"There," I said to the negro who was supposed to be helping me; "you see how it is done? Very well; see to it, my friend, that you make no more misses." And he did not; or, at least, not very often. Meanwhile, the firing from the other rooms had been proceeding pretty briskly, though with what results, so far as the other three sides of the house were concerned, I could not tell. But it had been fairly effective on my side of the building; for, in addition to the three men for whom I had accounted, there were five motionless figures lying on the grass within view of my loophole, while I had seen others go staggering away palpably hit. I imagined that the outlaws were somewhat disconcerted at finding so many guns in the house, and had not very much stomach for a fight, wherein it was possible that a good many of them might get very seriously hurt. Hitherto, it appeared, the utmost resistance which they had met with had amounted to nothing more formidable than a few hasty, ill-aimed shots, followed by the immediate retreat of the defending party. But this adventure upon which they were now engaged was quite a different matter. Here was a good, solidly built house, constructed of materials which it was scarcely possible to set fire to from the outside, well barricaded, and evidently full of resolute men quite determined to sell their lives dearly. Oh yes, this was quite different, and it looked as though they did not half like it, for, having failed in that first rush, they had now withdrawn out of range and were apparently discussing some new scheme of operations. During this pause I visited the other rooms in succession to see how the occupants had been faring, and what measure of success they had met with. The result of my inspection was the discovery that twenty-seven of the attacking party had lost that number of their mess, while nearly double as many had been more or less seriously hurt in that first rush; which was quite as good as could reasonably have been expected; and it seemed fully to account for the shyness which the enemy was now exhibiting. I stated what had happened at my own window, urged every man individually to keep quite cool, and to take careful aim before pulling trigger; and then returned to my post, just in time to see some sixty negroes emerge from the bush bearing the trunk of a palm-tree which they had cut down, and which they were apparently about to employ as a battering-ram with which to batter in some of our defences. The men in the adjoining room saw it at the same moment, and instantly, in spite of the warning which I had so recently given, two shots rang out from the window at which they were stationed. The range, however, was too long, and nobody was hurt. Hurrying from my own room into the one from which the shots had come, I found that it was occupied by one of the overseers and a negro. I was engaged in giving them as severe a lecture as my knowledge of Spanish permitted, when there was a sudden call for all hands from the front of the house, and, rushing round, I saw that a party of about a hundred of the enemy were charging across the lawns in open order, leaping from side to side as they came, in a manner admirably adapted to render our aim utterly ineffective. A man was crouching at every loophole in the room, with the barrel of his piece projecting through it, and even as I entered one of the pieces spoke, ineffectively. The man who fired was Don Pedro, and he turned from the loophole with a savage execration at his failure.
"It is not of the slightest use to attempt to pick them off at long range while they are jumping about in that fashion," I exclaimed. "Wait until they are so close that you can make sure of them, and then shoot. To drop them at twenty yards, or even ten, or five, is just as effective as though you bowled them over at a hundred. And as each man fires, let him step aside and make room for another."
While I was thus exhorting my companions I stepped to the loophole which had just been vacated by Don Pedro, and thrust the muzzle of my weapon through it, sighting along the barrel. There was an individual coming toward me, jumping from side to side like the rest, first to the right, then to the left. I watched him for a moment or two, and noticed that each spring of his to the left brought him exactly in line with a tall, slender tree stem, some distance in his rear; I, therefore, aimed straight for this stem, and then waited until he made his next spring to the left, when I pulled the trigger, and down he toppled. Almost at the same instant three or four other shots rang out, and each proved sufficiently well aimed to reach its mark. A few seconds later another half-dozen shots followed, and down went four more of the charging negroes. The effect was instantaneous; at least half of them halted, in manifest indecision, some wheeled abruptly round and fled, and only about a dozen of the boldest maintained their rush. Another quick discharge brought even these to a halt, with the loss of four of their number; and while they stood, hesitating whether to advance or retreat, we peppered them again, to their manifest astonishment and consternation—possibly they thought that, with our guns empty, they were reasonably safe for a minute or so—whereupon they turned and fled, leaving six of their comrades prostrate on the ground. At this moment a cry from Teresita sent us all with a rush, helter-skelter, to the room which I had originally undertaken to defend; and here we found a critical state of affairs indeed. For while we had all been engaged in checking the rush upon the front of the house, the party with the palm-tree battering-ram had, under cover of various patches of vegetation, stolen up to within a hundred yards of the side, and were now manifestly preparing to make a rush across the open, bearing their battering-ram with them. Thanks, however, to Teresita's warning cry, we were just in good time to pour in a brisk fire upon them almost before they had fairly started upon their rush, and three or four men went down, throwing the others into momentary confusion, which afforded us the opportunity to treat them to a second volley. As this second volley crashed out I, having reloaded my weapon, stepped forward to take my place at a loophole just vacated by some one else, and as I did so I observed that the whole party had been thrown into great confusion by the second volley, the tree trunk having fallen to the ground, or been dropped. That, however, was not all; the negro dressed in Spanish infantry uniform had come to the front and was standing stock still, with his back toward the house, haranguing the battering-ram contingent and apparently urging them to pick up the tree again and make another attempt. The opportunity was too good to be lost, for he was within long range, and it was quite worth while to throw away a shot on the chance of hitting him; I therefore levelled my piece, aiming steadily at an imaginary point about two inches immediately above his head—feeling certain that, with this amount of elevation, I should get him somewhere—and pulled the trigger. The smoke of the discharge obscured my view for a second or two, but a wild shout of triumph from those in the next room told me that my shot had been successful; and then, as the smoke drifted away, I saw the fellow lying prone on the ground, with his men standing staring at him, as though fascinated, yet seemingly afraid to approach and attempt to raise him. As I stood, still peering through the loophole at the scene, my empty piece was gently withdrawn from my hand by some one behind me, and a loaded one substituted for it, whereupon I chose another mark and fired, bringing that man down also. This second casualty, at such long range, seemed to galvanise the party into sudden life; for, raising their weapons, they poured in a straggling, irregular, but ineffective volley, as though in obedience to an order, and then turned and raced for the nearest cover, followed by a few dropping shots, which at least served to freshen their way, if it did nothing else.
The entire attacking party now took cover, and opened fire upon the house at long range. Apparently they possessed little or no skill in the use of firearms, for, although a few shots struck the house, not one of them came anywhere near the loopholes, and every one of the garrison remained unscathed. Our foes were amply strong enough to have carried the building by assault had they but possessed the courage and resolution to charge across the open, right up to the house, and tear down but a single one of our barricades; but they had already learned by experience that this meant certain death to some of them; and while, if report did not belie them, they were all ready enough to take the lives of others with every accompaniment of the most atrocious cruelty, there was apparently none among them willing to contribute to the success of his party by sacrificing his own. This innocuous fusillade of the house continued for nearly two hours, during which we made no pretence of reply except when some individual, in a temporary access of courage, attempted to slip across from one piece of cover to another situated a few yards nearer the house, when he was immediately subjected to a volley that either laid him low, or sent him scuttling back, like a scared rabbit, to his former place of refuge.
CAPTURED BY THE NEGRO OUTLAWS.
At length, about ten o'clock in the forenoon, the fire of the outlaws ceased, and for aught that we could tell to the contrary they might have abandoned the attack altogether and retired. But the situation was one of far too much peril to permit us to take anything for granted; while, therefore, the main body of our party, so to speak, seized the opportunity thus afforded to snatch a hasty but much-needed meal, a watcher, with loaded weapon, was stationed at each door and window of the house, with instructions to maintain a sharp lookout, and immediately to report any movement that he might detect on the part of the enemy.
But the minutes passed, the meal was concluded, and still everything remained tranquil; so perfectly tranquil, indeed, that at length we could come to but one of two conclusions—either the outlaws had withdrawn altogether, or they were elaborating some scheme for a renewed attack of a particularly deep and cunning character, of the nature of which it behoved us to secure some hint of information, by hook or by crook.
I suggested that I should go forth alone, and, keeping well in the open in order that I might be effectively covered by the guns of the others in the event of anything in the nature of treachery being attempted, take a look round in the immediate neighbourhood of the house, and endeavour to ascertain what the outlaws were doing, or, if they had gone, what had become of them. At first no one would listen to the suggestion; it was denounced as too utterly hazardous to be entertained for a moment; and when I pointed out that it could only be hazardous if the enemy still remained upon the ground, Don Silvio proposed, by way of amendment, that the men should all sally forth in a body, for mutual protection. But to this I would not agree, arguing—very reasonably, I think—that if the outlaws had departed it would be as safe for me to go forth as for the whole of us; while, if treachery happened to be afoot, the safety of the female portion of the party absolutely depended upon the men remaining in the house ready to defend it in the event of a renewed attack. These arguments of mine, coupled with the necessity, which everybody at length recognised, for us to make a move of some sort, finally prevailed; and about noon I left the house, armed with a musket and a brace of pistols, all loaded, and fortified by some item of advice from each of my companions.
My first act was to examine carefully the bodies that lay round about the house, taking those that lay nearest at hand, and then passing on to the others. The result of this examination was the discovery that the fallen numbered in all sixty-seven, fourteen of whom were still alive, but so seriously injured that they had been unable to withdraw to the safety of cover. I inquired of each of these men what had become of their companions, but they were unable to answer me; they could but groan—"Agua, agua, por amor de Dios!"
I informed them that they should be supplied with water, and otherwise looked after, as soon as I had satisfied myself that their friends had retired and that no further danger from them was to be apprehended; but I at the same time reminded them that they could scarcely expect much consideration from people whom they had so wantonly attacked. When at length I came to the body of Petion I found that life was extinct, the fellow having been shot clean through the heart I was somewhat surprised that his followers had made no attempt to carry off his body; and that they had not done so I took to be a sign of pretty thorough demoralisation on their part I conducted my examination of the ground with the utmost circumspection; for I knew not at what moment a volley might rattle out at me from one or another of the large clumps of ornamental shrubs that were scattered about here and there upon the lawns, or the still larger masses of bamboo, palmetto, and other wild vegetation that at one particular spot was still allowed to flourish almost within musket-shot of the house; but nothing happened, and no sign of the enemy was to be discovered; I, therefore, at length came to the conclusion that, finding the house was not to be captured except at the sacrifice of a very considerable number of lives, the outlaws had withdrawn, and were now on their way to attack some estate, the owners of which were incapable of making so resolute and effective a defence as ourselves.
I began to wonder in which direction our assailants had gone, remembering that much of the effectiveness of the defence of Bella Vista had been due to the early warning given by Don Esteban de Mendouca, which had afforded us the time to make the necessary preparations; and it occurred to me that if the route taken by the outlaws could be determined, it might be possible to pass on the warning, and so enable somebody else to prepare a warm reception for them. I, therefore, proceeded to examine the ground carefully, quartering it now in this direction and now in the other, in search of some mark or sign which should furnish us with a clue. Nor was my search by any means barren of results, for after a time I came to a spot where the guinea grass had been well trampled, indicating, to my mind, that this was the point where the various divisions of the attacking party, including their wounded, had rallied, and from which they had begun their retreat. And in this belief I was fully confirmed, a little later, by finding that the footmarks led away in a direction that gradually trended round toward the back of the house, past the coffee plantation, and so back toward the mountains.
Now, if they had decided to retreat to their mountain fastnesses, there was no need to trouble further about them, at least for the moment. But in my walks in the same direction with Don Luis I had noticed several paths which, I had been informed, led to certain plantations in the neighbourhood; and it was of course quite possible that the brigands might be making for one of these; I, therefore, determined to follow up the trail while it was fresh, and endeavour to obtain some definite clue to their actual destination. My first idea was to return to the house, acquaint the occupants with the result of my investigations thus far, inform them as to my further plans, and then retrace my steps to the spot where I at that moment stood; but I reflected that to do all this meant the loss of some twenty minutes or more, which might make all the difference between success and failure to my plan, so I determined to push on at once, and immediately proceeded to do so.
I had not proceeded very far before I had conclusive evidence that I was on the right track by coming upon a wounded negro, who lay fair in the middle of the path, groaning piteously as he clasped his head, swathed in a blood-stained bandage, between his hands. I asked him if he was badly hurt.
"Si, senor," he answered; "hurt to the death, I fear, unless I can obtain speedy help. I could walk no farther, and my companions have abandoned me. Take me to the house, I pray you, Senor, and let my hurt be attended to. It will be horrible to die here alone in the open; moreover, the ants will find me before long, and consider what my fate will then be."
Dreadful enough, no doubt, if the man were as bad as he considered himself to be. But I did not believe he was; for though his voice seemed feeble enough when he began to speak it distinctly gained in strength as he went on, and I very speedily came to the conclusion that his weakness was more than half imaginary; also I was not very greatly disposed to be tender-hearted over the sufferings of such fiends as these negro outlaws had proved themselves to be; instead, therefore, of responding to his appeal I asked him curtly:
"Which way have your companions gone?"
"Straight up toward the mountains," he answered, pointing upward along the path in which I was standing.
"Very well," I said. "It is necessary that I should verify your statement; I am, therefore, going on a little farther. But I shall soon be back; and I will then help you to the house and have your wound attended to, although that will avail you little, for I warn you that you and the rest of the wounded will be handed over to the authorities forthwith. And that means for you, death upon the gallows."
The fellow grunted. "Even that will be less disagreeable than being devoured alive by the ants," he answered.
Without bandying further words with him I continued my way up the path, which took a rather sharp turn a few yards farther on. As I rounded the bend I was somewhat surprised to see two more men lying in the road: one of whom seemed to be either dead or in a swoon, while the other appeared to be almost in a state of collapse.
"The inhuman villains," I thought, "to abandon their wounded in this heartless fashion! Surely they might have somehow made shift to carry off their injured comrades with them, for they must be fully aware that if the unfortunate wretches fall into the hands of the authorities they will meet with short shrift. Well, we seem to have punished them rather more severely than I had thought; I should not be very greatly surprised if I find a few more poor beggars in the same plight before I have finished my walk."
With these thoughts uppermost in my mind I approached the prostrate figures, one of whom was moaning most piteously, while the other lay still, with half-closed eyes staring upward at the sky.
"Well, picaro," I said to the man who was moaning, "what is the matter with you?"
"Oh, Senor," he gasped, "for the love of God help me to get into the shadow of yonder bush. I am perishing of thirst, and this scorching sun is adding to my torments. If you will raise me to my knees perhaps I can manage to crawl to—Ah, good! I have him! Quick, Jose, help me! He is strong as a horse, and—So, that is right; now kneel upon him while I lash his wrists together. And Miguel,"—as the man I had left in the road a minute before came running up—"take the gun and those pistols, they will be safer in your hands than in his."
The surprise was perfectly managed. Completely taken off my guard by the admirably assumed helplessness of the three scoundrels, I was easily captured. For as I incautiously laid down my gun for a moment to place my hands under the arms of the moaning hypocrite who had begged me to assist him, the rascal flung his arms and legs round me, pinning me in a grip that for the moment held me helpless, and dragged me to the ground, rolling over on top of me, while the other, springing with equal suddenness into vigorous life and activity, also flung himself upon me and held me face downward in the sandy soil while his comrade swiftly bound my hands behind my back with the long silken sash which he had rapidly unwound from his waist. While he was doing this up came the third man, who had been so dreadfully afraid of being devoured alive by the ants, and took possession of my weapons. Now, when it was too late, the truth dawned upon me; the villains, far from being seriously hurt, were as sound as I was, and had simply been left behind in feigned helplessness upon the off-chance that some one of the whites might incautiously venture out, as I had done, with the object of ascertaining where the retreating brigands were actually going, and thus be captured.
Oh! how I execrated my folly, now that it was too late, and I was being hurried along the rough path by the jubilant trio who had captured me and who were in a great hurry to rejoin the main body of outlaws. And how fervently I hoped and prayed that none of the rest of the whites at Bella Vista might be as foolish as I had been. My thoughts went back to the wounded men lying scattered here and there round the house and within musket-shot of it, and for a moment my soul sickened with dread as I thought of what might happen if they too were merely shamming. But the fear was only momentary; I remembered that the hurts of every one of them were visibly, indisputably real, serious enough to disable and render them harmless; and I hoped that my failure to return would put the whole household upon its guard and, by demonstrating to them my imprudence, open their eyes to the fact that all danger was not necessarily over because the brigands had withdrawn.
My companions were in high feather at having achieved my capture, and extolled the shrewdness of a certain Mateo—who, I gathered from their remarks, was their new chief, in place of the deceased Petion—in having devised so ingenious a trap as the one into which I had unsuspectingly fallen. Moreover, they endeavoured to beguile the way by drawing vivid word-pictures—presumably in the hope of frightening me and enjoying my terror—of the unspeakable torments that would be inflicted upon me by way of appeasing the manes of those of their comrades who had fallen in the attack upon the house. Truly I might very well have been excused had I blenched at the prospect which, according to them, lay before me; for if they were to be believed, it was not an hour or two, but several days of excruciating suffering which I might expect. However, I did not by any means believe all that they said. They might be clever enough actors, so far as shamming being wounded was concerned, but in the finer art of inflicting suffering in anticipation they were mere clumsy bunglers, for they lacked that finer sense of dissimulation which endows a man with the power of lying with conviction; they allowed their motive to become apparent; and, seeing this, I disappointed them by laughing in their faces. Besides, whether what they said was truth or falsehood, I was not going to afford a trio of sable outlaws the satisfaction of boasting that they had succeeded in frightening an Englishman.
Enlivening the way with such conversation as I have hinted at, we trudged along the upward path for a distance of about a mile and a half, when we suddenly came upon a wide-open space where the main body of the outlaws had halted to rest and refresh themselves, and also, as I soon became aware by the trend of the general conversation, to determine whether they should return to their head-quarters, or proceed to attack some other estate in the immediate neighbourhood.
My appearance, in the character of a prisoner, was the signal for a great yell of ferocious delight on the part of the outlaws, immediately followed by a brisk fusillade of scurrilous, ribald jests concerning the sport that they would have with me upon their return to their mountain stronghold; and so bloodcurdling were the suggestions thrown out by some of those fiends that I confess a qualm of fear surged over me for a second or two; for I saw at once that, unlike my captors, these ruffians were not endeavouring merely to frighten me, but were in deadly earnest. Not that I feared death; no man who ever knew me could dub me coward. In the heat of battle, or under most ordinary circumstances I can face death—ay, and have faced it a hundred times—without a tremor; but to be triced up, helpless, and to have one's strength sapped and one's life slowly drained away by a long drawn-out succession of unspeakable torments is a prospect that I venture to say few can bring themselves to face without some manifestation of discomposure. Although my cheeks and lips may have blanched for a moment, I permitted no further and greater sign of fear to escape me. I returned their glances of fiendish ferocity with an unquailing eye, and listened to their diabolical jests in apparently unruffled silence, as I was conducted through their ranks by my captors toward a small hillock, overshadowed by a gigantic bois immortelle, upon which sat a negro in solitary state, appeasing his hunger by wolfishly tearing, with his strong white teeth, the flesh from three or four roast ribs of goat which he grasped with both hands.
I do not think I ever encountered a lower, or more bestial type of humanity than was this man. He was a pure-blooded black, of almost herculean proportions, and evidently of enormous strength, as are many of the pure-blooded West African negroes; but one completely lost sight of his splendid physique in contemplation of the expression of low cunning and ferocious cruelty that blazed out of his small, narrow eyes and contorted his wide, flat nostrils, his thick, blubber lips, and his unnaturally prominent chin and jaws; he was the very embodiment and picture of all the most savage and debasing passions that characterise the worst specimens of humanity, and reminded me of nothing so much as a combination of snake, tiger, and monkey clothed in the outward semblance of a human form. "Heaven have mercy upon the unfortunate who stirs this brute to anger!" thought I. He was undoubtedly well aware of the feelings of horror and repulsion that he inspired in the breasts of others, and seemed rather to pride himself upon it, I thought; for as I was led forward into his presence he paused in his wolfish feeding and glared upon me with an expression of concentrated malignity that seemed to freeze the very marrow in my bones. But I believed that he was deliberately striving to frighten me, and horrified though I actually was, I was determined he should not have the satisfaction of feeling that he had succeeded. I, therefore, steadily returned his stare with all the coolness and nonchalance I could summon to my aid, and after the lapse of a full minute or more he turned his glance aside to one of the men who held me, and said:
"Well, Carlos, my ruse succeeded, it would appear. But it is a poor sort of capture that you have made; I hoped you would contrive to get hold of Don Luis, or at least of Don Esteban, or one of his sons; but who is this? He is a mere boy!"
"True, he is," answered the man addressed as Carlos—the scoundrel who had taken advantage of an appeal to my humanity to catch me unawares. "But," he continued, "boy though he is, he is as strong as a young lion, and will afford us sport for three or four days, if things are carefully managed; and after that—" He added a few words in some language that I did not understand.
"But who is he, and what is he?" snarled the other. "He does not look like a Spaniard."
"He is not a Spaniard," answered Carlos. "Pepe, one of the Bella Vista 'boys' who joined us last night, told me that there was a young Englishman in the house who had been found by old Tomasso, Don Luis' fisherman, floating about on a piece of wreckage, nearly dead, and had been brought ashore by him and, at Don Luis' orders, taken up to the house and nursed back to health by Mama Elisa; and without doubt this is he."
"Is this so?" demanded the quintessence of ugliness, turning his gaze upon me.
"It is," answered I. "And perhaps it may prevent misunderstanding and attachment of blame to the wrong people if I explain that it is I who am responsible for the defence of Bella Vista and the losses that you have sustained. It was I who supervised the erection of the barricades, and who also arranged the plan upon which we fought."
"A-h!" he breathed, and the note of diabolical malignity with which he contrived to imbue that single word sent a shudder of fear through me, so intense was it. "Then, perhaps," he continued, "you may be able to tell us whose hand it was who slew Petion, our late leader?"
"As well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb," thought I, and answered at once "Yes. As a matter of fact I am responsible for that, too; and I am glad of it. It was my finger that pulled the trigger that sent the bullet through his heart; and my only regret is that you did not stay long enough to enable me to send a few more of you after him."
Carlos, my captor, actually released my arm and stepped a pace away, the better to gaze upon me, so astounded was he at the unimaginable rashness of my speech. And, to speak truth, I was astounded at myself; I knew perfectly well that I was in all probability only adding fuel to the flame which would ultimately consume me, yet some perverse influence altogether beyond my control seemed to urge me to speak as I did, whether I would or no. And, strangest circumstance of all, my words, instead of evoking from my questioner the white-hot explosion of wrath that I fully expected, seemed to gratify the man rather than otherwise, for he grinned appreciation as he gazed into my flashing eyes. Then a thought seemed to suddenly strike him.
"You were picked up floating upon a piece of wreckage, you say?" he remarked. "Now, I wonder whether, by any chance, that piece of wreckage happened to belong to the British man-o'-war schooner that engaged a pirate schooner a few miles in the offing, about a month or two ago?"
"It did," I answered. "It belonged to His Britannic Majesty's schooner Wasp, which foundered in the gale that sprang up immediately after the engagement; and I, her commander, was, so far as I know, the only person saved."
"You her commander!" he reiterated incredulously. "Why, you are only a boy!"
"Nevertheless, what I have told you is the truth," I answered.
The fellow sat considering this statement for so long a time that I began to wonder whether perchance it was destined to affect my fate in any way. At length, however, he appeared to have arrived at a decision, for, drawing a greasy notebook from one pocket and a stub of pencil from another, he proceeded with much labour to indite a communication of some kind upon it, which, when completed, he folded in a peculiar way and handed to Carlos, at the same time giving him, in a tongue with which I had no acquaintance, what I took to be certain instructions. Whatever the nature of the communication may have been it appeared to meet with Carlos' emphatic disapproval, for he began to argue strenuously with the other, the argument lasting some ten minutes and rapidly growing more heated, until finally something was said that apparently convinced him of the futility of further dispute on his part. Then he suddenly desisted and, seizing me by the arm, dragged me away to a spot where we were somewhat isolated from the rest of the camp, where he left me in charge of his companions Jose and Miguel while he went off elsewhere. His absence, however, was of but brief duration, for presently he returned, followed by two other negroes who bore in a large calabash an ample supply of boiled rice, roasted yams, and substantial portions of roast goat mutton, which they deposited on the ground within easy reach of us before they departed and left us to ourselves.
As soon as they had gone fairly out of ear-shot Carlos turned to me and, pointing to the provisions, said, as he released me from my bonds:
"Help yourself, and eat freely, Senor Englishman, for we have a long march before we are likely to again see a decent meal."
"Indeed!" I exclaimed. "Is your camp, or head-quarters, or whatever you call it, so far off, then, as that would seem to imply?"
"We are not going to head-quarters," he replied rather tartly; "and you may thank the good God that it is so; for, whatever may be your mode of death, you may accept my assurance that it will not be anything like so protracted or unpleasant as that which awaited you among the mountains yonder."
"Well," said I, "that at least is good hearing. But if we are not going to head-quarters, pray where are we going?"
"My orders from Mateo, our new chief—whose beauty doubtless impressed you," he replied, with a grin, "are to conduct you down to the coast and deliver you over to his very good friend Manuel Garcia, the pirate, whose schooner Tiburon you and your crew punished so severely when— according to your own admission, mind—you engaged her some little time ago. Mateo is under the impression that Garcia would be peculiarly gratified to find in his power the officer who commanded the schooner which mauled the Tiburon so severely; so, as you have confessed that you are the man, he has decided to make a present of you to his friend, and to take the risk of the rumpus that will certainly arise when the band learns that it is not to have the pleasure of amusing itself with you."
"And how far is your friend Garcia's lair from here?" I demanded.
"Not very far," was the answer. "But it will take us until close upon sunset to do the distance, because Mateo prefers that we should not start until the rest of the band are on the move. He fears that if you were seen going toward the sea, instead of up into the mountains, some of our 'lambs' might begin to ask awkward questions, and insist upon your accompanying them. Therefore, if you feel at all tired, you had better avail yourself of the present opportunity to snatch a little sleep."
As a matter of fact I did not feel in the least tired, but I wanted an opportunity to think quietly over this change in my prospects; I, therefore, gladly accepted the suggestion made by Carlos and, stretching myself out beneath the shade of an adjacent clump of bush, closed my eyes and, before I knew it, was fast asleep.
I was awakened by the sound of many voices and the stir of many feet, and sat up to see that the whole band of marauders was in motion; and ten minutes later there was nothing to betray their presence save a cloud of dun-coloured dust rising into the air over the tops of the bushes. It appeared to me, however, that instead of wending their way toward the mountains they were bearing away in a westerly direction toward a spot where, at a distance of some eight or ten miles, I knew a group of extensive and prosperous plantations existed. As soon as the last of the stragglers had vanished, Carlos rose to his feet and said:
"Now, Senor Englishman, if you are sufficiently rested we will be moving; because, if it should be noticed that you are not among them, some of our people might return to look for you; and it would be very bad indeed for you if they should do that—and find you."
"I am quite ready," I answered, as I sprang to my feet; and in another minute our little party also—consisting of Carlos, Jose, Miguel, and myself—had disappeared from the scene.
Our way lay in precisely the opposite direction to that taken by the raiders; that is to say, while they marched toward the west, we followed a narrow, winding footpath that, if it could be said to have any definite direction at all, trended toward the east. For three hours we trudged steadily onward, Carlos, with one of my pistols in his belt, in addition to his own weapons, walking on one side of me, with Jose, similarly equipped, on the other, while Miguel, with my gun upon his shoulder, brought up the rear. For several miles we traversed the lower slopes of the range, winding hither and thither but steadily working our way eastward, now passing over sterile, rocky ground, sparsely dotted here and there with clumps of thorny scrub, and anon opening out a glorious prospect of gently undulating, fertile country, dotted with plantations,—the smoke-blackened roofless walls of some of the mansions built on them clearly suggesting a recent visit from the late Petion and his fellow-outlaws,—and, beyond all, the grand old ocean, blue, save where darkened by the drifting cloud shadows, and flecked here and there with white from the scourging of the trade-wind. At length, however, when the sun had declined to within a span's length of the western horizon, we bore away sharply toward the north, and presently came in sight of an indentation in the coast which, at the first glimpse, had the appearance of being land-locked; but which, as we approached it more closely, I saw was really a nearly circular bay about a mile in diameter, the entrance of which was most effectively masked by a small islet stretching completely across it and leaving only two narrow passages, one to the east and the other to the west of it. A small felucca lay at anchor a cable's length from the shore; and when at length we reached the lip of the basin-like depression, the bottom of which formed the bay, or cove rather, I perceived, to my amazement, that a sort of village of quite respectable extent had been built along its southern margin, some of the buildings being so large that I at once set them down as storehouses. A number of people were moving about the buildings; and quite a dozen boats were hauled up on the beach above high-water mark.
And now I noticed a very remarkable peculiarity in connection with the cove: the sides of the basin wherein it lay consisted everywhere of perfectly vertical cliffs, some two hundred feet high, so that, look where I would, I could at first discover no way down into it. Looking a little closer, however, I presently became aware of an exceedingly narrow and dangerous zigzag path traversing the cliff-face, about a quarter of a mile farther on, and toward this we at once made our way. A quarter of an hour later, having first encountered a sentry at the upper end of the path, to whom Carlos whispered some password which I could not catch, we found ourselves safely at the base of the cliff and at the extreme end of the village. Arrived here, we directed our steps toward the most important-looking house in the place, at the door of which Carlos knocked. An ancient, frosty-headed negro responded to the knock and, in reply to Carlos' question, stated that Don Manuel Garcia was at the moment away in the schooner, but that Senor Fernandez was, as usual, in charge of the settlement, and possibly might do as well; to which suggestion Carlos assented, whereupon we were ushered into a large bare room, furnished in such a manner as to suggest the idea that it was chiefly used as a council chamber, and the door was shut upon us.
IN THE PIRATE'S STRONGHOLD.
Here we waited nearly half-an-hour, at the conclusion of which a door at the upper end of the chamber opened, and a tall, rather good-looking man, dressed entirely in white, entered. At his appearance Carlos sprang to his feet and, saluting, handed over the note which Mateo had scrawled. The stranger, who was none other than "Don" Victor Fernandez, Captain Manuel Garcia's second-in-command, took the note, read it, glanced at me curiously, and then nodded curtly to Carlos and his companions.
"Good!" he ejaculated. "The Captain will highly appreciate the thoughtfulness of your new chief, Mateo, in sending him this Englishman. In his name I desire to tender his warmest thanks to Mateo, and request you to convey them, with every expression of his highest consideration. Do you leave us to-night, or will you remain until the morning? If the latter—"
"Mille gracias, senor!" answered Carlos; "we should greatly like to stay here for the night, and rest, for this day has been an exceptionally trying and fatiguing one for us; but Mateo's instructions that we should rejoin him at the earliest possible moment were imperative and must not be neglected. But if we may be permitted to stay long enough to share your people's supper, we will gladly do so."
"So be it," answered Fernandez. "Find Pacheco, and tell him that you will sup in the great hall with the rest of the hands, and then request him to come to me." Whereupon Carlos and his two fellow-cut-throats saluted and retired.
For a minute or two after the departure of the trio, Fernandez sat meditatively regarding me in silence, twisting and turning Mateo's note in his fingers meanwhile. At length, with just the ghost of a smile flickering over his features, he said, tapping the note in his hand:
"The worthy Mateo tells me that you were the officer in command of the little schooner that gave the Tiburon such a severe dressing down a little while ago. Is that really the fact?"
"Yes," I answered, "I am proud to say that it is."
"Well," he returned, "I can scarcely credit it. Why, you are only a boy!"
"So people are constantly reminding me," I retorted. "But in the British Navy boys soon learn to do men's work."
"So it would appear," assented my interlocutor, apparently in nowise offended at my brusque method of answering him. "And you are an Englishman, of course. What is your name?"
I told him.
"Well, Senor Delamere," he said, "it is perhaps a lucky thing for you that Captain Garcia went to sea four days ago in the refitted Tiburon, and that he may possibly not return for nearly a month. Had he been here at this moment I do not for an instant believe that he would have given you the chance that I am going to offer you; for he has vowed that if ever he can lay hands upon you he will make such an example of you as will strike terror to the heart of his every enemy. Of course I sympathise with him to a great extent, for he has never in his life had such a trouncing as you gave him with that ridiculous little schooner of yours; and, apart from other considerations, his self-love has been very severely wounded. Therefore, being a man who never forgets nor forgives an injury, he will not be satisfied until he has salved his wounded pride by making you pay in full in a manner that will cause every sailor in West Indian waters to shudder with horror. But I am not vindictive— as he is; I am always willing to subordinate revenge to the good of the community, by which, of course, I mean our community, the little republic which at present is bounded by the cliffs which enclose this cove, but which in process of time is destined to include the whole of this magnificent island of Hayti and—who knows?—possibly the entire group of islands now known as the West Indies. And you, young as you are, have proved yourself to be a formidable enemy; you have courage, resolution, and apparently all the other qualities that go to the making of a successful leader; therefore I think it a thousand pities that you should be wasted, uselessly expended, in the mere gratification of a petty revenge which will benefit nobody anything; on the contrary, I am convinced that we should gain immensely by making you one of ourselves— Nay, do not interrupt me, please; hear me to the end before you attempt to reply. In the absence of Garcia I am supreme here; I can secure your election as a member of our band, and once a member, you are absolutely safe from Garcia, for it is one of the rules of our brotherhood that 'One is for all, and all are for one;' private jealousies and animosities are absolutely forbidden, and the punishment for transgressing this law is death, let the offender be who he will.
"Now, that is one argument in favour of your joining us. But there are others. We are weak, as yet, it is true; but that is because, as a community, we are still very young. We are, however, gaining strength almost daily; every capture we make adds to our numbers, because we give our prisoners the choice between joining us, and—death; and nine of every ten choose the former. Also, we are rapidly accumulating wealth, which is power; and with the power which unlimited wealth will give us, added to the power of constantly increasing numbers, all things are possible to us, even to the conquest of the world! Now, a lad of your intelligence ought to be able to see, without much persuasion, how tremendous an advantage it will be to belong to such a formidable band as we shall soon become, therefore I put it to you in a nutshell—Will you join us?"
Upon discovering the direction in which my companion's arguments were trending, my first impulse had been to interrupt him indignantly by declaring that I saw through his purpose, and would have naught to do with it. But he would not permit me to do this; he insisted upon saying his say to the end; and while he was doing this I had time for reflection. I perceived that the man was an enthusiastic visionary possessed of such boundless ambition that he was able to see nothing except the impossible goal which he and his fellow-leaders had set before themselves. I saw that this fellow Fernandez, at all events, had dwelt upon the mad scheme of conquest, first of Hayti, then of the West Indian Islands, and ultimately, as he had declared, of the whole world, until it had become an obsession with him in which all difficulties were swept away and his gorgeous dream had seemed to be a thing already almost within reach. It occurred to me that by pretending to listen to this dreamer, to appear to treat his dreams as though it was possible for them to eventually materialise, and to seem to weigh the proposal seriously which he had made to me, I might gain time enough to mature some plan of escape, and to put it into effect before the return of the Tiburon and my arch-enemy Garcia; and while, as a general rule, I most emphatically disapprove of everything that savours of deception, I felt that, taking all the circumstances of the case into consideration, I should be perfectly justified in practising such dissimulation as might be necessary to extricate myself from the exceedingly awkward situation in which I now found myself.
Therefore when, with eyes ablaze with enthusiasm, Fernandez flashed the question at me, "Will you join us?" I hesitated just for a second or two, and then replied:
"I suppose you hardly expect me to answer offhand so momentous a question as that, do you? It is all very well, of course, for you, who have given the matter much careful thought, to feel so confident as you do that your plans are capable of realisation, but with me it is very different; the entire idea is absolutely new to me, and—if I may be permitted to say so—looks little short of chimerical."
"But it is not chimerical," Fernandez impatiently insisted; "on the contrary, it is perfectly feasible and, as we have planned it, absolutely certain of realisation."
There is no need for me to repeat at length all the arguments that this man adduced in support of his contention; let it suffice me to say that I listened to him with deep attention—for I wanted to learn as many particulars as I possibly could concerning the plans of this extraordinary band, with a view to future contingencies—and when at length I left his presence I believe I also left him under the impression that he had more than half convinced me of the advisability of acceding to his proposal.
Meanwhile the man Pacheco, in obedience to the command conveyed through Carlos, had been patiently waiting in the antechamber for the summons to appear and receive the commands of Fernandez concerning me; and now, the interview being at an end, the former was called into the room.
"Pacheco," said Fernandez, "this young gentleman is Senor Delamere, the officer who commanded the small British man-o'-war schooner that lately attacked the Tiburon. His vessel foundered in the gale that sprang up immediately after the action, and he contrived somehow to make his way to the shore, where he was nursed back to health and strength in the hacienda of Bella Vista, belonging to Senor Don Luis Calderon y Albuquerque. That hacienda was attacked by Petion and his band in the early hours of this morning, and—as Carlos has doubtless already told you—Petion was killed during the attack, while Senor Delamere subsequently fell into the hands of Mateo, Petion's second-in-command, who very thoughtfully sent him on to us.
"Now, Senor Delamere, being, although still very young, a naval officer of considerable experience and undoubted courage, will be an acquisition of the utmost value to us if we can but succeed in inducing him to join us—and I have hopes, very great hopes of doing so. I, therefore, want you to take him in charge for the present, showing him the utmost consideration, and allowing him free range of the settlement,—since it will be impossible for him to escape,—because I desire him to become thoroughly acquainted with all our resources, and to see for himself the perfection of all our arrangements for securing the success of our great enterprise."
I could scarcely believe my ears when I heard Fernandez give this extraordinary and, as I deemed it, most imprudent order. It seemed too good to be true! Why, if the foolish man had but known it, there was nothing I could possibly have more ardently wished for than liberty to range freely the settlement and become fully acquainted with all its resources! If I had ever dreamed of such a possibility as this it would not have needed that I should be brought a prisoner to the place; I should have been but too eager to make my way to it voluntarily. But, of course, it was much better as it was, for now all that I had to do was to keep my eyes and ears wide-open, learn everything I possibly could, and, generally, make the very best use of my time before the return of Garcia, while humouring Fernandez to the top of his bent in his delusion that he would ultimately convince me of the advantage of joining the band. Moreover, I believed I should not have much difficulty in accomplishing this last; for, although I was at first somewhat at a loss to understand his great eagerness to secure me as a recruit, it became perfectly intelligible when I learned a little later on that the only weak point in the entire scheme consisted in the extreme scarcity of trained sailors capable of undertaking the more important executive duties. Seamen, of the kind to be found in a ship's forecastle, they possessed, not exactly in abundance, but sufficient for their ordinary necessities; but it appeared that, apart from Garcia, his first lieutenant, and one other, they had not a single navigator among them; and it was easy to understand that, if anything untoward should happen to either of these men, the activities of the brotherhood would be seriously crippled, while a fatality that swept the whole of them away might well mean the utter ruin of all their hopes. I did not learn this quite at once, for it seemed to be the one item of information upon which Fernandez desired me to remain ignorant; but, mingling freely with everybody, as I was permitted to do, it was impossible for them to prevent the secret from ultimately leaking out, and I had not been in the settlement more than three days before I became acquainted with it, and with a good many other things as well.
For instance, I learned that of the three navigators which the community boasted, two—namely, Garcia and another—were on board the Tiburon, while the third was in command of a most respectable-looking brig, which, provided with a complete set of false papers, was engaged in conveying to various ports such portions of the cargoes of plundered ships as were not needed by the pirates themselves, disposing of the same for cash, and procuring with that cash such commodities as were required from time to time. The felucca that lay at anchor in the bay had also been similarly employed; but she was now idle, the man who had commanded her being with Garcia in the Tiburon, in place of an officer who had been killed in the action with the Wasp.
At the time of my arrival this extraordinary pirate settlement, or community, consisted of some forty seamen of various nationalities— except Englishmen—who had thrown in their lot with Garcia, Fernandez, and the rest; and about a hundred others who, although not seamen, were most useful for the performance of such strictly shore duty as the erection of houses, the loading and discharging of the trading brig, the storage of the various commodities needed by the community, the working up of rough spars into spare masts, yards, booms, etcetera, for the brig and schooner, the making of spare sails for the same, and, in short, the execution of all those multitudinous kinds of work that are essential to the comfort of man in his civilised condition. And exceedingly comfortable the rascals made themselves, for the houses were well-built, and in many cases beautifully furnished; also they enjoyed many luxuries, procured either from the cargoes of plundered ships, or purchased out of the proceeds of the sale of such plunder as they did not require for their own use.
It was not long before I discovered that there was a mystery of some sort attaching to the felucca that lay at anchor in the bay. I had made more than one attempt to go on board her, with the object of giving her an overhaul, but each attempt had been quietly met and frustrated in such a way that I soon grew to understand I could not persist further without exciting grave suspicion, which was the one thing of all others that I most desired to avoid. For it was this felucca that I regarded as my only possible means of escape from the pirates, and, that being the case, it was of the utmost importance that I should do nothing to betray the thought that lurked at the back of my mind. She was a fine, sturdy-looking little craft, measuring somewhere about sixty tons; and I felt that if I could but once get aboard her, and get enough sail hoisted to take me out to sea, the most difficult part of my adventure would be over; for Jamaica lay to leeward, and I could not very well lose my way, even if I were compelled to go to sea without a chart. It is true that the rig of a felucca—namely, a single latteen-sail, its head stretched along an enormously long, tapering yard, hoisted to the top of a stout, stumpy mast raking well forward—is not precisely the rig that I would willingly choose to go to sea alone with; but beggars must not be choosers, and it seemed to me to be Hobson's choice—that or nothing. I must therefore make up my mind to face the difficulties of the rig and do the best I could with it, or remain until Garcia's return, and so miss my only chance. Of course, there was just the bare possibility that I might find a man, or even two or three, willing to share the adventure with me—for I could scarcely believe that every member of the community had quite willingly joined it without compulsion of any kind—but I had no intention of jeopardising my chances of success by making inquiries, of however cautious a character. If such men were to be found it would have to be almost by pure accident; meanwhile it was for me to make my plans in such a manner that, if necessary, they could be carried out single-handed.
But it was imperative that I should visit the felucca, by hook or by crook; and since I had already discovered that it could not be managed during the day, there was nothing for it but to make the attempt at night. Now, I was in Pacheco's charge, he was responsible for me, and although I was nominally free to come and go as I would, it was not long before I discovered that it was practically impossible for me to get out of his sight for more than five or ten minutes at a time, except at night time, when I was granted the privilege of a small room to myself in his house. Even then, for the first week of my sojourn, I could scarcely stir in my bed but at the creaking of it he would be at my door, inquiring why I was moving, and whether I required anything, the questioning being, I fancied, simply for the purpose of assuring himself that I was still in the room. But as the days—or rather the nights— went on his vigilance gradually relaxed, for I so shaped my speech as to convey the impression that, at least in my own mind, I had practically decided to join the band. It was this, perhaps, that so far threw him off his guard as to betray him, on a certain night, into the indulgence of his favourite vice, which was a too-marked devotion to the rum bottle. For several nights in succession—ever since I had been placed in his charge, in fact—he had been perforce compelled to remain perfectly sober in order that he might keep a strict watch upon me, but at length when, while we were sitting at table together, taking supper, I allowed him to believe that I had finally decided to go to Fernandez the next morning and take the oath, he ventured to celebrate my conversion by drinking my health in a stiff nor'wester of rum and water—rather more rum than water. That act of weakness was his undoing, for at the first taste of the spirit after his forced abstention he completely lost all control of himself, and could no more refrain from taking a second tumbler than he could have flown. The second naturally led to a third, and the third to a fourth; whereupon, recognising that my chance was at hand, I yawned twice or thrice most portentously, complained of fatigue, and retired to my room, he following as far as the door and locking me in, as was his custom before going to his own room. But that troubled me not a whit, for the house was of one story only, and to slip out of it by way of the open window was almost as easy as walking out through the door, once my gaoler became so deeply wrapped in sleep that my stealthy movements would not awake him.
I moved quite carelessly about the room for a minute or two, and then flung myself heavily upon the bed, fully dressed; and as I did so I heard Pacheco go tiptoeing clumsily back to the table, stumbling against a chair on the way, and muttering imprecations at his own clumsiness as he went. A further gurgling of liquor being poured into a glass followed, then a deep sigh of satisfaction as the glass was emptied, the bang of it as it was noisily replaced on the table, and finally the man's staggering footsteps along the floor as he made his way to his own room. Then came the kicking off of his shoes, followed by other sounds indicative of the fact that he was undressing, a heavy creaking of the bedstead as he flung himself upon it, and, a minute or two later, deep snoring.
But it was still much too early for me to think of making a move, for sounds reached me from the outside which told me that quite a number of people were still up and about; I therefore waited, with such patience as I could muster, until these had all ceased, and then allowed something like another half-hour to elapse, in order to make all sure— for this was a case where it were better to be half-an-hour late than half-a-minute too early, and by undue haste spoil everything.
At length, however, the complete absence of all sound suggestive, of human movement outside, and the steady, regular, resonant snore of Pacheco in the next room, encouraged me to make my preliminary move, which I did by rising, slowly and with infinite caution, to a sitting position on my bed. This done, I next got off the bed altogether, not, however, without causing the thing to give forth sundry most alarming creaks, each of which brought my heart into my mouth. But the snoring in the next room went on steadily, without pause or break, and two minutes later I found myself standing, barefooted, outside my window, ready to scramble back into the room upon the first suggestion of danger. Nothing happened, however; and with my shoes in my hand I next proceeded to creep very cautiously round to the front of the house.
The night was clear, with no moon, but the sky was brilliant with stars affording even more light than I really wanted; and at length, having peered cautiously round me and noted that the buildings were all dark, showing that the inhabitants had retired to rest, I stole slowly, crouching, across the open and so down to the beach. Among the boats drawn up on the sand there was a small Norwegian boat, much used as a dinghy, and consequently not drawn as far up on the beach as the others; this was the craft that I was on the lookout for, and by and by I found her, half afloat, and secured by her painter to a small anchor dug well into the sand. Lifting the anchor with the utmost care, I noiselessly deposited it in her bows, and then, making sure that her oars were in her, I lifted her bow and slid her off the sand until she was fairly afloat, when I gently turned her round, gave her a vigorous push, and scrambled in over her stern, taking care to do everything without noise. Then, throwing out an oar over the stern, I headed the boat in the direction of the scarcely visible felucca, and proceeded to scull off to her.
Thus far everything had gone smoothly and without the ghost of a hitch, but the really difficult part of my enterprise was still to come. I estimated that a good four hundred miles lay between the cove and Port Royal harbour, which distance, at an average speed of six knots, would take me the best part of three days and nights to cover, under the most favourable conditions. To do this, I should need both food and water, and I had not the most remote idea whether either was to be found on board the felucca, although I hoped they might be, for I had seen half-a-dozen men go off to her regularly every day, for some purpose which I could not divine, unless perchance it were to pump her out. But food and water were absolutely necessary to ensure my success, and unless I could find at least a sufficiency to last me three days, I must return and take measures to provide a supply; for to start without would be simply courting disaster. That, however, was a point which could only be settled upon my arrival on board.
Taking the matter very easily, husbanding all my strength for the exceedingly difficult task of getting the felucca under way single-handed—in the event of all things conspiring to render such a decided step justifiable—and sculling so gently that I scarcely raised a ripple on the highly phosphorescent water, I at length glided quietly up alongside the felucca and, taking the end of the boat's painter with me, climbed in over the vessel's low bulwarks, passed the dinghy astern, made her fast, and forthwith proceeded to overhaul the craft which I had thus surreptitiously visited.
My first visit was to her tiny cabin, the companion door of which I found unlocked. But when I got below it was so intensely dark that I could see nothing, and I felt that at all costs I must have a light, or it would be morning, and my flight would be discovered long before I could learn all that I wanted to ascertain. I, therefore, went on deck again, loosed the immense sail, and spread a fold of it over the small skylight in order to mask the light in the cabin—should I be fortunate enough to obtain one—and then went forward to the forecastle to hunt for a lantern of some sort. I found the fore-scuttle not only closed, but also secured by a stout iron bar, the slotted end of which was passed over a staple and secured by a padlock. Fortunately, however, the individual who had last visited the little vessel had been too careless or too lazy to remove the key from the lock, therefore all I had to do was to turn the key, remove the padlock from the staple, throw back the bar, lift off the cover, and my way down into the forecastle was clear. But I had no sooner lifted off the hatch cover and was preparing to descend than, to my utter consternation, I became aware of the fact that the forecastle was inhabited. For as I flung my leg in over the coamings I distinctly heard a sound of stirring, followed, to my amazement, by the drowsy muttering of a voice in English, grumbling:
"What the blazes do they want now; and who comes off here at this time o' night? 'Taint time to turn out yet, I'll swear, for I don't seem to have been asleep more'n five minutes!"
English! Then the speaker must certainly be a friend, and without more ado I dropped down into the little forecastle, exclaiming:
"Hillo, there! Who are you, my friend; and what the dickens are you doing locked up here in this forecastle?"
"Who am I?" retorted the voice. "Why, I'm an Englishman; my name's Tom Brown, and the name of my mate here is Joe Cutler; both of us late of His Britannic Majesty's schooner Wasp, what foundered in a gale o' wind somewheres off this here coast a while since. We was picked up off a bit of wreckage by the crew of this here hooker—what turned out to be something in the piratical line—and brought into harbour. And since we've been here we've been made to work like niggers because we wouldn't jine the 'brotherhood,' as they calls theirselves. Latterly we've been kept aboard this here feluccer, because it appears that there's some chap ashore there as they don't want to see us. Ay, and if it comes to that, perhaps you're the chap. Seems to me as I've heard your voice before. Who are you at all, gov'nor?"
"My name is Delamere," I replied, "and I commanded—"
"Of course, of course," interrupted Brown; "Mr Delamere it is! I knowed that I knowed that voice of yours, sir. Here, you Joe, rouse and bitt, man; here's the skipper come to life again. Half a minute, sir, and we'll have a light. Joe, you lighted the 'glim' last; what did ye do wi' the tinder-box?"
The two men were broad awake, out of their bunks, and bustling about almost before one could draw a breath, and the next moment they had lighted a lantern, in the dim glimmer of which they stood up side by side, saluting, as I stared into their faces scarcely able to credit such a stupendous piece of good fortune as the unexpected discovery of these two men, not only Englishmen, but actually members of my own late crew!
"My lads," I exclaimed, as they stood before me at attention, "I am more glad than I can express, not only to find that you, like myself, have managed to escape with your lives, but also that you are here, aboard this felucca. For I fully intended to make the somewhat desperate attempt to escape in her single-handed; but the presence of you two men puts a very different complexion upon the affair. What I might have been wholly unable to accomplish alone, we three can together manage with ease. There is only one possible difficulty in our way: Can you tell me whether there happens to be any food and water aboard this craft?"
"Yes, sir," answered Brown, "there's both, for we're fed every day out of the ship's stores. There's the scuttle butt on deck nearly full o' water, and there's grub down in the lazarette, but how much I don't know."
"Then let us go at once and ascertain," said I, "for my escape may be discovered at any moment, and naturally this would be where they would first look for me. Mask that lantern with your jacket, one of you, and bring it along aft. Every second is now of importance to us."
It took us but a few minutes to penetrate to the little vessel's lazarette, where we found an ample supply of provisions of all kinds for a much larger crew than ourselves and a much longer voyage than we contemplated.
"Very well," I remarked, as I ran my eye over the array of biscuit and flour barrels and the casks, some of which were branded "prime mess beef," while others contained potatoes and sundry other commodities, "that will do; we shall certainly not starve during the next few days, whatever else may happen to us. Now clap on that hatch again, and we will go on deck, slip the cable, and make sail without further ado."
THE BEGINNING OF THE END.
As I turned to quit the cabin I suddenly became aware that a bell was furiously jangling somewhere; and, dashing up the companion ladder to the deck, I discovered that the sounds proceeded from the shore, where lights were beginning to flash, one after the other, in rapid succession until the whole settlement appeared to be awake and stirring.
"On deck, both of you, at once!" I shouted, sending my voice down through the open companion. "Never mind about the hatch; leave everything as it is, for the moment, and clap on to these main halliards; there is an alarm of some sort ashore, and if it happens to be that they have discovered me to be missing, they will come off to this felucca the first thing. Yes, and by Jove, if I am not mistaken there is a boat shoving off already. Look, lads,"—as the two men came tumbling up on deck—"is that not the sparkle of oars in the water, there, right in the heart of that deep shadow?"
"Ay, sir, it do look uncommon like it, and no mistake—yes; that's the sea fire shinin' to the stroke of oars, right enough," exclaimed Cutler. "And they're comin' along as though they meant business, too! Mr Delamere, it'd be a good plan, sir, if you was to jump for'ard and cast that cable off the bitts while Tom and me here sees about mastheadin' this here yard; there won't be so very much room to spare atween us by the time that this here hooker's paid off and gathered way."
"You are right, Joe, there will not," answered I; and, dashing forward to the windlass bitts, I proceeded to throw off turn after turn of the stiff hempen cable that held the felucca to her anchor, until the last turn was gone and the flakes went writhing and twisting out through the hawse-hole; then, as the end disappeared with a splash I dashed aft and rammed the tiller hard over to port—noticing, as I did so, that a large boat, pulling eight oars, was less than a hundred fathoms distant from us, and coming up to us hand over hand. Then, catching a turn of the main-sheet round a cleat, I jumped forward again to where the two seamen were dragging desperately at the halliard which hoisted the heavy sail.
"Put your backs into it, men," I cried, as I tailed on to the fall of the tackle; "there is a large boat close aboard of us! It will be 'touch and go' with us, even if we are able to scrape clear at all."
Fiercely we dragged at the fall of the fourfold tackle that formed the working end of the halliard, and at each pull the great, heavy, swaying yard slid a few inches up the short, thick mast, as though reluctantly, while away on our weather quarter we heard the fierce shouts of the men in the approaching boat as they encouraged each other, punctuated by the quick jerk of the oars in the rowlocks, and the swish of the water as the oar-blades clipped into it. With the passage of every second those menacing sounds drew appreciably nearer, dominating even the thunderous rustle and slatting of the sail that slowly climbed into the air over our heads, while the felucca, now fast gathering stern-way, and at the same time paying off, was driving steadily down toward the boat at a rate that seemed to render our capture inevitable.
At length, with a final jerk that made the little craft tremble to her keel, the big single sail filled, and the felucca careened to her bearings, as her canvas caught the full pressure of the wind. At the same instant I heard an oar-blade clatter as it was hastily laid in, and an exultant cheer arise from immediately under our counter.
"Catch a turn with the halliards, quick, and then lay aft," I gasped. "The villains are alongside, and will be in over our quarter before we can do anything to prevent them if we are not smart."
As I spoke I passed the rope under, then over, a belaying-pin before surrendering it to Cutler to complete the operation of belaying, and then bounded aft, followed by Tom Brown, who had snatched a handspike from the rack as he passed it. My first act was to drag the tiller over to windward and pass a turn of the tiller rope round the head of it, to help the felucca to pay off; for she was now gathering headway. Then I sprang to the taffrail and looked over it. The pursuing boat had actually overtaken us, and the man who pulled "bow," having laid in his oar, had grabbed the gunwale of the small boat in which I had come off from the shore—and which I had dropped astern upon boarding the felucca—and was now hauling his own boat up alongside her, while some half-dozen of his companions had risen to their feet and were scrambling into the smaller boat, apparently with some idea of climbing aboard us by shinning up her painter. But the felucca had by this time gathered way, and was moving so fast through the water that it was as much as the man could do to hold on, and quite beyond his power to haul the one boat any closer to the other. For a couple of breathless seconds longer he hung on desperately, and then, with a yell of savage disappointment, was obliged to let go, while somebody in the stern—I fancy it must have been Fernandez—seeing how things were going, shouted to the crew to throw out their oars again and give way. But before this could be done the big boat was half-a-dozen fathoms astern, and we were leaving her so rapidly that for her to overtake us was a manifest impossibility. Meanwhile the small boat, with six men in her, was towing astern of the felucca, with her nose raised high in the air and the water bubbling and boiling up to the level of the top of her transom, and even slopping in over it occasionally, so that it was impossible for any of her occupants to move, lest by so doing they should cause her to fill and swamp. The said occupants therefore did what they could in the way of relieving their feelings by vigorously anathematising us in good sonorous Spanish, and explaining, in short, pithy sentences, the sort of treatment that we might confidently look for when next they got us into their power. Then one of them happened to remember that all this time a brace of loaded pistols were sticking in his belt, whereupon he whipped them out and blazed away at us, his companions promptly following suit, but, luckily, without doing us the slightest injury.
By this time the felucca was rapidly nearing the weathermost extremity of the island that guarded and masked the entrance of the bay, and presently we weathered it handsomely and bore up to pass out to sea, gliding between the two Heads a minute later. We were now fairly outside, and with the first plunge of the little vessel's sharp stem into the surges that met us as we swept into the open sea a yell of dismay arose from the occupants of the boat astern, who cried out that they were being swamped, and implored us, for the love of all the saints, to cast them off before they were washed out and drowned. I could not resist the temptation to retort that even, if that happened, they would still be getting less than their deserts; then, adding that I hoped I should soon have the pleasure of seeing them all hanged at Gallows Point, I cast off the painter and set them adrift, leaving them to get back into the cove as best they could, with only one pair of small oars among them. We stood on, close-hauled, until we had gained an offing of about three miles, when we put the helm down, tacked, and lay-to, it being my intention to remain off the entrance of the pirates' cove until daylight, in order that I might obtain bearings and landmarks, which would enable me to identify the locality of the spot upon my return to destroy the settlement—as I was determined to do.
It was well that I took this precaution, for when daylight came we found that, so admirably had nature masked the cove, it was impossible for us to discover it until we again stood close in; and even then we could by no means make sure of the spot until we were within a cable's length of it. Then, however, by means of a carefully taken set of compass bearings, I obtained the means which would enable me to run in from a distance and hit off the place with unerring precision.
We duly arrived in Port Royal harbour early on the fourth morning after our escape from Pirate Cove—as by common consent we called it—our passage being of a perfectly uneventful character. As may be supposed, I kept a sharp lookout for the arrival of the Admiral from Kingston; and the moment that his barge hove in sight I hailed a shore boat—the felucca not possessing a boat of any kind—and landed for the purpose of making my report.
He was surprised, but at the same time very pleased to see me, shaking me warmly by the hand as the office messenger closed the door behind me, after showing me into his presence.
"Well, youngster," he exclaimed, "I am very glad to see you back again, all alive and kicking; for to tell you the truth you have been absent so long that I had given you and the Wasp up for lost. Well, and what luck have you had? Strange that I did not notice the little schooner at anchor as I came down; for I have been on the lookout for her now a long while."
"Ah!" I replied; "I am grieved to say, Sir Peter, that you will never again set eyes on the Wasp, for she lies at the bottom of the Sea of Hayti, with all her crew, I am afraid, save myself and two others."
"Tut, tut, tut!" exclaimed the Admiral; "that is bad news indeed. Tell me how it happened."
As briefly as possible I related the entire history of the cruise, including my adventures upon the island of Hayti, and my escape from the pirates, winding up by pointing out the felucca, which lay in full view of the office window.
The old gentleman remained silent and sunk in deep thought for several minutes after I had concluded my story, shaking his head occasionally as he thought the matter over. At length, however, he looked up, and said:
"It is a sad business, very sad, losing all those poor fellows, but I do not blame you, boy, in the least; you did what you could, and did it very well, too! To fight and beat off so immensely superior a force as that of the pirates was a very creditable feat, I consider; and all might have been well had it not been for that gale springing up at so inopportune a moment. Well, well, it cannot be helped; these things happen sometimes, in spite of all that we can do. But there is generally a lesson to be learned from every mishap, if we will but look for it, and the lesson conveyed in this case is that we made a mistake in the arming of the Wasp. Instead of fitting her with those six long 9-pounders, we ought to have mounted a long 18 and a long 32 upon her deck, then you would have been able to play a game of long bowls with the pirates and fight them upon practically equal terms. As it was, you were badly peppered before you could reach her at all with your own guns. Well, it cannot now be helped; the little hooker is gone, and there's an end of it. Now, the thing to consider is what is next to be done. What is your own idea? You have been among the rascals, and know their strength; I suppose you have some sort of a notion of how they can best be circumvented, eh?"
"Yes, sir," I said. "It seems to me that there are two ways of dealing with the pirates. One way is, to waylay their schooner at sea, capture her, and then go into the Cove and destroy the settlement. To do that effectively we must have a vessel as fast, as heavily armed, and as strongly manned as their own craft—"
"Which we don't happen to possess just now, worse luck!" cut in the Admiral. "What is your other plan?"
I explained the alternative scheme—which I regarded as the more effective of the two—in pretty full detail; and as I unfolded it I saw the old gentleman's eyes begin to sparkle. When at length I came to an end he dashed his fist down upon the table, and exclaimed with enthusiasm:
"That's the plan, boy; that ought to do the trick! But I've no vessel to spare you, so you'll have to take the felucca, and do the best you can with her. Strictly speaking, you know, I ought to put you under arrest, and not employ you again until after you have been tried for the loss of the Wasp; but the circumstances are such that we cannot afford to waste time in mere formalities just now; and I will take the responsibility of sending you to sea again at once. You will be a bit crowded aboard the little hooker, I'm afraid, but that can't be helped; and if all goes well it ought not to be for long. Now, go and find Carline, talk over the matter with him, and then come up to the Pen to dinner to-night—seven o'clock, sharp—and report to me what you have arranged."
I took the hint, and went, very well pleased, on the whole, with the result of my interview. For I must confess that I had gone to that interview not altogether without trepidation; it was quite possible—I had told myself—that the Admiral might find fault with the manner in which I had engaged the pirate schooner; he might have picked holes in my tactics, or something of that sort; he might even have considered that the Wasp might have been saved, after the fight, had we acted otherwise than we did; but, to my great relief, there was not a word of blame from him; on the contrary, he had murmured a word or two of approval here and there while I had been telling my tale, and was now about to prove his undiminished confidence in me by entrusting me with the command of another expedition against the same formidable foe. I could not possibly have hoped for a more favourable reception.
I soon found the Master-Attendant, and inexorably button-holed him while I explained what I wanted done, although the poor man was frightfully busy just then, several ships being in harbour, refitting after having been in action with the enemy. But, let him protest as he might, I would not release him until he had agreed to do everything that I required; the result being that when the dockyard men knocked off work to go to dinner that day, the felucca was already alongside the wharf, and more than half her ballast out of her; while, when the dockyard bell rang at six o'clock that night, signalling the cessation of work for the day, her hold had been swept clean, a quantity of dunnage laid in it, and four 68-pounders stowed on the top thereof, well packed up all round to prevent them from shifting when the craft was at sea. But although I remained on the spot until the last moment, supervising matters in order that everything might be done to my satisfaction, I still managed to reach the Pen by seven o'clock—a smart sailing boat up to Kingston, and a ketureen from thence out to the Pen being my means of conveyance.
Sir Peter was as much surprised as pleased when I reported to him the amount of progress that I had made during the day.
"It is wonderful!" he exclaimed. "How in the world did you manage it?"
"Simply by sticking to the Master-Attendant, and so preventing him from doing anything else until he had attended to my requirements," I replied.
The Admiral laughed in enjoyment of the picture his mind conjured up of the Master-Attendant vainly trying to shake me off.
"Poor Carline!" he remarked. "How he must have suffered before he could bring himself to the point of setting aside all his other work to attend to you. He is a good man, a most excellent fellow in every way; but he has one fault—he allows himself to be too much trammelled by routine. With him everything, irrespective of its importance, must be attended to in its proper order; and now that you have jolted him out of his groove it will be days before he will be able to get comfortably back into it."
I have no doubt Sir Peter was right, but I did not wait to see; all I know is that by noon the next day I had brought the unhappy man into the frame of mind that caused him to yield prompt attention to my requirements, rather than waste valuable time in a fruitless endeavour to evade them; with the result that, three days later, the felucca was ready for the next expedition which I was to lead against the pirates.
The moment that my preparations were complete I reported to the Admiral, and received his formal instructions to proceed to sea at once; and that same evening we weighed and stood out of harbour with the first of the land-breeze. We now had to make a passage to windward; and although I hugged the southern coast of Jamaica as closely as I dared, thus availing myself to the fullest possible extent of the land-breeze as far as Morant Point, it was not until daybreak of the ninth day after sailing from Port Royal that we arrived off the entrance to the Pirate Cove. Here we were baffled for a couple of hours, waiting for the springing up of the sea-breeze; but we caught the first breathing of it, and took it in with us, arriving at the anchorage about one bell in the forenoon watch.
My plan of campaign was perfectly simple. I intended to enter the Cove, and, if the pirate schooner should happen to be in harbour, run straight alongside her, and board before her crew should have time to clear away their guns and bring them to bear upon the felucca.
I had a strong enough crew to do this, and had no doubt as to our ability to carry the schooner in the face of the most determined resistance that the pirates could offer. Then, the schooner captured and her crew safely confined below, the establishment ashore would have no alternative but to surrender at discretion, or be annihilated by the schooner's guns. There was only one weak point that I could see in this scheme, which was that a considerable number of the men constituting the shore portion of the establishment might escape into the interior of the island, unless some means were devised to prevent them. It was, however, not very difficult to accomplish this; for it will be remembered that there was but one way of entrance to—and egress from— the Cove on the land side, namely, a narrow and very dangerous zigzag path down the face of the perpendicular cliff, a gap in which, wide enough to prevent all effectual possibility of passage that way, might easily be made by the explosion of a bag of powder. The preparations for the little expedition which was to accomplish this piece of work were made during the time that we were lying becalmed off the mouth of the Cove; and when at length we entered, a boat, containing four seamen in charge of a midshipman, who had been most carefully instructed concerning the precise nature of the duty which he was to perform, was cast adrift, just inside the Heads, but outside the islet which masked the entrance. While they pulled away for the shore we in the felucca stood on into the Cove, every man of us with his sword or cutlass girded to his waist, and a brace of loaded pistols thrust into his belt, standing ready to leap aboard the schooner—should she happen to be in the roadstead.
We had no sooner cleared the islet, however, and fairly entered the Cove, than we discovered that the schooner was not in harbour, and that consequently we should be obliged to adopt the modification of plan which I had devised in view of such a very possible contingency. But although the Tiburon was not in the Cove, the anchorage was not tenantless, a brig of some two hundred and seventy tons being moored therein, while apparently every boat belonging to the settlement, as well as her own, was passing to and fro between her and the shore, those bound shoreward being loaded to the gunwale, while those coming from it were light. At the first glimpse of this somewhat unexpected sight, I jumped to the conclusion that the vessel was a prize; but almost instantly I remembered that, in addition to the Tiburon, the pirates owned a brig, by means of which they disposed of such captured booty as they did not require for their own use, purchasing with the proceeds other goods of which they stood in need; and I had very little doubt that the craft before us was the brig in question. Be that as it might, our first task was, obviously, to secure possession of the vessel; and the felucca was accordingly at once headed for her.