"How did you discover that the ship was adrift? Did you feel her cables parting?" demanded the skipper.
"No," answered Purchase; "we never felt anything of that kind; but I suddenly noticed that she was falling off and canting broadside-on to the wind and sea, so I knew at once that something was wrong—that in fact we had, in some incomprehensible way, struck adrift. I therefore sang out to Thompson, the boatswain's mate, to pipe all hands to make sail, intending to run her into the river, if possible. But by the time that we had got the mizzen and fore-topmast staysail upon her, and were loosing the main-topmast staysail, we were in the first line of breakers; and a moment later she struck heavily. Then a big comber came roaring in and broke over us, lifted us up, swept us shoreward a good twenty fathoms, and we struck again, with such violence this time that all three masts went over the side together. After that we had a very bad half-hour, for every roller that came in swept clean over us, carrying away everything that was movable, smashing the bulwarks flat, and hammering the poor old barkie so furiously upon the sand that I momentarily expected her to go to pieces under our feet. To add to our difficulties, it was so intensely dark that we could not see where we were; true, the water all round us was ablaze with phosphorescence, which enabled us to discern that land of some sort lay about a couple of cables' lengths to leeward of us, but it was quite indistinguishable, and the water between us and it was leaping and spouting so furiously that I did not feel justified in making any attempt to get the men ashore, especially as we were then being swept so heavily that we had all our work cut out to hold on for our lives. About half an hour later, however, the tide turned and began to ebb, and then matters improved a bit.
"But it was not until daybreak that we were able to do anything really useful; and then all hands of us got to work and built a raft of sorts, after which we got up a good supply of provisions and water, sails to serve as tents, light line, and, in short, everything likely to be useful, and managed to get ashore without very much difficulty. But before I left the ship I had the cables hauled in through the hawse- pipes, and examined them most carefully. They were both unmistakably cut through—a clean cut, sir, evidently done with a sharp knife—at about the level of the water's edge."
"Most extraordinary!" commented Perry. "And I presume nobody saw anything, either immediately before you went adrift or afterwards—no boat, or anything of that kind, I mean—to account for the affair?"
"No," answered Purchase, "nothing. Yet I was not only wide-awake and on the alert myself, but I took care that the anchor watch should be so also; for I felt the responsibility of having such a ship as the Psyche to take care of, with only twenty hands, all told, to help me."
"Of course," agreed the skipper. "And did you succeed in getting everybody ashore safely?"
"Yes, thank God!" answered Purchase fervently. "We are all safe and sound, and very little the worse for our adventure, thus far."
"Ah! that at least is good news," remarked Perry. "Well," he continued, "there is one very melancholy duty demanding our immediate attention, Mr Purchase, namely, the interment of Captain Harrison and the other poor fellow who fell during the attack upon the barracoon to-day. I will see about that matter personally, by choosing a suitable spot and getting the graves dug, for we shall soon have the darkness upon us. Meanwhile, you will be good enough to get tents rigged and such other preparations made as may be possible for the comfort of all hands, and especially the wounded, during the coming night; for we have all had a very trying day, and it is imperative that we should secure a good night's rest. Mr Fortescue, come with me, if you please."
Now, during the progress of the foregoing conversation the boat party had not been idle; for, as soon as the fact of the wreck had become known to them, Mr Hoskins, the third lieutenant, seeing how matters stood, had grappled with the situation by causing the guns, ammunition, and stores of all kinds to be landed from the boats, and the craft themselves to be hauled up high and dry upon the beach on the river-side of the sand spit; and then, leading his men over the ridge, to where the others were at work upon the salving of wreckage from the surf, he had detailed a party to pick out from among the pile of heterogeneous articles such things as were most needed to meet our more immediate wants, and carry or drag them up the slope to the spot which Henderson, the surgeon, had already selected as the most suitable spot for a camp.
It was toward this party that Mr Perry and I now directed our steps; and when we had joined it the skipper, picking out a dozen of the most handy men, gave them instructions to provide themselves with tools of some sort suitable for the purpose of digging a couple of graves in the loose, yielding sand above the level of high-water mark; and while they were doing this, under my supervision, my companion wandered away by himself in search of a suitable site for the graves. As a matter of fact there was very little in the nature of choice, the entire spit, or at least that portion of it which we occupied, consisting of loose sand, sparsely covered, along the ridge and far a few yards on either side of it, with a kind of creeper with thick, tough, hairy stems and large, broad leaves, the upper surface of which bristled with hairy spicules about a quarter of an inch long. This plant, it was evident, bound the otherwise loose drifts and into a sufficiently firm condition to resist the perpetual scouring action of the wind; it was in this portion of the spit, therefore, that Mr Perry gave orders for the two graves to be dug; and presently my little gang of twelve were busily engaged in scooping out two holes, some twenty feet apart, to serve as graves. They were obliged to work with such tools as came to hand, and these consisted of splintered pieces of plank, the boats' balers, and some wooden buckets that had come ashore.
Under such circumstances the task of excavation was distinctly difficult, the more so that the sand ran back into the holes almost as fast as it was scooped up and thrown out; but at length, by dint of strenuous labour, a depth of some three feet was reached just as the sun's rim touched the western horizon and flung a trail of blood athwart the tumble of waters that lay between. Then, the exigencies of the occasion admitting of no further delay, the task was suspended; all hands knocked off work; and, the bodies having meanwhile been enclosed in rough coffins very hastily put together by the carpenter and his mate, we all fell in; the gig's crew shouldered the late captain's coffin, while six of his mates acted as bearers to the other dead man; and, with Mr Perry leading the way and reading the burial service from a prayer-book, which it appeared he always carried about with him, we marched, slowly, solemnly, and bare-headed, up the slope of the sand spit to the spot which had been selected for the last resting-place of the dead. Arrived there, the two coffins were at once deposited in their respective graves, when the new captain, standing between the two holes, somewhat hurriedly completed the ritual—for the light was fading fast; whereupon, after bestowing a final parting glance at the rough, uncouth box which concealed our beloved chief's body, we all turned slowly and reluctantly away to retrace our steps back to the apology for a camp which was to shelter us for the night, leaving a fresh party of workers to fill in the graves.
In neither arm of the British fighting service do men unduly dwell upon the loss of fallen comrades, for it is quite justly held that the man who yields up his life in the service of his country has done a glorious thing, whether he falls in a pitched battle deciding the fate of an empire, or in some such obscure and scarcely chronicled event as the attack upon a slave factory. He is, where such is possible, laid in his last resting-place with all the honourable observance that circumstances permit, and his memory is cherished in the hearts of his comrades; but whether his fame pass with the echo of the last volley fired over his grave, or outlives the brass of the tablet which records his name and deeds, there is no room for grief. Wherefore, when we got back to camp and had made the best possible arrangements for the coming night, there was little reference in our conversation to the tragic events of the past twenty-four hours; Mr Perry took up the reins of government, and matters proceeded precisely as they would have done had Captain Harrison been still alive and among us.
Our "camp" was, naturally, an exceedingly primitive affair; our living and sleeping quarters consisting simply of sails cut from the yards and stretched over such supports as could be contrived by inserting the lower ends of spars or planks in the sand and lashing their upper ends together. These structures we dignified with the name of "tents." The exigencies of the situation did not permit of the observance of such nice distinctions of rank in the matter of accommodation as exist under ordinary conditions, it therefore came about that we of the midshipmen's berth were lodged for the night in the same tent as the ward-room officers, and consequently we heard much of the conversation that passed between them, particularly at dinner. This meal—consisting of boiled salt beef and pork, with a few sweet potatoes, and a "duff" made of flour, damaged by sea water, with a few currants and raisins dotted about here and there in it—was served upon the Psyche's mizzen royal stretched upon the bare sand in the centre of our "tent"; and we partook of it squatted round the sail cross-legged on the sand, finding the way to our mouths by the light of four ship's lanterns symmetrically arranged one at each corner of the sail.
Naturally enough, Mr Purchase—now ranking as first lieutenant vice Mr Perry, acting captain—having told the tale of the happenings which had resulted in our becoming castaways, was anxious to hear full particulars of what had befallen the boat expedition; and this Mr Perry proceeded to relate to him as we sat round the "table." When he had finished there was silence for a moment; then Purchase looked up and said—
"Don't you think it very strange that your experiences throughout should have accorded so ill with the information that Captain Harrison acquired at so much trouble and personal risk? Hitherto it has always happened that such information as he has been able to pick up has proved to be accurate in every particular."
"Yes," agreed Mr Perry, "it has. I've been thinking a good deal about that to-day; and the opinion I have arrived at is that Harrison played the game once too often, with this result—" and he waved his right hand comprehensively about him, indicating the tent, the makeshift dinner, and our condition generally.
"What I mean is this," he continued, in reply to Purchase's glance of inquiry. "The poor old Psyche, as we all know, was a phenomenally slow ship, yet her successes, since she came on the Coast, have been greater and more brilliant than those of any other vessel belonging to the squadron. And why? Because she had a trick of always turning up on the right spot at the right moment. Now it seems to me that this peculiarity of hers can scarcely have escaped the notice of the slave- trading fraternity, because it was so very marked. I imagine that they must often have wondered by what means we gained our information; and when at length the thing had become so unmistakable as to provoke both conjecture and discussion it would not take them long to arrive at a very shrewd suspicion of the truth. When once the matter had reached this stage discovery could not possibly be very long delayed. Captain Harrison was undoubtedly a well-known figure in Sierra Leone; he was of so striking a personality that it could not be otherwise, and I am of opinion that at length his disguise was penetrated. He was recognised in one of those flash places in Freetown that are especially patronised by individuals of shady and doubtful character; and a scheme was devised for his and our undoing which has succeeded only too well. In a word, I believe that the whole of the information upon which he acted when arranging this most unfortunate expedition was carefully fabricated for the express purpose of bringing about the destruction of the ship, and was confided to him by some one who had recognised him as her captain. I believe, Purchase, that you were cut adrift last night, either by the individual who spun the yarn, or by some emissary or emissaries of his who have a lurking-place somewhere in this neighbourhood; and, if the truth could be got at, I believe it would be found that the schooner which we saw come out of this river on the day before yesterday—and which the captain was led to believe was a decoy intended to draw us off the coast—was actually chock-full of slaves!"
"By Jove!" ejaculated Purchase. "What a very extraordinary idea!"
"I don't think so at all," cut in Hoskins, before Mr Perry could reply. "It may seem so to you, Purchase, because it has just been presented to you, fresh and unexpectedly, as it were. But when we arrived at King Olomba's town yesterday morning, and found neither slaves nor barracoon there, I must confess that I was visited by some such suspicion as that of which Captain Perry has just been speaking, although in my case it did not take quite such a concrete and connected form. To my mind there is only one thing against your theory, sir," he continued, turning to the skipper, "and that is the existence of the factory on the lagoon."
"Yes," agreed the captain, "I admit that to be somewhat difficult to account for. And yet, perhaps not so very difficult either; because if the fellows who gave Captain Harrison the information upon which he acted happened to have a grudge against the owners of that factory they would naturally be more than glad if, while groping about in search of the imaginary slavers and barracoon, we should stumble upon the real thing and destroy it. All this, however, is mere idle conjecture, which may be either well founded or the opposite; but there is one indisputable fact about this business, which is—unless Mr Purchase is altogether mistaken, which I do not for a moment believe—that the Psyche was last night cut adrift from her anchors and wrecked by somebody who must have a lurking-place in this immediate neighbourhood; and I intend to have a hunt for that somebody to-morrow."
THE BATTLE OF THE SAND SPIT.
As the evening progressed it became evident to me that our new captain had developed a very preoccupied mood; he fell into long fits of abstraction; and often answered very much at random such remarks as happened to be addressed to him. He appeared to be turning over some puzzling matter in his mind; and at length that matter came to the surface and found expression in speech.
"Mr Purchase," he said, "I have been trying to put two and two together—or, in other words, I have been endeavouring to find an explanation of the puzzle which this business of the wreck of the Psyche presents. I can understand quite clearly that poor Captain Harrison was deliberately deceived and misled by certain persons in Sierra Leone in order that the ship might be cast away. But why here particularly? For if my theory be correct that the supposed decoy schooner actually sailed out of this river with a full cargo of black ivory, there must certainly be a barracoon somewhere close at hand from which she drew her supplies; and the people who planned the destruction of the sloop could scarcely have been so short-sighted as to have overlooked the fact that such a happening would leave us here stranded in close proximity to a slave factory which, presumably, they would be most anxious should remain undiscovered by us. That is the point which I cannot understand; and I have come to the conclusion that my theory with regard to the schooner must be altogether wrong, or there must be something else in the wind—that, in short, the wreck of the sloop is only a part instead of the whole of their plan."
"But what about the barracoon which you destroyed to-day, sir?" asked Purchase. "Might not that be the place from which those fellows draw their supplies of slaves?"
"It might, of course," admitted the skipper; "but, all the same, I do not believe it was. For the people who supplied Captain Harrison with false information would surely know enough of him and his methods to be certain that, failing to find anything in the nature of a slave factory at King Olomba's town, we should not leave the river again until we had thoroughly explored it; and if they knew the river at all they would also know that the factory on the Camma Lagoon could scarcely be overlooked by us. No; in my own mind I feel convinced that the factory which we destroyed to-day was not the one in which those fellows are interested; there is another one somewhere in the river; and I will not leave until I have discovered and destroyed it. But that only brings me back to the point from which I started, and once more raises the question, Why did they cast us away within a few miles of this other factory which I am persuaded exists? Is it that the place is so strongly fortified that they are confident of our inability to take it? Or is there something else at the back of it all, of which we have not yet got an inkling?"
Purchase shook his head hopelessly. "Upon my word, sir," he answered, "it is quite impossible for me to say. When you come to put the matter like that it becomes as inexplicable as a Chinese puzzle. What is your own opinion?"
"I haven't been able to form one at all," answered the skipper. "But the matter is puzzling enough to convince me that it would be folly on our part to assume that the casting away of the ship is the beginning and ending of the adventure; therefore we will neglect no precautions, Mr Purchase, lest we find ourselves landed in an even worse predicament than our present one. Our first and most important precaution must be to maintain a strict watch throughout the night. It need not be a very strong watch, but it must be a vigilant one; therefore each watch will be kept under the supervision of an officer who will be responsible for the vigilance of the men under him. Moreover, all hands must see that their muskets and pistols are loaded and ready for instant action; for it would not be a very difficult matter to surprise this camp of ours sometime during the small hours. Just come outside with me and let us take a look round."
The result of the above conversation and the "look round" was an arrangement that the night was to be divided into five watches of two hours each, beginning at eight o'clock in the evening and ending at six o'clock in the morning; each watch to consist of twelve men, fully armed, who were to act as sentries, half of them being detailed to watch the river in the neighbourhood of the boats, while the other half kept watch and ward over the land approach to our encampment, being stretched across the narrow isthmus in open order from the water's edge on the river-side to that on the sea-side. Each watch was commanded by an officer, with a midshipman under him; and the general orders were to fire a single shot at the first sign of anything of an alarming character, and then retire upon the camp, if an attack should threaten to cut off the outpost from the main body.
The first watch was taken by the captain, with me for his subordinate; and I was given the command of the party of six guarding the shore approach to the camp, while the skipper took the party mounting guard near the boats, as it was his opinion that if danger threatened it was most likely to come by way of the river.
My instructions were to march my men out to a distance of not more than two cables' lengths from the camp, and there take such cover as might be possible. At first sight it did not appear that there was the least bit of cover of any description available, for the spit or peninsula on which we were encamped was just bare sand for a distance of fully a mile from the spot whereon our camp was pitched, and then there began a growth of scrubby bush which gradually became more dense as one proceeded in a southerly direction; but I solved the difficulty by causing each man to scoop a little pit for himself in the loose sand, in which it was easy for him to crouch perfectly concealed particularly as there was no moon, and the light from the stars was not strong enough to reveal objects at a distance much beyond a quarter of a mile.
The first, second, and third watches passed uneventfully; but the fourth watch was little more than half through when—about a quarter after three o'clock in the morning—the whole camp was roused from its slumbers by the sound of musket-shots, one from the party guarding the boats and the river approach, quickly followed by three in rapid succession from the contingent that occupied the sand pits stretched across the neck of the peninsula. Then three or four more shots from the river party spurted out, and it began to dawn upon us that the matter threatened to be serious. Of course none of us had thought of discarding any of our clothing that night, the second shot therefore had scarcely pealed out upon the night air before we in the camp were upon our feet, with our weapons in our hands, and all drawn up in regular array ready for the next move in the game, with the skipper in command.
"Where are Mr Fortescue and Mr Copplestone?" demanded the captain, looking about him, as soon as the first momentary bustle was over.
"Here I am, sir," answered I, stepping forward and mechanically touching my hat; and "Here I am, sir," answered Tom Copplestone, suddenly appearing from nowhere in particular.
"Mr Fortescue," ordered the captain, "take to your heels and run out to Mr Nugent as fast as you can; ascertain from him the reason for the firing from his party; ask him whether he requires any assistance; and then return to me with his reply as quickly as possible. Mr Copplestone, you will run down to the boats with a similar message to Mr Marline."
Away we both went, as fast as we could lay legs to the ground, Copplestone down-hill toward the river beach, and I along the sand spit, making upward gradually toward the ridge as I ran. Running in that fine, heavy sand was, however, horribly exhausting work, especially to one whose only mode of taking exercise was to stump the lee side of the quarter-deck during his watch, and I was soon so completely blown that, with the best will in the world to hurry, I was brought to walking pace. But before I had made twenty fathoms from my starting-point two more shots rang out from the party by the boats, and a moment later one of the boat guns began to speak. I looked out over the river, striving to discover what the disturbance was about, and thought I could dimly make out several dark blurs on the faintly shimmering surface of the water, which I conjectured must be canoes, but I could not be sure; meanwhile my business was not with them, whatever they were, but with Nugent and his party, from whom, as I struggled along, two more musket-shots cracked out almost simultaneously. Then, down by the river-side, a second shot roared from a boat gun, and this time before the ringing report of the piece died away I distinctly heard a crash followed by loud shrieks and much splashing out somewhere on the surface of the river. A few seconds later, panting and gasping for breath, I staggered up to a figure which I had made out standing upright and motionless on the crest of the spit, and found it to be Nugent, with his drawn sword tucked under his right arm while with both hands he held his night glass to his eye.
"Who goes there?" he demanded sharply, wheeling round and seizing his sword as he heard the noise of my panting behind him.
"Friend!" I answered. "The sk—-captain desires to know why you are firing, out here, and whether you require any assistance."
"Oh! is that Fortescue? All right. Just take my night glass, will you, and sweep the face of the spit carefully at about two hundred yards distance from here. Then tell me if you can see anything," answered Nugent. "And, if it comes to that, why are the others firing, down by the boats?"
"Can't say for certain," I answered, as I took the proffered night glass and raised it to my eye, "but I believe some suspicious canoes or boats have hove in sight, and they are just giving them a hint to keep their distance."
"Ah! just so," returned Nugent. "Now we are firing because, although we can't be absolutely certain in this darkness, we think that there is a body of men out there who would be not altogether disinclined to rush the camp, if we gave them the opportunity; so we are just potting at them—or what we fancy to be them—whenever we get a clear enough sight of them, just as a hint that we are awake. But as to assistance—n-no, I don't think we need any, at least not at present. Should we do so, later on, I will blow a blast on this whistle of mine." And he produced from his pocket a whistle possessing a particularly shrill and piercing note, with which he had been wont to summon Cupid to the midshipmen's berth aboard the Psyche, when that individual's presence had been needed with especial urgency.
"Well, d'ye see anything?" he demanded, after I had been peering through his glass for a full minute or more.
"I am really not at all certain whether I do, or not," I answered, still working away with the glass. "I thought, a moment or two ago, that I caught sight of something in motion for an instant, but it is so abominably dark, as you say, that—but stay a moment, what is that dark mass out there stretching across the ridge? I don't remember having noticed anything there before nightfall."
"Dark mass?" reiterated Nugent; "what dark mass d'ye mean? There is nothing out there, so far as I—"
"By Jingo! but there is, though, sir; I can see it myself now, wi' the naked eye!" exclaimed a seaman who was crouching in a sand pit a yard or so distant from where Nugent and I were standing. "There, don't ye see it, Mr Nugent, stretchin' athwart the back of the spit? Why, I can make it out quite distinctly."
"Give me the glass," demanded Nugent, snatching the instrument from me and applying it to his eye. For some eight or ten seconds he peered intently through the tube, then exclaimed excitedly—
"Ah, now I have it. Yes, by Jove, Fortescue, you are right, there is something out there; and it looks like—like—ay, and it is, too—a body of blacks creeping along toward us on their stomachs! Why, there must be hundreds of 'em, by the look of it; they reach right across the spit! Yes, we shall certainly want help, and plenty of it, to keep those fellows at arm's length. I thought it was only some twenty or thirty when I first made them out. Yes, cut away to the skipper, Fortescue, as hard as you can pelt; tell him what you've seen; and say that I shall be obliged if he will kindly send me as many men as he can spare. That disturbance down by the boats seems to have ceased, so he ought to be able to send us a pretty strong reinforcement."
"All right," I said; "I'll tell him, and then comeback with the men." And away I went back through the heavy sand at racing pace, and delivered my message.
The captain listened patiently to my breathless and somewhat disconnected story, and then turned to Mr Purchase, who was standing close at hand, and said—
"Mr Purchase, have the goodness to take the entire port watch, and go out to Mr Nugent's assistance. But do not allow your men to fire away their ammunition recklessly, for we have very little of it. Let no man pull trigger until he is quite certain of hitting his mark."
"Ay, ay, sir!" answered Purchase. "Port watch, follow me." And away he and his following trudged into the darkness. I was making to join them, but the skipper happened, unfortunately, to see me, and called me back.
"No, no, Mr Fortescue," he said; "you and Mr Copplestone will please remain with me. I may want one or both of you to run messages for me presently."
So we remained. But I at once ranged up alongside Copplestone, for I was anxious to hear the news from Marline, down by the boats.
"Well, Tommy," I said, "what was old Marline blazing away at? Whatever it was, he managed to hit it, for I heard the smash."
"Yes," answered Copplestone. "But it was more a case of luck than of good shooting, for it is as dark as a wolf's mouth. Some of his men, however, had eyes keen enough to see that there was a whole flotilla of boats, or canoes, or something of that sort, hovering in the river and manoeuvring in such a fashion as to lead to the suspicion that they had designs upon our boats, so he dosed them with a few charges of grape, which caused them to sheer off 'one time,' as Cupid is wont to remark. What was the row with Nugent?"
"Lot of niggers creeping along the spit on their stomachs toward him," I answered. "Got some idea of rushing the camp for the sake of the plunder in it, I expect. But now that Mr Purchase and the port watch have gone out to back him up I think we need not—hillo! that sounds like business, though, and no mistake."
My ejaculation was caused by a sudden cracking off of some six or eight muskets, one after the other, closely followed by a heavy if slightly irregular volley, and the next instant the air seemed to become positively vibrant with a perfect pandemonium of shrieks, howls, yells, and shouts as of men engaged in close and desperate conflict. The skipper pricked up his ears and clapped his hand to his sword-hilt; then he turned to where Tommy and I were standing close beside him.
"Mr Copplestone," he said, "take twenty men—the first you can pick— and go with them to support Mr Marline, for I fancy he will need a little help presently. The rest of us are going out to support Mr Purchase and Mr Nugent."
"Ay, ay, sir," answered Tommy. He picked out the first twenty men he could lay hands on and taarched them off to join Mr Marline's "picnic," as he expressed it, and the rest of us went off at the double to take part in the scrimmage that was proceeding in the neighbourhood of the sand pits. And a very pretty scrimmage it was, if one might judge from the tremendous medley of sounds that reached us from that direction. The firing was now very irregular and intermittent, but there was plenty of yelling and shrieking mingled, as we drew nearer to the scene of the fray, with sounds of gasping as of men engaged in a tremendous struggle, quick ejaculations, a running fire of forecastle imprecations, the occasional sharp order of an officer to "Rally here, lads!" dull, sickening thuds as of heavy blows crashing through yielding bones, and here and there a groan, or a cry for water. It was evident that the fight had resolved itself into a desperate hand-to-hand struggle; and it seemed to me that our lads were being hard put to it to hold their own. But the worst feature of the whole affair, to my mind, was that the darkness was so intense that it was almost impossible to distinguish friend from foe.
We reached the scene of the struggle so much sooner than I had expected that it was impossible to avoid the conclusion that our people were being steadily forced back in the direction of the camp; and this I afterwards found to be correct; but the appearance of the skipper with his reinforcements soon put another face upon the matter. It was evident that the foe—consisting of some hundreds of negro savages had been under the impression that they were fighting the entire strength of the British, but when we came up they at once discovered their mistake, which, with the knowledge that, for aught they could tell, there might be further reinforcements waiting to take a hand in the game, somewhat damped their courage. Not by any means at once, however; indeed it was not for perhaps two or three minutes after our appearance upon the scene that the first actual check upon their advance occurred. For they appeared to number seven or eight to every one of us, and moreover they were all picked warriors in the very prime of life, brave, fierce, determined fellows, every one of them, and well armed with spear, shield, war-club, and, in some cases, a most formidable kind of battle- axe.
"Spread out right and left, and cut in wherever you can find room," ordered the skipper as we plunged, stumbling and gasping, into the midst of the fray. And there was no difficulty in obeying this order; for, narrow as the sand spit was, it was yet too wide for Mr Purchase and the port watch to draw a close cordon across it; there were gaps of a fathom or more in width between each of our men, and those gaps were rapidly widening as some poor wretch went down, transfixed by a broad- bladed spear, was clove to the shoulder by the terrific blow of an axe, or had his brains dashed out by a war-club. But as our contingent arrived each man chose an enemy—there was no difficulty in doing that— and pulled trigger upon him, generally bringing him down, for we were too close to miss; after which it became literally a hand-to-hand fight, some using their discharged muskets as clubs while others flung them away and trusted to their cutlasses, and one or two at least—for I saw them close alongside me—depended entirely upon the weapons with which nature had provided them, first dealing an enemy a knock-out blow with the clenched fist and then dispatching him with one of his own weapons. As for me, I still had the brace of pistols and the cutlass with which I had provided myself when setting-out upon our ill-starred boat expedition up the river, and I made play as best I could with these, bowling over a savage with each of my pistols and then whipping out my cutlass. For a time I did pretty well, I and those on either side of me not only holding our ground but actually beginning to force the enemy back; but at length a huge savage loomed up before me with his war-club raised to strike. My only chance seemed to be to get in a cut or a thrust before the blow could fall, and I accordingly lunged out at his great brawny chest. But the fellow was keen-eyed and active as a cat; he sprang to one side, avoiding my thrust, and at the same instant brought down his club upon my blade with a force that shattered the latter like glass and made my arm tingle to such an extent that for the moment at least I was powerless in the right arm. Then, quick as thought, he swung up the huge club again, with the evident determination to brain me. Disarmed and defenceless, I did the on'y thing that was possible, which was to spring at his great throat and grip it with my left hand, pressing my thumb hard upon his wind-pipe. But I was like a child in his hands; he shook me off with scarcely an effort; and as I went reeling backward I saw his club come sweeping down straight for the top of my head. At that precise instant something seemed to flash dully before my eyes in a momentary gleam of starlight, a sharp tchick came to my ears, a few spots of what felt like hot rain spattered in my face, and the great savage, his knees doubling beneath him, reeled backward with a horrible groan and crashed to the sand, with Cupid's axe quivering in his brain, while the club, flying from his relaxed grasp, caught me on the left forearm, which I had instinctively flung up to defend myself, snapping the bone like a carrot, and then whirling over and catching me a blow upon the head that stretched me senseless. But before I fell I had become conscious that through the distracting noises of the fight that raged around me I could hear the sound of renewed firing spluttering out from the direction of the boats.
When my senses returned to me the day was apparently some three or four hours old, for the shadows of certain objects upon which my eyes happened to fall as I first opened them were, if anything, a trifle shorter than the objects themselves, which was a sure indication that the sun stood high in the heavens. I was lying, with a number of other people, in the large tent-like structure which the ward-room officers had used on the preceding evening; and Hutchinson, the ship's surgeon, was busily engaged in attending to the hurts of a seaman who lay not far from me.
This was the first general impression that I gained of my surroundings with the recovery of consciousness; the next was that my left arm, which was throbbing and burning with a dull, aching pain from wrist to shoulder, was firmly bound up and strapped tightly to my body, and that my head, which also ached most abominably, was likewise swathed in bandages. I was parched with thirst, which was increased by the sound of a man drinking eagerly at no great distance from me, and, turning my head painfully in the direction of the sound, I saw Jack Keene, a fellow-mid., administering drink out of a tin pannikin to a man whom I presently recognised as Nugent, the master's mate, who, poor fellow, seemed to be pretty near his last gasp.
"Jack," I called feebly, "you might bring me a drink presently, when you have finished with Nugent, will you? How are you feeling, Nugent? Not very badly hurt, I hope."
I saw Nugent's lips move, as though attempting to answer me, but no sound came from them, while Keene, glancing towards me, shook his head and laid his finger upon his lips as a sign, I took it, that I should not attempt to engage the poor fellow in conversation.
"All right, Fortescue," he said, in a low voice, "I'll attend to you in a brace of shakes."
He laid Nugent's head very gently back upon a jacket which had been folded to serve as a pillow, and then, refilling the pannikin from a bucket which stood close at hand, he came to me.
"Feeling bad, old chap?" he asked, as he raised my head and placed the pannikin to my lips. I emptied the pannikin before attempting to reply, and then said—
"Not so bad but that I might easily be a jolly sight worse. Bring me another drink, Jack, there's a good boy; that was like nectar."
"Ah; glad you enjoyed it," was the reply. "But you'll have to wait a spell for your next drink; Hutchinson's orders to me are that water is to be administered to you fellows very sparingly, as it is drawn from the river and is probably none too wholesome. What are your hurts?"
"Broken arm and a cracked skull, so far as I know," I answered. "What's the matter with poor Nugent?" I added, in a whisper. "He looks as though he is about to slip his cable."
Jack nodded. "Yes, poor chap," he whispered. "No chance of his weathering it. Ripped open by one of those broad-bladed spears. Can't possibly recover. Well, I must go and look after my other patients; I'm acting surgeon's mate, you know."
"Surgeon's mate!" I ejaculated. "Why, you surely don't mean to say that Murdoch has been bowled over, too, do you?"
"No; not so bad as that," answered Jack. "He's away with the rest in the boats. The skipper's gone to pay a return visit to those fellows who beat up our quarters last night. And now I really must be off, you know. Go to sleep, if you can; it will do you all the good in the world."
Go to sleep! Yes, it was excellent advice, but I did not seem able to follow it just then; the throbbing and aching of my arm and the racking pain of my sore head were altogether against it, to say nothing of the continuous groaning and moaning of the injured men round about me, and the occasional sharp ejaculations of agony extorted from the unfortunate individual who happened at the moment to be under the surgeon's hands. So, instead, I looked about me and endeavoured to form some idea of the extent of our casualties during the past night. Judging from what I saw, they must have been pretty heavy, for I counted twenty-three wounded, including myself, and I realised that there might be others elsewhere, for the tent in which we lay was full; there did not seem to be room enough for another patient in it without undue crowding. And even supposing that we comprised the sum total of the wounded, there must have been a large proportion of dead in so desperate an affair as that of the past night. I estimated that in so obstinately contested a fight as that in which we had all sustained our injuries, and against such tremendous odds as those which were opposed to us, there must have been at least half as many dead as wounded, which would make our casualties up to thirty-five; a very heavy percentage out of a crew that, owing to various causes, was already, before this fresh misfortune, growing short-handed. When to these came to be added the casualties sustained on the preceding day in the attack upon the barracoon, it seemed to me that our new captain would have little more than a mere handful of men available for service on this fresh expedition upon which he had embarked—for I did not suppose that he had gone off taking with him every sound man and leaving the camp and the wounded entirely unprotected and exposed to a renewed attack by the savages.
After about an hour's absence Jack came back to me again and gave me another draught of water, which so greatly refreshed me that the excitement and uneasiness under which I had been labouring since his first visit gradually subsided, my aches and pains grew rather more tolerable; my thoughts grew first more placid and then gradually more disconnected, wandering away from the present into the past and to more agreeable themes, my memory of past incidents became confused, and finally I slept.
I must have slept some three or four hours; for when I awoke it was undoubtedly afternoon; Hutchinson had completed his gruesome labours and was sitting not very far away entering some notes in his notebook, and a few of the less seriously wounded were sitting up partaking of soup or broth of some kind out of basins, pannikins, or anything of the kind that came most handy. The sight of these people refreshing themselves reminded me that I was beginning to feel the need of food, and I called out to the doctor to ask if I might have something to eat and drink. He at once rose up and came to me, felt my pulse, looked at my tongue, and prescribed a small quantity of broth, which Jack Keene presently brought me, and which I found delicious. I may here mention that several days later I became aware that this same broth—the origin of which puzzled me at the moment, though not enough to prevent me from taking it—had been prepared from a kind of tortoise, the existence of which in large numbers on the spit Hutchinson had accidentally discovered that very morning, and in pursuit of which he had sent out two of the most slightly wounded with a sack, and instructions to catch and bring in as many of the creatures as they could readily find.
While I was taking my broth the worthy medico stepped to where Nugent was lying and bent over the poor fellow, feeling his pulse and watching his white, pain-drawn face. Then, rising softly, he went into a dark corner of the tent, where, it appeared, his medicine-chest was stowed away, and quickly prepared a draught, which he brought and held to the lips of the patient, tenderly raising the head of the latter to enable him to drink it. Then, having replaced the sufferer's head upon the makeshift pillow, he bent over and murmured a few words in the dying man's ear. What they were I know not, nor did I catch Nugent's response, but the effect of the brief colloquy was that Hutchinson drew from his pocket a small copy of the New Testament and, after glancing here and there at its opened pages, finally began to read, in a clear voice and very impressively, the fifteenth chapter of the first epistle to the Corinthians, reading it through to the end. As he proceeded I saw poor Nugent slowly and painfully draw up his hands, that had lain clenched upon the sand beside him, until they were folded upon his breast in the attitude of prayer. And when at length Hutchinson, with a steady voice, but with the tears trickling down his cheeks, reached the passage, "But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory," Nugent's lips began to move as though he were silently repeating the words. The chapter ended, Hutchinson remained silent for a few moments, regarding his patient, who he evidently believed was praying. Suddenly Nugent's eyes opened wide, and he stared up in surprise at the canvas roof over his head as though he beheld some wonderful sight; the colour flowed back into his cheeks and lips, and gradually his face became illumined with a smile of ecstatic joy.
"Yes," he murmured, "thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory—the victory—victory!" As he spoke his voice rose until the final word was a shout of inexpressible triumph. Then the colour ebbed away again from cheeks and lips, a film seemed to gather over the still open eyes, the death-rattle sounded in the patient's throat, he gasped once, as if for breath, and then a look of perfect, ineffable peace settled upon the waxen features. Nugent's gallant soul had gone forth to join the ranks of the great Captain of his salvation.
WE FIND NEW QUARTERS.
It was about half an hour after Nugent's death that young Parkinson, who had been engaged somewhere outside the tent, came in and said to Hutchinson—
"The launch, under sail, and with only about half a dozen hands in her, has just hove in sight from somewhere up the river. None of the other boats seem to be in company, but as she is flying her ensign at the peak,"—the launch, it may be mentioned, was rigged as a fore-and-aft schooner—"I suppose it's all right."
"It is to be hoped so," fervently responded the medico; "goodness knows we don't want anything further in the nature of a disaster; we've had quite enough of that sort of thing already. Could you distinguish the features of any of the people in the boat?"
"No, sir," answered the lad. "I hadn't a glass with me. Is there such a thing knocking about anywhere here in the tent, I wonder?"
"Yes," answered Hutchinson. "You will find Mr Nugent's somewhere about. It was picked up and brought in by the fatigue-party this morning. You might take it, if you can find it, and see if you can distinguish an officer in the boat. The glass ought to be somewhere over there."
Parkinson went to the spot indicated, and proceeded to rummage among the heterogeneous articles that had been recovered from the scene of the previous night's fight, and soon routed out the instrument of which he was in search, with which he went to the opening of the tent, from which the launch was by this time visible. Applying the telescope to his eye, he focussed it upon the fast-approaching boat and stared intently through the tube.
"Yes," he said at length, "I can make out Mr Purchase in the stern- sheets, with Rawlings, the coxswain, alongside of him; and there is Cupid's ugly mug acting as figure-head to the boat. The beggar is grinning like a Cheshire cat—I can see his double row of ivories distinctly—so I expect there is nothing much the matter."
Presently, from where I was lying, the launch slid into view, coming down-stream at a great pace under whole canvas, and driven along by a breeze that laid her over gunwale-to. She was edging in toward our side of the river; and as I watched her movements, her crew suddenly sprang to their feet, apparently in obedience to an order; her foresail and mainsail were simultaneously brailed up at the same moment that her staysail was hauled down, then her helm was put up and she swerved inward toward the beach, upon which she grounded a minute later. Then Mr Purchase rose to his feet, sprang up on the thwarts, and, striding from one to the other, finally sprang out upon the beach, up which, followed by Cupid, he made his way toward our tent. A couple of minutes later he stood in the entrance, waiting for his eyes to accustom themselves to the comparative darkness of the interior.
"Well, doc.," he exclaimed cheerily, "how have things been going with you to-day?"
"Quite as well as I could reasonably have expected, taking all things into consideration," answered Hutchinson. "Poor Nugent has passed away—went about half an hour ago—but the rest of the wounded are doing excellently. How have things gone with you, and where are the others?"
"Left them behind busily preparing quarters for you and your contingent," answered Purchase. "We have had a pretty lively time of it, I can tell you, since we left here this morning. Searched both banks of the river for a dozen miles or more, exploring creeks in search of the gentry who attacked us from the river last night, and who undoubtedly put the savages up to the shore attack upon the camp, and eventually found them snugly tucked away in a big lagoon about twelve miles from here, the entrance of which is so artfully concealed that we might have passed it within a hundred fathoms and never suspected its existence. Splendid place it is for carrying on the slave traffic; large open lagoon, with an average of about fifteen feet of water everywhere; fine spacious wharf, with water enough for ships to lie alongside; two spanking big barracoons; and a regular village of well- built houses; in fact, the finest and most complete slave factory that I've ever seen. Well-arranged defences, too; battery of four nine- pounders; houses loop-holed for musketry; and a garrison of about a hundred of the most villainous-looking Portuguese, Spaniards, and half- breeds that one need wish to meet. They were evidently on the look-out for us—had been watching us all day, I expect—and opened a brisk fire upon us the moment that we hove in sight. Luckily for us their shooting was simply disgraceful, and we managed to effect a landing, with only two or three hurt. But then came the tug-of-war. The beggars barricaded themselves inside their houses, and blazed away at us at short range, and then, of course, our people began to drop. But Perry wouldn't take any refusal; landed the boat guns, dragged them forward, and blew in the doors, one after the other, stormed the houses, and carried them in succession at the sword's point. After that it was all plain sailing, but very grim work, doc, I can tell you; our people had got their blood up, and went for the Dagoes like so many tigers. It lasted about a quarter of an hour after we had blown the doors down, and I don't believe that more than a dozen of the other side escaped. Of course we, too, suffered heavily, and there are a lot of fresh cases waiting for you, but Murdoch is working like a Trojan. And now I have come to fetch you and your contingent away out of this; there is a fine, big, airy house that Murdoch has turned into a hospital, where the wounded will be in clover, comparatively speaking; so, if you don't mind, we'll get to work at once and shift quarters before nightfall."
No sooner said than done. As I had surmised, a party of twenty unwounded men, under the boatswain, had been left behind by the skipper to look after the camp when he had gone away early in the morning, and these men were now called in to convey the most seriously wounded down to the launch, while the less seriously hurt helped each other; and in this way the whole of the occupants of the camp were got down to the launch and placed on board her in about twenty minutes. Then Hutchinson caused his medicine-chest to be taken down to the boat, together with such other matters as he thought might be useful; and, lastly, poor Nugent's body was taken down and reverently covered over with the ship's ensign, which had been saved, laid on a rough, impromptu platform on the thwarts amidships—the other poor fellows who had fallen in the fight had been buried before the setting-out of the boat expedition, I now learned. A final look round the camp was then taken by Purchase and Hutchinson; a few more articles that were thought worth preserving from possible midnight raiders were brought down; and then we got under way and stood up the river, keeping in the slack water as much as possible, in order to cheat the current.
It was within an hour of sunset when Purchase, who had been standing up in the stern-sheets of the boat, intently studying the shore of the right bank of the river for some ten minutes, gave the order to douse the canvas and stand by to ship the oars; and as he did so he waved his hand to the coxswain, who put down his helm and sheered the boat in toward what looked like an unbroken belt of mangroves stretching for miles along the bank. But as the launch, with plenty of way on her, surged forward, an opening gradually revealed itself; and presently we slid into a creek, or channel, some two hundred feet wide, the margins of which were heavily fringed with mangroves, and at once found ourselves winding along this narrow passage of oil-smooth, turbid water, in a stagnant atmosphere of roasting heat that was redolent of all the odours of foetid mud and decaying vegetation. This channel proved to be about a mile long, and curved round gradually from a north-easterly to a south-easterly direction, ending in a fine spacious lagoon about eight miles long by from three to four miles wide at its widest point, arrived in which we once more felt the breeze and the sails were again set, the boat heading about south-east, close-hauled on the port tack, toward what eventually proved to be an island of very fair size, fringed with the inevitable mangroves, but heavily timbered, as to its interior, with magnificent trees of several descriptions, among which I distinguished several very fine specimens of the bombax. Handsomely weathering this island, with a few fathoms to spare, and standing on until we could weather a small, low-lying island to windward of us on the next tack, we then hove about and stood for the northern shore of the lagoon, by that time some five miles distant, finally shooting in between the mainland and an island nearly two miles long, upon which stood the slave factory that our lads had captured earlier in the day. The whole surface of this island, except a narrow belt along its southern shore, had been completely cleared of vegetation; and upon the cleared space had been erected two enormous barracoons and, as Purchase had said, a regular village of well-constructed, stone-built houses raised on massive piers of masonry, and with broad galleries and verandahs all round them, evidently intended for the occupation of the slave-dealers and their dependants. A fine timber wharf extended along the entire northern side of the island, with massive bollards sunk into the soil at regular intervals for ships to make fast to; half a dozen trunk buoys occupied the middle of the fairway; and the whole settlement was completely screened from prying eyes by the heavy belt of standing timber that had been left undisturbed on the southern shore of the island. I had thought that the factory on the Camma Lagoon represented the last word in the construction of slave-dealing establishments; but this concern was quite twice as extensive, and more elaborately complete in every respect.
By the time that we invalids were landed it was close upon sunset, and under Purchase's guidance we were all conducted up to the largest house in the place, where, in one of the rooms, Murdoch was still hard at work attending to the batch of patients that were the result of that day's work. We, the new arrivals, however, were shepherded into another room, where fairly comfortable beds were arranged along the two sides, and into these beds the worst cases were at once put and turned over to Murdoch's care, while Hutchinson promptly pulled off his coat and took up Murdoch's work in what might be termed the operating-room. I, however, was not considered a bad case, and was accordingly placed in another smaller room, or ward, along with about half a dozen others in like condition with myself.
While these arrangements were proceeding, a fatigue-party had been busy at work in a secluded spot chosen by the skipper, at some distance from the houses; and before we, the wounded, had all been comfortably disposed of for the night, the dead Nugent included—were laid to rest with such honourable observance as the exigencies of the moment would permit.
The casualties in this last affair were, of course, by no means all on the British side; we had suffered pretty severely in the three affairs in which we had been involved since the departure of the boat expedition from the ship, our total amounting to eleven killed and twenty-six wounded; but the losses on the part of the enemy had been very considerably greater, their dead, in this last fight alone, numbering nineteen killed, while thirty-three wounded had been hurriedly bestowed in one of the houses, to be attended to by the surgeons as soon as our own people had been patched up; thus Hutchinson and Murdoch were kept busy the whole of that night, while Copplestone, Keene, and Parkinson— the three uninjured midshipmen—were impressed as ward-attendants to keep watch over our own wounded, and administer medicine, drink, and nourishment from time to time.
It was a most fortunate circumstance for all hands that this last factory had been discovered and captured; for we were thus provided with cool, comfortable living quarters, instead of being compelled to camp out on the exposed beach opposite the wreck; and to this circumstance alone may be attributed the saving of several of the more severely wounded, to say nothing of the fact that we now occupied a position which could be effectually defended from such attacks as that to which we had been exposed on the spit during the previous night. Moreover, it relieved the captain of a very heavy load of anxiety, since, but for the fortunate circumstance of this capture, he would have had no alternative but to have continued in the occupation of our makeshift camp on the spit, it being impossible for him to undertake a boat voyage to Sierra Leone with so many wounded on his hands. It is true that he might have sent away the launch, with an officer and half a dozen hands, to Sierra Leone to summon assistance; but his ambition was not to be so easily satisfied. We had done splendid service in capturing two factories and destroying one of them—the second would also, of course, be destroyed when we abandoned it—but the loss of the Psyche was a very serious matter, which must be atoned for in some shape or another; and he soon allowed it to be understood that he was in no particular hurry to quit our present quarters, where the wounded were making admirable progress, and the sound were comfortably housed, while provisions of all kinds were plentiful and the water was good. But this, excellent as it was in itself, was by no means all; with two such perfectly equipped factories as we had found upon the river it was certain that the slave traffic on the Fernan Vaz must have assumed quite formidable proportions; and it was the skipper's idea that before our wounded should be lit to be moved, one or more slavers would certainly enter the river, when it would be our own fault if we did not capture them.
The most careful dispositions were accordingly made, with this object in view; the gig, in charge of an officer, was daily dispatched to the entrance of the lagoon in order that, herself concealed, her crew might maintain a watch upon the river and report the passage of any vessels upward-bound for the Camma Lagoon, while, so far as our own quarters were concerned, everything was allowed to remain as nearly as possible as it was before it fell into our hands, in order that, should a slaver arrive at the factory, there should be nothing about the place to give the alarm until it should be too late for her to effect her escape. As a final precaution, a sort of crow's-nest arrangement was rigged up in a lofty silk-cotton tree which had been left standing in the screening belt of timber along the southern shore of the island, in order that a look-out might be maintained upon the approach channel during the hours of daylight, and timely notice given to us of the approach of slavers to the factory of which we were in occupation.
A full week elapsed from the date of our desperate fight on the sand spit, with no occurrence of any moment save that, thanks to the skill and indefatigable exertions of Hutchinson and Murdoch, all our wounded were doing remarkably well, two or three of them, indeed, having so far recovered that they were actually able to perform such light duty as that of hospital ward-attendants; while the unwounded had been kept perpetually busy at the scene of the wreck, salving such matters as were washed ashore, and transferring everything of any value to our quarters. Meanwhile, the ship had parted amidships, and was fast going to pieces, so that our labours in that direction were coming to an end, and in the course of another week or two there would be nothing more than a rib showing here and there above water, and a few trifles of wreckage scattered along the beach to tell to strangers the story of our disaster. The enemy's wounded also, who were sharing with us the attentions of the surgeon and his mate, were doing well upon the whole, although there had been some half a dozen deaths among them, and there were a few more, whose hurts were of an exceptionally severe character, with whom the issue still remained doubtful.
It chanced that among these last there was a negro who seemed gradually to be sinking, despite the utmost efforts of Hutchinson to save him; and this individual, named M'Pandala, had latterly evinced a disposition to be friendly and communicative to Cupid, our Krooboy, who had been told off for hospital duty in the house occupied by the enemy's wounded; and at length—it was on the tenth day of our occupation of the island, and I was by this time well enough to be out and about again, although still unable to do much on account of my disabled arm—this negro made a certain communication to Cupid which the latter deemed it his duty to pass on to me without loss of time. Accordingly, on the evening of that day, after Cupid had been relieved—he was on day duty—he sought me out and began—
"Mr Fortescue, sar, you know dem M'Pandala, in dere?" pointing with his chin toward the house in which the wounded man was lodged.
"No, Cupid," I answered. "I cannot truthfully say that I enjoy the honour of the gentleman's acquaintance. Who and what is he?"
Cupid grinned. "Him one Eboe man," he answered, "employed by dem Portugee to cook for and look after dem captain's house. He lib for die, one time now; and 'cause I been good to him, and gib him plenty drink when he thirsty, he tell me to-day one t'ing dat I t'ink de captain be glad to know. He say dat very soon—perhaps to-morrow or next day, or de day after—one big cauffle of slabe most likely comin' here for be ship away from de coas'; and now dat he am goin' to die he feel sorry for dem slabe and feel glad if dem was set free."
"Whew!" I whistled. "That is a bit of news well worth knowing—if it can be relied upon. Do you believe that the fellow is telling the truth, Cupid?"
"Cartain, Mr Fortescue, sar," answered the Krooboy, with conviction. "He lib for die now; what he want to tell me lie for? He no want debbil to come after him and say, 'Hi, you M'Pandala, why you tell dem white men lie about slabe cauffle comin' down to de coas'? You come along wid me, sar!' No, he not want dat, for cartain."
"When did he tell you this, Cupid?" I demanded.
"'Bout two hour ago," answered Cupid. "He say to me, 'Cupid, I lib for die to-night, and when you come on duty to-morrow you find me gone. So I want to tell you somet'ing now, before it too late.' And den he tell me de news, Mr Fortescue, sar, just as I tell it to you, only in de Eboe language, which I understand, bein' well educate."
"All right," said I. "In that case you had better come with me at once to the captain, and we will tell him the yarn. The sooner he hears it the better. Did he tell you where the cauffle was coming from, and which way?"
"He say," answered Cupid, "dat dem cauffle am comin' down from de Bakota country, where 'most all de slabe sent from dis place come from; and dere is only one way for dem to come here, t'rough de bush ober de oder side ob de water. Den dey bring dem across to de island in dem big flat-bottom punt dat lay moored up by de top end ob de wharf."
We found the captain in the store with Mr Futtock, the boatswain, overhauling the various articles salved from the wreck, and as soon as he had seen all that he desired, and was ready to leave the building, I got hold of him and repeated the yarn that Cupid had spun to me, the Krooboy confirming and elaborating my statement from time to time as I went on, and answering such questions as the skipper put to him. When at length we had brought the yarn to an end the captain stood for some minutes wrapped in deep thought, and then said—
"This is a very valuable piece of information that you have managed to pick up, Cupid: and if it should prove to be well founded I will not forget that we owe it to you. It is too late now, Mr Fortescue, to do anything in the matter to-night, for it will be dark in less than half an hour; but the first thing to-morrow morning you and Cupid here had better take the dinghy, pull across to the mainland, and endeavour to find the road by which the cauffle will come—there ought not to be very much difficulty in doing that, I should think. And, having found it, it will be well for the pair of you to proceed along the road on the look- out for some suitable spot at which to ambush the party, after which the rest should be easy. There is, however, another matter that needs consideration. How are we to ascertain the precise moment at which to expect the arrival of the slave-dealers? Because it will be hardly desirable to take a party out, day after day, and keep them in the bush all day waiting for the cauffle to come along. We are all doing excellently well here; but two or three days spent in the bush would very possibly mean half the party being down with fever."
Here Cupid, bursting with pride and importance at finding himself, as it were, a member of a council over which the captain was presiding, struck in—
"You jus' leabe dat to me, sar. Suppose you gib me leabe to go, I take ration for, say, free day, and go off by myself into de bush to meet dem cauffle. Dhen when I hab met dem I soon find out when dem expec' to arribe here, and I come back and tell you."
The skipper regarded the black doubtfully.
"But," he objected, "if you fall in with them, my man, the traders are as likely as not to shoot you; or, if not that, at least to seize you and chain you on to the cauffle. Then how could you let us know when to expect the beggars?"
"No fear ob dat, sar," answered Cupid with a grin. "I shall take care dat dem do not know I, Cupid, am anywhere near dem. Dem shall neber suspec' my presence, sar; but I shall be dere, all de same, and shall take partikler care to hear eberyt'ing dat dem say, so dat we may know exactly when to expec' dem. And when I hab learned dat piece of information, I shall hurry back so as to let you know as early as possible. I don' t'ink dat dere is much fault to find wid dat plan, sar."
"No," answered the skipper, smiling at the black's eagerness and excitement, "provided, of course, that you are quite confident of your ability to carry it through."
"You trust me, sar; I'll carry it through all right, sar," answered Cupid, in huge delight at being specially entrusted by the skipper with this mission. "You hab but to gib me leabe to go, and I will undertake to carry out de enterprise to your entire satisfaction."
"Very well," said the skipper, now struggling manfully to suppress his inclination to laugh outright at the man's high-flown phraseology; "let it be so, then. Mr Fortescue, I leave it with you to arrange the matter." And he turned away.
On the following morning, Cupid having called me at daylight, I snatched a hasty breakfast of cocoa and biscuit, and then wended my way to the wharf, where the Krooboy, in light marching order, with three days' rations—which he proposed to supplement on the way, if necessary—tied up in a gaudy bandana handkerchief, awaited me in the dinghy. Scrambling down into the boat with some circumspection—for my broken arm, although knitting together again nicely, was still rather painful at times, and very liable to break again in the same place if treated roughly—I took my place in the stern-sheets, whereupon Cupid, giving the little cockle-shell a powerful thrust off from the wharf wall, threw out the two tiny oars by which the boat was usually propelled, and proceeded with long powerful strokes to row across to the mainland, at this point a bare half-mile distant. As we went the black informed me that, with the view of ascertaining a few additional items of information of which he had thought during the night, he had looked into the ward wherein his friend M'Pandala had been lodged, but had discovered, as he indeed more than half feared, that the Eboe had quietly slipped his moorings during the night and passed on into his own particular "happy hunting grounds." But he added cheerfully that, after all, it really did not greatly matter; he would probably be able to obtain the required information in some other way.
Arrived at the other side of the inlet, it became necessary for us to search the shore for the spot at which the bush road debouched, and this we eventually found with some difficulty, for, like everything else connected with the factory, it had been very carefully arranged with the object of screening it from casual observation. But once discovered, our difficulties in that respect were at an end, for we found that it ran down into a tiny indentation in the shore, just sufficiently spacious to accommodate two of the large flats or punts at a time, with firm ground, sloping gently down into the water, affording admirable facilities for the rapid embarkation of large numbers of people.
Hauling the dinghy's stem up on this piece of firm sloping ground, and making fast her painter to a convenient tree, as a further precaution, Cupid and I set out along the firm, well-beaten path, some six feet in width, which had been cleared through the dense and impenetrable bush that hemmed us in on either hand, tormented all the while by the dense clouds of mosquitoes and other stinging and biting insects that hovered about us in clouds and positively declined to be driven away.
We walked thus about a mile and a half when we came out upon an open space, some ten acres in extent, through which the path ran. This cleared space had evidently been caused by a bush fire at no very distant date, for a few charred trunks and portions of trunks of trees still reared themselves here and there; but the undergrowth had all been burned away down to the bare earth, and was now springing up again, fresh and green, in little irregular patches, all over the open area. The spot would serve admirably for an ambuscade, for while it was sufficiently open to permit of straight shooting, there was cover enough to conceal a hundred men, or more, at need. But what made the place especially suitable for our purpose was the fact that away over in one corner of the clearing there grew a thick, dense belt of wild cactus, newly sprung up, fresh, tough, and vigorous, every leaf being thickly studded with long, strong, sharp spikes growing so closely together that nothing living would dare to face it, or attempt to force a passage through it—or, at all events, if they should be foolhardy enough to try it once they would not attempt it a second time. It immediately occurred to me—and Cupid promptly corroborated my view—that if our party could but find or make a way in behind this belt of cactus, they would be at once in a natural fort from which it would be impossible to dislodge them, and after further careful investigation a passage was found through the bush by which our lads could easily gain access to the interior of the cactus fort, and hold it against all comers. There was therefore no need to search farther; the place was admirably adapted to our requirements; and, once satisfied of this, I bade Cupid proceed on his way in quest of the approaching cauffle, while I leisurely wended my way back to the dinghy and, with a single oar thrown out over the stern, sculled myself back to the factory.
LA BELLE ESTELLE.
My first act upon my return was, of course, to report the result of my reconnaissance to the captain, who, after hearing what I had to say, came to the conclusion that he would personally inspect the spot which I had selected as the scene of the proposed ambuscade; and accordingly, ordering the second cutter to be manned, we pushed off, taking Mr Hoskins with us, and towing the dinghy, which was to be left on the other side for the convenience of Cupid, upon that individual's return.
When we at length reached the place the skipper was so pleased with it that he at once determined to set a strong party to work upon it, partly to keep the hands employed—there being by this time very little to do at the factory—and partly that the necessary preparations might be completed at the earliest possible moment. Accordingly he gave Hoskins, who was to have charge of the working-party, the most elaborate instructions as to how to proceed and what to do. The work was put in hand that same day; and when Hoskins and his party returned to quarters that night the former reported that the whole of the work absolutely necessary to insure the success of the ambuscade had been done, and that only about another hour's work, on the following day, was required to complete the whole of what the skipper had ordered.
The next day, accordingly, the party crossed to the mainland to complete the preparation of the ambuscade, returning, in good time for dinner, with the report that all was now done, and that the spot was ready for occupation at a moment's notice. As it happened, it was just as well that we had acted with such promptitude and expedition, for the men were still engaged upon their mid-day meal when Cupid was seen returning in the dinghy. The fellow had evidently travelled fast and far, for he was smothered in dust, and so done up that he could scarcely drag one leg after another—there is nothing that puts one out of walking condition more quickly than being pent up for long periods on board a ship.
But, despite his fatigue, he was puffed up with pride and importance, for he had accomplished the mission upon which he had been despatched, and in a very satisfactory manner, too. His report was to the effect that he had travelled at a good pace all through the preceding day, and that at nightfall, while still plodding forward, keeping his eyes wide open, meanwhile, on the look-out for a suitable camping spot, he had suddenly detected in the air a smell of burning wood and dry leaves, and, proceeding cautiously a little further, had become aware of a low, confused murmuring, as that of the voices of many people, together with a brisk crackling sound which he at once recognised as that of camp fires. A minute or two later, having meanwhile taken cover, he sighted the camp, which proved to be, as he had of course expected, that of the slave-traders and their unhappy victims.
The caravan, or "cauffle," had just camped for the night, and its members were busily engaged in preparing the evening meal, Cupid was therefore able to approach the camp closely enough to catch a great deal of the conversation of the slave-traders, as well as to make a pretty accurate guess at their number and that of their victims. Later on he was able to ascertain the exact number of the former, which totalled eighty-two, while the slaves he estimated to number from a thousand to fifteen hundred. Maintaining his concealment, but steadily working his way ever closer to the camp fire, the Krooboy ultimately wriggled himself into a position so close to the spot where the chiefs of the band had seated themselves that he was able without difficulty to catch every word spoken by them; and although his knowledge of the Spanish and Portuguese languages was exceedingly limited, yet by listening patiently to everything that was said during the somewhat dilatory progress of the meal, and afterwards while the leaders smoked and chatted prior to turning-in for the night, he was able to gather that the remaining distance of the journey was to be divided into three marches, the last of which was to bring the party to the shore of the lagoon pretty early in the afternoon of the day following that of Cupid's return to us.
Then, having learned this, the Krooboy had waited until the leaders of the expedition had bestowed themselves for the night, and the occupants of the camp generally were settling to rest after the hot and toilsome march of the past day, when he cautiously left his place of concealment and, mingling with the unhappy captives, had contrived to communicate to several of them the joyful news that in due time, and upon their arrival at a certain spot already fixed upon, the cauffle would be ambuscaded and the dealers and escort attacked and captured, after which the slaves would be released and supplied with food and water to enable them to return to their homes. He did this, he said, not only to comfort and encourage them but also to put them on their guard against falling into a panic at the critical moment and getting themselves hurt.
The skipper listened very carefully to this story, cross-examined the narrator upon several points, and then dismissed him to get food and rest. That same afternoon the captain, accompanied, as before, by Lieutenant Hoskins, again visited the place of ambush, and presumably made final arrangements for the capture of the cauffle, but what they were I did not know, for I was left behind, with Tompson, the gunner, in charge of the factory, with instructions to overhaul our stock of arms and ammunition, and see that everything of that kind was made perfectly ready for the next day's work.
When the next day arrived and all hands were mustered for inspection prior to the choosing of the ambuscading party, I learned to my disgust that I was to be left behind, with the other invalids, to look after the factory, Hutchinson having reported that I was not yet fit for duty, although, like a full dozen others who had been hurt in one or another of our recent fights, I was able to be up and about, and to attend to matters not requiring the use of both arms. But the slave-traders were known to be, as a general rule, determined fellows, and it was certain that, in the present case, with such a rich haul in their possession, they would fight desperately in defence of their booty. The skipper therefore determined to take only sound men with him, concluding that "lame ducks" would be more of a hindrance than a help to him.
With envious eyes I watched the departure of the skipper and his party— in three boats, namely, the launch and the first and second cutters—and then walked moodily away from the wharf to perform a duty inspection of the sick wards. The place wore an unnaturally quiet and deserted look, as I crossed the great open space between the wharf and the building which we had converted into a hospital; for there was nobody about excepting a round dozen or so of convalescents, well enough to sit out on the gallery under the shade of the verandah, and the solitary watcher, perched aloft in the crow's-nest which we had rigged among the topmost branches of one of the most lofty trees on the island, in order to maintain a watch upon the lagoon, and give us timely notice of the approach of a slaver.
Sauntering quietly along, for the heat was already intense, I entered the hospital building and proceeded with the usual daily inspection of the wards, which I found were to-day in Murdoch's charge, Hutchinson having been detailed to accompany the skipper's party. The invalids were all doing excellently, thanks, no doubt, in a great measure, to the fine, airy room in which they had been bestowed; some, indeed, were so far advanced toward recovery that Murdoch had given three or four of them permission to leave their beds and go into the open air for an hour or two, and these were now assisting each other to dress. I completed my rounds, both of this building and also of that in which the wounded prisoners were lodged, and was just leaving the latter when I caught sight of one of the convalescents hurrying toward me at a great rate, in the full glare of the sunshine, in direct defiance of the medico's standing order that none of them were on any account to leave the shadow of the verandah. But this man had a very excellent excuse for his breach of the rules, for the moment that he saw me he first took off his hat and waved it to attract my attention, and then flourished it in the direction of the look-out tree, glancing toward which I caught sight of the fluttering fragment of scarlet bunting which was the prearranged signal that a slaver had entered the lagoon and was approaching the factory! A moment later the look-out himself, having descended the tree, came hurrying along to make his report.
"Well, Edwards," I exclaimed, as the man came bustling up to me, and saluted, "I see you have made the signal that a slaver is approaching. What sort of a craft is she; and how far off?"
"She's a very tidy and smart-looking brig, sir, measurin' close upon three hundred ton, by the look of her; and she's headin' straight for the eastern end of this here island, clewin' up and furlin' as she comes. She was under topsails and to'ga'nts'ls when I shinned down out of the crow's-nest, yonder; and I reckon she'll reach the anchorage in about another twenty minutes or so," reported the man.
"Very good," I answered. "Now, go back to your look-out, and put that piece of red bunting out of sight as quickly as possible; for if those slaver fellows should happen to catch sight of it they may suspect something and be on their guard; which won't do; for, with only a few convalescents to help me, our sole chance of capturing them lies in the use of stratagem."
Then, as the man turned away and hurried back to his post, I crossed the open space between the wharf and the buildings, and, giving the convalescents instructions to arm themselves at once and to stand by to show themselves when called upon, I entered my own quarters and hastily shifted from my uniform into a somewhat soiled suit of "whites" and a pith hat that had doubtless once been the property of one of the former inhabitants of the place—and which I had appropriated in view of some such contingency as the present—and otherwise made such preparations as were possible for the suitable reception of our expected visitors.
We had only just barely completed our preparations when the strange brig, under topsails and fore-topmast staysail, came sweeping round the eastern extremity of the island, bracing sharp up as she did so and making a short "leg" athwart the anchorage, toward the mainland. Then, tacking very smartly, even under such short canvas as she was showing, she headed well up for the line of buoys which had been laid down as moorings, and, splendidly handled, presently came up head to wind, settling away both topsail-yards to the caps as she did so, and, while her crew clewed up the topsails and hauled down the staysail, glided, with the way which she still had on her, up to the weathermost buoy, to which a hawser was promptly run out and made fast. Then, as about a dozen hands climbed into the fore and main rigging and made their leisurely way aloft for the purpose of rolling up the topsails, a light, handsome gig was dropped into the water from the starboard quarter davits and presumably hauled alongside the gangway; but this I could not see, as she was presenting her port broadside to us—which, by the way, I noticed, was garnished with five grinning twelve-pounders. She was a most beautiful vessel, lying long and low upon the water, her hull painted all black, from her rail to her copper, relieved only by a single narrow white stripe running along her sheer-strake from her white figure-head to the rather elaborate white scroll-work that decorated her quarter. She was grandly sparred, with very heavy lower-masts, long mastheads, painted white, very taunt topmasts, topgallant and royal- masts, stayed to a hair, with a slight rake aft, and accurately parallel, and enormously long yards. The French ensign floated lazily from the end of her standing gaff.
As I stood under the shade of the verandah, admiring this sea beauty, the gig came foaming round under her stern, propelled by four oarsmen, and with a white-clad figure in the stern-sheets, and headed toward the wharf, alongside a flight of steps in which she presently ranged, and hooked on. Then the white-clad figure in the stern-sheets rose and, leisurely climbing the steps to the level of the wharf, revealed itself as that of a man somewhat over middle height, broadly built, with hair, beard, and moustache of raven black, and a skin tanned almost to the colour of that of a mulatto by long exposure to sea-breezes and a tropical sun. His age I roughly estimated as somewhere about forty.
With a swaggering sea roll he came striding across the wide arid space between the wharf side and the buildings, puffing at a big black cigar as he walked, and glancing about him curiously, as though he could not quite understand the utter quietude and deserted aspect of the place. Apparently, however, this was not sufficiently marked to arouse his suspicion, for he betrayed no hesitation as he made straight for the house under the broad verandah of which I stood in full view, watching his approach. As he came within speaking distance he slightly raised his broad-brimmed pugaree-bound Panama hat, for a moment, exclaiming, in execrable Spanish:
"Good-morning, senor! what has happened that I see nobody about? And where is Senor Morillo? I would have speech with him."
Raising my hat in reply, I answered, in the same language: "I deeply regret to inform you, senor, that Morillo is indisposed—down with a slight attack of fever, in fact; and, as for the rest, they are away in the bush on the other side, whither they have gone to help bring in the cauffle which is due to arrive this afternoon. But will you not step in out of the sun?"
"Thanks!" answered the stranger, ascending the gallery steps. "I am sorry to hear of my friend Morillo's indisposition. A slight attack of fever, I think you said. Is he too ill, think you, to talk business? If not, you will perhaps have the extreme kindness to tell him that Captain Lenoir of La Belle Estelle has arrived and would like to see him."
"Assuredly I will, senor," I answered politely. "Pray step inside here, out of the heat, and be seated, while I convey your message to Senor Morillo."
So saying, I flung open the door of an inner room, and stood aside for him to enter.
Quite unsuspectingly he stalked in through the open door, removed his hat and laid it upon the table, flung himself into a basket-chair, and, withdrawing an enormous silk pocket-handkerchief from his pocket, proceeded to mop the streaming perspiration from his forehead. At the same moment I whipped a loaded pistol from my pocket, aimed straight at his left eye, and, as he stared at me in amazement, said—
"You are a dead man, Captain Lenoir, if you move so much as a muscle. You are my prisoner, senor. No,"—as I saw by the expression of his eye that he had it in his mind to suddenly spring upon and disarm me—"not a movement, I pray you. To attempt what you are thinking of would be fatal, for upon your slightest motion I will pull the trigger and blow your brains out; I will, as surely as that you are sitting there." Then, slightly raising my voice, I called—
"Collins, bring your party into this room; and do not forget to bring along that length of ratline that I told you to have ready."
"Ay, ay, sir," answered Collins; and the reply was followed by the shuffling sound of several pairs of feet, the owners of which came shambling into the room the next moment, with naked cutlasses in their hands, while one of them carried, in addition, a length of some three or four fathoms of ratline.
Meanwhile, I had never for the smallest fraction of a second withdrawn my gaze from Captain Lenoir's eyes, or allowed the barrel of my pistol to waver a hair's-breadth from his larboard optic, for I knew that if I did he would be upon me like lightning. But although he dared not move his limbs he was not afraid to use his tongue, angrily demanding what I meant by perpetrating such an outrage upon one of Senor Morillo's best customers, and vowing that he would not be satisfied until he had seen me flogged within an inch of my life for my insolence. Then, when I explained to him the actual state of affairs—while Collins and another man securely lashed his hands together behind his back—his temper completely got the better of him, and he raved, and shrieked curses at us until we were perforce compelled to gag him lest his cries should reach the men in the boat and give them the alarm. However, we very soon secured and silenced him; and then, having marched him out at the back of the house and secured him in a remote hut by himself, I gave Collins fresh instructions, after which I sauntered across the open space of blistering sunshine to the edge of the wharf, and looked down into the boat. The four men had already made fast her painter to a ring in the wharf wall, and were now lolling over the gunwale, staring down into the deep, clear water at the fish playing about beneath them, and chatting disjointedly as they sucked at their pipes.
"It is thirsty work sitting there and grilling in the sun, is it not, lads?" said I in French. "Come up to the house and drink Senor Morillo's health in a jug of sangaree; and then Captain Lenoir wants you to carry down some fruit and vegetables that Senor Morillo has given him for the ship's use."
"Bien! we come, monsieur," they answered with one accord; and the next moment they were all slouching toward the house, a pace or two in my wake. I traversed a good three-quarters of the distance from the wharf to the house, and then halted suddenly and smote my forehead violently, as though I had just remembered something.
"Dolt that I am," I exclaimed in French, "I had almost forgotten! Indeed I have completely forgotten something—your mate's name. I have a message for him." And I looked the man nearest me straight in the eye.
"Ah!" he ejaculated; "monsieur doubtless means Monsieur Favart, our chief mate—"
"Of course," I cut in. "Favart is the name. Thanks! Go you on to the house and walk straight in; you will find your friends awaiting you. As for me—" I flung out my hand with an expression of disgust, and turned back as though to return to the wharf edge. But as soon as the quartette had fairly entered the house and I was assured, by certain subdued sounds, that they had fallen into the trap that had been set for them, I turned on my heel again, and presently found the four prisoners in process of being secured.
"I am sorry, lads," I said to them in French, "that I have been compelled to resort to subterfuge to make prisoners of you, but, you see, we are all invalids here, and not strong enough to take your ship by force; and therefore, since it is imperative that we should have her, I have been compelled to use guile. However, I will keep my word with you in the matter of something to quench your parched throats; and if you choose to be sensible, and make no foolish attempts at escape, you shall have no reason to complain of harsh treatment."
"Ah, Monsieur Anglais, if we had but known—" answered one of the Frenchmen, with a rather rueful smile. "However," he continued, shrugging his shoulders, "although you have contrived to get hold of us—and the captain—you have not yet got the ship; and before you can get her you will be obliged to use a great deal more guile than sufficed for our capture; for Monsieur Favart is a sharp one, I assure you, and not to be so very easily deceived."
"I can well believe it," I answered lightly. "All the same, I am very much obliged to you for the hint, and will do my best to profit by it."
Whereupon, as I turned on my heel to quit the house, the garrulous Frenchman's three shipmates fell upon him, figuratively, tooth and nail, heaping reproaches upon the unhappy man's head for having warned me against the chief mate's astuteness. I did not wait to hear how the matter ended, but, leaving the house briskly, as though I were the bearer of an important message, I hurried across to the wharf and, dropping into the dinghy, cast off her painter and sculled her across to La Belle Estelle, alongside which I coolly went, and, making fast the painter, ascended the gangway ladder and stepped in on deck before anybody condescended to take any notice of me. There were some twenty men, or thereabout, busying themselves about the deck in a very leisurely manner, taking off hatches, hauling taut the running rigging, and so on, under the supervision of a very smart, keen-looking man, dressed, like the skipper of the ship, in white. This man I took to be Monsieur Favart, the chief mate; so stepping up to him where he stood, at the break of the monkey poop, I raised my hat politely and said:
"Have I the pleasure to address Monsieur Favart, the chief mate of this vessel?"
"Certainly, monsieur," he answered, bringing his piercing black eyes to bear upon me. "And who may you be, my friend, that you find it necessary to ask such a question? I thought I had been here often enough to enable every dweller upon yonder island to at least know Jules Favart by sight. But I do not seem to remember ever having seen you before."
"You have not, monsieur," I answered. "I am quite a new recruit, and only joined just in time to witness the destruction of that pestilent British man-o'-war, the wreck of which you doubtless observed as you entered the river."
"We did," he answered; "and we guessed, of course, that it was the wreck of the Psyche. So that affair came off all right, eh? Well, I didn't very well see how it could possibly fail, for we all had a hand in the devising and arranging of it, and we chopped and trimmed away at the plan until I flatter myself that it was as perfect as human ingenuity could make it. But I take it that you did not come aboard here to discuss that matter with me?"