"I am glad you turned up before eight o'clock, Burton, for it would be difficult to enter the cave and find our way about without your guidance. It seems a likely place to get one's head cracked in the dark," remarked the Doctor.
"It would not be easy for you to get in, but had I been caught last night you would have found a clue to my whereabouts in the letter I gave you. However, we are all here yet, and I expect we shall get the better of Appoyas and his gang if our plans work out properly, and if they don't, then, well—look out for yourselves," said Burton, and he shrugged his shoulders.
"What led you to suspect Appoyas, who you say is supposed to be one the wealthiest and most respected men on the Salt Range, Burton?" asked the Doctor.
"Well, I saw him with that long brass-studded stick, and his general description answers to the tall man who fought the other two in the museum. Then I followed the goat-boy who got the message from the goat, and the boy handed the message to a man, and this man took it to Appoyas, and finally my suspicions were confirmed when I heard Appoyas addressed by name in the cave last night," explained Burton.
"It must have been pleasant listening to your own death-sentence!" remarked the Doctor.
"I am glad I heard it," said Burton, "for never was it more true than in my case that to be fore-warned is to be fore-armed. Two traps have been already laid this morning to get me away from the Salt Range, and—I believe here is another," he said, as a coolie came at the trot with a telegram in his hand.
"Come at once. Most serious. Mirkwort," read out Burton, as soon as the coolie had retired. "This pretends to be a message ordering my speedy return to headquarters, and I shall make a pretence of going, but I shall soon be back in this neighbourhood in disguise," he added.
"How do you know it is an attempt to get you away?" asked the Doctor.
"Because I requested Mirkwort to use a cypher in all his communications for some days, and this is not in cypher," replied Burton. "But to persist in staying here would only cause Appoyas to suspect that I am about to take some decisive steps. I have twenty men around here now, and as soon as it is dark to-night some of them will watch the house of Appoyas in the village on the top of the cliffs, for I feel convinced there is an entrance to the cave from his house.
"At the foot of the cliffs and immediately under the village there is another entrance through a house built against the rocks, and other men will watch there. I shall be near the camp at nightfall, together with some specially picked men who will have arrived by that time, and we shall enter the cave by what I will call the porcupine entrance, and, once inside—well, we have to rescue Mark and capture as many of the gang as we can. We must take all precautionary measures, for I do not know how many rascals we shall have to contend with, and that cave is like a rabbit-warren. Expect me as a Fakir at dusk. I will send for you when the time comes," and as Burton clattered away on his horse the camp understood that he had been called to headquarters on important business.
It was about nine o'clock and very dark when Burton, with a number of his men, though not in uniform, were sitting under the bushes a couple of hundred yards or so from the cave entrance.
"Ali Khan, go and meet the party from the camp and see that they make as little noise as possible," said Burton to one of his men; and then to another he said, "Sergeant, come with me; we must find out whether there is a guard placed at the entrance; if there is, we must secure him."
The two crept stealthily along, and, when some twenty yards from the cave, a man sprang up within a few feet of them and dashed off towards the cave, but he had not taken many steps when he tripped, and before he could recover himself Burton pounced upon him, and in a few moments the man was gagged and bound.
By the time the Doctor and Tom with the rest of the men had arrived, Burton had explored the cave as far as the rope-ladder without any further encounter.
Two men were left at the entrance of the cave with the prisoner, another was stationed at the foot of the ladder and two more at the top, and a man was left at each of the side passages opening from the main gallery.
"Now, Doctor," said Burton, when he had led the party some distance into the cave beyond the ladder, "will you remain here with the men whilst Tom goes with me to try and discover where Appoyas and his gang are, and how many we have to deal with? They have some special work on at ten o'clock in what they call the Temple of Atlas, and I don't know where it is. If you hear me whistle, then light your lamps and come on as quickly as possible. Now quietly, Tom," and they went ahead.
"She—e—e! See, there's a light. Some of them are in the cave-chamber where I heard them last night," whispered Burton to Tom.
Hearing voices, they silently crept nearer until they could hear what was said.
"I sent no message to the Doctor Sahib to-day, lest Koj Burton should remain to inquire into it. Brothers, Koj Burton is far away, and at the bottom of the river Hydaspes (Jhelum), I hope, if our men did their duty. Now, brothers, follow me to the Temple of Atlas and we will take the fifty years' offerings to the inner Temple of Hydas. By giving liberal offerings to the gods they bless us and we get much wealth. Come, it is the time."
The speaker was Appoyas, and under cover of the noise made in the chamber as his men lighted torches and prepared to follow him, Burton and Tom slipped some distance back along the passage, for they knew not which direction the men would take.
"Seven," whispered Burton as Appoyas and his men came into the passage and fortunately went the opposite way to where the Englishmen were watching.
Cautiously they followed; suddenly the men disappeared down a flight of steps, and when Burton and Tom peered below they were amazed at what they saw.
They were gazing into a large cave-temple, and at the far end was an enormous statute of a figure evidently representing Atlas with a large globe on his shoulders.
Burton and Tom were intently watching the men in the temple, when they were startled by hearing some on rapidly approaching along the passage. The man carried no light, and as the two Englishmen crouched close to the side of the cave to allow him to pass he knocked against Tom's arm.
"Strangers in the cave!" shouted the man, and he turned and fled.
For a moment the men in the temple were too amazed to move; then, simultaneously, they stamped out their torches.
"We have them trapped below if they have no other exit but the steps. That man's gone for help," said Burton, and blew his whistle. "We will have a look at them," he added, and turned on his lamp.
In an instant something flashed in the light and the lamp was knocked out of his hand and fell with a clatter down the steps, for Appoyas had crept up with his long brass-studded stick.
Next moment Tom felt himself hooked by the ankle, and before he could free himself his legs were jerked from under him and he fell on his back; then he felt a bare foot placed on his chest as some one trod on him and dashed down the passage.
No one else was able to pass, for Burton stood on the top of the steps, swinging his iron rod to and fro, and at the same time holding his whistle in his mouth and blowing until some of his men arrived with lights.
"Tom, you stop here with some of the men, and don't let any of these rascals escape. Listen! The Doctor is having a tussle; there is a fight going on all over the place, and I must discover where Mark is lest they should try to injure him." Taking a couple of men, he hurried away in the direction of the shouts which were ringing through the galleries.
"Hi! This way, Bur—r—r——" some one tried to shout in English.
"That's Mark's voice, and they are strangling him," said Burton. "Quick with your lamp, Sergeant, this way," he added.
Burton found Mark in the grasp of two men, who dashed the lad to the ground and then fled in the darkness, after showing fight for a few seconds, Burton pursuing them hotly, received a terrific blow on the head after being tripped by Appoyas, who was waiting in a side passage, and Burton lay partly stunned for some time.
Appoyas fought like a fiend, doing great damage with his stick, but at last he fled along a side passage.
In half an hour the fight was over, and Burton found they had eight prisoners; among whom was Atlasul, but Appoyas and some of the others had escaped.
Burton and Tom were exploring one of the narrow galleries when they suddenly came face to face with Appoyas, who, after throwing a knife at Burton, dashed down the passage followed by the two Englishmen.
They had gone about a hundred yards when Appoyas stopped, and his pursuers could see that he was standing on the very edge of a black chasm. For a moment he stood and faced them, his eyes flashing fiercely in the light of the lamp.
"You cannot escape us now, Appoyas," said Burton, covering him with a revolver.
"I will have a bitter revenge on you, Koj Burton. Here is the end of the passage, below is the Cave of Doom, but you have not got me yet," and, to the astonishment of Burton and Tom, Appoyas shouted a fierce cry of "Revenge!" and sprang into the fearsome black abyss.
"He must be dashed to pieces. I can't see the bottom," said Tom, holding his lamp over the gulf.
"I am doubtful. We will get a rope and make a search," said Burton.
Some time later a lamp was lowered, and far below, about six feet from the bottom, could be seen a strong net stretched the full width of the chasm.
"He dropped into that, and escaped by a secret exit," said Burton.
They proceeded to thoroughly explore the cave, and were astonished at the extent and number of side passages.
"I say, Burton, this globe on the shoulders of old Atlas is hollow and has a big slit in it like a letter-box, and has a lock on it," exclaimed Mark as they were examining the Temple of Atlas.
When the globe was opened it proved to be nearly full of gold and silver ornaments, precious stones, and coins.
"Ah, these are the offerings to the gods, a portion of the things stolen by these thieves during the last fifty years. A system of theft and sacrifice which has been handed down from father to son for many generations," exclaimed Burton.
The prisoners proved to be connected with burglaries which had taken place all over the Punjab and far beyond. The villains had been in the habit of placing a few of the things stolen in some innocent person's house, and had employed a variety of tricks to avoid suspicion resting on themselves.
The valuables recovered in the Temple of Atlas were restored to their rightful owners where they could be traced, and the balance was ultimately considered as treasure-trove, the Government claiming four annas in the rupee, thus leaving three-fourths of the value to be divided amongst those who had discovered it.
Many hours did the Englishmen spend in trying to discover the inner Temple of Hydas, but its secret baffled all their efforts, neither were they able to find any parts of the broken slab which might have aided them in their search. They were equally unsuccessful in getting any trace of Appoyas, who had so suddenly disappeared while his cry of revenge was ringing through the Cave of Hydas.
AN ADVENTURE IN THE HEART OF MALAY-LAND
To the world-wanderer the confines of our little planet seem very limited indeed, and to him there are few regions within its boundaries which remain long unknown. Yet to the vast majority of people Old Mother Earth abounds in many a terra incognita.
Away in the East, where the Indian Ocean merges into the China Sea, where the sunny waters of the Malacca Straits are being ceaselessly furrowed by giant steamers and merchantmen, lies a land, which though spoken of glibly by every schoolboy, is to-day one of the least explored countries of the globe. The Malay Peninsula is a familiar enough name, and so it ought to be, for it skirts the ocean highway to the Flowery Kingdom and to some of our most valuable island possessions; still, it is a strange fact that this narrow neck of land is, geographically speaking, one of the world's darkest areas.
Its seaboard is generally flat and overgrown with mangroves to a depth of several miles, but the interior is an extremely mountainous region, containing elevations of over eight thousand feet. An irregular backbone connects all these great heights, and it itself is of no mean dimensions, being throughout well over three thousand feet above sea-level. Between the mountain-peaks, as may be imagined, there is little room for fertile plateaus, and the most settled districts in consequence are those farthest away from the towering ranges; of these Selangor is, perhaps, the most noteworthy. Here vast forests and jungle scrub extend everywhere, though the trees are being rapidly cut down by the numerous Chinese tin-miners in the settlement; and here also is the capital of the Federated Malay States, whose petty rulers within recent years have united their forces under a British Protectorate.
Perak, towards the north-west, and Pahang, stretching over to the sea on the eastern side, are the two most mountainous divisions in the Confederacy, and to the traveller they are also the most interesting because of the immunity of their interior fastnesses from the visits of white men. Numerous rivers reach the coast on both sides of the central watershed, many of those rising in the highlands of Pahang and Kelantan being absolutely untraced and unnamed. The entire country near the coast, on the east as on the west, may be said to be given over to rank jungles, in which the lordly tiger, the one-horned rhinoceros, the wild pig, and tapir have their homes, and monkeys of almost every species are abundant in the wooded slopes.
One-half of the world's tin is produced in the Malay States; it is mined chiefly in Selangor and Malacca, and forms the mainstay of the country's prosperity, though, curiously enough, little or no stanniferous deposits have been found on the eastern side of the dividing range. But though very few people know it, the most valuable of all metals has been discovered on the upper waters of the Pahang River and tributaries. The Chinese swarm in their thousands on the western slopes, and outnumber the Malays by more than three to one. They are surely the bane of the wanderer's existence.
The Malays are not the aboriginal race of the Peninsula, though they have lived on the coast for centuries, and are descended from the bloodthirsty pirates who terrorised the Straits of Malacca. The real owners of the country are the Sakis, a wild race who in appearance vie with their brethren in Central Australia, and are very little different from the chimpanzees which infest the forests. They hold no intercourse with the coast-dwellers, and are rarely seen unless by the adventurous traveller, for their retreat is among the mountains, and as far away from John Chinaman's presence as it is possible to get.
The Sakis are a rude and miserably backward people. Like the Papuans of New Guinea, they build their huts in the branches of trees; but for this they have good reason—the prowling animals of the forest would otherwise soon obliterate the slowly dying tribe. Their only weapons are the sumpitan, or blow-pipe, and a club, which is not unlike the "waddie" of the Australian aboriginal; but with these they can do quite enough damage to deter all but the reckless from visiting their chosen haunts.
The charm of far-off countries has ever had a great power over all Britons; the true traveller's instinct is in their blood, and the noble array of red markings on our maps amply testify to the brilliance of their achievements. Knowing this, I speak with care of a country that I have traversed in my wanderings, so that if others who read these words may feel impelled to take up the pilgrim staff, they may at least rely upon my humble observations.
A few years back, after journeying through Achin in Sumatra—another little-known "corner" jealously guarded by the Dutch—I, with my five companions, found it necessary to betake ourselves to British Dominions, having given offence to the Holland Government by our peregrinations through the hostile Achinese territory. So we embarked on a Malay trader bound for Klang, the port of Selangor, and commenced an expedition which I can recall now as being one of the most interesting of all my travels. The details of our progress across the Peninsula could not be given here, but I will relate one of our first experiences with the tree-dwellers of Kelantan, when we were camped on the head-waters of the Lebah River in that province, where, I believe, no white man had ever been before.
We had systematically prospected the various mountain-streams in the west for gold without result; but here we had discovered unmistakable traces of the precious metal; and our hearts being gladdened accordingly, we prepared to explore still farther into the mountains in search of the mother-lode.
"It's rather a curious thing," said Phil at this time, "that we have met none of the Sakis so far. I should like to see a specimen of the tribe before we leave their confounded country."
"They're like oorsel's," grunted Mac, "they canna abide the smell o' Cheeniemen; but A'm thinkin' we're near their special habitation noo."
There was considerable truth in Mac's observation. All along the Perak River, which we had followed for nearly a hundred miles before branching off across an inviting pass in the dividing ranges, we had met the almond-eyed Celestials in great bands clearing the forest growths and prospecting for tin in the most unlikely places. Perak, I should mention, is the Malay word for silver, it having been supposed that vast lodes of that metal abounded in the river valley; but, as a matter of fact, there has been very little silver located anywhere near its vicinity.
We had managed to shake off the yellow-skinned Mongols immediately we diverged into the mountains, and since that time we had been crossing luxurious upland forests, and struggling through long stretches of jungle country in turn. It was quite possible that the Sakis had seen us, though we had not seen them, for our time had been more occupied in evading reptiles and wild animals than in scanning the tree-tops for their imp-like denizens.
"I vote," said the Captain, who was the dead-shot of our party, "that we leave the Sakis alone. We're in their country now, you know, and there's such a thing as tempting Providence."
Phil smiled; he was young and enthusiastic, and he was also an ardent ethnographist. "We'll take things as we find them, Captain," said he, "but we usually manage to run across some odd specimens of humanity in our travels. Now, what did you think of the Achinese?"
"A thocht them wonderfu' bloodthirsty folk," grumbled Stewart, tenderly patting a slowly healing scar on his cheek. "They vera near feenished me, an' if Mac hadna come along in time A wad hae been cut into sausages——"
I interrupted his ruminations, and saved the company a harrowing description of what had happened in Sumatra. "We've heard that so often now, Stewart," I said, "that we think you might give us a rest."
Mac cackled harshly in agreement, but Skelton, the stalwart Devonian, who was doctor of our outfit, said rather grimly, "If you get a similar smash in this country, Stewart, my boy, I'm afraid you won't live to tell of it, for we don't seem to be getting into a healthier atmosphere, though we are a good few thousand feet above sea-level."
Stewart subsided gloomily, feeling his pulse the while.
"A believe ye're richt," he replied lugubriously, "what wi' malaria an' muskitties, an' Cheeniemen——"
He broke down, and sought sympathy from his compatriot, who was leisurely chewing quinine tabloids with an air of relish.
"Dinna be nervish, ma man," cheerfully spoke that worthy, "an' aye keep in mind that A'll mak' ye a bonnie moniment when A gang hame; a rale bonnie moniment, wi' a maist splendiferous inscreeption. Hoo would this look, for instance?" Here he struck an attitude, and recited solemnly: "Errected tae the memory o' puir auld Stewart——"
At this stage Stewart smote his Job's comforter with a force and fervour that showed him to be possessed of considerable muscular powers; then there was peace.
Our hammocks were swung near the river, on the edge of a dense forest in which areca and apia palms raised their stately heads among ebony and camphor trees, and a plentiful sprinkling of wiry bamboo growths. The foliage was so thick in places as to be almost impenetrable, and amid the clinging underscrub the guttapercha plant and numerous others with names unknown to us struggled for existence.
The river was here a fairly broad and oily stream, with rather a dangerous current; below us it surged and roared over a series of jagged limestone rocks, but higher up its course led across a plateau which extended farther than we could guess, for the mountains faded back into the far distance and reared their gaunt peaks above a bewildering sea of luxurious tropical vegetation. It was these mountains we were anxious to reach now, but how to do it promised to be a question not easily answered.
After some consideration we decided to follow the river-channel as far as possible, and cut off the curves by blazing a way through the thicket with our axes. And so, on the morning following our discovery of gold, we packed a fortnight's stores in our kits and trudged off, first taking the precaution to sling our remaining provisions in an odd hammock from the limb of a tall palm, where we hoped to find them on our return. Travelling is not an easy matter in these latitudes, and we had succeeded so far only with great difficulty and much perseverance. Where the rivers were navigable we had usually progressed by means of hastily constructed rafts, but the stream now flowed too swiftly to allow of that form of transport, and we had therefore to work our passage in the strictest sense of the word.
For three days we forged ahead, now clambering along the banks of the swirling torrent, and again crashing through the darkened forest, using our axes energetically. More than once, in the stiller waters between the curves, huge crocodiles were seen disporting themselves cumbrously, and when we approached they fixed their baleful eyes on us, and came steadily on until the Captain stopped their leader by a well-directed bullet. The crocodiles of this region seemed extremely ferocious, and no sooner had one of their number been rendered hors de combat than the horrible carcass was carried off in triumph by a school of the late saurian's neighbours.
"They appear tae have vera healthy appetites," murmured Stewart thoughtfully, as he gazed at the ravenous monsters, after an exhibition of this sort. "A wunner," he continued, addressing Skelton, "if they bastes are affected by the climate?"
"You've got me there, Stewart," replied Skelton, with a laugh; "but they don't seem to need quinine to aid their digestion, anyhow."
Birds of the most beautiful plumage fluttered among the branches, and I had the good fortune to bring down a gorgeous bird of paradise with my rifle. Mac, like the ancient mariner, insisted on carrying this bird round his neck rather than leave it for the tigers and bisons, though he repented of his resolution before he had gone far. Of the wild animals encountered on this march I could write much. Fortunately the lordly tiger seldom met us in an aggressive mood, but we had several experiences with "Old Stripes," nevertheless—at long range; and we were constantly stumbling over squeaking pigs and venomous reptiles of many kinds. Little brown animals of the bear family were especially ubiquitous, so that our time was kept rather fully employed on our long trail towards the supposed land of El Dorado.
As we neared the shadowy mountains, the river-channel narrowed gradually until it formed a deep gorge, in which the swirling waters dashed like the flood of some gigantic mill-race; and we were forced to keep the shelter of the forest rather than risk stumbling into the apparently bottomless abysses.
"I'm afraid we cannot go much farther, boys," I said, when we were struggling through the thicket, steering by compass, and with the river thundering noisily away to our left.
"The gold in the mountains won't help us much if we have to transport our goods over this sort of country," spoke Phil; and there was much truth in his words.
"I have been noticing," remarked Skelton, "that instead of reaching a finer climate we seem to be coming into a very poisonous atmosphere, judging by the odour of the vegetation."
It was certainly strange that the air should continue so dank and depressing at our high altitude, and several times a most extraordinary stench, as of decaying carcasses, would assail our nostrils and cause us to grow faint and sickly. Soon we began to notice that these poisonous vapours were most pungent in the vicinity of certain enormous cactus-like growths which we encountered here and there; but these huge plants looked so picturesque and beautiful that we found it hard to believe that they could taint the air so frightfully.
"It's rather odd," said Skelton doubtfully, "that where these giant spiky lilies grow there is always an open space clear around, as if nothing could live in their presence."
"Ah, mon!" howled Mac at that moment, sniffing the ether in disgust. "Could onybody believe—— A'll gang an' investeegate this meenit. Come on, Stewart."
They rushed off at once, and we followed hastily, for the evil exhalations were overpowering, and we meant to trace the cause. Sure enough one of the cacti, with wide-spreading leaves which trailed on the ground for several yards, proved to be the seat of the virulent fumes. None of us had ever met such a plant before. A vast bulb was suspended on a thick stem, which rose from the heart of the leathery leaves, and this we prepared to examine intently, though we were all but overcome by the foul gases given off.
"It's a big an' a bonnie flooer," muttered Stewart, extending his hand, and thrusting it into the massive blossom. Then he emitted a yell that would have done credit to a full-grown grizzly bear. "It's living!" he bellowed, "an' it's biting me. Cut its heid aff! Quick! Ough!"
"A carnivorous plant!" cried Skelton, decapitating the stem with one stroke of his axe; and Stewart hurriedly drew back his hand with the clinging flower attached. It was indeed a carnivorous plant, and when we had rescued our companion from its clutches, we held our nostrils and examined the depths of the odoriferous flower.
"No wonder it smells," said Phil, as the carcasses of birds and insects innumerable were tumbled out.
"What a grand thing it would be for Cheeniemen!" commented Mac.
"Let's go on, boys, for mercy's sake," implored the Captain. "I'd rather meet a tiger any day than one of these vile vegetable traps."
Stewart's wrist had been squeezed so tightly that it was some time before he could move it freely. "It would hae nippit ma hand clean off if you hadna beheided it sae quick," said the sufferer gratefully to Skelton as we resumed our march; and I think he was not far wrong.
Our progress now became slower and slower, and our first intention of reaching the mountain-range beyond the forest was in a similar degree growing less definite. I could not see how we were to gain our objective, judging by the myriad obstructions in our track, and on the fourth day after leaving camp we had almost decided to retrace our steps.
"I have given up hope of seeing the natives of this peculiar country," said Phil, as we tied up our hammocks after breakfast, "and if we go much farther we will cross down the Malacca slope, where there is nothing but Chinamen."
"If we do not reach a break in the forest before the day is finished," I said, when we had again got on the move, "we'll turn and get down the river to our old camp."
"What on earth is that?" suddenly cried the Captain, seizing his rifle and gazing into the gently swaying branches overhead. We looked, and saw an ungainly creature huddled among the spreading fronds, glaring at us with eyes that were half-human, half-catlike in expression.
"A chimpanzee, most likely," I said. "Don't shoot, Captain; it is but a sample of what man looked like once."
"I think it is an orang-outang," remarked Phil, "and he would make short work of us if he came down."
Mac gazed dubiously at the animal. "A'll slauchter him," said he, raising his deadly blunderbuss; but the huge ape seemed to understand the action, and with half a dozen bounds he had vanished, swinging from tree to tree like a living pendulum.
Again we went on, but we had not proceeded fifty yards when a harsh howling all around caused us to halt and examine our firearms nervously. Then a shower of needle-like darts whizzed close to our ears, and a renewed commotion among the branches arrested our attention. Looking up, we saw fully a score of wild shaggy heads thrust out from the clustering foliage; but before we had time to collect ourselves, another fusilade of feather-like missiles descended upon us, penetrating our thin clothing, and pricking us most painfully.
"Monkeys!" roared Mac.
"No. Sakis!" corrected Phil, as we hurriedly sought safety in retreat.
"If these arrows are poisoned, we're dead 'uns, sure," groaned the Captain, squirming on the ground, and endeavouring to sight his rifle on the impish creatures.
"They're not poisoned; they are merely pointed reeds blown through bamboo tubes," said Skelton, after a hasty examination. "They won't hurt much; but if they get near us with their clubs——"
Another hail of the pigmy arrows rustled through the branches to rear of us. "Give them the small shot of your gun, Mac, just to scare them," I cried.
"Sma' shot indeed!" retorted that fiery individual, and the boom of his artillery filled my ears as he spoke.
An unearthly yell of terror and surprise broke from the aborigines at the sound of the heavy discharge, followed by a series of piercing shrieks as a few stray pellets touched them.
"Make for the river, boys!" I shouted. "Get clear of the trees!"
The air was now filled with the tiny darts, and my thick pith helmet intercepted so many of them that, as Mac said afterwards, it looked like a miniature reed-plantation. Far on our left the deep rumble of the river was heard, and towards it we rushed blindly, closely followed by a yelling horde who sprang like squirrels from tree to tree.
"Where is the Captain?" roared Stewart suddenly, as we ran; and then I noticed that there were but four of us together. Without a word we turned and dashed back into the midst of the Sakis' camp; and there we saw the Captain lying on his face, with his gun resting loosely at his shoulder. A perfect inferno raged around as we reached his side, and my companions, roused to a pitch of frenzy, fired volley after volley among the yelping band.
"Get back, ye wretches," roared Mac; "A'll carry him masel'."
Skelton calmly picked several darts from the Captain's neck, then felt his pulse. "He has only fainted," he said. "These darts have gone pretty deep."
The Captain was a heavy man, but Mac gathered him in his strong arms like a child. "Tak' ma gun, Stewart," he directed, "and see that ye dae guid work wi' it if driven to it." Then we made a second break for the open by the river. The whole forest seemed to be alive with Sakis now; they yelled at us from every other tree, and shot their irritating arrows from every sheltered clump of brushwood. Luckily the range of their odd weapons was not extensive, and by skilful manoeuvring we managed to save ourselves greatly, otherwise we should have been perforated from head to foot.
When we neared the river and could see the welcome light of day shining through the trees, our pursuers, probably deterred by our guns, grew less enthusiastic in the chase; and when the edge of the forest was reached they had apparently drawn off altogether.
"To think that we should hae to run like that, frae—frae monkeys!" snorted Stewart indignantly as we halted. "It's fair disgracefu'."
The Captain slowly opened his eyes, and looked at me reproachfully.
"That chimpanzee that we didn't shoot," said he feebly, "is one of the same family, for the brute must have given the alarm——"
"There he is noo!" cried Mac. "Gie me ma gun, Stewart, an' A'll obleeterate him, nae matter wha's grandfaither he is."
I caught a glimpse of the huge ape swinging backwards into the thicket, then Mac's vengeful weapon spoke, and the Sakis' strange scout came tumbling to the ground. A yell of rage issued from the forest, and instantly a number of our late pursuers appeared and dragged the orang-outang back whence they came.
"I haven't had much opportunity of studying the beggars," said Phil, "but I'm not growling. They are the most apish people I could ever have imagined."
"Instead of gold," commented Skelton grimly, "we've all got a fair-sized dose of malaria——"
"And various other trifles," added Mac, as he extracted the darts from the more fleshy portions of his anatomy.
"We'll leave the gold alone this time, boys," I climaxed; "but we'll have another try when we can get a stronger party together. Meanwhile, we had better make tracks for the coast, and recuperate our energies."
A WEEK-END ADVENTURE
For several years it has been my habit to spend my week-ends during the summer and autumn months in a small yacht called the Thelma, of about five tons, as a welcome change from the confined life of the City.
Many and many a happy, lazy time have I spent in her, sometimes by myself, at others with a companion, at various delightful spots round our eastern and southern coasts, occasionally taking short cruises along the seaboard, but more often lounging about harbours and estuaries, or even exploring inland waters.
On these occasions many little incidents and adventures have occurred, which, though full of interest to any one fond of yachting, yet are hardly worthy of print, and it was not until about a year and a half ago that the following events took place, and seemed to me of sufficient interest to record.
The Thelma was at the time at an anchorage in one of my favourite spots, a somewhat lonely East-coast estuary, within easy reach of the open sea, and, more important still in a way, fairly close to a main-line railway-station, so that I could get to her from town without wasting much of my precious time on the way. I had run down late on a Friday night early in September, rejoicing, as only a hard-worked City man can rejoice, in the thought of a good forty-eight hours of freedom and fresh air. I was alone, as my exit from town was rather unexpected, and I had no time to find a friend to keep me company; but that did not worry me, as I felt fully able to enjoy myself in solitary peace.
I found everything prepared for my arrival, having wired to the longshoreman and his wife, in whose charge I had left the yacht, and I should much like to describe in full detail all my enjoyment, but must pass over the little events of my first day—the Saturday—as they have nothing to do with my "adventure," though to me the day was brimful of thorough happiness.
It was one of those splendid bright days which are happily so frequent on the East coast in September—so calm, indeed, that sailing was out of the question, and I spent my time in the small boat or dinghy out in the open sea a mile or more, fishing in an indolent way for whiting, etc., and basking in the sun.
I saw no one all day, and there was little shipping about. A private wherry anchored opposite the village above the Thelma was the only craft in the river, and a few trawlers and coasting steamers far out were the only vessels to be seen at sea.
Nothing could have less suggested the likelihood of anything in the shape of "adventure," and I caught my whiting and dabs in blissful peace of mind.
About four o'clock in the afternoon, however, I was roused from my fishing by feeling the air suddenly begin to get chill, and on looking out to sea saw that a breeze was springing up from the eastward, and bringing with it a bank of thick white sea-fog, which had already blotted out the horizon, and was coming in rapidly.
This meant rowing home as quickly as possible, as I did not want to be caught in the "thick" before reaching my temporary home, as it might mean an hour or two's search for such a small yacht in a half-mile wide estuary.
So, hastily laying aside my fishing-tackle and hauling up the little anchor, I put my back into the task of "racing the fog," feeling intensely thankful that the tide was on the flood, and, therefore, an immense help to me.
Even as it was, I was in a glowing heat by the time I reached the Thelma, and only just in time at that, as the first chilly wreaths of mist were closing round me by the time I got on board. When all was "snug," and I was ready to go below into my little cabin for tea, a last glance round showed me that already the low hills on each side of the river were blotted out, and I could hardly distinguish the wherry anchored away up above me, or the houses of the village off which she lay.
Oh, how cosy and bright the little cabin looked when I settled down for a nondescript meal, half-tea, half-dinner, about an hour later!
The lamp, hung from the deck above, gave a mellow light, the kettle sang on the stove, and the fresh-caught whiting were simply delicious (I pride myself on my cooking on these occasions), whilst London, work, and my fellow-beings seemed far away in some other sphere.
This feeling of isolation was considerably increased later on, when, after a hearty meal and a dip into a story, I put my head out of the hatch to take a customary "last look round" before turning in.
I suppose it was about 10 p.m.; there was no moon, and I never remember a denser fog. At first, after the lighted cabin, I could distinguish absolutely nothing, except where the beam of light from the cabin lamp struggled past me through the open hatch into a white thickness which I can only liken to vaporous cotton-wool.
Even when my eyes got a little accustomed to the change from light to darkness, I could only just make out the mizzen-mast astern and the lower part of the main-mast forward; beyond these was nothing but impenetrable thickness.
Not a sound reached me, except the mournful muffled hooting of a steamer's syren at intervals; no doubt some wretched collier, nosing her way at half-speed through the fog, in momentary terror of collision.
I don't think I ever felt so cut off from humanity in my life as in that tiny yacht, surrounded as I was by impenetrable density above and around, and the deep rushing tide below in a lonely water-way.
No doubt this eerie feeling of loneliness had a great deal to do with my sensations later on, which, on looking back in after-days, have often struck me as being more acute and nervous than they had any right to be.
Be that as it may, I was not nervous when I closed the hatch and "turned in," for I recollect congratulating myself that I was in a safe anchorage, out of the way of traffic, and not on board the steamer which I had heard so mournfully making known her whereabouts in the open sea.
I think my "nerves" had their first real unsettling about half an hour afterwards, just as I was sinking off into a peaceful, profound slumber, for it seemed to me that I had been roused by a sound like a scream of pain or fear, coming muffled and distant through the fog; but from what direction, whether up or down the river, or from the shore, I could not tell.
I raised myself on my elbow and listened intently, but heard nothing more, and reflecting that, even if what I had heard was more than fancy, I was helpless, shut in on every hand by impenetrable fog, to render aid; I could do no more than utter a fervent hope, amounting to a prayer, that no poor soul had strayed into the water on such a night. It is easy, too, when roused out of a doze, to imagine one has only fancied a thing, and I had soon persuaded myself that what I had heard was no more than the shriek of a syren or cry of a disturbed sea-gull, and sank once more into a doze, which this time merged into that solid sleep which comes to those who have had a long day in sea-air.
Somewhere in that vague period we are apt to call "the middle of the night," and which may mean any time between our falling asleep and daybreak, I dreamt that I was in bed in my London lodgings, that a chum of mine had come in to arouse me, and to do so had gently kicked the bedpost, sending a jarring sensation up my spine.
At first I was merely angry, and only stirred in my sleep; but he did it again, and I awoke, intending to administer a scathing rebuke to the disturber of my peace.
But I awoke on board the Thelma, and realised, with a feeling akin to alarm, that the sensation of "jarring" had been real, and the knocking which caused it came from something or some one outside the boat.
At first I could hardly believe my senses, and raised myself on my elbow, my whole being strained as it were into the one faculty for listening.
Again, this time close to my head, against the starboard bulkhead, came the sound, like two gentle "thuds" on the planking, causing a distinct tremor to thrill through the yacht.
I cannot imagine any more "eerie" sensation than to go to sleep as I had done, with a profound sense of isolation and loneliness, cut off from humanity by a waste of fog and darkness and far-stretching water, and to be awakened in the dead of night by the startling knowledge that outside there, in that very loneliness, only divided from my little cabin by a thin planking—was something—and that something not shouting as any human being would shout at such a time—but knocking—as if wishing to be let in to warmth and comfort, out of the chill and darkness.
Can I be blamed if my suddenly aroused and somewhat bemused senses played tricks with me, and my startled imagination began to conjure up the gruesome stories I had heard of weird visitants, and ghostly beings, heard but seldom seen, on the East Anglian meres and broads? Then again came the remembrance of the shriek or cry I had fancied I heard earlier in the night, and with a shudder I thought: "How ghastly if it should be the drowned body of him whose cry I had heard, knocking thus in grisly fashion to be taken in before the tide carried it away to sea!"
So far had my excited imagination carried me, when again the yacht shook with the thud of something striking her, and a great revulsion of relief came over me as I recognised the dull sound of wood striking wood, this time farther aft, and I laughed aloud at my cowardice.
No doubt a log of driftwood, bumping its way along the side of the yacht, as logs will, as the ebbing tide carried it seawards.
However, by this time I had lighted the lamp; so, to satisfy my still perturbed though much ashamed mind, I thrust my feet into sea-boots and my body into a pea-jacket over my clothes, and went on deck, lamp in hand, to see what my unwelcome visitor really was.
Through the mist, dimly illumined by the lamp, I made out the shadowy outline of a boat, drifting slowly towards the stern of the yacht, and occasionally bumping gently against her side.
Another moment or two and the derelict would have vanished into the night. But the long boathook lay at my feet along the bulwark, and, almost instinctively, I caught it up with one hand, whilst setting the lamp down with the other, ran to the stern and made a wild grab in the dark towards where I thought she would be.
The hook caught, and I hauled my prize alongside; stooping down, I felt for the painter, which I naturally expected to find trailing in the water, thinking the boat had broken loose from somewhere through carelessness in making her fast.
To my surprise it was coiled up inside the bows. Puzzling over this, I made the end fast to a cleat on the yacht, then took the lamp and turned the light over the side, so that it shone fairly into the boat.
Then, for the second time that night, my pulses beat fast, and my scalp tingled with something approaching fear, and I wished I had a friend on board with me.
It seemed as if my foolish idea of a dead body asking for compassion was coming true. For there was a huddled-up form lying on the bottom of the boat, its head inclined half on and half off the stern thwart, its whole attitude suggestive of the helplessness of death.
I stood as if paralysed for a few seconds, filled with a craven longing to get back to the cosy cabin, shut the hatch, and wait till daylight before approaching any nearer that still form, dreading what horrors an examination might reveal. But more humane and reasonable thoughts soon came; perhaps this poor drifting bit of humanity was not dead, but had been sent my way in the dead of night to revive and shelter.
Feeling that I must act at once, or I might not act at all—or at least till daybreak—I put a great restraint upon my feelings of repugnance, caught up the lamp, stepped into the boat, and raised the drooping head on to my arm.
As I did so, the hood-like covering which had concealed the face fell back, and in a moment all my shrinking and horror vanished once for all—swallowed up in pity, compassion, and amazement—for on my arm rested the sweet face of a young and very pretty girl, marred only by its pallor and a bad bruise on the right temple.
Even in the lamplight I could see she was a lady born and bred; her face alone told me that, and the rich material of fur-lined cloak and hood merely confirmed it.
Here was no horrible midnight visitor, then; but certainly what seemed to me a great mystery—far more so than the dead body of labourer or wherry-man floating down with the tide would have furnished.
A lady, insensible apparently from a blow on the forehead, floating alone in an open boat at midnight, on a lonely tidal water, far from any resort of the class to which she seemed to belong, and saved from long hours of exposure—perhaps death—by the marvellous chance (if it could be called so) of colliding with my yacht on the way to the open sea.
It was too great a puzzle to attempt to solve on the spur of the moment, and I had first to apply myself to the evident duty of getting my fair and mysterious visitor into my cabin, there to try to undo the effects of whatever untoward accidents had befallen her.
It was no easy matter, single-handed and in darkness, except for the hazy beam of light from the lamp on deck, to get her from the swinging, lurching boat to the yacht. But, luckily for me, my burden was light and slender, and I did it without mishap, I hardly know how, and then soon had her in the little cabin, laid carefully upon my blankets and rugs, with a pillow under her head.
I soon knew she was alive, for there was a distinct, though slight, rise and fall of her bosom as she breathed, but my difficulty was to know what remedies to apply. I have a little experience in resuscitating the half-drowned, but in this case insensibility seemed to have been caused by the blow on her forehead, if it was not from shock or fear.
So all I could do was to force a few drops of brandy between the white teeth, and bathe the forehead patiently, and hope that nature would soon reassert itself with these aids.
After what seemed a long while to me, but which I suppose was not more than a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes, one of the little white hands moved, a deep sigh came from the lips, and I thought she was "coming to."
But it was merely a change from one state of insensibility to another; for, though a colour came back into the cheeks and the breathing grew stronger and more regular, the warmth of the cabin had its effect, and she sank into a natural and peaceful sleep.
My greatest anxiety being now relieved, and my fair young visitor restored to animation and resting peacefully enough, my mind naturally turned to the consideration of the strange position I was so unexpectedly placed in; but in my state of absolute ignorance as to the identity of my charge, where she came from, what had happened, and of the whole chain of circumstances which led up to her strange visit, I came to the conclusion that I could only wait for her to awake and enlighten me before taking any steps whatever. It might mean losing valuable time to try to find out anything by going off in the fog and darkness; whilst, meanwhile, the poor girl might awake and find herself deserted, instead of finding me ready and waiting to take her instructions for her safe restoration to her friends.
So there was nothing for me to do but wait, and having made up the fire in the stove and put the kettle on in readiness for a cup of tea, I made myself as comfortable as I could in a corner and longed for daylight.
As I watched the face of the sleeping girl, now rather flushed from the warmth of the cabin and the unaccustomed drops of spirit I had given her, I thought I had never before seen a fairer and sweeter countenance, and even then began to bless the chance which had allowed me to become her protector.
Once she stirred, and a look of dread, almost terror, came into her face, and I heard her utter in an agonised voice the single word "Harold."
It may sound ridiculous, but, coming so soon after my feelings of tender "protectiveness," I felt quite a pang of jealousy against the unknown owner of the name, and wondered in what relation she stood to him and why her thought of him should bring such evident pain. However, she did not awake as yet, and I had to possess my soul in patience for this and all the other enlightenment I longed for.
I must have slept at last, for the next thing I remember was seeing a faint daylight struggling through the skylight and realising that the fire was nearly out, in spite of my resolve to keep a watch over it. In making it up I clumsily dropped a lump of coal, and the girl stirred, opened her eyes, and sat up at once, evidently refreshed by her sleep and in full possession of all her faculties, and, of course, utterly bewildered at her surroundings and at finding a perfect stranger in charge of her.
It made my heart ache to see, as memory came back and she recalled the (to me unknown) events of the night, a cloud of dread and anxiety come over her, and her eyes fill with tears at the recollection; and if I had felt drawn to her before, I was doubly so now, when I saw her bravely brace herself to talk of them, and even smile up at me as she said—
"Will you tell me where I am, and how I got here? It seems to me I have a lot to thank you for!"
I told her as briefly as I could the happenings of the night as far as I knew them, and then said—
"Now I am burning to hear your adventures, and longing to help you to get back to your friends; but I beg of you not to tell me more than you feel inclined, nor to put any strain on yourself at present, but just tell me sufficient for me to know how to act for you."
She assured me she felt quite well, except for a headache (which certainly was only to be expected with such a bruise on her poor white forehead), and would like to tell me everything, as it would be a relief to her mind to do so, and with the most charming little blush she added—
"I feel so sure you will know just what is best to be done, and I should like to confide my fears to you."
So, whilst I busied myself in getting a sort of hasty breakfast ready, partly because we both needed it, but more for the sake of making it easier for her to speak of things which might be painful for her to mention with my eyes upon her, she told me all, and it was quite amazing how simply everything was explained.
Her name—which she mentioned no doubt because I had carefully told her mine—was Lilian Burfield, and she and her brother Harold (I felt foolishly relieved to hear it was her brother's name she had called on in her sleep) lived with their father at a large house some three miles from the village up the river. A day or two before these events, some friends of theirs, a Mr. and Mrs. Small, had brought their wherry up the river to visit them, whilst on a cruise. On the Friday they had spent the afternoon on board, and she and her brother had been induced to stay to dinner, and play a game or two afterwards; but her father had been obliged to leave earlier on account of some engagement.
About 10.30 they left (although the Smalls pressed them to stop on board all night when they saw how thick the fog had become), feeling confident that they could not well miss the landing-stage, as it was not more than a hundred yards from the yacht.
However, it seemed that they had done so, as the boat took the ground on a mud-bank, and stuck fast.
Her brother was unable to push off, and asked her to help, so she stood up and, with the other oar, moved to assist him. The shifting of her weight must have loosened the boat, as at that very moment her brother gave a shove and they shot off the mud with a lurch, sending her with great violence into the bottom of the boat and stunning her.
As she fell (and here I heard a break in the low, sweet voice which was telling me the tale) she remembered seeing her brother disappear overboard, upset by the sudden movement of the boat beneath him, and believed she gave a cry at the sight; but knew no more till she awakened in the cabin of the Thelma.
The simple narrative ceased, and I wondered that when trying to puzzle out where she could have come from, I had never thought to connect the wherry I had seen in the morning with my visitor's sudden appearance.
How marvellous it seemed, though, that the boat with its helpless freight should have been carried by the ebbing tide straight into my care, and how deeply thankful I was that it had been so ordered, saving the poor girl from a terrible, lonely drift out to sea, from many hours' exposure, perhaps from being run down by a passing vessel, certainly from grave danger in many ways!
Now I could see my way at last as to my next move, and hastened to assure my anxious visitor that I had little fear for her brother's safety, as I knew there were no mudbanks in that part of the river except those along the edge of the shore, and therefore he would almost certainly have been able to scramble out.
There were still one or two things I did not quite understand, however, so, whilst we ate a fairly hearty meal off the remainder of my whiting, I plied her with a question or two, and by-and-by we got very friendly and cheerful, and I quite disliked the idea of going out into the misty morning to make arrangements for giving up my fair and charming visitor.
As for Miss Burfield (as I now must call her), her spirits rose with my hopeful words, and as the food had its effect on her physically.
But in my mind was a sinister fear, which I carefully kept from her.
I had heard no shouts, no sound of any search, either in the night nor since daybreak, which seemed strange; and it had occurred to me that if the young fellow had been drowned this would be explained, for those on the wherry might know nothing, thinking their visitors had reached the shore, while those ashore might think they had stopped overnight on board on account of the fog, and so no search would be made, no alarm taken.
I asked whose was the boat they were in and which I had secured, wondering if it would be missed.
"It belonged to a man in the village," she said. "We borrowed it because the man who works the wherry for the Smalls was away for the night, and we thought we would save Mr. Small the trouble of rowing us ashore so late at night in his own boat."
"Was the owner waiting up for you to bring the boat back?" I asked.
"No, we promised to tie it up safely, so that he need not worry about it," she answered.
So, there again, they would not be missed till the man failed to find his boat, which might not be for hours yet. It seemed to me that I might have the terrible duty of breaking the bad news of the loss of the young man, instead of, as I had thought, the good tidings of the finding of the lost girl.
But that remained to be proved, and I could only hope for the best.
In any case my duty was now plain, and with a few cheering words to my companion, telling her that I was going to the village to report her safety, and to send a messenger to her home that they might come and fetch her, and would be back as soon as possible with (I hoped) the good news of her brother's safety, I set off, early as it was, and rowed myself ashore in the dinghy. I was glad to see that the fog was thinning even then, and by the time I had landed and run along the towing-path to the village, the sun was just visible through the haze, giving every hope of a lovely day.
With mingled feelings of dread and hope I approached the scattered houses of the little hamlet, half fearing to see groups of men by the river-side searching for some gruesome object, and, again, when all seemed still and peaceful, fearing that the absence of movement might mean the very thing I dreaded—namely, that the catastrophe had happened, and no one any the wiser.
There lay the wherry, without sight or sound of any living person on board; no one was moving in the little straggling street; not a dog barked.
I went straight to the old inn, which stood about a hundred yards from the landing-stage, opposite the wherry's anchorage, and knocked loudly at the door. No one answered, so I tried the latch, the door opened to my hand, and I walked into the brick-floored bar, and at first thought it was empty.
Then I heard a slight movement and the sound of a yawn, and, looking towards the large settle by the side of the hearth, saw my old acquaintance, the innkeeper, evidently aroused by my knocking from a sound sleep, rubbing his eyes and stiffly getting to his feet.
Much astonished he looked when he saw who his visitor was, as he did not know I had come down to the yacht, and certainly was not accustomed to such early rising on my part.
His first words gave me a cold feeling of apprehension, for on recognising me he said—
"Oh, sir, I am glad you are here; perhaps you will be able to help us in this dreadful business."
"What dreadful business?" I said, sharply enough, for I feared his answer, and dared not ask a more direct question, for the thought of the sweet girl I had left behind in the Thelma, and the news it seemed I was to take back to her, was almost too much for me.
"Dear, dear, haven't you heard, sir?" went on the old man, thoroughly awake now in his eagerness to impart the news. "There's that poor, dear Miss Burfield, the sweetest young lady as ever I knew, gone floating down the river last night in the fog all alone, and goodness knows what has become of her, poor dear, by now—and her young brother, too, wet through as he was, gone off with the gentleman from yonder wherry in a boat to look for her, hours ago—and a poor chance of finding her, I say, till the fog blows off, even if they don't lose themselves as well as her. And the poor old squire, too, he be in a dreadful way, and sendin' messengers to all the coastguards for miles, he is, to look out for the lady——"
Here the old man paused for want of breath, and I—completely relieved by his rambling statement from my fear about the girl's brother, hastened to relieve him with my astonishing news that Miss Burfield was safe and sound in my yacht, and had been so for some hours.
Eager as I was to get back to the Thelma with my good news, I could not get away till I had told the good old fellow how it had happened that I had rescued her, and he in return told me how young Burfield had rushed, muddy and dripping, into the inn as they were all going to bed, and demanded help in the search for his sister. No boat was to be had at the moment, and so they had shouted till Mr. Small came ashore in his own boat, and had at once rowed away with young Burfield down the river, in the thick darkness, with the faint hope of finding the missing girl before she drifted into the open sea.
"I told 'em it warn't much good," ended the old man, "and that they'd best wait till daylight, but they would go. As for me, I reckon I've done the best thing, for I druv' over at once to the coastguards down yonder, and told 'em to keep a look out at the mouth o' the river. I ain't been back long, and was just takin' a nap when you found me, as I hadn't the 'art to go to bed."
Having arranged with him to send the good news to all concerned, especially to the Hall, where old Mr. Burfield must doubtless be in a terrible state of anxiety, I hurried back along the towing-path, rejoicing in the thought that I should now be able to relieve my fair visitor's mind of her anxiety.
I found her on deck, looking anxious, indeed, but so pretty and fresh in spite of her trying night's experiences, that my impressions of the night were greatly intensified, and I began to bless the unusual circumstances that had brought us together and made us friends, as it were, from the first moment of our acquaintance; and I registered a mental vow that the bond thus created between us should never be broken, if it lay in my power to prevent it.
And when I had told her the good news, and we had at last an opportunity of friendly converse unclouded by forebodings and anxious thoughts, I for one thoroughly enjoyed the companionship, and allowed myself to hope that it was not altogether disagreeable to my charming visitor.
It did not seem long, therefore, to me before the arrival of Mr. Burfield, who overwhelmed me with far more thanks and gratitude than I deserved, and insisted on my spending the rest of that week-end at the Hall—an invitation backed up in irresistible fashion by his daughter. To complete the general satisfaction, whilst we were talking we heard the sound of oars, and saw a boat approaching, containing two of the most weary and dispirited-looking men I ever saw.
They proved to be Mr. Small and Mr. Harold Burfield, returning dead-beat and miserable after a fruitless and wretched search for the missing boat, to get food and to make arrangements for a further expedition. How can I describe their intense relief and astonishment when—summoned by a mighty shout—they pulled to shore, and saw the girl they imagined drifting helplessly miles out at sea standing on shore, safe and sound, and in infinitely better case than themselves, and heard that she had never been farther than where she now was from the scene of the accident the night before?
Later on I asked Harold Burfield why he had not shouted as he rowed down the river after his sister in the darkness, when I might have heard and answered.
He said that at first he thought it no use, as he knew his sister's boat must have had a long start of them; and later, when they had rowed some way, and considered they must have caught up with it, they had done so at intervals all night long, on the chance of her hearing.
So I suppose that, either they were past the Thelma before they began to call, or else in the fog had got so far over on the other side of the channel that their voices had not reached me, as I was shut up in my cabin.
So all the little mysteries were cleared up, and everything had "come right in the end," as such things should.
I have spent many a happy week-end since then at the Hall and on board the Thelma, and to my dying day I shall bless the fog of that September night, for Lilian has promised shortly to fix the day of our wedding, and we have both decided that part of the honeymoon at least is to be spent on board the Thelma; and I really believe that we shall both be rather disappointed if we do not get a bit of foggy weather to remind us how we first made each other's acquaintance, and made friends over "whiting and tea" in the little cabin at six o'clock in the morning.
THE DEFLECTED COMPASS
The paddle-steamer Queen of the Isles was alongside the quay at St. Mary's, and had already given one shrill intimation that she was prepared to leave the harbour. Sydney and I were ready, with our portmanteaux strapped and our caps on, but the Honourable John had not yet appeared. We were impatient. Very important was it that we should catch the mail out of Penzance that same evening, for the following morning we were all due in London. Any delay in our return would be taken from the holidays of the next batch, and we should never hear the last of it if we were late, to say nothing of the unfairness of reducing the well-earned rest of the next batch by our dilatoriness and lack of consideration. We had taken the precaution to settle the hotel accounts, because we knew the habits of the Honourable John, and we stood in the hall with the thunder gathering upon our brows, and threatening to peal forth in tones more loud than complimentary.
"If he isn't down in two minutes, Syd, I'm off," said I, pulling out my watch, and nervously noting the jerky springs of the spidery second-hand that seemed to be in a much greater hurry than usual.
"John!" bawled Syd up the stairway. "Do you hear? You'll miss the steamer."
"What's the fellow doing?" I asked, with irritation, as I observed that half a minute had passed.
"Waxing the ends of his ridiculous moustache," answered Syd; then, turning again to the foot of the stairs, "John! We're going. Hurry up!"
A door opened on the landing, and a voice drawled, "I say, you chaps, have you paid the bill?"
"Certainly," said I. "Come along. We've barely time to catch the steamer. Didn't you hear the whistle?"
"I heard something a little while ago, a sort of an ear-piercing shriek that startled me, and caused me to nick my chin with the razor. I shall have to put a bit of flesh-coloured plaster over it. Was that the whistle?" asked the Honourable John in the most tantalising, nonchalant way, as if he had all the day before him.
We looked up the stairway, and there he was on the landing, in his shirt-sleeves, slowly adjusting the ends of a salmon-coloured tie.
"The two minutes are up," said I, replacing my watch, and stooping for my portmanteau. At that moment the whistle sounded again, and I hurried away, followed by Syd, both of us muttering that the dawdler deserved to be left, but none the less hoping in our hearts that he would be in time.
The hotel was near the harbour, and we were soon aboard. On the bridge, between the paddle-boxes, the captain stood with the string attached to the syren in his hand; beside him, glancing at the compass-card, grasping the spokes of the wheel, and silently awaiting instructions, was one of the men; the mate was for'ard with his whistle; and two little knots of islanders were gathered about the moorings on the quay, ready to cast off the hawsers as soon as the paddles moved and the captain gave the word.
Loungers and holiday-makers were stirred into mild excitement by our expected departure. Exchanges of farewells, amid occasional shouts and a continuous ripple of laughter, were passing between those on board and those ashore. The usually quiet life of St. Mary's was bubbling up in its periodical agitation. By the outgoing and incoming of the steamer the islanders touched the great world without, and thrilled at the touch and felt its importance.
It was a pleasant scene, or it would have been but for the inexcusable delay of the Honourable John. We began to fear that he would be left. The captain pulled the string again, and the syren sounded, with a peculiar urgency, as it seemed to me, ending in a despairing wail; then, stepping to the indicator, he signalled to the engineer, and the paddles began to revolve. The forward hawser was thrown off and fell with a splash into the sea; astern we were yet alongside the quay.
The Honourable John appeared, resplendent in all the glory of a silk hat and frock coat, with a flower in his buttonhole, his hands gloved in lemon-coloured kids, and his feet shiny with patent leather; the people parted to let him pass, and stared at him as if he were a marquis at the very least, but the porter flung his portmanteau over the bulwarks like that of any other common tourist; John himself, with more agility than I gave him credit for, sprang aboard only just in time, as the men shouted "All clear aft, sir."
Once more we heard the click of the bells in the engine-room, and away we went through the clear waters, with the white foam mingling in our wake and the other islands gliding rapidly into view.
"You donkey!" said I, surveying the delinquent from head to foot, and noticing particularly the round spot of plaster on his chin. "Why didn't you come earlier?"
"Call him a parrakeet," said Syd. "That will better describe him."
"He's both," I replied—"slow as the one and gay as the other. But we've got him, and we'll see that he does not defraud young Clifton of a single minute of the holiday he's waiting for—ay, and well deserves."
"You're always in such a desperate hurry," observed the Honourable John, ignoring the epithets with which we assailed him. He was never offended, and never perturbed. When the vials of our wrath were poured upon him, as they had been pretty freely during the holiday, they ran off him like the proverbial water from the duck's back. We simply could not have endured his foppishness and dandyism, combined with a temper always serene, if we had not known that at heart he was a very good fellow. "I was in time," said he.
"You were," returned Syd significantly—"nearly in time to be late."
"But I wasn't late," drawled John, "so what's the good of making a fuss about it. One of the pleasures of life is to take things easily; as my friend the Irishman once remarked, 'If ye cannot be happy, be aisy; and if ye cannot be aisy, be as aisy as ye can.' But, I say, I don't call this a specially bright morning; do you? Look there! We're running into a bank of fog."
So we were. A dense white barrier, clean and straight as a wall, rose from the sea to the sky, and in another minute we had plunged into it. We did not anticipate so sudden a change. Fog was far from our thoughts, for the morning had been bright and sunny all around the islands, and the air was very still. For two or three days scarcely a breath of wind had wandered across the brilliant summer atmosphere. Now, with the fog, came a softly moving breeze out of the north-east. The fog drifted before it in one immense mass; there was no ripple upon the sea.
Upon the passengers the effect was very curious; where, a few moments before, there had been ready repartee, interspersed with laughter, now there was low-toned commonplace conversation, or a dead silence. We were wrapped in a cloud; moisture began to form in tiny drops upon the stanchions and the deck, upon the beards and moustaches of the male part of the voyagers, upon the woolly texture of the garments of all, even upon the smoothly brushed silk of the Honourable John's top hat; save for the swish of the paddles and the running of the engines, with a whispered exclamation here and there, we could hear nothing; and we could scarcely see the length of the ship.
It was the first bit of objectionable weather we had experienced during the holiday. We had spent a fortnight in the "Delectable Duchy." From Looe to Sennen we had not missed a single place worth seeing, and we had finished up with a week in the Scilly Isles. Making St. Mary's our centre, we had rowed and waded to St. Martin's and St. Agnes', to Tresco and Bryer and Samson and Annet, to Great Ganilly and Great Arthur, to Gweal and Illiswilgis, and a host of other places in that shattered and scattered heap of granite which forms the outstanding sentinel of our far western coast. The weather had been perfect. But now, having cleared the road and rounded St. Mary's, we were met by this thick mist, swaying down upon us like a vast curtain, and quickly enveloping us in its vapoury folds.
"You'll want a new topper, John, when we reach Penzance," said Syd, as he noted how the moisture was ruffling the silk and dimming its gloss. He laughed as he said it, but, in the silence, his laugh seemed to be an intrusion.
"You're mistaken, Syd," he replied; and, as he took off his hat and surveyed it, he continued, "In all weathers, there's no head gear so durable, and therefore so economical, as a good silk chimney-pot; and certainly there's nothing in the way of a chapeau so comfortable and becoming."
"Tastes differ," said I.
"They do," answered John, "and I speak about my own. I've tried others. Oh, yes, I have," said he, as we looked at him incredulously, "and I speak from experience. I tell you, they're cheap, if you will only give enough for them. Why, I know an old fellow who has worn the very same tile, in all weathers, for fifteen years; it has been in the height of fashion twice in that time, and it will soon come in again; and it is a very decent thing yet when it has been newly pressed and ironed."
"I prefer my deerstalker," said Syd.
"And I my golfer," said I.
"Which shows very plainly that your sartorial education has been neglected," returned John, "and I pity you. You are not living up to your privileges, and, worse still, you are unaware of the privileges you might live up to. But, I say, this is a sneezer!" and he looked about him into the fog, which was becoming denser every minute. "They're lessening the pace. I suppose it wouldn't do to drive along through this thick stuff. We might reach an unexpected terminus. What say you? Shall we go on the bridge?"
"The captain may not allow us," said I.
"Pooh! I know the cap. He's a forty-second cousin of mine. Come along. I'll introduce you now that we are out of the narrows and in the open sea."
"It seems to me as if the sea were shut," whispered Syd, as we followed the Honourable John to the bridge.
"Closed, at any rate," said I, "and with very moist curtains, through which we must push our way unpleasantly enough into the harbour."
We reached the upper deck, which was dotted with bulgy figures in cloaks and capes, damp, and silent, and melancholy. The bridge formed the forward part of the upper deck, where it terminated amidships; the helmsman, with his hands upon the spokes, shifted his eyes alternately between the binnacle and the bows, and gave the wheel a turn now this way and now that, while the captain paced cross-wise between the paddle-boxes, and searched the mirk above and ahead to see whether there was any likelihood that the weather would clear.
Abaft the funnel the deck was free to those of the passengers who held saloon tickets, but afore the funnel—that is, on the bridge itself—no one was allowed without the captain's special permission. This space was railed off, with a hinged lift in the mahogany on either side, both of which were now down and barred. We were not quite sure whether the captain were really the Honourable John's relative, or whether our comrade's proposal to join the captain was only one of those erratic notions which visited his aristocratic brain, and were often carried through with a confidence so complete as to be rarely unsuccessful. He was unmercifully snubbed sometimes, and he richly deserved it; but the curious thing about him was that the snubs were wasted. Where others would have retired crestfallen, the Honourable John held his head high and heeded not.
We were prepared to find that the forty-second cousinship was a fiction, and that the captain would quietly ignore him; but we were in the background, and it mattered very little to us; the deck would be as welcome as the bridge.
"Well, cousin cap.," said John familiarly, placing his hand upon the wet mahogany rail, "and how are you?"
"Hallo!" exclaimed the captain, facing round. "Where have you tumbled from?"
"Hughtown, St. Mary's, was the last bit of mother earth I touched before I sprang aboard the Queen of Paddlers. May we venture within your private domain?"
"Why, certainly, John," and he lifted the rail and beckoned us forward.
"Two chums of mine," said John, naming us, and then he named the captain as his respected cousin forty-two times removed. The captain smiled at him, shook his head, and observed that the relationship was a little closer than that, but a puzzle, nevertheless, to work out exactly.
"I must have missed you when you came aboard," said he, "and yet in your usual get-up I don't see how I could very well. You look as if you had just stepped out of a band-box, except for the dampness, of course."
"Oh, you were busy when I joined you," said John, evidently pleased with the captain's remarks about his appearance. "I had to jump for it. But you haven't answered my question. How are you?"
"Tol'able, thank'e. And your folks—how are they? I need not ask how you are," and, while John answered him, he placed camp-stools for us, and said to Syd and me, "Sit down, gentlemen; and excuse me if I address myself mainly to this eccentric cousin of mine, and, I am sure, your very good friend. I do not see him often, and he never will let me know when he is coming my way"—a statement which Syd and I could easily believe. For, with all John's faults, and he had many of them, he was one of the least obtrusive of men where hospitality came in, and one of the most reticent about himself and his own affairs; and we, who worked with him, knew him almost exclusively as a good fellow in the department, and a capital companion for a holiday.
The captain placed John's camp-stool on the starboard side of the binnacle. Their conversation was broken into snatches by the captain's movements. As he paced the bridge, backwards and forwards, he halted each time just for a moment when he came to where John had propped his back against the binnacle and tilted his stool at an angle that threatened collapse. Syd and I sat quite apart, and left them alone to their semi-private conversation. We noticed, however, that the captain appeared to be uneasy about the vessel's course and progress; he glanced more than once at the compass-card, and several times, in his perambulations, he lingered over the paddle-boxes, and intently watched the water as it slipped by. So that his conversation with the Honourable John became more fragmentary, and was more frequently interrupted the nearer we approached the land.
After some time the captain came to a sudden stand over the port paddle-box, and curved his left hand round his ear. For a minute or more he stood like a statue, perfectly motionless, and with his whole being absorbed in an effort to catch a faint and expected sound across the water. Satisfied with the effort, he stepped briskly to the indicator, and signalled to the engineer to increase the speed of the steamer.
"What is it, cap.?" asked John.
"The bell on the Runnel Stone," he replied. "Cannot you hear it?"
The captain's statuesque figure, intently listening, had been observed by the passengers, and there was a dead silence aboard, broken only by the thumping of the engines and the splash of the paddle-blades as they pounded the still waters. Presently the dreary clang of the bell, struck by the clapper as the sea rocked it, came to us in uncertain and fitful tones. It was a melancholy sound, but its effect was cheering, because it gave the people some idea of our whereabouts, and was an indication that we had crossed the intervening space between the islands and the mainland. We were making fair progress despite the fog, and should soon be ashore again.
A babble of talk began and ran the round of the passengers, breaking out among a group of younger people into a ripple of laughter. For a quarter of an hour this went on, then, to the amazement of all on board, the captain, after glancing anxiously at the compass-card, sternly called out "Silence!" Meanwhile the sound of the bell had become clearer, but was now growing less distinct; and, as the captain's order was instantly obeyed, we became aware of another sound—the breaking of the waves upon the shore.
For a moment the captain listened, straining his eyes at the same time to pierce the dense mist ahead; the man on the look-out, perched in the bows, who had been leaning forward with his hand shading his eyes, turned about with a startled gesture, throwing his arms aloft, and shouted to the captain that we were close in shore, and heading for it directly; the captain sprang to the indicator, and signalled for the reversal of the engines; but it was too late. With a thud that threw us all forward the steamer grounded.
Instantly all was confusion. Some lost their heads, and began to rush about wildly. A few screamed. Nearly every one became visibly paler. Syd and I started from our seats, and gazed bewilderedly at an expanse of yellow sand softly revealed beneath the mist, and stretching ahead and on either hand into the white moisture by which we were encompassed. John walked over to us apparently unmoved.
"Well, this is a go," said he.
Before we could reply, the captain bawled out his orders that all the passengers must retire to the after-part of the ship, and help, so far as their collected weight might do so, to raise the bows now sunk in the soft sand. He assured them that there was not the slightest danger; the vessel was uninjured; we were ashore on a yielding and shelving beach; and that, if they would remain perfectly quiet, and obey orders, he had some hope that he might get the vessel afloat again.
There was a general move aft, and although signs of distress, and even of terror, were not wanting on some faces, the people gathered quietly enough into one solid mass. We three stood on the outer edge of the company. Syd and I were considerably excited, but John was as calm as a man could be. With tremendous uproar the reversed paddles began to churn the shallow water, but not an inch did we move.
The captain stepped to the binnacle, and read the compass-card. A swift change passed over his face; in mingled surprise and anger he pointed within the binnacle, and began to question the man at the wheel; but he was more surprised than the captain—so utterly amazed, in fact, that he could not be angry, and only protested that he had kept the vessel true to the course which had been given him, and could not explain why the card had veered three to four points farther westward since the vessel had touched the ground. It was no use contending about the matter then. The paddles began to throw up the sand as well as the water, and the captain saw that the vessel would have to remain where she was until the next tide.
"We are fast, sure 'nough," sang out the captain. "You had better gather your traps together, and prepare to leave the vessel. There will be conveyances in the villages to take you to Penzance."
The company dispersed and scattered about the boat, merrily collecting their belongings now that they knew the worst, and that the worst was not very bad after all. We rejoined the captain.
"What's the name of this new port of discharge?" asked John.
"Not port, but Porth," answered the captain grimly, for it was no laughing matter to him. "Porth Curnow. And you may thank your stars that we have run clear in upon the sand, and not a few furlongs south or north, for then we should have been laid up either under Tol-Pedn or beneath the Logan Rock."
"I can follow your location admirably, cap.," said John. "We are eight or nine miles from Penzance—is not that so? Yes!" as the captain nodded gloomily; "and Porth Curnow is the place where the submarine telegraph chaps live. But, I say, why did you bring us here? We booked for Penzance."
"Goodness knows—I don't. Something's gone wrong with the compass. We were on the right course, and the compass was true until we grounded; then it swerved most unaccountably nearly four points to the westward, and there it remains."
"That's a curious freak, cap. You'll be interviewed by all the scientific folk in the kingdom, and I shouldn't wonder if you are not summoned to appear, and give evidence, before a select committee of the Royal Society. Four points out! Why, man, you're immortalised. I call it a most lucky deflection."
"Do you? I don't," growled the captain. "Others are welcome to the immortality. I prefer to do without, and steer by a compass that's true. And it has been true up to now."
"That's where it comes in," exclaimed John. "That's what makes it remarkable. If the compass hadn't been true, you would have gained nothing by this little adventure; but, as you say, it has been true, therefore—— Oh! dear, it takes a lot to satisfy some people. And you cannot account for it? Do you think the telegraph station has had anything to do with it—electricity, you know? Electricity is a queer thing, and plays pranks sometimes. No! Well, perhaps the hills are magnetic."
"Come, John, you're losing your head; and I have these people to see to," remarked the captain somewhat tartly.
"I believe I am," said John. "It's a habit I have, but I generally find it again. Well, cap., if you require any assistance in the unloading of the cargo, say the word, and here I am, your cousin to command"; and the captain was obliged to smile, notwithstanding the disaster—an effect which John had been trying for all the while.
"Your suggestion about the telegraph station has put a practical idea into my brain, and I am thankful for that, John. I'll sound the syren, and bring the fellows down. They'll be willing to help in a mess like this, anyhow; and, if there are not enough conveyances to run the people down to Penzance, they can wire for a few to fetch them"; and, pulling the cord, he sent the shriek of the syren through the mist in resounding and ear-splitting tones.
By this time, the passengers had all pressed forward into the bows, with the easily transferable part of their luggage about them. The water had receded, and left the bows clear; but it was too long a drop into the wet sand for any one to venture down without assistance. The ladies especially were looking wistfully over the bulwarks. We three went forward also, but we left our portmanteaux to take care of themselves.
Soon two young fellows dashed down the sands, halloing in answer to the syren, and stood with wondering eyes beneath the bows.
"Who are you?" shouted one of them.
"Scilly people," piped a shrill female voice from our midst.
"That we are—very," said John drily; at which, notwithstanding our plight, there was a general laugh.
The two were speedily increased to half a dozen, and these were joined by quite a group of farm-servants and villagers, attracted by the unwonted sound of a syren floating across their fields. Some of the latter, scenting substantial gain, ran off to harness their horses to such conveyances as they could command in readiness for the drive to Penzance, while the rest remained, having also a view to the needful, to act as porters and guides.
One of the men, by the captain's orders, came forward with a rope-ladder, fastened one end securely within the bulwarks, and threw the other over the side. It hung about four feet from the ground. Immediately the passengers swarmed about the head of the ladder, and, although there was no real danger, pushed and jostled each other in the attempt to secure an early descent. A few thoughtless young fellows were claiming the first chance when the Honourable John interfered.
"Here," said he, "ladies first, and one at a time," and he shouldered the too eager males aside. He took off his hat, turned to the crowd below, and, picking out a telegraph clerk, said, "Catch my tile, will you? And, mind, don't sit on it! It may collapse. Thank you!" as the man caught it cleverly, and smiled at the instructions. Then he slipped out of his frock-coat, and flung it aside; undid his cuff-links, and rolled up his sleeves; bowed to the nearest woman of the party, who happened to be a stout Scillonian in a peasant's dress, and said, "Ready! Allow me, madam." As he helped her to the top of the bulwarks, and down the rungs, he sang out, "Below there! Steady this lady down, and help her to the ground."
Syd and I handed up the other ladies, and the Honourable John, balanced upon the bulwarks, gallantly helped them down the ladder as far as his arms would reach, where they were taken in charge by the telegraph clerks, and landed upon the wet sand. The captain watched the proceedings from the bridge with an amused expression. Before long all the ladies were disposed of, and we left the men to scramble down as best they could. John picked up his coat, and I held it by the collar while he slipped his arms through the arm-holes and drew it on.
When he flung the coat aside I noticed a peculiarity of the collar as it fell and lay upon the ground. While the waist and all the lower part was limp, the collar preserved an unnatural stiffness—a stiffness that extended to the breast; this part stood up as if within it there were some invisible form. Several times as I turned to assist the lady whose turn came next I noticed this peculiarity; and when I held the collar to help the Honourable John into this fashionable frock-coat, there was a hardness about it which made me wonder whether his tailor had stitched into it several strips of buckram, or cleverly inserted beneath the collar, and down the breast, a piece of flexible whalebone. Whatever it was that gave this part of his coat its rigidity, I dismissed it from my mind with the thought that the Honourable John was a greater fop than either Syd or I supposed.
Bareheaded he went to bid his cousin good-bye. We also shook the captain's hand, and expressed our regret, with John, at the misfortune which had befallen him because of the deflection of the compass. We were the last to leave by the rope-ladder, handing down our portmanteaux before we descended ourselves; and the captain waved his hand to us from the bows before we vanished into the mist. The heavy luggage would have to wait until the steamer floated off with the next tide, and made her way round to Penzance; but negotiations had begun before we left for the conveyance of the mails in time to catch the up train, by which we also intended travelling to London.
John recovered his hat, and we pushed through the yielding shell beach, preceded by our improvised porters, to the broken ramparts of Treryn Dinas; these we climbed, and made our way across the fields to the village of Treryn; and here we hired a trap, which ran us into Penzance in time to discuss a good dinner before we started on our journey by rail.
We were well on the way to Plymouth, and I was reading a newspaper of the day before, when a curious paragraph caught my eye.
"Listen to this!" said I to the other two, and I read: "'It has frequently happened that ships have got out of their course at sea by some unaccountable means, and a warning just issued by the Admiralty may perhaps have some bearing on the matter. Their Lordships say that their attention has been called to the practice of seamen wearing steel stretchers in their caps, and to the danger which may result from these stretchers becoming strongly magnetised, and being worn by men close to the ship's compasses. Instances have been reported of compasses being considerably deflected in this manner, and their Lordships have now directed that the use of steel stretchers in caps is to be immediately discontinued.' I wonder if the deflection of the compass of the Queen of the Isles can be explained in a similar way. Possibly the helmsman may have been wearing one of these stretchers."
"Whew!" exclaimed the Honourable John, giving his knee a tremendous slap. "I have it. I must write to my cousin. It is my fault—my fault, entirely. But I never thought of it."
"Thought of what?" asked Syd.
"What do you mean?" inquired I.
"This——" and the Honourable John for once exhibited a rueful face. "You saw where the cap. placed me; and how I tilted my stool and leaned against the binnacle. Well, look here!" and he folded back the lappets of his coat, and showed us a narrow band of flat spring steel that passed under his collar and down either side to keep it from creasing and to help it to fit closely to his body. "That patent thing has done the mischief, without a doubt. Oh, what a fool I am! I might have sent the whole ship-load of us to Davy Jones. I'll forswear this fashionable toggery henceforth when I'm away on holiday, and follow the innocent example of sensible chaps like you."
We made no comment, but we both observed that our companion was singularly quiet all the way from Plymouth to London.