THE HOUSE UNDER THE SEA
Author of Kronstadt, The Phantom Army, Etc.
NEW YORK D. APPLETON AND COMPANY 1902
Copyright, 1902 By MAX PEMBERTON
All rights reserved
Published September, 1902
I.—IN WHICH JASPER BEGG MAKES KNOWN THE PURPOSE OF HIS VOYAGE TO THE PACIFIC OCEAN, AND HOW IT CAME ABOUT THAT HE COMMISSIONED THE STEAM-SHIP SOUTHERN CROSS THROUGH PHILIPS, WESTBURY, AND CO.
II.—WE GO ASHORE AND LEARN STRANGE THINGS
III.—IN WHICH JASPER BEGG MAKES UP HIS MIND WHAT TO DO
IV.—WE GO ABOARD, BUT RETURN AGAIN
V.—STRANGE SIGHTS ASHORE, AND WHAT WE SAW OF THEM
VI.—JASPER BEGG MEETS HIS OLD MISTRESS, AND IS WATCHED
VII.—IN WHICH HELP COMES FROM THE LAST QUARTER WE HAD EXPECTED IT
VIII.—THE BIRD'S NEST IN THE HILLS
IX.—WE LOOK OUT FOR THE SOUTHERN CROSS
X.—WE ARE SURELY CAGED ON KEN'S ISLAND
XI.—LIGHTS UNDER THE SEA
XII.—THE DANCING MADNESS
XIV.—A WHITE POOL—AND AFTERWARDS
XV.—AN INTERLUDE, DURING WHICH WE READ IN RUTH BELLENDEN'S DIARY AGAIN
XVI.—ROSAMUNDA AND THE IRON DOORS
XVII.—IN WHICH JASPER BEGG ENTERS THE HOUSE UNDER THE SEA
XVIII.—CHANCE OPENS A GATE FOR JASPER BEGG, AND HE PASSES THROUGH
XIX.—WHICH SHOWS THAT A MAN WHO THINKS OF BIG THINGS SOMETIMES FORGETS THE LITTLE ONES
XX.—THE FIRST ATTACK IS MADE BY CZERNY'S MEN
XXI.—WHICH BRINGS IN THE DAY AND WHAT BEFELL THEREIN
XXII.—THE BEGINNING OF THE SIXTY HOURS
XXIII.—THE END OF THE SIXTY HOURS
XXIV.—THE SECOND ATTACK ON CZERNY'S HOUSE
XXV.—IN WHICH THE SUN-TIME COMES AGAIN
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"Shall we go or stay?"
Like dancers at a stage play.
A picturesque old figure standing there.
She looked at me with her big, questioning eyes.
We were all sitting at the supper table.
The drawing-room is a cave whose walls are of jewels.
"If there is a sound at the door, fire that gun."
Another man fell with a loud cry.
THE HOUSE UNDER THE SEA
IN WHICH JASPER BEGG MAKES KNOWN THE PURPOSE OF HIS VOYAGE TO THE PACIFIC OCEAN, AND HOW IT CAME ABOUT THAT HE COMMISSIONED THE STEAM-SHIP SOUTHERN CROSS THROUGH PHILIPS, WESTBURY, AND CO.
Many gentlemen have asked me to write the story of Ken's Island, and in so far as my ability goes, that I will now do. A plain seaman by profession, one who has had no more education than a Kentish grammar school can give him, I, Jasper Begg, find it very hard to bring to other people's eyes the wonderful things I have seen or to make all this great matter clear as it should be clear for a right understanding. But what I know of it, I will here set down; and I do not doubt that the newspapers and the writers will do the rest.
Now, it was upon the third day of May in the year 1899, at four bells in the first dog watch, that Harry Doe, our boatswain, first sighted land upon our port-bow, and so made known to me that our voyage was done. We were fifty-three days out from Southampton then; and for fifty-three days not a man among the crew of the Southern Cross had known our proper destination, or why his skipper, Jasper Begg, had shipped him to sail for the Pacific Ocean. A pleasure voyage, the papers said; and some remembered that I had been in and out of private yachts ever since I ran away from school and booked with Skipper Higg, who sailed Lord Kanton's schooner from the Solent; but others asked themselves what pleasure took a yacht's skipper beyond the Suez, and how it came about that a poor man like Jasper Begg found the money to commission a 500-ton tramp through Philips, Westbury, and Co., and to deal liberally with any shipmate who had a fancy for the trip. These questions I meant to answer in my own time. A hint here and there of a lady in whose interest the voyage was undertaken kept the crew quiet, if it did not please its curiosity. Mister Jacob, my first officer, and Peter Bligh (who came to me because he said I was the only man who kept him away from the drink) guessed something if they knew little. They had both served under me in Ruth Bellenden's yacht; neither had forgotten that Ruth Bellenden's husband sailed eastward for the wedding trip. If they put their heads together and said that Ruth Bellenden's affairs and the steam-ship Southern Cross were not to be far apart at the end of it, I don't blame them. It was my business to hold my tongue until the land was sighted, and so much I did for Ruth Bellenden's sake.
Well, it was the third day of May, at four bells in the first dog watch, when Harry Doe, the boatswain, sighted land on the port-bow, and came abaft with the other hands to hear what I had got to say to him. Mr. Jacob was in his bunk then, he being about to take the first watch, and Peter Bligh, who walked the bridge, had rung down for half-speed by the time I came out with my glass for the first view of the distant island. We were then, I must tell you at a rough reckoning, in longitude 150 east of Greenwich, by about 30 north; and my first thought was that we might have sighted the Ganges group, as many a ship sailing from 'Frisco to Japan; but when I had looked at the land a little while, and especially at a low spur of rocks to the northward, I knew that this was truly the Ken Archipelago, and that our voyage was done.
"Lads," I said, "yonder is your port. Good weather and good luck, and we'll put about for home before three days have passed."
Now, they set up a great cheer at this; and Peter Bligh, whose years go to fat, wiped his brow like a man who has got rid of a great load and is very pleased to have done with it.
"Thank you for that," said he. "I hope I do my duty in all weathers, Mr. Begg, but this sunshine do wear a man sadly. Will you stop her, sir, or shall we go dead slow?"
"Dead slow, if you please, Mister Pugh," said I; "the chart gives two thousand fathoms about the reef. We should have water enough, and water is a good thing, as I believe you know."
"When there's nothing else, I can manage to make shift with it—and feel a better man, sir," he added, as an after-thought. But I was already busy with my glass and that was not the hour for light talk. Yonder upon the port-bow a group of islands shaped on our horizon as shadows upon a glassy sea. I could espy a considerable cliff-land rising to the southward, and north of that the rocky spur of which I have made mention. The sun was setting behind us in a sky of orange and crimson, and it was wonderful to see the playful lights now giving veins of gold to the dark mass of the higher rocks, or washing over the shadows as a running water of flame. I have seen many beautiful sights upon the sea, in storm or tempest, God's weather or the devil's; but I shall never forget that sunset which brought me to Ken's Island on as strange an errand as ever commissioned a ship. The deep blue of the sky, the vastness of the horizon, the setting sun, the island's shaping out of the deep: these, and the curiosity which kept the glass ever at my eye, made an hour which a man might fear to tell of. True, I have sighted many a strange land in my time and have put up my glass for many an unknown shore; but yonder lay the home of Ruth Bellenden, and to-morrow's sun would tell me how it fared with her. I had sailed from England to learn as much.
Now, Mr. Jacob, the first officer, had come up to the bridge while I was searching the shore for an anchorage, and he, who always was a prudent man, spoke up at once for laying to and leaving our business, whatever it was, until the morning.
"You'll lose the light in ten minutes, and yon's a port I do not like the look of," said he. "Better go about, sir. Reefs don't get out of the way, even for a lady."
"Mister Jacob," said I, for, little man that he was, he had a big wit in his own way, "the lady would be very glad to get out of the way of the reef, I'm thinking. However, that's for the morning. Here's Peter Bligh as pleased as any school-boy at the sight of land. Tell him that he isn't going ashore to-night, and he'll thank you nicely. Eh, Peter, are you, too, of Jacob's mind? Is it sea or shore, a glass in my cabin or what the natives will sell you in the log-cabins over yonder?" Peter Bligh shut up his glass with a snap.
"I know the liquor, Mr. Begg," said he; "as the night is good to me, I'm of Mister Jacob's way of thinking. A sound bed and a clear head, and a fair wind for the morning—you'll see little of any woman, black or white, on yonder rock to-night."
Jacob—his little eyes twinkling, as they always did at his own jokes—muttered the old proverb about choosing a wife by candle-light; but before any one could hear him a beacon shone out across the sea from some reef behind the main island I had noticed, and all eyes were turned anxiously to that. It was a queer place, truly, to set up a light, and I don't wonder that the men remarked it.
"An odd kind of a lantern to help poor mariners," said Mister Jacob, sagely. "Being kind to it, sir, I should say that it's not more than a mile too much to the northward."
"Lay your course by that, and a miracle won't carry you by the reef," added Peter Bligh, sagaciously; "in my country, which is partly Ireland, sir, we put up notice-boards for the boys that ride bicycles: 'This Hill is Dangerous.' Faith, in ould Oireland, they put 'em up at the bottom of the hills, which is useful entirely."
Some of the crew, grouped about the ladder's foot, laughed at this; others began to mutter among themselves as though the beacon troubled them, and they did not like it. A seaman's the most superstitious creature that walks the earth or sails on the sea, as all the world knows. I could see the curiosity, which had followed my men from Southampton, was coming to a head here about twelve thousand miles from home.
"Lads," cried I, quick to take the point up, "Mister Bligh says that an Irishman built yon light, and he knows, being a bit of a one himself. We're not going in by it, anyway, so you can ask questions to-morrow. There's a hundred pounds to be divided among you for your good behaviour outward, and there'll be another hundred when we make Calshot Light. To-night we'll find good sea-room, and leave their beacon to the lumber-heads that put it up. I thank you, lads, for honest work in an honest ship. Ask the purser for an extra tot of grog, and say the skipper told you to."
They gave a hearty "Aye, aye, sir," to this, and without more ado we put the ship about and went dead slow against a stiff tide setting east by north-east. For my part, I reckoned this the time to tell my officers what my intentions were, and when I had called them into the cabin, leaving our "fourth"—a mere lad, but a good one—upon the bridge, I ordered Joe, the steward, to set the decanters upon the table. Mister Jacob, as usual, put on his glasses (which he always did in room or cabin, just as though he would read a book), but Peter Bligh sat with his cap between his knees and as foolish an expression upon his face as I have ever seen.
"Now, gentlemen," I said, "no good talking in this world was ever done upon a dusty table, so we'll have a glass round and then to business. Mr. Bligh, I'm sure, will make no objection to that."
"Faith, and I know when to obey my superior officer, captain. A glass round, and after that——"
"Peter, Peter," said I, "'tis the 'after that' which sends many a good hulk to the bottom."
"Not meaning to apply the term to Peter Bligh, but by way of what the landsmen call 'silime,'" said Mister Jacob.
"'Simile' you mean, Mister Jacob. Well, it's all the same, and neither here nor there in the matter of a letter. The fact is, gentlemen, I wish you to know why I have sailed this ship to Ken's Archipelago, and under what circumstances I shall sail her home again."
They pricked up their ears at this, Peter turning his cap nervously in his hands and Mister Jacob being busy with his glasses as he loves to be.
"Yes," I went on, "you have behaved like true shipmates and spoken never a word which a man might not fairly speak. And now it's my duty to be open with you. Well, to cut it short, my lads, I've sailed to the Pacific because my mistress, Ruth Bellenden, asked me."
They had known as much, I imagine, from the start; but while Mister Jacob pretended to be very much surprised, honest Peter raised his glass and drank to Mistress Ruth's good health.
"God bless her," he said, "and may the day come when I ship along o' such a one again. Aye, you would have come out for her sake, captain—no other, I'm sure!"
"She being Ruth Bellenden no longer, but the wife of a gentleman with a name none but a foreigner can spell," added Mister Jacob; and then he went on: "Well, you surprise me very much, captain—very much indeed. Matrimony is a choppy sea and queer things swim in it. But this—this I had not looked to hear."
I knew that this was only Mister Jacob's way, and continued my story.
"It was a promise to her upon her wedding day. Ten thousand pounds she left with her lawyers for this very purpose. 'My husband has strange ideas; I may not share them,' were her words to me. 'If his yacht should not be at the islands when I wish to visit Europe again, I should like you to find me a vessel in its place. I trust you, Jasper Begg,' she said; 'you will sail for Ken's Archipelago twelve months from today, and you will come to my house there, as you used to do in the old time, for orders. Perhaps I shall send you home again, perhaps I may like to have a yacht of my own once more. Who knows? I am quite alone in the world,' she said, laughing, 'though my brother is alive. And the Pacific Ocean is a long way from London—oh, such a long way,' she said, or something of that sort."
"Aye, and right, too. A derned long way she meant, I don't doubt, if what was in her mind came out," puts in Peter at this.
"Mr. Bligh," said I, "be pleased to hold your tongue until your opinion is asked. What I am telling you is a confidence which you two, and no others, share with me. To-morrow, as soon as daylight, I shall row ashore and ask to see Mme. Czerny, as I suppose I must call little Ruth now. If she says, 'Go home again,' very well, home we go with good wages in our pockets. If she says 'Stay,' there's not a man on board this ship that will not stay willingly—she being married to a foreigner, which all the world knows is not the same as being married to an Englishman——"
"To say nothing of an Irishman," said Peter Bligh, whose mother was from Dublin and whose father was named sometimes for a man of Rotherhithe and at other times put down to any country which it suited Peter to boast about.
"Edmond Czerny was a Hungarian," said I, "and he played the fiddle wonderful. What mad idea took him for a honeymoon to Ken's Island, the Lord only knows. They say he was many years in America. I know nothing about him, save that he had a civil tongue and manners to catch a young girl's fancy. She was only twenty-two when she married him, Mister Jacob."
"Old enough to know better—quite old enough to know better. Not that I would say anything against Ruth Bellenden, not a word. It's the woman's part to play the capers, sir, and we poor mortal men to be took by them. Howsomever, since there was a fiddle in it, I've nothing more to say."
We laughed at Mister Jacob's notion, and Peter Bligh said what it was in my heart to say:
"Saving that if Ruth Bellenden needs a friend, she'll find twenty-six aboard this ship, to say nothing of the cook's boy and the dog. You've a nice mind, Mister Jacob, but you've a deal to larn when it comes to women. My poor old father, who hailed from Shoreham——"
"It was Newport yesterday, Peter."
"Aye, so it were—so it were. But, Newport or Shoreham, he'd a precious good notion of the sex, and what he said I'll stand by. 'Get 'em on their feet to the music,' says he, 'and you can lead 'em anywheres.' 'Tis Gospel truth that, Mister Jacob."
"But a man had better mind his steps," said I. "For my part, I shouldn't be surprised if Ruth Bellenden's husband gave us the cold shoulder to-morrow and sent us about our business. However, the sea's free to all men, lads, and the morn will show. By your leave we'll have a bit of supper and after that turn in. We shall want all our wits about us when daylight comes." They agreed to this, and without further parley we went on deck and heard what the lad "Dolly" Venn had to tell us. It was full dark now and the islands were hidden from our view. The beacon shone with a steady white glare which, under the circumstances, was almost uncanny. I asked the lad if he had sighted any ships in towards the land or if signals had been made. He answered me that no ship had passed in or out nor any rocket been fired. "And I do believe, sir," he said, "that we shall find the harbour on the far sight of yonder height."
"The morning will show us, lad," said I; "go down to your supper, for I mean to take this watch myself." They left me on the bridge. The wind had fallen until it was scarce above a moan in the shrouds. I stood watching the beacon as a man who watches the window light of one who has been dear to him.
WE GO ASHORE AND LEARN STRANGE THINGS
I have told how it came about that I sailed for Ken's Island, and now I shall tell what happened when I went ashore to find Ruth Bellenden.
We put off from the ship at six bells in the morning watch. Dolly Venn, who was rated as fourth officer, was with me in the launch, and Harry Doe, the boatswain, at the tiller. I left Mister Jacob on the bridge, and gave him my orders to stand in-shore as near as might be, and to look for my coming at sunset—no later. "Whatever passes," said I, "the night will find me on board again. I trust to bring you good news, Mister Jacob—the best news."
"Which would be that we were to 'bout ship and home again," says he; and that I did not contradict.
Now, we were to the westward of the island when we put off, and neither my glass nor the others showed any good landing there. As the launch drew in towards the cliffs I began to get the lie of the place more clearly; and especially of what I call the mainland, which was wonderfully fresh and green in the sunlight and seemed to have some of the tropic luxuriance of more southern islands. About four miles long, I judged it to be, from the high black rock to which it rose at the southward point, to the low dog's-nosed reef which defended it to the north. Trees I could see, palms and that kind, and ripe green grasses on a stretch of real down-like land; but the cliffs themselves were steep and unpromising, and the closer we drew the less I liked the look of it.
"Dolly, my lad," I said at last, "you were the wise one, after all. Yon's no shore for an honest man; he being made like a man and not like an eagle. Let's try the starboard tack and see what luck will send us."
We headed the launch almost due south, and began to round the headland. The men were elated, they didn't know at what; Dolly Venn had a boy's delight in the difficulty.
"An ugly shore, sir," he said, pleased at my compliment. "A very ugly shore. It would be a bad night which found a ship in these parts and no better light than the fool's beacon we saw yesterday."
"As true as the parson's word," said I, "but, ugly or beautiful, I'll be up on those heights before twelve o'clock if I have to swim ashore. And speaking of that," said I, "there are men up yonder, or I'm a Dutchman!" Well, he clapped his glass to his eye and searched the green grass land as I had done; but the light was overstrong and the cliff quickly shut the view from us, so that we found ourselves presently in the loom of vast black rocks, with the tide running like a whirlpool, and a great sword-fish reef a mile from the shore, perhaps, to catch any fool that didn't want sea room. I took the tiller myself from this point, and standing well out I brought the launch round gingerly enough, but the water was deep and good once we were on the lee side; and no sooner did we head north again than I espied the cove and knew where Ruth Bellenden had gone ashore.
"It's there, lad," said I, "yonder, where the sand sparkles. There'll be a way up the cliff and good anchorage. No one but an Irishman would buy an island without a harbour; you tell Mr. Bligh that when we go aboard again."
"Mr. Bligh says he's only Irish on the mother's side, sir; that's what makes him bighearted towards the women. He'll be dying to come ashore if there are any petticoats hereabouts."
"They haven't much use for that same garment on the Pacific Islands," said I. "Peter can marry cheap here, if it's the milliners' bills he's minding—but I doubt, lad, from the look of it, whether we'll find a jewel in this port. It's a wild-looking place, to be sure it is."
Indeed, and it was. Viewed from the eastward sea, I call Ken's Island the most fearsome place I have come across in all my fifteen years afloat. Vast cliffs, black and green and crystal, rose up sheer from the water in precipices for all the world like mighty steps. By here and there, as the ground sloped away to the northward, there were forests of teak (at least, I judged them to be that), pretty woods with every kind of palm, green valleys and grassy pastures. The sands of the cove were white as snow, and shone like so many precious stones pounded up to make a sea beach. On the north side only was there barrenness— for that seemed but a tongue of low land and black rock thrust straight out into the sea. But elsewhere it was a spectacle to impress a man; and I began, perhaps, to admit that Edmond Czerny had more than a crank's whim in his mind when he took little Ruth Bellenden to such a shore for her honeymoon. He had a fancy for wild places, said I, and this was the very spot for him. But Miss Ruth, who had always been one for the towns and cities and the bright things of life—what did she think of it? I should learn that, if she were ashore yonder. Now, we put straight in to the cove where the silver sand was, and no sooner was I ashore than I espied a rickety wooden ladder rising almost straight up to the cliff's head, which hereabouts was no more than sixty feet high. Neither man nor beast was on the beach, nor did I make out any sign of human habitation whatever. It was just a little sandy bay, lone and desolate; but directly I slipped out of the launch I discovered footprints leading to the ladder's foot, and I knew that men had gone up before me, that very morning it must be, seeing that the tide had ebbed and the sand was still wet. At another time I might have asked myself why nobody came out to meet us, and why there was no lookout for the island to hail a strange ship in the offing; but I was too eager to go ashore, and, for that matter, had my feet on the sand almost before the launch grounded.
"Do you, Dolly, come up with me," said I; "the others will stand by to anchor until we come down again. If it's not in an hour, lads, go back and get your dinners; but look for me at sunset anyway, for I've no mind to sleep ashore, and that you may be sure of."
They took the orders and pushed the launch off. Dolly and I ran up the crazy ladder and found ourselves at the cliff's head, but no better off in the matter of seeing than we had been before. True, the launch looked far down, like a toy ship in a big basin of blue water; we could distinguish the sword-fish reef, as the lad called it, and other reefs to the east and north, but the place we stood on was shut in by a black wood of teak and blue ebony, and, save for the rustling of the great leaves, we couldn't hear a sound. As for the path through the plantation, that was covered with long, rank grass, and some pit or other—I don't know what it was—gave a pungent, heavy odour which didn't suit a seaman's lungs. I was set against the place from the first—didn't like it, and told the lad as much.
"Dolly," said I, "the sooner we have a ship's planking under our feet again the better for our constitutions. If there's a house in this locality, the ladder is the road to it, unless one of Peter Bligh's countrymen built it. Put your best foot foremost, my lad. We'll dine early if we don't lunch late."
With this I struck the path through the wood and went straight on, not listening to the lad's chatter nor making any myself. The shade was welcome enough; there were pretty places for those that had eyes to see them—waterfalls splashing down from the moss-grown rocks above; little pools, dark and wonderfully blue; here and there a bit of green, which might have been the lawn of a country house. But of dwelling or of people I saw nothing, and to what the boy fancied that he saw I paid no heed.
"You're dreaming it, young gentleman," said I, "for look now, who should be afraid of two unarmed seamen, and why should any honest man be ashamed to show his face? If there are men peeping behind the trees, well, let them peep, and good luck go with them. It doesn't trouble me, and I don't suppose it will take your appetite away. You aren't afraid of them, surely?"
It was an unkind thing to have said, and the lad rightly turned upon me.
"Why, sir," cried he, "I would never be afraid while I was with you."
"Proudly put, my boy, and a compliment I won't forget. What sort of men did you say that they were?"
"One was old, with a goat's beard. He wore ragged breeches and a seaman's blouse. I saw him directly we entered the wood. The others were up in the hills above the waterfall. They carried rifles."
"Come, come, Dolly," exclaimed I. "Put them in Prussian blue at once, and fly the German ensign. Rifles in a place like this—and two unarmed strangers against them! Why should the rogues hide their beautiful faces? If they would know all about us, what's to prevent them? Do we look like highwaymen or honest fellows? Be sure, my lad, that the young lady I am going to see wouldn't have any blacklegs about her house. Ruth Bellenden's too clever for that. She'd send them about their business quick enough, as she's sent many a one when I was the skipper of her yacht. Did they tell you that, Dolly—that your skipper used to sail the smartest schooner-yacht that ever flew the ensign——"
The boy looked up at me and admitted frankly that he knew something.
"They said the young lady owned the Manhattan, sir. I never asked much, about it. The men were fond of her, I believe."
"Adored her, lad. She was the daughter of Rupert Bellenden, who made a mint of money by building the Western American Railroad, and afterwards in the steel way. He was drowned at sea when the Elbe went down. His son got the business, but the daughter took the house and fortune—at least, the best part of it. She was always a rare one for the sea, and owned a biggish boat in her father's time. When he died she bought the Manhattan, more's the pity, for it carried her to Mediterranean ports, and there she took up with the fiddler. He was a Chevalier or something, and could look a woman through and through. What money he had was made, the Lord knows where, not out of fiddling, I'll be bound, for his was no music to set the tongue lilting. He'd been in the Pacific a while, they say, and was a Jack-of-all-trades in America. That's how he came across these islands, you may imagine—slap in the sea-way to Yokohama as they are. There's been many a good ship ashore on Ken's Island, lad, believe me, and there'll be many another. 'Tis no likely place to bring a young wife to, and none but a madman would have done it."
I told him all this just in a natural way, as one man speaking to another of something which troubled his mind. Not that he made much of it—how should he?—for there were a hundred things to look at, and his eyes were here and there and everywhere; now up at the great black rocks above us; now peering into a deep gorge, over which a little wooden bridge carried us, just for all the world like a scaffold thrown from tree to tree of the wood. It was a rare picture, I admit, and when we came out of the thicket at last and saw the lower island spread before us like a chart, with its fields of crimson flowers, its waterfalls, its bits of pasture, and its blue seas beyond, a man might well have stood to tell himself that Nature never made a fairer place. For my part, I began to believe again that Edmond Czerny knew what he was about when he built a house for Miss Ruth on such a spot; and I was just about to tell the lad as much when a man came running up the path and, hailing us in a loud voice, asked us where the devil we were going to—or something not more civil. And, at this, I brought to and looked him up and down and answered him as a seaman should.
"To the devil yourself," said I; "what's that to do with you, and what may your name happen to be?"
He was a big man, dressed in blue serge, with a peak cap and a seaman's blouse. He had a long brown beard and a pock-marked face, and he carried a spy-glass under his arm. He had come up from the grassy valley below—and there I first saw the roof of a low bungalow, and the gardens about it. That was Ruth's home, I said, and this fellow was one of Czerny's yacht hands.
"Not so fast, not so fast," cried he; "do you know that this is private land, and you've no business ashore here?"
"Why," says I, "haven't we come ashore to see you, my beauty, and doesn't the spectacle reward us? 'Bout ship," says I, "and have done with it. My business is with your mistress, whom I knew before your brother was hanged at 'Frisco."
He swore a big oath at this, and, I do believe, was half of the mind to try which was the better man; but when he had looked down at the gardens of the bungalow, and a white figure was plainly to be seen there, he seemed to think better of it, and changed his tone entirely.
"Avast," cries he, with a bit of a laugh, "you're one of the right sort, and no mistaking that! And where would you be from, and what would you be wanting here?" he asks, grown civil as a bagman with a bit of ribbon to sell.
"Shipmate," says I, "if I'm one of the right sort, my port's Southampton and my flag's the ensign. Take me down to Mme. Czerny, whom I see among the flower-beds yonder, and you shall know enough about me in five minutes to bring the tears to your beautiful eyes. And come," says I, chaffing him, "are there any girls in this bit of a paradise? If so," says I, "I should call 'em lucky when I look at you."
Well, he took it sourly enough, but I could see he was mighty curious to hear more about me, and as we went down a winding path to the bungalow in the valley he put many questions to me, and I tried to answer them civilly. Like all seamen he had no silent wits of his own, and every word he thought, that he must speak.
"The guv'nor's not here," he said; "gone to 'Frisco. Lucky for you, for he don't like strangers. Aye," he goes on, "he's a wonderful man for his own way; to be sure he is. You'll be aboard and away before sunset, or you might see him. Take my advice and put about. The shore's unwholesome," says he.
"By the looks of you," says I, "you've nothing more than jaundice, and that I can put up with. As for your guv'nor, I remember him well when he and I did the light fandango together in European ports. He was always a wonder with the fiddle. My mistress could lead him like a pug-dog. I don't doubt she's a bit of a hand at it still."
Now, this set him thinking, and he put two and two together, I suppose, and knew pretty well who I was.
"You'll be Jasper Begg that sailed the lady's yacht Manhattan?" says he. "Well, I've heard of you often, and from her own lips. She'll be pleased to see you, right enough—though what the guv'nor might say is another matter. You see," he went on, "this same island is a paradise, sure as thunder; but it's lonely for women-kind, and your mistress, she don't take to it kindly. Not that she's complaining, or anything of that sort. A lady who has rings for her fingers and bells for her toes, and all real precious, same as any duchess might wear, she don't complain long Why, my guv'nor could make his very teeth out of diamonds and not miss 'em, come to that! But his missus is always plaguing him to take her to Europe, and that game. As if he don't want a wife in his own home, and not in another man's, which is sense, Mister Begg, though it is spoke by a plain seaman."
I said, "Aye, aye," and held my tongue, knowing that he would go on with it. We were almost down at the house now, and the cliffs stood like a great cloud of solid rock, above which a loom of smoke was floating. Dolly walked at my heels like a patient dog. My own feelings are not for me to tell. I was going to see Ruth Bellenden again. Why, she was there in yonder garden, and nothing between us but this great hulking yellow boy, who took to buttonholing me as a parson buttonholes his churchwarden when he wants a new grate in his drawing-room.
"Now," says he, standing before me as one who had half a mind to block the road, "you be advised by me, Mister Begg, and cut this job short. Don't you be listening to a woman's parley, for it's all nonsense. I've done wrong to let you ashore, perhaps—perhaps I haven't; but, ashore or afloat, it's my business to see that the guv'nor's orders is carried out, and carried out they will be, one man or twenty agen 'em. Do you take a plain word or do you not, Mister Begg?"
"I take whatever's going, and don't trouble about the sugar," says I; and then, putting him aside, I lifted the latch of the garden gate, and went in and saw Miss Ruth.
IN WHICH JASPER BEGG MAKES UP HIS MIND WHAT TO DO
Now, she was sitting in the garden, in a kind of arbour built of leaves, and near by her was her relative, the rats'-tailed old lady we used to call Aunt Rachel. The pair didn't see me as I passed in, but a Chinese servant gave "Good-day" to the yellow man we'd picked up coming down; and, at that, Miss Ruth—for so I call her, not being able to get Mme. Czerny into my head—Miss Ruth, I say, stood up, and, the colour tumbling into her cheeks like the tide into an empty pool, she stood for all the world as though she were struck dumb and unable to say a word to any man. I, meanwhile, fingered my hat and looked foolish; for it was an odd kind of job to have come twelve thousand miles upon, and what to say to her with the hulking seaman at my elbow, the Lord forgive me if I knew.
"Miss Ruth," says I at last, "I'm here according to orders, and the ship's here, and we're waiting for you to go aboard——"
Well, she seemed to hear me like one who did not catch the meaning of it. I saw her put her hand to her throat as though something were choking her, and the old lady, the one we called Aunt Rachel, cried, "God bless me," two or three times together. But the yellow man was the next to speak, and he crossed right over to our Miss Ruth's side, and talked in her ear in a voice you could have heard up at the hills.
"You'll not be going aboard to-day, lady. Why, what would the master have to say, he coming home from foreign parts and you not ashore to meet him? You didn't say nothing about any ship, not as I can remember, and mighty pleased the guv'nor will be when he knows about it. Shall I tell this party he'd better be getting aboard again, eh, ma'am? Don't you think as he'd better be getting aboard again?"
He shouted this out for all the world like a man hailing from one ship to another. I don't know what put it into my head, but I knew from that moment that my mistress was afraid, aye, deadly afraid, as it is given few to fear in this life. Not that she spoke of it, or showed it by any sign a stranger might have understood; but there was a look in her eyes which was clear to me; "and by my last word," said I to myself, "I'll know the truth this day, though there be one or a hundred yellow boys!" None the less, I held my tongue as a wise man should, and what I said was spoken to the party with the beard.
"You've a nice soft voice for a nightingale, that you have," says I; "if you'd let yourself out for a fog-horn to the Scilly Isles, you'd go near to make your fortune! Is the young lady deaf that you want to bawl like a harbour-master? Easy, my man," says I, "you'll hurt your beautiful throat."
Well, he turned round savage enough, but my mistress, who had stood all the while like a statue, spoke now for the first time, and holding out both her hands to me, she cried:
"Oh, Captain Begg, Captain Begg, is it you at last, to walk right here like this? I can't believe it," she said; "I really can't believe it!"
"Why, that's so," said I, catching her American accent, which was the prettiest thing you ever heard; "I'm on the way to 'Frisco, and I put in here according to my promise. My ship's out yonder, Miss Ruth, and there's some aboard that knows you—Peter Bligh and Mister Jacob; and this one, this is little Dolly Venn," said I, presenting him, "though he'll grow bigger by-and-bye."
With this I pushed the boy forward, and he, all silly and blushing as sailors will be when they see a pretty woman above their station—he took her hand and heaved it like a pump-handle; while old Aunt Rachel, the funny old woman in the glasses, she began to talk a lot of nonsense about seamen, as she always did, and for a minute or two we might have been a party of friends met at a street corner.
"I'm glad to find you well, Captain Begg," said she. "Such a dangerous life, too, the mariner's. I always pity you poor fellows when you climb the rattlesnakes on winter's nights."
"Ratlins, you mean, ma'am," said I, "though for that matter, a syllable or two don't count either way. And I hope you're not poorly, ma'am, on this queer shore."
"I like the island," says she, solemn and stiff-like; "my dear nephew is an eccentric, but we must take our bread as we find it on this earth, Mister Begg, and thankful for it too. Poor Ruth, now, she is dreadfully distressed and unhappy; but I tell her it will all come right in the end. Let her be patient a little while and she will have her own way. She wants for nothing here—she has every comfort. If her husband chooses such a home for her, she must submit. It is our duty to submit to our husbands, captain, as the catechism teaches us."
"Aye, when you've got 'em," thought I, but I nodded my head to the old lady, and turned to my mistress, who was now speaking to me.
"You'll lunch here; why, yes, captain—you mustn't find us inhospitable, even if you leave us at once. Mr. Denton, will you please to tell them that Captain Begg lunches with me—as soon as possible?"
She turned to the yellow man to give him the order; but there was no mistaking the look which passed between them, saying on her side: "Allow me to do this," on his, "You will suffer for it afterwards." But he went up to the veranda of the house right enough, and while he was bawling to the cook, I spoke the first plain word to Mme. Czerny.
"Mistress," I said, "the ship's there—shall we go or stay?"
I had meant it to be the plain truth between us; on her part the confession whether she needed me or did not; on mine the will to serve her whatever might happen to me. To my dying day, I shall never forget her answer.
"Go," she said, so low that it was little more than a whisper, "but, oh, for God's sake, Jasper Begg, come back to me again."
I nodded my head and turned the talk. The man Denton, the one with the yellow beard (rated as Kess Denton on the island), was back at my side almost before she had finished. The old lady began to talk about "curling-spikes" and "blue Saint Peters," and how much the anchor weighed, and all that sort of blarney which she thought ship-shape and suited to a poor sailor-man's understanding. I told her a story of a shark that swallowed a missionary and his hymn-book, and always swam round our ship at service times afterwards—and that kept her thinking a bit. As for little Dolly Venn, he couldn't keep his eyes off Miss Ruth—and I didn't wonder, for mine went that way pretty often. Aye, she had changed, too, in those twelve months that had passed since last I saw her, the prettiest bride that ever held out a finger for a ring in the big church at Nice. Her cheeks were all fallen away and flushed with a colour which was cruelly unhealthy to see. The big blue eyes, which I used to see full of laughter and a young girl's life, were ringed round with black, and pitiful when they looked at you. The hair parted above the forehead, as it always was, and brought down in curls above her little ears, didn't seem to me so full of golden threads as it used to be. But it was good to hear her plucky talk, there at the dinner-table, when she chattered away like some sweet-singing bird, and Dolly couldn't turn away his eyes, and the yellow boy stood, sour and savage, behind her chair, and threw out hints for me to sheer off which might have moved the Bass Rock. Not that he need have troubled himself, for I had made up my mind already what to do; and no sooner was the food stowed away than I up and spoke about the need of getting on again, and such like. And with that I said "Good-bye" to Mistress Ruth and "Good-bye" to the old woman, and had a shot left in my locker for the yellow boy, which I don't doubt pleased him mightily.
"Good luck to you," says I; "if you'd a wisp of your hair, I'd put it in my locket and think of you sometimes. When you want anything from London you just shout across the sea and we'll be hearing you. Deadman's Horn is nothing to you," said I; "you'd scare a ship out of the sea, if you wasn't gentle to her."
Mind you, I said all this as much to put him off as anything else, for I'd been careful enough to blab no word about the Southern Cross being Miss Ruth's very own ship, nor about her orders that we should call at Ken's Island; and I knew that when a man's angry at what you say to him he doesn't think much of two and two making four, but as often as not makes them eight or ten. May-be, said I, he'll make it out that I'm on a tramp bound for 'Frisco and have touched here on the way—and certainly he won't look for my coming back again once he sees our smoke on the sky-line. Nor was I wrong. My mistress was to tell me that much before twelve hours had passed.
And so it was that I said "Good-bye" to her, she standing at the garden-gate with a brave smile upon her pretty face, and the yellow man behind her like a savage dog that is afraid to bite, but has all the mind to. At the valley's head I turned about, and she was still there, looking up wistfully to the hills we trod. Thrice I waved my hand to her, and thrice she answered, and then together, the lad and I, we entered the dark wood and saw her no more.
"Your best leg forward, lad," said I to him, "and mum's the word. There's work to do on the ship, and work ashore for a woman's sake. Are you game for that, Dolly—are you game, my boy?"
Well, he didn't answer me. Some one up in the black gorge above fired a rifle just as I spoke; and the bullet came singing down like a bird on the wing. Not a soul could I see, not a sound could I hear when the rolling echoes had passed away. It was just the silence of the thicket and of the great precipices which headed it—a silence which might freeze a man's heart because the danger which threatened him was hidden.
"Crouch low to the rocks, lad, and go easy," cried I, when my wits came back again; "that's a tongue it doesn't do to quarrel with. The dirty skunks—to fire on unarmed men! But we'll return it, Dolly; as I live I'll fire a dozen for every one they send us."
"Return it, sir," says he; "but aren't you going aboard?"
"Aye," says I, "and coming back again like drift on an open sea. Now let me see you skip across that bridge, and no mistake about it."
He darted across the chasm's bridge like a chamois. I followed him quick and clumsy. If my heart was in my mouth—well, let that pass. Not for my own sake did I fear mortal man that day, but for the sake of a woman whose very life I believed to be in danger.
WE GO ABOARD, BUT RETURN AGAIN
We made the ship safely when twenty minutes were passed, and ten minutes later, Mister Jacob and Peter Bligh were in my cabin with me.
"Lads," I said, for it was not a day when a man picked his talk; "lads," said I, "this ship goes full steam ahead for 'Frisco, and you'll be wanting to know the reason why. Well, that's right and proper. Let me tell you that she's steaming to 'Frisco because it's the shortest way to Ken's Island."
They looked queer at this, but my manner kept them silent. Every man aboard the Southern Cross had heard the gun fired up in the hills, and every one knew that Dolly Venn and the skipper had raced for their lives to the water's edge. "What next?" they asked; and I meant to tell them.
"Yes," said I, "the shortest way to Ken's Island, and no mistake about it. For what does a man do when he sees some one in a house and the front door's slammed in his face? Why, he goes to the back door certainly, and for choice when the night's dark and the blinds are down. That's what I'm going to do this night, lads, for the sake of a bit of a girl you and I would sail far to serve."
They said, "Aye, aye," and drew their chairs closer. The men had been piped down to dinner, but Peter Bligh forgot his, and that was extraordinary peculiar in him. Mister Jacob took snuff as though it were chocolate powder, and the whole of a man spoke from his little eyes.
"Listen," said I, beginning to tell them what you know already, "here have we sailed twelve thousand miles at Ruth Bellenden's order, and how does she receive us? Why, with a nod she might give a neighbour going by in the street——"
"They not being on speaking terms except in church," put in Peter Bligh.
"Or she wishing him to get on with his business," said Mister Jacob, "and not to gossip when there was work to do."
"Be that as it may," I ran on, "the facts are as plain to me as eight bells for noon. Ruth Bellenden's married to a foreigner who's next door to a madman. Why, look at it—what was the only word she had the time or the chance to say? 'For God's sake, come back, Jasper Begg,' says she. And what am I going to do upon that, gentlemen? Why, I'm going back, so help me heaven, this very night to learn her trouble."
"And to bring her aboard where she could tell it on a fair course, so to speak. You'll do that, sir?"
"The night will show what I shall do, Mister Jacob. Was there ever such a story? A man to marry the best creature that ever put on a pretty bonnet, and to carry her to a god-forsaken shore like this! And to ill-treat her there! Aye, that's it. If ever a woman's eyes spoke to me of hard treatment, it was Ruth Bellenden's this morning. She's some trouble, lads, some dreadful trouble. She doesn't even speak of it to me. The yellow boy I've made mention of stood by her all the time. We talked like two that pass by on the ocean. Who'll gainsay that it was an unnatural thing? No mortal man can, with reason!"
"Aye, there's precious little reason in it, by what I make out, captain. You'll know more when the young lady's aboard here——"
"And the yellow boy's head has a bump on the top of it, like the knob what used to hang down from my mother's chandelay—but that's idle talking. What time do you put her about to go ashore, sir?"
I was glad to see them coming to it like this, and I fell to the plan without further parley.
"A fair question and a fair answer," said I; "this ship goes about at eight bells, Peter. To Mister Jacob here I trust the safety of the good fellows who go ashore with me. If we can bring the mistress aboard to-night, well and good, we've done the best day's work we ever set our hands to. If not, that work must rest until tomorrow night, or the night after or the night after that. Eight days from now if it happens that nothing is heard from the land and no news of us, well, the course is plain. In that case it will be full steam ahead to 'Frisco, and from there a cable to Kenrick Bellenden, and the plain intimation that his sister has pretty bad need of him on Ken's Island."
"And of an American warship, if one is forthcoming."
"It may be, Mister Jacob; it may be that, though the devils ashore there are the only ones that could tell you that. But you're a man of understanding, and your part will be done. I rely upon you as between shipmates."
He took a pinch of snuff, and flapping his coat-tails (for he was always rigged out in the naval officer way) he answered what I wished.
"As between shipmates, I will do my duty," said he.
"I knew it; I've known it from the beginning," said I. "What's left when you've done is the shore part, and that's not so easy. Peter Bligh's coming, and I couldn't well leave Dolly on board. Give me our hulking carpenter, Seth Barker, and I'll lighten the ship no more. We're short-handed as it is. And, besides, if four won't serve, then forty would be no better. What we can do yonder, wits, and not revolvers, must bring about. But I'll not go with sugar-sticks, you take my word for it, and any man that points a gun at me will wish he'd gone shooting sheep."
"Aye, aye, to that," cried Peter, who was ever a man for a fight; "the shooting first and the civil words after. That's sense and no blarney. When my poor father was tried at Swansea, his native place, for hitting an Excise man with a ham——"
"Mr. Bligh," cried I, "'tis not with hams you'll be hitting folks yonder, take my word for it. This job may find us on a child's errand or it may find us doing men's work. Eight bells on the first watch will tell the whole of the story. Until that time I shall hold my tongue about it, but I don't go ashore as I go to a picnic, and I don't make a boast about what I may presently cry out about."
Well, they were both of my way of thinking, and when we'd talked a little more about it, and I'd opened the arm-chest and looked over the few guns and pistols we'd got there, and we'd called the lad Dolly down and promised him that he should come with us, and the men had been given to understand that the skipper was to go ashore by-and-bye on an important business, Peter and the others went to their dinner and I took my turn on the bridge. The swell was running strongly then, and the wind blew fresh from the north-east. We'd lost all sight of the island, and spoke but one ship, a small mail steamer from Santa Cruz bound for the Yellow Sea, which signalled us "All well" at six bells in the afternoon watch. From that time I went dead slow and began to bring the Southern Cross about. The work was begun that very hour, I always say.
Now, I've told all this, short and brief, and with no talk of my own about it. The thing had come so sudden, I knew so little of Ruth Bellenden's trouble or of what had befallen her on the island, that I was like a man in the dark groping blindly, yet set on hearing the truth. As for the crew, well, you may be sure that Dolly Venn had put his side of the story about, and when they knew that my mistress was ashore there and in some danger, I believe they'd have put me in irons if I'd so much as spoken of going back.
Risky it was, so much I won't deny; but who wouldn't risk more than his own paltry skin to save a woman in trouble, and she, so to speak, a shipmate? There was not a man aboard, stake my life, who wouldn't have gone to the land willingly for Ruth Bellenden's sake though he'd been told, sure and certain, that Ken's Island must be his grave. And we'd always the ship, mind you, and the knowledge that she would go to 'Frisco to get us help. A fool's hope, I say now. For how could we know that the Southern Cross would be at the bottom of the sea, a thousand fathoms down, before the week was run? We couldn't know it; yet that was what happened, and that is why no help came to us.
We had put the ship about at six bells in the afternoon watch, but it was eight bells in the second dog (the night being too clear for my liking and a full moon showing bright in the sky) that we sighted Ken's Island for the second time, and for the second time prepared to go ashore. The longboat was ready by this time, her barrels full of water and her lockers full of biscuit. Such arms as we were to carry were partly stowed in water-proof sheeting—the rifles, and the cartridges for them; but the revolvers we carried, and a good Sheffield knife a man, which we weren't going to cut potatoes with. For the rest, I made them put in a few stout blankets, and more rations than might have served for such a trip. "Good beginnings make good endings," said I; "what we haven't need of, lads, we can carry aboard again. The longboat's back won't ache, be sure of it."
All this, I say, was done when the moon showed us the island like a great barren rock rising up sheer from the sea. And when it was done, Mister Jacob called my attention to something which in the hurry of shore-going I might never have seen at all or thought about. It was nothing less than this—that their fool's beacon was out to-night, and all the sea about it as black as ink. Whoever set up the light, then, did not use it for a seaman's benefit, but for his own whim. I reckoned up the situation at a glance, and even at that early stage I began to know the terrible meaning of it.
"Mister Jacob," said I, "those that keep that beacon are either fools or knaves."
"Or both, sir," said he.
"Which one is the own brother to the other. Aye, captain, 'tis lucky ye've the parish lantern, as my poor father used to say when——"
But Peter Bligh never finished it that night. The words were still in his mouth when a rocket shot up over the sea and bursting in a cloud of gold-blue sparks, cast a weird, cold light upon rock and reef and all that troubled sea. And as the rocket fell our big carpenter, Seth Barker, standing aft by the hatch, cries out,
"Ship ashore! Ship ashore, by——!"
STRANGE SIGHTS ASHORE, AND WHAT WE SAW OF THEM
Now, when Seth Barker cried out that a ship was ashore on the dangerous reefs to the northward of the main island, it is not necessary to tell you what we, a crew of British seamen, were called upon to do. The words were scarcely spoken before I had given the order, "Stand by the boats," and sent every man to his station. Excited the hands were, that I will not deny; excited and willing enough to tell you about it if you'd asked them; but no man among them opened his lips, and while they stood there, anxious and ready, I had my glass to my eye and tried to make out the steamer and what had befallen her. Nor was Mister Jacob behind me, but he and Peter Bligh at my side, we soon knew the truth and made up our minds about it.
"There's a ship on the reef, sure enough, and by the cut of her she's the Santa Cruz we spoke this afternoon," said Mr. Jacob, and added, "a dangerous shore, sir, a dangerous shore."
"But full of kind-hearted people that fire their guns at poor shipwrecked mariners," put in Peter Bligh. I wouldn't believe him at first, but there was no denying it, awful truth that it was, when a few minutes had passed.
"Good God," cried I, "it can't be so, Peter, and yet that's a rifle's tongue, or I've lost my hearing."
Well, we all stood together and listened as men listen for some poor creature's death-cry, or the sounds which come in the stillness of the night to affright and unnerve us. Sure enough, you couldn't have counted ten before the report of guns was heard distinctly above the distant roar of breakers; while flashes of crimson light, playing about the reef, seemed to tell the whole story without another word from me.
"Those devils ashore are shooting the crew," cried I; "did man ever hear such bloody work? I'll have a reckoning for this, if it takes me twenty years. Lower away the boats, lads; I'm going to dance to that music."
They swung the two longboats out on the davits, and the port crew were in their seats, when Mister Jacob touched my arm and questioned my order—a thing I haven't known him to do twice in ten years.
"Beg pardon, sir," said he, "but there's no boat that will help the Santa Cruz to-night."
"And why, Mister Jacob—why do you say that?"
"Because she's gone where neither you nor I wish to go yet awhile, Mister Begg."
I stood as though he had shot me, and clapping my glass to my eye I took another look towards the northern reef and the ship that was stranded there. But no ship was to be seen. She had disappeared in a twinkling; the sea had swallowed her up. And over the water, as an eerie wail, lasting and doleful, came the death-cries of those who perished with her.
"God rest their poor souls and punish them that sent them there," said Peter Bligh fervently; but Mister Jacob was still full of his prudent talk.
"We're four miles out, and the moon will be gone in ten minutes, sir. You couldn't make the reef if you tried, and if you could, you'd find none living. This sea would best the biggest boat that ever a ship carried—it will blow harder in an hour, and what then? We've friends of our own to serve, and the door that Providence opens we've, no right to shut. I say nothing against humanity, Captain Begg, but I wouldn't hunt the dead in the water when I could help the living ashore."
I saw his point in a moment, and had nothing to say against it. No small boat could have lived in the reefs about the northern end of the island with the sea that was running that night. If the devils who fired down upon the poor fellows of the Santa Cruz were still watching like vultures for human meat, fair argument said, the main island would be free of them for us to go ashore as we pleased. A better opportunity might not be found for a score of months. I never blame myself, least of all now, when I know Ruth Bellenden's story, that I listened that night to the clearheaded wisdom of Anthony Jacob.
"You're right, as always, Mister Jacob. I've no call to take these good fellows on a fool's errand. And it's going to blow hard, as you say. We'll take in one of the boats, and those that are for the shore will make haste to get aboard the other."
This I said to him, but to the men I put it in a few seaman's words.
"Lads," I said, "no boat that Southampton ever built could swim in yonder tide where it makes between the reefs. We'd like to help shipmates, but the chance is not ours. There's another little shipmate ashore there that needs our help pretty badly. I'm going in for her sake, and there's not a man of you that will not do his duty by the ship when I'm gone. Aye, you'll stand by Mister Jacob, lads, I may tell him that?"
They gave me a rousing cheer, which was a pretty foolish thing to have done, and it took all my voice to silence them. Lucky for us, there was a cloud over the moon now, and darkness like a black vapour upon the sea. Not a lamp burned on the Southern Cross; not a cabin window but had its curtain. What glow came from her funnel was not more than a hazy red light over the waters; and when five of us (for we took Harry Doe to stand by ashore) stepped into the longboat, and set her head due west for the land, we lost the steamer in five minutes—and, God knows, we were never to see her again on the high seas or off.
Now, I have said that the wind had begun to blow fresh since sunset, and at two bells in the first watch, the time we left the ship, the sea ran high, and it was not oversafe even in the longboat to be cruising for a shore we knew so little about. I have always accounted it more good luck than good seamanship which brought us to the cove at last, and set us all, wet but cheerful, on the dry, white sand about the ladder's foot. There was shelter in the bay both for man and ship, and when we'd dragged the longboat up on the beach we gave Harry Doe his orders and left him to his duty.
"If there's danger fire your gun," said I—"once, if you wish to call us; twice, if you think we should stand off. But you won't do that unless things are at the worst, and I'm hoping for the best, when you won't do it at all."
He answered, "Aye, aye," in a whisper which was like a bear's growl; and we four, Peter Bligh, Seth Barker, and the lad Dolly, besides myself, climbed the ladder like cats and stood at the cliff's head. To say that our hearts were in our mouths would not be strict truth, for I never feared any man, beast, or devil yet; and I wasn't going to begin that night—nor were the others more ready, that I will answer for them. But remembering the things we had seen on the reef, the words which Ruth Bellenden had spoken to me, and that which happened to the lad and myself last time we came ashore; remembering this, it's not to be wondered at that our hearts beat a bit quicker, and that our hands went now and again to the pistols we carried. For, just think of it—there we were at nine o'clock of a dark night, in a thick wood, with the trees making ghosts about us, and the path as narrow as a ship's plank, and no knowledge who walked the woods with us, nor any true reckoning of our circumstance. What man wouldn't have held his tongue at such a time, or argued with himself that it might end badly, and he never see the sun again? Not Jasper Begg, as I bear witness.
Now, I put myself at the head of our fellows and, the better to find the track, I went down on my hands and my knees like a four-footed thing, and signalling to those behind with a bosun's whistle, I led them well enough through the wood to the wicker-basket bridge; and would have gone on from there straight down to the house but for something which happened at the clearing of the thicket, just as I stood up to bid the men go over. Startling it was, to be sure, and enough to give any man a turn; nor did I wonder that Peter Bligh should have cried out as he did when first he clapped eyes upon it.
"Holy Mother of Music," says he, "'tis the angels singing, or I'm a dirty nigger!"
"Hold your tongue," says I, in a whisper; "are you afraid of two young women, then?"
"Of three," says he, "which being odd is lucky. When my poor father——"
"To hell with your father," says I; "hold your tongue and wait."
He lay low at this, and the rest of us gaped, open-mouthed, as though we were staring at a fairy-book. There, before us, coming down from the black rocks above, leaping from step to step of the stone, were three young girls; but, aye, the queerest sort that ever tantalized a man with their prettiness. You may well ask, the night being inky dark, how we managed to see them at all; but let me tell you that they carried good rosin torches in their hands, and the wild light, all gold and crimson against the rocks, shone as bright as a ship's flare and as far. Never have I seen such a thing, I say, and never shall. There were the three of them, like young deer on a bleak hillside, singing and laughing and leaping down, and, what's more, speaking to each other in an odd lingo, with here a word of French and there a word of German, and after that something that was beyond me and foreign to my understanding.
"God be good to me—saw man ever such a sight? And the dress of 'em, the dress of 'em," whispers Peter Bligh. But I clapped my hand upon his mouth and stopped him that time.
"The dress is all right," said I; "what I'm wondering is how three of that sort came in such a place as this. And well born too, well born, or I don't know the meaning of the term!"
They were pretty creatures and their dress was like the rest of them. Short skirts all looped and filled with flowers, toggery above cut out of some white skin, with caps to match and their hair falling in big ramping curls about it—they were for all the world like the dancers you see at a stage play and just as active. And to hear their voices, sweet and musical, floating from ravine to ravine like a choir singing in a place of echoes, aye that was something you might not soon forget. But what they were doing in such a place, or how they came there, the Lord above alone knew, and not a plain seaman like Jasper Begg.
"What are they saying, Peter—what do you make of it?" I asked him, under my breath.
"'Tis the French lingo," says he, foolish-like, "and if it's not that, 'tis the German—leastwise no Christian man that I know of could distinguish between 'em."
"Peter," says I, "that's what you learn in the asylum. 'Tis no more the French lingo than your own. Why, hearken to it."
Well, he listened, and soon we heard a pretty echo from the valley, for they'd gone down towards the gardens now; and one word repeated often had as nice a touch of music as I remember hearing. It was just this: "Rosamunda—munda—munda," and you can't think how fresh the young voice sounded in that lonely place, or what a chill it gave a man when he remembered the devils over at the reef and what they'd done to the crew of the Santa Cruz. I do believe to this day that our fellows imagined they'd seen nothing more nor less than an apparition out of the black rocks above them; and it wasn't until I'd spoken to them in good honest English that I got them to go on again.
"Flesh or spirit, that's not a lot to whiten a man's gills," cried I; "why, thunder, Peter Bligh, you're big enough to put 'em all in your pocket, and soft enough they'd lie when they got there. Do you mean to tell me," I asked him, "that four hale and strong men are to be frightened out of their wits by three pretty girls?—and you a religious man, too, Peter! Why, I'm ashamed of you, that I am, lads, right down ashamed of you!"
They plucked up at this, and Peter he made haste to excuse himself.
"If they was Christian men with knives in their hands," says he, "I'd put up a bit of a prayer, and trust to the Lord to shoot 'em; but them three's agen all reason, at this time of night in such a lone place."
"Go on with you, Peter," chimes in Dolly Venn; "three ripping little girls, and don't I wish they'd ask me in to tea! Why, look, they're down by the house now, and somebody with them, though whether it's a man or a woman I really don't pretend to say."
"I'm derned if I don't think it's a lion," says Seth Barker, asking my pardon for the liberty.
We all stood still at this, for we were on the hillside just above the house now; and down on the fair grass-way below us we espied the three little girls with their torches still burning, and they as deep in talk with a stranger as a man might have been with his own mother. A more remarkable human being than the one these little ladies had happened upon I don't look to see again the world around. Man or lion—God forgive me if I know what to call him. He'd hair enough, shaggy hair curling about his shoulders, to have stuffed a feather bed. His dress was half man's, half woman's. He'd a tattered petticoat about his legs, a seaman's blouse for his body, and a lady's shawl above that upon his shoulders—his legs were bare as a barked tree, and what boots he had should have been in the rag-shop. More wonderful still was it to see the manner of the young ladies towards him—for I shall always call them that—they petted him and fondled him, and one put a mock crown of roses on his head. Then, with that pretty song of theirs, "Rosamunda—munda—munda," they all ran off together towards the northern shore and left us in the darkness, as surprised a party of men as you'll readily meet with.
"Well," says Peter Bligh, and he was the first among us to speak, "yon's a nice shipmate to speak on a quiet road. So help me thunder, but I wouldn't pass round the tin for him in a beauty show, no, not much! Did ye see the hair of him, captain—did ye see the hair?"
"And the girls kissing him as though he were Apollo," cries Dolly Venn, who, I don't doubt, would have done the kissing willingly himself. But I hushed their talk, and without more ado I went straight down to Ruth Bellenden's house. All the strange things we'd seen and heard, the uncanny sights, the firing on the reef, the wild man ashore, the little girls from the hills—all these, I say, began to tell me my mistress's story as a written book might never have done. "She's need of me," I said, "sore need; and by God's help I'll bring her out of this place before to-morrow's sun."
For how should I know what long days must pass before I was to leave Ken's Island again?
JASPER BEGG MEETS HIS OLD MISTRESS, AND IS WATCHED
I had made up my mind to take every proper precaution before going up to the house where my mistress lived; and with caution in my head I left Seth Barker, the carpenter, up on the hill path, while I set Peter Bligh at the gate of the garden, and posted Dolly Venn round at the northern side, where the men who had looted the Santa Cruz might be looked for with any others that I had no knowledge of. When this was done, and they understood that they were to fire a gun if the need arose, I opened the wicket-gate and crept up the grass path for all the world like an ill-visaged fellow who had no true business there. Not a sound could I hear in all that place; not a dog barked, nor a human voice spoke. Even the wind came fitful and gusty about the sheltered house; and so quiet was it between the squalls that my own footfall almost could scare me. For, you see, a whisper spoken at the wrong time might have undone all—a clumsy step have cost us more than a man cared to count. We were but four, and, for all I know, there might have been four hundred on Ken's Island. You don't wonder therefore, if I asked myself at times whether to-morrow's sun would find us living or what our misfortune might spell for one I had come so far to serve.
It was very dark in the garden, as I have told you, but two of the windows in the house were lighted up and two golden rings of light thrown out upon the soft grass I trod. I stood a long time debating which window to knock open—for it was a fearful lottery, I must say—and when I'd turned it over and over in my head, and now made out that it was this window and now plumped for the other, I took up a pebble at last and cast it upon the pane nearest to the door—for that seemed to me the more likely room, and I'd nothing else but common sense to guide me. You may judge of my feelings when no notice was taken of my signal except by a dog, which began to yap like a pup and to make such a scare that I thought every window and every door must be opened that very instant and as many men out on top of me. I said, surely, that it was all up with Jasper Begg that journey; but odd to tell it, the dog gave over at last, and no one showed himself, neither was there any whistle from my company; and I was just making ready to throw another stone when the second light was turned out all of a sudden and, the long window being opened, Ruth Bellenden—or, to be more correct, Mme. Czerny—herself came out into the garden, and stood looking round about as though she knew that I was there and had been waiting for me. When at last she saw me she didn't speak or make any sign, but going about to the house again she held the window open for me, and I passed into the dark room with her, and there held her hand in mine, I do believe as though I would never let it go again.
"Jasper," says she, in a whisper that was pretty as the south wind in springtime; "Jasper Begg, how could it be any one else! Oh, we must light a candle, Jasper Begg," says she, "or we shall lose ourselves in the dark."
"Miss Ruth," said I, "light or dark, I'm here according to my orders, and the ship's here, and as I said to you before the yellow boy to-day, we're waiting for our mistress to go aboard."
She had her back to me when I said this, and was busy enough drawing the curtains and lighting the lamp again. The light showed me that she wore a rich black gown with fluffy stuff over it, and a bit of a sparkle in the way of diamonds like a band across her parted hair. The face was deceiving, now lighted up by one of the old smiles, now hard set as one who had suffered much for her years. But there was nothing over-womanish in her talk, and we two thrashed it out there, just the same as if Ken's Island wasn't full of devils, and the lives of me and my men worth what a spin of the coin might buy them at.
"You mustn't call me Miss Ruth," says she, when she turned from the lamp and tidied up her writing on the table; "of course you know that, Jasper Begg. And you at my wedding, too—is it really not more than twelve long months ago?"
A sigh passed her lips, such a sigh as tells a woman's story better than all the books; and in that moment the new look came upon her face, the look I had seen when the yellow man changed words with her in the morning.
"It's thirteen months three weeks since you went up with Mr. Czerny to the cathedral at Nice," was my next word; "the days go slow on this out-of-the-way shore, I'll be bound—until our friends come, Miss Ruth, until we're sure they haven't forgotten us."
I had a meaning in this, and be sure she took it. Not that she answered me out and away as I wished; for she put on the pretty air of wife and mistress who wouldn't tell any of her husband's secrets.
"Why, yes," she said, very slowly, "the days are long and the nights longer, and, of course, my husband is much away from here."
I nodded my head and drew the chair she'd offered me close to the table. On her part she was looking at the clock as though she wished that the hands of it might stand still. I read it that we hadn't much time to lose, and what we had was no time for fair words.
"Miss Ruth," says I, without more parley, "from what I've seen to-night I don't doubt that any honest man would be glad to get as far as he could from Ken's Island and its people at the first opportunity. You'll pardon what a plain seaman is going to say, and count him none the less a friend for saying it. When you left money in the banker's hands to commission a ship and bring her to this port, your words to me were, 'I may have need of you.' Miss Ruth, you have need of me—I should be no more than a fool if I couldn't see that. You have sore need of me, and if you won't say so for yourself, I take leave to say it for you."
She raised a hand as though she would not hear me—but I was on a clear course now, and I held to it in spite of her.
"Yes," I said, "you've need of your friends to-night, and it's a lucky wind that brought them to this shore. What has passed, Miss Ruth, in these months you speak of, it's not for me to ask or inquire. I have eyes in my head, and they show me what I would give my fortune not to see. You're unhappy here, Miss Ruth—you're not treated well."
I waited for her to speak; but not a word would she say. White she was, as a flower from her own garden, and once or twice she shivered as though the cold had struck her. I was just going on to speak again, when what should happen but that her little head went down on the table and she began to sob as though her heart would break.
"Oh, Jasper Begg, how I have suffered, how I have suffered!" said she, between her sobs; and what could I do, what could any man do who would kiss the ground a woman walks upon but has no right or title to? Why, hold his tongue, of course, though it hurt him cruelly to do any such thing.
"Miss Ruth," said I, very foolish, "please don't think of that now. I'm here to help you, the ship's here, we're waiting for you to go aboard."
She dried her tears and tried to look up at me with a smile.
"Oh, I'm just a child, just a child again, Jasper," cries she; "a year ago I thought myself a woman, but that's all passed. And I shall never go away on your ship, Jasper Begg—never, never. I shall die on Ken's Island as so many have died."
I stood up at this and pointed to the clock.
"Little friend," I said, "if you'll put a cloak about your shoulders and leave this house with me I'll have you safe aboard the Southern Cross in twenty minutes by that clock, as God is my witness."
It was no boast—for that I could have done as any seaman knows; and you may well imagine that I stood as a man struck dumb when I had her answer.
"Why, yes," she said, "you could put me on board your boat, Captain Jasper, if every step I took was not watched; if every crag had not its sentinel; if there were not a hundred to say 'Go back—go back to your home.' Oh, how can you know, how can you guess the things I fear and dread in this awful place? You, perhaps, because the ship is waiting will be allowed to return to it again. But I, never, never again to my life's end."
A terrible look crossed her face as she said this, and with one swift movement she opened a drawer in the locker where she did her writing, and took from it a little book which she thrust, like a packet, into my hands.
"Read," she said, with startling earnestness, "read that when you are at sea again. I never thought that any other eyes but mine would see it; but you, Jasper, you shall read it. It will tell you what I myself could never tell. Read it as you sail away from here, and then say how you will come back to help the woman who needs your help so sorely."
I thrust the book into my pocket, but was not to be put off like that.
"Read it I will, every line," said I; "but you don't suppose that Jasper Begg is about to sail away and leave you in this plight, Miss Ruth! He'd be a pretty sort of Englishman to do that, and it's not in his constitution, I do assure you!"
She laughed at my earnestness, but recollecting how we stood and what had befallen since sunset, she would hear no more of it.
"You don't understand; oh, you don't understand!" she cried, very earnestly; "there's danger here, danger even now while you and I are talking. Those who have gone out to the wreck will be coming home again; they must not find you in this house, Jasper Begg, must not, must not! For my sake, go as you came. Tell all that thought of me how I thank them. Some day, perhaps, you will learn how to help me. I am grateful to you, Jasper—you know that I am grateful."
She held out both her hands to me, and they lay in mine, and I was trying to speak a real word from my heart to her when there came a low, shrill whistle from the garden-gate, and I knew that Peter Bligh had seen something and was calling me.
"Miss Ruth," says I, "that's old Peter Bligh and his danger signal. There'll be some one about, little friend, or he wouldn't do it."
Well, she never said a word. I saw a shadow cross her face, and believed she was about to faint. Nor will any one be surprised at that when I say that the door behind us had been opened while we talked, and there stood Kess Denton, the yellow man, watching us like a hound that would bite presently.
IN WHICH HELP COMES FROM THE LAST QUARTER WE HAD EXPECTED IT
Now, no sooner did I see the yellow man than my mind was fully made up, and I determined what harbour to make for. "If you're there, my lad," said I to myself, "the others are not far behind you. You've seen me come in, and it's your intention to prevent me going out again. To be caught like a rat in a trap won't serve Ruth Bellenden, and it won't serve me. I'm for the open, Kess Denton," said I, "and no long while about it, either."
This I said, but I didn't mean to play the startled kitten, and without any token of surprise or such-like I turned round to Miss Ruth and gave her "good-evening."
"I'm sorry you're not coming aboard, Mme. Czerny," says I; "we weigh in an hour, and it will be a month or more before I call in again. But you sha'n't wait long for the news if I can help it; and as for your brother, Mr. Kenrick, I'll trust to hear from him at 'Frisco and to tell you what he thinks on my return. Good-night, madame," said I, "and the best of health and prosperity."
I held out my hand, and she shook it like one who didn't know what she was doing. The yellow man came a step nearer and said, "Halloa, my hearty." I nodded my head to him and he put his hand on my shoulder. Poor fool, he thought I was a child, perhaps, and to be treated as one; but I have learnt a thing or two about taking care of myself in Japan, and you couldn't have counted two before I had his arm twisted under mine, and he gave a yell that must have been heard up in the hills.
"If you cry out like that, you'll ruin your beautiful voice," said I; "hasn't any one ever asked you to sing hymns in a choir? Well, I'm surprised. Good-night, my boy; I shall be coming back for your picture before many days have passed."
Upon this, I stepped towards the door, and thought that I had done with him; but no sooner was I out in the garden than something went singing by my ear, and upon that a second dose with two reports which echoed in the hills like rolling thunder. No written music vas necessary to tell me the kind of tune it was, and I swung round on my heel and gripped the man by the throat almost before the echoes of the shot had died away.
"Kess Denton," said I, "if you will have it, you shall!" and with that I wrenched the pistol from his grasp and struck him a blow over the head that sent him down without a word.
"One," said I, to myself, "one that helped to make little Ruth Bellenden suffer;" and with that I set off running and never looked to the right of me nor to the left until I saw Peter Bligh at the gate and heard his honest voice.
"Is it you—is it you yourself, Mr. Begg? Thank God for that!" cries he, and it was no longer in a whisper; "there's men in the hills, and Seth Barker whistling fit to crack his lips. Is the young lady coming aboard, sir? No?—well, I'm not surprised, neither, though this shore do seem a queerish sort of place——"
I cut him short, and Dolly Venn running round from his place in the garden I asked him for his news. The thing now was to find a road to the sea. What could be done for Ruth Bellenden that night was over and passed. Our chance lay on the deck of the Southern Cross, and after that at 'Frisco.
"What have you seen, Dolly Venn—be quick, lad, for we can't linger?" was my question to him so soon as he was within hail. He answered me by pointing to the trees which border the garden on the eastward side.
"The wood is full of armed men, sir. Two of them nearly trod upon me while I was lying there. They carry rifles, and seem to be Germans—I couldn't be sure of that, sir."
"Germans or chimpanzees, we're going by them this night. Where's Seth Barker—why doesn't he come down? Does he think we can pass by the hill-road?—the wooden block! Call him, one of you."
They were about to do this when Seth Barker himself came panting down the hillpath, and, what was more remarkable, he carried an uncouth sort of bludgeon in his hand. I could see that there had been a bit of a rough and tumble on the way, but it wasn't the time for particulars.
"Come aboard, sir," says he, breathing heavy; "the gangway's blocked, but I give one of 'em a bit of a knock with his own shillelagh, and that's all right."
"Is there any more up there?" I asked quickly.
"May be a dozen, may be more. They're up on the heights looking for you to go up, captain."
"Aye," said I, "pleasant company, no doubt. Well, we must strike eastward somehow, lads, and the sooner the better. We'll hold to the valley a bit and see where that leads us. Do you, Seth Barker, keep that bit of a shillelagh ready, and, if any one asks you a question, don't you wait to answer it."
Now, I had resolved to try and get down to the sea by the valley road and, once upon the shore, to signal Harry Doe, if possible, and, if not him, then the ship herself as a last resource. Any road seemed to me better than this trap of a house with armed men all about it and a pistol bullet ready for any stranger that lingered. "Aboard the ship," said I, "we'll show them a clean pair of heels to 'Frisco and, after that, ask the American Government what it can do for Ruth Bellenden and for her husband." We were four against a hundred, perhaps, and desperate men against us. If we got out of the scrape with our skins, we should be as lucky a lot as ever sailed the Northern Pacific Ocean. But should we—could we? Why, it was a thousand to one against it!
I said this when we plunged into the wood; and yet I will bear witness that I got more excitement than anything else out of that venture, and I don't believe the others got less. There we were, the four of us, trampling through the brushwood, crushing down the bushes, now lying low, now up a-running—and not a man that wouldn't have gone through it twice for Ruth Bellenden's sake. If so be that the night was to cost us our lives, well, crying wouldn't help it—and those that were against us were flesh and blood, all said and done, and no spirits to scare a man. To that I set it down that we went on headlong and desperate. As for the thicket itself, it was full of men—I could see their figures between the trees. We must have passed twenty of them in the darkness before one came out, plump on our path and cried out to us to halt.
"Hold, hold," shouts he; "is it you, Bob Williams?"
"It's Bob Williams, right enough," says I, and with that I gave him one between the eyes, and down he went like a felled ox. The man who was with him, stumbling up against Seth Barker, had a touch of the shillelagh which was like a rock falling upon a fly. He just gave one shuddering groan and fell backwards, clutching the branches. Little Dolly Venn laughed aloud in his excitement, elbowed Peter Bligh who gave a real Irish "hurrugh"; but the darkness had swallowed it all up in a minute, and we were on again, heading for the shore like those that run a race for their very lives.
"Do you see any road, Peter Bligh?" asked I, for my breath was coming short now; "do you see any road, man?"
"The devil a one, sir, and me weighing fourteen stone!"
"You'll weigh less when we get down, Peter."
"And drink more, the saints be praised!"
"Was that a rifle-shot or a stone from the hills?" I asked them a moment later. Dolly Venn answered me this time.
"A rifle-shot, captain. They'll be shooting one another, then—it's ripping, ripping!"
"Look out, lad, or it'll be dripping!" cried I; "don't you see there's water ahead?"
I cried the warning to him and stood stock-still upon the borders of as black a pool as I remember to have seen in any country. The road had carried us to the foot of the hills, almost to the chasm which the wicker-bridge spanned; and we could make out that same bridge far above us like a black rope in the twilight. The water itself was covered with some clinging plants, and full of winding, ugly snakes which caused the whole pool to shine with a kind of uncanny light; while an overpowering odour, deadly and stifling, steamed up from it, and threatened to choke a man. What was worse than this was a close thicket bordering the pond on three sides, so that we must either swim for it or turn back the way we came. The latter course was not to be thought of. Already I could hear footsteps, and boughs snapping and breaking not many yards from where we stood. To cross the pond might have struck the bravest man alive with terror. I'd have sooner forfeited my life time over than have touched one of those slimy snakes I could see wriggling over the leaves to the bottom of the still water. What else to do I had no more notion than the dead. "It's the end, Jasper Begg," said I to myself, "the end of you and your venture." But of Ruth Bellenden I wouldn't think. How could I, when I knew the folks that were abroad on Ken's Island?
I will just ask any traveller to stand with me where I stood that night and to say if these words are overmuch for the plight, or if I have spoken of it with moderation. A night as black as ink, mind you; my company in the heart of a wood with big teak trees all round us, and cliffs on our right hand towering up to the sky like mountains. Before us a pool of inky water, all worming with odd lights and lines of blue fire, like flakes of phosphorus on a bath, and alive with the hissing of hundreds of snakes. Upon our left hand a scrubby thicket and a marsh beneath it, I make sure; Czerny's devils, who had shot the poor folks on the Santa Cruz, at our heels, and we but four against the lot of them. Would any man, I ask, have believed that he could walk into such a trap and get out of it unharmed? If so, it wasn't Jasper Begg, nor Peter Bligh, nor little Dolly Venn, nor Seth Barker with the bludgeon in his hand. They'd as good as given it up when we came to the pool and stood there like hunting men that have lost all hope.
"Done, by all that's holy!" says Peter Bligh, drawing back from the pond as from some horrid pit. "Snakes I have seen, nateral and unnateral, but them yonder give me the creeps——"
"Creeps or no creeps, the others will be up here in five minutes, and what are you going to do then, Peter Bligh, what then?" asks I, for as I'm a living man I didn't know which way to turn from it.
Seth Barker was the one that answered me.
"I'm going to knock some nails in, by your leave," says he, and with that he stood very still and bade us listen. The whole wood was full of the sound of "halloaing" now. Far and wide I heard question and answer, and a lingering yodle such as the Swiss boys make on the mountains. It couldn't be many minutes, I said, before the first man was out on our trail; and there I was right, for one of them came leaping out of the wood straight into Peter Bligh's arms before I'd spoken another word. Poor devil—it was the last good-night for him in this world—for Peter passes him on, so to speak, and he went headlong into the pond without any one knowing how he got there. A more awful end I hope I may never hear of, and yet, God knows, he brought it on himself. As for Peter Bligh, the shock set him sobbing like a woman. It was all my work to get him on again.
"No fault of ours," said I; "we're here for a woman's sake, and if there's man's work to do, we'll do it, lads. Take my advice and you'll turn straight back and run for it. Better a tap on the head than a cry in yonder pool."
They replied fearsomely—the strain was telling upon them badly. That much I learnt from their husky voices and the way they kept close to me, as though I could protect them. Seth Barker, especially, big man that he was, began to mutter to himself in the wildest manner possible; while little Dolly burst into whistling from time to time in a way that made me crazy.
"That's right, lad," cried I, "tell them you're here, and ask after the health of their womenfolk. You've done with this world, I see, and made it straight for the next. If you've a match in your pocket, strike it to keep up their spirits."
Well, he stopped short, and I was ashamed of myself a minute after for speaking so to a mere lad whose life was before him and who'd every right to be afraid.
"Come," said I, more kindly, "keep close to me, Dolly, and if you don't know where I am, why, put out your hand and touch me. I've been in worse scrapes than this, my boy, and I'll lead you out of it somehow. After all, we've ship over yonder and Mister Jacob isn't done with yet. Keep up your heart, then, and put your best leg forward."
Now, this was spoken to put courage into him—not that I believed what I said, but because he and the others counted upon me, and my own feelings had to go under somehow. For the matter of that, it looked all Lombard Street to a China orange against us when we took the woodland path again; and so I believe it would have been but for something which came upon us like a thunder-flash, and changed all our despair to a desperate hope. And to this something Peter Bligh was the first to call our attention.
"Is it fireflies or lanterns?" cries he all at once, bringing out the words like a pump might have done; "yonder on the hillside, shipmates—is it fireflies or lanterns?"
I stood to look, and while I stood Seth Barker named the thing.
"It's lanterns," cries he; "lanterns, sure and certain, captain."
"And the three ripping little girls carrying them," puts in Dolly Venn.
"'Tis no woman ever born that would hunt down four poor sailor-men," cries Peter Bligh.
"To say nothing of the he-lion they was a-fondling of"—from Seth Barker.
"Lads," said I, in my turn, "this is the unlooked for, and I, for one, don't mean to pass it by. I'm going to ask those young ladies for a short road to the hills—and not lose any time about it either."
They all said "Aye, aye," and we ran forward together. The halloaing in the wood was closing in about us now; you could hear voices wherever you turned an ear. As for the lanterns, they darted from bush to bush like glow-worms on a summer's night, so that I made certain they would dodge us after all. My heart was low down enough, be sure of it, when I lost view of those guiding stars altogether, and found myself face to face with the last figure I might have asked for if you'd given me the choice of a hundred.
For what should happen but that the weird being, whom Seth Barker had called the "he-lion," the old fellow in petticoats, whom the little girls made such a fuss of, he, I say, appeared of a sudden right in the path before us, and, holding up a lantern warningly, he hailed us with a word which told us that he was our friend—the very last I would have named for that in all the island.