Amid so many obstructions his progress was terribly slow. It was seven o'clock when he started; when it occurred to him to look at his watch he was startled to find that two hours had passed. He could not tell how far he had come, nor guess how far he had yet to go. He hesitated; should he go back? Was there any use in struggling further? What chance was there in this dense forest of finding what he sought? Might he not even miss the savages' camp altogether, go beyond it, leave it either on his right hand or his left, or perhaps stumble upon it suddenly, and be discovered before he had a chance to flee? But he put these questions from his mind. He had set out to find the camp; no harm had befallen him. There was a strain of doggedness in his nature; he had won his scholarships at school and at Cambridge by sheer grit; his tutor had declared that Tom Smith was certainly not brilliant, but he was much better: he was sound and steady; and the same qualities that had won him successes which more brilliant men envied, came out in these novel circumstances in which he was placed. Tom decided to go on.
Presently he came to a break in the woodland; he saw the stars overhead. He was very wary now, and waited at the edge of the clearing for a long time, peering all round, turning to listen on every side, before he crossed and entered another belt of forest beyond. Again he had to struggle through darkness and dense entanglements, then suddenly he started; far ahead he thought he discerned amid the blackness the dull glow of a fire. With infinite caution he picked his way through the thinning undergrowth; the glow increased; and at length he found himself on the edge of a wide open space in the midst of which there was a camp fire, and around it the rude grass huts of the savages. He saw no one, heard no sound; all were asleep.
Stealthily he crept round the encampment. Here and there he saw cooking-pots, and caught the faint odour of roasted flesh. Had the savages any store of food, he wondered. If not, his journey was vain. The fire did not give light enough for him to see anything very clearly. At last, however, when he had almost made the circuit of the camp, he saw a man move out from one of the huts towards the fire, on which he cast some logs that lay beside it. A flame shot up. As the man returned to his hut, he put his hand into one of the cooking-pots and drew out the limb of a small animal, from which he tore the flesh with his teeth. Tom was satisfied. No doubt each of the pots contained a quantity of food. Surely if he brought his comrades to the spot, and they fell upon the camp suddenly, with loud cries and the noise of firearms, they might strike panic into the savages, and at least have time to possess themselves of the contents of the pots.
He looked at his watch. It was past ten o'clock.
He could return more quickly than he came, and, if he did not lose his way, would regain his camp within half-an-hour after midnight. There would be plenty of time for the whole party to reach the savages' encampment before the dawn rendered it dangerous. Moving away slowly until he was out of earshot, he then walked as quickly as he could back through the forest. But he was not a mariner, and even a mariner would have been at fault in tracking his course by compass through dense forest. He judged his general direction accurately, but he swerved a little too far to the right, and suddenly found himself on the brink of the cliff. He dared not go back into the forest, lest he should lose more time in wandering, so he decided to keep as close to the sea as possible, thinking that he must in time arrive at his camp. His path was tortuous; once he had to strike inland to avoid a deep, wooded ravine; but presently he heard the sound of falling water, and, quickening his steps, came almost suddenly upon the barricade.
The whole company were awake. They had almost given him up for lost. It was one o'clock. Underhill sternly checked a cheer from the sailors, when Tom ran up. He told what he had seen.
"Hadn't we better wait till to-morrow night?" suggested Dr. Smith.
"To-night! to-night!" cried the men eagerly. The knowledge that food was within reach of them was too much for famishing men. Who knew if they would have strength or sanity for the task after another sweltering day? Underhill could not refuse them; he gave orders for the whole company to march at once.
None was left to guard the camp; the little company of sixteen could not be divided. They set off in single file, Tom leading the way, not because he had any hope of treading in his former course, but because he alone had traversed the forest, and he alone had a compass.
The plan of lighting fires to guide them on the return journey was given up. The forest was so dense that such fires would have been of little use; further, they might cause an immense conflagration which, though it would effectually scare the enemy, would destroy what the famished men so urgently needed, food.
Their progress was even slower than Tom's had been. They had to stop frequently to make sure that all were together, and, as ill luck would have it, Tom found that he was leading them through a part of the forest where the entanglements were more intricate and less penetrable than those he had formerly encountered. But he plodded on doggedly, speaking to no one of his anxiety when a glance at his watch told how time was fleeting. If they did not reach the camp of the savages before dawn their toil and fatigue would be wasted, and their peril greater than it had ever been.
Here and there, where the trees grew less close together, he felt a slight breeze blowing in his face, and at length he detected a faint smell of wood smoke. He halted, and told the rest, in a whisper, that they were approaching a settlement. From this point they advanced still more slowly and cautiously. Then, with a suddenness that took them aback, they came to the edge of a clearing. At first Tom was not sure whether it was the same that he had seen before. He had indeed approached it from a different direction. But a glance around satisfied him on this point, and the party stood within the shelter of the trees while Underhill gave his orders. They were to fire one shot, then rush forward with loud shouts, seize what food they could lay hands on, and flee back in all haste. There was no time to be lost, for the sky already gave hint of dawn.
Underhill had scarcely finished speaking when there was a cry from a point near at hand. They had approached the camp from the wind-yard side; the breeze had carried either some murmur of Underhill's voice, low as he had spoken, or some faint scent which the natives, as keen in their perceptions as wild animals, had detected. Instantly the camp was in commotion: the dusky warriors poured forth from their little huts, and swept, a wild, yelling horde, upon the weary company.
SOME PRAUS AND A JUNK
Smith's destination, on leaving Penang, was Port Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia. He had never been at that port, and knew that a few years before it had been little more than a collection of grass humpys, inhabited by Chinese and Malays, with an iron shed for a Custom House, and a vast expanse of forest and jungle behind. But it was the principal port in the northern part of Australia, and he had no doubt that at Palmerston, the thriving town on the eastern shore, he would be able to obtain the necessary supply of petrol and oil.
His map informed him that his course lay across the Malay Peninsula, Dutch Borneo, and the islands of Celebes and Timor. It was necessary to rise to a considerable height to cross the hills that run like a spine on the Malay Peninsula, and having passed those, he came in little over an hour to the eastern coast, about a hundred and fifty miles north of Singapore. In another hour and a half he reached the coast of Borneo, whence for nearly three hours he saw beneath him an almost unbroken sea of foliage, only one range of hills breaking the monotony. Somewhat after midday he came to the straits of Macassar, at the south-east extremity of Borneo. As he crossed these, he had an unpleasant shock. The engine missed sparking once or twice when he was half-way across the Straits, and he shouted to Rodier to loose the life buoys in case it failed. There were several small craft beneath him, so that he had no doubt of being picked up if the aeroplane fell, unless, indeed, sharks "got in first," as he put it. But the interruption of the sparking was only temporary, and he reached the island of Celebes safely. Then he thought it merely prudent to descend and overhaul the engine, though he deplored the loss of time. He landed on a solitary spot where there was no likelihood of being molested, and Rodier having cleaned the fouled plug that had caused the trouble, they went on again.
They were sailing low over the deep bay formed by the two huge tentacles that run south and south-east from the crab-like body of the island, when suddenly, above the noise of the engine, they heard the sharp crack of a shot, then two or three more. Glancing up the bay to his left, Smith saw a large junk, its sails hanging limp, surrounded by a number of small craft which from their appearance he guessed to be praus. He had read many a time of the fierce Malayan pirates that used to infest these seas, and was somewhat surprised to find that piracy had apparently not been wholly suppressed. As a matter of fact, European vessels no longer ran the same risks as of old, the Malays having learnt by experience that sooner or later retribution was bound to overtake them; but it was a different matter with Chinese junks. So long as these could be attacked successfully and secretly, with no witnesses to carry information to the outside world, there was little risk in swooping down upon them. The celestial government did not follow up piratical forays of this kind in seas distant from the Empire itself; and the Malays were not likely to attack unless they had a great advantage over their victim in point of numbers. A junk might be seized and its crew massacred without the slightest whisper of the event coming to civilized ears.
Smith saw the praus clustering round the junk like a swarm of bees. It was impossible to doubt what the result would be. He was loth to lose more time: the plight of a Chinese vessel was no concern of his; yet as he glanced up and down the bay and saw that it could obtain help from no other quarter, he could not bring himself to leave the hapless Chinamen to the fate that must overtake them unless he intervened. Slackening speed, he cried to Rodier—
"We must do something."
The Frenchman nodded. Smith swung the aeroplane round, and descended until it was circling immediately over the junk and its assailants. Cries of amazement broke from some of the Malays as they caught sight of this strange portent from the sky, but the greater number were climbing up the sides of the junk, heedless of all else than the work in hand. There was something fascinating to Smith in the spectacle: the almost naked Malays, armed with their terrible krises, swarming on every part of the vessel; the Chinamen with pikes, muskets, and stink-balls fighting with the courage of despair to keep the boarders at bay. As yet the Malays had not gained a permanent footing on the deck, but for every man that was felled or hurled back into the praus there were a dozen to fill the gap, and the most valorous of fighters could not long contend against such odds.
For a little while Smith was perplexed as to what he could do to help them. The necessity of keeping the aeroplane in motion did not permit either Rodier or himself to use his revolver effectively. Without doubt the Malays would be scared off if they fully realized his presence, for they could scarcely have seen an aeroplane before, and it must be to them a very terrifying object. But a Malay, when drunken with hemp and his own ferocity, is as little subject to impressions of his surroundings as an infuriated bull. The men left in the praus were gazing up in terror at the humming aeroplane; but even during the few seconds of Smith's hesitation the others gained the deck of the junk forward of the mast, and with fierce yells and sweeping strokes of their krises began to drive the Chinamen towards the poop. In a few minutes the whole crew would be butchered and thrown to the sharks.
Suddenly an idea occurred to Smith. He planed upwards till the aeroplane reached a height of about a hundred feet above the vessel, calling to Rodier to bombard the boarders with the full bottles of soda-water which they had with them. The Frenchman chuckled as he seized the notion. Smith kept the aeroplane wheeling in a narrow circle over the scene of combat, and when it was vertically above the deck Rodier flung down several bottles one after another among the Malays. The effect was instantaneous. These novel missiles flung from so great a height, acted like miniature bombshells, exploding with a loud report as they touched the deck, and flying into myriad fragments. Not even the most rage-intoxicated Malay could withstand the shock. The noise, the prickly splinters of glass, peppering their half-naked bodies like a charge of small shot, altered their blind fury to dismay and panic. With screams of affright they rushed to the sides of the junk. But the men left in the praus had already begun to paddle frantically away, heedless of the fate of their comrades. These plunged overboard, and swam after the departing vessels, whose flight Rodier speeded with another bottle or two. In less than a minute the junk was clear.
For some minutes Smith shepherded the praus toward the shore. Every now and then he saw a swimmer disappear suddenly: without doubt the sharks were gathering to claim their prey. Then, feeling sure that the Malays were too much terrified to think of renewing their attack on the junk, he again set his face eastward towards the open sea.
Darkness was falling when the airmen came in sight of the chain of small islands running from Java eastward almost to the Australian coast. Knowing that these islands were very hilly, Smith rose to a great height, using his flashlight every now and then to guard against mishap. If he had not known the nature of the islands he could almost have guessed it from the behaviour of the aeroplane, which now tended to shoot upwards, now to sink downwards, irrespective of any volition of his own. This proved to Smith that he had come into a region of variable currents of wind, such as might be set up by the hollows and ridges of mountain tops. The forcing of the machine upwards implied that the pressure of the air ahead was increased, owing to a lull in the wind behind; the sinking implied that the force of a contrary wind was diminished, and that the inertia of the machine prevented it from readily accommodating itself to the new conditions. During this part of the voyage Smith had to be constantly alert to warp the planes instantaneously when he detected the least sign of instability, and he was very glad when he saw once more the reflection of the stars in the sea beneath him, and knew that he would encounter no more obstacles between Timor, which he had just passed, and Port Darwin.
His concern now was to pick up the light which, according to the Admiralty's sailing directions, shone from an iron structure a hundred and twenty feet high, about a mile south of Point Charles, the western extremity of Port Darwin. Approaching the port from the west, as he was, he should have no difficulty in seeing the light at a distance of eighteen or twenty miles, the sky being clear. But as time went on neither he nor Rodier caught sight of the red speck for which they were looking. Half-past eight came, local time, as nearly as Smith could calculate it by his watch, which still registered London time; and even allowing for the hours lost he should by now have touched land. He was beginning to feel anxious when he suddenly found land below him—a land of dense forests, apparently low and flat. The question was, whether this was the mainland of Australia or an island, possibly Bathurst Island, north of Port Darwin. It was impossible to tell. There was no time to ponder or weigh possibilities; yet if he took the wrong course he might be hours in discovering his mistake, and this part of Australia being almost wholly uninhabited he might fail to find any guidance even if he descended. By a rapid guess—it could not be called reasoning—he concluded that he had probably steered a too southerly course, and that he would do right if he now steered to the north-east. His indecision had lasted only a few seconds; he brought the aeroplane round until she flew over the line of breakers washing the shore, and followed the coast at full speed.
Within a quarter of an hour both the men caught sight at the same moment of the red glow of the light, which grew in brilliance as they approached it, and then diminished as the lamp revolved. Steering now to the east, in ten minutes they were sailing over the town of Palmerston, the capital of the Northern Territory. The lighted streets, crossing at right angles, formed a pattern below them like the diagram for the game of noughts and crosses. They found a landing place a little to the north-east of the town, beyond the railway, and having safely come to earth, Smith left Rodier to attend to the engine and hastened towards the nearest house, a sort of bungalow of wood and iron. Sounds of singing came from within.
A Chinaman opened the door to his knock. Smith asked if the master was at home.
"Massa inside allo lightee," answered the man. "Me go fetchee, chop-chop."
He soon returned, followed by a stalwart bearded Australian of about fifty years, smoking a big pipe.
"Well, mate," he said, eyeing Smith curiously by the light of the door lamp; "what can I do for you?"
"I must apologize for troubling you on Sunday night," began Smith.
"No trouble, I assure you. Come in." He led Smith into a little room near the door. "We've a few friends in the parlour," he added, "and I guess you can tell me here what you want."
"Well, to put it shortly, I should be very much obliged to you if you'd direct me to Mr. Mackinnon. He's got some petrol waiting for me, at least I hope he has, and I'm in great need of it."
"Well, that's real unlucky now. He went to Pine Creek down the line only yesterday, and won't be back till to-morrow. Are you Lieutenant Smith, may I ask?"
"Yes, that's my name."
"Mackinnon got a cable from Java on Friday about the petrol. He told me about it, and mighty astonished he was. Motor-cars are pretty scarce about here, and he hasn't got a great quantity of petrol. I suppose it's for a motor-boat you want it? When did you leave Java?—before the cable, I guess."
"I haven't come from Java at all. The cable was sent through there from London. The fact is, I've come in an aeroplane."
"What! Over the sea?"
"Yes, over sea and land. I left Penang early this morning, and must go on at once."
"Well, if I ain't just about flummuxed! D'you mean to say you've come pretty near two thousand five hundred miles to-day?"
"Yes; I'll tell you in a word all about it."
His host, whose name was Martin, listened in mute amazement as Smith briefly related the occasion of his long journey.
"Why, man," exclaimed Mr. Martin, when he had concluded his story; "wonders'll never cease. You must be dead beat. I never heard the like of it. Come into the other room. The boys'll be mad to hear this."
"Really, I'd rather not. I haven't any time to lose, and Mr. Mackinnon being away—"
"Oh, that don't matter. He didn't expect you so soon, but we'll get what you want, though it is Sunday. But a bite and a sup will do you all the good in the world, and won't take you long, and the boys will just go crazy if they don't see you. Why, it's round the world you're going. My sakes! Come along."
He almost dragged Smith into a large, low room, where several men and women, boys and girls, were seated round the wall. They were singing hymns to the accompaniment of a harmonium. A table loaded with eatables was pushed into a corner. The entrance of Mr. Martin, followed by a dirty, unkempt, and oddly dressed stranger, caused an abrupt cessation of the singing. The girl at the harmonium sprang up with a startled look.
"What is it, Father?" she asked anxiously.
"Nothing to be scart about, my girl. Neighbours, this gentleman has come all the way from London in an aeroplane."
The announcement was received in dead silence. Smith stood like a statue as he listened to Mr. Martin's hurried explanation, resigning himself to be the target of all eyes. Everybody crowded about him, silent no longer, but all asking questions at once. Mrs. Martin went to the table and brought from it a dish of chicken patties, which she pressed upon him.
"Do'ee eat now," she said, in the broad accent of Devonshire. "I made 'em myself, and you must be downright famished."
"Not quite so bad as that," said Smith, with a smile, "I had a good breakfast at Penang, and have nibbled some biscuits and things on the way."
"Biscuits are poor food for a hungry man. Eat away now, do."
Other members of the family brought ale, cider, fruit, cakes, enough for a dozen men, and for some minutes Smith's attention was divided between eating and drinking and answering the questions which poured upon him in a never-ending flood. Conscious of the lapse of time, he at last said that he must go and obtain the fuel for his engine. The men rose in a body, prepared to accompany him.
"I don't think we had better all go, neighbours," said Mr. Martin. "I'll take Mr. Smith to the Resident; we shall have to see him about the petrol, you know."
"There's one thing your friends can do for me," said Smith. "I want ten or a dozen rifles, and a lot of ammunition. Can you provide them at such short notice?"
"I should just think we can," said Mr. Martin. "Neighbours, get together what Mr. Smith wants, and take 'em out along to the aeroplane. It's just a step or two beyond the railway, from what he says. Mother, send out some eatables, too, something better than biscuits, to Mr. Smith's man, who's looking after it. Now, Mr. Smith, come along. The Residency isn't far off: we're only a small town."
The two set off, and in a few minutes arrived at the Residency, a stone building of more pretensions than the wood and iron erections of which the town mostly consisted. The Resident was at home. Once more Smith had to tell his story, once more to listen to exclamations and reply to questions, grudging every moment that kept him. The Resident had heard of the wreck of the Albatross, in which he had been particularly interested, because he had some slight acquaintance with its commander.
"I heard by wire only yesterday, Mr. Smith, that a gunboat had been sent from Brisbane to the relief of your friends. She started three days ago, and can't possibly reach the wreck until to-morrow at earliest. But surely she will be there before you?"
"Not if I can get off soon, and don't meet with an accident on the way. It's nearly two thousand miles from here to Ysabel Island, I think?"
"I can't tell you within a hundred or two, but it's about that. When do you think you will get there?"
"About midday to-morrow, with luck. I shall take on here enough petrol to last the whole way, if I'm not thrown out of my course or meet with mishap; but I suppose I can get a fresh supply at Port Moresby, if necessary?"
"I very much doubt it. And what about getting back?"
"I'm going on as soon as I've seen that my people are safe—if I'm not too late. I've got to rejoin my ship at 9 a.m. on Friday morning, or I run the risk of being hauled over the coals."
"Surely not. They will make allowances, seeing what your errand has been."
"They don't make allowances easily in the Navy, sir. Besides, I've set my heart on being back in time."
"You will return this way, then. Ysabel Island is this side of the 180 degree line."
"Well, no, sir. Having started, I mean to get round the world if I can."
"You're a sportsman, I see. Well, now, what will your best course be?"
He opened a map.
"I've planned it all, sir," said Smith hurriedly. "I go on to Samoa: I'm sure to find petrol there; then Honolulu, San Francisco, St. Paul, and St. John's, all big places, where I shall be able to get all I want. Now, sir, I know Sunday night must be an awkward time, but, with your assistance, I daresay I can get the petrol from Mr. Mackinnon's store."
"There is a little difficulty which we shall have to get over. We've a very strict regulation against entering at night any godown containing explosives, owing to the risk of fire. Mr. Mackinnon's godown will be locked up; his Chinaman will have the key; and as Resident I can't openly countenance a breach of the rules. We have had a great deal of trouble to enforce them, and any relaxation would have a very bad effect on the Chinamen: they wouldn't understand it."
"Don't you worry about that, sir," said Mr. Martin. "Leave it to me. There'll be a fine to pay to-morrow," he added, with a chuckle; "and you can make it pretty stiff as a warning to the Chinese; it'll be paid on the nail, I assure you."
"Very well, Mr. Martin. I shall know nothing about it officially until you come before me to-morrow, and I'll read you a severe lecture in addition to fining you. You can come to me for a subscription afterwards. Good-bye, Mr. Smith: good luck. I sincerely hope you'll find your friends safe and sound. Give my kind regards to Lieutenant Underhill."
Smith left the Residency with Mr. Martin, who led him to the Chinese quarter of the town, a dark assemblage of small huts, pig-sties, and poultry runs.
"I don't know where Mackinnon's boy lives," said Mr. Martin. "We shall have to hunt him up."
All the huts were apparently in darkness, and Smith, as he walked rapidly beside his guide, thought that he preferred the smell of petrol smoke to the mingled odours that assailed his nose. At length they discovered a light amid the gloom, and hastening towards it, discovered that it proceeded from an oil-lamp within one of the huts, the door of which was open. Here they saw a group of Chinamen squatting on the floor, engaged in playing a game with small figures carved in bone.
"Hi, boys," called Mr. Martin; "can tell where Ching-Fu keeps?"
"My tellee massa," cried one of the younger men, rising. "My go long that side, show wai-lo."
"Come on, then: chop-chop."
"Allo lightee, massa: my savvy."
He led them through what appeared to Smith an intricate maze of narrow alleys, and presently pushed open the door of a hut, and called the name of Ching-Fu, entering without ceremony. The Englishmen heard voices raised as in altercation, and after some minutes the guide reappeared, followed by a burly compatriot, rubbing his eyes.
"He catchee sleep, say what for come fetchee this time."
"Now, Ching-Fu," said Mr. Martin, "this gentleman wants seventy gallons of petrol, at once. Mr. Mackinnon got a cable about it yesterday. Come and get the cans, and have them taken up to my house at once."
"No can do, massa," replied the man in a shrill tone of voice, that seemed singularly unbefitting to his massive frame. "Topside man catchee my inside godown this time, ch'hoy! he makee big bobbely."
"Never mind about that. I'll pay the fine."
"No can do, no can do so-fashion. Massa pay squeeze; all-same, my catchee plenty bobbely, makee my too muchee sick."
"I'll take care you don't suffer. Come along: there's no time to lose."
"This time Sunday, look-see, massa. No workee Sunday, no fear; that joss-pidgin day."
"I can't waste time talking." Smith whispered in his ear. "Yes; Mr. Smith will give you ten shillings for yourself if you hurry up."
"Ch'hoy!" cried the other man. "Massa numpa one genelum; my go long too, Ching-Fu. No can catchee ten bob evely day."
Ching-Fu suffered himself to be persuaded. He beat up three or four of his neighbours, and proceeded with them to the godown, the Englishmen following to ensure that no time was lost. In half-an-hour the necessary supplies of petrol and lubricating oil were being wheeled up on trucks towards Mr. Martin's house. On the way Smith noticed a number of reddish lights at irregular intervals, moving in the same direction, and there were more people in the streets than when he had come down, all hurrying one way.
"By Jingo!" said Mr. Martin, "the news has spread, and it looks uncommonly like a torchlight procession. Hullo, Jenkins, what's the matter?"
"That you, Martin?" replied the man addressed. "Everybody's talking about an aeroplane that's come down somewhere near Mackenzie's shed, and I'm off to see if it's true. Haven't you heard about it?"
"I did hear something of the sort. I'll be up there, too, by-and-by."
Smith was a little annoyed at the possibility of being delayed by a crowd of spectators, but there was evidently no help for it. He returned to Mr. Martin's house, being assured by his host that he need have no anxiety about the safe delivery of the petrol.
Meanwhile Rodier, on Smith's departure, had, as usual, set to work to clean the engine. He was tired and sleepy, and he would have been more than human if he had not thought that his employer had rather the best of the arrangement. But any private soreness he might have felt did not affect the speed or the thoroughness of his work. He first of all examined the wires: there was nothing wrong with them. Then he unscrewed the plugs and laid them on top of the engine, pulled the engine over, and finding that there was a poor spark, concluded that it was rather sooty. After cleaning the parts thoroughly with petrol, he again started the engine. The sparking being still weak, he examined the magneto: it was choked with grease. The next thing was to clean the brush with petrol and try the plugs again. The spark was now strong, and after giving everything a final polish, he replaced the plugs, satisfied that the engine was in good working order.
Switching off the searchlight for economy's sake, and leaving only the small light that illuminated the compass, he sat down, opened a tin of sardines, and began to eat them with biscuits. A fastidious person might have objected to the mingling of flavours, olive oil and petrol not combining at all well; but Rodier was too old a hand to be dainty. He was in the act of munching a mouthful when his head dropped forward on his breast, and he fell into a sound sleep.
He was wakened by a voice in his ear. Jumping up with a start, he beheld a crowd of people watching him, men in Sunday coats, men in shirt sleeves, ladies in light dresses, boys in knickerbockers and Norfolks, girls in pinafores, Chinamen in coats of many colours, many of the throng holding torches and lanterns.
"Ah! mille diables!" he cried. "Keep back! This is not a penny theatre."
"Nor yet a cook-shop," said one of the visitors, with a laugh; "though you might think so."
And then Rodier saw that the men and boys foremost in the group carried plates, dishes, bowls, bottles, jugs. One had a dish of chicken patties, another a plate of bananas, a third a bowl of Devonshire junket, a fourth a loaf of bread; others had cheese, apples, bottled beer, Australian wine, doughnuts, pork sausages, sponge cake, ham sandwiches; in short, all the constituents of a high tea except tea itself.
"Thought you might be hungry after your ride," said one. "Have a sandwich?"
"Have a banana?" said another. "You won't get 'em like this in London."
"Dry work, ain't it?" said a third, pulling a cork. "That'll buck you up."
"Please take one of my doughnuts," piped a small boy, creeping around the right leg of a sturdy planter.
"Ma foi! This take the cake," cried Rodier, laughing heartily. "Thank you, thank you, thank you! But truly I shall be very—very discomfortable if I eat all this riches. Ah; this is good, this is hospitality. My friends, I thank you, I love you; vive l'Australie!"
Bubbling with excitement, he shook hands with this one and that; and both hands being engaged at once in this hearty mode of salutation, he would have been able to enjoy little of the good fare provided had not one of the group begun to fend off the enthusiastic visitors.
"That's enough," he said; "give him breathing space. Eat away, man; the junket won't keep; everything else will, and you can take with you what is left."
Thus, when Smith arrived on the scene, he found his man surrounded by an alfresco confectioner's shop, eating, laughing, talking, and breaking forth into eloquent praise of Australian hospitality.
"Ah, mister," he cried, as Smith joined him; "this is a country! We are pigs in clover. There is here enough for a regiment of Zouaves."
Here a diversion was caused by the arrival of Mr. Martin's friends with rifles and ammunition enough to equip a company of grenadiers. Smith accepted a dozen rifles and two or three hundred rounds of ammunition; and these had just been placed in the car when the Chinamen arrived with the petrol. He implored the torchbearers to stand back while the inflammable fluid was put on board. This was done amid a buzz of excitement, everybody talking at once.
"Speech! speech!" cried some one in the crowd, and Smith, thinking the shortest way out of his embarrassment was to comply, stood up in the car and thanked his good friends in Palmerston for the warmth of their reception, and their kindness in supplying his wants.
"You will excuse me from saying more, I know," he added. "I have nearly two thousand miles still to go; my father is in great danger; and we are already several hours behind time. I can't shake hands with you all, but I shall never forget your kindness. Now, if you will clear the course so that I can get a run-off, I will say 'good-bye,' and hope that some day I may come back and not be in such a hurry."
His simple words were cheered to the echo. Then Mr. Martin and three or four more pressed the throng back. The good people cheered again as the machine ran forward and sailed above them, and Smith, as he looked down upon the sea of faces lit up by the flaring torches until it became a blurred spot of light, felt cheered and encouraged, and set his face hopefully towards the starlit east.
STALKED BY PIGMIES
Smith had noticed before leaving Palmerston that the wind had risen and was blowing steadily from the north-west. He was very anxious not to miss Port Moresby, the principal harbour in British New Guinea, for he hoped, in spite of what the Resident at Palmerston had said, to be able to replenish his stock of petrol there, knowing very well that among the smaller islands of the South Pacific the places where petrol was kept must be very few. He determined, however, if he should fail to make Port Moresby, to steer straight for Ysabel Island. If it turned out to be impossible to obtain petrol, he would have to resign himself to the inevitable, return to Australia on the gunboat that had been dispatched to relieve the castaways, and endure as philosophically as he might the consequences of overstepping his leave.
His course lay across the head of the Gulf of Carpentaria. By daybreak, if he were able to keep up full speed through the night, he should have passed the northernmost end of the Yorke Peninsula, and it might then be possible to take his bearings by the group of islands in the Torres Straits. On leaving these islands behind him he should soon come in sight of the mountain chain running from the middle of the Gulf of Paqua to the south-eastern extremity of New Guinea. He might expect to sight these mountains from a very great distance, and in particular, if he could distinguish Mount Astrolabe, the square, flat-topped mountain lying behind Port Moresby, he would have no further anxiety about his position.
The engine was working as well as ever, and by keeping over the sea, Smith was able to avoid any gusts or cross-currents of air that might be set up by irregularities in the conformation of the land. Taking turns as usual with Rodier at the wheel, he was able to get a few hours of sleep; about an hour and a half after daybreak he descried the strange shape of Mount Astrolabe towering nearly four thousand feet into the sky, and in less than a quarter of an hour afterwards he came to the coast, a little to the west, as he judged, of Port Moresby.
The aspect of the coast was far from inviting. There were long stretches of mangrove forest lining the shore, from which unpleasant exhalations arose, affecting his sense of smell even at the height of a hundred feet. Beyond rose limestone hills, very scantily wooded, with a plentiful crop of rocks and stones. There was scarcely a patch of level ground to be seen. He came almost suddenly upon the port, lying in a hollow of the hills, and for some time looked in vain for a suitable landing place. The aeroplane, circling over the harbour, was seen by the sailors on the ships and the people on the quays, and its appearance brought all work to a standstill.
At length Smith discovered at the north end of the little town a spot where landing was just possible if the descent was not endangered by the wind. He felt more nervous than at any other time during his voyage, and was on the alert to set the propellers working at the first sign that the wind was too strong for him. To his great relief he came safely to the ground, with no other misadventure than collision with a huge eucalyptus tree at the edge of the clearing. Without loss of time he made his way down to the town, and accosting the first white man he met, asked to be directed to the residence of the Administrator.
"You're a stranger, I guess," said the man, who had not seen the aeroplane. "Come from Sydney?"
"No, from Port Darwin."
"Gosh! We don't often have vessels from there. How's my friend Mr. Pond?"
"I don't know him."
"Well, that's real strange. I thought everybody knew Dick Pond; he's lived there fifty years or more. Say, what's up?" he asked of a man hurrying in the opposite direction.
"It's down. Didn't you see it or hear it?"
"An aeroplane! You don't say so."
"It's a fact. Wonder you didn't hear it. It made a noise like a thousand humming birds, and came down not half-a-mile over yonder. Some German fellow, I shouldn't wonder, from Constantine or Finsch. Hope we're not in for trouble; I'm off to see."
"So will I. Go straight on, stranger; you see that constable there? Well, turn down by him, and you'll come to the Administrator's in about five minutes."
Smith had taken off his overalls, so that his appearance attracted no more than a passing glance from the sailors, clerks, merchants, and natives whom he met hurrying towards the spot where the aeroplane had descended. He found the Administrator's house without difficulty. Not having a card, he gave his name and rank at the door. The Administrator was at breakfast with his family when Lieutenant Smith was announced. Imagining that a war vessel had unexpectedly put in at the harbour, he rose and went to the door to greet his visitor and invite him to his table. A look of disappointment crossed his face when he saw a dirty, unshaven object before him, dressed in stained brown serge, offering no resemblance to the trim spick-and-span officer he had expected to see.
"I'm sorry to trouble you, sir," said Smith, "I'm in need of some petrol, and—"
"I don't keep petrol," said the Administrator shortly. "You've come here by mistake, no doubt. There's no petrol for sale in the port, to my knowledge."
"That's awkward. I'm afraid I must go on without. The aeroplane uses—"
"The aeroplane! What aeroplane?"
"I've come from Port Darwin in my aeroplane, and am going on at once to the Solomon Islands. I think I can just about manage it, so I won't detain you any longer, sir."
"Come now, let me understand. You have come from Port Darwin—by aeroplane! Where is it?"
"About half-a-mile beyond the town, sir."
"But—from Port Darwin—across the sea?"
There was nothing for it. Once more Smith retailed the outline of his story, the Administrator listening with growing amazement. In the midst of it a young Englishman came up, out of breath with running.
"Good morning, sir," he panted. "An aeroplane has just come down; people say it is a German. What had we better do?"
"Keep our heads, I should think," said the Administrator. "Mr. Williams—my secretary—Mr. Smith. The aeroplane is Mr. Smith's, and has come from Port Darwin in ten hours. Just run down to the harbour, Williams, and tell Captain Brown to send up all the petrol there is in the launch, and a few gallons of machine oil as well. Be as quick as you can."
The secretary opened wide eyes.
"Where's it to be taken, sir?"
"To the aeroplane, as quickly as possible."
The young man ran off, looking as though he had received a shock.
"This will give us excitement for a twelve-month, Mr. Smith," said the Administrator. "It's lucky I can help you. I have just returned from a tour of inspection, and there are a few gallons of petrol in my motor-launch: not very much, I'm afraid, but better than nothing. I'm afraid I was rather short with you just now, but you'll admit that there was some excuse for me."
"Don't mention it, sir."
"It's the queerest thing I ever heard in my life; in fact, I'm only just beginning to believe it. Come in and have some breakfast; it'll be an hour or more before they get the petrol up, and I'd like my wife and youngsters to hear about it from your own lips. You'd like a wash, eh? Come along."
He led the way to his bath-room, turned on the water, arranged the towels, and bidding Smith come to the first room downstairs on the left when he was ready, he went off to prepare his family for the guest.
Smith was by this time used to the exclamations of wonder, the volleys of questions, the compliments and gusts of admiration which his story evoked. He came through the ordeal of that breakfast-table with the coolness of a veteran under fire. His hostess asked whether sailing in the air made him sea-sick; her elder son wanted to know the type of engine he favoured, the quantity of petrol it consumed per hour, and what would happen if he collided with an airship going at equal speed in the opposite direction. The younger boy asked if he might have a ride in the aeroplane; the girl begged Smith to write his name in her album. The governess sat with clasped hands, gazing at him with the adoring ecstasy that she might have bestowed on a godlike visitant from another sphere. Presently the Administrator said—
"Now get your hats on. We'll take Mr. Smith up in the buggy and see him off."
When they reached the aeroplane they found Rodier demolishing some of the good things provided by Mrs. Martin, the centre of an admiring crowd of curious white men and wonder-struck natives. Two Papuan constables were patrolling around with comical self-importance. The petrol had arrived. When it was transferred to the aeroplane the Administrator insisted on drinking Smith's health in a glass of Mr. Martin's beer, and then called for three cheers for the airmen. His daughter had brought her kodak and took a snapshot of them as they sat in their places ready to start. The natives scattered with howls of affright when the engine began sparking, the constables being easily first in the stampede, one of them pitching head first into the eucalyptus. The engine started, the men cheered, the women waved handkerchiefs, and as the aeroplane soared up and flew in the direction of the coast the whole crowd set off at a run to gain a position whence they might follow its flight with their eyes.
For some time Smith steered down the coast, intending to cross the Owen Stanley range as soon as he saw a convenient gap. After about twenty miles, however, he ran with startling suddenness into a tropical storm. It was as though he had passed from sunlight into a dark and gloomy cavern. Rain fell in torrents, and he knew by the extraordinary and alarming movements of the aeroplane that the wind was blowing fiercely, and not steadily in one direction, but gustily, and as it seemed, from all points of the compass. For the first time since leaving the Euphrates he was seriously perturbed. It was true that the force of the wind did not appear to be so great as it had been before his meeting with Monsieur de Montause on the Babylonian plain; but his situation was more perilous than then, for he was passing over hilly country, and the vertical wind-eddies were infinitely more difficult to contend with. To attempt to alight would be to court certain destruction; his only safety was to maintain as high a speed as possible, trusting to weather through. He judged by the compass that the wind was blowing mostly from the south-east, almost dead against him. Fearing lest the enormous air-pressure should break the planes if he strove to fly in the teeth of the wind, he decided to swing round and run before it for a time, in the hope that it would drop by and by. As he performed this operation the aeroplane rocked violently, and he thought every moment that it must be hurled to the ground; but by making a wide circle he got round safely, and keeping the engine at full speed he retraced his course, soon seeing Port Moresby again, far below him to the left. He had no means of exactly determining the rate at which he was now travelling under the joint impulse of the wind and his propellers; but from the way in which the landscape was slipping past him he thought the speed could hardly be less than two hundred and twenty miles an hour.
It occurred to him now to increase his altitude, with the idea of rising above the area of the disturbance. But he found that the mountains on his right hand rose higher than he had supposed. In proportion as he ascended, they seemed to rise with him. He saw their snow-clad tops stretching far away into the distance, and became conscious of a great difference in the temperature. He began to feel dizzy and short of breath, and presently his eyes were affected, and he saw everything as in a mist. When Rodier shouted that he was feeling sick Smith at once checked the ascent.
The aneroid indicated a height of 8000 feet, and it was clear from the greater steadiness of the machine that it had risen out of the stratum of air affected by the storm. But Smith's satisfaction at this was soon dashed by the discovery that there was something wrong with the engine. It missed sparking, recovered itself for a minute or two, then missed again. Smith looked anxiously below him. The nearest ground was about a thousand feet beneath; on his right the mountains still rose hundreds of feet above him, blocking the way to his true course. Hoping that the failure in the sparking was only temporary, Smith swung the aeroplane round, in order to take advantage of this calm region of air and at least fly in the right direction. At the same time he looked out anxiously for a spot to which he might descend if the defect in the engine proved persistent.
In a very few moments it was clear that to continue his flight would be no longer safe, and he prepared to glide. While he was searching for a convenient landing place the sparking ceased altogether. The whole country was rugged; below, almost wholly forest land as far as the eye could reach; above, bare rocks or scrub, and at the greatest altitude, snow. The aeroplane flew on for a little by its own momentum, and Smith wasted a few painful seconds before, despairing of finding level ground, he began to descend in a long spiral.
As he neared the ground, Rodier's quick eye detected a little river cutting its way through the forest, and at one spot a widening of its bed, due, probably, to the action of freshets. Here there was a narrow space of bare earth, the only clear spot in the landscape, and even this was surrounded with dense woodland. He pointed it out to Smith. There was no room for mistake or misjudgment. Smith knew that if he did not strike the exact spot the aeroplane must crash into the forest that lined both banks of the river. Never before had so heavy a demand been made upon his nerve and skill. But the severe training of the Navy develops coolness and judgment in critical situations; his long apprenticeship to aerial navigation enabled him to do the right thing at the right time; and, thanks to the calmness of the air in this lofty region, the machine answered perfectly to his guiding hand, and settled down upon the exact spot he had chosen, the little open stretch on the right bank of the stream, within eight or ten yards of the water.
His hand was trembling like a leaf when he stepped out on to the land. The teeth of both men were chattering.
"Mon Dieu!" cried Rodier. "That was a squeak, mister. Le diable de machine! It seem I do nothing at all but clean, clean, all the way from London, and yet—"
"And yet down we come, 'like glistening Phaethon, wanting the manage of unruly jades,'" quoted Smith. "Still, we're safe, and I've known men killed or lamed for life getting off a horse."
"But with the horse you have the whip, with the machine you have only the rags to clean her with. Ah! coquine, I should like to flog you, to give you beans." He shook his fist at the engine.
"Beans would suit a horse better, Roddy," he said. "Let's be thankful the breakdown didn't happen while we were in the storm. That would have been the end of us. Come on, we'll soon put things to rights. This loss of time is getting very serious."
They set to work to discover the cause of the failure. As they expected, the sparking plugs were completely clogged. Smith took these down to the stream to give them a thorough cleaning, while Rodier overhauled the other parts of the machine. When, after half-an-hour's hard work, everything appeared to be in order again, they sat down to snatch a meal, leaving the plugs to be replaced at the last moment.
While thus engaged, Smith scanned the surroundings with some curiosity. The stream, in cutting its way through the hillside, had hollowed it out in a gentle curve. The channel itself threaded the base of a huge natural cutting, most of which was covered with trees, only the middle part, where the torrent had laid bare a path, being comparatively clear. All around were trees large and small, tall and stunted, leafy and bare. As Smith's eye travelled upward, he noticed about a hundred and fifty yards distant, almost at the top of the gorge, a small ape-like form flitting across a part of the forest that was a little thinner than the rest.
"See that, Roddy?" he said.
Rodier looked round.
"An ape, I fancy, perhaps an orang-outang. I know they infest the forests of the Malayan archipelago, but I can't call to mind that they're natives of New Guinea."
"All the natives of New Guinea are apes," said Rodier viciously. "At Port Moresby they came round me like monkeys at the Zoo."
"There he is! Do you see him?"
Smith's hand stole mechanically to his hip pocket, where he kept his revolver. Then he smiled, remembering that the chances of stopping an orang-outang with a revolver bullet were about one in ten thousand.
"I don't see him, mister."
"He has disappeared. But, my word, Roddy, there's another, and another—four or five; look at them, in the undergrowth yonder. I don't like this. They're savage beasts if offended, and if they attack us we shall be in rather a tight corner."
He rose, keeping his eye on the spot where the ape-like forms had shown themselves for an instant, to vanish again. As his eye became accustomed to the gloomy depths of the forest, he became still more alarmed to see a number of black, apish faces at various points among the thick undergrowth surrounding the clearing. Another form flitted across the thin open space in which he had seen the first.
"By George! he's got a bow in his hand. They're men! This is worse still. The orang-outang is bad enough, but he avoids men, I believe, unless interfered with or alarmed. These forest savages are dead shots with their arrows, and they'll look on us as intruders. If they're as spiteful as most of their kind we shall have trouble. Get your revolver ready, but we must pretend we haven't noticed them. You've got to replace those plugs; do it as quickly as you can. Don't look round; I'll keep guard."
He saw several of the savages pass across in the same direction as the first, and now he noticed, what had escaped him before, that they were diminutive creatures, certainly not more than four feet high. He had clearly stumbled upon a settlement of forest pigmies. From what he had read of pigmy races he knew that it required extreme patience and a great expenditure of time to win their confidence. That was out of the question now. His first impulse was to hail them, and try to make friends of them by offering some small present; but he checked himself as the thought flashed upon him that a movement on his part might startle them and provoke a discharge of their tiny arrows, which were probably poisoned. He could not doubt they had seen him long before he had seen them, and had been for some time playing the part of silent spectators, being kept at a distance, perhaps, by the aspect of the strange object which they had observed descending among them from the sky. It must be sufficiently alarming to their untutored eyes. But after a time their dread seemed to be overpowered by curiosity or hostility, and Smith saw, with alarm, that the little figures were gradually drawing nearer, flitting silently as shadows from tree to tree, and hiding themselves so effectually, even when they came to closer quarters, that nothing but the flicker of a brownish form among the undergrowth, or a round black head projecting from tree or bush, betrayed their presence.
"Nearly done, Roddy?" he asked, without turning.
With an outward calmness that corresponded little to his inward sensations Smith lit a cigarette, racking his wits for some means of keeping the pigmies at a distance without provoking a cloud of arrows or a dash in force. The half-circle was gradually becoming narrower. He fancied that their silent movements were checked when he began to smoke, and this suggested to him that an appeal to their curiosity might hold them intent or awestruck until Rodier had finished his task.
"How much longer, Roddy?" he asked quietly.
Smith did the first thing that occurred to him. He took a letter from his pocket, tore it slowly into small pieces, and let the fragments float away on the breeze. This device appeared to be successful for a few seconds; but when the scraps of paper had disappeared or fallen to the ground the pigmies resumed their stealthy silent advance. Smith had another idea. Whistling the merry air of the "Saucy Arethusa," he took two backward steps towards the aeroplane, seized a half-empty petrol can, and strolled unconcernedly with it to the bank of the stream, which at this point formed a slowly moving pool. As he went he unscrewed the stopper, and on reaching the brink, he poured some of the petrol into the water. Then taking two or three matches from his box, he struck them together, and flung them into the petrol floating on the surface.
The effect of his stratagem was immediate. The spectacle of water apparently on fire was too much for the simple savages. For the first time they broke their silence, and were seen rushing up the wooded slope, uttering shrill cries of alarm. Only then did Smith become aware how numerous they were. The whole forest seemed to be alive with them.
"Done, mister," cried Rodier.
Smith hurried back to the aeroplane, noticing as he approached several small arrows sticking upright in the ground close to it.
"They shot at you when you turned your back," said Rodier. "Shall we fire at them?"
"No; leave them alone. I think they're scared now. But it's lucky I thought of setting fire to the petrol, or they would certainly have been upon us, and there's such a crowd of them that we might have been done for. Set the engine working. The noise will keep them away."
With some difficulty they turned the aeroplane round to face down stream, where there was a fairly level stretch of a few yards for running off. Vaulting on board, they started, and in five or six seconds the aeroplane was humming along a hundred feet above the trees.
Smith had taken no account of the time he had lost, first by the storm, then by the overhauling of the engine; but, little or much, it increased the peril of his father, and lessened his own chance of accomplishing what he had set out to do. When an engine is always running at full speed, time lost can only be made up by reducing the length of stoppages, and Smith felt even this to be almost out of the question. As soon as he was once more afloat, he thought his best plan was to make for the coast again, and follow this without attempting to cross the mountains.
The storm had ceased; the engine was working smoothly, and, steering south-east, Smith in a few minutes found himself again in the neighbourhood of Port Moresby. Again he ran down the coast, but when about half-way between the port and the extreme south-east corner of the island he espied a gap in the mountain chain and sped through it, almost exactly on the ten-degree line. He had to rise to a considerable height, and was for some moments troubled by the masses of snow-white cumulose clouds that lay beneath him, cutting off all view of the ground. The vast expanse of cloud lay dazzling white in the sunlight, with peaks and crags such as he imagined Alpine summits must show. But though it appeared to be perfectly still, every now and then he saw small jets of mist shoot upward, like water from a geyser, and at such times the vertical currents affected the elevation of the aeroplane. He soon crossed this cloudy sea, however, and in a few hours reached the north-east coast of New Guinea, and knew that nothing but an island-spangled sea separated him from his destination.
About noon he came in sight of the mountains of Vanguna Island to the east of New Georgia. Ysabel Island lay beyond this, running from north-west to south-east. His intention was to round Cape Prieto, the south-eastern extremity of it, and search the eastern shore northward. In another hour he saw Russell Island, a green gem in the ocean southward, and beyond this, to the south-east, the peaks of Guadalcanar. Another twenty minutes brought him abreast of Florida Island, and he was heading up the Indispensable Strait, with Thousand Ships Bay and the lofty peaks at the southern end of Ysabel lying on his left hand.
All at once Rodier descried a cloud of smoke on the horizon far up the strait. Lifting his binocular, he shouted excitedly—
"It is a gunboat, mister. She flies the British flag."
"We've beaten her!" cried Smith.
He was divided between pleasure at his success, and sorrow that the castaways were as yet unrelieved, for he could not doubt that the gunboat was the same that had been dispatched from Brisbane to their assistance. Before many minutes had elapsed he had overtaken the vessel. Slowing down and wheeling overhead, he saw that the aeroplane was the object of wondering interest on the crowded deck.
"Ahoy, there! Who are you?" he shouted through his megaphone.
"Gunboat Frobisher, Captain Warren," came the reply. "Who are you?"
"Aeroplane without a name, Lieutenant Smith of H.M.S. Imperturbable, bound for Ysabel Island to relieve Lieutenant Underhill."
"The dickens! That's my job! Where do you hail from?"
"From London, sir. I'm afraid I've beaten you by a neck."
"Great Scott! Is this the Admiralty's latest?"
"Not official, sir; I'm here in a private capacity. My father's among the wrecked party. I'm on leave."
"So it seems. When are you due back?"
"On Friday morning."
"I'm sorry for you, then. But, goodness alive! when did you start? The wreck was only reported four days ago."
"Started Friday morning, sir."
"Rasher to you, sir."
"You haven't lost much time, at any rate. What's your speed?"
"About a hundred and ninety. Whereabouts was the wreck, sir?"
"A hundred miles or so up the coast, according to the men of Underhill's party with me."
"Then I'll bid you good-bye for the present. I'll tell him you're coming."
"Hope you'll find him alive."
Waving a good-bye, Smith flew on at full speed. For twenty minutes he did not attempt to follow the indentations of the coast, but set a course parallel with its general trend. Then, however, he steered so that, without actually tracing every curve of the shore, he was able to survey it pretty closely. By dead reckoning and the assistance of his chart he was able to check from minute to minute his approximate position.
He had passed Mount Gaillard, and saw, some miles to the north, the remarkable saddle shape of Mount Mahaga. Then he made a bee-line for Fulakora Point. Rounding this, his course was to the north-west. The coast was steep and precipitous; here and there were reefs, over which the sea broke in white upward cascades, and he was at no loss to understand how even the most skilfully navigated vessel might easily come to grief. About forty miles from the extremity of the island he flew over an immense lagoon, extending for several miles between Ysabel Island and a series of islets and reefs lying off the shore. From this point the sea was dotted with islets so numerous that it was impossible, at his high speed, to identify them. But he recognized the deep indentation of Marcella Bay, confirming his observation by the conspicuous wooded islet rising some hundred feet from the sea at its northern arm. He knew that the scene of the wreck must be within a few miles of this point, and reduced his speed so that he might scan the sea for any sign of the Albatross.
For some time he flew up and down, but failed to distinguish a battered hull, a funnel, or any remnant of the vessel. It was plain that she had been entirely broken up. This was perplexing. He wondered how he was to discover the party, if they were yet alive. The island itself appeared, from his position off the shore, to be an impenetrable mass of forest. Flying in a little nearer, and going dead slow, Rodier presently caught sight of a square fenced enclosure within a few yards of the edge of the cliff. Smith steered directly over it, descending to a height of about fifty feet, and then saw in the middle of the space a long piece of navy tarpaulin, several biscuit tins, a hammer, two or three hatchets, and other objects, which only white men could have placed there. It flashed upon him in a moment that the shipwrecked party had encamped here. But there was not a human being in sight, and he felt a stabbing conviction that he had come too late.
Sick at heart, he made up his mind to descend and examine the place and its surroundings more closely. There was plenty of room for the aeroplane within the enclosure. Coming to the ground, he stepped, with Rodier, out of the car, each carrying his revolver. Now he saw, in addition to the articles before mentioned, a good number of arrows at various points, a few broken spears, a tomahawk of a rude kind. Here and there, on the barricade and below it, there were dark stains. These signs only increased his anxiety, but at the same time awakened wonder. Why had the party left their fort? It seemed scarcely likely that they had been overpowered in an assault, for there were no marks of a struggle within the barricade, and if the savages had succeeded in an attack they would certainly have appropriated all that they could lay hands on; even the most trivial objects would be precious to unsophisticated children of nature. Rodier suggested that the castaways had been taken off by some passing vessel, and Smith, catching at the hope, was beginning to accept this view, when, lifting the tarpaulin, he found beneath it the papers of the Albatross, some notebooks filled with jottings in his father's spidery handwriting, and a few small cases that contained bits of rock, fossils, and other specimens dear to the geologist, each labelled with the name of the place where it had been found.
Smith was now thoroughly alarmed. He knew that his father, if he had quitted the place voluntarily, would never have left behind these fruits of his labours. Yet why was the fort deserted?
"Ah, bah! They have gone foraging," said Rodier, unwittingly hitting on the truth.
"But they would never leave the place unguarded," replied Smith. "The savages certainly attacked them; look at the arrows and spears. But Mr. Underhill would not have yielded without fighting; yet there are no dead bodies, not even the cut-up earth there would be if they had had a tussle. I can't account for it any way."
"Well, mister, we better look them up."
"In the aeroplane, you mean?"
"Yes. They must be here, in this island, or not here. In the aeroplane we search all over."
"It will be like looking for rabbits in bracken," said Smith, pointing to the forest. "Still, we must try."
He sat down on a biscuit tin to think over the position and evolve a plan. A random search might be mere waste of time. Starting with the assumption that the castaways were still on the island, he said to himself that they must have left the fort voluntarily, or there would certainly be signs of a struggle. That they had left no one on guard seemed to show that they were in no alarm, otherwise they would have carried their belongings with them. His father, he knew, would not abandon his note-books and specimens. Was it possible that they were making reprisals on the enemy who had previously attacked them? But even in this case they would hardly have left their fort wholly undefended, unless in the heat of victory they had rushed out in headlong pursuit, a rash movement which a naval officer would hardly countenance. Besides, they were but ill-provided with arms. Had they been enticed forth by the savages? In that case the savages would surely have plundered the camp, unless—and now his thought and his pulse quickened—unless there had not yet been time. Perhaps they had only recently left the place. Then they could not be far away, and if they had yielded to allurement there might still be time to save them. He started up, and told Rodier, who had begun his customary task of cleaning the engine, the conclusion to which he had come.
"We will ascend at once," he said, "and scour the neighbourhood. The forest is thick, but perhaps there are clear spaces in it. Let us lose no time."
They dragged the aeroplane to the inner extremity of the enclosure, turned it round, and started it towards the sea. In less than a minute it was two hundred feet in the air. Then Smith wheeled round and steered across the camp, intending to take that as a centre, and strike out along successive radii, so that in the course of an hour or two, even at moderate speed, he would have searched a considerable extent of country in the shape of a fan. It was a question how far he should proceed in one direction, but relying on his idea that the evacuation of the camp could only recently have taken place, he resolved to content himself at first with a distance of about ten miles.
Having risen to a height of about three hundred feet, he found that he commanded a view of many miles of the country. Far to the south were the mountains; all around was forest, broken here and there by patches of open rocky ground. Beneath him the trees were so densely packed that a whole army might have been encamped among them without giving a sign of its presence. He sped in a straight line west-north-west of the fort, at a speed of between forty and fifty miles an hour; to go faster would have rendered careful exploration of the country difficult. Having completed ten miles without passing over a single spot of clear ground, he flew about five miles due west, then turned the machine and steered back towards the fort along the next imaginary radius of his circle. He had arranged that Rodier should scan the country to the left while he himself kept as good a look-out to the right as was possible when he had engine and compass to attend to. They had not flown far on this backward journey when Rodier, who was using his binocular, shouted that he saw, on a headland far to the left, what appeared to be a native village. Smith instantly steered towards it. It was the first evidence of human habitation they had as yet come across, and even at the risk of losing his bearings he must examine it. He could now afford to go at full speed, and a few minutes brought him above the village, which was a collection of rude huts perched on a steep headland overlooking the sea, and defended on its inland and less precipitous side by barriers of stakes. The noise made by the engine as the aeroplane swept down towards the village first drew all the inhabitants from their huts into the open enclosure, and then sent them scampering back with shrieks of alarm as they saw the strange object in the air. A glance sufficed to assure Smith, as he wheeled round the village, that it contained no white men, unless they had been taken inside the huts, which was unlikely. Without loss of time he steered as nearly as he could towards the point at which he had diverged from his settled course, and returned to the camp, pausing once to examine a small tract where the trees were somewhat thinner, allowing him to see the ground beneath.
Once more he started, steering now in a more westerly direction. There were several clear spaces along this radius, and Smith flew over them slowly, more than once wheeling about to make sure that his eyes had missed nothing. But at these times he saw no human beings, nothing but the wild animals of the forest, huge pigs being diminished to the size of rabbits, and dingoes to the size of mice. These scurried away when they heard the noise of the engine, and Smith hovered around for a time to see if the flight of the animals attracted the attention of men, but in vain.
Having again covered ten miles, as nearly as he could judge, he swung round to the southwest. A minute or two later he came to the largest open space he had yet seen, clear of undergrowth as well as of trees. There were no huts upon it, and at first he saw no sign of men; but all at once Rodier cried that there was a ladder against one of the trees on the farther side of the clearing. Flying towards it, and descending until the aeroplane was level with the tree-top, Smith was amazed to see a brown woman, with a brown baby under her arm, scuttling down the ladder towards the ground. At the same time he became aware that there were ladders against many of the trees in the neighbourhood, and women and children were descending by them, showing all the marks of terror. He had come upon a collection of the curious tree-houses, sixty or seventy feet from the ground, which some of the islanders inhabit. The terrified people when they reached the ground fled into the forest. There was no man among them, which led Smith to suspect that the men were either hunting for food, or were perhaps fighting with the castaways. Instead of returning directly to the camp, therefore, he pursued his flight across the forest in the same direction in which the startled natives had run. Now for the first time he wished that he could have had a silent engine, for then his ears might have given the information which failed his eyes. Though he flew to and fro for some time in the vicinity of the tree-houses, he discovered no other break in the forest; and the impossibility of knowing what was going on beneath that vast screen of foliage began to affect him with hopelessness of success.
He wished it were possible to descend in the clearing, and continue his search on the ground. The appearance of the aeroplane was so terrifying to the islanders that he need fear no opposition to his landing. But the idea occurred to him only to be at once dismissed. When once among the trees, away from the aeroplane, he would be no longer sacrosanct. Those islanders who had actually witnessed his descent might fear him as a denizen of the sky; but any others that met him in the forest would not be restrained by superstitious fear from, treating him as an enemy. Further, having once involved himself in the obscure and pathless depths of the forest, he might wander for hours, or even days, without finding the aeroplane. It was an impossible course of action. Hopeless as he was becoming, he felt that he could do nothing better than persevere as he had begun; after all, he had as yet covered only a small wedge of the segment he had proposed to himself.
But he now found himself in a difficulty. In the excitement of his recent discovery he had neglected to keep a watch upon the compass, and he was now at a loss to know the precise direction in which to steer. He must certainly go to the east, but he could not tell whether he was north or south of the camp. It occurred to him that by rising to a greater height he might probably be able to descry the camp, so he planed upwards until he attained an altitude of nearly two thousand feet, Rodier searching the country seawards through his binocular.
"I see it!" he cried at length, adding, as Smith began to steer towards it, "Wait a minute, mister; I see all the country better here; I can pick out the clearings, though they are only dark blots; but yet I can do it."
He swept the country for miles around. Beyond the forest, far to the west, there were stretches of rugged uplands, bare of vegetation. It was not at all likely that the Englishmen had gone so far from their camp, whether willingly or unwillingly. To the east and south-east stretched the sea, and Rodier declared that he saw, an immense way off, the smoke of a steamer, no doubt the gunboat. Lowering the glass to scan the nearer prospect, he suddenly gave a lusty shout.
"I see smoke, mister; a quite little smoke, as of a cigarette."
"Where?" asked Smith eagerly.
"South-east of us, in the forest, about five or six miles off."
"We'll go and see what it comes from."
Smith scarcely dared to hope that the discovery of the smoke would be of any assistance to him. But it was the first indication of a camp within the forest, whether of the islanders or of his friends, and he could not neglect to investigate it. The aeroplane flew along at the speed of a swallow. In little more than three minutes it reached the twine of smoke. Checking the engine, Smith wheeled the aeroplane round until it passed slowly over an extensive gap in the forest. He looked down. The smoke rose from a fire in the midst of the clearing. At a little distance from it there was a throng of islanders, gazing up awe-struck at the strange apparition whose approach had been heralded from afar, and which now circled above them, making terrifying noises.
But Smith was not interested in the islanders. He peered among them and around for white men. He felt a shock of bitter disappointment; all the upturned faces were brown. But the movement of the aeroplane brought him to the verge of the forest, and then Rodier gave a shout of delight.
"There they are! There they are, mister!" he cried, pointing obliquely downwards.
Smith looked over. In the shade at the foot of the trees he saw a number of men bound each to a trunk. Their faces, directed upwards, were too darkly shadowed for him to distinguish their race; but they were clothed. Beyond doubt they were the castaways.
In a moment he determined what to do. While the aeroplane circled slowly above their heads the islanders would feel no more than awe and wonder. They huddled together like a flock of sheep in a thunderstorm, probably not as yet connecting the aerial visitant with their prisoners. What was required was to scatter them, suddenly, in a way that would smite them with terror, and cause them to flee without thought of the captives helpless against the trees.
Smith sailed away eastward, disappearing from their sight. He had made a quick mental calculation of the extent of the clearing. Rising to the height of about three hundred feet above the ground, while still out of sight he suddenly stopped the engine and warped the planes for a dive. The aeroplane descended rapidly, grazed the tops of the trees, and then, more slowly, swept, silently, in a gentle curve towards the throng of men, who were chattering about the mysterious sky visitor. When they caught sight of it they were struck dumb, and for a few moments seemed to be fixed to the ground with amazement. Then, as it came directly towards them, and Smith set the noisy propellers in motion, they uttered shrieks of dismay and terror, and fled like hares into the forest.
Some of them started too late. Smith, being now near the ground, set the engine going at low speed, overtook a group of the islanders before they reached shelter, and with a touch of the aeroplane flung them violently on their faces. He then wheeled round, and rose once more into the air in order to effect a complete descent. The prostrate natives lay for some time in a paralysis of fear; but finding that they were unhurt, and that the monster had withdrawn from them, they picked themselves up, and ran to overtake their friends, leaving the space clear.
In another minute Smith had brought the aeroplane safely to the ground. Rodier and he sprang out and ran towards the bound figures.
"It's Charley!" called a voice, in tones wherein surprise and joy were blended.
And then the sailormen, famished and feeble as they were, broke forth in hoarse cheers and incoherent shouts, which died away in sobs.
SIR MATTHEW IMPROVES THE OCCASION
To cut the bonds of the prisoners was the work of only a few moments. The sailors, the instant they were free, made a rush upon the villagers' cooking-pots, their passion for food overcoming curiosity, gratitude, and all other sentiments. Dr. Smith gripped his son's hand, his emotion being too great for words. Tom slapped his brother on the back. Lieutenant Underhill was divided between his eagerness to learn all the circumstances of this strange intervention and his anxiety to prevent his men from getting out of hand. But a glance at them as they made free with the natives' provisions relieved him on this score, and when Smith explained that he had on board the aeroplane certain delectables in the shape of chicken patties (becoming rather stale), doughnuts, plumcake, a bottle of Australian burgundy, and sundry other remnants of the provisions furnished by the hospitable folk of Palmerston, he voted an immediate adjournment for lunch, and the officers, with the Smiths, were soon satisfying their clamant hunger.
"How in the world did you know about us?" asked Tom.
"By cable from Brisbane."
"Then our boat did not go down?" said Underhill.
"No; your men lost their sail and rudder, and drifted until they came into the current along the south coast of New Guinea. They were picked up by a barque bound for Brisbane, and carried there."
He gave them a rapid summary of his flight across the world. The sudden change in their fortunes induced a readiness to find amusement in the most trifling incident, and they laughed loud and long as he retailed the little mishaps and the comic episodes of his journey. Then Underhill in his turn related all that had happened since the wreck, and all became grave again as he told of the capture in the early morning after their night march, the wild orgy in which their captors had indulged, the elaborate preparations they had made under the direction of their sorcerer for the sacrificial rite to which their captives were destined. But for the appearance of the aeroplane he had no doubt that within a few short hours they would have been massacred, and their skulls hung up at the entrance of the huts as signal marks of the villagers' prowess.
"The poor wretches hate all white men," said Underhill, "and it can hardly be wondered at. They are recruited to labour in our plantations, and come back with ailments unknown to them until they met the white man. They do not distinguish, and a geologist like Dr. Smith—"
"Ah!" said the doctor anxiously; "my specimens!"
"They are safe, Father," replied Charley. "I saw them in your fort. The fact that the place had not been looted gave me some hope that you were still alive. I wonder that the islanders have not made hay of everything."
"No doubt they deferred the performance until they had disposed of us," said Underhill. "But now, how do we stand? You have saved us, but you can't take us all off in your aeroplane."
"A gunboat is on her way here; I passed her; she will arrive soon."
"Hurray!" shouted the men.
"Your men are on her, Mr. Underhill," continued Smith. "She will probably arrive by the time we get back to the fort."
"That is a difficulty. We must be at least seven or eight miles from it, and the whole country is forest in which the natives may waylay us. They have left our rifles, but practically all our ammunition is gone."
"I have rifles and ammunition, as you see. But the savages have had such a fright that I think they will keep out of the way of the aeroplane. If I fly as low as possible over the trees they will hear the humming and run away, and you can steer your course by the same sound."
"A good idea. We'll burn their huts and weapons, as a warning to behave better in future, and then we'll go."
This was done, Smith and Rodier appropriating as trophies several spears and bows and arrows, and also some of the fetish charms hung at the entrance to the huts. The crew, having satisfied their hunger, hunted through the village for loot, and grumbled when they found nothing that they considered worthy the consideration of British sailormen. Then Rodier took the aeroplane aloft, Smith having decided to walk with the rest, and the party set off towards the coast, marching by the guidance of the sound that descended from the tree-tops, dulled by its passage through thick layers of foliage.
The scare had proved effectual. Never a sign of the natives was seen during the three hours' march to the fort. When they reached it, Dr. Smith hastened at once to assure himself that his specimens and note-books were safe. Tired out, the whole party lay down to rest.
"We'll go and meet the gunboat, Roddy," said Smith, when the aeroplane alighted. "Captain Warren will be glad to hear that all is well."
They set off, flew down the coast, and in a few minutes descried the gunboat, apparently about fifteen miles off.
"All well, sir," shouted Smith, as he met the vessel. "I'll pilot you to the place."
"You have put my nose out of joint," replied the captain, "and done my men out of a fight, too. Well, I'm glad Underhill is safe. How far have we to go?"
"An hour will do it, sir. I'll keep you company; a jog-trot will be a pleasant change after my scamper."
"Diable, mister," said Rodier; "that will waste an immense quantity of petrol, and we have none to spare."
"You're right, Roddy. I daresay we have used in the last few hours enough to carry us to Samoa."
He explained to Captain Warren the necessity he was under of economizing fuel, and promised to fire a rifle as a guide to him when the gunboat came abreast of the fort. Then he returned at full speed, brought the aeroplane to the ground within the enclosure, and having arranged with his brother to give the signal when the gunboat came in sight, lay down beside Rodier and was fast asleep in an instant.
He was wakened by a roar of cheering when Captain Warren, with some of his men, the four members of the crew of the Albatross, and a corpulent little civilian about fifty years old, marched into the camp, bringing a load of provisions. A huge bonfire was kindled in the centre of the enclosure, and round it the whole company gathered to enjoy a royal feast. Darkness had sunk over the land; the flames cast ruddy reflections upon their features; and no one observing their cheerful expression, or listening to their merry chat, would have suspected that, a few hours before, half of the party had been face to face with a terrible death. Smith was the hero of the day. Lieutenant Underhill got up and proposed his health; the toast was drunk in wine, beer, and water, and some wild dogs that had been allured from the forest by the glare fled howling when the mariners raised their lusty voices to the tune of "For he's a jolly good fellow." Nor was Rodier forgotten. Tom Smith called for the honours for him also; he was acclaimed in shouts of "Good old Frenchie!" "Well done, matey," and sundry other boisterous tokens of applause.
Nothing would content the party but that Smith should tell the story of his flight. They listened spell-bound as he related his experiences at the various stopping-places, and his adventures at sea. When the story was finished, the cheers broke out again, and the stout little man who accompanied Captain Warren's party, and whose spectacles gleamed with good humour, rose to his feet and cleared his throat.
"Pray, gentlemen, silence for Sir Matthew Menhinick," said Captain Warren, with twinkling eyes. Sir Matthew was an ex-prime minister of Queensland, known to his intimates as Merry Matt, and to the whole continent as a jolly good fellow. Being at Brisbane when the news of the wreck came, he instantly decided to join Captain Warren's rescue party. If he had a weakness for hearing his own voice, what could be expected in a man whose speeches filled volumes of legislative reports, but who was now in his retirement, deprived of these daily opportunities of addressing his fellow men?
"Gentlemen," he said, beaming on the company; "officers and gentlemen, and able seamen of His Majesty's Navy, I am a plain, blunt chap, I am, as you all know, and I can't dress up what I've got to say in fine language like the Governor-General, but I can't let this occasion pass without saying a word or two about the great, the wonderful, the stupendous achievement of our friend, Mr. Thesiger Smith. (Loud cheers.) This is a proud moment in my life. I remember when I was a nipper in London, before any of you were born except our friend the doctor, I saw in a place called Cremorne Gardens a silly fellow of a Frenchman—present company excepted—try to fly with wings strapped to his arms. Of course he came a cropper and broke his back. I remember my dear old mother shaking her head and telling over to me that fine bit of poetry: