A Middy of the Slave Squadron A West African Story
By Harry Collingwood This was one of the last books written by "Harry Collingwood". The copy we worked from was very clearly printed, but with one very major problem - the text was printed far too close to the centre of the book. Therefore the book could not be scanned using the regular book-scanner, but rather it was done using the scanner in flat-bed mode. However, the results were quite good, with the text coming through very clearly, and only the hyphens needing a good amount of checking. The hyphens get affected by the cleaning-up process which takes out the unwanted dark patches on the scans.
The book is exactly according to the title. Remembering that "Harry Collingwood" was in real life a naval architect, you can take good note of the way he handles nautical terminology. Other contemporary authors were good, but in this respect Collingwood is a real master.
It makes a good audiobook, so you ought to enjoy it very greatly. NH. A MIDDY OF THE SLAVE SQUADRON A WEST AFRICAN STORY
BY HARRY COLLINGWOOD
A SOUND THROUGH THE DARKNESS.
"Phew!" ejaculated Mr Perry, first lieutenant of His Britannic Majesty's corvette Psyche, as he removed his hat and mopped the perspiration from his streaming forehead with an enormous spotted pocket-handkerchief. "I believe it's getting hotter instead of cooler; although, by all the laws that are supposed to govern this pestiferous climate, we ought to be close upon the coolest hour of the twenty-four! Just step aft to the skylight, Mr Fortescue, and see what the time is, will ye? It must surely be nearing two bells."
"Ay, ay, sir!" I dutifully answered; and, moving aft to the skylight, raised the canvas cover which had been placed over it to mask the light of the low-turned lamp which was kept burning all night in the fore cabin, and glanced at the clock which, screwed to the coaming on one side of the tell-tale compass, balanced the barometer which, hung in gimbals, was suspended on the other side. The clock marked the time as two minutes to five a.m., or within two minutes of two bells in the morning watch.
Dropping the canvas screen back into place, I was about to announce the time to my superior officer, when I thought I caught, through the faint creak of the ship's timbers and the light rustling of the canvas aloft, a slight, far off sound, like the squeak of a sheave on a rusty pin. Therefore, instead of proclaiming the time aloud, I stepped quietly to the side of the first luff, and asked, almost in a whisper—
"Did you hear anything just then, sir?"
"Hear anything?" reiterated Mr Perry, unconsciously lowering his usually stentorian voice in response to the suggestion of secrecy conveyed by my whisper; "no, I can't say that I did. What d'ye mean, Mr Fortescue?"
"I mean, sir," I replied, "that I thought I caught, a moment ago, a sound like that of—ah! did you hear that, then, sir?" as a voice, uttering some words of command, apparently in the Spanish language, came floating to us, faint but clear, across the invisible water upon which the Psyche lay rolling almost imperceptibly.
"Ay, I did," answered Mr Perry, modulating his voice still further. "No mistake about that, eh? There's a craft of some sort out there, less than a mile distant, I should say. Did you catch the words? They sounded to me like some foreign lingo."
"No, sir," I replied, "I did not quite catch them, but, as you say, they appeared to be foreign, and I believe they were Spanish. What about striking two bells, sir? It only wanted two minutes—"
"On no account whatever, Mr Fortescue," hastily interrupted my companion. "On the contrary, have the kindness to slip for'ard and caution the watch not to sing out, or make the slightest noise, on any account, but to come quietly aft if they happen to have anything to report. And when you have done that, kindly go down and call Captain Harrison."
"Ay, ay, sir!" I answered; and, kicking off my shoes, lest the sound of them upon the deck should reach the stranger through that still and breathless atmosphere, I proceeded upon my twofold errand.
But it is time to tell the reader where the Psyche was upon this dark and stifling night; what she was doing there; and why the precautions above referred to were deemed necessary.
As has already been mentioned, the Psyche was a British man-o'-war. She was a sloop, armed with fourteen long 18-pounders; and carried a crew which had originally consisted of one hundred and thirty men, but which had now been reduced by sickness and casualties to one hundred and four, all told. She was a unit in the somewhat scanty Slave Squadron which Great Britain had stationed on the West African coast for the suppression of the infamous slave-trade; and when this story opens— namely, about the middle of the year 1822—had been upon the station nearly two years, during the whole of which period I, Richard Fortescue, hailing from the neighbourhood of the good town of Plymouth, had been on board her, and now held the responsible position of senior midshipman; being, at the above date, just turned seventeen years of age.
The Psyche was a fine, stout, roomy, and comfortable craft of her class; but about as unsuitable for the work upon which she was now engaged as could well be, for she was a converted merchant ship, built for the purpose of carrying the biggest possible cargo that could be packed into certain prescribed limits, and consequently, as might be expected, phenomenally slow. To commission such a vessel to chase and capture the nimble craft that were usually employed to transport the unhappy blacks across the Atlantic was simply a ghastly farce, and caused us, her unfortunate crew, to be the laughing-stock of the entire coast. Yet, considering all things, we had not done so very badly; for realising, early in the commission, that we need never hope for success from the speed of our ship, we had invoked the aid of strategy, and by dint of long practice had brought the trapping of slavers almost up to the level of high art. Consequently the Psyche, despite the disabilities arising from her astonishing lack of speed, had acquired a certain reputation among the slave-dealing fraternity, and was as intensely detested by them as any ship on the station.
At the moment when the reader first finds himself a member of her crew the Psyche was lying near the mouth of the Benin river, some two miles off the shore and about twice that distance from the river's mouth, at which point we had arrived at midnight; having made our way thither in consequence of "information received," which led us to believe that a large ship was at that moment in the river taking on board a full cargo of blacks. We had drifted down to the position which we then occupied under the impulse of the last of the land-breeze, which had died out and left us becalmed some two miles short of the precise spot for which we were aiming. Still, we were near enough for all practical purposes, or believed that we were; for we thought that if a thoroughly smart look- out were maintained—and we had grown to be adepts at that sort of thing—it would be impossible for a slaver to attempt to slip out of the river without our becoming cognisant of the fact. And now, to return to my story.
Having first stolen forward and warned the watch that a craft of some sort was within hearing distance of us, and that they were therefore carefully to avoid crying out, or making any other sound that might betray our presence, I returned aft, in the same cautious manner, and was on the point of descending the companion ladder to call the captain, when ting-ting came the soft chiming of a ship's bell, mellowed by distance, from somewhere in the offing, evidencing—or so it seemed to me—the fact that the stranger had not as yet discovered our proximity.
The skipper, accustomed to being disturbed at all hours of the night, awoke at the first touch of my knuckles upon his cabin door.
"Yes!" he called; "what is it?"
"There is a strange craft not far from us, sir," I answered; "and Mr Perry considered that you should be apprised of the fact. We know nothing whatever about her, except that she is there; for the night is so intensely dark that we have been unable to catch the faintest glimpse of her, but we have just heard them strike two bells aboard her. We have not struck our own bell, sir, thinking—"
"Yes, of course, quite right," interrupted the skipper, as he landed with a soft thud on the floor of his state-room. "Tell Mr Perry that I'll be on deck in a brace of shakes."
He followed close at my heels up the companion ladder, having paused only long enough to slip into his nether garments, and came groping blindly out on deck.
"Phew!" he muttered, as he emerged from the companion; "it's as dark as the inside of a cow. Where are you, Mr Perry?"
"Here I am, sir; close alongside you," answered the first luff, stretching out his hand and lightly touching the skipper's arm. "Yes," he continued, "it certainly is dark, unusually so; so dark that I am in hopes of keeping our presence a secret from the fellow out yonder until you shall have decided what is to be done."
"Mr Fortescue tells me that you have not seen anything of him thus far," remarked the captain. "Whereabout is he, and how far off, do you reckon?"
"Somewhere away in that direction," indicated the lieutenant, with a flourish of his arm. "As to the distance—well, that is rather difficult to judge. Sound travels far on such a night as this; but I should say that the craft is not more than half a mile distant, or three-quarters, at the utmost."
"Um!" commented the captain meditatively. "I suppose it is not, by any chance, the craft which we are after, which has slipped out of the river in the darkness, eh?"
"I should scarcely think so, sir," answered Perry. "A man would literally have to be able to find his way about blindfolded to attempt to run out of the river on such a night as this. No, I am inclined to think that it is some inward-bound craft, becalmed like ourselves. We caught the sound of some order spoken on board her when we first became aware of her presence, and Mr Fortescue here was of opinion that the words used were Spanish, although the distance was too great to enable us to distinguish just what was said."
"Ay," responded the skipper; "two out of every three slavers doing business on this coast are either Spaniards or Portuguese. Now, the question is, What are we to do with regard to our unknown friend out yonder? Either she is, or is not, the craft that we are on the look-out for. If she is, we must take her, by hook or by crook, before the sea-breeze sets in and gives her the chance to run away from us; and that means a jaunt in the boats. On the other hand, if she is not the craft that we are after, she is still in all probability a slaver, and in any case will doubtless pay for an overhaul, which again means a boat trip. Therefore, Mr Perry, be good enough to have the hands called, and the boats got into the water as silently as possible. If the men are quick we may be able to get away, and perhaps alongside her, before the dawn breaks. I will take charge of this little pleasure-party myself, and you can stay here and keep house during my absence."
"Ay, ay, sir," answered Perry, in tones which clearly betrayed his disappointment at the arrangement come to by the skipper. "I will put matters in hand."
"Yes, do," returned the skipper; "and meanwhile I will go and dress. It shall be your turn next time, Perry," he chuckled, as he turned away to go below again.
"Ay," grumbled the lieutenant to himself, but audibly enough for me to hear. "Same old yarn—'your turn next time, Perry.' This will make the third time running that I have been left behind to 'keep house,' but there's not going to be a fourth, I'll see to that; it is time that this child stood up for his rights. Now, Mr Fortescue, have the goodness, if you please, to pass the word for all hands to arm and man boats; and to be quiet about it, too, and show no lights."
"Ay, ay, sir," I briskly responded, as I turned to hurry away; "I'll see that our lambs don't bleat too loudly. And—I suppose—that I may take it for granted that—"
"That you will make one of the 'pleasure-party'?" interrupted the lieutenant, with a laugh, as he put his disappointment and ill-humour away from him. "Oh, yes, I suppose so. At all events there will be no harm in making your preparations; the captain is pretty certain to take you."
Still on my bare feet, I hurried forward and found the boatswain.
"That you, Mr Futtock?" I inquired, as I made out his burly form.
"Ay, ay, Mr Fortescue, it's me, right enough," was the answer. "I presoom, sir, it's another boat job, eh? You heard that bell?"
"We did, Mr Futtock; yes, we heard it distinctly, seeing that we don't 'caulk' in our watch on deck," I retorted. "Yes, it's another boat affair; so be good enough to have all hands called at once, if you please. And kindly make it your personal business to see that nobody raises his voice, lets anything fall, or otherwise creates row enough to wake the dead. This is going to be a little surprise visit, you understand."
"Ay, ay, Mr Fortescue, I understands," answered Futtock, as he moved toward the open hatchway; "I'll see that the swabs don't make no noise. The man that raises his voice above a whisper won't go. That's all."
"Just one word more, Mr Futtock," I hastily interposed, as the boatswain stepped over the coaming to descend the hatchway. "You may do me a favour, if you will. Kindly ask the armourer to pick me out a nice sharp cutlass, if you please. You can bring it on deck with you when you come up."
To this request the boatswain readily enough assented; and matters being thus far satisfactorily arranged I descended to the cockroach-haunted den wherein we mids. ate and slept, to find that little Tom Copplestone—who shared my watch, and who was a special favourite of mine because of his gentle, genial disposition, and also perhaps because he hailed from the same county as myself—having overheard the conversation between Mr Perry and myself, had already come below and roused the occupants of the place, who, by the smoky rays of a flaring oil lamp that did its best to make the atmosphere quite unendurable, were hastily arraying themselves.
"Murder!" I ejaculated, as I entered the pokey little place and got my first whiff of its close, reeking, smoke-laden atmosphere; "put out that abominable lamp and light a candle or two, somebody, for pity's sake. How the dickens you fellows can manage to breathe down here I can't understand. And, boy," to the messenger outside, "pass the word for Cupid to bring us along some cocoa from the galley."
"There's no need," remarked Nugent, the master's mate, as he struggled ineffectively to find the left sleeve of his jacket. "The word has already been passed; I passed it myself when Master Cock-robin there," pointing to Copplestone, "came and roused us out. And, as to candles, I'm afraid we haven't any; the rats appear to have eaten the last two we had in the locker. However—ah, here comes the cocoa. Put the pot down there, Cupid—never mind if it does soil our beautiful damask table- cloth, we're going to have it washed next time we go into Sierra Leone. And just see if you can find us a biscuit or two and some butter, will ye, you black angel? Here, avast there,"—as the black was about to retire—"produce our best china breakfast-set before you go, you swab, and pour out the cocoa."
The black, a herculean Krooboy, picked up when we first arrived on the Coast, and promptly christened "Cupid" by the master's mate, who, possibly because of sundry disappointments, had developed a somewhat sardonic turn of humour, grinned appreciatively at Nugent's sorry jest respecting "our best china breakfast-set," and proceeded to rout out the heterogeneous assortment of delf and tin cups, basins, and plates that constituted the table-equipage of the midshipmen's berth, poured out a generous allowance of cocoa for each of us, and then departed, with the empty bread-barge, in quest of a supply of ship's biscuit. By the time that Cupid returned with this, we had gulped down our cocoa and were ready to go on deck. I therefore helped myself to a couple of biscuits which, breaking into pieces of convenient size by the simple process of dashing them against my elbow, I crammed into my jacket pocket, and then rushed up the ladder to the deck, leaving my companions to follow after they had snatched a hasty bite or two of food; for there was now no knowing when we might get breakfast.
Upon my arrival on deck I found the hands already mustering under the supervision of the first lieutenant, and a moment later I encountered the boatswain, who handed over to me a good serviceable ship's cutlass— worth a dozen of the ridiculous little dirks which were considered suitable weapons for midshipmen—which I promptly girded about my waist. At this moment all was bustle and animation throughout the ship, yet so sedulously had we been trained to act in perfect silence that I am certain the stealthy footfalls of the men hurrying to their stations, and the whispered words of command, were quite inaudible at a distance of twenty yards from the ship. Within a minute or two, however, even these faint sounds had subsided, the crew were all mustered, and the first lieutenant, assisted by a quartermaster who carried a carefully masked lantern, was carefully, yet rapidly, inspecting each man's weapons and equipment, scrutinising the flints in the locks of the pistols, and otherwise satisfying himself of the efficiency of our hurried preparations. While the inspection was still in progress the captain came on deck, with his sword girded to his side and a brace of pistols thrust into his belt, and stood quietly looking on until the inspection was completed and Mr Perry had reported that everything was in order.
Then the skipper announced that he would personally lead the attack in his own gig, manned by eight oarsmen, a coxswain, and a midshipman— myself; while the first cutter, manned by sixteen oarsmen, a coxswain, and a midshipman—Jack Keene—was to be commanded by Mr Purchase, the second lieutenant; and the second cutter, with twelve oarsmen, a coxswain, and Nugent, the master's mate, was to be under the command of the boatswain. Thus the attacking party was to consist of forty-five persons, all told, which was as many, I suppose, as the skipper felt justified in taking out of the ship under the circumstances.
Then ensued a busy five minutes, during which the boats were being noiselessly lowered and manned, the oars muffled, and every possible precaution observed to enable us to take our unseen but doubtless vigilant enemy unawares. This was just then regarded as of especial importance, for at the time of which I am now writing the traffic in slaves was regarded as piracy, and rendered its perpetrators liable to capital punishment, in consequence of which almost every slaver went heavily armed, and her crew, knowing that the halter was already about their necks, resisted capture by every means which their ingenuity could devise, whenever they had the chance, and often fought with desperate valour.
As I hurried aft to attend to the lowering of the gig, which hung from davits over the stern, a hand was suddenly laid upon my arm, and, turning, I found myself confronted by Cupid, the Krooboy servant who "did for us" in the midshipmen's berth. His eyes were aglow with excitement, he carried a short-handled hatchet, with a head somewhat bigger and heavier than that of a ship's tomahawk, in his hand, and he was naked, save for a pair of dungaree trousers, the legs of which were rolled up above his knees.
"Mr Fortescue, sar, I fit for go in dem boat wid you, sar," he whispered eagerly.
"Yes, I quite believe it, Cupid," I replied. "But you know perfectly well that I cannot give you permission to join the gig's crew. If the captain had been anxious to have the pleasure of your company I feel sure that he would have mentioned the fact. Besides, if you should happen to be killed, what would become of us poor midshipmen?"
A suppressed chuckle, and a gleam of white teeth through the darkness, betrayed Cupid's appreciation of the compliment subtly conveyed in the suggestion that the budding admirals inhabiting the midshipmen's berth aboard H.M.S. Psyche would suffer, should he unhappily be slain in the impending conflict, but he hastened to reassure me.
"No fear, sar," he whispered. "Dem slaber no lib for kill me. I, Cupid, too much plenty black for see in de dark; an' if dey no see me, dey no kill. Savvey? Please, Mr Fortescue, sar. I no lib for fight too much plenty long time."
"Look here, Cupid," I replied. "It is no use for you to ask me for permission to go in the gig, for I cannot give it you. But,"— meaningly—"if you were to stow yourself away in the eyes of the gig it is just possible that the captain might not notice you until we had got too far from the ship to turn back. Only don't let me see you doing it, that's all."
"Dat all right, sar," answered the black, with a sigh of extreme content. "If you no look for dem Cupid you no see um." And he turned and ostentatiously walked away forward.
The boats having been gently and carefully lowered into the water without a splash, or so much as a single tell-tale squeak from the tackle-blocks—the pins and bushes of which were habitually overhauled at frequent intervals and kept well lubricated with a mixture of melted tallow and plumbago—the crews took their places, each man carefully depositing his drawn cutlass on the bottom-boards between his feet, and we shoved off with muffled oars, the three boats pulling abreast, with about a ship's length between each; so that if perchance we should happen to be seen, we should present as small a target as possible to aim at.
We pulled slowly and with the utmost caution, for the twofold reason that we had not yet caught sight of our quarry and only knew in a general sort of way that she was somewhere to seaward of us, and because we were anxious to avoid premature discovery from the splash of our oars. It was of course perfectly right and proper that we should observe all the precautions that I have indicated; for if we could but contrive to creep up alongside the stranger without being detected, it would undoubtedly mean the prevention of much loss of life. But, personally, I had very little hope of our being able to do so; for the night was so breathlessly still that, if any sort of look-out at all were being kept aboard the stranger—and slavers usually slept with one eye open—they must surely have caught some hint of our proximity, careful as we had been to maintain as complete silence as possible while making our preparations. Besides, as ill-luck would have it, the water was in an unusually brilliant phosphorescent condition just then, the slightest disturbance of it caused a silvery glow that could be seen a mile away; and, be as silent as we might, the dip of our oars and the passage of the boats through the water set up such a blaze as could not fail to betray us, should a man happen to glance in our direction.
At length, when we had pulled about half a mile, as nearly as I could judge, I detected a slight suspicion of a softening in the velvety blackness of the sky in the eastern quarter. It brightened, even as I looked, and a solitary star, low down in the sky, seemed to flicker, faintly and more faintly, for half a dozen seconds, and then disappear.
"The dawn is coming, sir," I whispered to the skipper, by whose side I was sitting, "and in another minute or two we ought to—ah! there she is. Do you see her, sir?" And I pointed in the direction of a faint, ghostlike blotch that had suddenly appeared at a spot some three points on our port bow.
"Where away?" demanded the skipper, instinctively raising his hand to shade his eyes; but he had scarcely lifted it to the height of his shoulder when he too caught sight of the object.
"Ay," he exclaimed, "I see her. And a big craft she is, too; a barque, apparently. Surely that cannot be the craft that we are after? Yet it looks very like her. If so, she must have slipped out of the river with the last of the land-breeze last night, and lain becalmed all night where she is. Now what are the other boats about that they have not seen her? Parkinson," to the coxswain, "show that lantern for a moment to the other boats, but take care to shield it with—ah! never mind, there are both their lights. Give way, men. Put me alongside under her mizen chains, my lad. Either side; I don't care which."
While the captain had been speaking the faint, ghostly glimmer that I had detected had resolved itself into the spectral semblance of a large ship clothed from her trucks down with canvas upon which the rapidly growing light of the advancing dawn was falling and thus rendering it just barely visible against its dark background of sky.
In the tropics day comes and goes with a rush, and, even while the skipper had been speaking, the object which had first revealed itself to me, a minute earlier, as a mere wan, ghostly suggestion had assumed solidity and definiteness of form, and now stood out against the sky behind her as a full-rigged ship of some seven hundred and fifty tons burthen, her hull painted bright green, and coppered to the water-line. She was lying stern-on to us, and sat deep in the water, from which latter fact one inferred that she had her cargo of slaves on board and had doubtless, as the skipper conjectured, come out of the river with the last of the land-breeze during the previous night, and had remained becalmed near us, and, we hoped, quite unaware of our proximity all night. She was now within a cable's length of the boats, but, lying as she was, dead stern-on to us, we in the gig were unable to see how many guns she carried, which was, however, an advantage to us, since, however many guns she might mount on her broadsides, she could bring none of them to bear upon us. We saw, however, that she carried two stern- chasers—long nine's, apparently—and now, in the hope of dashing alongside before those two guns could be cast loose and brought to bear upon us, the captain stood up in the stern-sheets of the gig and waved his arm to the other boats as a signal to them to give way—for, with the coming of the daylight we could not possibly hope to remain undiscovered above a second or two longer.
Indeed the boats' crews had scarcely bent their backs in response to the signal when there arose a sudden startled outcry on board the ship, followed by a volley of hurried commands and the hasty trampling of feet upon her decks. But we were so close to her, when discovered, and the surprise was so complete, that her crew had no time to do anything effective in the way of defence; and in little over a couple of minutes we had swept up alongside, clambered in over her lofty bulwarks, driven her crew below, and were in full possession of the Dona Isabella of Havana, mounting twelve guns, with a crew of forty-six Spaniards, Portuguese, and half-castes, constituting as ruffianly a lot as I had ever met with. She had a cargo of seven hundred and forty negroes on board, and was far and away the finest prize that had thus far fallen to the lot of the Psyche. So valuable, indeed, was she that Captain Harrison decided not to trust her entirely to a prize crew, but to escort her to Sierra Leone in the corvette; and some two hours later, having meanwhile made all the necessary dispositions, the two craft trimmed sail with the first of the sea-breeze and hauled up for Sierra Leone, where we arrived a week later after an uneventful passage.
IN THE FERNAN VAZ RIVER.
While we were awaiting the formal condemnation of the Dona Isabella by the Mixed Commission, and the trial of her crew upon the charge of piracy, Captain Harrison, our skipper, busily employed himself, as was his wont, in hunting up information relative to the movements, present and prospective, of the slavers upon the coast. And this was not quite so difficult to do as might at first be imagined; for, Sierra Leone being the headquarters, so to speak, of the British Slave Squadron, the persons actually engaged in the slave-trade found that it paid them well to maintain agents there for the sole purpose of picking up every possible item of information relative to the movements and doings of that squadron. For it not unfrequently happened that, to those behind the scenes, an apparently trivial and seemingly quite worthless bit of information, an imprudent word dropped by an unwary officer respecting one of our vessels, enabled the acute ones to calculate so closely that they often succeeded in making a dash into some river, shipping a cargo of slaves, and getting clear away to sea again only a few hours before our cruisers put in an appearance on the spot. And in the same way our own officers, by frequenting, in disguise, the haunts of the slavers and their agents, very often succeeded in catching a hint that, carefully followed up, led to most important captures being made. It was, indeed, through a hint so acquired that we had been put upon the track of the Dona Isabella.
Now, our own skipper, Captain Harrison, was particularly keen upon this sort of work, and was exceptionally well qualified to achieve success in it. For, in the first place, he was a West Indian by birth, being the son of a Trinidad sugar-planter, and he consequently spoke Creole Spanish as fluently as he did his mother tongue. Also his physical characteristics were such as to be of the greatest assistance to him in such enterprises; for he was tall, lean, and muscular, of swarthy complexion, with thick, black, curly hair, and large, black, flashing eyes, suggesting that he carried a touch of the tar-brush, although, as a matter of fact, he had not a drop of negro blood in him. He was a man of dauntless courage, knowing not the meaning of fear, and absolutely revelling in situations of the most extreme peril, yet gifted with quite as much discretion as was needful for a man entrusted with heavy responsibilities involving the lives of many of his fellow-men. He never sought danger for danger's sake alone, and never embarked in an enterprise which his reason assured him was hopelessly impracticable, but, on the other hand, he never hesitated to undertake the most perilous task if he believed he could see a way to its successful accomplishment. It was his habit to assume a variety of disguises in which he would haunt the third and fourth rate taverns of Freetown, especially patronised by the slave-dealing fraternity, and mingling freely with these gentry, would boldly express his own views, adopted, of course, for the occasion, upon the various matters affecting the trade, or discuss with them the most promising schemes for baffling the efforts of the British cruisers. He had noticed, very early in his career as an officer of the Slave Squadron, that it was always the British who constituted the bete noire of the slavers; the French they feared very little; the Americans not at all.
These little incursions into the enemy's territory Captain Harrison conducted with consummate boldness and skill, and with a considerable measure of success, for it was quite a favourite amusement of his to devise and suggest schemes of a particularly alluring character which, when adopted by the enemy, he of course triumphantly circumvented without difficulty. There was only one fault to find with this propensity on the part of our skipper, but in my humble judgment it constituted a serious one. It was this. Captain Harrison's personality was a distinctly striking one; he was the kind of man who, once seen, is not easily forgotten; and I greatly dreaded that some day, sooner or later, the reckless frequenter of the low-class Freetown taverns would be identified as one and the same with the captain of H.M.S. Psyche, who was of course frequently to be seen about the streets in the uniform of a British naval captain. Indeed I once took the liberty of delicately hinting at this possibility; but the skipper laughed at the idea; he had, it appeared, the most implicit faith in his disguises, which included, amongst other things, a huge false moustache of most ferocious appearance, and an enormous pair of gold earrings.
We had been at Sierra Leone a little over a fortnight, and our business there was just completed, when the skipper came aboard on a certain afternoon in a state of the highest good-humour, occasioned, as soon transpired, by the fact that he had succeeded in obtaining full particulars of an exceptionally grand coup that had been planned by a number of slavers in conjunction, which they were perfectly confident of pulling off triumphantly.
It appeared, from his story, that intelligence had just been received of the successful conclusion of a great slave-hunting raid into the interior by a certain King Olomba, who had recently returned in triumph to his town of Olomba, on the left bank of the Fernan Vaz river, bringing with him nearly three thousand negroes, of whom over two thousand were males, all in prime condition. This information having reached the slavers' agents at Sierra Leone through the mysterious channels by which news often travels in Africa, an effort of quite exceptional magnitude was to be made to get at least the two thousand males out of the country at one fell swoop; the present being regarded as an almost uniquely favourable opportunity for the accomplishment of this object, for the reason that the Psyche was just then the only ship which could by any possibility interfere with the scheme. And in the event of her happening to put in an inopportune appearance on that part of the coast at the critical moment—as she had a knack of doing, in the most unaccountable manner—she was to be decoyed away from the spot by the simple process of dispatching to sea a certain notorious schooner well-known to be in the trade, but which, for this occasion only, was to have no slaves or slave fittings or adjuncts on board, and after a chase of some two or three hundred miles to the southward, was to permit herself to be caught, only to be released again, of course, after an exhaustive overhaul.
It was an admirable scheme, beautifully simple, and could scarcely fail to achieve complete success, but for the fact that Captain Harrison had contrived to obtain full particulars of it, and therefore knew exactly how to frustrate the plan. His plot was as simple as that of the slavers: he would proceed in the Psyche to the scene of operations, and when the decoy schooner made her appearance she would be permitted to go on her way unmolested, while a boat expedition would be dispatched up the river to the town of Olomba, where the vessels actually engaged in shipping the two thousand blacks would be captured flagrante delicto.
Naturally we were all thrown into a high state of jubilation at the receipt of this intelligence; for it promised us a slice of good luck of such magnitude as very seldom fell to the lot of a single cruiser. To convey two thousand negroes across the Atlantic at once would necessitate the employment of at least three large ships, the value of which might be roughly calculated at, upon the very lowest estimate, ten thousand pounds each, or thirty thousand pounds in all, besides which there would be the head-money upon two thousand negroes, amounting altogether to quite a nice little sum in prize-money for a cruise of probably less than a month's duration. Oh, how we chuckled as we pictured to ourselves the effect which the news of so magnificent a coup would create upon the minds of the rest of the Slave Squadron. The Psyche, from her phenomenal lack of speed, and general unsuitability for the service upon which she was employed, had, with her crew, become the butt and laughing-stock of every stupid and scurrilous jester on the coast, and many a time had we been made to writhe under the lash of some more than ordinarily envenomed gibe; but now the laugh was to be on our side; we were going to demonstrate to those shallow, jeering wits the superiority of brains over a clean pair of heels.
Of course we were all in a perfect fever of impatience to get to sea and make the best of our way to the scene of action, lest haply we should arrive too late and find the birds flown; but the skipper retained his coolness and would permit nothing to be done that could by any possibility suggest to the slavers the idea that the faintest hint of their audacious scheme had been allowed to get abroad. He insisted that we had plenty of time and to spare, and actually remained in harbour three whole days after the information had reached him. Then, on the morning of the fourth day, we weighed and stood out to sea, beating off the land against the sea-breeze until we ran into the calm belt between the sea-breeze and the trade-wind. Here we remained motionless for more than an hour until the trade-wind gradually ate its way inshore and reached us, when we ran right out to sea until we had sunk the land astern of us. Then we hauled up to the southward on a taut bowline, and, under easy canvas, made our leisurely way toward the mouth of the Fernan Vaz river, off which we arrived five days later, making the land from the masthead about an hour before sunset.
All that night, the whole of the next day, and all the night following we remained hove-to under topsails, jib, and spanker, dodging to and fro athwart the mouth of the river, with a man on the main-royal yard, during the hours of daylight, to give us timely notice of the appearance of the craft which was to play the part of decoy; while with the approach of nightfall we made sail and beat in to within a distance of some three miles of the coast, running off into the offing again an hour before daylight. At length, when we had hung upon the tenterhooks of suspense for close upon forty hours, and were beginning to fear that the captain, in his resolve to cut matters as fine as possible, had overdone the thing and allowed the quarry to escape, we were gladdened by the hail from aloft of—
"Sail he! A large schooner just comin' out o' the river, sir."
"Ay, ay," answered the first lieutenant, whose watch it happened to be. "Just keep your eye on her, my lad, and let me know how she steers when she is clear of the bar."
We were heading to the southward at the time, and were about three miles south of the river entrance, and some sixteen miles off the land; by pretending therefore not to see her for the next quarter of an hour or so, and keeping the Psyche still heading to the southward, we should afford the stranger an excellent opportunity to secure a sufficient offing to make good her escape. Then we would heave about, make sail in chase, drive her off the coast, and work in as close to the river's mouth as we dared venture, when the ship was to be brought to an anchor, and the boats manned, armed, and dispatched into the river.
Meanwhile, as previously arranged, Captain Harrison was aroused, and informed of the fact that the decoy schooner, or what was assumed to be such, had made her appearance and was now fairly at sea, steering a little to the northward of west under a heavy press of sail; and close upon the heels of the returning messenger the worthy skipper himself appeared. He sprang upon a gun-carriage and peered intently shoreward under the shade of his hand; but only the upper canvas of the stranger was visible from our deck; and he impatiently hailed the look-out aloft to give him a detailed description of the vessel. The fellow in the cross-trees happened, however, to be a poor sort of unintelligent fellow, and could say very little about the craft beyond stating the fact that she was a schooner, painted black; that she sat deep in the water, showed an immense spread of canvas, and appeared to be very fast.
"I have no sort of doubt that yonder schooner is the craft whose duty it is to draw us off the coast and leave the way clear for the other fellows to get out to sea," he said. "But I should like to have a somewhat better description of her than that 'sodger' up aloft there seems able to give."
He glanced round the deck and his eye fell upon me.
"Ah, Mr Fortescue," he exclaimed, "you will doubtless be able to do what I want. Just slip down into my cabin; you will find my glass hanging above the head of my bunk. Throw the strap of it over your shoulder, and shin up alongside that fellow in the cross-trees; take a good look at the stranger; and report to me any peculiarities that you may detect in her, will ye."
"Ay, ay, sir," I replied, touching my hat; and five minutes later I was sitting in the main-topmast cross-trees, with the long barrel of the telescope steadied against the topmast-head, and my eye glued to the eye-piece. From this elevation I commanded a complete, if distant, view of the low land about the river entrance, with its fringe of mangrove trees running away inland, the sand hummocks, sparsely clothed with coarse, reedy grass and trailing plants, and the endless line of the surf-beaten African beach. Also through the skipper's powerful lenses I obtained a most excellent view of the strange schooner, from her trucks to her water-line, including such details as I could have discerned with the naked eye at a distance of about half a mile. I saw, for example, that, as the look-out had already reported, she was a large schooner—I estimated her to be one hundred and eighty tons burthen at the least; I verified the statement that her hull was painted all black from the rail to the top of her copper; that she showed an enormous spread of canvas; and that she sat very low in the water. But I noticed a few other peculiarities as well; I saw that her bowsprit was painted black, while her jib-booms were scraped and varnished; that her foremast, fore- topmast, and fore-topgallant and royal-mast were varnished, while the mast heads were painted black, and that the whole of the mainmast, from the cap down, was painted white, which was a peculiarity that ought to have been sufficient to identify her as far as one could see her. And so it was; for the moment that I reported it the skipper hailed—
"Thank you, Mr Fortescue; that will do; you may come down. Or—hold on a minute. Is the stranger far enough out of the river to enable her to get clear away, think ye?"
"She is fully a mile from the mouth of the river, sir," I answered.
"Ah, that will do, then, thank you; you may both come down," answered the skipper. And as I swung myself down through the cross-trees to the topmast rigging, I heard him give the order to "Wear ship and make sail."
Five minutes later the Psyche was heading to the northward, close- hauled on the port tack, under all plain sail to her royals, doing nearly seven knots, and laying a course that, with nice steering, would just enable us to fetch the river's mouth handsomely without breaking tacks. The schooner, meanwhile, was romping along at a pace of at least twelve knots per hour, on the starboard tack, throwing the spray over her weather bow to half the height of her lower yard, and shaping a course which would enable her to pass us at a distance of fully eight miles dead to windward. We allowed her to go on her way unmolested.
It was just noon when, having arrived off the mouth of the river, we made a flying moor of it, letting go the first and then the second bower anchor in ten fathoms, at a distance of about one and a half miles from the shore, and at a spot from which the river mouth and perhaps half a mile of the river itself were in plain view. The town of King Olomba, it was understood, was situated at a distance of about thirty-two miles from our anchorage; and as the captain was anxious that the journey should be made at an easy pace, so that the men might arrive comparatively fresh, and in fit condition for the rather stiff bit of work that lay at the end of it, eight hours were to be allowed for the passage of the boats to their destination. And as it was highly undesirable that the expedition should be unduly exposed in the boats to the pestiferous effects of the miasmatic night-fogs which gather upon most of the West African rivers after sunset, it had already been arranged that the attacking party should not start until the following morning, at an hour which would enable us to reach the scene of operations in time to make a reconnaissance and arrange the plan of attack by nightfall. The remainder of that day was therefore employed in getting the boats ready, stocking them with three days' rations of provisions and water, overhauling the boat guns and slinging them ready for lowering, filling the ammunition boxes, sharpening cutlasses, fixing new flints to the pistols, where necessary, and generally completing our preparations. We also sent down royal and topgallant yards and housed the topgallant-masts, in order that, should it by any chance come on to blow heavily from the westward during our absence the ship might ride the more easily at her anchors. We also made preparation, in view of the foregoing contingency, for backing the bowers with the two stream anchors, and otherwise made every possible preparation for the safety of the ship during our absence; for the expedition in which we were about to engage was one of very considerable importance, and the task which we had set ourselves to perform was so formidable that, in order to insure success, it would be necessary to employ practically the entire ship's company, leaving the vessel in charge of the second lieutenant and only enough hands to keep a look-out and perform such tasks as, for example, the letting go of the stream anchors in case of necessity, the paying out of the additional amount of cable, the keeping of the ship reasonably clean, and so on.
On the following morning, having washed decks and partaken of breakfast, the hands were mustered and inspected, the boats lowered, guns secured in the bows of the launch, pinnace, and first and second cutters, ammunition boxes passed down, masts stepped, sails cast loose, yards hooked on, and, in short, everything made ready for a start. Then we went down over the side and took our places in the boats to which we were severally appointed, the captain going as usual in his own gig, while Mr Perry, the first luff, was in command of the launch; Mr Hoskins, the third lieutenant, commanding the pinnace; Mr Marline, the master, having charge of the first cutter, while Mr Tompson, the gunner, commanded the second cutter. The skipper took me, as he generally did, in his own boat, but the other three mids. were left on board the Psyche to keep Mr Purchase company. For the rest, Nugent, the master's mate, went with the first lieutenant, while Peter Futtock, the boatswain, accompanied the third lieutenant in the pinnace.
We mustered ninety all told, and were none too many for the work that we had undertaken to do, which was—to capture three, if not four, large ships; capture and demolish the shore batteries which the slavers very frequently erected for the defence of their strongholds; and also, most likely, fight King Olomba and a whole flotilla of war canoes. The task was indeed a formidable one; the more so that we, the attacking party, would be, at least at the beginning of the fight, huddled closely together in boats, while our antagonists would have all the advantage of roomy decks to move about on, and steady gun platforms from which to pour in their fire, to say nothing of a tremendous superiority in point of numbers. We thought nothing of all this, however; we were going to have a change from the monotony of shipboard life; we should be certain to see new sights of a more or less interesting character; there was the excitement and exhilaration of a stiff fight awaiting us at the end of our journey; and, finally, there was the prospect of a pocketful of prize-money as a wind-up to the whole affair. What more could any reasonable individual desire?
Like most African rivers, the Fernan Vaz has a bar, but the sea breaks upon it only when the wind blows fresh from the north-west, owing to the fact that as far up as the town of Olomba the river flows parallel to the line of coast, being separated from the open Atlantic by a low, sandy peninsula, varying from one to three miles in breadth, terminating in a spit which ordinarily shelters the bar from the rollers, leaving a narrow channel of unbroken water, wide enough to enable a couple of craft of moderate tonnage to pass each other comfortably.
And well was it for us that this was the case; for as we approached the river's mouth we saw that the ground-swell was rapidly increasing in weight, and that the surf was breaking upon the beach with such violence that if it happened to be also breaking upon the bar it would be quite useless for us to attempt to enter the river. Indeed, so formidable did the appearance of the surf at length become that the captain ordered the rest of the boats to heave-to, while we in the gig went ahead to reconnoitre and inspect the condition of the bar. This was a bit of work for which the gig was peculiarly well adapted, for she was a beautifully modelled boat, double-ended, with a long flat floor—a splendid sailer, and a boat which would claw off a lee shore in almost any weather, the skipper having had her fitted with a good, deep, false keel.
The wind was blowing a moderately fresh breeze from the westward at the time, thus, the rest of the boats having hove-to, it did not take us very long to run in far enough to get a sight of the bar. This was a rather trying experience for the nerves of us all; for the surf was pounding on the beach ahead of us in a constant succession of towering walls of water, that reared themselves to a height of fully thirty feet ere they curled over and broke in thunder so deafening that we presently found it impossible to make our voices heard above its continuous roar. But the skipper, standing up in the stern-sheets, soon detected the smooth, narrow strip of unbroken water, and directed the coxswain to shift his helm for it. I sprang up on a thwart and waved a small white flag as a signal to the other boats to fill away and follow us; and as soon as we had reached the very middle of the channel we rounded-to and lowered our sail, remaining where we were to act as a guide to the other boats.
Keeping our position with the aid of a couple of oars thrown over to enable us to stem the out-flowing current, which we now began to feel, we allowed the other boats to pass in over the bar and reach the smooth water before us; then, hoisting our sail again, we followed them in and presently resumed our position at the head of the line.
The change from the scene of wind-flecked blue sea, stately march of the swell, and thunderous roar and creaming froth of the breakers outside to the oil-smooth, mud-laden, strong-smelling river, with its tiny, swirling eddies here and there, its mangrove-lined banks, and its silence, through which the roar of the surf came to us over the intervening sand spit, mellowed and subdued by distance, was so marked that, although this was by no means my first experience of that kind of thing, I found myself rubbing my eyes as though I were by no means certain that I was awake; and I noticed others doing the same. A sharp word from the skipper, however, cautioning all hands to maintain a smart look-out, soon brought to us the realisation of our surroundings; for the river here was narrow, being not more than half a mile wide, with a number of small islets dotted about it, any one of which might prove to be the hiding-place of a formidable foe. When at length we had passed these without interference, and had reached the point where the river began to widen out somewhat, we were no better off, but rather the worse; for here the stream was encumbered with extensive sandbanks, to avoid which we were compelled to approach the margin of the river so closely that a well-arranged ambush might have practically annihilated us before we could have effected a landing through the thick, viscid mud and the almost impenetrable growth of mangroves that divided the waters of the river from the solid ground of the shore. Fortunately for us, the slavers appeared unaccountably to have overlooked the admirable opportunities thus afforded for frustrating an attack; or possibly, as we thought, it was that they had fully relied upon the power of the decoy schooner to draw us away from the coast, and thus leave the way free for them to escape.
The passage of this part of the river occupied us until noon, and was rather trying to the nerves of all hands, for not only were we constantly exposed to attack by the slavers, but there were the natives also to be reckoned with; and these, as we all knew, had a most objectionable habit of using poisoned arrows, the slightest wound from which was invariably followed by death after some eight to twelve hours of dreadful suffering. Shortly after noon we emerged from these natural entanglements into a long reach of the river where the stream expanded to a width of some three and a half miles, with a narrow deep-water channel running about midway between the banks. Here we were quite free from any possibility of ambush of any kind; and with a sigh of intense relief the captain gave the word to pipe to dinner.
About four o'clock in the afternoon we arrived at a point where the river again narrowed to a width of about a mile; but some two miles farther on it again widened out, and changed its direction, trending away almost due east, or about at right angles to its former course; and this, according to the information in the skipper's possession, indicated that we were nearing our destination. Drawing from his pocket a sketch chart which he had already consulted several times during our passage up the river, he again studied it intently for several minutes, carefully comparing the configurations delineated upon it with our actual surroundings; then, apparently satisfied with the result, he refolded the paper, returned it to his pocket, and directed the coxswain to bear away a couple of points toward a projecting point—which we afterwards discovered to be the western extremity of an islet—on the far side of the river. As we approached the spot for which we were heading it became apparent that there were two islets instead of one between us and the river bank; and a quarter of an hour later the gig, with the rest of the flotilla following her, glided in between these two islets, and, lowering her sails, made the signal for the other boats to anchor.
The boats were now completely concealed from all possible observation, for we soon saw that the islets between which we were anchored consisted merely of mud-banks thickly overgrown with mangroves, and absolutely uninhabitable even by natives; for there did not appear to be an inch of ground upon either of the islets sufficiently solid to support even a reed hut, while the mangroves were tall enough and grew densely enough to hide the boats from all possible observation from the mainland. The only question which now troubled us was whether the presence of the boats in the river had already been observed. If the slavers had placed absolute confidence in the success of their plan to draw us away from the coast by means of the decoy schooner, they might not have troubled to keep a look-out; but if they were as cautious as such gentry usually are, and had left nothing to chance, it would be scarcely possible for the approach of the boats to have passed undetected. This was the question to which the captain was now going to seek an answer.
AT THE CAMMA LAGOON.
Distant about a mile from our hiding-place, there was, according to the captain's rough sketch map, a small peninsula enclosing a little bay, or creek, at the inner extremity of which was situated King Olomba's town; and it was here that we were led to believe we should find the slavers busily engaged in shipping their human cargoes. And truly, as seen from the boats, the ingenuity of man could scarcely have devised a more perfect spot whereat to conduct the infamous traffic; for the configuration of the land was such that boats, entering the river merely on an exploring expedition, without having first obtained, like ourselves, special information, would never have suspected the existence of the creek, or of the town which lay concealed within it. Nor would it have been possible to detect the presence of slave craft in the creek; for the peninsula which masked it was thickly overgrown with lofty trees which would effectually conceal all but the upper spars of a ship, and these would doubtless be struck or housed while she was lying in the creek.
The skipper having explained to the officers in command of the other boats what he intended to do, and given them instructions how to act in the event of certain contingencies arising, the gig's crew manned their oars, and we pulled away in the direction of the peninsula, which we reached in the course of a few minutes. Now our real troubles began, for our object was not only to reach the peninsula but also to land upon and walk across it until a spot could be found from which, unseen ourselves, we could obtain a clear view of the creek and everything in it, and upon approaching the shore of the peninsula we discovered that, in common with as much of the river bank as we had yet seen, it consisted, first of all, of a wide belt of soft, fathomless mud overgrown with mangrove trees; the mud being of such a consistency that to attempt to walk upon it would mean being swallowed up and suffocated in it, for a sixteen-foot oar could be thrust perpendicularly into it with scarcely any effort, although when one of the men incautiously tried the experiment, it was only with the utmost difficulty that he was able to withdraw the oar, so tenaciously did the mud cling to it. Yet it was not sufficiently liquid to allow of the gig being forced through it, even if the thickly clustering mangrove roots would have permitted of such a proceeding. The only alternative left to us, therefore, was to endeavour to reach solid ground by clambering over the slippery mangrove roots, with the possibility that at any moment one or another of us might lose our footing, fall into the mud, and be swallowed up by it. However, "needs must" under certain circumstances, the skipper and I therefore scrambled out of the boat—taking Cupid with us to search out the way and carry a small coil of light line in case it should be wanted—and proceeded cautiously to claw our way like so many parrots, over and among the gnarled and twisted roots of the mangrove trees, the Krooboy leading the way, leaping and swinging himself with marvellous agility from tree to tree, while we followed slowly in his wake, as often as not being obliged to make a slip-rope of the line to enable us to cross some exceptionally wide or awkward gap. In this manner, after about half an hour's arduous toil, with the perspiration pouring out of us until our clothes were saturated with it, while we were driven nearly frantic by the attacks of the mosquitoes and stinging flies that beset us by thousands, and could by no means be driven away, we contrived at length to reach soil firm enough to support our weight, and, some five minutes later, the solid ground itself.
But, even now, our troubles were only half over; for after we had crossed the peninsula we still found it impossible to discover a spot from which the interior of the creek could be seen without laying out upon the roots of the mangrove trees that bordered the inner as well as the outer shore of the peninsula, the wearisome business of crawling and climbing had therefore all to be gone over again, with the result that the sun was close upon setting before we had reached a spot from which a clear view of the entire creek could be obtained. And then we had the unspeakable mortification of discovering that the expedition must result in failure; for, save a few canoes, the creek was innocent of craft of every description—there were no slavers in it! Moreover, the so- called town of King Olomba consisted only of about fifty miserable native huts in the very last stage of sordidness and dilapidation; and there was no sign that a slave barracoon had ever existed near the place.
The captain stared across the water as though he found it quite impossible to believe his eyes. Then he drew the sketch map from his pocket and once more studied it attentively, muttering to himself the while. Finally he sat himself down upon a knot of twisted roots, with his back against the trunk of the tree, and, spreading the sketch wide open on his knee, beckoned me to place myself beside him.
"Just come here and look at this map, Mr Fortescue," he said, and he spoke with the air and in the tones of a man who is so utterly dazed with disappointment that he begins to doubt the evidence of his own senses. "Just give me your opinion, will ye. I cannot understand this business at all. This map, although only a free-hand sketch, seems to me to be perfectly accurate. There, you see, is the mouth of the river, just as we found it; there are the little islets that we passed immediately after getting inside; there are the dry mud-banks; and there, you see, the river widens out, in precise accordance with our experience; here it narrows again at the bend; there is where the boats are lying concealed; and this," laying his finger upon a particular part of the sketch, "is the creek that we are now looking at; and there is the town of Olomba. It all seems to me to be absolutely correct. Does it not appear so to you?"
"Certainly, sir," I answered. "The sketch answers in every particular to what we have seen since entering the river—answers to it so perfectly, indeed, that it might have been copied from a carefully plotted survey."
"Exactly," assented the skipper. "Yet it is nothing of the kind; for with my own eyes I saw it drawn from memory by a man whom I happened to meet in one of the third-rate hotels in Freetown, which are frequented by the masters and mates of palm-oil traders and the like. I happened to hear him mention that he had been in and out of the Fernan Vaz at least a dozen times, in his search for cargo along the coast, so I waited until the people with whom he was talking had left him, and then I entered into conversation with him, finally inducing him to furnish me with this sketch."
"And was it from him, sir, that you also obtained the information upon the strength of which you determined upon this expedition?" I asked.
"Oh, no," answered the skipper. "I had that from quite a different source, in a very different kind of house. The people who told me about King Olomba's raid, and the plans laid by the slavers for carrying off the prisoners, were slavers themselves; and they told me of the scheme because they believed me to be the master of a slaver waiting for information from the Senegal river. The cream of the joke was that these fellows should have told me—me, the captain of the Psyche— that the scheme had been carefully planned with the express object of putting the Psyche upon a false scent and so getting her out of the way while the negroes were being shipped."
"Yet there seems to have been something wrong somewhere, sir," I ventured to suggest. "But it is not with your map; that appears to be marvellously accurate for a mere free-hand sketch; there is no attempt at deception apparent there. This creek that we are looking at is undoubtedly the one shown on your map, and there is King Olomba's town, precisely in the position indicated on the sketch; the assumption therefore is that the man who drew the map for you was dealing quite honestly with you. The misleading information, consequently must, it appears to me, have come from the others; as indeed is the case, seeing that they led you to believe that you would find at least three or four large ships in the creek, whereas there are none."
"That is perfectly true," concurred the skipper. "Yet I quite understood my informants to say that they were the persons who had formulated the scheme."
"I suppose, sir," said I, giving voice to an idea that had been gradually shaping itself in my brain, "it is not possible that the people who were so singularly frank with you happened to recognise you as Captain Harrison of H.M.S. Psyche, and gave you that bit of information with the deliberate purpose of misleading you and putting you upon a false scent, in order that while you are searching for them here they may have the opportunity to carry out their scheme elsewhere? Their story may in the main be perfectly true, but if by any chance they should have happened to recognise you it would not be very difficult for them to substitute the name of the Fernan Vaz for that of some other river, and to mention King Olomba instead of some other king."
"N-o-o," said the skipper dubiously; "it would not. Yet I cannot see why, if they had recognised me, they should have gone to the trouble of spinning an elaborate yarn merely to deceive me. It would have been just as easy for them to have knifed me, for there were seven of them, while I was quite alone. No, I don't quite see—"
"Do you not, sir?" I interrupted with a smile.
"I do. I see quite clearly two very excellent reasons why they did not resort to the rough and ready method of the knife. In the first place, these fellows attach a ridiculously high value to their own skins, and never seem to imperil them when an alternative will serve their purpose equally well; and although they were seven to one, if they really recognised you they would know perfectly well that, while the ultimate result of a fight would probably be in their favour, you would certainly not perish alone; and I suppose none of them were particularly anxious to accompany you into the Great Beyond. And, apart from that, they would know quite well that were the captain of a British man-o'-war to go a-missing there would be such a stir among their rookeries that soon there would be no rookeries left. Oh, no, sir! glad as they might be to put you quietly out of the way if they had the chance, depend upon it the last thing that they would dream of would be to attempt anything of the sort in Sierra Leone."
"Well, well, well, perhaps you are right, young gentleman, perhaps you are right. You seem to have quite a gift for reasoning things out," replied the skipper, as he pocketed his map and hove himself up into a standing position. "But it is high time that we should get under way, for the sun is setting, and we shall have all our work cut out to find our road back to the boat. Do you think you will be able to find the gig, Cupid?"
"Yes, I fit, sar," answered the Krooboy. "But we mus' make plenty haste; for dem darkness he come too much plenty soon, an' if we slip and fall into dem mud we lib for die one time."
"Ay, ay," answered the skipper, with an involuntary shudder at the hideous fate thus tersely sketched by Cupid; "I know that, my lad, without any telling; so heave ahead as smartly as you like."
And therewith we started upon our return journey with all speed; striding, leaping, slipping, and scrambling from root to root, Cupid leading the way, I following, and the skipper bringing up the rear, until at length we stood upon solid ground once more. But by this time not only had the sun set but the dusk was gathering about us like a curtain, while star after star came twinkling out from the rapidly darkening blue overhead, and the foliage of the trees that hemmed us in on every side was changing, even as we stood and watched while recovering our breath, from olive to deepest black. Now, too, we were beset, even more pertinaciously than before, by the myriads of mosquitoes, sand flies, gnats, and other winged biting creatures with which the islet swarmed; to say nothing of ants; indeed it almost seemed as though every individual insect upon that particular patch of soil and vegetation had scented us out and, having found us, was quite determined that we should never escape them alive. When presently we again began to move, it seemed impossible to take a single step without tripping over a land-crab's hole, or treading upon one of the creatures and hearing and feeling it crackle and writhe underfoot. Ugh! it was horrible.
All these unpleasantnesses were sharply accentuated by the darkness, which fell upon us like a pall; for now the stars began to be obscured by great black clouds that came sweeping in from seaward, while the increasing roar and swish in the boughs overhead seemed to indicate that the wind was freshening. Progress was difficult enough, under such conditions, while we were traversing solid ground and had no special need to pick our footsteps; how would it be, I wondered, when it came to our re-crossing the belt of mangroves and mud that lay between us and the gig? Then, to add still further to our difficulties, the dank, heavy, pestilential fog that rises from the tropical African rivers at nightfall began to gather about us, and in a few minutes, from being bathed in perspiration from our exertions, we were chilled to the bone, with our teeth chattering to such an extent that we could scarcely articulate an intelligible word.
"Plenty too much fever here come," remarked Cupid, while his teeth clattered together like castanets. "Sar, you lib for carry dem quinine powder dat dem doctor sarve out dis morning?"
"Certainly, Cupid," jibbered the skipper. "M-m-many thanks for the hint. M-m-m-mister Fortes—ugh! t-t-take a p-p-pow-ow-der at once."
I did so, and handed one to the Krooboy, who simply put it, paper and all, into his mouth, and swallowed the whole. Having done this, Cupid announced, as well as his chattering teeth would permit, that in view of the fog and the intense darkness it would be simply suicidal for us to attempt the passage of the mangroves without a light, and that therefore he proposed to make his way alone to the gig, not only to reassure her crew as to our safety, but also to procure a lantern. And he enjoined the skipper and me to remain exactly where we were until he should return. After an absence which seemed to be an age in duration, but which was really not quite three-quarters of an hour, he reappeared, accompanied by the coxswain of the boat and two other seamen, who brought along with them a couple of lighted lanterns. Thus reinforced and assisted, we got under way again, and eventually, after a most fatiguing and dangerous journey, reached the boat and shoved off into the stream. The gig was of course provided with a boat compass, and we knew the exact bearing of the spot where the other boats lay hidden; but we already knew also how complicated and confusing was the set of the currents in the river, and how hopeless would consequently be any attempt to find our friends in that thick fog. We therefore did not make the attempt, but, pushing off into the stream until we were clear of the mosquitoes and other winged plagues that had been tormenting all hands for so many hours, let go our anchor in one and a half fathoms of water, and proceeded to take a meal prior to turning-in for the night.
Never in my life before, I think, had I spent so absolutely uncomfortable a night. What with the rats, cockroaches, fleas, and other vermin with which the ship was overrun, to say nothing of the complication of stenches which poisoned the atmosphere, the midshipmen's berth aboard the Psyche was by no means an ideal place to sleep in, but it was luxury compared with the state of affairs in the gig. For aboard the Psyche we at least slept dry, while in the boat we were fully exposed to the encroachments of that vile, malodorous, disease- laden fog which hemmed us in and pressed down upon us like a saturated blanket, penetrating everywhere, soaking our clothing until we were wet to the skin, chilling us to the very marrow, despite our greatcoats, so that we were too miserable to sleep; while it so completely enveloped us that, even with the help of half a dozen lanterns, we could not see a boat's length in any direction. As the foul water went swirling away past us great bubbles came rising up from the mud below, from time to time, bursting as they reached the surface, and giving off little puffs of noxious, vile-smelling gas that were heavy with disease-germs. Yet, singularly enough, when at length the morning dawned and the fog dispersed, not one of us aboard the gig betrayed the slightest trace of fever, although, among them, the other boats mustered nearly a dozen cases.
Our first business, after once more joining forces, was to pull into the creek and call upon his Majesty, King Olomba; but, upon interviewing that potentate, through the medium of Cupid, who acted as interpreter, it at once became evident that our worthy skipper had been made the victim of an elaborate hoax—even more elaborate, indeed, than we at the moment expected; for the king not only vigorously disclaimed any propensity toward slave-hunting or slave-dealing, but went the length of strenuously denying that the river was ever used at all by slavers; also he several times endeavoured to divert the conversation into another channel by pointedly hinting at his readiness to accept a cask of rum as a present, to which hint the skipper of course turned a deaf ear. Then, having got out of the old boy all the information that we could extract—which, when we came to analyse it, amounted to just nothing—we carefully searched the bush in the neighbourhood of the town, to see if we could discover anything in the nature of a barracoon, but found no trace whatever of any such thing.
Having drawn the creek blank, the skipper next determined to search a spot known as the Camma Lagoon, some twelve miles farther up the river; and, the sea-breeze having by this time set in, we stepped the masts and made sail upon the boats, creeping up the river close to its northern bank in order to dodge the current as much as possible.
Upon reaching the lagoon we found it to be in reality a sort of bay in the north bank of the river, some five and a half miles long by about three and three-quarter miles wide, with an island in the centre of it occupying so large an extent of its area that at one spot the creek behind was barely wide enough to allow the passage of a vessel of moderate tonnage. The eastern extremity of this creek, however, widened out until it presented a sheet of water some two miles long by about a mile and a half in width, with a depth of water ranging from two to three fathoms. Furthermore, the island itself and the adjacent banks of the river were thickly wooded, affording perfect concealment, behind which half a dozen slavers might lurk undetected; and altogether it wore, as seen from the river, the aspect of an exceedingly promising spot. We therefore lowered the boats' sails, unshipped their masts, and, keeping a bright look-out all round us, pulled warily into the lagoon at its eastern extremity.
For the first mile of our passage we detected nothing whatever of a suspicious character; but upon rounding the eastern extremity of the island and entering the widest part of the lagoon we sighted two large canoes paddling furiously up the creek, about a mile ahead of us. The captain at once brought his telescope to bear upon these craft, and with its aid discovered that each canoe was manned by about forty black paddlers, while the after end of each craft was occupied by some ten or a dozen men in European dress, most of whom appeared to be armed with muskets. These men had the appearance of being either Portuguese or Spaniards, and their presence in such a spot could mean but one thing, namely, that there was a barracoon somewhere near at hand. The skipper accordingly gave the order to chase the two canoes, to which the boats' crews responded with a cheer, and laid themselves down to their oars with such a will that they almost lifted the boats out of the water. But we had scarcely traversed a distance of half a dozen boats' lengths when, upon opening up a little indentation in the shore of the mainland, we saw before us a substantial wharf, long enough to accommodate two fair-sized craft at once, with a wide open space at the back of it upon which stood some eight or ten buildings, one of which was unmistakably a barracoon of enormous size.
With another cheer the course of the boats was at once diverted toward the wharf; and we had arrived within less than a hundred yards of it when the deathlike silence which had hitherto prevailed ashore was pierced by a shrill whistle, in response to which the whole face of the bush bordering the open space at once began to spit flame, while the air around us hummed and whined to the passage of a perfect storm of bullets and slugs, among which could be detected the hum of round shot, apparently nine-pounders, the gig weathered the storm unscathed; but upon glancing back I saw that the other boats had been less fortunate, there being a gap or two here and there where a moment before a man had sat, while certain of the oars were at that moment slipping through the rowlocks to trail in the water by their lanyards a second later. Here and there, too, could be seen a man hastily binding up a wounded limb or head, either his own or that of a shipmate.
The skipper sprang to his feet in the stern-sheets of the gig, and drew his sword.
"Hurrah, lads!" he shouted. "Give way, and get alongside that wharf as quickly as you can. Then let every man run his hardest for the shelter of the buildings, carrying his musket and ammunition with him. One hand remain in each boat as boat-keeper, who must crouch down under the shelter of the wharf face. Mr Fortescue, stick close alongside me, please; I shall probably want you to carry messages for me."
"Ay, ay, sir," I answered; and the next moment the voice of the coxswain pealed out: "Oars! rowed of all!" followed by the clatter of the long ash staves as they were laid in on the thwarts, and the gig, still leading the other boats, swept up alongside the low wharf and hooked on.
With a yell of fierce delight, and eyes blazing with excitement, Cupid, the Krooboy, bounded up on the wharf, and extended one great black paw to assist the skipper, while in the other he grasped his favourite weapon, an axe, the edge of which he had carefully ground and honed until one could have shaved with it; in addition to which he wore a ship's cutlass girded about his waist. Moreover he had "cleared for action," by stripping off the jacket and shirt which he usually wore, and stowing them carefully away in the stern-sheets of the boat; so that his garb consisted simply of a pair of dungaree trousers rolled up above his knees and braced tight to his waist by the broad belt from which hung his cutlass.
In a second the gig was empty save for her boat-keeper, and her crew were racing for the shelter afforded by the barracoon, where, as I understood it, the captain intended to announce his arrangements for clearing the enemy out of the bush. But when we had accomplished about half the distance between the edge of the wharf and the barracoon there came a sudden splutter of fire from the windows of the other buildings— which were so arranged as to enfilade the whole of the open space—and in a moment we once more found ourselves in the midst of a storm of flying bullets. The skipper, who was a pace ahead of me, stumbled, staggered a pace or two, and fell headlong upon his face, where he lay still, while his sword flew from his grasp with a ringing clatter. At the same moment the two cutters dashed up alongside the wharf, and their crews came swarming up out of them, to be met by another murderous discharge from the enemy lurking in the bush.
I came to a halt beside the skipper, and looked round me. A couple of yards away stood Cupid, who, it seemed, had just caught sight of the captain as he fell, and had pulled himself up short.
"You, Cupid," I shouted, "come back here, sir, and lend me a hand to get the captain back into the gig."
The fellow came, and stooping over the skipper's body raised it tenderly in his arms.
"All right, Mistah Fortescue, sar," he said; "you no trouble. I take dem captain back to de gig by myself, and find Mistah Hutchinson," (the surgeon). "But it no good, sar; he gone dead. Look dere." And he pointed to a ghastly great hole in the side of the skipper's head, just above the left ear, where a piece of langrage of some description had crashed its way through the poor fellow's skull into his brain. It was a horrid sight, and it turned me quite sick for the moment, accustomed though I was by this time to see men suffering from all sorts of injuries.
"Very well," I said; "take it—the captain, I mean—back to the gig, anyway, and do not leave him until you have turned him over to Mr Hutchinson; who, by the way, is in the launch, which I see is just coming alongside. I will find Mr Hutchinson and send him to you." And away I hurried toward the spot where I saw the launch approaching, for the double purpose of reporting to Mr Perry the news of the captain's fall, and dispatching the surgeon to see if life still remained in the body.
The first luff was terribly shocked at the news which I had to tell him; from a distance he had seen the skipper fall, but had hoped that it was a wound, at most. But this was not the moment for unavailing regrets; the fall of the captain at once placed Perry in command and made him responsible for the fate of the expedition. He therefore gave orders for the guns which were mounted in the bows of the launch, pinnace, and first and second cutters to be cast loose and landed, the men not engaged in this work being placed under the command of the third lieutenant, with instructions to load their muskets and keep up a constant fire upon the windows of the various buildings. Then, as soon as the guns were landed, two of them were loaded with double charges of grape, for the purpose of clearing the bush of the hidden foe, while the remaining two were double shotted and then run close up to the barricaded doors of the buildings, which were thus blown in, one after the other. As each door was blown in the building to which it belonged was stormed; the enemy, however, contriving to effect an exit by the rear as our lads poured in at the front. In ten minutes the whole of the buildings were ours, without further casualties on our side; after which we set them on fire and, waiting until they were well alight, retired in good order to the boats, in which we hauled off far enough to enable us to effectively cover the burning buildings with our musketry fire and thus defeat any attempt to extinguish the flames. An hour later the entire settlement was reduced to a heap of smouldering ashes; whereupon we pulled away round to the main stream once more by way of the back of the island, in search of further possible barracoons, but found none.
Our loss in this affair, considering its importance, was comparatively slight, amounting as it did to two killed—of whom one was the skipper— and seven wounded. But we were a sorrowful party as we left the lagoon behind us and found ourselves once more in the main stream and on our way back to the ship; for Captain Harrison was beloved by everybody, fore and aft, and we all felt that we could better have spared any one else than him.
THE WRECK OF THE PSYCHE.
Our journey down the river was a very different affair from that of our upward passage; for whereas in the latter we had been compelled to force our way against an adverse current, we now had that current favouring us; thus it came about that although the sun had passed the meridian when the boats emerged from the Camma Lagoon, after destroying the slave factory therein, it yet wanted an hour to sunset when the gig, still leading the rest of the flotilla, entered the last reach of the river and we once more caught sight and sound of the breakers beyond the bar.
Mr Perry, the late first lieutenant, who now, by the death of Captain Harrison, had automatically become acting captain of the Psyche, had turned over the command of the launch to the master's mate, for the return passage, and was in the gig with me; and as we drew nearer to the river's mouth I noticed that he rose in the stern-sheets of the boat and glanced somewhat anxiously to seaward. For a full minute or more he stood gazing under the sharp of his hand out across the sandbank as it seemed to glide rapidly past us, its summit momentarily growing lower as the gig swept along toward the point where the dwindling spit plunged beneath the surface of the water, and, as he gazed, the expression of puzzlement and anxiety on his face rapidly intensified. By this time, too, his action and attitude had attracted the attention of those in the boats astern, and, glancing back at them, I saw that Nugent, in the launch, and Hoskins, the third lieutenant, in the pinnace, had followed his example. Naturally, I did the same, wondering meanwhile what it was at which they were all looking so intently, when Mr Perry suddenly turned upon me and demanded, almost angrily—
"I say, Mr Fortescue, what has become of the ship? D'ye see anything of her?"
"The ship, sir?" I echoed dazedly—for, with the question, it had come to me in a flash that we ought by this time to be able to see at least the spars of the Psyche swaying rhythmically athwart the sky out over the low sandbank, if she still lay at anchor where we had left her;—"the ship? No, sir, I confess that I can't see her anywhere. Surely Mr Purchase cannot have shifted his berth, for any reason? But—no," I continued, as the absurdity of the suggestion came home to me—"of course he hasn't; he hasn't enough hands left with him to make sail upon the ship, even if he were obliged to slip his cables."
At that moment a hail of "Gig ahoy!" came from Nugent aboard the launch; and, glancing back at him, we saw him pointing at some object that had suddenly appeared on the ridge of the spit, away on our port quarter. It was a man, a white man, a seaman, if one might judge from his costume, and he was waving a large coloured handkerchief, or something of the kind, with the evident object of attracting our attention. While we still stood at gaze, wondering what this apparition could possibly mean, another man appeared beside him.
"Down helm, and run the boat in on the bank," ordered our new skipper. "I must see what this means."
"Flatten in, fore and aft, and stand by to let run your halyards!" ordered the coxswain, easing his helm down; and as he spoke I stepped upon the stern thwart with the object of getting a somewhat more extended view over the sandbank. But there was nothing to be seen— stay! why was the spray from the surf flying so much higher in one particular spot than elsewhere? And that spot appeared to be about abreast of that part of the bank where the two men were standing. I stood a moment or two longer, seeking an explanation of the phenomenon, and then fell headlong over the man who was sitting upon the aftermost thwart gathering in the slack of the mainsail as the yard came down; for at that moment the gig grounded on the bank and shot a quarter of her length high and dry with the way that she had on her. As I picked myself up, rubbing my barked elbows ruefully, to the accompaniment of a suppressed snigger from the boat's crew, Mr Perry, with a brief "Make way, there, lads," sprang upon the thwarts and, striding rapidly from thwart to thwart, rushed along the length of the boat, placed one foot lightly on the gunwale, close to the stem head, and leaped out on to the sand, with me close at his heels.
Together we raced for the crest of the spit; but even before we had reached it the terrible truth lay plain before us. For there, about a quarter of a mile to the southward of us, on the seaward side of the spit, lay the Psyche, hard and fast aground, dismasted, and on her beam-ends, with the surf pounding at her, and her spars and rigging, worked up into a raft, floating in the swirl alongside the beach; while on the shore, opposite where she lay, the little company that had been left aboard to take care of her laboured to save such flotsam and jetsam as the surf flung up within their reach.
For a full minute the new skipper, thus by a cruel stroke of malicious fortune robbed of the command that had been his for such a few brief hours, stood gazing with stern, set features at the melancholy scene. Then he turned to me and said—very quietly—
"Mr Fortescue, be good enough to go down to Mr Hoskins, and request him, with my compliments, to take the boats back up the river until they are abreast the spot where the wreck lies, and there beach them; after which, leaving a boat-keeper to watch each boat, he will take the men over to the other side of the spit to assist in salving such matters as may come ashore. Having delivered this message, you will please join me yonder." And he pointed to where the little group of men were toiling on the beach.
"Ay, ay, sir!" I answered. And, touching my hat, I turned and hurried down to the river bank, alongside which the other boats were now lying, with lowered sails, evidently awaiting orders. Meanwhile Mr Perry strode off over the ridge in the direction of the wreck.
I quickly found Mr Hoskins and delivered my message, with the result that the entire flotilla pushed off again and headed up-stream, one of the men having landed upon the narrow spit and ascended to its ridge in order that he might notify the boats' crews when they should have arrived at the spot on the seaward side of which lay the wreck; while I, burning with curiosity to learn how the disaster had been brought about, hurried after the skipper. As he walked, while I ran, I managed to overtake him at the precise moment when Mr Purchase, who had been left by Captain Harrison in charge of the ship, met him at a little distance from the spot where the party of salvors were at work.
"Mr Purchase," said the skipper, as the two men met and halted, "I deeply regret to inform you that Captain Harrison is dead—killed this morning, with one other, while gallantly leading us to the attack of a strongly defended slave barracoon. We have both bodies in the boats, yonder, and it was my intention to have buried them at sea to-night; but that, I perceive, is no longer possible. And now, sir, perhaps you will be good enough to explain to me how the Psyche comes to be where I see her."
"Ah, sir!" answered Mr Purchase, removing his hat and mopping his forehead in great perturbation of spirit, "I wish I could tell you. All I know—all that any of us knows, so far as I have been able to ascertain—is that we were cut adrift—both cables, sir, cut through as clean as a whistle—and allowed to drive ashore!"
"Cut adrift?" reiterated the captain incredulously. "Cut adrift? Really, my dear Purchase, you must excuse me if I say that I utterly fail to understand you. How the mischief could you possibly be cut adrift from where you were anchored; and by whom? You surely do not intend to insinuate that any one of the ship's company—?"
"No—no; certainly not," interrupted Purchase. "Nothing of the kind. Let me tell you the whole yarn, Perry; then you will be as wise as myself, and can give me your opinion of the affair, which I admit is most extraordinary.
"Nothing in the least remarkable occurred for some hours after the boats left the ship yesterday morning. I stood aft and watched you through the starboard stern port until you had all safely crossed the bar and disappeared behind the sand spit; and then I set the hands to work upon various small jobs; after which I went round the ship and satisfied myself that everything was perfectly safe and snug on deck and below. Then, feeling tolerably certain that you would not return until to-day at the earliest, and that consequently it would be necessary for me to be up and about during the greater part of the coming night, I went below and turned in all standing, to get as much sleep as possible, leaving the boatswain's mate in charge of the deck, together with midshipmen Keene and Parkinson.
"The day passed quite uneventfully; everything went perfectly smoothly; the ship rode easily to her anchors; and there had been nothing to report. But about two bells in the first dog-watch I noticed that the sky was beginning to look a bit windy away down in the western quarter— nothing to speak of, you understand, or to cause any uneasiness; but it made me take a look at the barometer, and I saw that it had dropped a trifle since eight bells; and at the same time the wind was distinctly freshening and the swell gathering weight. All this, of course, meant more wind within the next few hours; I therefore kept a sharp eye on the barometer; and when at four bells I found it still dropping I decided to let go the two stream anchors, as a precautionary measure, while we had light enough to see what we were doing; and this I did, at the same time paying out an extra fifty fathoms on each cable, after which I felt that we were perfectly safe in the face of anything short of a hurricane."
The new skipper nodded his approval, but said nothing; and Purchase proceeded with his story.
"Well, as you probably noticed, shortly after sunset the wind breezed up quite strongly; but I was not in the least uneasy, for the barometer had ceased to drop before eight bells, and, although the sky was overcast and the night very dark, there was nothing threatening in the look of the weather, and it was only occasionally that we really tautened out our cables. Still, I made up my mind to remain on deck all night, having had a good spell of sleep during the day.
"As the night wore on and the wind held fresh but steady, I felt that after all I really need not have let go the streams, for the bowers alone would have held us quite easily against six times as much wind and sea as we had; you may therefore perhaps be able to picture to yourself my amazement and consternation when, a few minutes before six bells in the middle watch, I became aware that the ship was adrift and fast driving down toward the breakers!"