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Title: Red Lion and Blue Star
Author: John Arthur Barry
eBook No.: 1304171h.html
Date first posted: 2013
Most recent update: Jan 2022
This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore and Colin Choat
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Red Lion and Blue Star
The Red Warder Of The Reef
A British Resident
How The “Spindrift” Lost Her Starboard Watch
Stopped On The Long Stretch
A Deal With Spain
In The “Endymion’s” Galley
How We Ran Contraband Of War
The “Lady Macquarie”
The Biter Bitten
Yah! Don’t talk to me about your new-fangled ships with their new-fangled patents!” exclaimed a stout-set, red-faced, grizzled man as he munched his cheese and biscuit and washed it down with copious draughts of rum and water. “Wood’s good enough for me,” he continued, in a rumbling, husky tone of voice. “I’m sick o’ the sight o’ your flash steel clippers with their double-barrelled yards and double-barrelled skippers.”
“Meaning me and my ship, I suppose, Captain Bolger?” asked a tall, fair, gentlemanly-looking man dressed in a fashionably cut suit of tweed, tan shoes, and straw hat with broad blue riband.
“If you like to take the application to yourself you’re welcome, Captain Wayland-Ferrars,” retorted the other, with a snort, and a marked pause at the hyphen. “But there’s lots more dandy sailors and dandy ships besides yours. Still, the Turpsansicahurry’s a case in point. What is she but a cursed iron tank built out o’ plates that a shark could shove his snout through? An’ she’s neither wholesome to look at nor good to sail, except by a fluke. Paint over iron-rust, steel an’ iron and soft timber. London mixture—neither fish, fowl, nor red herrin’! Donkey engine amidships, an’ monkey poop aft. Sheer like a Chinee junk; stiff as a bandbox and tender as a rotten tooth; broom-handles for yards, and marlinspike for bowsprit. Yah! Fair stinks, too, o’ science all over. An’ with it all, a poor thing; cheap and nasty. Why, I wouldn’t swap the Mary Johnson for a baker’s dozen of such.”
“You’re very insulting, sir,” said the other man, flushing hotly, “and but that your age renders you privileged, and the liquor you’ve drunk has probably affected your brain, I should certainly call you to account for your words.”
“Haw! haw!” roared the other, turning his fiery face round to the crowd in the bar. “D’ye hear him? Coffee an’ pistols for two in the Botanic Gardens to-morrow morning. Five-an’-forty year, boy and man, I’ve used the sea. And now to be told that I’m drunk by a new-fangled whipper-snapper like that, whose scientific head can’t stand nothing stronger than ‘Haw, lemon squash, if you please, Susan.’”
“Oh, go on board your old tub, do,” said the captain of the Terpsichore, angrily, “and don’t come here to pick quarrels with your betters.”
Flop, as he finished speaking, came the rum and water into his face, whilst the old sea-dog, struggling in the grasp of a dozen hands, was vainly endeavouring to get at the other, on his part going through the same performance.
And this was how the historic feud commenced between the two ships in the bar of the Custom House Hotel on the Circular Quay of Sydney, New South Wales.
Here, as the sun travelled over the foreyard arm, sundry masters of craft lying near were accustomed to meet for a drink and a snack before the one o’clock gun called them to dinner. Men of the new seamanship, mostly, but with a sprinkling of others who, like Bolger, swore by their wooden clippers, had been with difficulty induced to give double topsails a trial, but drew the line at two topgallant yards; and to whom the sight of a patent log, or a lead, or a Thompson compass, was like that of a red rag to a bull.
And where amongst other places the show pinched was in the fact that the Terpsichore had now, for the first time, beaten the Mary Johnson on the outward passage. They were both regular traders to Port Jackson; and, hitherto, luck had been on the side of the Mary—a fine specimen of the Aberdeen-built clipper, now nearly extinct under the Red Ensign, and as great a contrast to the Terpsichore as could be well imagined. The former belonged to a line known from the device on its house-flag as the “Red Lion.” The steel ship was one of a fleet of cargo-carriers familiar to seafarers for a similar reason by the name of “Blue Star.” But Captain Bolger’s employers were in a very small way of business compared to their rivals of the Blue Star, who, in addition to sailers, owned a dozen big ocean tramp steamers.
Hence they could afford to underbid the Red Lions in the matter of freights. Through their Sydney agents they had, indeed, just done so; and that fact, added to the slow passage, had been chiefly responsible for old Bolger’s outbreak of temper towards Wayland-Ferrars—a representative of that new school of shipmasters he so thoroughly disliked—apart from all considerations of rivalry between their respective employers. And, into the bargain, he regarded the captain of the Terpsichore as a mere fine weather sailor, one of those products of a training-ship and high-class Board of Trade examinations who know more theoretically about cyclone centres, ocean currents, hydrography, and kindred subjects than the practical part of their profession.
And something of all this he muttered and growled as friends held him back whilst Wayland-Ferrars got away. The latter, although hurt and indignant at the insult put thus publicly upon him, knew that nothing was to be gained by fighting the old fellow, either there or at law. And, anyhow, stalwart six-and-twenty cannot with any grace punch the head of sixty, no matter how hot, rash, and abusive the latter may be. So, actually, there seemed nothing to be done but grin and bear it, and keep as clear of the captain of the Mary Johnson as possible.
Not that Bolger had the reputation of being a quarrelsome man, even in his cups. On the contrary, he was respected and liked by most of those who had relations with him, and whose verdict amounted to “honest and good-hearted—if a bit rough.” The fact of the matter was that Bolger was behind his time—a very sad situation for most men to be placed in, and a sailor perhaps more than all. And the old man was bewildered at the changes taking place around him. Visiting another ship, the chances were that things about the deck would catch his eye of whose uses, and very names even, he was totally ignorant—and preferred to remain so. Also men were masters now at ages that in his day would have been thought preposterous.
Of course, as was to be expected in “Sailor Town,” the news of the row in the bar of the Custom House Hotel spread amongst the sea-folk living in their ships stuck about in the sequestered wharves and jetties that poke out into the harbour from Woolloomooloo Bay to Pyrmont Bridge. But inasmuch as there were very few men of the old order in port just then, the captain of the Terpsichore came in for much of the sympathy he undoubtedly deserved, with the result that old Bolger was practically sent to Coventry by the other skippers.
As it happened, the two vessels were lying at the north-west corner of the quay, and no distance apart. Also, mirabile dictu, the majority of their crews were British. And as was only natural, these men presently took sides, showing their partisanship in the only way possible to them, viz., assaulting each other at every decent opportunity. Not very often through the week did such chances offer, but on Saturday nights when the crews met, coming back in the small hours from “up town,” the din of battle woke the whole quay, and brought men to see the fun from all the great English, French, and German mail steamers lying around.
The captain of the Mary Johnson, one imagines, was rather pleased than otherwise at this state of affairs. He had a more powerful crew than the Terpsichore—losing men, this latter ship, on account of her patent labour-saving appliances, for some of which she ought really to have been allowed extra hands. As for Captain Wayland-Ferrars, he seldom slept on board between Friday night and the beginning of the week; so he never saw his gangway nettings on the quiet Sabbath mornings full of incapable, and sometimes sorely pummelled, Terpsichores. Perhaps his officers should have reported the facts. But they refrained from doing so. And if the captain wondered how his usually quiet and peaceable chief mate appeared at times with black eyes; and noticed that the second mate and the boatswain, too, bore similar pugilistic marks and contusions, he asked no questions. All his spare thoughts and moments were occupied with the courtship he was carrying on at Springwood, in the mountains. Next trip they were to be married; and there was nothing particularly requiring his presence on board.
Presently the two vessels finished discharging, and hauling out into the stream began to preen themselves for the homeward flight.
The Terpsichore was a well-found ship, with no lack of white and red lead, oil, turps, and varnish in her paint-lockers. So that, with her pink composition bends running to topsides of a delicate grey, broken by a line of eighteen black and white ports, she soon began to look a fine spot of colour. All her spars with the exception of topgallant and royal masts, boom and gaff, were painted a deep buff. And land-people crossing Johnstone’s Bay in the ferry-boats invariably exclaimed, “Oh, what a pretty ship!” taking no notice of the Mary Johnson. But seafarers seldom gave the Terpsichore a second glance, keeping their regards on the fine old clipper with her beautiful yacht-like lines, clean run, bright, tapering spars, and spacious poop and topgallant forecastle. By scraping and tarring and scrubbing and polishing, poor old Bolger did all he could. But even then she looked worn and weather-beaten for lack of that paint his employers had not thought themselves able to afford. Unable at length to stand it any longer, the old man bought the stuff out of his own pocket. And presently, as his vessel swung to her anchors, all dark, glistening green, with just a narrow gilt beading running around it, stem and stern, lower masts and yards of spotless white, her other spars scraped and oiled till the Oregon pine shone like mahogany, he felt easier in his mind. And looking up at the Red Lion blowing from the main royal pole, and then at the Blue Star yonder, showing black out of its white ground over the shimmering metal gimcrack with the outrageous name, he swore to make such a run home as would let people know the difference between newfangled ships commanded by new-fangled skippers with double-barrelled names and a skipper and ship of the good old-fashioned sort.
At last Bolger’s agents had got him freight, and it seemed that both vessels would be starting for home about the same time. Fortunately they were loading at far apart wharves. But, still, whenever a Lion and a Star met, singly or in company, there would be ructions. Thus amongst the sea-folk along the foreshores the interest was kept alive, and not a few bets were made and taken on the possible race. Bolger, it appeared, had announced his intention to his few cronies at the midday lunch either to beat the Terpsichore home or lose his spars.
As for the latter’s captain, he only laughed when told of this, taking no heed. He had other fish to fry up Springwood way. Since the day of the quarrel he had never set eyes on Bolger. Nor did he wish to. Neither for the Mary Johnson nor her skipper did he mean to bother himself; and he declined all wagers with respect to a race, saying, what was perfectly true, that he didn’t care which ship got home first. All the same, he had privately made up his mind to break the record. But not on account of Bolger and his bragging; only because the quicker he was home and back again the sooner would the Springwood episode find fitting close.
“It’s the darkest night I ever remember seeing in my whole life,” remarked Mr. Hopkins, the mate of the Mary Johnson.
“Same here,” replied Captain Bolger; “it feels that thick, one could almost take a knife and cut chunks off it and throw ’em about.”
The Mary had rounded Cape Horn, and was making good progress northabout, when, all of a sudden, she had, at eight bells that night, run into a wind-less patch of blackness the calmness and intensity of which were such as none on board remembered experiencing.
So thick was the darkness that captain and mate, standing almost touching, were utterly invisible to each other. Nor could any part of the ship be discerned, as she lay motionless without creak of truss or parrel or slightest lift of sail. Even the rudder was still, and the wheel-chains gave never a rattle. The only point of light came from the binnacle, a yellow blot that itself seemed choked by the woolly blackness surrounding it.
Presently, a man getting a drink at the scuttle-butt let the tin dipper rattle, and the noise made men jump and stare aloft, thinking that a yard had carried away.
“Phew!” exclaimed Bolger, “dashed if it don’t smell black! An’ you can feel it in your throat, can’t you, Hopkins?”
“Aye, sir,” replied the latter, his voice sounding muffled and dull, “this beats my time. It’s onnatural, to my way of thinking. A regular phenomener, that’s what it is.”
“Umph,” grunted the other, crustily, “that’s what whippersnapper-double-barrel ’ud call it, no doubt, if he were here. An’ he’d put a name to it as long as his ship’s. Well, I s’pose,” he continued, and you could almost hear the grin of the old chap, “that he’s flyin’ along somewhere in the Nor’-east Trades afore this.”
He had scarcely spoken when from away abeam came a noise sounding like the bark of a dog.
“Eh?” said Bolger.
“Seal!” said Hopkins.
“Your grandmother!” said the skipper. “What ’ud one be doing in twenty degrees south? It’s a dog. There he is again. It’s a ship run into this stinkin’ patch o’ black fog an’ pitch”
Indistinct and dull though the sounds were, there presently seemed little doubt that they really proceeded from a dog.
“Skipper’s bow-wow on the Terpsic-curry” hazarded the mate. “That big black-an’-white brute that collared the bo’sun the night we had the rumpus—”
“Aye, aye, like enough,” interrupted Bolger, impatiently. “Anyhow, it’s a long way off by the sound. If double-barrel’s in here, all his dashed science won’t get him out of it any faster than us.”
“Isn’t that a light, or the reflection of one?” asked the mate, sharply. “Why, it’s aboard of us! Con—,” but he had time for no more, when, with a dull, grating, rumbling sound, accompanied by one of snapping and crackling aloft, a great mass snugged up, as it were, alongside the Mary Johnson and remained there, whilst arose from many throats a wild chorus of shouts, threats, and curses, mingled with the furious barking of a dog.
“What on earth is it?” roared Bolger, dancing frantically along his poop, and peering with useless eyes, now aloft, now outboard, at the faint splash of yellow light alone visible. “Ship ahoy!” he hailed. “What the blazes are you doin’ runnin’ into me like that?”
“Ahoy, ahoy!” retorted a muffled voice, as more dull yellow blotches became visible through the black mist. “Isn’t the sea wide enough for you, but that you must come blundering into people in such a fashion? Who the deuce are you?”
“Mary Johnson, of London, homeward bound from Sydney. Get your boats over and pull yourself out of our road afore you do more mischief. What sort of confounded sogers are you, anyhow? Clear off, now! What’s your name?”
“Don’t be in such a hurry,” was what the reply sounded like. “Get your own boats out if you want to,” followed by something suspiciously resembling laughter from the stranger.
“Terpsic-curry, or I’m a dago!” exclaimed Mr. Hopkins, as the carpenter came aft and reported a tight ship. “Chips,” he continued, “serve out all the tomahawks you can find.” Then, turning to the captain, he continued, “I think, sir, we’d better send some hands aloft to cut away. We’re evidently fast up there.”
“Do as you like,” replied Bolger, wrathfully. “But they’ll only chop their fingers off! Why, man,” he exclaimed, in furious tones, “we might ha’ well been born blind, like puppies an’ kittens, for all the use our eyesight is to us!”
However, the mate had his way; and presently in the blackness could be heard voices and the noise of chopping as the men lay out on the yards and cut at intertwisted stays, lifts, and braces. Also it soon became evident that the other ship had its crew similarly employed. And in a while it seemed from the sounds of shouting and swearing up there in the smother that at several points, the two parties had met.
The hulls, after the first impact, had separated, some dozen or so of feet now lying between them. But their yards and rigging being still foul, gave them a heavy list towards each other. Lights there were in plenty, but so feebly did they show through the thick, woolly darkness, dank now with heavy dew, that they were quite useless.
Still, there was no doubt whatever that the vessel was the Terpsichore, thus strangely hugging her rival in mid-ocean and midnight. And it was passing curious to hear the hailing of the hands for’ard from respective forecastleheads and yards.
“Is that bricky-headed Shetlander aboard?”
“Aye, an’ he’ll be punchin’ your heid if he got a chance agen, same as he done afore.”
“Where’s that farmer with the game leg?”
“’Ere, an’ ready to use it on your ugly karkuss, whoever you is.”
“Let’s ’ear from the Irish soger as I give the father ov a thrashin’ to that Saturday night on the quay. Or ’as ’e lost ’is voice through fright?”
“Arrah thin, me foine bhoy, if Oi had yez aboard here its singing an entoirely different kind av a song ye’d be—so ut wud.”
Aft, old Bolger hurled defiance with a rough tongue and a vocabulary that never failed. But there was no response from the Terpsichore’s poop. Which contemptuous silence made him more furious than ever.
And although no verbal answer was returned to his taunts and invective, that somebody appreciated them was evident; for, presently, he was hit in the face by a lump of canvas, dipped in tar, and rolled and tied into ball-shape.
At this, rushing to his cabin, he seized a gun, but luckily was unable to find any ammunition for it; so was fain to cool down and let the steward get the tar (which was of the variety known as “coal,” and therefore burnt savagely) off his face. Meanwhile, the night wore on, black, breathless, damp. And inasmuch as nothing is ever perfectly motionless at sea, the ships drifted with their hulls still held apart by interlocking spars and gear. Finding the men aloft could neither see nor feel to do anything but further mischief, they had been recalled, and both vessels waited impatiently for dawn—if another one there was to be. For, as to this last matter, amongst the men was some doubt, none of them having ever in their using of the sea experienced anything like it.
But at last the darkness lifted, leaving, however, a thick fog behind it. At sunrise that also rose, disclosing an extraordinary spectacle, at least to a seafarer’s eye.
Almost exactly abreast, the ships leaned over to each other with a considerable list, whilst all their top-hamper was intertwisted and commingled. The Mary Johnson had been lying with her yards braced well up on to the port tack, when the Terpsichore had floated so gently down and hugged her with her own yards nearly square. The result was almost indescribable. The Terpsichore’s upper fore and main topgallant yards had jammed in the corresponding rigging of the Mary; whilst the latter’s lower topsail yardarm was driven through the Terpsichore’s topmast rigging, and so on, and so on. All the lower yards were free.
It was exactly as if the two ships had been a couple of angry fighting women, and had seized each other by the hair, whilst keeping their bodies clear of each other. But so gently had the thing been done that, bar a few backstays, brace-pennants, and lifts carried away, no damage of much importance had taken place. Certainly, the least draught of air, a cat’s-paw almost, just to fill the light sails, would result in ruin instant and wide-spread to both ships, all of whose topgallant and royal masts would go—if not some of the greater spars into the bargain.
Seeing this, there was little need to issue orders; and already men were pushing, pulling, and, in unavoidable cases, cutting, lanyards and seizings until, at last, and after a work of no little difficulty and danger, the clearing was effected, and with trailing gear each vessel, released, sprang back to an even keel again.
And whilst busy at repairs—rigging preventer backstays, splicing, fitting, and setting-up—the Homeric war of tongues between the crews commenced afresh.
Wayland-Ferrars was walking his poop whilst Bolger stumped the Mary’s, pausing every now and then to roar out what he thought of the Terpsichore, her officers, crew, and owners. But of these compliments the other skipper took no notice, only anxiously looking up at the sky or overside at the water. The former, however, was cloudless, the latter like paint. And the ships were evidently coming together again. Never perhaps had there been a situation quite like it, even at sea, the home of curious happenings.
It would have been simple enough to have got a couple of boats over and towed the ships a fair distance apart. But, apparently, neither of their captains cared about being the first to start. Instead, fenders were placed in position and yards braced sharp up on opposite tacks, so as to do as little mischief as possible.
Bolger had hoisted the Red Lion, the other his Blue Star, and both house-flags hung from their halliards like dead fish in the stirless air.
Presently, having exhausted all the sea taunts he could think of, one of the Mary Johnson’s men picked up a piece of coal from a bucket the cook was carrying, and threw it at a group on the Terpsichore’s forecastle-head. It hit a man, drawing blood; and with a roar of anger a storm of missiles were sent hurling aboard the Mary. Now, it is not easy to procure things throwable on board of a ship, but the captain of the Terpsichore had before leaving, as it happened, laid in a big stock of Sydney sandstone to scour his decks with; and this, being presently broken up, made splendid ammunition. Volleys of these sharp-edged fragments were now poured on the men of the Mary Johnson, who could only retort expensively with lumps of coal, hanks, or such odd bits of scrap-iron as they might lay hands on.
Nor, as perhaps might have been expected, did Captain Wayland-Ferrars interfere. Although neither allowing himself nor his officers to reply to the abuse lavished on them by Bolger, Hopkins, and the other of the Mary Johnson’s afterguard, he was actually very angry. Thus, when he saw his men possessed an immeasurable advantage over their opponents, he tacitly permitted them to go ahead. Which they did; for presently finding that the Mary Johnson’s bulwarks afforded her crew too much shelter, they took ammunition into their tops and cross-trees, and thence pelted with effect.
As for Bolger, he simply foamed with impotent rage. Had there been firearms to be used, he undoubtedly would have used them. But there was neither powder nor shot to be found.
A lump of sandstone hit him on the shins, another bit broke in pieces against his shoulders. Every moment missiles struck the poop—the binnacle was badly dented, and some of the glass in the skylights cracked. Cursing bitterly, he picked up pieces and hurled them at his enemy standing on the Terpsichore’s poop, calm and unconcerned, smoking, with his hands in his pockets. But the rain of stones grew so fierce that he had at length to seek shelter in the companion along with Hopkins, only emerging now and again to heave an empty bottle at the foe. Superiority in numbers on this occasion availed his crew nothing. And the Terpsichores were simply wild with delight, not only at the fun and excitement of the thing, but the chance that offered of paying off some old Sydney scores.
The Mary Johnson’s cook ran aft to protest. There was none too much coal in the fore-peak. A ton already must have been hurled on board the other ship. Supplies must be stopped, or there would be no more cooking done. Nor could the missiles of the enemy be used with any effect by their recipients, as, generally, the sandstone thrown from such a height smashed to atoms.
And presently the Terpsichore’s topmen and those in her cross-trees had the Mary Johnson’s decks fairly cleared, so sharp and true were their volleys.
“Haul down that rag!” roared the boatswain of the Terpsichore, standing on the rail and pointing to the house-flag, “or we’ll come aboard and haul it down for ye!”
At which insult Bolger rushed from his shelter, and with a deftly thrown lemonade bottle—the last of a few dozen that the after guard had been using—very neatly knocked the boatswain off his perch. And all the time the ships had drawn closer until almost in the same position as the night before.
The Mary Johnson’s deck was deserted, and looked like a coal and sandstone quarry. Her galley funnel was bent and twisted, and all the glass bulls’-eyes of her deckhouses on one side were starred and fractured, whilst her paint and brass-work was scratched and bruised. If a man only showed his head now it was a signal for a shower of well-aimed stones; so everyone kept under shelter. Suddenly a man jumped on to her main yardarm from the Terpsichore’s—braced round to meet it—and, unperceived, ran along the spar and into the Mary Johnson’s top. From here, reaching out, he cut the signal halliards, and hauling down the house-flag, tied it round his waist and regained his own ship, saluted by a burst of cheering that puzzled the others mightily.
Hardly had the Red Lion been hoisted at the Terpsichore’s main skysail-pole under the Blue Star, when a faint air came blowing little ripples along the water. The light sails flapped and filled and fell, then rose and filled again. Growing stronger, the wind next caught the topsails and enabled the Terpsichore to make a stern-board, taking away a couple of the Mary Johnson’s backstays as she went.
Cheer upon cheer arose as she cleared the Mary, whose men were now on deck gazing stupidly and unbelievingly at their house-flag standing out stiff to the breeze under that of their enemy.
Bolger nearly had a fit when he fully realized what had happened, raving about the littered decks like a madman, whilst Wayland-Ferrars waved him an ironical salute, and his men sent a last volley rattling about his ears.
It is not putting it too strongly to say that the abduction of his house-flag cast not only a gloom over Captain Bolger’s spirits, but over those of the ship’s company as well. Any sailor worth his salt believes in his ship, and the Mary Johnson’s crowd felt their defeat and disgrace more keenly than the bruises and cuts which smarted so sorely on their bodies.
“We’ll never have any luck,” said Bolger, despondently, to his mate, “after letting a scowbank of a turnpike-sailor like that get to win’ard of us in such fashion. Why, cuss it, we’ll be the laughin’-stock o’ the Port o’ London if the yarn gets about!”
“Well, we licked ’em ashore, anyhow,” replied Hopkins, resignedly, “and if we’d only thought of laying in a ton or two o’ holystones, we’d have done it again at sea. And, anyhow, sir, perhaps they won’t be inclined to blow about their victory much, seein’ as it’s a police-court matter. Why, damme, it’s piracy on the high seas—comin’ aboard and stealing the company’s flag that way!”
But Bolger refused to be comforted. Nor did it improve his temper when one day they met a big cargo steamer, with a blue star on her white funnel, whose skipper as she slipped by hailed from her bridge, amidst loud laughter from the crew:—
“There’s a chap ahead, yonder, who wants an owner for a house-flag he’s picked up somewhere. It’s got a red lion on it, and they’re using it for a tablecloth in the fok’sle, just at present, till the owner comes along.”
Very poor wit, doubtless. But Bolger had no heart to retaliate otherwise than by shaking his fist at the steamer’s men, grinning over weather cloths aft and rail for’ard.
“I’m done with the sea,” he said to his chief mate. “This is my last trip. Thank the Lord, I’ve been able to put a bit aside, an’ I’ve got a cottage an’ an acre or two o’ ground just outside o’ Marget. An’, anyhow, they were talkin’, last time I was home, o’ sellin’ the Mary to the Norwegians. So let ’em. I don’t want no more sea. It’s got beyond my days an’ ways.”
“Old man’s got his lemon down bad,” remarked Mr. Hopkins to the second mate; “and I didn’t want to trouble him by saying so; but if we’d stopped alongside o’ the Terpsic-curry much longer she’d ha’ curried us properly. When I took a squint, just before the breeze came, I saw ’em getting up steam in the donkey, and leading hose along the deck. You may bet they meant to try and wash us down with boiling water, or some treat like that. I couldn’t stop to fairly make sure what their little game was, for I got a clout with a stone that knocked all the wind out of me.”
After a while, it really seemed as if the captain of the Mary Johnson’s presentiment of ill-luck was only too well founded; for one night, when running heavily off the Western Islands, she was brought by the lee, taken aback, and all three masts had to be cut away before she righted, a hopeless wreck in the most dreadful accident that can befall a ship. There was a tremendous sea on that constantly swept her decks and gave her crew a terrible night’s work to clear the mess of spars and gear that threatened every moment to knock a hole in her sides. By a miracle almost, no one had been killed or carried overboard. But their case seemed hopeless when morning dawned and showed them the naked hull with only three jagged fangs—the tallest not 6ft. high—where so lately had appeared the stately grove of spars. Not a sound boat was left; and, to make matters worse, the carpenter presently reported 3ft. of water in the well.
The skipper setting an example, they went to the pumps, but the big seas that came aboard nearly washed them away from the brakes, rendering their efforts doubly severe and fatiguing. Still they worked on doggedly as only British seamen could have done, and the clank of the pumps sounded incessantly all that long morning watch, whilst the workers’ ears eagerly listened for the “suck” that should tell of a dry ship below foot, whatever she might be above. With her naked bows lifted one moment in streaming protest to the shrieking sky, the next buried fathoms deep, the hull lurched and pitched, and rolled in such a shocking fashion as made the oldest sailor sick, and the hearts of all grow faint within them as they marked the wild straining plunges and frantic wallowings, seemingly enough to divorce any timbers ever put together by human hands.
“Three foot ten,” said the carpenter, sounding as well as he was able at the end of the last long spell. “I’m afeared she’ll never suck no more.” And the captain, seeing no use in killing his men for nothing, ordered everybody aft into such shelter as could be found. The saloon was as yet comparatively dry. But nobody cared about staying there, what with the terrific hurly-burly, intensified below, and the knowledge that the ship was sinking. So life-lines being rigged fore and aft the poop, all hands secured themselves and stolidly watched the huge combers that burst across the fore-part of the doomed vessel, at times even sweeping over the poop itself and hurling the men together in half-drowned heaps as the lines slackened under the tremendous pressure.
So the gloomy day wore on, the captain and his mates, at the risk of being swept overboard, twice bringing provisions and drink from the saloon and serving them out to the men.
“We’ll drown better full-bellied than fasting,” said the old skipper, grimly.
The water was over a man’s knees in the saloon now; and the hull no longer tossed and tumbled like a cork, but sagged and floundered heavily and lifelessly amongst the topping seas that encompassed it, rising with difficulty, and seeming glad to sink wearily down between their green slopes.
Late in the afternoon, quite near them, hove up all of a sudden on the awful sea-mountains, they saw a ship; saw her for a minute and then lost her again, then saw her again. She was a big, painted port vessel running under her two lower topsails and a staysail for’ard. And she evidently saw them, for she kept away three or four points and came straight towards the wreck. But the castaways rose no cheer, no hope came into their salt-incrusted faces. Human help in such a sea could avail naught.
The dusk of the evening was at hand, making objects indistinct. But some sailors know a ship they have even only once seen, as Australian bushmen do a horse; and a murmur rose from the crew of the Mary Johnson, lashed to their life-lines, as the stranger, thrown up on the brow of a great comber, leant over held by some invisible hand, as it seemed, a hundred feet above them, and they recognised the Terpsichore.
For a minute she hung there, then disappeared, hidden on the far side of the wall of water that rolled on and broke over the wreck in one great mass of spray and foam from stem to stern. Once more they saw her, topping another and a smaller roller, and noted that from her peak the red ensign now blew out rigid as if made of painted steel. Then a rain-squall hid her, and when it cleared the darkness had fallen.
“A cussed Rooshian or a Turk couldn’t ha’ done less,” growled a sailor.
“Blow it, man,;’ retorted another, bitterly, “what more cud he do only give us a last look at the old flag?”
“He might have stood by us,” remarked Hopkins to the captain, close to whom he was lashed, “although, come to think of it, there wouldn’t be much use in that, for I don’t believe the poor old Mary ’ll last the night. I wonder if he knew us.”
“Aye, aye,” growled Bolger. “He’d reco’nise us, right enough. But give the devil his due an’ fair play. This weather takes a man all he can do to look out for his own ship without actin’ hidey-go-seek around a sinkin’ hull. You knows as well as I do that the Channel Squadron an’ the Admiral to boot couldn’t do us any good by stoppin’ to stare at us now. For my part, the sooner it’s over the better.”
As he spoke, a rocket cleft the murky sky astern of them, succeeded quickly by another and another. A stifled cheer that was half a groan broke from the men as they saw that, after all, they were not deserted. For although no one had acknowledged it, the sight of that vessel apparently leaving them had intensified the bitterness of the death they looked upon as inevitable.
“Why, damme, if he ain’t wearin’ ship to get to wind’ard of us!” shouted old Bolger. “Well, who’d ha’ thought he’d had grit and nous enough to do that in such a sea? Come up all I have ever said agen the chap. See, there goes another rocket! Well, I don’t know what good he can do us, even if we last till daylight. Still, it’s company, an’ puts heart into a man, anyhow. Let’s have a drink round—to his health!”
They drank, handing the demijohn of rum from one to the other. And then, with new life in their souls, they made out to find and light a riding-lamp, which they lashed to the stump of the mizzenmast, all with infinite pain and difficulty. But they were rewarded when they saw red, blue, and green stars rise dead to windward, taking it as a sign their signal was understood. And, oh, the comfort through the dreary, dark hours of those other lofty harbingers of hope ascending now here, now there, as the Terpsichore manœuvred so skilfully in that terrible Atlantic weather to keep the weather-gauge. Sometimes she came so close that, but for the roar of the water and yell of the wind, they might have hailed each other; anon she would seem miles away. But always she returned, appearing almost at the same spot—a most noble exhibition of seamanship, that repeatedly brought praise to the lips of those who watched—sore though their plight was.
“Damme,” remarked old Bolger, actually with a note of contrition in his hoarse voice, “the feller’s a sailor after all, spite o’ his haw-haw ways an’ dandy togs! Well, who’d ha’ thought it? Cuss me, if I ain’t sorry that we had that bit of a shine in Sydney—time I give him free rum! However, he’s got square for that since—an’ boot. Gettin’ lower, ain’t she, Hopkins, this last hour or so?”
“Feet,’ answered the first officer, laconically. “She’s like a Thames billyboy ‘midships and for’ard.”
“An’ the win’s as strong as ever,” added the boatswain. “But hang me if I don’t think the sea’s gone down a bit!”
And, indeed, the great billows, in place of breaking as formerly, now came in upon them with rounded tops like rolling downs of darkness, lazily, and as if bereft of all their late spite and vigour.
“If she’d had a full freight o’ wool she’d ha’ floated for days yet, maybe,” said the mate, throwing off his bowline. “But it’s that infernal dead-weight o’ copper ore an’ lead an’ antimony, an’ the Lord knows what, that the water’s got amongst, and is forcing its way through. However, sir, here’s one who’s going to have a swim for it in that smooth stuff. There’s just a chance.”
“Not me,” replied old Bolger, “I’d sooner go down all standin’. But please yourself; it’s a free ship now. Halloa, what’s the illoomination for?” As he spoke a huge flare lit up the sea, showing the Terpsichore so close to that some of the men mechanically shouted at her whilst she hung on top of one of the sluggish rounded billows, a wondrous figure of a ship standing out silhouetted in yellow flame against the black background of inky sky.
“Why,” shouted a man, “sink me, if ’e ain’t got his fore-tawp’sl to the mast!”
“Dunder!” bellowed one of the only two foreigners of the crew, jumping in excitement. “He vos lower de boat! Ach Gott, der prave mans as ve vos fight mit!”
But before one could make quite certain, the ship was hidden again, just a yellow flush in the thick air showing where she lay.
When she rose again, however, it could be plainly seen that not one but two boats were in the water, whilst a fresh flare cast its light almost across the intervening stretch of sea, so close had the Terpsichore approached.
“Well, may I be drowned!” exclaimed Bolger, as he eyed with amazement the boats, looking like white flakes on hills of shining ink as they toiled up one huge slope, hidden from sight, then shot like arrows adown the next in full view of the watchers, who swore and cheered in their excitement.
“Heaving lines ready for the brave hearties!” shouted the mate; “they’ll be smashed to splinters if they come alongside.”
“Why, darn my rags!” exclaimed the boatswain, “if that ain’t the skipper o’ the Terpsick-hurry hisself at the steer oar o’ the first boat.” And with that a roaring cheer went up from those on the wreck, Bolger leading, as the skilfully-handled boats swept almost level with the lee poop-rail, and the bow oar in each, catching the lines flung to them, lay off from the heaving, crashing roll of the rising stern, to approach which meant instant destruction.
It was a twenty-foot jump—but there was nothing else for it, as the combers by this time were marching in procession clean over the vessel amidships, whilst where they lay the boats were in some sort sheltered. Still burning tar-barrels and oakum soaked in oil, the Terpsichore had drifted so near that one could see, each time she hove up, white faces eagerly gazing over her rail at the weird scene made almost as light as day—the wreck submerged almost to the break of the poop on which a crowd of men were gathered, the boats rising and falling on the smooth-topped billows moaning in sullen, checked ferocity as they rolled away into the darkness.
The first to jump was a little boy, under whose arms Bolger himself fastened the two lines, one from a boat and the other from the ship, and bade him be of good cheer, for that there was no danger.
“Aye, aye, sir,” replied the lad, boldly, and without pause leapt off the rail into the top of a comber, whilst those on board paid out and the boat’s crew hauled in. It was ticklish work: but for the light would have been dreadful, and but for the tamed seas impossible.
Half-smothered, the youngster was dragged safely on board. Then another forecastle lad jumped. And then the men went in quick succession as both boats came into use. And most fortunate was it that the captain of the Terpsichore had brought his second life-boat, for, as Bolger, the last man to leave, was hauled in spluttering, gasping, and snorting, the Mary Johnson rose her stern perpendicularly, stayed in that position a minute, and then disappeared.
“Crumbs and scissors!” growled Bolger, as he found his breath. “What’s come to the sea? Ugh! it’s turned into a cursed oil-tank. I’ve swallowed quarts of it.”
“And no wonder, after all we’ve used,” replied somebody, laughing. “I expect the ship’ll be on short allowance of paint from this to home.”
“So that’s the wrinkle, is it?” said Hopkins. “I’ve heard of it, but never saw it used before. Anyhow, it’s saved a crowd from feeding the fishes this good night of our Lord.”
The getting on board the Terpsichore was a difficult business. But it was over at last; and, as the davit-falls were made fast, old Bolger, bareheaded and dripping, pushed his way through the men to where her captain was standing, and, catching the other’s hand in a great, hard grip, he shook it heartily, saying:—
“Captain Wayland-Ferrars, I’ve got to do afore all hands what I never thought could happen. An’ that is to apologize fully to ye for everythin’ I’ve done and said about ye and your ship. You’re a gentleman, an’, sir, you’re what’s more—an’ that’s a sailor—man. I’m only a rough old shellback myself, sir, as has lost his ship an’ had his day; and I’ll ask ye to make allowances. Sir, I’m proud to shake a man’s hand who’s proved himself able an’ willin’ to do what you’ve done this night for me an’ mine, an’ which there’s very few others afloat, as I believe, could ha’ done. Now, then, you Mary’s,” he continued, “a cheer for the Terspic-curry an’ her skipper, an’ all hands belongin’ to her. Crack your throats, my bullies!” And thus ended the feud between the Red Lion and the Blue Star—not yet by any means an old story upon the high seas.
The Marine Board of Port Endeavor, the capital and chief harbor of Cooksland, had for a long time turned a deaf ear to petitions presented by many shipmasters, coasting and foreign, that the Cat and Kittens reef should be either bell-buoyed or lit from a stationary vessel. The Board’s contention was that, as the Point Mangrove Light, in addition to its chief duty, also threw a green ray between the bearings of S. ¾ W. and S.S.E., four cables east of the reef, such was ample warning to enable vessels to clear the dangerous Cat and her family.
Two brigs, and a coasting schooner had already come to grief on the just awash rocks. Skippers and mates had lost their certificates, and some their lives; and all the survivors swore to the absence of “the green ray.” But as the Board knew it must have been there, the excuse availed nothing.
One night, however, the President of the Board himself, coming up from the south in dirty weather on the Palmetto, all at once was awakened from sleep by a nasty thumping and bumping that nearly shook him out of his bunk.
Rushing up on to the bridge in his pyjamas, he shouted to the skipper—old Jack Haynes—“What’s the matter now? Where the duce have you got the ship?”
“Hard and fast on the Cat and Kittens,” replied old Jack calmly. “And now where’s your cussed green ray, eh?”
As a matter of fact, nothing at all was visible except a smother of white foam leaping with joyful crashings on the forepart of the little steamer, and Point Mangrove Light bearing exactly as it should have done to enable the Palmetto to clear the reef.
“But I’ve seen the green light myself, many a time!” exclaimed the President, as he hung on and shivered to windward, whilst the engines rattled and clattered full-speed astern for all they were worth in a vain attempt to get out of the Cat’s claws.
“So’ve I,” replied Haynes, placidly, “in clear weather. But not in a southerly smother like this. Just such another night it was that my brother Jim ran on to ’em in the Star of Judah. And you broke him for it; and told him he was no sailor because he couldn’t see your cussed green ray. Now, when you get to kingdom-come and meet those other poor chaps there you’ll have to admit that even Marine Boards don’t know everything.” And with a short laugh the old captain turned away.
But eventually, the lifeboat coming out to them, they all escaped just by the skin of their teeth, leaving the old Palmetto to be crushed to pieces by rocky fangs and claws.
And the President being, when convinced, as he was that night, on the whole a just man, not only caused the captain’s certificate to be returned to him, but saw, too, that he got another ship. Still, to the end of his life he swore that old Jack Haynes had shoved his vessel on to the reef simply because the President of the Marine Board happened to be a passenger.
However, this was the little incident that caused tenders to be called for the construction, locally, of a bell-buoy. And inasmuch as all young countries like big things, this buoy was to be very big—a record buoy, in fact, carrying a bell as big as a drum.
Sam Johnson, of the Vulcan Foundry, was the man who got the contract, not because he was the lowest tenderer, but because he was the only one.
Other artificers fought shy of the business. Doubtless they could construct the buoy; but the bell bothered them. And by the terms of the contract everything was to be made within the colony. However, nothing daunted, Sam and his men and his one apprentice went to work, with the result that, in a few weeks, a huge cone of riveted sheet-iron lay in his yard. Each apex of the cone was flat. To the bottom one was bolted a great staple for the mooring chain; on the top one, hung from a cross-head supported by two uprights; an oblong-shaped fabric of Muntz-metal with, inside it, a tongue as big as a very big water-bottle. This was the bell. And if swung any way to the lightest touch, giving forth a dull boom; that Johnson swore could be heard at Flat Island Light, 20 miles down the coast.
Take one of those Australian bullock bells their owners set such store by, and which resemble in shape nothing so much as an oval-sided jug, long and narrow, and whose hollow knock can be heard a tremendous distance; then multiply it indefinitely, and you will have a faint conception of what this great bell was like. As for the buoy, it was bigger than any of its family to be seen in Portsmouth Dockyard. And there are some very big ones there.
And as it lay on its side, with its third coat of bright red paint just dry, and its gaping man-hole waiting to be hermetically sealed, the Marine Board and the harbormaster, and all the seafarers of the port, came and inspected it, and pronounced it “a good job,” and congratulated its builder, and prophesied that now the Cat and Kittens should claim no more victims
Of course, there was a lightship clique who growled. But they were in a minority, and unpopular because the magic word “retrenchment” was just at that time in the air. And a lightship would be a very expensive matter. Besides, the buoy was a local article manufactured neither in Great Britain nor Germany, but in Cooksland, and probably the first, as it certainly was the biggest, in the colonies to be thus made. Therefore prior to placing it in position there assuredly must be the usual Greater-British feeding and drinking to mark the event, and show those jealous Southern States what Cooksland could do at a pinch when called upon. And the pretty daughter of the Governor of the great, grim, stone gaol, up there on the hill, was presently asked to give the buoy a name, and break a bottle of wine over its steep sides, up and down and across which rows of round-headed rivets ran like buttons on a coster’s Sunday coat.
Perhaps a touch of her own peculiar environment lent itself to the suggestion as, after a moment’s thought, the Governor’s blushing daughter pulled the string, and in clear tones said, as the bottle smashed: “I name you the Red Warder. And may you ever keep faithful watch and ward; warning with loud voice through storm and darkness the ships to avoid the cruel rocks we put you in charge of.”
Without any preparation, it was prettily said—and the cheers that greeted the little speech echoed loud and long from many a lusty throat whose owner used the sea.
Meanwhile, above them in the prison over which her father reigned supreme, a man sat in the condemned cell waiting for death. From far inland they had brought him, captured by the Black Police, after much hunting of that wild land where the Big Lignum Swamp runs up nearly to the spurs of the Basalt Ranges.
“Combo” Carter, so called because of his habit of at times associating with the blacks, and for long spells living as one of a tribe, was still quite a young man—not yet three-and-twenty. Born at one of the border townships of the hinterland, even as a boy he had begun his career by gaining the reputation of an expert horse thief. Moving farther out, he and a gang of other rogues had “lived on the game,” as they termed it, i.e., stealing stock and taking them South for sale. But this business proving too tame for a born desperado like Carter, he, one day, made his appearance in his birthplace bent on bigger mischief. Quite alone, mounted on a splendid horse, and with a couple of revolvers stuck in his belt; cabbage-tree hat at the back of his head; blue-shirt, riding-breeches and boots, he rode down the dusty single street of the little township that lay roasting in the fierce western sun. Halting in front of the weather-board branch bank of Cooksland, he swaggered inside, and at once covering the manager with his pistol, ordered him to “bail up.”
But the other, instead of doing so, made a dash for a drawer in which was a revolver. Even as he moved, Combo shot him dead. Just then the eldest son, a boy of fifteen, entering, and boldly rushing at the murderer, fell over his father with a bullet through his shoulder. But now some of the townspeople, aroused by the shooting, were making for the bank; and Combo, seizing a packet of notes from the open safe, ran out and, keeping the people at bay with his pistols, mounted and rode away in safety.
The very next day he robbed and killed a travelling hawker, throwing his body into the tilted cart containing the latter’s stock of goods, and setting the lot on fire. Then, driving the unfortunate man’s horses before him, he had made back into the wild fastnesses of the Basalt Ranges, to live there a solitary outlaw, until, after months of weary tracking and trap-setting, at last the troopers, white and black, had made a surround and a capture.
Such was the man who sat in the condemned cell at Endeavor Goal—a human tiger, whose face, with its long, straight, thin-lipped mouth, high cheekbones, slits of restless black eyes that seemed always trying to see each other over the flat, fleshy nose, formed a fit index to the cruel, brutal character of its owner. A fair type, “Combo,” of the back-blocks Bush-native, who fears neither God, man, devil, nor any living thing.
The condemned cell at Port Endeavor is merely a stone cage with the fourth side—the one that opens on to the broad corridor—formed of stout iron bars, in which is a wicket gate, just large enough to admit of one man passing through. And here on the night after the christening of the “Red Warder,” sat Combo Carter, in the full glare of the electric light, watching with tigerish eyes the prison guard as he patrolled, rifle on shoulder, the length of the corridor, pausing each time he came opposite the bars to glance at the silent figure within.
The man, doomed to die three days hence, was not handcuffed. But a pair of strong though light irons, with a two foot chain between them, confined his legs. Since his conviction the prisoner had altered nothing from the same sulky indifference that had characterised his manner throughout. Rejecting with scorn the ministration of the chaplain, he either lay in his hammock dozing, or sat, as now, on the little wooden shelf fixed to the wall, and with that evil-looking, hairless, pallid face resting on his hands, watched in a crouching attitude through half-closed eyes the ceaseless pacing of the warder.
The latter, a young Englishman not long joined the force, had, when occasion offered, been able to do several little kindnesses to the convict, whose position, as one for whom life was getting so terribly short, appealed, in spite of his crimes, to a heart yet unhardened by much experience of prison sights and scenes. For the past few days he had suffered much from toothache, and even now his jaw was bound with a flannel bandage. Also, when he had relieved the last guard he had casually mentioned to him the fact of his having procured leave to go into the town that night and have the tooth drawn. His watch was nearly over—only another half-hour or so more—when passing the condemned cell, he saw something that drove all other thoughts out of his mind.
With a gurgling, choking sound, his legs apparently drawn up clear of the floor, Combo was hanging by a saddle strap he used as a belt from one of the iron hooks of his hammock. An older hand might have paused for a moment; for never, until now, had the prisoner shown the least inclination towards suicide, mouthing, indeed, with many oaths, his determination to “die game.” But Ashton, laying aside his rifle, hurriedly pushed back the patent spring of the wicket, and in his eagerness almost tumbled into the cell. He had better have entered a tiger’s. In a second the murderer was upon him with the whole weight of his long, lithe body bearing him down, and the sinewy hands gripping his neck like a vice, and throttling the life out of him even before they fell.
At last relaxing his fierce grasp, the prisoner rose and kicked heavily at the motionless thing that, with wide-open mouth and protruding eyes and tongue, stared blankly up at him. Then, giving a grunt of satisfaction as he saw that his work was complete, he searched the dead man’s pockets, and soon finding what he sought, unlocked his leg irons. Then, peering into the corridor, he listened intently. But not a sound broke the silence except the purring of a distant dynamo. He, long ago, had heard the report of the nine o’clock gun from the battery on Flagstaff Hill, and knew that he had, therefore, not much time to spare. Rapidly and thoroughly he went about his business; until, once again, a sentry with muffled face and shouldered, rifle paced slowly up and down, pausing every now and then to glance into the cell where, over one of the straining hammock, a glimpse could be gained of a manacled leg. Suddenly his eye was caught by a white, square object on the floor of the cell; and, re-entering, he carelessly picked up a card and threw it into the hammock. If he had but known!
“Och, be jabers, me poor man, an’ is ut so bad agin, thin? Ay, shure, I see the brute’s there all roight. Bedad, an’ the suner his neck’s stretched the suner we’ll be at pace agin. Now aff wid ye, an’ git the rotten thing out.”
Thus Relief-Constable Sullivan to the man with his swathed face in No. 4 corridor who, peaked cap drawn over his brows, and handkerchief to his mouth, seemed able to do nothing but shake his head and groan, whilst pointing to the cell in token that all was well with his charge.
Along the passage and down some stairs, and through another passage, all brilliantly lit, went the sham constable, one hand to his face, grasping his rifle with the other. At the end of the last passage was a covered yard, at the farther side of which he could see the great iron entrance-gate of the gaol, through whose bars a big, round, white moon seemed to glare inquisitively, so close she looked. And now the road to freedom appeared clear and, by instinct, depositing his rifle in the arm-rack on the left hand of the hall-way, he turned towards the little open gate to the right of the main entrance, always barred, this latter, except to admit the prison van—“Black Maria.”
But one does not get out of Port Endeavor gaol so easily—bound or free! The Governor, an old army colonel—martinet, and therefore; in the regard of his men, faddist—saw to that. Thus as the escaping felon stepped to the wicket, coolly exultant, and sniffing the fresh night air with all the eagerness of one long confined, a man issuing from the lighted guard-house said “Halloa, Ashton! Off to have it out? Well, it’s the only cure. Give me your pass till I clock you,” and he extended his hand.
The cold sweat started in beads from the other’s forehead as, to gain time he mumbled indistinctly, and groped with one hand in his pockets for the thing that now flashed into his mind with fatal certainty was not there. Idiot, ass, that he was! The card, doubtless, that he had pulled out of the fellow’s pocket with the key of the irons, and, neglecting to even glance at, had thrown into the hammock!
“Left it in your room, eh?” queried the other jokingly. “Well, my son, you’ll have to find it, tooth or no tooth. It’s worth my jacket to let you out without it. Now, then, off you go and get your ticket.”
That, however, was more than even he dare do; although, for a moment, the thought occurred to him to return and kill Sullivan and then possess himself of the pass lying on the dead body of the hammock. But he was now unarmed. Sullivan was a big powerful man. No, plainly, there was nothing for it but a dash.
Where he stood was somewhat in shadow. Even now, Sullivan might have taken it into his head to have a look at his prisoner. He could hear steps approaching. The constable on duty was, too, he thought, eyeing him suspiciously. In a second his resolution was taken. From the shadow of the porch he might still have made a dart, preserving his incognito, his escapade set down to pain, and the knowledge that he had lost his pass. All these alternatives flitted across his brain in a space of time measurable by a dozen heart-beats. Realising that his case was desperate indeed, all the old murderous bravado rose strong and fierce within him. He began to see red. Armed, he would have killed the man who stood there in his path, as he had so lately killed the other one. Suddenly, tearing off his bandages and pushing his cap away from his eyes, he thrust a distorted, furious face into the light. The guard stepped back appalled, and the next minute a crashing blow from the other’s fist sent him reeling to the ground. Another minute, and the murderer was through the gate and speeding along the road to the town, ankle-deep in powdery dust that rose in white clouds into the white moonlight.
Zip, zip, ping, ping, came the bullets as the men on the watch-towers fired at the flying form, whilst the great bell rang out sharp and quick; and hurrying, half-dressed warders snatched up their Martinis and ran, firing as they went at the pillar of dust ahead.
Ping, ping, szz, sszz! How the bullets hissed and whistled past him down the hill, kicking up little splotches of dust far in front! And how that infernal bell rang! He hated bells! Always had done so, since the old days at Arawatta homestead, when a boy, at the call of one, he rose at dawn to tramp through the wet grass after the station saddle-horses. If ever he owned a station, he’d take good care to have a night-horse kept in. Ah! that was a hit! He could feel the blood running down his leg into his boot. If he only had hold of the fellow that fired the shot.
He did not in the least know where he was making for, never having been at the port before, nor, indeed, anywhere except “Out Back”; but still he kept going, and still the bullets sang past him and pecked at the dust in front. The way lay all down hill. In front of him he could see the harbor, and the masts of the shipping, clear in the moonlight. Behind him he could hear the muffled tramp of many steps. He felt weak, and staggered once or twice. All at once he became aware of shouts coming towards him. But by this time he was at the foot of the steep descent on the brow of which was placed the gaol. To the right the road wound towards the heart of the town. To the left, close to the sea beach, were some sheds and yards, stacks of timber, jetties, and a small coaster or two.
Dust was rising ahead, evidently from police or townspeople aroused by the firing and bell-ringing, and hastening towards the gaol. It was worse than useless to go on. The rifles were quiet now. Where he crouched, in the shadow of a paling fence, his pursuers could not see him. A storm, too, was coming up, and black clouds were already throwing their reflection on the white ground. Rising, he crept along the fence, till, finding a broken paling, he tore it out and squeezed through. He was in a yard; a long shed from which rose a chimney took up one side. There was a smell of hot iron and fresh paint in the air; his feet crunched cinders. Right against him loomed a big, curiously-shaped mass, whose possible use puzzled him as he limped into the shadow of it, and gave it a moment’s vague speculation, whilst heavy rain-drops splashed hollowly on its iron skin. At the height of his shoulder was an aperture big enough for him to get through, and so into the belly of the thing. He could hear his pursuers cursing the gloom at the other side of the fence. Just as well in there as anywhere else! And putting all his strength into the effort, he drew himself up by his wrists until he got his head in; and then, holding on by a cross-stay, he wriggled his whole body through.
He was a tall man; but swinging from the stay he could touch no bottom. Deciding to let go, he, however, only had to drop some three feet. And wherever he sat he sat on a slope, a matter that seemed so funny to him that he laughed aloud, whilst the lightning flashed and the thunder roared, and the tropical rain fell in streaming sheets over his refuge—kept dry by reason of the entrance being on the under side. The incessant lightning illumined his cavern continuously, enabling him to discover that his wound was not serious—a bullet had passed through the fleshy part of his thigh; and, tearing up a kerchief he found in the pocket of the constabulary tunic, he soon extemporized an efficient bandage. In another pocket he came across a plug of tobacco, of which, taking a good chew, he lay back and stolidly awaited what fortune might have further in store for him.
In spite of his wound, which smarted, Combo Carter slept until awakened by voices at the mouth of his shelter, where Sam Johnson and a group of his men were conversing.
“It’s the most extraordinary thing I ever heard of!” remarked Johnson. “He’s disappeared as if he was a ghost.”
“The storm did it,” said another. “He got away under cover of that, with the traps close at his heels.”
“But where to?” asked a boyish voice. “The police swear they were close to him when the storm broke—just near our fence here. I wouldn’t have him escape for the worth of my right hand! I can’t help fancying, yet, that he’s planted somewhere about the waterside. If you don’t mind, Mr. Johnson, I’ll just have one more look?”
“Look and welcome, Master Stratton,” replied the owner of the foundry. “But every corner’s been turned upside down, and no sign. I believe, myself, he’s collared a boat, and is out at sea by this time.”
At the name of Stratton the hidden listener had pricked up his ears. Could this be the son of the bank manager that he had shot, after killing his father? It was funny if such should be the case. And he was not left long in doubt.
“Poor young chap,” remarked one of the men. “I knew his father well, afore that brute Combo did for ’im. Plugged the kiddy, too, didn’t he, boss?”
“Wounded him badly,” replied Johnson. “His mother wanted him to take a billet in the bank after he came out of the hospital. They offered him one at once, but he couldn’t bear the notion. So they apprenticed him to me. Smart and handy he’s turned out, too. Did most of the work on the ‘Red Warder’ here, besides drawin’ the plans for him. Now, lads, some of you go up to the Marine Storeyard and get the trolly to put the ‘Warder’ on. They’re going to take him out in the afternoon, as soon as poor Ashton’s buried.”
“Yes, decidedly,” thought the murderer, hardly able to repress a chuckle, as he crouched away from the circular globe of light, “it was funny that the son of the man he had shot because he wouldn’t put up his hands when ordered should have been the one to have the biggest share in building this splendid hiding place. No one would ever dream of searching there. That was evident. At nightfall he would come out, and, if he could but steal a horse, he might yet be able to snap his fingers at them all. And they were, apparently, going to take the thing he was in away somewhere. Up country; perhaps on the railway. Likely enough it was a sort of new-fangled tank for use on a station; maybe to dip sheep in. If they’d only drop a bit of tucker in, he’d be fixed right up to the knocker. But, failing that, the bacca’d have to stand to him.” So ran the villain’s thoughts, as already in his minds eye he saw himself once more free, and back again in his old haunts, or even farther out—right across to the Territory.
By-and-by, he heard a voice close to the hole say: “No news?”
“None,” was the reply, in the same youthful tones he recognised as young Stratton’s. “Port Endeavor’s been searched from top to bottom without success. Now a party has gone inland, and another one down the harbor shore. I came back because I thought the ‘Warder’s’ lid was a trifle big for the slot, and I knew the Board people wouldn’t care about being kept waiting now they’ve got their moorings ready at the reef.”
There was a sound of chipping as of a cold chisel upon iron, and, presently, something was clapped into the manhole, fitting so closely as to show not the faintest gleam of light. Suddenly the buoy was rolled over, shaking and bruising its occupant considerably, and causing him to mutter deep curses as he picked himself up and sought vainly for something to hold on to. The darkness was intense, and the heat, engendered by the sun beating on the iron plates all the morning, grew almost unbearable now that the only opening was closed. In desperation, the wretch stripped off his clothes and lay naked upon them with the hot iron burning his skin wherever it touched. All at once he felt that his shelter had been lifted up bodily, and was moving. The heat grew fiercer, and the sweat poured off him like rain. But he set his teeth and suffered it. Presently he felt the thing he was in moving with a new motion. Swinging through the air, this time; whilst a dim rattle came to his ears. This was when the “Warder” was being hoisted on to the Marine Board tender Thetis, Captain Haynes; and the rattle was the noise of her steam winch.
It grew somewhat cooler now. But presently, another and an altogether novel motion puzzled him. He had certainly never experienced anything like it before. It was not that of a railway. And what could be making him pant so distressfully, and draw his breath with such difficulty? Air! air, in Heaven’s name! He fumbled vainly about in the inky blackness for the lid he had seen them put on, bruising his fingers and tearing his nails against clenched rivets. But he had lost all sense of locality, and kept groping upwards for the manhole when it was, in fact, under his feet. Nor would it have availed him any could he have found it—cunningly turned and slotted, and caulked with red lead and okum, already as hard as adamant. Denser and denser grew the atmosphere; his breath came and went in wheezy pantings. There was a weight as of tons pressing on his chest, and his heart hit his ribs like a hammer.
For, perhaps the first time in his life terror came upon him. Where was he? What was being done to him? And as he staggered here and there, bruised and bleeding, against the hot sides of his prison, gasping for breath, all at once his feet touched the murdered Constable’s handcuffs that, together with his belt, he had put on years ago—it seemed—in the gaol. Picking them up he battered with all his feeble, sobbing might against the iron plates of the dreadful trap in which he had been snared.
Suddenly the thing changed its position to an upright one and he fell headlong down to the bottom of it and lay there doubled up, the burning heat of his body turned in a moment to chilling cold; his chest felt as if it were bursting, and strange, flaming shapes rushed hither and thither before his staring eyes. The dismal tolling of a bell, too, in his ears! Ah, how he hated bells! . . . . Ding-dong-dong-ding! . . . Now he knew. . . . They had hanged him at last. . . . That was the prison bell. . . . He wasn’t quite dead yet, though. . . . Swinging at the end of the rope. . . . . Curse them all!
“Didn’t you fancy you heard something rattling and knocking when we lowered the ‘Warder’ over the side, Haynes?” asked the President of the Marine Board as the Thetis steamed homewards from the Cat and Kittens.
“Rivet heads and an odd bolt or two,” replied the old skipper, shortly, casting a look back to where the great red buoy swung well out of the water, rocking and nodding to a westerly cross-swell, whilst to their ears came very distinctly the sullen booming of the bell.
God save our gracious Queen.
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us,
God save the Queen.
As the full-throated chorus burst on their ears, the fierce-looking islanders surrounding the hollow square of marines and bluejackets moved uneasily in their places and seemed half inclined to bolt. But curiosity kept them steady to the end of the verse. Then the captain of the Cassowary, drawing his sword, gave it a flourish, and the seaman at the flagstaff halliards with a jerk broke the ball on the summit of the tall pole, loosing the Union Jack to the soft land breeze. Then, as a royal salute thundered from the man-o’-war just inside the reef, answered by three hearty cheers ashore, the natives took to their heels in earnest, and the annexation of Mahmee to the British Empire was an established fact.
“That’s all right,” remarked the captain of the Cassowary to his first lieutenant. “Got the notices posted up, Mr. Brown?”
“On four trees along the beach, sir,” replied the other.
“Must be a brave lot, those fellows,” continued the captain, laughing, as at the word of command the men formed up and marched towards the boats. “They stood our singing like bricks; but the guns were too much for ’em.”
“They didn’t go far,” said the lieutenant, pointing to where out of the scrub emerged a crowd of natives hideously painted in red and black, whole tails of cocks’ feathers waving from their reddened mope of hair, and armed with spears and bows and arrows, which they shook threateningly at the strangers.
“Into the boats. Smart, my lads!” exclaimed the captain. “They’re British subjects now, and I don’t want any rows.” And as they pulled away they could see the islanders, some assembling around the flagstaff, gesticulating violently, whilst others ran down to the white strip of beach and danced wildly along it, making a savage picture in their paint and feathers against the sylvan background of gently sloping terraced hills covered with breadfruit, pandanus, bananas, and cocoa palms.
“Three more to do?” asked the captain, in a business tone, as he lit a cigar.
“Three more, sir, to finish the Group,” replied the first, as if he were speaking of coats of paint for the Cassowary. “Take us till day after to-morrow to fix ’em up properly.”
So, presently, at the other smaller islands the same proceedings were gone through, varying in no particular from those at Mahmee; and then the third-class cruiser steamed away back to Australia, whence the cable flashed the news across the world, causing certain foreign editors to tear their hair and write scathing leaders about Britain’s greed, and the necessity of, by some means (unspecified), putting a stop to her grasping earth-hunger.
* * * * **
“John,” said the Reverend William Bryden, “I want you to do something for Montague.”
“William,” replied the Right Honourable John Bryden, “ask me to make you a bishop. It will be easier.”
The two sat in a room in Whitehall. One brother was a cabinet minister, the other a clergyman in a manufacturing town in the North of England. Time after time preferment had been offered to the latter through his brother’s influence; but always in vain, notwithstanding that his stipend was barely adequate to his needs, he being that sort of churchman who imagined it his mission to sacrifice all thoughts of self in ministering to the spiritual and bodily wants of perhaps the poorest and most miserable set of operatives in the world. He was a widower with one son, Montague, a young man of twenty-three, who, so far, had not ranged himself. Nor, to all appearance, would he ever be able to do so. Law and medicine had each in turn received his best attention, and each with the same result—dire failure. Not that he had any lack of brains. So far as they went, he seemed to have at least a fair share. But they never carried him far enough in the right direction: and the hours spent in mastering a difficult cannon at billiards, the intricacies of solo whist, or ensuring proficiency in similar minor social accomplishments, would, if passed over his books, have probably seen him safely through his “finals.”
Thus, at last, quite in despair, his father had gone to London to consult his brother, and ask that of him he never could have been induced to take for himself. But the Right Honourable was obdurate.
“If I could only get him out of the country in some settled post, needing not much application and plenty of outdoor exercise,” pleaded the clergyman, “I’m almost sure Montague would do well. There’s no vice in him.”
“No; and not much else,” grumbled his brother, walking down the long room and pulling at his clean-shaven upper lip. “Shame he certainly hasn’t, or he wouldn’t be content to live here and sponge on you whilst doing the man about town. I passed him the other morning in the vestibule of the Epicurean, chattering and laughing with some other boobies; and because, I suppose, I had on an old coat and an ill-brushed hat, the cub scarcely deigned to recognise me.”
“But, surely, John,” replied the other deprecatingly, “there must be some mistake. He always speaks in the most respectful terms of you. Probably he was ashamed of being seen in such company as he was keeping.”
The minister grinned as he answered, “Well, well, let us hope so, William. But you know—or perhaps you don’t; for, Heaven help you! you know nothing except how to assist people and let them impose upon you—that positions are not made to order for incapables in these days as they were fifty years ago. Nepotism of the kind you are asking me to exercise is quite out of the question. Actually, I couldn’t appoint a tide waiter without having to answer a dozen questions as to the why and wherefore! And one of my own name, too! No, William, I’m afraid I can do nothing.”
“If he could only get a chance somewhere away from his present associates,” murmured the other. “It would be hard for me to let him leave the country. But I’m so convinced it would be for his good that I could see him go almost cheerfully. You have often offered me preferment, John. Couldn’t you make it appear that I refused in favour of Montague?”
“And offer Montague the See of Wroxeter?” replied the other, his face softening, even as he smiled, at sight of his brother’s distress. “Well, well, I’ll say nothing. If he had only ordinary perseverance, or even a decent record! Well, well, go home to your poverty-stricken operatives and pensioners, William. I know it’s of no use trying to persuade you to spend your life otherwise.”
And the white-haired, careworn-looking old clergyman had to remain satisfied, with, one would think, scant hope. But he knew his brother; and in that last speech of his had detected more than another might have done.
And that he was justified in his hopes the following letter presently showed:—
“My dear William,—I was speaking to Eglinton about Montague to-day. He wants a private secretary, and for your sake will take M. on trial for a time. This may lead to something abroad if he behaves himself. The salary is merely nominal and the work hard. But if, as you seem to think, there is really something in him, he will jump at this chance of showing us what it is.—Your affectionate brother,
“P. S.—I enclose a note to Eglinton, at the Treasury, which M. had better deliver forthwith.—J. B.”
Lord Eglinton was not impressed by his new private secretary.
“There’s no life in the fellow, Bryden,” he complained; “and a boy of twelve could write a better letter. Seems always half asleep, too. However, I’m not going to deprive him of his chance. Dundas was asking me yesterday if I knew of a man who’d do to send out as Resident of a group of islands we’ve been annexing somewhere. He wants a fellow who’ll just take things easy, and not go making mischief with France and Germany, who also own other islands not far away. Between ourselves, I think it’s been offered to every likely person in the Colonial Office and refused. It’s £250 a year, board and residence, and a steamer, or something of the kind, to go fishing in. Well, I at once thought of your nephew. He certainly won’t make mischief, and he’ll maybe develop unsuspected powers in a new sphere”—and the Junior Lord smiled as he made the suggestion, adding, “Perhaps he’d better see Dundas at once, if he’s willing to go. I must manage to rub along, in any case; with the two men I have.”
This was conclusive, and the very next morning his uncle, with a few biting words that the young man listened to in silence, sent him off to Mr. Dundas, the Colonial Under Secretary, carrying Lord Eglinton’s recommendation.
Montague Bryden was tall and thin, slow in speech, and with a wearied expression on his rather good-looking face; he wore an eyeglass, and a light moustache drooped from his upper lip, hiding the mouth. He was faultlessly dressed and groomed, showed breeding, and, spite of the sleepy blue eyes and generally listless air, it was hard to believe he could be the dead failure his friends affirmed him to be; and this faint suggestion of possibilities it was that perhaps made him all the more disappointing. But the Under Secretary, who was a rare judge of men, after studying his visitor for a moment, became suddenly doubtful.
“I hope you have well considered this matter, Mr. Bryden,” said he blandly. “The place is a long way off, and I’m afraid there’s no society to speak of. We might—er—in time be able to do something better for you. But still, of course, if you think it would—er—suit—”
“Thank you, sir,” replied Montague, smiling pleasantly. “Yes, I have thought it over; and, from what people tell me, it doesn’t seem as if I should ever be able to do any better. Lord Eglinton says there’s not much required of the Governor of the place; and the steamer and the fishing are a consideration. One rather enjoys the notion, too, of ruling over tribes of savages, and—er—doing one’s best for them.”
And the young man smiled again, and fixed the secretary with his monocle, whilst the latter thought to himself, “He is a fool, then, after all. At first I had an idea he might be one of those wandering pegs looking for a hole to fit ’em, and who, when they find it, begin to play old Harry generally. Had enough of that sort of firebrand lately.”
“Very well,” he replied aloud; “we may, in that case, consider your appointment settled as British Resident—not Governor—of the—er—er—I really forget the name. But Mr. Jardine, my secretary, will give you every information. Good morning, and a pleasant voyage to you.”
Mr. Jardine, however, seemed very little wiser than his chief. Also he appeared too much astonished at the prospect of any sane man accepting such a billet to do much more than twirl his eye-glass and stare curiously at the new Resident.
“Oh,” he explained at last, consulting a memorandum, “the place is called the Mahmee Group, four islands, lying between 8° 24’ south latitude and 159° 14’ east longitude. That’s most likely in the Pacific somewhere, y’ know. But it doesn’t matter much, because you’ll find out all about ’em in Sydney, Australia, where you land first. Then you’ll learn the best way to get to ’em. Should go by the P. and O., if I were you. Had a brother once who went to India in one of their boats. Wait a bit: there’s the chief’s bell.”
When he returned, he held in his hand a note for Montague, requesting the latter to make the best of his way to Sydney, and there await further instructions.
And thus, in due course, Montague Bryden landed in the capital of New South Wales, and commenced to hunt round after his instructions—and found none. Of course, a few people had heard of the Mahmees and their annexation. But none of these seemed inclined to take Montague on his unsupported statement as the future Resident of that or any other group. Certainly, both at Admiralty as well as Government House, they were civil to him; but no more. Their Excellencies (the Admiral in command on the Australian Station claims that title equally with a Governor) had, unfortunately for the young man, been quite lately taken in—one by a sham Italian nobleman, the other by a sham English baronet. Thus, in the absence of credentials, mere civility, and cool civility at that, fell to young Bryden’s share.
Also his money was done, except as much as would pay his hotel bill. He had been told that where he was going money would be of little use. Nor, in any case, could he have had more than fifty pounds on leaving England. Despite his uncle’s unkind sneer, he hated taking the money that his father at times pressed upon him. And almost before he knew where he was, what with a little “Nap.” on the outward passage, together with “incidentals” of one sort and another ashore, a very short time after landing he, to his utter astonishment, found his pockets empty. Then his watch went and the rest of his jewellery, and then clothes and portmanteaus, etc., etc.
He might have cabled, although to do so meant for him a small fortune just then. But he never thought of it; and it is doubtful whether, in any case, he would have sent a message. His back was up, perhaps for the first time in his life. They had forgotten him—careless of everything but getting him out of the way. Very well, then, they could all go to the deuce, together with the incredulous ones on this side who had refused to take his word.
For some nights he slept out of doors in the big wooded space called the Domain, existing on very little indeed. He was, however, not the only one by a great many; and from his bedfellows under the trees he heard strange stories, also he saw strange sights, during the soft warm hours of darkness. Then, one day, he found himself at a place known as “The Government Labour Bureau,” and was presently chosen by ballot member of a gang of men engaged on some relief works established to aid the unemployed.
And here for a month, with aching back and blistered hands, he plied pick and shovel and barrow, sleeping as he had never slept before, eating as he would have thought it impossible to eat.
But at last his and his gang’s time was up, and they had to give way to others. So, with a pound or two of the first money he had ever earned in his moleskins, tanned, fit, and actually exultant, he went back to his old quarters under the Moreton Bay fig trees preparatory to going “up country,” whither the Bureau was presently sending many men to cut scrub and clear land.
His particular tree was in the outer Domain, opposite the drinking fountain, near the side gate of the Botanic Gardens. Lying on the bench there one night, smoking and thinking, without any regret, of the old life, he suddenly heard a cry for help. Another moment, and he was scattering a quartette of night-hawks, who already had their man down and half choked, and were “running the rule over him” in most approved Domain fashion. Picking up their victim as the thieves fled, and assisting him to a seat, Montague soon found that he was neither very much hurt, nor that, luckily, had he lost anything.
“Holy Moses!” exclaimed the man, tenderly feeling his throat. “If it hadn’t been for you I was done! Twenty pounds in gold an’ as much more in notes I’ve got on me. Phew—a narrer squeak! I was comin’ across from Rushcutter’s, an’ took what I thought was the shortest track. Here, sonny, here’s five notes for your whack o’ the fun. No? Why? Are ye settin’ here at two o’clock in the mornin’ for a lark, then?” And the elderly, grizzled, mahogany-faced man turned and scrutinised his companion by the light of the moon.
“Well,” he continued, in an apologetic tone, “sorry I spoke, but I thought ye was hard up, an’, by the talk o’ ye, a swell. Lot’s of ’em comes down alongside the Dancin’ Jane, poor chaps, to beg a feed. I’m off to the Islands in the mornin’, and if ye won’t take any money, by gosh! you’ll have to come aboard straightway an’ have a drink with old Tom Stone. She’s my own, every timber of her, an’ as pritty a bit o’ stuff as sails out o’ Port Jackson.”
“What islands are you going to?” asked Montague, as, after some more persuasion, he decided to accompany the sailor.
“South Sea, o’ course,” replied the other, “an’ more particularly a clump of ’em called the Mahmees, which I suppose you never heard on. An’ let me tell you—” But here, to his surprise, the young man burst into such a shout of laughter as made the flying foxes flap away scared from their feast of wild figs overhead.
“Well, now what’s bit you?” asked the captain and owner of the Dancin’ Jane testily. “Is it the name, or d’ye think I can’t find my road there, eh?”
“No, no,” replied Montague, still quivering with suppressed merriment; “I can assure you it’s nothing of the kind. Certainly, the name did strike me curiously, but—”
“Pish!” exclaimed the other. “That’s nothin’ to some o’ the names down yonder. But, as I was goin’ to tell ye, it’s the finest private copra patch in the Islands, an’ it’s me, Tom Stone, as is the only man that’s got the workin’ of it. They’re talkin’ ’bout sendin’ out a feller from home to act as Res’dent Gov’nor or somethin’ o’ the kind; but if he interferes with me, the nigs there’ll give him a rough time of it, you bet!”
At this Montague laughed more than ever, but, seeing his companion becoming offended, he apologised; then, acting on a sudden determination, told his story in full as they walked along deserted Circular Quay and round to Milson’s Point, where the vessel lay.
Only by a muttered oath or expression of wonder did the old skipper interrupt the story, until, as Montague ended, he gave a long whistle and exclaimed with unquestioning faith—
“Well, may I be shot! No wonder ye laughed! Of all the rum goes! Why, only yesterday I meets Mr. Brown, first lieutenant o’ the Cassowary, and says he, ‘Hello, Stone!’ he says, pokin’ fun like; ‘I hear you’ve taken possession o’ that group we ’nexed the other day. Be careful, you know, ’cause there’s a Res’dent—a reg’lar tight hand—comin’ out presen’ly. You an’ the Dancin’ Jane had best be careful. Somebody told me you took down a cargo o’ square gin an’ second-hand sniders last trip.’ O’ course,” continued the captain, as they crossed the gangway of a fine two-hundred-ton topsail schooner and descended into a snug little sea-parlour, “that was gammon—mostly. All the same, those nigs on Big Mahmee won’t do a hand’s turn for any trader only Tom Stone. An’ ho! ho! ho! here’s the real, genuin’, bony-fidy Res’dent ackshally in the cabin o’ the Dancin’ Jane. Well, dash my buttons, if I don’t take ye to your country an’ interdooce ye to your subjecks myself. An’ look here, Mr.—er—Bryden,” went on the captain, as he placed glasses and a decanter of whisky on the table, “you accept a loan from me of as much as’ll get all your togs an’ luggage an’ stuff out o’ uncle’s paws—twenty, thirty notes if you wants it. An’, instead o’ sailin’ this mornin’, I’ll just haul into the Stream an’ get away on the evenin’ tide. How’ll that do?”
“But,” replied Montague, “how do you know that I’m not the impostor those other people evidently considered me?”
“See it in your face,” said the skipper promptly. “Them big bugs yonder’s too suspicions to live. Now, you take this stuff; I’d ha’ lost it last night on’y for you. An’ after breakfast cut along to the Monter Pity (Mont de Piété), or wherever uncle lives, an’ come back aboard the Dancin’ Jane as slap-up Res’dent British Commissioner o’ the Mahmee Group. Bah! d’ye think I don’t know an honest man when I sees him?”
And Captain Stone felt thoroughly justified in his opinion when, later, Montague Bryden came on board the Dancing Jane looking a very different man to the one in whom Mr. Dundas had so nearly detected the hidden seed of that energy and purpose which, but for the experiences of the last month or two, might never have quickened. The process of getting his back up, no less than that of having had to stiffen it by manual labour, added to hunger, the key of the street, and hard beds in the open, had proved the salvation of the peg now making towards its appointed hole in the world’s cribbage-board, and of whose material the shrewd Secretary had for just a minute been so doubtful.
“What’s the matter with old Stone?” asked the captain of the Cassowary of his first lieutenant that evening, as they watched the graceful Dancing Jane moving past the warship and down the Harbour, gay with bunting from the end of her tapering jib-boom right over her lofty masts to the main boom end.
“Old chap’s birthday, I expect, sir,” replied Mr. Brown. “I suppose he’s off to the Mahmees again!”
“Shouldn’t wonder if we have to follow shortly,” replied the captain, “when the Resident arrives. We’re sure to have the job of taking him down.”
“Hello!” exclaimed Captain Stone, as, after a quick run, the Dancing Jane came in sight of the anchorage at Big Mahmee. “Here’s a go! There’s Johnny France wipin’ John Bull’s eye! Now, Mr. Bryden, you’ve got to go to work, sir, an’ tell ’em it can’t be done at no price.”
And, indeed, just within the reef lay a white warship, the Tricolour floating from her gaff, as it also did from a staff ashore on nearly the same spot as that on which the Cassowary had hoisted the British flag at the annexation.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Bryden, almost before the schooner’s anchor was down, boarded L’Amiral Villeneuve, and in excellent and fluent French explained priority of occupation and demanded the removal of the Republic’s flag.
Very politely the French commander declined doing any such thing. He had heard of no British occupation, he affirmed. Returning from a prolonged cruise, he had, by the merest inspiration, thought it might be as well to secure this unclaimed group for his Government. He was in despair, desolated and distressed beyond expression. But monsieur would understand that it was finally impossible to do as he requested. Whereupon, without any delay, Bryden went ashore with all the Dancing Jane’s hands armed with revolvers and Winchesters that old Stone produced from odd corners, hauled down the French flag, and in its place hoisted the Union Jack, before the warship guessed what they were about. Then there was sapristi-ing and sacré-ing, and the Amiral’s boats pulled ashore full of armed soldiers and sailors, whilst the little knot of the Jane’s men, encouraged by Bryden and Stone, mustered under the flag, and everything seemed ripe for a very pretty row.
Suddenly Stone, catching sight of a dark face in the scrub, shouted something in the native language, and an Islander came cautiously out—a big fellow with one arm hanging useless at his side and dripping blood. Running to the Captain, whom he evidently recognised, he chattered rapidly. Then, at a cry from him, two others emerged, also wounded. Around the neck of one was coiled a Union Jack, whilst on the back of the other was stuck a square of calico once covered with print, but on which now, by stress of wear, the only words visible were “God save the Queen” in big black letters.
“There y’are, Mr. Bryden!” shouted Stone, as he unwound the flag and waved it in the face of France; “there’s proof for the Wee Wees! (French) The beggars! they’ve been shootin’ at the nigs, too, to celebrate the occasion. Make it hot, sir, for ’em. British subjects, y’know. Pitch it into ’em, sir. An’ see, yonder there’s the stump o’ the Cassowary’s staff as the nigs chopped down. Slap war—bloody war—at ’em, sir.”
And Bryden, nothing loth, marched up to the French captain and, showing him the native to whose back the calico stuck like a porous plaster—showing him too the Union Jack and the site upon which it had been hoisted—gave him very forcibly to understand that not only would his Government have to pay the British piper a high price for his dance, but that his own commission was worth at that very moment no more than so much waste paper.
Calling off his men, the officer, looking very uncomfortable as he realised that he had most likely made a big mistake, came forward and began to explain. The shooting, he said, had been occasioned by the natives themselves, who interrupted the annexation proceedings. But, save for a few wounded, no damage was done. No doubt it was a serious matter, as Monsieur le Gouverneur represented, this firing upon the subjects of Britain; still, considering it was done in complete ignorance! Nor could anything be more repulsive to his feelings or to those of the gallant men he commanded, than the remotest idea of insulting the British flag. Therefore, if Monsieur would accept an apology for this most unfortunate contretemps, his marines should fire a volley in salute. After which, it might be as well if all adjourned aboard the Amiral and drank each other’s healths, and those of the great and friendly countries they represented.
And upon the whole, considering that he had no credentials to produce warranting his interference, Bryden thought he might do worse, although he doubted extremely Capitaine de frégate Lenormand’s so strongly-professed ignorance of former occupation. However, both parties presently fraternised, and had a good time on board the Amiral, whose commander served out many gifts for the wounded natives, to be presented through Stone.
And that the latter had not overrated his influence with the Islanders was evident by the manner in which they crowded to the beach with offerings for the Dancing Jane as soon as the news of her arrival spread. All the same, the old captain warned Montague always to carry his revolvers.
“There’s worse nigs than these,” said Stone. “Still I wouldn’t trust ’em further’n I could chuck the Dancin’ Jane with my two hands. Round t’other side, where I used mostly to lie, I’ve got a lot of ’em makin’ copra. That’ll be the best place for Gover’ment House. As soon as Frenchy clears, we’ll go there. Better anchorage, better water, better everythin’.”
So, hardly was the big white ship hull down than the Dancing Jane got her anchor; and with half-a-dozen chiefs on board—all by this time thoroughly convinced of the superiority of the original flag and its owners—sailed into a beautiful little bay on the eastern or lee side of Mahmee, where Stone had established his headquarters.
And here, setting natives and his own men to work, the Captain soon had a house up and ground cleared for the new Resident, who, on his part, applied himself assiduously to gain the confidence of the Islanders and understand their ways. And he succeeded so well that old Stone swore he was a born administrator, and that no better man could have been chosen for the post.
Meanwhile, in certain official Sydney circles, there was dismay. Just as Montague Bryden started on his journey, the usual unexpected war scare had set in, obscuring completely for a time all recollection of the Mahmees and their unauthorised Resident.
Then, when the scare blew over, by some blunder the papers accrediting Bryden had found their way to Brisbane, remained there for a mouth or two, and then at last been forwarded to their proper destination. Exactly six months had elapsed since the first appearance of Montague in Sydney, and the consternation of the authorities when they realised that they had coldly rejected the bona-fide Resident and sent him empty away, instead of to the Mahmees, was almost ludicrous.
And the worst of it was that he could be found nowhere. Detectives were set to work, and consternation turned to horror when presently his name was discovered on the books of the Labour Bureau. The nephew of a Cabinet Minister working with the unemployed! The Very Uppermost Official Circle, to whose members letters of introduction were enclosed, and by whom Montague had been received more than suspiciously, were at their wits’ ends.
After some time and much trouble, it was, however, made pretty certain that a person answering to Bryden’s description had long ago sailed in the Dancing Jane for the South Sea Islands. And thereupon the Admiral himself, forsaking the flagship, shifted his pennant to the Cassowary and went to look for the Dancing Jane, meeting her laden to the hatches with copra just this side of New Caledonia.
“What have you done with the passenger you had when leaving Sydney?” asked the captain of the Cassowary, as old Stone stepped on to the quarterdeck out of his boat.
“You mean Montague Bryden, Esquire, British Res’dent o’ the Mahmee Group?” replied Stone pompously.
“Yes, of course, of course!” hastily put in the Admiral, who was standing by. “But how did it come about that he went there with you, if he really is there?”
“Oh, he’s there right enough,” replied the other, “an’ a good job he got there when he did! Just in time to stop Johnny France ’nexin’ the lot. Nearly had a row as it was. You bet the Res’dent’s head’s screwed on all right. An’ as to why I took him down, well, Sir James, you ought to know the reason as well as I do,” continued the old man with a chuckle. “Anyhow, you’ll find him at Port Eglinton, if he ain’t away at the other Islands.”
“Take a glass of wine, Captain Stone,” remarked the Admiral with a sigh of relief, “before you go back to your ship. I should like to hear about that French episode.”
“Well,” replied old Stone as he went below, “I don’t know that there was any episode, Sir James, but I never seen a thing better done than when the young feller gets us all ashore—hardly waitin’ for the Jane to let go—an’, calm an’ cool as you like, pulls down the French flag hand over hand an’ hystes the Jack. Then, o’ course, the Wee Wees comes at us spittin’ like cats. But Mr. Bryden could pay out parley-vous as fast as them. An’ when presen’ly I finds the Cassowary’s Jack round one nig’s neck, an’ ‘God save the Queen’ at the end o’ another’s back—why, things calmed down a bit.”
“But how and where did you meet Mr. Bryden first, Captain?” asked the Admiral insinuatingly; “that’s what’s puzzling me.”
“An’ that, Sir James,” replied old Stone as he finished his wine, “is a question I must leave the Res’dent himself to answer when you see him.”
Ere this, however, Montague Bryden’s immediate chief—the High Commissioner of Poly-, Micro-, and Melanesia, together with all other spots and dots coloured pink on the map of the South Seas, and bearing underneath them the bracketed legend “Br.”—had looked up the new Occupation and found its Resident. Found him quite alone amongst his subjects, too. Also with them perfectly in hand, and—so long as he neglected no ordinary precautions—devoted to him.
When the High Commissioner appeared at Port Eglinton, Montague and his troops had just successfully repulsed a raid of headhunters, killed some and lodged others in the calaboose, or gaol, which, together with a council house, were amongst recent improvements.
To the Commissioner Montague told his story, having to repeat it when in a few days the Cassowary appeared with the Admiral.
“I always was a duffer at home,” he wound up simply, “and even in Australia, you see, I couldn’t get on. But amongst these chaps here I’m all right. We agree first class together. Of course, they kick over the traces at times; but a word or so from me’s generally enough to bring ’em to reason. Doesn’t require any brains, this sort of business, I suppose; that’s why it suits me.”
And the Admiral smiled at the High Commissioner, who smiled back again in sympathy.
And, very certainly, no one was more dumbfounded than Montague Bryden when, not long afterwards, in a list of Birthday Honours he saw his name, with the letters C.M.G. following. Nor, at least so it is rumoured, will it be a great while till another letter—a K.—may be placed before them. For—so at any rate has been heard to say the Right Honourable John Bryden—“we have, sir, very few more promising young men of action than my nephew, Montague, in the service abroad.”
And, curiously enough, when all the rest of the South Seamen are growling about the scarcity of copra—worth £7 per ton in these bad seasons—never has the Dancing Jane been known to return without a full cargo, even should the Resident of the Mahmees have to make a special requisition for the purpose.
“What’s become of the Linnet?” asked somebody, suddenly, one fine morning at the Admiralty some fifty years ago. And nobody knew. Some said China, others the West Coast, others again the West Indies. But there was no finality in the guessing. And not until an old clerk in the Under Secretary’s room happened to mention that his son was the Linnet’s midshipman, that he had not been heard of for three years, and that his last letter was from Australia, was the clue found.
Then, presently, despatches, voluminous and complete, were forwarded to the colonial authorities at ‘Sydney, Victoria,’ asking for information respecting Her Majesty’s ship Linnet, one gun, 300 tons, Lieutenant-Commander Morrissey, &c., &c., supposed to be on duty somewhere on that station.
And in due course, which was a long course, because the overland telegraph was still an adventure to scoff at, came the reply to the effect that, a very long time ago, ‘H.M, Schooner Linnet, 1,300, &c. &c., Lieutenant-Commander Morrissey,’ had, in obedience to orders from the Post Captain in charge of the station, and since deceased, sailed away on patrol duty amongst the South Sea Islands.
Of late nothing had been heard of the schooner. But the authorities had every reason to believe that she was still at her post. They also took the liberty of pointing out that, in view of the recent grave Russian complications, and the fact of the only warship having recently sailed for Home, the Linnet was quite inadequate to the task of protecting British interests in the South Pacific.
The Home Naval authorities were satisfied with this. They had placed the missing vessel. Also they promised that, ‘in the spring,’ two new ships should be stationed in Australian waters.
* * * * * *
Meanwhile, in a snug harbour of Suvaila, the largest island of a group of four known as ‘The Padrones,’ lay H.M.S. Linnet. But you would never have taken her for what she was. Her sides were worn and weather-beaten; long tears of iron rust trickled down them, and everywhere showed unsightly patches of the first priming-coat of lead-coloured paint in place of the original delicate creamy white.
Instead of ‘Europe’ rope, half her running rigging was coir, brown and frizzy, and the standing gear showed grievously for lack of tar. Many of her rattlines were gone, and their places filled by strips of bamboo. Her sails, loosed to dry and half-sheeted home, showed great patches, fitter for a North Country collier than a British ship o’ war, be she ever so small. Everywhere about her hung a curious look of decay and drought, and barbarism accentuated instead of relieved by a festoon of shells and sharks’ teeth hanging round the neck of the once smartly gilded figurehead. Looking over the side, deep down through the clear water, you saw, in place of bright copper, barnacles and weeds.
Her crew were well in keeping; for, if the ship’s stores had run out, so evidently had the slop chest. For’ard, the men were in every variety of rig; and with their broad-leafed palm hats, made to the individual wearer’s fancy, their trousers and jumpers of cheap and gaudy ‘trade’ prints, and shark-skin belts ornamented with native work, they looked far more like pirates than the regulation British Jack.
Nor did the presence amongst them of many flower-decked brown maidens, who evidently had the run of the ship, lessen the resemblance.
Aft, in hammocks under the sun-blanched awning, swung Morrissey and his lieutenant, whilst a couple of native belles sat on the skylight chattering to a small midshipman who, in an undress uniform of brown calico and grass-woven hat, lay on a rug smoking a huge cigar of his own manufacture.
To seaward gleamed, white as snow, the long round of surf as it broke with subdued murmur on the circling reef; above, the sky was like sapphire, and all around the water gleamed still and placid, and in colour of the tender blue of the forget-me-not; in the background, the rounded mountains of the island, clothed in vivid greenery, sloped softly to the edge of the long stretch of dazzling white beach. From somewhere in the hills came the sound of falling waters; the air was full of the fragrance of flowers. It was Lotos land, and everything about ship and crew seemed eloquently to say—
Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil,
Than labour in the deep mid ocean, wind and wave and oar;
Oh, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.
Presently, from a boat which had pulled off from the beach, stepped a tall, bronzed, clean-shaven man, dressed in spotless duck from head to foot. This was Silas B. Kegg, the owner of the white coral-built trading station which flashed out of the great clump of purple hibiscus that little Thompson, the midshipman, had once fancifully compared to a stain of blood on the even greenery of palm and breadfruit trees.
‘I reckon, now, Cap,’ said the visitor without any ceremony, as he leaned against the clews of Morrissey’s hammock, ‘as we’ll have trouble direckly. I don’t like the free an’ easy way these niggers is carrin’ on lately. That’s a fact. You’d think the store yonder belongs to ’em. Likewise this ship o’ yourn. You don’t burn powder enough. Look at ’em now.’
The Commander turned his head slowly till, under the dip of the awning, he could see right for’ard. A whole crowd of natives, male and female, had so closed in the Linnet’s seamen that nothing was to be seen of them. Another mob was sitting in a row all along the forty-two pounder that lay, its white paint peeled off in patches, on its turntable just for’ard of the foremast These, flower-decked, laughed and screamed in childish gaiety as they pushed each other off the muzzle of the gun. Others, again, were aloft in the fore-rigging, apparently playing at follow-my-leader. A harmless race, surely, and one full of mirth!
But the trader shook his head as he gazed. His dealings with the Linnet and her people had been profitable. And he hoped for more profit still. Also, he was afraid for his own skin, and wished to inoculate the others. Also, he knew the islands, and had seen curious matters happen in them.
‘Bah!’ said Morrissey, after a long look, ‘they know we can bite if we like. It’s only the mice larking with the lion. Although, to tell the truth, Kegg, we’re getting so mouldy and worn that I’m almost afraid to fire the gun. Last practice over at Mallicobo brought showers of dry-rotten stuff from aloft about our ears. None of our spars would stand a heavy blow. Besides, our ammunition is giving out both for small arms and the gun. And as for provisions—well your little bill will tell its own tale when it comes to pay day. Our commission’s up over a year now. They’ve clean forgotten us, and we’ll be left here till we become niggers ourselves, and live on cassava and pork!’ And the Commander yawned and turned in his hammock.
‘No, no, Cap,’ replied Kegg, with a twinkle in his eye. ‘Not so bad as that. I’ve got a boat under charter, nearly due from Yap, in the Carolines. Bottled ale, champagne, the chycest o’ tinned stuffs, an’ the whitest o’ flour, not to mention a few barrels o’ gunpowder. She ought to show up pretty slick with this southerly.’
‘More promissory notes!’ groaned the Commander.
‘John Bull’s name’s good enough for me,’ replied Silas. ‘You kin take the hull cargo on them terms. But,’ he continued, as he stepped towards the gangway, ‘mind a fool’s advice. Cap, an’ keep your eye liftin’ on them niggers, an’ specially on Mister Tuifalu. He’s watchin’ on us now as sharp as a shark arter a piccaninny. Send a roun’ shot or two ashore. Cap, just for fun like—knock over a few o’ their cocoa-palms, and pay for ’em. Them nigs is just bustin’ full o’ pure cussedness, spite o’ their larfin’, an’ flowers, an’ singin’. Well, so long! I ain’t none too comfortable myself; an’ copra’s a thing o’ the past. But, you see, I allus keep my guns handy.’ And he patted a couple of holsters, one on each hip, from which protruded the butts of two enormous ‘Colts.’
‘Anything in it, d’ye think. Bramble?’ asked Morrissey, after a long pause, turning languidly to his lieutenant. For answer the latter sent little Thompson to call the boatswain, who presently appeared, with flowers in his rough grey hair, remnants of a hurriedly discarded garland.
‘Danger from them niggers, sir!’ said he, in reply to his superior’s questions. ‘Why, they’re for all the world like a lot o’ kids, an’ as much ’arm in ’em! If ’t were Tanna, now, or San Christoval, it might be different. But we been here a solid month an’ never seen nothin’ wrong. Besides, it ain’t likely, sir, as a scum o’ black niggers ’ud tackle a British man o’ war!’
Morrissey laughed, so did Bramble, so did the solitary midshipman who was lying back eating bananas almost as fast as the two brown girls could skin them and put them into his mouth.
As Hicks (which was the boatswain’s name) finished sniggering in respectful sympathy, a sound of shooting reached them from shoreward. Abreast of the white house, backed by the patch of scarlet, in the bright sunlight stood a man from whose extended arms flashed forth fire and smoke into a dense crowd of natives, between whom and the trader (for it was he) so thickly flew the spears that they seemed but one continuous mass. Suddenly they saw him fall to his knees, the firing ceased, and it was as if a brown wave had rolled over the spot.
With a roar the boatswain sprang for’ard, only to be met at the break of the little poop by Tuifalu and cleft so cleanly; by a single blow from a nine-pound American axe that a half of his head fell sideways on to each shoulder. For full a minute he stood upright, then, slowly, his legs gave way and he doubled up all in a heap over the port harness-cask—the one the salt pork was kept in.
Almost simultaneously the thirty men who composed the crew, and who were almost all on deck, were butchered. Those below speedily shared the same fate. The scuppers ran blood.
In the words of Tuifalu (much later on): ‘The sea was red, and the ship was red. Red was everything in our sight, yea, even the very air we breathed was red. A great slaughter, a very great slaughter of white men, the like of which was never known in the world before.’
Meanwhile, after the first, long wild stare of despairing incredulity, and one solitary exclamation of ‘My God!’ from Morrissey, the three turned to fly down the companion-way. But the doom of the unprepared in those lands, even to the present day, was upon them. At the sound of the first shot the two native women had sprung on to the awning and rapidly cut the stops and earrings; so that, before the three officers could reach the door, down came the big heavy spread of stout canvas right on the top of them. Yelling like fiends, the Children of Treachery rushed aft, stabbing frantically with their spears, and beating with their shark-toothed swords at the sharply outlined bodies beneath until the bleached canvas began to show great patches of red, and all movement ceased.
To the Westward, beyond the ever-sounding circle of the surf glowing rosy in the rays of the lowering sun, that same evening there hove in sight a small schooner making direct for the entrance in the reef.
Then Tuifalu’s brains went to work again in savage-wise; and, very quickly, the awning was re-spread, all signs of confusion cleared away, and sundry bodies placed in position about the decks, some apparently watching the approaching vessel as they leant over the bulwarks, one sitting on the rail with a fishing-line between his fingers; and, aft, they propped poor Morrissey against the hood of the companion, and put his telescope under his arm, as they had seen him stand many a time.
Not ashore were they idle; whilst some beat welcoming tom-toms, others ran the Stars and Stripes up to the top of the flagstaff that stood before the dead trader’s house. Ruddier than ever in the sunset glowed the scarlet hibiscus. And as the Yap schooner drew slowly in and let go her anchor, they set off with songs and flowers and boarded her. Rendered totally unsuspicious by the presence of the Linnet, they found the little fore-and-after an easy conquest. The Upolu men who comprised the crew at once took to the water and were killed there. The two whites, skipper and mate, were cut down on the quarterdeck.
Here, indeed, was an embarrassment of riches, and the whole Group was in a ferment of pleasurable excitement. Two ships full of untold treasure and as much ‘long pig’ as would furnish quite a week of ceaseless feasting!
But old Tuifalu was not altogether easy in his mind. Once, when only a stripling, he remembered the people had killed and eaten a white trader—a man like this last one—and thought no more about it. Then, one fine morning, a big, a very big, canoe appeared and vomited fire and smoke, and things that screamed as they flew, and when they burst smashed huts and canoes and plantations.
Certainly, only a few very old people were killed, because the whole tribe fell inland. But it was not pleasant, on returning, to find their village in ashes, canoes in splinters, and the whole of the season’s crops ruined.
There was, he recollected, much argument over the matter. ‘The anger of the gods,’ at last said the priests who lived in the temple where, row upon row, shone the long array of polished boar’s tusks. But even then Tuifalu had doubts.
He doubted more when he saw the Linnet, and heard the big gun fired. Weeks of close communion with the whites had taught him a great deal. As we have seen, he profited—and the big gun had been dumb so long!
Also, where was the other big canoe—the one of many moons agone? Might it not return at any minute with guns that were not dumb? Therefore Tuifalu stopped the feasting and prepared to get rid of the two vessels, casting uneasy glances the while seaward.
The Yap schooner, after taking out most of her cargo, he ran ashore and set fire to. And as the people watched her burning she blew to atoms, and a few were killed and many grievously wounded.
Kegg’s powder had, in some sort, worked a revenge. ‘The anger of the gods,’ said the wise men again. But Tuifalu knew better. It, however, effectually stopped him from serving the Linnet in the same fashion. Otherwise he would have burnt her where she lay. As it was, he concluded to tow her round to a secluded inlet that he knew of, and there gradually break her up.
One matter puzzled him. It was, how to weigh her anchor. The Yap schooner’s ground tackle had been merely a coir hawser. One can cut the like easily; but not a heavy chain cable.
So Tuifalu had to work his brains once more. First he tried fair pulling: but the whole strength of the Group, or of as many as could get hold, was unable to move the anchor. He and his had twice seen the sailors—those men now dead and digested—walking round a flat-topped thing to the sound of music until the big iron hook came up from the sea-bottom. Was it the music or the walking round and round? Tuifalu pondered the matter deeply. And the result was that, one day, shipping the bars, and seating himself on top of the capstan with an instrument made out of one of Morrissey’s thigh bones, he struck up, whilst his naked cannibals ran merrily round and round to the clank of the pawls and the barbarous squeaking of the savage flute.
But alas! the great hook, fast in its coral bed below there, gave no sign of ascending. The necessity of taking the cable to the capstan before commencing operations had never been explained to the untutored ones.
But the old chief was bad to beat; and, presently, seeing the futility of the thing, he began to pay out chain instead of trying to get it in, with the result that the man-o’-war schooner nearly drifted into the surf with the set of the ebb-tide. So crowded were her decks and rigging and yards with curious spectators that she looked more like a huge mass of bees blown out to sea at swarming time than a ship.
And as this great floating mass lay just in front of the gap in the reef, with 100 fathoms of chain surging and grating behind her over sea-bottom hills and gullies, suddenly came on to blow the Nor’wester as it always blows at Suvaila—first a few premonitory puffs roaring hollow down the green declivities of the island, and then a wild swoop of wind that bends the palms and shakes their stately heads like plumes on a jolting hearse.
It caught the Linnet and filled her topsail and topgallantsail, bellying them out to the full slack of their loose sheets; it filled the big foresail, making it strain and tear and jerk aloft tack and sheet blocks, and bring them crashing and rattling down on the natives’ heads, and heeling the Linnet over till the water foamed across the main hatch, slewing her head round till it pointed straight for the entrance in the reef, against which the surf now broke in thunder.
Then, somewhere in the great length of chain dragging across the coral, the inevitable weakest link snapped, the yards braced themselves to the wind, and, like a racer, the Linnet, black with her swarms of yelling cannibals, darted through the gap and reeled away into the fiery heat of the sun. And as the sun set, the wind blew stronger and more strongly, and the Linnet, with all her canvas for’ard, struggled and staggered through the fast-rising sea and the darkness, her shaky spars creaking and working, spray and spindrift hissing over her decks, where, to make standing room even, so crowded they were, the stronger fought with the weak and hurled them overboard—women and children first. And on top of the combatants came down those who had been aloft, so that, as soon as ever a little space was made, the struggle commenced again—‘this time,’ as Tuifalu remarked later, ‘truly the anger of the gods!’
* * * * * *
In due course—which meant, in this case, twelve months—a big man-o-war, with many men and guns, came along with Admiralty orders to find the Linnet, and pay her men off, and lay her up. But she was already laid up, and for weeks the newcomer searched for her missing sister, learning no tidings—only vague lies and legends, out of which nothing could be made, sending her hither and thither on wild-goose chases. So at last the big ship relinquished her quest and left, her captain wishing to spend the hot months in Hobart Town.
Twice twelve months; and one day a labour vessel, cruising speculatively, happened to visit a certain islet which stands quite solitary amidst a thousand leagues of ocean, and almost exactly on the Line. On the Admiralty charts you may now see it marked as ‘Lonely Island.’ From only a few miles away so low is it as to appear merely a clump of tall greenery growing out of the water, and there is no encircling reef.
Presently, as the boat’s crew of the black-birder landed, straggling about, all at once, in the midst of the thick bush, they came on a sort of natural dry dock, formed by a deep depression in the rock. And in it, nearly upright, lay the wreck of a vessel with only her lower masts standing. Flakes of rotten timber had fallen from her sides, and out of the rents grew great purple fungi and tall coarse grasses. Through the upper deck planking a young palm had thrust its way, growing until the tender green fronds shaded a mass of rusty iron that, only prevented from falling into the hold by the stout stringers of her turntable, gaped all awry at the graceful arch overhead.
As the seamen moved about, full of curiosity, they became aware of many skeletons scattered around amidst a store of native weapons.
And one, venturing on to the quaking deck, and wrenching off the bell from its woodwork, and bringing it away, discovered thereon, after some cleansing, the inscription, ‘H.M.S. Linnet,’ with the date of her building, a year which no man there could look back to, for she was a very old ship.
And as they marvelled amongst themselves, having by this, like most wanderers about the Pacific Islands, heard of the mystery of the total disappearance of the Queen’s ship, out from the thick bush, on all fours, crawled, mother-naked, an old man, very feeble, and whose hair and beard were snow white. It was Tuifalu. And after they got him on board he lived just long enough to tell the story that I have set down; and of how at last, after being driven during four days and nights before a raging hurricane, the Linnet was cast high and dry by a big wave upon the little island with only thirty survivors of the great crowd she had borne away with her; of how, her boats being all gone, these had made a raft and three times attempted in vain to leave the island, a storm arising each time and blowing them back again; and of how they fought, and killed, and fed on one another; and of how, after many moons, by reason of his greater cunning, Tuifalu was left alone, existing since, as best be might, on fruit and fish.
* * * * * *
‘Missing,’ tersely says the ‘Navy List’ of that day opposite the Linnet’s name—‘Missing. No information.’
‘This time, truly, by the anger of the gods!’ said Tuifalu, with his last breath, having finished his story.
I had invented a patent life-buoy. But the Admiralty, to whom I first offered it, refused to entertain the idea. They said, in effect, that it was too expensive to save a man’s life with.
The Board of Trade said much the same. Owners, unless compelled by Act of Parliament, would never equip their ships with an article costing pounds when they could get one for shillings.
On the day this latter decision was conveyed to me, I dropped across an old friend, a skipper in the Merchant Service. And to him I told the story of my disappointments. More, I took him home with me to see my pet—for such the thing had become in my bachelor existence.
“Ay,” said he, as he inspected it; “for a man that wants to linger and die by degrees, it seems right enough. But, for my part, I don’t see the use of prolonging the agony. Something that’ll keep me afloat till the boat comes is all I want. If the boat don’t come, I’m satisfied to go under. Cork and canvas is what I carry—quite good enough to hang on for an hour, say, at the outside,”
For answer, I pointed to the raised inscription on my buoy, “While there’s life there’s hope.”
But my friend shook his head as he replied, “Ay, ay; I’ll tell you a yarn about that one of these days. You’ve got, you say, a week or so’s provisions stowed away in the machine?”
I nodded, not trusting my voice; for I was vexed and sore at the lack of sympathy shown by old Jackson, the first practical man out of office to see my invention. And, opening a slide here, and pressing a nut there, I showed him everything—the pemmican, the beef, mutton, and vegetable tablets; Hermann’s lozenges, the preparation of which was a secret, but in whose small compass existed a meal. I showed him the water-reservoirs, the arrangement of signals, the formidable knife for defence against sharks,—all these articles in the upper disc of duck-coated aluminum. Then, reversing the thing, I explained that the lower disc contained just such another equipment, and that, although only double the thickness of the ordinary poor fraud miscalled “life-buoy,” its whole weight was but a trifle more, with a floating capacity exactly double.
He seemed impressed. But still he shook his head, and proceeded to hit the same old nail.
“I pay,” said he, “ten shillings a pair for mine. Now that, with all the fallals, ‘ll cost close on six or seven pounds.”
“Four only,” I broke in. “And you’re as bad as the rest of them for computing human life at money value! “
But he only smiled pityingly. “Ah!” said he, “you’ve been too long away from the sea. You’ve forgotten all about owners, and ship’s husbands, and the cheeseparing policy growing stronger every day with lowering freights; to say nothing of the utter madness of throwing four pounds sterling after the drowning Dane or Greek, Swede, Norwegian, or Russian-Finn, who mans our ships nowadays. Why, the British seaman himself — if you could find him—wouldn’t be worth it, in the owner’s eyes, let alone a useless Dago! No,” he continued, “the thing would break a Government The only chance is that some of the swells who roam about the world in these times might invest in one for private use. But, there, never mind! I’ve got a proposal to make. You look worried. A sniff of the briny’d do you a world of good. I’m only going to Rio and back. The Io’s in the old berth, St Katharine’s Dock, and there’s a spare berth and a spare place at table for you as long as you like to stay with us. Ay,” intercepting a glance I involuntarily cast at my treasure, “bring it along too. I’ll make room for it, if nobody else will. Besides, we might have a chance to test it in a seaway before the trip’s over.” And my friend laughed heartily.
It was tested; but not exactly in the manner either of us was thinking of.
I had been at sea in my younger days; and I stuck to it until a modest legacy enabled me to give up a profession out of which, although fond of it, I saw very little prospect of ever being able to make a decent livelihood.
Perhaps in those far-away times I had mostly been too busy to look about me much, or that with advancing years had come wider, freer sight; but as the smart little Io bowled down Channel under all plain sail, with a strong booming of wind aloft, and a fresh rushing of pale-green water foam-tipped along her shapely black sides, I felt thrilled through and through with strange sensations of delight Incessantly I watched the changing lights and shadows on the water; the graceful curves of the canvas aloft; inhaling, as I never remembered doing aforetime, the glorious exhilaration of scene and motion.
Against the taffrail, between a pair of its more modest companions, and looking rather clumsy by contrast, hung my patent —in its rightful place at last, although not with official sanction.
One evening, after dinner, the skipper, referring to his formerly expressed notion about life-buoys, told us how, once, in mid-Pacific, he had sighted some object of which those on board could make nothing at all. And how, at last, altering his course and bearing down upon it, it turned out to be a human skeleton lashed to a buoy, its bones bleached and salt-encrusted.
“Think of it!” said old Jackson, impressively; “think of the agony and the torture, the untold suffering; think of the weary days of heat and drought and vain watching; the pitiless nights of calm, with the cold stars mocking the poor wretch’s misery! Imagine the awful pangs of thirst and hunger; the ravenous fishes and the fierce birds; and worst of all these, perhaps, the glimpse of some passing vessel! No; I’d rather, for my part, have it over and done with. And even with your affair up yonder, it’s only a prolonging of the agony. The chances are, I take it, a thousand to one against any look-out picking up so small an object, unless the ship comes slap on top of it, and not even then at night”
The chief mate agreed with his captain.
“That’s my idea to a T,” said he. “Hang on for half an hour, or perhaps an hour at the outside. If ye don’t hear a hail by then, or the grindin’ o’ the oars in the rullocks, let go all! That’s in the dark, of course. In daylight, wait till you see her tops’ls fill again. Running heavy, never bother about a buoy at all —not even if it hits you on the head. Skippers—leastways the most of ’em—these days, won’t heave-to in a sea that’s fit to swamp a match in;” and with a sour grin on his rugged, seamed old face, the mate tossed off his tumbler of rum-and-water and went on deck.
We got no south-east trades to speak of. In their place came a succession of very heavy squalls from all round the compass, making a nasty cross-sea, in which the Io played capers.
At last these squalls appeared to cease: a steady breeze set in from the north-east, and the watch went to work getting the Io’s kites on her again—royal topgallant-sails, staysails, etc
There was still a very troublesome sea on, and about dusk, noticing that the gripes of the starboard boat had worked loose, the skipper jumped into her and started to cast adrift the lashing, preparatory to hauling it tauter.
Always on the look-out to bear a hand, I followed, and tackled the other gripe.
Now, these gripes—broad bands of French sennit passed around the boats to steady them—met in the middle, with an eye at each end. Undoing the slackened lanyard, I rove it afresh through its eye, hove it taut with a thole-pin, passed it again, and, as I pulled with all my weight, the faithless thing parted, and head over heels out of the boat I went into the water. As I rose and wiped the smarting brine out of my eyes, and stared eagerly into the darkness, I thought I heard shouts and the hanging and flapping of canvas. But another of those fiery squalls we had thought over was tearing all around me, and the water seethed and foamed like a mill-race, whilst the wind chopped off great lumps and drove them at me with such fury that I was fain to turn my back to the hurly-burly before becoming exhausted.
“Surely,” I thought, “Jackson will lower a boat! The sea is not a bit too heavy!”
Then, as I rose with a despairing effort amidst the fierce onslaught of wind and water, not twenty yards away I caught sight of a vivid red flame, which, even before I dropped into another deep furrow, changed to blue.
With a shout of joy, I swam towards the spot, and in a few minutes was grasping one of the stout beckets of my buoy. To get into it took a very short time, and there, pretty well exhausted, I rested, feeling more than ever the truth of the words under my arms, “While there’s life there’s hope.” Even in that nasty chopping sea I was delighted to find that my head and shoulders were well out of the water.
It was pitch dark but for the phosphorescent flashings of the wind-swept water. Listen as I might, I could hear no sound; and I thought of the grim old mate’s words, “Hang on for half an hour, an’ if ye don’t hear the grinding o’ the oars in the rullocks, let go all!” My lights were timed for twenty minutes, and the last one was flickering in the socket of the short metal staff attached to the upper cylinder. By touching a spring, one more set might have been ignited. But I hesitated to use them. Evidently no help was to be expected from the ship. They might be of use in the future.
Then I began to consider. The squall, which still blew as wildly as ever, had come from the south—dead ahead. The Io’s yards had been nearly square, the fore and main royals just loose, and the topgallant-sails in the act of being sheeted home. The chances were that she had been taken aback badly, and lost some of her sticks. It might be worse—she might have gone down stern first, as many another good ship had done. Without a doubt, the Io had either foundered or was in cruel stress. Possibly I was better off than any of my late shipmates. I was at least alive and afloat; and, although smothered and at times almost suffocated by breaking combers, I had, as yet, no intention of letting go.
Around one portion of the buoy was wound some ten yards of very fine but very strong Manilla rope. Unfastening a part of this, I raised myself till I got my feet on the lower cylinder, which, I should have explained before, was attached to the upper by stout hollow bars of aluminium, twenty-four inches in length. The change of attitude was grateful beyond measure, although, but for my line, which I clove-hitched round my body and fastened to the buoy, just a little precarious, merely sitting, as I was, on the upper cylinder.
In about an hour the squall passed, the clouds cleared away, and the stars came out But it still blew freshly; and with my head on my knees, I drifted along through the night before the wind. I must have dozed; for when I looked up again, the eastern sky was rosy with the flushing of the new dawn. Stiff and cramped, I rose, and, standing upright on the bottom cylinder for a minute at a time, as the light grew clearer, swept the horizon with my smarting eyes. But I could see nothing but league upon league of foam-tipped water glowing redly away to the great sun, sitting with his lower limb just awash.
I made up my mind at last that the Io had foundered; and with a sigh to the memory of my late companions, involuntarily wondered how long it would be before I followed them. However, I determined to hold out to the very last moment. With great care, I believed I had rations for a fortnight. Surely, ere then some ship would pick me up! And suddenly I shivered as the old skipper’s gruesome story flashed into my mind. How long had he been roaming about the wide ocean, drifting hither and thither, searching with eyes growing ever dimmer for the sail that never came?
The sea was getting calmer, and I felt the need of something to eat and drink. So, slipping down full length, I opened one of my compartments, and, taking out a flask of whisky-and-water, I made my breakfast off a tablet of pemmican, washed down with a very modest sip of the mixture.
Unscrewing the cap of one of the small water-reservoirs, I tasted it, and found it perfectly fresh and good. Not that I expected otherwise. Everything was the work of mine own hands, fitting to a hair’s breadth, and well and faithfully put together. Still, it was satisfactory to be assured, where a flaw as big as the point of a needle meant speedy death.
My repast was not a very full one, perhaps; but I felt all the better for it And it was certainly pleasanter being where I was than “suffering a sea-change” down below there.
The wind had died away. But I saw I was travelling steadily in the set of some current. Possibly I was not very far from the coast of South America, and might, but for one thing, hope to reach it in safety.
But these waters, I knew, swarmed with sharks. And that knowledge gave me no rest. By night, as by day, I kept incessant watch until nature was exhausted. Each waking was a start of terror; each doze shark-haunted. The fear of the thing was killing me piecemeal. The blood in my legs seemed as if turned to liquid fire, and thrilled and throbbed as if anticipating a sudden release.
All the provision in my power for the dreaded enemy I had made.
In one compartment I had stowed a light thin, curved double-edged knife, of the finest-tempered steel that Sheffield could produce. Made to order, its manufacturer had boasted that hardly in the world, but certainly not in England, could its like be found. It was the most expensive item of the whole outfit.
With this screwed firmly into the socket of my signal-staff, I was in possession of a very formidable weapon at close quarters. At one time I had thought of a revolver and some cartridges. But the weight was too much.
The tropical sun beat down pitilessly. When I fell overboard I was lightly clad in ducks, with a white shirt and flannel. Taking off the shirt, I wound it wholly round my head, turbanwise, and found relief. Many times I changed my position; now I would be immersed all but the white bundle of head; then bent double, head and knees together; or extended nearly full length, with my chest alone on the buoy. But lie, or sit, or crouch, whatever way I would, ever present was the awful fear of the crunching snap of cruel teeth through bone and sinew and muscle.
And in spite of food and water, on the fourth day I felt in sorry plight. Salt-water sores and chafes were breaking out all over me, especially about the legs and feet; terrible headaches came and went; my spirits, too, sank as day after day went by and not a bird even showed itself on all the wide waste of water over which I was so slowly drifting.
The fifth morning broke in absolute calm. The buoy was motionless, the sea like glass. Taking my usual stand-up lookout, I thought I saw a speck of white away to the eastward. But I was unable to keep upright long enough to make sure. As I let myself down again, my heart jumped into my mouth. Only a few feet off was the great triangular fin so often watched for and dreamed of.
Leaning over, I unshipped my staff, to which the knife was always kept fixed. This movement caused the buoy to lurch a little, and with a sudden sheer the shark came right alongside, and raised his head and stared at me with eyes so full of sentient devilish malignity that I shivered in spite of the heat. I ought to have struck him then. But that look unnerved me for a minute, in the next he disappeared. As my provisions, especially the water, were consumed, so, of course, had the buoy risen, until now the upper cylinder, even with my weight, was in this calm a good six inches above sea-level. The waiting that followed seemed an eternity. I knew that he had recognized me for what I was. I could see it in those deadly eyes as I met their glance, and knew that the attack would certainly be made. Suddenly I felt a blow, and the buoy spun round and round like a top, whilst I nearly lost my balance and fell into the water. Rising from under, the shark had hit the bottom cylinder in his upward rush. Sheering off, he lay on the surface, showing his whole length—a good twenty feet of him. A couple of pilot-fish now came to explore, and nosed around, almost touching the buoy. But I had no eyes for them, as I sat with my feet braced against the lower cylinder, my weapon uplifted ready for the expected rush.
The pretty little devils swam back to their employer, and reported the result of their inspection. It must have been satisfactory; for, disdaining all subterfuge, this time he shot straight for me.
I waited for the critical minute, and, as he turned slightly and opened a pair of huge jaws glistening with triple rows of teeth, I delivered a slanting blow with such unnecessary force that it made me slip through the buoy to my armpits.
I hardly felt the impact of the knife. It was almost like cutting cheese. Indeed, I knew not what had happened until, scrambling to my perch, I saw half the great head floating in a pool of blood. The rest of the body had disappeared. The maker had made no mistake in boasting that his knife would cut bone like paper. There was no mark on its edge. And but for the object yonder, at which the pilot-fish now nibbled and tugged, I could scarcely believe in the reality of the affair.
At first I felt elated by my victory, and drank an extra mouthful of my carefully hoarded spirit But when I came to reflect on the many other similar combats that, in all probability, lay before me, my heart sank; and for over an hour I paddled with my hands, to get away from that blood-stained patch of sea, lest some other monster should smell me out
That day I reversed my buoy for the first time. Everything was in its place and as dry as tinder. But a slight dent in the metal showed that the concussion had been a pretty sharp one.
For a sort of mild change I had for dinner half a tablet of some compound especially recommended in one of his books by a noted Arctic explorer, and made out of egg-yolks and Mosson’s seventy-five per cent extract of buffalo-hump.
But, alas! I would have cheerfully exchanged all my scientific mixtures for one mutton-chop. They sustained life, it is true; but as for satisfying the cravings of the stomach, that indescribable sensation so poorly described as a “vacuum,” the less said the better.
I felt weary and worn-out, too dull and languid, both in mind and body, even to attempt to keep my usual fear-stricken vigils. And, at dusk, leaning over in my favourite position, with my head on my knees, I fell into the first sound sleep since leaving the Io. I dreamt many dreams. And when I awoke with the usual nervous start, and looked about me, I thought I must still be dreaming.
A great moon had risen, and, over against me, quite close, lay a dark mass, as yet shapeless. I stared and rubbed my eyes, and stolidly waited for it to vanish, as many others had done in sad night-watches. But the moon rose higher, and the dark mass took shape gradually, until I made it out to be a small clipper-bowed steamer, fore and aft rigged. But no sign of life came from her. No smoke poured from the grey stack; no churning of screw; no voices from the deck. An ominously motionless figure, with stirless sails, showing like big black wings in the silver pathway of the moon.
But she was there—a ship. That was enough for me. And with a shout that almost made me pause in the wild paddling I had set up, so harsh and discordant did it sound, I made for the steamer like some big duck winged by shot of fowler for haven of reeds.
As I presently came alongside and saw the davit-falls overhauled and hanging in the water, so fiercely eager was I with haste and longing, and the sudden glorious inrush of hope, that, forgetting the line around my body, I made a wild clutch at the falls, with the effect of completely capsizing, and being nearly drowned before I could right myself.
This calmed me a little, and I went more leisurely to work.
But so sore and stiff was I that it was only after many unavailing efforts that I at last grasped the white-latticed rail that ran along her poop, low comparatively as it was.
And when I stepped on deck I more nearly fell than lay down, completely prostrated, and feeling as weak as a new-born kitten.
Six days of scientific feeding were beginning to tell.
When I at last stood up in the flooding moonlight, trembling and shaky on my swollen, sodden feet, I found that I was on board a small steamer of some two hundred tons—a yacht by her fittings.
Everything looked neat and clean and shipshape. The brass-work shone brightly; the ropes were faked in Flemish coils on the deck. The moon had turned the sails to silver; and on the stainless planking running away for’ard into the shadow of the fore-trysail a couple of houses shone like ivory. From her gilded buttons of trucks to her deck, from jibboom end to taffrail, everything seemed ataunto and in its place. But the silence was deadly.
On a big brass bell close to the wheel I read the name La Pucelle.
Descending from a small bridge for’ard of the funnel, which I had mounted the better to take a survey, I came on to the main-deck. Here the first place I entered was the galley. Clean as a new pin, one could have eaten off the floor; whilst ranged on the walls were glittering rows of culinary utensils.
Further along were the engineers’ quarters. Single bunks, electric lamps, swinging book-cases, tabulated calculations of runs and revolutions, uniform caps and coats, photographs of La Pucelle and her officers and men. The chiefs room, evidently; and as neat and orderly as if his steward had only just left it What was the secret of it all?
In the fo’k’sle, a light and airy house on deck, there was no exception to the general rule of order and cleanliness. Owing to the foresail, the light here was not so good. But I caught glimpses of natty lockers and cupboards, brass-bound and polished; of framed engravings of the sea and ships; of berths closed in by curtains running on metal rods. Under foot was oil-cloth; electric lamps abounded. Altogether a remarkable example of the evolution of the New Seaman.
Returning aft, inexpressibly puzzled, and happening to look over the port side, I saw that the gangway ladder was shipped. It came into my mind that I had been a fool when I thought of my many futile clingings and swarmings and tumblings within a few feet of this easy passage.
Further aft still, and descending a broad, softly carpeted stairway, I entered the saloon. Through the open skylights the moon shone straight down, making it as light as day. A more luxurious apartment I had never seen, with its still living ferns and flowers, its paintings, statuettes, luxurious fauteuils and chairs, and sparkling array of silver and cut glass. It extended the full width of the ship, and, by the aid of great mirrors, could be made to look immense. These were not at first all visible, being concealed by silken curtains.
But, happening to draw one of these back, I recoiled in momentary terror at the figure that met my gaze, staring at me out of the cold moonlit sheet of glass.
Hollow-cheeked and red-eyed, with lips swollen and chapped, a rag of a coat buttoned around my emaciated body, and the remains of a pair of trousers “fagged out” in threads to above the knees, I could scarce believe in the truth of the reflection, and moved to and fro and made gestures to convince myself. My beard, always long, now fell in a grizzled mass on my chest. It and my hair had been quite black when I joined the Io; and at first I thought the change must be owing to salt. But it was not; it was permanent—the effect of shark, not salt.
Straggling about this beautiful saloon, I presently came to a flight of steps at the further end. Ascending, I entered a small smoking-room, giving on the deck, and which I had taken for a chart-house. In its way it was furnished every whit as luxuriously as the saloon. More pictures, mirrors, half a dozen huge leather armchairs, and as many marble-topped tables standing on eagles’ claws of bronze. In a large swinging-rack overhead, formed of silver-gilt to represent a Viking ship, were decanters and glasses of all shapes and of the finest manufacture. Taking out one of the former, I half filled a tumbler. It was claret, a soft velvety wine that told its own tale, even to my vitiated palate. But it, too, was warm. Have I said that everything on board La Pucelle was warm below deck? On deck everything was hot. As I walked along, the pitch stuck to my naked feet. The iron and brass-work, even at that midnight, would scarce bear handling for more than a few minutes. The ship throughout was simply saturated with heat
As I rose with an effort out of one of the easy-chairs, a letter, stuck in one of the picture-frames, caught my eye—a white oblong patch against the purple grapes of a “Fête de Bacchus.” I am but an indifferent French scholar; but I made out the address, “To the Discoverers of La Pucelle,” easily enough.
Herein then, doubtless, lay the key to the mystery.
But I knew it would take time to translate it. Moreover, the light was growing dim, and I was hungry.
So, going to the pantry which I had observed at the foot of the main staircase, I lit one of a bunch of wax tapers from the smoke-room, and poked about I found potted meats, fruit, and vegetables in profusion, and of every conceivable kind. Emptying some oysters, a tongue, and a tin of tomatoes on to a plate, and piling a few biscuits over all, I turned to go when, feeling a sharp pain in my foot I lowered the light, and perceived blood flowing from a slight cut I had trodden on a bit of a broken bottle. The bottle itself lay close by in a little heap of white powder. All I thought, at the time, as I hurried back to the smoke-room, was that so far, throughout the ship, it was the only article I had seen out of its place.
The night was hot and breathless as ever; the sea like oil, and the silence utter. Not a stir, not a ripple, not a creak of anything, and the deathlike hush fell upon my senses like lead. In addition to electric lights in rose-coloured glasses of fantastic shapes, all around the smoke-room were silver sconces, each holding a heavy short wax candle.
Lighting some of these, I sat down and made a hearty meal, punctuated with draughts of lukewarm sherry-and-water. Certain that the letter would tell me everything I wished to know, I was in no great hurry. Even so, it would have been all the same. My knowledge of French, I was well aware, allowed no haste. In a drawer of one of the tables I found a dozen or so cigars. Great Neptune! the first taste of that tobacco! What though it did make my cracked lips smart and bring tears to my salt-scalded eyes, the very act of smoking seemed to me to supply the one thing lacking as voucher to my new lease of life.
The letter was dated, so far as I could judge from the necessarily imperfect reckoning I had been able to keep, but three or four days back. It began—
“We cannot be more than eight hundred miles from Rio de Janeiro. But it is four months and a day since we left there. The second week out we struck some wreckage, and stripped the blades off our propeller, besides fracturing the shaft. I do not believe we moved two miles in any direction after that. But worse was to come.
“One day, what we imagined was yellow fever broke out amongst us. First, Ferrand the chief engineer died. Then one after the other the officers succumbed. Our doctor, a guest of the Marquis de la Forestier and myself, had been left with four other members of our party, in Rio. They were to rejoin us at Pernambuco, for which port we were bound when we lost our screw and struck this windless belt and were boarded by Death.
“One morning, at breakfast, the marquis himself was taken ill. At noon, my friend and old schoolfellow died in my arms. No suspicion had any of us that it was aught but fever. The symptoms were exactly as we had heard when ashore—excessive retching, agonized spasms, death. Alas! we had no doctor, and, amongst us all, no medical knowledge!
“And it was calm—always calm. And we lay and sweltered, motionless. And at short intervals men died. The officers were all gone. Then in one day five of the sailors died—five, do you understand?—one after the other. The survivors, wild with fear, declared that La Pucelle was accursed—doomed to rot where she lay. And, seizing two of the boats, they pulled away. They implored us to join them. But we preferred to stay and take our chance. There had been no deaths for twenty-four hours. So they went. On board were now left only myself, Jean d’Auvergne, better known as the Baron de Clichy; my friend, Antoine de Cevenne, Sieur de Beaupère, and the steward, a native of Ajaccio in Corsica, who also refused to leave the ship. Evidently the plague had ceased. But week after week we lay like a log in the sun’s eye; night after night, and day by day, and hour by hour, did we pray and watch for wind to fill our little sails, and at least take us from amidst the graves of our dead shipmates, the monsters who never ceased to swim about in the stagnant water, watching for more victims. And ever the calm stood, and to save ourselves from madness, we worked hard at cleaning and scraping and painting the vessel.
“For some time the steward had been acting in a strange and most offensive manner, insisting, amongst other things, that, as we were now all equal, he should take his meals with us in the cabin. Naturally, we resisted this innovation. One day, words waxed hot between himself and Antoine. De Cevenne struck him. His threats were awful. ‘Ferrand struck me once!’ he concluded. ‘Where is Ferrand now? Where are they all, my accursed masters? ‘
“Then a horrid suspicion came into my mind, and I determined to watch him closely for at least the next twenty-four hours. But such a length was unnecessary. Washing the blood from his face, he went straight to his pantry. Stealthily I followed, and saw him take a square glass bottle from one of the shelves. Holding it up to the light, he grinned, and muttered to himself in Italian—
“ ‘Fool that I was to spare them! Soon shall the fever return! Then there will be but one master on La Pucelle!’
“With a shout to Antoine in the saloon, the next minute I had the miscreant by the throat. He fought like a fury. But we mastered him. The bottle contained arsenic stolen from the dispensary. He had not even the excuse of insanity; for when at last securely bound, we carried him on deck, he boasted, in a matter-of-fact, cold-blooded fashion, of the revenge he had taken. And he told us, too, that he had but spared us for a short time longer because of the pleasure it gave him to feel the sense of absolute power over the last of his former masters—a possession he was loth to part with.
“ ‘But the poor seamen, with whom you had nothing to do?’ queried Antoine, in a voice of horror.
“ ‘The lust to kill comes by killing,’ replied the wretch with a laugh.
“And he would speak no more. Indeed, he had but little time. Far more merciful than he had been, we hurled him overboard. The next minute the watchers took him, leaving only a red stain on the still water, to show the end of the wholesale murderer. And now the ship became utterly insupportable. At every turn we met the ghosts of our poor poisoned friends. Strangely enough, before this knowledge, no such thoughts had ever troubled us. Now Martel the captain, Ferrand the engineer, bluff old Joyeuse the mate, the marquis, and many others, hovered around us, all with distorted faces and despairing gestures, their Manes still unappeased.
“To-day we take the larger of the two remaining boats. Of provisions and water we have an ample supply. Farewell, unknown reader! Perhaps, ere this meets your eye, we may have joined our friends over yonder. But we trust in the good God and the saints, and, more than all, in our luck. Once more, adieu!
Before I finished the tragic story, a hot dawn had broken. But I still sat and thought. Awful things, I knew, had happened at sea before to-day. Yet surely was I brought face to face with one of the most awful of them all. And the ship herself, lying motionless in her fifth month of imprisonment! Was it to be ever so? And was I doomed to stay and watch her slowly rotting, in company with the ghosts of those so foully done to death on board of her?
Involuntarily I rose and walked aft, and looked hard at the little dinghy hanging over the stem. But I had been too much at close quarters with the sea lately, and my mind was soon made up. I preferred La Pucelle and the ghosts. Then, spying my faithful buoy, still fast to the davit-falls, I began to haul it on board. At the splash it made in leaving the water, there was a sudden rush from a dozen different quarters, and a gleaming of white bellies that made me shiver with some return of the old feeling of despair, and resolved me more than ever to stick to La Pucelle as long as she had a sound plank in her. Out of the very jaws of death had I been snatched. Back again, even in a boat, and a buoy to boot, would I never more adventure.
On the main-deck was a small hand-pump, communicating, as I guessed, with the water-ballast. From this I presently got a refreshingly cool drink, and, filling a big tub, had a delicious bath. There was at least one cool spot on board La Pucelle. And yet the water was only cool by comparison with what I had hitherto been drinking. The sea itself, I afterwards discovered, at a depth of twenty fathoms alongside, was 90° Fahr.
Rummaging about in one of the state-rooms, I found clean underclothing, a suit of serge that fitted me, and a broad-brimmed straw hat These articles I appropriated without scruple. Boots I could not suffer yet, so I went bare-footed until I dropped across a pair of roomy slippers. I also trimmed my beard with a pair of scissors, and looked curiously at the grizzled flakes of hair as they fell on deck.
Then I lit the galley fire, and made some cocoa. I also picked the bottle off the pantry floor. It, or rather the fragments, were labelled “Arsenic.” Carefully collecting all I could find, I mixed it in a tin of lobster, and took it to the rail, and threw it to a shark, who was doing “sentry go” at the gangway. He swallowed the lot, and, in a few minutes, moved away at a great rate.
A small awning was spread aft, and under that I took up my quarters, going below as little as possible. Although anything but nervous, the memory of the dismal tragedy so recently played out was not comfortable, especially o’ nights, the hot, airless nights seeming interminable in the tomblike silence. There were hundreds of books on board, in almost all languages except English. With the aid of a dictionary, I attacked one of the French novels. But it was slow work. Three or four times during the night I would get up and trim my lights. In addition to the side ones, I had one at the end of the main-trysail gaff, and another halfway up the fore-topmast stay.
But, in spite of all I could do, it was a hideously dull and dreary time. All the clocks on board had stopped. I set them all going, and brought two of the largest—beautiful and massive studies in bronze and marble, with silvery chimes—on deck for company. And one night, lighting all the wax candles in the smoke-room, and refilling decanters and claret-jugs, I set them out on the tables. It would look, I imagined, more companionable. It proved far too much so. As I sat and smoked, unbidden guests glided in and joined me. Capitaine de vaisseau, Léon Martel, stout and handsome, but paler than the coloured photograph in his state-room, suddenly occupied the armchair opposite to me. The marquis, a tall, thin, dark young man, with black moustache and imperial, gazed inquiringly at me out of another. A stern-faced, elderly man, with grizzled moustache and side whiskers, bent over a table and frowned. I at once identified him as Ferrand, the chief engineer, and recollected that, in all probability, I was wearing his clothes. Others, whose features I had not seen, entered; and presently the place seemed to fill with a sort of ghostly mirth, mingled with faint tinklings of glass, and a thin hum of many voices.
Suddenly Ferrand, taking up a tumbler, made as though to launch the contents in my face. Instinctively raising my arm, there was a crash. I rose, bewildered, stared for a moment at the tall jug I had swept off the table, and then bolted on deck. There were no more reunions in the smoke-room after that.
Then, as I gazed at the stirless water, a sea of oil to every horizon; at the pendent sails, immobile, as if cast in steel; as I listened in vain for a sound, except the musical tickings of the clocks, in a very fury of fear lest I should go mad, I did even as those others had found the necessity of doing, and, spite of the heat began to work hard, and, for a time, constantly, giving myself no rest
Plank by plank I holystoned and scrubbed the hot decks. I polished every particle of brass-work, until it shone hotter than ever to the hot sun. Then I slung aloft and scraped and tarred everything I could reach. Then I gave the bulwarks and deckhouses a fresh coat of paint. Nay, more, I rigged a stage and painted the ship outside all round and regilded the beading. Astern was a floral device in colours and gilt that took me three days. Ahead, a white maiden in glittering chain-armour, another three.
From morn till evening I worked, as few men do for a wage— worked through the breathless heat, and grudged the approach of night
Only at midday, when I took the sun, and made it eight bells, did I allow myself a short spell. My latitude never varied. If there was a drift at all, it was so trifling as to be imperceptible. This I had long known. All round the ship clustered a variety of objects, evidently thrown overboard months ago. Did I hurl a preserved meat-tin far out as I could, it would slowly but surely return alongside, and add itself to the flotsam and jetsam already collected there. Of nautical instruments there was a splendid assortment on board. Of my latitude I was certain; longitude was guess-work, inasmuch as I had set the chronometers in like fashion. Evidently, since the death of those responsible for the navigation of La Pucelle, that department had been utterly neglected, probably through ignorance on the side of the survivors.
The result of my observations, allowing for error, led me to believe that my windless prison was not more than two hundred miles from the coast of Brazil—too far out for coasters, not far enough for deep-sea vessels.
As the days passed in constant exercise, and the nights in sound sleep, my health improved and my mind grew more cheerful. The silence ceased to trouble me so much. Also it was with a real sense of relief that I noticed the disappearance of the sharks. No splashing that I could make now would attract one; whereas, formerly, the fall of a biscuit was sufficient to bring half a dozen.
So the time went by until the thirty-third day of my rescue and captivity.
That day’s work had been a hard one. With much contriving and hanging on, I had managed to paint the funnel. And very well I thought it looked in its new coat of buff. That was to be my last job above deck. Next day I meant to tackle the machinery and engines, and polish and oil them.
Although still keeping hard at it, I must admit that I began to tire. And, this evening, as I knocked off and took my usual last long look around through the glass, I felt more than usually depressed as I followed the still meeting line of sea and sky, unbroken, except where the setting sun glowed like a furnace on the face of the waters. It had been hotter than ever that day, or had seemed so. The ship reeked with heat; and I could not put the eyepiece of the telescope within an inch of my face. Yet it had been under cover. Along the white decks the seams looked like tiny black rivulets as they swelled and bubbled in the fierce air. Had I not “washed down” two or three times a day, I firmly believe La Pucelle would have fallen asunder, strongly built as she was. Even now, as I stripped, and set the head-pump going, and slashed buckets of water fore and aft her, thin clouds of steam rose from the heated decks, and the ring-bolts and the iron sheathing of the water-ways, all the metal, in fact, about her, that the lukewarm fluid touched, actually “sizzled.”
And the night brought no relief. I tossed for hours on my couch under the awning, and it must have been nearly morning ere I dropped off into a very sound sleep.
I awoke suddenly, and lay listening as in a dream to the tumultuous rush of water, the humming of wind, and the creaking and rattling of gear. For a while I listened, smiling, and unwilling to disturb the pleasant illusion.
Presently, however, a quick lurch sent me right off the skylight, and, thoroughly aroused, I sprang to my feet.
It was blowing a strong breeze right aft, and La Pucelle was jogging along, in a wagging kind of fashion, through a changed world of wind and wave and sky.
In a few minutes I had the booms guyed out and the two little jibs hoisted. As the vessel felt the weight of the filling canvas, I ran to the wheel, and put her head due west
There was plenty of noise. But at the outside she was not making more than three or four knots, eloquent testimony to the futile spread of sail and the state of her bottom.
But, just now, that troubled me little. The terrible spell was broken—a thing that I had almost begun to despair of, and my soul was filled with a stirring sense of joyous elation that took no heed for the future as I turned, bare-headed and bare-breasted, to the glorious breeze, and watched with ecstasy the leaping smother of the waves and the mass of dark clouds that hurried across a so long hatefully clear sky.
The sun rose on a scene which, by contrast with the one I had just left, was as life is to death, as fields bright with flowers of spring to the darkness and silence of the tomb.
A school of porpoises was racing and gambolling round and round La Pucelle; shoals of flying-fish shot their short course over the creaming wave-tops, their wings glittering in the sun, and fell with sudden splashings. Astern, a flock of molly-mawks and stormy petrels swooped and cried. And, perhaps, even above this joyous ocean scenery, the novel freshness and coolness of the early morning, so long unfelt, unknown, affected my heat-dried frame most powerfully. I was hungry, but grudged leaving the deck for a few minutes, so busy was I drinking in the change at every pore. And as the wind lifted, and carried a portion of my bedding for’ard, I laughed for very joy at a sight so utterly new and astounding.
The wind kept steady, just shifting on to the port quarter; and, the helm requiring very little attention, I went and had some breakfast and a bath.
At noon I made myself about two hundred and fifty miles from Bahia, and shaped a course for that port as nearly as I could.
Of course, I could not be constantly at the wheel; but, all things considered, La Pucelle steered remarkably well, and I snatched many a nap on the skylight with the wheel steadied amidships by a becket on each spoke. And we were travelling so very slowly that, really, a few points each way or a jibe now and again mattered very little.
My almost only chance lay in being picked up by some passing vessel whose track I might cross.
And on the third or fourth morning a sail sprang suddenly into the field of my glass. She seemed to be steering much the same course as myself, and was a long way off, so far, indeed, that I could only see what I conjectured to be her royals and topgallant sails. But as she came more into view, I was puzzled. She appeared to be square-rigged on all three masts, such as they were—no taller, or very little more so, than La Pucelle’s walking-sticks. Three topsails, apparently, with a couple of smaller sails above them, and a nondescript attempt at a solitary head sail, were her whole turn-out of canvas; and, under this, she waddled along at about the same rate as myself. Evidently a very lame duck indeed—dismasted, doubtless, and making the most of a few spare spars and odd sails. But, crippled as she was, the sight of her was an immense relief to me, who had almost begun to believe in an unpeopled ocean.
At dark we were still some five or six miles apart. Lighting La Pucelle’s lamps, as usual, I presently brought some rockets out of the signal-locker, and let a couple off; and in a few minutes I had the satisfaction of seeing them answered by two others. The breeze about ten o’clock grew lighter, and, to my impatient soul, La Pucelle seemed to be scarcely moving.
All night I stayed at the wheel, off and on. It was very dark; and I had lost sight of the other vessel, appearing hitherto as a thicker blotch on the gloom. Towards morning, sitting on the skylight for a moment, and congratulating myself on having kept awake so well, I must presently have dropped hard-and-fast asleep.
The hot beams of the morning sun awoke me, and I opened my eyes and stared straight up into old Jackson’s rubicund face, which was regarding me curiously.
“Well,” he exclaimed, after another long, half-doubtful look, as I rose and shook hands with him, “this beats all! I’d given you up for gone. Lost some of our sticks that night, and the rest towards morning. Only had time to chuck your buoy over. Ay, I see it’s turned up trumps. Well, I am pleased, and no mistake!” and the old fellow seized my hand once more in his vice-like grip.
“Here,” continued the skipper, singling out one who stood apart from the little group of the Io’s sailors and officers that pressed round me with hearty congratulations, “here is another castaway you ought to know, Moonseer de Clichy.” And a dark, handsome young man approached, and, with a polite bow, remarked that he was happy to see me looking so well.
“I’ve another one there,” said the captain, pointing to where the Io lay almost alongside, at a curious nondescript kind of creature —“this gentleman’s friend; picked them up in the steamer’s boat, day before yesterday, as jolly as sand-boys. Blessed if I don’t think the sea’s full of strayed passengers this trip! I’m going to write to the Times when I get home, advocating the establishment of an ‘Ocean Salvage Fleet,’ with nothing to do but hunt around for wrecks and rafts and patent life-buoys,” and the old man chuckled as I led the way below.
Monsieur de Clichy shuddered visibly as he glanced about the gay saloon. But now the national temperament asserted itself; and, producing some bottles of champagne, he drank my health, and wished me joy of my deliverance, dismissing the subject of his own with a careless snap of the fingers.
But our great puzzle now was to know what to do with La Pucelle.
It seemed a shame to leave the costly and beautiful fabric to drift about the ocean; to say nothing of the danger to others in such a course.
The baron, with a shudder and a shrug, both indicative of disgust and abhorrence, proposed to blow her up. But Jackson protested very strongly, and De Clichy was silent, appearing to take no further interest in the matter.
Eventually, the skipper offered me four men—all he could spare, to help take her into Bahia, for which port the Io was herself making.
“Mind,” he whispered, “this is a big salvage job, and there’s money in it. The French swell yonder doesn’t seem to care a hang what becomes of her.”
At that moment Monsieur de Clichy came up to us and said, “Well, gentlemen; do as you please. With my poor friend, De la Forestier, I was owner of this accursed vessel—to each of us half. My share I make over to you unreservedly. If he were with me now, I am certain he would, on his side, do the same. So I will do it for him. Take her, my friends, sink her to the bottom of the sea; blow her in little fragments towards the sky; anything you like;” and with a wave of his hand he walked away again.
“Now, that’s what I call full and satisfactory,” remarked old Jackson. “By-and-by we’ll have it in black and white. Now we’ll turn to.”
So it came to pass that, one morning not long afterwards, the Io and La Pucelle entered Bahia Harbour at the tail of a great tramp that had come up with us, waddling along amicably but very slowly together.
A Spanish prince, happening to want just such an article, bought La Pucelle as she stood, undeterred by curious rumours that went abroad in spite of the close tongues we all kept
My share came to enough not only to buy one of those pleasant houses on the crest of Highgate Hill, but to add another £400 per annum to my modest income.
Also I married. But I never took any further steps to bring my invention before the public.”
It hangs now in the place of honour over the dining-room mantelpiece. My children call it “The Hope,” and never seem tired of listening to the strange story of La Pucelle, which I shall probably continue to relate with variations all the rest of my life.
It’s awkward for a watch when its officer takes a “down” upon it. And so the starbowlines of the Spindrift found. It all arose out of a little matter in connection with the rigging-out of a lower fore-top-mast-stuns’l boom in the North-east Trades, the particulars of which are unnecessary. Suffice it to say that the “greaser,” or second mate, with apparently the tacit consent of the captain and the open connivance of the chief, henceforth hazed his men high and low, watch in and watch out.
Meanwhile the port watch were the “white-headed boys ”—pets for whom nothing was too good.
Sometimes, in such case, men do violent things— give their officer “a passage” overboard in the gloom of a dark, squally night, or brain him with a marline-spike artistically dropped from aloft—an accident blamed on a rotten lanyard. At other times they set their teeth stubbornly and do their duty sulkily but with exactness, striving to leave no loophole through which quarter-deck malice can creep, ever on the lookout to nag, and work up, and worry by day and by night. The starboard watch of the Spindrift had chosen the latter course, and found that it availed them nothing.
Then at two Australian ports they had asked for their discharges. But in vain, for men were very scarce and wages high. Then, of course, they tried to run away. But they made a mess of it, and were brought back ignominiously and fined. And the magistrate told grey-haired old Sam Marsden that a man of his age ought to have known better than desert a comfortable ship like the Spindrift, and her good, kind officers; and that he ought to be ashamed of himself; and also asked him if he had any excuse to make for such ungrateful conduct.
“Please, your honour,” commenced Sam, “it’s all along o’ that there ‘greaser.’ An—
“Silence, sir! How dare you!” thundered the P.M. “Go back to your duty!”
So that little episode was all over; and now, here they lay at anchor in Port Charlotte—the most God-forgotten place south of the line—nearly a full ship, and homeward bound to catch the big February wool sales.
You go up a long, wide arm of the sea, as crooked as a dog’s hind leg, to get to Port Charlotte. For some miles tall mountains, grim, barren, and rugged, rise on each hand. At last, leaving these, you open out nearly flat country—mud and mangroves to the left, mangroves and mud to the right on either shore, with, further inland, low sandhills covered with dense scrub.
A couple of long wooden jetties push out into what, by this, is a narrow salt-water channel locally known as “The River.”
To the casual wanderer in the one sandy street that twists amongst the dozen or so of shanties composing the town, goats and galvanised iron are about the only objects visible, except at such seasons as the camel trains come down from the interior and unload their wool at the sheds that stand at the shore-end of jetties “No. 1” and “No. 2.”
A desolate hole, indeed, and only a few vessels, whose consignees were interested in the surrounding stations, came there to load the bales brought across the waterless desert country that stretched from the coast far towards the Queensland border, dotted here and there with oases of scant pasturage, mostly saltbush.
At present the only ship in the stream besides the Spindrift was a smart-looking American barque called the Millie Davies, and hailing from Boston, although chartered by a London firm.
She was nearly crewless, and had been obliged to take “runners” to work her round from the last port of call. These men had returned by the fortnightly steamer, and Captain Brown began to fear that he would be obliged to prolong his stay indefinitely. Two able seamen were all he could muster, in spite of every endeavour. And although his ship was even more nearly stowed than the Spindrift, he feared much that the latter would get a long start.
Between the two captains there was no love lost. Captain Brown, of the Millie Davies, had been told by Captain Martin, of the Spindrift, on the occasion of that vessel’s bringing-up too close to the American, and being remonstrated with therefore, to “mind his own business.” Whereupon Captain Brown had emphatically damned his brother seaman’s eyes from the Millie’s forecastle head, at the same time making allusions to a “pig-headed Britisher." After which the pair passed each other ashore and on the water without signalling.
“I could lick her into rags, big as she is,” said Captain Brown to Mr. Leeson, of Kandamooka, down with the last of his clip homeward bound in the Millie Davies, as the pair stood on the latter’s deck watching the Spindrift ‘‘bending sails.” “And not a man to be got! What the deuce to do I don’t know! I never was in such a fix in my life!” And the skipper bit lumps out of his moustache with sheer vexation.
“No use worrying, old man,” replied Leeson. “The steamer’s not due before Saturday. She may bring news. Tell you what—come back with me to the station for a few days. No use fretting here, it’ll be a change. I’ll drive you down again on Friday.”
“Yes,” grumbled the other, “and that brute over yonder’ll be at sea by then.”
“So much the better,” said Leeson, who was cheerful, although interested, and anxious that his wool should not be too late for the sales. “You’ll not have to do a fret at the sight. Come right away.”
So, rather unwillingly, the captain of the Millie Davies set off for Kandamooka, distant only thirty miles from Port Charlotte.
* * * * * * * *
“Tell you what, Mr. Somes,” said Captain Martin to his chief officer as he watched the lumpers working the last of the cargo into the square of the main hatchway, “we’ll give the crew liberty before we start. The starboard watch is as surly and sulky as it can stick. Tell Morse (the second mate) to knock off his hazing ’em—at least till we get out to sea. His watch can go ashore in the morning. Your chaps can go next day if we have time. And, anyhow, it doesn’t matter much whether they do or not. Germans and foreigners never want coaxin ’like your d—d Englishmen. I’ll give the starboards ten bob apiece. They can get a bellyful of grog at the pub for that. It’ll put ’em in a good temper for the trip home. And I’ll defy them to give us the slip in a howling wilderness like that over yonder.”
The starboard watch was not a little astonished when, next morning, the eight A.B.’s composing it were presented with an advance on their wages due of ten shillings per man, and told that they could go on liberty for twelve hours. They were all of them Englishmen. The port watch were Germans and Danes. And there was no fellowship between the two, each keeping strictly to its own side of the forecastle.
* * * * * * * * *
“Boys,” said old Sam Marsden, as the liberty boat pulled back to the ship and left the eight standing rather forlornly on the jetty, “I votes that instid o’ goin’ an’ boozin’, as the skipper expecks us to do, that we has a reg’ler pick-nick, as the shore people calls it. We’ve got four quid between us. Well, we’ll buy some beer an’ tucker. Then we’ll go for a walk, an’ see what there is to be seen, which won’t be much. Then we’ll have a camp, and rig up a feed to suit ourselves. If anybody’s got a better notion let ’em out with it.”
But apparently nobody had.
“Just as you likes, old un,” said one, a little cockney named Burton. “It’s hall the same to Sam. Hall we’s a-waitin’ an’ a-watchin’ for is to catch sight o’ the green light in the chemist’s shop winder at Gravesend, an’ bid good-bye-an’-fare-you-well to that flamin’ hooker, hover yonder, an’ her rotten hafter-guard. It’ll be nothin’ but for a work-hup passidge ’ome same’s it was hout. So ’ere goes for a ramble through the wild bush of Horsetralia, which don’t look no improvement on ’Ampton Court, not to mention Battersea Park.”
So they bought bread, jam, cakes, raw beefsteak, or what passed for such in Port Charlotte, and a great many bottles of beer, and off they set haphazard into the bush, walking briskly through the scrub of quandongs, honeysuckles, and stunted stringy-barks, that grew densely over the sandhills. Turning their backs to the sea, they straggled along, watching the shell-parrots and lowries; and greeting a stray kangaroo that came flopping through their line with shouts of applause. And when, presently, they came across a little creature sitting on a log, with an old, old, weary look about its face, that gazed at them with un-winking beady-black eyes and opened a huge blue-black cavity of a mouth, and erected a spiky frill around its neck, and hissed with long-drawn sibilations, their astonishment and delight knew no bounds. “What is he, Sam?” they asked, deferring to age and experience.
“I ain’t quite sure,” replied that ancient mariner, stepping hastily back as the jew-lizard made a move towards him; “but, if you arsts me to name him, I should call him ‘Mouth Almighty’! Leave the creetur alone. He mayn’t be harmful—altho’ if he ain’t, he deceives his looks.”
The next thing to engage their attention was a great iguaua that scuttled up a small sapling and from its top suspiciously eyed the starboad watch grouped below and put out its tongue at them.
“Cross atween a snake an’ a halligator, an’ mos’ likely pisonous!” was old Marsden’s verdict in this case. And so they rambled along, finding much more of interest than they had expected. It was the first liberty day any of them had spent in such Arcadian fashion, and although not orthodox, it was not unpleasant. At last, hot and thirsty, they came to a grateful shade under a native cherry-tree, and there lit a fire, cooked their steak and drank beer, and had a hearty feed, a rest, and a smoke.
As the sun got low they prepared to make a move, declaring one and all that it was the best liberty day they could remember, and praising old Marsden for his notion.
They had only gone a short distance in what they supposed was the right direction for the port when a yell from the cockney Burton, who brought up the rear, startled the crowd. “’Ere’s a bloomin’ hostridge!” he shouted. “Come on, we’ll catch the beggar, ’an take ’im on board!” darting off in pursuit as he spoke. In a minute all hands were in full cry after the big emu, who strode leisurely along through the scrub, keeping just ahead of his pursuers until tired of the fun, when he put on steam and disappeared like a flash, leaving them breathless on a high ridge, from which nothing was to be seen but a sea of scrub on every hand. But after a spell they kept on in good heart, never doubting that, in spite of twists and turnings, “backings” and “fillings,” they were certain to hit the sea somewhere near the port. Nor were they undeceived till, at sundown, they came upon the remains of a fire under a shady tree with a score or two of “dead marines” lying about, and recognised their midday camp. Then popular opinion took a certain change as to the delights of liberty day spent picnicing in the Australian bush.
Also “Cockney” came in for an unmerited share of abuse for inveigling them with his “hostridge” off the correct track—abuse unmerited, because, as a matter of fact, they had never been travelling in the right direction at all.
However, after a rest, they took their boots off their feet, sore and swollen by the unaccustomcd exercise, and, steering by a star, tramped steadily on, whilst a big moon rose and flooded the silent bush with silvery light, changing the whole landscape into a vast phantasmagoria of black and white, through which silently marched eight huge shadows.
With frequent rests, during which sarcastic remarks were made anent “pick-nicks,” they toiled on until brought up by a rabbit-proof fence, which they examined curiously, and hesitated to cross for fear of some trap inside. It looked like part of a huge birdcage. And Burton said that probably it was used to keep “hostridges” in, and that they were very likely near some settlement. At last, rather doubtfully, they got over it; and about midnight, sore and tired and thirsty, they heard the barking of many dogs.
“Ah,” said old Marsden huskily, “there’s the port at last. I knowed we was going pretty right for it. We’ll have to hail for a boat, an’ a nice row there’ll be.”
“Let ’em row,” replied the cockney. “I votes as we don’t hattempt to go haboard at all to-night. We’ll rouse hout the publican and get some lush. My throat’s like a bloomin’ hash ’eap, and I could drink a ’ogs’ead o’ three-’alf to my own cheek."
The proposition met with hearty approval, and inspirited by the prospect, they set off at a jog. More fences, but not like “birdcages” this time, and presently they stood bewildered in front of a long array of low buildings, whose iron roofs glistened in the moonlight.
“Looks like a blessed railway station,” muttered one, as they advanced to the sound of furious volleys of barks. In a minute a man came out with a whip and cracked it. Then, catching sight of the eight, he stared suspiciously, and sang out, “Hallo! What are all you fellows doing about the station at this hour of the night?”
“It is a station, then!” exclaimed the cockney. “We must ha’ got a long way hoff the port. Can you tell us, guv’nor, wot time the next train starts? Or is it close enough to pad the hoof to?”
The man laughed as he answered. “It’s four hundred miles to the nearest railway, and thirty to Port Charlotte. This is a sheep station. What are you—runaway sailors, eh?”
“No, sir,” replied old Sam Marsden, stepping forward, “we belong to the Spindrift. We got liberty an’ went for a pick-nick—the starboard watch. But, all through chasin’ a dashed hostridge, we lost our bearin’s, and it seems as we’ve made a d—d bad landfall for the second time.”
The man laughed again, and so did another who had joined him on the verandah, and in whom presently, to their surprise, they recognised the captain of the Millie Davies.
“All right,” said the first speaker. “Go into that hut over yonder and light a fire. I’ll send you some tucker and blankets directly. And I’m going to drive Captain Brown, here, down to the port to-morrow. I daresay there’ll be room in the waggonette for the lot of you.”
Thanking him, the starboard watch went off to their quarters.
“I tell you,” said Captain Brown to the owner of Kandamooka, as the latter, after waking the cook and the storekeeper to see to the comfort of the visitors, lit his pipe, produced the decanters, and prepared for a yarn before returning to bed, “I tell you, Leeson,” said he, “that it’s the greatest notion out. They’ll just make up a crowd, short, of course. But I can manage with them.”
“How about getting them on board?” asked the other. “There’s the rub!”
“I don’t know—yet,” replied the captain. “Still, if they’re willing, that’s only a detail. Send over a couple of bottles of rum to them, like a good fellow. I’ll go and have a yarn with ’em as soon as their bellies are full. I know Martin’s a tight hand with his men. And at two pounds ten a month they can’t have much back pay coming. The Millie Davies to a rotten orange that we’re up the British Channel first, after all!”
* * * * * * * * *
“Have you thought of a plan?” asked Leeson of his guest the next morning at breakfast.
“Not half a plan," answered the captain; “and I’ve been racking my brains all night. The fellows are game enough—delighted at the chance, indeed. They’re a prime lot of men too. But the matter’s more difficult than it seems.”
“Not it!” exclaimed the squatter, laughing triumphantly. “I’ve thought it out, and believe it will answer. Of course, there’s a risk. But I think it’s worth chancing.” And then he told Captain Brown his idea, concluding, “We must just put our trust in Providence, combined with lamp-black and oil.”
“Jehosophat!” exclaimed the captain. “I believe it’ll work. I’ll chance it, anyhow, to get to wind’ard of that nasty beggar Martin. Yes, sir. There’s no one in the place to make a row about signing articles. Besides, although I’m British charter, I’m American bottom, and can show my right to sign any men on board if I so please. Go ahead!”
Later, a large waggonette, drawn by four horses, and containing, besides Leeson of Kandamooka, Captain Brown and eight black fellows, was pulled up on its way to the port by a mounted trooper. “Good day, Mr. Leeson,” said he. “I suppose you haven’t seen any sailors about, have you? They’re some of the Spindrift’s men, and Captain Martin will have it that they’ve cleared out. But I don’t see quite where they could make for. Probably they’re only bushed. Jimmy, my black boy, is away at the Springs, or I’d ha’ found them before this. How d’ye do, captain? Got a crew at last, I see (laughing). All A.B.’s, eh?”
“Dogs were making a devil of a row at the homestead last night, Jones,” replied Mr. Leeson. “And I fancied I saw tracks outside the horse-paddock fence as I came along. Woa, there, you brutes! Yes; Captain Brown’s going to see what he can do with the niggers in the way of knocking iron-rust and scraping paint. Ship’s going to the devil for want of dolling-up a bit. Woa, there, will you! So long, Jones. Horses are too fresh to stop.”
“Oh, my heye! Ain’t this a bloomin’ lark we’re a ’avin’ of!” whispered one of the aboriginals to his companions.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Why, blame my cats,” exclaimed the chief officer of the Spindrift late that evening, “if the Yankee ain’t getting her anchor! Where in hell did she rise the men! I never saw any come up the river. Go and tell the skipper, boy. Give me that glass, Mr. Morse. Well, I’m damned, if she ain’t got a crew of niggers—niggers as black as the ace of spades, by the almighty Jingo! And singing, too, like a crowd of snortingales. Oh, this beats cock fighting! And those brutes of yours, Morse, God knows where, ashore all the time.”
Then up came the captain, and the three stared through the deepening dusk, hardly able to believe their eyes; whilst listening with puzzled faces to the clank of the windlass-pawls and the long-drawn plaintive notes of an improvised chanty :—
“Oh, it’s farewell to the bush of Australia,
It’s farewell and good-bye to your land;
Hurrah, my boys, we’re homeward bound!
Don’t you see that we’re outward bound?
“Oh, I thought I heard that ‘Greaser’ say,
‘My starbowlines, I give you a liberty day.’
Good-bye, fare you well: good bye, fare you well,
Can’t you see that we’re homeward bound?
“‘But damn your eyes, I’ll make you
Is what I heard that ‘Greaser’ say.
Farewell and good-bye to your land,
Heave away, my bully boys, for we’re all bound to go!
Presently a little black tug steamed alongside the Millie and took her by the nose. Down came the stars and stripes in salute to the goats, and the galvanised iron, and sand, and mud, and mangroves, and lonely jetties, and the barque moved swiftly down the river in the crimson pathway of the sun, setting behind the great scarred mountains that face the open sea.
Abreast of the Spindrift the Millie dipped her ensign again. But there was no response. On the former’s forecastle-head the Germans and Danes chewed stolidly at their supper; surprise and chagrin and an undefined suspicion held the quarter-deck silent.
Then into the Millie’s port fore-rigging swarmed a heap of grinning blacks who groaned loudly in concert three times, led off by a grey-headed old darkie.
And all at once the quick shadows of the Australian night fell on ships, and scrub, and river, and distant mountains, and the Spindrift’s starboard watch passed out of sight for ever.
“No, Frank, I’ve quite made up my mind! No more of these pettifogging little affairs! We’ve over £5,000 to our credit now. Let us turn it into £100,000. And the ridiculous simplicity of the thing! Why, as they say over yonder, it’s as easy as falling off a log. The only wonder is that it’s never been tackled before!”
And the speaker, a tall, dark, handsome man, looked inquiringly at his companion and brother. Frank Maitland, also tall, but not so dark as Charles, who was almost swarthy, for a minute or two puffed slowly at his cigar without answering.
“Yes,” said he, at last, “it seems feasible enough. But it’ll want a lot of thinking out. And, by the way, it has been done before, only not in the manner that I think you have in mind. Also, the sum was small. And the fellows were nabbed. However, old man, count me in, although I know little of the scheme, except that you’ve had it simmering in that restless brain of yours for the last few years.”
The room in which the two Maitlands sat was one forming part of a flat in a large building in Kensington, known as Holland Chambers. It was well, even luxuriously, furnished, and around the walls hung an array of curios, ranging from a Zulu kaross to an Australian boomerang; whilst on the polished floor were strewn many skins of big game—mostly African felidæ. Gun and rifle cases of all descriptions were packed in one corner; over the fireplace was a handsomely framed picture in oils, painted by Frank, and representing an incident in one of the Boer-Zulu wars, during which he and his brother had been “commandeered” by the former. Other sketches brightened the walls, all of more than average merit. A violin and a piano formed a portion of the furniture. It was an ideal bachelor’s “den.” Adjoining it, but connected by a glass-roofed conservatory, were the four or five other rooms that made the Maitland ménage, and which at times were untenanted for a year or two.
Frank and Charles were the sons of a once rather well-known figure in London Clubland—old General Maitland (“Inkerman Maitland,” “Maitland Pasha”), whose adventurous and stormy career as a military free lance, after the gambling scandal that caused his resignation from the Imperial Army, often provided a sensational paragraph for the journalists of his day.
At last, decrepit and worn out by excesses, seamed with wounds and utterly penniless, the old soldier of fortune died in Monte Video, where he had been fighting for the Dictator Rivas, leaving his two boys at Haileybury quite destitute and altogether friendless. At that time Frank was sixteen, and Charles a couple of years older. Almost directly after the news of their father’s death the pair disappeared, and were unseen and unheard of for years. Then all at once someone discovered that they were living in Holland Chambers and were making a living as hunters of big game, a statement that received verification from there being, now and again, on view in Roland Ward’s windows a giant pair of antlers or a stuffed specimen of some great leopard or similar beast of prey, bearing a legend to the effect that it had been killed in some of the world’s wilder parts by one or other of the brothers.
For the rest, although society nodded to them, they had few friends. Reserved, grave, and self-contained men, they seemed to prefer a quiet life of almost complete isolation when in town.
Besides the usual service of the flat servants, the Maitlands had a private man of their own, a stony-faced, elderly henchman who answered to the name of Snell, and who accompanied the pair in their travels.
“Well, Charles,” his brother continued, after a long and thoughtful pause, during which the former closely scanned a chart of the main steamship routes, “this will be the biggest thing we ever tackled. What put it into your head at this special moment?”
“This and this,” replied Charles, handing his brother two newspaper cuttings. The first ran:—
By the incoming Australian P. & O. steamer, Empress, there arrived a consignment of specie of the value of £80,000. The Colonies would appear to be now getting rid of the heavy amounts shipped to them during and immediately after the late lamentable banking crisis. Thus, presently, we may expect the return of much heavier sums, whose effect will be to cheapen money, already too cheap.
This was from the “money column” of the Times. The other, from the same newspaper, read:—
For sale, or hire, the steam clipper yacht Basilisk, 300 tons, 500 horse-power, which has just returned from a two years’ cruise round the world. She is in first-class order, and has been re-surveyed and overhauled. She is all teak built and copper fastened; her engines are on the triple expansion principle, and she is fitted throughout with electric light and all the latest scientific improvements. For further particulars, apply to Messrs. Hatchard and Jones, Fenchurch Avenue, City.
“I see the connection,” said Frank, smiling as he finished. “But wouldn’t something smaller and less elaborate suit? Why, she’s big enough for a man-o’-war. I remember her well. Saw her in Singapore, and again at the Cape. Three-masted; schooner-rigged; painted all white.”
His brother shook his head. “A man-o’war’s exactly what I want, Franky,” said he. “Your mail steamers won’t pull up for much less. And although I wouldn’t hurt anybody, I want something able, if necessary, to say, ‘Stop!’ to the biggest liner afloat.”
“Piracy rank and unmistakable!” laughed Frank.
“Call it what you please,” replied Charles, imperturbably.’ “If it comes off, we need have no fears for the future so far as money is concerned. And just look at the chance,” he continued. “Here we are with actually a crew ready to our hands! All our old men of the Albacore are waiting about, idle. Valverde wants us to take another trip with arms and ammunition to Cuba. But I’m sick of that. So, I know, are you. Certainly, we made money this last time, but it’s too precarious a business; to say nothing of Spanish rifle bullets. My arm is stiff yet. Look here, Frank, I’ll write to Hatchard and Jones and make an offer of £200 per month for the Basilisk as she stands, whilst you take a turn round the homes and tell any Albacores you may see not to ship till they hear from us. I told them, when we paid off, to let me know before they signed fresh articles. And you can give them a pound or so if you find they want it. Almost to a man, I’ll bet they’ll jump at this new game. Why, we can promise them £200 each.”
“All right, old chap,” replied Frank Maitland, cheerily. “It’s your picnic this time. Count me in at any rating you like. But oughtn’t we to have a friend at the other end?”
“I’ve thought of that,” replied his brother. “As you said before, the thing’s been simmering; and, long ago, I made out a cable code to meet the case. Do you remember Maggie Hamilton?”
“What, the pretty little woman at the Varieties, in Sydney, who helped to get Bell and Brown, the bank crooks, away in the Wanderer so pluckily? Yes, of course, I remember her,” replied Frank. “And how she made up those two scamps, till the very police asked them for information about themselves! Well?”
“Well, she’s our agent,” replied Charles. “Sharp as a needle, thoroughly unscrupulous, but fond of me so far as she can be fond of anybody but her wicked little self. Nowhere could a better be found. Already we have been in communication with each other; and when the time comes she knows exactly what to do. I am going to write to her now, and send her a couple of hundred pounds for ‘exes.’”
“It’ll be a deuced expensive business, this filibustering,” remarked Frank.
“It’ll take nearly every penny of our savings, old chap,” replied the other. “You don’t mind?”
“Not a scrap,” answered his brother. “In for a penny in for a pound.”
“A hundred thousand of them!” replied the other, emphatically, as he settled to his writing, whilst his brother, going to his room, threw off his fashionably-cut tweeds, and presently appearing in blue pilot cloth—a superior sort of seafarer—signalled to Snell to call a cab. As the latter watched his master drive off, a smile wrinkled his grim visage, and he muttered, in satisfied tones, “A job’s brewin’! An’ a good thing too! ’Untin’s not too bad for a change when there ain’t nothin’ else. Sealin’s the payin’est game o’ the lot. But, for choice, give me trips like that last ’un to Cuby.”
Hatchard And Jones accepted Charles Maitland’s offer, asked for three months’ charter-money in advance, and eventually took two, thinking they might wait a long time and not do as well. Also, Frank found nearly all the old crowd of the Albacore ready and willing for another enterprise, even to run contraband of war to Cuban insurgents again, if necessary; although, on that trip, bullets had been cheaper than cigars. Of course, Frank told them nothing; only let drop hints of sealing in closed waters, at which sport, as at so many others of a more or less lawless flavour, the Maitlands were no novices.
“Well, we’ve got the Basilisk,” said Charles, as the brothers met next morning at breakfast. “And that’s the main thing; although there’s some ticklish business to fix up yet. Good girl!” he suddenly exclaimed, opening a long, yellow envelope. “She’s evidently on the qui vive. Let’s see what she says.”
After working away with his key cipher for awhile, he read aloud: “I will advise you at once directly a boat starts with a full cargo of sugar. At present rates are low. No shipments above £20,000. Probably freights will rise soon. Why not come on to Colombo and wait for a high market? Shall I travel with her myself?”
“Of course!” commented Charles. “That’s exactly what I mean to do. Colombo will be our point de vue. Resourceful little creature, isn’t it? Yes, she may as well travel by the boat, ‘with a full cargo of sugar,’ i.e., a treasure-room containing a good heap of specie-boxes. I’ll bet that when we meet on the Long Stretch, Maggie will have all particulars ready for us, and so save a lot of hunting about and waste of time. But if my latest plan answers, Frank, they’ll actually beg us to relieve them of their responsibility.”
Rapidly, then, Charles unfolded his scheme; and as he listened, Frank’s smile grew broader, until he threw back his head and laughed long and silently, his whole body shaking with suppressed merriment, as he exclaimed: “No, Charley, you’re a clever beggar. But it won’t wash! It really won’t. Still, I don’t know. It all depends on the fellow who’s skipper. But it’s a grand and gracious inspiration, nevertheless.” And here the pair fell to laughing in concert with no more sound between them than would have scared a mouse.
“There’s no use in waiting, Frank,” said the other, presently. “And there’s such a heap to be done! However, thank Heaven, we’ve got the cash—a fact that makes matters comparatively easy! I think you may as well get the men on board as quietly as possible. No articles to be signed. We don’t want their names in any shipping office. We can manage without that. And they feel safer when they know what they’re in for. Let the yacht tow down to that little wharf of Brown’s, just this side of Greenwich, where the Albacore used to lie. There’s a gridiron there, too. You may as well put her on it and have a look at her bottom. In one tide and out the next. I daresay Hatchard’s are genuine. All the same, it’s as well to ‘mak’ siccar,’ as Scotty says. Then get your bunkers filled—best Welsh. By that time I’ll have the stores down. Also, I’ll get the men’s clothes and our own uniforms under way. Snell can see to that part of the performance. As an old Johnny War, he’ll know to a T what’s wanted. Meanwhile I’ll cable to Hamilton. We’ll be at Colombo, let’s see—ten—ten—eighteen. She’s a twelve-knot boat, they affirm. Take off two for imagination. Say, roughly, four thousand miles. Oh, we’ll put it at three weeks, which will give us a good margin in case of contingencies.”
The elder Maitland spoke in a tone of sharp decision that showed how thoroughly his heart was in this latest scheme of his, and how completely his mind was made up to see it through. And Frank, who knew his brother’s moods so intimately, was quite content, in this case, to unquestioningly follow the other’s lead, certain that if success was to be won by vigilance, forethought, pluck, and cunning, then was it already assured. Sometimes it was his turn. This, however, was “Charlie’s picnic.” When it was Frank’s, the other loyally backed him up with all the resources at his command.
“It’s a big thing, old man,” was his only comment, as he rang for Snell.
“The biggest thing of its kind on record,” replied Charles, solemnly, whilst a gleam of exultation lit up his dark face, “if it comes off.”
“Et apres?” asked Frank, as he heard Snell whistling for cabs.
“Let afterwards look out for itself,” replied his brother, sharply. “No man ever did anything really big who had it all cut and dried.”
During the next week the pair spent money like water, with the consequence that, at its end, the Basilisk was ready for sea. And this meant much more than met the eye on board of her. A score of the Albacore’s A.B.’s had volunteered, together with all her deck officers and engineers, men upon whom the Maitlands knew they could depend in almost any emergency. Indeed, they were pretty sure of the whole crowd. And as Charles had said, it was a huge pull for success, this having their old crew to choose from—men with whom they had worked for weeks with a Spanish halter round their necks pottering about from Matanzas to Manzanilla, gunrunning for Cuban insurgents. As to this trip, no one except the brothers had the remotest inkling of its object. And his subordinates knew Captain Maitland better than to ask questions. Snell, even, was in as complete ignorance as the others. Generally he knew a little. But he evinced no curiosity. His duty was to exercise a general supervision over affairs below in both saloon and forecastle. And if he wondered at some of the commissions he had been intrusted with of late, he said nothing. There was, he felt instinctively, important and illegal business toward. Therefore, his hard old face and cold grey eyes showed just a slight anticipatory softening, and that was all.
“You’ve got a fine boat, sir,” remarked the Channel pilot to Charles Maitland, as he left them at Plymouth, “and, what’s more, you know how to handle her. You’re the first gent I ever see as did, though, bar Lord Brassey. And the Sunbeam hasn’t the heels o’ this one. A regular little man-o’-war, that’s what yours is.” And the old fellow cast his eye aloft in unqualified approval at the tall, tapering spars, with the topsails stowed in show-white covers on the crosstrees, and brought it down to the wide sweep of spotless deck, arched by the handsome bridge, gleaming with brass work, and dotted with groups of sturdy, uniformed seamen.
“Private yacht!” he muttered to himself, as he presently descended the side into his boat and was pulled to his cutter. “Private granny! Opium; or seals; or war stores; or somethin’ contraband. Why, there ain’t an amatoor sailor-man aboard her! They’re the real, genuine article fore an’ aft that hooker! Well, it’s none o’ my business. But ain’t she a picture?” And he walked along the cutter’s deck and gazed long at the Basilisk as, the wind freshening, she all at once set her three big fore-and-aft wings, mastheaded her topsails, and with smoke pouring from her buff-painted funnel, tore across Channel towards the French coast.
“She’s just the least bit oversparred, sir,” remarked the first mate, Mr. Jopling, to Charles Maitland, as the pair stood watching her from the bridge. “Three feet, now, off those topmasts, and she’d be far easier in a sea-way. And, anyhow, I don’t like the rig. She ought to be square for’ard for steam.”
“I’m quite of your opinion, Mr. Jopling,” replied the other. “What’s the canvas giving us extra now?”
“Just two knots,” answered the other, looking at the log dial. “We’re making a little over twelve. Square-rigged for’ard would mean another knot. There’s too much fore-and-aft stuff on her altogether.”
“Well, we’re in no particular hurry, sir,” replied Maitland. “I only wanted to know how she’d stand up to such a show of canvas. You can take it off her in the first dog-watch, by which time Ushant Light should be in sight.”
Frank, who was in charge of the engines, was greatly pleased with the way they did their work; and altogether the start seemed as auspicious a one as the adventurers could have wished for—a fine, fast ship, good weather, and a first-rate crowd of men forward.
“Jopling’s on pins and needles, Frank,” said his brother, that night. “But I won’t say a word till I’m certain. How are the engineers?”
“Curious, naturally,” replied his brother.
“Sheldon says seals, up the Japan Sea, or thereabouts. Indeed, that’s the general notion on board, I think. Of course they don’t ask me, and if they did it would be all the same.”
“Leave it at that,” answered the other. “Encourage the idea, if anything. The pear’s not ripe yet. When it is, will be plenty of time for explanations. At the beginning of the Long Stretch, for choice—just as we’re off from Colombo to meet our treasure-ship. I wonder how they’ll take it, Frank?”
“Like a cat does cream, I think,” said Frank. “It’s a tempting morsel. The afterguard will be expensive, though, won’t it?”
“It may run to a thousand all round for engine-room and deck. Say, roughly, ten thousand for the crowd. But, of course, we can’t calculate till we know the size of the pile. Yes, Frank, that’s our weak point—and the only one. They may cut up rough and insist on shares pro rata. And there’s only the three of us, counting Snell. But we must chance it. I fancy myself they’ll take what I’m willing to give them. Nor need anybody but ourselves and the Hamilton know the exact amount. However, as I said in London, ‘afterwards’ generally adjusts itself. Time to talk when the spoil is in my state-room, with Snell on guard.”
As the Basilisk entered the Bay of Naples, her first port of call, the brothers gazed hungrily at a great homeward-bound mail steamer just coming out.
There was a cable waiting from Sydney. “Nothing worth troubling about yet. Ormuz only took £25,000. Better luck, perhaps, by the time you reach Colombo.”
Throughout the trip the hands had been kept at work by Jopling painting, tarring, and polishing, until the schooner, from gilt-trucks to mast-hounds, from flying-jibboom-end to taffrail, simply gleamed again. Moreover, now, to a practised eye, all the minutiæ of rig and lead, to the very passing of a gasket or the reeving of a topping-lift, spoke of “navy fash.”
The crew, too, looked, in their new suits, exactly like men-of-war’s men, the only thing lacking being the “H.M.S.” on their caps.
Captain Charles, after getting clear of the Canal, drove the Basilisk down the Red Sea as hard as he dared. He was becoming a little impatient, not so much to actually grasp his prey, but to set matters on a firm and understood footing between himself and the ship’s company. Halfway across the Arabian Sea they caught southwest monsoon weather dead in their teeth, making the Basilisk feel the leverage of those long spars of hers so much that it was thought advisable to house the topmasts. But on the whole the schooner made good work of it, keeping her decks as dry as those of the big liner which they presently met swooping along at sixteen knots an hour, running to time like an express train, and bulking out of the water like a church.
“There goes her number,” said Jopling, referring to the Signal Book. “Ormuz! I was pretty well certain of her! Hoist the answering pennant, quarter-master, and D.B.J.K. underneath it. By Jove, she is going!”
“And £25,000 along with her,” muttered Frank to his brother.
“Pooh!” remarked the latter, “a mere fleabite! I wouldn’t bother stopping her for it. Ours must be a pile, Frank. Enough to last us the rest of our lives. It’s not a game to be played twice. A hundred thousand at the very least. Not a red cent under. I’d sooner hang about the coast for six months, if I must, rather than take anything less. That’s the beauty of yachting—one can poke around in all sorts of holes and corners without exciting notice or comment.”
But, as it turned out, they had not long to wait. The very next day after the one on which the Basilisk brought up in Colombo Harbour, Charles, who had been staying at the Calle Face Hotel, came on board, and, telling Jopling to heave up at once, took Frank into his state-room and handed him something written in pencil on the back of an envelope.
“It came at breakfast time viâ Madras,” said he, as the other read.
“Good little woman! It will suit us down to the ground. And we’ve got no time to lose. An old boat, too, and slow. We’ll just meet her halfway across the Long Stretch!”
Maitland’s eyes were shining, and his dark face was flushed as he watched his brother read the translated cablegram. “R.M.S. Chirimoya sails 17th with thirty boxes of sovereigns, value £120,000, shipped by the Bank of Carpentaria. Also three boxes of sovereigns, value £15,000, shipped by the French Bank for India. Few passengers. Lascar crew. Should be a very soft thing. Am coming home by her for a holiday, and will be pleased to meet you.”
“Splendid!” exclaimed Frank. “And she’s coming herself! Who would have thought that she’d be so eager and prompt on the thing?”
“Her share will be considerable,” replied Charles, with a smile. “And she’s a mercenary little creature. Don’t you remember how she fleeced Bell and Brown for the part she took in getting them away? It was in the Wanderer’s cabin, by-the-bye, that I first broached this scheme to her, and asked her if, when the day arrived, she would help us through with it. She simply jumped at the notion; and if she’d happened to have had the cash, would, I verily believe, have advanced it at once. But there’s the anchor up, Frank. Send those triple expansions of yours now for all they’re worth. I want to meet our fortune in about 15° S. 92° E.—as lonely a bit of water as there is on the world’s surface.”
To his great relief, Captain Maitland found, when a day or two afterwards he told his officers of the scheme, that not a man objected. For a few minutes, certainly, Sheldon, the second engineer, hung in the wind. But it all seemed so sure and so devoid of all risk, that his hesitation did not last long. As for Jopling and the other two deck officers, sailors of fortune, young men who had never possessed in their lives a quarter of the sum promised them now by their commander, they presently grew actually enthusiastic over the matter. There was a mixture of dash and bravado about the project that, as put by Charles Maitland’s enticing tongue, apart from all mere money reward, took their fancy. Nor did any man ask for details. They knew the Maitlands, and were amply content to do nothing but obey orders.
And with the men for’ard it proved the same.
“Well, lads,” said Captain Charles, when they were all assembled aft, “I expect you’ve been wondering what our little game is this trip?”
“Seals!” said a voice.
“Not seals,” continued Maitland. “Something much better than seals. Better, too, than running powder and shot through Spanish rifle fire. We’re after sovereigns! Hard, yellow, coined shiners—thousands of ’em. Fact is, there’s a treasure-ship coming across the sea from Australia loaded with ’em. And I’m going to bail her up. There’s absolutely no risk. Remember, you’re on no articles. But there’s £300 in hard cash for each man. My plans are all laid. You have nothing to do with these. My officers here are quite satisfied with what I have told them. But I want to force no man into a game like this against his will. And if there’s any one of you would rather cry off, why, then, so he can, and I’ll think none the worse of him. Don’t imagine I’m going to start pirating, because I’m not. Just the one ship’ll be enough. Then every man for himself with his share of the booty, landed on the Australian coast, most likely, and the Basilisk sunk in twenty fathoms. The Bush is wide. Most of you have been in it, and will have ample time to scatter before the thing gets known. Now, any man that jibs at the contract walk over to starboard!”
Not a man moved.
“Well,” said Charles, “there’s no hurry. Go for’ard and talk it over. In half an hour I’ll ask you again. Three hundred pounds per man, remember, in hard coin! That’ll do.”
“They’re all right,” remarked Frank Maitland, “and I dare say that extra hundred helped.”
“Aye,” said Jopling, “they won’t take the half-hour. I could see it in their faces. And when you think of what such a sum means to a sailor, where’s the wonder? They’re almost all steady fellows, too. You couldn’t have got a better crowd for your purpose if you’d picked East London over.”
Meanwhile, in the dandy forecastle of the Basilisk—where the men slept in roomy, curtained berths, and had their meals spread on a table for them; the electric light installed, and were treated like Christians generally, instead of pigs—there was some argument going on.
“It’ll mean life if any of us is nabbed,” said one.
“Seven years at the outside,” corrected another. “But, anyhow, they won’t bother about us small fry. It’s the afterguard with the main lump o’ the stuff they’ll be chasin’. Them’s the coves as’ll get it socked on to ’em—if they catch ’em.”
“Well,” said a third, “it’s the most howdacious game I ever heerd on! An’ that simple, too, when you comes to think it over—if the mail-boat (for, o’ course, that’s what it is) ’ll only stop for us! If she won’t, I don’t exactly see how we’re to make her.”
“Hor! hor! hor!” laughed another. “Ain’t you bin wi’ the skipper long enough to know that when he sez he’ll do a thing he’ll do it in spite o’ the very deuce? I reckon that three ’underd quid’s good’s in my kick this minit.”
“Well, lads, eggs or young ’uns?” exclaimed one, impatiently. “The Old Man’ll think we’re goin’ back on him if we don’t liven up. An’ here’s one as is satisfied! Three ’underd quid ain’t to be sneezed at. It’s more money than I ever seen in once. I can’t rightly imagine the look o’ such a lump. Besides, boys, the fun o’ the whole thing counts. Hands up all them as is o’ my way o’ thinkin’.”
A grove of brawny paws arose. There was not a seceder among the crew of the Basilisk.
“Very well, bo’sun,” said Charles Maitland, as the former came aft with the men’s decision of unanimous support. “Get those cases out of the hold, then, and let’s give the Basilisk a few teeth, if only to make a show, for I don’t expect to have to use them.”
The contents of the great cases proved to be, in addition to a couple of 4m. quick-firing guns, half-a-dozen Nordenfeldts and the same number of 12-pounders.
The big guns were mounted on turn-tables ahead and astern; the smaller ones here and there on each broadside, in which ports with swinging shutters already existed, having been put in by some former owner apparently to supplement the scupper-holes.
Presently, too, a store of stowed hammocks were triced along her rails; and by the time all was finished the Basilisk looked the exact picture of one of those obsolete, handsome, armed boats kept in Colonial waters by the British Government, and used mainly for surveying purposes.
As the men worked, some inkling of their captain’s intentions seem to dawn upon them.
“We’re a-goin’ to take charge for the Gov’ment,” chuckled one. “All fair, square, and above-board.”
“Aye,” remarked another, “cunnin’ ain’t no name for our Old Man! D’ye see, mates, the mail steamer’ll heave-to for Johnny War—’Er Majesty’s Ship Basilisk—when she mightn’t for anythin’ else. Cunnin’! Oh, lor!” And when Snell served out new caps with the “H.M.S.” upon them, much chaff was exchanged and many jokes were cracked about the latest and unauthorized addition to the British Navy.
The Albacore had carried almost precisely the same armament as now ornamented the Basilisk, for Valverde and Co.’s instructions were to fight if cornered, for which arrangement the firm paid accordingly. Thus there was no necessity for gun drill, the men knowing how to use the 4.7’s and others. And both Charles and his brother, as the Basilisk foamed across the Indian Ocean on the “Long Stretch” from Colombo to Cape Leuwin, felt satisfied they had done all in their power to insure the success of their audacious plan.
Meanwhile, the Royal Mail steamer Chirimoya approached from the opposite direction. She was one of the company’s oldest boats, and it took all the chief engineer could get out of his engines to make her run up to contract time. Nevertheless, she was a fine, roomy craft, preferred by many to the more modern and faster cramped conglomeration of little cells, tier upon tier of which the up-to-date liner seems mainly composed of.
But the season was over, and there were not more than a score of passengers in each saloon. Amongst these Miss Maggie Hamilton, late of the Varieties Music Hall, Sydney, shone like the “star” the bills called her when appearing nightly in her special character songs, “The Little Larrikiness,” “’Er Golden ’Air was ’Anging Down ’Er Back,” “Oh, See His Dirty Pocket-handkercher,” and similar ditties of which her rendering had long established her as a prime favourite with the “pushes,” who whistled and shrieked themselves hoarse from the gallery of the popular “Hall.”
And if a few of the other saloon passengers gave themselves airs, and kept the variety actress at a distance, the Chirimoya’s officers simply worshipped her as the life and central attraction of the ship. For them she danced her inimitable fire-skirt dance, said to be unequalled even by La Loie Fuller. For them she sang all her best and most fetching songs. And she danced and flirted so impartially with both engine-room, deck, and the Presence that lives on a liner’s lower bridge, that even the latter—in this case, gruff old Captain Black—was captivated and rendered almost amiable by her witcheries. In appearance she was a small, lithe, well-shaped, quick-silvery personage whose age no man might tell to within a dozen of years. Undeniably pretty, with a good complexion and a fine wealth of bronze-coloured hair, both her very own; deep brown eyes and perfect teeth; brisk and “jolly.” It was hard, indeed, to find anything denoting the conspirator in such an ensemble, unless the close observer might consider those sparkling eyes rather furtive at times in their regard, or the firmly rounded chin too massive to be in accord with the airy, insouciant manners of its owner.
As is generally the case on the older vessels of a line, most of the Chirimoya’s senior officers had a pet grievance.
The captain himself ought to have had the Catamaran in place of Phelps, “a confounded sailing-ship man come from no one knows where, and promoted right over people’s heads who had seen more years in the company’s service than he (Phelps) had hairs on his upper lip.”
The chief engineer complained bitterly of the way his requisition for stores was systematically ignored, whilst the new “swell” ship’s engine-rooms were just palaces teeming with every expensive luxury that could be thought of. This trip, for instance, he was short of oil, and yet they’d expect the average 13.7! Well, if he wasn’t up to time because of heated bearings he’d let them know fair an’ square whose fault it was! Three times now, too, he’d spoken about a new starboard eccentric strap. All to no purpose. And so on, and so on.
Then the chief mate, although long a passed master, had been snubbed by the “Board,” and his application for promotion passed over in favour of a younger man. And with all these, and others, Maggie Hamilton sympathized and condoled in such fashion as completely won their hearts, and made her free of every corner in the ship, from the captain’s state cabin to the specie-room, to which latter spot, under the guidance of Mr. Simmonds, the chief officer, she had paid more than one visit.
It made her “feel thrills,” she said, to only look on the pile of treasure-boxes and think of the potentialities of pleasure that lay stowed away in that little space. And she would enter the room and sit down and gaze thoughtfully at the precious cases, whilst the mate would explain again and again the impossibility of anyone abstracting anything whilst only the captain and himself held the keys respectively of the little door she had come through and of the strong-room. Certainly (in reply to a question) he was most careful of his key. It hung alongside the portrait of his late wife that Miss Hamilton might have noticed at the head of his bed. And as to the captain’s key, when he (the mate) wanted it, he took it off its nail over the old man’s washstand. Yes, this was about the heaviest lot they had ever had in the Chirimoya. Somewhere close to £140,000, he thought. What did those red letters mean—“L.B.C.”—on the boxes? They stood for London Bank of Carpentaria. Yes, it was all very curious and interesting. Yes, he had drawn up his new application to the “Board.” She would like to see it? That was kind indeed! And so Mr. Simmonds—an elderly, weak-eyed, grey-headed, amorous man, whose usefulness as a seaman was nearly expired—would shut and lock the ponderous strong-room door, and escort Miss Maggie into upper airs, there to read to her his last “application,” in the framing of which by the dozen he spent a large portion of his watch below.
As the days passed Miss Hamilton seemed to lose all interest in the treasure-room, which had, apparently, lost its power to thrill, and spent much of her time on the bridge complaining about the lack of shipping. As a matter of fact, they had not sighted anything since leaving Albany. One morning, however, they overtook a big cruiser steaming leisurely at a ten-knot rate.
“The Alcides!” said the captain. “She brought relief crews for the Australian Squadron. Left a week before we did.”
“She’s very slow,” remarked Miss Hamilton; “see how quickly we’re passing her. They ought to be ashamed of themselves.”
“Oh,” replied the old skipper, “they’re always dawdling along like that. They’re not bound to time, you know. If he liked, that fellow could leave us as if we were at anchor. She’s a first-class cruiser—a 21-knot boat.”
As they slipped past the great mass of the fighter like a greyhound past an elephant, Miss Hamilton watched her curiously through the glasses, and with an expression on her face compounded of interest and apprehension, which gave way to one of palpable relief when the big hull of the warship fell rapidly astern.
The day after this, coming on the bridge towards evening, she found Mr. Simmonds ogling through his glass a vessel that appeared nearly stationary, about three miles distant, and right in the mail-boat’s track.
“I can’t make her out,” said the chief mate, querulously. “Looks as if she were waiting for us to come up. She seems to have signals flying, too.”
Using her own glasses, Miss Hamilton’s heart gave a jump, as into their field swam a graceful, three-masted schooner that something told her was the vessel she had been expecting to see. And her hand trembled a little as the captain, ascending from his stateroom, took the glass from Mr. Simmonds.
It was a lovely evening, with hardly a ripple on the water. Save for a few cloud-islands lying low on the sea, and so wonderfully like the real thing as to bid even the practised eye pause, there was not a visible speck in the sky. The sun was about an hour or so high, and almost directly behind the vessel at which the Chirimoya’s passengers were gazing.
The stranger lay broadside on, showing a gleam of white hammocks over her bulwarks; her sails were furled, leaving the three tall and tapering masts, unbroken in their outlines, to rest like black bars against the burning, coppery orb behind them. From her funnel rose a thin whiff of grey smoke; from her mizzen-topmast-head in the soft breeze fluttered a couple of flags, one—the uppermost—the white ensign and blood-red cross of the British Navy, the other the code pennant of the British Merchant Service.
“Another man-o’-war,” said the old skipper. “But only a little one this time, Miss Hamilton. Wants a talk, too. Looks as if he’d been waiting for us. Some swell, perhaps, seeking a passage home. Hoist the answering pennant, Mr. Simmonds; and let her go to half speed.”
A quarter-master moved the telegraph handle along the dial, a chime of bells jangled below, and the mail-boat’s pace sensibly decreased. She was now within less than a mile of the stranger, who, as soon as she saw the answering pennant, hoisted another signal and began to edge slowly down to the Chirimoya.
“Three-letter signal,” muttered old Black, “that’s ‘Urgent.’ Now, Mr. Gale” (to the second mate), “look sharp with that book, if you please.”
“‘J. N. P.,’” spelled the officer. “‘Heave-to,’ it says, sir.”
“All right,” replied the skipper. “Down with the pennant. Now, what does he say?” as another string of flags went up to the stranger’s masthead.
“Important news. Will send a boat,” were the next readings. And, indeed, ere the words were well out of the second’s mouth, a large galley filled with men could be seen in the water pulling for the Chirimoya.
Miss Hamilton’s heart beat more rapidly than usual as she turned to leave the bridge.
“Aye, aye!” called the old skipper after her, “better go and put on your war-paint to receive these Navy swells. Won’t look at us poor liners after this, I s’pose?”
But it was not to adorn herself that “the Hamilton” went to her berth, where she only stayed long enough to unlock a desk, snatch an envelope from it, and hurry on deck again.
By this time it was dusk, the lamps were lit, and, as she ascended to the bridge, she heard the Lascars’ chant from the forecastlehead, “Hum dekty hai!” (“I’m on the watch!”), and she smiled queerly to herself as it fell on her ear. Someone was in her way. He made room for her, and begged her pardon. With a start she looked up at the sound of the voice into the grim, passionless features of Snell—Snell in the uniform of a Navy warrant-officer. Another man in uniform was, she saw, talking to the captain. The electric light from the chart-room made things fairly distinct out there.
With a swift motion she passed the envelope from her hand to Snell’s, and moved forward towards the central group, where also, by this time, were other passengers.
The captain of the mail-boat was speaking in loud, angry tones to a tall, dark, handsome man in the uniform of a commander in the Royal Navy.
“I don’t care, sir,” old Black was saying; “if, as you state, war has broken out between England and France, and the Canal is blocked, still, why should I give up my gold to your keeping? Basilisk or any other cursed isk? No, I won’t! And that’s flat! It’s just as safe with me as in yonder cockleshell of yours. And, in any case, if needs must, I prefer to wait till the Alcides comes up, and travel under her protection.”
“Well, sir,” replied the other, in calm, level tones, “I am only obeying my orders, which, as I have told you, were to relieve you of your specie, giving you a receipt in the Admiral’s name for it. French cruisers are known to be on the look-out for your boats, and more especially for the slow tubs like the Chirimoya. But, of course, if you refuse—”
“Which I do,” shouted the old captain, very angry now, “most decidedly.”
“Then,” went on the other, “I regret to say that it becomes my unpleasant duty to enforce my instructions.” And taking a whistle from his pocket he blew shrilly on it, at the same time whipping out a revolver and putting it to the captain’s head.
“Hunt dekty hai!” droned the Lascar look-out again from far away forward.
Meanwhile, Miss Hamilton had seen Snell coolly step into the chart-room, draw a card from the envelope she had given him, read it, and silently disappear. Then there seemed to take place a rush of men in naval dress armed with shining cutlasses and revolvers, before which passengers and crew alike bolted below.
As she fled with the rest, a brilliant, blinding sheet of white flame lit up the steamer, making things as bright as day. The strange vessel had turned her searchlight on, and by its aid Miss Hamilton could see the engineers being escorted from the engine-room and locked in their berths, whilst another guard was forcing the white quarter-masters into the house containing the steam steering gear. On the bridge were several figures; but all was quiet there. Presently a cheer of exultation from below attracted her; and, passing the two sentries at the saloon doors, she flitted along the alley-way to where Snell and half-a-dozen men were hard at work lifting the boxes of sovereigns up the hatch.
Slipping into an empty berth, she presently saw the Maitlands coming through the saloon. Close to her they paused, watching the men handing the cases along. The brothers were laughing heartily in their peculiar, noiseless fashion.
“Engines all right, Frank?” asked the elder.
“Safe as houses,” replied the other. “She won’t stir for a month, unless her engineers are cleverer men than I give them credit for being. But where’s ‘the Hamilton’?”
“Oh, keeping close, I expect,” replied Charles. “There are eyes about, and it wouldn’t pay her to be seen in communication with us. Clever little beggar! Look at the card she gave Snell. Saved us heaps of trouble and time.”
“Key of strong-room in captain’s cabin over the washstand. Key of hatch in mate’s berth (No. 3, port side) close to large framed photo.,” read Frank to himself. “Hatch, or door, of compartment in which strong-room is situated is on starboard side of ship. Go down main saloon entrance, turn to left; descend open hatchway; turn to right till you come to a bulkhead. Door in bulkhead opens with mate’s key. Inside is the strongroom. Please place £5,000 to my account in B. of N.S.W. Avec mes compliments.”
“She shall have it, every penny!” muttered Charles. “I’d like to see her and congratulate her on the acquisition of a new virtue, to wit, moderation. But it’s too risky. She only looks on this as a mere interlude, you know. Strict business. Pity we couldn’t pull Black’s leg, wasn’t it? Cantankerous old brute. However, it’s as well as it is. How many, Snell?”
“Thirty-three altogether, sir,” replied Snell. “There’s fourteen in the boat already.”
“Right,” said Charles.
“There’s a lot of other stuff in the strongroom, sir,” continued Snell, tentatively. “Jewellery and cash, apparently belonging to the passengers.”
“Not a solitary farthing’s worth,” replied Charles, peremptorily, “or there’ll be wigs on the green! Do you hear me, Snell?”
Snell saluted; but one could see that submission went hard against the old filibuster’s grain.
As the brothers re-entered the long and spacious saloon, some of the passengers, taking heart of grace, and re-assured by the sight of the uniform, approached, anxious and eager to hear particulars of the war outbreak. But the Maitlands, saying that their own information was of the scantiest, and that their time was limited, speedily withdrew to the deck. Then, seeing that both men and treasure were in the boat and waiting, they descended the gangway, and were pulled off to the Basilisk. So far the coup could not have been more complete. And whilst the liner’s crew were still busy setting their officers at liberty, the thump of the Basilisk’s engines could be heard, and the churning of her screw as she headed away into the darkness with all her lights out, leaving the despoiled mail-boat rocking idly, helpless, and crippled on the soft, lazy swell.
Suddenly those on board the Basilisk were startled by the loud, prolonged blare of a syren as the Chirimoya trumpeted like an enraged elephant, whilst, in another minute, rockets soared high in the air, and blue lights cast a weird radiance across the sea.
“They’ve just discovered the loss of their valve-gear, flanges, and bolts,” remarked Frank. “I brought them with me in place of throwing them overboard, as I intended to. It would take ten fitters, fitting for a week, to replace them. I suppose they think that the Alcides isn’t very far off.”
“Curse her and her fireworks!” replied the other, savagely. “If the cruiser comes up it will be a tight fit for us! D’ye know, Frank, that, in obedience to the first law of Nature, we ought to go back and sink the noisy brute?”
But before his brother could answer, away from the eastward came to their ears the faint report of a big gun, then another, and another.
“Damnation!” exclaimed the elder Maitland. “Get below,Frank, and send her for all she’s carrying! Mr. Jopling, down with those topmasts, they only stop her way. Pity, almost, that those lower ones weren’t out of her, too!”
And, presently, the Basilisk shook and quivered in every plank as her engines worked at their highest pressure, raising a three-foot wave that fell away in showers of liquid splendour on each bow. But it soon became apparent that the cruiser was coming like a racehorse towards the Chirimoya, for already her big, white, mast-head light, looking as if set on a hill, so lofty was it, was plainly discernible from the Basilisk’s deck.
The latter, however, was fast increasing her distance, and her captain reckoned that in another half an hour he would be out of sight, steering due south as he was doing.
And, sure enough, in a little over the time, even from the Basilisk’s lower masthead, no lights were visible. Still, her captain was not at ease. He had not been seal-stealing and blockade-running for nothing. And when Jopling exclaimed, as he came down the mizzen rigging, “Nothing in sight all round, sir. I think we’ve slipped her, after all,” he made no reply, only gazed anxiously astern.
Frank, leaving the engines to Sheldon, had come on deck again, and he, too, was straining his eyes and ears in the same direction.
“Do you know who’s got the Alcides?” asked his brother, presently. “No,” replied the other. “Well, it’s Menzies. You remember him? He was at Haileybury with us.”
“Marion Menzies!” exclaimed Frank. “‘Molly’ Menzies, as we used to call him. I recollect him quite well. He was in our House. Left the term before we did to join the Britannia as a cadet.”
“Turned out a deuced smart fellow,” replied his brother. “Was at Alexandria, and handled his ship like a workman. He chased me once before right down the China Sea, when I was doing a bit of opium dodging. But I had the heels of him then. Curiously enough, on that occasion, he was in a gunboat called the Basilisk. He’s the youngest Post in the Navy now. And I’m afraid that this time he’s got the heels of me.”
“Unless he’s dowsed all his lights,” replied Frank, “he’s out of sight by now. And—ah—h-h!”
His exclamation was echoed by many throats as a great, broad spear of whiteness was seen to reach across the blackness of the night to the further horizon. At first it rested for a minute in a directly opposite quarter to that in which the Basilisk snored along under every ounce of steam the boilers could stand. But presently the light began to move steadily round and round in contracting circles, until, all at once, it struck the Basilisk, enveloping her in a blinding radiance, and following her with a merciless persistence, as in her endeavours to evade it she turned and doubled like a chased hare.
“It’s all up!” exclaimed Charles, bitterly. “One can’t get away from that, you know. He’s been coming along with his lights out at a twenty-knot speed, and had the luck to run pretty straight too.”
“I wish he’d turn his cursed search off!” replied Frank. “It gives me a headache, and I can’t see any distance.”
“Here he comes!” exclaimed Jopling, moodily, pointing, as the light was turned aside for a moment, and they saw the outline of the cruiser, and heard her twin screws beating as she overhauled them, going two to their one.
“We could give him another couple of hours’ run for his money,” said Charles. “He wouldn’t fire on us. But what’s the use? It’s a wise man that knows when he’s cornered. Half-speed, Mr. Jopling, please, and then slow her gently to ‘stop.’ All the same, it’s cursed hard luck!”
“And hard labour, I expect,” replied Jopling, with a laugh that had no mirth in it, as he moved the telegraph.
“Not a bit of it,” said Charles. “It only means seals after all, if you’re willing. Still, it’s a great come-down from stealing a fortune to stealing fur! Snell, take some men and get all the gold on the bridge here. Bring a couple of the main hatches along with you, too!”
And when, presently, the big battleship steadied abreast of the Basilisk, her people saw a man amidships on her bridge, smoking a cigar, whilst at each end stood two others apparently keeping guard over two little piles of boxes stacked on a piece of broad planking pushed out so as to overhang the water.
At the Alcide’s gangway looking down at the scene stood a group of officers plainly visible by the light of their own search, which was now turned inboard so as to embrace nearly the whole of each vessel in its rays.
“What ship’s that?” hailed someone, with a rough note of suspicion in his voice.
“My yacht—the Basilisk!” returned Charles Maitland, removing his cigar from his mouth and touching his cap (he had doffed his naval uniform).
“What’s that you’ve got there?” suddenly asked a short, red-faced, youngish-looking man, pointing to the boxes.
“That’s our ransom, Captain Menzies,” replied the other—“one hundred and thirty-five thousand pounds, or thereabouts. Take it, and pass us your word as an officer and a gentleman not to follow us or to proceed further against anyone concerned, and it’s yours. Refuse, and the minute I pull this siren wire, that you will notice I hold, away it goes to the bottom of the sea. Actually, I don’t care much myself how the thing turns out. You and your cursed cruiser have spoilt the finest haul ever made since Drake captured the plate galleon. But I want immunity for those with me. And that’s the price.”
It was rather a curious mid-ocean tableau. Not more than a few yards away towered the black walls of the battleship, broken here and there by ports and casemates, out of which peered gun muzzles. Splashes of light from arc lamps shone through many bull’s-eyes in her sides, looking yellow by contrast with the steady white flare of the great search amidships. Her double funnels and pole masts sprang aloft and disappeared into the darkness as if suddenly cut off halfway up. Over her rail for’ard gaped hundreds of white, eager faces. Others, in their excitement, had climbed into the rigging, and hanging by one hand leant outward the better to hear.
The depth of her masts below her, the Basilisk rolled uneasily in the cruiser’s wash. Her decks, except for those five illuminated figures on her bridge, seemed deserted, although now and again heads would peer from the house amidships. Charles Maitland had resumed his cigar, and, with the siren wire in one hand ready to release the blast at a second’s notice, leaned against the rail of the bridge, whilst Snell and Frank at one end, and Sheldon and Jopling at the other, stood on their respective hatches, alert and wary for the signal to tilt the treasure into the sea. There was a long pause, broken only by the lapping of the little waves between the ships.
If ever a man was on the horns of a dilemma, Captain Menzies was that one. Also he had recognised Maitland, and knew enough of him to know that he would do as he said. Perhaps, too, certain old-time memories of long-gone days, when a strong boy—cock of his House at the big school—had more than once interfered to save him a thrashing, worked within him, helping him to a decision. However this may have been, he said, at last:—
“Very well, sir, I promise, provided you give me your word of honour to abandon all further attempts at—er—intercepting other mail-boats. Of course, you understand that I must report this occurrence to my senior officer at Cape Town?”
As he finished, something resembling a great sigh of relief went up from the cruiser’s men. Had they dared, perhaps it would have been a cheer.
“Thank you, sir,” was all that Charles Maitland said. “I can promise you that. And whatever else he may have done, a Maitland never yet broke his word. I will come closer alongside, and if you’ll send us your derrick chain down, we’ll sling the boxes for you. There are thirty-three of them. And, into the bargain, we’ll give you with her gold the Chirimoya’s missing engine-gear.”
In another twenty minutes the regained loot was transferred and the ships parted, the big one swooping off with the silent disdain of an eagle that has robbed a kite of its prey.
Very little outside certain circles was ever known of the daring attempt at looting the mail steamer, the company, wisely, perhaps, judging that the less said about their terribly narrow escape the better.
Nor, as regards the Basilisk and her crew, was anything definite ever heard again. In Vladivostock, many months afterwards, there certainly were rumours of a desperate fight between a heavily-armed seal-poaching steamer and some Russian gunboats off the Island of Saghalien, in which the former was sunk, with nearly all her crew. Also was it whispered that the survivors had been sent to the mines at Tomsk. But curious matters happen at times in those foggy waters that wash Siberian shores, and the world at large none the wiser.
As for the enterprising, but deeply disappointed, Miss Maggie Hamilton, after her trip “home” and return to Australia, she became a greater favourite than ever with her audiences, her new song, “Paradise Alley,” “fetching them by the hair,” as she herself puts it. And, at times, during a nice little supper at the “Australia” or “Paris House,” she will tell the story of how the R.M.S. Chirimoya was once bailed up by pirates in mid-ocean, and drop mysterious hints that over the transaction she was the loser to the extent of thousands of pounds. But when pressed to explain she only shakes her head sadly, and calls the waiter’s attention to her empty glass.
“The Maria ’ll have to go into dock this trip, Mr. Baxter,” remarked Captain Jarvis to his owners; “her seams are openin’, knees loose from her ribs, an’ strained a goodish bit, too. By rights, the copper ought to come off her.”
“Tut, tut!” exclaimed the elder of a pair of stout, clean-shaven, moon-faced men who sat in a grimy office fronting the wharves of Port Waratah, in New South Wales; “d’ye want to ruin the firm? You skippers seem to think that Baxter Brothers is only another name for Rothchilds. Dock be hanged! She’ll run another couple o’ years yet. An’ look here, Jarvis, you came down this time nearly 100 ton short. Don’t let that happen again, please. You’re a single man, you know, and when our agent up yonder, who’s got his instructions, says ‘Let it rip,’ don’t you interfere, but just keep her under them shoots till he says it’s a fair thing. An’, meanwhile, you keep on thinkin’ o’ this big pile o’ letters,” and Uriah Baxter, taking a handful of docketed papers out of a pigeonhole, thrust them rudely under Jarvis’s nose. “There,” he continued, “those are applications for billets from men with wives and families that’d jump at the chance. Likewise, you might as well bear in mind, when a deck load’s mentioned, that you’re still workin’ a dead horse. Roomatic fever’s a lugsury for coastin’ skippers to be indulgin’ in.” And Uriah and his brother James chuckled heartily at the former’s little joke.
Captain Jarvis was a thick-set, middle-aged man, with a rugged, bearded face, upon whose bronze sat here and there patches of coal dust from the just discharged cargo. Some months ago, during a severe attack of illness, he had borrowed money from his employers, at heavy interest, in advance of wages, with which to pay the doctor’s bill. And now his eyes flashed angrily as he retorted, “Aye, and if it weren’t for that same dead horse I’d see you and your old coffin at the bottom afore I’d sail her any more! Nice pair you are, to talk about puttin’ a married man into a rotten tub like her! For two pins I’d set Lloyd’s surveyor on to the Maria and the rest o’ the precious fleet. Yah!”
“Seventy-five pounds ten shillings and sixpence first, captain,” remarked the junior partner, who had been consulting a ledger, “and then you can do as you please about that. We only want our advance—and interest—back again, eh, Uriah?”
“That’s all,” snarled his brother. “Now get away, do, and to sea as fast as you like! An’ don’t let’s have any shortage next trip. An’ don’t you be worryin’ about docks and surveyors and such like rubbish.”
“Seventy-five pounds!” muttered the captain in a tone of angry dismay as he stepped out on to the wharf. “Good God! at seven pounds a month I’ll never get out of their claws. It wouldn’t take much—only for the other chap—to make me sink the old barge. An’ that’d be no loss to Baxters’. You bet she’s fully covered. Cargo! By Heaven! I’ll cargo her this time. Catch me stopping ’em. Let ’em pile it into her up to the crosstrees if they like, the cussed sailor-killing brutes.”
Thus it happened that when, in a week or so, the Maria Baxter drew from under the Newcastle shoots she was not only stowed full to the hatches with some 1,800 tons of coal, but in addition carried a deck load of three or four hundred tons in bags. Also, she showed so little freeboard as to be hardly worth mentioning. Then the mate protested.
“We vos schwamp,” said he, “like a dinky-boat dis trip if we get any vedder.”
“Oh, go and be hanged!” said Captain Jarvis, in a state of chronic irritation and anger; “if you want your discharge, why don’t you say so at once?” and the submissive foreigner protested no more.
As for the four men in the fo’c’s’le who, together with the cook, made up the Maria’s company, if they caste dubious glances over what side there was left, they kept their thoughts to themselves. Seamen were more than plentiful, and spare bunks very scarce.
And, anyhow, it was only a short run. And the weather looked like keeping fine.
“A record load, skipper,” remarked the boss of the trimming gang, grinning. “Hang me if I’d go with ye if ye paid me! Hope your life’s insured.”
“’Tain’t, then,” replied the captain shortly. “But Maria’s is, eh, Mr. Snape?”
“S’pose so,” replied the agent carelessly.
“Don’t forget I told you you could have ten tons less on deck if you pleased.”
“Ten tons!” exclaimed Jarvis, laughing sarcastically. “Wouldn’t you like a passage round? It’ll do your liver good.”
“No, thanks,” replied the other, casting a disparaging glance at the poor old brig, “I prefer to travel by rail, not in ‘Black Maria,’“ and with a laugh at his sally he closed his book and sauntered off.
Of her companions, the Uriah, Rachel, and James Baxter, all old worn-out brigs engaged in the coal trade between Port Waratah and Newcastle, the Maria was, perhaps, the oldest, most unseaworthy, grimiest and worst found. Eight-and-thirty years ago, in her comparative youth, and before there were any plantations to speak of in Queensland, or on the Clarence, she had been in the sugar trade between Mauritius and the Australian Colonies. Since then many owners had taken her in hand, and from her birth there had always been applied to her the opprobrious name of “slug.” Then, as the toilsome years went by, developing a decided partiality for letting salt water in on the property entrusted to her care, she fell lower and lower in the social shipping scale, until at last, long “off the letter” at Lloyd’s, strained, decayed, poverty-stricken, she had been purchased by the Baxters for a song, and set to the inevitable destiny of the pauper vessel—“colliering.”
Look at her now, as she clears “Nobby’s” on her sixty mile trip down the coast, her patched and blackened sails set to a fair wind, her rail almost awash in the slight swell. Above the rail are piled bags of coal, four tiers high; the crew have to crawl over and between them to get to their den down for’ard. The cook simply reaches out of the galley door when he wants fuel. Undermanned and overloaded, she squatters lifelessly along, with the creaking of ungreased parrals and rusty sheaves aloft, and on deck a continuous grinding murmur as the coal is shaken into place.
On the fo’c’s’le-head four apparent negroes are having their evening meal. The tea carries on its surface a film of black dust, and the white loaf shows black stencillings of broad fingers and thumbs. It’s of no use washing in that trade. Besides, it’s said that coal dust is not altogether unhealthy.
“The ole bark ’as got ’er bellyful this time, right enough,” remarks one thoughtfully, spitting out some grains of coal.
“Loaded up on ’er back as well,” replies another, nodding towards the pile of cargo. “Be ’ell to pay if a southerly buster catches us! Ole man stacked it into ’er proper, didn’t ’e?”
“’E’s got ’is rag out this trip ’bout somethin’,” continues the first speaker. “’E’s been doin’ nothin’ but swearin’ an’ cussin’ since we left. Dashed if I ever seen ’im so bad afore! Now, Bill, your turn to relieve that Dutch mate ov ours, soon’s ye’ve finished stuffin’!”
And so they talked as they mumbled their soaked crusts and wagged dusky beards that would otherwise have shown grey. Ancient men who, unable any longer to stand the hard fare of the “limejuicers,” or deepwater British ships they had most of their lives been accustomed to, had perforce taken to the last resource of the nearly played-out sailor—a coasting collier. Meanwhile, the old “sixty miler” flopped along, a black blot against the purple glory that the dying sun flung across the sky.
* * * * * *
“I s’pose she’s a goner?” remarked Uriah Baxter to his brother a week later.
“’Spec’ so,” replied James. “Strange, though, ain’t it, that nothin’s come ashore from her? They’ve got lots of stuff out of the others. Can’t have weathered it, eh?”
“Would your grandmother have weathered it in a basket?” asked Uriah contemptuously. “Still, it’s unfortunate there’s no wreckage. The offices won’t pay for awhile. Seem to fancy she’s got blown away out to sea, an’ may turn up yet,” and he grinned at the notion.
“However,” he continued solemnly, “they’ll have to settle in full sooner or later. That poor Jarvis! An’ we parted almost in anger!”
“Not on our side, Uriah,” remarked James feelingly.
“The Lord be praised for that!” replied Uriah with fervour. “A good man, too! Snape said he never saw such a pile of stuff as the Maria took. An’ the captain all the time singing out for more against Snape’s wishes. Very evidently the poor fellow wanted to make up for his rudeness by a record cargo. Well, well, at least there were no married men amongst ’em. An’ that’s a cut above what any of the others can say.”
“I suppose we must write off Jarvis’s debt?” asked James, turning to his ledger.
“Just let it appear as a debit balance, James,” sighed Uriah.
“Progress payment on wages account. Actually we’re in pocket by the poor man. But it is as well to be business-like. One never knows what inquisitive people may turn up. Let’s be thankful there’s no widows and orphans howling for subscriptions around our office.”
But there were plenty elsewhere about the town; for a furious hurricane had suddenly swept up from the south, then, veering all at once to the east, had piled half a dozen coasters and a score of their hands in dismal wrecks and corpses upon many beaches between Cape Byron and the Heads of Port Waratah. And every one of the lost vessels was identified except the Maria, of which not a solitary chip could be found.
“Bottom fell out and she went down like a stone,” “Opened out like a wool bale when the hoops break,” was what the general opinion of those who knew the “poor old slug” amounted to. And presently all doubts were set at rest by the discovery on Cronulla Beach of the battered and grimy dolphin that had served as a figurehead ever since she was first launched under that name; also there washed ashore part of the stern of a decayed longboat with “Maria Bax—”still visible upon it. So the insurance people paid up, and with a portion of the money Baxter Brothers bought an old Norwegian brig at auction, and after cleaning her bottom and spending a fiver on putty and paint and oakum, installed her in place of the lost Maria, whose very name was forgotten by the public in a week, because of far more stirring happenings than the foundering of a “sixty miler” and a few sailors.
* * * * * *
“Jansen,” remarked Captain Jarvis to his mate, as, abreast of Bungaree, North Head, looming big to starboard, they braced the Maria’s yards to a light Sou’-wester; “Jansen, it’s going to blow like blazes afore mornin’! An’ I believe it’ll come from the east’ard presen’ly in a regular snorter. If it does, Jansen, an’ catches us here, you’ll never see that fat Dutch sweetheart o’ yours at the fish shop in Erskine Street any more. We’ll go ashore and break up in a quarter less no time! I’ve got a touch o’ them roomatics again to-night; an’ I notice, ever since I was down with ’em, that an easterly’s bound to come with the pains. Square away, Jansen, an’ let’s get out to sea. It’s the safest place for us. If we were near enough to Broken Bay, I’d run in; but we haven’t a show with the wind as it is.”
So the Maria, turning her square stern to the land, surged out into the Pacific, making such an offing that, ere the sun rose, Australia had vanished from sight; and before another watch passed the correctness of the skipper’s barometer (the only one on board) was proved by their meeting that same easterly gale that was presently to work such woe along the distant coast.
Hove to under her lower foretopsail, the Maria sagged wearily to leeward, taking lots of water on board, but otherwise behaving herself quite decently and as if pleased that no exertion was required of her. Every watch she had to be pumped, and then the black streams from her well, mingling with the black streams that poured away from her deck cargo, gushed through the scuppers till the big combers upon which she listlessly rose and fell were of the hue of ink.
The weather was dull and gloomy, with a low-lying heavy sky. The wheel was lashed and the decks deserted, save for the cook, who in his galley kept warm and snug. In the fo’c’s’le the men lay in their bunks, and by turns dozed uneasily, and smoked, and swore at the black tricklings that came through the working seams overhead and were flung from side to side in showers with each uneasy roll of the brig. A double-spouted kerosene lamp, with naked wicks, swung and sputtered amidships. Great cockroaches, disturbed by the water, came out of their refuges and crawled heavily about the bulkheads and over the black, damp, and frowsy bedding.
Suddenly the scuttle was thrust aside, and the mate’s voice bawled, “Now, den, eight bells! Pomp chip!” And with surly groans of “Aye, aye,” the four crawled slowly and deliberately out of their bunks, got into their dirty, ragged oilskins, and crawled up the greasy ladder into the night of wind and water, and felt their tedious way to the pumps. Aft, near the wheel, stood the skipper, sparks from his pipe streaming over the rail, listening to the monotonous clink-clank of the iron brakes working to the accompaniment of a chanty crooned by one of the old men and joined in by the others in a half-hearted way when it came to the chorus of—
Oh, wake her; oh, shake her!
Oh, wake her up from down below!
Do, my Johnnie, do!
“Do, mein Yonnie, do,” grunted the mate, putting his weight impartially on each brake till the long-drawn throaty gurgle at last proclaimed that the pumps “sucked”—i.e., that there was not enough water in the well for them to get hold of.
“Grog ho!” shouted the skipper, grasping a square bottle of hollands, out of which he poured each man a tumbler three parts full, swallowed by its recipient with a gasp of satisfaction.
“There’ll be ships’ bones along the beaches to-night, Jansen,” said Jarvis, helping himself and passing the bottle to the mate; “but we’ve saved the old barge, and a lot of thanks we’ll get for it. The worst of the blow’s over. My pains is going with it. By Heaven! if it hadn’t been for those poor old chaps for’ard, an’, well yes, you too, and that there gal o’ yours, I’d just as soon she’d been piled up like those others is bound to be. Let her lie as she is till daylight, and then we’ll run in for the land.”
Sunrise found wind and sea going down rapidly; showed also to those on the brig, a mile or so away, a great white war steamer coming very slowly towards them from the eastward. Smoke was issuing from only one of her triple funnels; she carried two masts with military tops, and a great gun poked half its length out of a sort of semi-circular fort for’ard, whilst her tall sides bristled with smaller cannon.
“She ain’t one of our lot from Farm Cove.” said the skipper, ogling her through an old pair of binoculars; “foreigner o’ some sort, I s’pose. Aye, aye, Jansen, both tawps’ls an’ the main t’g’ans’l. Let’s get home, out of this. We’ll have Uriah and James sacking the crowd unless we hurry. Now, what flag’s that? and what does he want hoisting the whole code at us that way. He might have savey enough to know that collier brigs don’t carry more bunting than’ll make their number. An’, anyhow, we can’t stop.”
By this time the Maria’s sails had been sheeted home, and the stranger, seeing no notice taken of her signals, and the brig actually drawing away from her, fired a gun to leeward, hauled down the bright string of flags, and lowering the first one she had hoisted to half mast, lay with her way stopped and all the huge mass of her rolling solemnly to the swell of the long seas.
“Now, what the dickens does she mean by that?” asked the bewildered skipper of the Maria. “What sort of distress can she be in, anyhow? Well, well, back your foreyards there, Jansen. Fancy a great thumpin’ man o’ war wantin’ help from a poor rotten sieve of a collier!”
As Jarvis bent on and ran up to the peak a grimy old British Ensign with its fly all in tatters, the man at the wheel, who had been eyeing the warship very intently, all at once said, “That there’s the Spanish flag, captin’—the navy flag. I seen it afore in Manila when I was goin’ deep water. Red, yaller, red agin, an’ a rampin’ lion sparrin’ at a cassle. I kin see it quite plain now.”
“Well, what about it, Sam?” replied the skipper, belaying the signal halliards.
“Why, you know the Yanks an’ the Dagoes is at war,” said Sam, “an’ this might be what they calls a roose to get ’old on us. Evident ’er’s run outer coal—not as much left as ’ud carry ’er another foot to save ’er bloomin’ life. An’—”
“By jingo, I’d clean forgot all about any war!” exclaimed the skipper rather gloomily, as he caught sight of a large boat full of men rowing towards the brig with the deliberate stroke of Southern Europe—pull and pause—pause and pull. “But there,” he continued, squinting up at the torn, dirty Ensign flapping overhead, “that’s the British Flag, and we’re British subjects sailin’ to and from British ports. An’, anyhow, what harm can they do us? Like enough they’ll buy our deck load. Chuck over the ladder there for ’em, one of you.”
Out of the boat, as she swung alongside, there presently nimbly clambered an officer in blue and gold uniform, moustached and dark. Gaining the deck, he paused a moment to inspect his white gloves, the palms of which were smothered in coal dust from the ladder-ropes. Then, with a smile, as if well satisfied, he cast a comprehensive glance around at the prevailing darkness, and aloft at the tattered Ensign, and, removing his peaked and gold-braided cap, bowed politely to Jarvis, standing close to it with his hands in the pockets of his pilot jacket.
“Coal?” he remarked, waving his arms and showing a set of perfect teeth as he smiled conciliatingly.
“Aye, aye, moonsheer,” replied Jarvis, “lots of it. Newcastle to Waratah. D’ye want to buy a few ton? Of course the figure ‘ll be higher than if ye was gettin’ it straight from the mine. But—”
“Yes, yes!” interrupted the other eagerly. “We buy all—all! I understand. Cas’ pay. You come ’longside. All buy. Plenty money. Englis’ sov’ren—no silver. Big price. You sell quick? Spanis’ ship.”
For a minute Jarvis stared thoughtfully at the speaker, whilst he revolved in his mind the one chance of a lifetime. At present the advantage was all his. There lay the great war-dragon pathetically powerless, unable, without his help, to ensure a single turn of her screw—at the mercy of the winds and waves. Certainly, if he squared away she could sink him. But that would be hardly likely. On the other hand, once alongside, he and his vessel were wholly in the power of the Spaniards. Still, he fancied having heard or read somewhere that they were honourable people and thought a lot of their word. And that seventy-two pounds odd! Never, he knew well, would he be allowed to work that off. If he left the firm without asking leave, they would give him a “bad discharge,” and that meant a return to the fo’c’s’le again. Aft was squalid enough. But for’ard! His soul sickened at the thought of going through it all again. Yes, he’d chance it! He had nothing much to lose. However, he’d have some agreement in black and white to show for the business if it turned out “cronk.” If otherwise, why, there would be no necessity for anything.
Thus it happened that in a few minutes Jarvis was possessed of a piece of paper signed by Don Miguel y Santos de Zarate, first lieutenant of the Spanish cruiser Alfonso XIV., agreeing to take not only her cargo, but the Maria also, at a lump sum that came to something over £5 per ton for ship and coal together.
Jarvis’s heart had sunk when he noted the pleased alacrity with which the lieutenant agreed to his terms. No protest, no bargaining! Just a scrape and a flourish of the pen on the smudgy sheet of notepaper! Could it be possible that any people in their senses would pay such an amount of money for what seemed to him of so little worth? Had he known that twice the sum would have been cheerfully given, also that a week ago the Alfonso had stopped the American mail-boat and taken over half-a-million of specie out of her, the skipper would probably have had no such misgivings as now assailed him. Actually he had been the salvation of the warship, whose bunkers were scraped clean, and who, having coaled three months before in Singapore, was, even had she been able to get there, barred from Australian ports.
Very quickly a few bags of coal were bundled over into the boat. Then she went off to the cruiser; whence, presently, a steam-launch arriving, took the Maria in tow and pulled her alongside the Alfonso to the sound of much Spanish cheering.
Previous to this, however, Jarvis called Jansen and the crew into the cabin.
“Look here,” said he, speaking quick and sharp, “I’ve sold the whole turn-out to the Dagoes yonder. If they act square, and cash up, I’ll give you four chaps an’ the cook £200 each. Jansen, you’ll get £300. Never mind what I get. That’s my business. If they don’t act square, why, you’ll just have to take your chance, same as me. Are you satisfied?”
They were. Each grimy man of them would almost have sold what remained to him of life for such wealth as heretofore they had only dreamt of. And they added their names as witnesses to the agreement signed by Jarvis and the lieutenant.
“There, now,” said the former grimly, “you’re as deep in the mud as I am in the mire. This bit of paper may help you to keep quiet tongues. An’, anyhow, if you know when you’re well off you’ll not be goin’ back to Australia to spend your money. An’ remember, if anyone asks you, I’m master an’ owner.”
Like hawks the Spaniards swooped upon the Maria with bags, baskets, and tubs, working all three hatches at once, until in forty-eight hours she was an empty ship, swept and scraped clean to the last ounce of precious sodden coal around her timbers. Meanwhile, the captain of the Alfonso had in his own state-room paid Jarvis with bags of gold, seeming to think his bargain cheap at the price, and cheerfully consenting to put the skipper and his crew as rescued castaway sailors on board the first British homeward bound ship they should meet.
Thrusting the bruised and battered old Maria from her steel sides, the warship, once more a power, steamed off a couple of miles and began to use her six-inch guns in the port battery. The first shell flew wide; the second burst just astern, throwing a great mound of water on her decks that made her reel and stagger and show the green copper nearly to her keel as she went over; at the third discharge the shell plumped square into her; there was a sullen roar as it exploded; the Maria seemed to leap bodily up and then collapse in one universal flattened ruin of spars and timbers, black to the last as it lay for a few minutes on the surface of the sunlit sea.
“And a good riddance, too!” muttered Jarvis as he watched the smoke and heard the Spaniards cheering. “But I’m glad I fetched the Flag away.”
The Endymion was a very excellent example of what can be done by the modern iron shipbuilder. Iron decks and houses, iron skylights, iron lower and topmasts, iron yards, jibboom, and bowsprit, and iron everywhere on deck except her boats and the spokes of her wheel. Flush fore-and-aft, with the exception of a small fok’sle-head, she presented to the eye only an expanse of iron plates broken by the galley— nearly amidships, a small structure just abaft the mainmast for the boatswain, sailmaker, and carpenter; a couple of low skylights still further aft, and then, right astern, the old-fashioned innovation of a capacious wheel-house, all these built of thick iron, white painted. She was bound to Singapore with a cargo of general merchandise, and so far her passage had been without incident. Her officers had the usual mixed crew of Scandinavians, Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, etc., well in hand, and up to the morning that Sam Jackson (the negro cook) and Mr. Shaw (the second mate) disagreed monotony had prevailed. But on the morning they lost the South-east Trades, and catching nothing but a few light airs in their stead had box-hauled the yards about for hours, a process utterly destructive to temper, the cup of coffee was brewed that led to dire tragedy. Tired and weary of sheets and braces, the second mate, taking his usual compound of wattle-bark and chicory from the steward, preparatory to washing decks, found to his disgust that the cup was three-quarters full of “grounds.” It was also cold. The steward blamed the cook, and the “greaser,” as the second officer is still called on deep-water vessels, walking to the galley, remonstrated with its occupant, i.e. called him a d—d black, useless nigger, also other things much more emphatic.
Then Sam “sauced him back,” and the greaser, hitting him, received such a butt in return between wind and water as sent him flying rods along the deck. Then the skipper and the boatswain and the carpenter and the sailmaker appeared on the scene, and after a lot of rough man-handling, Sam found himself in irons, and triced up to the sheer-pole of the main rigging, with his feet barely touching the deck, and a clove-hitch of log-line cutting into each wrist.
Captain Gerard was a native of New Orleans, a slightly-built, gentlemanly man, with dark, refined features and large, melancholy black eyes, showing a streak of yellow in their whites. Lighting a fresh cigar as he surveyed Sam, he said quietly, “Give him five-and-twenty with the end of the topsail halyards. That will learn him manners. I have noticed the coffee myself of late. He’s getting careless. Shift him along a bit, and spread-eagle him. The height’s about right.”
So said, so done. The boatswain, a stolid Norwegian, laid heavily on to poor Sam’s back until it grew as thick with weals as a ploughed field of furrows.
If Hans Jorgensen could only have seen a little way ahead, he might have made his strokes lighter, and, for the matter of that, some others might not have looked on so unconcernedly. During his punishment Sam never once groaned. But when they untied him to stagger back to his galley, he turned to the captain and said, “So help me Gawd, sah, you bin an’ flog a free man an’ a citizen ob de United States ob Ameriky—one o’ Sherman’s boys—not white trash like dem” (indicating the grinning crew), “and by Gawd, sah, you cuss the day you flog Sam Jackson! “
But the captain only puffed calmly at his cigar, and showing his white teeth, remarked, “Don’t trouble yourself, my lad. I used to own niggers once—things just like you—and know the breed, and how to treat it. See that the coffee’s better, or next time the rope will be thinner.”
For a week or so matters went on much as usual. Sam sulked, and would speak to no one, but sat brooding in his galley, with a queer, drawn look upon his usually jolly face. Nor were his ready laugh and song ever heard about the decks when, as had often happened formerly, he ran out to give a pull at brace or halyard, or tailed on to his particular rope —the fore-sheet.
“Aha!” said the captain to him one day, “I’ve broken you down, my lad, have I? And the coffee’s better. Trust me to know what’s the best medicine for a nigger!”
But Sam only rolled his dusky bloodshot eyes, answering nothing.
Soon after this Sam started in business. One morning the starboard watch, taking their hook-pots to the galley as usual for coffee before turning-to to wash decks, found the iron doors on each side securely closed and barred. In vain they kicked and battered. Then they tried to peer through the little air-holes that pierced the walls — three in the forward end, three in the after, and one on each side. But their shutters were drawn. Then they called the officer of the watch—Sam’s friend, the second mate—who, after exhausting his vocabulary, tried to hammer one of the shutters in with a marlinspike. The prevailing impression seemed to be that Sam had committed suicide. But presently, as the second picked and prized the thing flew open, there was an explosion, and a bullet sang past the greaser’s nose within an inch of it, whilst the shutter snapped to again.
“The devil!” exclaimed the second. “This is beyond a joke”; and he called the mate, who, after reconnoitring, called the captain.
“Firearms, hey!” exclaimed the latter, and going into the spare berth next his own, in which he kept his private armoury, he presently emerged with rather a blank face. “The d—d nigger!” said he. “He’s got my Winchester, a couple of Colts’ revolvers, and about two hundred cartridges!” And very soon, as the daylight brightened and bullets came splashing and thumping against the wheel-house, it grew clear to the meanest apprehension on board that the galley was transformed into a fort—an iron fort—garrisoned by a grievously wronged man, with, in his possession, all the firearms in the ship. Captain Gerard, although old-fashioned in his notions as regarded “a man and a brother,” fully appreciated the gravity of the situation, but hardly saw his way to rise to it.
“There’s one comfort,” said he to the chief mate, as a bullet pinged uncomfortably close to them where they crouched under cover of the skylight, and, smashing the glass window of the wheel-house, rebounded from the inner wall, and fell at their feet, a shining, flattened disc of lead. “There’s one comfort—at this rate, he’ll soon expend his ammunition,”
But Sam was no fool, and having, as it were, made his declaration, he started the galley fire, and a savoury smell pervading the decks presently witnessed the preparation of his breakfast.
Meanwhile, the men—soon discovering that Sam’s rifle practice was directed solely against the “afterguard”—hung about the fok’sle hatch, and chewed biscuits, and cursed captain, ship, and officers in polyglot fashion.
But if Sam did not think them worth a cartridge, none of the officers, with the exception apparently of the chief, could show themselves without being made targets of. And, though they kept well under cover, there had already been some very narrow escapes, Sam proving himself no mean marksman at the short range to which he was necessarily confined.
Although aggravated almost beyond endurance to find himself thus successfully defied on his own ship by a “nigger” — there lay the sting —the captain hoped, as the day passed without casualty, that, presently, the cook, repenting of his mad frolic, would think better of it, and “quit fooling.” But then the captain’s back was not scored like Sam’s, a circumstance that, perhaps, the former did not take into sufficient account.
And, towards evening, the boatswain, who above all others should have been most careful, incautiously showing himself outside his house for a minute, fell with a bullet through his thigh, which shattered the bone to pieces. His scream of agony was replied to from the galley by Sam, with a savage whoop of triumph. But he forebore to fire at the chief officer, who ran out to drag the wounded man into shelter. The chief, a quiet West of Englander, had never approved of his captain’s high-handledd proceeding in the matter of the flogging. But he was asleep below during the affair, and was unfeignedly shocked when he heard of it. And he it was who now offered to go to the galley, and, if it were possible, make terms. But the captain would not listen to him. “No,” said he, “I’ll have the black scoundrel out of that, if I have to sink the ship and all on board of her. We don’t let niggers keep the upper hand in my country very long, sir, I can assure you.”
This was all very well as far as it went, But, in spite of his confident words, the chief saw that his superior was nearly at his wits’ end how to get out of the very nasty scrape he had got the ship and all hands into.
The Endymion had been under all plain sail through the day, and at nightfall the crew were called to snug her down to three close-reefed topsails, which they did, working gingerly and with beard on shoulder. But, except for a pot shot at the sailmaker, which, owing to the bad light, missed, Sam let them work undisturbed. Tinned meats were served out for supper, washed down with six-water grog. At midnight the boatswain died; and an hour later, with but brief ceremony-there being serious work toward — the body was dropped overboard. And, shortly afterwards, a stiff nip of rum being first served all round, both watches, led by the captain and mate respectively, attacked the galley on each side simultaneously. Armed with crowbars and axes, they cut and levered at the doors. But these, jammed home, and secured by heavy iron crossbars, resisted all attempts, whilst Sam from his loopholes kept up a brisk revolver fire, managing to wound severely two men and a third slightly before the assailants drew off disheartened, and, as far as regarded the crew, with very little stomach for another trial. Actually the galley seemed impregnable. As the captain told himself in his fury, the builders of the thing almost appeared to have had an eye to the probability of its having some day to stand a siege. Provisioned, as Sam doubtless had taken good care to be, and with an ample water-supply in condenser and boilers, there was no reason why he should not keep the galley the passage through, and, arriving at Singapore, possibly hang—but, in the meantime, hold up the captain and officers of the Endymion to the laughter and ridicule of the sea-world.
And, presently, this time with the skipper’s consent, the mate approached the galley with a flag of truce. But, although Sam treated the ambassador respectfully, he would listen to no terms.
“No, sah,” said he, “if I come out for anybody I comes out for you. You de only Christian ob de hull bilin’ of dem fellers aft. I ’specs you, sah; but my back tur’ble sore yet. Dat dam bos’n lay it on real hard. By gum! he don’t lay it on no more. Fishes eat him by dis time. You see, sah, I plug skipper an’ greaser ’fore I finish. I tink ‘dam black nigger’ top dawg now, sah?”
“But, Sam,” replied the chief, “you’re only making things worse for yourself. If you’ll come out now I’ll do my best for you in Singapore, and the captain’s good word, too, ’ll go a long way.”
“Booh!” replied Sam, with a sneer of contempt. “De skipper’s word! Ask him, wid my compliment, if he like a cup o’ hot coffee widout any grounds. S’posin’ I kin git a bead on him, I’ll give him coffee! Yah!” And with a snap Sam closed his loophole.
When the chief officer returned he found the captain overhauling the Endymion’s manifest.
“I’m looking if there’s any powder or firearms,” he explained, “amongst the cargo. But I see nothing of the kind, except some new-fangled explosive for blasting. ‘Fracturite,’ they call it. Where’s it stowed: do you remember?”
The mate thought it was in the after-hold, but wasn’t quite sure. Also, he remembered that the consignors had sent him a pamphlet respecting its properties. By this, which he presently brought from his berth, it appeared that, like dynamite, its effect was downwards. Furthermore, no hole or cavity was needed. Placed on any flat surface, and ignited by the time-fuse attached to every cartridge, the effect was guaranteed on the hardest and most solid rock.
“And, by heavens!” exclaimed the captain savagely, “it’s got to be tried on that infernal galley. I don’t care if it blows it overboard so long as it takes that nigger with it. Get the hands aft, sir, at once, and start to break out cargo.”
Soon a tackle was rigged; and, as fast as bales, barrels, and boxes came up, they were formed into a barricade across the deck. Sam interrupted operations twice. Catching a glimpse of the peaked cap the captain usually wore projecting from the shelter of the mainmast, a well-aimed shot sent it flying, the bullet cutting a groove in the skipper’s scalp from which the blood ran down his face. The second mate, running to his assistance, received a bullet in the shoulder that dropped him; and Sam, noting the effect of his fire, struck up “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,” and rattled the pots and pans till the galley rang again.
The barricade, however, was now head-high, affording lots of shelter for all hands; and, some cooking utensils presently coming to light amongst the miscellaneous cargo, a fire was lit, and the first hot food for many hours prepared and eaten.
It was late in the afternoon when the case of fracturite appeared, and was opened at once by the captain himself. “I’ll chance it,” he replied to some remark of the mate’s about the possible damage that might ensue to the ship, “I’ll chance it, blow her up or blow her down,” and he tenderly felt his bandaged head and swore.
Much against his will, that evening he also altered the Endymioti’s course for Capetown, for the wounded seamen were doing badly—the second mate already delirious, and the ship getting short-handed. At dark the wind drew ahead, gradually rising to a gale, with a big sea on, into which the ship plunged, scooping masses of water over her bows and sending them aft, to the irreparable damage of much cargo. One man in a short time had worked a lot of mischief.
About midnight the captain crept forward—for he would
trust the adventure to no one else—and, climbing on to
the galley roof, he placed a couple of the cartridges at the foot
of the funnel which rose nearly through its centre. Overhead the
smoke streamed to leeward, and, putting his ear to the chimney, he
could hear a dull muttering, as if the cook was talking to
But the captain was impatient; and, lighting the fuse from the glowing end of his cigar, he slipped off the roof and ran aft to where, very dubious as to the result, the mate and the rest stood peering over the barricade.
For a five minutes that seemed an age they awaited the determination of an unknown quantity, their eyes fixed on the white shimmer of the galley through the gloom.
Suddenly there was a bright flash, then another, then a crackling, ripping sound; the ship appeared to pause and stagger, and a cloud of nauseous smoke was wafted against the watching faces. For a time no one moved. Then, the captain leading, the others followed. At a glance it was seen that the galley was a wreck, with a great hole in the roof, and one of its sides blown out, whilst in the interior flame and steam seemed struggling for the mastery. As they gazed a terrible figure freed itself from the debris. Half naked, with hair and remnants of clothing in a blaze, and patches of peeled and scalded skin showing white against the black, it came towards the horror-stricken group that scattered and fled at its approach with the exception of the captain, who stepped to the rail for one of the iron belaying-pins.
But before he reached it the fiery arms were around him, and his scream when he felt that dread embrace was drowned in a loud yell of triumphant agony, as, leaping on to the spare spars lashed along the bulwarks, the cook hurled himself and his enemy into the sea.
Towards the latter end of 1896, I, Harry Wood, and my mate, Philip Scott, owned a smart cutter and £200 cash. By the time Australian bells were ringing in the New Year we owned the cutter only.
“What shall we do with all this money, Phil?” I asked, one day, about a week after returning from the cruise that had nearly ended in such a disastrous fashion, and which has already been described elsewhere. “Invest it,” replied Phil, promptly. “Now’s the time. There’s a big boom in the W. A. mines. Only this morning I was given the straight tip for ‘Cataracts!’ They’re at 4 now, and young Flurrier—fellow I know in the Exchange—says nothing can stop them from going up to 10 in a week or two. Let’s make a spoon or spoil a horn, and collar fifty shares.”
We did so. And almost at once Cataracts began to fall, like their watery namesakes; fell and fell until, by the 1st of January, their scrip was hardly worth more than 100 pence. Phil was in despair, and found only partial relief by thumping Flurrier as some slight return for the missing tip. As Phil said, it’s well enough to advise a fellow, but quite another matter when your mentor, who has bought in at par, unloads in a hurry at 3¾, and forgets to mention the fact in time to save a friend.
So we retired to the Darthea, then lying at anchor off Camp Cove, in Sydney Harbour, and began to consider the outlook for a freight to the Islands or, failing that, even a trip to the Hawkesbury River for fire-wood or oysters—both, adventures at which it would take us a month o’ Sundays to raise the amount of money just lost.
“We’ll never make a punch like that again, Harry!” said Phil, continually reproaching himself, and indeed quite broken up at the result of his disastrous speculation. “If it had only been my whack I wouldn’t care so much. But to go and gamble yours, too!”
“Never mind,” I replied. “It’s gone now. Something may turn up presently. Fibre & Co. asked me to call, to-day, about some stuff they want taken round to the Clarence.”
Fibre & Co., however, wanted the job done for next to nothing: and returning that evening rather disgusted, I found Phil busy talking to a small, very dark man who was eyeing the cutter appreciatively, and who might have been anything from a Spaniard to a West Indian Creole, a Maltese to a Malay, so far as appearance went.
My mate, in a state of repressed excitement, introduced Senor Garcias as a gentleman wishing to charter the Darthea at a handsome figure for a trip to the Philippines. The Senor spoke very fair English, and in a few minutes briefly explained his wishes. We were first to take the cutter to a little inlet on the coast between Broken Bay and Newcastle, load our cargo there, and then sail away to an island called Ilovo, on the eastern side of Luzon, where we should find persons ready to take delivery. In consideration of the engagement being fulfilled to the charterer’s satisfaction, we were to receive the sum of £400, of which £150 was to be paid at once, the balance on delivery of cargo. “So semple, so verra semple!” concluded the Senor, rolling a cigarette and flashing white teeth at us from under his heavy black moustache. “Vy, it is better zan a gole mine!”
Phil started and coloured, whilst I grinned at this chance thrust.
“And the cargo?” I enquired curiously, for I knew next to nothing about the Philippines or their social conditions, except that they belonged to Spain.
“Contrabanda of var,” replied our visitor placidly, “Rivles and ammunizion. Ve fight like ’ell there against the Spanish. You vould not tink ve pay you so ’igh for coal, eh? Of course,” he continued, “ve might take steamer. But steamer alvays suspich. Nobody suspich leetle ting so alamost like feesh boat. Guarda costa zay, ‘Hey, vat you do ’ere! Hey, you stop, I vant look.’ ‘All-a-right,’ you say, ‘look away my fren’s—notting’s ’ere. Ve British trader come roun’ Sulu Sea, Zebu, all roun’ for trepang, spice, shell, curio—anytings ve peck up. Aha, look away!’ So semple as nevaire vas,” he concluded, airily producing a roll of notes as if the matter was settled beyond further argument.
“Stop a bit,” I said, “I don’t want to know anything about the merits of the business. Apparently, the Spaniards are at war with some other fellows, and we’re to help these other fellows against the Spaniards.” He nodded. “All right,” I said. “Now what I want to know is, suppose we are caught smuggling your rifles and stuff, how will the Spaniards treat us?” But the Senor was frankness itself, and replied at once, “P’raps shoot. Mos’ like chuck in prison vere you cats fever and starve all-a-same dam coyote—vat you call ’im—volf. Dat, fren’s, is vat ve pay you ’igh for.”
Phil whistled as he heard this; whilst I stared, rather taken aback, too; and the Senor quietly rolled a fresh cigarette.
“Well,” remarked Phil, shakily, after a long pause, “I’m game, Harry, if you are. And, at any rate, we’re British subjects and can claim the protection of the Flag, if the worst comes to the worst. Don’t let’s forget to take a new Ensign with us. The old one’s all fagged at the fly. Indeed, we might invest in a couple to make sure. I don’t suppose the Australian one would be of any use.”
The Senor stared at Phil’s speech and his pale face; and I said, “You shouldn’t have scared us so suddenly. You see, we are not used to that kind of thing and it gets on our nerves.”
“Ah, yes,” replied he comprehendingly, with a chuckle; “I see; you ’ave not yet recovaired effek of your last leetle experence.”
“Oh, that’s it, is it?” asked Phil.
“Yase,” drawled the Senor, “dat is it. And now to beezness.” And he started to count his notes, seeing by our looks that we had quite made up our minds.
“Your faith in human nature’s pretty firm, Senor,” remarked Phil, as the other presently pushed over fifteen bits of paper, value ten pounds each. “What’s to stop us clearing out now with all the money.”
“Nottings,” replied our employer, showing his teeth; “nottings vatefer. Only, in dat case, no Flack on de eart’s surface could save you alife. But I shance dat,” he concluded, with a bow and a smile to each of us. “I know vat I know. And I am sure sar-tain that in tree-four day we meet again at the ‘Crick of de Turtle,’ as I ’ave said.”
“Well,” remarked Phil, as our visitor got into his skiff and sculled himself ashore, “it’s curious how things turn out. Evidently that chap read the newspaper account of our trip with Benton, and made inquiries, and looked us up to run the chance of being shot, or hanged, or left to rot in prison. However, it’s all in a life-time! And, anyhow, it’s better than droghing wood or oysters. What’s the fighting about, yonder, Harry?”
“Haven’t the remotest idea,” I replied, “except that, now he’s mentioned it, I do remember seeing bits of cables in the newspapers lately about some rebellion in the Philippines. However, that don’t concern us. If you’ll turn to and bend the mainsail, I’ll run up to town and buy a chart of the Spanish East Indies and the surrounding seas, and order tucker and stuff. With luck we should be back in three months.”
* * * * * *
The evening of the fourth day saw the Darthea moored head and stern to trees at the top of that remote and unfrequented inlet known as Turtle Creek. Before leaving, we had shipped three hands—two brothers named Brown—both experienced coasting seamen, and a youngster called Danby, a fisherman.
We found our friend, Senor Garcias, encamped at the water’s edge with a dozen others, most of them even darker than himself; and as soon as our gangway was in place these men began to carry and drag on board cases and packages that had been contained in the big tents pitched close by, and some of which were so heavy as to need the use of tackle and winch to swing them inboard. Others, again, were comparatively light, and these were handled with suggestive care and delicacy under the Senor’s special supervision.
“’Igh exploseeves,” he remarked, casually, as he watched his men “chocking off” and “dunnaging” with a skill and celerity that showed them practiced stevedores. Indeed, so snugly and quickly did they stow the things that, long ere morning, anyone descending into the Darthea’s hold would only have seen a level surface of sand ballast. And on this, presently, they placed a few tiers of bags containing trepang and copra; some bales of raw Manila fibre, a couple of hundred coco-nuts, bundles of fancy matting, and a case or two of native curios, giving to the hold exactly the aspect of that of a harmless trader, pottering about the Eastern Pacific for anything he could pick up. And yet, in the centre of the bales and bags were cunningly hidden hundreds of packages of Martini-Henry ammunition for the weapons under the sand.
It struck me as making a curious picture that night, as I looked around the scene—the narrow strip of water surrounded with high, scrub-covered hills, over whose summits rode a small moon, the cutter snugged up amidst the trees, the flitting lights about the deck, and the low hum of voices mingling with the whine of sheaves, the rattle of the winch, and the tramp of the men bearing the big cases that looked like coffins, out of the white tents. Decidedly, an outsider—especially an official one—would have considered the sight peculiar.
But of that there was little danger. For many miles on either hand stretched some of the roughest country in New South Wales—deep gullies and craggy ravines alternating with precipitous walls of sandstone and forests of thick, dark scrub—the abode, these last, only of ticks, leeches, and snakes. Never was a spot better chosen for such a purpose. How our cargo got there I never knew, probably in the steam-launch that, as the sun rose, we saw tied to the bank further up stream.
Garcias had hardly moved, the whole night long, from where he stood at the hatchway, smoking incessantly and strewing the deck with cigarette stubs. But now, beckoning me and Phil ashore, he led the way to his tent, and there, broaching a magnum of champagne, asked us to drink success to the enterprise, hinting, at the same time, that the sooner we were away, the sooner we should get to Ilovo. Also, he remarked that if we had luck on this trip, there was another one on similar terms at our service when we returned.
Already his silent, swarthy crew were striking the tents and packing for a shift; whither, we did not stay to see for a fair wind blowing down the inlet, the cutter, turning a bend, was soon out of sight; Garcias watching us to the last, every now and again waving yellow fingers of farewell.
Almost from the day we left Australian shores behind us and struck off round the tail end of the Great Barrier and through the Louisiades and Bismarcks across the Equator, luck attended us in the shape of moderate winds and fine weather. Here and there amongst the islands we put in for water and provisions, having altogether a pleasant cruise. For a time, certainly, we couldn’t get the ticklish nature of our cargo off our minds. Aft as well as for’ard matches were extinguished with religious precision: and for days people preferred taking their smoke on deck; whilst the proper banking o’ nights of the galley fire became an object of solicitude to all hands. In one or two calms also that we experienced, when the ironwork grew hot enough to burn, and the pitch seethed hot and bubbling from the seams, awkward recollections of those “’igh exploseeves” sweating below us would often arise, mingled with visions of the cutter and ourselves travelling skyward in fragments. But gradually, as time wore on, all apprehension vanished, and we ceased to think about the dangerous stuff stowed under our feet.
We could have done, perhaps, with another man to help handle the heavily-sparred cutter. Still the ones we had were fine fellows; and we were paying such high wages that each addition meant a good lump of gilt off our own gingerbread. Indeed Phil overheard Brown senior remark to his brother one night that, at the price, he’d be willing “to picnic with a cargo of dynamite all his bloomin’ life.” He had reason to change his opinion before the picnic was finished.
Obeying instructions, and favoured by light but steady South West Monsoons, I kept nearly up to the twenty-first parallel before hauling my wind and standing in to make that particular one out of the two thousand and odd islands I was bound for.
It was seven weeks to a day when, at last, Ilovo rose, a tall mound of greenery between us and the high mountains of northern Luzon—the latter visible for many hours past. Late that evening, we stood in towards the point whereon, we had been told, people watched for us. Then, as darkness fell, we hoisted the signal—two green lights with a red one on top, displayed triangle-wise.
Hardly had this been shown, when out from the cape blazed a flash, repeated thrice in quick succession. There was no mistake. Our errand was nearly accomplished, and Phil and I shook hands with satisfaction and drank to each other from one of the two great bottles of champagne that Garcias had given us at parting for that very purpose.
With the lead going we crept on under our square foresail until, all at once a torch flared up just ahead of us and a voice hailed us, to our great surprise, in English—albeit with a brogue.
“Now the Saints be wid ye!” exclaimed its owner as, a few minutes later, he stepped on board—a brown-faced, square-set man in a much worn, epauletted, scarlet coat, green trousers laced at the seams with tarnished bullion, and a cocked hat plumed with bird of paradise feathers. Round his waist he wore a broad belt from which hung a sword in a rusty steel scabbard, whilst on each hip rested a big navy revolver.
“It’s our eyes is sore wid the watching,” he continued. “However; long looked for comes at lasht. Have ye a dhrop o’ the cratur aboard? Me throttle is loike a cat’s back, so it is. Oi’m Gin’ral O’Brien, at your sarvis. We’ll have to look slippy,” he went on, pulling at a pair of huge, drooping, black moustaches, as we led him into the cabin and attempted to quench a thirst that seemed eternal, “bekase thim dirty spalpeens o’ Spanishers is messin’ around, up an’ down and betwixt an’ betune, wid a gunboat. Ah, here’s the bhoys. Now we’ll relave ye o’ yer throuble in the twisht av an eel’s tail. No, ye’ll not nade to bring up. There’s nothin’ undher thirty fathom ’tween here an’ Lobo Point yander. Jist down sail and let her drift. The current’s settin’ ye clare.”
The “bhoys” turned out to be the wildest-looking, most mixed lot imaginable. There were Malays; and apparently full-blooded negroes; tawny Mestizos, and coffee-berry hued men like Garcias; and bright yellow men, and half-castes and quarter-castes. And they swarmed alongside in a regular flotilla of canoes, and crowded our decks and tore off the hatches, with strange mutterings and triumphant guttural noises, tumbled below, and, in a minute it seemed, were handing over the heaviest cases and bales by sheer weight of muscle. Then very soon, there was an endless procession of boats going and coming between ship and shore, whilst the General stood at the gangway and encouraged them in, it appeared to us, a dozen different languages.
“Thirsty work,” he remarked at last. “Come along below and Oi’ll be afther squarin’ up wid yez over another dhrop of the cratur. Divil a sup have Oi tasted this noine weeks, barrin’ coco-nut woine, which is a poor deluderin’ dhrink. Begob, but we’ll mek Jack Spaniard hop wid them Martinis! Chokatch!”
At the name, a wild, half-naked cut-throat of a Mestizo, who had been keeping close to the General, came forward and accompanied us into the cabin.
“There y’are,” said the latter, taking a bag from his side, “Two hundred an’ sivinty av ’em, all bran’ new from the Hong Kong mint. Garcias towld us to put in an extra score for luck. Loikewise there’s plinty more where they comes from, if ye’d attimpt another trip. Ye’d best count ’em an’ make sure.”
“Oh, they’ll be right enough,” I replied, placing the bag on the table. “You took our cargo on trust; and—”
My words were suddenly cut short by a tremendous rattling roar, mingled with cries and shouts, whilst a dazzling light shone through the deck-house ports on to us.
“Begob, there’s that blashted Carmen!” exclaimed the General, coolly draining his glass and adjusting his moustaches. “But, glory be, we’ve got most of the shtuff ashore! Ye’ll see some fun prisintly, Oi’m thinkin”. Come along wid yez.”
Not a quarter of a mile away, we saw, as we stepped on deck, a white warship from whose sides leapt incessant sheets of flame, whilst her searchlight played to and fro between shore and cutter along the line of boats, and a storm of shot and shell literally thrashed the water into foam. About the cutter, not a soul was visible except our own men staring in amazement at the scene.
“A divil of a mess!” exclaimed the General, shouting some order to Chokatch who, for answer, went and looked over the quarter where their boat had lain; and then, returning without a word, pulled an old and rusty bayonet out of his waist-cloth and took up a position at the side of his commander.
“Take our dinghy, General!” I cried.
“Thank ye koindly,” says he, drawing both revolvers; “but it’s too late to run. Into the deck-house wid ye, now, or be me’sowl ye’ll swing—British flag an’ all!”
Looking up as he spoke, I saw Phil, in the glare of the light turned full upon us, busy hoisting the Ensign. Then, all at once, the cutter seemed to fill with dark-bearded men in uniform; the General’s pistols crackled and spouted fire from each hand: Chokatch bounded hither and thither like an enraged tiger, plunging his dripping weapon again and again into the white jumpers of the Spanish sailors, who, for a minute, with oaths and shouts, actually gave way before the pair. The last I saw of the General he had flung his empty pistols into the faces of the foe, and, drawing his sword and giving a great shout, followed after them, cutting and slashing at the crowd: a heroic, desperate figure with the waving feathers, and the big, black moustaches and the glitter of faded bullion all very vivid and intense under the unswerving flood of electricity that poured from the gunboat’s projector.
I don’t know how much longer I should have stood there gaping, only just then a hand seized me by the coat and dragged me through the deckhouse door and I heard Phil’s voice expostulating, “Don’t you know enough yet, to come out of the wet?” says he. “Let ’em fight. We’ve got enough on our shoulders. Take all the Flag can do to save our skins, I expect!”
Both the Browns and Danby, I found, were in the cabin—all three, though free from funk, with their opinion as to picnicking already materially altered.
Presently, the row on deck ceased. But, in a minute or two, the door flew open, and in rushed a crowd of seamen, all armed with revolvers and cutlasses, and headed by a couple of officers. I don’t know what they had expected to meet, but, when they saw the five of us sitting round the table, smoking calmly, they stopped dead. Then one of the officers made a speech to which Phil simply replied, “No savvee,” and pointed to the spare Ensign which he had tacked up to the after bulk-head. But the officer only grinned, as much as to say, “That game is altogether too thin,” at the same time motioning us to get on deck. To our surprise, we found the dawn was just breaking. Nearly alongside lay the gunboat, with wicked, quick-firing guns and Nordenfeldts peering venomously down at us from behind their shields. She was a long, business-like sort of craft, with a pair of thwartship funnels and two pole masts, carrying each a yard for signalling; and from one of these, in the morning breeze, fluttered the gaudy red and yellow Spanish flag. Dark brown splashes flecked the Darthea’s decks, and her white scuppers still held little, thick, red pools. One of the remaining cases had been brought up out of the hold and broken up, exposing its contents to view—some dozens of Smith and Wesson’s revolvers.
But what interested us more than anything was the sight of a file of marines drawn up across the deck. They wore peaked caps, red tunics, and dirty white trousers. They were lounging and smoking as they stood at ease, and seemed, from the expression of their faces, dead tired of life. All at once, at the word of command, they chucked away their cigarettes, got as upright as possible, and brought their rifles to the “present,” pointed toward us.
“My God! “ exclaimed Phil,” the brutes are going to shoot us!” and, jumping out of our little group, he waved his hand to the Flag overhead at the gaff-end and shouted, wild with passion, “Mind what you’re about, you fools! Can’t you see we’re Englishmen—English! English! And if you kill us, England’ll make you and your dirty country sweat more’n ever old Bony did!”
Probably the officer didn’t understand a word, but he shook his head and grinned, and pointed with his drawn sword at the yard arms of the gunboat to which, as we stared, two pinioned figures rose slowly, twisting and twirling. One was black and mother-naked, with horribly distorted features and legs drawn up in agony. Over the second one’s face had fallen a cocked hat, whose gay feathers took the morning sun, and from under which drooped the ends of a long, black moustache. With one accord we five uncovered and remained so till the dangling figures hung limp and motionless and the world, whatever their faults may have been, lacked two brave men. Then the marines, forming up on each side, marched us to the gangway, and so on board the Carmen, where we were at once leg-ironed to a stout bar, apparently placed for that very purpose, across her ’tween decks.
Two days of this, and we were brought up to find the Carmen, not at Manila, as we had expected, but anchored at a little place called Sama. Here we were put on board the Darthea which had been in tow of the gunboat, taken ashore, and clapped into a dirty, evil-smelling, insect-infected prison.
A little rice and a few sweet potatoes with, now and then, a suspicion of stale fish twice a day, formed our meals. As for sleep, we got none. The fleas and “things” took good care of that. Our prison was close to the sea, and from the barred window we could, by standing on one another’s shoulders, catch a glimpse of a wooden pier with, at times, a small coaster or two moored alongside it. For exercise, we were allowed to walk about a courtyard, surrounded by high walls and watched by slovenly soldiers who squatted around smoking cigarettes and hunting for vermin.
With the exception of our personal attendant, a soldier named Pedro, no one molested or meddled with us. One or two would even give us a little tobacco. But the man, Pedro, seemed to take a delight in making our hard case harder. “Dam Inglees” was his invariable salutation as he brought in our miserable ration, all cooked in one mess, and threw it on the dirty floor for us to pick up and eat with our fingers. And he had lots of petty, monkeyish tricks he was continually working off on us, such as putting salt in our tub of drinking water; peppering our rice with cayenne pepper till it burned like fire, etc., etc. And, alas, we couldn’t swear at him in any other language than our own! In that, however, we did our very best. But he seemed rather to like it. If it had not been for the gleaming bayonets that we could see through the open door in attendance on him, Master Pedro would have come to grief long before he did.
Of course we had no light. But we amused ourselves by catching the fire-flies that found their way in through the solitary window and using them as lamps to hunt tarantulas with. These venomous and repulsive brutes swarmed in the cell, and were some of them as big as a five-shilling piece. It was of no use trying to sleep. So that was the way we spent our nights. The walls were of sun-baked bricks, of immense thickness, and lined and seamed with deep cracks in which lived all sorts of reptiles and insects that used to emerge just after sun-down, what time, too, clouds of mosquitoes appeared. There were no beds or stretchers. When worn out, we just dumped down on the roughly paved floor. Our clothes were in rags, and our flesh, one mass of sores from head to toe. There were no other prisoners that we could see. But, one day, hearing an unusual commotion in the yard, Phil climbed up on Danby’s shoulders and looked out. Presently we heard a fusillade, and Phil, looking very sick, came down by the run. “They’re shooting people,” he gasped. “Got ’em stuck against a wall. Ugh! it’s awful.”
Then I had a look. Sure enough, there were five men lying on the ground—wild, long-haired, nearly naked fellows—their dark brown skins streaked with blood. About ten paces away stood a squad of soldiers, the smoke curling from the muzzles of their rifles. Two of the men still kicked convulsively, and an officer, going up, put his revolver close to one’s head and fired. Then he moved towards the other. However, I did not wait to see the result, but descended, feeling very white and shaky. Nevertheless, the rest must have a peep. Horrible though the thing was, it broke the monotony. When young Danby’s turn came and we had let him down again, he said, in unsteady tones, “Them’s some of the poor devils as was on the cutter that night. I’d know ’em anywhere. An’, as I live, the Darthea’s alongside the jetty at this very minute.”
And so it proved. And the sight of the little dear seemed to put fresh life into our maltreated bodies and courage into hearts depressed by the recent spectacle. Plan after plan was made, only to be rejected as impossible. As often happens in such cases, chance did what our united brains could not effect. Some time during the afternoon, there was a sort of religious procession passing. We could see the flags over the tops of the outer wall, and hear solemn music and singing. In the yard, the five bodies still lay stark in their blood, and hardly visible for the myriads of flies that encircled them like a black cloud. At dusk, Pedro entered, more than half drunk, and brought us some putrid fish and almost uncooked rice. Then, contrary to his usual custom, he lurched right in and began, as we guessed, to tell us about the event of the morning, and, by the aid of much gesture, to prophesy that “Dam Inglees” would soon meet a similar fate.
“Knock the brute down!” whispered Phil, from the door, “There’s not a soldier about! I believe they’re all on the spree. It’s our only show.”
At this the elder Brown gave Pedro a tremendous buffet under the ear, which rolled him over like a shot. Then we took his belt off and tied his legs; one of our own straps serving to pinion his arms in similar fashion. Opening his clenched teeth with his sword-bayonet, we rammed the rotten fish and peppered rice into his mouth. And the pleasure these light reprisals gave us was great and genuine. Next, Phil securing his revolver, we rolled Pedro into a dark corner in no very gentle style. Then taking the naked bayonet, I led the way out into the courtyard, dark now, and smelling of the day’s tragedy.
Not a soul was in sight. But rockets were soaring into the night from the town, bands playing, bells ringing, and guns going off. With beating hearts we crept towards the gate, expecting to find there at least one sentinel. There was nobody. The blood ran in our veins like quicksilver at the thought of liberty; only the next minute to curdle with disappointment as we found both great gate and massive postern fast locked. For awhile, we stood helpless. In front of us the walls rose smooth as glass. Behind us loomed the dark, square, low building in which we had passed so many days and nights of weary torment.
“We’ll have to go back again and untie Pedro!” almost sobbed young Danby.
“Idiots! Asses!” I exclaimed, suddenly. “The keys! He left the bunch in our door! I saw it! Perhaps he’s got those of the gates for to-night.” And almost before I’d finished speaking, I was hurrying across the yard.
Sure enough, there they were; and, locking the door of our cell on the gurgling, choking gaoler, I scurried back and, with trembling, eager fingers, tried key after key in the postern, whilst the rest held their breath, letting it escape in one great gasp as, at last, after many failures, the bolt shot back and I swung the gate open—making no mistake about re-locking it this time.
Very cautiously we stole along on our naked feet (our boots had been taken from us on the Carmen) towards the wharf. The great tropic stars gave a faint light; big bats flapped past us; fire-flies and queen-beetles flew about in the scent-laden air; a small, sighing breeze blew faintly, rustling among the mango leaves and the broad fronds of giant plantains that grew along the track. With many a glance to where, on our right hand, the lights of the little town flared and the clamour never ceased, we crept noiselessly, stealthily, until at last, we emerged on the beach and heard the lip-lap of the waves babbling to us of freedom, and making such music as never before had fallen on our ears when with a jerk, I hove the heavy bunch of keys far out into the waves. Another few minutes and we were close to the cutter. Not a light on board! Deserted apparently, and only made fast by a couple of hawsers!
“Oh, the luck, the dam luck!” swore one of the Browns, gleefully making for the rigging, and the next moment falling head over heels with an appalling clatter across some object lying in the shadow of the mast. The thing turned out to be a Spanish sentry, paralytically drunk; so drunk indeed that, as Brown picked himself up, he only grunted. Half-a-dozen empty bottles encircled him. And the Darthea was deserted! Oh, the joy of it! And the freshening breeze! Leaving the soldier unmolested—he might have given us a smoke once—we scuttled about like madmen. Were the sails bent? Thank God, they were! Cast off; and up foresail to slew her head! Now, the peak halliards! So; not too high! Were those shouts along the beach? No; only the pleasant breakings of water against the shapely bows. See how the lights recede! Good-bye, most accursed place, where, in the usual order of things, we should now be hunting tarantulas! Right up with the gaff, and haul out the main sheet! Set the square foresail and gaff topsail! How we laughed and shook hands all round as we watched the land grow dim and felt ourselves at home—five poor, half-naked, vermin-infested, emaciated, raw-skinned creatures though we were! That very night we caught the North East monsoon (it was in October), and all night the cutter ran before it like a thing possessed, until, when morning dawned, nothing met our straining gaze save league upon league of foaming furrows.
Evidently the Darthea had been used as a Government boat—probably for the carrying of dispatches. All our little belongings were gone. But there were others in their stead. Some naval officers’ uniforms hung in the cabin. A fine dinner service of plate was in the pantry. Wines, cigars, and provisions of every description abounded. A couple of silver dressing-cases, well furnished and valuable; two gold repeating watches; some diamond rings and studs; dress suits, etc., etc., etc., were amongst the articles we found in our berths—the lot almost, if not more than, equal in value, I reckoned, to the amount of money we had lost, although nothing like sufficient compensation for what we had suffered.
As I was putting the stuff together, and thinking with regret of the bag of sovereigns and the poor General, I noticed Phil working away at one of the lining boards that formed the “skin” between his old bunk and the side of the cutter. Presently, wrenching it off, he plunged his arm in as far as he could reach, withdrawing it in a minute or two, whilst over his features spread a look of blank disappointment.
“The brutes have found it, after all!” he muttered. “Wait though, it may have slipped further down,” and running on deck, he returned with a chain-hook. Fossicking about for awhile, he suddenly gave a yell and a pull, and up came the identical article just then in my thoughts—the missing bag and its contents—and fell on deck with a melodious metallic crash.
“You see,” explained Phil, as I stared in wonder, “when I ran down for the Ensign that time, whilst you were on deck watching the scrimmage, I noticed the stuff lying on our table; and, remembering the loose board at the side of my bunk, I just dropped the bag in and hammered the plank back with the heel of a seaboot. It was one of those impulses that take a fellow sometimes. But I never said anything about it for fear of disappointing you. Indeed, I never expected to see it again. But Luck’s a fortune, isn’t it? And I think we’re about square with Jack Spaniard, after all. Able to pay our chaps, too, and then be as good, or better men than we were before Cataracts slumped. All the same, no more risky little games of the kind for this child.”
“You’re right, Phil,” I replied. “Oysters and firewood may be prosaic, and not too profitable as a business; still, there’s peace and quietness with it. For my part, I have had enough of adventures lately.”
“‘Umph,” said Phil, doubtfully, “but they seem to come right at us. whether we want ’em or not. Shouldn’t wonder if we ain’t running another one presently.”
“Well,” I replied, “it may be so. But I fancy it won’t be contraband of war!”
“I say, boys,” exclaimed Mowbray, looking up from his newspaper, “we ought to have a try for this new rush up there in the North-West. Listen: ‘One man in two days won thirty ounces of almost pure gold obtained at the bottom of a shaft twenty feet deep in moderately easy sinking. As yet there are very few diggers on the field, but as steamers are being put on from the southern colonies . . . um . . . um. Men are warned against . . . (oh, yes, of course) . . Bids fair to be the biggest alluvial find seen in Australia for many years. King’s Sound is the nearest point to make for by water to the new field, which is situated at the foot of the Leopold Ranges in the Kimberley District of Western Australia.’
“Boys,” continued Mowbray conclusively, as he put down his paper, “we should even now be on our way to this new El Dorado. We’ve been long enough waiting for a show. Let’s clear. I’m full to the brim of loafing around here.”
Paxton laughed ironically as he dug his bare feet into the warm sand upon which the three of us were lying after our bath, “It’s two thousand miles,” said he. “But of course that’s nothing. And the fare’s at least £30—steerage. Not to mention such trifles as tucker and tools. Oh, yes, let’s go right away. What’s the use of putting it off and shilly-shallying about here.”
“Paxton,” retorted Mowbray, “you’re an ass. How much money have you got?”
“Three pounds and some small stuff,” replied Paxton, grinning. “Call it three ten altogether. About enough to shout a decent dinner on.”
“And you, Iredale?” said Mowbray, turning to me.
“A fiver,” I replied, “at the outside.”
“Well, I daresay I can muster as much as both of you put together,” said Mowbray. “And we’ll start as soon as we can fix things up;” and jumping to his feet he executed a pas de seul along the beach, whilst we looked on, wondering whether the sun had not been too much for him.
“But,” I remonstrated, as presently he calmed down a bit, “Paxton’s right enough, old man. It’s a deuce of a distance. And fares at the start are sure to be high. You know how the companies slap it on in a case of this kind.”
“Fare me no fares,” exclaimed Mowbray. “And let the company keep their iron screw-pots. We’ll sail our own ship. There she is. Slow perhaps, but sure. Likewise coffee in the morning and no fore-royal! Look at her! There lies the Argo that shall bear us to the Golden Fleece of—er—Thingumbob.”
And as we followed the pointing finger across the water and our minds fell into line with his, we fairly yelled with laughter and rolled on the sand in ecstasies of it. Ah, me! we were young in those days and cared little how the world went, looking on it simply as a great playground in which to cut our capers, sometimes at other people’s expense, more generally at our own.
Just now we were “camping” on the shores of one of the many picturesque coves and sea-arms that scallop the great main harbour of Port Jackson. Whilst the New South Wales summer heats are at their height this camping business is a favourite one with even rich people, who, taking servants, tents, and boats, choose some favourite spot and spend a Bohemian time, almost always either on or in the water. Also there are impecunious people who, attracted by the free life and the cheapness of living, quit the city and make their home in some secluded nook. This latter was our case.
We had no servant, and only one tent, and a crazy old boat, and no money worth mentioning; our combined stock of clothes could have been carried in a sugar bag, and so we had left the stuffy boarding-house and hot dusty streets to become “campers.” And for many weeks we had led a savage sort of free-and-easy life down here at little Blue Pointer Bay, with a bag of potatoes, another of flour, half a chest of tea, and lots of sugar and tobacco as the main-stays of our commissariat. Fish we could always catch; and on one or two occasions they—in the shape of sharks—nearly caught us. Now, however, the trio, especially Mowbray, were getting restless and dissatisfied, as was only proper. No thoroughly healthy young fellow can put up with the lotus-eating business for an indefinite time.
Blue Pointer, so called as being a favourite haunt of the shark known by that name, was really a small cove with a narrow entrance, through which a view of the main harbour was just obtainable. Steep sides clothed thickly with straggling gums, stringybarks, and other eucalypti, ran down to a single sandy beach and big rocks on which oysters grew in thousands. On the opposite side to where our tent was pitched—some hundred yards across—was a dilapidated wharf, and moored to this was the object Mowbray had apostrophised.
Imagine a broad, ungainly old tub of a paddle-wheel steamer, raw and rusty for lack of shelter from the sun; her funnel red with rust, and the Muntz metal on her bottom showing the colour of verdigris. And this was the craft that Mowbray proposed we should take the sea in. Was it any wonder we laughed?
Two or three years ago a company had endeavoured to form a “sanatorium” on the opposite rocks; had cleared some scrub, built a jetty, and purchased a boat to carry visitors about the harbour. But alas! the project languished for lack of funds, and at last the promoters faced the Insolvency Court, and the creditors tried to realise on their assets. But no one wanted either land or wharf, or steamer. And there they lay unkempt, untended, uncared for.
We, as long as we had been there, had never been on board of her. But now, finding that Mowbray was in most determined earnest, we got our boat and sculled across and examined the Lady Macquarie. Still on our two parts with little or no severity of purpose.
“Ladies’ Cabin. No Smoking,” was the first thing that caught our eyes as we stepped on the lower-deck. This cabin was simply a portion of the deck, around and up the centre of which ran benches, whose sides were formed by windows of pretty thick glass which could he opened or shut at pleasure like those of a railway carriage. At one end were doors. The other end, the men’s cabin, was exactly the same, only there were no doors. In the centre stood the steam chest, funnel, etc., and down a square open hatchway surrounded by a sort of iron fence were the engines. Above this deck was another, reached by steps on the outside of each paddle-box, furnished with seats down the middle and along the sides; also with two little windowed hutches for the helmsman, one at each end; and above all was a roof of galvanised iron, through which the smoke-stack protruded some six feet or so. Dust and dirt were everywhere. Spiders had spun their webs in long festoons about the ladies cabin; and as flying foxes could not enter there by reason of the doors being closed, they had taken up their abode in the men’s part, where they could fly in and out at will. And here the brutes hung in clusters from the battened ceiling, sleeping until the time came for their nightly forays amongst the gardens and orchards of the upper harbour.
“A regular jolly menagerie, by jingo!” exclaimed Paxton in disgust, as he made a kick at a big rat that came out of an open locker and leaped on to the wharf. “And how those infernal foxes stink! A nice crowd to go to sea with-eh, Mowbray?”
But Mowbray was all over the shop, poking and prying into every corner, sticking his knife into planks and chipping iron rust off stanchions.
“Sound as a bell,” said he at last, “so far as I can see. Dive down below, like a good fellow, Paxton, and have a look at the old girl’s engines.”
“But surely you don’t mean it?” asked the other with a laugh. “And, anyhow, old as she is and poverty stricken as she looks, all our available capital wouldn’t buy her.”
“Don’t intend to buy her,” replied Mowbray decisively. “We’ll borrow her and pay for her out of the pile that we are going to make at Kimberley. Got enough to get coals and tucker with, haven’t we? What more do you want? I’ll slam her round in a fortnight, even if we can only knock six out of her. And it’ll be fine and calm inside the Barrier. Safe as a house! I don’t know that I’d tackle the Leeuwin in her. But t’other way’ll be a picnic.”
“You’re a genius,” muttered Paxton. “All the same, you’ll have us in Darlinghurst gaol if you don’t mind.”
“Exactly what I was thinking,” I put in. “I don’t quite know what a ferry boat would run into. But, making all allowance, I should say nothing under five years hard.”
“Oh, rats!” retorted Mowbray, appropriate enough. “She’s got no owner anyhow to prosecute. She’s an unrealisable asset, to be divided probably amongst fifty people. And what’s everybody’s business is nobody’s, as we all know. They’ll never miss her. Why, she’s been here for at least four years. However, have it your own way, boys; it shall never be said that I led you into mischief.”
And when Mowbray thus affirmed, we knew that if we didn’t go he’d go alone rather than knuckle down, even if he got no further than the Heads. So we saw nothing for it but to humour him, for we were mates who never went back on one another. So Paxton dived into the dark and grimy hole where the engines lived, and I, under Mowbray’s direction, punted along her sides in our boat and peered into the boxes to see whether the floats were all there, and prodded a knife into her at the water line to feel if she was rotten, whilst Mowbray took out his pocket-book and made notes.
“Engines are all aright,” reported Paxton presently. “High pressure and obsolete, but strong—Davidson of Glasgow. Take a couple of gallons of oil and a day’s work, though, before they’ll move. Main shaft’s an inch thick in rust, and the cylinders want packing.”
“Well, you can fix ’em up and drive ’em, can’t you?” asked Mowbray.
“Oh yes” replied Paxton resignedly, “although by profession I’m only a mining engineer, I can do that much. Likewise I’m not too old to learn the stone-breaking or oakum-picking trades.”
“Great Jerusalem!” exclaimed Mowbray, laughing gleefully. “Were there ever such ingrates? Here am I putting you in a way to make your fortunes, and you only gibe at me. Don’t you see, stupids, that we must do something? And that soon. I’m rusting, same as the Lady here. So are the pair of you. Now I’ll bet you the best dinner in Australia—which isn’t, after all, up to very much—that I pull this contract off safe and sound.”
“Wager,” exclaimed the pair of us simultaneously. “And let us hope,” I added, “that it won’t turn out one of hominy.”
We were all three young in those days!
No more secluded and quiet spot could have been found in the whole harbour than Blue Pointer. Very few people ever came there, and, because we had taken possession of the only sandy beach, campers never. At most a few men gathering flannel flowers in the scrub for sale in the city, or a party of boys snake-hunting, were the sole visitors to our retreat. That was the reason we had stuck to it for so long.
And now we messed about the old Lady Macquarie all night without interruption. Mowbray got some two-inch planks and set me to fix up a sort of hatch over the engine room. An architect, he said, ought to be able to build anything. After that he brought bricks and galvanised iron with which to make a bit of a cooking place. And all the time, he himself was busy bringing in coal, that he got in bags under pretence of wanting it for a steam yacht—beef, pork, and biscuits.
He worked like a horse, and by the mere force of his irresistible personality, presently, as he always contrived to do, made us as cocksure of success as he was himself. And not only that, but he managed to gradually persuade us that, instead of committing a felony, we were actually benefiting the unknown owners of the Lady by cleaning their boat, taking her for a cruise, and thus stopping her from going to rack and ruin.
Of course, you will think we were a very weak-minded pair of young men. But then, you never knew Mowbray, with his handsome face, laughing eyes, and tongue that would coax flies off a tin of jam. A gentleman-adventurer, pure and simple, Frank Mowbray! And when Paxton, with his first-class certificates from the Technical College and the School of Mines, and I, with my six years’ experience in old Plaistow’s office, could find neither machinery nor town halls to erect, and met Mowbray one day out shooting at a station we were visiting, we took such a fancy to him that we had been a great deal together ever since.
Four years ago that was; and except when we two were at work—for we did get a job now and then—or Frank was away digging, droving, “sailorising,” or exploring in the Back Blocks, we were inseparable. Paxton had “people” in New Zealand. But Mowbray and myself were pretty well alone in the world.
Never shall I forget the night on which, everything being ready for as mad and reckless an expedition as even Mowbray could have invented, we made a start. Of course we had routed out all the foxes and cleared the old girl down as well as we could. But the men’s cabin was stacked up with coal, and the ladies’ with a most curious mixture of provisions. Being double-ended, her bow for the time was of course the way she was heading. Mowbray was at one of the wheels, Paxton in the engine room, and I was standing by as deck hand, fireman, and general rouseabout. Steam was up, and smoke was pouring from the long-empty funnel into the midnight-air.
“All ready,” shouted Mowbray down the voice tube to Paxton.
“Ay, ay,” replied the other.
“Let her go, then.” And the old thing, trembling in every fibre of her, answered the thump of her engines with a loud chuff-chuff, chuff-chuff, that made the hills echo again as she moved slowly and unwillingly into the stream.
“Merciful heavens! what’s that row?” shouted Mowbray. “Stop it, Paxton. Do you want to rouse Australasia?”
Chuff-chuff, chuff-chuff, snorted the Lady deliberately, and with emphasis. Clickety-clack-thump went the engines, whilst the paddles hit the water and smashed it into foam with a noise like big cataracts rushing over a thousand feet of rocks.
Mowbray was still yelling to stop the row; and at length Paxton came up, black as a sweep, and completely, helpless from laughter.
“What’s the matter now?” he managed to get out at last, addressing me, startled just as much as Mowbray by the infernal din. “They all do it these old high pressure tubs. I thought you knew. Why, of course they’ll hear us right down the harbour and far out to sea. Go and tell Frank I can’t stop her coughing. Indeed, she’s rather out of practice from being laid up so long. She’ll do better yet.”
Mowbray swore when I told him. “Old beast!” said he, “she’s nearly made me jump overboard, thinking the boiler was going. No fear of collision, if that’s any comfort! All right Pax, old man, throw her wide open and let her rip!”
But there was no “rip” about the old Lady. All the steam in the world couldn’t have knocked more than six out of her. And even at that her ancient frame quivered and expanded and rattled, whilst bolts and stanchions, loosened by the long drought, asserted themselves in every note of metallic clangour. Sometimes the hoarse throaty cough died away into a half-throttled asthmatic wheeze, sounding as if she were at her last gasp; then she’d pant violently, and having thus, as it were, cleared her throat and chest, she’d presently rise into the loud, deliberate, sonorous chuff-chuff by which she seemed to beat slow time to her slow progress through the water.
“Well,” exclaimed Paxton, “If she isn’t making a fine show of us I wouldn’t say so! I’ve got sixty-five pounds on, and it strikes me that’s quite enough for the boiler. It’d be almost a mercy if Mowbray would pile her up on the Sow and Pigs yonder.”
We were just passing that lightship, guarding its pinnacle of rock and reef, and so close that we could plainly see its crew of two as they came up and stared curiously at us. Abreast of Watson’s a steam collier stole silently along showing a monstrous height of bow and a stern nearly a-wash. A moon had risen and was giving a faint light. Presently the coal-man shifted his helm and ran over. “Hi,” he hailed, “where are you off to? This ain’t the way to Parramatta or the North Shore. You’ll get lost.”
“Shan’t ask you to show us the road, anyhow,” replied Mowbray.
“Oh, all right,” replied the other, “don’t get your shirt out! And give her some balsam of aniseed—a pint every half-hour to begin with. So long.” And amidst much laughter she forged ahead.
Above us I could hear Mowbray muttering to himself his opinion of all coal tramps, qualified by references to our late visitor the reverse of flattering.
By this time we were lurching about in the strong swell that rolls in between the mile-wide gap of Sydney Heads; and as for the first time in her life the Lady gained the open ocean, she squatted and bobbed and ducked to the short seas as if begging them to deal gently with a poor old recluse dragged very unwillingly from her retreat on the calm and placid waters of the inner harbour. With us she remonstrated by panting and groaning worse than ever as she flopped along, leaving a foaming wake behind her as broad as the Thames Embankment.
For side-light we had an odd pair that Mowbray had picked up for a song; and for a white one we had hoisted a large hurricane lamp to the pick-staff that rose from the end we’d made her bow. Indeed, it was wonderful how Mowbray had spun out the £16 or £17 of which our whole capital consisted. Of course we were dead broke now. Also pirates of a sort. But we had a ship under our feet, such as she was. And if, as an inscription on the upper deck told us, she was “licensed to carry passengers only within the harbour waters of Port Jackson and its tributaries,” then perhaps, as Paxton remarked, we were entitled to a certain amount of credit for proving that she really was capable of better things.
Mowbray, who had been, in coasting vessels, in many capacities, knew the accepted courses by heart as far as Somerset, which port, however, was his limit. He knew, too, the lie of the land and its marks right along, and by the help of a second-hand compass and an old chart he’d picked up in a pawn-shop, had not the remotest doubt of being able to get through without accident.
Towards morning Paxton brought the Lady to quarter speed, which practically meant just holding her own, and we had a good feed of corned beef, potatoes, tea, and bread and butter. Far astern we could see the reflection of the South Head light; on our port hand, quite close, hung the bold loom of the coast to the northward of Narrabeen.
“My word,” said Mowbray, as, lighting our pipes, we made ourselves comfortable on our camp mattresses spread over the seats, “we’ve come like a house a-fire. She’s a clipper and no mistake! But the row the old daisy kicks up, Paxton! We must keep out to sea or we’ll rouse the coast. There’s a whaling station somewhere further on, or used to be, and, by Jupiter, if they hear us they’ll sharpen their harpoons and have their boats in pursuit all right!”
“How about keeping watches?” asked, Paxton, after we’d laughed our fill at Mowbray’s notion.
“Oh, one man four hours,” replied Mowbray, “in fine weather. Just give me and Iredale a wrinkle or two down in the engine-room and one can steer her and feed the furnace. She’ll keep it up chinkety-chunk-bang, chinkety-chunk bang, till we get to Somerset, and thence across the Arafura and Timor Seas—all fine-weather water. Then into the Indian ocean—just a corner of it to cross—and there you are at King’s Sound.”
“And then?” I asked.
“Oh, why, trust in providence, of course,” replied Mowbray. “See how it has stuck to us so far. Well, if one of you chaps’ll take the wheel, we’ll start the waggon again. N. by E. ½ E. will be the course till we get abreast of Port Stephens, anyhow, although I hae ma doots’ about this compass of ours. She don’t seem to agree with any bearings that I know. So we’ll keep clear of all the corners for fear of cutting into them.”
Soon after daylight we were met by a man-o’-war painted white and rigged as a bargue—one of the old, obsolete Australian Squadron. But very pretty to look at for all that. She was making for the Heads under easy steam, and crowds of men were doing something about her decks to the lively music of drums and fifes. We passed close to her; but she took no notice whatever of us as we went chuffing along, doubtless a most dirty, disreputable object.
After breakfast, Mowbray and Paxton fell fast asleep, and myself in the little box on the upper deck steering, I noticed a full rigged ship coming straight for us. All at once she let go her upper-t’gallant and top-sail yards and began to clew up her courses and haul down her staysails, whilst at her peak fluttered a flag of some sort. However, considering it was no business of mine, I kept on our course, thus presently bringing her close abeam.
A short, stout man, brown-faced and grey-whiskered, was standing aft, and seeing that I meant passing, he roared out, “Hi! hi, tug ahoy, where the devil are you going to? Back her head and stand by for our line!” Seeing that he was labouring under a mistake, I came out of my box and waved my hand to him as we slowly chuffed away.
But he beckoned and stamped and got so excited that I ran down and slowed the engines and woke Mowbray, thinking that perhaps something was wrong. “Now then,” roared the man, hanging over the stern of his ship, “aren’t you going to hook on? D’ye think I want to ballyrag about the coast for a week in these light winds?”
“Can’t you see that we are not a tug, stupid?” replied Mowbray, who had ascended to the upper deck. “Some people can’t tell the difference between a P. & O. boat and a canvas dinghy.”
“What the blazes are you, then? And what are you doing messing about here and answering my signals, if you aren’t a tug?” stormed the other.
“We’re-er-a first-class excursion steamer,” replied Mowbray gravely; “and we’re going round to Newcastle on special service to bring the Governor home. And we’re bound to time. So long!”
At this a snigger of laughter arose from the fore part of the ship, where the crew had congregated, whilst their captain, evidently for the first time—so eager had he been to get a towline fast—took a comprehensive stare at our poverty-stricken, woe-begone appearance, and with a gesture of disgust roared some orders to his men.
“Full speed ahead!” shouted Mowbray down the tube as well as he could for laughing. And as the ship’s yards began to rise off their caps, and sheets and tacks to be hauled aft again, we splashed solemnly off, hiding ourselves in a cloud of noisome black smoke, through which we dimly heard a volley of deep-sea blessings.
“If we go on as we’re doing,” remarked Mowbray, “we’ll make a sensation and excite public curiosity. Good job there’s some extraordinary and ancient arks on this coast. Nothing, though, reckon them all round, fit to hold a candle to us. However let’s lie as low as we can, or we may yet again have to submit to the indignity of being taken for a tug.”
Fine weather prevailing, we flopped along, sometimes pretty close in, but mostly quite away from the steam track, content to see the blue loom of the land, and put in now and again to pick up a mark—a mountain, a, promontory, a group of islands, a lighthouse. By day, inside of us, we could sight the trailing smoke of the intercolonial steamers; o’ nights their lights came and went.
And we began to get quite fond of the old Lady, and forebore to abuse her, or to feel ashamed of her rusty iron and blistered woodwork, ungainly shape, and grotesque puffings and pantings. Nor did she give us any trouble. She steered like a boat in smooth water; start the engines, and she’d potter away with the wheel amidships and keep her course within a point or two each side, even if there was no one to watch her for awhile. For a change, at times, we used to slew her round and try her with the other end foremost. But she never minded a bit. Deliberation—stubbornness, Mowbray called it—was her chief characteristic. And nothing we could do would put her out of her stride. One day Paxton worked her up to ninety pounds of steam, but though she trembled and lamented, and at last fairly roared in protest, she never moved a foot the faster. Hitherto we had no chances of judging our craft’s qualities as a sea boat. Right from the start—and now Moreton island, which meant Brisbane, lay just in sight on the port bow—both sea and wind had been scarcely stronger than under the sheltering hills of Blue Pointer.
On the evening, however, that we passed Sandy Cape it came on to blow from the eastward with every appearance of a dirty night. Of course we could have run into the bay and sought shelter, as we saw many other vessels doing—steamers, ketches, and schooners. But there was one fatal objection. We had no anchors. Nor apparently had the Lady ever carried any, as there was no provision on board in the shape of a windlass or capstan for ground tackle. Paxton suggested tying her up to a tree somewhere inside. But Mowbray said there were no trees anywhere near the water. Only mangroves, which were bad things to moor to. Actually, therefore, the best thing we could do would be to keep at sea.
In another hour or so we had no option, for the gale hit us and blew us before it like a cork, faster than our engines could ever have sent us. You see, the top-hamper of upper and sun deck caught the wind in great style, and we went sailing away into the Pacific Ocean at a full eight. But presently the sun deck, which was only of galvanised iron, left in a fierce squall that, broad as she was, put the Lady’s rail three feet under water. Also a heavy following sea began to rise, travelling as fast and faster than we did. And matters began to look uncomfortable, not to say serious.
Once we changed ends and tried steaming slowly head to wind, not wishing to make South America. But a few minutes of that was quite enough, and, we turned tail again. Luckily, no matter how much water came on board there was nothing to keep it there. The great open gangways, made for landing stages, and the iron railings all around her deck allowed free egress. The only dry spot was the ladies’ cabin with the sliding doors and the thick glass windows, themselves protected by canvas blinds.
In the men’s cabin our remaining precious coal was all washing to and fro in the darkness. Nor could we save it, for as the sea got higher the old girl commenced to wallow and tumble and roll in a fashion that made it as much as a man’s life was worth to do anything but hold on grimly up above.
Sometimes one paddle wheel would be racing almost out of the water, then the other would lift, then she’d give a yaw, and a comber catching her a resounding slap she’d nearly stop as if to consider the matter, and then with a stifled indignant sort of choking grunt, she’d chunk away again. Mowbray was at the wheel, and doing his best to keep her before the sea. But good steering was a thing of the past. Her rudders had never been intended, any more than herself, for such weather, and it was as much as she’d do to answer either of them, although we tried them both.
Paxton, of course, had left his grimy hole, or he’d have been drowned with the hatch off, whilst with it on he’d have been smothered. But at intervals the pair of us would, at the risk of our lives, grope our way below, at times up to our waists in foaming water, and, opening the little scuttle that led to the bunkers and furnace, one watching his chance, would slip down and stoke.
Speaking for myself, I must say that as I hung on to one of the stanchions watching the great seas rolling up astern and flinging themselves in roaring fury over the boat, I never expected to see the light of another day. And each time we sank, smothered in spray that flew clear over us down into one of the big creaming gullies, I held my breath and strained my eyes through the hurly-burly, to watch whether or not we began to wearily climb the opposite hill. In very derision the waves seemed to roar “Go faster! go faster!” as they hit the Lady with great shocks and clashes that I believed must soon inevitably sweep the whole superstructure away.
In the little round house, close to which Paxton and I stood, we could see Mowbray’s pale face under the wildly swinging lamp as he ground at the wheel and tried to steady her somewhat whilst the gale shrieked past us, tearing the smoke from the funnel and hurling it in black patches to leeward. Once as she got clear away from her helm and we rolled heavily between two tall combers that met each other and broke just beneath our feet, covering the boat in a mass of foam, showing pale through the gloom, I heard Paxton shout in my ear, “So long, old man She’s going!” But the next minute the Lady rose in a blind groping kind of way, as a drowning man rises and fights for breath, and, shaking herself, panted stertorously ahead with the old clickerty-clack-thump.
“A tight squeak—that one!” yelled Mowbray. “But we’ll get through all right. You couldn’t kill her with dynamite!”
And indeed the man who built her had made faithful work, for many a big ship would have found it hard to take the punishment meted out to the despised old ferry-boat that night.
Towards morning the blow seemed to abate somewhat of its fierce vindictiveness, and by sunrise the worst of it was evidently over. All the same, we were still forced to run before or rather with the sea. Nor had we more than a vague notion of our position. Steering a course had been quite out of the question during the night. As Mowbray said, he’d had enough to do trying to keep the wind at the back of his head without bothering about the compass. That we were well out in the Pacific seemed a certainty. Also, that unless we could procure coal from somebody we were likely to stay there. To add to our plight, we presently found that, although the ladies’ cabin had withstood the heavy blows of following seas, some of the windows, breaking, had let the water in and considerably damaged our stock of provisions. Decidedly it behoved us to keep a bright lookout for assistance in some shape or form before we began, as Paxton said, “to do a perish!”
That evening, however, the weather moderated, and we cleaned and dried our compass, which was badly damaged by salt water getting through the front of the binnacle, whence the glass had long disappeared. Nor, as I have remarked, had we much faith in the instrument itself, for which Mowbray had paid five shillings at an old marine store. However, we headed the Lady due west in the hope of finding at least some part of the continent between Thursday Island and Cape Howe. We had sustained, all things considered, wonderfully trifling damage. Actually our sun-deck, some seats, and some floats off the starboard paddle, together with a few panes of glass, made up the sum total. But I think we were all pretty sick of the experience, to say nothing of having to go on less than half rations, and losing every scrap of coal except the little that remained in the bunker.
The next morning at sunrise Mowbray sighted an object that puzzled us; for though it was undoubtedly a ship, she looked to be ashore in mid ocean. At first we could only make out her three royals leaning towards us at a sharp angle, exactly as if a sudden squall had caught her before there was time to let fly the halliards. But gradually we rose all her other canvas, and through a pair of old binoculars belonging to Paxton we saw that she was lying over with a heavy list, and that she was quite motionless, although a smart breeze was blowing, and the sky gave promise of more to come, from the east’ard this time. Nearer still, and we could distinguish that she had four boats out astern.
“On a reef, by Jingo!” exclaimed Mowbray; “must be a part of the Great Barrier. Look, there’s a patch of broken water beyond her again. And she’s got a flag at half-mast! Red, white, blue. French, by Jupiter! Fire up, Pax., old man, and don’t spare the coal now! I’ve got a notion there’s money in this. Oh, the luck of it!—the luck of it!”
Our leader’s excitement was contagious; and as we chuffed and snorted towards the ship we were all agog with expectation, for as might be easily seen, neither by aid of canvas nor of boats could the vessel be got to move an inch.
“Now,” said Mowbray, “if the old Lady can pull John Crapaud out of that mess we’re made merchants. Can she pull, Pax.?”
“Better than she can steam,” replied the engineer, with a grin. “She’s about thirty-five horse-power, I should say, and I’ll make her do all I know or shift something. Can you speak French, Mowbray?”
“Not a syllable,” replied the other. “Can’t you or Iredale No? Well, never mind. Trust me with the contract, and I’ll do my best to put it through. Spare me enough steam to let her know we mean biz,” and he jerked the syren string, causing the Lady to utter a long, wild shriek, that rang out across the sea like the despairing wail of some mammoth curlew.
As we ranged alongside a smart-looking, white-painted iron ship of about eight or nine hundred tons, a crowd of faces peered at us over the lee rail, and we were greeted by a perfect babel of voices. Her yards were trimmed against the wind, and every sail was flat aback; but her nose was stuck hard and fast, although she was evidently afloat aft.
“Ship ahoy!” hailed Mowbray. “You’ve got into a nice fix there? What’ll you give us to pull you off?”
“Yaze, yaze,” shouted a man, vehemently throwing up his arms and staring at us with a face full of wonder, as well he might. “Pull off, pull off,” and he signed to some of the raving lunatics, six of whom immediately scuttled around, and by their united endeavours threw us a small heaving line.
“For heaven’s sake,” yelled Mowbray, “keep those men quiet, can’t you? I can’t hear myself speak. Look here, we’ll drag you out of that for five hundred pounds.”
But if the din had been great before, it was now simply outrageous. Every-one on board seemed to be shouting, cursing, protesting, dancing, and making all kinds of extraordinary gestures in their excitement. “They understand all right,” said Mowbray, grimly. “And by heaven’s they’d better look sharp. See, she’s beginning to bump pretty heavily to this easterly swell. There’ll be plates to mend presently.”
The man who had first replied to our hail was at the gangway—a dark whiskered, scrubby-haired, bullet-headed customer—and he wrung his hands and screamed, “Sacre nom! Oh-h-h! Voleur! Cochon anglais!”
“What’s that “ asked Mowbray, pricking up his ears. “Cochon’s pig, ain’t it? All right, Mounseer! Stern easy, Pax., and we’ll gammon to clear.”
But as the paddles revolved the fellow roared: “Vate! Von leedle vile” and rushed away returning in a few minutes with a tall, very thin man, whose feeble steps and pallid features spoke of recent severe illness. There was silence as he came to the side and said to Mowbray in very good English, “I am part owner of this unfortunate vessel, sir. In addition to being sick with fever, I was up all last night and had fallen so fast asleep that I did not hear of your approach. My captain here (pointing to the dark man) tells me that you ask five hundred pounds for pulling us off the reef. He thinks, too, that is a prodigious sum—far too much in fact.”
“Your captain makes a mistake sir,” replied Mowbray, politely lifting his cap, “Seven hundred pounds is the sum. It was five originally. But he called me an English pig just now. Presently I shall go away altogether, and you will lose your ship. By the look of things she will break up tonight.”
The man stared up at the sky and around for awhile, and spoke a few angry, words to the skipper. Then he said—“I suppose you know ships don’t usually carry any quantity of cash. How am I to pay you, even if you do succeed.”
“Where are you from and bound to?” asked Mowbray.
“Saigon to Melbourne,” replied the other, “with tea and part of original cargo from Marseilles.”
“And your agents?” asked Mowbray.
“Meteyer & Sons,” replied the other, “Melbourne and Noumea.”
“That’ll do admirably,” said Mowbray; “I know the firm well, and the head of it personally. Now look here! You give me your order, payable at sight and duly witnessed on Meteyer and Sons, for seven hundred pounds, and I’ll save your ship and cargo—worth at the least, I should say, ten thousand pounds. Why, you’re getting off cheaply. The Admiralty Court would award us a couple of thousand. But we don’t want to go to law over the business. We’ve come a long way from home on the chance of a job, and had a pretty rough time of it, as you can see. And we’re in a hurry to get back again. Now, is it a bargain, or shall we leave you to yourselves?”
“It’s a bargain,” replied the other. “Pull us off and you shall have your order.” Then, seeing perhaps some doubt in Mowbray’s face, he added. “On the honour of a Frenchman!” and bowed quite grandly. Whereupon Frank did the same, and sang out like thunder for a hawser.
“What water have you got for’ard?” he asked the captain. But the other only shook his head.
“Good Lord!” exclaimed Mowbray. “And he calls himself a sailor! Made him pay for his pig though—eh, lads? Teach him manners next time. But Paxton, make the old cow scratch gravel!” he whispered hoarsely. “I can see he don’t think we can do it. Let’s show him his mistake. Take the axe and break up the seats, Iredale, they’re varnished and’ll burn like kerosene. We’ll have that money or rip the soul bolts of the Lady.”
Very fortunate for us there were two pairs of big iron bollards on each side amidships, that had been used in making her fast to wharves and landing-places. And from each pair we now led a steel hawser running from the Ville de Nantes’ quarters. And fastening them with a half-hitch and the ends seized back, Paxton sent his engines slowly ahead till the wire ropes grew rigid as fiddle strings.
“Oh ye gods and little fishes!” exclaimed Mowbray as the tethered Lady strained and panted and snorted and lashed the water into swirling mounds of froth, and I chopped up seats and handed them down to Paxton. “Send her boys! She’s not at her top yet surely? Seven—hun—dred pounds! That’ll be £233 each and a pound over for the skipper!”
The engines rattled and crashed in a mad fashion we’d never heard before, whilst the boat trembled and groaned in every plank of her. Evidently something had to go or come presently.
“There!” said Paxton, coming up wiping his wet black face. “She’s got more steam on than the blooming gauge will register, anyhow. Better get out of the way, because, in the nature of things that boiler can’t stand much more. The last coal’s in too. By heavens, look at that wire! It was never made in Germany. Bet your life on that!” And indeed, under the tremendous strain, the big steel rope was slowly being stretched till the “lay” of it was straightening, and the strands beginning to stick up broken ends like bristles on a worn out brush. “Heavenly sailor!” groaned Mowbray suddenly, “It’s all up with us! Look at those cursed bollards drawing. And there’s nothing else that could begin to hold her!”
And, as we watched with blank faces we saw that all four of them were slowly but surely bending over and ripping the deck planking as they bent and drew by inches at a time..
At that moment a shrill cheer came from the ship, repeated again and again like the crowing of a farmyard full of roosters, and with a sudden rush the Ville came at us full pelt, and would have destroyed us there and then, only that, released from the terrible strain, the Lady tore wildly ahead, actually for a few minutes whirling the big vessel after her like a straw. Then the port hawser parted and, watching my chance, I knocked the other off the now nearly horizontal bollard, while Paxton, rushing, below, blew off the steam with a noise like the roaring of hungry tigers.
“God bless you, old girl!” exclaimed Mowbray as soon as he could make his voice heard, patting her salt-encrusted side affectionately, “I knew it would take something better than a Frenchman to stop you, once you got properly on your tail.”
But the Frenchmen had completely changed their attitude. Nothing now was too good for us. Provisions, coal, water—anything we wished for we were welcome to. Champagne was opened in the saloon for Mowbray, and bottled beer and whisky was handed over to us. And yet, would you believe it, they never, until Mowbray enquired, thought of sounding their pumps to ascertain whether, after nearly twenty-four hours of sticking on a reef, she was making water or not! Fortunately she turned out to be as tight as a drum.
Before we left her we corrected our compass by swinging the Lady and comparing it with one borrowed from the Ville. We tried three times, and the difference between us was always three points. Therefore we resolved to take that as a permanent variation, and thankfully remembered we had given the coast a wide berth. We discovered too, that we were over a hundred miles W. by S or S.W. by our compass from that same coast, and that the nearest land was still Sandy Cape. Armed with this fact we left quite assured, more especially as we had resolved to return to Sydney and thence journey to the diggings in the legitimate manner we could now well afford. Besides, as men of substance, the rape of the Lady Macquarie began to hang uncomfortably on our consciences. And presently, as the Ville bore up on a due S. course, we chunked off, to the sound of much crowing and the waving of many caps, at nearly an acute angle for that land out of sight of which we felt by no means comfortable. We made Cape Byron in safety; and, thence a fortnight saw the Lady at her old moorings again in Blue Pointer, and as no one had jumped our camp we set up our tent once more on the little beach. Nor do I believe that anybody ever missed the Lady during the eventful month in which she took the outer ocean. Or, if they missed her there were no complaints.
Truth to tell, each of us three had our doubts about that order of the French owner’s—doubts, however, that we hid securely in our own breasts. And I think that one of our greatest surprises was when Mowbray returned from Melbourne (whither he worked his way as third assistant second class steward of the Burrumbeet) with a banking account and a pocket-book full of money. There had been no trouble at all, Meteyer and Sons paying promptly when they read the Frenchman’s letter accompanying his order.
And we stood him that dinner that we had never dreamed of being called on to pay for.
Also, in deference to some scruples about borrowing of the Lady, we made careful inquires as to her owners. But finding that at least one hundred and fifty people claimed an interest in her, we decided not to disturb them. Nor did we go to Kimberley, out of which the bottom fell shortly afterwards. Nor has anyone molested the old paddle-wheeler since. She still lies mouldering in the quiet haven between the steep hills thickly wooded, that keep all rude winds and waters from her. And at intervals I run down from the busy city and sit on her sides and fish for bream and mullet, and think of the high old times we had on that hare-brained cruise of ours that ended in so much better fashion than we deserved.
“Do you want a pet, Jackson?” asked Brown, the white officer in charge of the squad of native police, as he rode up to my camp and took something off the front of his saddle something that squealed and gave little sharp shrieks.
“What have you there, Brown?” I asked. “Is it a monkey or a bunyip? or—oh, I see, a nigger pickanniny.”
“Well,” laughed Brown, apologetically, as he dismounted, “it is such a funny little devil, and it made such rum faces when Wongan yonder was going to shoot it that I stopped him. It’s that Murronga mob. They speared Devine’s cattle last week, and burned the station. So, of course they had to be taught manners. This is the only one left—a little gin—and I thought perhaps you would like to have it for company. Should be close on three years old now. The little beggar can walk.” He put her on her legs where she stood, swaying unsteadily, and glared at us from under a mop of hair.
I scanned her with interest, but forbore to ask details respecting the affair. Besides, on the upper Marianna, the niggers had long been in need of a lesson like the one just administered, for they were becoming a lot too cheeky. But further than expressing sympathy with Brown and his incubus, I didn’t feel like going. Also my mate was away at Yamstick for tucker; and even had I been willing, I knew he’d have objected very strongly. He was, in fact, nigger mad, since they’d speared one of his best horses, and he had taken to “sniping” at the least glimpse of a black skin. However, being a shockingly bad shot, all he did was to waste Winchester ammunition, costing something like 4d a cartridge up there.
“No, Brown,” I said finally, “I’m sure I’m much obliged for your offer. But this camp’s not on. It smells aloud; also look at the corners of its eyes. We have flies enough here already. And neither water nor tucker to spare. I really think your kind heart has led you into a mistake. You know you can’t civilise ’em. Veneer’s the only thing you can put on, and that cracks all over sooner or later. Like the dog of Scripture, they’re bound to return to it in time—their primeval dirtiness and nasty ways, I mean. No, old man, we can’t adopt your daughter of the desert.”
“All right,” replied Brown. “No harm done. I’ll stick to the little beast. The missus’ll teach her to keep her nose clean, and I’ll put the fear of the Lord in her heart; so between the pair of us we’ll lay the veneer, as you call it, on thick, and make a lady of her. You see. we’ve got no kids, and perhaps the old woman’ll take to this thing. Hi, Topay, what d’ye think of that arrangement, eh?” and as he spoke Brown reached out his hand and tickled her under the chin. Like lightning she snapped, and in a second had a finger between her strong white teeth, shaking her head over it as a terrier does over a rat.
“You little black imp!” roared Brown, catching her. “Let her go, will you? D’ye think it’s a ’possum you’re wolfing?”
But not until half-choked did the little creature release its hold, leaving some pretty marks on Brown’s finger.
“By jingo!” he exclaimed, “she’s game if she’s nothing else! See. Two of her confounded teeth have gone right through the skin.”
“Perhaps it’s more hunger than vice,” I said. “Has she had anything to eat since you killed her mamma? Here, Sis, try your teeth on a lump of wallaby.” Taking a steak out of the frying-pan, I held it towards her.
Springing at the hot meat, she clutched it and bolted it whole, her eyes returning hungrily to the pan.
“I thought so, I remarked, repeating the dose. “A nice daddy you’ll make for the orphan. The sooner she gets to the barracks, and Mrs. Brown, the better for her.”
“That’s so,” laughed Brown. “I’ll take her in as soon an it gets a bit cool. And we’ll lay the veneer on so thick that it will never come off. And she shall be the belle of Yamstick, and marry a swell half-caste digger with plenty of money.”
Now, Brown was a gentleman, and a Trin. Col. Cam. man, with, so far as I knew, nothing against him except lack of opportunity and money. Of course, he’d messed himself up by marrying the daughter of old Betts, who was shepherding on Cordovan Downs. Yet he might have done worse, for Susie made him a rattling good wife, and looked after him hand and foot, fairly worshipping the ground he trod on. And he was fond of Susie in his way, although she didn’t know B from a bull, and could talk nothing but horses and cattle and sheep. She was a born cook, and fed her husband as no other woman in the territory could. And a kinder little woman never lived. Therefore, when I saw Brown ride away at the head of his troop, with the pickaninny in front of him, wrapped up in a three bushel bag I’d given him, I was pretty certain that if all went well she was in for a good time.
* * * * * *
Years passed. Vague rumours reached me from time to time about Brown, and how he’d left the force; then that he was keeping a store on the Barrier; then a pub. at Townsville; then that he was dead. Lastly, whilst I was working at Stockyard Creek, in Gippsland, some body said he’d made a big fortune out of Mount Blackall and gone back to the Old Country. As the years dipped by, I almost forgot the fact of his coming into my life at all.
At the Rocky River I dropped on to the decent claim I had been searching for during twenty years or so. And, taking a modest thousand out of it, I thought that in place of melting it in any of the capitals I’d go “home.” I saw London, and found it less changed than I expected. There were Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s, and the Tower and Newgate, and the river, just where they had ever been. And there, too, were the ever-wonderful streets and their millions, which sight, as viewed from the top of an omnibus, is one of the modern wonders of the world. Presently, tiring of the hoarse and ceaseless roar, I went to look for primroses.
After some trouble I found the spot I had known of old in a sequestered lane, shadowed by over-arching hedges of hazel, sweetbriar, and hawthorn, springing from mossy banks, whereon grow violets and wild strawberries and pimpernel, and where the robin and the wren built, and reared their broods. About half-way down, at one particular spot, blazed a patch of primroses, perfuming the air.
As I gazed there met my eye, in place of the lane, a row of bright-red brick cottages—I was told built on sanitary principle—and where my primroses should, I reckoned, have been was an open space, with on it a huge blue board bearing the legend “Barker’s Liver Pills. Try Them.” You may wonder what primroses have to do with the story. But if I hadn’t gone to look for that vanished glory I should probably never have met Brown. Like most strangers, I must needs travel first-class, although the English themselves always go third. And as I popped into a carriage I found only one other passenger there—a stout, gray-moustached, gray-haired man, who looked up from his paper as I entered, and glared in regular British style. But at the first glance I spotted him for an Australian of some kind. Your Briton born and bred doesn’t wear Wellington boots under his trousers, nor does he use black “Victory” in cakes three to a pound, and shred it up in the palm of his hand with a broken-bladed knife; nor does he then produce an old burnt and blackened “G.B.D.” briar, and carefully fill it, and light it with a wax vesta taken from a round tin box, old and worn, and sufficient alone to have given the whole show away. Gradually, as I eyed the man who did these things, his features grew familiar, though I couldn’t for the life of me place him.
“’Ject to smokin’?” he asked, filling the carriage with strong fumes that for a minute took me back to the gums and the box trees and the still, cloudless nights and the white tents, and the heaps of fresh earth and the hum of mosquitoes, and the odour of fires. “Always travel first,” he continued, “because I mostly get the carriage to myself that way. These old country people gammon they can’t stand my tobacco at any price. They smoke ‘Bird’s-Eye!’” and he laughed. The moment he laughed I had him. No two men in the world could laugh like Brown.
“Glad to meet you, old man,” I said as he slowed down. “You’re grayer, and you’ll never ride 12st again over the Cordovan ridges after cattle spearers. But still you’re the same old Brown, or I’m a Dutchman.”
“Jackson, by Jingo!” he exclaimed, after a long, steady stare. “Hang me if that wart on your nose didn’t remind me of Yamstick. I’m living not far from here. Two stations. Out you get, and stay a month. Won’t the missis be glad to see you? And the girl? The talks we’ll have! Wish I was back again sometimes. No luggage? Well wire for your swag if you can’t do without it. But we’re not swells, and I’ve got every mortal thing you can possibly want.”
There was no escaping from such hospitality, and at the second station we found a neat dogcart waiting to drive us three miles to “Bando,” as Brown had called his place, after an out-station of Cordovan Downs. It was a comfortable, straggling old house, and surrounded by fruit and flower gardens, guarded from prying eyes by high brick walls.
“Ah,” I remarked, “the gentleman-farmer, Brown?”
“Not at all,” replied Brown, “I bought this shop from one, minus the farm. Poor beggar, he couldn’t give that away.”
Mrs. Brown knew me at once and was glad to see me.
“Where’s Alice?” Brown asked.
“She’ll be down presently,” replied his wife as she busied herself with decanters and things.
“A girl? And only one?” I asked, choosing a cigar.
“Exactly,” replied Brown. “She’ll be here directly.” Then he began to tell me that he had just returned from Wales, where he had invested money in gold mines—was, in fact, principal shareholder in a big company formed to work them after the Australian fashion.
While he talked there was a rustle of skirts, and as I looked round Brown said, chuckling, “Mr. Jackson, my adopted daughter, Alice. You don’t remember Mr. Jackson, Alice,” he continued, “but he knew you in the good old days. You had dinner with him once if I don’t mistake.”
For a minute or two I was taken aback. Then, in a flash, I remembered, rose to the situation, and returned the girl’s bow. Black she was as the ace of spades, yet shapely, and pleasant featured, and ladylike. In well chosen words, uttered with melodious voice, she expressed the pleasure it was to her to meet one who had known her as a child. This was funny. When I recalled—for the affair had clean gone out of my head and herself with it—the naked black imp gnawing at Brown’s fingers, and then bolting my wallaby steaks, I had a hard job to keep my face in decent order. “Well,” remarked Brown, as the girl went out of the room, “What d’ye think of that? Didn’t I tell you I would put the veneer on thick? And I did. And I think it’s got right down to the bone. She’s as good as gold is Alice Murronga Brown—can make a batch of bread and housekeep as well as Molly yonder. Also, she can play the piano like a Halle, and sing like a nightingale. Went to Newnham and came out top. She’s now studying medicine. When I brought her and Molly home my people called. But when they saw the pair they fled as if we’d fetched the plague with us. Sisters and cousins and aunts and nephews, and all the rest of ’em. Brown laughed, albeit bitterly.
I stayed a week at Bando, and the more I saw of Alice the more I was impressed with the wonderful transformation. Her dresses were simple, but, as even I might notice at a glance, expensive; her bearing modest and unaffected, and her manners irreproachable. Her singing and playing were a treat to listen to. And the Browns were as fond of her as if she really was their own daughter. Still, with it all, I questioned if their protege were really happy, for I caught a look in those eyes of hers at times, a look half melancholy, half wild, that seemed pregnant with possibilities at the back of all that costly veneer. Brown was perfectly satisfied. “Catch ’em young, and spare no expense,” said he, “and you can mould ’em as you like Alice there—she was at the piano singing ‘Ave Maria’—shall take a doctor’s degree. And, perhaps, who knows, some day go out and practise in Australia.”
* * * * * *
Twelve or eighteen months went by, and I had returned to Australia. Knowing where there was still a bit of gold left up North, I travelled slowly towards Yamstick. To my surprise when I got there I found a big rush on towards the head of the Upper Mariauna—alluvial, and a couple of pennyweights to the dish. The township was full of men, some coming down for a spree, others going up to try their luck. Two pubs were doing a roaring trade, and crowds of tame niggers were hanging around on the chance of odd drinks. As I passed one shanty I noticed a mob of men and blacks collected around some object, and applauding with much laughter and shouting. Forcing my way in, I saw that the attraction was a gin, clad in a dirty petticoat, and dancing to the music of a fiddle played by a digger. She could dance—dancing that had never been learned in native corrobboree! As I gazed, something familiar struck me. Presently, catching my eye, she stopped abruptly, stared, and then, executing a pirouette that brought her close to my side, she said, in a voice unsteady with drink, “Helo Missa Jack-e-son, you gib it ole frien’ Alice tchillin’, eh?”
“My God,” I exclaimed, “is it possible? Miss Brown—Alice?”
“Oh, Miss Brown be d—d,” she shouted. “Doctor Brown, if you please, you old scallywag, M.D., M.R.C.P., and all sorts of things. Didn’t dad always say I’d make ’em sit up? And ain’t I doing it? That’s my husband pro tem., with the fiddle. Good husband but a bad musician. I’ve got another one down at the camp to fall back on in case of emergency—Jimmie Wongan, son of old trooper Wongan, who pegged my mother and father out, and came near killing me too.” With a wild laugh she whirled away.
Seeing a man I knew, I said, “How, in heaven’s name did she get here, Stanley?”
“Simply enough,” said he. “Poor old Brown came a cropper over some mining specs at home. The wife died. Then he and the girl came out to Australia again, and for a while things gee’d along pretty right. They lived in the town here, and Alice kept house for him. Then one day a charge of dynamite went off in the claim while he was tamping it, and blew him to smithereens. All up with the girl then! Blacks got at her. White too, for the matter of that. Went nigger again in an hour: and ‘ll stop wors’n nigger now all her days. But she can talk like a book when she is sober; and what she doesn’t know ain’t worth learning. Poor old Brown must have wasted a fortune over her.”
So he had. The veneer, thickly as it had been laid on, not only cracked but came off suddenly—all in a piece.
For many days I had been tramping round the London docks, from Katherine’s to Tilbury, looking for a ship. But no one seemed to want a mate or a second, or, in fact, anything at all in the way of officers. And my clothes were getting shabby, my boots worn and thin, and the bottoms of my trousers beginning to fag out like a bunch of ropeyarns—a very sure sign, this last, of a southerly wind in their pockets.
This particular fine midsummer afternoon I had been doing the South-West India Dock, and, after a score of rebuffs, I brought up in despair and took a seat on the platform of one of the hydraulic cranes, in front of a big iron sailer, to think things over a bit, and have a rest.
I sat down and mechanically watched the ship. As I could see, she was nearly ready for a start, with her sails all bent and her cargo under hatches.
Urania was the name on her bows, and she was a big lump of a vessel with lofty spars and square-bowed and round-sterned; some 1,800 tons or so I guessed her at.
As my eye listlessly took in these details, two men came down the gangway and stepped on to the dock. One—the taller of the pair—wore a frock coat, patent leather boots with grey spats, and a bell-topper hat. He was a sandy-whiskered, red-faced customer, with small, cold, twinkling blue eyes; and, spite of his swell long-shore rig, labelled sailor all over to any man who used the sea.
His companion was a shorter, stouter man, clean-shaved except for a heavy reddish moustache completely hiding his mouth, but with the same peculiar restless blue eyes as the other. He was dressed in a suit of tweeds and hard-felt hat, and, as unmistakably as his companion, bore about him the stamp of a seafarer. The men were brothers.
They stood talking in low tones at the foot of the gangway. Presently odd words came to my ears. The tall man was speaking, “Sign on in the morning,” I heard. . . . “Foreigners to a man . . . wait till we get to sea . . . know all about it then . . . any poor swab’ll do . . . we’ve only our two selves to consider . . . ay, ay, you’ll be as wise as myself then . . . always an inquisitive dog.”
The speaker laughed, and was stepping briskly off, leaving the other standing there with a puzzled expression on his rather heavy features, when, moved by some sudden impulse, I stuffed my pipe away and cut across his path, mouthing for the twentieth time that day the sickening question, “Want a mate or a second, sir?”
He stopped instantly, his dancing little eyes playing all over me, from well-worn cap to worn-out boots, as he pulled at his straw-coloured beard and took my measure.
“Ticket?” he asked sharply, at last. And out from my breast-pocket came the thin tin case containing discharges and my chief mate’s certificate.
“Um, um,” he muttered, as he just glanced at the latter, and then ran through the long list of “V.G.” mate’s discharges that I placed in his hands.
“I could do with a second, if Mr. Baleston there hasn’t got one in view. On your uppers, eh? Glad to take anything, I s’pose, eh?” His manner was distinctly bad, almost insulting, and I had hard work to stomach it, as I answered surlily enough in the affirmative,
“Want a second mate, Mr. Baleston?” he sang out. “This chap’s papers are all right. Anybody you know for the job, eh?”
“No,” replied the mate, approaching and taking stock of me, much as the other had done. “There’s dozens of ’em at the office, though. Still, I suppose this man’ll do as well as any of the rest.”
“All right,” said the captain—for such he upturning to me. “Be on hand at Green’s in the morning, and you’ll get first show.”
“Baleston, Baleston,” remarked the grey-haired old home superintendent when I told him the captain’s name. “Why, yes, of course I’ve heard of him. He’s one of your advanced, new-fangled navigators—goes in for hydrography and half a dozen different ologies, and all that sort of thing. Unlucky beggar, though, in spite of his scientific fads. Lost a ship, I recollect, some years back, for the same firm he’s with now—Shroud, Catblock, and Co., isn’t it? He got the sack at last. And now, you say, they’ve given him the Urania. Well, I only hope he’ll have better luck with her! Curious how forgiving some firms are!”
Next morning, in company with a crew composed wholly of Germans, Swedes, and a couple of Norwegians, I found myself on the Urania’s articles. Not that I cared much about the nationality of the crowd, for just then I felt willing to get away in a ship manned by baboons, so long as I was at sea. Nor ever did I experience more pleasure than in seeing the well-known greens and whites of the Channel landscape slip by, outward bound.
To me Captain Baleston seldom or never spoke except to give an order. And of this I was glad, not in the least liking his haughty style. About the steering he was most particular, sending man after man away from the wheel until he found four to please him, and these he made quartermasters.
“Well,” I thought to myself, as I watched him hovering about the compasses and comparing them critically, “you don’t mean to take any risks this trip —foreigners or not.”
The mate, I now discovered, was but a puppet in his hands, a mere tool, with opinions and ideas moulded absolutely on his brother’s; he regarded the captain as a little marine god from whose lightest word and act was no possible appeal.
Frederick Baleston was, nevertheless, a good seaman and a first-class navigator, doing almost all this part of the ship’s work, whilst his brother fiddled about with his scientific instruments — of which he had a large stock — determining the heat of the sea at various depths; noting soundings; and perfecting an instrument to supersede the deviascope, and automatically correct compass errors in iron and steel ships. But with all this preoccupation, nothing escaped the ever-shifting glances of those small sharp eyes. With a look they appeared to take in every detail alow and aloft; and was there the least thing lacking, the intolerant acrid voice quickly made itself heard, as well to his brother as to myself.
One other matter he was to a degree particular about in addition to the steering. Never in all my time at sea had I been on any vessel where the boats were kept in such a complete slate of preparation as on the Urania. Water, provisions, compasses, oars, masts—all their furniture, in fact, was seen to constantly. Also, at regular intervals, the watches were called to swing them out, on which occasion the captain himself narrowly inspected davits, falls, and other belonging gear.
“Decidedly,” I said to myself for the second lime, “this man takes no risks. If he has once lost a ship, it couldn’t have been for want of looking after her. Or, perhaps, all this care is the outcome of the experience gained in that disaster. Anyhow, it’s satisfactory.”
One evening, having had tea, as usual, by myself, I went out to relieve the mate, who had finished his some time before. I was suffering from toothache that night, and finding I had forgotten the silk ’kerchief I used to tie round my face as some protection from the air, I presently slipped down the poop ladder and into my berth on the starboard side of the saloon.
It was a few minutes before I could lay my hand on the thing in the dark. Then, just as I was pulling my door open, I heard voices in the saloon, and the rustling of papers. I don’t know why I didn’t boldly go out at once. But I hesitated for a minute, and heard the captain say to his brother, “Where’s Morris?”
“On deck,” replied the other. “He relieved me ten minutes ago.”
“That’s all right, then,” said the captain. “He’s no more brains than a serving-mallet, and not two ideas above his work. All the same, I don’t want him, or anyone else, to hear what I’m going to tell you.”
Just here, I decided to stay where I was.
“I suppose you can guess,” continued the skipper, “from what I’ve already let drop, that this won’t be a long voyage?”
“Well, yes,” assented his brother, “I’ve thought as much. But I never knew—”
“No, I didn’t intend you should,” interrupted the other brusquely, “till the time was close at hand. I want one man, at any rate, besides myself, who won’t lose his head when the pinch comes, and will back me up all he knows how. That’s why I brought you out of the County of Durham, Now, do you see, this is our exact position at the present moment. In thirty hours we shall be there.”
Peering through the crack in the not-quite-closed door, I saw the captain bending over a chart with a pair of compasses in his hand. On the other side of the table sprawled his brother, staring intently at the point indicated. Over their heads swung the lamp, making a big patch of white light on the table and paper.
“And there,” went on the captain, with a modulated accent of triumph in his voice, “as nearly as I can judge, at about four bells in the middle watch, the voyage ends.”
No glimmering of his meaning as yet reached my brain. I simply thought the man was mad—mad as a hatter—and that his brother was only humouring him. But I was presently undeceived.
“There, you see,” said the captain, “31° 15" W. 420 10" N. That’s the exact spot in which we leave the good ship Urania with her valuable cargo”—and he laughed silently—“insured for seventy-five thousand pounds in London, Paris, Bremen, and Hamburg!”
Now, at last, I understood, or thought I did. He was going to scuttle the ship. I had heard of such things happening in bygone days. And yet one can’t bore holes in iron, or—”
“But—but,” stammered his brother, bending low over the chart, “there’s nothing there!”
“Look at this,” said the captain, unrolling another map. “What do you see at the same spot?”
“Broken water. Doubtful,” was the answer.
“Exactly, only it isn’t among the doubtfuls at all,” continued the other. “Although the bat-eyed survey people couldn’t find it, I did. When I was in the Blink Bonnie, trading to the Western Islands, I spotted it first. Water only breaks with a S.S.E. wind—perhaps not more than two or three times a year, and then very slightly. Well, I reported it; and the Falcon was sent to look for it. But in vain. So, although on the strength of my assertion they marked it temporarily on the old maps, you see it’s been taken off the latest Admiralty chartings. I’ve seen it once or twice since.
“One trip in the Bonnie it fell dead calm within a couple of hundred yards of where I knew the thing to be. So I sculled myself over to the place, and looking down I saw four big, broad, wide-gapped fangs of rock sticking up to within some ten feet of the surface, and shoals of fish playing about the weeds that covered them. Bah! I know of lots more uncharted peaks and prongs—especially in the China Seas. I don’t report them all.”
“And the Agenoria affair?”
“Something the same,” replied the skipper, with a laugh. “A private reef. Now this is the kind of thing you’ll read in a week or so:—
“‘Curious Coincidence.—Some years ago Captain Baleston, well known for his valued contributions to marine hydrography, reported “broken water”—and presumably, therefore, a rock or rocks—as existing in a certain spot in the North Atlantic. The authorities at once investigated the matter, sending H.M.S. Falcon, whose officers, after a thorough search, assured themselves that no such danger to navigation was to be found. Naturally, Captain Baleston imagined he must have been mistaken. But, quite recently, being in command of a fine vessel, the Urania, he unfortunately demonstrated the correctness of his original discovery by running her on the very same reef that he reported to the authorities so long ago, which, it appears, is almost on the track usually taken by sailing ships bound to the Cape. Much sympathy is felt for the captain, as his misfortune is undoubtedly owing to official incompetency. Fortunately no lives were lost. The vessel, we hear, was fully insured; and doubtless her master will be held free from all blame in the matter.’”
“It’s a wonder the Navy men didn’t drop on it,” remarked the mate, who had listened to his brother with open-mouthed admiration.
“Not a bit of it,” returned the other. “They might have sounded and sounded for years without being any the wiser; and ships might sail within a foot of it and never suspect its existence. And—well, it wasn’t until afterwards that I took the trouble to verify my present bearings beyond all doubt. So it’s just possible they may not have been within a degree of the exact spot.
“Then I got into my present employ; and finding that such a secret might prove valuable, I said no more about it. I made money out of the Agenoria affair; and so did they. Now this is their last sailer —all the rest are steamers. They were offered three pounds a ton for her the other day—considerably less than her hull alone cost. So, as old Catblock put it, better turn her into a fixed deposit at four hundred fathoms. The chances are she’ll hang when she takes the deep. But, even if she slips off again, her fore compartment will give us ample time to get clear.
“If she hangs she will break up in a few hours, so it matters little one way or the other. You’ll take a couple of thousand out of the job. I shall make enough to give up the sea and devote myself wholly to some new inventions I have in mind. Now that’s all. Oh, when you relieve Morris put the new compass—the Thompson one—in the binnacle. I want her steered like a steamer for the rest of the time.”
Well, here was a pretty kettle of fish indeed! But I had no leisure to think it over. Already I had been far too long away from my post; and I was glad as I presently heard the mate go into his berth and close the door. Peering, I saw that the captain had also left the saloon. Now was my time, evidently, and I slipped noiselessly out and made for the main deck entrance. Just as I gained it I turned and saw the captain staring hard at me.
By this time I was in the shadow of the little alleyway, close to the pantry, and whether he had recognised me or not was doubtful. He might have come out of his berth, the door of which was close to the head of the table, before I had got the whole length of the saloon. In that case he must guess where I had been and what I had heard. But from his attitude I was inclined to think he had only just caught sight of me.
However, I lost no time in getting on to the poop.
As I tramped backwards and forwards I fell to considering over what I had lately heard. What was I to do in the matter? Was it any concern of mine at all?
An appeal to the crew was not to be thought of. The chances were that they would not believe me; and, even if they did, I knew the Germans and the rest too well to think they would dare interfere. The more I thought the matter over the less I saw my way out of it. Doubtless, the insurance companies and the underwriters would lose heavily. But I had myself to consider. And if I held my tongue before the act, I was well aware that it was of no use letting it wag afterwards. I was on the horns of a dilemma, and at last I made up my mind to take a seat between the prongs and lie low.
At ten o’clock, as I walked to the bell and struck it, the captain, tossing away his cigar stump, suddenly came up to me and asked quietly, “How much did you hear, Mr. Morris, when you were in your berth, whilst my brother and I were talking?”
For a moment I was taken flat aback. Then, evasive words of subterfuge rose to my lips. But suddenly the notion came into my mind that now, as he knew so much, it would be far better to have it out and done with. Thus I replied after the momentary pause, speaking quietly as himself, “Well, sir, pretty nearly everything that was said, I imagine.”
“So?” he replied. “And what do you think of the affair, looking at it from a speculative point of view?”
“I think,” I replied boldly, and staring him squarely in the face, “that it’s about the most cunning, rascally scheme of wholesale robbery I ever heard of; and that if I had anyone besides myself who had heard as much as I heard, penal servitude for life would be the share of its promoters.”
“Aha,” replied he, “I’m glad you see your weak point. You’re alone, fortunately, and no statements you could make would be entertained for a moment as against my name and reputation. You’ve more sense than I credited you with. I thought when I picked you off the dock a week ago, starving and shabby, that you were the common type of sea-dog who’s only too glad to bark when he’s told, and leave well alone.”
This made me angry, and I tried a chance shot with, “Anyhow, Captain Baleston, you’ll hardly attempt the game now, whilst I’m with you. And perhaps, in port, I may find somebody to at least believe me as far as a sworn statement will go respecting the nature of your cargo.”
It was a rash and utterly reckless speech, but I was pleased to hear his teeth gritting against each other with rage, and know that my wild words had hit a mark.
Taking a few paces along the deck, he looked into the binnacle, muttered something in German to the man at the wheel, and came back to me saying—
“You shall have five hundred pounds to stand in with us.”
“Far too much for a mere sea-dog with no more brains than a serving-mallet,” I replied politely. “Thank God,” I continued, “I’m a fairly honest man, and want no share in such tricks as you’ve made your money by, and which’ll yet land you behind iron bars!”
“Another five hundred pounds for poor old honesty,” he retorted in a jeering tone, “and that’s as far as I’m inclined to go. You’d better take it. But please yourself.”
“Not for fifty times the amount,” I replied angrily. “And now wreck the ship if you dare! You won’t find it such simple tea-drinking as the Agenoria business seems to have been. Now you can do your worst, and plague on you and all such cursed pirates!”
I was by this time thoroughly vexed and losing my temper.
As I spoke, the captain walked away and disappeared down the companion, making no answer whatever. Presently, looking through the open skylight, I saw him come out of his state-room and pour whisky from the decanter in the swinging tray. He took nearly half a tumblerful—neat. Then he went into his brother’s berth; and I could well imagine the pair plotting to counteract this unexpected check.
At eight bells, when the mate relieved me, I could detect nothing out of the common in his manner, which was always pretty cordial. As was my invariable custom before turning in, I mixed myself a tumbler of grog, taking the whisky out of the same decanter I had seen the captain use.
Then I went to my berth—and, first, however, doing what I had never done before, viz. slipping the bolt of my door—I lit my pipe and my lamp, undressed, and lay down to think matters over.
Gradually I became aware of a sense of lethargy taking possession of me, accompanied by a not unpleasant feeling of drowsiness. My pipe fell out of my mouth on to the floor, and I watched unconcernedly the hot ashes making little black holes in the strip of carpet. Presently the smell of the smouldering wool became disagreeable, and I wished to rise and extinguish it.
To my dismay I found that I could move neither hand nor foot. My brain was active as ever, but all power of slightest motion had completely disappeared. I imagined at first that I had received “a stroke” of some mysterious description. But in that case, I argued, surely I should feel sick and ill. And I never felt better internally. I made tremendous efforts to stir —a finger even—but without avail.
What was this dreadful thing that had come upon me in a flash, and without the least warning? Probably it would disappear as quickly. I was lying on my side, facing the door. Over the latter was a glass fanlight that moved on a ’midship swivel. A noise at this made me look up. It was turning, and the next moment I saw the captain’s face framed in the square aperture. He was grinning, with a row of white teeth showing under his straw-coloured moustache; and I caught quite clearly the dancing devil in his eyes as he fixed them intently on mine.
For fully three minutes we stared at each other. I tried to speak; but, to my horror, tongue and jaws refused their office. Presently the face at the fanlight disappeared, with the noise as of a person stepping off a chair or a stool. There was some whispering outside, and all at once I saw my door giving slowly but surely. The bolt was but a flimsy thing at best; and now, under heavy pressure, it first bent, then the brass socket carried away, and the door flew open, disclosing the two Balestons.
“He’s all right, Fred,” said the skipper. “Let me introduce you to the gentleman who’s going to play up with us in such style. Your grog was doctored, Mr. Morris; the nightcap had a frill to it,” he went on, as, one at my head, the other at my legs, they lifted me out of the bunk like a log. “And now you’re going down amongst the dead men to tell ’em the Urania’s coming. Gently through the door, Fred, or you’ll bump his head.”
Out on the quarterdeck, with the fresh breeze blowing cool on my face, they carried me. It was dark, much darker than when I came below, and clouds were gathering over the stars. Between them, panting, they hoisted me on to the rail just be-aft the main rigging.
“The beggar’s heavy,” exclaimed the captain, “and he’ll make a devil of a splash! Take the t’gallant halliards, Fred, and shove the bight of ’em round him under the arms, and we’ll lower him down easily.”
The mate, who had not spoken a word, silently obeyed, whilst the other held me half on the pinrail, half on the t’gallant one, in a reclining posture, with my back against the rigging. Again and again I strove to utter a cry; but my tongue felt like a lump of lead in a throat swollen to the verge of suffocation. In vain my despairing eyes—the only members I could use—swept the deck. Not a soul was to be seen, not a sound heard, except the steady hum of the wind as it blew under the foot of the mainsail.
The high break of the poop sheltered us from the sight of the helmsman, even had the darkness not sufficed. Gazing outboard, my glance swept the black waste of white-tipped furrows, and the bitterness of death entered into my soul, as already I seemed to feel them closing over my dumb and helpless body.
The mate threw the coil of halliards off the pin, and was nervously, with trembling hands, passing the end around my body, adjusting the rope so that his brother and himself might lower away on equal parts.
“Better take a round turn,” muttered the captain, “or he’ll slip before we’re ready. Now then, good-bye, Mr. Morris. A thousand pounds or Davy Jones! You chose the last. You’ve got no choice left. Take a turn under the pin. So, together! Over he goes!” As he spoke the pair pushed and lifted together, and I fell about six feet with such a shock as seemed to bring some slight sense of feeling into my numbed limbs. As I hung there, already the sliding waves washed up to my knees. Lower still, and they were breaking-over my head and shoulders, whilst I swallowed big mouthfuls of bitter, salt water. Why did they not let go, I wondered?
Ah, now I knew! The round turn had jammed under my arms, and they were pulling and hauling furiously on the single part they still held. All at once —in a second—hanging one moment under water, the next hove up by the roll of the ship, I vomited violently; and suddenly, with a dreadful tearing sort of pain, there came back to me the use of both limbs and voice.
But even as, with a gurgling, half-choked cry, I raised my hands to clutch the rope, it cleared; whilst, released, I sank, to rise again the next moment breathless, panting, beating the water wildly, and only dimly conscious of a dark patch bulking high, with one twinkling light like a yellow eye, ever receding, and glaring at me there, left struggling alone to perish miserably.
As soon as I recovered my voice I shouted and screamed at that pitiless eye lifting and lowering in the Urania’s stern as if nodding a ponderous farewell to me, swimming wildly, helplessly after it in all the strength that supreme fear of death gives.
But with my first collected thought came back the utter futility of what I was doing, and I suddenly ceased to breast the curving waves that met and broke smarting and stinging over face and eyes, and turning my back to wind and sea, I let myself float at random.
In the water I had been at home all my life, and now, lightly clad in under-flannels, and feeling fairly warm, I had no doubt of being able to keep afloat, if I wished, for many hours. And I determined, at all events, to wait for the dawn, before dropping to those dreary depths below.
At last I saw the eastern sky grow grey, and watched the sun rise with the resigned gaze of a man who knows that, beyond all doubt, it is to be the last one he will ever see.
I raised myself as high as I could, and stared steadily around the horizon. Empty from rim to rim! A lovely morning, too!
Stay! a black object was bobbing away scarce half a mile distant. Certainly it was not a boat; and yet it rode high and had a massive look with it. Well, at any rate, it was worth investigating; and with slow strokes I swam towards it. Drawing nearer, I recognised the object. Yesterday, during my morning watch, we had passed it—the half of a ship’s lower mast with yard, top, and topmast-rigging attached.
Almost mechanically I swam alongside it and caught hold of some of the gear, climbed up, and sat on the rim of the top whilst the hot sun warmed my sodden limbs, and sent the chilled life-stream once more coursing through my veins.
Was it worth while, I wondered? I was fair in the track of ships. And it was no use throwing away a chance. A few minutes ago I was knocking for admission at the very gate of death, and now—Well, then, till to-morrow, at any rate!
Judging from its appearance, I thought the wreckage could not have been in the water very long—perhaps a fortnight or so. And as I perched on the top I wondered about the ship that had come to grief, and whether this was the extent of it, or had worse happened. But first, thirst, and then hunger, soon put an end to any thoughts or cares except personal ones. The sun’s heat, grateful for a while, now was so intense that every few minutes I had to slip down and soak to obtain relief; and as the day dragged slowly along, and my sufferings increased, I began to doubt whether I should be able to hang out to my set limit—another sunrise.
One thing I had noticed was that, evidently in the set of some strong current, my spars were making an easterly drift of fully a couple of knots per hour. But there was no great comfort in that; although at a rough calculation I reckoned I could not be at this moment more than a hundred miles to the westward of the Azores, if so much.
The day wore on; and, worn out with all I had gone through, towards the middle of the afternoon I gave up my continuous and useless staring around the horizon, and taking a few turns about my waist with a length of rope, I stretched out along the incline of the topmast rigging and dozed off into an uneasy sleep. I woke with a start.
The sun was still a couple of hours high. I had slipped down the trailing rigging till my knees were awash. But what had disturbed me? Something, I was certain, for the sound of it was in my ears still. Hurriedly throwing off my lashings, I crawled on to the rim of the top, and only a few cables’ length away was a big steamer coming along, her screw kicking up white water behind her as she towered, flying light, with rusty wall-sides twenty feet high.
Owing to my position, I had been quite hidden from the sight of those on board. But eyes were on the wreckage; and almost as soon as I showed my body on the top I heard her engine-room bells clanging, and could see her gradually slow down, until she came gliding along with her sharp tall bows nearly overhanging me, whilst her screw squashed and whisked astern to stop her way. There was no need for hailing or talk, and in a very few minutes a boat was in the water; a few more, and I was in her and, without help—such momentary heart had my rescue put into me — able to climb up the gangway ladder of the Norseman.
Once on deck, however, I staggered, and would have fallen but for the arm of a short, stout, red-faced man who held me up and led me into the steamer’s saloon, where food, drink, a hot bath, and some clean clothes soon made a new man of me.
Captain Craigie and his chief officer listened to my story with interest, but also an amount of incredulity that I was not altogether unprepared for. Not that they said openly I was lying; but from an unmistakable coolness in their manner as I finished, I could see they thought so.
Perhaps if it had been any other but Baleston who was concerned they might have been more ready to credit the yarn. But Baleston had a reputation. Also that secret reef affair, I could see, by the stare and half laugh passed from skipper to mate, would by no means go down.
“If I’ve been close to there once, I’ve been close to there fifty times, and never seen anything’,” remarked the former when I put the pencil on the chart as nearly as I could make the spot bear from our present position.
“A very curious story, Mr. Morris,” he continued coldly, and regarding me with evident disfavour. “However, it’s no particular business of ours. You’re welcome to a passage as far as Belize—our first port of call. I hope you may be able to get a ship there.”
I could almost have cried with rage and vexation as he went on deck, followed by the mate.
At a glance I saw that I was on board a cargo tramp of some 3,000 tons, and an eight-knot speed, doing her best. Her bridge was struck far away forward, and the rest of her was mostly hatches, steam winches, and a grove of ventilators amidships.
The sun was setting as I went below again, and in a very sour temper—first telling the steward not to call me for tea—went to the berth assigned me and turned in for a good sleep, which I badly wanted.
It seemed to me that I had been asleep only a few minutes when I felt a hand shake me, and a voice shout loudly in my ear. Half awake, I turned and said something uncomplimentary to the disturber of my rest, who had struck a match and was lighting the berth lamp.
“I’ve come to ask your pardon, Mr. Morris,” said somebody who, presently, as I sat up in my bunk rubbing my sleepy eyes, I saw, to my great surprise, was Captain Craigie himself. “I confess I didn’t believe a word of your yarn,” he went on, “and I know you saw it; but we’ve just had an accident. Run down a boat belonging to the Urania. Only one man saved. He says Captain Baleston was in her. Says, too, that the Urania went on to the reef right enough. Will you come on deck and see him?”
Would I not! In a jiff I was into my clothes and out of the saloon at a half run. The night was dark as pitch, with splashes of electric light here and there about the ship. A stiff breeze was blowing dead ahead, with an awkward lump of a cross-sea on. The Norseman’s engines were stopped; and the big steamer was rolling uneasily and giving a dive now and again that sent white water seething aft along her iron decks.
At intervals her siren blared, making noise enough to wake the dead, whilst blue lights shed a ghostly glare over the sea and ship. As I hurried for’ard I noticed davit-falls hanging slack, and knew that a boat was battling away somewhere in the black smother outboard.
On the lower bridge I found a dripping creature, wild-looking and pallid, who shivered and gesticulated and shrank back when he caught sight of me. I knew him at once for one of the Urania’s quartermasters the man, in fact, who had been at the wheel when I and her captain were having our momentous talk.
As I came into the light the chief mate stepped out of the chart-room and shook hands, saying something handsome at the same time — I forget what, but to similar purpose as the skipper. Anyhow, between the pair of them I felt a man again; which was more than I had done when I turned in eight hours ago.
Carl Hansen hadn’t as much English as would bail up a cow. But the second engineer was a Hamburger, and interpreted, from Hansen’s statement, boiled down, it appeared that in the middle watch that very night, or actually only a few hours ago, the Urania had rushed on to a reef, her fore-topmast going at the same time. The alarm and terror of the crew were intense. The captain and mate, however, kept quite cool, and in no time the two quarter boats were lowered and, with all hands, pulled away from the wreck, Captain Baleston taking charge of one, his brother of the other.
The former, the quartermaster said, had seemed terribly cut up about my loss, and the ship was searched from end to end in efforts to find me. In the darkness the boats had separated. Under sail, the port quarter boat had been running at a great rate when, without a second’s warning, the Norseman’s bow had cut her fair in halves. Hansen had been saved by a miracle. A bundle of fireman’s sweat-rags happened to be towing overboard amidships. Blindly sweeping past, the lump of stuff, just awash, had touched him; and with a wild, outspread, drowning clutch, he held the rope and was presently drawn up—the only one, as it proved. There was not, he said, even time for a shout before their doom was upon them.
Warmed and fed, he went more into detail. For two hours before the Urania took the reef, the captain had fidgeted about the binnacle, altering the course now and again by as much as a quarter of a point, but never leaving the compass for long. The night was fine with a smart breeze, and the ship had everything set when, about four bells, she struck, appearing, Hansen said, to glide and bump and glide; and then heeling over just a little, she lay fairly quiet, giving now and again a lift for’ard, and seeming to wedge herself more firmly amongst the rocks. Actually, though, so sudden and unexpected had the whole affair been, and so complete the preparations for departure, that some of the bewildered crew hardly realised what had happened until they found themselves pulling away into the night.
Captain Craigie was in his room overhauling charts. As presently I entered to his call, he looked up, saying, “I found the map marked ‘Broken water. Doubtful.’ It’s seven years old, though. And on none of the later ones is there any allusion to such a thing. Now, Mr. Morris, I’m going to have a look at this private reef of Baleston’s—he won’t have need of it any more —and I fancy somewhere about W.S.W. ¾ W. should put us pretty close to the spot from here. What do you think?”
“Thereabouts,” I replied. “But at best it’s only a needle-in-a-haystack business, unless one could get the bearings exact, or see something in the shape of white water.”
The Captain nodded in agreement, and coming out on the bridge, gave orders that presently sent us going slow, and well to the westward of south.
All the rest of that night I never left the bridge. To Baleston and his fate I hardly gave a thought, he had served me very badly; and though when paddling about waiting for daylight to drown myself I had freely forgiven him his wickedness, I found it difficult to do so now when dry, full-bellied, and my own man again.
But I desperately wanted to find that reef, and so render my story complete, rounded off and beyond cavil. Therefore I kept my eyes skinned, at times even journeying up to the look-out nest on the foremast and sweeping the sea with a night-glass—all trouble I might have saved myself. But there it is! One never knows! Towards morning we ran into a smooth sea, the wind shifting to the nor’ard and coming very light.
All through the ship was more or less excitement and watching; the grimy firemen, even, when they came off duty, pausing to cast bloodshot glances around, whilst the Norseman forged slowly ahead as if herself in doubt of hitting something that might not agree with her. At dawn nothing was visible; but as the sky astern of us grew all aflame, the look-out man from his canvas nest cried, “Sail on the port bow!” followed immediately by an exclamation from the mate, who continued, as he stared through his glasses, “A derelict with her fore-topmast gone. Down by the head like a pig, and with a list on her like a rotten haystack!”
“The Urania.” I shouted a moment later, in loud, exultant tones. “Hard and fast on Baleston’s reef!”
“By heavens! you’re right, sir, I do believe,” said the captain, as I handed him the glass.
And as we drew nearer, beyond all doubt there was the murdered ship—a forlorn-looking object enough, with her fore-topmast, t’gallant and royal masts hanging over foc’sle-head, her stern cocked up, and her nose down as if just about to take the deep, final dive of all. And around her the little waves lap-lapped brisk and smiling in the sunshine, but giving no hint of the treacherous trap underneath that gripped her with its iron teeth.
Steaming alongside, we gazed at the poor thing in pity, mingled with a detestation that found vent in low curses from more lips than mine. Meanwhile, the captain, watching her intently with his head on one side and a long end of grizzled moustache between his teeth, suddenly ordered his gig into the water.
“We’ll have a squint, Mr. Morris,” said he, “at what’s got hold of her. Bosun, put a hand lead in the boat, and—yes—get up the six-inch steel hawser and the twelve-inch manilla. I may want them.”
Pulling round the Urania’s bows, we saw, looking down through the clear water, that she had been driven over a sort of rocky platform and through a pair of great perpendicular rocks as clean as a thread through a needle. But these, forking higher than the approach to them, kept her nose well up, and against one of them she lay over, resting upon its thickly weeded contour, standing out in plain relief to her bright red bottom.
“One hour of a fairly stiff breeze,” remarked the captain, “and she goes to pieces. But, hang me, if I think that, so far, she’s mortally wounded. Sink or swim, I’ll have a bid for her. Let’s get aboard and sound the well.”
I brought the rod and carefully lowered it down. Two feet! And on a list! Salvage smelling high! Twenty minutes afterwards, and the Norseman, with her engines at full speed ahead and the six-inch steel rope fast from her after-bitts to the Urania’s mizzenmast, was scratch-pulling all she knew how.
The first five minutes’ drag took no effect. At the second the steel rope snapped like a rope yarn.
“Coir twelve-inch to the front!” was the order. Men worked like dragons with that smell of salvage in their nostrils.
“All ready below, Mr. Carmichael?”
The chief engineer nodded.
“Let her rip, then!”
Ting-a-ling—ling—ling—clang! went the gongs, the great rope straightened out its crackling curve, dense volumes of smoke poured from the Norseman’s squab stacks, the whole iron fabric of her trembled, her engines rattled and clattered and thumped, the coir strained and cracked, strained and grew smaller and smaller until of only the thickness of a man’s wrist.
“Send them for all they’re worth, sir,” said the captain to the chief.
“Stand clear the hawser there for’ard! Something’s got to go in a minute!”
But it was the Urania that came.
“I suppose you’ll run her into Fayal or Gibraltar, sir?” asked the chief mate a little later, as with sails furled, and for’ard wreckage clear, the Urania lay alongside; whilst we in the Norseman’s cabin drank whisky and soda, and the crew tossed off their nip of rum in honour of the occasion.
“Please the Lord and the weather,” said Captain Craigie piously, with a shrewd smile, “I’ll never cry crack till I get to Falmouth.”
During the passage the captain and myself had one day taken a notion to overhaul some of the cargo.
The first case was full of grindstones, so was the second, and a third—all unnoted in the manifest. The skipper looked blank. But presently we made out enough to show us that though there was under hatches a very large proportion of these useful but not particularly valuable articles, still the bulk of the cargo was genuine “general.”
Messrs. Shroud and Catblock, the owners, answered Captain Craigie’s telegram in person; and at first seemed inclined to give themselves airs. This was before I had been introduced to them. Not that I said much. I left it all to the skipper, who took them into his room, where the trio stayed a long time. When the two owners came on deck again they looked like men just recovering from a severe illness.
“Settled by private contract,” remarked the captain, coming up to me and slapping me on the back, as the two swindlers he had brought to book went over the side silent, downcast, sulky. “No Admiralty Court and Elder Brethren are to have a finger in this pie,” he continued. “And I let them off far more easily than the judge and jury before whom, if everything was to be done according to Cocker, Messrs. Shroud and Catblock should make their appearance. I suppose I am compounding a felony. But I’m going to take all chances as to that. Briefly, then, the Urania and her cargo is to be sold for the benefit of the owners, officers, and crew of the Norseman. Luckily I’m half owner myself, and I can answer for my partner. We all divide pro rata,”
Here the captain paused for a moment to thoroughly enjoy my, I daresay, rather blank look. Then he laughed and continued, “Also, for the late second mate of the Urania I’ve got a cheque in my desk below to the tune of four thousand pounds. Will that do? I held out for five, because I know it’s a rich firm as well as a rascally one. However, I remembered that they’d have another party to settle with directly, if the mate’s boat ever turns up; so I knocked off the thousand.”
Four—thousand—pounds! It took my breath away. Of course, I never expected nearly such a sum, my hopes seldom soaring above a quarter of it at the very outside. And I think that from that moment dates my sincere and free forgiveness of the Balestons. As may perhaps be remembered, I had made an unsuccessful attempt before.
Leave the sea? Well, yes, rather! Ay, and without any delay either! Just put your head out of the train when you’re travelling on the London and South Western line, and a mile this side of Haslemere you’ll see a big board with upon it in letters a foot long, “John Morris and Co., Market Gardeners and Nurserymen.”
The “Co.,” by the way, is my wife; and the last word carries a double meaning outside the business, inasmuch as the big room at the back is full of youngsters—none of whom will ever go to sea if their dad can help it. Never a word more have I heard of either the other boat of the Urania or of that ill-fated Baleston’s secret reef. It is there yet, I suppose, and likely to stay there, unknown, unnoticed, till some fine day a ship manages by the merest chance to put herself between its jaws.
Captain Craigie, who lives in the big brick house on the hill yonder, reported it as in duty bound. But the Authorities only smiled, and declined to be “had” twice. I’m not sure whether the skipper mentioned the Urania business. I never asked. When he comes over to see me we potter about the gardens talking “Early Brussels,” “White Hearts,” “Belgian Beauties,” etc., etc., and discuss the merits of borders, break-winds, and the new Porter glass-houses in place of reefs and shipping.
‘That’s the Jeanne d’Arc,’ remarked the captain to me as the ensign fluttered for the third time down the signal halliards in salute to a big white steamer with a yellow funnel, and showing the French tricolor, that was passing us about half a mile away. ‘She made her number,’ he continued, ‘but there was no necessity. I’d know her as far as I could see her. In fact, for a very short time I commanded her.’
‘Why,’ I replied, ‘I thought you disliked steam, and would never have anything to do with it?’
‘Hate the whole business,’ said the skipper, ‘but I had to take charge of the Jeanne. Nor was she, so to speak, a steamer when I found her. You see she’s brig rigged, and shows quite a decent lot of canvas. I was only second then, and if the Lord hadn’t put it into my head to do what I did, I expect I’d be second still, or even before the stick again, instead of a master at four-and-twenty.’ And Captain Hammond glanced with evident pride at his fine clipper, the Carisbrook Castle, as she tore along before the strong North-East Trades, a tall mass of shining white cloths, beginning at the great courses and towering aloft to where the skysails reeled like little clouds against the deep blue of the tropic heavens.
‘Few things would please me better than to hear that yarn,’ I said presently, ‘and the more so because the steamer’s name seems curiously familiar to me. Wasn’t she seized and sold by the British Government for smuggling, or something of the kind—I forget now?’
‘Not quite that,’ replied the captain smiling, ‘it was worse than smuggling. Evidently you’ve read about the affair and forgotten it. Yes, I’ll tell you the story, such as it is. It’ll pass the time away till lunch.’
‘Appropriately enough,’ he went on, drawing a deck chair alongside mine, ‘we’re not far off the spot where the affair happened. I was second of a fine lump of a ship called the Princess Royal at the time. We’d caught the Trades light; hardly enough of ’em, in fact, to keep the sails full and the ship with steerage way on her. The night was black as a dog’s mouth, and when I turned out to take the middle watch I had to feel each step like a blind man. In the Princess we used to call the roll at each change of watch, and as I stood at the break of the poop I could hear one of the apprentices singing out the names, and the men answering “Here, sir.” Then the usual formula, “Who’s at the wheel?” “Brown, sir.” “And on the look-out?” “Jones, sir.” “That’ll do, stand by the watch.” As I say, I could hear all this, but devil a thing could I see, alow or aloft. The Old Man had turned in; apparently, we had all the black world of sea to ourselves. Four bells had just struck. The wind had died completely away, and the sails were knocking and banging sixpences out of the owner’s pocket as the ship rolled to the heavy swell, whilst sheets and tacks swung and rattled, kicking up a pretty tune. “Lie aft here the watch!” I shouted, glad of something to do, “and clew up the cro’jack and mainsail!” Then, groping about, I found the mizzen-staysail halliards and let them go. I could hear the men all around me swearing softly as they fumbled at the rail amongst the gear. Suddenly, as I felt for the sheet to cast it off the bitts, an awful shock sent me flying across the poop. There was a cruel noise of crashing and rending and tearing, mingled with loud shouts and oaths, filling the darkness full of terror and dismay, whilst the Princess reeled and went over nearly on to her beam ends.
‘“My good God! Mr. Hammond, what’s this?” I heard the captain shout as I rose bewildered to my feet. The next moment he and all of us were answered with a completeness that turned us into staring statues, as a blue light burst out for’ard and showed us a great white painted steamer with her jibboom broken short off, and hanging over a pair of tall sharp clipper bows that stuck halfway through the unfortunate Princess just abaft the break of the forecastle. She was brig rigged, but with no sail set. A single lofty funnel rose straight out of her amidships, and the faces of her men looked ghastly in the flare, as with frantic gestures they shrieked and chattered at us in a very babel of discord. Then all at once the flare was extinguished, leaving the darkness blacker than ever.
‘“Ready with the boats there!” shouted our captain, “she’ll stand by us as soon as she gets clear. Mr. Hammond, lower away the port life-boat at once, whilst the mate and myself see to provisioning the others. Hail the steamer, somebody, and ask if they’re much damaged. Damn them, I don’t believe they’ve got a light showing anywhere!’ To our hail no answer was returned. There was a silence broken only by the thumping of her screw going full speed astern, and a loud rushing noise for’ard as of water falling over a rock.
‘By this time lights were flashing about our decks, and a couple of boats—the life-boat and a large thirty-foot whaler off the skids—were over the side. Not till then did we pause to draw breath. During our work we had felt the steamer go free of us. But now, as we stared around, we could see no sign of her. Not a voice was to be heard, no glimmer of friendly light caught our straining gaze.
‘“Surely the brute hasn’t left us!” exclaimed the captain as we stood on the edge of the chasm made by her bows and watched the sea pouring like a mill race into the watertight compartment that alone had saved us from instant destruction.
‘“The bloody Dago’s cleared safe enough, sir,” replied a seaman standing near the skipper; “I heard the thump o’ her screw far away to port yonder,” and he spat in disgust as he swung his lamp over the black water swirling and foaming into the ship’s belly. Already she was down by the head to such a degree as made a steeply inclined plane from for’ard aft, and it was very evident that at any moment the partition—only a thin one of two-inch planking—might succumb to the enormous pressure and flood the body of the hold. Indeed, it was probably only the fact of the cargo being stowed against it that had kept it in its place so long and given us a chance to save our lives. There were thirty-five of us all told when the roll was called for the last time. And one man, an ordinary seaman named Barlow, was missing. Not to be found anywhere. The mate took one of the life-boats with ten, the skipper another with the same number, and I took the whaler with fifteen. It was about eight bells (four o’clock) in the morning watch, and darker than ever as we got into the boats and lay off from the ship, on a rounding smooth-backed swell that looked mighty big to us now. And we amused ourselves by firing rockets in case the steamer might still be hanging about. Of course, as a few argued, she possibly was desperately hurt herself, or even sunk. But the general idea favoured deliberate desertion. Some said she was French, some German; but nearly everybody agreed she was a foreigner, a fact in itself sufficient to account for her dastardly conduct in leaving us, for all they knew, to perish miserably.
‘At last came the dawn, showing us our ship bows-under to the foot of the foremast. As yet the bulkhead was holding. Aloft the only damage done was the carrying away of the three royal masts, which, with the skysail-masts and their sails and yards and gear, hung down like broken wings. Not a sign of the destroying steamer was to be seen anywhere around the horizon.
‘“She may live for hours yet,” remarked the skipper. “Some of us had better get on board and send over more provisions. We can carry them easily.”
‘Scarcely were the words out of his mouth than the Princess rose her already lofty stern still higher, until, indeed, it was almost up and down, hung there for about ten minutes, and then disappeared head first, leaving hardly a thing except a few buckets floating about to show for an 1,800 ton ship and some 60,000l. worth of cargo.
‘“May the Lord send the same luck to the cussed Dago afore he’s time to get his boats out!” exclaimed a sailor.
‘And that was the requiem of the poor Princess Royal.
‘The Cape Verdes being the nearest land, it was determined to make for them, keeping the while in company if possible. But that night it came up thick and squally, and the other two boats, being both faster and lighter than mine, were out of sight when morning broke, with the squalls settled into a stormy north-west gale. Finding it impossible to make way against this, I decided to run for the South American coast. But our whaler soon let us know about that; her sails were rods too small for her heavy body, and repeatedly the waves overtook and swamped us. So, seeing nothing else for it, I presently hove her to with a sea-anchor made out of gratings and oars. And to this she rode fairly well. But most of our provisions were soaked, and one keg of water spoiled. Believe me, there’s nothing in open boats, and I can quite conceive some men who have been through the mill preferring to go down with their ship rather than chance the business over again. Not that we were, as yet, so very badly off but that it mightn’t have been worse. Still, you can imagine fifteen of us all pigged together under a bit of canvas, only keeping the water out by incessant bailing with caps, boots, pannikins, anything. Most of my crowd were British, I’m happy to say, and amongst them were two little nippers of apprentices, who ought to have been in their beds at school that night, instead of in a howling gale in the North Atlantic. They were perhaps about thirteen, certainly no older, but plucky! Why, those kids—brothers they were—were worth a Jew’s eye to me all through that bad time. There were some Germans amongst the crowd who, after a while, lost their backbones and for very little would have chucked up the sponge and sulked like a Kanaka when he’s made up his mind to peg out. And you know what a mess an example like that makes of a lot of men, no matter where they hail from. But the nippers simply wouldn’t let ’em jib, for they got amongst ’em and chaffed and joked, ay, and once or twice swore at ’em, till for very shame’s sake the chaps stiffened up. Then the youngsters started singing; and they could sing, too!—songs with a rattling good chorus, like “John Brown,” and “Marching through Georgia,” and the men joined in whilst they bailed. To make things livelier, about midnight the gale rose nearly to hurricane strength, and away went the mainsail and foresail we’d rigged up as weather-cloths, leaving us quite exposed to the water that drove across in blinding sheets and half filled the boat. Of course there was a lump of a sea on, and there in the midst of it we tossed and drifted and sung and baled, only knocking off for a nip of rum now and then, and a chew of sodden biscuit.
‘However, in these latitudes weather like that doesn’t last as a rule, and by midday we were flopping about on a big greasy swell in a hot sun and without wind enough to fill a silk glove. And a curious lot we looked, I’ll swear—salt-encrusted, blear-eyed, haggard, and stiff-jointed. Some of the men were in a heap, fast asleep like the youngsters, who, dead beat at last, and no wonder, had snugged into each other’s arms and lay against my legs where I sat in the stern sheets. Putting a coat under the poor little beggars, I got up and with the help of those yet awake hauled in our anchor, finding, to our great delight, that our mainsail had caught against it. This we set to a bit of a breeze springing up late in the afternoon.
‘At this moment the wind all at once took one of those strengthenings so common at sea, squealing viciously through the upper rigging and sending the Castle over till her lee rail showed like a black streak through the roaring foam, whilst over the weather one bucketfuls of water splashed, making great wet blotches here and there along the length of the white main deck as it ran down into the gurgling scuppers.
‘I think, Mr. Cargill,’ remarked the captain to the very youthful second officer, who, for some minutes, I had noticed staring doubtfully aloft, ‘that we’ll take those skysails off her. The wind seems to be breezing up a bit.’
And, presently, the three pallid little breadths a hundred and fifty feet over our heads crumpled into graceful curving breasts and hollows, as bunt and clew-lines did their work, whilst up each of the long stretches of rigging trotted a small boy who, as the bell rang and the skipper and his only passenger went down to lunch, looked from the deck something as might a crow on a broomstick.
‘Well,’ continued the captain, as we lingered over our coffee, ‘that evening we saw a steamer coming straight for us, and you may judge that the sight was a pleasant one, and with what joyous feelings we watched the grey trail of smoke pouring away from her funnel. As she drew nearer we made her out a white-painted, brig-rigged boat, with a great tall yellow stack amidships. She had only her fore and aft canvas set, and was making about ten knots.
‘All at once one of the nippers squeaked, “Mr. Hammond, sir, isn’t that the steamer that ran us down?”
‘“If it ain’t,” growled a seaman, staring hard, “it’s ’er bloomin’ double!”
‘“Looks to me, too,” said another, “as if that there jibboom o’ hers wasn’t never the spar as was meant to fit that bowsprit. An’, see, she’s got a bran’ new stick of a fore t’gallan’ mast. Oh, it’s ’er as sure as the Lord made little happles!”
‘“If I cud only get a glimp o’ ’er bows I’d be certainter,” remarked yet another, “for I seen the name o’ the d—d sweep for a second.”
‘“What was it, my man?” I asked as I watched the vessel, pretty sure in my own mind that the men were correct.
‘“Jennie, sir,” replied he, “only I fancy there was somethin’ more arter it, as I didn’t get time to catch afore the light was dowsed.”
‘Another quarter of an hour and the steamer was abreast of where we lay tumbling about with our sail down, and the small ensign with which each of the Princess’s boats was provided fluttering from the halliards, Union reversed—a signal of distress and appeal to men that use the sea in every one of their languages. Also, though it seemed unnecessary, we stood up and shouted strongly and all together. But she hoisted no colours; took not the least notice; although now only three hundred yards away, and with a crowd of men staring over the rail at us. From the lofty bridge came a glitter of gold-laced uniforms. A bell was ringing somewhere about her—probably for dinner. Suddenly one of my men sat down heavily and laughed and swore in a breath, “What did I tell yer?” said he, pointing. “Twig the murderin’ cow’s bow!”
‘And as we stared we saw, sure enough, that a piece of canvas had been spread over the spot where her name should have been; whilst, presently, as she stolidly thumped ahead, giving no sign whatever, we perceived a similar curtain hanging over her stern. Evidently it was no use making any further appeals, just as well to save our breath. All the same, it was bitter to watch her going off like that and leaving us to our fate, because of the fear of recognition, and being made to pay for damage done; also held up to execration in all the seas and ports of the world for dastardly and cold-blooded desertion of her victims after crashing into them without one warning light to herald her approach. For a time the miserable business took the stiffening out of all of us, and we did nothing but stare incredulously after the brute as she made off, half expecting to see her suddenly back her engines and round on her heel towards us; deeming it impossible that human beings, and those beings sailors, should commit such an action; especially as they could, at the most, only guess that we had belonged to the ship they had run down.
‘But when thoroughly satisfied that there was no hope, the men recovered themselves and swore viciously, cursing all foreigners under the general names of Dutchmen and Dagoes. Some maintained she was French, others that she was German. The man who said her name was Jennie, with more to follow, got into trouble by giving an opinion that after all she might be English.
‘“I suppose now, my lad,” I said, “you couldn’t remember how it was spelled?”
‘“The fust letter was J,” says he, thinking hard; “the second was a He, an’ then comes an A, an’ then a Hen, an’ then a He or a Hen again—I ain’t sure. Big brass uns they was, a foot long a’most, but I only caught ’em like in the corner o’ my heye. And there was a He to hend hup with. An’ if that don’t spell “Jennie,” I’d like to know what does?” he concluded triumphantly.
‘However, I had no time to argue the matter, even if I’d wished, for the German theorists had begun to thump the four representatives of that nation we had with us, and the struggle threatening to capsize the boat, I was forced to pull out my revolver and swear I’d shoot the first man who started rowing.
‘That night it fell calm, and being very tired I had dropped off to sleep when one of the nippers awoke me. “There’s a funny noise out there, Mr. Hammond,” says he, pointing into the darkness, “and I fancy I saw lights a minute ago.”
‘Listening intently, I heard the sounds too—curious knocking noises as if there was an iron ship in dry dock somewhere in the ocean with a lot of riveters busy about her plates.
‘Presently some of the men also noticed it, and I could hear them muttering to each other. Others were certain they caught a glimpse of lights now and again.
‘Getting four oars out we pulled slowly in the direction, until after a couple of hours we were encouraged by both lights and noises becoming quite distinct and plain to sight and hearing. A ship, without a doubt! And in another hour we could make out the loom of her hull and sails, so close we got to her as she rolled with a great noise of flapping canvas and rattling blocks, above all of which rose the incessant metallic hammering.
‘Strangely enough, no one of us shouted. There seemed something uncanny in the business. Then, all at once, a voice muttered, “It’s a steamer! See them lights up on the bridge! An’ I can make out her smoke stack now.”
‘“It’s the steamer, by G—d!” exclaimed another, voicing the possibility that had already occurred to me, as soon as I’d made out the rig, along with a wild scheme that at the same moment flashed through my brain. “Steady, lads, steady,” I whispered! “It’s her all right. Some of the machinery’s gone wrong and they’re trying to mend it. What d’ye say, all of you? Are you game to try and seize her? She’ll never take us on board. Suppose we take her and sail her to England and let an English jury judge between us.”
‘At this there ran through the boat a sort of stifled hum there was no mistaking the meaning of.
‘Well,’ continued Hammond, laughing a little, ‘it was a mad scheme, of course. But after you’ve been four days and nights in an open boat burnt and salted, half-starved, and, into the bargain, horribly riled, you’re apt to take risks that otherwise you wouldn’t give a second thought to. There were no plans. We were to stick together as much as possible, the men arming themselves with belaying pins, and I putting my revolver much in evidence. But what we chiefly trusted to was the hope of being able to catch most of the hands below and keep them there, for by this time I knew enough to be sure that she’d lost her propeller, and that her people, having a spare one on board, were busy shifting cargo from aft for’ard, so as to raise the stern sufficiently to get it fitted. Indeed, already, she was down by the head like a pig, and as we swung noiselessly under her bows the martingale gear was within easy reach.
‘“Let me go first, sir,” whispered one of the blessed youngsters—that’s the chap walking the poop now, his brother ’s second of the Compton Castle—“and I’ll sneak around and see how matters are, and come back and tell you.” And almost without waiting for an answer the little imp had swung himself up and disappeared in the darkness. Presently we felt a rope’s end drop into the boat, and we knew he must have, at any rate, found the fo’c’s’le-head clear. But it seemed weeks before he slipped into the midst of us as suddenly as he’d gone. “Splendid, sir,” he gasped, “ I wasn’t on the bridge; but there’s not a soul on deck—all busy below.’ They’re French, I know, because I learned it at school, and they’re talking and gabbling like anything. There’s two alleyways, one on each side of the engine-room. The fore and main hatches are off, and they’re dragging cargo for’ard. I peeped into the fo’c’s’le, but it’s empty. So was the other side, where the firemen live.”
‘“Good boy!” I said; “if this lark doesn’t turn out a linnet, you’ve done yourself a fine turn.”
‘Ten minutes afterwards the whole lot of us stood on the fo’c’s’le. And to show the lads that business was meant, I asked the last one as he came up for his knife, and cutting the rope’s end we had used for a painter I threw it overboard and told them what I had done.
‘Four to each hatchway and the rest to the engine-room, were the only orders. Quite sufficient; for by this time the men knew exactly what they had to do. Knew, too, that there was no backing out.
‘Dropping some at each hatch, I took my gang noiselessly into the alleyway. There I gave a long shrill note on my whistle—the signal agreed upon. Then, in a trice, we had the engine-room skylights down and bolted, and the doors secured with handspikes we had taken from a rack full close by on the quarterdeck. But below they never heeded, hammering and talking away with a great noise of tongues and iron. “Fore and main hatches on, sir,” reported one of the kids, dancing along the alleyway. “Bars fast, and a man at each! The Frenchies are singing out blue murder down below, sir. Oh, Mr. Hammond, look out!” Turning as the youngster shrieked sharp and clear I saw a stout, middle-aged man in gold-braided coat and cap covering me with a pistol. He was well within the light from the engine-room, and I noticed how pale his fat round cheeks were, and how the grey imperial on his chin kept wagging time to his shaking hand. In a second I whipped out my revolver and pointing it at him roared fiercely, “Puttez up votre mangs or vous etes dead man!” And at that, without more ado, he threw his arms out straight and held them there till the youngster, now choking with laughter, took his pistol from him and found it empty. He proved to be the captain. And his bewilderment and wonder as my wild-looking crowd gathered around us was almost pitiful. He thought we were bonâ fide pirates, till young Cargill, in a lingo that sounded not much better than my own, undeceived him. Actually he was the only person on deck. Even the wheel was deserted—the helmsman, as we learned later, being in the hold giving a hand with the cargo. Curious people the French! All along the alleyways were small cabins, and from one of these for some time I had noticed a persistent knocking and thumping. Finding it locked, one of the fellows mounted a box and looked over the grating and hailed the occupant, “By the Lord, sir!” he exclaimed presently, “if it ain’t Jimmy Barlow” (the missing ordinary seaman)! Well, we’d no sooner got him out and heard his story of how he had made a jump into the Frenchman’s rigging from the fo’c’s’le head of the Princess, where he had been on the look out, than another surprise was sprung on us. “Some boats not very far off hailing of us, sir,” a man reported, “an’ blessed if I don’t believe as it’s the skipper an’ mate’s lot!” he added jubilantly.
‘The dawn was just breaking as I ran for’ard and stared away to port towards the dim shapes just discernible on the nearly calm sea. “Ship ahoy! a-h-o-o-y!” they shouted as their oars took the water frantically, yet seeming to get no closer. All at once, happening to glance aloft, I saw that our light sails were ramp full to the small airs up there, and that the steamer, despite her bulk and trim, was moving faster than the boats. But “let go t’gallant and royal halliards and a pull on the port fore braces” soon remedied that, and, presently, with heartfelt delight, I was welcoming my astonished shipmates on board the captured French cargo boat Jeanne d’Arc, of Marseilles, homeward bound from Colombo and Bahia, to the sound of a hearty British cheer.
‘Like ourselves, they had had a bad time in the boats, and were only too glad to get out of them. Still we were in a predicament. Below the Frenchmen were thundering with might and main at hatches and skylights. We didn’t want to smother them, unfeeling brutes though they’d proved themselves. Then, again, if we let them up, they’d be almost certain to try and get their ship back.
‘“Hanged if I know what to do,” exclaimed my old skipper, half laughing, and cocking his eye at the bridge where the French captain stood staring at us very sulkily. “But, by God, Hammond, now we’ve got her we must stick to her somehow! I’d almost give a hand to have her safe in Falmouth Harbour! We can’t tie ’em all up, can we? But we mustn’t kill any of ’em, or that would spoil the whole game. Well, well, we’ll hit on a plan presently. Cook, forage about meanwhile, and find us something to eat. Masthead those yards again, boys, and get the boats inboard, and as I can talk the lingo a bit I’ll go up yonder and have a yarn with the President of this noisy Republic, and give him my opinion of him and his ship.”
‘I don’t know what passed between the pair, but after a while they came down together, the Frenchman very silent and subdued, and our skipper looking pleased and determined. “Search the ship for arms, Hammond,” said the latter as he passed me, “and then off hatches and let the beggars up. There’s a couple of rifles and some revolvers in this fellow’s cabin. There may be more in the officers’ berths.”
‘We found enough to arm half a dozen of our chaps. And then we stood by whilst the Frenchmen swarmed up through the fore hatchway, an exhausted, perspiring, dirty, astonished crowd that we drove into the fo’c’s’le and locked there with a sentry at the door. The engineers and deck officers were shut up in a sort of big mess-room aft. Idlers—cooks, stewards, &c.—we kept to their duties. Then, turning-to, we worked like niggers at trimming cargo to get her on an even keel again. They’d got their spare propeller out, but we had no use for that kind of thing. She was square and lofty, and, although we knew nothing about steam, we did about canvas. And, presently, catching a strong southerly, we made the “Jennie,” as all hands called her, snort after a fashion that caused Johnny France to turn up the whites of his eyes. Mind you, though, it was an anxious time all round. In the first place we didn’t quite know how the law would look at the business; and then we had to watch our prisoners pretty closely. Only one of them, the chief mate, could speak a little English. He wasn’t a bad sort either, and, after a bit, we gave him and some of the other officers their liberty through the day, and they’d strut about and scowl at us, and sacré, and shrug their shoulders and talk fifteen to the dozen.
‘Barlow was our sheet anchor though. He could swear that when he boarded the “Jennie “ she hadn’t a solitary light showing; could swear, also, to the way in which, directly she got clear, she steamed off at full speed. Then, when the Frenchmen, having to stop shortly afterwards for twenty-four hours because of heated bearings—which delay accounted for our meeting her so strangely when she should have been miles away—sighted our boat they hustled him below into a spare berth, but not before he had recognised us, and seen them placing the canvas blinds over her name. You may imagine what care we took of Jimmy till the day—three weeks in all—we dropped anchor in Mount’s Bay and ran up the police flag.
‘Then the fun began in earnest. I’ve heard since that we were nearly being the cause of war between Great Britain and France. But I hardly believe that. Luckily for us, perhaps, ours was a very rich firm, with a couple of members of Parliament at the head of it, and they backed us for all they were worth in the battle between French and English Lloyds, their respective Governments, and the insurance offices. And at last we won. And it took the “Jennie’s” cargo—3,000 tons of tea, cinchona, cocoa-nut oil, cinnamon, and plumbago—to pay the piper. A year afterwards I got my ship and a present of 500l. from the firm.
‘That’s the yarn.’
‘Mr. Cargill, I think you may as well take the fore and mizen royals off her. It’s looking a bit black to wind’ard.’
“Wonder what’s become of Mowbray,” remarked Paxton, looking up at the big clock for the twentieth time. “He said he’d be here at six, didn’t he? And under the fishes? Is that right?”
“Quite correct,” I replied. “Well, it’s only five past now. He’ll be here presently. I only hope he’s got some show in sight to raise the wind on when he does come.”
Paxton was a mining engineer just returned from Westralia, whither he had journeyed in the sure and certain hope of a rapid and lucrative engagement on some of the mining centres. But finding on arrival that his professional brethren were plentiful enough to timber all the shafts on Coolgardie and Hannan’s with, he had returned in disgust, and nearly stone-broke into the bargain. A New Zealand native of Scotch parentage, he was a pushing, energetic, red-headed, black-eyed little man; had travelled far and wide, and been a partner ere now with Mowbray and myself in many speculations, profitable and otherwise—generally the latter. He and I had met, after a long separation, the day before, in King Street, Sydney, whither I had returned after a vain trip to Johannesburg to discover if any architects were wanted there. But I was too late. The supply had arrived from the other end; and all the benefit I reaped from my venture was the satisfaction of working my way back to the Colonies in a sailing vessel.
Not twenty minutes after foregathering with Paxton, and mutually condoling, the pair of us had met Mowbray, who, not being a professional man, but a mere adventurer, had been of late years better off than any of us. He had, it appeared, recently arrived with a mob of fat cattle from the Georgina River—way up in North-Western Queensland. Also, he was wearing one of Holle’s ten-guinea walking suits, and smoking “Henry Clay” cigars out of a big alligator-skin case. Therefore, we two lime-burners felt moderately hopeful when he “shouted” right royally, and asked us to meet him under the great glass tank, surrounded by soft seats and full of gold and silver fishes, in the vestibule of the Australia Hotel.
I say “moderately,” because it struck us as curious that our old mate, when apprised of the state of our respective purses, had not at once offered to replenish them. You see, between us three existed a brutal but well-understood outspokenness in money matters, the result of much tooth-and-nail scratching together through a good many years. Sometimes Paxton, when he had his Sydney office, used to drop in for a paying contract during the mining booms; similarly, I did the same in Melbourne when the land ones were on. And until the ’93 smashes played Old Harry with the pair of us, we did fairly well. In those days Mowbray was usually roaming about in his cutter, the Ruby, sometimes pearling; at others droving; at others away at some new rush. But always, if one was out of funds and the two others in, or vice versâ, the luckless pair or unit well knew where to apply for help. Very rarely were all three cornered at once. It was different now.
“Dinner tickets,” muttered Paxton, judicially as, presently, Mowbray entered, and, recognising us with a nod and a smile, walked to the office.
“That looks well. All the same, he ought to have anted up yesterday, and I won’t forget to tell him of it, by-and-by, either.”
It was pleasant to find ourselves once more in the fine dining-room, and our spirits rose as the Heidsieck lowered in its second magnum, and the good dinner progressed amidst talk that travelled between Coolgardie, Kimberley, and North-Western Queensland.
“Now, I know you chaps are wondering what’s the matter,” said Mowbray, as, downstairs, we settled ourselves to cigars and coffee.
We others frankly admitted that such was the case.
“Of course,” replied Mowbray—a tall, clean-shaven, handsome man of about forty. “But, you see, just now we’re all in the same box. I don’t think I’ve got ten shillings in the world. Still, I reckoned we might as well have a decent feed, so I left my watch over the way, at uncle’s. That cut out the dinner money. Yesterday, however,” he continued, “I had a tenner. Just before I met you I invested it, and I hope the spec. will turn up trumps. I have bought a wreck.”
“Bought a what?” we laughed, simultaneously, for the generous fare and wine had taken due effect, and neither Paxton nor myself felt inclined to show disappointment. And, in any case, we were better off by a capital dinner.
“A wreck,” repeated Mowbray, calmly, as he pushed the bell at the back of his chair for more cigars. “She’s a German brig. Went ashore a few days ago, close to Sugar Loaf Point, not more than about 100 miles or so up the coast. I happened to drop into the rooms when she was offered, and she was knocked down to me for my last tenner.”
“A pig in a poke, if ever there was one,” remarked Paxton. “Why, she might be going to pieces at the present moment.”
“And she might not,” replied Mowbray, passing the cigars. “Anyhow, if you like, we’ll get aboard the Ruby, straight away, and see what sort of a prize packet the Putzig ’ll turn up.”
“Oh, you’ve got the cutter yet, then?” I asked.
“Sooner part with a leg,” said Mowbray. “She’s lying down at Watson Bay, ready at a minute’s notice. Sent some stores aboard this morning, and only got back from her at six. That’s what kept me. Better go to your diggings, pack a bundle, and come along. Meet me at the Circular Quay Ferry in an hour. That do?”
Yes, it would do, that or anything else promising money to empty pockets.
Thus, in a very short time, Paxton and I had returned to the third-rate hotel, where we had, after our meeting, promptly shared a room; doffed each his one passable suit, put on others, and in a couple of hours were on board the Ruby and getting under way. As we were shorthanded for a craft of fifty tons, and heavily rigged at that, Mowbray took with him the fisherman who, during his absence, had given an eye to the cutter. It was a lovely night as we stood out through the Heads and up the coast under the light of a full moon, carrying just enough of a fair wind to keep everything drawing. Mowbray was at the tiller, and the great boom, eased off to twenty feet of sheet, seemed almost to skim the little waves as with a musical ripple at her bows the old Ruby lay comfortably over to it—pleased, as it were, to feel once more deep water laving her breasts after the long spell of idleness.
In the galley the man had lit the fire to make some coffee, and the smoke from the funnel streamed cheerfully away to leeward; every half minute, behind us, the great South Head Light plunged a shaft of dazzling electricity athwart the night; abeam towered the tall brown cliffs, scarred and honeycombed, at whose base, even in the calmest weather, old ocean roars in hollow murmurings; to seaward shone the red side and white masthead lights of some coasting steamer coming in end on; whilst ahead, and closer, three lofty pryamids of silver showed a sailer with her yards braced sharp up making to the southward. A change, indeed, this scene from the life and bustle of the big hotel, the hot and stuffy streets of the city!
The Putzig, Mowbray told us, was on her way from the Moluccas, Philippines, and South Seas, with copra and an omnium gatherum of other island produce, when her captain had run in and made the land so fatally. The master had blamed the mate; but as both were on deck at the time, fine weather prevailing, and the Sugar Loaf Light in plain sight, the Marine Board had no option left but to permanently cancel both their certificates. The brig, it seemed, was owned in Melbourne, by a German firm there; was 200 tons burden, wooden built, and lay just as she had been left when she took the reef.
Mowbray, who spoke two or three languages, had, after his purchase, interviewed both captain and mate. The former was a Hamburger; but the other, of all people, a Frenchman who had shipped on the brig at Macassar, where his predecessor had died of fever.
“They were still raving at each other,” said Mowbray, “when I found them. But they both knocked off passing compliments, ranging from matters of seamanship to those of the ’70-’71 war, to jeer at me for buying her. Marine surveyors and underwriter’s agent alike, they swore, had given her up at sight. Long ere this she must have bumped herself to pieces. Well,” continued Mowbray, “I might have believed them, and let the thing rip, only for a glance—just one glance—I intercepted between the pair. What it meant I haven’t the remotest notion. But it was a look of mutual understanding. And it struck me as curious under the circumstances, added to the overmuch protestation concerning the utter futility of my spec. Another thing: later, happening to be at Redfern, I saw my friends board the Newcastle train, still wrangling fiercely. Of course, there may be nothing in their travelling up the coast. Still, it’s the way to the wreck of their ship, about which same wreck I can’t get it out of my head there’s something fishy.”
“Shouldn’t wonder!” murmured Paxton, abstractedly. “If she’s where her people seem to think she is.” Upon which, Mowbray, exercising his prerogative as captain, immediately called him to the tiller.
Towards midnight the wind freshened very considerably, and putting a reef in main and foresail, and stowing our gaff topsail, we raced along like a little steamer, passing Newcastle Nobbys at breakfast-time next morning. Then the wind drew more ahead, raising a choppy sea, and it was well on in the afternoon before we covered the next sixty miles, and, rounding the Cape, saw in a small cove the German brig, her nose jammed between two rocks, bowsprit snapped short off, her foretopmast lying in a heap of wreckage over the forecastle, the main one hanging and swinging up and down the lower mast, whilst from half-way up the gaff halliards the black, red, and white flag of Germany streamed forlornly. Evidently the Putzig was bumping to the swell; and although her stern had slewed end on, and rose apparently pretty dry, from amidships right for’ard the short seas broke clean over the vessel.
“Umph!” said Mowbray, doubtfully, “if this breeze freshens much more my tenner’ll go all to pieces before morning. Still, there’s no sea to speak of. I think we’d better run close in, drop our anchor, and then out dinghy and see what’s aboard that will return the quickest value for a very risky investment.”
Leaving the Ruby sheltered under the lee of the headland, with Jim the fisherman to look out for her, we three got into the dinghy and pulled for the brig. To our surprise, as we came round her heavy, square stern we saw that a boat lay alongside.
“Confounded beach-combers looting, I expect!” exclaimed Mowbray, angrily. “I’ll soon stop their capers. But, by jingo, look at her bows! Why, she must be half full of water for’ard!”
And, indeed, we could see on her port bow a big hole where it met the jagged rock, whose forks seemed alone to support the hull. And down this, at every jerking heave she gave, tons of water poured. Wonderfully strong she must have been to stand such a knocking about as she was getting! To look at her, almost on even keel, with her squat, broad body rolling and heaving painfully to the short swell that came washing up from seaward, reminded me irresistibly of a big, fat rat caught by the nose in a trap and making desperate but fruitless efforts to free itself. Watching our chance, Mowbray and myself jumped into her old-fashioned chains and gained the deck, leaving Paxton to tend the boat, a very necessary precaution judging from the fashion the one already there had been served by the sheering hull.
“Some farmers, I suppose,” remarked Mowbray, pointing to the crushed gunwale of the boat. “Who else would be so careless?”
But on board was no sign of life. Her short poop was all taken up by a sort of rounded structure, evidently made to give height to her cabin below. Around it ran a railing; its sides were pierced by bull’s-eyes; aft, in a sort of well, stood wheel and binnacle, and fronting these was an open pair of double doors with steps leading down.
“That’s a handsome binnacle-stand,” remarked Mowbray. “Worth a fiver, I should say. However, we’ve no time to bother about unshipping it. Hang me if I don’t think the sea’s getting up more! Once the rocks let go their hold, and she’ll sink like a stone. Let’s make below. There might be something there that’ll pay us for shifting.”
The little cabin was well lit, the steps broad enough to allow of our descending two abreast. Thus the sight awaiting us met our eyes at the same time, and caused us both to start back together, and together swear in affright at the horror of it.
At our feet almost, and lying on their backs in a great pool of blood, lay the bodies of two men, half naked. One still grasped a long sheath knife; near the other lay a weapon. The light from the companion fell full on their upturned faces, horribly contorted with pain and passion, whilst the staring, filmy eyes and fallen jaws lent additional repulsiveness to features naturally the reverse of comely.
“That’s the skipper,” said Mowbray, pointing to a very stout man, with long, fair beard and moustaches, and whose clothes, nearly torn away from the upper portion of his body, disclosed many gaping, savage stabs against the white flesh. “And that’s the mate (the Frenchman I told you of),” he continued, indicating the other body—that of a tall, thin, very dark man, clean-shaven.
And there was blood everywhere. Blood and cigars—thousands of them—together with scores of small, square, flat tins.
And as the evening sun streamed over our heads into the place we could see more plainly where these came from. In the side of one of the berths, two of which gave on to the main apartment, a sliding-panel had been opened—a cunningly enough constructed hiding-place of about the length of an old-fashioned eight-day clock case. This had been tightly packed with cigars over a bottom tier of tins. Strips of bamboo, thickly cased in silk and reaching from top to bottom of the locker, had been used to keep the pile in position. These in the struggle had been pulled out, and now lay strewn about the cabin, making streaks of brilliant colour in the sunshine that lit up the death hole.
“Hundreds and hundreds of pounds’ worth of cigars and opium,” remarked Mowbray, at last. “That’s what brought the pair back again. Then they quarrelled and fought a la mort. But what an awful mess!” Picking his way very carefully, he stepped inside.
The table was littered with cigars, most of them wrapped in bright tin-foil, and all fine and large.
“Partegas—not Manilas,” remarked Mowbray, as, taking one up and stripping it of no less than three coverings, he put it to his nose, “and of the very finest brand, too! These fellows were connoisseurs indeed. And the opium—there must be forty or fifty pounds’ weight of it! A haul, if you like, my boy.”
I had gingerly followed Mowbray, and was now standing alongside the table. The Putzig, in one of her lurches, had caused a small, tin cylinder to roll against my hand from amongst the litter. Almost unconsciously I held the thing and stopped it from returning across the table. Mowbray was busy at the secret locker amongst the cigars and opium tins still remaining there.
“Well,” said he, presently, “I suppose we might as well be getting some, at least, of this stuff away. If you will find a bucket on deck and bend on a rope’s end, I’ll fill and you can lower it to Paxton.”
But even as he spoke a wild cry reached us from the latter; the brig ceased her short, lurching roll, whilst her stern went up until almost perpendicular, presenting so high an incline that even the dead men on the floor rolled over and over and under the table. Again came that shrill yell, and Mowbray, exclaiming, “My God, Dean (my name), she’s going down!” clawed his way to the companion-steps, now almost overhead, and up which, having already gained the deck, I gave him a hand. Nor were we a second too soon. One glance showed us that the brig had at last worked and ground her way out of the rocky prongs that held her, and was now sinking head first. Indeed, the water was up to the break of the poop, and the nearly upright stern sticking a good 30ft. above the sea.
“Jump!” yelled Paxton, who had cast off his painter and stood ready to scull away. “Jump! She’s only got another minute!”
And jump we did, far out and towards the boat, reaching her and being pulled inboard just in time to see the brig disappear; whilst, strangest sight of all, at the last moment, three crows—that had perched on the gaff—flew landward with harsh croaks of disappointment.
“There goes my tenner!” exclaimed Mowbray, as he wiped the salt out of his eyes, and the boat whirled violently round and round in the eddies caused by the sinking vessel. “And a jolly close shave it was, into the bargain. Ugh! those dead men have taken all the stiffening out of me! Let’s get aboard the Ruby and have a nip of something. Lord, those were fine smokes, though! Well, it’s no use crying over spilled milk. But if she’d only hung another couple of hours we should have made money out of her right enough.”
For my part I was only too glad to get away. As we were changing our clothes on board the Ruby I all at once felt some hard, round substance in the pocket of my coat. Pulling it out, I saw the tin cylinder I had taken off the brig’s table, and must have pocketed when Paxton gave the alarm. It was about eight inches in length by four across—a short, stout tube with close-fitting lid, somewhat similar to those that schoolboys use to keep their pencils in.
“Halloa, what have you got there, Dean?” asked Mowbray, who had finished changing and was sipping coffee-royal. “A little spoil from the wreck? I didn’t even bring a cigar myself.”
“I should never have had stomach enough to smoke one if we’d secured the lot,” I replied, with a shiver, as I tossed the tin case—it was quite light—across to him.
“Tut,” said he, twisting away at the lid of the thing, “you’re too squeamish. So’s Paxton, who swears he feels unwell yet from a mere description. What have we here—’mh—’mh—certificates of discharge, etc., etc.? Part of the skipper’s belongings, I suppose. Poor fellow, he’s got his final discharge now all right! Halloa, what’s this mean?” he continued, reading aloud slowly, and evidently translating as he went, from a thin sheet of letter-paper:—
“My Dear Brother Carl,—I have of late been sick to death with the fever of this coast. I am all but gone now, nor do I think I can live another week. Therefore, as we are the only ones of the family, I leave you my three years’ treasure. Come as soon as you can and take it away. And if I lie unburied when you come—as will probably be the case, for I have seen no whites for many months save those on the Bussard when she put in—bury me deep. You will find the stuff—which is pure, of good weight, and all gathered by my own hands—in a cave behind a great tree that grows over my house on the eastern side of Kaiser Wilhelm Bay. But I inclose a sketch. There is a fortune for you. I had hoped to have enjoyed it with you. It is not so to be. Farewell. I send this viâ Samarai, and by the hands of my friend, the chief Boiwadaba, who journeys thither. Once more, farewell.
“Your loving brother,
“Now,” said Mowbray, of whose reading, which was broken by much hunting to and fro in search of missing verbs, I give a free translation, “what may this mean? What’s this New Guinea recluse dropped on to—a gold mine? And is he dead yet, like his brother Carl? Or alive and only mad? He speaks of treasure-schaltz. But, then, the word means many sorts of valuables. Letter dated two months back. No, certainly, the Putzig, coming as she did from the East Indian Islands via Torres Straits, hasn’t been round to German New Guinea. No time. This letter has been forwarded back from Melbourne to Sydney, and obtained there by the unfortunate Carl.”
The sketch was a crude affair enough, but minute to a degree, showing a thatched hut, built on piles, and overshadowed by a great, broad-leafed tree, immediately behind which rose a high, steep ridge. A dotted line was drawn from the centre pile past the tree-trunk, to a cross in the cliff with, written alongside it, words that Mowbray said meant, “Measure one hundred and fifty full feet to mouth of cave.” In front lay a broad beach and an apparently open roadstead.
“Upon my word,” remarked Paxton, who had entered the little cabin in time to hear the letter read, “all this smacks wonderfully of hidden treasure and boys’ story-books. However, there may be something in it, and I vote we take the chance. We can’t be much worse off than we are.”
“True,” acquiesced Mowbray, laughing. “I suppose a pound in cash would pull us all up. And we should want at least a couple of months’ provisions in place of the few tins of potted stuff we have on board. No, although I look upon myself as residuary legatee, I don’t see my way to proving the will.”
All that night we lay at anchor. And once, awaking, I saw that Mowbray had risen, lit the lamp, and was lying in his bunk conning over the letter again. Evidently he was loth to let the matter rest; and I was not surprised when at breakfast time he all at once broke out with:—
“There’s something there worth having, I shouldn’t wonder. What it is I can’t tell from the letter. It may be gold; but I doubt it. ‘Pure and of good weight.’ Hang it! It might be coal, or iron, or anything, by the way he talks about it. And yet he says it’s a fortune! Still, you know, a German’s idea of a fortune and ours differ considerably. ‘Three years’ treasure’s been haunting my rest the whole night. What the deuce can it be?”
“Let’s go and see,” said Paxton. “Run back to Newcastle. I know a decent sort of fellow there who’ll perhaps let us have some tucker if we bring him into the spec. How much money do we want, Mowbray?”
“Twenty pounds at the very least,” replied the other, “and then there’s Jim—he must have something on account, if he’ll come.”
“My ticker’s no good,” remarked Paxton, getting to the point, as usual, concisely and laconically. “American rolled-gold—or I shouldn’t have it now. Chain’s at old Isaacstein’s. Two ten.”
My jewellery had gone long ago, so I did not feel called upon to make any remark.
“No,” said Mowbray, at length, “we won’t take anybody into our confidence. But I’ll tell you what: you say your friend’s a ship-chandler, Paxton. Well, there’s a spare suit of sails, nearly new, the kedge anchor, and one or two other trifles he might lend us the money on. The sails alone cost thirty-five. We’ll do it somehow. Man the windlass, lads, and let’s make for Nobbys!”
We said nothing. But we knew the pang he must have felt at parting with any portion of the Ruby’s furniture. Time after time when his fortunes were at low ebb he had been offered a fancy price for the fine little cutter, and always steadfastly refused to sell.
That night we lay inside Newcastle Harbour; and Paxton’s acquaintance proving a liberal dealer, we presently hauled up to the wharf and victualled the Ruby from his stores for an extended cruise. Also, Jim the fisherman sent five pounds to his wife, with a letter saying that he was not sure when he would return; and then declared himself ready to go anywhere.
Mowbray already possessed Admiralty charts of Melanesia and the New Guinea coast, upon which latter Kaiser Wilhelm Bay was clearly marked as a slight indentation on the north-eastern side of the great island, giving poor shelter, but with good holding ground close in-shore. We could have done, perhaps, with another hand. Still, Paxton was a capital yachtsman, and took to the cutter like a bird; as for me, well, by virtue of that three months’ training from the Cape to Melbourne, I looked upon myself as a regular hardened old salt; Jim, of course, was with the rig that suited him; thus, altogether, we made up a pretty efficient crew, and one certainly free from any anxiety as to its personal belongings. The third day out we met a big white warship steaming leisurely down the coast.
“H.I.M.S. Bussard,” remarked Mowbray. “Now, we might get reliable information as to our friend Eberhardt Bech. But I think we’ll leave well alone. They’re apt to be inquisitive, and deuced peremptory too, at times, with people who go a-visiting in their territory. They know Bech; probably also know his brother Carl and the Putzig; and might feel disinclined to believe our story of what happened. No, this little spec, must be strictly private. If it turns up trumps, it must still be private; if wild-goose, still more so.”
Jim knew nothing of our errand. Nor did he care. A good-natured, stolid soul, aware that he had received a month’s advance; that the Ruby was a fine sea-boat; with plenty to eat and drink and little to do, he was perfectly satisfied.
As day by day we got closer to our destination we left off making the wild guesses hitherto indulged in as to the nature of the “three years’ treasure,” and spoke scarcely at all about the affair. Nor, curiously enough, did it seem to strike any of us that the man whose hypothetical hoard we were after might still be alive and well, and what fools we should feel and look if that actually turned out to be the case.
But as, at last, after an uneventful lightwind passage, the Ruby rounded South Cape and stood along the nearly straight coast line backed by the lofty mountains of the Owen Stanley ranges, then I think that, judging by the faces of my friends and my own feelings, we were all more than dubious as to any tangible result of our expedition. Nor were our hearts lightened when, presently, some fifty miles from Kaiser Wilhelm Bay, meeting a small lugger manned by a white skipper and five Kanakas, we thought it safe to ask a question.
“Bech? Bech?” replied the captain, a tall, brown, grey-haired Englishman, who had been trepang hunting around New Mecklenburg. “No, I don’t know the name. Lives at Wilhelm Bay? Why, that must be ‘Cranky Jack the German,’ as he’s called. I never saw him. But I’ve heard some prospectors as was warned off the territ’ry last summer yarnin’ ’bout him. Seems he’s always roamin’ around the bush, tappin’ trees and plantin’ out young ’uns, an’ what-not. Oh, mad, mad as a bloomin’ hatter! An’, let me tell you, lads, if you don’t want to lose that nice boat o’ yours, you’d best give this part o’ the country a wide berth. Kaisers is dead protectionists—no free trade about them jokers. They hunted me off the islands yonder in quick style. No man as don’t say yah for yes is wanted in their territ’ry. You bet! Could you let us have a couple o’ days’ tucker to take me round to Samarai? I’m clean run out.”
We could and did provision him; and in return he tried to force some sea-slugs upon us. But he had only a very few, and we refused to take them, feeling in no humour just then to cater for Chinese.
“Well,” remarked Mowbray, as we slackened off the main-sheet again and put our helm up, whilst the captain waved his hat and stood away on his course, “I suppose we may as well see the thing out now we’ve come so far. As legatee I must execute the provisions of the will—treasure or no treasure—and bury the fellow, if he’s dead. But by heavens, if he should be alive, and sane enough to appreciate a joke, this one ought to amuse him sufficiently!”
On the fourth day after this meeting we turned into Kaiser Wilhelm Bay, with the lead constantly going until we brought up in ten fathoms opposite a dirty, muddy beach, lined with mangroves and dotted with clumps of driftwood. Towering skyward, but far inland, was a lofty range of tree-clad mountains, and between them and the sea seemed one great unbroken expanse of forest country. Leaving Jim on board, the three of us got into the dinghy and pulled off, armed with the only weapon on the Ruby, a small bulldog revolver, the property of Mowbray.
For awhile, as we lay aground on a bank of stinking mud, which was the nearest approach we could make to the shore, we saw nothing of any building where, according to the plan, one should have been. But at length Paxton detected the shape of a house perched on a little bluff and nearly hidden in greenery.
Jumping out over our knees in black ooze, we hauled the dinghy up and floundered ashore—some two hundred yards of hard struggling, to say nothing of the mosquitoes that came at us in savage clouds.
“A picnic!” gasped Mowbray, as at last we reached the shingle and put our boots on. “And a fit ending to the expedition!”
“Wait a bit,” replied Paxton, slapping himself furiously. “At all events, we’ll call on the madman and congratulate him on his choice of a country residence. And, I say, isn’t that the German flag over yonder?”
“Remains of it,” said Mowbray, staring to where, on our right, over some low tree-tops, waved a few red, white, and black tatters.
After a rest we made off along the beach—three dilapidated-looking customers enough, mud-incrusted, clad in clothes the poorest beggar in Sydney would have turned his nose up at; and each surrounded by his own particular swarm of big, grey blood-suckers.
Presently, climbing the little bank and forcing our way through a lot of thick bushes and young undergrowth, we stood in front of a house—a two-roomed ruin, built on six-foot piles, and shadowed by a noble great tree with broad and glossy leaves—exactly as in the sketch. Mounting the ladder, we found ourselves on a veranda full of holes and gaps. The thatch of sago-palm leaves, too, had fallen in several places, and in others was only kept from doing so by bamboos with a flat board nailed to their tops. A stretcher of sacking, some cooking utensils, a quantity of gourds, calabashes, and clay pots, evidently of native manufacture; a few German newspapers a year old, a rusty double-barrelled gun, and dirt, dirt, everywhere, completed the inventory.
Originally the house had been well enough, but neglect as much as the climate had wrecked it.
“Nobody at home,” remarked Paxton, hurriedly turning up his trousers, “except fleas. Imported, I presume. And a credit to the Fatherland! Any more luxuries, I wonder?”
“The Germans,” replied Mowbray, as we shook and scratched ourselves outside again, “who named such a God-forsaken, pest-infested hole after their Emperor must have had a queer sense of appropriateness.”
“Come along,” I said, having turned my clothes and put them on again inside out as the speediest way of routing the jumping hordes, “I’m getting tired. Let us have a look for the cave. Perhaps the tenant has shifted his quarters to that.”
“Not a bit of it,” growled Mowbray, “he’s eaten—eaten skin and bone by his infernal compatriots—a fate that will be ours unless we hurry!”
Taking a line from the centre pile, we fought our way through the underbrush past a cooking shed with a great heap of ashes underneath it, and dozens of shallow clay pans, some round, some oval, and about the size of a common milk-dish. Then, all at once, Mowbray, leading, shouted: “The cave! the cave!” and in a minute or two we stood before a black hole in a limestone ridge quite plain to see. All around grew the dense jungle, steaming in the midday heat. Ants, big, red, and black, moved up in battalions to inspect us; mosquitoes and flies buzzed and hummed and bit; a red and green parrot sat on a bough and screamed at us. There was no attempt at concealing the mouth of the cave. Indeed, we presently hit upon a regular path running from it to the hut, but now green with rank weeds and grass.
“The poorest hidden treasure-puzzle I’ve ever heard of,” commented Mowbray, striking a match and entering, followed by Paxton and myself. “Wouldn’t pass muster on a small boy. Talk about an anti-climax”
But here he started back with an oath, exclaiming that he had trodden on a dead body. In a minute we were all three outside again.
“Tut, tut,” said Mowbray, irritably and unjustly. “What are you running away for? It’s only a dead man. But I wish we had a candle or something. Didn’t we see a lamp in the hut? Will somebody fetch it?”
In a few minutes I returned with an earthenware bowl full of cocoanut oil in which swam a wick. Lighting this, we entered once more.
Sure enough, not far inside the cave lay a man, his head pillowed on a folded rug. A great white beard almost covered his face, reaching from the cheek-bones over mouth and chin and falling in a tangled mat on his chest. His head was quite bald. He lay straight, his hands crossed on his breast, his lips parted in a quiet smile. A natural death, evidently. And everywhere around him, and far away back of him, were piled stacks and heaps of whitish-grey looking objects, each somewhat the shape of a Dutch cheese, but differing widely in size. The cavern was broad and lofty, and its further end, so far as could be discerned in the dim light, was filled with the things whose mass reached nearly to the roof.
“Eberhardt Bech, I presume,” muttered Mowbray, holding the light to the quiet face, “alias Cranky Jack the German. But what in the name of all that’s curious are those things? The maniac’s hidden treasure?”
“A treasure, indeed!” suddenly exclaimed Paxton, who had picked up one of the lumps and was closely scrutinizing it. “Do you know what this is? It’s india-rubber, and, as far as I can judge, of the very finest quality—equal to anything I ever saw in Brazil, and twenty times the size they make the raw stuff into there.”
“Well,” said Mowbray, indifferently, “it’s of no use to us, that I know of. We don’t own a factory for making garden-hose and goloshes. Come along, let’s plant the old chap and clear out o’ this.”
“But, man alive!” almost shouted Paxton, becoming excited for once in his life. “You don’t understand. See! there’s tons and tons of the stuff here! And it’s worth five shillings a pound at the least, and constantly rising in price! Look at this lump I’m holding! It can’t weigh less than twenty pounds, and must be worth five or six sterling. Now look around you at the big heaps of similar ones there are, and of larger size, too! Directly I noticed all those clay pans and calabashes, and the great fig over the hut, and remembered what the fellow in the lugger said about tapping trees, I began to tumble to the secret. The tree was one of the finest specimens of ficus elastica I ever saw. That dead man discovered a forest of them, perhaps, not far away. Discovered, evidently, also a very perfect form of coagulation—far before the ones in common use. Three years’ treasure? I should say so! Perhaps twenty or thirty tons! Think of it! And I know what I’m talking about! Pure? I should smile! Look!” and Paxton bounced the big lump till it flew off the ground like a football.
This was probably the longest speech Paxton had ever made in his life; and certainly it was to some purpose. Vaguely, Mowbray and myself knew that india-rubber was a vegetable product; that it was used in many ways, from erasing pencil-marks to riding upon. But before Paxton explained we did not know that the world’s supply of caoutchouc was running short, and the price consequently running up in such fashion that a stock such as lay around us actually meant a small fortune.
Still, there wasn’t enough glitter about the thing to induce enthusiasm; and though Paxton convinced us, we took our luck soberly enough. Underneath the great tree we buried the old man, deep as he could have wished. And then we set to and loaded the Ruby, working night and day, with much anxious watching lest a German gunboat should suddenly appear and confiscate the whole outfit.
But we got the lot safely on board and away. Nor was Paxton mistaken in any of his assertions except in the matter of price. There were twenty-five tons of caoutchouc, and it brought six shillings a pound; a figure that, after paying all expenses, left us with considerably over £5,000 as each man’s share of the dead gatherer’s hoard.
We are now, thanks to the “rise” thus made, all three of us comparatively wealthy men. And when we meet “under the fishes,” which is pretty often, we never part without drinking to each other, muttering, meanwhile, a shibboleth of which people around can make nothing—“Caoutchouc!
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