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Title: In the Great Deep — Sea Stories
Author: John Arthur Barry
eBook No.: 2200051h.html
Date first posted: 2022
Most recent update: 2022
This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore
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A Blockade Runner
My Mad Messmate
With The First Tea Of The Season
A Cruise In A Cutter
My First Voyage
The Master Of The “Marathon”
How We Lost The “Schoolboy Schooner”
“No, I can’t say that I ever had but one exciting trip,” replied the first mate to my question, as he puffed at his cigar and glanced aloft amongst the shadows, where yawned the dusky hollows of rigid sails, piling up towards the stars.
“It’s twenty-five years now,” he continued, “since I first went to sea, and, with that one exception, all my voyages have been pretty well the same old record of gales and calms, with, at intervals, the loss of a few spars or sails to vary the monotony. No, I haven’t even been wrecked. But the affair I mentioned had fun enough, of a sort, to last one right through. I don’t hanker after any more of the same quality, I can assure you.”
And the chief officer of one of the biggest of the “City” liners laughed as he got off the skylight, and took a look first into the binnacle and then at the sinuous phosphorescent track which the vessel left behind as she tore along to the steady hum of the south-east Trades.
“Yes, if you like, I’ll tell you about it,” said he, returning to my side. “It’ll help to pass the watch away.” And, settling himself comfortably, the chief began—
“I was just out of my time, and had got through my exam, for second mate all right. But I discovered that getting a billet as such was a very different matter. Tired at last of hawking my brand-new certificate about, I decided to take the first thing that offered. You see, funds were so low that I had to do like many more just then—pocket my dignity. Well, I went up to Tower-hill and had a look round.
“The place was full of men, and presently out of the shipping-master’s office came the heaviest sea-swell I ever clapped eyes on.
Black frock-coat, white waistcoat, bell-topper, patent leather boots, slate-coloured kid gloves; and, to crown all, he carried a gold-mounted cane, and sported a flower in his buttonhole. He was a tall, handsome fellow of about six or seven and twenty, and the very look of him seemed to brighten up the dirty old hole.
“Lighting a cigar, he gave a sharp glance over the crowd and spoke to a few of them, whilst the rest stared with all their eyes at this dashing specimen of a skipper.
“Presently, coming to me, he asked me whether I wanted a ship.
“Of course I said I did, and, from mere force of habit, lugged out my unsoiled ticket. But at sight of it he shook his head.
“‘No,’ said he, ‘foremast hands I want. Young and smart, English or Scotch—steam —Guam in ballast. Five pounds a month, and a bonus every trip.’ And he eyed me as much as to say, ‘You might do worse, in spite of that bit of parchment,’
“I thought so, anyhow. The wages were double those going at the time. Certainly, I had never been in a steamer. But he said that was no matter. So I signed, and took a month’s advance—not as I expected, in the shape of a note, but in gold.
“‘It’s no use,’ I heard him say to the shipping-master as I came out. ‘I can’t get the men I want here. Three-parts of those fellows are foreigners, and the other part Irish. Very good sailors, I daresay. But they won’t suit me. I may be able to pick up a few more at Plymouth or Penzance.’
“Hailing a cab, and calling at Green’s Home for my dunnage, I drove to the Southwest India docks, where the Tallahassee was lying. She was a lovely model of a ship for a steamer. But it seemed a pity that in place of the couple of light poles that served as an excuse for a fore-and-aft rig, heavy masts and square yards shouldn’t spring aloft. She would have made a beautiful brig. I never did like steamers, and, to my fancy, it was simply spoiling such a hull to shove a screw in it.
“What struck me as curious was that everything—spars, hull, ironwork, and all—was painted a dull grey. Capstans and gratings, even—things that are invariably left ‘bright’—bore the same sober hue. Nor was there a scrap of brasswork about her decks. Shine the sun never so hotly, he would find nothing upon the Tallahassee to strike a reflection off. The fo’k’sle was fitted up like the skipper— A1. Curtains before each bunk, lockers, cupboards, brackets for clothes, a big brass-mounted swing-lamp to burn oil; and, if you’ll believe me, a life-belt for every man hanging on the bulkhead dividing the port and starboard watches. A staircase with ornamental iron railing led down into this palace—for such it was in those days, and I don’t know that it would be easy to beat now. The fo’k’sle was full of seamen, all wondering and examining things.
“Nobody knew where ‘Guam’ was. But everybody had heard of it as a port of clearance for ships whose destination, for some reason, the owners wished to conceal.
“There were no old hands on board, as sometimes happens, to give new-comers the run of the ropes. Presently, however, a fireman came along and told us he had heard that the skipper owned her; that he bought her as a sailing ship, and converted her into a steamer. But he knew nothing about Guam. All he was certain of was that her engines were the most powerful he had ever seen, and that when they were at their top we should know it. They were big enough, he reckoned, for a ship six times her size, and ought to drive her—if she’d stand it—a good seventeen or eighteen knots.
“Next morning we steamed slowly down the river. The day was dull, with a misty rain, and the ship glided through the water like a ghost—a grey one. What strengthened the notion was that no smoke issued from the great funnel. They were burning anthracite in the furnaces.
“A more suspicious-looking craft, I thought, as I noticed how she sneaked along noiselessly, with the engines scarcely turning, and wound around and about the shipping almost unperceived, never sailed out of the port of London.
“In the Channel we overhauled one of the squadron, going the same way as ourselves, and as fast as she could. That we excited her curiosity was clear by the style in which the naval officers piped us from the bridge, and man-o’-war Jack from the fo’k’sle. I expect they wondered what was the business of the long, grey, smokeless flyer that, with her engines at less than half-speed, passed them as if H.M.S. was lying snugly at anchor.
“ ‘Open their eyes more if they knew what we were after,’ I heard the skipper say to the mate, as they stood beside me on the bridge, and they laughed. They were brothers these two, and as much alike as twins.
“Passing all the more important towns, we presently sneaked into a little place called Fowey, and there shipped four more hands, making our complement up to twenty, all A.B.’s.
“What a steamer of some 800 tons or so wanted with such a crowd rather puzzled us. But there was nothing to be learned aft.
“The three engineers were as big swells as the skipper and his two mates, the second of whom had been chief of a P. & O. boat. The bo’sun was an old man-o’-war’s man, and as tight as wax. There were no boys to tattle and carry yarns, and the cooks and stewards were apparently as wise as ourselves. There was a notion for’ard that we were bound for the South Seas on a kidnapping expedition; and, I fancy, if they had got the chance, some of the crew would have slipped her at Fowey.
“However, early next day, with the Cornish land close aboard, a fine smooth sea, and lots of red-sailed trawlers around us, the bo’sun’s pipe was heard calling all hands to muster.
“The skipper and his mates were on the quarter-deck, and when we were all ranged up, the former said, ‘Now, my lads, I’ve thought it best, before going any farther, to let you know the purpose of this trip. Then, if any man doesn’t like it, I’ll pay his passage ashore in one of those smacks, and give him a couple of pounds to carry him to London. On the other hand, those who stay will get a bonus of three pounds per head per month, bringing the wages up to eight pounds.
‘“Well,’ he continued, ‘we’re going to try and run the blockade into a Southern port with arms and ammunition for the Confederate Government. I don’t say that there won’t be some danger in the undertaking. Doubtless there will be. And that’s the reason why I wish no man to go into it blindfold. I might, of course, have told you before, but at the risk of the secret leaking out, and having the ship stopped. Now the men for the shore will please walk over to port.’
“For a few minutes there was a dead silence. We were all young able fellows, and there wasn’t a married man amongst us. None knew precisely what blockade-running meant, nor what risks were attached to the process, nor did anyone apparently feel inclined to inquire.
“The manly way in which the skipper spoke, and the handsome features and commanding presence of himself and his brother, added to the kind and considerate treatment already experienced on board the Tallahassee, were, however, not without effect, and not a soul stirred,
“And presently somebody, taking off his cap, called for three cheers for Captain Warrington. These were given heartily, and another round for his brother. Whereupon, looking pleased, the skipper thanked us, hoped we might have a lucky run, and called the steward to splice the mainbrace.
“As time went on we learned a little more. Both the captain and his brother were natives of the Southern States—now at deadly feud with the North. Both had been bred to the sea, and held commissions in the Federal navy, and both at the first outbreak of hostilities had given Uncle Sam best. And as, just then, the Confederacy had no ships worth mentioning, they thought they could best serve its interests by purchasing and equipping the Tallahassee.
“And, good Lord, how that grey witch of a thing did fly over the three thousand odd miles of North Atlantic between the Lizard and Cat Cay, in the Bahamas, which, it appeared, was our ‘Guam’!
“They sent her, and no mistake! It was like being on an express train going fifty miles an hour on the narrow gauge. Shivering and creaking in every timber and iron of her composite body, with the big engines thundering away night and day, they drove her through weather that would have forced a battle-ship to lie-to. With everything securely lashed and battened, and life-lines fore and aft her flush deck, she cut through the water, half the time nearly under it, so to speak.
“At Cat Cay we found a regular depot full of cargo and fuel waiting for us.
“Throwing our ballast overboard, we replaced it with cases of rifles, swords, bayonets, and some big guns. On top of these again we stacked hundreds of kegs of powder and boxes of cartridges, until the Tallahassee sat pretty low in the water, and the engineers expressed themselves satisfied that the engines wouldn’t ‘race,’ as they had done at times coming out.
“I never heard for certain where all the stuff came from, but there was a lump of a cargo-steamer arrived with a fresh supply as we left, and they said she was from Bermuda.
“Our destination was a place at the mouth of the Altameha River—I forget its name just now—so we steamed cautiously north about, hold and bunkers alike full, knowing that Federal cruisers were keeping a sharp look-out for just such customers as the Tallahassee.
“Sure enough, the night we made the land we also sighted four men-o’-war cruising off the very harbour we wanted to get into, and almost as if they had known we were coming.
“However, the skipper seemed rather pleased than otherwise. He was one of those people who feel quite vexed if they put a job through all plain and easy and without any bother.
“The blockaders never noticed the grey speck away in the offing, and at sundown we sneaked slowly in at about the rate of a snail’s gallop. It was pitch dark—not a star, even. The leadsman gave the depths in a whisper, and people trod softly, mindful that a wandering shell might send us all to kingdom come. Every light was dowsed, and even the ship’s bells were muffled in old socks. We were beginning to realise in a small way what blockade-running meant. Creeping along through a regular blind man’s holiday, and making as much noise as an eel, with all hands on deck, their eyes skinned and ears laid back, we got a start. I can’t say how it affected the others; it was too dark to see. But I know I jumped a good foot high, and my heart felt as if it was in my mouth,—when suddenly from above us came a bugle call, clear and low, followed by a slight rattle of arms.
“This was followed by the sound of voices, so near, apparently, that we might have touched the speakers.
“‘Astern-easy!’ signalled our skipper to the engine-room.
“But it was too late. In another second our jib-boom caught something on the other vessel and tore it away with a crash.
“‘Ship ahoy! What ship’s that? Where the devil are you coming to?’ hailed a sharp, stern voice, and there was a sudden rush of light from a dozen lanterns on the rail of a big double-funnelled steamer, whose sides towered like black cliffs over those of the Tallahassee’s.
“Without a moment’s hesitation, our skipper sang out, at the same time touching the bell for full speed ahead, ‘Federal warship Mohican!’ “At this there was a laugh on the other vessel, and the same voice replied, ‘If you don’t stop, I’ll blow you out of the water!’
“But by this the Tallahassee was a quarter of a mile away, and there was no answer.
“‘Lie down, fore and aft! flat! men, flat!’ all at once shouted our skipper.
“Before we had time to fully catch his meaning the darkness seemed to be rent by a roaring, blazing volcano, and a regular squall of shot hummed and whistled about our ears.
“Then there was a crash of falling spars, and I expected every minute to find myself in the water, or in bits travelling skyward. But luckily we were too far ahead to receive the full benefit of the broadside.
“As it was, only two or three hit us, taking our mizzen-mast clean off, going through the bulwarks, and wounding one of the Fowey men with a splinter.
“They did not fire again, but as we stopped dead we heard the churning of paddle-wheels, and saw light signals made to her consorts by the ship whose patrolling we had disturbed.
“The fellow’s wound was only skin-deep, but it bled like one o’clock, and we began to wonder seriously, if this was blockade-running, what real warfare would be like.
“‘That was the Delaware, Harvey,’ I heard the skipper say to his brother, as they stood and watched us haul the wreckage inboard. ‘I knew old Cooper’s voice at once. There’ll be no getting through to-night. They’ll make bonfires of themselves directly. Do you think you could take us up to the sandy cove at the back of Green Island, where our fishing camp used to be in the old days?’
“‘Ay,’ replied his brother, ‘if it was as dark again. See, there they go!’ alluding to the blockaders, who were steaming about, burning flare-ups that illuminated the whole entrance to the river’s mouth.
“Harvey Warrington now conned the Tallahassee so nicely that, at daybreak, we crept gently between banks of low rocks into a miniature harbour on one of the many islets that lay thickly thereabout. There was just enough room to turn; and rounding a point that shut us in, we dropped anchor off a beautiful sandy beach in ten fathoms of water. From the thick underbrush with which the little island was covered, we watched the men-o’-war pottering about, sometimes well out to sea, at others so close that if we had not cut away our foremast, they must have seen it sticking up over the scrub. The whole day they would keep at this game. Then at nights back again to the entrance, patrolling and burning flare-ups at intervals.
“I began to think that we were in rather a tight fix, and I fancy our officers thought so too, for they looked glumly enough across the long four miles of sea that lay between us and the mainland.
“Doubtless, they could have got our cargo ashore at some other place. But, as I gathered, there was, at this precise time, an army in the neighbourhood waiting impatiently for our arrival. It was, you see, in the early portion of the great fight, and I expect, though men were plentiful, arms and stuff were not.
“Well,” continued my companion as, rising, he looked at the clock, struck four bells, and then went over to leeward and pulled the ears of a little apprentice, fast asleep, with his head on a coil of running-gear. “Well,” said he, reseating himself, and starting a fresh cigar, after the small bustle of relieving the wheel was over, “there we stuck, laid up snugly enough. And there, too, stuck Uncle Sam’s old tubs, all of whom, but for their guns and our touchy cargo, we could have run rings around.
“At last, on the third morning, we saw the two Warringtons walking quickly down to the gig, waiting for them as usual at the sandy beach.
“They seemed very jolly and pleased as we pulled on board. Evidently they had got hold of some scheme.
“Presently the port-watch, with all the boats, and every axe and tomahawk in the ship, was ordered ashore. Then the second mate got his instructions, and we rigged up the two masts fore and aft, and level with the top of the funnel, ridge-pole fashion.
“On this we laid all the spare spars, like rafters, letting them overlap the ship’s rail.
“By the time we had the Tallahassee roofed in, as it were, back came the three boats, full of green bushes, young pines, and long reeds. What on earth the skipper was turning his ship into a big arbour for we couldn’t for a while understand. But in an hour or so, when you couldn’t tell the steamer from the shore, we began to see his dodge. Between us and the main were plenty of hummocks not much larger than the Tallahassee, and scrubby from top to bottom.
“Late that night we finished our ‘decorations,’ as the skipper called them.
“The weight was considerable, but we’d trimmed her so well that there wasn’t the shadow of a list. And in five minutes, by a simple contrivance of tackles and a few blows from a sharp axe, the whole affair could be shunted overboard, leaving only the bare decks, smoke-stack, and bridge.
‘“We’re going out for a picnic in the morning, boys,’ said the skipper, laughing. ‘If they won’t let us in by dark, we must e’en try them by daylight Besides, to-morrow is the Fourth of July, and Uncle Sam will be glad of some garlands to dress his ships with.’
“The morning broke wet and misty, but calm; and as soon as it was light we moved out so slowly that we scarcely seemed to move at all.
“Nearly abreast of us, looking like thicker blobs of haze through the drizzle, were the war-ships. Three were well out. But one kept sentry-go right in our course. To avoid running ashore we should have to pass within a quarter of a mile of her.
“I can tell you that, once in the open, it was pretty ticklish work, and enough to make a man bite his fingers from the slow waiting of it, as we stood peering through the leaves, with the steamer lying quite still for minutes together in her character of island. It was miserable, bleak, cheerless weather, and presumably a holiday on board the blockaders. Perhaps this was the reason that none of their look-outs spotted the freak of nature dawdling insensibly along towards the mouth of the river.
“At anyrate, none did; and, at length, we left the three outsiders fairly astern.
“But there were no more islands to keep us in countenance; they, too, were behind us.
“A couple of miles of clear water and that one battle-ship, growing every minute more distinct, between us and safety!
“And still we continued to drift imperceptibly down upon her.
“She was nearly motionless, and I remember thinking she was like a great cat, half asleep, and blinking lazily, whilst a mouse watches for a chance to get past.
“Presently we were close enough to make out the figures in their long oilskin coats on her bridge. It seemed almost impossible for us—island or no island—to go much farther without being noticed.
“But we did.
“We actually passed her, drawing our breaths shortly; every ounce of steam on, engineers expecting the word to go; men at the lifts and guy-ropes ready to throw off our green disguise, and thirty pairs of eyes glaring at her without daring to wink.
“And when at the end of a week (as it almost seemed) we left her away on the port quarter, the long sigh of relief the men gave made the leaves rustle again. She was a big, brig-rigged, clumsy-looking lump, and wouldn’t have bothered us a bit but for the long tier of guns whose black muzzles we had seen poking grimly through their ports.
“But, as I said, we left her dozing in the slopping drizzle, and drifted along until we opened the harbour and made cocksure of getting in, altogether unperceived.
“Indeed, I had just made a remark to this effect, and the men were beginning to take their eyes off her and yarn, when up from her stack puffed a thick black cloud as she moved swiftly towards us, suspicious at last.
“‘Over with it!” roared the skipper, waving his hands to the chaps at the guys. Then, into the engine-room, ‘Throw her wide open, lads, and let her rip!’ In less time than it takes to tell you about it, bushes, spars, and reeds were in the water, and the Tallahassee racing—bounding, by jingo!—over it.
“I believe the other fellows were at first too much astonished at such a transformation to do anything but stare,
“But they soon recovered, and sent their whole broadside after us. And they hit us, too—peppered us all over this time.
“And, presently, as if this wasn’t enough, up waddled the rest of ’em, and started to throw shells, which burst ahead and all around us, filling every corner with chips and splinters and whizzing iron. In a minute men were lying about all over the deck, doubled up and groaning, whilst right in the middle of the infernal hurly-burly stood the skipper and his brother, smoking, and watching from the bridge, and sending orders to the engineers, who, to judge by the way the boat shook and jumped, were already doing their best to blow us all up. We knew that there was a fort somewhere up the harbour. But it was a mile yet to the entrance, and nothing seemed more certain than that the fire from the four ships would do for us before we could get in.
“Although the water all around was white with the rain of shot and bursting shell, as yet the Tallahassee had been hit in no vital part. Low, and grey, and flat, and scooting like a dolphin, she wasn’t an easy target.
“‘We’ll surely go in a minute or two, either up or down,’ I said to myself, as I crept for’ard on hands and knees, over dead and wounded, and through pools of still warm blood. ‘But I must have that new ticket of mine out of my chest. It gave me trouble enough to get, and I’ll carry it with me. There may be just a chance yet.’
“That’s what I said, or thought, anyhow, as I made for the fo’k’sle hatchway. You see, I was as proud of that second mate’s certificate as a dog with a tin tail, or a man with a pretty wife at a public table whilst the honeymoon’s on, and it went to my heart to think of its being spoiled with salt water.
“Crawling slowly along, I suddenly heard the skipper and the others on the bridge cheering as loud as they could shout. Then came a tremendous explosion on our port bow, that seemed to deaden and belittle all the rest of the row. Lifting my head, and peeping over the rail, I saw a curious craft coming full split from the nor’ard.
“But for her smoke-stack and a low fortlike construction right along her deck, she was nearly level with the water.
“It was the first iron-clad of the Confederacy, the historical Merrimac; and her great guns roared again and again like peals of the loudest thunder as she hurried up to take a hand in the game.
“But the wooden ships didn’t wait. They took to their heels like mad when they saw what it was; and that funny floating fortress mauled them nicely before they got out of range.
“They told us afterwards that three days ago they had attacked and sunk the Mohican—the ship we tried to pass ourselves off as.
“No wonder the Delaware didn’t stand on ceremony with us when we fouled her in the dark!
“However, thanks to the Merrimac, with her thick hide and 8-inch guns, we got our boat into port in one piece.
“But, besides a dozen or so of us badly wounded, there were five who had run the last Great Blockade of all.
“No, I never tackled any more of it. Too close an imitation of the real thing for me!
“Hi, there, you little scamp to lee’ard! Asleep again? Rouse up, and see if it isn’t eight bells yet.”
It was late in the summer of ’8— that, tired of the Micawber-like game of waiting for something to turn up, I signed articles as A.B. in Green’s Sailors’ Home, London, for the barque Princess of that port, 600 tons register, A1 at Lloyd’s, carrying fourteen A.B.’s, and chartered for Singapore, the voyage, altogether signed for, not to exceed three years. By the way, all vessels we read or hear of seem to be classed A1; or, if there is any departure from that magical number into a lower class, mention of the fact seems carefully avoided. However, when I boarded the Princess, lying in the stream off Gravesend, she seemed to fulfil the conditions exacted by “A1.” She was evidently built for speed more than capacity of stowage, shaped very much like a wedge, narrow in the beam, and very square aloft. My chest, or, in sea slang, “donkey,” was soon into the “fo’k’sle” and firmly secured with lashings to the cleats on deck; and all hands turned to, busily getting ready for sea, and for the head wind which we knew was blowing up Channel— securing water-casks, lashing spars, etc. Whilst so employed I had time for a look round at the strange faces I had to pass at least the next three months with. Most of them, as I expected, had hardly got over their spree ashore yet, and sore heads and short answers seemed to be the order of the day, so far; but I was glad to see that all, or nearly all, were English. The one exception that I could perceive was a tall, very strongly-built, fair-haired man, as to whose nationality I was puzzled to decide, except that he belonged to some one of the Northern European nations. His vocabulary of English was apparently limited to “Yes” and “No,” but the most remarkable feature of the man was his eyes, one moment black as jet, then changing suddenly to blue with a greenish tint, then back to their normal colour, apparently a dark brown. The two of us were sent out for’ard to bend some of the head sails, and I could see by the way he went about his work that, whatever else he might be, he was a thorough seaman.
The rest of our “crowd” were the usual run of merchant seamen, good-natured, careless chaps enough, without a thought for the future or a regret for the past, well expressed in their own pithy saying, “Come day, go day, God send Sunday.” Our skipper was a little red-whiskered Aberdeen man, with a very keen eye to the main chance. The mate was a Jersey man, a smart seaman, but very fond of long words when shorter and simpler ones would have done better, and the men used to say he was nothing but a “blessed walking ‘Dic.’” Our second mate was an “owner’s apprentice,” just out of his time, and, being a sort of twenty-fifth cousin of one of the clerks in the office, had had greatness thrust upon him before he was ready for it, so they put the bo’sun in his watch to nurse him, and take care that he didn’t put us ashore before our time. A jolly, thorough-going old salt was our bo’sun, or “Old Daddy,” as he was generally called by all hands. He was one of a race of seamen—more’s the pity!—nearly extinct, at least in the merchant service — with a face bronzed by many years’ exposure to all weathers; eyes of darkest blue which flashed yet, in spite of his threescore or so of years, with nearly all their pristine vigour; compactly built, and still active and lively in his movements, allowing no man on board to take the lead of him, and with a voice that could make itself heard in any gale that ever blew.
Amongst my watch-mates was the foreigner of whom I had taken such particular notice as we lay at the buoys off Gravesend. The more I saw of him, now we were at sea, the less I liked him; apparently the feeling extended to all hands, fore and aft. There was a nameless something in the man’s manner, and especially in those savage, luminous eyes of his, which impressed one with a sense of danger and repulsion, hard to explain on any reasonable grounds, for he seemed quiet enough, and did his duty as well as any of us.
Even our old bo’sun, kind-hearted though he was, was heard muttering one day something about “That Rooshian Finn.” “Oh,” said I, “Dad, that’s what he is, is it?” “Well,” said the old fellow, “that’s what I’ve logged him down as, an’ I never knew luck to the ship as one on ’em sailed in yet; besides, look at his ‘lamps’ bless me if I ever seed the likes on ’em.” This last argument was unanswerable, for there certainly was something “uncanny” about the fellow. I don’t think any one of us knew his right name, but he answered after a fashion to that of “Hans.”
We ran through the famous Bay of Biscay, encountered a heavy gale, and then passed into the Trades, which blew with such delightful steadiness that at nights a good deal of “caulking,” that is, sleeping, could be done by every soul on board except the officers of the watch, and the men at the look-out and wheel.
But our snoozing was to be interrupted in a way which I think very few of us expected, with perhaps the exception of our old bo’sun.
Hans for the last week had shown strong symptoms of being very much excited about something or other, and talked to himself incessantly in a strange-sounding and uncouth tongue, so much so, indeed, that he became a perfect nuisance, especially in our watches below. He was remonstrated with by signs and gestures, but without avail, till at length he started singing, the Lord only knows what about; he might have been chanting the sea battles of old Vikings for anything we knew to the contrary, so wild and weird in sound was his singing. As I think I have before mentioned, Hans was a man of great strength and stature, so that although our chief officer said “the man was fast approaching a condition of imbecility,” and “Old Daddy” swore that he was “cranky,” and there was a talk of putting him in irons, unfortunately it was not done. But the crisis was close at hand.
We were getting pretty well into the tail of the S.E. Trades, when one night, about the middle of the first watch, as it looked rather squally to windward, the order was given to clew up and stow the royals, and haul down the gaff topsail and flying jib. Two of our lads sprang aloft—one to each royal. The one at the fore soon had his sail in and stowed, but the main royal was still bellying and flapping aloft; the night was dark and drizzly, with light squalls of wind and rain, so we couldn’t see what was the matter, but after a short time down came the boy, and told us that Hans was in the maintop and wouldn’t let him up, also that he had an axe with which he was doing something to the topgallant-stunsails, which with their gear are generally stowed in the tops.
The poor little fellow was evidently terribly frightened, and said “that Hans had tried to knock him off the futtock shrouds with his axe, but being light and nimble he had sprung off on to the topmast backstay, and so on deck.” This was truly a nice state of affairs, an armed madman in possession of the mainmast!
Mr. Semple, the second mate, was for calling the skipper and first mate at once, but the bo’sun said that as the watch was nearly out, and the squall over, we had better sheet home the royal and try and coax Hans down. We soon had hold of the sheets on each side. “Comes precious easy,” said one, and easy it did come, for in a minute or so the whole hundred feet of rope lay in a confused heap on either side the deck.
“Look out, lads!” said the bo’sun; “he’s cut ’em, and if he comes down now he’s duty bound to run a-muck.” At that moment the moon, hitherto veiled behind the squall clouds, shone brightly out, shone on the knot of upturned, wondering faces, and on the tall dark figure in the top, as the belly of the topsail threw back to us the hoarse notes of his mad song. “Maintop there! what are you up to? Come down out o’ that!”
The reply to this hail was a marlin spike which laid one of our watch flat on deck, with his arm broken just above the elbow. Then eight bells struck, and the watch below was called.
Captain and mate were soon on deck, the wounded man carried below, where his arm was quickly set by “Old Daddy,” and all hands bundled aft; as for the skipper, when he saw the state of things, he just stood on the deck and “swoor at lairge.”
Our Scotch carpenter now appeared on the scene, having been overhauling his tools, and said he missed “twa o’ his best axes, his adze, and nearly all his chisels,” one of which last, however, was soon returned to him in a most unpleasant manner from aloft, just taking the skin off his nose. In fact, we all had to keep well under cover, or some more of us would soon have been hit. The madman’s aim was something wonderful even by the uncertain moonlight, and, as someone suggested, what was it likely to be when day broke!
Our royal, meanwhile, was blowing straight out from the yard like a great white banner, sheets and clewlines cut, against the morning sky, which already the sun-gold was dotting with island cloudlets of rose and amethyst, heralding the Day King, whose burning rim soon appeared far away above the eastern horizon.
Every soul in the ship was now aft, and advice was freely given as to the best way of getting Hans out of his citadel—for such it might now fairly be called. With true mad cunning he had cut the stunsail gear up and wound it round the topmast rigging knee high, rendering it almost impossible for any climber to get a footing without being cut down, and nobody seemed to care about facing the broad bright axe and the muscular arms which whirled it savagely round now and again, as if to emphasise some events celebrated in his wild song, which was nearly incessant.
However, it was very evident that by some means he must be brought down; so away aloft went the mate and myself into the mizzen crosstrees, with a long line and running bowline, to try our hands at “lassoing.” Many heaves were made in vain, as, spite of our long lower masts, we were barely on a level with the maintop. Hans stood erect, and never even tried to avoid the flying noose; till at last the mate, with a lucky cast, pitched the bowline fairly over his head and shoulders; but so excited were we that we had neglected to take a round turn with the end of our line, and Hans very nearly pulled us both off our perch. Then with one slash of his keen sheath-knife he severed the rope, and to our horror seized his axe and cut clean through the lanyards of the topmast rigging on each side. He next fell to work cutting and hacking at the wire stays and backstays which supported our masts.
“By heavens,” said the first mate, “if it comes on to blow we’ll lose our sticks,” then returning to his old style, which, however, he seldom used in cases of emergency, “and intrinsically imperil the existence of ourselves and our vessel.” I couldn’t help laughing at the comical way he bundled the last sentence out; for at the time we were coming down the mizzen rigging, in full view of the maintop, from which three or four keen-edged chisels whizzing past our ears helped us down pretty fast.
It may appear almost incredible to a landsman that one man, however powerful, should keep a ship’s company of twenty or thirty men at bay in this way. But let the said landsman imagine this same powerful madman, armed with a sharp axe, and stationed on a small platform, forty feet from the ground, say, in the fork of a tree, with a ladder leading up to it on each side, but so constructed that only a single person could obtain access to the platform on each ladder, and that the madman standing about the centre thereof could comfortably knock each one on the head as he appeared. Well, the cases are nearly identical, save that “our madman” had done us more damage in a few hours than the man in the tree could ever do, for by this time he had so chopped and hacked our rigging about that, if the wind freshened, we should have been in a most woeful plight
Thank Heaven! the breeze kept light and steady all that day, in the course of which all kinds of attempts had been made to get the man down, but without avail, the only result being that two of the port-watch, having rashly exposed themselves in their endeavours, got badly cut about the head; and it was almost laughable to see “Chips” creeping from shelter to shelter, with his eyes fixed aloft, and a great patch of black plaster on his nose, to pick up his beloved tools, using at the same time much vigorous language in very broad Scotch.
In spite of his fondness for long and often misapplied words, the first mate was full of pluck, He wished to take Hans by storm on each side, but for a long time the captain forbade it, saying it would cost at least two lives, and perhaps many more; but I could see that the mate was very unwilling to give up his plan, so I was not surprised when, at two bells—five o’clock—in the first dog-watch, he had obtained a reluctant permission to ask for volunteers. All hands were with him at once, for we were getting heartily sick of this state of things, besides being in constant fear of our lives; for we didn’t know the minute he might come down and “run a-muck” amongst us. I had once seen a coolie do this in Madras, cutting and stabbing everyone in his way, till at last a pistol bullet cut short his career; but he made things lively whilst it lasted.
It was now nearly a calm, and of course darkness was coming on. Nearly all the canvas had been taken off the ship, except as much as would give her steerage way, to ease the strain on our masts, which now, some of their main supports being gone, creaked and swayed and complained very ominously indeed at every roll she gave.
Well, away we went, each watch to its own side of the deck, to storm the maintop. We had already got as far as the main rigging— the mate leading—when our vacillating “Old Man” left the wheel, which was now almost useless, and came to the break of the poop, singing out “to hold on,” and “take daylight for it in the morning.” It was in vain the mate represented the crippled state of the ship to him, and what a fix we should be in if it came on to blow. “Na, na. If ye do’t I’ll joost ca’ it mutiny, an’ that’s a’ aboot it,” was the only answer he could get, so for the time the attempt was abandoned.
We were all standing in a group at the main-bitts talking it over, and one of the watch was remarking, “He’s knocked off his cursed squalling this half-hour! Shouldn’t wonder if he was asl—” when with a rush and a yell he was in our midst dealing blows in all directions. You should have seen the scatter. Most of us took to the rigging, but it was too dark to make anything out with certainty. Suddenly I saw a flash from aft, then three or four more in quick succession. I happened to be in the lee main rigging, and one of the humming little revolver bullets passed close to my head. Naturally enough, I was making tracks for cover, when I felt myself crushed close into the ratlines, with a weight like a ton on my head and shoulders, but it eased off at once, and looking up I could just make out a figure vanishing aloft in the gloom.
It was Hans, who had most unceremoniously made use of me in his ascent, although I question whether he knew what he was treading on, and, as he was barefooted, I didn’t suffer much. I sang out at once “to stop their confounded firing, as Hans was aloft again,” and, jumping on deck, nearly knocked our skipper down. Hearing my hail, he had taken heart of grace, and descended from the lifeboat, where we found out afterwards he had taken refuge. “Did I hit him, think ye?” was his first question. “No,” I replied, “but I shouldn’t wonder if you’ve hit half the ship’s company.” “Hoots, mon! Dinna say that!” exclaimed he, and trotted off, singing out like mad for lights.
I had heard or seen nothing of the first mate in the melée, and with good reason, for when the binnacle and masthead lamps were brought, we found him jammed between the pumps, and blood flowing from a very nasty gash in his forehead. He remained insensible for nearly half an hour, but after that we soon got him round, and put him in his berth. Three or four more had received knocks and cuts with the pole or edge of the axe; and all round there seemed a general sore feeling with respect to the occupant of the maintop, who was now apparently congratulating himself in blank verse on his last escapade.
Presently a meeting was called in the mate’s berth, attended by all hands, a good few of whom looked as if they had just fought the ship through a pretty hot action. Our wounded chief officer was sitting up on his bunk, declaring himself nearly well again, although his white face and bloody bandages did not add to his beauty. After a lot of talk, it seemed to be universally decided that the way was to cripple Hans by shooting him with the skipper’s revolver. Then, it was argued, it would be easy to get him down without risking life, as we were already short-handed, for the seaman whose arm had been broken was in a bad way. He was now pacing the fo’k’sle in great pain, and he it was whose voice we heard singing out, “Light on the port bow.” We were on deck in a minute, and sure enough we could all make out a ship’s light about four miles away, and evidently fast approaching us. “She’s bringing the breeze with her,” said one. “Not much sign of it yet, then,” said another. “Breeze be blowed!” was “Old Dad’s” comment. “Ain’t we in the Doldrums, where no breeze like she’s got ever blew since Adam was an oakum boy in Plymouth Dockyard? The whole lot o’ yer’s got eyes like burnt holes in a blanket. It’s a’ smokejack’s white masthead light. That’s what yon is, or call me a Dutchman!”
True enough, as the grey dawn began to break we saw the long stream of smoke still lingering in the air astern of her, apparently for miles, testifying eloquently to the stillness of the atmosphere. A little later she evidently sighted us, and, altering her course a little, bore right down for the Princess, and no wonder! for we must have looked a strange sight through her glasses. All our sails were furled, with the exception of the main-royal and topgallantsail and a solitary staysail; some of the braces were cut, our yards cockbilled to port or starboard at their own sweet will, ends of rope and rigging hung in all directions about the main, and everything looked confused and forlorn, as she rolled heavily now and again in the long Atlantic swell. As the steamer neared us we made her out to be a very large vessel, brig-rigged and paddle-wheeled, and that her bows and rigging were full of people all looking eagerly towards us. She steamed up very close, and “Ship, ahoy! What ship’s that?” came across the still water as the paddles stopped their churning and frothing, and the big ship came closer still. “Princess, of London,” was immediately followed by “What’s up? do you want any help?” from a stout man in a blue uniform, who stood on her poop netting, holding on by one hand to the main rigging, whilst around him and all along her decks a crowd of eager faces appeared. Not waiting for an answer to his last hail, he jumped down, gave some sharp, quick orders, and in a few minutes the port-quarter boat was lowered and was pulling for us full of men, whilst the steamer “blew off” with the usual horrid roar and shriek.
In the excitement Hans had apparently been forgotten; but the noise of the escaping steam having made me look up, I saw him, stripped to the belt, gazing intently on the boat’s crew, who were already coming up the gangway ladder, which had been hastily thrown over amidships, the “Man in Blue” leading, another and slighter gentleman behind, and about a dozen sailors, all dressed much alike, following.
Hans, on whom I still kept an eye, had stooped down for a second, and when he stood upright again, I saw he had one of Chips’ “twa axes” in his hands, preparing to swing it with all his might into the party on the poop. I had hardly time to shout, “Look out —look out, there!” when down it came, but luckily it hit one of the wire backstays, which was swinging about amidships, cut it in two, and then went overboard. Our own men, who by this time well knew the meaning of the cry, had dodged for cover in a moment; and it would have gone hard with some of the strangers but for the cut backstay.
I just heard the “Man in Blue” exclaim, “Eh, eh! what the deuce is all this about?” when our skipper took him and the other visitor, who looked something like a parson, down into the cabin.
We learned from the steamer’s men—who could hardly get over their surprise at the state of affairs—and who broadly hinted that their “Old Man” would have shot the madman long ago—that the steamer was the Orion Cape mail boat—that the man in blue was the captain, and the parson-looking chap a French doctor, a passenger. They also said that when they first sighted us, the general opinion was that the ship was in a state of mutiny; and the speaker, pulling up the bottom of his blue guernsey, showed us a pair of revolvers stuck in his belt, informing us at the same time that the steamer’s signal guns were, as he phrased it, “bang up to the muzzle with grape, ready, if needed, to sweep our decks.”
In a few minutes the cabin party, including our mate, appeared on deck, smelling suggestively, and looking suspiciously aloft. But there was Hans—his white skin showing out in bold relief against the dark masthead—in the same attitude he had assumed after his last futile attempt, upright and facing us, each hand grasping a rope, his eyes looking black and sunken, bareheaded, with fair hair hanging matted and thick on his shoulders, and, as I fancied I could make out, a savage scowl on his face, which was pale as death.
“No, no,” the captain of the steamer was saying; “that sort of popgun won’t do,” pointing to our “Old Man’s” revolver, which was lying on the skylight; “just as likely to kill the man as not, even if we hit him at all.”
“Weel, weel,” said the latter, “it’s the only thing o’ the kind I hae aboord. I’m na caring muckle to be fashed wi’ sic-like weepons,” and the old fellow puckered up his thick red eyebrows, while a kind of grin overspread his saturnine old phiz.
“By heavens!” exclaimed the other, “did ever anyone hear the like,—a ship going to sail in Chinese waters, with nothing but an old pistol aboard!”
“We’ll maybe happen to get some mair in Singapoor,” was the answer. “Ay, ay; and you’ll maybe happen to get your throats cut before you get there, even in these times.” And with this bit of cold comfort, the “Man in Blue,” as I shall continue to call him—for I have forgotten his proper name —gave an order to his coxswain. The boat’s crew jumped in at once and pulled for the steamer, which had slightly increased her distance from the Princess, for a nasty swell was coming up, giving us a roll now and again, that made me think everything was coming down by the run. However, the boat was soon alongside again with, in addition to her crew, three or four passengers, one amongst whom the “Man in Blue” no sooner caught sight of than, with the exclamation, “Ha! Major, the very man; you’re more used to these tools than I am,” he at the same time presented him with the rifle his coxswain had brought from the steamer.
All on board the other vessel had by this some idea how affairs stood with us, so, after very few words, the Major agreed to do his best, and glancing up at the maintop, asked, “Where’s the best place to hit him?” “In the head, if I had my way,” growled the old bo’sun in what was meant for an aside; but the Major heard him, and faced round with a sharp “Why?” The old chap was a bit taken aback at first, but soon replied, “Well, because, ye see, sir, he’s a Rooshian Finn, which is only a name for varmin as always comes aboard ships to make a shine; leastways this is the third I’ve seen do it; though they’re ondeniable good sailor men, which to my mind makes the matter wuss.”
“Ah, well,” said the Major, a fine soldierly-looking man, in the prime of life, “I’ll try and cripple him somehow.”
The excitement was now great. Officers, sailors, and passengers all seemed to hold their breaths as the rifle was levelled at the fierce-looking, seemingly unconscious figure, whose eyes were staring fixedly at the steamer, which had now edged in almost too close for safety, and whose rigging and yards were crowded with anxious spectators.
I was standing close behind the Major, and it seemed to me that he aimed straight at Hans’ right leg, which was in full view, a little extended.
A good time apparently had been chosen, for the vessel was steady as a rock, but almost simultaneously with the report she gave one of those quick treacherous lurches, and I saw the muzzle of the rifle fly upwards, as, in common with the rest of us, the Major lost his footing, and slid leeward.
Before the Princess rolled back again, the smoke cleared away, and we saw our unfortunate shipmate lying across the mizzen stay, bent nearly double, and his blood dropping and plashing down on the white lifeboat immediately beneath him, and running down her sides in ghastly crimson streaks on deck.
There he hung whilst you might count five, and then dropped with an awful thud between boat and spars on to the quarter-deck. The noise of his fall seemed to break the spell of dismay which had come over us, and all hands rushed down the poop ladders on to the deck, where lay poor Hans on his face, quite dead, the bullet having entered just over the right hip. The little doctor lifted the dead man’s arm up, held it for a moment, then letting it fall on deck again, walked away. When hit, Hans had evidently sprung clear out of the top and fallen across the stay. If he had not cut the topmast rigging, his barricade of rope might have prevented his fall, but it was that unlucky lurch that did the mischief!
The Major stood leaning against the capstan, looking steadily at the corpse, till the “Man in Blue” clapped him on the shoulder, with “Now, Major, the boat!” Then said he suddenly, “I feel almost like a murderer.”
“Pooh, pooh, nonsense,” said the other; “couldn’t possibly have been helped. It was to be, you know.” However, the Major didn’t quite seem to see it in that light, but all that he said was, “I knew that he was a dead man, as I felt her lift my feet up when I pulled the trigger,” and he went down the gangway ladder looking very uncomfortable indeed.
The “Man in Blue” followed with the rest, after a hasty leave-taking and a short private talk between the two skippers. As we raised the body up to carry it forward that the sail-maker might do his work, we saw a rush of smoke from the big ship’s funnel, and heard the grinding of her paddles, as she moved slowly off on her course, dipping her ensign three times, and then letting it remain half-mast high as long as she was in sight. In less than an hour she was hull-down, leaving with us tars only her name in remembrance of the part she had played in our little tragedy.
In a few hours everything aloft was again shipshape, running-gear all rove, preventer backstays set up, etc., or, as our first mate expressed it, “The chaotic confusion of the preceding forty-eight hours was ultimately reduced to a minimum.” This remark addressed to the skipper was answered only by a blank stare and a low growl, amidst which “Near as daft as th’ ither ane,” was all I could catch.
A light breeze now springing up, the Princess again began to slip through the water, although very slowly, almost as if lingering to get rid of the motionless object lying on the forehatch, sewn up in canvas, weighted with old iron bolts, and covered with the Union Jack and ensign.
A burial is always an impressive spectacle, but it is especially so at sea; and when all hands mustered in their best rig that evening at the gangway, the ship’s bell tolling, and the main-topsail backed, everyone seemed fully to feel the solemn influence of the occasion, although many there bore marks of the dead man’s handiwork. It was a lovely evening, the sun fast setting, and tingeing with a subdued rosy light the immense ocean in which we were to hide our dead, only broken now and again by tiny wavelets, which came with a gentle “swish” against the ship’s side, pouring its softened rays right on the silent and attentive group of men, on the flag-covered grating with a man at each side, which overhung the water, and on the pale face and white bandaged head of our chief mate, standing alone with open book on the after side.
All uncovered, and not a sound broke the evening stillness but the solemn tones of the reader’s voice, till at length “We commit his body to the deep, to be turned into corruption, looking for the resurrection of the body, when the sea shall give up her dead, and the life of the world to come.” Then—
“A plash and a plunge, and all was o’er,
And the billows rolled on as they rolled before.”
The yards were braced up, the sails filled out steadily with the breeze, and the Princess moved swiftly through the water, soon leaving far astern the last solitary resting-place of our “Mad Messmate.”
A river, broad, sparkling, and deep, covered with boats of outlandish build and rig, flows swiftly between low hills, whose steep sides are clothed with dark green foliage, out of which peep, here and there, houses of strange and fantastic shape.
In front of some half a dozen tall ships, all dressed in their gayest bunting, and whose crews are all, with cheers and songs, and clatter and rattle of windlass pawls, so busily engaged in heaving up their anchors, one catches a glimpse of a town and wharves crowded with quaint-looking craft, a farther view of which is cut off by a sudden turn of the river. Nearer, however, is a small island, on which stands a structure that somehow brings to our recollection, with curious distinctness, childhood’s long-gone days — days in which such scenes were still undreamt and unthought of—and yet, between which and now, that grotesque affair, with its long, sharp spike and thousands of overhanging little eaves, feels like a sort of connecting link. But at length memory, with an effort, reads the puzzle and recalls to mind the blue-patterned plate of our youth, with its funny bridge, its fruit trees, its Chinamen, and its Pagoda.
It is a far cry from this Pagoda anchorage in the river Min at Foo-Chow, China, to the buoys at Gravesend, river Thames, London, England; but, in the great ocean race for which we on board the good ship Yang-tze are so busily preparing, distance does in truth “lend enchantment to the view,” and not one there would willingly abridge it by a single mile of sea-surface; for are not the eyes of the world —the commercial portion of it at least, to which we have the honour to belong—upon us, and upon those other noble ocean racers yonder, our friendly rivals, whose names, along with our own, familiar are as household words in the mouths of the merchant seamen of the day?
Hark! a gun! And, majestically swinging round with the tide, our ship lets fall and sheets home her topsails and hoists her jib; cheer after cheer rings out from her crew; and, accompanied by a hundred boats, she slowly glides towards the sea.
The echoes of the first cannon have scarcely died away when the report of another peals on the Chinese hillsides, as our most formidable rival, the Titania, amidst a fresh burst of cheering, leaves her anchorage; and long before nightfall the river is deserted by all but junks and sampans.
It has been a fair start and a good one, for next morning, outside the entrance to the Min, six great pyramids of canvas salute each other by dipping their ensigns and firing a gun as they sail away nearly on the same courses, before a light easterly wind.
* * * * * * * * *
A month at sea, and we are off the Cape of Storms, the only one of all, I believe, who chose that route in preference to rounding the Horn, for our captain had heard that the ice thereabouts was both unusually thick and much farther to the northward than usual.
Not forty-eight hours had the tea fleet kept in sight of each other. When once fairly at sea, they seemed to suddenly disperse and disappear — some one way, some another, according to the hobbies or theories of their respective commanders.
And now, dear reader, if you will step again on board the Yang-tze with me, I will endeavour to show you how we brought your tea home from China, through at least one, and perhaps the most exciting of those great ocean trials of speed which were wont, in the days before universal steam so thoroughly took the wind out of our sails, to be annually associated with the arrival of each fresh season’s tea in the English market.
“Steady, if you please! Mind your footing on the deck, for it is wet and slippery. There, now! catch hold of these topsail halyards— tight as fiddlestrings they are—and look about you a bit.”
To windward a limitless expanse of greenish grey, mingled here and there with tufts and curls of white, seethes, rolls, and dashes itself in thunderous billows against the good ship — then in foiled fury crawls snarling away to leeward in broken masses of white foam.
Aloft three swelling patches of dirty white appear to hang against the lowering sky in the dim light of that Southern evening; these are the three reefed topsails of the Yang-tze; listen to the shrill voice of the blast as it howls in and around their bosoms, stretched like iron from the sharply braced-up yards, or whistles and hums through the running-gear, as if it were playing on some immense Æolian harp.
Swish-swash, with a loud roar at intervals, comes a green sea over the bows, falling in a glittering cascade across the break of the forecastle, then rushing irresistibly away aft. The tall masts creak and groan and sway and bend, as the vessel now throws her bows high in the air, now brings them down with a sounding thump; one moment riding on the summit of an abyss, deep and narrow; in another, with a long, swift, sickening slide, plunged to its very bottom, enclosed by the threatening and lofty walls of foam-flecked water.
Run your eye now along the weather bulwarks, and you will see, through the gloom, two or three black knots, looking for all the world like some ocean fungi that have attached themselves to the ship’s rail, so motionless and without sign of life are they, except that every now and again from the midst of one of the black knots flies a red spark away down to foaming, hissing leeward. These are groups of the watch on deck; the largest one seems to be opposite to where a bright gleam from a crack in the closed door of the galley throws a flickering pencil of light athwart the wet deck, and is feebly reflected from shining oilskins and dripping sou’-westers. Let us join it for a minute. Four men are holding on by some of the running-gear. Two of them are smoking, and now and again their weatherbeaten, salt-encrusted faces are lit up under their sou’-westers by the red dab of light from the mouths of their short pipes. They seem absorbed in silent contemplation, their gaze only turning from the sea out to leeward to the topsails overhead.
Presently, one hoarsely mutters, “Blessed if I knows how them sticks stands it the way they does.”
“The best o’ Kauri pine, them topmasts,” replies the one next to him, who has happened to catch the remark; “sound’s a bell; I oughter to know. I’ve scraped ’em often enough.”
“Reckon the old man’ll shove another reef in at eight bells, Bill,” says a third.
“If I had my way with her,” replies the first speaker, “I’d soon have that there mizzen tawps’l, and the fore one too, off her. That ’ud steady her a bit. She’s no better now nor a half-tide rock. No comfort an’ not a dry stitch about her for the last month. I’ll tell ye what, mates, it’s no chop this”— The sentence is unfinished yet, for just then a shower of spray rattles like a volley of big hailstones against the waterproofs, followed directly by the tap of a “comber,” which nearly washes the quartette into the lee scuppers, and effectually dowses the pipes. The cook extinguishes his light in the galley, and all is cold, wet, dark, and dreary.
A simultaneous grunt of disgust bursts from our well-drenched group. “Ugh!” growls one, as he shakes himself, and wipes the brine out of his eyes. “Catch me in a Chiny clipper agin. Not if I knows it.” Then “eight bells” rings sharply out through the storm, and the groups break up and move expectantly aft.
Aft, the officer of the watch has been alternately holding on to the mizzen rigging and glancing in the binnacle, speculating also, like the men on the main-deck, whether or not the captain intends to shorten sail at eight o’clock. Presently the little apprentice, who has been creeping from the bell to the clock and from the clock to the bell for the last half an hour, with a sigh of relief strikes the time, and prepares himself by anticipation for a snug four hours in the blankets, congratulating himself, as he goes to call his mates, on the possession of a lee bunk.
Our little friend, however, is premature in his calculations, for, before the sound of the bell has quite died away, a dark form, fully equipped to make a night of it against wind and water, emerges from the cabin hatchway, quickly followed by another, all sea-boots and glistening waterproofs. It is the captain of the Yang-tze and his chief officer.
“Will she lie her course yet, Mr. Brown?” inquires the former of the second mate, who, for the last two hours—the second dog-watch —has had the deck.
“Half a point to wind’ard, sir,” is the reply.
The captain, scrupulously imitated by the first officer, takes a look at the compass, aloft, and away to windward.
“Umph!” he remarks at length, “half a point to wind’ard of her course. Mr. Brown, shake the reefs out of the fore and main tops’ls, and set the maintop-gallants’l.”
Mr. Brown stares at his superior in amazement. It is his first experience of a homeward-bound China clipper, and he pauses, thinking that perhaps he has not heard aright. “Now then, Mr. Brown, sir, hurry up, if you please. Oh, and while you’re about it you may as well set the jib!” exclaims the captain impatiently. “All hands?” “Of course, sir, in weather like this!”
There can be no mistake this time, so Mr. Brown scuttles down the poop ladder, followed by the disappointed apprentice, both yelling out, with a kind of grim satisfaction at the wonder and disgust with which they know the order will be received, “All hands make sail!” The big black knot congregated under the break of the poop, upon this, breaks up into methodical activity; more black knots, only dry ones, emerge from somewhere for’ard and join them, to be immediately treated to a cold douche, which elicits much profanity and a universal expression of opinion that “the old man’s got a screw loose somewhere, and means to take the sticks out of the adjective hooker this time, anyhow.”
You and I, friendly reader, know that this idea of Jack’s is all nonsense. Bah! Have we not the first teas of the season on board, Souchong, Li Chee, Bohea, and all the rest of it; and does not our “Old Man” know well that, somewhere on sea, or ocean, perhaps, wallowing, kicking, plunging, and diving, just like the Yang-tze herself, are five of the fastest wedge-shaped fabrics in the world, known as clipper ships, also with their share of the first Souchong, etc., in their holds, and all of whose “old men” are every whit as determined as himself to be “first ship home,” and to take the prize awarded to speed, skill, and a fair allowance of luck by the merchant princes of London in the shape of a new hat and a cheque for a hundred pounds? Does he not, I ask you, know and appreciate all this? Of course he does; and as he listens to the hoarse shouts of his crew, the rattling of iron sheets through iron sheaves, and the flapping and banging of canvas, he mutters between his teeth, “What you can’t carry, my dear, you’ll have to drag, this trip anyhow. No Titania first in this time, if I can help it.” Then to the helmsman, “Keep her away a couple of points, my lad!” “Ay, ay, sir. Keep her away, it is.” And presently a change is felt. A curious stillness prevails, the gale seems now to roar afar off, and the sea to subside, nay, the topsails in a minute or two give a feeble flap with their leaches as if almost becalmed, and the men, who have been pulling with might and main hitherto with little effect, now easily sheet home the sails and hoist the ponderous yards.
“Steady! So!” “Steady! it is, sir.”
In a few minutes more the men are down from aloft, and, with their shipmates, cluster aft near the cabin doors. “Let her come!” says the captain, as he grasps the lee spokes of the wheel. “Let her come, it is,” replies the helmsman; and come she does. You can feel her head flying up with lightning speed to meet the wind and sea again. Whizz! rattle! roar! “Hold on, everyone!” and the Yang-tze is one mass of spray and foam from jib-boom end to taffrail.
She was simply walking a minuet before, compared to the fantastic capers that she now cuts, at times trying to fling herself bodily out of the water, then, giving up all idea of breasting the waves, she darts clean through them, receiving their tops on her deck, which, even on the weather side, is up to the men’s knees in water.
Never mind! Are not some of those other greyhounds of the sea somewhere around us, or should be by this, or even, perhaps, but perish the thought, ahead. “Grog ho!” and presently appears the steward with his tin can of rum, out of which, as he leans at an angle of 45° against the sides of his pantry, he skilfully portions out a wineglassful, only to disappear instantly into the depths of some brawny throat, whose owner, smacking his lips and gasping as the strong spirit takes his breath away, steps out into the darkness to make room for the next man. “Go below, the watch;” and the watch “reel to and fro, and stagger,” but not from drunkenness, away to their quarters, admittance to which at present is gained by a plunge through the curtain of green water that now pours unceasingly over the topgallant forecastle.
Again black knots cluster under the shelter of the weather bulwarks, taking their repeated drenchings in growling submission, till, just before twelve o’clock, the maintopgallant-sail suddenly disappears with a sharp clap. Then the captain, who has not left the deck, orders eight bells to be “made,” although wanting yet twenty minutes of midnight, and the watch we had seen go below come stumbling on deck once more after their short rest, to help in getting up and bending another sail in place of the lost one, and, as the gale shows signs of moderating, to cover the Yang-tze with canvas.
* * * * * * * * *
Round the Cape of Vasco da Gama, out of the territories of the Flying Dutchman, at last, and stretching merrily away towards the South American coast on the chance of catching the Trades strong and early, those gentle breezes that once so sure and steady were wont to fill the mariner’s soul with joy. But now, alas! in this cycle of universal deterioration, this degenerate age, like everything else, even the very elements have proved themselves unable to escape the common fate, and have become fickle and untrustworthy to a degree hardly to be credited.
Once upon a time skippers would know almost to the eighth part of a degree whereabouts they might depend on “picking up their Trades,” both north-east and south-east. Nowadays they take looking for, and cruising about for, and, even when found, are sometimes actually good for nothing. You may think that you have caught them at last, and are congratulating yourself and ship, when, poof! away they go, and leave you to roll and whistle in a calm for an indefinite length of time. Either that or, casting their mild and steady reputations to the winds, unmindful of all their long and honourable tradition for ease and comfort, they howl down on you in fierce and unexpected squalls, intent, apparently, only on seeing what amount of damage they can do in a given time.
In the present instance, however, as if aware of what great interests are at stake, they treat us somewhat better than is their usual modern custom, and though light, blow steadily, which is all we ask of them, for the present, anyhow, as both the crew and officers of the Yang-tze are quite ready for a spell; and so, having set everything that will draw, the former bask on the now dry main-deck in the grateful weather, whilst the latter do much the same kind of thing aft. The helmsman nods drowsily at the wheel; and the look-out man on the forecastle head slumbers unrebuked with a coil of the staysail down haul for his pillow. The air is full of glorious sunshine, and the gently rippling water of life. Discipline is relaxed, to make amends somewhat for many wild, soaking night watches, sudden calls, and broken slumbers, which are, perhaps, more peculiarly the lot of Jack who mans a China tea-clipper than of all the Jacks who sail the seas in other vessels.
This beatific state of things, however, is far too good to last, and, one fine morning, just at daybreak, comes a sleepy cry from the forecastle of “Sail on the weather-bow, sir.” Then, as the light breaks more fully; can be plainly made out, with the aid of the glass, a full-rigged ship, just where sea and sky meet.
“Which is she?” is now the question. Is it the Sobraon? or the Titania? or the Black Prince? coming up from the wintry oceans that wash the shores of Magelhaen’s Land.
Whichever it may be, she comes no nearer, but at nightfall two more white specks break the clear line of the western horizon. In vain the Yang-tze hoists her number and fires a gun; the distance is too great even from the first sighted vessel to make out anything but the rig. Yet, somehow, all hands arrive at the conclusion that these three are members of the Tea Fleet, wherever the others may be.
If, dear reader, you have quite recovered the effects of that stormy night you and I weathered together in latitude 45° south, or thereabouts, once more honour me with your presence, as the purple flush of a tropical sunrise breaks in the eastern skies, and I will show you a solemn and stately sight, and one, perhaps, but seldom seen even on that mammoth stage of gorgeous spectacles, the ocean.
Look, then, over yonder to where, nearly parallel with our own vessel, and bringing with them a stronger breeze, glide silently and steadily three white domes, gleaming now like snow-covered bergs set in a sea of gold and amber. Watch how, as the sun rises, he envelops them in a quivering haze of light, through which, for a minute, they sail transfigured into ethereal vessels of fiery yellow, moving across a background of the darkest purple. Now brighter still gleams the orb of day, and once more the lofty clouds of canvas shine white as snow over the long black line of hull.
See, they are all three hoisting their colours; house flags at the main, and ensigns at the gaff. Presently, from the waist of the nearest curls up a column of white smoke, and the report of a cannon, quickly followed by three more, rolls across the water as the Yang-tze, duly returning compliments, straightens herself up to do honour to the good old House Flag, with its bars of blue and scarlet crosswise on a white field, which flies from the head of her main-skysail pole. Titania, Oberon, and Crusader, all vessels with a long and notable list of records, and the first-named of whom is the winner of last season’s race, coming in a week ahead of all competitors.
So the brief time of dolce far niente is over on board of the Yang-tze, and, in addition to the topgallant and royal studding sails, topmast and lower ditto, water-sails, savealls, bonnets on the topsails, etc. etc., her sailmaker is called upon to invent and improvise all manner of “kites” for every conceivable corner that is likely to catch a breath of wind, innovations which poor Jack, whose duty it is to be incessantly “box-hauling” them about, views with the utmost disgust, and vows that next trip he will ship in a hay barge; for, as he puts it, “A feller, d’ye see, matey, might as well be on board of a Yankee at once, with their sky-scrapers, and moonrakers, and angel’s feet-ticklers, which last, when a man goes up to slow or loose ’em, d’ye see, he takes a week’s tucker with him.” But “growl and go” is the British sailor’s motto, and wise officers take no notice, find indeed that the hardest growlers are often the best men; and so the crew of the Yang-tze pulled and hauled from morning till night, and all the night through, at tacks and braces, sheets and halliards, without, perhaps, more than the average amount of grumbles and swears inevitable in all “box-hauling” processes at sea. As an adjunct, too, to all this trimming of sails and yards, appears a small engine which clanks away monotonously as it throws great sprays of water through its hose, aloft, nearly over the topgallant yards, wetting the sails, and helping them to draw.
We can see that our friends yonder are also piling on all the extra canvas their masts and stays will carry. But our vessel not only holds her own, but as she nears the famed Titania forges slightly ahead. “Will you keep us company to the Channel?” now flies from the signal halliards of the Yang-tze. “Shall we report you at Dover?” is the Titania’s retort courteous, as she regains the lost ground.
* * * * * * * * *
Just under the Equator we are now. Our S.E. friends have treated us well, indeed. Do you see, broad on our weather-bow, that white, fleecy-looking object, almost, to the naked eye, like a three-cornered cloud rising from the sea? That is the Titania—“neck and neck” with us for the past ten days. On a wind, or with it a point free, even, there seems nothing to choose between the sailing qualities of the two vessels. Nearly hull down astern is the Oberon; and the Crusader has not been sighted since yesterday morning. Both the last-named ships sail better with strong quarterly winds.
How blue the sky is! How tranquil the sea! The day is full of silent brightness. Everything aloft is drawing steadily and effectively, but noiselessly. A faint lap, lap, of wavelets against the ship’s sides, and, every now and again, the sharp tap of a marling-spike with which some seaman far away overhead is putting the finishing touches to a splice, or a blockstrap, alone breaks the stillness.
But take a look through the glass. What means all that confusion on board of the Titania yonder? See, the white mass, just now so compact and graceful in its outlines, seems to be suddenly wrinkling up and falling to pieces; and hark! Is not that the report of a gun?
Ah! someone else has noticed these things as well as we. Listen, as the chief officer of the Yang-tze, who has been for the last few minutes shaking the mizzen vangs in a fruitless endeavour to dislodge a booby, who has perched himself on the very outermost end of the gaff and fallen fast asleep, suddenly, after a quick glance to windward, leaves the bird to its slumbers, and roars at the top of his voice, “Hard up with your helm! Hard up!” Then, rushing on to the main-deck, he shouts, “Call all hands! Let go your sheets and halliards! Clew up skysails and royals. In stun’sls! Down with the jibs! Look alive, men, before the squall hits us ”
Here’s a pretty kettle of fish! Caught in all our summer finery by this mad, tearing hurricane, that flies smoking along the surface of the sea, blotting out everything before it with a wall of mist and spray. Kind, anyhow, of our rival to try to warn us, though, was it not? Too late, of course, but we have been caught napping with a vengeance, and are about, despite all our efforts, to pay the usual penalty. What a scene of confusion! Everything is let go by the run—officers shouting; men, some in their shirts alone, just as they have jumped out of their bunks, clewing up and hauling down. Now the wall of wind and spray hits her. Stun’sl booms snap like carrots, and the much-detested “kites” disappear like flour in a whirlwind. Canvas, loose and torn, flaps, flutters, and bangs in all directions. The Yang-tze is nearly on her beam ends, the water rushing in heaps over her lee-rail. Crack, crack! There go the jib-boom and foretopgallant mast, the former now hanging, with all its weight of sails, under the bows. Still the captain hesitates to give the order to cut away the wreck, for sails and spars are precious, and we have at no time more than we know what to do with. He stands by the wheel, bareheaded, his long beard blowing over his shoulders, gazing, not at the destruction that is going on aloft, but into the heart of the squall.
Presently down comes the rain, pelting us in drops as big as soup-plates. The wind lulls, and the men manage to haul the forward wreck inboard. Now it blows harder than ever; more canvas goes, and the fore and mizzen topgallant masts bend like whipsticks under the terrible pressure of their half-clewed-up sails. Men snatch out their sheath-knives, and glance at the lanyards of the weather rigging, for the lower yardarms touch the water, and the peril is imminent and deadly.
“Steady, lads, steady!” from the captain, who has seen something in the chaos of wind and fury into which he has been looking so long. He has seen, too, the sailors clustering up to windward, and knows that many another man would have sent his masts by the board five minutes ago; hence his warning cry. For men, uncontrolled, when face to face with death, have a habit of using their own judgment, and not always for the best. Our captain has caught sight of a glint of sunshine through the dark cloud, and sees that the worst is over. And, sure enough, in a few more minutes the rain and wind both cease, the sun shines out, and the squall roars away to the westward, leaving us, for the time, like some great bird floating with a broken leg, and minus not a few feathers. The simile is apt enough, only no bird in the world ever rolled as the Yang-tze now begins to do, as we set to work to get things into shipshape order again.
The Titania has disappeared, and not a speck meets the eye all round the horizon.
Wrap yourself up well during this last short cruise, courteous reader, for we are in the chops of the English Channel, and the air is cold and damp, the wind blows shrill, and it is dim and foggy even at midday. No sun has been visible for the last twenty-four hours, and the ship, under short canvas, scarcely seems to move through the dull green water.
Of the Titania we have seen nothing since we left her in that terrible and sudden squall under the Line, and for aught we know she may have foundered in it. However, we all sincerely hope that such is not the case, and long to get some news of her.
No cracking on now, for your long-voyage captain gets cautious to the verge of timidity as he approaches his native shores, encircled, as they so often are, with thick fogs and deadly breakers roaring on jagged rocks and treacherous beaches.
We are in soundings, too, and the deep-sea lead is kept going constantly. “White sand and shells” is the last message from the bottom that follows the long-drawn cry of “Watch, there! watch!” as the ponderous conical-shaped mass of lead, with its hollow bottom and “arming” of tallow, is hove overboard out of the fore rigging, the line slipping from hand to hand along the ship’s rail aft, as she slowly surges ahead.
“Somewhere off the Scillys, or thereabouts,” seems to be the prevailing impression on board; although no one except the captain, and perhaps his chief mate, can speak with certainty, and those two keep their ideas to themselves at present
Look-outs are stationed all over the ship. Heavy, yellow, and thick, the fog settles down—true “London mixture.” The wind is easterly, and our course should be about E.S.E.; and we tack and head-reach and box about in a seemingly blind and aimless kind of manner, as if we had lost something and were feeling for it.
Two years ago the Yang-tze, under charge of her Chinese pilot, to his utter amazement and indignation, dared to get ashore on the Min River. In his own language he cursed and swore at the foreign devils who composed her officers and crew for idiots and blockheads; then refused to pilot the vessel a foot farther until two great eyes were painted, one on each bow. “Hah,” he exclaimed; “s’pose um no hal eye, how can see um way?”
So the eyes were put on by his own artists, and, through some “fad” of the captain’s, there they were yet; and precious little use they seemed to the good ship in her present dilemma, despite the dictum of her whilom Celestial guide. So the Yang-tze, under three close-reefed topsails, foresail, and storm-staysail, jogs along, zigzag fashion, through the leaden-coloured water; and says one of the crew, as she is put about for the twentieth time in the last half an hour, “Dash this fog! I wonders where we are! Up the British Channel, I believe, for all any of the after-guard knows about it!” Then up and spake a sailor old: “Bah! This ain’t nothin’ to what I’ve seed! If we’d ha’ had some skippers as I’ve sailed with, we’d ha’ been lyin’ snug an cumfabble in the West Indy dock long afore this. I tells ye what, young feller,”—to the ordinary seaman who had first spoken,—“you ain’t begun to live yet! Why, when I was in the old Dreadnought—Western Ocean packet ship she were—one trip, we starts away out o’ the Nelson Dock, at Liverpool, as it might be to-night, an’ all the way over you couldn’t see your hand afore you with the fog—that thick you could cut it off and chuck it about in fistfuls. Well, d’ye see, we jogs along, sometimes with a fair wind, an’ sometimes with a head un; an’, damn me! but the first thing we knocks up agin turns out to be the old hooker’s own jetty where she always used to lie up the Hudson at New York. An’ what’s more, that same day, the fog bein’ thicker ’n ever, our skipper, says he, ‘Boys,’ he says, ‘we can’t see much, but I guess we oughter be close to No. 6’—which, d’ye understand, my son, was the number o’ the jetty—an’, with that, she hits it bump. Now that’s what I calls dead reck’ning if”— “Ready about! Stations!” and the old tar, leaving his stiff “bender” unfinished, waddles away to the fore sheet.
It does not do to trust to eyes in weather like this, so the big bell is kept constantly going, and a terrible instrument, known as a fog-horn, blares out every now and again, for we are surrounded with invisible shipping, huddled together like a flock of sheep, beating about and head-reaching, waiting impatiently for a chance to slip up to London, and only too happy if they can but manage to hold their own at the entrance of the “Silver Streak” till a fair wind comes.
Through the mist on all sides of us we hear more bells and horns, with, at times, a hoarse, screeching whistle, long continued, telling of a happy steamer independently coming out or in.
Ha! What’s this? We have long ago furled our foresail and mizzen-topsail, and now comes the order to set them again. Not only that, but to shake out a couple of reefs. Our captain has evidently made up his mind to beat farther up for a tug or a pilot Well, so be it! “A cocked hat or Westminster Abbey!” “First ship home,” or the Yang-tze’s bones on a lee shore.
Thicker now than ever hangs the fog. The breeze freshens to almost a gale, and all that night little is heard between the blaring horn and clanging bell but cries of “Ready about!” “Stations!” “Helm a-lee!” “Tacks and sheets!” as we make short legs and shorter ones up Channel.
In one of our turns we nearly run into a ship anchored in mid-channel, and on board of which they are apparently hard at work, beating with might and main upon the cooking utensils. She only looks like a heavier lump of fog than usual, as we surge past her, but a loud shouting and yelling tells us that we have both had a narrow escape. Where the deuce are we? A ship anchored in mid-channel! We must be getting pretty high up! And so our captain appears to think, for he orders our two 18-pounders to be loaded, and fired at short intervals. Blue lights and rockets, too, hiss and splutter, and flare damply through the fog. Presently an empty tar-cask is lashed to the end of a stunsail boom, set on fire, and thrust outboard, throwing a yellow glare over the fore part of the vessel.
About midnight we are boxing off and on again now under short sail. A hoarse cry of “Ship ahoy!” comes up out of the fog on our port quarter. Ah! the pilot cutter at last! and in a very few minutes the pilot himself, dripping and shiny, steps on board. “How d’ye do? Nastyish weather! Starboard fore tawps’l braces a pull! There, belay all that! Yang-tze, eh? Knew it must be somebody making such a darned row! Flatten in those head-sheets, mister” (to the chief officer). “Titania? No, we haven’t seen anything of her. Bad weather for seeing, this! Fire four guns, quick’s you can. The Company’s tug is knocking about close to us somewhere.”
The pilot and skipper go below for a few minutes, and presently the former comes up alone and takes full charge of the vessel; whilst the latter, who has not closed his eyes for three days and nights, turns in for a little well-earned repose.
We are abreast of Dover, and soon after the last discharge of our artillery, which blows a clear hole in the fog for about five hundred yards around us, the tugboat, chartered by the Company who owns the Yang-tze, comes up and takes us in tow.
Of our rival nothing appears to have been seen or heard, and, whilst rejoicing in our victory, many are the doubts and fears expressed for her safety, and the majority of the Yang-tze’s crew appear to think that she went down in the squall. Some few, however, hold to the belief that she is still knocking about with the fleet at the entrance of the Channel.
It is evening again ere we get to Gravesend; a murky, foggy, cold evening it is too, as we slip gently along towards the buoy that marks the end of our voyage—it is the same one that we left nearly nine months ago—and to which we intend to “tie up” for the night. It is getting dark, and our anchor light rises like a patch of dirty yellow up the fore rigging. So now to make fast—a wet job a night like this.
Ah! another homeward-bounder, bent apparently on the same errand. How vague and shapeless she looms through the fog!
“Port!” shouts our pilot, as the new-comer draws dangerously near. “Port your hel-um! Do you want to run into us?” “Ay, ay, port it is!” comes the gruff answer. The stranger however, has rather too much way on, and only by a sharp pull from her tug does she clear us. Dark figures crowd the side nearest to the Yang-tze, and we are so close to each other that, as she draws slowly ahead, we can see the glimmer from the binnacle lamp shining on the face of the helmsman as he peers through the gloom at us.
Our skipper has come on deck again, and, after a sharp look at the indistinct mass, now a cable’s length away, he sings out sharply to the second mate, “Hail her, Mr. Brown.” “Ship ahoy!” roars that officer. “What ship’s that?” “Titania, from China. What ship’s that?” “Yang-tze, from China.”
A loud murmur of surprise arises from each vessel, and then a burst of hearty cheering, sounding strangely hollow and distant through the fog, is renewed again and again; and says our captain, “I thought as much! A dead heat, by the Lord Harry!”
“Two ’ands an’ a mate wanted for the Ruby, cutter,” was the cry that fell on my ear, as I lounged one morning in the doorway of the Melbourne Sailors’ Home, in which building was also situated the Shipping Office.
It was a hot, dusty, stifling summer’s day— just such a one as would call up thoughts of the blue sky and fresh breezes out at sea, far away from the scorching streets, grimy wharfs, and perspiring population of the great colonial city. As I listened, I wondered within myself what kind of life a man would lead in a craft like the “Ruby, cutter,” for I had always been accustomed to large ships, and had not long left one of nearly 2000 tons burden.
I looked curiously at the group around the door of the office to see the “two ’ands an’ a mate” step forward; but no one seemed inclined to make a move. Presently out walked —or, to speak by the card, “limped”—a little shrivelled-up man, whose left leg was considerably shorter than its fellow, and whose look, manner, and bearing were the direct opposite of everything sailor-like. Addressing the men in a half-pleading, half-remonstrant tone, he said, “Now then, boys, come along. It’s a good trip—right round to Fremantle, and, mebbe, Champion Bay into the bargain. Six pounds a month, and a month’s advance if you want it. You all knows the boat. Now then, who sez?”
“Well, captin,” replied one of the men, “as you sez, we most on us know the little hooker, an’ what we reckons is that she’s too small for a trip like that, with nothin’ livelier aboard nor iron an’ bricks.”
“Pish!” muttered the old skipper, as he hopped up to me, saying, “Come now, young feller, I can see you’re a big ship man, but I’ll take you if you like to sign. You’ll be chief officer, greaser, third, and bo’sn all rolled into one, an’ if that’s not a rise for a man I’d like to know what is. Eight pound a month you’ll get, an’ the very best o’ tucker. Never mind these bumboat men here,” he went on. “They want a steamer or they ain’t happy. Afraid they are o’ gettin’ some o’ the ile an’ coal-dust washed off of ’em in anythin’ smaller ’n a three-decker. Ugh!” and the old fellow snorted his disgust, looking intensely comical as, standing for a moment on one leg, he surveyed the laughing faces of the coasting seamen around him.
However, from his very oddity I had taken a liking to him, and had already made up my mind that I would see Western Australia in his company. As to any more than usual risk I might be running, that did not trouble me in the least, partly, no doubt, through ignorance; for, like the majority of men who have passed their lives in large ships, I had very little idea of the working of a small one, and how very much more against her would tell a cargo of dead weight in a heavy sea, proportionally, than in the great vessels I had been accustomed to. The coasting sailors, on the contrary, were well aware that the Ruby, laden with heavy machinery up to her chain-plates, was a risky craft in which to face the seas, breaking in all their unchecked might against the Leeuwin, and were naturally and rightly doubtful of trusting their lives in her. Besides, they had seen her; I had not.
“Come along,” said the little old man, after I had duly signed articles as mate of the cutter —whilst leading the way to a neighbouring hotel, “we’ll have a bottle of beer this thirsty day, and then go down an’ look at the ship. I’ll pick up a couple of hands somewhere before night; and the cook’s aboard already.”
The Ruby was lying at one of the Yarra wharfs; and so wonderfully small did she appear to me, that I audibly expressed my doubts as to being able to keep from stepping quietly overboard in the dark some time or other.
“No fear,” replied the skipper. “You’ll soon get used to her. An’ let me tell you, mister, that me an’ the little ship there’s weathered many a blow that would ha’ given some o’ your big square-rigged uns all they know’d how to get through with. Dry as a cork she is, too, when them others is a-pooping of theirselves. A wicked little villian she’s bin in her day, too,” he went on, leering affectionately at the cutter. “Used to go a-blackbird catching ’way down ’mong the Islands yonder, an’ used to get fired on times without number. Got dozens o’ bullets driv hard an’ fast into her timbers yet. But she’s no cripple for all that.”
In truth, the Ruby was a smart-looking boat of some 70 tons, with a main-boom nearly as long as herself, and very lofty lower and top masts.
“Deep!” exclaimed the skipper, in reply to an observation I made. “Of course she’s deep. But many a time she’s been deeper, a-comin’ from Warrnambool yonder with a load o’ spuds.”
I did not then know that my commander’s voyaging had been mainly confined to that trade, and that the farthest trip he had ever made had been one to Circular Head in Tasmania.
Next morning, at daybreak, a little coffeepot of a tug-boat took us down the Yarra, and in Hobson’s Bay left us to our own devices.
The captain had been successful in securing a couple of men somewhere—one evidently a deep-water sailor, and, like myself, accustomed to large ships, the other a coaster of the usual type, who seemed perfectly at home directly he stepped on board. Off Williamstown, another man was pulled alongside in a waterman’s boat. He offered to work his passage to Fremantle, and the skipper, after some hesitation, consenting, a round-bottomed chest, that is, a long canvas bag, full of clothes, was bundled on deck, and the new-comer descended into the stifling little den of a forecastle below, in the eyes of the cutter.
Our quarters aft were almost as limited as those of the crew for’ard, there just being room in the cuddy for a couple of curtained bunks, a small table, a bookshelf, and sundry lockers.
“Snug,” said the old man, “an’ cumfable.” So it was, perhaps; but it was also close, and smelt vilely of rum, tobacco, onions, and bilge water.
The wind was fair down the Bay, and only delaying to take in a most generous supply of fresh beef, bread, and vegetables, away we went, with our main-boom sticking out over the water, almost at right angles to the cutter, and as if hardly belonging to her at all. The man at the tiller—“rib puncher,” he called it—was composedly smoking a short pipe. The cook at the galley door was peeling potatoes. The crew lounged about the deck, and the skipper, seated on the skylight, with his spectacles on, was deep in one of Miss Braddon’s novels.
It was such a total change, such a broad contrast to the style of seafaring in which I had been educated, that I was fairly puzzled what to be at on a vessel where all my preconceived notions, gained by experience, of maritime discipline and dignity were so utterly routed, where all was carried on on the dolce far niente system, and Jack, apparently, was as good as his master.
I have an inborn distaste for disturbing any established order of things if they are at all bearable; so, giving a last look at the dirty decks, which sadly wanted a scrub, and at the standing rigging, which would have been much the better for a good setting-up, I sat down alongside the captain, who, I may here take the opportunity of remarking, was also sole owner of the little craft.
Presently looking up from his book, he said, “Was you ever at Swan River, Mr. Brown?” and, on my replying in the negative, he continued, “Well, I s’pose well fetch it all right, somehow or other. Landmarks is plain an’ plentiful, so I’ve been told, right round.”
I started at this, you may be sure; and it suddenly occurred to me that I had observed no vestige, since I had been on the Ruby, of any of the appliances, such as charts, sextant, etc., generally connected with the science of navigation.
“Yes,” I presently ventured; “but if we are to follow the coast-line to Fremantle, we shall, I fancy, make rather a long trip of it.”
“Not a bit of it, sir,” replied the old fellow. “We’ll do as the steamers do, cut off a corner here an’ a corner there; run across a bight, an’ stand off now an’ agen to weather a bluff.”
“Supposing we should get blown out to sea, altogether away from the land?” I questioned, aghast at this radical departure from all recognised rules, yet so thoroughly in keeping with everything around me.
“Well, then, haven’t we got our compass?” indignantly replied the master, as he again buried himself in Aurora Floyd.
With the spanking breeze we carried, we cleared the land before dark, and at eight bells the Otway was distant barely a mile on our starboard hand. The captain, giving the course as W. ½ North, we went down to get our tea. The meal over, the old man, after much rummaging in one of the lockers amongst a varied assortment of papers, fishing-lines, hanks of marline, and the like, brought to light a ragged, dirty chart, a quadrant,—the figures on whose arc were indistinguishable from age and dirt,— a pair of carpenter’s callipers, and an ordinary flat wooden ruler.
Placing these articles on the table and regarding them complacently, he remarked—
“I could see as you were put out, mister, when I spoke o’ hugging the land too close, so I thought as how I’d hunt up these tools, which I haven’t used since I made that trip to the Circular Head, nine years agone now. I fetched within two mile, an’ that, you’ll allow, wasn’t bad work.”
“I’ll allow,” I answered, as I looked disconsolately at the “tools,” “that it was by the special mercy of Providence that you fetched anywhere with such things.”
“Well, perhaps they ain’t right up to big-ship style,” he replied. “But, you see, I ain’t had much occasion for such. Look here,” and, unfolding the chart, which I now observed to my disgust was only for a portion of the S.W. coast of Victoria, he pointed to a thick black stroke reaching from Warmambool in a slight curve to Cape Otway, then turning up the bay and through the South Channel to Williams-town.
“There!” said he, “I could smell my way along that road, blow high or low, dark or shine. But if you think that you can do any better with these here tools, why, you’re welcome to ’em, an’ I can’t say any more, can I?”
I despaired of making such a man sensible of the immense difference that existed between a trip of a few miles along the coast, every inch of which was as well known to him as was Spencer or Bourke Street, and almost as well lighted, and one of a thousand miles on which the land might be sighted but twice or thrice. However, I attempted to put the case plainly before him, and in the course of our conversation I was astonished to find that he possessed only a vague notion of where Fremantle really was. His one idea seemed that of following the coast till he arrived there; and it was not till I drew for him the shape of the southern seaboard, stretching away into the head of the Great Bight, then trending south and west again to King George’s Sound, that he appeared to realise the magnitude of the adventure he had hurriedly undertaken. Tenders, it seemed, had been called by a party of working miners for the transportation of a small engine and boiler with a quantity of bricks to the site of what they deemed would turn out a second Potosi, in the far Western colony. The master of the Ruby cutter had obtained the freight,—had, indeed, been the only tenderer for the contract,—and forthwith replenishing his rum-keg and harness-casks, and in a few hours putting his lading on board, had set out with a stout heart and a faith in his own resources which were perfectly touching, to convey it to its destination.
“Well, well,” said the skipper, at length nearly convinced, “we must only make the best of a bad job now. Trust in Providence, I say, an’ stick to the land.”
“We may have too much of the land before we sight the Leeuwin,” I answered, irritably enough, as he went on deck.
Left to myself, I overhauled the bookcase, the contents of which I found to consist solely of Miss Braddon’s novels—not another work of any description.
Now, clever as that lady is, and deservedly popular as are many of her writings, their most ardent admirers will acknowledge that a perusal of them, no matter how diligent and appreciative, will do very little towards solving a problem of latitude and longitude at sea. So I may be forgiven for confessing that it was with feelings of no little contempt for the student of the volumes before me that I at last banged to the door of the bookcase.
We sailed along comfortably enough for a couple of days, sometimes pretty close inshore, at others in bare sight of it, till, one evening, being somewhere between Cape Northumberland and Lacepede Bay, steering a course that would have run us dead on to Kangaroo Island, we caught a southerly buster — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it caught us—and I thought, for a while, that a prolonged stay in Davy Jones’ locker was to be our next experience.
But the Ruby, handicapped as she was, proved herself a sea-boat of no common order. Nor, at this crisis, was her master found wanting. Flinging, for the time, and literally, Miss Braddon to the winds, he stood at the tiller and bellowed out his orders in a manner that showed he knew well what he was about. The sea got up with tremendous rapidity, and soon fairly swept the cutter’s decks. I had never before, from a like standpoint, seen anything to equal it; and as I clung gasping and choking to the rigging, I thought that we must inevitably founder.
Happily, the Ruby was not troubled with bulwarks, iron stanchions with a chain rove through their tops taking their place, so that the water went off nearly as quickly as it came on; but the pressure upon the deck and hatches must have been tremendous.
At nightfall the buster turned into a regular S.W. gale, and the cutter, under a goosewinged mainsail and close-reefed foresail, lay-to like a log awash. Every movable thing was carried off her decks, including our one boat, which disappeared on the top of a great comber, looking for all the world just like a sheet of white paper in the gloom.
Luckily the weather was beautifully warm, and, no one seeming to care about going below, all secured themselves to the rigging in some fashion or another.
The scene as I gazed upon it from my perch between the iron bars that did duty as crosstrees was grand and appalling beyond anything that in the course of a long seafaring career I had ever before witnessed. The tall solitary mast swept in wild, dizzily-swaying arcs, plunging, trembling, and jumping, as if endeavouring to shake off into the hissing foam below the black dots so tenaciously clinging to it. Presently, a great roaring giant of a billow would break over the cutter, the spray from which flew in showers over the lower masthead, clattering like volleys of hail against the rag of canvas, and stinging our hands and faces like gravel. Hardly would the little craft have time to shake herself, ere another monster, appearing to rise exactly underneath her, would bear us up, up, up, as it seemed, to a tremendous height, then, slipping away, down she shot swiftly with flapping sail between two steep walls of water into a momentarily calm and windless gulf, only to be directly hove up again, quivering and straining in every timber, and with the water pouring from her in sheets fore and aft. Overhead the stars shone fiercely out of a clear sky, against whose horizon the tumbling masses of water stood up in ever-disappearing relief like black hills.
I was never seasick in my life, but I believe, that I was very near to being so whilst clinging to that whirling, madly-gyrating cutter’s mast, whose rigging, despite a faint protest from the old skipper, I was now more than ever glad that I had insisted on thoroughly overhauling.
The old fellow himself was hanging on close beside me as chirpy and lively as a cricket, chewing away at a great plug of tobacco. Presently came a lull in the everlasting rush and roar of commingled blast and water, and he shouted, “By Gosh, mister, I never seed her ship it afore like this!”
“Dry as a cork, eh?” I bawled back sarcastically. “Catch me in a cutter again!”
At this moment someone shouted the single word “Breakers!”
And there, away to leeward under the stars, shone a long, bright, white line of surf, looking as if drawn by some magical pencil across the dark wilderness of jumbled sea.
The old captain’s navigation might be somewhat faulty, but of his courage and sterling practical seamanship there could be no doubt. And now, whilst yelling out, “On deck all hands! Reefs out o’ the mains’l!” he set the example himself, cheering and encouraging everyone; agile as a grasshopper, strong as a little lion, he flew about, pulling, commanding, and directing in a way that seemed to me, when I thought of it afterwards, as little less than wonderful.
With infinite labour and difficulty we at length, after many narrow escapes of being washed overboard, got our throat and peak halliards to the winch and shook out the thundering canvas to the gale.
The white streak was now so close that it actually appeared to seethe and bubble just under the cutter’s bows, whilst ahead loomed, hardly distinguishable from the black rollers themselves, a steady mass whence came the dread sound that, once heard as we heard it then, in after-years wakes men from their sleep with hair all damp and terror at their hearts—
“The sound of the trampling surf
On the rocks and the hard sea-sand.”
Heeling over to the blast till her lee gunwale was six feet under water, and the lower mast bent like a fishing-rod, the Ruby, only half alive though she was, gallantly held her own, and, as she gradually gathered way, the glistening lines of roaring foam where lay hidden certain destruction, swift and merciless, grew dimmer and dimmer astern, and their booming broke more dully on the ear as we tediously but hopefully thrashed to windward in our struggle through the long dark hours.
It was a terrible fight, but we conquered. And as daylight came, dull and threatening, we continued to make good our offing from the rockbound coast on whose reefs we had been so nearly lost.
All that day the gale blew steadily, veering gradually round to the eastward. In the evening I had a long talk with the skipper, the outcome of which was that he agreed to put into Port Adelaide and discharge some of the cargo before venturing any farther. Next morning we sighted Cape Willoughby; and as we rapidly rose the land on the other side of Backstairs Passage, I soon picked up marks familiar enough in days long gone by. That night we bring up under the lee of Point Marsden, and next day, with a fair wind, we rattle up the Gulf to the Semaphore in great style. Another few hours see us snugly moored alongside one of the wharfs in the Port, and so ends the first portion of my cruise.
Down the Gulf of St. Vincent again, after a stay in port only of forty-eight hours, out into the open sea, and, to our commander’s manifest uneasiness, unable to catch even a glimpse of the land. For two whole days has this been so; and he is on deck incessantly, peering through a long, heavy telescope towards the direction in which he knows the coast must lie. Miss Braddon has lost all her charms for him. He regards me suspiciously, and with doubtful looks. Having by this time fallen somewhat into the ways of the Ruby, cutter, I challenge the old man to a game at draughts and get ignominiously beaten, whereupon he seems pleased; but, happening to glance landwards, and seeing nothing but sky and blue water, he grows grave again, and commences to relate the, by now, old, old, story of that memorable voyage to Tasmania, and of the wonderful land-fall he then made. I have been told since, though, that he had, at first, mistaken King’s Island for Tasmania, nearly, in consequence, running the Ruby on the Navarine rocks before he discovered his error. Peace be to his ashes, and to those of his little boat, too! Both are gone, and both, in their own way, were equally good.
We are sailing across the Great Australian Bight now; and, much as I should like to reassure him by giving him a sight of land, cannot, without flying in the face of Providence and a fair wind that is sending us merrily along.
From this it will be guessed that I have been appointed sailing-master of the Ruby. In Adelaide I had invested privately, and on my own account, in a good second-hand quadrant, a Norrie’s Epitome, Nautical Almanac, and a few others things, including a capital chart of the W. and S.W. coasts.
For the first day or so after losing sight of Cape Borda the skipper had kept so close in that I had imagined he was for exploring Spencer’s Gulf and the Banks Group, actually, as we did, getting right under Cape Catastrophe.
My recollections of a lee-shore were still too vivid not to make me protest against this dodging in and out, which, in spite of my former lecture, he still persisted in. At length, one evening, he gets a thorough fright. We are poking about amongst the Four Hummocks, close to the Whidby Isles, when the cutter grates and grinds along over something considerably harder than herself, as evidenced by splinters of her keel, white and fresh-looking, floating alongside as she slides over the obstruction into deep water again. I tell him that the whole coast right along bristles with such things, requesting him at the same time, if he must keep in sight of the shore, at least to do so at a decent distance. Presently it comes on to blow pretty freshly from the north-east. He asks me the correct course to make the Leeuwin. I tell him that to reach the Leeuwin from where we are now, we shall have to go overland if we wish to go direct; so shape a course for the Sound. And thus it is that we have been so long away from the coast, and hence the old man’s fits of fidgetiness.
“Sail ho!” now shouts one of the crew, who has been looking around during an interval of dealing out a dirty pack of cards, with which both watches are engaged in a game of “cut-throat” euchre, whilst lying basking in the warm sun.
It is a steamer coming directly for us; an immense ocean mail-boat—from Albany last, most likely. As she approaches nearer and nearer we can hear the deep throbbing of her engines, and make out her port side, from for’ard right aft, lined with faces gazing with eager curiosity at the cutter. Nearer still, and keeping away a point, she gives a long heave over towards us, exposing to view the whole breadth of her snowy decks, the open hatchways, with their pendant, inflated windsails, and her polished brasswork gleaming like jets of yellow flame in the sunlight. Presently, dark faces, grinning whitely, mingle with the others. Her Lascar firemen have come up for a minute’s fresh air and a look at the stranger.
Aft, underneath the broad awning, we catch a glimpse of white shimmering drapery and scarlet uniforms — these last, as we learn afterwards, belonging to viceroyalty and its suite, bound Adelaideward. Now, up she rises again and surges past the Ruby in all her majesty of bulk and steam. Now, the ensign flutters aloft to her peak. We gravely dip ours, which I have frantically rushed below and snatched from the head of the skipper’s bunk—he loves a high pillow. Three times I raise and lower it in parting salute from the pigmy, as courteously returned from the giant, on whose stern, as churning a wide wake of snowy foam, it slides along, we read Atrato.
The next day, a long distance away to the northward, we sight some small rocky islets, and, beyond them again, can make out the mainland, lying low, like a blue haze upon the water. The group of rocks is the Recherche Archipelago, and, altering our course more southerly, we next morning run past the entrance to King George’s Sound— the old captain absorbed in placid contentment and The Trail of the Serpent. Then sighting D’Entrecasteaux, we bear up against a north-east wind, with the grey old Leeuwin, washed smooth and bare by the seas of centuries, rising grimly on our starboard bow.
Off Cape Naturaliste a strange incident happened, and one that had nearly brought our cruise to an untimely end.
“Is that there rock ahead on us laid down in your chart, Mr. Brown, sir?” asked the skipper one fine afternoon; he had of late become deferential in the extreme. Looking through the glass, I saw, about a couple of points on the port bow, a large dark object. Presently I thought I saw it move, and then it suddenly disappeared altogether. Turning to the captain, I was about to make some joking remark, when all at once the cutter began to heel slowly over till the end of her main-boom touched the water. We were running along at the time with a light breeze nearly aft. Then, as we clambered up to windward, thoroughly scared, she gradually righted again, and there appeared, overtopping the deck by many feet, a monstrous mass, black and shining, from which the water poured down upon us in streams. It was an enormous whale.
And as, holding on to the guard-chain, we gazed upwards in wonder and alarm, over went the poor little Ruby once more, whilst, as she went, the great beast’s side closely followed hers with a rasping, grating sound, caused, as we soon saw, by millions of barnacles and other parasites of every description that adhered to his skin, and which fell off in showers as he rubbed delightedly and vigorously against his extempore scratching-post.
Once he paused, and, submerging the rest of his body, he rose a huge, semicircular head, till now out of sight, fairly above and resting against the vessel’s side. So close were we that had there been such an organ visible, and had we been so inclined, we could have pulled his nose.
For the space of, perhaps, a couple of minutes, we all—for the crew had by this run aft—stood and looked leviathan squarely in the face. Small, round, unwinking, expressionless black eyes were they that stared at us so intently. I was just wondering to myself whether his next move would be an attempt to come inboard altogether, when he suddenly opened wide a pair of monstrous jaws, the passage between which looked large enough for cutter, crew, and cargo to have slid down with ease.
“Oh, holy Moses!” shouted the skipper, in terror, as he hastily drew back, closely followed by the rest of us to the far side, whilst the whale, as if startled by the invocation, spouted columns of water into the air, rising as high as the masthead, and falling in tons on deck, swamping and drenching everything.
After thoroughly ducking us, he disappeared, and we began to hope that we had seen the last of him.
But no; just as the Ruby was gathering way again he returned, only this time on the opposite side, and recommenced the same scraping process.
The affair was becoming both irritating and disquieting, as its first novelty and impressiveness wore off.
But we kept as still as mice, for we were afraid that if we interfered with him in any way he might take it into his thick head to exterminate us with one sweep of the great tail that, at times, came so perilously near to the Ruby’s bowsprit-end. He completely stopped the cutter’s way, pushing her over, and backwards and forwards, just as he pleased; rubbing off, not only his encumbrances, but paint and wood, in which last he made deep scores and streaks; the side he had done with looking as if some Brobdignagian marine artist had been trying his hand at “cross-hatching” with lumps of coral.
At one time, so hard, and with such force did the beast scrape and push against, I suppose, a more than usually obstinate and thickly-populated spot, that the cutter fairly put her port-rail under water up to the main hatch, nearly floating off its chocks the new long-boat we had obtained in Port Adelaide. I thought, for a moment, that it was all over with us; but, just in the nick of time, the brute settled back, followed by the Ruby.
That we were in the embraces of an unusually-sized predicament as well as in those of a whale, was not to be denied, and how to get free of the thing puzzled us monstrously. I recalled to mind everything I had either heard or read of the animal and its habits, or, rather, I attempted to do so; but, for the life of me, I could think of nothing bearing on the subject in hand but the ancient story of Jonah, whose fate, popularly, if erroneously, attributed for ages to a member of the same family as that of our too-loving friend, had in childhood’s days made such a deep and lasting impression on my mind.
It seemed pretty certain, however, that if, as scientists averred, he could not possibly swallow anything larger than a sprat (although that discovery did not occur to me till afterwards), still that he would, if he stayed much longer with us, capsize our vessel or scrape clean through her timbers — either contingency about on a par as far as ourselves were concerned.
He also, to add to our bewilderment, began to make a curious kind of loud grunting noise, expressive probably of satisfaction, and to move more slowly and indolently, pausing for long intervals, but still sticking so close to the cutter as to render all progress impossible.
And now our cook had an idea. Creeping into his galley, he filled a big wooden bucket with scalding water from his fountain, which bringing out, and ascending a few ratlines of the rigging, he poured carefully over the whale’s back. It was all done so quickly that it was too late to do anything but anxiously watch the effect.
The rubbing and grunting abruptly ceased, a cataract of water deluged us, and with a shake and twist of his flukes, which made the cutter rock and quiver so violently as to throw us all flat on the deck, our visitor disappeared. Nor did we see anything more of him for about half an hour, when he was discovered spouting away about two miles astern.
I have not the slightest notion whether the hot water really was the cause of his departure, or whether he meant going in any case. Be that as it may, the cook got the full benefit of the doubt, and was as proud a man that day as if he had captured a whole school of whales single-handed.
“By Gosh!” exclaimed the skipper, as he squinted through the glass at our now distant visitor, “I thought, sure, once or twice, we was for turning turtle all out. Here, doctor” (to the cook), “come down below an’ get a stiffener. It was a scary kind o’ thing to try—tannin’ his hide with bilin’ water; but, as luck would have, it turned up trumps.”
We made a good run from Cape Naturaliste to just abreast of Fremantle, when it suddenly came on to blow pretty stiffly from the eastward, causing us to stand out to sea again for the night.
Early the next morning we saw a barque coming straight out of the port. Blowing hard though it was, she was under her royals and topgallant-staysails. As she passed us like a shot, at a distance of only a couple of hundred yards or so, she kept away a point, and set her gaff-topsail and flying-gib, whilst we could see a crowd of men busily rigging up preventer-stays and back-stays—not before it was time, either, for it was a miracle how her masts stood.
From her gaff-end the American colours blew out like a painted board; and on the poop, clustered about the weather mizzen-rigging, was a little group of people who waved their pocket-handkerchiefs to us, whilst the sound of cheering came faintly up against the wind, as she swiftly darted by, becoming in a few minutes a far-away patch of white between the sombre sea and sky.
“An outward-bounder,” remarked my captain; “an’ the passengers ain’t quite over their first spree yet.” Shortly afterwards, a small steamer passed us, apparently in hot pursuit of the barque, now nearly a mile down to the westward.
“Someone lost their passage, an’ tryin’ to pull it up agen,” said the skipper. “Gov’ment, too,” added the old fellow, as he pointed to the Union Jack flying at the steamer’s masthead. “My eye!” he continued, “how them Yanks do crack on, to be sure! It’s odds that them that’s lost their passages ’ll have to wait for the next boat.”
But my old man was wrong; a passage had not been lost, but won.
We were gazing, although we knew it not at the time, on one of the scenes (an escape which has become matter of history) in a great drama, which, begun of old in the land of the Shamrock, has, little by little, assumed proportions as tremendous and threatening as those of any tragedy yet placed upon the stage where nations are the actors; a drama the players in which, though scattered the whole world over, are ever performing with more or less of skill, and intention, good or evil, before their countrymen in that most unhappy Erin—a land they would fain have their audience believe—
“Where bastard Freedom waves
Her fustian flag in mockery over slaves.”
Later on, the Government steamer passed us again on her return from what had proved a bootless errand. She had, it was true, caught up with the fugitives, who had shortened sail, once out of Australian waters, and allowed her to come alongside. Then the captain had pointed to the Flag above his head and dared the officers of justice to seize their prisoners upon what was now virtually American ground.
And so it ended. But I often think of that little group on the deck of the barque, cheering with light hearts on that wild and stormy morning, as, surging over the ocean, in all the glory of a newly-acquired freedom, under the protecting aegis of the starry banner of the Great Republic, they bade Imperial captivity farewell. Some are dead since then; some survive, perhaps yet to make history.
That evening we picked up our pilot, an imposing and portly uniformed personage, who looked as much out of place on our homely deck as a post-captain would have done on a hay barge, but who, nevertheless, took us safely to our anchorage.
And now, for the time, at anyrate, I must end this portion of our cruise. But at some future day I may perhaps tell my readers how we took the little Ruby to the pearling grounds, then to Singapore, and up and down the Eastern seas, where, land being always in sight, the good old skipper—contrary to the general rule in such cases—had plenty of leisure for his favourite studies; and how, too, after an absence of nearly two years — years full of adventure and incident—we at last managed to find our way back to Australia, little the better in pocket, perhaps, but in experience much.
He was a neighbour of mine, the old sea-captain. He said he didn’t think of going afloat any more. Why should he—a bachelor comfortably to do, and with the best housekeeper in Bow to look after him?
Imagine my surprise, then, when one evening, hailing me over the privet hedge which divided our little gardens, he said in an excited yet half-shamefaced sort of a way that he had made up his mind for another trip— had even now “got a ship,” and was to start almost immediately.
“Deep-water, I’m thankful to say. The East Indies and China. A fine clipper barque. I never asked for her. They just let me know— the old firm— that if I was minded to sight blue water again they could accommodate me. I’m not an aged man yet. Only fifty, though my hair is so grey. Do you good to come, too, instead of sitting in that office all day long.”
I was, at that time, a shipping clerk at one of the new “Homes” for seamen in London. Sure enough a few days after this up come the captain and his men to sign articles.
“Name in full, Captain Dunlop, please,” I said, seeing that he had written his initials only before the surname, getting another form ready as I spoke.
“Christmas Seagiven,” replied he promptly enough.
“Born at sea on a Christmas morn?” I remarked, smiling.
“Not a bit of it,” answered he very gravely. “Come in to-night and I’ll tell you.”
I have a vivid memory of that long-ago evening at Bow, haven of retired merchant skippers, in the snug little cottage; of the curio-laden walls, the great half-model on the mantelshelf, the cheerful firelight glancing from the polished copper kettle on to the case-bottles and tumblers on the table, and illumining the hale and handsome features of the old sea captain as he bent forward, tongs in hand, to pick the needful coal for his pipe.
I remember, too, as I sat and waited, wondering at the magic power of that sea which could draw a man of his age out of such comfortable quarters.
I tell his own story in my own words.
* * * * * * * * *
The good ship Perseus had just left the south-east Trades. She had lost her headway at the same time, and was simply wallowing around at random with an awful slapping of clewed-up sails and gear, and tin dishes in the galley.
It was in the second dog-watch, quite light as yet, and both watches were lying about for’ard waiting until eight bells and “Grog ho!”—for the Perseus was a good ship, grog every night; butter, “plums” and currants, vinegar and mustard; plenty, but no waste.
Aft stood the captain and the mate, now looking up anxiously at the darkening blue of the sky, now over the side at the oily gurgling pools which circled and eddied in the swell left by the lost wind.
“Not much use boxhauling the yards about, Mr. James,” said the captain at length. “It’s a regular Irishman’s hurricane at present—fair up and down. However, we mustn’t growl. The sou’-easters served us handsomely.”
“Eight bells, sir,” sang out an apprentice from the other side of the poop.
“Make it,” replied the mate.
As the boy walked towards the bell a sudden confused hubbub and bustle for’ard caused him to halt. Exclamations, oaths, and then a patter of bare feet on wood, as the ship’s company came rushing aft in a body.
“What’s up now?” sang out the captain, as he saw all hands invade the sanctity of the quarter-deck, gallop furiously up the ladders, and swarm on to the poop itself.
“What is the matter?” echoed Mr. James, catching hold of one of the fellows as they pressed on towards the taffrail. “Have you seen the devil for’ard there? Or is the ship on fire?”
“Ay, ay, sir,” replied the man, who appeared half crazed with terror. “There he comes now,” pointing to a tall white object, just visible in the dusk, advancing slowly along the main-deck.
“What is it, Mr. James?” asked the skipper, peering for’ard, but also backing aft along with the mate.
“And for bonnie Annie Laurie
I’d lay me doun an’ dee,”
quavered shrilly up into the calm night air from the figure, which had paused irresolutely just in front of the quarter-deck.
“A stowaway!” exclaimed the skipper, with a sigh of relief, but omitting to mention his authority. “The devil don’t sing!”
“No, sir,” put in one of the men, “he’s no stowaway. He come over the bows right into the middle of us on the fo’k’sle head.”
“Like dew on the gowan lying
Is the fa’ o’ her fairy feet,”
shrilled that unearthly voice once more, as the second mate, coming out of his berth, found himself face to face with its owner.
He was a surly old North Country man, this officer, and demanded he—
“What game’s this? Are ye goin’ daft, wi’ yer screechin’ on the quarter-deck, an’ wi’out yer claes? Eight bells isna gone yet. Which of ye is’t, anyway? I’ll get yer grog stopped, my man, for this!”
Thus speaking, he came closer, peering, and then, with a scared oath, retreated slowly up the poop-ladder.
“What is it, Mr. Munro?” inquired the captain, walking for’ard.
“Nane o’ ours, sir,” replied the second. “It give me a bit turn, the creature’s face. It’s flesh an’ bluid, though, I do believe.”
“Well, well,” said the other, who had got over his first fright, “bring one of the binnacle lamps along and let’s explore the mystery.” Followed by the two mates and a long string of others, the skipper walked straight up to the figure, now leaning against the quarter-deck capstan. A man certainly. A living skeleton, quite naked but for the remnants of a pair of trousers, with the light of madness in its sunken shining eyes. A long fair beard fell down on to the bare chest, and, with hair of the same colour all tangled and matted, sparkled saltly in the lamp rays.
“Run for’ard, some of you,” said the skipper after a pause, “and see if there’s a boat or a raft hanging about the ship anywhere. Mr. James, will you call the doctor?—if he’s sober.”
Then, with kind words and gestures, they strove to lead the unfortunate creature into the saloon, whose cheerful lights shone along the deck. But resisting every entreaty, he clung to the capstan and fondled it, and called it endearing names, and would not be parted from it except by force.
It was a painful, ay, a terrible, sight, and the rough seamen around—their superstitious fears calmed by the present discovery, made fast to a rope’s end which had been towing overboard, of a couple of hencoops roughly lashed together —felt awed and moved at this eloquent reminder from the great ocean of what might be their own fate at any minute.
The Perseus carried one passenger, a doctor, experienced and skilful, but given to periodical “drunks.” Luckily, he had recovered from his last one sufficiently to be of use; and under his directions they at last succeeded in getting the castaway into one of the spare berths, where, after administering some broth, the doctor had the satisfaction of seeing him fall into a deep sleep.
“No wonder the men were scared, Mr. James,” remarked the captain, as he looked at the hencoops tied feebly together with strips of clothing. “I felt that way myself for a while. But, good God! what must the poor devil have suffered? Will he ever regain his senses, d’ye think, doctor?”
“Tell you when he wakes,” replied the latter. “It’s a most interesting case. Man’s been for a fortnight without food. He’s weaker, physically, than a new-born baby. And yet you saw how the mind’s distemper raging within gave him strength. The chances are that if he does recover his memory ’ll be a mere tabula rasa—a blank.”
“God forbid!” exclaimed the captain fervently.
A week passed before the Perseus again caught a dependable wind. All that time the stranger lay and babbled wildly of many things, but mainly of “Annie” and of “Dot.” The doctor, taking an interest in his patient, and forswearing grog, watched him and tended him skilfully and incessantly until he took a turn for the better. And one breezy sunny morning, the fluted cliffs of Tristan d’Acunha bearing broad on the port bow, and the Perseus surging along with a sparkling wake of crisp white and tender blue, in which Cape pigeons, gulls, and mollyauks screamed and dipped and scrambled, the convalescent, weak and wan, and faltering of speech, but “clothed and in his right mind,” was carried on deck.
But ere this, bit by bit, his story had been learned. His name was Dunlop, and he was a civil engineer going out to take charge of some extensive irrigation works in Victoria. With his wife and their only child, a boy of three years, they had taken passage in a vessel called the Western Empire, a fine fast sailer, nearly new, and only on her second voyage to Melbourne.
One evening, a fresh breeze blowing, while Dunlop was sitting smoking on the broad rail at the gangway, one hand holding by a line of the running-gear, suddenly he felt something give aloft, down came the rope, and, losing his balance, he fell overboard. He had time only for a single cry, but as he rose astern he could hear the hoarse shouts of “Man overboard!” could see the black loom of the ship hove up in the wind with a letting go of sheets and halliards and a flapping and banging of canvas; then, between towering walls of water hurrying along, each doing its best to overwhelm him, he got bewildered, and no longer knew in which direction to look for her. He was a splendid swimmer, but the sea was too high for him, so desisting from the struggle he contented himself with keeping afloat and waiting for the boat that he thought must surely come. At this moment he found the first hencoop. Getting astride it, he listened with agonised intensity for the splash of oars or calls of rescue, shouting himself at intervals. The darkness gathered more thickly about him. His voice, the only thing audible save the angry hiss of the waves as they swept over him, sounded hollow and unnatural in his ears.
All through the long watches of the night he clung to his frail support, and strained his eyesight, and shouted until he could shout no longer. Fortunately both air and water were warm, or he must have perished.
As the dawn broke and the sun rose, lighting up the vast sailless waste of watery furrows, he realised to the full what pretty nearly everybody knows nowadays — that he who falls overboard from a merchant vessel is nothing better than a dead man. There may be just one chance out of a thousand in a calm and by broad daylight; in the night, unless God work a miracle, as in his case, none whatever. Whether they lowered a boat or not he was unable to say. Probably they did, and after pulling aimlessly about for half an hour, gave it up; whilst, as the “official log,” has it, “the ship proceeded on her course.” For which quotation, and an addendum to the effect that the incident “cast a gloom over the remainder of the passage, the missing man being a general favourite,” see almost any newspaper’s reports of the incoming shipping. Later on he picked up another hencoop, and formed the frail raft we have described.
God was very good to him. Once he caught an albatross asleep, and, after a fierce battle with the great bird, the scars of which were yet scarce healed, he killed it.
Think of the struggle in mid-ocean between the naked perishing man and his iron-beaked adversary, of the wild screaming of the thing, and the rushing of its huge pinions as it beat and clutched and tore at its captor!
During part of his awful experience frequent showers fell, so that he suffered little from thirst.
How long he had been floating about, half dead, half mad, wholly hopeless, when the shock of his raft against the bows of the Perseus aroused him from a sort of trance, he had not the remotest idea—certainly more than a week.
As time went on he improved rapidly, developing from a skeleton into a man of magnificent physique and almost herculean strength.
“Pooh!” said the doctor one day, eyeing him. “Another dose like that wouldn’t hurt you now—with me to pull you through at the end of it.”
He was a man, too, of culture and trained intelligence, whose opinion on many subjects was in itself a liberal education to listen to.
Thus the little group in the cabin became much attached to their rescued passenger. Even the crusty old second mate went so far as to remark, “He’s a mon, ivery inch o’ him, though he did coom aboord on us like the divil.”
But, in head winds, or calms, it was pitiful to see him. He roamed the ship like a caged animal, watching the water, watching the sky, with a passionate, eager look in his eyes that told its tale to everyone. Then, when with a couple of white hillocks pouring away from each side of her fore-foot the Perseus laid her course, his post was aloft, scanning the horizon in search of the ship that held those who were so dear to him.
The Perseus being bound to Sydney, the two vessels were probably running along much the same parallels, although the captain’s opinion was that the Empire had kept more to the south, and that their chances of sighting her were extremely slight. Besides, he knew her, and knew that she was the faster vessel of the two.
But Dunlop never relaxed his vigilance— always the pale, expectant face set steadily eastward.
* * * * * * * * *
On Christmas Day, and when half-way across the Southern Ocean, it came on to blow heavily, with signs of more, and the Perseus, under her three topsails and foresails, roared along like a steamer. “Off again, Mr. Dunlop,” said the skipper as, coming on deck, he espied the former with his glass slung over his shoulder ready to ascend the weather mizzen-rigging. “I’m afraid it’s of no use, though,” he continued; “the Empire got too great a start for us. I suppose it’s not much use wishing you a ‘Merry Christmas’ whilst the wife and the youngster are away. But let me hope that before the New Year’s far gone you’ll be together again. A fortnight of this, and the old Leeuwin ’ll be astern.”
“Thank you, captain,” replied the other, as he stood on the shear-pole. “Yes, please God, I shall see Annie and the boy before very long. They will thank you themselves then, captain I can’t do it nearly enough without their help.”
“Pooh! nonsense, man!” growled the skipper, as he squinted aloft “Mind, now, and keep a good hold up there, unless you’re hankering after another trip on a coop. I can’t venture a boat in this sea.”
“I’ll look out this time,” answered Dunlop, as he sprang up the rigging on to the top-gallant-yard, where, seated with one arm around the tie, he worked away with his binocular.
“As usual, I suppose?” queried the captain at luncheon-time. “Nothing in sight? I never remember, in all the runs I’ve made across here, falling in with so few ships.”
“I fancy I saw something right ahead,” replied Dunlop. “But a squall came along and hid it. Anyhow, it wasn’t a ship, or at least not one with her sails set. It seemed merely a black spot under the grey sky.”
“Might be a derelict, though,” remarked the captain. “Send a man aloft, if you please, Mr. James, and tell him to keep his eyes skinned. Deuced ugly thing a derelict pottering about right in our track, I can tell you, Mr. Dunlop. Might just as well run slap into a rock.”
Before the meal was quite over the second mate put his head down the companion with, “Theer’s something ’bout a point on the lee bow, sir. Looks to me like a ship with the sticks outen her. Ye can see her off the fo’k’sle-head now.”
In a minute the others were on deck. Sure enough, there was the object Dunlop had first discovered, little more, as yet, to the untrained eye, than the dark spot it had appeared to him, but rising fast as the Perseus drew nearer. Now the mate jumped aloft with his glass, and presently came from him—
“It’s a big ship dismasted and nearly awash.”
Closer and closer drove the Perseus, keeping a weather helm, and with every glass in her focussed on the wreck, over the greater part of which big seas were arching in glassy deluges.
Mr. James had come down and joined the watchers on the poop.
“By heavens!” he suddenly exclaimed, as a watery sun-glint shot out of the ragged, lowering storm-clouds, “there’s people on her!”
As, still keeping her helm up, the Perseus approached with foresail clewed up, topsails on the caps, and reef-tackles hauled out, a pitiful spectacle presented itself.
Over the hull of a large ship, her decks nearly level with the water, the sea was making clean breaches. About eight feet of each mast was left standing, and the wreckage, with a confused raffle of ropes and rigging, rose and fell and dashed on board as each sea broke over her. Aft and amidships was nothing but an incessant curling up and falling in sheets of foam of heavy combers.
The topgallant-fo’k’sle alone formed a little island of refuge which, though swept at intervals by showers of spume and spindrift, had as yet escaped the thunderous masses that roared across the rest of the vessel. From the stump of the shattered bowsprit a hawser had been carried round the remnant of the foremast and back again. To the part of this extending along the fo’k’sle-deck, some thirty feet perhaps, five men and a woman were fastened. The latter’s long black hair streamed with the wind off her shoulders, whilst clasped in both arms to her breast she held a bundle. Possibly the poor wretches shouted. But if they did, the relentless gale blew the words back down their throats. There was no mistaking, though, the eloquent dumb appeal of waving beckoning arms and hands; and once the woman lifted the bundle from her bosom and opening it showed a child. It was a sight agonising in the hopelessness and the misery of it.
At this moment a voice as of a mortally stricken man, so full of anguish was it, sounded in the captain’s ear, making him start as if bitten by a snake. “My God!” it said, “my God! It’s Annie!”
Turning, he saw Dunlop, white as death, and shaking in every limb as he pointed with extended finger towards the wreck. He said no more, but stood motionless, staring fixedly at the huddled-up figures through whose bodies the hawser seemed to run as if they were strung on it, whilst every now and then, the seas rising higher, a green one would break over their refuge and sweep them all swinging off their feet.
“Never mind,” said the skipper, after a pause, and in a voice he in vain tried to render confident, “don’t take it to heart so. We’ll hang about until this bit of a blow’s over, and then we’ll get ’em off all right. It’s sudden death to lower a boat now ”
But the other replied only by a groan.
“Run up the ensign, Mr. James,” shouted the skipper, “and let those poor folk see that they’ve got Englishmen to deal with! God knows it makes my heart ache to know we can’t give ’em better comfort than that. But I must think of my own men’s lives first.
“Call the hands,” he continued, “and let them stow the foresail and mizzen-tops’l, and close reef the fore and main ones. Tell ’em to stand by to heave the ship to. I’ll stick by ’em as long as a plank of her holds together. And, by heaven! if all the Royal Navy was here in such-like weather they couldn’t do more! A falling glass, too!” he muttered to himself. “And only this morning, Christmas morning, I was promising him he should soon see ’em! God help us!”
Little need was there to “call all hands” A great thrill of sympathy and pity had run through the Perseus and brought her men crowding aft, eager to hear their captain’s determination. A ringing cheer escaped them as the mate repeated his orders, and they sprang aloft like cats. Had the skipper called for volunteers to man a boat he could have had them twice over.
“Ay, Billy,” said an old sailor to a young messmate who indignantly demanded of him why that step was not taken at once, “so the skipper would; only, ye see, he knows his business, an’ you’re just a-beginnin’ to larn it. But I’ll tell ye. Fust an’ foremost, no boat, ’cept a lifeboat, ’d live in the sea as’ll be on in another half-hour. Second, if she got to the hull over yonder she’d never get no closer’n a hundred yards of her, an’ a precious lot o’ good ’d be done then. Thirdly, Billy, afore we’d got clear o’ the Pershoos we’d be all a-floatin’ bung up an’ bilge free among them combers, as that last one, ye’ll notice, precious nigh took the galley away wi’ it. Not but,” he concluded sententiously, getting a grip of the bunt of the foresail with his horny old fingers—“not but what I’d go, Billy, if I was axed”
The Perseus was now crossing the wreck’s bows perilously close, her yards covered with men getting in the canvas preparatory to bringing the ship to. The captain, standing at the break of the poop, his attention taken up with the work, had forgotten his unfortunate passenger, when a loud shout from the man at the wheel caused him to run aft.
“He’s gone, sir!” exclaimed the fellow excitedly, pointing to a heap of clothes on the deck. “He went all on a suddent. Shoves a bowline in one o’ them there royal sheets, then into it, an’ dives off afore I seen what he was up to.”
A glance at the slowly paying-out line, another to where, on the summit of a white-crested billow, floated something whiter still, and the captain understood. A few more minutes, and the Perseus, head to wind, lay like a duck amongst the big seas, only taking in one now and again—making, in fact, what seamen call “good weather” of it.
In the morning, before the wreck was sighted, the watch had been busy unreeving the mizzen-royal sheets and reeving new ones. The old ones neatly coiled up still lay on the poop. An end of one of these Dunlop had secured around him before taking his mad leap into the boiling sea.
A couple of men attended to the line, which paid slowly, so slowly, out, as the desperate swimmer battled with the seething waves, half the time hidden from sight in the roaring chasms, his position only defined by a swooping flock of gulls and a single albatross, which latter, on extended wings, hovered just above him.
“Pull him in!” exclaimed the mate presently. “It’s a sin to see a life thrown away like this. Mortal man can never fight such a sea. Why, the weight of the rope he’s towing is enough to sink a horse.”
“Leave him alone!” commanded the captain. “I tell you at the very first tightening of that line he’d throw it off altogether. Some purpose he had in his mind when he took it. Not for himself, I’m sure. Bend on the other sheet and get up a coil or two of that small running-gear we unrove yesterday, and fake it out along the deck.”
“You’re right, captain,” said the doctor. “I know him. If mortal man can do it, he’s the one. Never bother yourself about the weight of the rope, Mr. James. He doesn’t feel it any more than you or I would a piece of twine. It’s not that I’m afraid of. It’s the bitter foam and spray in his mouth and his eyes and his ears.”
Picture to yourself, if you can, the scene. Under the lowering sky a leaden, white-tipped sea off whose lofty surges the furious wind blew the foam like smoke; then the wreck, at moments invisible under a smother of spray as wave after wave crashed over it; to leeward the Perseus, looking gaunt and bare under her two rags of canvas, the gale shrilling wildly through her rigging, now riding high on top of a big billow, now hidden to her mastheads between a couple, her ensign drooping motionless in the sudden calm, then streaming bravely out again, a patch of red against the dark background of sky, as, rising, the vessel felt the wind; the group on her poop, with their gaze travelling from the wondrous swimmer to the line dragging out ever more slowly, making the watching of it like viewing the lingering agonies of a dying man.
The afternoon wore on. More than once they thought it was all over, and were preparing to haul in the lifeless body, when someone would catch a glimpse of the struggling form still heading for its goal. A longer interval than usual had elapsed since sighting the swimmer when, through a rift in the sullen sky, a sudden shaft of sunlight shot down full on the wreck. At the same time, too, came one of those pauses common enough in the heaviest gales. A man shouted and pointed. A cheer that was half a groan rang out as a white figure was seen to drag itself slowly and painfully along the hawser towards the woman, never pausing at any of the others, three of whom now, in the new light, it could be noticed, hung limply doubled over the rope.
“See! he’s a-cuddlin’ of her, an’ kissin’ of her an’ the kid!” exclaimed one of the men. And his mates pulled their sou’-westers farther over their foreheads and swore passionately for the very pity of the thing.
How he got through the terrible sea bursts, the sweeping raffle of rigging, and the deadly barricade of broken spars will never be known. The love that filled the great heart of him did it, and carried him scatheless through the valley of the shadow, through the “many waters” that “cannot quench love,” to die beside his wife, the mother of his child.
With breathless interest they watched what followed. They saw Dunlop take the skirt off his wife’s dress, she helping him, and wrap it around the boy. Then, holding the child in his arms, he made the end of the rope he had brought with him fast about its body, and when all was ready held it towards those on the Perseus with much the same appealing gesture as his wife had done before.
“Look out there at the line!” almost screamed the mate; “he’s going to throw the child clear of everything!”
Suddenly Dunlop and his burden disappeared.
“Stand by!” sang out the captain; “he’s only gone to give it a fair start; watch the woman!” And, sure enough, in a minute or two she waved her arms towards the Perseus, and “Pull!” yelled the skipper, and they pulled like furies, whilst Dunlop crept back to the side of his wife. The lull was over now, and the wind raged and the sea ran as wildly as ever. It seemed hours before a little white something, tossed from comber to comber like a bird’s feather, came in sight. No one thought of the wreck now. Every eye was fixed on the second mate, who, with a bowline around him, stood in the mizzen-rigging, and into whose arms presently, as the ship descended between two sloping hills of water, a curving billow nearly dashed the child.
“Dead, of course! What else d’ye expect?” said the doctor, as he looked down on the body—stripped perfectly naked by the sea, and with a red-raw rope-chafe under its arms on the delicate white skin. “It was only madness to attempt such a thing. The life must have been beaten out of it in the first minute.” But even whilst speaking he caught it up and ran away with it to his own berth, followed by half a dozen volunteers bearing the hot water he had called for. Taking the water, and locking the others out, he went to work, not appearing again on deck until evening. Then the first look at his face was enough.
“Thank God!” cried the captain, grasping his hand, which he shook heartily.
“Yes, he’ll do,” answered the doctor, hastily withdrawing his fingers and shaking them. “A narrow squeak, though! But he’s not got his father’s constitution for nothing. As fine a three-year-old as ever you saw. Wreck broken up yet?”
The wreck had not broken up. But the Perseus had increased her distance so much as to render glasses necessary to discern at one end of the hawser Dunlop and his wife, apparently clasped in each other’s arms, then the three limp bundles hanging over it. The other places were vacant. The boy (as he told afterwards) remembered his father imploring those yet sensible in turns to let him fasten one of them on the line with him. But they refused. They were apathetic and resigned. They would sooner die where they were than have the breath crushed out of them in that roaring caldron. Better so, probably. The extra weight would have snapped the rope or drowned both.
There were a couple of 12-pounder guns aboard the Perseus. The captain ordered them to be loaded as quickly as possible. It was still daylight when, as the ship rode on the top of a big sea, he gave the signal to fire, and as the reports echoed sullenly over the water, himself dipped the ensign three times. It was at once the requiem of those “faithful unto death” and the salute to the rescued. “If I could but think that they’ll take it as a sign the child’s safe,” said the captain, “I’d feel more satisfied. I believe those two can die happy, knowing so much. Heaven help them! It’s going to be a terrible night.”
Already he had done more than many a shipmaster would have dreamt of doing. But still throughout the long night he kept the Perseus hove to, with lights hanging fore and aft her.
Next morning the wreck was gone—not a vestige left—and the child was crying for its mother. All the name they knew him by was his pet one of “Dot.” It was the only one he recognised himself. Therefore the captain, who, finding that he had no other relatives, eventually adopted him, had him rechristened “Christmas Seagiven.”
“Take the glass, Mr. Staunton, your eyes are younger than mine, and tell me what you make of her.”
The speaker was the master of the British ship Minnehaha, just thirty days out from London to Algoa Bay, and at that moment lying becalmed about two degrees south of the Equator, with a great deal more easting in her longitude than she had any business with. Indeed, we should not have been very much surprised, owing to the set of a current the ship had got into, and the incessant calms experienced of late, to sight the African coast at any minute. Taking the telescope from the captain’s hand, and resting it on the ratlines of the mizzen rigging, I had a long look at the distant object, which had since daybreak been exciting our curiosity.
That it was a ship of some kind or other, and a big one, there was no doubt; and presently, as she floated into the field of the glass, I could see that, whilst she appeared very high out of the water, she had nothing standing aloft above her topmasts, and, as far as I could make out, no sail of any kind set, nor any signals flying.
“Ah,” remarked the captain, “a derelict, I expect, and one, in this part of the sea into which our singular bad fortune has brought us, of no recent making. If you don’t mind losing your watch below you can take two or three hands in the quarter-boat, or perhaps the gig will be lighter, and board her. It’s just possible there may be some poor wretch on her still. We shall, worse luck, be drifting closer to you all the time. I shouldn’t be much astonished to find ourselves at anchor off some infernal swamp, with the ship full of fever and mosquitoes, if this kind of thing lasts much longer,” and so saying, the skipper went below, with a sigh of weariness, and a-glance around at the monotonous scene, familiar for so long, the bleaching decks and spars, the drooping, listless canvas, with everywhere the deadly sameness of oily-looking, greenish-blue water.
I was the second mate of the Minnehaha, and the hard routine of my profession had not as yet in those days wholly knocked the romance out of me, so that it was with not a little feeling of eager anticipation for the adventure that I waited for the bell to strike eight, and my relief to turn out.
“Fair and easy, my boy,” said the first officer as he, at length, stood yawning by my side after having taken a long squint at the stranger; “take my advice, and have breakfast before you start. It’s a long pull, and the sun will be out strong by the time you’re halfway. I’m of the old man’s opinion that she’s been knocking about for some time, months perhaps. A foreigner, I should imagine, by the cut of her, and likely enough, grass on her decks a foot long.”
After breakfast, myself, the boatswain, and two of the able seamen—the latter, in spite of the long pull before them, as happy as schoolboys at the prospect of a holiday and a change from the weary ship—set off on our visit to the derelict.
It was now about nine o’clock, and before we had gone one mile out of the four that we had judged the distance at, the men’s clothes were wet through with perspiration.
I had brought a small beaker of water, two bottles of ship’s rum, and some eatables with us; so, after a good draught of six-water grog all round, the boatswain and myself gave the two seamen a spell at the oars; and soon the mysterious ocean wanderer loomed up large ahead of us. As we drew nearer we saw that she was a ship of fully 1400 tons, nearly twice the size of our own little clipper, and that she had originally been painted white with a yellow streak.
At last we were alongside, and, as the men ceased rowing, we all gazed with something of awe up at the desolate, forsaken thing. She was an immense height out of the water, and her sides— weatherbeaten, blistered, for the most part bare of paint, and with long streaks of iron rust straggling down them— towered above us, grim, forbidding, and uncanny.
As we slowly paddled round her we saw that in one place the sea had made a clean breach through her bulwarks on either side. Strips of her topsails and courses were still hanging from the yards, and, as we came athwart her bows, the rotting bolt-ropes of some of her head-sails swung to and fro under the bowsprit with every little lurch she gave. Aft we noticed the davit-falls and tackles, all fagged out and minus the lower blocks, drooping down just as they had been left when the boats deserted her to let her wander about the ocean, the sport and plaything of every little breeze that blew. It was indeed a melancholy sight, and to a sailor more especially, of all men!
No name was on her stern, only the broad, blank, yellow streak continued.
“I think, sir,” remarked the boatswain, a fine old seaman named Dyson, “that she’s a Portu-gee or somethin’ o’ the kind, an’ she may have been desarted for years by the look on her. My eye, she’s light an’ no mistake! In ballast, I s’pose. No name ahead or astern, either,” continued he, glancing suspiciously up at the old-fashioned quarter-galleries, which gave her such a cumbrous look aft “I don’t like her nohow, an’ I don’t care how soon we all gets aboard the little Minnie agen.”
“Come, come, Dyson,” said I laughingly, “it would never do for us to go back without overhauling her. We’ll have a snack here in the boat and then we’ll take a look aboard this big castaway.”
We were by this time again under the bows, and one of the sailors putting up his boathook and dragging away a portion of the canvas which hung down, disclosed to view the derelict’s figurehead, a piece of magnificent carving, representing a woman in three-quarter length, clad in flowing classical drapery, and whose features seemed to look down upon us with an expression of solemn sadness, whilst one arm, slightly raised, pointed to the dark sky overhead. It was a masterpiece of the sculptor’s art, such as I had never dreamed of seeing placed on the bows of a ship, and was doubtless meant for the Madonna—Mary of the Sea, perhaps, for,
“By many names men call her,
In many homes she dwells.”
And, strangely enough, the paint, so worn and abraded everywhere else, still showed on the figure above us in almost all its pristine whiteness. Perhaps the overhanging canvas had protected it.
“Good Lord!” ejaculated the old boatswain presently, as we all stared at the nobly gracious, but sorrowful features. “Did ever mortal man see such a figgerhead as that! I never did; and forty year an’ more I’ve been a-roamin’ about amongst every sort o’ craft as sails. I almost begins to believe, sir, as this old derelick’s been a sort o’ floatin’ gospel-house —that is,” he quickly qualified, “so long as I looks at that bit o’ work there.”
Evidently many a great sea, tall as she was, had swept her fore and aft, without, however, doing much damage beyond making the two rents in her thick bulwarks mentioned above. The hatchways were closely battened down, and the main one, which we could see had been fitted with gratings, was now secured with inch planks fastened to the deck by stout iron bolts.
All about the decks, in the scuppers everywhere, in confused bunches, lay the running rigging, just as the seas of the last gale she had encountered had washed it; but of the wreck of the missing spars there was no sign.
The deck planking was covered thickly with a kind of dry, mossy substance that crackled beneath our tread, showing that, at one time, the vessel’s decks had been, perhaps, for weeks under water.
I had just shut down the lid of the signal-locker, in which I had been vainly searching amongst a bundle of mouldering bunting for some colour which might denote the nationality of the derelict, when I was startled by a loud shout from below. Hastily descending, I found my three companions grouped together in front of the main entrance to the cuddy, and evidently in a state of high excitement.
“Let’s get away, Brown,” one of the seamen was saying; “I’ve had enough an’ to spare of this cussed old hooker!”
“What’s the matter, Dyson?” I asked of the bo’sun, who stood wiping his forehead with his neckerchief, and looking rather scared.
“Matter enough, sir, in there,” replied he, pointing to the dark cabin entrance. “We just stepped in, an’ Brown struck a light, when, who should we see, when we turns round, but Old Nick hisself, a-leanin’ agen the mizzenmast, an’ a-grinnin’ at us like one o’clock!”
“Nonsense!” I exclaimed angrily. “I’m ashamed of you, bo’sun, I am indeed! The idea of you talking such rubbish!” and, stepping into the cabin, which was almost in darkness, I struck a match from the open box in my hand, and looked around. I must confess that, as I did so, I heartily excused the boatswain and his mates their terror, for, although I did not budge an inch, I was scarcely less frightened myself for a minute or two.
Exactly facing me, and not more than a foot away, supported, apparently, by the casing of the mizzenmast, was a human skeleton, gleaming whitely in the feeble light of the match.
The men were now close at my heels, and telling the other seaman, whose name was Johnson, to go up on the poop, clear away the sail, and open the main skylight and booby-hatch, I struck some more matches, and proceeded farther along the large saloon.
Presently down came a flood of glorious sunshine, streaming into the cabin, illumining with its rays the poor skeleton—lashed to the mast, as we soon discovered, by many turns of the chain main-tack— and revealing a scene of confusion and disorder almost indescribable.
The stateroom doors were all either shattered to pieces by bullets, dozens of which were embedded in the woodwork round about, or, wrenched altogether from their hinges, were lying on the floor, which was littered with all kinds of female and male wearing apparel, broken bottles, papers, straw, crockery, cutlery, and all the usual paraphernalia of a big ship’s saloon and pantry, and, to boot, the contents of its passengers’ luggage.
Mould, damp, and mildew were everywhere; and everywhere, spite of open doors and skylights, was a foetid, rotting, nauseous odour that seemed to hang thickly about and defy dispersal.
We searched the berths, but they were all empty, and then, as if by mutual consent, we found ourselves once more facing the grim emblem of mortality that grinned at us from its iron bonds,
“What do you think of it, Dyson?” I asked at length.
“Lashed there alive, sir,” muttered the old boatswain, as he pointed to the bony arms of the skeleton, which, as I now observed, were indeed tied back behind the mast, “an’ for the Lord knows how long, carried about the sea. I never did hear tell o’ sich a thing,” he went on, “but my mind misdoubted somethin’ was wrong, spite o’ the pritty figgerhead, when I sees how the craft’s name had been a-wiped out. There’s been rum doin’s aboard here, sir; but I can’t get the hang o’ the thing rightly.”
“I wouldn’t stay a night aboard her,” here put in Johnson, “if anybody ’ud give me a hundred pounds down in solid coined gold.”
“Same here, matey,” chimed in Brown; “I don’t think I ever got sich a bad scare afore, an’ who knows what might happen to a feller in the dark night-time.”
The papers strewn about the saloon floor were mostly, as I soon discovered, blank leaves of log-books, and the greater number were simply parcel-wrappers. Not one scrap of writing or print even rewarded my search, and I began to think that everything had been carefully gone over before. At this moment, and just as the boatswain and myself were on our knees gingerly turning over some of the clothing, most of which had evidently at one time been of rich and costly material, we were startled by Brown’s voice shouting down the skylight, “Mr. Staunton, sir, the ship’s signalling us; and there’s a big squall cornin’!” We hastily ran out on deck and up the poop ladder. There, abeam, was the Minnehaha busily clearing up and stowing her light sails; whilst, just beyond her, the sky was black as night. From her peak hung the ensign, which, even as we looked, blew out flat, a small square of bright colour against the dark background of wind, rain, and sea, which was coming along like a racehorse. Now she fired three guns in quick succession, and before the echoes of the last one had died away, we were in the boat, and pulling like madmen away from the derelict.
We had scarcely gone a hundred yards before I saw that it was too late. The squall would be upon us ere we could cover a quarter of the distance to the Minnehaha. For a moment I hesitated, then shouting, “Back, men, for your lives!” I brought the rudder hard over, and in a few minutes more we were scrambling up the derelict’s side. Bringing the remainder of the provisions and the water-keg on board, we passed our boat astern. Not a bit too soon had we gained shelter, for, already, not more than a cable’s length away, roared the furious squall, coming with a rush of wind and white water heavy enough to have swamped the stoutest boat that ever floated.
It struck the old derelict fairly abeam, heeling her over, over, over, till I really thought she was going to turn turtle with us altogether. But she was probably used to this kind of thing, for in a minute or two, during which her lower yardarms ploughed great white furrows in the water, she righted, and slowly turning her stern to the wind, began to make a little headway. I ran to the wheel to help her if I could, but found it completely useless, the rudder chains and blocks being simply masses of rust
The sea was fast getting up, and spray was beginning to fly over the tall bulwarks of the pitching, lurching derelict, whose timbers creaked and groaned complainingly, while all sorts of strange noises came up from her hold, noises of something rolling, bounding, and clattering from side to side of the ship at every wild stagger that she gave.
As we listened wonderingly to all this racket, an exclamation from the boatswain made me turn my eyes to where, bringing with her a still stronger wind, the Minnehaha was bearing straight down upon us, foaming along under three close-reefed topsails and fore and mizzen staysails.
As the Minnehaha drew closer we could distinctly see the figures of the crew as they crowded along the weather-rail and waved their hats to us by way of encouragement. The captain and the chief officer were standing by the wheel, looking anxiously up at the huge, wallowing prison in which we had allowed ourselves to be entrapped.
Presently, seeing that we were determined, involuntarily on our part, God knows, to cut the running out for him, our captain set his maintopsail, braced his yards up, and kept away on our weather-bow, with, for our comfort, the “rendezvous” flag flying at the mizzen-peak.
It was by this getting well on in the afternoon, and the squall had grown into a roaring gale, which howled and screeched through our rigging, banging the swinging yards about, and hooting and whistling around the tenant-less forecastle and along the wet decks, like some wild and evil spirit, as the ship of death and mystery wallowed and tottered and slid over the great waves, coming to and falling off at her own sweet will and pleasure, but, somehow, always just in the nick of time.
Casting a last look at the Minnehaha, now fast fading away on the murky horizon, I stumbled aft to see to the boat, altogether forgotten in the absorbing interest of watching the manoeuvres of our own vessel.
As might have been expected, she was gone, not a vestige of her anywhere to be seen, with the exception of the loose painter, which I mechanically hauled in, and to the end of which the drawn ringbolt out of the gig’s bows was still attached.
The men said very little. That grim sight in the cabin and the incessant and inexplicable noises that pervaded the vessel had taken a lot of heart out of them, and I knew that, with the kind of night that was before us, a light of some-sort was an imperative necessity.
“Bo’sun,” I said, “forage around for oil. There must be some in her somewhere. It’s stuff that doesn’t rot. I saw a swing-lamp in the saloon; we’ll light that and any others we may find.”
And then what I had expected came to pass.
“Beggin’ your pardon, sir,” said Johnson, “me an’ Brown here would sooner stay on deck all night than go back into that there saloon for one single hour.”
“Please yourself, lads,” I said; “she is bound to broach-to through the night with a sea like this on, and I reckon, if you’re not both overboard, we’ll soon have you in the cabin with us.”
The words were scarcely out of my mouth when Dyson shrieked out, “Into the rigging for your lives!” and in less time than it takes to write it we were half-way up the main-shrouds. Looking aft, I saw a huge wall of water overhanging the poop. The derelict’s way seemed suddenly stopped, as if she saw the futility of attempting to escape, then down fell the avalanche with a noise like thunder, burying everything beneath it and roaring away for’ard till it found an exit through the broken bulwarks. But that her deck-fittings, skylights, galley, etc., were of most exceptional strength, they must all have gone; and, assuredly, had we been a few minutes later in gaining our place of refuge, we should have been swept away like four straws into the seething wilderness around us. After this the derelict, appearing to think that she had done enough scudding for one night, hove herself to in a kind of a way, but any ship less high out of the water would have been swamped over and over again. There was no more talk about not going into the cabin; and presently in one of the after-lockers we had the luck to find a drum of oil, besides several lamps, including a big riding light, so that soon we had the saloon quite brilliantly illuminated.
Very fortunately, as it now turned out, when leaving the Minnehaha, the steward had packed away a more than ample supply of provisions, and these, having been stowed away in one of the top bunks of the saloon berths, had escaped the general wetting. Bringing everything to the table, I, first giving each man a glass of rum, served out all round a biscuit, a slice of pork, and a lump of cheese. Rescue was so uncertain that I thought it best to husband our resources as much as possible. There might be food left on the derelict, and water also, but, again, there might not be a scrap or drop of anything. The men’s spirits rose considerably after this repast; though, for the matter of that, all our glances wandered irresistibly, now and again, to the gaunt, woeful figure that, half in shadow, half in a bright light, seemed to preside at the head of the table.
There are few men nowadays more stubbornly superstitious than your average merchant-seaman, and it would have taken very little indeed to have frightened Brown and Johnson completely out of their wits, half believing already, as they did, that they were on board of an enchanted, haunted vessel on which they were doomed to roam the seas for evermore; and so catching is terror that whilst Dyson was not much less scared than the pair, I myself was beginning to feel the effect of their pale, frightened faces and sudden starts of alarm. As we moved on in a body out on to the deck, the lamp casting uncertain quivering patches of white light on the slippery, discoloured planking, we felt, as we hung on to stanchions, corners, anything we could get hold of, that the gale was increasing in violence, although the sea was not quite so high as before; the wind blowing with such terrific force at times as to keep it down in a sheet of dazzling foam, off which it every minute hurled pieces at us that cut and stung our flesh as if they had been snowballs.
At length, exhausted and half-blinded, we gained the poop, and, with infinite trouble and difficulty, succeeded in lashing the massive copper lantern about half-way up the mizzen-rigging, whence it cast a flickering streak of light, now on the foam-flecked water, now on the ship, as she lay sometimes in a deep gully, at others nearly on her beam-ends at the summit of a monstrous roller. The night was black as pitch, and the shrieking of the gale, the rush and roar of water on the main-deck, with, aloft, the creaking and working of the spars, made such an incessant hurly-burly that speech was impossible, and we were all glad to find ourselves back in the saloon, to which the lights imparted, at least a semblance of security, although at times a stream of water would glide in over the high wash-boards at each of the three doors. The din, too, here was muffled and subdued, coming only on the ears as a combined, sullen, ceaseless roar.
“That she’s a furriner is sartain,” said Dyson presently, as we recovered a little from our exertions. “Most likely a Spanisher or a Portugee, an’ it’s many a long year agone since she were builded. They don’t make ’em like that nowadays, sir,” pointing, as he spoke, to the huge beams and stanchions that made themselves visible here and there about the saloon. “But where she’s from, or where bound to when they left her, I can’t give a notion.”
“I am as much at fault as yourself, bo’sun,” I answered. “But maybe we’ll find out a little more about her when daylight comes. Did you ever come across a derelict before Dyson?” I asked.
“Yes, sir,” he replied. “When I was in the old Neptune, packet-ship, across the Western Ocean, we boarded a derelick, as they calls ’em. A Quebecer she were—a timber drogher. Nothin’ on her but a big, half-starved New-founlan’ dog. But she were a honest, fair, an’ above-board derelick, she were, not like this skilitin, no-name, prancin’ furriner;” and the boatswain, casting around a look expressive of the most intense disgust, continued—
“What but some murderin’, bloody-minded Dago would ever ha’ thought o’ lashin’ a man —like enough it’s the skipper himself—to his own mizzenmast! By Gosh! sir, it beats all I ever heerd tell on. Eat alive, too, as like as not, by the rats. Why, when me and Johnson there went into the midship-house arter the oil the place was a-swarmin’ with ’em.”
This news threw light on a subject which had puzzled me not a little. I had particularly noticed how perfectly clean and bare every bone of the skeleton was, and I knew that it must have taken a very long period of time unaided to have completed such a process, most likely many years, years in which the masts, yards, and standing-gear of the ship, if not herself, would inevitably suffer decay from dry-rot and neglect; whilst, on the contrary, with the exception of the exposed canvas and some of the running-gear, everything was comparatively strong and well-preserved.
“God Almighty protect us!” at this moment exclaimed Dyson. “What is them unearthly noises down below?”
There was a long lull in the gale as the boatswain spoke, at the same time starting to his feet, and the derelict giving two or three sharp rolls, there came distinctly to our ears from the hold a sound as of many people thumping with mallets at the ship’s sides. Then there would be a pause, broken by a long, sliding, crashing noise, as if a whole shoal of crockery had fetched way to leeward with the roll.
“It’s only the ballast shifting, bo’sun,” I said, as we listened.
“No, sir,” he answered, “that noise comes from the ’tween decks—an’ ballast ain’t usually carried there.”
“Well, then,” I replied impatiently, “it’s some of the cargo, passengers’ luggage, or something of the kind. We’ll take the hatches off in the morning, and see what all the row’s about down there.”
The two seamen had, for some time past, been fast asleep at the saloon table, their heads between their arms, and their bodies swaying and jerking uncomfortably with every wild movement of the vessel.
“I’d feel more easy in my mind, sir,” said the boatswain presently, “if I knowed what this craft carried for cargo in her ’tween decks. The lazarette hatch is just be-aft the table there. S’pose, sir, you an’ me takes a light an’ goes down. Mebbe, as in a good many ships, there’s only a gratin’ rigged up to divide the storeroom from the ’tween decks, an’ we’ll be able to get a look through.”
To tell the truth, I had not by this time any too much stomach for the adventure; but I was not going to be outdone in courage by one whom I had more than once mentally accused of pusillanimity, so, unhooking one of the wildly-swinging lamps, I made my way to the extreme end of the long saloon. The small hatch was firmly secured by a cross-bar and staple of iron. As I glanced back down the dim vista of the cabin whilst Dyson was busy with the fastenings, I thought I had never set eyes on a drearier, more eerie scene; scarcely lit up as it was by the single swaying lamp, right under which were the two uneasily-shifting bodies of the sleepers; on each hand the long range of empty, yawning staterooms, the floor and table all littered with rubbish and wet with sea water, whilst at the farther end, only just visible in the feeble light, stood the swathed skeleton.
My nerves are, I believe, fairly strong, but what with the time, and the surroundings that I had just been taking in, I own that when Dyson, at last, with a wrench, pulled off the hatch, disclosing a dark square hole up which ascended in double intensity the rank, foetid odour I have before spoken of—I own, I say, that I hesitated, and half hoped that the boatswain, the proposer of the excursion, would take the light from my hand and lead the way.
But he did no such thing. So, lowering the lamp, I set my foot on the broad rung of the ladder thus disclosed to view, and cautiously descended, closely followed by Dyson.
My appearance was heralded by the scampering of thousands of small feet, mingled with shrill squeaks of alarm and rage. I thought of the skeleton, and shivered as I listened.
Landing safely on the lower deck, and placing my lamp on an iron tank near by, I gazed curiously around.
And truly there was enough to excite anyone’s curiosity!
Instead of the usual grating, a solid bulkhead of great thickness stretched right across from one side of the ship to the other.
Casks, cases, baskets of all sizes and descriptions lay scattered around, most of them open and their contents mouldy, decaying, and gnawed, strewing the place.
But the object which at once arrested our attention was a large brass gun — an 18-pounder, Dyson said—which, mounted on its carriage, with all its tackling complete, was pointed for’ard through a large opening in the bulkhead.
Catching up my lamp, I was tumbling towards this opening, or port-hole, when the boatswain, grabbing me by the shoulder, stammered in a horror-stricken voice, pointing to the ’tween decks, where still the noises continued with every movement of the vessel, “Dead men’s bones, as sure as there’s a God above us! Look here, sir,” he continued, holding up to the light a large, bulbous, conical object of a reddish colour, “this is grape-shot!”
“Well?” I asked.
“Don’t you see, sir?” replied the boatswain, “there’s been awful goings-on here! A coolie ship, or somethin’ o’ the kind, an’ the whole cargo on ’em mowed down with shot in the ’tween decks there, an’ the bodies left to the rats. No wonder there’s rows when, perhaps, six or seven hundred skilitins gets a-rollin’ an’ smashin’ about in a sea like this! Nothin’ else nor a floatin’ slaughter-house; sure’s my name’s John Dyson!”
But, unconvinced, I passed on towards the muzzle of the cannon, and, stooping, peered through the aperture, which was jagged and splintered as if hurriedly cut with an axe.
As I gazed, the vessel gave a sharp, sudden hoist to port, and a heap of something came sliding, rattling, and crashing just beneath me.
Lowering my lamp, as it sped swiftly by on the smooth deck, I saw that it was indeed a confused heap of bones, glistening white as ivory. As I followed them with my eyes disappearing into the darkness of the wings, five or six round objects came bounding singly along, one of which hit me a sharp blow on the side of the head, whilst another knocked the lamp out of my hands clear away into the black void beyond me, not before, however, I had recognised the thing with its grinning jaws and empty sockets. It was a human skull.
I am not ashamed to confess that I now altogether lost my presence of mind under this grim bombardment, and hastily turning, I staggered and stumbled towards where a feeble gleam of light showed the position of the ladder and the hatchway.
Quick as I was, the boatswain was up before me, and if ever two thoroughly scared men looked into each other’s pale faces, it was the pair of us as we regained our old places in the saloon, fronting the still slumbering seamen.
“Coolies, you said, bo’sun,” I remarked, as soon as I had in some measure collected my scattered wits, “what would a coolie ship be doing hereabouts?”
“Who’s to tell, Mr. Staunton, sir,” rejoined Dyson, “where she fust come from? She might ha’ been bound round the Horn to Valparaiser or the Chinchis. An’ then, when this here wholesale slaughterin’ takes place, an’ the crew mutinies an’ battens the Chinkies, an’ perhaps the passengers too, for all we knows, down in the ’tween decks; what does they do but gets the gun into the lazarette there, an’ shoves the grape into the poor devils, on the idea that dead men tells no tales. I mayn’t ha’ got altogether the right drift o’ the thing, but I can’t see no other. An’,” continued the boatswain, “this here derelick, high out o’ the water, an’ as strong as a castle, might ha’ come right acrost here on her own hook with her cussed loading o’ rats an’ skilitins. Dash me!” he exclaimed, “if I think I ever got such a turn as when I hears that lamp a-gettin’ knocked out o’ your hand by one o’ them bouncin’ bones.”
“Why, Dyson,” I retorted indignantly, “you were half-way up the ladder almost before I made a start.”
“Well, sir,” replied he, with a half-laugh, “I reckon neither of us lost much time. And anyways, I’m glad we knows the reason now of that infamal rumpus down there; though I must say I never did think it was as bad’s it is. I’ll just go up on the poop an’ get a mouthful o’ fresh air, an’ see if the light’s a-burnin’.”
Awaking the two seamen, but saying nothing to them of our adventure, we all went on deck.
The light was still burning, but very dimly. However, as the dawn was beginning to break, that was of little moment.
All that remained was to wait and hope that the Minnehaha was not very far away. Nor was she. For, when the daylight fully broke, ascending into the mizzen-top, I saw, about three miles away, hove-to under a topsail and couple of staysails, our own little ship; and the comfort and relief the sight afforded me would be hardly appreciated by anyone who had not spent such a night as I had. It was wonderful how she had contrived so well to keep in touch with us. But, as we afterwards discovered, it was our riding light in the rigging that did it. With their night-glasses, her look-outs had scarcely lost sight of us for five minutes together.
I cheered and waved my hat to the anxious watchers below, who heartily responded.
A few minutes later, the Minnehaha, with her yards just checked, ran down close to us, riding easily over the billows, at times perched like some great bird right on the summit of one; then, with a long, slow, heaving slide, leaning over till the morning sun shone on her bright copper, she would swoop down the steep green incline and be for a moment lost to view, with the exception of her royal yards just showing above the watery mountain-tops, till, presently, she again ascended, a glorious fabric, instinct with life and grace and human skill in her every motion.
“I wonders, now,” said the boatswain, as we stood holding on to the mizzen-rigging and watching her, “how the old man means to get us out of this fix.”
However, that it was the captain’s intention to lower a boat we soon discovered, although how she would approach close enough to the storm-swept derelict to be of any service to us passed our comprehension. We now saw, so close was the Minnehaha, the hands lie aft in a body, and almost before we realised what was going on, the lifeboat, so called from her being built in watertight compartments and her double bows, was in the water full of men, and pulling towards us. More often out of than in sight, as the great waves hid her in their valleys, on she came gallantly, making for the derelict’s stern, where we stood ready with lines to heave to her.
I could see the first officer, as he hung on with all his might to the long, powerful steering-oar, bareheaded, with the angry spray flying like hail over himself and the crew.
Now a huge billow lifted the boat nearly level with the derelict’s quarter-gallery, only escaping destruction by a miracle of skilful steering. At this moment Dyson hove his line, for so close were we that they could almost have touched us with their oars, yet in a trice they were a hundred yards away on the quarter.
Hauling in our line, we found attached to it the end of a new one, to which was made fast a life-buoy.
“Oh, that’s it, is it?” exclaimed Dyson, as he unbent the half-rotten rope we had hove from the derelict. “It’s risky, but the old man’s right. It’s the only way.”
Whilst saying this the boatswain had got into the buoy, to which, of course, another line from the boat, as well as ours, was attached. We waved our hats to those in the lifeboat as a signal, and Dyson, watching his chance, sprang overboard, and, half pulled, half swimming as we rapidly paid out line, was at length dragged safely into the boat.
Being a capital swimmer, I had decided to go last, and, after seeing the two seamen in safety, I hauled back the buoy and in my turn leaped over the taffrail, and though, being without the saving check exerted by the inboard line, I was carried a long way to leeward and half smothered by being dragged by those in the boat through the tops of the waves, instead of being allowed to make my own way over them, I had the satisfaction at length of feeling myself pulled by a dozen strong arms into the boat, in the stern-sheets of which I laid gasping and draining.
In less than half an hour we all stood, little the worse for our adventure, on board of our own vessel, along whose decks, before the davit-tackles had been well made fast, sounded the sharp orders, “Reefs out of the top’sls!” “Loose foresail and mainsail!” “Set the main-to’gall’ns’l!”
Our story, as may be imagined, excited no end of comment and conjecture from those on board of the Minnehaha, and many were the yarns spun that passage, both in saloon and forecastle—
“Of pirates upon the Spanish Main,
And ships that never came back again.”
Duly recorded, too, was the occurrence in the official log-book, extracts from which, in course of time, appeared in Lloyd’s and a few other nautical journals; but, so far as I was able to learn, without doing anything towards clearing up the mystery of the wandering vessel, which, with the gruesome remnants of her ill-fated occupants, is possibly, even yet, drifting, ever drifting, becalmed or tempest-tossed, perhaps not far from where we first sighted her, perhaps now in distant seas, with still the beautiful image, pointing heavenward, before her; still bound to her mast, with its bonds of iron, the grim skeleton; still, in windy weather, clattering along her hold those others, fated only to disclose their terrible secret when the sea shall give up its dead.
Happening, some months after our curious experience, to be in Canton, and chancing to mention the occurrence to one of the “agents” then employed to procure coolie labour, he remarked: “With the exception of the figurehead, your description would suit to a nicety a vessel that sailed from Macao bound for the Peruvian coast so long ago as April 1866. She carried nearly six hundred coolies under an eight years’ agreement, and has never been heard of since. Her name was the Napoleon Canavero, But her figurehead was that of an armed man, so that it must have been some other ship.” Shortly after this came the news that the crew of the Napoleon Canavero had mutinied, and set fire to the vessel before leaving her, thus consigning the whole of the unfortunates who composed her cargo, together with her officers, to a horrible death.
As a general thing sailors do not care much about having their captain’s womankind on board. By sailors, here, I mean deep-sea sailing-ship Jacks, not steamboat men.
The crew of the Andover, then, growled when they sighted petticoats aft, and learned that they belonged to the captain’s wife and her unmarried sister.
They came on board at Gravesend. I was tying up bundles of vegetables to hang under the boats, and wondering to myself whether Marryatt’s dashing midshipmen ever had such unromantic work allotted them. Some of the men were near by, shipping the after-hatches.
“Blow the wimmen!” I heard one say, as they all took a squint towards the gangway.
“If them’s passengers,” he continued, “they’re allus a-havin’ ructions among theirselves. If them’s the old man’s, it’s wuss still—a sight wuss. They’re everlastin’ a-spyin’, an’ a-carryin’ tales, an’ a-naggin’ the skipper till he gets his temper hout, an’ that makes it bad for we. Blow wimmen—’specially skipper’s wimmen— on board o’ a ship!”
An affirmative grunt all round showed that his audience was with the speaker.
I smiled as I thought how little the question concerned me personally.
Before the end of the passage I had reason to change my opinion. Before the end of the voyage I changed it again.
I was a delicate-looking lad in those first days of my sea-life, just fourteen, and fresh from school; not very strong, but active enough, and with pale cheeks and long curly hair. The latter was soon trimmed off. I did not like the nickname of “Dolly” it conferred, to say nothing of the advantage it gave “Mother Redcap” in our frequent interviews.
I messed with the sailmaker and carpenter, and they were kind enough, as, indeed, was everyone except the skipper’s wife.
She was a very stout, red-faced, loud-spoken woman of about forty, who ruled her husband most absolutely, and, as you shall presently see, through him, the whole ship.
One day, having to wash one of her three poodles, I let a splash of soap get into his eyes, whereupon he set up a dismal howling. This brought the brute’s mistress on the scene. Getting a good grip of my hair, she boxed my ears soundly. From that time forward she took every possible opportunity of boxing them.
Being the only apprentice, I had, unfortunately, no one to share these favours with. All I could do was to get my hair cut.
Once, indeed, the captain ventured a faint remonstrance. Actually I felt sorry for him when I heard the torrent it called forth.
If this sea-virago thought there was too much sail on, she would make him take some off; if not enough, have more set.
It was a sight to watch her in a stiff breeze, standing legs firmly planted and wide apart, close to the wheel, her big fat face shining out from under a thick red woollen cap she habitually wore on deck, and glancing now at the compass, now at the sails, whilst the officer in charge glared furtively up at her from some nook to leeward, and the helmsman swallowed his quid in an effort to keep from sniggering.
“John!” she would perhaps boom in her deep bass, and when the captain, a mild-mannered little man, with a look in his eyes as of one momentarily in fear of being hit, unwillingly appeared,—“John, you’d better take that maintopgallant sail in. I’ve been watching it these last ten minutes; it’s making her jump frightfully.”
The first time this sort of thing happened the man at the wheel, in spite of all his struggles, brayed out into a great “Haw! haw! haw!”
Then she turned upon him, shook her fist in his face, and gave him a terrible tongue-thrashing; and finally had him sent for’ard for impertinence.
Sometimes the men laughed at her, at others they swore. The first and second mates’ lives she made a burden to them.
One after the other her three pets disappeared. The ship was in an uproar for a week afterwards. Saturday night’s grog was stopped. There were no plums in the duff on Sunday.
First she accused one, then another. Finally she settled the whole three on my unlucky shoulders. If I had not been very cautious I truly believe she would have sent me after them. She was as strong as a horse, and could easily lift me off the deck with one hand in the collar of my shirt. Well would it have been for us if she had made no more pets!
The men said she drank, but I never detected the smell of spirits about her, and do not believe she ever touched them.
She possessed a sextant of her own, and used to “shoot the sun” in regular professional style. The Andover was only a small barque, and the duties of second mate and boatswain were performed by one man—a rather rough old sailor. She fell foul of him once, and he came stamping into our house in a state of high exasperation.
“That blasted ole halbatross,” he exclaimed, “is goin’ to boss this hooker fore an’ aft! The cheek of her a-tellin’ me—me, what’s been bo’sun o’ ships that this un wouldn’t make a long-boat for—as I didn’t keep things aloft in very good order! But I think I gives her one for it. Sez I, mighty perlite, sez I, ‘Ye can’t see very well from the deck, mum,’ I sez. ‘Now if ye was to ship a pair o’ unmentionables, mum, an’ take a trip up yerself, mebbe, mum, ye’d halter yer ’pinion.’ At this she lets out, steerin’ fine an’ free, an’ the skipper comes along, so I clears. But if hever there was hell in petticoats that’s Her!”
This was one incident of many such, and served to show the absolute ascendency the woman had gained over her husband in all ways.
Her sister was a very pretty petite brunette, kind and gentle in her manner, and with a pleasant word or smile for everyone. The crew swore by her. To everyone on board for’ard of the break of the poop she was known as “Miss Fanny.” They resolutely, however, refused to believe that the pair were sisters.
“D’ye think,” I once heard said scornfully in one of the frequent arguments held on the subject, — “d’ye think, for a minnit, as the old man ’d ha’ took Mother Redcap when, chances is, he might just as well ha’ had t’other un? Not likely!”
“Ay, ay,” replied another, more worldly wise. “That’s right enuff, ’s fer ’s it goes. But ye see, Bill, the old mother, yonder, mos’ likely held the rupees.”
And this, I believe, really was the fact of the matter. Anyhow, the married sister seldom interfered with the younger one. If she did, she was pretty sure to get the worst of it. A very delicate vein of sarcasm did Miss Fanny possess, which pierced the other’s blustering, overbearing spirit like a fine rapier.
It was her first voyage with her brother-in-law, and she appeared to enjoy it immensely.
Many a time did she protect me against the unjust wrath of her gigantic relative, or save some little delicacy from the cabin-table to console me in unmerited affliction.
Our destination was Batavia, the capital of Java. You couldn’t find in any part of the seafarer’s world a worse port in which to bolt from a ship. Capture swift and certain if you deserted, fever in any case.
The Dutch are averse to visitors of whatever rank they may happen to be. Penniless sailors they won’t put up with for a minute. But for this well-known fact, I believe, so tired were both seamen and officers of their captain’s wife, her caprices and pranks, that they would have left the ship in a body.
Even then, as now, the Dutch were in the midst of one of their periodical “little wars” with the Acheenese. But that did not stop us from obtaining nearly a full cargo of coffee, castor-oil, sago, spice, and other Eastern products.
Mrs. Stanley, the captain’s wife, tried hard to get some poodles. But either they were not acclimatised or we did not go the right way to work. She dragged me ashore one roasting, sweltering day to assist in the search. Before we had gone half a mile from the landing-place she quarrelled with the driver of the two-pony trap she had hired, and insisted on getting out and walking.
We each spread an enormous umbrella, and must have presented an astounding spectacle to the few people awake at that time, as we poked about in the broiling sun, disturbing and closely scrutinising the hordes of hungry, starving mongrels that lay in every patch of shade. At last, fairly exhausted, she pulled up at the Zoological Gardens.
Here, to my surprise, the animals were mostly rabbits, cats, foxes, and dogs, in place of the tigers and elephants one might reasonably expect.
There were two fine poodles.
In spite of an offer of a handful of guilders to the Malay attendant, and an intimation by signs that an exchange for the animals would be acceptable, he only grinned. He grinned more than ever when she tried to express her meaning in a most extraordinary mixture of words. Then, to my unbounded surprise, he ejaculated, still grinning—
“No, you ver’ fat vrauw; you no doggee can tek.”
At this her temper rose, and she threatened him with the handle of her umbrella. She also called him “an impudent nigger.”
That moved him, and, sounding a whistle, two other fellows in uniform, whom I took to be policemen, ran up, and never left us till we got to our boat at the Cheedeewong, as they call their bricked-in river.
We did not go ashore any more.
Miss Fanny, however, accepted an invitation from a French lady, wife of one of our consignees, and went to a place called Buitzenorg, forty miles up country, and stayed there until the Andover was ready for sea.
On our way to Singapore, whither we went to fill up with coir and sundries, we met an island in the Straits of Rhio, a small floating island, a mere patch of earth, with one cocoa-nut tree growing upon it
At the top of this tree was perched Robinson Crusoe—the future cause of a sad amount of misery and distress.
Mother Redcap spied him first.
“John!” she exclaimed, “there’s a monkey on that tree! Get him, and I’ll make a pet of him”
We had a fair wind, a thing that does not always blow in those narrow seas, and the skipper was naturally anxious to make the most of it. Nevertheless, the maintops’l was backed; and the boat-falls were already cheeping through their blocks when the little island, taking a sudden slue, came right alongside, nearly going to pieces with the concussion.
Robinson Crusoe (as he was always called), frightened by the bumping and shaking, took a flying leap into the rigging, out of which, after a long and exciting chase, he was dragged, with a running bow-line around his neck, to his mistress’s feet.
He was a big, ugly, black wretch of a monkey, with long hair, long tail, and a villainous squint.
To my unhappy lot fell the task of taming him. He was nearly as big as I was, and quite as strong.
One night he bit me, and I tried to throw him overboard. But for the help of the helmsman it would have been the other way about.
Mother Redcap grew wonderfully fond of the brute, and, in time, seeming to recognise a congenial spirit, he returned her attachment, and followed her like a dog.
Very mischievous the beast was, too. Of a night, when the men were tailing on to the braces or the halliards, he would sneak aloft, and either hang with all his weight against them, or, gnawing through the rope with his great sharp teeth, send the whole watch prostrate on deck.
At first many a hard tap he got with belaying-pin or handspike for his tricks. But presently the men became afraid of him. For all the hits and cuffs received he paid with added interest. Sooner or later the reckoning was sure to come.
One day the second mate rapped him sharply over the fingers for getting in his way.
A week afterwards Robinson, creeping into his berth whilst he was asleep, set fire to his beard, which was a very fine bushy one, and burned up bravely.
Another man who hit him he nearly crippled by dropping a heavy snatch-block on his toes. And so on, and so on.
Knowing how useless complaint aft would be, countless traps were laid by the men for his destruction, all of which he evaded with an intuitive sagacity perfectly wonderful. So much so, indeed, that the hands became frightened. Superstition laid hold on them. The devil was on board, and they left off compassing his death. One cannot kill the devil.
In Singapore four able seamen succeeded in obtaining their discharges, but only by volunteering for H.M.S. Clyde, then in harbour, and wanting hands.
Their places, however, were soon filled by others, amongst whom were an American black and a Spaniard. After clearing the Narrow Seas at Anjer, homeward-bound, we sped merrily along until near the Line, where, losing the S.E. Trades, calms and light airs became the order of the day.
The heat was intense, and the tempers of both Robinson Crusoe and his mistress, naturally bad, became worse.
Not that it affected the monkey physically. But he could not go aloft without the warm tar exuding from the rigging sticking to his hands and feet, a thing he detested. So he moped.
She, being of very stout, fleshy build, got no coolness by night or by day.
For three solid weeks had this weather lasted, we making nothing but leeway, when Robinson took quite a fresh contract in hand.
Getting hold of a short stout piece of wood known as a fid, and sneaking into the steward’s pantry, he started smashing crockery right and left. Plates, dishes, cups, saucers, and glassware, all were presently mingled in one great ruin.
This, however, was mischief too far aft. He was ordered to be imprisoned in the “bo’sun’s locker”—a small house on deck where were kept paints, oils, turps, oakum, tar, etc.
Putting a piece of rope around his neck and pushing him in, I jammed the door on his tail, listening to his yells with heartfelt satisfaction whilst contemplating the deep scratch he had left on my hand.
As I stood there, a violent cuff on the ear made me stagger.
Looking up, I saw the inflamed features of Mother Redcap, who, unperceived, had followed me.
“Oh, you little devil!” she panted, whilst the perspiration rolled in streams off her great, shaking fat face. “So that’s the way you treat my poor, dear Robin, is it? Only wait till we get a breeze, and I’ll skin you!” making another smack at me as she concluded.
But, ducking, I escaped; and with many a rest, she waddled away into the cuddy. We got a breeze presently, but she had other things to think about then.
How well I remember that night! Forty years at sea have not effaced the recollection of its terrors. Forty eventful years of journeyings over every sea, and to well-nigh every land on the surface of the globe, have passed since then; yet never a night like that one, when little more than a child, on my first voyage.
The sun set as he had set now for many a day—a sullen mass of reddest flame. Darkness fell soft and thick, but bringing no coolness with it.
The rattle of the dippers in the scuttle-butts at intervals as the men moistened their parched throats was the only sound to be heard fore and aft. Both watches — it was madness to think of going below—were lying cat-napping about on the booms, fo’k’sle-head, tops of the deck-houses, everywhere. No one was at the wheel, no one on the look-out The courses were hauled up, topsail-yards on the caps, mizzen brailed-in, staysails down. Everything was intensely still.
Not a creak of the rudder-chains, not the gentlest lift of any sail broke the hush. Over the side the water seemed like black oil— stirless without a ruffle. You could see the stars reflected in its depths, and they looked hot.
The captain himself was, probably, the only man on board that night who was keeping any sort of watch at all. He was standing close to the wheel, smoking. Lying in the stern of one of the quarter-boats, I could see the red spot of light from his cigar, and smell the fumes from the tobacco.
From him suddenly came a shout of warning and dismay that in another minute was echoed from twenty throats as, with a patter of bare feet, men came running along the deck towards where a great sheet of flame shot up amidships.
Higher, higher, higher yet, up to the maintop, blue, yellow, and green, with direful cracklings and explodings, it rose.
Then out from the main body, as it seemed to us, staring fascinated, ascended a ball of fire, whence issued awful shrieks, as it went swiftly up the rigging, which followed redly in its wake.
Big flakes of flame fell from it on to the sails and spars, dry as tinder with the long windless drought They caught instantly; the hempen shrouds and stays caught too, and undulating snakes of fire crept aloft.
But above all sped the shrieking, flaming thing, until, reaching the royal-yard, it paused so long as enabled the furled sails to ignite, and then, with a lamentable yell, went plunging through the darkness like some terrible meteor into the water, already beginning to redden alongside.
This appeared to break the spell under whose influence all hands had been breathlessly watching what we instinctively guessed to be the last gigantic mischief of Robinson Crusoe’s mischievous life.
The force-pump was manned, buckets passed along, and for a time men worked like giants.
But the vessel, just abaft the main-hatch, where had stood the bo’sun’s locker, was a raging volcano. It was only too evident that the cargo was on fire. When that was realised a regular sauve qui peut set in.
And now, O strange caprice of fate! the fair wind, so long and anxiously prayed for, rose—now of all times—and blew strongly.
Beneath our feet the deck was rifting. One could even catch glimpses of the roaring abyss below.
Upon our heads fell showers of burning wood and rope and canvas. Little wonder that on the Andover discipline was at an end!
Some of the men had already, by superhuman exertions, got the long-boat, and were in her. Luckily there were plenty of boats.
We of the afterguard and a few others stood by the gig.
The two women were the first to be helped into her. Miss Fanny was cool enough, and gave no trouble at all.
But Mother Redcap stormed frantically.
“Where’s my Robin?” she screamed. “I won’t go a step without him. Go and fetch him, you imp!” shaking her fist at me.
“He’s gone to hell!” shouted the skipper, irritated beyond endurance by her kickings and stragglings, as he strove to pull her to the rail. “And if you don’t get into the boat you stand a good chance of following him.”
This was speaking to the point, and it so astonished her that she allowed herself to be bundled unceremoniously over the side without one further word of protest or inquiry after her pet.
The long-boat now pulled alongside, and, although there was still one on the davits, a rush was made for the former.
I was knocked down and trampled upon. When I came to my senses again, there was the burning ship, two hundred yards away, outlined, every spar and stay of her, in fire.
Miss Fanny had my head upon her lap. She was crying, but very softly. Close to lay the other three boats, black specks on the glowing water.
The wind was rising fast, so was the sea.
Presently the skipper hailed us, and wanted Miss Fanny to come into his boat.
She replied, however, that she would stay where she was.
I don’t think she liked the prospect of Mother Redcap’s company at such close quarters, and that in the confusion she had purposely got into the quarter-boat instead of the gig to avoid it. The old woman, however, was very quiet. I could see her great face, purple with the flush of the fire on it, amongst the others as she stood up, staring with all her might at the Andover.
Practically we had no provisions, and no water. A few tins of soup and bouillé and some biscuits were all our store. I do not know what the rest of the boats had.
If possible, a common stock would have been made, and equally distributed. But by this the sea ran too high for any such proceeding.
For an hour we stood by the burning ship. By that time she was a mere red line on the water’s edge, still blazing up suddenly in parts, as fire and water strove for the mastery.
Even as we turned to take a last look, a dull, sullen roar was heard; thick darkness enveloped us, and the curtain fell on the first act of the drama.
“Let us try and keep together if we can,” shouted the captain, who seemed in good heart and steady voice, and more like a leader than I ever imagined it possible he could become. “The nearest land inhabited is the Western Islands. But we are right in the track of ships. Keep N. by W. if possible. God bless you all. Good-bye!”
A faint cheer rose out of the darkness—a sound most inexpressibly saddening I thought it—and then up went the sails, and hailing at intervals, we followed each other into the night.
Through the early hours of the morning the wind rose to a gale. The boat shipped water in torrents, keeping us all busy baling. Our voices when we shouted were blown back to us, and after a while, seeing the uselessness of it amidst such a turmoil of wind and water, we gave up all hope of keeping in touch with the others. When at last the dawn broke, grey and forbidding, not a trace of our companions was visible. There were seven of us in the gig, the second mate, the four men who signed at Singapore, Miss Fanny, and myself.
We were all dripping wet, hungry, and chilled.
The second mate steered, and the boat, her sail close-reefed, climbed wearily up the big sliding slopes and sank with flapping canvas into the deep, water-walled valleys.
Towards noon one of the men relieved the second mate at the tiller, and he served to each a small piece of biscuit with a taste of preserved meat. The liquor in the tin was then scrupulously divided—a sip apiece—out of the lid of a metal match-box.
By close calculation it was reckoned that we had about six similar meals left.
I am not going to detail our sufferings here. Suffice it to say that they were very terrible. Keeping too much to the westward, we found —by the time our last morsel of food was done—that we had once more entered a region of calms. Having no occasion for a sail, we spread it as an awning, and with apathetic eyes watched a couple of sharks which now hovered around the boat day and night.
A shark-hook had been discovered in a small locker astern, and this, baited with one of the empty meat-tins, was hanging overboard. But they only sniffed at it indignantly. One, swimming up, would touch it with his snout, and you could almost swear to the derisive shake of his whole body as he turned away in disgust.
Evidently they were waiting for daintier morsels.
As I said, the food was done. But now, it was not food we were craving. It was water—water — only a drop to moisten the blackened lips and parched tongues and choking throats!
Surely, amidst those women who by unselfish example and true courage have brightened the sad annals of shipwreck, few can excel that one devoted companion of our misfortunes. Never complaining, always with words of cheer on her lips, a smile for everyone on her pale, wasted features, she it was who put fresh life into the despairing, and fearlessly, scornfully, subdued the animal nature which in others is driven to the surface in such time of trial.
Once, I remember, two of the men were fiercely quarrelling for a bit of biscuit no larger than a nut which had fallen into the bottom of the boat and was claimed by each. One drew his knife, and was on the point of plunging it into his mate’s body, when Miss Fanny, leaping forward, snatched the weapon from him and sent it flying overboard. Then she offered him her own tiny ration, which he took and devoured sulkily.
You see the Mother Redcap spirit was there too, only showing itself in different fashion.
I don’t know how it all came about, for during the last two days I had been simply passing out of one restless, feverish doze into another. From one of these I was aroused by a shake. Looking up, I saw the Spaniard, Diego.
“Here,” said he, “pull one.”
In his shut fist he held a number of straws, which had been taken from a scrubby little broom usually kept in the boat.
Pointing to them with his forefinger, he repeated, “Pull one.”
“Not that child, surely!” exclaimed Miss Fanny in husky accents, a pathetic look of appeal in her great black eyes, sunk far back into her white face.
“All mus’ take chance,” replied Diego, in a voice scarce rising above a whisper, his parched tongue almost rattling on the parched lips. “Take chance along wid rest—an’ wid you. We give you an’ him first chance.”
Miss Fanny said no more. Mechanically I pulled my straw, feeling no interest, no curiosity. She too pulled one. Then the others.
“The boy’s got it,” someone said.
The second mate at this took my straw, and saying, “Let’s have no mistakes,” compared it with the other six.
It was the longest, undeniably.
I was now sitting up in the stern-sheets alongside of Miss Fanny. She had fallen back and covered her face with her hands. I have thought since that she must have been praying.
The Spaniard was collecting the empty tins and arranging them under one of the forward thwarts. It took him some time to do this. He was very weak, and no one offered to assist him.
The black had drawn a long sheath-knife, and was, with trembling, uncertain hands, striving to sharpen it on the remnant of a leather waistbelt he had been chewing.
In all the eyes bent on me I saw an eager, hungry, impatient glare which made me feel sick—although, yet, I did not understand.
But the black, stumbling aft, caught hold of my hand, and, still grasping his knife, strove to drag me for’ard.
With that undefined dread tugging at my heart-strings, I resisted with all my puny strength.
It proved equal to his.
The Spaniard and another man came to his help, and the three with weak tugs and grabs were forcing me along, when Miss Fanny rose, and, with wondrous strength, clasping me in her arms, dragged me away from them, exclaiming in a loud strange voice, whose tones seemed to startle and awe them—
“Then, if you do this most terrible and unnatural thing, God will never forgive you! Remember that in a few hours we may all stand before His judgment-seat to answer for our deeds here. What folly, then, to utterly cast away all hope of salvation by the murder of this child!”
“We’ll die if we don’t, miss,” replied one, after an irresolute pause. “The kid’s ’ad ’is chance an’ must abide by it. We’re all o’ the one mind, an’ can’t waste no more time a-talkin’. If ye likes, ’owever, we’ll rig the awnin’ so’s you shan’t see.”
Very suddenly it flashed upon my mind that I was to be butchered. Ah! the horror of that moment of realisation. A cold sweat broke out all over my body. My heart seemed to stop beating as I helplessly clasped and clung to my one protection amongst that savage crew.
For years afterwards, in the still watches of night, the horror of that time has come back to me! Of course, as what lad has not, I had read of such scenes. But to the lot of how few does it chance to be the chief actor, or rather, subject, in one—and so soon.
The men had already begun to stretch the sail curtain-wise across the boat, when, suddenly, the latter was swung and jerked so violently around as to send all hands head over heels.
That morning someone had hauled in the useless shark-line, and, removing the tin, substituted an old sea-boot.
Tired of so long a wait, or fancying leather to be an improvement on metal, one of the ravenous brutes had swallowed it, and was now struggling desperately with the hook somewhere in his vitals. That horror, so imminent a minute ago, was forgotten in the excitement of such a capture.
For a time he dragged—so weak were we— the whole of us, hanging on to the halliards which formed our line, hither and thither, often nearly overboard at his pleasure.
We could plainly hear his teeth gritting against the chain of the hook as he gnashed and foamed and made white water all about the boat with his wild leapings and splashings. But we prevailed at last, and inboard he came with a bow-line over his tail and the loom of an oar jammed down his throat.
The work appeared to have livened us up a bit and given us fresh strength and spirits, augmented, presently, by the meal which followed.
No need to describe that repast. Anyhow, savage as it was, it was infinitely more satisfactory to me, and I hope to the others, than the one it prevented. Miss Fanny alone would have none of it.
She only shuddered and covered her face with her hands, as gruesome morsel or still more gruesome fluid was offered to her.
The shark was a big one. But by the second day it was putrid—unendurable. It had, perforce, to be thrown overboard. Yet the men were loth to part with it, and cut off great junks, which they chewed whilst watching the freshly baited hook for another.
Things would have probably ended badly after all. But, on that second day of the taking of the shark, Diego, standing for a minute, and giving the usual hopeless glance around the horizon, all at once shrilled out the single word, “Smoke!”
In an instant that wan crew were on their feet. Even Miss Fanny, who for hours had been almost insensible, made shift to rise when I tugged at her arm.
We all saw it now—that long grey flag, which meant so much to us, trailing across the setting splendours of the sun.
How intensely, breathlessly, we watched it! Then, when certain that it was coming in our direction, men tried to shout as you may imagine spectres shouting; then some sat down and wept, whilst others stood up and, leaning on trembling shoulders, waved arms on high, made strange moaning noises, and laughed discordant laughs.
Young as I was I wondered at them, not feeling with such intensity the coming-out from the valley of the shadow. How close she presently seemed! Black, with a yellow streak, the sun-rays catching and sparkling the gilt scroll-work at her bows, the great steamer swept down upon us, and like men in a dream we gazed and yearned. Volumes of black smoke poured from her squat white-and-yellow-banded funnels. The two hillocks ploughed by her forefoot out of the calm water grew higher. Evidently her speed was increasing. Could it be possible she did not see us? Or, terrible thought, was she some heartless foreigner who would not pick us up if she did? She was now not a quarter of a mile distant, crossing our bows. We could even hear the churning of her screw, and yet no sign! We forgot all the time what a mere speck we were on that vast waste of evening sea. Then someone screamed out, “Oars!” and another, “Hoist the sail!”
The steamer’s approach had been so rapid, so direct. We had been so sure. We were so close. No one had thought of trying to move the boat or to hoist any signal. But now she was passing us, and the men tumbled frantically about in their efforts to repair a mistake, probably irreparable but for the great mercy of God. Before anything could be done I, watching the steamer as she steadily thundered along through the falling light, saw her speed slacken. Then she turned slowly and came towards us, closer, closer, until our boat rocked with the wave thrown back from her huge body, and looking up, we could see rows of curious faces staring at us.
Ten minutes later we were safe on board the Cape mail boat, Libyan Monarchy and my first voyage was over.
Of the remainder of the Andover’s company nothing was ever heard.
The Marathon, barque, was lying at her buoy, off Gravesend, on a wintry November morning in 1860. She was waiting for her captain, who should have been on board, and the chief officer, as he paced the deck impatiently, cast, every now and again, expectant glances shoreward.
Presently a boat was seen putting off. The tug, already puffing and snorting ahead, gave a preliminary scream, and took in the slack of the tow-line, whilst the men at the buoy stood ready to cast off the last hitch of the cable.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you, Mr. Selby,” said the senior partner of the firm that owned the Marathon, as he stepped on board and went up to the young officer, “that Captain Marsh has met with a serious accident, and that the doctors absolutely forbid his removal. Although I know you will feel grieved at my bad news, I hope that”—turning to his companion, a tall, dark-whiskered, dashing-looking man — “whilst introducing you to Captain Hanlon, the new Master of the Marathon, you will continue to get on as pleasantly with him as you have for so long done with poor Marsh.” The two men bowed and shook hands. Then Mr. Manifest, drawing Selby towards the gangway, said in a low tone—
“We don’t know very much about him; but the fact is we were really pushed for a man. You should have had the ship yourself, Selby, if you had your master’s certificate. However, that will come in time. Hanlon’s papers, though foreign, are all A1, and he appears a smart fellow. By the bye, he knows nothing about our special consignment. I would have told him, but my brother objected. It’s all right, eh?” “All safe, sir,” replied the chief officer; “carefully stowed away at the bottom of my big chest.” “Very well,” continued Mr. Manifest. “And, look here, perhaps you had better see that Sylvestre gets it as quietly as possible. I don’t like this underhand work myself, and would rather let Hanlon know all about it. But I suppose it can’t be helped now. Only don’t forget you are burdened with a rather heavy responsibility. I can assure you we will not, if you manage the affair cleverly. As for Marsh’s things, they must stay where they are till you return. The villains! They half killed him; and, if we can but lay our hands on them —Why, God bless my soul, Selby, we’re going down the river like anything! I must be off. I’m getting too old to go to sea again;” and waving a farewell to the Master, who, whilst the pair were engrossed in their talk, had signalled the tug to “go ahead,” the old gentleman climbed into his boat with an agility which did credit to his sixty years.
“May I ask, sir,” inquired Selby of the Master, the first bustle of the start over, “what has happened to Captain Marsh? I have been with him since I was a boy; and the day before yesterday he was on the ship looking as well as ever.”
“Concussion of the brain, received from an accident in the streets, I believe,” replied the other courteously. “But, really, I am unable to give you particulars. I chanced to be in the office in Billiter Square when the news arrived, and at once volunteered to take the Marathon for this voyage. However, when we land our pilot at Plymouth and take off our passenger, we shall at the same time probably be able to get a newspaper with full details of the occurrence.”
“A passenger?” exclaimed Selby, in surprise. “I never heard anything of one coming with us this trip.”
“Booked at the last minute,” curtly replied his commander, as, ordering his luggage to be taken below, he presently followed it.
It was a clear, cold night as the Marathon, after lying-to off the Plymouth breakwater to land her pilot and receive her passenger, again brought her topsails to the wind and proceeded on her journey.
The new-comer was a rather sullen-looking, broadly-built, elderly man, one evidently used to ships and their ways, or at least to travelling by them, for he had hardly got on deck ere he shouted out for the steward, his berth, and some whisky.
Later on that night, when the middle watch was far advanced, and the Marathon, with a freshening breeze on the quarter, was rapidly making her way out of the “Silver Streak,” her Master, glistening in oilskins and sea-boots, descended into the dimly-lighted saloon, and giving a single sharp rap at the passenger’s door, passed on into his own stateroom, where he was almost at once joined by the new arrival.
“You hit hard, Tony,” was the Master’s salutation as he looked curiously at the man before him. “Hear what the paper says,” he went on, taking up one from a heap on the table and proceeding to read aloud a paragraph headed “Brutal Assault on a Shipmaster,” at the end of which it was intimated that the victim’s recovery was considered doubtful.
“Was it a slung shot?” he asked unconcernedly, as he finished.
“It was, captain,” replied the other. “You know the orders was to stop his goin’ to sea for at laste six months. If the time’s lengthened he’s only got himself to thank for it. He made such an infarnal row that I reckon I hit him harder than I intinded to, an’ ran the six into a whole twelvemonth.”
“You needn’t shout,” said the Master; “ship’s timbers have ears at times, as well as walls, remember. And now you had better return to your berth. You’re sure you contrived to get clear away?”
“Certain,” was the grumbling reply; “an’ a lot o’ thanks I get for doing the thing nately.”
“I quite understand that there was nothing else for it under the circumstances,” answered Hanlon calmly. “Go to bed; you are tired. But be very careful in the days that are to come, to put aside all memories of our free-trade adventures together about the world. Never forget that you are a passenger— not a sailor, and do your best to act up to the character of Mr. Antony Brennan, an American (or rather, I should say, an Irish-American) trader on his way back to the East. Not a very difficult matter, surely, to one who is well acquainted with every corner of it from Madagascar to Manilla.”
Time passed away, and the Marathon was near the Equator. Hanlon, by his mild and gentlemanly manners and easy command, had gained the goodwill and esteem of both his officers and crew; added to which he had on several occasions proved that he was a thorough seaman, thus ensuring their confidence also. But, as a rule, he took little or no part in the actual working of the vessel, excusing himself to his chief officer with the remark that he had of late years been accustomed to steamers, and had lost his interest in canvas, as, indeed, is often the case. One night, after pacing the deck, conversing with Mr. Brennan till twelve o’clock, the pair went below, and Selby came up to relieve the second mate, who had been keeping the first watch.
Presently, sitting down on a hencoop, after the customary glimpse at the compass, and longer gaze aloft and around, he saw something glistening whitely in one of the troughs.
It was bright moonlight, and picking the object up, he found it to be a letter. Without thinking, he opened it, and seeing that it commenced “Dear and gallant captain,” was about to fold it up again, when his eye was caught by the name “Sylvestre,” and a moment afterwards, by the mention of something which brought him to his feet as if he had been galvanised.
Taking the letter over to leeward, into the shadow cast by the spanker, he read it over from beginning to end twice. It ran as follows:—
“Singapore, Aug. 7, 1860.
“Dear and Gallant Captain,—I was unfeignedly sorry to hear of your mischance with the Campeador and the Cuban authorities, and suppose that, in consequence, your fortunes are at a rather low ebb. Someone has said, however, that every cloud, no matter how black it appears, has a silver lining. In the particular case I am about to state, it happens to be a golden one.
“On or about the 12th November next, sails from London a vessel called the Marathon, bearing to the house of Sylvestre et Cie. here— where I am at present domiciled—try and imagine, capitano mio, your once reckless and roving Philip scribbling for a bare livelihood, seated at a respectable table, upon the respectable three-legged stool of commerce—amongst many other things, a sum of ten thousand pounds, all in golden sovereigns (I can almost hear their jingle as I write).
“My information is sure, and you can rely upon it with certainty. I don’t know why the treasure wasn’t sent out in the usual way—namely, by the mail steamer, which arrives at least a month before you. May I not put it thus, now that you have read so far? Perhaps in these troublous times they fancy a sailing vessel the safest means of conveyance, and the Marathon was pitched upon, not only because she carries a large freight for our heterogeneous establishment — half bank, half wholesale warehouse— but because old Marsh, her captain, is a personal friend of Sylvestre’s.
“Having overhauled our cashiers private memo book, I can tell you that the gold is to be packed in two small cases, each containing five thousand pounds, and both enclosed in a larger one.
“As to where the precious consignment is to be placed, I have not, alas, been able to ascertain particulars. But you may almost to a certainty reckon on its being in either the captain’s or chief officers berth.
“You say Tony is with you yet, and that a lot of the old Campeador’s crew are knocking about London. I would, however, in this venture trust rather to stratagem than strength. Still, if you find it impossible to get a berth on the Marathon, you might take a passage in her and induce some of your old hands to ship before the mast. Of course, the rest would then be easy—with the drawback of too many partners.
“So certain am I that you will find a way of making a principal in this enterprise, that next month I shall leave here and go to Jabez Freeman’s— you remember the old Yankee-Dutchman who went halves in our coolie venture — he has left Sourabaya, and now lives in Acheen. Let his place be our rendezvous. Leave the Marathon, if all goes well, at or just before you arrive at Anjer. Once within the straits, your chances will be small. If you could but get the command! But that is almost too much to hope for. Addios; that favouring breezes may blow you safely eastward is the prayer of your old comrade and fellow-adventurer,
To say that Selby was staggered on reading and fully realising the meaning of this letter would be but poorly to express his sensations.
But he was, although young, possessed of uncommon strength of character and presence of mind; so, pulling himself together, he glanced involuntarily towards the cabin hatchway, and in another minute, stepping over, deposited the paper exactly where he had first discovered it. Then, running down on to the main deck, he shouted the order, “Port forebraces!”
After the usual sleepy bustle incidental to checking the yards had subsided, he slowly returned aft. As he passed the coop he saw that the paper had disappeared. Strolling over to the binnacle, he asked the helmsman carelessly if the captain had been on deck. “Only for a minute, sir,” was the reply. “He’s just gone below again.”
The young officer’s thoughts, as he impatiently waited for his watch to expire, were not of the pleasantest, but they were to some purpose. In place of turning in when at length his relief arrived, his first act was to extinguish the lamp in the saloon, lighting, instead, a small taper, by whose flickering aid he attentively surveyed the mizzenmast
That spar, from deck to floor of the saloon, was panelled in mahogany. The four sides of this panelling were ornamented in relief with carved bunches of tropical fruits, amongst which Selby’s fingers moved for a moment with the uncertain motion of one seeking for something long forgotten and lost sight of. At length, as the perplexed frown on his features grew deeper and deeper, he happened to press a tiny banana, a loud click was heard, and about a foot square of the panelling slid smoothly out, disclosing to view the yellow painted ironwork of the mast. Inserting his arm in the aperture and pressing a small button, a neat locker, constructed in the very hollow of the mast itself, and fitted with two shelves, appeared, as a section of the massive cylinder revolved noiselessly on some unseen pivot.
A few minutes later, and after a trip to his berth, only a step or two away, giving a final look around and seeing nothing but the dim vista of the long saloon— hearing nothing but the stertorous breathing of a passenger, answered at intervals by a loud snore from the steward— he, with a sigh of satisfaction, rolled into his bunk, ejaculating under his breath the seemingly irrelevant, if not altogether immoral prayer, “Thank Heaven for the opium trade!”
The next morning, under pretext of examining the fresh-water tanks, Selby took the carpenter, an old Scotchman, whom he had known almost from boyhood, down into the forehold, and there, in the obscurity amongst the cargo, told him the state of affairs—what he knew and what he only guessed at.
“Of course, Mac,” he concluded, “you heard of the attack on our old skipper—no secret was made of it after we left Plymouth—well, it’s my opinion that he was waylaid by some of the gang of whom we have at least two on board. There may be more of them amongst the crew. Anyhow, the money’s safe, I think.
I stowed it away in the mizzen locker that you remember poor old Marsh got those French locksmiths to make in Foochow, to enable him to do a bit of opium smuggling now and again. He let me into the secret of the spring during the first voyage; but I never thought the thing would come in as handy as it did last night. And now, Chips, I want you to help me circumvent this pair of rascals who have managed to get a footing amongst us.”
“I’m wi’ ye, sir,” answered the carpenter, who had listened with only an interjection here and there. “But hadna we better pit thae twa pirates in irons at once? The crew ‘ll stan’ by ye, sir, to a mon; as I doubtna will the second mate an’ the bo’sun —though they’re but strangers.”
“I don’t know so much about that, Chips,” replied Selby dubiously. “They all have a capital opinion of Hanlon. Besides, as I mentioned before, how can we be sure that he has no confederates amongst them? You see, too, that I’ve let all proof go out of my hands. No, no, I have a scheme carefully thought out. All I want is your help!”
“An’ that ye can depend on, sir,” said the other. “I’m real glad ye thocht o’ the bit kist in the mizzen, yonder. I would never ha’ minded on it mysel’; its sae lang sin’ I last clappit eyes on the thing.”
Presently, giving the carpenter his instructions clearly and concisely, the chief officer rose to go on deck, adding, “Now mind, Chips, if anybody wants to know what you are doing, say you’re only putting in a couple of props under the quarter-deck, which is springing a bit. You can place your bench down the after-hatch as close as you can get to the lazarette grating. Luckily for us, she’s not a full ship. No one will interfere with you there. Above all, be cautious and sure; and remember not to spare the solder, as they can’t be too strong, and scarcely too heavy. Now get to work at once, for we have not a minute to spare.”
A night or two after the conversation narrated above, the Master and his passenger were sitting alone in the former’s room. A decanter of whisky and glasses stood on a table between them.
“No, Tony,” the Master was saying, “I’ve rummaged over all Marsh’s papers, and the ship’s too, but not a line can I find to give us a clue.”
“Sure, it can’t never be stowed amongst the cargo,” replied Mr. Antony Brennan, after a pause. “An’ yet,” he went on, “I ransacked both mates’ berths last night. Nothin’ was locked; an’ I’ll go bail there ain’t five pounds cash atween the pair on ’em!”
“Phil Garcia’s given us a hard nut to crack this time; and I wish, almost, that I had brought some of the Campeador boys with us! There were enough left of them to have turned this old dug-out upside down. But it would have been a difficult matter, with her crowd already on board. It must be hidden somewhere close to,” went on the Master thoughtfully. “They would never be so mad as to stow specie amongst the cargo, where, in case of accident, it might be impossible to get at it. No! I’ll wager anything that it’s not far away from where we are now sitting— that is, if it’s on board at all.”
“And the owners never tould ye a word, captain?” asked Brennan presently.
“They did not,” replied the greater rogue, with a frown. “But I am pretty certain that Selby knows all about it; and, if our searching fails, I’ll try and get the secret out of him — by fair means if possible— if not, then by others. I shouldn’t like to have to hurt him, for he’s a smart lad, and there’s damage enough been done already in that line. But, of course ”— and here the Master emptied his glass with the sigh of a man who has, more than once, found himself a martyr to disagreeable alternatives.
“I don’t love a bone in the stuck-up whelp’s body,” growled Brennan. “He gives me a squint now an’ again out o’ the corner o’ his eye as makes me half-think he smells a rat! Anyway, from this out I means to keep my lamps trimmed for his benefit.”
“Nonsense,” replied the Master calmly. “The only way he could have learnt anything would have been by getting hold of that confounded letter of Phil’s I dropped. It was barely ten minutes out of my hands; and, as I told you, when I came up on deck again for it, he was away for’ard at the braces; so must have left the poop almost at the same moment as ourselves. And, Tony, don’t let me see you so much amongst the men. Your language is deteriorating sadly. Soon the mercantile varnish of Mr. Antony Brennan, East India merchant and trader, that I laboured so unceasingly to lay on, will wear off, and you will stand confessed before all hands as the old barnacle you are, half packet-rat, half pirate.”
“These wind-jammers are so cursed slow after the Campeador’s screw,” murmured the other sulkily, “that a fellow don’t know half his time what to be at.”
“Well, well,” was the Master’s reply; “be careful, or you’ll have Selby smelling a rat in earnest if you come out with your sea-lingo the way you did at dinner this evening. What are you going to do to-night?”
“I’m for overhaulin’ that cargo in the spare berth,” said Brennan; “it’s mostly cases in there, an’ the stuff may be cached amongst ’em.
“It may,” assented the Master, “but if I had not felt certain that it would have been in either the mate’s or the captain’s room, I would have had nothing to do with the venture. However, fortune may still continue to smile upon us. It was an extraordinary piece of good luck in the first place, my getting the command—an utter stranger, with only Spanish and American papers to show, and most of them forged for the occasion! So, courage, my Tony, and, as the Scotch say, let us keep ‘a stout heart to a stey brae!’”
Meanwhile the Marathon sped along her ocean course, and outwardly, at least, everything appeared to go on with the patient regularity of average merchantman discipline.
Hanlon himself was, as a rule, most companionable and agreeable. He could talk well and fluently on many subjects, and possessed also a very sweet tenor voice, to which he often accompanied himself on the piano that Captain Marsh had put on board for the use of his wife, who, at intervals, made a voyage with him. And Selby, as he listened sometimes to this tuneful sea-bird of prey warbling amatory ballads and sentimental fancies in a style that brought the watch below out of their bunks, and all hands as close aft as they dared venture, or discoursing eloquently on all kinds of things, from the variation of the magnetic needle to agnosticism, would, at such moments, almost imagine he must have been dreaming on the night that he picked up and read the damning epistle whose every word seemed indelibly stamped on his memory.
Yet, now and again, the young fellow, rendered doubly observant and wary by a sense of hidden peril, thought he caught a glimpse of a lurking devil in the Master’s eye giving ample promise of an inner man beneath that careless, debonair exterior, to cross whose path might be hazardous indeed.
A few days before expecting to make the land, the Master sent for his chief officer to attend him in his cabin. Selby found the former seated before a mass of papers which he was turning over with a worried air. “Take a seat, Mr. Selby,” said he. “I sent for you to see if you can help a bad memory. As Mr. Manifest—the senior partner, you know— and myself were coming off that morning at Gravesend, he mentioned something about a consignment of specie which their firm was making by the Marathon to that of Sylvestre and Co., the French brokers and agents in Singapore. I know he gave me some details; but, to tell you truth, I didn’t pay much attention to them, imagining that I should surely find a memorandum of the amount, stowage, etc., amongst the ship’s papers for the benefit of the consignees. However, I can find nothing of the kind. Can you”— and here the Master’s eyes, of cold-looking, steely blue, sought Selby’s with that expression in them that the latter had before noticed,— “can you,” he went on, “help me out of this dilemma? It won’t be very pleasant for old Sylvestre to come for his dollars and be told we don’t know where they are, eh?”
The chief officer had long been expecting a crisis like the present, so answered promptly and readily. “Oh yes, Captain Hanlon, I think I can tell you all you wish to know. I assisted myself to stow the gold away in the lazarette.”
“H’m, curious place to carry treasure, Mr. Selby,” said the Master, without moving a muscle.
“Captain Marsh’s idea, sir,” answered Selby. “He did not, somehow, like having it in his cabin. I fancy he thought its presence there would remind him too constantly of the responsibility attached to the safe-keeping of so much money. Ten thousand pounds, sir, is a large sum, and Captain Marsh was very peculiar in some things.”
“It is indeed,” replied the other absently, unmindful of Selby’s last remark. “Far too large to be stowed in such a place. Why, the steward or one of the men might stumble upon it any minute. And—well, sailors are but human, you know, Mr. Selby! Get the box or whatever it is into the spare berth next to my own to-morrow. I am not afraid of any overstrained sense of responsibility rendering my sleep uneasy”
“Very well, sir,” answered Selby. “There is but a single case, containing a couple of smaller ones, each holding five thousand sovereigns, and each covered with tin and tightly soldered down ”
“You seem well up in the details, sir,” remarked the Master, with a quick look of suspicion, which, however, as instantly disappeared when Selby replied simply, “I ought to be, sir, for I helped Mr. Manifest and Captain Marsh to carry the gold from the cab into this very room. It took us the whole afternoon, I remember, to pack and put it away.”
“Thank you, Mr. Selby,” said the Master graciously. “I am very much obliged to you, indeed;” and Selby, breathing more freely than he had done for the past twenty minutes, went on deck, muttering in his inmost soul a fervent prayer that a miserable spirit of inquisitiveness might not at the last minute ruin everything.
“Tony,” whispered the Master as, an hour afterwards, he looked into that worthy’s berth, “we have been a pair of asses to go poking about, addling our brains and spoiling our clothes, when a simple question or two would have settled everything. You can pack up now, as soon as you like, for Acheen and Jabez Freeman’s. I wish, by the bye, that Garcia had chosen some other rendezvous; for the monkey-faced old scamp swore that I cheated him out of a thousand gulden in our last little speculation together.”
In the morning, with the assistance of Selby and the carpenter—whose grim, wrinkled face wore an expression of almost unnatural solemnity—a small but weighty box was disinterred from its undignified quarters, amongst a mass of provision casks, to the spare berth, where, a few minutes later, might have been observed the East India merchant, cold chisel and hammer in hand, cautiously inserting, lifting, and wrenching till the top came off, exposing a packing of sawdust. Groping amongst this, he, with some exertion, brought to light what looked and felt like a case of solid block-tin.
“Wonderful small ye are, an’ no mistake, soliloquised the rascal, as he stared at it with covetous eyes, “to be houlding so much of the stuff that makes the mare to go! An’ where’s your brother, my little darlin’? Oh, it’s here ye are, is it?” he continued, as his fingers came in contact with the other case. “Well, I guess y’ are a swate pair o’ twins. I reckon, though, it’s some getting out o’ your shells ye’ll take, my beauties; an’ I believe we’ll leave that part o’ the performance till we find ourselves clear o’ the ship an’ her stuck-up gentleman of a mate.”
Anjer Point at last, and the Marathon at anchor, and her decks crowded by Javanese, all wanting to dispose of something, from a bunch of bananas to a suit of duck clothing. “We shall stay here for a day or so, Mr. Selby,” the Master had said, “and you can let the starboard watch ashore on liberty. The port one can go to-morrow.”
This was an unprecedented arrangement, as was also detaining the vessel at a place where a stoppage of only a few hours is customary with craft bound through into the Eastern seas.
However, the chief officer made no objection, nor did he when Hanlon added, “Oh, and you’d better get the lifeboat into the water. I’ll take Mr. Brennan for a sail tomorrow, as it’s Sunday.”
On Sunday night the port watch was still in the enjoyment of its “liberty”; whilst the men of the starboard one were in their bunks, sleeping off the effects of the schnapps and rum they had so plentifully imbibed.
The carpenter, by Selby’s orders, was keeping the anchor watch; and the latter, having intimated his intention of going ashore and rousing up the absentees, had been seen by the Master and his companion—just returned from their cruise—to jump into a native canoe and be pulled rapidly townwards.
In reality, however, having come hand over hand up the cable, he was then in his berth, whose open port commanded a view of the lifeboat as she lay with her mast stepped just astern.
Four bells had struck for’ard, when he, still vigilantly on the alert, heard the boat being gently drawn up alongside. It was too dark to make out anything distinctly, but he could hear someone cautiously descending the gang-way-ladder, and catch the sound of a muttered conversation.
There was not a soul on deck except the carpenter, who was ostentatiously whistling on the forecastle-head. Presently, what the listener took to be a portmanteau dropped with a thud on the thwarts. There was a sharp oath or two, and again all was quiet. Ten minutes more of suspense, and there came to his ears the “cheep” of the halliards as the sail was being hoisted; and he could see it, like a thicker patch of darkness, heading slowly through the night for the open sea. The Marathon had lost her Master and her passenger.
* * * * * * * * * *
“You are quite sure, Philip, that Hanlon managed to get charge of this treasure-ship you talk so much about?” asked Jabez Freeman for the second or third time of his companion, as the pair sat one moonlight night in the spacious verandah of the old trader’s house on the outskirts of the town of Acheen.
“Of course I am, I tell you,” replied Garcia, a tall, sallow-looking Creole with a villainous squint. “How on earth he contrived it I don’t know, but the news came by mail, just before I cleared out from that infernal counting-house of Sylvestre’s.”
“Hei!” exclaimed the other, “it will be a very pretty little haul, if it only comes off. But that fellow Hanlon is a devil! He is too clever! He should think now and again on the proverb that my very good friends and countrymen here are so fond of repeating, ‘De kruik gaat zoo lang te water dat zij breekt,’ so often goes the pitcher to the water that at last it breaks—crick! crack!”
“To the deuce with your proverbs!” was the rude answer. “You’ve become a regular croaker of late. I suppose you’re thinking about that thousand gulden you say Hanlon did you out of, eh?”
The old man’s eyes gleamed as he asked, “What share do you expect, Philip, for the information you gave about this affair?”
“A third,” promptly replied Garcia.
“Very reasonable indeed. And I am expected to sit quietly by and see myself swindled, Mr. Philip!” said Freeman, with a sneer. “No, that won’t do. I tell you I must have a thousand of those beautiful, newly-minted sovereigns that you go into such ecstasies about, or I will make Sumatra too hot to hold you! Remember, Mr. Garcia, that I am now a naturalised Dutchman, and have traded in their colonies for the last ten years. My name carries with it an influence you little wot of, and my standing is too well known and respected to be compromised by a gang of saltwater rats like yours. For old times’ sake, I said to myself, on receiving your letter, that I would give the three of you shelter here as my guests so long as you pleased to stay. But I must be paid, Master Phil, I must be paid!
“Dutch gunboats, my friend,” went on the old fellow, laughing maliciously, “are even now in the harbour, filled with troops from Batavia. In the interior is no refuge, for the Acheenese are in open rebellion. So, you see that strangers, without the shelter of some well-known name and influence, are like to have an evil time of it.”
The speaker was a little, shrivelled-up specimen of humanity, with a skin so resembling old parchment in its colour and wrinkles, that every time he opened his mouth one almost involuntarily listened in the expectation of hearing the skin crackle. A grey beard fell on to his breast. His eyebrows, though, were yet as black as jet, and from beneath their bushy shelter a pair of small, piercing orbs of the same hue shone angrily, and the long beard wagged to and fro, giving a vicious sort of emphasis to his speech, as he suddenly arose and confronted his companion, who sat silent and sulky.
“Is it a bargain?” continued old Jabez, “or must I send word to my good friend and brother-magistrate, Meester van Houten, in the town below, that a pair of sea-pirates are about to land here with money stolen from an English ship? My thousand pounds’ share! or zoo waarlijk helpe mij God, Philip, I will do as I have said!”
“You are hard on us, Jacob,” said Garcia, turning sallower than ever. “But I suppose, as you hold too many trumps, there’s nothing else for it. So far as I am concerned you shall have your thousand—though I don’t know what Hanlon will think of an old friend’s selling the shelter of his house and name in that way. It is surely time they were here, if they mean coming at all!”
“Hanlon! The schelm! He cheated me out of my gulden”— the old man was beginning angrily, when a long, low whistle came to their ears from a clump of rhododendrons at the foot of the garden.
“There they are, at the old landing-place!” exclaimed Garcia eagerly, as he answered the signal by a similar one; and presently two figures advanced out of the shadows into the moonlight.
“Is everything right?” asked the Creole, as he hurried forward to meet the new-comers, followed more slowly by Freeman. “All safe and square, I am happy to say,” replied the ex-Master of the Marathon as, with his faithful henchman, Tony, he stepped on to the verandah. “A regular picnic from beginning to end—in fact, the best and easiest job I ever had in my life. Too easy, indeed! You’d better come down to the boat and help us up with the ‘twins,’ as Tony, here, calls them.”
The precious cases were soon carried to the house and deposited in a corner of the room under a battery of admiring and loving glances from the quartette—for old Freeman, at sight of them, appeared quite as excited as the others.
Presently the host announced dinner, and after the Malay servants had disappeared, Hanlon, as the decanters passed around, told the story of the capture to an admiring and enthusiastic audience. Then Garcia explained Freeman’s claim, at which the two principals, and especially Tony, looked for a minute glum enough. But Hanlon, perceiving the necessity for giving way gracefully, replied, “Certainly, Jabez is entitled to his thousand. We will make it up each one of us from his share,” whispering the next instant to Garcia, who sat close to him, “Never mind, Phil, we’ll have double that much out of the old miser; and his skin too, before we leave here!”
“Thanks, captain,” said Jabez, who had observed the muttered aside. “I thought we should come to an understanding when you knew how affairs stood.”
“An’ now,” put in Tony, “as all is peaceably settled, I guess we might have a look at the shiners! I wanted to crack the nuts on the way up from Anjer, but the captain, there, wouldn’t hear of it. ‘Wait,’ sez he, ‘till we get safe to our old friend’s place, where we can do it in comfort.’”
One ot the tin cases was now brought forward, and Freeman supplying the necessary tools, after an amount of labour which made Tony and Garcia perspire, the sheathing was at length wrenched off.
Then, whilst the pair washed their hands, which, in their eagerness, they had cut with the edges of the tin, Hanlon lifted the wooden box on to the table and prepared to take the lid off.
With some difficulty this was done, and a packing of sawdust displayed. It was a moment of delicious expectation to the rest, who gathered more closely around, their faces lit up with an ecstasy of impatient greed, and their hands outstretched towards the precious booty.
“Steady now!” exclaimed Hanlon, who was calmest of all, as he proceeded to remove the sawdust. “Keep your fingers off, please!”
Suddenly he grew pale, and with an oath expressive of dismay and wonder, completely overturned the box, out of which, with a crash, tumbled on to the polished table a heap of iron washers, bolts, nuts, and nails, showing darkly under the soft lamplight.
For the space of fully two minutes there was a silence so intense that the shrill chirping of the cicadas in the grass just outside sounded like the laughter loud and satirical of a great crowd to the ears of the four men, who, with faces over which it seemed as if some mighty hand had suddenly drawn a mask stamped with the one passion of baffled avarice, steadfastly gazed at the heap of base metal which mocked so unfeelingly their eager anticipation of a moment before.
“Try the other one!” at length said Hanlon, his features working with excitement. It was broken open, and with a like result.
And now the ex-Master of the Marathon completely lost that bearing of dignified self-control which was wont to give him such authority over his fellow-rascals, and bitterly accused Garcia, who stood eyeing the worthless rubbish before him as if petrified—of having supplied him with inaccurate information, for, even yet, he did not suspect Selby’s share in the deception.
“Nonsense,” said old Freeman, pushing between them, as Hanlon, half choked with passion, strode towards the Creole,— “nonsense, captain, I wonder at your stupidity! Phil, as far as he went, was square enough. Depend upon it, you were duped on board the Marathon! I haven’t a doubt that the real cases containing the specie were on the vessel all the time, and that, at last, clever as you think yourself, you met your match. The plain fact of the matter is, that you’ve been most ingeniously sold, by whom you should know best. However, you can’t stay here, that’s certain. Luckily for you all, you’ve got a good seaboat.”
“Not stay here?” repeated the three in dismay.
“No,” returned old Jabez, chuckling with a grin of intense delight at the consternation expressed in their faces. “The Dutch Governor’s orders are that all strangers be at once expelled, or imprisoned till the rebellion is over.”
“But as your friends?” queried Hanlon.
“Ah,” was the answer, “that, certainly, might make a difference. But then, you see, captain—my thousand pounds?”
“You old scoundrel!” shouted Hanlon furiously, as his hand sought his breast-pocket.
“No shooting, schelm of a captain!” almost screamed the old man, as, pressing a button in the wall close to where he stood, a bell sounded long and shrilly through the place—“ God zij gedankt (God be praised), I know your little tricks of foregone times! Put up your pistol, or my servants shall cut you all to pieces and cast them to the swine!”
Even whilst he spoke, and as if in answer to a well-understood signal, the long verandah suddenly filled with dark forms, and the moonbeams glinted ominously on a score of naked creeses.
Seeing the futility of attempting to force a welcome on such a host as stood there pointing threateningly towards him, his beard wagging tremulously with anger and excitement, his beady black eyes gleaming with fear and malice, as he rapidly spoke a few words to the fierce-looking Malays, who now crowded into the room, Hanlon, after a minute’s deep thought, and a glance around such as a wolf at bay might give, led the way, silently followed by his companions, to their boat. And, presently, as old Freeman, surrounded by his guard, saw the sail being slowly hoisted, a dark patch against the setting moon, he muttered angrily to himself as he returned to the house—
“Scheer u weg! To the deuce with you, Hanlon! Hei! That’s for my thousand gulden you cheated me of! Once too often, my clever captain, have you carried your pitcher to the water! Hei! What did I tell that yellow scamp!”
The Queensland planters wanted their sugar-cane cut. Whites couldn’t, or wouldn’t stand the work all day long, out in the fields under the broiling sun, and so the cry— kept down for a year or two, since the exposure of the cruel “blackbirding” traffic—for a supply of coloured labour—legalised, if needs be, by the most stringent legislation, but to be procured at any cost—was heard once more. This, then, was the reason why, one bright summer’s morning in December, openly and fairly, without, as of yore, attempt at disguise or false clearance, that well-known island trader, the Schoolboy schooner, set off from Moreton Bay on her search for voluntary help amongst the inhabitants, black and tawny, of the Southern Seas—“boys” who would consent to bind themselves for a term of years to cut the planter’s cane, and work on his plantation, receiving a small sum yearly for their services, and at the end of their time, if they so wished it, to be faithfully returned to the very same spot from which they had been taken.
In both Houses, Assembly and Council, at the time of which I write, the planter interest was paramount, and a bill had been hurriedly passed, authorising certain vessels—the Schoolboy being one—which had to carry a Government agent, to cruise for “labour” in the South Seas.
Not the slightest compulsion was to be used. Promises, presents, and fair offers might be used, but there was to be no “blackbird-catching,” kidnapping, or “wool-money” to the crew as of old. Everything was to be done this time with strict fairness.
Old John Adams, the skipper, heartily anathematising the agent, and the whole of the new-fangled state of affairs, was, nevertheless, obliged to acquiesce, or to give up the command of his beloved schooner, and to see the beautiful stands of Remington and Snider rifles, boarding-pikes, cutlasses, etc., ruthlessly unshipped and taken ashore. The only three armed men on board were the captain, the agent, and myself as chief officer, who were, by the regulations of the firm who now owned the schooner, allowed to carry one revolver apiece. These precautions were taken with a view to prevent another wholesale slaughter of natives like-that which had recently happened on board the brig Charles; but the old captain averred that we should all bitterly rue them before the end of the trip.
The Schoolboy was long and narrow, built evidently more for speed than comfort, and how two hundred “blackbirds” could ever have been stowed away in her ’tween decks, as I was assured had often been the case, passed my comprehension. Eighty was to be our complement this time, should we be so fortunate as to obtain that number on the “moral suasion” principle, and convenient and comfortable fittings had been erected for their accommodation below.
Our registered tonnage was one hundred and twenty, and we carried nine seamen; five of these, however, were Kanakas, the captain having found it difficult to get white men to ship, sailors then in port seeming to fight shy of the vessels sailing under the new Act.
The agent, Mr. Agnew, had almost unlimited power in the direction of affairs, and old Captain Adams, to his unconcealed dissatisfaction, felt himself quite a secondary personage on board, subject as he was to the whims and caprices of the Government man, who, in this instance, happened to be totally unsuited to the position. He was an inexperienced young man, from, I think, the Lands Department, and of an irritable and snappish disposition, which rendered him peculiarly useless for dealing with the treacherous, subtle savages of the Solomon Archipelago, amongst the islands of which group we were chiefly to recruit.
Our interpreter was a native of New Britain, and was also an object of special dislike to the captain, who had known him for some years, and who averred that nearly every vessel in which Jacob had filled the same position as that he now held, had been unfortunate in being attacked by the islanders, losing either men or boats, or sometimes both, to say nothing of “trade” taken ashore to tempt recruits.
Jacob, who had been appointed by the agent, was a big, sinister-looking rascal, and I recognised him at once as the heaviest swell amongst those Kanakas who on tropical Queensland evenings are wont to parade up and down, “doing” Queen Street, got up in all the glory of white duck patrol-coat, black doeskin trousers, stovepipe hat, white collar, and flaming necktie, their great naked feet sprawling upon the pavement as they swagger about in groups.
That glorious raiment was for the present, however, safely stowed away in Jacob’s chest, and he appeared clad now in a modest suit of dungaree, seeming anything but overjoyed at leaving the delights of the Queensland capital. However, as the days wore on, he brightened up considerably, and asked so many questions of the captain as to the amount of “trade” on board, and of what articles it chiefly consisted, that at length the old man lost all patience and bade him mind his own business, or go ask the agent, his master.
That gentleman, hearing the squabble, and gratified at being able, as he thought, to snub the captain, most unwisely did tell Jacob what most of the trade, stowed away in the great deal cases, consisted of; and I thought I saw the interpreter’s eyes sparkle as the various goods were named — tomahawks and axes, calico, cotton prints, nails, knives, looking-glasses, pipes, tobacco, and other articles—as auctioneers set forth in their announcements— “too numerous to mention.”
Jacob Ink, to give him his full name, was a long way above the general run of islanders, for he could read and write, besides speaking English better, I think, than any darkey I ever met. He had been taken in hand when pretty young by some one or other of the numerous missionaries; the only effect of whose teaching, however, had been to endow a naturally cunning and treacherous disposition with all the more aptitude to carry out any scheme of rascality which it might please him to concoct.
To this man the agent seemed to have taken a great fancy, whether simply to spite the captain, who hated the sight of him, or from a real belief in his ability, and the influence which he was never tired of boasting that he possessed over the islanders, I know not; but it was certainly through Agnew’s influence that Jacob, instead of messing with the other Kanakas, who occupied a small deck-house amidships, was allowed to take up his quarters aft, in a spare berth adjoining the agent’s own, and to have his meals given to him from the cabin-table.
For some time the passage down was devoid of anything of peculiar interest, and the continual bickering going on aft made it awkward for everyone, and seemed to foreshadow an uncomfortable voyage. The agent wished to make for Santa Cruz, this being one of the islands at which Jacob’s influence—according to himself—was all-powerful; but the captain, for some reason of his own, persistently declined to call there.
Our old skipper’s dislike of the agent and his familiar was, especially as regarded the latter, fully shared in by the crew, white and coloured. One stifling hot day, the schooner hardly moving through the water, Jacob had gone overboard, and was disporting himself like a black triton in what seemed to be his native element, diving, till one would think he was going to stay under altogether, turning somersaults, and indulging in all kinds of antics, when one of the men suddenly sang out—
“Say, Mister Ink, there’s your old father a-comin’ along. Mind he don’t overhaul you.” Jacob, looking over his shoulder, saw the triangular danger-signal cleaving its way through the glassy water towards him, and made a frantic clutch at the rope’s-end with which he had lowered himself down the side; but the laughing sailor drew it up tantalisingly just out of his reach, whilst Jacob, his face turning an ugly grey colour, made convulsive attempts to grasp it.
“For shame, Stevens!” I called out, happening just then to catch sight of the affair. “Throw him the rope at once.”
“Only havin’ a little lark with Mr. Ink, sir,” replied the man as he obeyed; and Jacob scrambled on deck, exhausted, as the shark dashed up, hitting the schooner’s side such a bang that I almost thought one of her planks must have started.
“You call that a little lark—eh?” remarked Jacob to the man as soon as he recovered his breath. “All right; p’r’aps some day you see my little lark.”
The fellow only laughed, and the rest of the hands enjoyed the joke hugely, none the less, perhaps, because of Agnew’s exclaiming that had the shark but put a scratch on Jacob he would have had Stevens “lagged,” the skipper maintaining, on the other hand, that it was a great pity that the rope had not been kept up altogether, expressing at the same time his thorough belief in the theory of relationship as propounded by Stevens, with the addendum that the “nigger was worse, if anything, than his father.”
About a week after the above occurrence we saw, rising up ahead like a mound of emerald-hued plumes, the island of Mallicolo. In a few hours we were abreast of the harbour, which is on the north-east side, with deep water close inshore.
Here, none of the natives, as is their general custom, coming off to us, a boat’s crew was sent ashore for fresh meat, fruit, etc., and to see if there was any chance of procuring “recruits.”
Griffiths, the second mate, Agnew, Jacob, Stevens, and two of the Kanaka seamen composed the party. They took the whaleboat, and the Schoolboy lay-to about a quarter of a mile off the shore.
I gave Griffiths, who was a new hand amongst the islands, strict orders to allow no natives in the boat, but to land the agent, interpreter, and one seaman, if all seemed secure, and then to haul off about a couple of oar’s-length from the landing-place.
The natives crowded down to the beach to meet our men, greeting them with every manifestation of goodwill, and when asked why they had not come off as usual, replied that for that day and the next one their canoes were tabu.
Jacob, who was recognised by several as an old acquaintance, now made a speech, which being duly replied to, he informed the agent that no recruits were to be had just then, but provisions would be brought down for sale presently; and, sure enough, in a few minutes the beach was covered with island produce, from a pig to a cocoanut.
The second mate, whom I had told to keep a sharp eye on Jacob, now handed “trade” ashore to pay for the purchases, giving to the interpreter, amongst other things, a tomahawk, for which, he said, Mr. Agnew had sent him.
Barter proceeded quietly enough till the boat was nearly full of pork, poultry, and fruit. Then the islanders brought forth “curios” in the shape of pieces of tortoise-shell, the curious stones known as cats’-eyes, and huge conches.
Mr. Agnew, as most strangers do on their first trips, invested largely, and, with Stevens, was examining a curiously-carved paddle, which the owner refused to part with, when a native who carried a spear—the only armed man in the crowd, so Griffiths, who was by this time also on shore, averred—tripped, and, being apparently unable to help himself, fell, and, in falling, stuck the point of his spear into Steven’s leg, just below the knee.
It was a mere scratch, the weapon not having penetrated up to the first barb; and, when Stevens, who was at first inclined to be angry, saw the humble gestures of apology made by the native, as he picked himself up, he thought no more about it, especially as the man, after a short absence, returned and presented the sailor with a fine sucking-pig; and then it was that the second mate noticed that he carried, stuck in the cord which some of these islanders wear tied tightly around their waist, a new tomahawk. It was not till afterwards that he attached any significance to the fact— it merely crossed his mind that it must be the same one Mr. Agnew had sent for, as it was the only instrument, out of three similar ones in the boat, which had been used to pay the natives.
“Just a bit ov a accident, sir,” said Stevens to me, as I noticed his leg bleeding pretty freely, after he came on board; “one o’ them Kanaks—clumsy beggar he were, too—stuck his spear in a bit. I dessay it’ll be all right again to-morrer.”
Jacob, holding in his hand a bunch of roots he had bought ashore, was standing close by as the man spoke, and, apparently without the slightest cause, he burst into a roar of laughter, making the while such hideous grimaces that the disgusted seaman would have knocked him down had I not interfered and sent the interpreter aft with a stern reprimand.
Stevens was one of our best men—in fact, the best; and I did not feel altogether easy as to the harmless nature of the scratch, simple as it looked, for when the blood was washed away, the flesh round about seemed red and inflamed. I was well acquainted with the fact that, on many of the islands, poisoned weapons were used; but not the least suspicion of what I afterwards believed to be the truth had as yet entered my mind.
That evening Stevens complained of much pain, not only in the wounded leg, but all over his body, and had to take to his bunk. After tea, I went for’ard, and found that his leg had swollen greatly, and that he was also very feverish.
The captain, with whom he was a favourite, having been with him for some time, had the sick man brought aft, where every attention possible with our limited means was paid to him.
That night, about twelve o’clock, the whole vessel was alarmed by a terrible shout from the berth in which the wounded sailor had been laid. Both watches were on deck, and three or four of us entered the little cabin at the same time. A floating wick, by its dim light, just enabled us to see Stevens sitting up, deadly pale, and the perspiration pouring off him in streams. He had been a little delirious during the first part of the night, but was now quite sensible, and looking terribly bad; I could see, too, that his whole body was beginning to swell.
He told us that he had been dozing during a brief respite from pain, when suddenly his wounded leg felt—so he expressed it—as if it had been thrust into a red-hot furnace; and, opening his eyes and looking up, he had seen a fiend, in the shape of Jacob Ink, leaning with all his weight on it. Directly Jacob, or Old Nick, as Stevens would have it, perceived that the seaman was awake, he had put his ugly face close to the sailor’s and said, with a grin—
“My little lark, Mister Stevens!”
The poor fellow, writhing with pain and fear, reiterated his belief that Jacob was Old Nick in person, and said that when he shouted out in an agony of terror, Jacob vanished in a moment.
Happening just then to look around over the shoulders of those in the berth, I caught sight of the interpreter, looking as cool as the proverbial cucumber.
Whispering Griffiths to keep the darkey out of sight, I tried to reassure Stevens, and shortly afterwards going on deck, I got hold of Agnew, and asked him if he remembered giving Jacob orders to get a trade tomahawk from the second mate whilst at Mallicolo. This he positively denied.
Jacob, for whom I at once sent, as positively affirmed it to be true. The interpreter indignantly denied also that he had been tormenting Stevens, remarking, with that malicious grin of his—
“My word! I do b’lieve Mister Stevens gone right away cranky. He think me Ole Nick! Ho, ho, ho!”
Altogether, beyond an almost certainty of foul play, I could make nothing satisfactory out of the affair; but, with the captain’s full sanction, I cautioned Master Jacob that, should he be found out in any of his little games on board the Schoolboy, up he should go to the fore-topsail-yardarm, with a running bow-line around his neck, were he twenty interpreters rolled into one, and in spite of a dozen agents.
The confident, self-satisfied smirk vanished from Jacob’s face as I finished speaking, for he saw I was very much indeed in earnest, and he turned his eyes imploringly towards his master, as he considered Mr. Agnew; but that worthy, himself being pretty well subdued by the passion with which I spoke, made no attempt to defend his favourite, who I insisted should at once be relegated to his proper place in the house on deck amongst the Kanaka seamen, one of whom, I half hoped, as they mortally hated the sight of him, might rid the vessel of our black incubus. My distrust of him, however, had by this time become so great that, after a few days, finding he “bossed” his messmates till they were ready to do his bidding like very slaves, I reinstated him in his old quarters aft, preferring to have him under my own observation.
We now called at several islands, and off the one known as the Duke of York’s, poor Stevens died raving, and apparently in great agony.
We buried him the same night, and even the interpreter looked grave and impressed as the burial rites proceeded. I stood close to him whilst Captain Adams read the service, and had he so much as opened his lips or smiled, I fancy I should have, there and then, put an end to his travels, had I not indeed been anticipated by one of the dead man’s three mates, who had drawn their own conclusions as to the instigator of the “accident” at Mallicolo, and who cast stern and gloomy looks at the interpreter, which probably helped in keeping his high spirits to a decorous level on this occasion.
Of “labour” we had, as yet, procured none —not a single “boy”—and the agent began to speak slightingly of the interpreter, and to reproach him in no measured terms for his vain boasting as regarded his recruiting capabilities.
The captain, however, was rapidly exchanging his own and the owner’s “trade” for a very much more than fair equivalent in tortoise and pearl shell, sandal-wood, “curios,” and other island valuables. He was, therefore, in a proportionably good temper—inclined even to be sociable with his former bête noire, the agent, condoling with him on his non-success, pointing out an island here, where he had, in those halcyon days gone by, got fifty “nigs”; another over yonder, where, with the greatest ease, the sailors, at half a crown a head as “wool-money,” had collared twenty, and, throwing them into the boats, had pulled triumphantly on board.
At one island, “Api,” I think he said, over one hundred “head” had been enticed out of their canoes on to the schooner’s deck; a volley of rifle-bullets poured into the remainder of the flotilla, then every stitch of canvas set, the “nigs” bundled head over heels into the hold, hatches clapped on and battened down; “and, almost before you could say ‘knife,’ we were standing out to sea.”
“Those were the times, if you like. Yes, sir,” the old skipper would generally add, with a sly side-glance at the horrified agent, who would burst out with—
“Goodness gracious me, Captain Adams, I can hardly trust my ears! Do you mean to sit there and tell me that you were a party to these iniquities practised upon the poor, innocent, harmless people of these islands?”
“Pooh!” the skipper would retort; “you are pretty green yet, and no mistake! A lot of crafty ‘nigs,’ who would cut your throat while you were asleep, give ’em but half a chance! Innocent, harmless! Ha, ha!”
The weather, just about this time, became almost unbearably hot. Of wind there was little or none, save catspaws, just ruffling the surface of the water, and for two days the schooner could hardly be said to have steerage way on her.
The glass, too, fell rapidly, but still the sky kept clear and blue by day, and the air fairly scintillated with the intense heat; whilst at night the great southern stars shone down upon us with their mild, calm splendour. Spite of awnings fore and aft, paint-work blistered, and pitch oozed up in black streaks along the decks, making even the leathery-skinned Kanakas pick their barefooted way cautiously along the planking.
Drifting, ever drifting, we seemed to be, on what was truly a summer sea. Throughout the stifling nights, not a sound was to be heard save, at intervals, a grinding creak, as the well-nigh useless rudder gave a sudden jerk in its case, or the plop, now and again, of the hand-lead, with the drowsy voice of the leadsman singing out the depths; for during the last twelve hours we had, in the set of an easterly current, shoaled our water considerably; and I knew that under the calm, lake-like sea, shoals and sharp coral reefs, lying thick, and unmarked as yet in any chart, might at any moment make such a hole in the Schoolboy’s bottom as we should find it difficult to fill up.
On the morning of the fourth day, however, a change took place. The sky grew darker and darker, whilst a heavy swell came in from the westward, and in a few minutes, at ten o’clock in the morning, it was so dark that we could not see each other.
Long before this the schooner had been snugged down, and was now under a close-reefed mains’l, goose-wing foretops’l, and storm stays’l.
Everything movable about the decks had been securely lashed, and in anxious expectation we now awaited the result of this curious phenomenon of darkest night in day, which, accustomed as most of us were to the portents that sometimes herald in the terrific “busters” of these southern seas, all declared they had never seen equalled.
The darkness seemed to grow more and more oppressive. Men who had before been conversing in whispers became silent. At last it came—came with a roar, an awful, deafening bellow, which seemed to our paralysed hearing to have annihilated, with one tremendous crash, both sea and sky.
The schooner shook so violently that, unable to keep our footing on her decks, we were thrown about in all directions, many receiving cuts and bruises against sharp corners of the woodwork.
In another moment, and almost before the last echoes of that dread explosion—I can give it no other name—had died away, the whole area of vision, from horizon to horizon, was illuminated by a burst of weird-looking, yellow-coloured light, or rather flame, dazzlingly vivid, throwing into lurid relief every rope, spar, and sail on board, every man’s face, unnaturally tinted, but with its expression of awe and amazement clearly discernible; sending its glare into the darkest corners of the vessel; and then, after lasting for perhaps a minute and a half, dying slowly away, as it were, into the oily, copper-coloured swell.
As darkness once more fell over us, blacker and thicker than ever, each looked to where he had last seen his neighbour, as if mutely asking what was to come next. Still, there was no wind. The sea appeared to be in a strange turmoil, and the Schoolboy was tossed hither and thither like a straw in a raging whirlpool. Her bell rang incessantly. The air was full of strange noises. All nature seemed in agony, fitting herald of some wondrous transformation taking place around us.
Once again came that flood of strange, unnatural-looking flame, disclosing to our astonished and dazzled sight, the sea alongside, one mass of milk-white foam, which, as the light increased in brilliancy, seethed, and tore past the vessel like a flood of molten, foaming copper, as if under the influence of both wind and tide, whilst our sails hung listlessly from the yards. But, strangest sight of all, there, just astern, and apparently not two hundred yards away, rose a perfect archipelago of rocks, the largest no more than about fifty feet high, where never rock was before, and against which the sea dashed in showers of spray.
The last fading glow of that strange light lingered for a moment on the highest of these islets brown and bare, reflected in thousands of prismatic hues from the torrents of sea-water which poured down its miniature gullies.
Our position was undoubtedly one of great peril, and every moment I expected to feel the schooner’s keel grate on the sharp reefs. I had, with no little trouble, groped my way for’ard, and imagine my joy to hear, just as I got to the foremast, the roar of the gale coming up astern, and the captain’s voice cheerily singing out, “Starboard foretops’l braces! Ease off your mainsheet aft!” A joyful thing, I say, it was to hear the wind, and to know that, full of hidden dangers though the sea ahead might be, still anything—ay, even the worst—was almost preferable to another hour of suspense and anxiety such as we had just passed through. The very fact of swift motion alone almost drove fear away. So that when, heeling over to the fierce blast till her boom end swept the water, the schooner tore through the thick darkness for over two hours, I believe most of us felt comparatively safe.
At length, like a flash, dazzling our eyes, and making us blink like so many owls in daylight, we dashed from out the black screen into bright sunshine and blue water.
So sudden was the transit that two of the men appeared for some time to be quite blind, and refused to believe, when told by others, that the blessed sunlight was again shedding its rays upon them. However, they soon got all right again.
A submarine volcano in active operation close to us is the only explanation I can give of these phenomena, the supernatural and awe-inspiring appearance of which I have failed to convey to the reader’s imagination. Our Kanakas were nearly insensible from fear most of the time, whilst the others, though not giving way in an equal degree, were, nevertheless, much impressed by what they had witnessed; and many were the looks cast behind us at that ominous curtain of dreary darkness which still stretched across the ocean, and seemed blacker and gloomier than ever by contrast with the sunshine which now surrounded us.
Shortly after this, the man who acted as our cook and steward, and who had been ailing for some weeks, died.
Jacob Ink at once volunteered to take the dead man’s place in cabin and galley; but to this I was strongly opposed. However, it seemed there was no one else. The dirty Kanakas were not to be thought of, and as for our white seamen, we were too short-handed as it was. Thus it came to pass that Master Jacob, well aware of his loss of prestige with the agent, and becoming apparently much more subdued and careful in his manner towards everyone in consequence, glided almost imperceptibly into the billet.
We were now cruising about amongst the New Hebrides and Solomons, touching at various islands, received at some with kindness, at others with showers of spears and stones. Recruits seemed a myth of bygone days. Mr. Agnew began to think that he had mistaken his vocation, and Jacob to swear that kidnappers must have been busy quite lately. At some of the islands, when presents of cloth, axes, etc., were held out to the natives, it only seemed to make them more furious, and they danced along the beach like madmen, shouting and throwing stones at us, and there was no doubt they could throw, hard and straight, too.
At San Christoval, where some canoes boarded us, they said that quite lately a ship had sailed through the groups—not kidnapping —but her crew, landing, would plunder native villages, destroy their taro plantations, slay any who dared to remain and defend their property; then set the huts on fire, carrying off any native women they could get hold of. By their description, the vessel was a brig, and these doings gave us a clue to the warmth of some of our late receptions.
The agent determined now to try New Britain, and then sail for the D’Entrecasteaux group, whence no “labour” had as yet found its way to Queensland. If still unsuccessful, the captain, pleading the short-handed state of the vessel, expressed his intention of steering for some port in which he could make up his complement
The New Britain islanders bore a bad record, and when, one fine morning, we lay-to within the shadow of its lofty verdure-covered peaks, I cautioned the men, if possible, to let no more than a dozen or so of the natives, whose canoes we could now see coming off in scores, on board the schooner at the same time. We were few—very few, and practically almost defenceless.
But as to allowing them on board, it was just as I feared. We might as well have attempted to stem the course of a mountain torrent with a walking-stick.
Under the lee of the island the light breeze died away altogether, and as soon as the fleet of canoes, each of which bore at its prow a green bough as a token of amity, glided alongside, our decks were swarming with evil-looking, unsavoury-smelling, naked savages, each with his woolly head resembling a huge reddish mop, the hair being coloured with lime, and frizzled up as much as possible. Through the cartilage of the nose was stuck a long fish-bone, and, with some, the lobe of the ear was slit to receive such trifles as spike-nails, pieces of old iron, bottles, or anything else they could steal, or that might be given to them.
They were unarmed, and seemed to have very little in the way of barter, save a few bunches of bananas, some tortoiseshell, and a few handfuls of “cats’-eyes.”
All the inhabitants of the South Sea Islands are, in a greater or less degree, thieves; but I think the men of New Britain bear off the palm. Our visitors, at all events, lost no time in commencing operations.
One of the deluded scamps would bend down and firmly grip a ring-bolt, his comrades gathering around him to conceal what was going on. Having got what he considered a fair hold on the coveted piece of iron, the savage would tug and strain in vain efforts to draw it from the deck-planking; at length, desisting from sheer exhaustion, a guttural murmur of disapproval would run through the group, and another victim to insular ignorance would take his place, and so on, till perhaps fifty had tried and failed, when it was comical in the extreme to watch them shake their woolly heads, come to the conclusion that the particular ring on which they had been expending their strength in vain must needs be tabu, and move on to repeat the same performance, with the same amount of success, at the next one.
This was all very well, but when a couple of them tackled a cross-cut saw, which happened to be lying on the main hatchway, and, one holding each end, jumped overboard and made swiftly for the shore, we looked on it as passing the bounds of fairness, and accordingly the captain fired several shots at the swimmers out of his revolver, but without effect; and when they reached the shore they, much to the delight of their friends on board, who seemed in no way alarmed at the firing, waved the saw in the air, making, at the same time, all manner of signs of contempt and derision.
A supreme effort was evidently now to be made in the recruiting line, for Jacob appeared dressed in all the glory of his Brisbane finery, and his turn-out evidently created a deep sensation among the natives.
Standing on the little skylight, he harangued the crowd, who signified their pleasure by repeatedly clapping their bent elbows with their open hands, and at the close of his address, during which he repeatedly pointed to all parts of the vessel, several pressed forward for Mr. Agnew to enlist, which he did willingly enough, taking down the names to the best of his ability as Jacob called them out.
Eight, who I noticed were all powerful men, evidently the pick of the crowd, were recruited, and received each a small present, as an earnest of still better things to come. Many more men, so the interpreter averred, were promised for the morrow, but both the captain and myself, knowing the danger of having too many natives from one place on board, advised the agent to let us cross over to New Ireland first, and try our luck there. Backed up by the interpreter, who assured him that his friends were eminently peaceful subjects, Mr. Agnew, however, declared his intention of procuring his entire complement from New Britain if possible, pleading, with some truth, our past rebuffs and failures at so many other islands. More boats had in the meantime put off from the shore, and the ship must have been surrounded by a perfect flotilla of not less than three hundred.
The last arrivals had in them some natives armed with spears and clubs, these latter most unpleasant-looking objects, and I began to feel seriously uneasy as our decks became more and more crowded—in fact, the ship for’ard was wholly in possession of the natives, and it was impossible to forget that we were practically unarmed and at the mercy of our visitors, should it please them to cut up rough.
Presently, however, the evening sea-breeze sprang up, and with great difficulty getting a pull at the braces, and shifting the head-sheets over, the Schoolboy began almost imperceptibly to lengthen her distance from the land. The captain, in answer to Mr. Agnew’s request, refused flatly to anchor, considering it very unsafe in our comparatively unprotected state, promising, however, to lay-to about four miles off, weather permitting, till daylight.
The canoes now began to drag astern, and those natives on board, seeing the schooner beginning to move more and more swiftly through the water, began to make for the shore, all except our new acquisitions, who remained in close conversation with the interpreter, a personage whom they evidently regarded with the utmost veneration.
It was a custom on board the Schoolboy at eight bells in the evening, about the time that the watches were shifting, for the officers to have a glass of grog in the cabin together before separating for the night, and it was the steward’s duty to set out tumblers, water-jug, etc., for that purpose.
On this particular night the captain and I drank ours and retired. Then Griffiths, whose first watch it was, and Agnew came down the stairs, and I could plainly hear the second mate chaffing the agent about his strongly-scented new friends. Then I heard the former calling out to the steward to know what made the water taste so bitter, and asking whether it had been taken out of the filter, then Jacob’s voice answering in the affirmative, saying, too, that he could not account for the funny taste in the water, declaring at the same time that some of the crew were also complaining.
I had myself noticed a peculiar taste in the grog, but had thought little of it at the time, and the captain had remarked that “that black swab” had neglected to clean out the filter.
Agnew, who slept on deck sometimes, and the second mate, now ascended again. I felt horribly dozy, and half thinking that the “grog” must have been too strong, I fell fast asleep.
Most of us, I suppose, have experienced that undefinable sensation of suddenly awaking with the feeling that there is something wrong — emphatically wrong — somewhere, without being able to localise, or even give shape in our minds to the thing that is amiss.
Well, that’s the way it was with me when I awoke out of a dreamless sleep. It was broad daylight; I could see that much through the little dead-eye in my berth. It was blowing a stiffish breeze; I could feel that. I could feel also that I was terribly thirsty, so reached over for my water-jug and fairly emptied it. On referring to my watch, I found that I had slept exactly twelve hours.
Looking at the nail on which my revolver was wont to hang, I found that it was gone. That indefinable sensation before alluded to became indefinable no longer; it was now a certainty, and I localised it at once—Jacob.
The door of my berth was unfastened, and entering the main cabin I heard sounds of hearty snoring proceeding from the captain’s cot. Entering his berth, I was delighted to find him safe, and sound asleep. I shook him violently for fully ten minutes, then, with much yawning and stretching, he awoke, much in the state I had been in myself, and likewise emptied his water-jug.
Graver and graver grew the old skipper’s face as he listened to my suspicions, and his eye glanced to where his revolver had hung. It was gone!
We both entered the little saloon to see what could be done.
We tried the hatchway. It was fast as a rock. No get-out for us yet—that seemed certain, and we were fairly puzzled. Where were Griffiths, Agnew, and the rest of the men? Had they also been drugged with some vile South Sea decoction, as I was now satisfied had been the case with us? Had Jacob murdered them? and if so, why, whilst they were at his mercy, had he not disposed of the two who, as he was well aware, disliked him more heartily than any of the others?
Neither of us, sitting there in the semi-darkness of the cabin—a sail or something of the kind had been thrown over the skylight—could come to any definite conclusion about the matter save—and we were both in accord there —that the interpreter was the master-spirit of whatever mischief was going on aboard the Schoolboy.
Sure enough, presently, we could hear his voice cursing the Kanakas for a set of lazy black lubbers, and threatening to blow their brains out if they weren’t more lively.
Just in front of the wheel was a little booby hatchway, the only means of getting in and out of the cabin; and the skylight before alluded to being a fixture, I tried again, but in vain, to slide back the corner of the hatch—it was too firmly secured.
Three good-sized auger-holes had been bored in one of the doors, but for what purpose I know not. Applying my eye to one of these, I could see, about six feet away, and just opposite to me, the dungaree-covered legs and bare black feet of the helmsman, whom I knew to be one of our Kanaka seamen. From my position, strain and bend as I might, my line of vision could ascend no higher than his knees.
“Sam,” I whispered pretty loudly, “open the hatchway, and let us out.”
“For de love o’ hebben, sah, stop quick!” was the alarmed answer. “Jacob, him boss here now. He hear me speak, he shoot me like one crow!”
I quite believed that, and, not wishing to get the man into trouble, descended into the cabin again.
Presently, with a lot of yelling and shouting, Jacob coming to the wheel, they managed to put the schooner round, and, running into my berth, I could, on this tack, see, through the deadlight, the island of New Britain, about five or six miles away up to the windward.
Jacob had evidently got farther out than he had intended—the wind must have shifted some time during the night—and he was now doing his best to get back again to the island. The black rascal had, doubtless, often before attempted to suborn our Kanakas, but without success, until they became intimidated at seeing him backed up by the strong party of new recruits, and, at the same time, knowing that their own officers were hopelessly trapped. I believe that the plot had been communicated to the natives when they first came on board, so that whilst, as poor Agnew had imagined, Jacob was holding forth to the crowd upon the delights and pleasures of plantation life in Queensland, he was, in reality, pointing out to them, with all the eloquence of which he was master, what a mine of wealth the schooner would prove, could they but once get possession of her.
I thought I saw through the whole affair pretty clearly now. My only puzzle was to know what had become of the rest of our party. Were they still under the influence of the drug, or had worse befallen them?
Meanwhile the captain was perfectly wild with rage. Accustomed as he had always been to look down upon and despise the “nigs,” thus to be circumvented and imprisoned on board his own vessel by one of them was more than he could bear with anything like composure, and he marched up and down the cabin in a state but little short of madness.
Presently I heard the sliding top of the scuttle or hatchway pushed back, a shaft of sunshine streamed down into the cabin, and, looking up, we saw the interpreter’s ugly face gazing down at us.
“How you two getting on down there—eh?” he asked. “Pretty well? My word, you had fine sleep!”
“Oh, you black sweep!” roared the skipper, as he made a dash at the staircase.
But Jacob, pointing a revolver at his head, sang out sternly to “get back, or he would blow his brains out!” a command that had to be quickly obeyed, for the captain knew that the slightest hesitation would be fatal; as he remarked afterwards, he “could see it in the cussed nigger’s eye!”
“Where are Mr. Agnew, Mr. Griffiths, and the rest of the men, Jacob?” I asked.
“All gone a-fishin’, mister mate,” replied the grinning villain. “Couldn’ keep ’em from tumblin’ overboard. Seems like ’s if they was boun’ to go.”
“You scoundrel!” I exclaimed; “do you mean to tell me that you’ve murdered them all?”
“Me?” indignantly replied the interpreter. “You know I love Mister Agnew, an’ Mister Griffits, an’ all of ’em too much to hurt one little hair on their heads—not one least little bit. My word! Them rascal boys we get yesterday, they do it all. I tried stop ’em. Never mind me. An’ now, mister mate, an’ old skipper there, you know what they say, them rascal boys? They say, take your two fellers home with ’em, then make big fire, roast you both, an’ have first-class feed. My word!”
Jacob, as he thus delivered himself, grinned complacently, shut the slide, and left us once more to our reflections.
The reality, then, was as bad as the worst form our many surmises had taken.
The captain seemed not to have the slightest doubt about it. His idea was that the men had been pitched overboard while in a state of stupor. Once there, the sharks would soon put an end to them.
“Going to eat us—nothing less!” went on the old skipper. “Yes, I believe that too; for don’t you see that you and I are far and away the stoutest and heaviest men on board? They’re evidently keeping us for a sort of thanksgiving feast. But before I’ll allow a nigger to sharpen his teeth on my bones, I swear I’ll set the boat on fire. Only think of us letting a black sweep, like that Jacob, work such a traverse as this on us! I believe, now, that it was a put-up job from the very first, and poor Agnew, through his pigheadedness and mulish ways, d’ye see, gave the nigger every chance to carry his scheme out. He’ll doubtless now run the schooner ashore, if he can only get in. Let us hope it may come on to blow so heavy that the lubberly brute and his mates won’t be able to work her.”
There seemed actually, except that idea of the captain’s—about setting fire to the vessel— nothing that we could possibly do to avert our fate.
To be either done to a turn by some savage chef de cuisine, then devoured amongst the rejoicings of himself and fellows, or to be roasted on the schooner, and furnish a welcome meal for a shark, or some other voracious monster!
After balancing the two alternatives carefully, I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t so very much to choose between them; but I was very far from being enamoured of either, and determined to make another attempt to burst the door open, if it was only to get shot down as soon as I put my head over the hatch.
I knew well that, if anything was to be done, it must be done at once, for, let the canoes come around us again, as they were pretty sure to do directly, and our case would be hopeless.
Suddenly, I was astonished to see the captain jump off the locker upon which he had been sitting in moody silence, and rush headlong into the agent’s berth. I followed, and found him on his knees, tossing over the contents of Agnew’s large chest. What was my surprise, presently, to catch sight, amongst the articles being bundled out pell-mell upon the deck, of a brand-new six-chambered revolver.
An exclamation of delight escaped old Adams as he too caught sight of the weapon, and took it up.
“It just came into my mind, as I was sitting there in the dumps,” he said, “that I’d heard poor Agnew say, one night, that, had he known it, he might have saved the price of a revolver, for that, unaware of the owner’s liberality in providing him with one, he had, the day before he sailed, bought one at Johnson’s. That black wretch made sure of all the others; but, please God, if we can but find cartridges, we’ll beat him yet!”
Sure enough, in a small leather courier-bag, we presently came across about fifty “Lefacheux” cartridges to fit the pistol.
I could see that the captain had an idea. Hastily loading, and giving me a handful of the cartridges, he crept up the companion-steps and peeped through one of the auger-holes before mentioned, but soon descended with a disappointed look.
“I thought,” said he, “that Jacob might still be at the wheel. Could we but kill or cripple him, I believe our own Kanakas, who, I’m sure, are acting under compulsion, for I’ve had two of ’em—Sam and his mate—with me for a couple of trips before, would soon let us out, and then”—
“Ready about!” shouted Jacob on deck; and the captain, making a gesture of caution, again quickly made his way to the loophole, hoping that the interpreter might, as before, himself take the wheel during the manoeuvre.
Nor was he disappointed. With a motion of his hand, he let me know that all was right so far. Then I saw him, still kneeling, advance the muzzle of the revolver, and appear to take aim. It was an anxious moment, and the whirr and rattle of the wheel, as it was put hard-a-lee, made me jump again.
“Look out there, for’ard,” shouted Jacob, “or I’ll”—
But crack, crack, from the skipper’s revolver cut short the sentence. Then followed a howl of agony; hasty footsteps came tramping aft, then a curious scraping noise, and a shock that made the Schoolboy tremble in every plank, and sent the captain and myself fairly flying to the far end of the cabin, where, for a moment, we laid half-stunned, whilst the schooner slowly heeled over till I made sure that she was turning turtle with us. However, when she was nearly on her beam-ends, she stopped, and seemed, for the time at least, comfortably settled.
“Missed stays, and got on to a reef!” shouted the excited skipper. “But I’ve winged Mr. Ink in a way he won’t forget in a hurry.”
And now, picking ourselves up, we commenced —the captain with his pistol, and myself with the lid of one of the lockers which I had torn off—to hammer away at the companion door and skylight respectively, with all our might.
Amidst a lot of yelling and shouting, the hatch was at length pushed back. Three or four shots were heard, and the skipper, rushing on deck, fell headlong over the body of one of our Kanakas. I followed, clutching my locker-lid, and, once on the sloping deck, a truly curious scene met my eye.
The interpreter, with apparently both of his legs broken, lay to leeward, grasping a still smoking revolver, but already knocked senseless by the captain. At my feet was the dead body of the Kanaka, Sam, evidently shot by Jacob whilst endeavouring to liberate us.
For’ard, huddled up like a lot of sheep, were the recruits, amongst whom old Adams, maddened by bitter resentment at the treatment he had suffered and the wreck of the schooner, was firing as fast as he could pull the trigger. Presently I saw three survivors jump overboard and make for the shore. Thinking to myself that I would not give much for their chance, I turned my attention to the position of our vessel, and found that she had been forced into a sort of natural cradle on the reef, and most fortunate for us that it was so, or she would undoubtedly have sunk at once. As it was, she kept bumping and grinding in a way that convinced me her time was very short.
On our starboard bow, distant about three miles, lay New Britain, a mass of dark green vegetation, between which and the schooner I could see a fleet of canoes coming off under sail and paddle.
Climbing up to windward, and looking out to sea, I saw, to my delight and surprise, not more than a mile away, a fine clipper brig coming straight for us, and evidently bringing the breeze with her. This was indeed a joyful sight, and going to the signal-locker, I bent the ensign on, Union down, and ran it up to the gaff-end.
The skipper now walked aft, looking very grim, and simply remarking, “They’re all gone, true enough,” he bent down to inspect Jacob.
I called his attention to the brig, and with just a glance at her he said—
“She’ll be too late now, unless she hurries up a bit.”
And truly, what between the canoes, by this barely a mile away, and the schooner, which I thought must soon break up, things promised to look rather lively for us directly.
Our Kanakas had disappeared, fearing they might be the next to fall victims to that terrible revolver.
In response to a kick, Jacob showed that he was not dead yet, although in a sorry plight, with a bullet in the cap of each knee, and a skull, hard and thick though it was, showing marks of contact with a revolver-butt.
Groaning dismally, the murdering villain looked up at us and muttered—
“Mercy, captain! Mercy, mister mate!”
“Where are Agnew, Griffiths, and the other three men?” asked the captain, as he reloaded his revolvers, giving me one, and glancing at the fast-approaching canoes, and then at the brig, which the people in the former had not yet caught sight of, concealed as she was by the schooner.
A groan was the interpreter’s only answer to the captain’s question, and the latter, before I was aware of what he was about, had put a running bow-line under Jacob’s arms and lowered him over the side, where he hung, nearly up to his neck in the water.
For a minute his shrieks were awful, then all was silence; he had fainted.
Had I been inclined to interfere with the captain’s idea of prolonging the man’s agony it would have probably been useless; but I felt no such impulse. The cruel instigator of Stevens’ death, and the murderer of the rest of my shipmates, and of his too confiding master, poor Agnew, was only getting his just deserts, it seemed to me.
Rousing out the Kanakas from the forcastle, where they had taken refuge in fear and trembling, I now endeavoured to get our longboat, which was lashed across the main hatchway, into the water, as every moment I expected to see the schooner part in two, her back being broken.
Whilst thus engaged, I questioned Peter, dead Sam’s mate and fellow-islander, as to the manner in which our unfortunate shipmates had met their fate.
It had, it seems, been Peter’s first wheel in the second mate’s watch, and shortly after one bell, or half-past eight, had struck, he saw, to his great surprise, that both the agent and the second mate were fast asleep, one on the skylight, the other on a hencoop. The next thing he knew was Jacob presenting a revolver at his head, and telling him that the vessel now belonged to him, and that if himself and his fellows did not obey his orders, he would shoot them and throw them overboard at once.
Presently some of the new recruits appeared, and by Jacob’s orders carried the insensible bodies of the second mate and agent for’ard. Peter averred that, before this, the recruits had killed the three seamen, upon whom the drug had only partially taken effect, by smashing their skulls in with handspikes. Another Kanaka corroborated this, and added, that being able to understand a little of what was said, he could make out that the islanders wished to keep the bodies till they got ashore, and then eat them.
Jacob refused to allow this, but promised that they should have the two fat ones aft. The dead bodies were then thrown overboard, dozens of sharks were soon attracted to the spot, and, when they had apparently finished their horrid work, Agnew and the second mate were thrown to them, without being otherwise touched. The four Kanakas all agreed that not a cry from beginning to end of the tragedy was heard from the sufferers. They were not altogether unavenged, however. Five savages lay dead at the foot of the windlass, and the arch-villain of all was feeling a little of the agony he had caused others.
At length, with the aid of a tackle on the mainstay, we got the long-boat safely into the water, and telling the Kanakas to put water, sail, mast, and oars into her, I scrambled aft to see about provisions, and how things were going on.
The canoes, having caught sight of the brig, were now clustered into a group, save two, who had shot out from the main body with the intention of saving a solitary swimmer. I could just make out the black spot, but whilst reaching the glass off the skylight, and adjusting it, when I again looked it had disappeared, and the canoes had turned back again, the whole body of them making for the island as quickly as they could.
The brig, taking no notice of our distress signal, was also standing in straight for the land, leaving the fleet of canoes on her left hand. Her colours were flying, and I made them out to be Spanish.
Our captain and myself now got together stores, compass, sextant, etc., and put them into the boat, which, with one man in her, we veered off from the vessel.
In the hurry and bustle of all this, I had completely forgotten the interpreter, but now, looking aft, I saw that the sea was alive with great sharks, darting hither and thither. I could see, too, the body, looking like a long, black blot in the clear, bluish-green water, as, at every uneasy, grinding lurch of the schooner on her hard bed, it rose and sank, sometimes showing as far as the knees, then immersed to the neck again.
The man was, no doubt, already half dead, certainly insensible, but I could bear the sight no longer, so, seizing a tomahawk which laid handy, I, much to the captain’s disgust, severed the rope with one blow.
A rush from twenty different quarters, a whirl of red-tinged foam, an upheaval of many glittering bellies, and the interpreter was a thing of the past.
* * * * * * * * *
A sound of heavy firing now drew our attention to leeward, and there we saw that the brig, having got between the boats and the island, was dealing out to them, what old Adams, in his glee at the sight, called “particular fits,” scattering and sinking the canoe-fleet in all directions.
Broadside after broadside, from both rifles and heavier metal, was showered upon the islanders, till the smoke at length hung so thick and low that we could see nothing of either party.
The breeze, which had almost entirely died away during the last half an hour, now began to come in pretty briskly from the seaward, and little white crests, earnest of what was in store behind them, were breaking gently, here and there, upon the reef, bursting softly against the schooner’s side, then falling back again in thousands of snowy flakes.
All hands now getting into the boat, we pulled round the wreck, seeing plainly that, had it not been for the curious coral-berth into which she had been forced, and the fair weather prevailing, she would have worked off into deep water and foundered at once. As it was, with the incoming swell, she was working and grinding terribly, and great white splinters came to the surface at intervals, showing the mischief that was going on down below.
I never in my life saw sharks so numerous and so bold, not troubling themselves in the least to get out of our way when prodded with boathooks. They were doubtless waiting for the dead bodies for’ard, whose blood still oozed, black and thick, out of the scupper-holes.
Hoisting our sail, we made for the brig, which, with her port tacks aboard, was standing over towards us.
Not a single canoe was in sight. In about half an hour we were alongside the stranger, and, boarding her, we let our boat, with the Kanakas in it, tow astern.
I looked around curiously enough, as I stepped on to her quarter-deck, and had little difficulty in making up my mind as to her character.
A stout, middle-aged man now came forward, saying—
“How d’ye do? Saw you were pretty snug for an hour or two, so stood on, an’ had a bit o’ fun with the nigs. I owed ’em one this long time. Guess we’re about square now. Skipper an’ mate—eh? Guess the after-guard’s in luck, anyhow.” This when we told him who we were. “Come down an’ freshen the nip! My name’s Hayes. Heard of me, I’ll bet a dollar! Seen the Wasp lately? Anythin’ in the schooner worth havin’?”
Calling up one of his officers, a foreigner of some kind, he whispered something to him, and as we descended the cabin stairs, having had no chance to answer his many questions, I could plainly hear the “cheep” of the boat-falls, as they were overhauled from the davits.
Of course we had—there were very few people who had not about that time, and well he knew it—heard of “Captain” Hayes, South Sea thief, bland robber, pirate—call him what you will; but it was the first time either of us had set eyes on him. I had heard just before we left Brisbane that he had stolen a nearly new brig out of some New Zealand port, and no doubt this was the vessel that the natives of San Christoval had told us about, as playing up such pranks through the islands lately.
“Smart chap, that Jacob, for a nig!” remarked he, as we told him the outlines of our story. “I guess now he’s had the bulge on you pretty considerable this trip, if the sharks have got him. I knew the nig, well. Had him ’bout here with me, in the Ruby cutter for a long time. Then I heard of him goin’ back to the missionaries, an’ he was before the mast in the John Wesley for a spell; used to come down here, shiftin’ their native teachers ’bout from one place to the other. S’pose, now, you ain’t seen anythin’ of the Janestown, sloop-o’-war, ’bout these parts?”
We told him we had seen no cruisers lately belonging to either Her Majesty or Uncle Sam, both of whose naval commanders of ships on the Australian or Pacific coasts would, we well knew, be only too happy to interview him. This latter fact we did not mention, thinking it would be superfluous to do so.
“Captain” Hayes now pressed us to take a passage with him as far as Batavia, as he was getting tired of the South Seas, and was going to take a stretch over that way. We thanked him sincerely for coming so opportunely to our assistance; we thanked him, too, for his offer, but declined it, saying that our boat was well found in every requisite for a long trip, if need be, and that we thought we could make the mainland in her comfortably enough.
“Right you are, mates,” said he carelessly. “Some people don’t know when they do get a good offer.”
We now went on deck, and I could see a couple of the brig’s boats, full of men, alongside the schooner, apparently taking everything movable out of her.
“She won’t last till eight bells against this breeze,” said Hayes, “so we might as well make what we can out of her. Anyhow, you owe me somethin’ for scattering those nigs the way I did. Come, now, think it over a bit, the two of you. You’d best take a run down to the eastern seas with me. We’ll get somethin’ worth pickin up there, or I am much out.”
We both respectfully declined once more, and looking at the villainous faces of his motley crew, consisting seemingly of almost every nationality under the sky, the evident lack of all authority, the stands of boarding-pikes and cutlasses, with four carronades on each side, and a good-sized traveller-gun amidships, I wondered much that Mr. Hayes’ “pickin up” career had not been cut short long ago.
He was a perfect anachronism, this stealer of oranges, copra, and cocoanuts, kidnapper of dark-skinned maidens, and slayer wholesale of their relations—fully a century after his time, and, curiously enough, though several war-vessels kept a sharp look-out for him, he eluded them all.
One fine morning, however, whilst sailing along through the Straits of Banca, he took it into his head to shoot the man at the wheel. Going down to his cabin for a revolver to carry out his threat, the sailor, who naturally couldn’t see the necessity, went for a capstan-bar, and, as Hayes ascended, made an end of him with one blow.
I was not sorry, at length, to get back into our boat, cast off the painter, and say goodbye to the brig and her commander, whom I had noticed casting longing glances at our craft, which was new, and a first-class article of her kind.
“Well,” he sang out, “so long, then, if you must go. Guess we keep no men here ’gainst their will. My name’s Hayes, and don’t you forget it. I’m upstraight an’ downright— that’s the kind of chicken I am. So long to ye.”
My first look, on getting the sail hoisted again, was towards the schooner, or rather towards where the schooner had been, for, in the red light of the setting sun, only a swirl of white breakers foaming over the solitary reef met my eye.
The brig’s two boats, apparently deeply laden, were pulling slowly back, their crews chanting some wild chorus which sounded eerie and sad through the fast freshening breeze, indeed half a gale now, as we took a couple of reefs in our sail, spliced the main-brace all round, set the watches, and steered a course for Cape Bowling-Green.
For the next few days we had pretty hard times of it, and got blown away to the nor’ard by a succession of heavy gales, but at last we were picked up by the Torres Straits mail-steamer, Moulamein, which landed us safely at Townsville.
And that is the full, true, and particular account of the loss of the schooner Schoolboy, and of all that happened to her crew.
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