The Black Bar, by George Manville Fenn.
HMS Nautilus is on patrol off the west coast of Africa, intercepting the American slave ships that were trying at that time to purchase cargoes of slaves from the dealers, and then to take them across the Atlantic in loathsome conditions. Slavery had been abolished in British territories in 1772, many years before, and the British were actively policing African waters in the hope of deterring the Americans and the Portuguese from retaining the slave trade.
Nautilus has two midshipmen aboard, and one of these, Mark Vandean, is the hero of the story. The book is in the usual Manville Fenn style, with a succession of dreadful situations in which the hero finds himself. "How ever does he extricate himself from this?" the reader is continually asking. Of course he does, but it is often by means of something quite unexpected.
A Black Bar is a device in heraldry, indicating that there is something shameful in the wearer's ancestry. NH
THE BLACK BAR, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
TWO MIDDIES AND A MONKEY.
"We've done wrong, Van. There'll be a jolly row about it."
"Get out! What's the good of talking now? You were as ready to have him as I was. Lie still, will you? or I'll pitch you overboard."
Two middies talking in the stern-sheets of the cutter belonging to Her Majesty's fast little cruiser Nautilus, stationed on the west coast of Africa "blackberrying," so the men called their duty, Tom Fillot, one of their jokers, giving as the reason that the job was "black and berry nasty." The sun shone as it can shine in the neighbourhood of the equator, and the sea looked like so much glistening oil, as it slowly heaved up and sank with the long ground swell, the light flashing from the surface attacking the eyes with blinding power, bronzing the faces of some, peeling the noses of others.
Setting aside the smart crew of the cutter in their white duck shirts and trousers and straw hats, with faces, necks, and hands of a mahogany brown, the two speakers may be taken as fair samples of what the sun could do with a fresh-coloured English lad of sixteen or seventeen. Mark Vandean, who leaned back and had wrenched himself round to sharply adjure something behind him in the bottom of the boat, was burned of a good warm Russian leather brown, while his companion, Bob Howlett, who held the rudder-lines, displayed in addition to ruddy brown cheeks a nose in a most disreputable state of rag.
The boat went swiftly through the water, as the men bent with regular stroke, and made the tough ash blades of their oars curve ere they rose and scattered the flashing drops, which seemed to brighten the scene where all was flat and monotonous, and the view contracted by a dead silvery haze of heat. Behind them was the low flat shore with a few scattered white houses and factories behind a rough landing-stage. There were palms of different kinds in a straggling line, and on either side of the opening out of a muddy river, a bordering of dingy green mangroves—tree cripples, Mark Vandean called them, because they all looked as if standing up on crutches. A few boats lay in the mouth of the river, a dissolute-looking brig with its yards unsquared was at anchor higher up, and a sharp eye could detect a figure or two about the beach. On either side, as far as eye could reach, there was a line of surf.
That was all shoreward, while out to sea, a couple of miles or so away, smart and business-like, with her tall spars and carefully squared yards and rigging, cobweb-like in texture at that distance, lay at anchor in the open road-stead HMS Nautilus waiting to gather "blackberries" at the first opportunity, and toward which smart little vessel the cutter was being steadily propelled.
The object ordered to lie still under pain of being pitched overboard did not lie, but crouched a little lower, and increased the wrinkles in its deeply lined forehead, above which was a thin fringe of hair, blinked its wondering eyes, and looked piteously at the speaker.
It was the face of an old man with enormous mouth pinched together, and devoid of lips, but giving the idea that it was about to smile; nose there was none, save a little puckering in its place, but as if to make up for the want, the ears were largely developed, rounded, and stood out on either side in a pronounced fashion. For it was the most human of all the apes, being a chimpanzee about as big as a sturdy two-year-old boy.
All at once the stroke oarsman ceased rowing, and began to wipe the perspiration from his open, good-humoured face.
"Hullo!" shouted one of the middies, "what's that mean? Why are you not pulling?"
"Beg pardon, sir; won't be none of me left to," said the man, "I'm trickling all away. Like to put the new hand in my place?"
"New hand?" said the other middy; "what do you mean?"
"Gent as you have behind you there."
Mark Vandean frowned, and drew himself up, tried to look severe as an officer, but he was confronted by five grinning faces, and the mirth was contagious; he smiled at the idea, and the men roared.
"There, pull away, my lads, and let's get on board. This is no time for skylarking."
The men bent to their oars again, and the boat answered to its name, cutting swiftly through the water towards the little man-o'-war.
"But there will be a row about it, old fellow," whispered Bob Howlett.
"Oh, very well then, they must row," said Mark Vandean pettishly. "There's no harm in having a monkey onboard—if we can get it there."
"Don't you be uneasy about that, Mr Vandean, sir," said the stroke oarsman; "me and my mates'll smuggle the young nigger gent aboard somehow, even if I has to lend him my duds."
"You leave off cutting jokes, Tom Fillot, and pull hard."
"Ay, ay, sir," cried the man, chuckling, and he and his fellows made the boat skim through the glowing water.
"Perhaps the letter is important," said the first middy, "and may mean business at last."
"I hope not," said the other. "I'm sick of it. Nothing but wild-goose chases after phantom ships. I don't believe there are any slavers on the coast."
"Oh, aren't there, Bob?"
"Don't seem like it. Where are they, then; and why don't we catch 'em?"
"Fancy going off again to-night sneaking down to another of these rivers all among the mosquitoes and fever mists. Ugh! If I'd known, you wouldn't have caught me coming to sea."
"Oh, we shall catch one of 'em yet. A big Yankee schooner full of slaves; and then look at the prize-money."
"No catchee, no havee, Van. Oh, I say, I am hot. Why, I believe you could fry eggs in the sun."
"Dare say you might if you could get there, Bob."
"Oh, my! aren't we witty this morning! I say, I wonder what old Staples will say to the monkey, Van."
"So do I," said the first middy, uneasily. "I half wish we hadn't bought it. But it seemed such a chance."
"Well, we're in for it now. Staples will give it us pretty sharply, and then forget all about it."
"But then there's the skipper."
"Ah," said the second middy, thoughtfully; "I forgot about him. Bother the monkey! Phew! I am hot. I say, they may well call this Oily Bight. The sea looks just as if it had been greased. Oh, don't I wish I were in a good wet fog in the Channel. This is a scorcher."
The lads ceased speaking, and sat back watching the anchored vessel and relieving the tedium of the long row by scratching the monkey's head and pulling its ears, the animal complacently accepting both operations, and turning its head about so that every portion should receive its share of the scratching, till all at once the boat was run alongside, the coxswain took hold with his boathook, and while the falls were hooked on, an order was given above, and they were run up to the davits.
Directly after, Mark Vandean stepped on deck, touched his cap to a severe-looking officer, and presented a letter.
"Take it in to the captain," he said; and Mark marched off to the cabin, while the first lieutenant, who had turned toward the boat, out of which the men had sprung, suddenly raised one hand, and pointed at the boat's side, above which a head had been raised, and its owner was gazing round with wrinkled forehead as if wondering what was going to happen next.
Bob Howlett saw the first lieutenant's fixed stare and pointing hand, and glancing round, he caught sight of the head with its chin on the gunwale.
"Who's that?" cried the first lieutenant, sharply; and the men screwed up their faces and looked comically solemn on the instant, but no one spoke.
"Mr Howlett," cried the officer again, "I asked you who that was in the boat!"
"Beg pardon, sir; didn't know you were speaking to me. Which, sir?"
The lieutenant's lips were compressed as he took a couple of strides and brought himself alongside of the middy.
"If you are not careful, sir," he said severely, "trouble will follow this. You did know I spoke to you, sir. I said, 'Who is that young black?' Why, it's an ape."
"Yes, sir; chimpanzee, sir."
"How dare you bring a monkey on board, sir?"
"Only a natural history specimen, sir; and I thought—"
"Oh, there you are, Staples," said the captain, coming up. "Look, I think this is right at last;" and he handed the letter to his second in command.
"Looks correct, sir," said the lieutenant, after reading the letter. "Shall you act upon it?"
"Act upon it, man! Of course."
The monkey was forgotten. The boatswain's pipe rang out, the men came tumbling up, and as fast as it could be achieved, the anchor was raised, sail after sail hoisted, and an hour after, with every scrap of canvas that could be set, the Nautilus was slowly gliding along right out to sea, with the palm and mangrove-lined shore slowly fading into the haze, while the men collected together in knots and discussed the possibility of catching a slaver that night.
"What's it to be, Van," said Bob Howlett, "fun or flam?"
"Tell you to-morrow morning," was the reply. "I say, I've fed the chim', and he's asleep."
"Wish I was too," said Bob Howlett, "Oh, I say, ain't it hot?"
BLACKBERRYING AT SEA.
That night the Nautilus was pretty close inshore, as soon as she could approach without being seen. Every light was out, the sail had been reduced, and they were gliding slowly along, watching the mouth of a river about twenty miles south of Port Goldby. They had been lying off here for days, waiting for the news the British agent had been trying hard to obtain for them, so as to enable the officer in command of her Majesty's cruiser to strike a severe blow at the horrible traffic being carried on by swift-sailing schooners and barques trading between the West Coast of Africa and the southern ports of the United States.
The Nautilus had been for weeks upon the station, and so far all her efforts had proved vain. But now very definite information of the sailing of a large schooner from Palm River had been obtained, and everyone on board was in a most profound state of excitement. The night-glasses were being used, and as the vessel cruised to and fro off the mouth of the river, it did not seem possible for a fishing-boat to get away, leave alone a large schooner. This would be sure not to leave the river till the turn of the tide, two hours after dark, when she was expected to drop down with her cargo of unfortunates, collected at a kind of stockade by a black chief, who was supposed to be working in collusion with a merchant, whose store up the river had been ostensibly started for dealing in palm oil, ivory and gold dust with the above chief, a gentleman rejoicing in the name of Quoshay Dooni.
Captain Maitland's plan had been well carried out, for the haze had helped him; and after sailing right away, the vessel had crept close in at dark; and as night fell with all the suddenness of the tropics, she had reached the mouth of the river as aforesaid unseen.
After listening impatiently for some time, orders were given, and a couple of boats were lowered, each furnished with lanterns for signalling, of course kept hidden; and the monkey episode being for the time forgotten, Mark Vandean obtained permission to go in the first cutter, Bob Howlett being sent in the second.
"Whether we catch them or no," thought Mark, as the boat kissed the water, "it will be a bit of a change." Then, after a few whispered orders given to the second lieutenant, who was in charge, the two boats pushed off, the men dipping their muffled oars gently, and after separating for a couple of hundred yards, both cutters made their way silently through what appeared to be a wall of blackness, while each ear was alert to catch the slightest sound—the object being to make sure that the slaver did not slip down the river in the darkness, and pass the Nautilus unseen.
"Keep that sail well over the lanterns, Dance," whispered the lieutenant to the coxswain; "don't show a glimmer, but mind that they are kept burning."
"Ah, ay, sir."
"Shall I take them in charge, Mr Russell?" whispered Mark.
"No, my lad; I want you for company. Keep your eyes well skinned, as the Yankees say. If you sight the vessel first I'll give you a ring."
"Thankye, sir," said Mark, and then to himself, "No such luck!"
The next moment he was peering over the heads of the men, and to right and left, straight into the black darkness, as the boat was steered, as nearly as they could guess, right up the river, the only guide they had being the steady rush of the muddy water which they had to stem.
"Seems a Blindman's Buff sort of game, doesn't it, Mr Russell?" whispered Mark, at the end of a couple of hours.
"Yes, my lad, it's all chance work. I only wish, though, that we could blunder on to the abominable craft. They'll be too sharp for us I'm afraid."
Another hour passed, and they were still completely shut up in the darkness, with a thick haze overhead; and at last the lieutenant whispered,—"Lucky if we don't some of us catch fever to-night."
"Look here, Vandean, if we don't soon see something I shall signal the ship for a recall. We shall do nothing to-night. Eh? what?"
"I heard voices off to the left," Mark whispered. "Then it's the schooner," said the lieutenant, in a suppressed voice. "Give way, my lads! steady! I shall lay the boat alongside, and you must board her somehow. Coxswain only stay in the boat."
The men received their orders in silence, but a suppressed sigh told of their eagerness and readiness to act.
A minute later there was a sharp rattling sound, a savage growl, and a loud burst of laughter.
The first cutter had come in contact with the second, and directly after there was a whirring, brushing sound of branches sweeping over the boats, one of which bumped against a root and nearly capsized.
"Tut, tut, tut!" ejaculated the lieutenant; "back water, my lads! We are doing no good here. It is impossible to see where we are going."
There was a slight splashing, and the boats began to descend the stream, swept along by the tide for a time, till they lay on their oars again.
"What's that, Mr Russell?" whispered Mark, all at once.
"What? I heard nothing but one of the oars badly muffled."
"I didn't near anything. I meant what's that I can smell?"
The lieutenant started, and just then there was a peculiarly offensive, sickening odour perceptible.
"No mistaking that," whispered the lieutenant; and, giving orders, a lantern was taken from beneath the sail, and shown above the gunwale of the boat.
Almost immediately a faint star-like light shone out at a distance on their left, and the lantern was hidden and the star disappeared.
"Why's that?" whispered Mark.
"Let the other boat know the slaver's dropping down," was whispered back.
"But is she?" said Mark, excitedly.
"No doubt about that, my lad. Pull steady."
The men obeyed, and the boat was steered in a zigzag fashion down the river, but there was no sign of the slaver. If she was dropping down it was so silently that her presence was not detected, and at last a fresher feeling in the air warned the occupants of the first cutter that they must be nearing the mouth of the river.
"Light," whispered Mark, pointing off to his right, where, faintly seen, there was a feeble ray.
"Signal," whispered the lieutenant. The lantern was shown, and there was an answering light from behind them, proving that the one forward must be at sea.
"It's a recall," said the lieutenant, with a sigh of relief; "give way, my lads." Then to Mark: "The captain must be uneasy about us, or he would never show that light. It's like letting the slaver know. Bah! what an idiot I am. That's not our light. Pull, my lads, pull! That must have been shown by the ship we are after."
As he spoke the light disappeared, and a fresh one appeared from astern.
They showed their own lantern, and their signal was answered, the second cutter running up close to them a few minutes later, while the lieutenant was boiling over with impatience, for he had been compelled to check his own boat's way.
"What is it?" he said to his second in command.
"See that light ashore, sir?"
"No; I saw one out at sea; it's the slaver. Follow us at once."
"But that light was ashore, sir."
"Mr Ramsay, do you think I'm blind? Mr Howlett, are you there?"
"Didn't you see a light off to sea?"
"No, sir; ashore."
"I tell you it was at sea, and it is the craft we are after. Now, my lads, give way."
"Why, we're among the trees again."
"Yes, sir; shore's this way," said the coxswain.
"Then where in the name of wonder is the sea?" said the lieutenant, in an angry whisper, as the tide bore them along, with the men's oars rattling among the mangrove stems.
"I think we've got into a side channel," said Mark.
"Rubbish! How could we?"
"Beg pardon, Mr Russell, sir," came from the boat astern; "we've got into a sort of canal place with the tide running like a mill stream. Hadn't we better lie to till daybreak?"
"Better sink ourselves," growled the lieutenant. "Here are we regularly caught in a maze, and that schooner getting comfortably away to sea."
"'Fraid so, sir," said the boatswain. "That there was a light showed ashore to warn 'em that we were in the river; some of 'em must have heard."
The lieutenant made no answer, but ordered the men to back water, and for the next four hours they were fighting the swift river, trying to extricate themselves from the muddy system of branches into which they had been carried in the darkness, but in vain; and at last, in despair, they made fast to the mangroves, and waited for day.
Light came at last, piercing the white fog in which they lay; and in a short time they were back in the wide river, close to the sea, dejected, weary, and wondering that they could have been so confused in the darkness.
"Nice wigging we shall have, Vandean," said the lieutenant; "the skipper will sarcastically tell me he had better have sent one of the ship's boys in command. But there, I did my best. Ugh! how chilly it feels!"
An hour later they were alongside the Nautilus, which lay at the edge of a bank of mist which covered the sea, while shoreward all was now growing clear from a gentle breeze springing up.
The lieutenant was a true prophet, for the captain almost used his officer's words.
"Then you haven't seen a sign of the schooner?"
"No, sir; but we smelt it."
"What!" cried the captain.
"Sail ho!" shouted the man at the look-out, and in a moment all was excitement, for, about a mile away, down what looked like a clear lane through the white fog, was a two-masted vessel, crowded with sail; and as rapidly as possible the boats were hoisted up, and the Nautilus was in pursuit.
But hardly had she careened over under the press of sail than the fog shut the vessel from their sight, and for the next two hours she was invisible, while the captain of the Nautilus had to lie to, for fear of some slippery trick on the part of what was undoubtedly the slaver, since she was more likely to make for the shelter of a creek than to risk safety in flight.
But the wind was not favourable for this manoeuvre, and toward mid-day the sea grew clear, and there was the slaver plainly visible miles away, sailing out west, while the Nautilus crowded on every stitch of canvas in pursuit.
A stern chase is a long one, says the proverb, and night came with the craft still miles away, but the sky was brilliantly clear, and the moon shone forth, showing the white-sailed schooner in a strangely weird fashion far across the flashing sea.
"We're gaining on her," said Bob Howlett, who was as full of excitement as the men, while Mark felt a strange suffocating sensation at the chest as he strained his eyes and watched the swift schooner, whose captain tried every manoeuvre to escape the dogged pursuit of the Queen's cruiser.
"Hang it all! he's a plucky one," said Bob, as the chase went on. "He must be taken, but he won't own to it."
"Thought a ship was a she," said Mark.
"Well, I was talking about the skipper, wasn't I?"
"A man doesn't want to lose his ship, of course."
"Nor his cargo," cried Bob. "There, give it up, old fellow; we're overhauling you fast."
It was a fact: the Nautilus, with all her studding sails set, was creeping nearer and nearer, till at last, amid no little excitement on the part of the two midshipmen, a gun was shotted, run out, and a turn or two given to the wheel. Then, as the Nautilus swerved a little from her course, the word was given, and a shot went skipping across the moonlit sea, splashing up the water in a thousand scintillations, and taking its final plunge far ahead of the schooner.
Every eye and every glass was fixed upon the slaver, for such she was without a doubt, since she kept on, paying no heed to the shot and its summons to heave to; and after a second had been sent in chase, the captain gave the word, and a steady fire was kept up at the spars and rigging.
"I can't fire at her hull, Staples," the captain said.
"No, it would be slaughtering the poor wretches down below; never mind, sir, we'll capture her directly. She's ours, safe."
"Then the sooner the better," said Bob to his companion.
The firing continued, and the crews of the two guns which sent their shot in chase vied with each other in their efforts to hit a spar and bring down the sails of the schooner; but they tried in vain. Sails were pierced, but no other harm was done, and the slaver kept gallantly on.
But all her efforts were in vain. The Nautilus crept on and on, nearer and nearer, till she was only about a quarter of a mile away, and then the slaver altered her course, and gained a little by her quick handling. But the Nautilus was after again, and after two or three of these manoeuvres Captain Maitland was able to anticipate her next attempt to escape, and all seemed over.
"I wonder how many poor wretches she has on board?" tried Mark, excitedly, as the word was passed for one of the boat's crews to be ready for boarding as soon as the slaver captain struck the flag he had run up in defiance.
"Hundreds perhaps," said Bob, coolly; "but we haven't got her yet."
"No; but they're going to give in now. I can see the captain quite plainly," said Mark, who was using a glass. "What are they doing? Oh, Bob, look!"
For through the glass he saw what seemed to be a struggle on the moonlit deck, and directly after there was a splash.
"Great heavens!" cried Captain Maitland. "Staples! Look! They're throwing the poor fellows overboard."
"No," said the first lieutenant, with his glass to his eye; "only one."
A mist came for a moment over Mark Vandean's sight, but it passed away; and, with the feeling of suffocation at his throat increasing now, he kept his glass upon the black head in the midst of the quivering water, where a man was swimming hard for life. Brought almost close to him by his powerful glass, Mark could nearly make out the agonised look upon the swimmer's face, as, at every stroke, he made the water shimmer in the moonlight; and every moment as his forehead grew wet and his hands clammy, the midship, man expected to see the waves close over the poor wretch's head.
Just then his attention was taken up by the voices of the Captain and lieutenant.
"The scoundrel! the fiend!" cried the former, with a stamp of rage upon the deck; "if it were not for those on board I'd sink him."
"I wish we could, sir," replied the first lieutenant; "we shall lose him."
"No," cried the captain. "He has thrown that poor wretch overboard, believing that we shall heave to and pick him up sooner than let him drown."
"While he gets a mile away," said the first lieutenant; "and as soon as we overhaul him again, he'll throw over another—that is, sir, if we stop to pick the poor creatures up."
"Help! boat! help!" cried Mark, unable to contain his feelings longer; and lowering his glass, he turned to the captain. "Look, sir, look!" he cried, pointing in the direction of the drowning black; "the poor fellow's going down."
SAVING A BROTHER'S LIFE.
There was a moment's dead silence after Mark had, in his excitement, cried for help. Then the word "Fire!" was uttered sharply, and there was the deafening report of a gun, whose shot again passed between the schooner's masts, but without doing the slightest harm. Then, almost mingled with the bass roar of the cannon, the captain's orders rang out; the boatswain's pipe sounded shrilly, and as the Nautilus was thrown up into the wind, and her sails began to shiver, down went the boat with its crew, Mark, at a sign from the captain, who gave him a friendly smile, having sprung in. Then there was a quick thrust off by the coxswain, the oars fell on either side with a splash, and the young midshipman stood up, balancing himself on the thwart in the stern-sheets, directing the officer who held the rudder-lines how to steer, for far-away on the moonlit water, when the swell rose high, he could still see the dark head and the rippling made by the swimmer struggling for his life.
"Starboard!" shouted Mark. "Pull, my lads, pull. Starboard a little more."
"Starboard it is," cried the officer. "See him still?"
"Yes," cried Mark. "Oh, pull, my lads, pull, or he'll go down before we get to him. Now port a little: they're pulling stronger on one side than on the other—not too much. That's right. Yes, I can—no, he is down in the hollow. There he is again. Pull your hardest," he cried, excitedly; and the men jerked at their oars as they cheered.
"Hold on; we're coming," cried Mark to the drowning man, thoughtless of the fact that the negro would not understand his words, even if he heard them, which was doubtful in the wild agony of his struggle, as with breath growing short, weak as he was from confinement, he struck out more quickly, and fought hard with the waves for his unhappy life.
"See him still?" cried Mark's companion, as the boat made the water foam.
"Yes—no—no," said Mark, hoarsely; "he's down in the hollow again. Straight on. We're going right for him, and—"
"Don't say he has gone down," cried the officer.
"No; I shall see him directly. We must be close to him now. Ready there with the boathook."
"Ay, ay, sir," cried the man in the bows, as he stood up ready to make a snatch at the drowning man. "See him, sir?"
Mark was silent as he strained his eyes over the surface of the sea, looking vainly for the struggling figure which had been making so brave a fight for life. There was a terrible feeling of dread oppressing him, as for the first time he was face to face with death; and in those awful moments he was unconscious of the regular reports of the guns as the Nautilus kept up her fire at the flying schooner. He heard nothing, saw nothing but the sea shimmering in the moonbeams. For after a long and desperate fight, with the water rising higher about his lips, the unfortunate black had grown weaker and weaker, and at last had given one tremendous plunge, which raised him high, so that he could glare wildly round for help; then he had ceased his struggle and gone slowly down, the water closing over his staring eyes and glistening teeth; there were a few bubbles, and the sea heaved and fell gently over the spot where he sank.
"I have been close here, sir," cried the coxswain.
"Easy, my lads," cried the young lieutenant in command. "Can't you see him, Van? Oh, hang it, lad, look! We mustn't let the poor beggar drown, even if he is a nigger."
Mark uttered a groan. He had come to save a human being—a fellow-creature cast to destruction by the brutal captain of the slaver—and he had failed.
"Got him?" came faintly from the distant ship.
"No, sir," shouted the second lieutenant, through his hands.
"Oh, look! look!" cried Mark, wildly. "Pull, my lads. Starboard men, back water. He must be somewhere here. He is sure to come up again."
The men obeyed, and in those terrible moments the silence was appalling. Then came the deafening roar of a gun—the last fired then at the now distant schooner—and Mark sank down from the thwart and was turning away from the men to hide his drawn face, when he uttered a wild cry, flung himself half over the side of the boat, and made a desperate clutch at something which just rose above the water. Then hand grasped hand, the white holding the black in a desperate clutch, as the lieutenant dropped the rudder-lines, and saved Mark from going overboard by seizing him round the waist.
Then came a little hauling, followed by a cheer, as the nude figure of a stalwart black was dragged in, to sink helpless, perfectly insensible, in the bottom of the boat.
"Now pull, my lads!" shouted the lieutenant; "pull all you know, and let's get aboard. We've got to take that schooner before we've done."
The men cheered, and pulled for the ship, from which came an answering cheer; but as Mark knelt down by the black he felt they had been a little too late, for the man lay there, in the moonlight, apparently quite dead. He had not stirred, neither did there seem to be the slightest pulsation as the boat was pulled alongside the Nautilus and run up to the davits, the graceful vessel beginning to glide once more rapidly in pursuit of the schooner, which had by the cruel manoeuvre placed a considerable distance between her and her pursuer.
"The black-hearted scoundrel!" cried the captain, as he stood looking down at the slave. "I'll follow him to America but what I'll have him. Well, doctor, all over with the poor fellow?"
"Oh no," said the gentleman addressed; "he's coming round."
Almost as he spoke there was a faint quiver of the black's eyelid, and a few minutes after he was staring wildly round at the white faces about him. The men set up a cheer, while a feeling of exultation such as he had never before experienced caused a strange thrill in the midshipman's breast.
"He may thank you for his life, Vandean," said the second lieutenant, "for we should never have seen him. Now I wonder whether that scoundrel will try the same game over again."
"Safe to, Russell," said the first lieutenant, gruffly. "Here, my lads, get the black below; give him a place to lie down. He'll be all right in the morning, and a free man at any rate."
"I say, Van," said Bob Howlett, "aren't we all making a precious lot of fuss about a nigger? Wonder whether you'd all make as much about me."
"Go overboard and try," said Mark.
"Eh? Thankye. Well, not to-night. I say, can't that schooner sail?"
"So can we—and faster. What a rate we're going at. Shan't capsize, shall we?"
"Hope not, because if we did that schooner would escape. Why don't they fire?"
"Waste of powder and shot, my boy," said a voice behind them; and, looking sharply round, there stood the first lieutenant with his glass to his eyes, watching the flying boat. "Ha! we're moving now. Better get on a lifebelt, Mr Vandean, if you feel afraid."
He walked away, leaving the lad flushed and indignant. "Needn't catch a fellow up like that," he muttered. "Who said anything about being afraid?"
Bob Howlett laughed, and then turned his eyes in the direction of the schooner.
IN GREAT JEOPARDY.
Meanwhile everything possible was being tried to get another half knot of speed out of the Nautilus, which glided along under her cloud of sail, sending the water foaming in an ever-widening double line of sparkling water on either side. The hose was got to work, and the sails wetted, sheets were hauled more tightly home, and the captain and officers walked the decks burning with impatience as they scanned the distant schooner.
"If I was the skipper I'd be ready for him this time," said Mark to his companion.
"How? What would you do?"
"Have the boat's crew ready to drop down the moment the slaver captain pitched another poor fellow overboard. No, no," he added, quickly; "he'll never be such a wretch as to do that again."
"Oh, won't he just?" cried Bob, nodding his head, a great many times; "he'll go on chucking the whole cargo out one by one, just like the man did his gloves and things to the bear, for it to stop and smell them while he escaped. Here, I mean to go and save the next black chap, and then perhaps I shall look as cocky as you do. Oh, what a wonderful chap you are, Van!"
Mark made a quick gesture, as if to hit out at his messmate, and then looked on in wonder as the captain ordered the cutter's crew back into the boat, and the men to the falls, ready in case the slaver captain should repeat his manoeuvre, while the guns were double-shotted and laid for the moment when the schooner would be once more within range.
"I say," whispered Bob, "don't the skipper look savage? I believe he'd send a broadside into the schooner if it wasn't for the slaves on board."
"Of course he would; he said so," replied Mark, and he went forward and then down below to where, by the dim light of a swinging lantern, he could see the wild eyes of the black as he lay in a bunk, ready to start up in dread as the lad approached.
"All right; be still," said the midshipman, laying his hand upon the man's shoulder, and pressing him back; "how are you?"
The man glared at him in silence, but made no sound.
"It's of no use to talk to you, I s'pose," continued Mark. "There, go to sleep. Perhaps we shall have some companions for you in the morning. Hullo! begun again!"
For at that moment there was a dull roar and the jarring sensation of a gun being fired overhead, making the black start and look wonderingly about him.
"I say, that startled him," said Bob Howlett, who had stolen down behind his messmate, and had stood in the semi-darkness laughing at the black's astonishment. "What do you think of that, old chap? That's some of our private thunder. Large supply kept on the premises. There goes another! Here, Van, we mustn't stop below."
For a second report shook the deck, and the black tried to rise, but sank back from sheer weakness.
"Tell him it's all right, Van, and that he'd better go to sleep."
"How?" replied Mark.
"Ah, 'tis how! I say, what a shame for us to be sent on the west coast in such a state of ignorance. Here, all right, Massa Sambo. Go to sleep. I say, do come on, Van, or there'll be a row."
The next minute the two lads were on deck, to find that they were rapidly overhauling the schooner, and they were just in time to hear the orders given as the boat was ready to be lowered.
"Come, Mr Howlett, where have you been?"
This from the first lieutenant.
Bob murmured some excuse, and sprang into the boat, which dropped out of sight directly, and then darted in again as the men bent to their stout ashen oars, and sent her rapidly in the schooner's wake, where Mark made out by the troubled water seen through his glass that another poor fellow had been tossed overboard by the slaver captain, for he rightly judged that no English officer would leave the black to drown.
He was quite correct in his judgment, for though Captain Maitland had fumed and declared that he would not give up the chance of capture for the sake of a black, when he felt that he might seize the schooner and put an end to the mischief she was doing probably year after year, he had his vessel's course stayed, and waited patiently for the return of the boat he had lowered.
The mission of this cutter was almost an exact repetition of the one in which Mark took part, Bob Howlett having the luck to seize the second drowning man, over whose body the boathook had slipped.
"And no wonder," growled the coxswain afterwards. "He'd got on no duds, and I didn't want to stick the hook into his flesh."
While this was going on, the captain stamped above on one side of the quarter-deck, the first lieutenant on the other. For they kept as far apart as they could, and it was an understood thing amongst the junior officers that it would be to come in for the full force of an explosion to speak to either of them now.
"Pull, men, pull!" roared the first lieutenant through his speaking trumpet. "Mr Russell, do you want to keep us here all night?"
"Ay, ay, sir," came back from the boat.
"No, no, sir; I beg your pardon. We've got the man."
"Got the man!" cried the captain, angrily; "do you think we have no glasses on board? Make haste, sir."
"What's that?" cried the captain, sharply, for there had been the sound of a sharp crack, and Mark had uttered the cry.
"What's that, sir?" cried the lieutenant in a rage; "why it's Mr Vandean, sir, getting under my feet like a spaniel dog, and the moment I move he yelps out, sir."
"It wasn't your foot, sir," cried Mark sharply, for his head was stinging with pain. "You swung round your speaking trumpet, sir, and hit me."
"Silence, sir! how dare you, sir? You should get out of the way, sir," roared the first lieutenant.
"That will do, Staples," said the captain, calming down now. "Now, men, up with that boat."
The cutter was already swinging from the davits, while at a turn of the wheel the Nautilus began to forge through the water again, and the men stood ready for another shot at the flying schooner.
Just then the cutter's crew lifted out the black they had rescued, and he too sank down helpless on the deck, half dead from exhaustion.
"That's one to me, Van," whispered Bob. "I saved that chap."
"Then you only half did it, Mr Howlett," said the doctor, who overheard him. "Let me finish."
"I say," whispered Bob, "what a nuisance it's getting, you can't say a word on board without somebody hearing. Hullo! what's the matter with your head?"
"Old Staples was in a passion because you were so long, and hit me over the head with his speaking trumpet."
"Get out—and we weren't so long as you were first time. Russell said so. What was it? He wouldn't dare to hit you."
"But he did; swung round just when I was behind him."
"Serve you right for being behind him."
"What?" cried Mark, furiously.
"No, no, I mean serve him right for being before you."
"Less talking, young gentlemen," cried the officer of whom they were speaking, and he looked round at them so sternly that they separated, each hurrying to his post, and, glass in hand, watching the distant schooner.
"Look here, Mr Russell," said the captain, walking up to that officer, as, once more, they began to near the white-sailed vessel gliding along in the brilliant moonlight. "If that scoundrel tries his cowardly scheme again, I shall drop you to pick up the poor wretch, and keep on as hard as we can, or we shall lose her. Save the poor fellow, and then pull steadily after us. I think I can overhaul her in less than half-an-hour, and then I shall heave to, and wait for you to come aboard."
The second lieutenant saluted, and the captain went forward to watch the schooner.
"Are you coming with me this time, Vandean?" said the lieutenant.
"Yes, I hope so, sir," said the lad.
"Hope, eh? Humph. You don't know what you are talking about, my lad."
"Please don't speak," said Mark, excitedly. "I've got it just right now. Look sir, look, there's a regular fight going on aboard. They're getting ready to pitch another man overboard."
The lieutenant raised the glass to his eyes, and immediately gave orders to the crew to stand ready. Then, following the midshipman's example, he fixed his glass upon the schooner, and watched her moonlit deck with its busy dark figures, in the full expectation of seeing another heavy splash.
But nothing more disturbed the surface of the water but the rush of the swift schooner, in whose wake lay what looked like an arrow-head of foam, as the lines diverged from each side of her sharp prow; and as they neared her the captain grew excited.
"She's going to heave to," he cried.
Just then a shot went skipping along the water, making the sea flash into silver at every dip, and sped right on in front of the schooner's bows, a messenger sufficiently faithful to warn the Yankee skipper of what would be the fate of his vessel if he did not strike his colours, for the man who aimed that shot could as easily have hulled the swift craft.
At the captain's words every eye was directed to the American flag which the skipper was disgracing, but it remained in its place as both vessels sped on, and a couple more shots were fired and sent through the main and foresails, which showed, with the aid of the glasses, a couple of black spots.
That was all.
"He's laughing at us," growled Mr Staples. "Oh, if we could send a few shots through his wretched craft!"
"And I dare not," cried the captain.
Just then Mark again caught sight of something which was taking place on the schooner's deck, not five hundred yards from where they pressed on in pursuit. It was hard to see at that distance, but he made out that a sturdy black was evidently renewing the struggle which had taken place before; but in spite of his efforts, he was being dragged to the side; then, to Mark's horror, a hand was raised and a blow struck, followed by a splash in the water, which was scattered far and wide, as the young midshipman closed his glass with his wet hands, feeling as if it had revealed horrors which he could not bear.
"First cutters!" rang out, and the lad ran to the boat; the captain repeated his orders to the second lieutenant as the Nautilus was run on, so as to get as near as possible to the drowning slave before her speed was checked and her boat lowered. There, all ready in their seats, the boat's crew waited. The expected moment came as the sails shivered, the boat kissed the water, the falls were unhooked, and in an extremely short space of time the Nautilus was gliding on in full chase, and the cutter's oars were dipping in a quick, regular stroke which took them wide of the vessel's course, as she literally darted away.
And now, as he stood up once more on the thwart, to try and make out the head of the black cast overboard, it struck Mark for the first time that they were alone upon the wide sea, and that the Nautilus was very rapidly increasing her distance, while the schooner, to his excited fancy, already began to look small.
But he had very little time for thinking.
"Be ready with that boathook," shouted the second lieutenant.
"Ay, ay, sir. Mustn't miss this one," muttered the speaker to himself.
"See him, Mr Vandean?"
"No, not yet, sir."
"You ought to, by now. Watch for the rippled water where he is swimming."
"That's what I am doing, sir," replied Mark, "but I can't see anything."
"He's floating, perhaps. Pull away, my lads. Steady; we don't want to pass him."
There was a few minutes' silence.
"See him now, Mr Vandean?" said the lieutenant again, and Mark was silent for a few moments, as he scanned the surface round from beneath his hand.
"No, sir, no sign of him."
"Oh, don't say that, my lad. Look, look. We mustn't miss the poor fellow. Strikes me that we're going to pick up the whole cargo this way. Now then, wasn't that a splash yonder?"
"No, sir, I can't see anything," said Mark sadly; and as he still eagerly scanned the surface amidst a breathless silence, only broken by the flapping of the water against the bows of the boat, it again struck Mark with a chill of awe that they were being left alone there; and he asked himself what would happen if the Nautilus could not find them again.
This was momentary, for his attention was taken up by his search, and the officer said again, in angry impatience now,—"Come, Mr Vandean, where's this poor fellow? Here, lie to, my lads."
The men ceased rowing, and sat with their oars balanced, looking out on either side for some sign of the man overboard but there was none, and Mark heaved a deep sigh.
"Yes," said the lieutenant, as if that sigh were in words; "it's a bad case, my lad. I am afraid he's gone, poor fellow."
"Someone struck him before he went overboard," said Mark.
"You saw that?"
"Then he has gone. We never saw him swimming. I'm afraid we must begin to row for the ship if we do not see him in a few minutes. She's leaving us a long way behind."
"I see him, sir," cried the coxswain. "Here he is!"
He made a dash with his boathook, but the object he sought to reach was so far out, that he overbalanced himself and went in with a heavy plunge.
"You clumsy dog!" roared the lieutenant. "Back water port, pull starboard. That's it. Now then, in oars there, and lay hold of him."
The men on the port side obeyed, and in their excitement, three started up and reached out to seize their struggling comrade, who had hold of a black arm with one hand, and swam with the other.
"Now then, lay hold quick," roared the lieutenant.
"Mind! Take care!" shouted Mark.
The words were necessary, but useless, for as the men reached over and raised the coxswain and his burden, the gunwale of the boat sank too low, there was a rush of water, and in what seemed like one beat of time the crew were all thrown out, and as they rose to the surface after an unexpected dive, it was to find the oars floating about, with straw hats here and there, and a couple of yards away the cutter lying bottom upwards.
Mark's first instinct as he caught sight of the glistening keel was to strike out and seize it, his next to look wildly round for help; and now he fully realised the fact that they were alone and in deadly peril, with the help that should have been at hand gliding rapidly away.
"Hi! help! your hand!" cried a choking voice close by; and instinctively Mark stretched out the asked-for help, to feel one hand seized and the other glide from the slippery keel. The next moment the water was thundering over his head.
A FIGHT WITH A BOAT.
Were you ever nearly drowned? Did you ever feel the sensation of the waves rushing and roaring over you, as if full of triumph at having captured a human being to drag down into their depths and devour?
It is to be hoped not, and that you never will be in such jeopardy as that in which Mark Vandean found himself as the pale, soft moonlight was suddenly shut out from sight, and he went down into the black darkness, too much startled and confused to grasp his position and make a calm, matter-of-fact attempt to save his life. He was conscious of receiving a kick, which sent him lower, and then of rising and striking his head against something hard.
This blow roused him into action, and, realising in a flash that he had knocked his head against some portion of the boat, he struck out strongly, and the next moment was gazing around at the agitated water, and then made out, close at hand, what looked like the glistening back of some sea monster.
It was only the imagination of the moment. Directly after he was swimming for it, seeing that it was the bottom of the capsized boat, about which the crew were clustering.
Then a strong hand was stretched out to him, and he was drawn to the keel, Tom Fillot, who had rowed stroke oar, helping him to a good position.
"Hold on a bit, sir, and we'll try and right her."
"Yes," panted Mark. "Where's Mr Russell?"
"Here," came rather faintly from the other side of the boat, accompanied by a fit of gasping and coughing. "All right now; I got under the boat. All here, my lads?"
"Ay, ay, sir."
"Then you one and all deserve a flogging," cried the second lieutenant, angrily. "What were you about to capsize the boat?"
"Dunno, sir," said Tom Fillot, gruffly. "She went over all of her own sen."
"Don't be an idiot, man."
"Where's the black?" panted Mark, who had not yet got back to his regular breathing.
"I have him, sir," said the coxswain, "but I don't think he's—"
"Oh, don't say he's dead!" cried Mark.
"Course not, sir, if you says I'm not," muttered the man; "but it strikes me as he was dead before he reached the sea. Some one seems to have hit him on the head."
The lieutenant changed his position, so as to place himself alongside the coxswain, and then moved away again.
"Dead?" whispered Mark, as he drew himself a little more on the bottom of the boat, and craned his neck towards his brother officer.
Russell did not answer for the moment, but gravely bent his head.
"The brutes!" he then said, softly; "and all this risk for nothing."
Then aloud—"Now, my lads, quick. Swimmers. The oars."
These words roused the little crew, which had been clinging to the keel, half lying on either side of the boat, as if there was nothing more to be done but wait for help but now three of the men at once quitted their hold, and began to swim about in search of the oars and other objects floating about in the glistening moonlight.
"Never mind the hats, man," shouted the lieutenant. "The oars—the oars."
This was to one of the sailors who had reached a straw hat and clapped it upon his head as he swam, but the same man recovered one of the oars and brought it alongside.
"Any one seen my hitcher?" shouted the coxswain from where he hung on, supporting the black.
"Yes," came from Mark, who pointed; "there it is, standing up like a great quill float. See it?"
"Yes, sir, I see it," cried a sailor; and he swam off towards the white-looking pole, while others sought for and recovered the whole of the oars, which floated a short distance away, the men having gained a little more confidence, and freely quitting their hold of the boat, as it slowly rose and fell in the midst of the smooth, heaving sea.
Mark had done nothing but hold on to the keel and try to direct the men, as they swam here and there, giving a longing glance, though, from time to time at the distant Nautilus, whose white sails gleamed in the moonlight. Now, as the crew resumed their places, and tried to keep the oars and boathook alongside the keel, he turned to the lieutenant.
"What are you going to do about—about that?" he whispered.
"Get the poor creature on board—if we can," was the reply; and the young midshipman could not help shuddering. "It is what we were sent to do, Vandean," continued the officer, "and we must do our duty. Now, my lads," he cried, "all of you over here, and let's right the boat."
The men opposite swam round, and, the oars being left floating, an effort was made to drag the boat over, all hanging on the keel. But, in spite of effort after effort, she refused to right, and Mr Russell gave the word to rest for a few minutes, and collect the floating oars, which were getting scattered once more.
This being done, Mark turned to his officer, and said in a low voice,—"You want the coxswain to help?"
"I do, my lad," replied the lieutenant, but he stopped short and looked at his young companion.
"I will not mind," said Mark. "I'll try and hold the poor fellow up, and set Joe Dance free."
Without waiting to be ordered, Mark drew a deep breath, edged himself right astern to where the coxswain held on to the keel with one hand and grasped the black's wrist with the other.
"Go and take my place," he said; and making an effort over self, he searched for and found one of the little fenders suspended from the boat's side, took a firm hold, and then stretched out his right hand to grasp the black's wrist.
"Mean it, sir?" said the man.
"Yes," replied Mark, huskily. "Go and help."
The next minute the lad hung there in the water, with his face kept toward the boat, and his hand retaining that which he could not muster up sufficient courage to turn and gaze at, as it lay calm and stern, looking upward toward the peaceful moonlit skies.
Then began a sturdy effort to right the boat, and Mark's position grew irksome in the extreme, for at every struggle to drag the keel down toward them, the midshipman was drawn lower, and he felt that if his companions in misfortune succeeded in righting the boat, he would have to let go and try to keep himself afloat for a time.
But in spite of try after try, the boat remained stubbornly bottom upward, and at last, worn out by their exertions, all ceased their efforts, and rested half on the keel which offered a tempting halting place for those who liked to climb upon it, and sit astride.
Just then Dance the coxswain made his way to Mark, and without a word seized the wrist of the black, and in a low growl bade the young officer rest.
"Soon as you can, my lad," he whispered, "reach down and get hold of one of the rudder-lines. I'll make him fast to that."
"But his head—it must be kept above water," whispered back Mark in a choking voice, for he felt hysterical and strange.
"What for, my lad?" said the coxswain. "It can do no good. Half a million o' doctors couldn't save his life. He was done for when they pitched him in, and I should like to have my will o' them as done it. Precious little marcy they'd get out o' me."
"Come along here, Mr Vandean," cried the lieutenant from the bow end of the boat; and Mark shudderingly left the coxswain making fast the wrist of the dead black to one of the rudder-lines, and joined his brother officer, easily passing from one to the other of the men as they half lay on the bottom, resting and clinging by one hand to the keel.
"Cheer up, my lad!" said the lieutenant. "There's nothing to mind. The sea couldn't be smoother, and we can hold on like this for any length of time. The captain is sure to come back soon to pick us up."
Mark made no answer, but crept into as secure a place as he could beside his officer, gazed away at the dimly-seen vessels, and listened to the dull report of gun after gun.
"Well, you are very quiet," said the lieutenant after a long pause. "Why don't you speak?"
"I have only one thing to say," replied Mark, "and I did not like to say that."
"Why not? What is it?"
"I wanted to know whether they would ever find us again."
"Find us? Yes, of course," cried the lieutenant. "They must find us. There, it's all right. Never despair. No fear of our being washed off, and we've nothing else to mind."
"Sharks?" said Mark, involuntarily.
"Hush!" whispered the lieutenant, fiercely. And then with his lips to the lad's ear he said, "Never utter a word likely to damp your men's courage at a time like this. Do your duty and hope for the best. Trust in God for the help to come, my lad. That's how a sailor should act."
"I'll try, Mr Russell," whispered back Mark, with a curious choking feeling at his breast as he thought of home in far-away old England, and of the slight chance he had of ever seeing it again.
"Of course you will try, black as it all looks. Now then, we're a bit rested, and going to have another start."
But he gave no orders then, for with his wet hand shading his eyes, he tried to make out what was going on between the Nautilus and the schooner, the firing having now ceased.
"I'm afraid the Yankee skipper's carrying on the same manoeuvre," he said at last; "and perhaps we shall have to wait for morning. Now then, I want this boat righted and baled out, but we shall be colder sitting in our wet clothes than we are now. Ready, my lads?"
"Ay, ay, sir."
Still he did not give orders for the men to renew their efforts, but hung there watching the distant vessels, while alone in the great ocean the capsized boat softly heaved and fell on the long smooth rollers.
"Yes," said the lieutenant at last, "he will be obliged to let her escape."
"Not take her?" cried Mark, rousing himself a little at this.
"No, not take her. He must heave to and pick us up. As soon as it is day glasses will be at work in the maintop; and directly they see our plight the Nautilus will come down to us with every stitch of canvas set."
"Hooray!" shouted the men as they heard the lieutenant's words; and when he gave his orders, they set to with a will to drag the keel down toward them. Discipline, training, all was in their favour; but the boat was heavy, and seemed to fight against them. Turning their bodies into weights, they drew it more and more over, till it was so low that the lieutenant bade one man climb up and reach over to get hold of the side.
This was done again and again, but only for the weight to disturb the equilibrium, and send it back, the man in each case going right over with it, to be plunged in, head-first, on the other side.
Sailors are light-hearted fellows, and even in times of peril they soon forget their troubles, and are ready to join in a grin.
It was so here. A roar of laughter saluted each man who went down as soon as he rose again and swam round, taking it all good-humouredly enough, as he resumed his place to renew the struggle, till at last the lieutenant was ready to give up in despair.
"Let me try this time," said Mark at last. "I'm lighter, and I think I could get hold of the side with the boathook as soon as I am on the keel."
"Hear that, my lads?" shouted Dance, "and me to have handled a hitcher all these years, and never to have thought of it. Boat's righted, messmates, now; only, by your leave, sir, if you'd let me try, I think I could do it easier than you."
"Try then, my lad," said the lieutenant; and, getting hold of the hook, the coxswain moved into the centre on one side as the crew seized the keel and dragged it down, while the man, boathook in hand, climbed up, finding good foothold on the clinker-built boat, steadying himself with his pole as he worked. At last he stood upright on the side of the keel, reached over and fixed his hook upon one of the rowlocks; then holding on firmly by the pole and pressing his feet against the keel, he hung right away, his body now forming so heavy a balance-weight that upon the men making a simultaneous effort to draw the boat over, she came down more and more. Then with a sudden lurch the resistance against them was overcome, and she came right over to an even keel, plunging Dance into the water, from which he rose spitting and sputtering, to begin swimming back amidst a hearty burst of cheers.
ALONE ON THE OCEAN.
"All very fine for you, my lads," grumbled the coxswain, "but see what a wetting I got."
"Vandean, my lad," whispered the lieutenant, "that idea of yours saved us," and he caught and pressed the lad's cold hand. Then aloud: "Now, my lads, get the oars in under the thwarts, so that they don't float out, and then you, Dance, and you, Tom Fillot, in over the side and begin baling."
The boat was floating with its gunwale level with the water, and the two men had only to press the side a bit and literally roll in, to squat down and begin baling; for, to the great delight of all, it was found that the locker in the bows was unopened, though full of water, and a couple of tin balers were fished out from amidst some tackle. Directly after, working with all their might, the men began to make the water fly out in showers.
Meanwhile the oars were collected and thrust down into the boat beneath the thwarts, along with the hitcher, and the rest of the little crew held on by the gunwale outside.
For a time this seemed to remain level with the surface, but the two balers toiled so hard that in a short time the lieutenant turned to Mark, and said shortly—"In with you."
The lad looked at him in wonder, but junior officers have to obey, and he crept in over the side, and getting right aft, began to scoop out the water with his joined hands.
A quarter of an hour later a fresh order was given, and two more men got into the boat to seat themselves and take the balers, while the pair who had been acting prepared to get out again and hang on.
But a short, sharp order checked them.
"There is no need, my lads," said the lieutenant. "You can begin scooping out water as soon as you are a bit rested. The boat will hold you now."
He was quite right, for, though the presence of four men weighed her down heavily, and sent her gunwale once more nearly level with the surface, it soon began to rise again as, pint by pint, the interior was relieved, until another man crept in, and soon after another, till the whole crew were back, and the lieutenant got in last.
Ten minutes later two men forward were steadily baling, whilst two others seized their oars, under the lieutenant's direction, and getting the boat's head round as they sat there with the water still well up over their ankles, they began to pull steadily in the direction of the Nautilus, now nearly invisible in the distant silvery haze.
They were still so heavily water-logged that progress was very slow, but this was no discouragement, for their position improved minute by minute, and the men were so much cheered that they put plenty of spirit into their work.
But before they had taken many strokes the lieutenant gave the order to stop, and Mark shuddered as he saw the reason. Mr Russell had turned to the rudder-lines, and there was a terrible burden towing astern.
Those were solemn moments which followed. The lieutenant signed to the coxswain to come, and then helped him to draw the lifeless body of the poor fellow over the gunwale, and, as decently as was possible, laid the remains of what had once been a big, strong man in the bottom of the boat. A flag was then taken from the locker and covered over him, just as, by a strange coincidence, and very faintly heard, came the report of a gun.
The coxswain then went forward and helped with the baling, while the men recommenced rowing in silence.
"The lads will think all this unnecessary, Vandean," said the lieutenant in a low voice, as Mark sat by his side; "but it would be horribly un-English to leave the poor wretch floating at the mercy of the waves. He was free enough, poor fellow, before we shaded him with the British flag. What would you have done?"
"As you have, sir," replied the lad. "I couldn't have left him behind, though it seems very horrible to have taken him on board, and to have him here with us in the night."
"All fanciful sentiment, Van, my lad. What is there in that poor fellow now to excite our fear? Come, you must be more manly than that. Cold?"
"Yes; very, now."
"So am I, my lad. These wet things are not comfortable. We'll take to the oars and row for a bit to keep off the chill. Why, Vandean, you ought to be well praised for this night's work. I feel quite ashamed of myself for letting you suggest a way out of our difficulty with the capsized boat."
"Oh, it was nothing, sir. It just occurred to me," replied Mark.
"I wish it had just occurred to me, my lad; and what is more, I wish we could see the Nautilus coming towards us with the slave schooner astern, but there is no such good fortune in store for us till morning."
By this time the water was getting very low in the bottom of the boat, and ordering the coxswain aft to steer, the lieutenant took the oar of Tom Fillot, who was rowing stroke, sent him forward, and then made Mark take the oar of the next man. They both pulled steadily together for the next half hour, Mr Russell telling the coxswain how to steer, so as to keep steadily in the wake of the Nautilus, which had now for long enough been out of sight.
The long row thoroughly circulated Mark's blood, driving away all the feeling of chill, so that it was with a pleasant glowing sensation that the lad took his place once more in the stern-sheets to sit beside the lieutenant, and with him anxiously look-out ahead in the hope of seeing some sign of the ship.
"She may send up a rocket, mayn't she, Mr Russell?" said Mark, after a long silence, during which the boat had risen and fallen with the swell, and felt beating with a living pulsation as the men toiled steadily on at their oars.
"Rocket? Well, yes, she may, but I doubt whether we could see it at this distance."
"Then she is very far-away?"
"Very, my lad. You see that she is out of sight."
"And suppose we have lost sight of her altogether, sir—what then?"
"What then? Oh, don't let's calculate upon things that are barely possible. Captains in Her Majesty's service are too particular about their juniors and ship's company to leave a boat's crew in the lurch."
"Yes, but Captain Maitland might not be able to find us again, sir."
"Come, come, my lad, don't croak like a raven. At your age you ought to be hopeful, and set me an example of high spirits. Don't begin imagining the worst."
"Who's going to be hopeful," muttered Tom Fillot to the man behind him, "with the body o' that poor nigger aboard? Strikes me that we're in for a spell o' bad luck, mates."
"What's that?" cried the lieutenant.
"Only having a bit of a grumble, your honour, about our luck," said the man, respectfully. "We're all feeling as if it was time our watch ended, and as though we'd like a bit o' something to eat and drink. That's all, sir."
The man's oar dipped steadily as he spoke, and after that there was a dead silence on board. The last drop of water had been swabbed up and squeezed overboard, and the exercise had helped to dry the men's saturated garments. A steady progress was kept up, and after fighting back a heavy, drowsy feeling, Mark sat watching the setting stars away straight before him in the direction in which the Nautilus had disappeared. Twenty times over it had seemed to him as if the night would never end, and in spite of his officer's cheering utterances, his spirits sank very low, as he wondered whether it would not have been better if the boat's head had been turned, so that they might have rowed due east, to make the land from which they had sailed.
Then the moon began to sink lower, and the sky to grow of a darker slaty colour, while the regular beat of the men's oars sounded distant—then very softly—and then ceased altogether, or so it appeared to Mark Vandean, who suddenly opened his eyes with a start, and gazed wonderingly about him at the sunlit sea, now all orange and gold.
"Have I been to sleep, sir?" he cried apologetically.
"Yes, my lad; sound asleep for hours."
"And the ship, sir—can you see the Nautilus?"
"No, my lad," said the lieutenant, in a voice which he tried to make cheerful, but whose tones spoke of the deep despondency in his breast. "She is not in sight yet."
The midshipman glanced sharply at the heavy, saddened countenances of the men, and read there a reflection of his own thoughts, that they were far-away on the wide ocean in an open boat without food or water, exhausted by a long night's rowing, and in an hour the torrid sun would be beating down upon their heads.
Hunger—thirst—heat—all three to fight; but there was a worse enemy still—despair, as a torrent of recollections flashed through the lad's brain, and he felt that unless the Nautilus hove in sight, their position was less to be envied than that of the poor negro lying dead beneath the flat which hid his face from their sight.
A TERRIBLE TASK.
Hunger at first—a sharp, grinding sensation of hunger attacked Mark Vandean; but as the sun rose higher this was forgotten in the intense thirst. For the heat rapidly grew scorching, and then, as Mark thought, burning, and saving the flag in the stern-sheets there was not a scrap of anything that could be used for an awning.
Every eye was strained westward in search of the returning Nautilus, but in the clear morning light there was no sign of her; and as the sun rose higher, the distance became obscured by a hot haze, which grew more dense as the hours went on, till it was impossible to see a mile in any direction, while this thickening of the atmosphere had the effect of heightening the power of the rays of the sun.
"We shall never be able to see the ship, Mr Russell," said Mark towards mid-day, as they lay there parched beyond endurance, rising slowly and falling upon the smooth Atlantic swell. "Do you think they will fire again?"
"Sure to, my lad," was the reply. "There, I'm glad you have spoken. This silence was getting unbearable."
"I couldn't talk before," replied Mark; "it all seemed to be so horrible lying here in this scorching heat, and I was so thirsty and faint I felt as if I couldn't keep up."
"We all felt the same, my lad, but we must bear it till help comes. There, you are my lieutenant now, and we must have a consultation as to what is best to be done."
For they had lain there all the fore part of the day watching the west for the return of their vessel. It was madness to order the men to go on rowing, weary and suffering as they were under that burning sun, farther away into the vast ocean in search of the Nautilus; and on the other hand, Lieutenant Russell was unwilling to give up the chance of being picked up by turning their backs on help and making for the coast.
But now the time had come for action. The men sat about in the boat looking wild-eyed with thirst and heat, and the chances of being seen by the returning ship were now growing small on account of the haze. So feeling that Captain Maitland would give him the credit of making for Port Goldby or one of the factories on the coast, Lieutenant Russell announced his determination of making for the east.
"But will the men be able to row as far?" said Mark.
"They must be able, with our help, Vandean. To be plain, my lad, it is our only chance."
"But through this heat?"
"They will suffer less rowing than sitting still;" and giving his orders, the men, accustomed to move smartly at the slightest word, sprang into their places, but directly after there was a low whispering and muttering among them, and they appeared to be making a communication to Dance the coxswain.
"What's the matter, my lads?" cried the lieutenant sharply; and he forgot his own sufferings now that there was a sudden call made upon his energy.
"Tell the lufftenant, Joe Dance," said Fillot, who was nearest to where his officers sat, but who preferred to pass task on to the coxswain, who was farthest off.
"Why couldn't yer tell him yersen?" growled the coxswain.
"Speak out, Dance. No nonsense, my lad. We are in difficulties, and we have to behave like British seamen till we get out of them."
The coxswain took off his well-dried straw hat and saluted. Then coughed, hesitated, and at last blurted out—"Well, sir, you see it's like this. The lads says they're willing enough, and they'll pull till they drop, but they want to know if you don't think it's time something was done about him as we come to pick up."
"Leave that to me, my lads," said the lieutenant, gravely. "I shall do my duty by you all, so please to do yours by me. Wait till nightfall and see."
"Ay, ay, sir," came huskily, the oars dropped into the water, and to Mark there was quite a feeling of relief in the motion of the boat, and also in the knowledge that they were moving—slowly enough, but surely— toward help. Whether they would live to reach that aid was another thing.
"Shall we take an oar each, Mr Russell?" said Mark after a time, during which he had sat watching the dispirited, weary looks of the men as they dragged more and more slowly at their rowing.
"No, my lad; we can do nothing in this heat. The poor fellows can do very little good themselves; I am only letting them pull because it keeps them from sinking into a state of despair. They can leave off when they like, and row when they like."
The men heard his words and ceased pulling for a few minutes to gaze blankly round in search of help, but the shining, sunny haze shut them in, and Tom Fillot settled himself in his seat again.
"Better pull, mates," he said, in a harsh, strange voice; "the orficer's right. We're worse off doing nothing." The oars dipped again, and the boat went on slowly eastward toward the distant coast, as the terrible sense of depression and exhaustion increased with Mark, mingled with a strange desire to scoop up some of the clear, glittering, tantalising water, and drink what he knew would be so horribly salt and bitter that his sufferings would be increased.
Now and then a curious sensation of vertigo attacked him, which seemed as if by some means the shining haze had floated right into his brain, dimming his eyesight so that for a time he could not see. Then it lightened up, and he could see ships, and clear bubbling waters, and green trees.
Then there were low, harsh voices speaking, and he was back again, wondering at the curious day-dream he had had, and listening to some remark made by Lieutenant Russell, who, in spite of his own sufferings, strove hard to cheer his companions in the boat.
Now and then a man would start out of a half-drowsy state, and hold up his hand. Dance the coxswain was the first affected in that way, but after a few moments Mark felt that the poor fellow had been suffering in a similar way to himself.
For the man suddenly exclaimed—"There! Did you hear that? A gun, lads. The Naughtylass is coming down on us with every stitch o' canvas on her."
Three of the men ceased rowing, and gazed through the haze in full belief that their messmate had heard a signal shot fired, for the man's attitude and tone were so convincing that there could be no doubt.
But there was no sound to break the utter silence till Tom Fillot growled forth—
"Lie down and go to sleep, Joe Dance. You're only teasing us, and making wuss of it."
"I tell you I heerd a gun," cried the coxswain.
"Ay, in your head, mate. I've been hearing the skipper giving it to Mr Russell here for keeping the cutter out all night, but it don't mean nothing, only sort o' dreams. How could the Naughtylass sail to us without a breath o' wind?"
Dance stared at him wildly, and his face grew convulsed with anger, but the next moment he let his head drop down upon his hands with a groan.
Night seemed as if it would never come to bring a relief from that burning sun, which affected man after man with this curious delirium, the last touched being Mr Russell, who suddenly started up in the boat just about the hottest part of the afternoon; and, his mind still impressed by the coxswain's words, he exclaimed in a peculiarly angry voice, as he stared straight before him—"I refuse to take the blame, Captain Maitland. I did my duty by you and toward the brave, patient fellows under my charge. If there is any one to blame it is yourself for leaving us behind. Quite right, Vandean. Now, my lad, for a good drink. The water's deliciously cool and sweet, and what a beautiful river. Ahoy! What ship's that?"
He lurched forward as he suddenly ceased speaking, uttered a low groan, and but for Tom Fillot's strong arm he would have gone overboard.
The sailor lowered him down into the bottom of the boat, where he lay back, and Mark took his kerchief from his neck, soaked it in the sea-water, wrung it out, and then laid it over the poor fellow's brow, ending by gazing inquiringly in the oarsman's face, as if asking for help.
"That's all you can do, sir," said the man, sadly.
"Touch o' sunstroke, and he's got it worse than the rest on us."
"Shall I bathe his face with the water, Tom?"
"No, sir, I don't know as I would. It might make him thirstier and worse. Better wait for sundown. When the cool time comes he may work round."
The man ceased speaking, and his companions laid in their oars before sinking down in the bottom of the boat and resting their heavy heads against the sides.
As for Mark, the rest of that afternoon passed as if he were in some fevered dream, during which he was back home at the Devon rectory, telling his father and mother of his adventures with the slaver. Then he was bathing in a beautiful river, whose water suddenly grew painfully hot and scalded him. After that there was a long blank time, and imagination grew busy again, his brain dwelling upon the chase of the slaver, and he saw through his glass the splash in the moonlit water, as one of the poor wretches was thrown overboard to stay the progress of the Nautilus.
Soon after some one touched him, and he started up to find that all was dark, and that the edge of a dense cloud was silvered by the moon, while a face was bent down close to his.
"What's the matter?" he cried, excitedly.
"Things is getting wuss, sir. Mr Russell's lying there talking like in his sleep, and t'others have got it bad. You and me's the only two as have any sense left."
"I—I couldn't understand for a bit, Tom," said Mark, making an effort. "It all seemed puzzling, but I think I know now."
"That's right, sir; and as your superior officer's down, you're in command, and have got to tell me what to do."
"What can I tell you to do?" cried Mark, in desperation. "You can't row the boat back to the coast alone."
"That's true enough, sir, but there's one thing you ought to order me to do at once."
The sailor pointed to the flag spread out behind where the midshipman sat; and Mark shuddered as he grasped his meaning.
"Do you think I ought to, Tom?" whispered the lad at last, in awe-stricken tones.
"What do you think, sir, left in charge as you are?" returned the man. "Seems a terrible thing for a young gent like you to give orders about, but I can't see no way out of it. We did our best to save him, and now it don't seem as we can save ourselves. 'Tall events, we can do no good to him, and I think the skipper—beg pardon, sir, no offence meant, the captain—will say you did what was quite right in giving me my orders."
Mark was silent, and tried to think out the matter calmly and with reason, but his head throbbed and burned, and all kinds of thoughts of other things kept on coming to confuse him and stop the regular flow of his thought, till it was as if he could think of everything else but the subject of such great importance to those on board.
At last, though, he leaned over the side, and bathed his throbbing temples with the comparatively cool water, when, by slow degrees, the beating ceased, and the power to think calmly came back.
"Do you really feel it would be right, Tom Fillot?" he said.
"I'm sure it would, sir."
"No, no, I couldn't do it," cried the boy, excitedly; "it seems too dreadful."
"More dreadful not to do it, sir, begging your pardon," said the man, quietly; and Mark gazed at him wonderingly to see how calm, manly, and serious he, the wag of the ship, had grown to be now.
"No, no, I dare not. Here, I'll speak to Mr Russell."
"Do, sir; but I'm afraid you won't make him understand. He's too far gone for that."
Mark went down on his knees by his officer and took his hand. Then, placing his lips close to the stricken man's ear, he asked him again and again to give him his advice what to do, but elicited nothing but a peevish muttering, as the lieutenant tossed his head from side to side.
"What I told you, sir."
"Then I'll ask Dance," cried Mark. "He is over you men, and I cannot do this without some one to share the responsibility."
"Try him, sir; but he's quite off his head, and if he says do, his advice ain't worth having, for he'll never know he said it."
All the same, in his terrible perplexity, Mark crawled over the thwarts and between the men to where the coxswain lay muttering incessantly right forward, with his head resting against the pole of his hitcher; but in spite of appeal after appeal the man lay with his eyes fixed, quite insensible to every word addressed to him, and the midshipman crept back to where Tom Fillot sat.
"I'm nobody, sir, only a common man afore the mast, so it's like impidence for me to offer to share the responsibility with a young gent like you. But being half as old again, I may say I know a little of what a man ought to do in a case like this; and I say that as you're now in command, sir, it's your duty to us, as well as to the dead."
"No, no," groaned Mark. "We may be overtaken by the ship at any time."
"Look here; it's of no use for you to shrink from it. Recollect where we are. You must."
But still Mark shook his head.
"It ain't as if we could do him any good, sir."
"But without Christian burial, Tom Fillot."
"He warn't a Christian, sir," said the sailor, slowly. "I'm only an ignorant man, but I've heerd say that you were a parson's son, sir, and know what's right to do at such a time. Mr Vandean, sir, you must."
Mark heaved a sigh, rose in the boat, and looked round him, trying to pierce the gloom in search of help out of his difficulty; but the moon was hidden by a black cloud, and look which way he would there was naught but the thick darkness hemming him in. With a piteous sigh he turned back to where the sailor sat waiting, made a sign, and then sank upon his knees in the bottom of the boat, feeling for the first few moments utterly alone.
The next minute the feeling of loneliness had passed away, and firm and strong at heart, he raised his head, and made a fresh sign to his companion, who had followed his example, and who now rose and stepped over to the very stern of the boat, to stand with his back to his young officer. Then as he bent down it seemed to Mark as if the darkness had grown more profound, till there was a faint rustling noise, and a soft plunge in the black water, followed by a faint rippling whisper against the sides. Directly after the moon appeared from behind the thick mass of clouds and shed a path of silver over the sea, till it flooded the part where the cutter lay; and as Mark Vandean knelt there, he saw Tom Fillot standing before him with the Union Jack in his hand.
"WILL MORNING NEVER COME?"
For the full space of an hour there was utter silence in the boat, where the lieutenant and his stricken crew lay as in a stupor. The black clouds had rolled away, and the calm sea was bathed in silvery light. The air was warm, but, by comparison with the scorching day, the temperature was delicious.
Tom Fillot had folded up the flag and laid it back in the locker, after which he had seated himself to wait for orders. At last, after quite an effort, Mark roused himself from his musings, and turned to his companion in distress.
"Tom," he said, "what ought I to do?"
"Nothing, sir," said the man, promptly. "There ain't nothing you can. Someone else must do whatever is to be done for us. We've got to wait."
"But could we row back to the port?"
"Without biscuit or water, sir, and with that sun sure to come up to-morrow ready to 'most scorch out our brains. What do you think?"
"I think it's impossible, Tom."
"Don't say think, sir. It's what you say without the think, and so I tell you. Impossible, and I don't say that because I ain't willing to work. I'll take an oar, and row till I drop if you like, but what good will one man do, or one man and a young gentleman? You needn't say you think it's impossible, sir, for you know it is, and that all we can do is to sit and wait. To-morrow morning, I'll rig up the flag over an oar, so as to keep the sun off Mr Russell, sir."