose whole being was bound up in the institution he had served as boy and man for 40 years, and any allusion to which generally produced from him the remark "Sound as the Bank of England, sir." Laura was a late and only child; he was very proud of her, and on the downfall of John Sutton had promptly given that young man to understand that his room was henceforth preferable to his company in the fine private premises that topped the great bank building in the main street of Centralia. Also he as promptly had picked upon Stephen Brown as the next eligible suitor. Also, acting under wifely pressure, he was doing his best in urging on "my people" to take possession of Bolero. On his side John Sutton was doing his best to find some person to take over his liabilities and give him a fresh start. The debt, as such things go in the pastoral world, was the merest fleabite—simply a poor miserable £10,000. But John’s luck being out, he might just as well have hoped to raise 10 times the sum. Probably, but for old Devine’s persistence, the bank might have given their debtor time to see what he could do with a couple of good seasons. But as Laura’s lover his fate was sealed. He was not allowed, like so many others, even to stay on and manage. No, out he must go, bag and baggage—or find the pound of flesh. And John Sutton, having done his uttermost to avert his doom, accepted it silently and without protest, conscious of at least two compensations—Laura’s love and the fact that, being alone in the world, nobody was dependent upon him.
Laura had pleaded hard with her father to give the young squatter time. But for once she had pleaded in vain. Perhaps, in spite of his wife, and even at the eleventh hour, old Devine might have yielded to her persuasions, only that the bank’s best customer, Stephen Brown, who had long had his eye on Bolero, which adjoined one of his own properties, offered to take the station on terms so advantageous to the institution he served that the manager found it impossible to resist them. Throughout his life his one motto had been "the bank before all." And now he was consistent enough to sacrifice his daughter’s happiness to his business instincts. In any case, if she married Stephen Brown, Bolero and the other stations would revert to her and her children. So much had been definitely settled between Brown and the banker. Now Sutton was got rid of the way seemed clear for Stephen to push his attentions to Laura.
The rich squatter was an elderly, iron-faced man, who had commenced his pastoral career as a bullock-driver. Sharp, shrewd, in a measure self-educated, fortune had smiled upon him in no niggard fashion. For the last score of years people had been considering why he did not take a wife. But, apparently, no woman, until Laura Devine came to Centralia, had possessed the power to touch his tough old heart, or, more correctly, induce desire of possession.
Naturally, there was no love lost between Laura’s two suitors. Such even had been the case before the Devines had come to the district. In Sutton’s prosperous days his big neighbour had ignored him. When reverses came he offered advice. Now, to crown all, he had entered the lists of love against him. Little wonder that John felt rather bitter against both the bank and his rival as he drove away from Bolero for the last time—his sole possessions a buggy, a pair of horses, and some fifty pounds in cash.
During the last fortnight he had been forbidden to see Laura. But the girl, worried by her parents and pestered by the unwelcome attentions of Stephen Brown, was now in a state of open rebellion, and readily agreed to meet Sutton, in spite of all prohibition. At the back of the bank premises was a large garden, whose shady nooks seemed especially fitted for lovers’ conferences. And of late, when the sound of the mopoke’s note arose from the big trees at the lower end, Laura was accustomed to answer the prosaic signal in person, and find there a remarkably fine specimen of the bird who had climbed the paling fence and was always impatiently awaiting her arrival.
On the night of the day he turned his back on Bolero for the last time John Sutton arrived at the trysting-place rather earlier than usual, and the cry, admirably imitated, came remarkably clear and distinct on the calm hot air through the open windows of the room where Laura, her mother and father, and Mr. Brown sat over a late dinner. As she heard the signal the girl, despite herself, started and blushed, whilst her mother remarked, "How very plainly we can hear the mopoke to-night. I think he must live in the garden, although I only notice the sound during the early part of the night."
"Mostly about this time, I suppose?" queried Stephen Brown, turning his impassive face towards Laura and regarding her out of a pair of small, twinkling, grey eyes. "I expect," he added with a grin that set the girl's cheeks on fire, "that he only comes to taste the ripest of the figs and then makes out into the bush again."
"Very likely, very likely," agreed Mr. Devine. "Sort of owl, though, ain’t he, Brown? Insects, you know, and that kind of feed. Still, I suppose, he’s not particular. I’ve seen crows eat grapes in the garden yonder."
"I dare say," replied Stephen, still with that ambiguous grin, "but there are mopokes and mopokes you know, eh, Miss Laura?"
But the girl made no reply beyond casting a look of aversion at the hard face with its shaven cheeks and chin and grey, bristly moustache straggling along the thick upper lip. The gaslight fell full on his almost perfectly bald head, and altogether a more unlover-like figure would have been hard to find. And, doubtless, as Laura guessed, he half suspected the meaning of those melancholy hootings that at long intervals came to their ears from the dark shades of the garden. Actually, he more than half suspected what kind of a bird it was roosting down there. But the forceful confidence of the man, added to a certain amount of magnanimity inseparable from such a character as his, forbade him taking any further advantage either by word or sign of his suspicions. Hitherto he had never been baulked of anything upon which he had once set his mind. Having concentrated his desires upon Laura, he meant to have her, though fifty John Suttons stood in his way, and so certain of the ultimate result was he that partially from a diplomatic point of view, but mainly from pure indifference, mingled, perhaps, with some slight impulse of generosity, he presently said in a most matter-of-fact tone, "Miss Laura, you look pale. I’m afraid the heat is rather too much for you. Wouldn’t a walk in the garden be advisable?"
But Laura, without even turning her head towards him, merely replied with icy politeness, that she was quite well. Dinner over, however, she silently left the room, and Stephen Brown, as a little later he settled down to a game of cribbage with the banker, remarked to himself, with a cynical smile, that the mopoke cried no longer. Nor did he see Laura again that evening. But towards midnight, as he rode home on his old grey horse, Victory, a buggy with its hood down dashed past him out of the town towards the railway station.
"Looks like that young fool Sutton’s horses," he muttered to himself as he peered through the cloud of dust. "Been getting on the spree, I suppose, to console himself for his losses."
And the squatter was right in his surmise. It was John. But he was not drunk. And he had Laura with him.
Not for nothing, indeed, had the mopoke hooted so persistently. When Laura reached her lover she found him pacing impatiently under the great willow where they usually met, and where on this particular night he had arrived with the fixed intention of asking her to elope with him.
"It’s horribly selfish of me, I know, my darling," he had said, as she lay in his arms," but I'm so afraid of losing you altogether and for good. And I heard to-day from Mary (a housemaid at the bank who had once been with the late Mrs. Sutton, John's mother, at Bolero) that they had decided to send you away to Tasmania for six months. It wasn't intended for Mary's ears, but she heard it and told me. I suppose," he added, bitterly, "that the new owner of Bolero will find it convenient to take a trip in the same direction presently."
Already wavering, this news decided Laura. Never would she forget her last stay at Hobart with "Aunt Sarah." No more experiences of that sort, if she could help it, especially with the repugnant presence of Stephen Brown thrown in.
In a very few minutes, then, her mind was made up. Her lover had his buggy waiting in charge of a boy a short distance away. Hurrying back to the house for a few necessaries, and to write a short note to her parents, Laura in less than half an hour was with John at his temporary abode—one of the smallest and most obscure of the two score hotels that Centralia boasted. Thence, later still, they left for the metropolis.
At the bank, when the discovery of the flight was made, Mrs. Devine went into hysterics, whilst her husband, casting for the nonce his pomposity to the winds, raved naturally and like any other very angry human being. Stephen Brown alone remained unmoved, and when called upon to rush off in pursuit of the runaways he flatly declined. Although terribly mortified and indignant, he kept the same calm countenance to the world as ever, and presently retired to Bolero, where, in private, he gave full vent to his wrath and disgust at being baffled for perhaps the first time in his life. Although never in love with Laura, or even pretending to be, he had made sure of possessing her by dint of perseverance and his wealth, and he felt much as he might have felt on being "bested" in an important stock or land transaction. As for the father and mother, he scarcely gave them a thought. They had been mere pawns in the game, and he had moved them hither and thither at his pleasure.
To the Bank of Carpentaria itself his attention was presently drawn perforce.
It was the period of financial smashes. Bank after bank failed. But through all the excitement and dismay old Devine, a little shaken, a little less arrogant and overbearing perhaps than of yore, retained a perfect trust and confidence in his own institution that affected its customers in a similar manner, and his decided and emphatic "safe as the Bank of England, sir!" was comfortably quoted by them throughout the district.
Even when the great bank of Cooksland closed its doors, Mr. Devine only became more aggressively confident than ever in manner and bearing. Until one fatal morning, whilst in his private room, and after just winding up a speech to a client with his favourite formula, a cypher telegram was handed to him. Then, apologising for the interruption, he procured the key and commenced to read the message. All at once the customer, hearing a strange noise, looked around just in time to see the manager lying back in a fit. As soon as he recovered the bank shutters were put up; but in the bent and broken man with his solitary faith shattered to atoms few of those who knew him could have recognised its head.
In the whirl and turmoil of the disaster it was hardly noticed that Mr. and Mrs. Sutton had returned to Centralia, and that John had rented a modest office and begun life over again as a stock and station agent. Of course, it was just his luck to start in the midst of such a monetary crisis, and when all pastoral commerce was at zero! Twice Laura had called at the bank, only to be refused admission. Both her father and her mother were more deeply embittered against her than she could have imagined possible. Nor was their resentment lessened by the return of the pair to the very spot where they were so well known. Actually, Laura had been unwilling. But there had seemed no choice. Their money was very nearly done, and John urged that amongst his friends lay their last chance of making a livelihood. Doubtless, the latter would have helped him to some of their business. But now they were almost all more or less involved; even the great Stephen himself, it was whispered, was "in a tight place," which was absurd. A slight temporary inconvenience alone could affect a man whose golden eggs were stowed in many baskets. And, curiously enough, this was the best season that had been known for many years in the district. Upon the just and the unjust, lucky and luckless alike, fell the rain; Bolero looked like a wheatfield.
Meanwhile, with the Suttons, living in a couple of rooms at the back of the office, matters were going hardly. Never a word of complaint passed his wife's lips, but John would sit for hours in an agony of self-reproach at the pass to which his selfishness had brought her, and no way out of which could he possibly discover.
About this time a hurried message reached Laura from the bank. Her father was dying. Almost with his last breath he forgave her, and her mother did the same, refusing, however, to see her husband. Nor did this reconciliation make any difference in their prospects, for every penny of old Devine's money had been invested in Carpentarian securities, and his wife had no choice but to go and live with some distant relatives of her husband’s.
Once Laura had met Stephen Brown in the main street of Centralia, and he had lifted his hat and bade her the time of day. As she looked at the hard face, she had felt, so desperately badly were things going with them, almost inclined to ask the man for help. She thought he had been fond of her once. But she choked the impulse back, and blessed herself for so doing, as, with a grin, the squatter coarsely remarked, "No mopokes in the back garden now, Mrs. Sutton," and moved away.
John now put his only possession, the horses and buggy, up for sale, and at the nod of Stephen Brown’s agent they went back to Bolero—an incident at which Laura's husband chafed irritably, although some of his friends, able to help him in no other way, had forced the big squatter to pay dearly for his fancy by running the turn-out to a high figure. Of course, John did no business. Besides himself, there were no fewer than a dozen stock and station agents in Centralia, all more or less living from hand to mouth. And in these days, had not John Sutton been much above the average type of young man, he would probably have succumbed to the rude trials that he and Laura were undergoing—trials and privations which neither could have, only a few months ago, thought it possible they would be called upon to endure. But the universal panacea of drink had no charms for John, although his downfall had been so sudden and complete as to excuse much. Only just now was he beginning to realise what a mistake he had made in returning to Centralia, where it seemed the most he could hope for was abhorrent sympathy and abundant offers of "drinks." And his dark, handsome features grew haggard and hollow with care and anxiety as he watched Laura moving cheerfully about the two small rooms sweeping, scrubbing, or cooking their scanty meals. People did what they could for the young couple by inviting them to their houses and out to stations. But John's pride would not allow him to accept any of these well-meant offers. He would either earn a decent living for himself and his wife or quietly "go under," and let her have a chance with some luckier fellow. As time passed the second alternative appeared to be the only one possible. Meanwhile, the Fates were amusing themselves by weaving a fresh pattern into the loom of his life and Laura’s and that of their coming child.
John, although declining all invitations for himself, had insisted on his wife’s acceptance of one. Laura was growing pale and thin, as care and confinement to the house worked upon her body. But her spirits were strong and cheery as ever. So, though very reluctantly, she at last agreed to go to some old friends at Karolan, a little station some thirty miles from Centralia. John, in the meantime, declared his intention of closing the office and going into the country to look for work of any description. Better men had been forced to do the same thing. Why should not he, who had changed his last one-pound note that very morning?
At Karolan Laura rapidly recovered her physical well-being. Presently, too, arrived a letter from John saying that he had accepted a billet on a station as sheep overseer, adding that as soon as a certain outstation was put in order he would come and fetch her home. Here was the first gleam of sunshine that had as yet shone upon their wedded lives.
Laura was in the habit of taking long rides about the run, sometimes with the daughter of the house, at others with the governess, at others alone. One evening, returning from a solitary excursion, and whilst still some ten miles from Karolan, she came upon a grey horse with a saddle under his belly contentedly cropping the grass on a small tableland whose rugged sides sloped steeply to the valley below. In common with the whole district, Laura at a glance was able to recognise Stephen Brown’s old Victory. Without doubt, there had been an accident. But where? Victory allowed her to catch and tie him up. Then she coo-eed long and shrilly, but the only response was the moan of the evening breeze as it sighed through a clump of belars near by. Walking along the edge of the declivity she came upon a spot which had broken away; there, too, were marks of a struggling horse’s hoofs. Peering over, Laura thought she could see some object lying amongst the boulders below that was not one of them. Without a moment's hesitation she half scrambled, half slid down the steep and gravelly slope until, bruised and breathless, she reached a spot where, on his back, lay Stephen Brown, insensible, and with one arm doubled up beneath him. His usually florid face was pale, and there was a stain of blood upon it. Uttering a little cry of pity, Laura lifted up his head and shoulders and straightened out his arm. The pain of this made him groan and open his eyes.
"Hello," he gasped, as they met Laura’s gaze. "Is that you? Could you find any water? I've been lying here since early morning. Was going over to Johnson’s to look at some cattle. Sh'an't see any more cattle. I’m done. Pity you didn’t marry me instead of that unlucky mopoke you’ve got now. Widow—in clover you’d be." And he tried to grin, whilst Laura, hastily taking off her skirt, made it into a pillow and placed it carefully under his head. Then, climbing up the bank, she searched Victory’s saddle-pouch, finding a small flask of whisky therein. At her own saddle D’s was hanging an enamelled cup. There was water in a gully she had crossed not very far away.
"I’ll pay you for that drink, if I live long enough," said Stephen Brown, as the colour returned to his cheeks. Have you seen Victory? It wasn’t his fault, poor old chap. Bank caved in, and he came right on top of me." He spoke slowly, with long pauses, and evidently with great pain. But Laura could find nothing wrong externally, except a broken arm, and she told him so, bidding him be of good cheer, journeying for more water, and bathing his head tenderly, as an affectionate and grieving daughter might have done. "Now," she said, as she finished—exerting her whole strength, lifted him into a more comfortable position—"I’ll gallop over to Mortimer’s, the boundary-rider. It’s only three miles. He has a springcart, and I think we can be back here before sundown. Do you feel a little easier?"
"Lots," said the injured man thankfully. "Where’s Sutton?"
"My husband is overseer now at Rokeby," replied Laura, surprised at the question, "and for the present I am staying at Karolan."
"His luck may change," muttered Stephen, "but he's awfully pigheaded."
"He's a good man, every way you take him" replied Laura indignantly, "and I’ve never regretted for one moment that I married him."
"That’s all I wanted to know," said the other faintly. "Are you going to leave me here all night, or what?"
They got him to Mortimer’s with infinite trouble and difficulty over the stretch of rough country. And there, until the doctors arrived from Centralia, Laura nursed him assiduously. He spoke but little, and then mostly to rail at her husband. Once he asked, "I suppose Sutton would like to get his place back, eh?"
"I suppose he would," asserted Laura (perhaps a little bitterly, for she was tired and weary of the theme). "But I’m sure he wouldn’t accept it from you."
"He'll never have the chance," snarled the sick man crossly. "Management like his would soon put him up a tree again."
A fortnight later Stephen Brown died in Centralia hospital. And a codicil to his will gave Bolero, freed from debt, together with a sum of £6000, to Laura—all for her own absolute use and behalf. "Which means, of course," had written the testator, "that she will give the lot to her husband. Coming through her, however, his luck may change. The most sensible thing he ever did was to marry her. And in doing that he committed a crime whose consequences I have tried to counteract."
All these matters happened some years ago, but men, when they visit flourishing Bolero station and see its owner with his blooming wife and happy, healthy family, still remark to each other, "Lucky beggar, Sutton."
In many American frontier towns there exists a personage known par excellence as "The Bad Man." Practically this individual terrorises the community and avenges the least implied slight—such, for instance, as a refusal to "shout"—by shooting on sight. Girt with a perfect arsenal of "guns," he swaggers down the street exacting homage from his subjects, ignoring all authority, and bossing the place until either the inhabitants, roused to action by some more than usual piece of wanton wickedness, arise and lynch him, or a worse man comes along and shoots him. Fortunately, in Australia we have no counterpart of the American Bad Man, with his seven-shooters and utter disregard of human life. Still, in many of the Out Back border townships may be found a mild prototype, who, although lacking the use of other weapons than those Nature has endowed him with, but possessing a supply of fluent blasphemy, backed up by brute force, lords it over the few residents, and even sets the solitary trooper at defiance. There was such a man at Bandarooba, a lately-formed settlement, near the dividing line that separates the Northern Territory of South Australia from Queensland. Why Bandarooba should ever have been formed passes comprehension. But first came the bush shanty, and in course of time there gathered around that nucleus a few weatherboard and slab houses, a blacksmith's shop, and a store, another pub, and the place dubbed itself "township." Ostensibly the population lived by bushwork—dam-making and fencing on the adjoining sheep and cattle stations. But as it was never known or seen to be doing aught except ride about the country, as often by night as by day, the adjacent squatters regarded the place with suspicion, and made application to the Government for police protection, which, however, had not yet arrived. No one knew whence Isaac Mellon came. But ever since his appearance with a couple of fine horses he had, so to speak, taken full charge of the settlement. His word was law therein, and no one dreamed of disputing "Flash Ike's" ascendancy. Not that such a position had been won all at once. More than a dozen pitched battles had first been fought—battles in which muscle and weight went for everything, and science and condition for very little. But at last "Billy the Ringer," "Boko Bob," "Flatfoot Mike," and the rest of the citizens were brought to admit Ike's supremacy, and henceforth he ruled them all with fists of iron—hard tough customers though they were—and each of whom probably had good reasons of his own for not going further eastward into civilisation.
Ike was a tall, rawboned "Native" of about 30, with an almost purely animal face—high cheek-boned, long-mouthed, and shifty-eyed. He lived as a "hatter," i.e., quite alone, in a barked-roofed slab humpy he had put up in the scrub that still grew thickly on the site of future streets. A fearless rider and breaker, he could easily have obtained employment had he so wished. But he very rarely ''took a job." Why should he, when there was so little necessity? Ben Harris, the storekeeper, would have thought a long time before sending in his account to "Flash Ike." Nor did Lamber, the publican, ever dream of keeping any score against him even if he shouted for the whole township. But people generally considered it a privilege to be allowed to stand drinks for Ike. And sometimes the latter, to keep his hand in, thumped his admirers all round. It is truly wonderful what the boasted Anglo-Saxon will stand from his oppressor when once thoroughly subdued and dominated by some master spirit! Nor was Ike's rule altogether one of brute force, for on occasions, when the community ran short of meat, he it was who, at the head of a chosen few, always made good the deficiency from adjacent flocks and herds. The terms bully and coward are very often synonymous. It was not so, however, in Ike's case. In the early days, when his present subjects violently opposed his rule one, "Cat-faced Joe," resenting a broken jaw and half-a-dozen lost teeth, had gone for a shot gun and fired point blank at Ike. Luckily for the latter, the weapon was an old muzzle-loader, and the cap alone exploded, leaving the catfaced one defenceless.
"Well, of all the adjective fools!" drawled Ike, as he extracted a pin from the band of his ragged cabbage-tree hat and offered it to Joe. "Prick her up, ole man," he continued, "an' 'ave another try.'
But Joe had shot his bolt, and stood silently scowling and waiting for the crashing blow from the great fists whose work he already bore such mark of.
Ike, however, only laughed at the other's discomfiture, and seizing the gun without the least apparent effort twisted the long barrel around the man's neck in a turn and a half, and kicked him out o' the bar of the Jolly Bushman.
As a rule, few strangers came to Bandarooba. At times a gang of station hands would ride in and knock their cheques down at the pubs, and such occasions were generally marked by a quick succession of fierce fights between the visitors and the "townspeople." In these Ike, as befitted his great reputation, seldom took any prominent part, contenting himself with strolling around giving advice to his own side, and dealing out punishment to anyone who appeared inclined to shirk the combat. And invariably the affair ended in the visitors being driven forth chequeless, horseless, bruised, and broken. Still, to have been "on the razzle-dazzle at Bandarooba" was in that part of the Far West considered an achievement to be proud of, and a man to hold himself thoroughly acclimatised should be able to boast of having taken his share in one of these "bursts."
As may well be imagined, the female portion of the community was a fit match for the Sunburnt, hatchet-faced viragoes, for the most part, shrill of tongue and almost as heavy of hand as their lords and masters, in common with whom also they were cunning in horseflesh and bush-craft, and whose sole notion of educating their half-naked offspring was to teach them how to "fake" brands with a stick in the dust. And the girls, almost without exception, took after their mothers both physically and intellectually.
Melinda Brown, however, the only daughter of "Bandy" Brown, widower and rough carpenter, was, so far as looks went, at any rate, very much superior to anything in Bandarooba, with her fresh colour, wealth of tawny hair, and deep blue eyes. "Mel," as she was always called, was tall and strapping of stature, muscular, too, and ready with her hands to summarily suppress the at times aggressive admiration that surrounded her, and which esteem, if anything, was only heightened by the latter fact. The bachelors of Bandarooba, indeed, compared a smack from one of Mel's hands to the kick of a horse. And, unlike most other girls, she was no slattern, keeping herself clean and neat as a cat, a trait alone sufficient to distinguish and single her out from the rest. Of course, all the young men were at her feet, and she might have had her choice of at least a score of the most skilful cattle-duffers and horse-stealers on the border. But she seemed attracted by none, and by dint of jibes and jeers, and not seldom blows into the bargain, managed to keep her rough admirers at a fair distance. All at once, to the surprise of everybody, "Flash Ike" himself entered the lists, or, as local parlance had it, "tracked up to Mel." And immediately the others drew back, well knowing that no interference would for a moment be tolerated, and that a look or a word even passing between Mel and another man would be the signal for the latter's prompt annihilation. To Mel this state of matters soon became unbearable. She also for a while missed her satellites, and was indignant that a single man, however big and strong, should have power to scare them away in such fashion. Added to this, she disliked Flash Ike for himself. Like many big men, he was slow of speech and had no gift of repartee. Besides, as a big woman herself, she felt no affinity for the great-limbed giant, who now day after day would hang his horse up outside the little cottage and come in and sit and watch her, drawling at intervals, punctuated by deep sighs, such trite observations as "Mel, yer knows I'm dead gone on yer," or "Mel, ole gal, it's you an' me ud run well in double 'arness."
And yet, tired of it all as she was, she refrained from giving him the direct and sharp repulse she might otherwise have done. Well aware of the feet that Ike had threatened to "stowsh" any man upon whom she cast the eye of favour, she was fearful of her secret being discovered and her lover half, if not wholly, killed. For Mel had a lover unsuspected by the most suspicious.
A short time previous to the opening of this story one of the men belonging to a mob of travelling sheep had dropped out at Bandarooba, some of whose people had "winged" his flock. Consequently there had been trouble with the boss drover, and Bob Johnson, leaving, pitched his tent and took a much-needed spell.
Bob was a new chum—a cockney new chum. A middle-sized, well-built, active young man, with red cheeks, as yet untarnished by the western sun, curly dark hair, a merry smile, and an apparently cherubic disposition that made light of all hardships.
The evening he hobbled up from his camp to the nearest house for a billy of water and to purchase some meat and bread his face was mottled by mosquito bites and his nose was peeling.
"Lor' love yer pretty heves, miss," said he as Mel handed him a leg of the very wether he had so lately driven, and sympathised with him on his derelict state, "I'm orrite. Blisters a few an' bites a few. But yer cawn't drive them aggrawatin' warmint o' woolly birds without a tyke—a dawg, yer knows. If I'd ha' only knowed when I was in the Mile End Road afore I 'ad to—ahem—I mean, miss, afore I tuk to forring travil for the good o' my 'elth—why, I cud a brought along a ship load o' dawgs an' enough to eat all the sheep in Hostrilyer. But, lor'," he concluded with the open gallantry of his kind, "who hever would 'ave expected to come acrost a hangel in a bloomin' 'ole like this?"
Meetings became frequent between the pair, and Johnson still stayed on unmolested and almost unremarked, further than as "the traveller camped back o' Browns." In general such stray visitors were pretty quickly given notice to quit. But, in this case, impelled by a strong sense of justice and equity as holding itself responsible for his dismissal from his droving billet, Bandarooba made an exception. So Bob and Mel, by the exercise of not a little caution, managed to keep their courtship hidden from all concerned. They were accustomed to meet in a thick clump of brigalows that grew near the Browns' cottage; Mel delighted with a type completely new to her; her lover none the less so with the fine, free audacity of tenderness, tempered, when necessary, by a stern restraint that made trespass impossible and dangerous. Then, presently, as has been shown, Flash Ike appeared on the scene.
And his love-making, passive and limited as it was, did not improve his temper, at no time very good. Thus, when he rode down the cleared track called by courtesy "the street," with his cabbage-tree hat well on the back of his head, and only prevented from falling off by a silver chain under his nose, a gloomy scowl on his brow, and furtive shifty eyes roving hither and thither, his most especial-cronies got out of the way as fast as possible before he had time to fix a quarrel upon them.
And Mel herself, desperately afraid lest some day Ike should discover her secret, warned Bob to keep as quiet as he could and avoid drawing the bully's attention to his movements. But her lover only scoffed at her care with a hardihood that to Mel savoured of rank lunacy.
"Ho," said Bob, "I've got to knuckle down to Chang, 'ave I, my love? Lor' bless yer, I hain't scared of 'im, big an' hall as 'e is. I've bested better men than hever 'e knowed 'ow ter be, Melly. I knows 'is sort," continued Bob in a tone of disgust, "harms agoin' like the syles on a windmill wi' fistes hon the ends ov 'em as big's a shoulder o' mutting. Yah, wot's the good o' hall that there blacksmithin' stuff an' not a bounce o' science? In course he's big an' strong, but if he meddles wi' me I'll walk roun' 'im same's a cooper roun' a cask, or a syler roun' a capsting."
"He'd eat you, Bob," replied Mel, aghast at such an outbreak of worse than midsummer madness. "Why, you'd never have a chance."
"Well, well," replied Bob, slipping his arm round her waist, "I'm a man o' peace, I ham, an' don't want no rows. But if hever that there big yokel comes messin' around Bob Johnson there'll be wigs on the green afore 'is meal's over an' done wi'. In my country it ain't halways the big men as is the beat. Give us a cheeker, my gal, an' never mind no Flash Hikes."
Now it happened that on this especial afternoon Ike, coming to the cottage and finding it empty, was on the point of riding away again, when he saw old Boney walking up from the blacks' camp on the flat. Moved by a sudden impulse, he inquired whether he had seen Mel anywhere. Grinning, the aboriginal pointed to the clump of brigalow, at the same time holding up a couple of dirty fingers.
For some time Ike had had his suspicions that another and more favoured rival was in the field, and to the rapid perception of jealousy the slightest sign was sufficient. Therefore, hanging his horse up to a limb, he cautiously entered the clump just in time to hear his rival's last words and see Mel in his arms.
Controlling his passion by a terrible effort, he drew back and regained his horse.
"Gib it tickpence," whined old Boney, and then turned to run as he saw the look on Ike's face. But he was too late, and catching a terrific blow on the side of the head from the fist of the furious man he rolled over and over like a shot rabbit, and lay there stunned.
That afternoon, Bob Johnson, standing and talking to Cat-faced Joe, in front of Harris' store, felt himself suddenly gripped by the back of the neck and shaken like a rat by a terrier. Twisting around he saw Ike towering over him, tall and threatening, with murder in his eye. Instantly realising the situation, Bob tore himself away at the expense of his shirt collar, exclaiming as he won free, "Ere, Chang, none o' yer larks! Mister 'Arris, book a noo shirt to the Hemperor o' Hostrileyer an' credit the price to my account."
"I'm a-goin' to kill yer, young feller," remarked Ike hoarsely, "if yer ain't clear o' this place in ten minutes. So you'd best rol up yer drum an' git. It's yer last chance."
"Ho," replied Bob, keeping a wary eye on the other, "my larst chance, is it. Well, my lord, I ain't a-goin'—leastways not afore I seen wot sort o stuff you're made on," and with a dash like lightning Bob ran in and delivered such a right and left on Ike's face as sent him reeling against the side of the store, but for whose support he would have fallen.
Already a crowd had collected, and Bob, turning to them, shouted, "I'll fight 'im if somebody'll honly see fair play 'an keep 'is pals off. I'm a Hinglishman, like yourselves, an' can't stand no bullyin'."
At this moment, Ike fairly roaring with rage and with blood running down his face, rushed upon Bob, who, hemmed in by a mob of men, women, and children, all in a state of the highest excitement, would have fared badly only that almost over his shoulder suddenly protruded the gleaming barrel of a rifle, and Cat-faced Joe's voice was heard exclaiming, "Breech-loader this time, Ike, ole son. Thirteen shot! Fair play an' a ring, or by the livin' Jingo I'll, blow a 'ole through yer as big as a wool-shed door!"
There was no mistaking the sharp, quick, earnest warning, and Ike stopped just short of the threatening muzzle, and began to rave and storm and call upon his supporters. But the latter did not respond. Perhaps they were tired of a despotism, or were curious to see a battle between the pigmy and the giant, or they did not relish the look of Joe's Winchester. However this may be they seconded the latter's appeal for a fair fight and no favour; and for the first time in his reign the Bad Man of Bandarooba found himself practically alone and forced to submit to the vox populi. Trembling with rage over all his great frame, pouring forth a torrent of curses, he stood disdaining to even turn up his sleeves, and rejecting all offers of assistance, waiting only for the signal which should leave him at liberty to rush in and annihilate his little opponent.
But Bob, grinning at the wrathful, restless Ike, still covered by Joe's rifle, stripped to the waist, appointed seconds, and insisted on a ring being formed by men with stockwhips, who mercilessly laid about them till sufficient space was procured.
At the last moment Mel appeared on the scene and elbowed and pushed her way through to the edge of the ring. She was bare-headed, and the great waves of her tawny hair rolled nearly to her heels, so fast had she run when she heard the news. There was trouble in her eyes, but she said nothing. At a glance she saw that matters had gone too far for any interference. But, presently, she stepped swiftly forward, and with a defiant stare at Ike, she put her arms around her lover's neck and kissed him in front of them all. And before the cheer that went up at her action had died away Joe lowered his rifle and the battle commenced.
Bandarooba is civilised now. It has a Divisional Board and a School of Arts and a brewery and churches and schools, and a water supply and a dozen hotels, and the railway within a hundred miles of it. But you will yet find people who can tell you the history of that most gorgeous fight and the final complete victory of the little cockney ex-pugilist over his huge opponent.
It was the old story of the swordfish and the whale again. Terrific rushes by the big man avoided by the small one, whilst putting in stinging body blows, each of which told with calculated and scientific effect. Close quarters, Bob was well aware, would be fatal, and he made the most of an exceptional agility, backed up by professional skill, until his bewildered adversary hardly knew from which quarter to expect the blows that rained upon him. Still he took his punishment gamely, and more than once got in a swinging hit that had it taken full effect would have stopped Bob's career once and for ever.
At first there had been an attempt made at carrying on the affair with some show of regulation. But towards the finish the men were fighting all over the place—one still alert, wary, tireless, albeit with a face unrecognisable as human and a body whose crimson markings were already turning a blueish black. Ike, however, was simply a staggering wreck, more than half blind, panting and breathless as, with trembling knees, he rose time after time to his feet and essayed savagely to close with his nimble foe. But the end came at last when, with a crushing blow on the jaw, delivered with a spring off the ground, Bob sent the "Bad Man" headlong to earth, where, in spite of pulls and drags and less gentle means, he lay quite still and breathing stertorously.
"They used to call me the 'Ampstead Hartichoke' at 'ome," remarked Bob casually, as he dipped his gory head in a bucket of water that Mel brought, "an' fer a lightweight none too soft a snap. But bli me, if that bloke ain't give me more trouble than I've 'ad wi' chaps as knowed yards more habout the game than 'e hever forgot!"
Then four men, who in the excitement had been almost untouched, dismounted, and one of them taking a pair of handcuffs from his belt snapped them on the prostrate Ike "Horse stealing," he remarked laconically. And at once many individuals in the crowd moved unostentatiously off and were no more heard of in those parts. So it was that law and order first made its appearance at Bandarooba, and that after events continued for long to be dated from "the year of the Big Fight."
And if ever you visit the thriving township and, disregarding the attractions of the imposing "Imperial," or the "Royal," or the "Occidental," put up at the less pretentious but equally comfortable Hampstead Arms, it is quite on the cards that you may hear this story at first hand from people most competent to tell it—viz., host Johnson and his "missus."—"Sydney Mail."
John Benty and William Pant were rivals, and had been so for many years. They were what sailors still call "providores," a term which, although you may not find it in every dictionary, mean's ship's provider. Thus both of the tradesmen named were ever ready and eager to supply ships with all food necessaries, either for cabin or forecastle, from a leg of mutton to its appropriate turnips and caper sauce; from a loaf of "soft tack" to a pound of butter. Only, of course, they dealt in quantities. And they made a specialty of sailing ships—much more plentiful then than in these degenerate days of steamers that carry "freezing chambers" and other wretched devices enabling them to become in a measure independent of the providores at this end. And the sailers, especially those belonging to the wool-fleet, stayed in ports some times for months together, and many of them "lived well," and proved a most profitable source of revenue to either of the two firms lucky enough to secure their custom. The steamers, however, were, so to speak, here to-day and gone to-morrow, so that mere "tramps," let alone mailboats, were scarcely worth bothering about.
Gradually competition between Benty and Pant became so keen, as the sailing ships became scarcer, that each invested in a smart cutter-rigged boat, in which "runners" cruised at times quite a long way out to sea to meet inward-bound ships and secure their patronage while in Port Endeavor. On special occasions the heads of the respective firms were accustomed to go out in person; but as a general thing they left the business to the skippers of their respective boats.
Benty was a round, pot-bellied, red-faced little man, with a placid and equable temper. Pant was tall and thin, lantern-jawed, and irritable. Nevertheless, the two were on good terms with each other; and mutual friends had often advised the merging of the businesses in one concern.
But without avail, although Benty was willing enough, Pant would not hear of any such scheme.
Of all the vessels trading to Port Endeavor, perhaps the old Orion was, from a providore's point of view, the best. She carried a large crew, and her motto was, "Full and plenty." And she made generally a three months' stay, which meant a very pretty cheque to the man who "got" the ship. And with her skipper, as with most of the others, it was well known that "first come was first served." Therefore, it was natural enough that as the time drew near for the Orion to be making her appearance in the offing, the thought should simultaneously strike Benty and Pant as to the necessity for trying to pick her up. Benty's boat was named the Ena, and Pant's the Sir Henry; and there was not much to choose between them in either size or speed. Usually they were not in the habit of, except for prizes like the Orion, going much beyond the entrance to the harbor, there to catch their prey coming in under easy sail; but they were, nevertheless, staunch sea boats, and well-handled into the bargain. The general custom, also, was to wait until official news arrived that the incoming vessel had reported to one or other of the coast stations, thus enabling those interested to calculate with some certainty the hour of her arrival. But of late business had been slack in Port Endeavor, and the rival providores were, therefore, unusually keen on securing the Orion. So, without any especial data to go upon, they set out within a few minutes of each other to cruise around and trust in Providence, and each determining by hook or by crook to be first on the Orion's deck.
The two boats kept well in sight of each other—the Ena rather closer in shore than the Sir Henry; fine weather and a light north-easter blowing, which was a head-wind for the Orion. Neither Benty nor Pant was prepared to stay out more than twenty-four hours at the most. But when, after dodging down the coast as far as the Black Rocks, and seeing nothing of the big clipper, the Ena turned for home, Benty was surprised to see the other boat keeping on.
This would never do; and round came the Ena again. Still, provisions were getting low; and already it was nearly evening of the second day. Presently a thin trail of smoke hove in sight, ahead of Sir Henry. "Ah," remarked old Benty, "that's what the matter! Pant'll speak her, and find out whether she's seen the Orion." And, apparently, such was the case, for, by-and-bye, Pant altered his course, and stood out to sea, heading nearly due east. In his turn speaking the steamer, one of the Black Diamond colliers, Benty learned that she had seen nothing of the Orion. "Darn that Pant," said he to his skipper, "he must have more tucker on board than we've got to allow him to go gallivantin' over the ocean like that. There's only another feed or so left, and mighty little to wash it down with. 'Bout ship, boys, and let us get home as quick as we can. I ain't goin' to do a perish, even for the Orion." Still, he cast a lingering glance to where the Sir Henry's sails flashed broad abeam in the falling light. But he hated the very idea of even a limited fast, whilst Pant could, he declared, "live on the smell of an oil rag."
Much to Benty's surprise, when morning broke, the Sir Henry was discovered almost alongside.
"Hello!" hailed Benty, amicably, "no luck?"
"No mor'n you," replied the opposition; "got any tucker?"
"Fair starving," answered Benty; "and you?"
"Much about the same; got a drop o' whisky left, though. Have a nip?"
And the Sir Henry came close enough alongside for the half of a bottle to be handed from one to the other.
"Say," called out Benty, warmed by the liquor, "what's the use o' worryin'. Let's go halves in her!"
"See you blowed first," replied Pant with a grin, "I'll 'ave the whole of her or nothin'. No 'Co.' for me, if I knows it."
"Just as you please," sang out Benty, cheerily, as the boats separated. "You ain't a bad sort; but I've seen folks as I'd better like to have for a 'Co.'"
Throughout the night the Ena's and the Sir Henry's lights were in sight of each other as the boats flew homewards before a strong southerly breeze, each with a reef in her mainsail. As the morning broke bright and clear the Heads of Endeavor loomed blue in the distance, and jogging along towards them was a noble ship just beginning to shorten sail. One glance was enough to recognise the Orion, which had doubtless passed them in the night, keeping further to the eastward. Shaking their reefs out with one accord, the two boats dashed for the Orion like hawks upon their prey over the two-mile stretch that separated them from her. Now was the time for each to show what she could do at a pinch. Leaning over to the breeze, they tore through the water for some time almost "neck and neck." Then, as they approached the Orion, it could be seen that the Ena was surely outsailing her rival, gradually drawing ahead, until Benty, sitting well aft, was able to wave his hand in ironical adieu to Pant, steering his own boat. Then, all at once the Ena gained a little, bringing her nose on the Sir Henry's port quarter. "It's no use, old man," sang out Benty, "pity you didn't take my offer last night. Too late now. We'll have her line in another ten minutes. So long."
"He had hardly finished speaking, when over went the Sir Henry's tiller, and slap she came into the Ena's quarter with a crash that brought all the big ship's men staring to the side. The spars snapped like carrots, whilst the hulls filled and went down like stones, leaving a mass of partially submerged wreckage, to which clung the crews. All but the author of the mischief, who, flung clear of everything by the force of the collision, and unable to swim, had sunk once, and was just on the point of going under again, when Benty, sighting him, let go of his spar, and, swimming over to him, supported him until the Orion's boat arrived, and hauled them on board, coughing and spluttering, and nearly drowned.
"She's your ship, John," declared Pant as soon as he could speak. "I slapped into ye a purpose. But you shouldn't ha' tried my temper. By jingo, though, I'd ha' been among the shark's now if it weren't for you."
"Co.?" asked Benty, holding out his hand with a smile. Pant paused for a minute, then grasping the offered hand, he replied, "Right y'are, 'Co.' it shall be from this out afloat an' ashore."
And thus was founded the present great company of Benty and Punt, whose headquarters, as everybody knows, are still at Port Endeavor, with branches flourishing around all the seven seas.
In the days I write of there were still squatters in Australia—men who owned their own wool and stock and pocketed the money for them. One of these was Tom Dobbins, of Bimtooke. His grandfather had originally been a bullock driver, with a turn for finance that eventually, through the medium of cattle duffing and stealing, and a butchering business, landed him on Bimtooke with a quarter million acres of Crown lands and freehold before he was 40. He was generally described as a "hard case." But tradition credited him with some redeeming points, which is more than tradition did for his successor, "Hungry" Dobbins—the father of Tom. Both of these forbears of the subject of our story were fiercely toiling, hard drinking, hard swearing, masterful men with, in the case of Dobbins pere, an added miserliness which, intensified in the son, gained for him also the unenviable epithet which had aforetime distinguished his father. Thus, "Hungry Dobbins, of Bimtooke," now nearing middle age, was not a persona grata in the district, especially with the nomads, who in short spells worked on his station for a starvation wage and rations. Nor had he ever been popular with his neighbours; and the less so since eschewing strong drinks and tobacco and swear words, he had enveloped himself in a cloak of sanctity that amazed and puzzled those who still recollected his antecedents. They called him hypocrite, and suspiciously kept aloof, disregarding with contempt his invitations to attend the church he built on Bimtooke, in which he himself held services on the Sabbath for the benefit of the ever-changing hands and very hard up "travellers," tempted to attend by the offer of a pint of flour, for which, however, they had, in addition, to work half an hour at the wood-pile. And no harder task master than "Hungry Tom Dobbins" ever owned a station. Long before the stars were out of the sky o' mornings—both winter and summer—the great bell clanged for breakfast—eaten by the flickering light of slush lamps in a squalid, flea-ridden humpy. But no bell ever rang for "knock off," and woe betide the luckless man caught returning home ere the red glow in the western sky had thoroughly died away. Although Tom, unlike the former makers of Bimtooke, had never done a day's work himself, he had inherited to the full the exceptional faculty for seeing that other men served him in return for as meagre a wage as possible. Also he was, in spite of his Sunday teachings, vain with the vanity of Bimtooke and its 100,000 sheep and its great mobs of cattle—the largest property in the district.
* * * * * *
Never had seamen been so scarce in Port Waratah, and skippers of laden ships waiting to get away were at their wit's end to get a crew. "It's no use hangin' around that there shippin' office," remarked Captain Cutchell, of the Star of Thibet, to the boarding-house master, Abe Isaacs, "there ain't been a measily Roosian Finn to be had! Darned if I can understand what's come to the brutes. Ain't there no shellbacks in this country anyway? Green hands I mortally hates; but the hatches is on, and I reckin I can't wait no longer. Four I wants, and four I'll have, and you'd best see and get them as soon as ever you like."
"It's risky, Cap'en," replied Abe, with a shake of his head. "We ain't in 'Frisco or Noo Orleens now, ye knows. Owever," he continued hastily, as he saw the gloom gathering on the brow of the tall, gaunt, big-boned Nova Scotian skipper, "you've been a good customer to me, and I'll try and find somethin' as'll do for pully-hauley, anyways, an' stand kicking into the bargain. A fiver apiece, shall we say, Cap'en?" he insinuated in a cringing tone, as he glanced up at the other's forbidding face with cunning beady black eyes. "Ay; c.o.d.—if they're sound," replied the captain, after a pause. "I sail to-morrow night, remember. But remember, as well, that if you run any o' them blasted cripples out o' the asylum, or some o' them hospittle incurables I see you carting off to the Persian Monarch last week, I'll come back and I'll wring your damned Jew's neck, if I swing for it up yonder." And as the skipper pointed to where the gaol loomed dark and gloomy on the hill overlooking the town, and the crimp caught the glance of his cold blue eyes, he shivered, and vowed to do his best, thoroughly certain that if he didn't keep his word the "Blue nose" captain would faithfully perform his part of the contract.
* * * * * *
Once a year Dobbins followed his clip to town, and, after a brief interview with his agents, disappeared. None of the squatting caravansaries knew him, nor was he ever to be met with "on the Block," or in any of the principal streets during the month or so that his absence usually extended to. And his enemies in Centralia and the district said that, on these occasions, he let himself go, and that if one could only discover his haunts they would he found nearer Lobelia-alley or Windmill-lane, and others amongst the most notorious and low down purlieus of Waratah than in the respectable suburb, to the care of whose post-office his overseer's reports were addressed.
Be this as it may, any one who knew him would have been hard put to it to, on the evening following Captain Cutchell's conversation with the Jew crimp, recognise the owner of Bimtooke in the figure that issued from a fourth-rate lodging-house in Water-street—one of the worst slums of Waratah. Smoking a short wooden pipe; clad in garments that gave him an air of half bushman, half sailor, with a dash of penniless vagrant thrown in, he strolled along the evil smelling locality as if thoroughly at home with his surroundings. Presently, arriving at a public-house, so close to the shipping that the jibbooms of the sailors at the wharves below forked nearly into the backyard, he paused. From within came the sound of music and dancing; around the door were grouped half a dozen dishevelled Mænades vociferously competing for their prizes—three seamen just paid off from a colonial coaster, and already more than half drunk. Pushing his way through the crowd with the indifference of one thoroughly accustomed to such scenes, "Hungry" Dobbins stopped inside and up to the bar, calling for rum, and taking no notice of a sharp featured Jew, who with eager eyes stood watching the group at the door.
What happened to the squatter after entering the grimy portals of the "Sailor's Fortune" remains a secret between himself and his Maker. But when he was in a fit state to again collect his thoughts he imagined himself in a bathroom at Bimtooke, with the water colder than ever he recollected it, even in the depth of winter; somebody, too, was holding his hands so firmly as to pain; also, as he was alternately lifted up and tossed from side to side, dim suspicions of an earthquake passed athwart his mind. His head ached, too, as if it would fall to pieces. Suddenly a splash of water covered his face, and filled his eyes, ears, and mouth with the bitterest brine he could have ever imagined for the saltness of it. Decidedly there was no water even from the saltest well on Bimtooke like that! But the shock roused him, and staggering to his knees, he peered through the gloom with fearful eyes and a mind attuned to a Future State.
Then all at once he heard voices and saw a light.
"Here's the other feller," said one of the voices, with a rough laughter in it. "Old Abe must ha' made his dose pretty strong. He's been washin' about in the lee scuppers all night. Take them irons off him, one o' you, and shove him into the fo'c'sle. He'll be all right after a sleep. Let's be thankful he's the only greeny in the lot."
It was eight bells in the morning watch when Dobbins—who by that time had learned what had happened to him, also the name of the ship and several other particulars of importance—walked aft and demanded to "see the captain."
"That's me," replied a tall, hard faced man, whom he encountered at the break of the poop, and who frowned threateningly at the dilapidated, sodden figure, returning his looks with interest. For Dobbins' blood was up, and the spirit of the fierce old bullock driver, dormant all his life, now ran in his veins like fire, breaking through the thin veneer of religious hypocrisy, and transforming the whole man in him as perhaps no other happening could have done.
"All right then," replied the squatter; returning stare for stare undauntingly; "and perhaps you will tell me the meaning of this outrage, this kidnapping of a respectable man; this— By E, —d, Sir!" he suddenly broke off furiously, losing his patience—"I'll make you pay for this trick, your owners! Do you know who I am, you scoundrel? I'm Dobbins, of Bimtooke, and I've got 15 to 20 thousand pounds worth of wool in this very ship! By the Lord, you'll find you did your worst day's work when you laid hands on me!" Then he paused, breathless, panting with rage, whilst the captain, turning to his mate, drawled deliberately—"Blast that Old Abe; he's done me after all! Caught a reg'lar high toned ravin' loonatic, and run him on to us. There, there, my poor fellow," he continued; "seein' as you ain't right-minded, I'll put up, just for once, with your compliments. But take a friend's advice and keep that big mouth o' yourn shut. Now go for'ard, and we'll try and make you useful in some way. At the worst you'll, mebbe, do to chip iron-rust."
Speechless with passion, Dobbins gazed first up at the white cloths piled in graceful volumes, rising from huge coarse to snowy royal, all rounding their shapely bosoms to a brisk quarterly breeze, then outboard to where the steely waves of the South Atlantic ran empty from horizon to horizon. And as he gazed, the awful immensity and loneliness of his position came home to him with one great shock, well nigh driving him frantic in reality, so that, clenching his fists, he made a dash at the captain, who, on his guard, hit out quickly and stopped the rush, giving the mate time to interfere with a belaying pin, and to such purpose that the hapless squatter soon lay unconscious, and in that state was dragged to his berth.
"Yes, I can't be mistook; it's either Hungery Tom Dobbins or his bloomin' ghost," were the first words that fell on his ears when he came to himself. Looking up his eyes met those of a sailor whose features seemed vaguely familiar. "Thank God," exclaimed Dobbins, "here at last is somebody who recognises and will confirm me in my story." "Ay' ay," replied the man coolly, as he sat on a chest and shredded tobacco into a horny hand, "I'm Jack the sailor, as worked for ye at Bimtooke, sure enough." "And you'll speak to the captain, won't you?" asked Dobbins. "Why, man alive, the whole of Bimtooke clip is in this accursed ship! I told the captain, but he wouldn't believe me. What did they steal me away for in this fashion? But it will be all right now, won't it?" continued the squatter appealingly, for his spirit was failing him before the stupendous misfortune that had fallen so suddenly into his life.
"Station gone bung?" asked the other laconically, as he lit his pipe.
"No, no," exclaimed Dobbins, "don't I tell you that all the wool was shipped in this horrible vessel, on board of which I haven't the remotest notion of how I came to be."
"Gammon," retorted the other, with a grin, "didn't I see you myself in the 'Sailor's Fortune,' a drinkin' an' a carryin' on top ropes, with your arm around a donah? Some people would ha' been astonished," he remarked philosophically, "but I wasn't, knowin' what a blanky old starvation applecart ye was. Garn! p'raps ye don't rek'lect sackin' me at a minnet's notice, 'sides cheatin' me outer five pounds over that fencin' contract?" He went on with rising indignation. "Me speak for you to the skipper! Not much! You never was no squatter; only a blasted fraud. Squatter's don't come knockin' around Sailors' pubs, an' drinkin' and messin' like what I seen you do. An' look at yer togs! Probably ye was managin' Bimtooke for some swell or other, an' 'bezzled his money, an' got inter trouble, an' then come down country, when Ole Abe got hold on yer, an' hoccused yer, an' put yer on this ship, an' now yer tryin' to come the marine over the skipper. But it won't wash, my son, so the sooner ye turns to the better. Take my tip for that. Meanwhile, I don't know yer from a bloomin' crow. An' if ye calls me as witness I'll only make it wuss fer yer. So long! You can 'ave a little church all to yourself till the watch comes below."
* * * * * *
And now poor "Squatter," as he was called in derision, began a strange time indeed! He had prided himself upon the strictness and discipline of his station, he now learned what such things meant at sea. And a most bitter lesson it proved. Think what it signified to this man, in whom, perhaps of all the deadly sins that made his soul their home, pride was the chief, to be forced to jump at a word, nay, at the slightest motion of a finger, and answer humbly, and obey unquestioningly; to perform the most menial offices, both fore and aft; to wait for his food until even the boys had finished theirs; to be the butt and shopping-block of the ship's company! For a time he had rebelled furiously, and been corrected pitilessly. Then, seeing the futility of it all, he had done his best to possess his soul in patience until the day of reckoning should come—as come he swore it surely should. And shivering off the icebergs of Cape Horn, clad only in the scanty rags flung to him by the seamen of their charity, or sweltering nearly naked in equatorial doldrums, this assurance of revenge upon his persecutors was the man's sole comfort, but for which he would long ago have made an end of all his troubles over side.
Once, however, Dobbins had "knuckled under," no active cruelty was exercised towards him. The Star, although a very strict vessel, was not officered by the maritime swashbucklers of modern fiction, and on her a man who knew his work, and did it well and quickly, was safe.
Seeing this, "Squatter" found it the better policy to avoid belaying pins and heavy-toed sea boots by civil answers and incessant industry. The captain never spoke to him, and probably never had the slightest doubt but that the crimp had foistered a partially demented man upon him. Meanwhile, the Star steadily made her way north-about, and each night as he turned into his frowsy bed of rags and bags Dobbins hugged himself in anticipation of what should presently happen to his enemies. London! London! was ever the burden of his thoughts. Only London and the thousands under foot that he knew were his; and the vengeance they should help him to!
So time passed; then on a morning, off the Western Islands, and when, as Merchant Jack put it, "the girls in Ratcliffe Highway had got hold of the tow-rope," a loud voice bawled in Dobbin's ear, and a rough hand shook him to the cry of—"Rouse out, Squatter, all yer bloomin' property down below's a-blazin'."
Sure enough, the Star's cargo was on fire. And for days it smouldered, and smoked, and burned until the paint dropped in great flakes off her sides and her decks struck hot through stoutest boots. Day and night they worked incessantly, pouring water through cut planks into the stinking, reeking hold, and day and night the fire spread, until at last one morning—even as the lead told them they were on English soil—thin, fierce jets of pale flame shot through the charred decks and the last hope of salvage faded. The ship was doomed; and when Dobbins realised that his revenge had been taken out of his hands, and that practically penniless and in rags, in a strange land, he was more powerless than ever, his spirit broke down altogether, and he wept and called upon God to strike him dead where he sat in one of the long string of boats towing behind the mass of flame and smoke that still, even in her death throes, struggled pitifully towards her home.
Less than a score of miles distant from Falmouth the Star went down in a huge flurry of hissing steam and quenching flame. And as Dobbins hopeless and weary that night at the Sailors' Home, turned into the first decent bed he had seen for months, there somehow came into his mind the words, "A broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise." The words to him, once so familiar and hackneyed, seemed to comfort and soothe him; they haunted his brain, bearing with them an altogether new meaning to his ear, and he repeated them over and over again to himself, until, falling asleep, in his dreams he saw himself once more at Bimtooke; saw himself as he had been, the stern, harsh, overbearing master, the hypocritical preacher of the Word; the unjust steward of the parable. In the morning the effect of his dream still clung to him, and as he looked at his gnarled and rugged hands, and saw in the little square of glass his worn, lined, tanned face, and noted the silver streaks in his black hair, where none had shown before, curious thoughts came into his mind—thoughts and emotions that bore fruit at once, as well as subsequently.
Thus it happened that on "pay-day" he took the few pounds he had to draw without remark, vouchsafing no attention to the taunts of his shipmates anent his wealth in Australian banks, his great property, his high estate in Cooksland, and the retribution that was to have been finally his, all matters concerning which, in his furious outbursts of pain and rage, he had freely unbosomed himself to whosoever cared to listen. On the contrary, he kept his own counsel; and within a week was homeward bound as second steerage steward in one of the steamers that in those days ran monthly to Australia
* * * * * *
"Goin' to call at Bimtooke?" asked one sundowner of another, meeting and camping in a grateful shade. "Garn!" replied the first-named, "Ungary Dobbins's! Not if I know it! That wood-eep give me the hump last time I was there—shearin' afore this un'."
"You take my tip and call," said the other earnestly. "Times has changed since old Dob. came back from his Yeuropean tower. You bet! Remember the church?"
"Ratha! 'Earl 'im a-preaching in and a-talking o' salwation at ten bob a week an' find yourself. Ugh!"
* * * * * *
"That's rite," was the answer; "but, as I sez, them days is gone. The church is turned inter a travellers' 'ut now—a reg'lar wunner ov a 'ut. Like wise, ye gits supper and brekfus' as good as some Waratah restyrans I been in. An' no wood choppin'; an' a bit o' cooked tucker to take on the track. An' the chaps tells me as wages 'as ruz up to distrik rates, an' that there ain't a cumfabler shop to work on in all Cooksland. Make no mistake, mate; you empty them nosebags an' give him a call."
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