At first the light was feeble, and a good deal of black smoke arose, but soon after over a dozen torches were burning brightly, showing quite a little crowd of men, standing in the black water, armed with hooks and fish-spears, and each with a stout staff stuck in his belt.
The scene was weird and strange, the light reflected from the cliff-like sides of the pool seeming to be condensed upon the surface; and the faces of the marauders gleamed strangely above the flashing water, beginning to be agitated now by the startled salmon; while rising upward there was a gathering cloud of black, stifling smoke.
"Ready there with that net," cried Humpy Dee, a broad-shouldered, dwarfed man, whose head was deep down between his shoulders.
"Ay, ay!" came from the mouth of the pool.
"Less noise," cried Pete angrily. "Here, you, Jack Willick, and you, Nat Barrow, go up towards the house and give us word if anyone's coming, so as we may be ready."
"To run?" snarled Humpy Dee. "Stop where you are, lads. If the old squire meant to come with his gang he'd ha' been here afore now, and—"
The Captain's shrill silver whistle rang out loudly at this instant, and Nic and his men grasped their cudgels more tightly.
"Now for it, lads," he shouted, and he sprang from his ledge into the water and made at Humpy Dee.
A BLACK NIGHT.
Nic's cry was answered by a loud cheer from his men, which seemed to paralyse the enemy—some thirty strong, who stood staring, the torch-bearers holding their smoky lights on high—giving the party from the Point plenty of opportunity for picking their men, as they followed their leader's example and leaped into the pool. This caused a rush of the fish towards the lights for the most part, though many made for the gap to follow the stream, shooting against the net, which was held tightly in its place.
"There, go home, you set of ugly fools, before you're hurt," cried the deformed man, with a snarl like that of a wild beast. "What! You will have it? Come on, then. Hi, there! hold the links higher, and let us see their thick heads. Give it to 'em hard."
Emboldened by old successes, two wings of the gang whipped out their sticks and took a step or two forward, to stand firm on either side of the deformed man, who was a step in front. The next minute the fray had commenced, Nic leading off with a tremendous cut from his left at Humpy Dee's head.
For the young man's blood was up; he was the captain of the little party, and he knew that everything depended upon him. If he fought well they would stand by him to a man, as they had shown before. If, on the other hand, he seemed timid and careful, they would show a disposition to act on the defensive. That would not do now, as Nic well knew. His object was to make a brave charge and stagger the enemy, so that they might become the easier victims to panic when they found that they were attacked by a strong party in the rear.
Crack! went Nic's stout stick, as he struck with all his might; and crick, crick, crack, crash! went a score or more, mingled with shouts of defiance.
But Nic's cudgel did not give forth its sharp sound from contact with the leader's head, for he had to do with a clever cudgel-player as well as one who had often proved his power as a tricky wrestler in contests with the best men of the neighbouring farthest west county. Nic's blow was cleverly caught on as stout a cudgel, and the next moment his left arm fell numb to his side.
He struck savagely now, making up for want of skill by the rain of blows he dealt at his adversary, and thus saved himself from being beaten down into the water at once.
But it was all in vain.
On the other hand, though his men did better, being more equally matched they did not cause the panic Nic had hoped for, and the enemy kept their ground; while the torches spluttered, blazed, and smoked, and to the spectators the amphitheatre during those few brief moments looked wild and strange as some feverish dream.
But, as before said, Nic's brave efforts were all in vain. His muscles were too soft and green, and he was, in addition to being young, no adept in the handling of a stick. He fought bravely, but he had not the strength to keep it up against this short, iron-muscled, skilful foe. He was aware of it only too soon, for his guard was beaten down, and he saw stars and flashes of light as he received a sharp blow from his adversary's stick. Then he felt himself caught by the throat, and by the light of one of the torches he saw the man's cudgel in the act of falling once more for a blow which he could only weakly parry, when another cudgel flashed by, there was a crack just over his head, and Humpy Dee uttered a yell of rage.
"You coward!" he roared. "Take that!" and quick as a flash Nic made out that he struck at some one else, and attributed the side-blow in his defence to Solly, who was, he believed, close by.
At that moment a loud, imperious voice from somewhere in front and above shouted, so that the rocks echoed:
"Hold hard below there!"
Nic involuntarily lowered his cudgel and stood panting, giddy, and sick, listening.
"Yah! never mind him," roared Humpy. "You, Pete, I'll pay you afterwards."
"Now, boys, down with you."
"The poachers' companions," cried one of Nic's men, and they stepped forward to the attack again, when a pistol-shot rang out and was multiplied by the rocky sides of the arena, making the combatants pause, so that the voice from above was plainly heard:
"Below there, you scoundrels! Surrender in the king's name. You are surrounded."
"Brag, my lads!" roared Humpy Dee. "Stand to it, boys, and haul the beggars out."
There was a moment's pause, just enough for the next words to be heard:
"At 'em, lads! You've got 'em, every man."
A roaring cheer followed, and Nic saw the torches through the cloud that seemed to be thickening around them. He could hear shouts, which grew louder and fiercer. There was the rattle of cudgels, savage yells seemed to be bellowed in his ears, and he felt himself thrust and struck and hauled here and there as a desperate fight went on for his possession. Then, close at hand, there was a deafening cheer, a tremendous shock, the rattle of blows, and he was down upon his knees. Lastly, in a faint, dreamy way, he was conscious of the rush of cold water about his face, in his ears the thundering noise of total immersion, with the hot, strangling sense of drowning; and then all was blank darkness, and he knew no more.
A STRANGE AWAKENING.
Another storm seemed to have gathered in Dartmoor—a terrible storm, which sent the rain down in sheets, which creaked and groaned as they washed to and fro, and every now and then struck against the rocks with a noise like thunder. Great stones seemed to be torn up and thrown here and there, making the shepherds shout as they tried to keep their flocks together under the shelter of some granite for, while down by the falls at the salmon-pool the water came over as it had never come before.
Nic had a faint recollection of his fight with Humpy Dee, and of some one coming to take his part, with the result that they were all tangled up together till they were forced beneath the water. This must have separated them, so that he was quite alone now, being carried round and round the pool, rising and falling in a regular way, till he came beneath the falls, when down came the tons of water upon his head, driving him beneath the surface, to glide on in the darkness, feeling sick and half-suffocated, while his head burned and throbbed as if it would burst.
It did not seem to matter much, but it appeared very strange; and this must be drowning, but it took such a long time, and went on and on, repeating itself in the same way as if it would never end.
That part of it was very strange, too—that light; and it puzzled Nic exceedingly, for it seemed to be impossible that he should be going round and round in the salmon-pool, to be sucked under the falls, and feel the water come thundering upon his head with a crash and creak and groan, and in the midst of it for a lanthorn to come slowly along till it was quite close to him, and voices to be heard.
After seeing it again and again, he felt that he understood what it was. He had been drowned, and they were coming with a lanthorn to look for his body; but they never found it, though they came and stood talking about him over and over again.
At last he heard what was said quite plainly, but he only knew one voice out of the three that spoke, and he could not make out whose that was.
The voice said, "Better, sir, to-day;" and another voice said, "Oh yes, you're getting all right now: head's healing nicely. The sooner you get up on deck and find your sea-legs the better."
"Oh, I shall be all right there, sir."
"Been to sea before?"
"In fishing craft, sir—often. But would you mind telling me, sir, where we're going?"
"Oh, you'll know soon enough, my lad. Well: America and the West Indies."
"This must be a dream," thought Nic; and he was lying wondering, when the light was suddenly held close to him, and he could see over his head beams and planks and iron rings and ropes, which made it all more puzzling than ever.
Then a cool hand touched his brow, and it seemed as if a bandage was removed, cool water laved the part which ached and burned, and a fresh bandage was fastened on.
"Won't die, will he, sir?" said the voice Nic knew but could not quite make out.
"Oh no, not now, my lad. He has had a near shave, and been none the better for knocking about in this storm; but he's young and healthy, and the fever is not quite so high this morning.—Hold the light nearer, Jeffs.—Hallo! Look at his eyes; he can hear what we say.—Coming round, then, my lad?"
"Yes," said Nic feebly, "round and round. The falls will not come on my head any more, will they?"
Crash—rush! and Nic groaned, for down came the water again, and the young man nearly swooned in his agony, while a deathly sensation of giddiness attacked him.
"Head seems to be all right now," said the third voice.
"Yes, healing nicely; but he ought to have been sent ashore to the hospital."
"Oh, I don't know. Bit of practice."
The roar and rush ceased, and the terrible sinking sensation passed off a little.
"Drink this, my lad," said a voice, and Nic felt himself raised; something nasty was trickled between his lips, and he was lowered down again, and it was dark, while the burning pain, the giddiness, and the going round the pool and under the falls went on over and over in a dreamy, distant way once more. Then there was a long, drowsy space, and the sound of the falls grew subdued.
At last Nic lay puzzling his weary, confused head as to the meaning of a strange creaking, and a peculiar rising and falling, and why it was that he did not feel wet.
Just then from out of the darkness there was a low whistling sound, which he recognised as part of a tune he had often heard, and it was so pleasant to hear that he lay quite still listening till it ended, when he fell asleep, and seemed to wake again directly, with the melody of the old country ditty being repeated softly close at hand.
"Who's that?" he said at last; and there was a start, and a voice—that voice he could not make out—cried:
"Hullo, Master Nic! glad to hear you speak zensible again."
"Speak—sensible—why shouldn't I?"
"I d'know, zir. But you have been going it a rum 'un. Feel better?"
"Feel—better. I don't know. Who is it?"
"Yes, yes," cried Nic querulously; "but who is it?"
"Pete Burge, sir."
"Pete—Burge," said Nic thoughtfully, and he lay very still trying to think; but he could not manage it, for the water in the pool seemed to be bearing him along, and now he was gliding up, and then down again, while his companion kept on talk, talk, talk, in a low murmur, and all was blank once more.
Then a change came, and Nic lay thinking a little more clearly.
"Are you there, Pete Burge?" he said.
"Yes, I'm here, master."
"What was that you were saying to me just now?"
"Just now?" said the man wonderingly. "Well, you do go on queer, zir. That was the day afore yes'day. But I zay, you are better now, aren't you?"
"Better? I don't know. I thought I was drowned."
"Poor lad!" said Pete softly; but it seemed to sting Nic.
"What do you mean by that?" he said feebly.
"Zorry for you, master."
"'Cause you've been zo bad."
"Been so bad?" said Nic thoughtfully. "Why have I been so bad? It's very strange."
Pete Burge made no reply, and there was silence again, till it was broken by Nic, who said suddenly:
"Have you been very bad too?"
"Me, zir? Yes, horrid. Thought I was going to the locker, as they call it. Doctor zaid I ought to have been took to the hospital."
"Were you nearly drowned?" said Nic after a pause, during which he had to fight hard to keep his thinking power under control.
"Was I nearly drowned, zir?" said the man, with a low chuckle. "Zeems to me I was nearly everythinged. Head smashed, chopped, choked, and drowned too."
Nic was silent again, for he could not take in so many ideas as this at once, and it was some minutes before he could collect himself for another question.
"But you are better now?"
"Oh yes, zir, I'm better now. Doctor zays I'm to get up to-morrow."
"The doctor! Was that the doctor whom I heard talking yesterday?"
"Yes: two of 'em; they've pulled uz round wonderful. You frightened me horrid, master, the way you went on, and just when I was most bad. You made me feel it was all my fault, and I couldn't zleep for thinking that if you died I'd killed you. But I zay, master, you won't die now, will you?"
"How absurd!" said Nic, with a weak laugh. "Of course not. Why should I die now?"
"Ah, why indeed, when you're getting better?"
There was another silence before Nic began again.
"I've been wondering," he said, "why it is that we can be going round the salmon-pool like this, and yet be lying here talking about the doctor and being bad."
"Ay, 'tis rum, sir."
"Yes, it puzzles me. Look here; didn't we have a fight with you and your men to-night?"
"We had a big fight, sir; but it waren't to-night."
"But it's quite dark still, and I suppose it's my head being giddy that makes me feel that we're going up and down."
"Oh no, it aren't, zir," said the man, laughing; "we're going up and down bad enough. Not zo bad as we have been."
"And round and round?"
"No; not going round, master."
"But where are we?" said Nic eagerly.
"Ah, that puzzles you, do it, zir? Well, it puzzled me at first, till I asked; and then the doctor zaid we was in the cockpit, but I haven't heard any battle-cocks crowing, and you can't zee now, it's zo dark. Black enough, though, for a pit."
"Cockpit—cockpit!" said Nic. "Why, that's on board ship."
"To be zure."
"But we are not on board ship?"
"Aren't we?" said the man.
"I—I don't understand," cried Nic after a pause. "My head is all confused and strange. Tell me what it all means."
Pete Burge was silent.
"Poor lad!" he said to himself; "how's he going to take it when he knows all?"
"You do not speak," said Nic excitedly. "Ah! I am beginning to think clearly now. You came with the men after the salmon?"
"Ay, worse luck. I didn't want to, but I had to go."
"Come," said Nic sharply. "To-night, wasn't it?"
"Nay. It's 'bout three weeks ago, master."
This announcement, though almost a repetition, seemed to stun Nic for the time; but he began again:
"We had a desperate fight, didn't we?"
"Worst I was ever in."
"And—yes, I remember; we were struggling in the pool when the sailors came."
"That's it, master; you've got it now."
"But your side won, then, and I'm a prisoner?"
"Nay; your side won, master."
"How can that be?" cried Nic.
"'Cause it is. They was too many for uz. They come down like thunder on uz, and 'fore we knowed where we was we was tied up in twos and being marched away."
"Our side won?" said Nic, in his confusion.
"That's right, master. You zee, they told Humpy Dee and the rest to give in, and they wouldn't; so the zailor officer wouldn't stand no nonsense. His men begun with sticks; but, as our zide made a big fight of it, they whips out their cutlashes and used them. I got one chop, and you nearly had it, and when two or three more had had a taste of the sharp edge they begun to give in; and, as I telled you, next thing we was tied two and two and marched down to the river, pitched into the bottoms of two boats, and rowed aboard a ship as zet zail at once; and next night we was pitched down into the boats again and hoisted aboard this ship, as was lying off Plymouth waiting to start."
"Waiting to sail?"
"That's right, master! And I s'pose she went off at once, but I was too bad to know anything about it. When I could begin to understand I was lying here in this hammock, and the doctor telled me."
"One moment. Where are the others?"
"All aboard, sir—that is, twenty-two with uz."
"Some of our men too?"
"Nay, zir; on'y our gang."
"But I don't understand, quite," said Nic pitifully. "I want to know why they have brought me. Tell me, Pete Burge—my head is getting confused again—tell me why I am here."
"Mistake, I s'pose, sir. Thought, zeeing you all rough-looking and covered with blood, as you was one of us."
Nic lay with his head turned in the speaker's direction, battling with the horrible despairing thoughts which came like a flood over his disordered brain; but they were too much for him. He tried to speak; but the dark waters of the pool were there again, and the next minute he felt as if he had been drawn by the current beneath the fall, and all was mental darkness and the old confusion once more.
WILLIAM SOLLY HAS THOUGHTS.
It would have been better, perhaps, for Nic Revel if he had not heard the result of the plan to get help from Captain Lawrence's ship and its disastrous results for him.
For Pete Burge's narrative was correct enough, save that he made an omission or two, notably the fact that he was captured while making a brave effort to save Nic from the savage blows being dealt out to him by Humpy Dee, who was trying to visit upon his head the disappointment he felt through the failure of the raid.
It was from finding Nic, helplessly insensible, being carried off by Pete that in the dark the sailors took the young man for one of the party they were to attack; and hence it was that he was tied fast to his injured companion, carried down the hill-slope to the river, bundled into the boat with the other prisoners, and carried off, there being no further communication held with the shore. Captain Lawrence knew nothing till long afterwards about Nic being missing, and the long, long search made for him in the pool; two of the men, when questioned later on during the inquiry, having seen him go down in the fierce struggle. But no one, during the confusion which ensued, had seen him rise again; for it was somewhere about that time that those who bore torches, and saw that the fight was going against them, dashed them down into the water, hoping the darkness would cover their escape.
The Captain, in the triumphant issue of the encounter, had stood to see the prisoners all bound, and soon after, upon not finding his son, accepted Solly's suggestion that Nic had walked down to see the prisoners off, and perhaps gone on board to thank the officer for his help.
The next morning the ship was gone, and a horrible dread assailed master and man as to Nic's fate. Then came the information from the two labourers who had taken part in the defence and the search, every inch of the pool and river being examined, till the suspicion became a certainty that Nic had been swept down the river and carried out to sea, the cap he wore having been brought in by one of the fishermen who harboured his boat in the mouth of the stream.
But Captain Revel did not rest content with this: in his agony he communicated with Captain Lawrence, who came on at once, and confessed now to his old friend why, when his help was asked, he had jumped at the idea. They wanted men for one of the ships bound for Charleston and the West Indies, the pressgangs having been very unsuccessful; and as the salmon-poachers were described to him as being strong, active fellows, the idea struck him that here was a fine opportunity for ridding the neighbourhood of a gang of mischievous ne'er-do-weels—men who would be of service to their country, and henceforth leave his old brother-officer in peace; while any of them not particularly suitable could be easily got rid of among the sugar and tobacco plantations.
"Then," said Captain Revel, "you have sent them away?"
"Yes; they sailed the next night. It was rather a high-handed transaction; but the service wanted them badly, and we can't afford to be too particular at a time like this."
"But do you think it likely that my poor boy was among the prisoners?"
"Impossible," said the Captain. "If he were—which is not in the least likely—all he had to do was to speak and say who he was. But absurd! I should have known, of course."
"But after he was on board the other vessel?"
"My dear old friend," said Captain Lawrence sympathetically, "I shrink from dashing your hopes, but I feel how unjust it would be to back you up in the idea that he may have gone with the impressed men. He is a gentleman, and an English officer's son, and he would only have to open his lips to any one he encountered, and explain his position, to be sent home from the first port he reached."
"Yes, yes, of course," said the Captain bitterly; "and I shall never see my poor boy again."
Captain Lawrence was so uneasy about his friend that he went back to the boat and sent her off to the ship, returning afterwards to the house, bitterly regretting that he had sent his men ashore and allowed himself to be tempted into making a seizure of the poachers.
Captain Revel was seated in his arm-chair when Captain Lawrence re-entered the house, looking calm, grave, and thoughtful. His friend's coming made him raise his head and gaze sorrowfully; then, with a weary smile, he let his chin drop upon his breast and sat looking hard at the carpet.
"Come, Revel, man," cried Captain Lawrence, "you must cheer up. We sailors can't afford to look at the black side of things."
"No, no; of course not," said the stricken man. "I shall be better soon, Jack; better soon. I'm getting ready to fight it."
"That's right; and before long you will have the boy marching into the room, or else sending you a letter."
"Yes, yes," said Captain Revel, with a sad smile, and in a manner totally different from that which he generally assumed, "he'll soon come back or write."
"But, poor fellow! he does not think so," said Captain Lawrence to himself, as Nic's father relapsed into thoughtful silence.
"Solly, my lad," said the visitor, when he felt that he must return to his vessel, "your master has got a nasty shock over this business."
"Ay, ay, sir; and he aren't the only one as feels it. I ought never to ha' left Master Nic's side; but he put me in my station, and, of course, I had to obey orders."
"Of course, my lad. Here, we must make the best of it, and hope and pray that the boy will turn up again all right."
Solly shook his head sadly.
"Ah, don't do that, my man," cried Captain Lawrence. "You a sailor, too. There's life in a mussel, Solly. A man's never dead with us till he is over the side with a shot at his heels."
"That's true, sir," said the old sailor; "but, you see, I'm afraid. There was some fierce fighting over yonder in the pitch-dark, where the lights waren't showing. Sticks was a-going awful. If my poor boy got one o' they cracks on his head and went beneath, there was plenty o' water to wash him out o' the pool and down the river."
"Yes; but hope for the best, man; hope for the best. Remember the bit of blue that comes in the wind's eye often enough when we're in the worst part of a gale."
"Ay, sir, that's what I do—hope for the best, and that if my poor young master, who was as fine a lad as ever stepped, is done for, I may some day find out who it was that hit that blow, and pay it back."
"No, Solly," said Captain Lawrence sternly. "An English sailor does not take revenge in cold blood for what was done in hot. Never! There, I must get off, and in a few days I hope to be back to see my old friend again. Meanwhile, I know he's in good hands, and that he would not wish to be watched over by any one better than William Solly, his old companion in many a trouble of the past."
"It's very kind o' you to say so, sir," said Solly humbly.
"I only speak the truth, my man," said the visitor. "I have seen a great deal, and Captain Revel has told me more, about what a faithful servant you have been to him. Do all you can to comfort him, for he is terribly changed."
The tears were in old Solly's eyes, and there seemed to be a kink in his throat, as he said huskily:
"Awful, sir. I was a-saying on'y the other day, when the skipper was wherriting hisself about losing a few salmon, and raging and blowing all over the place, that he wanted a real trouble to upset him, and that then he wouldn't go so half-mad-like about a pack o' poachers working the pool. But I little thought then that the real bad trouble was coming so soon; and it has altered him, sewer-ly. Poor Master Nic—poor dear lad! Seems on'y t'other day as I used to carry him sittin' with his little bare legs over my two shoulders, and him holding on tight by my curly hair. Yes, sir, you look; it is smooth and shiny up aloft now, but I had a lot o' short, curly hair then, just like an old Calabar nigger's. And now, on'y to think of it."
"No, don't think of it, my lad, for we are not certain, and we will not give up hope. There, good-bye, Solly, my man. Shake hands."
"Shake—hands, sir—with you, cap'n?"
"No, not with the captain, but with the man who looks upon you as an old friend."
The next minute Solly was alone, rubbing his fist first in one eye and then in the other, twisting the big bony knuckle of his forefinger round so as to squeeze the moisture out.
"Well now," he said, "just look at that! What an old fool I am! Well, if I didn't know as them there drops o' mystur' was 'cause o' my poor lad Master Nic, I should ha' thought it was all on account o' what Cap'n Lawrence said. 'Friend!' he says. Well, I like that. I s'pose it's 'cause I've allus tried to do my dooty, though I've made a horful muddle on it more'n once."
FROM DARKNESS TO LIGHT.
The next time the doctor came below to see his patients he examined Pete Burge.
"Humph!" he ejaculated. "Lucky for you, my man, that you have such a thick skull. You'll do now; but you've had a narrow escape. There, you can go up on deck every day a bit, but keep out of the sun; it's very hot, and getting hotter. It will do you more good than stopping down in this black hole."
"Thank ye, master," said Pete; and he lay still in his hammock, waiting for the doctor to go on deck before getting out and beginning to dress.
"Look here," said the doctor; "you are not off the sick-list yet, and you will come down and look after this lad till he is fit to go up.— Well, how are you, my lad?—Hold that light closer," he continued, turning to his assistant. "Humph! fever stronger.—Has he been talking to you—sensibly?"
"Yes, zir," replied Pete. "A good deal muddled at first, but he began asking questions at last."
"Didn't know how he come here, and I had to tell him."
"Yes! What then?"
"Give a zort of a groan, zir, and been talking to hisself ever zince."
"Humph! Poor wretch," muttered the doctor, and he gave some instructions to his assistant before turning once more to Pete:
"Look here, you had better stay with your mate when you are not on deck. If he gets worse you can fetch me."
"Where shall I find you, zir?" asked Pete.
"Ask one of the men."
Pete began to dress as soon as he was alone, and found that it was no easy task on account of a strange feeling of giddiness; but he succeeded at last, and stepped to Nic's hammock and laid a cool hand upon the poor fellow's burning brow. Then he went on deck, glad to sit down right forward in the shade cast by one of the sails and watch the blue water whenever the vessel heeled over.
The exertion, the fresh air, and the rocking motion of the ship produced a feeling of drowsiness, and Pete was dropping off to sleep when he started into wakefulness again, for half-a-dozen men came up a hatchway close at hand, with the irons they wore clinking, to sit down upon the deck pretty near the convalescent.
Pete stared as he recognised Humpy Dee and five other partners in the raid.
"There, what did I tell you?" said the first-named, speaking to his companions, but glaring savagely at Pete the while. "There he is. I allus knowed it. He aren't in irons. It was his doing. Give warning, he did, and they brought the sailor Jacks up. It was a regular trap."
"What do you mean?" said Pete wonderingly.
"What I say. I always knew you'd turn traitor and tell on us."
"You don't know what you're talking about," cried Pete. "Look here, lads."
The men he addressed uttered a low growl and turned from him in disgust.
"Oh, very well," said Pete bitterly; "if you like to believe him instead of me, you can."
"I told you so," went on Humpy Dee, whose countenance looked repulsive now from a patch of strips of sticking-plaster upon his forehead; "and he says I don't know what I'm talking about."
"That's right," said Pete; "you don't."
"Maybe; but I do now. Look ye here, Pete Burge; it's your doing that we're here. Nearly the whole lot on us took—there, you can see some of 'em sailors now. Pressed men. They took the pick of us; but we're not good enough, we're not, while you're to be a bo'sun, or some'at o' that sort, you expect. But you won't, for, first chance I get, Pete Burge, I'm going to pitch you overboard, or put a knife in your back; so look out."
"You don't know what you're talking about," said Pete again, for nothing better occurred to him; and as the charge seemed to have gone home for truth with the other unfortunates, one and all embittered by sickness, injuries, and confinement in irons below deck, Pete sulkily did as they did, turned away, confident that Humpy Dee's threat would not be put in force then; for a marine was standing sentry over them, till the men in irons were marched below, Pete finding that, as one on the sick-list, he was free to go up or down when he liked.
During the next fortnight the man puzzled himself as to what was to become of them. He had seen others of his companions often enough, going about their duties; but every one turned from him with a scowl of dislike, which showed that the charge Humpy had made had gone home, and that all believed he had betrayed them.
The consequence was that he passed much of his time below decks, and preferred to come up for his breath of fresh air after dark, passing his time beside Nic's hammock, thinking what he ought to do about him, and making up his mind what it was to be as soon as the poor fellow grew better and fully recovered his senses.
"I'll tell the doctor then," he said to himself. "There's no good in telling him now, for if I did they'd take him away and put him in a cabin, where it would only be lonezome for him and for me too; and no one would wait on him better than I do."
But Nic did not get better, as Pete wished, nor yet as the doctor essayed to make him.
"It has got on his brain, poor fellow," said that gentleman one day, when the patient was able to walk about, apparently nearly well, but his mind quite vacant. He talked, but the past was quite a blank.
"But he'll get it off, won't he, zir?" said Pete, who felt the time to speak had come.
"Some day, my lad. I dare say his memory will come back all of a sudden when he is stronger and better able to bear his trouble; so perhaps it's all a blessing for him in disguise."
There was so much in this that Pete felt that it was not the time to speak yet.
"What good can it do him till he can think?" he said to himself. "It will only be like me losing a mate as can be a bit o' comfort, now every one's again' me. I mean to stick to him till he can speak out and tell 'em as I didn't inform again' the others."
So Pete held his tongue, and being so much below, was almost forgotten, save by the men of the watches who had to bring the two sick men their rations; and finally he left it till it was too late. For he awoke one morning to find that they were in port in a strange land, and in the course of the morning the word was passed to him and his unfortunate companion to "tumble up."
"Here, master," he said to Nic; "you're to come up."
Nic made no objection, but suffered himself to be led on deck, where he stood, pale and thin, the wreck of his former self, blinking in the unwonted light, and trying to stare about him, but in a blank way, ending by feeling for and clinging to Pete's arm.
Very little time was afforded the latter for looking about, wondering what was to happen next; all he saw on deck was a group of marines and about a couple of dozen of the sailors doing something to one of the boats, while the officers were looking on.
The next minute his attention was taken by the beautiful country spreading out beyond the shore, a quarter of a mile away across the sparkling waters of the harbour.
But there was something else to take his attention during the next minute, for there was the clanking of irons, and he saw Humpy Dee and his five companions marched up from below to be called to where he was standing with Nic.
The poachers looked repellent enough as they followed Humpy Dee's example, and scowled at the pair who had come up from the sick bay, and seemed to receive little sympathy from those who were looking on. Then there was an order given by one of the officers, and the crew of the boat climbed quickly in, while the marines came up behind the prisoners.
"They're going to take us ashore," thought Pete excitedly, and the idea had hardly been grasped, before a couple of old hats were handed to him and his companion by the sergeant of marines.
"They're going to put uz with Humpy and that lot," said Pete to himself excitedly; "and I must speak now."
He spoke. It was hurriedly and blunderingly done, and the officer whom he addressed looked at him frowningly.
"What!" he cried; "this man is not one of you—one of the gang taken that night?"
"No, master; he's a gentleman, and took by mistake."
Humpy Dee's eyes flashed, and he burst into a coarse laugh.
"Silence, you scoundrel!—How dare you?" cried the officer angrily.
"Couldn't help it, master," growled Humpy. "Make a horse laugh to hear such gammon."
"What! Do you say that what he tells me is not true?"
"It is true, master," cried Pete, "every word—"
"All lies," snarled the poacher savagely. "He was in the fight, and got hurt. He's one of us. That Pete Burge peached on us, and brought the sailor Jacks on us; and he wants to get out of it to let us go alone. Lies, captain; all lies."
"What do you say, my men?" said the officer sternly, turning to Humpy's companions.
"Same as he does," cried the pressed men in chorus.
"And you?" cried the officer, turning to Nic. "Are you one of this fellow's comrades?"
"No, master, he aren't," cried Pete; "he aren't, indeed. He's nought to me. He's—"
"Silence, sir!" roared the officer. "You, sir," he continued, turning to Nic, "speak out. Are you one of this fellow's comrades?"
Nic looked at him blankly, and there was silence on the deck, as the various groups stood there in the burning sunshine.
"Well, sir, why don't you answer?" cried the officer.
Nic's answer was in dumb-show, for, poor fellow, he did not grasp a word. He knew that the man by his side had been with him a great deal, and nursed and helped him, speaking soothingly when he was at his worst—every one else seemed strange; and without a word he smiled sadly in Pete's face and took hold of his arm.
"That will do," said the officer, who had his orders to carry out. "In with them!"
The marines laid their hands on Nic's and Pete's shoulders, while the sergeant signed to the others to climb into the boat; Humpy Dee turning, as he got in last, to give Pete a savage look of triumph.
Pete turned sharply to the marine who was urging him to the side.
"Tell me, mate," he whispered quickly; "just a word. Where are we going to be took?"
The marine glanced swiftly aside to see if it was safe to answer, and then whispered back:
"Off to the plantations, I s'pose. There, keep a good heart, lad. It aren't for ever and a day."
The plantations—to work as a kind of white slave for some colonist far-away.
Pete, in his ignorance, only grasped half the truth; but that half was bad enough to make him sink down in the boat as it was lowered from the davits, put his lips close to Nic's ear, and groan more than say:
"Oh, Master Nic, lad, what have you done?"
Then the boat kissed the water; the order was given; the oars fell with a splash; and, as the men gave way, Pete Burge darted a wild look about him, to find Humpy Dee just at his back, glaring malignantly, and as if about to speak, as he leaned forward.
But no word came, for the marine sergeant clapped a hand upon his shoulder and thrust him back.
"All right," said Humpy Dee; "my time'll come bimeby. Better than being a pressed man, after all."
Nic had been a long while in the darkness below deck, and his eyes were feeble; but, as the boat glided on rapidly towards the shore, they became more accustomed to the light, and he gazed wonderingly about in his confused state, seeing nothing of the trouble ahead, only the fact that he was approaching the far-stretching, sun-brightened shore.
HUMPY DEE'S LITTLE THREATS.
However much he might have been disposed to make a fresh appeal on his companion's behalf, Pete had no opportunity; for, upon the boat being run alongside of a roughly-made wharf, he and the others were hurried out and marched away to a kind of warehouse, and the care of them handed over to some people in authority, by whom they were shut-in, glad of the change from the broiling sun outside to the cool gloom of the interior, lit only by a grated window high up above the door, from which the rays streamed across the open roof, leaving the roughly-boarded floor in darkness.
After a few minutes the eyes became accustomed to the gloom, and the men seated themselves upon the empty chests and barrels lying about, Pete securing one for Nic, who sat down mechanically, with his head thrown back so that he could gaze at the light. Pete contented himself with the rough floor, where he half-lay, listening to his companions in misfortune, half-a-dozen yards away, as they talked over their position and wondered where they were to go—to a man keeping aloof from Pete, the traitor they accredited with bringing them to their present state.
The men were better informed than Pete had been, his stay in company with Nic and the dislike in which he was held by his old companions having kept him in ignorance of facts which they had picked up from the sailors. And now Pete gradually grasped in full that of which he had previously only had an inkling—that the pick of the prisoners had been reserved for man-o'-war's-men, those who were considered unsuitable having been reserved for handing over to the colonists. This was in accordance with a custom dating as far back as the days of Cromwell, the Protector being accredited with ridding himself of troublesome prisoners by shipping them off to the plantations as white slaves, most of them never to return.
"Well," said Humpy Dee aloud, in the course of conversation, "I suppose it means work."
"Yes," said another; "and one of the Jacks told me you have to hoe sugar-cane and tobacco and rice out in the hot sun, and if you don't do enough you get the cat."
"If any one tries to give me the lash," growled Humpy, "he'll get something he won't like."
"They'll hang you or shoot you if you try on any games, old lad," said another of the men.
"Maybe, if they can," said Humpy, with a laugh. "Perhaps we may be too many for them. I mean to take to the woods till I can get taken off by a ship."
"Ah, who knows?" said another. "I aren't going to give up. Place don't look so bad. See that river as we come up here?"
"Of course," growled Humpy.
"Well, I dare say there'll be salmon in it, same as there is at home."
"Tchah!" cried Humpy; "not here. This is foreign abroad man. You'll get no salmon now."
"Well, any fish'll do," said another of the men. "The place don't look bad, and anything's better than being shut down below them decks. 'Nough to stifle a man. I know what I'm going to do, though, along with them as like to join me."
"You're going to do what I tells you," said Humpy Dee sourly; "I'm going to be head-man here; and if you don't you'll find yourself wishing you hadn't been born."
The man growled something in an undertone, and Humpy made an offer at him as if to strike, causing his companion in misfortune to flinch back to avoid the expected blow.
"Look here, boys," said Humpy; "if every one here's going to try to do things on his own hook we shall do nothing, so what you've got to do is to stick by me. We're not going to be sold here like a gang o' black slaves."
"But we are sold," said the man who had shrunk away.
"Never mind that; we're not going to work, then," said Humpy. "We're going to slip off into the woods, get to that there river, and do something better than spear or bale out salmon. We're going to take the first boat we see and get round to the coast, and then keep along till we find a ship to take us off."
"Well, that's what I meant," said the other man.
"Then you'll be all right," said Humpy.
So far, without paying attention, Pete had heard every word, and his blood began to course faster through his veins at the thought of escaping and helping Nic back to his friends; but, though he strove hard, not another word reached his ears; for Humpy leaned forward and began speaking in a hoarse whisper, his companions bending towards him, as he said with a peculiar intensity:
"We've got to get back home, lads, and not stop here to rot in the sun to make money for whoever's bought us; but there's something to do first."
"What?" said one of the men, for Humpy Dee had stopped and sat in the gloom, glaring savagely at the farther side of the place.
"Wait, and you'll hear," was the reply; and there was another pause, during which Nic uttered a low, weary sigh, and let himself fall sideways, so that his head sank in Pete's lap, and, utterly exhausted, he dropped off to sleep.
"You know how it all was," Humpy went on at last. "I aren't going to name no names, but some 'un was jealous-like o' me, and wanting to take the lead always; and, when he found he couldn't, he goes and blabs to the young master yonder. Well, we're not going to take him back—we've not going to tell him how we're going to do it."
"Have told him. Spoke loud enough," said the man who had received the rebuff.
Humpy leaned towards him, and with a peculiar, savage air, said in a husky whisper:
"Look here, mate; there's only room for one to lead here. If you aren't satisfied you can go and sit along with them two and sham sick, like Pete Burge has all through the voyage."
"Well, don't bite a man's head off," said the other. "Who wants to lead?"
"You do, or you wouldn't talk like a fool. Think I'm one, mates?—think I'm going to do as I said, and let him go and blab, so as to get into favour here? That's just what I don't mean to do."
"Then what are you going to do?" said his fellow-prisoner; but for a few moments Humpy only glared at him without speaking. At last, though, he whispered:
"I mean for us to go off together and get free; and as for some one else, I mean for us all to give him something to remember us by afore we go."
The prisoners had been sitting in the dark warehouse-like place for some hours, Nic sleeping soundly, and Pete watching and listening to his companions in misfortune, judging from their behaviour that he was to be treated as an outcast, but caring little, for he was conscious of having been true to them in their nefarious doings.
"Let them think what they like," he said to himself. "Humpy has got that into their heads, and if I talk to them for a week they won't believe me."
Then he began to muse upon the subject which forms seven-eighths of a prisoner's thoughts—how he and Nic were to escape, and whether it would be possible to get to a boat and float down the river of which they had had a glimpse, and of which he had heard his companions speaking, when suddenly there was the deep, heavy barking of a dog, followed by that of two more; and, as he listened, the sounds came nearer and nearer, in company with the shuffling of feet. Voices were heard too, and directly after there was a loud snuffling sound and a deep growling, as the dogs they had heard thrust their noses under the big door, tore at it, and growled savagely, till a fierce voice roared:
"Come here! Lie down!" and there was a crack of a whip, and a sharp yelp to indicate that one of the dogs had received a blow.
Directly after there was the rattle of a big key in the lock, the bolt snapped back, and the door was thrown open, to fill the place with the glow of the afternoon sunshine; and three great hounds bounded in, to rush at once for the prisoners and begin snuffing at them, growling loudly the while.
"Call those dogs off, Saunders," said a stern voice, as the entrance was darkened by the figures of a group of men.
"In a moment," was the reply, made by a tall, active-looking man, "They only want to know the new hands, and their flavour.—Here: down, boys!"
The speaker accompanied his order with a sharp crack of the whip, and the dogs came back unwillingly from the groups seated on the floor.
"Take care," said the first speaker; "that man has a knife."
Pete turned sharply, to see that a knife-blade was gleaming in Humpy Dee's hand.
"Knife, has he?" said the man addressed as Saunders, and he stepped forward to where Humpy was crouching down.
"Give me that knife," he said sharply.
"I don't want to be eat by dogs," said Humpy in a low, surly tone.
"Give me that knife," was reiterated sternly, "or I set the dogs to hold you while I take it away."
Humpy hesitated for a moment and glared in the speaker's eyes; but he read there a power which was too much for him, and he closed the blade with a snap and slowly held it up.
The man snatched it from him with his left hand, and the next instant there was a sharp whish through the air and a smart crack, as the stinging lash of a whip fell across Humpy's shoulder, making him utter a yell of rage.
"Saunders, Saunders!" said the first speaker reproachfully.
"All right, Mr Groves; I know what I'm about," said the man sharply. "That fellow was armed with a knife which he must have stolen from one of the sailors; and he was ready to use it. The sooner a savage brute like that is taught his position here the better for him. You have done your part and handed the scoundrels over to me, so please don't interfere."
The first speaker shrugged his shoulders, and turned to a couple of men who were carrying a basket and a great pitcher; while Saunders went on sharply:
"You hear what I am saying, my lads; so understand this: You have been sent out here from your country because you were not fit to stay there; and you will have to serve now up at your proprietor's plantation. Behave yourselves, and you will be well fed, and fairly treated over your work; but I warn you that we stand no nonsense here. The law gives us power to treat you as you deserve. Our lives are sacred; yours are not—which means, as Mr Groves here will tell you, that if you venture to attack any one you will be shot down at sight, while I may as well tell you now that we shall fire at any man who attempts to escape."
Pete's head gave a throb, and his hand glided slowly to Nic's and held it tightly.
"When you get up to the plantation you will see for yourselves that you cannot get away, for you will have jailers there always ready to watch you or hunt you down. There are three of them," he continued, pointing to the dogs which crouched on the warehouse floor, panting, with their long red tongues out and curled up at the ends.
At their master's gesture the sagacious animals sprang up and gazed eagerly in his face.
"Not now, boys; lie down.—Ah, what's that?" he cried sharply, and the dogs made a movement as if to rush at the prisoners, for Humpy leaned sideways and whispered to his nearest companion:
"More ways than one o' killing a dog."
"Talking about the dogs," said the other surlily. "You are making yourself a marked man, my friend. Take care. Who are these—the two who have been in hospital, Mr Groves?"
"I suppose so," was the reply.
"What's the matter with you?" said the overseer—for such he proved to be—addressing Pete. "Jump up."
Pete softly lifted Nic's head from his knee and rose quickly.
"Was cut down, sir," said Pete; "but I'm getting better fast now."
"Good job for you. Now, you, sir; wake up."
The overseer raised the whip he held, to make a flick at Nic as he lay soundly asleep; but Pete stepped forward to save his companion, and in bending over him received the slight cut himself without flinching, though the lash made him feel as if he had been stung.
"He has been a'most dead, zir," said Pete sharply; "but he's getting better now fast. Hasn't got his zenses, though."
"Wake him up, then," said the overseer sharply; "and you can get your meal now.—Here, my lads, bring that stuff here and serve it out."
Pete obeyed the order given, and began by gently shaking Nic, who made no sign. Pete shook him again more firmly, starting violently the next moment, for, unnoticed, one of the great hounds had approached him and lowered its muzzle to sniff at the prostrate man.
Pete's first instinctive idea was to strike fiercely at the savage-looking intruder, but fortunately he held his hand and bent over his companion wonderingly, and hardly able to believe what he saw; for as the dog nuzzled about Nic's face, the young man, partly aroused by the shaking, opened his eyes, looked vacantly at the brute for some moments, and then, as if his intellectual powers were returning, he smiled, the animal stopping short and staring down at him closely.
"Well, old fellow," he said gently; "whose dog are you?"
Pete looked up sharply, and saw that every one's attention was centred on the basket and pitcher, the two men serving out the provisions and their two superiors looking on.
Then he glanced back again, to see in horror that Nic had raised his hand to the dog's muzzle, and followed that up by taking hold of and passing the animal's long, soft ears through his hand.
Pete would have seized the dog, but he felt paralysed by the thought that if he interfered he might make matters worse; and then his heart seemed to rise in his throat, for the great hound uttered a deep, short bark, which had the effect of bringing the others to its side.
"Quiet, you, sirs!" cried their master, but he did not turn his head, and the three dogs now pressed round Nic, the first planting his fore-paws on the young man's chest, blinking at him with his jaws apart and the long red tongue playing and quivering between the sets of keen milk-white teeth, evidently liking the caresses it received, and of which the other two appeared to be jealous, for they suddenly began to whimper; and then the first threw up its head, and all three broke into a loud baying.
"Quiet, there!" roared Saunders, and he turned sharply now, saw what had taken place, and came back cracking his whip. "Ah!" he shouted. "Get back! How dare you?"
The dogs growled, stood fast, and barked at him loudly.
"Good boys, then!" cried Saunders. "Yes, it's all right; you've found him. There, that will do."
The dogs began to leap and bound about the place, while their master turned to Pete.
"Why didn't you call me?" he said. "Have they bitten him?"
"No; haven't hurt him a bit," said Pete quietly.
"Lucky for him," said the man. "There, you see what they're like, and know what you have to expect—What?"
"I said, are they your dogs?"
Pete stared, for it was Nic who spoke, perfectly calmly, though in a feeble voice.
"Yes," replied Saunders. "Why?"
"I could not help admiring them. They are magnificent beasts."
"I am glad you like them, sir," said Saunders, with a mocking laugh; and he turned and strode away, to order the men to take some of the food they had brought to the other two prisoners, leaving Nic gazing after him.
"Rather brusque," he said, half to himself, and then he passed his hand over his eyes, drew a long, deep, restful breath, and turned over as if to go to sleep again; but he started up on his elbow instead as he encountered Pete's face, and a look of horror and dislike contracted his own.
"You here?" he said wonderingly.
"Hush! Don't speak aloud, dear lad," whispered Pete excitedly.
"Master Nic Revel, then. You haven't quite come-to yet. You don't remember. You were took bad again after being bad once—when you asked me questions aboard ship, and I had to tell you."
"Taken bad—aboard ship?"
"Here you are; catch hold," said a voice close to them; and one of the men handed each half a small loaf, while his companion filled a tin mug that must have held about half-a-pint, and offered it to Nic.
The young man had let the great piece of bread fall into his lap, but the gurgling sound of the water falling into the mug seemed to rouse a latent feeling of intense thirst, and he raised himself more, took the vessel with both hands and half-drained it, rested for a few moments, panting, and then drank the rest before handing the tin back with a sigh of content.
"No, no; hold it," said the man sharply; and Nic had to retain it in his trembling hands while it was refilled.
"There, give it to your mate," said the water-bearer.
The two young men's eyes met over the vessel in silence, Nic's full of angry dislike, Pete's with an appealing, deprecating look, which did not soften Nic's in the least.
"Well, why don't you take it?" said the man with the pitcher.
"Don't seem to kinder want it now," replied Pete hoarsely.
"Drink it, man, and don't be a fool. You'll be glad of it long before you get there. Sun's hot yet, and the water's salt for miles, and then for far enough brackish."
Nic looked at the speaker wonderingly, for the blank feeling seemed to be coming with the forerunner of the peculiar sensation of confusion which had troubled him before, and he looked from one to the other as if for help; while Pete took the mug and drained it, but contented himself with slipping his bread inside the breast of his shirt, and stood looking down at Nic, whose lips parted to speak, but no words came.
"Seem decent sort of fellows," said the water-bearer, as he turned off towards the door with his companion; and the dogs rose to follow them, sniffing at the basket.
"Yes, poor beggars!" said the other. "Whatever they've been up to in the old country, they've got to pay pretty dearly for it now."
Nic's hearing was acute enough now, and he heard every word.
"Here, you," he gasped painfully. "Call them back."
"What for, Master Nic?" said Pete in an appealing whisper. "Don't; you mustn't now. Ask me for what you want."
"I want to know what all this means," panted the young man. "Why am I here? What place is this? I'm not—I will know."
"No, no; don't ask now, Master Nic," whispered Pete. "You aren't fit to know now. I'm with you, my lad, and I swear I won't forsake ye."
"You—you will not forsake me?" said Nic, with a look of horror.
"Never, my lad, while I've got a drop o' blood in my veins. Don't— don't look at me like that. It waren't all my fault. Wait a bit, and I'll tell you everything, and help you to escape back to the old country."
"To the old country!" whispered Nic, whose voice was panting again from weakness. "Where are we, then?"
"Amerikee, among the plantations, they say."
"But—but why? The plantations? What does it mean?"
"Work," said Saunders, who had come up behind them. "Now then, look sharp, and eat your bread. You'll get no more till to-morrow morning, and in less than half-an-hour we shall start."
"Start?" cried Nic huskily, as he clapped his hands to his head and pressed it hard, as though he felt that if he did not hold on tightly his reason would glide away again.
"Yes, man, start," said Saunders. "Can you two fellows row?"
"He can't, sir; he's too weak," cried Pete eagerly; and the overseer's face contracted. "But I can. Best man here with an oar. I can pull, sir, enough for two."
"I'll put you to the proof before you sleep," said the overseer sharply. "Now, Mr Groves, I'm at your service. I suppose I have some papers to sign?"
"Yes," said the agent, and he led the way, while the overseer followed, closing the door, placing a whistle to his lips and blowing a shrill note which was answered by a deep baying from the dogs.
"Escape!" muttered Nic wildly. "Plantations! Why, I shall be a slave!"
"No, no, my lad; don't take it like that. I'll help you to get away."
"Will ye?" growled Humpy Dee, coming towards them. "Then I tells that chap next time he comes. I splits on you as you splits on we; so look out, I say, both of you; look out!"
"It's a lie, Master Nic—a lie," cried Pete fiercely. "I swear to you, I never—"
Pete caught at the young man's arm as he spoke, and then loosened it with a groan, for, with a look of revulsion, Nic cried hoarsely:
"Don't touch me; don't come near me. Wretch—villain! This is all your work."
"And so say we, my fine fellow," cried Humpy Dee, whose eyes sparkled with malignant joy. "His doing, every bit, 'cept what you put in, and for that you've got to take your share the same as us. And all because a few poor fellows wanted a bit o' salmon. Hor, hor, hor! I say, take it coolly. No one won't believe ye, and you may think yourself lucky to get off so well."
Nic turned from the man with a look of disgust, and sat up, resting his throbbing head in his hands; while, as Humpy Dee went back to his companions, whistling as he went, Pete threw himself upon the floor, watching him, with his hands opening and shutting in a strange way, as if they were eager to seize the brutal ruffian by the throat.
CHAINS AND SLAVERY.
Pete calmed down after a while, and began to feel a bit sulky. He had common-sense enough to begin looking at the state of affairs from a matter-of-fact point of view, and he lay conning the position over.
"Just as he likes," he said. "He pitches me over, and won't have any more to do with me. Well, it aren't no wonder, zeeing what I've been. Wonder what made me turn so zoft and zilly about him! Zeeing how hard it was for him to be zarved as he was, and then hooked off along with us."
"Dunno that it's any worse for him than it is for me," he muttered; "but zeemed to feel a bit sorry about him, poor lad!—there I go again: poor lad! No more poor lad than I be. Got it into my thick head that it was nice to help him while he was so bad, and that, now our lads have pitched me overboard, we was going to be mates and help one another. But we aren't, for he's pitched me overboard too."
"Well," muttered Pete, with a bitter laugh, "I can zwim as well as most on 'em, and I shan't hurt much; and as for him, he must take his chance with the rest on us. He's got his wits back again, and don't zeem like to go wool-gathering again; and, if he's sharp, he'll speak up and make that t'other man understand it's all a blunder about him being sent off along o' we. But there, he wants to go his own fashion, zo he must. But if I was him I should kick up a dust before we start, and have myself zent back home by the next ship."
He glanced in the gloom at where Nic was seated, and a feeling of sorrow for the poor fellow filled him again; but after the rebuff he had received he fought it off, and began to watch Humpy Dee and the others, as they sat together talking in a low tone, and then to meditate on their position towards himself.
"They're half-afraid of Humpy," he thought, "and he's made 'em think that I zet the sailors at them. If I go on talking till it's a blue moon they won't believe me, zo things must go their own way, and zome day they'll find Humpy out; on'y I'm not going to let him do as he likes with me. This isn't going to be a very cheerful zort of life out here; but, such as it is, it's better than no life at all; zo I aren't going to let him pitch me into the river or down some hole, or knock me on the head, or stick a knife into me. That won't do. It's murder—leastwise it is at home; p'raps it aren't out here. Zeems not after the way that chap talked about shooting us down and zetting them dogs at us. Why, one of 'em's stronger than us, and a zet-to wi' one of 'em wouldn't be nice. Bit of a coward, I s'pose, for I can't abide being bitten by a dog."
"Best thing I can do will be to slip off first chance; for I zeem, what with Humpy and these folk, to have dropped into a nasty spot. Dessay I can take care of myself, and—nay, that won't do; zeem sneaky-like to go and leave that poor lad, for I do zort o' like him. Wonderful how they dogs took to him. Nay, that aren't wonderful. Got a lot o' zense, dogs have. Allus zeem to take to zick people and little tiny children, and blind folk too. How they like them too!"
At that moment there was a deep baying sound not far-away, and Pete had not long to wait before there were steps, the door was unlocked and thrown open, and the overseer entered, accompanied by the dogs, and followed by a party of blacks, one of whom carried a roughly-made basket.
They were big, muscular fellows, and shiny to a degree whenever the light caught their skins, a good deal of which was visible, for their dress consisted of a pair of striped cotton drawers, descending half-way to the knee, and a sleeveless jacket of the same material, worn open so that neck and breast were bare.
The dogs barked at the prisoners, and repeated their examination by scent, ending by going well over Nic, who made no attempt to caress them, nor displayed any sign of fear, but sat in his place stolidly watching the proceedings, the dogs ending their nasal inspection by crouching down and watching him.
The overseer was alone now, and his first proceeding was to take his stand by the black, who had set down the heavy basket, and call Humpy Dee to come forward, by the name of Number One.
The man rose heavily, and this seemed to be a signal for the three hounds to spring to their feet again, making the man hesitate.
"Them dogs bite, master?" he said.
"Yes; they'll be at your throat in a moment if you make the slightest attempt to escape," said the overseer sharply.
"Who's going to try to escape?" grumbled Humpy.
"You are thinking of it, sir," said the overseer. "Mind this," he continued—drawing the light jacket he wore aside and tapping his belt, thus showing a brace of heavy pistols—"I am a good shot, and I could easily bring you down as you ran."
"Who's going to run?" grumbled Humpy. "Man can't run with things like these on his legs."
"I have seen men run pretty fast in fetters," said the overseer quietly; "but they did not run far. Come here."
Humpy shuffled along two or three steps, trailing his irons behind him, and the overseer shouted at him:
"Pick up the links by the middle ring, sir, and move smartly."
He cracked his whip, and a thrill ran through Nic.
Humpy did as he was told, and walked more quickly to where the overseer stood; but before he reached him the herculean black who stood by his basket, which looked like a coarsely-made imitation of the kind used by a carpenter for his tools, clapped a hand upon the prisoner's shoulder and stopped him short, making Humpy turn upon him savagely.
"Ah!" roared the overseer, as if he were speaking to one of the dogs.
Humpy was overawed, and he stood still, while the black bent down, took a ball of oakum out of the basket, cut off about a foot, passed the piece through the centre ring of the irons, and deftly tied it to the prisoner's waist-belt. Then, as Nic and Pete watched, the action going on fascinating them, the black made a sign to one of his companions, who dropped upon his knees by the basket, took out a hammer, and handed it to the first black. Then the kneeling man lifted out a small block of iron, which looked like a pyramid with the top flattened, clapped it on the floor, and the first black began to manipulate Humpy as a blacksmith would a horse he was about to shoe, dragging him to the little anvil with one hand, using the hammer-handle to poke him into position with the other.
"Going to take off his irons," thought Pete, and the same idea flashed across Nic's mind.
He was mistaken.
Another black stepped up, as if fully aware of what was necessary, and stood behind Humpy, ready to hold him up when necessary; for the second black now seized one of the prisoner's ankles, lifted his foot on to the little anvil, and the first examined the rivet, grunted his dissatisfaction, and Humpy's foot was wrenched sidewise by one man, who held the rivet upon the anvil, while his leader struck it a few heavy blows to enlarge the head and make it perfectly safe.
This done, Humpy was marched nearer the door, scowling savagely at having had to submit to this process; but he grinned his self-satisfaction as he saw his companions brought forward in turn for their irons to be examined—one to have them replaced by a fresh set, which were taken from the basket, and whose rings were tightly riveted about his ankles, the rivets of the old ones being quite loose.
The men were ranged near the entrance, which, at a look from the overseer, was now guarded by the three unoccupied blacks.
"Now you," said the overseer to Pete, who rose from where he sat alone and approached the anvil with a curious sensation running through him.
"Why didn't they iron you?" said the overseer harshly.
"Wounded and sick," replied Pete gruffly.
"Ah, well, you are not wounded and sick now.—He's a big, strong fellow, Sam. Give him a heavy set."
The big black showed his fine set of white teeth. A set of fetters was taken from the basket, and with Pete's foot held in position by the second black—a foot which twitched and prickled with a strong desire to kick—the first ring was quickly adjusted, a soft iron rivet passed through the two holes, and then the head was rested upon the little block of iron, and a few cleverly-delivered blows from the big black's hammer spread the soft iron out into a second head, and the open ring was drawn tight.
The second ankle-ring was quickly served in the same way, and the centre link was lifted and tied to the prisoner's waist-belt, Pete turning scarlet, and wiping the perspiration from his dripping brow from time to time.
"Over yonder with the others!"
There was a movement among the men at the door as this order was given, and Pete winced; but even a man newly fettered can still feel pride, and the poor fellow determined that his old comrades should not think he was afraid of them. He walked boldly up to take his place, meeting Humpy's malignant look of triumph without shrinking, and turning quickly directly after with a feeling of pity as he heard the overseer summon Nic to take his place in turn.
"Now's your time, my lad," Pete said to himself. "Speak out like a man, and if you ask me to, I'll back you up—I will."
He looked on excitedly, wondering whether Nic's wits were still with him, as but so short a time ago they had only returned to him like a flash and then passed away, leaving him, as it were, in the dark.
It was very still in the hot, close place, and every word spoken sounded strangely loud in the calm of the late afternoon.
"Lighter irons," said the overseer to the big black; and there was the clinking sound of the great links as the man handed the fetters from the basket.
"And him not shrinking," thought Pete. "Give me quite a turn. He can't understand."
The big black took the fetters and balanced them in his hand, looking at his superior as much as to say, "Will these do?"
The overseer took a step or two forward and grasped the chain, to stand holding it, gazing frowningly the while at Nic, who met his gaze without blenching.
"Why don't you speak—why don't you speak?" muttered Pete. "Can't you see that now's your time?"
"You've been bad, haven't you?" said the overseer roughly.
Nic raised his hand slowly to his head and touched the scar of a great cut on one side, the discoloration of a bruise on the other.
"But quite well again now?"
Nic smiled faintly.
"I am weak as a child," he replied.
"Humph! Yes," said the overseer, and he threw the chain upon the floor.
Pete, who had been retaining his breath for some moments, uttered a faint exclamation full of relief.
"But why didn't he speak out and tell him?" For a few moments his better feelings urged him to speak out himself; but he shrank from exposing both to the denials of the other men again, and stood frowning and silent.
Then the chance seemed to be gone, for the overseer gave the young prisoner a thrust towards the others, and Nic walked towards them straight for where Pete was waiting. Then he raised his eyes, saw who was standing in his way, and he went off to his right, to stop beside Humpy Dee, while a feeling of resentment rose hotly in Pete's breast.
"Oh, very well," he muttered to himself; "it's no business of mine."
The next minute the overseer gave a sharp order; the big black raised the basket and put himself at the head of the prisoners; the other slaves took their places on either side, and the overseer followed behind with the dogs, which began to bound about, barking loudly for a minute or two, and then walked quietly as the party left the gloomy warehouse behind.
HUMPY DEE'S PLAN GOES "A-GLEY."
It all seemed to Nic like part of some terrible dream, for a strange struggle was going on in his weakened brain, where reason seemed to come and go by pulsations. One minute everything appeared to be real, the next it was dream-like; and he was so convinced that in a short time he would wake up that he walked quietly on side by side with one of the negroes, taking notice of the place, which seemed to be a port, with the beginnings of a town dropped down in a scattered fashion a short distance from the mouth of a river. The houses were of timber, and to each there was a large, roughly fenced-in piece of cultivated ground, with some trees standing, while others had been cut down, leaving the blackened stumps in all directions.
It was a strange mingling of shed, shipbuilding-yard, and store, for many of the erections and their surroundings wore all the aspect of barns. As the little party now tramped on, with the prisoners' fetters giving forth a dull, clanking sound, the aspect of the place grew more and more rustic, the people who stopped to stare fewer, till, as they reached a large boarded house, evidently nearly new, and against whose rough fence a farmer-like man, in a damaged straw hat, was leaning, gazing intently at the prisoners. All beyond seemed trees and wild growth, amidst which the river made a curve, and the trampled track looked more green.
Nic looked half-wonderingly at the man leaning upon the fence, and felt that he was going to speak in commiseration of his plight; but the next moment his hopes were dashed, for the settler shouted:
"How are you, Master Saunders? How's the Gaffer?"
"All well," said the overseer, with a nod.
"Seems a nice, tidy, strong-limbed lot you've got there, master."
"Oh yes; pretty well."
"Some of all sorts. That's an ugly one," continued the farmer, pointing to Humpy Dee, and mentally valuing him as if he were one in a herd of cattle. "But I daresay he can work."
"He'll have to," said the overseer, and Nic saw that each black face wore a grin, while Humpy was scowling savagely.
"Yes, I should like a lot such as that. 'Member me to the Gaffer. Tell him to look in if he comes to town."
"Yes," thought Nic as they passed on; "it must be a dream, and I shall wake soon."
It grew more and more dream-like to him as the track was followed among the trees till a rough landing-place was reached, formed by some huge stakes driven down into the mud, with heavy planks stretched over to them, and others laid across. The reddening sun was turning the gliding water to gold, as it ran up the river now, for the flood-tide was running fast; and as they drew nearer, Nic caught sight of what looked like the launch of some large vessel swinging by a rope fastened to an upright of the landing-stage.
Just then one of the blacks uttered a peculiar, melodious cry, the great dogs bounded on to the stage and began to bark, and a couple of blacks, dressed like those about him, sprang up in the boat, where they had been lying asleep, and began to haul upon the now unfastened rope to draw the craft up to the stage.
Nic's head was throbbing again, and the unreality and novelty of the scene increased.
"I shall wake soon," he said to himself. "How strange it is!"
For at that moment, as the boat came abreast, he saw one of the great dogs leap from the stage, run to the stern, and sit down, the others following and joining it behind the seat provided with a back rail.
It seemed to be no new thing to the blacks, for the huge fellow who had acted as smith stepped down into the boat, followed by his assistant, walked aft, and deposited his bag with the dogs, and then stooped down and drew from under the side-seat a couple of muskets, one of which he handed to his assistant, both examining their priming, and then seating themselves one on either side of the boat, with their guns between their legs, watching the embarkation.
"You next," said the overseer to Pete; and the prisoner walked to the edge, made as if to leap, but checked himself and climbed down, feeling that the other way would have been risky, weighted as his legs were by the shackles. "Help your young mate," said the overseer roughly; and Pete's eyes flashed as he stood up and held out his hand to Nic, who shrank from the contact as his wrist was caught. Then he descended feebly into the boat, and then had to be helped right forward, to sit down close to one of the blacks who was now holding on to the woodwork with a boat-hook.
The other prisoners followed awkwardly enough in their irons, and took the places pointed out to them by one of the blacks who had been in charge of the boat.
As the second of the party took his place next to Pete, he hung down his head and whispered:
"Humpy says we're to make a dash for it and take the boat."
Pete started; but the man, under the pretence of adjusting his irons, went on, with his head nearly in his comrade's lap:
"T'others know. We shall push off into the stream, where he can't hit us with his pistols, and we can soon pitch the niggers overboard."
"Silence, there!" shouted the overseer.
The other men descended, and exchanged glances with their companions— glances which Pete saw meant "Be ready!"—and his blood began to dance through his veins.
Should he help, or shouldn't he?
Yes; they were his fellows in adversity, and it was for liberty: he must—he would; and, with his heart beating hard, he prepared for the struggle, feeling that they must succeed, for a blow or two would send the men by them overboard, and a thrust drive the boat gliding swiftly up-stream, the man with the boat-hook having enough to do to hold on.
"Young Nic Revel don't zeem to understand," thought Pete; "but he couldn't help us if he did."
He had hardly thought this when, in obedience to an order from the overseer, the last man, Humpy Dee, tramped clumsily to the edge and seemed to hesitate, with the result that there was a sharp bark from one of the dogs right astern, and a chill ran through Pete's burning veins.
"I forgot the dogs!" he said to himself.
"Get down, fool!" cried the overseer, and he struck at the hesitating prisoner with the whip.
It was all a feint on the part of Humpy to gain time and carry out his plan.
He winced as the whip-lash caught him on his leg, and then, instead of descending slowly, leaped down right upon the black who held the boat to the stage by the hook.
It was cleverly done, and acted as intended, for the black was driven over the side, and the prisoner's weight gave the boat the impetus required, sending it a little adrift into the stream, which began to bear it away, but not before the result of a little miscalculation had made itself evident.
For Humpy Dee had not allowed for the weight and cumbersomeness of his fetters; neither had he given them credit for their hampering nature. He had leaped and suddenly thrust the black overboard, to hang clinging to the boat-hook; but he had been unable to check himself from following; and, as the boat yielded to his weight and thrust, he seemed to take a header over the bow, there was a tremendous splash, and the water was driven over those seated forward.
The two blacks astern leaped up, and the overseer uttered a cry of rage; the water closed over Humpy Dee's head, while the dogs set up a chorus of baying as the boat glided steadily away.
"WHAT'LL MASSA SAY?"
The scene taking place before him acted strangely upon Nic. It seemed to rouse him from his dreamy state, and awakened him to a wild pitch of excitement.
He sprang to his feet, and was on the point of springing overboard to the man's help; but a touch from Pete upon the shoulder was enough: he sank down beneath its pressure, weak and helpless as a child.
"What are you going to do?" whispered Pete. "Are you mad?"
"Help! Save him! Can you stand like that and see the man drown before your eyes?"
"What can I do, lad?" growled Pete angrily. "If I go over after him, it's to drown myself. These irons'll stop a man from zwimming, and take one to the bottom like a stone."
"Ay, ay; ye can't do 'un," growled one of the other prisoners, in whom the desire for escaping died out on the instant. "Sit still, lad; sit still."
But Pete stood with staring eyes, gazing wildly at the place where his enemy had disappeared; the veins in his forehead swelled, his lips parted, and he panted as he drew his breath, looking ready at any moment to leap overboard and make an effort to save his old companion's life.
Meanwhile the overseer was shouting orders to his blacks ashore as well as to those in the boat, which was gliding faster up the stream, and the men laid down their guns and picked up and put out a couple of oars, the dogs barking frantically the while.
"Pete Burge," whispered one of the men, "we must make friends now. Here's our chance; shall we take it?"
"No, no," cried Pete furiously, but without taking his eyes from where Humpy had disappeared.
"I cannot bear it," panted Nic to himself, as he once more sprang up; and before he could be stayed he dived out of the boat, rose, and struck out for the landing-stage.
Pete shouted at him in his agony, and jumped overboard to save him, forgetting what was bound to happen, and going down like a stone, feet foremost, but rising to the surface again, to fight gallantly in spite of the weight of his irons, and strive to overtake Nic, who, unencumbered, was some yards away.
But it proved to be as Pete had foreseen; there was the gallant will and the strength to obey it, but it was merely a spasmodic force which only endured a minute or two. Then the brave young swimmer's arms turned, as it were, to lead, the power to breast the strong current ceased, and he remained stationary for a moment or two, before being gradually borne backward, his efforts ceasing; while the men in the boat watched him and Pete, who, with the water quite to his nostrils, was swimming with all his strength, but only just able to keep the heavy fetters from dragging him to the bottom.
"Two more on us going," said one of the men. "Here, Bob; come and help. You stop and grab 'em as soon as they're near."
The man and the comrade he had addressed scrambled over the thwarts towards where the two blacks were rowing hard, but hardly holding the heavy boat against the powerful tide; and as soon as the fetters clanked, the dogs barked savagely and leaped up to meet them; but as the intelligent beasts saw the men seize a couple of oars and thrust them over the sides, they stopped short, panting.
"All the better for you," growled one of the men to the dog glaring at him, "for I'd ha' choked you if you'd come at me.—Pull away, blackies."
The additional oars had the right effect, for as the four men pulled with all their might the boat began to stem the current and shorten the distance between it and the two drowning men. But, in spite of his great strength, Pete was being mastered by the heavy weight of the irons, and was getting lower and lower in the water; while Nic's arms had ceased to move, and he was drifting with the tide.
"Keep up; strike out, lads," cried the man in the bows, in agony. "We're coming fast now."
It was not the truth, for the heavy boat was moving very slowly against the swift tide, and the swimmers' fate seemed to be sealed, as the man reached back, got hold of another oar, and thrust it out over the bows, ready for Pete to grasp as soon as he came within reach.
"We shall be too late," groaned the man, with all his enmity against Pete forgotten in those wild moments of suspense. "Here, look out for the oar. Pete, lad, swim back. Oh! poor lad, he can't hear me. He's drownin'—he's drownin'."
Pete could not hear, and if he had heard during his frantic efforts to reach Nic, he would not have heeded, for there was no room in the man's brain in those wild moments for more than that one thought—that he must save that poor, weak fellow's life.
It takes long to describe, but in the real action all was condensed into less than a minute. Pete, who fought wildly, frantically, to keep his head above water, fought in vain, for his fettered legs were fast losing their power, and he was being drawn gradually lower and lower, till, after throwing his head back to gasp for a fresh breath, he straightened his neck again, with the water at his eyes, and saw that what he could not achieve the current had done for him.
He made a wild, last effort, and caught with one hand at the arm just within reach; his fingers closed upon it with a grip of iron, and another hand caught desperately at his hair.
Then the water closed over the pair, joined together in a death-grip, and the tide rolled them unresistingly up the stream.
"Pull, pull!" yelled the man in the bows, as he reached out with his oar; but he could not touch the place where he saw the figures disappear. Quick as thought, though, and with the clever method of one accustomed to the management of a fishing-boat, the man changed his tactics. He laid the oar over the prow, treating the iron stem as a rowlock, and gave a couple of strokes with all his might, pulling the boat's head round, and bringing it well within reach of the spot where Nic's back rose and showed just beneath the surface. Then, leaving the oar, the man reached over, and was just in time to get a good hold, as the oar dropped from the bow into the river, and he was almost jerked out of the boat himself.