The Golden Magnet, by George Manville Fenn.
Books by George Manville Fenn are full of dreadful situations which the reader cannot see the way out of. This one is no exception, in fact we would easily say that it is one of his best.
Harry goes adventuring, and with him goes Tom, a young worker at Harry's father's soap-boiling factory. Tom is wonderful. He gets Harry out of numerous dire situations, and the book would not work without him. He is down-to-earth, and full of commonsense and energy.
Despite all sorts of adverse conditions and persons, they get the gold, and put everybody's affairs to rights, killing the villain, of course, on the way. And marrying the heroine, even though she is his first cousin.
A good example of a late nineteenth century teenager's book, and if you like that sort of thing you will enjoy it too, for it is what used to be called a crackingly good yarn.
THE GOLDEN MAGNET, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
Daybreak in the Incas' realm on the far western shores, known to our fathers as the great wonderland—the great country discovered by adventurous mariners, and thought of, dreamed of, seen through a golden mist raised by the imagination—a mist which gave to everything its own peculiar hue; and hence the far-off land was whispered of as "El Dorado," the gilded, "the Golden Americas," and the country whose rivers ran over golden sand, whose rocks were veined with the coveted ore; and nations vied with each other in seeking to humble the haughty Spaniard, whose enterprise had gained him the strongest footing in the coveted region.
Daybreak at Tehutlan, the Incas' city, in the year 1533, and the peaks of the mighty mountains that appeared to pierce the bright blue sky, appearing to bear out the fabulous belief of the eastern lands, for their icy summits glowed, and flushed, and sparkled in the rays of the sun, which gilded every pinnacle and turned each glacier into a river of gold, seeming to flow slowly downwards towards the vales and plains of the Andes, as yet flooded with the darkness of the night.
But soon the purple flood of darkness began to give place to golden light, as, still streaming down, as it were, from the mountain tops, the sunshine leaped in bright cataracts from point to point, rushing up this dark gully, that vast fissure, turning gloom into glowing landscape, and at last filling the vast vales with gladness and life, as the glowing picture burst into full beauty.
Here, at the foot of the mountains, flowed the mighty rivers of South America, bordered by the vast, eternal tropic forest, with its dank, steaming moisture—the home of the fierce beast, the loathsome reptile, and insect plagues innumerable. Far up the mountains was the land of ice and snow, fierce biting wind, and sleety tempest, with here and there patches of verdure, the pastoral land of the vicuna and llama flocks; but in the intermediate space, balanced, as it were, between the tropical heat and the wintry frosts, on the table-lands half-way up the mountains, was the stronghold of the Peruvian civilisation. So near to the equator that intolerable heat might have been expected, an expectation, though, not fulfilled, for the elevation gave to the Peruvians a glorious climate, with all the brightness but none of the enervation of equatorial land.
Cottage, house, and palace, of no mean construction, were scattered here and there, the homes of peasant and Peruvian noble. But it was upon the temple crowning a near elevation that the eye would rest, in rapt astonishment at its magnificence and grandeur. The description may sound like a scrap from some eastern fable, but none the less it is a fact culled from the pages of history.
For as that bright morning sun peered at length above the shoulder of an eastern hill, it was to shine full upon the Temple of the Sun and its glorious gardens.
Gold—gold everywhere—gold and precious stones. Fronting the great entrance, and ready to receive its first beams, was a golden representation of the sun itself—a vast golden face surrounded by rays stretching out in every direction—vast, massive, and glowing effulgently, reflecting back the sun's rays, and lighting the interior of the gold-decked temple.
For there was no paltry gilding here, but massive golden cornice, frieze, plate, stud, and boss ornamenting the massive walls—glistening, sparkling, and flashing back the sun's light, while, as if these were not sufficient, emeralds and other precious stones were lavishly spread in further ornamentation, adding their lustrous sheen to the warm glow already diffused through the magnificent building. Flash, sparkle— glistening streams of golden light, dancing like golden water upon the gorgeous walls, gilding even those who entered, so that face and garments were bathed and dyed in the glorious radiance, till the eye of the beholder ached, and the darkened intellects of the simple Peruvians might well believe that they were in the presence of the sun-god himself.
But not only was gold lavished upon the stone building, even to adorning its outer walls with a broad belt of the precious metal—solid, massive, and magnificently wrought; but the implements and vessels of the temple were of the yellow treasure. Huge vases stood upon the floor filled with the produce of their land—offerings to the sun; perfume-censers, water-cruses, cistern-pipes, reservoirs, all were of the rich, ruddy metal.
The Peruvians called the ore in their language of imagery "the tears wept by the sun;" and these tears they toiled to gather, and their artificers worked them up with a cunning skill under the direction of the priests; and, as if to complete the wonders of the temple, and to give it adornments that should never lose their lustre, never fade, it was surrounded by an Aladdin-like garden whose plants were gold—golden of leaf, silver of stem, and with flowers sparkling in combinations of the two metals. Fountains of gold cast up golden water to fall back in golden basins—a mimic spray; and even then fresh objects of the goldsmith's skill were seen in the golden-fleeced llamas grouped around.
But the glory of the Incas was passing. After a long period of prosperity the evil days were at hand, the wondrous barbaric civilisation was about to be swept away; for the adventurous Spaniard, moved by his thirst for the gold, of whose existence rumour had from time to time told him, was now in the land. The simple people, coasting along in their light balsas or rafts, had seen the coming of what to them were then wondrous ships, cock-boats, though, as compared even to our collier brigs. War and rapine were in the land; the arms of the Spaniards—the thunder and lightning they bore with them in their guns— were everywhere victorious, and the riches of the temples were seized; gloriously wrought vessels were hastily molten down into ingots, along with plate, shield, and wonderfully-worked flowers; rapacity was triumphant, and upon one occasion the value of the treasure collected and melted down into bars was computed at three millions and a half pounds sterling of our money.
The temples and their adornments were many and held sacred by the people, a sanctity they had ventured to hope would be observed by the conquerors; but the delusion was of short duration. The coming of a body of Spaniards was the signal for the stripping of each gorgeous building. Sacred vessel and ornament were seized upon and borne off; but the news was spread from temple to temple, from priest to priest, through the length and breadth of the land by means of swift-footed couriers, not by written letter, neither by word of mouth, but by means of a fringe of cords tied in knots, each knot and its place having its particular signification.
The alarm spread, and the day of evil being upon them—their sun-gods giving no sign of crushing the profane intruders—the priests looked upon it as a sign of wrath and punishment; and sooner than their treasure should fall into the hands of the fierce, remorseless conquerors, eagerly stripped their temples themselves, and in remote hiding-places, with many a mysterious rite, re-committed the gold to its parent earth, binding all who beheld by the most fearful bonds never to reveal the treasure-places to the conquerors, but to wait for the great day when the ancient glory of Peru should be revived, when the Incas should reign once more, and their religion flourish, ere the sacred treasures were disinterred.
But that day came not. European civilisation began to take the place of that of the Incas, a new form of religion flourished, and from being monarchs in the country the Peruvians became the slaves, the hewers of wood and drawers of water of a new race. Generations came and generations died out, and the years still rolled on till ages passed away; but though poor and degraded, the priestly caste existed still amongst the Indians, and from father to son was the great secret handed down in village after village, the idea of appropriating to their own use the buried treasures never once being dreamed of; but, with the wealth of princes scattered here and there throughout the country, the Indians watched over the treasures still, and handed down the secret to their children.
Some were discovered by stratagem, others by treachery, others, again, by accident; and while the exact bearings of the places were mostly well remembered, others died out of the memory of those to whose trust they had been committed, or in some cases died with them. But to this day it is believed that vast stores of the precious metal still lie waiting the hand of the discoverer, the barbaric relics of a fierce and bloody religion, the creed of an idolatrous people; and many an explorer unrewarded has wasted his days amidst the traces of the ruined temples and tokens of a grand civilisation, scattered here and there amidst the forests and mountain fastnesses of the mighty Andes.
AFTER THREE AGES.
Perhaps it was with reading Robinson Crusoe and Sindbad the Sailor— I don't know, but I always did have a hankering after going abroad.
Twopence was generally the extent of my supply of hard cash, so I used to get dreaming about gold, and to think that I had only to be wrecked upon some rocky shore to find the remains of a Spanish galleon freighted with gold in doubloons, and bars, and ingots, a prize to which I could lay claim, and be rich for ever after.
Now, with such ideas as these in my head, I ask anybody, was it likely that I could take to soap-boiling?
That was my father's business, and he was very proud of his best and second quality yellow, and his prime hard mottled. He had made a comfortable living out of it, as his father and grandfather had before him, helping to cleanse no end of people in their time; but I thought then, as I think now, that it was a nasty unpleasant business, whose odour is in my nostrils to the present day.
"You're no good, Harry," said my father, "not a bit, and unless you sink that tin-pot pride of yours, and leave off wandering about and wearing out your boots, and take off your coat and go to work, you'll never get a living. You've always got your nose stuck in a book—such trash! Do you ever see me over a book unless it's a daybook or ledger, eh?"
My father had no sooner done speaking than my mother shook her head at me, and I went and stood out in the yard, leaning my back up against one of the great tallow hogsheads, and thought.
It only took me five minutes to make up my mind, for the simple reason that it was already seven-eighths on the way, this not being the first time by many a score that my father had given me his opinion respecting my future prospects in life; and as I neared twenty such opinions used to seem to grit in amongst my mental works, while the longer I lived the more I thought that I should never get my livelihood by soap-boiling.
Well, my mind was made up most stubbornly that I would go out to Uncle Reuben.
Just then, as I stood moodily there, I heard the sound of a scuffle and a sharp smack, and directly after, one of our lads, a young fellow of my own age Tom Bulk by name, came hurriedly out of the kitchen door, rubbing the side of his red face, but only to drop his hand the moment he caught sight of me leaning against the tallow-tub.
"What's the matter, Tom?" I said, though I knew well enough that Tom was in hot water.
"Got a flea in my ear, Mas'r Harry," he said, with a grin of vexation. "I caught it in the kitchen."
"So have I, Tom," I said bitterly; "but I caught mine in the parlour."
"Mas'r been rowing you agen, sir?"
"Yes, Tom," I said drearily, "and it's for the last time. If I'm no good I may as well be off. I can't take to our business."
"Well, tain't so sweet as it used to be, sir; and it don't seem right that, to make other folks clean, we should allers be in a greasy mess. But what are you going to do, Mas'r Harry?" he said anxiously.
"Going abroad, Tom."
"So am I, Mas'r Harry."
"Sure I am, Mas'r Harry, if you are," said Tom; and then and there he pulled off his great, greasy leather apron and soapy white slop, and fetched his shiny jacket out of the boiling-house. "I'm ready, Mas'r Harry," he exclaimed, as he fought hard to get one arm properly into his sleeve, but had to try again and again, because the button was off the wristband of his shirt, and the sleeve kept slipping up to his shoulder, necessitating a fresh attempt.
I burst out laughing at him, as I saw the earnest way in which he took my announcement; but the more I laughed the more solid Tom became, as he worked his body into his old coat, and then proceeded to button it right up to the chin, slapping himself several times upon the chest to settle a wrinkle here and there, and ending by spitting in his hands, and looking at me as much as to say, "Where's boxes, Mas'r Harry? Let's be off."
"Watcher larfin' at, Mas'r Harry?" he said at last.
"At you, Tom," I replied.
"All right, Mas'r Harry," he replied in the most philosophical way, "larfin' don't cost nothing, and it's very pleasant, and it don't matter when it's them as you know; but when it comes to somebody you don't know, why then it riles."
I turned serious on the instant.
"Do you know what you are talking about, Tom?" I said.
"Sure I do, Mas'r Harry. Talkin' 'bout going abroad."
"I d'know, Mas'r Harry; only it's along o' you."
"But, my good fellow," I said, "perhaps I'm about to do very wrong in going."
"Then, p'r'aps I am, Mas'r Harry," he replied, "and that don't matter."
"But it might be the ruin of your prospects, Tom."
"Ruin o' my prospecks!" cried Tom. "Hark at him!" and he seemed to be addressing a pile of chests. "Don't see as there's much prospeck in looking down into a taller tub. I could do that anywheres."
"But you don't understand me, Tom," I cried.
"Don't want to, Mas'r Harry," he said. "I know as I'm allers gettin' my face slapped when I go into the kitchen; that I always get the smell o' the tallow in my nose and can't get it out; and that I hate soap to such an extent that I wouldn't care if I never touched a bit again."
"Oh, but you'll get on here, Tom, in time, and perhaps rise to be foreman."
"No, I sha'n't, Mas'r Harry, 'cause I'm coming along with you."
"But don't you see that I am going to a place where it would not be suitable for you."
"What's sootable for you, Mas'r Harry, would be just as sootable for me, and I'd work like one of the niggers out there, only harder."
"Niggers out where, Tom?"
"Where we're going, Mas'r Harry."
"How do you know there are any niggers where we are going, sir?"
"Oh, there's sure to be, Mas'r Harry. There's niggers everywheres, I've heerd tell."
"Oh, but really, Tom," I said, "it is all nonsense. Look here, I'm going out to join my uncle in South America."
"South America, Mas'r Harry!" said Tom eagerly. "Why, that's just the very place I want to go to."
"I don't believe it, Tom," I said sharply. "If I had told you I was going to South Australia, you would have said just the same."
"Dessay I should, Mas'r Harry," he replied grinning.
"Well now, look here, Tom," I continued very seriously, "I am going out to join my uncle, and if I get on, and can see that there is a good chance for you out there, why, I'll send you word, and you can join me."
"No, you won't, Mas'r Harry," he said quietly.
"But I promise you that I will."
"No, you won't, Mas'r Harry."
"Don't you believe my word, Tom?"
"I believe that you believe you mean me to believe, Mas'r Harry," he said; "but I don't mean you to go without me, and so I tell you. There wouldn't be no getting on without me alongside o' you, that there wouldn't, and I'm going along with you."
"What are you two quarrelling about?" said my father, coming up just then.
"We were not quarrelling, father," I replied, snatching at the opportunity to lay bare my plans now that I was a little excited, for I had been rather nervous about how my proposals would be taken.
"Mas'r Harry's going out foreign abroad," said Tom sturdily; "and he said I warn't to go with him, and I said I would, sir—that's all."
"Oh, he's going abroad, is he?" said my father.
"Yes, sir," I replied, "I have made up mind to go and see if Uncle Reuben can find me anything to do."
"I hope you don't think that you are going to lead a life of idleness out there, sir?"
"Oh no, sir," I replied, "I mean to work."
"Then why don't you work here?" said my father.
"Because I hate the trade so, sir."
"Nice clean business too," said my father; "makes clean money, and keeps people clean. I suppose you know it's horribly hot out there?"
"Not so hot as in our boiling-house, sir," I replied.
"Humph!" said my father; and then, without another word, he walked back into the house.
"I am glad," cried Tom, rubbing his hands together softly. "What a time of it we shall have, Mas'r Harry!"
It was my turn now to be silent, and I stood watching Tom, and thinking as I struggled with myself that it would, after all, be very pleasant to have a sturdy trustworthy fellow like Tom always at my back when I was in a strange land. For I had read that the descendants of the old Spaniards in South America were courtly noble-looking gentlemen enough, but were bitter and revengeful, and not always disposed to look with favour upon Englishmen. How did I know but in my fortune-seeking adventures—for truly enough I meant to go out to seek my fortune—I might make enemies, and be sometime or another in danger. Then how good it would be to have such a henchman as Tom at my side.
My thoughts were very visionary, of course, for I could not foresee the strange adventures through which I should have to go; and for the moment I was about to turn sharp round on Tom, and shake hands and say, "That's right, Tom, we will go out and carve our fortunes together." But I checked myself directly, as I thought of my position.
For how was I to take out with me what to all intents and purposes would be a servant, when the probabilities were that I should hardly have the money to pay my own passage to the far-off land?
I was interrupted in my thoughts by Tom, who turned to me and said, "Give me your knife, Mas'r Harry, and I'll give it a good sharp up along o' mine. There's nothing like having a good keen knife in your pocket when you're going travelling, so they say."
"Very true, Tom," I cried laughing; "are you really in earnest over this?"
"Really in earnest, Mas'r Harry? Why, I never felt so earnest before in my life. To be sure I am, I want to see a bit o' the world."
"Very well then, Tom," I replied; "you will have a hard lot to share with me, but share it you shall if you like."
"I don't want to share or anything of the kind," said Tom gruffly. "You're young master, and I'm only lad. I know what I am and what I'm fit for well enough, Mas'r Harry, so don't you get talking no more about sharing danger, because it won't do."
"Oh, very well, Tom, we won't quarrel about that."
"That's right then, Mas'r Harry; so now give us hold of your knife."
I gave him my knife, in a thoughtful way, and he took it, opened it, and examined its edge.
"Blunt as a butter knife, Mas'r Harry," he cried. "And now, when do we start?"
"Start, Tom?" I cried laughing. "Oh, it is not like going to London, we must make a great many preparations first, for it's a long journey."
"Is it?" he said. "Two or three hundred miles, Mas'r Harry?"
"A good deal more than two or three thousand, Tom," I replied.
"Oh, all right, Mas'r Harry. I don't mind how far it is, as long as we keep together. My word an' honour, won't it be different to making best yaller and mottled and cutting it into bars?"
"Different, Tom?" I said dreamily. "Yes, my lad, it will indeed."
I COME TO AN UNDERSTANDING WITH MY FATHER.
I believe I lay in bed that night with my eyes wide open, seeing, as if in a waking dream, the whole of the eventful life I had pictured out for myself—a glorious career of adventure in a land of imaginary beauties— a land built up out of recollections of Robinson Crusoe's island, Sir Edward Seaward's narrative, The Conquest of Peru, and The Lives of the Buccaneers, with a little Arabian Nights' Entertainments dashed in by way of pickles or spice. All these formed themselves into a glowing series of scenes—a sort of panorama of the future, and I lay and watched in imagination the glorious prospect of river and forest, mountain and plain, where I was going to win fame and fortune, in a series of wonderful adventures, such as had never before fallen to the lot of man.
You will not be surprised to hear that I got up the next morning feverish and unrefreshed, and I felt quite envious of Tom when I saw him holding his shortly-cropped bullet head under the spout of the pump in the back yard, waggling the handle awkwardly as he had what he called "a sloosh."
For he looked so hale and hearty and fresh, as he looked up on hearing my step, and cried out to me—
"Lay hold o' the pump-handle, Mas'r Harry, and work it up and down a bit, it's awkward to do all by yourself."
I felt quite spiteful as I took hold of the polished old handle and worked at it, meaning to give Tom a regular ducking; and I sent the pure cold well-water gushing out as he held his head under, letting the stream come first upon his poll, then upon one ear, then upon the other, and backing away at last to where he had hung his rough towel upon a hook in the wall, to seize it and begin to scrub.
"Oh, I say, Mas'r Harry, it's 'evinly," he panted, as he rubbed away. "Just you try it. Seems to make the strength go rattling through you like. Have a go: I'll pump."
I hesitated for a moment, and then, feeling that the cold shock would perhaps clear my heated brain, I threw off my cap and necktie, stripped my jacket from my shoulders, and, rolling up my sleeves, thrust my head under the spout, and the next moment was panting and gasping, and feeling half drowned and confused, as Tom sent the water streaming out with liberal hand.
"Now then, what Tom-fool's game's this?" said a voice, as I withdrew my head and held out my hand for the towel; "washing the folly out of your head, Harry?"
"No, father," I said quietly, as I rubbed away, feeling a refreshing glow thrill through me as the reaction set in. "I was trying to freshen myself up after lying awake all night thinking of my future."
"Then you are still harping on that project?" he said quickly.
"Yes, sir; I have quite made up my mind to go."
"What, and leave a quiet sensible business in search of a mare's nest?"
"Don't be angry with me, father," I said. "I know all about the business, and what a struggle you have had for years just to get a bare living."
"Well, boy, that's true," he said with a sigh.
"I know, too, how things are getting worse and worse, and that the large London works and competition make the business poorer every year."
"They do, my lad, they do," he said more quietly. "But I had hoped that you would grow into a clever industrious man, and set the poor old business on its legs again."
"I'd try and be clever, father," I replied, "and I know I could be industrious, but my two arms would be of no use to contend against machinery and steam."
He shook his head.
"I've thought about it for long enough now, father," I said; "and I can see well enough that there's no chance of improving our little business without capital, and that if that is not to be had it must get smaller and smaller every day."
"Why, Harry, my boy," he said, as we strolled down now into our bit of garden, "I didn't think you could see so far into a millstone as that."
"Oh, father!" I cried warmly, "do you think I have never felt miserable and discouraged to see what a fight it has been with you to make up your payments month after month?"
"I never thought you gave a bit of heed to it, my lad," he said warmly, as he held out his hand, and took mine in a hearty grip. "I've misjudged you, my boy; I've misjudged you. I didn't think you had so much thought."
"Oh, father!" I cried, "why, all my wandering thoughts have had the aim of getting on in life, and for a long time past it has seemed to me that England's growing too full of people fighting against one another for a living; and I felt that some of us must go out and try afresh in another place."
"Like the bees do, when they swarm, my lad," said my father, looking down at one of the old straw hives, with its pan turned over the top to keep off the rain. "Well, perhaps you're right, Harry—perhaps you are right. I won't fight against it, my boy. I only wish you luck."
"Father!" I cried, and I was about to say something else, but it would not come, try how I would; and I stood there holding by his hand in the garden, while he looked me in the face with a calmer, more gentle look than I had seen in his eyes for some time past.
He was the first to break the silence, and then he clapped me on the shoulder in a hearty, friendly way.
"There's mother making signs that breakfast's ready, my boy. Come along in."
We went in and took our places at the table so quietly that my mother's hands began to tremble so much that she could hardly pour out the tea.
"What have you been doing, Harry, to make father so cross?" she said at last.
"Nay, nay, mother, nothing at all," said my father quickly. "It's all right. Harry and I have been coming to a bit of an understanding— that's all. We haven't been quarrelling a bit."
"Are you sure, dear?" said my mother dubiously.
"Sure? ay!" cried my father. "Why, Harry and I were never better friends."
"Indeed, no," I cried excitedly.
"You are both keeping something back from me," she cried, with her hands trembling and the tears coming into her eyes.
"Oh, no, we won't keep anything back from you, mother," said my father kindly. "Harry and I have been talking about his plans."
"Not for going away?" said my mother; "don't say that."
"But I must say it," said my father. "Harry is quite right. I didn't like it at first; but, as he says, there are too many of us here, and he is going to seek his fortune in a foreign land."
"Oh, my boy, my boy!" she cried.
"Same as your brother Reuben did," said my father. "Come, come, old lady, courage! We must look this sort of thing in the face."
"And I'll go out there, mother and see if Uncle Reuben will help me. If he can't, I'll try for myself, for I will get on; and some day, if I don't come back a rich man, I'll come back with a sufficiency to make the old age of both you and my father comfortable. Trust me, I will."
For some few minutes there was very little breakfast eaten; but at last my father roused us up, talking quite cheerfully, and evidently trying to reconcile my mother to my going, and then we went on with the meal.
"So Tom wants to go with you, does he?" said my father. "Well, he's a good, hard-headed sort of fellow, and likes you, Harry. He'd better go."
"But isn't he likely to lead poor Harry into mischief?" said my mother.
"No; he's more likely to act as ballast and keep him from capsizing if he carries too much sail. Tom's all right."
My mother accepted the inevitable in a very short time, and soon began to talk as mothers do—that is to say, homely mothers—for almost as soon as she had wiped her eyes she exclaimed—
"Why, Harry, my dear, you must have at least six new shirts."
"Must I, mother?" I said smiling.
"Yes, my son, and of the best and strongest stuff. I'm glad to say that I've just finished a couple of pairs of strongly-knitted stockings."
And from that hour, I believe, my mother was happy in her task of getting ready my sea-chest, putting in no end of pleasant little surprises for me, to be ready when I was in the far-off land.
Tom, too, was not forgotten, poor fellow, for he had no one to take tender notice of him.
"And it don't matter a bit, Mas'r Harry," he cried cheerily, "I don't want a lot o' things. One clean shirt and a pocket-comb—that's about all a chap like me wants."
But he was better provided than that, and at last, before a couple of months had passed away, our farewells were said and we started for Liverpool, in low spirits with our partings, but full of hope and eager ambition, since at the great western port we were to take our passage in one of the great steamers for the West Indies, where we would have to change into a smaller trading vessel which would take us on to Caracas.
"No soap-boiling out there, Mas'r Harry," cried Tom cheerily; and he gave a long sniff as if to get some of the familiar old smell into his nose.
"No, Tom," I replied quietly. "We are going to begin a new life now;" for the future looked to me a far more serious affair than I had imagined before in the midst of my sanguine aspirations and rather wild and dreamy ideas.
TOM CATCHES THE COMPLAINT.
"Oh, my eye, Mas'r Harry! Dear heart, dear heart, how bad I do feel!"
"Why, you kept laughing at me, you wretch," I said, as I rejoiced at Tom's downfall.
"Surely, so I did, Mas'r Harry—I did, I did—but I didn't think it was half so—so bad as this here. Oh, my eye! how badly I do feel!"
"You old humbug, you!" I cried in my triumph, for I was getting over my troubles, "sneered and jeered and pooh-poohed it all, you did, Tom, and now it has you by the hip at last."
"No, it hasn't, Mas'r Harry," he groaned. "It aren't the hip, it's more in the middle. Oh, my eye! how ill I am!"
"I'm precious glad of it, Tom," I said.
"Well, I do call that cowardly, Mas'r Harry—I do really," groaned Tom—"'specially as you wasn't half so bad as I am."
"Why, I was ten times worse, Tom," I cried.
"Oh, Mas'r Harry! don't say that," groaned the poor fellow, "because it's unpossible. If—Oh, my eye! how ill I do feel!—if you'd been ten times as bad as I am, you'd have died ten times over. Oh, dear! oh, dear! How is it the doctors can't cure this horrid—? Oh, dear me! how ill I do feel!"
It was very unfeeling, of course, but all the same I sat down close to poor Tom as he lay upon the deck, and roared with laughter to see his miserable yellow face, and the way in which he screwed up his eyes. But it was only three days before when I was really ill that Tom was strutting about the deck ridiculing sea-sickness, and telling me what a poor sort of a fellow I was to knuckle under to a few qualms like that.
For I must confess to having been one of the first attacked when we were well out at sea. It was the first time I had ever seen the blue water; and no sooner did a bit of a gale spring up, and the great steamer begin to climb up the waves and then seem to be falling down, down, down in the most horrible way possible, than I began to prove what a thorough landsman I was, and, like a great many more passengers, was exceedingly ill.
I remember thinking that it would have been much better if I had stayed at home instead of tempting the seas.
Then as I grew worse I called myself by all sorts of names for coming upon such a mad expedition.
Then I vowed that if I could get on shore again, I'd never come to sea any more.
Lastly I grew so bad that I didn't care what became of me, and I felt that if the steamer sank I should be relieved from all my terrible pains.
And all this time Tom was skipping about the deck as merry as a lark, chaffing with the sailors or making friends with the firemen, and every now and then coming to me and making me so cross that I felt as if I could hit him.
"Now do let me fetch the doctor to you, Mas'r Harry," he kept on saying, pulling a solemn face, but with his eyes looking full of fun.
"I tell you I don't want the doctor. Don't be such an ass, Tom," I cried.
"But you do seem so ill, Mas'r Harry," he said with mock sympathy. "Let me see if I can get you some brimstone and treacle."
"Just you wait till I get better, Tom," I said feebly. "You nasty wretch, you. Brimstone and treacle! Ugh!"
My sufferings ought to have awakened his sympathy, but it did not in the least, and I found that nobody thought anything of a sea-sick passenger.
But at last I got over it, and, to my intense delight, all of a sudden Tom was smitten with the complaint, and became more prostrate than even I.
I did not forget the way he had tortured me, and you may be sure that I did not omit to ask him if he would try the brimstone and treacle. I behaved worse to him, I believe, for I tortured him by taking him cold fat pork and hard biscuits, and paid him various other little attentions of a kindred sort, making him groan with pain, till one day—it was while the sea was very rough, and I thought him too ill to move—he suddenly got up.
"Tell you what, Mas'r Harry," he said, "I'm not going to stand your games no longer. I shall get up and be better;" and better he seemed to grow at once, so that by the next day he was almost himself again, and we stood by the high bulwarks watching the great Atlantic rollers as they came slowly on, as if to swallow up our ship.
A SAILOR ON SEA-SERPENTS.
"It do puzzle me, Mas'r Harry," said Tom, as we sat in the chains one bright, sunny day, when the storm was over, but a fine stiff breeze was helping the toiling engines to send the steamer along at a splendid rate.
"What puzzles you, Tom?" I asked.
"Why, where all the water comes from. Just look at it now. Here have we been coming along for more'n a week, and it's been nothing but water, water, water."
"And we could go on for months, Tom, sailing, sailing away into the distant ocean, and still it would be nothing but water, water, water."
"Well, but what's the good of it all, Mas'r Harry? Why, if I was to get up a company to do it, and drain it all off, the bottom of the sea here would be all land, and people could walk or have railways instead of being cooped up in a great long tossing box like this, and made so—Oh, dear me, it nearly makes me ill again to think of it."
"Ah! that would be a capital arrangement, Tom," I said smiling. "What a lot more room there would be on the earth then!"
"Wouldn't there, Mas'r Harry?" he cried eagerly.
"A tremendous deal more, Tom. Every poor fellow might have an estate of his own; but where would you drain the water to?"
"Where would I drain the water to, Mas'r Harry?"
"To be sure," I said, enjoying his puzzled look. "If you take it away from here you must send it somewhere else."
"Of course, Mas'r Harry, of course," he replied eagerly. "Oh, I'd employ thousands of navvies to dig a big drain and let the water right off."
"Yes, I understand that," I replied; "but where is the drain to lead?"
"Where's the drain to lead?"
"Yes; where is the water to run?"
"Where's the water to run?" said Tom, scratching his head. "Where's the water to run, Mas'r Harry? Why, I never thought of that."
"No, Tom, you never thought of that; and you can't alter it, so it is of no use to grumble."
"Don't you two young fellows slacken your hold there," said a sailor, looking over at us.
"'Taint likely, is it?" said Tom grinning; "why, where should we be if we did?"
"Down at the bottom some day," growled the sailor as he walked away, and Tom looked at me.
"Just as if it was likely that a fellow would let go and try and drown hisself, Mas'r Harry. Think it's deep here?" he added as he gazed down into the dense blue water.
"Yes, Tom, very," I replied, gazing down as well, for the water was beautifully transparent, and the foam left by the bows of the steamer sparkled in the brilliant sunshine as we rushed along.
"Deep, Tom?" I said, "yes, very."
"How deep, Mas'r Harry; forty or fifty foot?"
"Two or three miles, p'r'aps, Tom," I replied.
"Go along! Two or three miles indeed!" he said, laughing.
"I don't know that it is here, Tom," I continued, "but I believe they have found the depth nearly double that in some places."
"What! have they measured it, Mas'r Harry?"
"With a bit of string?"
"With a sounding-line, Tom."
"And a bit of lead at the end?"
"Yes, Tom, a sounding-lead with a great bullet, which they left at the bottom when they pulled the line in again."
"Think o' that, now!" cried Tom. "Why, I was wondering whether a fellow couldn't go down in a diving-bell and see what the bottom was like, and look at the fishes—say, Mas'r Harry, some of 'em must be whoppers."
"Ay, my lad," said the same sailor who had before spoken, and he rested his arms on the bulwark and stared down at us; "there's some big chaps out at sea here."
"Could we catch some of 'em?" asked Tom.
"Oh, yes," said the sailor. "Dessay you could, my lad, but I wouldn't advise you to try a sixpenny fishing-line with a cork float and a three-joint hazel rod with a whalebone top—you know that sort, eh?"
"Know it? I should think I do," cried Tom. "So does Mas'r Harry here. We used to ketch the gudgeons like hooroar down in the sharp water below the mill up at home."
"Ah!" said the sailor, "so used I when I was a boy; but there ain't no gudgeons here."
"What sort o' fish are there, then?" said Tom.
"Oh, all sorts: bonito, and albicore, and flying-fish, sometimes dolphins and sharks."
"Any whales?" cried Tom, winking at me.
"Sometimes; not very often, my lad," said the sailor quietly. "They lies up in the cold water, more among the ice. We're getting every day more into the warm."
"I'm sorry there ar'n't any whales," said Tom. "How long might they be, say the biggest you ever see?"
"Oh!" said the sailor, "they mostly runs thirty or forty foot long, but I saw one once nearly eighty-foot."
"What a whopper!" said Tom, giving me a droll look.
"Sounds big," said the sailor, "but out here in the ocean, my lad, seventy or eighty-foot only seems to be a span long, and no size at all, while the biggest shark I ever see—"
"How long was that?" said Tom; "a hundred foot?"
"No," said the sailor drily; "he was eighteen-foot long—a long, thin, hungry-looking fellow, with a mouth and jaws that would have taken off one of your legs like a shot."
"Well, but if an eighty-foot whale don't look big," said Tom, "an eighteen-foot shark must be quite a shrimp."
"Ah! you wouldn't think so," said the sailor quietly, "if you were overboard and one of 'em after you."
"But I thought you'd got monsters out here at sea," said Tom, giving me another of his cunning looks, as much as to say, "You see how I'll lead him on directly."
"So we have," said the sailor, staring straight out before him, "only it don't do to talk about 'em."
"Why?" I said quickly, for the man's quiet, serious way impressed me.
"Well, you see, sir," he replied, "if a man says he's seen a monster out at sea, and it isn't a whale which people knows of, having been seen, they say directly he's a liar, and laugh at him, and that isn't pleasant."
"Of course not," I replied, "if he is telling the truth."
"Of course, sir, if he's telling the truth; and, take it altogether, what I know of sailors after being at sea thirty-two year, beginning as a boy of twelve, sailors ain't liars."
"Well, let's hope not," I said.
"They ain't indeed, sir," said the man earnestly. "They do foolish things, drinking too much when they get ashore after a voyage, and spending their money like asses, as the saying goes; but a chap as is at sea in the deep waters, and amongst storms and the lonesomeness of the great ocean, gets to be a serious sort of fellow—he isn't the liar and romancer some people seem to think."
"No, but you do spin yarns, some of you?" said Tom.
"Well, yes, of course," said the sailor. "Why not sometimes for a bit of fun? but when a man's in 'arnest he ought to be believed."
"Of course," said Tom; "but I say, mate, you never see the sea-serpent, did you?"
The man did not answer for a few moments, but stood gazing straight out to sea before saying quietly:
"I don't know. A man sees some curious things out at sea in the course of thirty years; but he gets precious cautious about telling what he's seen after being laughed at, and chaffed when he's been only telling the simple truth. Why, I remember, once when I was out with one captain, we saw what we thought was the sea-serpent or something of the kind, and observations were taken, it was all entered in the log, and sent to the papers afterwards; and the skipper got laughed nearly out of his skin for a romancer. He was a queen's captain—man-o'-war it was, and all was as regular as could be; officers and men saw it all, but they were so roasted afterwards that, when anything of the kind's seen now, they say nothing about it."
"But do you really mean to say you believe that there are monsters in the ocean that we have no regular account of in books?"
He turned to me, and pointed out to sea.
"Isn't there room there for thousands of great things, my lad; such as we've never seen or heard of?" he said.
"Why, do you know that in some parts out here the water's over four miles deep? They've measured it, my lad, and they know."
"Say, Mas'r Harry, that's more than your two mile," cried Tom.
"Ay, and I dessay there's parts where it's more than twice as deep, and when you come to think of the thousands of miles you can sail without nearing land, I say there's room for thousands of things such as nobody has ever seen."
"That's very true," I said.
"Why, I remember, down at home in Norfolk, when I was a boy, there was a big pool that people never fished, because they said there was no fish in it, and so it had been longer than anybody could recollect; and at last there was a plan made to drain a bit of bog close by, and a great dyke was cut. This set the farmer the pool belonged to thinking that if he cut a ditch to the big dyke, he could empty the old pool, and if he did he would get 'bout three acres of good dry ground instead of a black peaty pool; so he set a lot o' chaps at work one dry summer when they weren't busy, and we boys went to see it done. Now, you may believe me or you mayn't, my lads."
"Oh, we'll believe you; won't we, Mas'r Harry?" said Tom grinning.
"Well, I shall," I replied, and the sailor went on.
"When the water began to get low in that pool we used to see that there were fish in it, and at last there was a regular set out catching of them in the bits of holes where the water had left them."
"Oh, I say, Mas'r Harry, don't I wish we had been there!" cried Tom.
"Ay, it was fun, my lad, for we got scores of tench, some of 'em three and four pound weight, and there was six or seven carp ever so much bigger. One of 'em weighed nine pounds."
"That was a fine un," said Tom.
"But the biggest fish we got was a pike, and he was the only one there. That chap must have eat up all that had been before him, and he weighed three-and-thirty pound. He was close upon four foot long, and a gentleman there said if he had been in good condition he would have weighed five-and-forty, for he was as thin as a lath."
"I should have liked to see that fish," said Tom.
"Ay, it was a fine one. We boys daren't tackle him, he was so big," continued the sailor; "and then out of the mud they got bushels of great eels, some of the biggest I ever saw."
"Did you though?" said Tom.
"Ay, we did. When the water had got right down low, you could see 'em squirming about like snakes, and when they'd got all we could see they laid down boards over the mud, and punched about in the soft places when great fellows kept coming up to the top, and they got no end more. They were the biggest eels ever I see, and as fat as butter."
"Were they though?" said Tom.
"Ay, they were, my lads; and what I wanted to say was this—If so be as those fish could live in that bit of a three-acre pool without people knowing of their being there, don't you think there can be no end of big fishes and things in the great waters, thousands of miles from shore, such as menfolks has never seen?"
"Well, it do seem likely," said Tom; "but I never could swallow the sea-serpent."
"No, my lad, more likely to swallow you," said the sailor drily.
"But come now," said Tom drily. "Did you ever come across the great sea-serpent?"
"A mate o' mine," said the sailor, "told me he once saw out Newfoundland way part of a great cuttle-fish that had been washed ashore after a storm. It was a great jellyfish sort of thing, and it was thirty foot long; and he said he was sure it couldn't have been more than half of it, and the next day he saw one of its arms all full of suckers, and it was twenty foot long."
"Well, that must have been a pleasant sort of thing," said Tom, as I sat there listening thoughtfully, for the sailor seemed disposed to go on talking.
"I remember one year, fifteen years ago I daresay it is, we were going from Singapore to Hong Kong, and it was a strangely hot calm time, when all at once away about a mile on our lee bow I saw something rise up out of the sea five-and-twenty or thirty feet, as it seemed to be, but it went down again directly; and I rubbed my eyes, thinking it was fancy, but directly after out it came again, making a curious kind of thrust like as if it was a long neck of something under the water. Then down it went again, and I called the officer of the watch to look at it; and he came with his glass, laughing-like, but just then out it came again and he tried to get a glimpse of it through his glass, but he never could be quick enough, for there was no telling where the thing would dart out its head, and when it did come up it went down again directly.
"I was in hopes it would come nigher, but it went the other way, shooting out its head once when it was a good way off, and then we did not see it any more."
"And what do you think it was?" I said eagerly.
"Not knowing, can't say," he replied quietly. "Our officer said, half-laughing, half-puzzled like, that he should have said it was the sea-serpent, only no one would believe him if he did."
"Did you ever see anything else?" I asked.
"Oh, yes, my lad, I've seen a good many things that people wouldn't believe. I remember once seeing a curious thing off the muddy Malay coast, a long way north of Malacca, where you have mangrove swamps right down about the mouths of the rivers, places where the crocodiles go in and out."
"I say, how big's a crocodile?" said Tom sharply.
"All sizes, mate," said the sailor. "I've seen 'em two foot long and I've seen 'em twenty."
"Oh, not bigger than that?" said Tom contemptuously.
"No, my lad, that's the biggest I ever see, but I've heerd of 'em being seen five or six and twenty."
"But tell us about the strange thing you saw off the Malay coast," I said impatiently.
"Oh, ah! yes," he said, "that was just as the mist was lifting that lay between us and the coast. It was in a shallow muddy sea, and three or four of us was trying to make out the trees ashore, and wondering whether there would be any chance of our getting some fresh fruit and vegetables before long; when, all at once, one of my mates claps his hand on my shoulder, and he says—'Lookye yonder, mate.' 'Why, it's the sea-sarpent!' says another. 'Well, that is a rum un,' says another. And then we stood looking at what seemed to be a great snake swimming, with twenty or thirty feet of its neck outer water; and it was holding it up in a curve just like a swan, and sometimes its head was right up high and sometimes curved down close to the water with its neck in a loop, and all the time it was going along five or six knots an hour. 'Why, it is the sea-sarpent!' says another of our mates, 'look all behind there; you can see its back as it swims, 'tis a hundred foot long, see if it isn't!' I looked, and sure enough it did seem to be a great length behind, nearly covered by the water; but, as I stood, it didn't seem to me like a snake swimming, for it seemed more than ever as if what we saw was a great slimy slaty-coloured thing, the make of a swan, swimming with its body nearly all under water and its head out; or, as I afterwards thought, just like one of the big West Indy turtles, such as you'll see by and by if you're lucky."
"Like a turtle?" I said.
"Yes, my lad," he continued, "a great flat-bodied turtle, that might have been thirty or forty foot long and half as much across, while it had a great neck like a swan."
"But what made you think it was like that?" I asked.
"Because you could see its back out of the water now and then, and it wasn't like a serpent, for it rose over like a turtle's, and sometimes it was higher out of the water sometimes lower; and what I saw as plain as could be was the water rippling up fore and aft, just as if the thing had nippers which it was working to send it along."
"Did your captain see it?" I asked at last.
"No, my lad, for we was too full of wonderment just then to do more than stare at the thing, till all at once it seemed to stretch its neck out straight with quite a dart, as if it had caught something to eat, and then it wasn't there."
"Didn't it come up again?" said Tom.
"No, my lad, we never see it no more."
"How far was it from the shore?" I asked.
"Five or six miles, my lad, more or less," he replied; and just then there was a call for all hands to take in sail, and our yarn-spinner went away.
"That was a rum sort of tale, Mas'r Harry," said Tom as soon as we were alone. "Do you believe him?"
"Yes," I replied, "I believe he is sincere."
"What! and see those great things, Mas'r Harry, out at sea?"
"I believe he saw something," I replied, "but whether it was just as he described is another thing. There's plenty of room, though, in the sea for more than that, and perhaps people will find out some day that we have not seen everything that there is in the world."
"Talk about snakes, though, Mas'r Harry," said Tom suddenly; "where did you say we was going?"
"To Caracas first."
"Ah! Crackers—that's it. Do you think there'll be any snakes there?"
"Not sea-serpents, Tom," I said laughing; "but up the country where we are going there are sure to be plenty of land-serpents."
"Not big ones, though, Mas'r Harry?"
"I should say there will be some very big ones in the swamps by the great rivers."
"Think o' that now!" said Tom. "Big serpents! ugh! I can't abide eels even. I don't know how I should get on with serpents. But I say, Mas'r Harry, it's all nonsense about sea-serpents, ar'n't it?"
"I don't know, Tom," I replied. "Perhaps they never grow to a very large size; but there are thousands of small ones."
"What! sea-serpents, Mas'r Harry?"
"To be sure there are."
"But not in the sea—snakes couldn't swim?"
"Indeed but they can, Tom. Why, I've seen our common English snake go into a stream and swim beautifully with its head reared above the water, and after swimming about for some time, come out."
"Think of that now!" said Tom. "Where's the sea-serpents, then?"
"Oh, all about the Indian and Chinese Seas."
"I never heard of their being more than five or six feet long, but some of them are very poisonous. People have died from their bite."
"Have they, though?" said Tom. "And where else are there any, Mas'r Harry?"
"Oh, they swarm in the Caspian Sea. I've heard that they float about in knots of several together on calm, sunny days, and they come ashore in the shallow parts."
"Caspian Sea!" said Tom; "where may that be—anywhere near Crackers?"
"No, Tom," I said; "we've left that behind us in the Old World."
"And a good job too," said Tom; "we don't want sea-serpents where we're going. Why, Mas'r Harry, I shall never like to do a bathe again."
Soon after this Tom proposed that we should try sea-fishing, but when we had borrowed lines and begun to make our preparations the weather set in so rough that we never once had a chance. In fact there were many days when we had no opportunity of coming on deck unless we were prepared to be drenched with the spray that deluged the deck as some great wave struck the steamer's bows, and then flew in driving showers from end to end.
There were times when I fancied that the officers looked quite serious, but they said nothing, only were very particular about the hatches being kept closed.
Then came a spell of finer weather, during which we reached Jamaica, and I was thinking of getting a few days ashore, so as to see something of this beautiful island; but it was not to be, for we found that we were very late, that the steamer into which we were to shift had been waiting for us three days, and if we did not take passage in her we should have to wait a fortnight, perhaps longer, for another.
"And I did so want to see the niggers in the sugar plantations, and taste real Jamaica rum. Say, Mas'r Harry, that stuff people drink in England's all gammon."
"Why so?" I asked.
"Because it's brown and yellow, like wine," he replied. "Real Jamaica rum's quite white."
"Well, Tom," I said, "I don't know that it will make any difference to us; and as to the sugar plantations and the niggers, as you call them, I daresay you will be able to see some at my uncle's place."
"But he don't grow sugar, does he, Mas'r Harry?"
"I don't know about that," I said, "but I think so. I know he grows a great deal of coffee."
"Think of that, now, Mas'r Harry! And tea, too?"
"No, he does not grow tea, Tom."
"Well, I do wonder at that," said Tom, "because you see tea's better than coffee to keep to."
"How about climate, Tom?" I said laughing.
"Climate? Ah! yes, I s'pose that do make a difference, Mas'r Harry. But he might grow sugar."
"Perhaps he does, Tom," I said, "but we shall see before very long."
"Well, it won't be because it isn't hot enough," said Tom, wiping his face. "Phew! the sun does go it out here."
"But it may be colder where my uncle lives, Tom."
"Why, how can it be, Mas'r Harry, if it's anywhere out here?"
"Perhaps he's high up in the mountains, and there it will be much colder."
"Ha-ha-ha! Well, that is a good un, Mas'r Harry," laughed Tom. "You had plenty of schooling and I had none, but I do know better than that. Going up closer to the sun and finding it colder! Well, that is a rum un, and no mistake."
I tried to explain to Tom why it was that the climate was colder in mountain regions, but I suppose I did it in too bungling a way for him to comprehend, and he stood out for his own opinion till he saw, some weeks later, a magnificent specimen of a snow-capped mountain, at which he stared in amazement; and even then he was obstinate enough to declare that, after all, the dazzling whiteness might be due to the clear transparency of crystal rock.
FEEDING THE SHARKS.
It was a wonderful change from the stormy, tossing Atlantic, with its bitter winds and chilling cold, to the calm transparency of the brilliantly-blue tropic waters, where everything looked so unclouded and so bright. When we neared one or other of the islands, everything seemed so fresh that we began to forget the perils and troubles of our long, uneventful, but sufficiently troubled voyage. For there were golden or dazzlingly white sands, upon which the calm sea softly rippled, while close down to the water's edge we could see what Tom called spike plants and sweep's-brush trees—these being his names for plants of the Yucca family and lovely slender-tufted palms.
When we gazed down into the clear waters from the deck of our comparatively small steamer, we could see fish in plenty, for the brilliant sun seemed to light up the sea beneath the vessel's keel, while as the screw churned up the water and the steamer rushed on, the scaly occupants of the deep flashed away to right and left, darting out of sight like so many shafts of silver through the sunny depths.
It was a wonderful change from cold and chill to a delicious atmosphere, where the soft sea-breeze fanned our cheeks, though we soon became aware of the fact that the sun possessed power such as we had never experienced before.
"Why, it's like as if it came through a burning glass, Mas'r Harry," said Tom; "and, I say, just you try to touch that copper hood thing that goes over the compass. I did, and it burned my hand just as if it had come out of a hot fire."
"Well, I don't want to burn my hands, Tom," I replied. "I can see how hot it is by the pitch standing up in beads all along the ropes."
"And it's making black icicles outside some of the boards, Mas'r Harry, only they're soft instead of hard. I say, isn't it jolly?"
The next day it was a great deal hotter, for there was not a breath of air, and Tom came to me as I was hanging listlessly over the side, for I was too hot to stir.
"Say, Mas'r Harry," he said, "isn't this what they call being in the tropics?"
"Yes, Tom; this is the tropics."
"Well, they're hot tropics, and no mistake—out-and-out hot uns. It won't get any warmer than this, will it?"
"Warmer, my lad?" said one of the sailors; "why, this is nothing to what it is sometimes. I've known it so hot that the fellows have been half-roasted, and when the skipper's piped all hands to bathe in a lugsail overboard, to keep away the sharks, you've heard the lads sizzle as they jumped into the water."
"They got quite red-hot, then?" said Tom quietly.
"Well, hardly red-hot, though they were mostly very red—more brown-hot, I should say."
"Thanky," said Tom. "Much obliged;" and the sailor went away chuckling.
"He thinks I believe him, Mas'r Harry," said Tom quietly; "but I'm not quite such a fool as all that."
"Oh! never mind their nonsense, Tom," I said; "there are too many beautiful things to see, for us to pay heed to all that these fellows say."
"Ah! you're about right there, Mas'r Harry," said Tom; "but somehow I am a bit disappointed."
"Why?" I asked.
"At not getting ashore. Only think of it, Mas'r Harry! having a gun apiece, and going wandering up the country somewhere, seeing all there is in one of these islands."
"Have patience, Tom," I replied; "and I daresay you'll get as much adventure as you'll care to have."
I did not know how true a prophet I was then. In fact, perhaps if I could have foreseen all we should have to go through, I might have shrunk back from my undertaking.
Farther and farther every day now we went on and on, putting in at first one island port and then another, but never having time to do more than just go ashore. A visit up the country was quite out of the question.
"It's a rum un, Mas'r Harry," said Tom, on our first landing; and his broad countrified face expanded into a grin as he stopped opposite a stout old negro woman who was selling fruit. No sooner did she see Tom displaying his white teeth than she showed hers—two long rows like ivory—and these two stood smiling one at the other till Tom recovered himself, and invested sixpence in plantains and oranges.
"They're black enough out here, and no mistake, Mas'r Harry," said Tom; "and oh, I say, just you taste these—they're splendid."
The waving cocoa palms and the beautiful flowers that we saw brought into the bright little market made me feel, like Tom, that I should like to go farther afield; but I comforted myself with the recollection that we should soon be at our destination, and that then there would be plenty to see and do.
Back on board once more, we spent our time basking in the sunshine, drinking it in as it were, for it seemed so delightful in spite of its heat after our dull, cheerless, hazy home in the winter season.
I took no note of how the time went, and this part of the voyage, though in a slow clumsy boat, seemed far the quickest portion of the journey, so that I was quite surprised when one morning I came on deck, and found not only that we were in sight of land, but in sight of port—my landing port—the end of my sea journey, for we were right across the Gulf of Mexico, abreast of La Guayra, where the orders were given, and anchor was dropped in the open roadstead, where, calm as it was, we could still feel the great swell that came softly sweeping in, making the great steamer rock and roll first to this side then to that, till, heavily laden though she was, she careened over so that her copper glistened in the sun.
I was beginning to feast my eyes upon the beauty of the place, when Tom, who was right forward, shouted to me to come, and as I glanced at him I saw that he was waving his hands so excitedly that there must be something worth seeing, and I ran forward.
"Here's something for you to have a look at, Mas'r Harry," he cried. "You recollect that big pike the sea-serpent sailor told us about—ugh! four feet long didn't he say?"
"Yes, Tom; but there are no pike here."
"No pike, Mas'r Harry! Why, here's a couple of 'em cruising about just under the bows here, and you can see 'em as plain as plain, and they're twelve or fourteen foot long at least."
"Yes, Tom," I said, as I climbed on to the bulwark, and sheltering my eyes gazed down into the beautiful water, where the bottom was plainly visible many feet below. "Yes, Tom," I said, "they're twelve or fourteen feet long at least, but they are not pike."
"Not pike, Mas'r Harry! What are they then?"
"Sharks, my lad," I replied. "Sharks."
"What, them?" he cried excitedly as he stared down. "So they're sharks are they? Well, I'm glad I've seen 'em anyhow; but I shouldn't have known that they were sharks. Mustn't bathe here then," he continued; "that is if all they say about sharks is true."
"I believe it's true enough, Tom," I said.
"Let's try 'em, Mas'r Harry," said Tom eagerly.
"Try them! What, bathe? Why, Tom, you must be mad!"
"I never said a word about bathing, Mas'r Harry," he responded rather grumpily. "I said, Let's try 'em. I say if we had a big hook and line, Mas'r Harry," he continued, with a broadly comical grin, "and baited with nice fat little niggers, what sport we should have."
"Nice fun for the little niggers as you call them, Tom," I said.
"Yes, it wouldn't be very nice for them, Mas'r Harry. But I say, let's see if they'd go at a bait."
"How?" I cried.
"Stop a moment, and I'll show you," he said; and running to where one of the firemen was having a quiet pipe on deck, I saw Tom accost him, and then go down into the stoke-hole, to come up again directly with a big lump of slaty coal, bearing which he joined me.
"Let's drop this in gently," he said, "just over them; or, no, it would make such a splash some of the sailors would come to see. I've got a bit of string in my pocket."
Tom always had a bit of string in his pocket, and unrolling it he loosely tied it round the lump of coal, and then getting well on the bulwark raised the coal gently up and over the side, beginning to lower it down.
"Take care you don't go over instead of the coal, Tom," I said with a grim smile.
"Oh, I say, Mas'r Harry, don't talk like that!" he cried; "it's enough to give a chap the shudders. It was only my fun about the little niggers. Now, then, I think I can shake it out of the loop."
The sharks were just below us, and eight or ten feet down, as Tom lowered the piece of coal right to the surface, without making any splash and disturbing the water so as to interrupt our view of what we hoped would take place. Then giving the string a jerk he loosened the coal, which began to descend rapidly, its bright black surface flashing in the brilliant sunshine till it was half-way down, when there was a tremendous swirl in the water, which danced and flashed and obscured our vision, only that we caught sight of something—of two somethings—quite white, and then by degrees the water calmed down, and there were the two sharks still there, but turned round with their heads in a fresh direction.
"Why, they took the coal, and one of 'em's swallowed it, Mas'r Harry," cried Tom excitedly.
"No, Tom: I think I can see it right down below there," I said; "but they did have a try at it."
"What are you young fellows doing there?" said a voice; and, as we turned sharply round, there stood the captain. "What! are you fishing?"
"No, sir," said Tom; "I only dropped something over to see if the big fish there would take it."
"Oh, I see!" he exclaimed. "Sharks! Yes, there are plenty of them, my lads. No bathing here. You should get the cook to give you a lump of bad pork, and hang that over by the string: that would fetch them."
Tom took the hint, and running to the cook told him what the captain said, returning at the end of a minute to where I was still watching the two monsters, the captain having gone.
"I'll tie this tight on, Mas'r Harry," cried Tom, suiting the action to the word. "I say, don't I wish we had a hook!"
The piece of meat was soon firmly secured, and twisting one end of the string round his hand, Tom took his old place beside me, chuckling and laughing, and began to lower down his bait.
"I say, Mas'r Harry, I wish it was a bar o' soap. If one of 'em swallowed it I wonder what he'd think of the taste."
By this time Tom had his bait close to the water, and directly after he let it drop on the surface, where it made a little disturbance and then floated.
Almost at the same moment it appeared as if, without the slightest movement, one of the sharks was growing bigger and closer. It seemed to fascinate us, so cautiously did it rise nearer and nearer, till all of a sudden it rolled right over on its side, showing the creamy white of its under parts; there was a gleam of teeth, a swirl in the water, and the greasy lump of salt pork disappeared.
As it did so I saw Tom's arm give a sudden jerk, and as he uttered a yell I realised what was wrong, flinging my arms round him, and threw myself inboard, so that I dragged him with me, and we fell together upon the deck.
"Oh, my eye!" gasped Tom as we sat up on the deck; and he held up his hand, beginning to unwind the broken string from it, and showing how deeply it had cut into it before it gave way.
"What an escape, Tom!" I cried, and as I spoke I felt that I must be looking very white.
"I should have gone overboard if you hadn't laid hold o' me, Mas'r Harry," he said, looking blankly in my face. "How strong that string was, and how it cut!"
"How stupid of you to tie it round your hand like that!" I said.
"Well, I s'pose it was, Mas'r Harry," he said ruefully; "but one didn't think of it then."
"Well, let's have a look at the sharks," I said, as the horror of what might have happened passed off.
"No, thankye, Mas'r Harry," said Tom sulkily. "I've had enough shark for one day. My hand's 'bout cut in two, and my arm's 'bout pulled outer the socket, and one of my legs was twissen under me when I come down, I've had enough shark to last me half a lifetime."
THE NEW LAND.
As the shuddering feeling of what Tom had escaped passed off, we both thought it would be better to say nothing about it. We knew that he had acted foolishly; and I felt that I ought to have known better, and then soon enough, boy like, we forgot it all.
For there was a bright future spread before us, and I began to wonder how it was that with such lovely places on the face of the earth, people could be content to live in old England. There, seen through the bright transparent atmosphere, were convent, cathedral, castle, and tower, grouped at the foot of a mountain, glistening with endless tints as it towered up nine thousand feet, wall and battlement running up the spurs of the great eminence.
The scene was lovely, and I was in raptures then with all that lay before me, and again I asked myself how people could be content in chilly Europe; but I soon understood all that.
Tom was walking by my side, and turning to him—
"What do you think of it, Tom?" I said.
"Well, 'taint so very bad, Mas'r Harry," he grumbled out. "But ain't them sharkses?"
I followed his pointing finger, and, to my horror, I could see, cleaving the blue and creamy-foamed water, close inshore, the black fins of one— two—three—half a score of sharks; while all the time, dashing and splashing in and out of the surf, busily unloading boats and larger vessels, were dozens of mulatto porters.
I expected every moment to hear a shriek and to see the silver foam tinged with red. My heart beat intermittently, and there was a strange dampness in my hands; but I soon learned that familiarity bred contempt, and that probably from the noise and splashing kept up, the sharks rarely ventured an attack. But all the same, that one incident made me gaze down into the blue depths where we were at anchor with a shudder, and think that the waters were not so safe as those of home.
I had yet to learn something of the land.
"What's this place called, Mas'r Harry?" said Tom, interrupting my reverie. "You did tell me, but I've forgotten."
"Humph!" ejaculated Tom. "Why can't they call places by some name in plain English?"
But the various strange sights and sounds soon silenced Tom's tongue, and, tired out at last with a long walk, we went to the house that had been recommended to me, and after partaking of coffee—the best I ever remember to have drunk—I sought my room, Tom insisting upon sleeping on the floor in the same chamber, and my last waking recollections were of the pungent fumes of tobacco, and the tinkle, tinkle, twang of a guitar beneath my window.
I must have been asleep about three hours, and I was dreaming of having found gold enough to load a vessel homeward bound, when I was wakened by some one shaking me violently, and as I started up I became aware of a deafening noise, a choking sensation, as of dust rising in a cloud, and the voice of Tom Bulk.
"Mas'r Harry—Mas'r Harry! Wacken up, will you?"
"What's the matter?" I gasped, springing out of bed, but only to reel and stagger about before falling heavily.
"That's just how it served me," said Tom. "Kneel down, Mas'r Harry, same as I do. The house is as drunk as a fiddler, and the floor's going just like the deck of a ship."
"Where are you?" I cried, trying to collect my scattered faculties, for, awakened so suddenly from a deep sleep, I was terribly confused.
"Oh, I'm here!" said Tom. "Give's your hand. But, I say, Mas'r Harry, what's it mean? Do all the houses get dancing like this here every night, because, if so, I'll sleep in the fields. There it goes again! Soap and soda! what a row!"
Tom might well exclaim, for with the house rocking frightfully, now came from outside the peal as of a thousand thunders, accompanied by the clang of bell, the crash of falling walls, the sharp cracking and splitting of woodwork, and the yelling and shrieking of people running to and fro.
"So this ere's a native storm, Mas'r Harry?" shouted Tom to me during a pause.
"No!" I shouted in answer, as with a shiver of dread I worded the fearful suspicion that had flashed across my brain. "No, Tom, it's an earthquake!"
"Is that all?" grumbled Tom. "Well, it might have come in the daytime, and not when folks were tired. But I thought earthquakes swallowed you up."
"Here, for Heaven's sake help me at this door, Tom!" I shouted, "or we shall be crushed to death. Here, push—hard!"
But our efforts were vain, for just then came another shock, and one side of the room split open from floor to ceiling.
"The window—the window, Tom!" I shrieked. And then, thoroughly roused to our danger, we both made for the casement, reaching it just as, with a noise like thunder, down went the whole building, when it seemed to me that I had been struck a violent blow, and the next instant I was struggling amongst broken wood, dust, and plaster, fighting fiercely to escape; for there was a horrible dread upon me that at the next throe of the earthquake we should be buried alive far down in the bowels of the earth.
I was at liberty, though, the next minute.
"Tom—Tom!" I shouted, feeling about, for the darkness was fearful. "Where are you?"
"All right, Mas'r Harry," was the reply; "close beside you."
"Here, give me your hand," I shouted, "and let's run down to the shore."
For in my horror that was the first place that occurred to me.
"Can't, sir," said Tom. "I ain't got no legs. Can't feel 'em about there anywheres; can you?"
"What do you mean?" I cried. "This is no time for fooling! Look sharp, or we shall lose our lives."
"Well, so I am looking sharp," growled Tom. "Ain't I looking for my legs? I can't feel 'em nowheres. Oh, here they are, Mas'r Harry, here they are!"
By this time I had crawled to him over the ruins of the house, to find that he was jammed in amongst the rubbish, which rose to his knees; and, as he told me afterwards, the shock had produced a horrible sensation, just as if his legs had been taken off, a sensation heightened by the fact that he could feel down to his knees and no farther.
"This is a pleasant spot to take a house on lease, Mas'r Harry," he said, as I tore at the woodwork.
"Are you hurt?" I exclaimed hastily.
"Not as I knows on, Mas'r Harry, only my legs ain't got no feeling in 'em. Stop a minute, I think I can get that one out now."
We worked so hard, that at the end of a few minutes Tom was at liberty, and after chafing his legs a little he was able to stand; but meanwhile the horrors around were increasing every instant, and, to my excited fancy, it seemed as if the earth was like some thick piece of carpet, which was being made to undulate and pass in waves from side to side.
Dust everywhere—choking, palpable dust; and then as from afar off came a faint roar, increasing each moment, till, with a furious rush, a fierce wind came tearing through the ruins of the smitten town, sweeping all before it, so that we had to cower down and seek protection from the storm of earth, sand, dust, plaster, and fragments hurled against us by the hurricane.
But the rush of wind was as brief as it was fierce, and it passed away; when, in the lull that followed, came shrieks and moans from all directions, and the sounds of hurrying, stumbling feet, and then, all at once, from out of the thick darkness a voice cried: "Quick—quick! To the mountain—the sea is coming in!"
Then came more wails and shrieks from out of the darkness, followed by a silence that was more awful than the noise.
For full five minutes that silence lasted, broken only by the fall of some tottering beam. Then came quickly, one after the other, short, sharp, shivering vibrations of the earth beneath our feet—a shuddering movement that was transferred to one's own frame; and then I began to understand the meaning of the cry we had heard respecting the sea, for from where I supposed it to be, now came a singular hissing, rushing noise, gradually increasing to a roar, as of mighty waves, and mingled with that roar there was the creaking and grinding together of shipping and the hoarse shouting of the crews for help.
But gradually the noises ceased, save when a shuddering shock once more made the earth to tremble beneath our feet, and some scrap of wood or plaster to fall from riven wall or roof. The tremendous choking dust, too, began to settle down as we groped our way along over the ruins that choked the streets. Now we were lost—now, after a struggle, we regained the way, trying to join one of the hurrying bands of fugitives hastening from the place.
I spoke to one man, asking him if there was any more danger, but his reply was in Spanish; and at last, led by Tom—who seemed by instinct to know his way—we went down to the shore, strewn with wreck, when, seizing a rope, and drawing a boat to the sand, Tom told me to enter, and we half lay there, rising and falling upon the wave—rocked gently, but wakeful ever, till the sun rose over the sea—bright, glorious, and peaceful, as if there had been no havoc and desolation during the night.
AN EARTHQUAKE ON FOUR LEGS.
"Say, Mas'r Harry, you won't stop in this blessed place, will you?" said Tom, as, in the full light of day, we were, some hours after, busily helping in the town, extricating the dead and wounded, and assisting to bear them to the temporary hospital prepared for their reception.
The house where we had slept was, like hundreds more of the lightly-built tenements, prostrate; and on visiting the scene our escape seemed wonderful; while everywhere the mischief done was appalling— houses toppled down, streets choked with ruins, towers split from top to bottom, and stones hurled from the unroofed buildings into the gaping cracks and fissures running down the streets.
But now that the first fright was over, people seemed to take the matter very coolly, flocking back into the town, to sit and smoke and eat fruit amidst the ruins of their homes, while others quietly set to work to restore and repair damages.
"Has there ever been an earthquake here before?" I said to a merchant who spoke English.
"Earthquakes, my dear senor? Yes, they are common things here."
"But will the inhabitants rebuild the town?"
"Surely. Why not? The site is charming."
I had my thoughts upon the subject, but I did not express them; so, too, had Tom, but he did express his as above.
"Say, Mas'r Harry, you won't stop here, will you?"
"No," I said; "we are going up the country."
"Because this place ain't safe—there's a screw loose underground somewheres. Not that I mind. Earthquakes ain't so much account after all, if they'd come in the day; but all the same, I wouldn't stop here."
I had had no intention of stopping, only just long enough to see the place and make arrangements for the prosecution of my journey; but this catastrophe hurried my departure, and at the end of three days we were both mounted on mules, travelling over hot, bare plains, with the sun pouring down until one's brain seemed scorched; and when at last water was reached, it was thick and muddy-looking, so that, but for our horrible thirst we could not have touched it.
My ideas of South America had been undergoing a great change during the past few days, and, quite disappointed, in the midst of a long burning ride I made some remark to Tom about the heat.
"Hot, Mas'r Harry!" he said. "Pooh! this ain't hot, 'Tis a little warmer than the other place, because there is no sea-breeze, but I could stand a deal more than this. These here—will you be quiet, then?— these here mules is the worst of it, though, sir. They won't go like a horse, nor yet like a donkey; and as to kicking—"
Tom stopped short, for he wanted his breath for other purposes, his steed having once more turned refractory, kicking, rearing, shaking itself in an effort to dislodge its rider, spinning round and round, laying its long ears flat upon its neck, tucking its tail close in between its legs, and then squeaking and squealing in the most outrageous manner imaginable.
I have no doubt that it was most terribly unpleasant to the rider, painful, probably; but to a looker-on it was one of the most ludicrous of sights, and in spite of heat, weariness, and a tendency to low spirits, I laughed till the tears ran down my cheeks, while Tom grinned with pain and held on with both hands to the refractory beast.
"Ah! would you?" cried Tom, as the brute lifted its heels higher than usual, nearly sending him over its head. "There never was such a beast as this here, Mas'r Harry. If I'd only got a thicker stick!"
One could not pity him much, for at starting he had rejected three or four quiet-looking beasts as too slow, and chosen the animal he rode, or rather tried to ride, for, if the reader will pardon the Irishism, a great deal of Tom's riding was walking, and performed by leading his beast by its bridle.
But really it was a deceptive beast, and to have seen it drooping its head and walking calmly and peacefully by its hirer's side, no one would have imagined that it possessed so much mischievous sagacity as it very soon displayed when anyone attempted to mount it.
"I like 'em with some sperrit in 'em, Mas'r Harry," Tom had said. "If it was a horse it would be different; but if one's to ride a donkey, let's have one with something in it."
And verily Tom's donkey, as he called it, was not very long before it showed that it had, indeed, something in it, a great deal more, in fact, than Tom had bargained for. We did not pass many trees by the track, but when we did come upon one Tom had certain information thereof, for the mule rubbed his rider's leg vigorously against the trunk. The sight of a muddy pool of water was the signal for him to squeak, elevate his heels, and then go off at a sharp gallop, when, if his rider did not quickly slip off behind, he would be carried into the pool and bathed, for the mule would drink his fill and then indulge in a roll in the mud and water. In short, I never before saw so many acts of cunning in an animal, one and all directed at dislodging the rider.
At first I was in a state of tremor lest his vagaries should infect the beasts ridden by myself and the guide; but no, they were evidently elderly mules—bordering on a hundred they might have been, from their grey and mangy aspect. They had sown their wild oats years before, and all that they did was to trudge solemnly on, quiet and sure-footed, if not swift.
Tom's mishaps had their pleasant face, though; they served to make a horribly monotonous journey more bearable, and on an average he was in grief, some way or another, about every two hours.
"Oh, senor," said the guide proudly, "the mule is perfect! He is a magnificent beast, but he has his antipathies. He used to be ridden by the padre, and he is a most holy and Christian mule. He shows his dislike a little sometimes like that, because the senor who rides him is a heretic."
"Oh!" I said.
"Yes, it is so, senor, I assure you," said the guide. "Let your friend ride my beast and I will take his, and then you will see how peaceable he is."
At first Tom did not seem disposed to agree, for he did not like being beaten; but I ordered him to dismount, his accidents tending so greatly to lengthen our journey. So the exchange of mules was made, and on we went once more.
"See, senor!" said the guide. "He is a pattern mule, is Juan; he goes like a lamb. It is a natural dislike that he has not learned to subdue. He does not know what good men and generous there are amongst the heretics."
"Haw, haw, haw, haw! Look at that, Mas'r Harry—there's a game!" roared Tom, for the guide had hardly done speaking, just as we were travelling pleasantly along, before Juan, the mule, stopped short, put his head between his legs, elevated his hind-quarters, and the next moment the guide was sitting amongst the stones staring up at us with a most comical expression of countenance.
"The beast has been cursed!" he cried angrily as he rose. "Car-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-ambo! but you shall starve for this, Juan!"
"Let me have another turn at him," cried Tom, as he started off to catch the mule, which had cantered off a few hundred yards, and was searching about with his nose amongst the sand and stones for a few succulent blades of grass where there was not so much as a thistle or a cactus to be seen.
But Juan had no wish to be caught, and after leading his pursuer a tolerable race, he stopped short, and placed all four hoofs together, so as to turn easily as upon a pivot, presenting always his tail to the hand that caught at his bridle.
"Poor fellow, then! Come, then—come over," said Tom soothingly.
But the only response he obtained was an occasional lift of the beast's heels, and an angry kick.
"You ignorant brute, you can't understand plain English!" cried Tom angrily.
"No, senor, he is a true Spanish mule," said the guide, coming up.
Between them, Tom and he soon managed to catch Juan, when, holding tightly by the reins, the guide vented his displeasure and took his revenge by thoroughly drumming the poor brute's ribs with a stout stick, after which Tom mounted, and our journey for the next two hours was without incident.
But we were not to get to the end of the day without mishap. The sun had begun to descend, and we were panting along, longing for the sight of water to quench our burning throats, when Juan began to show that the pain from the guide's drubbing had evaporated. First of all he indulged in a squeal or two, then he contrived to kick the mule I rode upon one of its legs, when, emboldened by the success of the manoeuvre, he waited his time, and then, sidling up to his companion ridden by the guide, he discharged a fierce kick at him, nearly catching the guide in the shin; but the result was a tremendous crack from a stick right upon Juan's back—a blow which made him shake his head with dissatisfaction till his ears rattled again.
He had forgotten the pain, though, in ten minutes, and the first hint we had thereof was a squeal and feat of sleight of heel, in which, to all appearances, Juan stood perpendicularly upon his nose and fore-feet for half a minute, like a fleshly tripod, while his rider, or rather his late rider, rolled over and over, the centre of a cloud of impalpable dust, coughing and sneezing, and muttering fiercely.
"There!" exclaimed Tom, as he jumped up and began beating the dust from his garments. "That's four times that brute has had me off to-day. I've rid everything in my time, Mas'r Harry, from a pig up to a parish bull. I've been on sheep and donkeys, and when I was at the blacksmith's I rode all sorts of restive beasts as come to be shod, but I never did get on such a brute as that; his skin don't fit him, and he slippers about between your legs all sorts of ways; but I mean to ride him yet. Now just you try him half an hour, Mas'r Harry, to see what he's like."
"Not I, thank you, Tom," was my reply. "I'm very well content."
"So am I, Mas'r Harry, only he makes me so sore; but I ain't bet yet, I can tell him. Come over, then!"
But the mule would not "come over, then!" and there ensued a fierce fight of kicks between Tom and his steed, Tom essaying to kick the mule for punishment in the ribs; the mule, nowise taken aback, returning the compliment, by essaying to kick his late rider anywhere, though without success. It might have been imagined, to see the artful feints and moves, that the mule was endowed with human reason. Tom was more than a match for him at last, though, for, slipping off his jacket, he threw it over the mule's head and held it there, confusing the poor beast, so that it could not avoid a couple of heartily given kicks in the ribs; and before it could recover from its surprise Tom was once more seated upon its back in triumph.
"I can stand a wonderful sight of kicking off, Mas'r Harry, I can tell you! I ain't bet yet! Co-o-me on, will you!"
Apparently cowed, now that the jacket was removed, the mule journeyed on very peaceably, till leaving the plain we began to ascend a precipitous mountain-side, the track each moment growing more and more sterile,—if it were possible—grand, and at the same time dangerous. And now it was that we began to see the qualities of the mules in the cautious way they picked their steps, feeling each loose piece of path before trusting their weight to it, and doing much towards removing a strange sensation of tremor evoked by the fact that we were progressing along a shelf of rugged rock some two feet wide—the scarped mountain-side upon our right, a vast precipice on the left.
More than once I was for getting down to walk, but the guide dissuaded me, as he declared that it was far better to trust to the mules, who were never known to slip.
A couple of miles of such travelling served to somewhat reassure me— familiarity with danger breeding contempt; and I called out to Tom:
"I hope your beast won't bear malice, Tom, for this would be an awkward place for him to try his capers."
I said so thoughtlessly, just at a time when we were descending; Tom's beast, which was before me, walking along with the most rigorous care as to where he set his feet.
"Oh! I say, don't, Mas'r Harry," whined Tom, "don't! It's no joke, you know, and this mule understands every word you say—leastwise he might, you know. I ain't afraid, only he might—"
Tom's sentence was not finished; for, in fact, just as if every word I had uttered had been comprehended, down went the beast's head, his heels were elevated, and the next moment, to my horror, poor Tom was over the side of the path, and rolling swiftly down to apparent destruction.
He was brought up, though, the next moment by the reins, which he tightly grasped, and which fortunately did not give way, though they tightened with a jerk that must have nearly dislocated the mule's neck. The leather, fortunately, now strained and stretched, but held firm; while, planting its fore-feet close to the edge of the precipice, and throwing its body back against the scarped wall, the mule stood firm as the rock itself, but snorting loudly as with glaring eyeballs it stared down at Tom; who hung there, trying to obtain some rest for his feet, but uttering no sound, only gazing up at us with a wild look that said plainly as could be, "Don't leave me here to die!"
It was no easy task to help him; for the guide and I had both to dismount on to a narrow ledge of rock, clinging the while to our mules; but we achieved that part of our task, and the next moment, one on each side of Juan, we were kneeling down and trying to reach Tom's hands.
But our efforts were vain, for the mule was in the way, and there was not standing room for all three. There was but one way of helping, and that looked too desperate to be attempted, and I hesitated to propose it as I knelt shivering there.
The same thought, though, had occurred to Tom, and in a husky voice he said:
"Take hold of the guide's hand, Mas'r Harry, and creep under the mule's legs to his side."
It was no time to hesitate; and I did as I was told, the mule giving utterance to quite a shriek as I passed.
"Now can you both reach the bridle?" Tom whispered.
"Yes, yes!" we both exclaimed.
"Hold on tight then, while one of you cuts it through, and then the mule will be out of the way."
We each took a good grip of the leathern thong, raising it so that we had Tom's full weight upon our muscles; and then crouching down so as not to be drawn over, I hastily drew out my knife, opened it with some difficulty by means of my teeth, and then tried to cut the bridle above our hands.
But feeling himself partly relieved of his burden, the mule began to grow restless, stamping, whinnying, and trying to get free. For a moment I thought we might utilise his power, and make him back and help draw Tom up; but the narrowness of the ledge forbade it, and he would only have been drawn sidewise till the rein broke.
Twice I tried to cut the bridle, but twice the mule balked me, and I was glad to ease the fearful strain on one arm by catching at the hand that held the knife.
"Try again, Mas'r Harry, please," whispered Tom. "I can't hang much longer."
With a desperate effort I cut at the rein, and divided it close to the mule's mouth.
He started back a few inches, tightening the other rein; but now, once more, I was grasping the rein with both hands lest it should slip through my fingers, and at the same moment the knife fell, striking Tom on the cheek and making the blood spurt out, before flying down—down to a depth that was horrible to contemplate.
It was a fearful time, and as I crouched there a cold sensation seemed to be creeping through the marrow of all my bones. We could not raise Tom for the mule, I could not cut the rein, and upon asking I found that the guide had no knife, and, what was worse, it was evident that he was losing nerve.