Saying this he turned to the brazier and pulled out the iron poker to see that it was becoming red-hot. The countenance of the negro became very grave as he observed this, and the midshipman's heart sank within him.
"So you deliberately tell me," said the Moor abruptly, as he wheeled round and confronted Peter the Great, "that you have no knowledge as to where, or with whom, this girl is?"
"No, massa," answered the negro, with solemn sincerity. "If you was to skin me alive I not able to tell you whar she is or who she is wid."
Peter said no more than this aloud, but he added, internally, that he would sooner die than give any further information, even if he had it to give.
Osman made a motion with his hand as a signal to the four seamen, who, advancing quickly, seized the negro, and held him fast. One of the men then stripped off the poor man's shirt. At the same moment Osman drew the red-hot iron from the fire, and deliberately laid it on Peter's back, the skin of which hissed and almost caught fire, while a cloud of smoke arose from it.
The hapless victim did not struggle. He was well aware that resistance would be useless. He merely clenched his teeth and hands. But when Osman removed the iron and applied it to another part of his broad back a deep groan of agony burst from the poor fellow, and beads of perspiration rolled from his brow.
At first George Foster could scarcely believe his eyes. He was almost paralysed by an intense feeling of horror. Then there came a tremendous rebound. Rage, astonishment, indignation, fury, and a host of cognate passions, met and exploded in his bosom. Uttering a yell that harmonised therewith, he sprang forward, hit Osman a straight English left-hander between the eyes, and followed it up with a right-hander in the gullet, which sent the cruel monster flat on the floor, and his head saluted the bricks with an effective bump. In his fall the Moor overturned the brazier, and brought the glowing fire upon his bosom, which it set alight—his garments being made of cotton.
To leap up with a roar of pain and shake off the glowing cinders was the work of a moment. In the same moment two of the stout seamen threw themselves on the roused midshipman, and overcame him—not, however, before one of them had received a black eye and the other a bloody nose, for Moors do not understand the art of self-defence with the fists.
"Down with him!" shouted Osman, when he had extinguished the flames.
He seized a supple cane, or wand, as the seamen threw Foster down, and held his feet in the air, after tearing off his shoes.
Wild with fury, Osman brought the cane down on the poor youth's soles. It was his first taste of the bastinado. The agony took him by surprise, and extorted a sharp yell. Next moment his teeth were in the calf of one of the men's legs, and his right hand grasped the baggy trousers of the other. A compound kick and plunge overturned them both, and as they all fell into a heap, the cheek of one seaman received a stinging blow that was meant for the middy's soles.
Things had reached this crisis, and Peter the Great, having hurled aside his two assailants, was on the point of rushing to the rescue of his friend, when the door burst open, and Ben-Ahmed stood before them quivering with indignation.
"Is this your return for my forbearance? Be-gone!" he shouted to his son in a voice of thunder.
Osman knew his father too well to require a second bidding. He left the room angrily, and a look from Ben-Ahmed sent the four sailors after him.
The Moor was too well accustomed to his wild son's ways to require any explanation of the cause of the fracas. Just giving one glance at his slaves, to make sure that neither was killed, he left the room as hastily as he had entered it.
"My poor friend," exclaimed the middy, grasping the negro's hand with a gush of mingled enthusiasm and pity, "I trust you have not been much injured by that inhuman brute?"
"Oh, bress you! no. It do smart a bit," returned Peter, as he put on his shirt uneasily, "an' I's used to it, Geo'ge, you know. But how's your poo' feet?"
"Well, I'm not vary sure," replied Foster, making a wry face as he sat down to examine them. "How it did sting, Peter! I owe a heavy debt of gratitude to old Ben-Ahmed for cutting it short. No, the skin's not damaged, I see, but there are two or three most awful weals. D'you know, I never before this day felt sorry that I wasn't born a dog!"
"Why's dat, Geo'ge?"
Because then I should have been able to make my teeth meet in yon fellow's leg, and would have held on! Yes, I don't know what I would not have given just at that time to have been born a mastiff, or a huge Saint Bernard, or a thoroughbred British bull-dog, with double the usual allowance of canines and grinders!
The negro threw back his head and began one of his silent laughs, but suddenly stopped, opened his eyes wide, pursed his lips, and moved his broad shoulders uneasily.
"I mus' laugh easy for some time to come," he remarked.
"Poor fellow!" said Foster, "I fear you must. I say—how my soles do sting!"
"Oh yes, I knows," returned Peter, with a remarkably intelligent nod. "But come. We mus' go an' see what massa's a-goin' to do, for you bery sure he won't rest quiet till he's turned ebery stone to find Missy Hester."
Peter the Great left the room with a brave effort to suppress a groan; while our middy followed with an equally valorous determination not to limp. In both efforts they were but partially successful.
As Peter had prophesied, Ben-Ahmed did indeed leave no stone unturned to recover Hester Sommers, but there was one consideration which checked him a good deal, and prevented his undertaking the search as openly as he wished, and that was the fear that the Dey himself might get wind of what he was about, and so become inquisitive as to the cause of the stir which so noted a man was making about a runaway slave. For Ben-Ahmed feared—and so did Osman—that if the Dey saw Hester he might want to introduce her into his own household.
The caution which they had therefore to observe in prosecuting the search was all in favour of the runaway.
As time passed by, Hester, alias Geo'giana, began to feel more at ease in her poor abode and among her new friends, who, although unrefined in manners, were full to overflowing with the milk of human kindness, so that at last the unfortunate English girl began to entertain positive affection for Mrs Lilly and her black handmaiden.
She also began to feel more at ease in traversing the intricate streets of the city, for the crowds that passed her daily had evidently too much to do attending to their own business to bestow more than an indifferent glance at two negro girls. And if the features of one of the two was not according to the familiar negro type, it is probable that all the inhabitants of Algiers were aware of the fact that some of the tribes of black people in the interior of Africa possess the well-formed features and comparatively thin lips of Europeans.
As Hester's anxieties about herself began to abate, however, her desire to find out where and how her father was became more and more intense. But the poor child was doomed to many months of hope deferred before that desire was gratified.
Peter the Great did indeed make a few efforts to meet with him again— sometimes in company with George Foster, more frequently alone, and occasionally he visited Hester—having been informed by his sister Dinah where to find her—in order to tell of his want of success, and to comfort her with earnest assurances that he would "neber forsake her," but would keep up a constant look-out for her fadder an' an eye on herself.
Consideration for the girl's safety rendered it necessary that these visits should be few and far between, and, of course, owing to the same necessity, our middy was not permitted to visit her at all. Indeed, Peter refused to tell him even where she was hiding, all the information he condescended to give being that she was safe.
"You see, my dear," said Peter to Hester, in a paternal tone, on the occasion of the first of these visits, "if I was to come yar oftin, massa—spec'ally Osman—would 'gin to wonder, an' de moment a man 'gins to wonder he 'gins to suspec', an' den he 'gins to watch; an' if it comes to dat it's all up wid you an' me. So you mus' jest keep close an' say nuffin till de tide 'gins to turn an' de wind blow fair. De good Lord kin turn wind an' tide when He likes, so keep your heart up, Geo'giana!"
As he uttered the last word the negro put his great hand on the girl's shoulder and patted it.
"What a good name Geo'giana am," he continued, bringing his eyes to bear on the slender little black creature before him; "an' what a good nigger you would make if on'y you had an elegant flat nose an' bootiful thick hips. Neber mind, you's better lookin' dan Sally, anyhow, an' no mortal could guess who you was, eben if he was told to look hard at you!"
"But oh, Peter, this is such an anxious, weary life," began Hester, with a trembling lip.
"Now, hold on dar!" interrupted the negro, almost sternly; "you mus' not cry, whateber you do, for it washes off de black. You mus' larn to cumtroul your feelin's."
"I will try," returned Hester, attempting to smile. "But it is not that I am discontented with my lot, for they are as kind to me here as if they were my mother and sister, and I like doing the embroidery work very much—it's not that. It is the weary waiting, and hoping for, and expecting news of my darling father—news which never comes."
"Now, don't you t'ink like dat, Geo'giana, but larn to submit—submit— das de word. De news'll come all in good time. An' news allers comes in a heap—suddently, so to speak. It neber comes slow. Now, look yar. I wants you to make me a solum promise."
"What is that?" asked Hester, smiling in spite of herself at the intensity of her dark friend's look and manner.
"It am dis. Dat you will neber look surprised, nor speak surprised, no matter howeber much you may feel surprised."
"You impose a difficult task on me, Peter."
"Ob course I do, Geo'giana, but as your life—an' p'r'aps mine, but dat ain't much—depends on it, you'll see de needcessity."
"I will certainly try—for your sake as well as my own," returned Hester fervently.
"Well, I t'ink you will, but it ain't easy, an' I'll test you some day."
It was more than a month after that before Peter the Great paid her another visit, and, to the poor girl's grief, he still came without news of her father. He had been all over the Kasba, he said, and many other places where the slaves worked, but he meant to persevere. The city was big, and it would take time, but "Geo'giana" was to cheer up, for he would neber gib in.
One morning Peter announced to Foster that he was going into town to make purchases, and he wanted his assistance to carry the basket.
"Are we going to make another search for poor Mr Sommers?" asked the middy, as he walked along the road holding one handle of the empty basket.
"No, we's got no time for dat to-day. I mus' be back early. Got time on'y for one call on a friend ob mine. Das all."
As the negro did not seem inclined for conversation, Foster forebore to trouble him, but observed, without remarking on the circumstance, that, instead of taking their accustomed way to the market-place, they passed along many narrow, steep, and intricate streets until they reached what the midshipman conceived to be the very heart of the city.
"Dis am de house ob my friend," said Peter, stopping in front of an opening which descended into a cellar. "Foller me, Geo'ge, an' bring down de baskit wid you. Hallo, Missis Lilly! Is you widin?"
"Hi! Das you, Peter de Great?" came in shrill tones from below as they descended.
"Dumb!" exclaimed Peter, with peculiar emphasis on reaching the cellar. "How you do, Missis Lilly? Oberjoyed to see you lookin' so fresh. Just looked in to ax how you's gettin' along."
Need we say that Peter's warning word was not thrown away on Hester Sommers, who was seated in her corner embroidering with gold thread a pair of red morocco slippers. But, forewarned though she was, her presence of mind was put to a tremendous test when, all unexpectedly, George Foster descended the steps and stood before her. Fortunately, while the youth was bestowing a hearty nautical greeting on Mrs Lilly— for his greeting was always hearty, as well to new acquaintances as to old friends—Hester had time to bend over her work and thus conceal the sudden pallor followed by an equally sudden flush which changed her complexion from a bluish grey to a burnt sienna. When George turned to glance carelessly at her she was totally absorbed in the slipper.
The negro watched the midshipman's glance with keen interest. When he saw that only a passing look was bestowed on Hester, and that he then turned his eyes with some interest to the hole where Sally was pounding coffee and gasping away with her wonted energy, he said to himself mentally, "Ho, Dinah, but you am a cleber woman! Geo'ge don't rignise her more'n if she was a rigler coloured gal! I do b'lieve her own fadder wouldn't know her!"
He then proceeded to have a talk with Mrs Lilly, and while he was thus engaged the middy, who had an inquiring disposition, began to look round the cellar and take mental-artistic notes of its appearance. Then he went up to Hester, and, taking up one of the finished slippers, examined it.
"Most beautiful! Exquisite!" he said. "Does it take you long to do this sort of thing?"
The girl did not reply.
"She's dumb!" said Peter quickly.
"Ah, poor thing!" returned Foster, in a voice of pity. "Deaf, too, I suppose?"
"Well, I don't know as to dat, Geo'ge."
"Is this one dumb too?" asked the middy, pointing to the coffee-hole.
"Oh dear no!" interposed Lilly. "Sally a'n't dumb; she's awrful sharp with 'er tongue!"
"She ought to be deaf anyhow, considering the row she kicks up down there!"
"Come now, Geo'ge, it's time we was goin'. So pick up de baskit an' go ahead."
Bidding Mrs Lilly an affectionate adieu, the two shaves left the cellar, to the intense relief of poor Hester, who scarce knew whether to laugh or cry over the visit. She had been so eagerly anxious to speak to Foster, yet had managed to keep her promise in spite of the peculiarly trying circumstances.
"Peter," said the middy, when they had got well out of the town on their way home, "what made you say 'dumb' so emphatically when you descended into that cellar?"
"Did I say 'dumb?'" returned the negro, with an inquiring look at the clouds.
"You certainly did."
"Yes, most emphatically."
"Well, now, das most remarkably strange!"
"Not so strange as my finding Hester Sommers in a coal-hole making golden slippers!"
At this Peter set down the basket, threw back his head, and took a prolonged silent laugh.
"Now dat is de strangest t'ing ob all. Didn't I t'ink you not rignise her one bit!"
"Peter," returned the midshipman gravely, "you ought to know from experience that true love pierces every disguise."
"Das troo, Geo'ge," said Peter, as he lifted his end of the basket and resumed the journey. "Lub is a wonderful t'ing, an' I ain't sure what might come ob it if I was took unawares to see my Angelica arter she'd bin painted white. But dere's one t'ing as comforts me a leetle, an' dat is, dat Peter de Great ain't de biggest hyperkrite in de world arter all, for de way you purtended not to know dat gal, an' de way she purtended not to know you, hab took de wind out ob my sails altogidder!"
DANGERS, VICISSITUDES, ESCAPES, NEW SURROUNDINGS, HOPES, AND FEARS.
It was probably an advantage to Hester Sommers that she had been subjected to so severe a test at that time, for, not many weeks afterwards, she experienced a shock which put her powers of self-restraint to a much severer trial.
It happened thus. Sally and she were on their way home from market one day; the former with a large basket of vegetables on her head, and the latter with a lighter basket of oranges on her arm, for the use of the master at home. They had come to one of the wider of the narrow streets of the town, where the small shops were numerous, and the throng of passers-by was considerable—as also was the noise, for Jews, Moors, Cabyles, and negroes were conversing and jostling each other in all directions.
Presently a band of slaves approached, and, as it passed, Hester nearly fainted, for among them she beheld her father, with irons on his legs, and a shovel and pick on his shoulder.
"Father!" she exclaimed, in a faint voice, and, stretching out her arms, made an effort to run towards him.
Quick as lightning Sally grasped the situation, and, rising to the occasion with that prompt energy which betokens true genius, she seized Hester by the nape of the neck, hurled her to the ground, and sent her oranges flying in all directions! At the same time she began to storm at her with a volubility of invective that astonished herself as well as the amused bystanders. As for poor Hugh Sommers, the noise had prevented him from hearing the word "father!" and all that met his eyes was one black girl roughly using another. Alas! the poor man had been by that time so much accustomed to witness acts of cruelty that the incident gave him little concern. He passed doggedly onward to his thankless, unremitting toil, which had been rendered all the more severe of late in consequence of his despairing violence having compelled his drivers to put the heavy irons on his limbs.
Meanwhile Sally, having made Hester pick up some of the oranges, seized her by an arm and hurried her away. Nor did she desist scolding until she had her fairly down in the back regions of their cellar-home.
"I will never forgive you!" exclaimed Hester, with flashing eyes, doubling up her small fists, and apparently wishing that at least for one quarter of an hour she might be transformed into a female Samson.
"Oh yes, you will," returned the negress coolly; "you'll forgib me when I tells you dat I hab sab' your fadder's life, an' p'r'aps your own too!"
"How? What do you mean?" demanded Hester, relaxing her little fists slightly, though still coruscating in the region of the eyes.
"I means dat if you got hold ob yer fadder dat time, he bery likely grip you tight an' refuse to part wid you at no price ebermore; so den, ob course, dey tear him away, an' he kick up a shindy an' try to kill somebody—p'r'aps do it! Oh, its's allers de way. I's oftin seen it wid the big strong men—an' your fadder am big. Dat was him, wasn't it, wid de broad shoulders an' de nice face—a leetle wild-like, p'r'aps, but no wonder—an' de grey beard?"
"Yes; that was him—my darling father!"
"Well, ob course dey take him away an' bastinado him till he die, or strangle him, or frow him on de hooks; an' dey take you right away back to Osman, or wuss. I doo'd it for de best, Geo'giana."
"Oh! Sally, dear, dear Sally, forgive me! But it was such an awful disappointment to be hurried away so, just as I saw him. I—I—am very wicked, Sally, will you forgive me?" said poor little Hester, bursting suddenly into tears, throwing her arms round her friend's neck and kissing her.
"Forgib you, Geo'giana! Das not difficult to do, but I'll neber forgib you if you go slobberin' like dat, an' dirtyin' my face wid your black cheeks. Dar now, I's got to polish you up again!"
This "polishing up," it may be remarked, was a duty which Sally was called on to perform rather frequently, in consequence of Hester's inveterate tendency to think of her father and shed tears! But her sable friend, whose stolid exterior concealed a wealth of affection, rather enjoyed the process of "polishing up," and while engaged in it broke out into quite eloquent dissertations as to the impropriety of washing one's face with tears when there was plenty of soap and water: coupled with earnest exhortations to "keep up heart," and recommendations not to "gib in," "neber to say die," and the like.
On this particular occasion the sympathetic Sally gave her friend inexpressible comfort by assuring her that, having at last seen her father and the gang to which he belonged, she could now easily follow them up and find out where they were set to work. "And so, Geo'giana," said she, in conclusion, "somet'ing may come ob dis meetin', p'r'aps more'n you t'ink."
Something certainly did come of it, as we shall see presently; but just now we must turn to another danger which threatened our English slave, and in regard to which the previous testing of her powers of self-restraint was but a trifle.
One morning Hester was seated in the usual corner, busily engaged with her embroidery, and with her mind still more busily employed in devising all sorts of impossible schemes for the deliverance of her father—for Sally had discovered the exact spot on the fortifications where Hugh Sommers was at work, and only prevented Hester from rushing out at once to see him by resolutely refusing for a time to tell where that spot was.
Mrs Lilly and Hester were alone at the time we refer to, Sally having gone out to the market.
"Dearie, I 'spec's Peter de Great dis arternoon," said Mrs Lilly, raising herself from a culinary pot to which she had been devoting her attention. "Dis am about de time he or'nar'ly comes to see you and tell you how de land lies. Now dat he knows you's seed your fadder, he'll likely hab somet'ing 'tickler to say to you."
"God grant that he may have something hopeful to suggest," said Hester, without looking up from her work.
"You may be sure dat prayer is answered, dearie, for you trust de Lord, an' no one does dat in vain."
As the woman spoke, the familiar voice was heard outside, "Hi, Missis Lilly! how's you all git along down dar?" At the same moment the opening to the street was darkened by Peter's bulky form as he descended the narrow stair.
Shaking hands with Hester, who rose eagerly to greet him, the negro was about to begin an earnest talk with her as to how she should act in regard to her father if she should again meet him, when a voice was heard that sent a deadly chill alike to the hearts of Hester and the negro.
"Is the cellar far from this?" asked the voice, which was that of Osman.
"No; here it is! Guard your feet; the second step is broken, and the place is rather dark," replied the owner of the house.
"Osman!" whispered Peter, glaring and clenching his fists in an agony of uncertainty how to act.
Mrs Lilly, however, black-woman-like, rose to the occasion.
"Go down dar, you black wretch!" she cried, thrusting Hester quickly down into the coffee-hole; "how you s'pose massa git his dollars if you not work? Go to work, or I'll skin you!"
Truly those negroes, male and female, seemed to possess most effective capacity for, and original methods of, coming to the rescue of their friends in moments of danger!
As Mrs Lilly uttered the last words the two visitors stood in the cellar. At the same instant the thud of the great pestle began, and so intelligently did Hester perform her part that the familiar gasp of Sally—admirably imitated—came up with every blow.
"What, Peter the Great! You here!" cried Osman, in extreme surprise.
"Yes, massa, I's here on a little bit ob business wid Missis Lilly. She's a fri'nd ob my sister Dinah," answered Peter humbly.
"Oh, indeed! With my father's permission, I suppose?"
"Yes, Massa Osman. I neber dar to come in de town widout your fadder's purmission."
Osman turned and addressed a few words in an undertone to the master of the house, who thereupon turned to Mrs Lilly.
"You are a wise woman, Lilly," he said, "so I have come to consult you. It seems that one of the slaves belonging to Ben-Ahmed of Mustapha has made her escape, and it is rumoured that she has taken refuge with some one in this very street, or in one not far from it. Now, as you are well acquainted with almost every one in the neighbourhood, I thought it best to come in the first place to you to ask your advice about the matter."
The gasp that came from the coffee-hole when this speech was made had something very real in it, and immediately afterwards the pounding was redoubled.
"Was the slabe white or black?" asked Mrs Lilly, with childlike simplicity, and more for the purpose of gaining time to think than anything else.
"She was white," interposed Osman, "and very beautiful,—in fact, one of the ladies of the harem."
On hearing this Mrs Lilly looked inquiringly upwards, as if she expected inspiration to flow from the bricks that formed the vaulted ceiling. Then she looked suddenly at Peter the Great, and said—
"Das mus' be de lady you was tole me about, Peter,—Ister—Hister—w'at you call 'er?"
"Yes—Hester! Das so. De same as I tole you all about her 'scape," answered Peter, quaking with anxiety and astonishment at the woman's calm boldness, yet ready to fall in with any plan that her words might suggest. At the same time the gasping in the hole became more and more genuine, and the pounding more and more emphatic.
"No, massa, I don' know of no white slabe as hab took refuge wid any ob our neighbours. Indeed I's kite sure dat none ob de neighbours knows not'ing at all about dis Is—Es—w'at you call her? Ester! Das so, Peter?"
"Yes, das so, Missis Lilly."
"Stop that horrible noise in the hole there! What is it?" said Osman impatiently.
"It is only one of my negro slaves," said the master of the house. "Call her up, Lilly, and set her to something quieter until we go."
Rendered desperate now, Peter the Great started forward with glaring eyes. "Massa," he said, "an idea hab just struck me. Will you come out a momint? I wants to tell you somet'ing bery hard."
The appearance, not less than the earnestness, of the negro, inclined Osman to comply with his request; but, hesitating, he said—
"Why not tell me here, Peter? We are all friends, you know."
"Oh yes, I know dat, Massa Osman; but womans can never be trusted wid t'ings ob importance, 'specially black womans! But ob course if you not 'fraid ob Missis Lilly, I a'n't 'fraid ob her lettin' de secret out. I darsay she's as good a creetur as de best ob 'um."
This readiness to give in was a politic stroke. Osman agreed to go outside with the negro, and while the latter was ascending the short stair to the street, he was making superhuman efforts to invent something, for, as yet, he had not the faintest idea what his intended communication should be. But Peter the Great was a genius, and it is one of the characteristics of genius to be bold even to recklessness.
Trusting to some sort of inspiration, he began, with looks and tones of the deepest solemnity, "I s'pose you guess, Massa Osman, dat I've been inwestigatin' that coorious business ob de English gal what runned away?"
"No, I did not guess that," answered the Moor shortly.
"Oh! but it's true!" said Peter. "Eber since she flooed away I's bin goin' about dem suspekid places, lookin' arter her, and, do you know, Massa Osman, dat at last," (here he dropped his voice and looked unutterable things),—"at last I's found—"
"Well—found what?" asked the Moor eagerly.
"Found her fadder!"
"Bah! What do I care for her father, you fool?"
"Das troo, massa; but don't you t'ink dat p'r'aps she'd be likely to try for find her fadder; an' if she find 'im she'd be likely to remain wid her fadder? An' so all dat we'd hab to do would be to find her fadder too. Ob course I don't say she's doo'd all dat; but suppose, for de sake ob argiment, dat she hab doo'd it all, won't we—won't we—we— No, I's lost de t'read ob my discoorse. I'll begin again fro' de beginning. Das de on'y way I kin—"
"Is that all you had to tell me?" interrupted the Moor, in rising wrath.
"No—not kite all," returned Peter humbly. "Dey do say dat de fadder is at work on de for'fications on de sout' side ob de Kasba."
"Well, you are a greater fool than I took you for," said Osman, in whom contempt was quickly taking the place of anger.
"I s'pose I is, massa. An' I s'pose it am part ob my foolishness to be lookin' arter dis yar gal—but den, you see, I lubs Ben-Ahmed, so—"
"Well, well, Peter, I believe you mean well—"
"I's sure I does, Massa Osman!"
"Don't interrupt me, you black villain! Can't you see that if Hester's father is a Bagnio slave there is no chance of her having found refuge with him?"
"Das true, massa. I do s'pose you's right. I's a born ijit altogidder. But, you know, when a man gits off de scent ob a t'ing, anyt'ing dat looks de least bit like a clue should be follered up. An' dere's no sayin' what might come ob seein' de fadder—for we's off de scent entirely jist now."
"There's little doubt of that, Peter," said Osman, pausing, and looking meditatively at the ground.
"Moreober," suggested the negro, "when a man wid a cleber head an' a purswavis tongue like you tackles a t'ing, it's bery strange indeed if not'ing comes ob it."
"Well, you may be right after all," returned the Moor slowly. "I will go and see this father. At all events it can do no harm."
"None whateber, massa. An' I better run back and send Ali arter you."
"Why? What has he to do with it?"
"Oh! I only t'ought dat you was huntin' togidder. It's ob no consikence. But I t'ink he knows de janissary officer what has charge ob de gang, an' if you don't know him Ali might be useful."
"There is wisdom in what you say."
"Eben zough I is a 'fool?'" asked the negro simply.
"At all events you are an honest fool, Peter, and I'm sorry I burned your back the other day. You didn't deserve it."
"Oh, nebber mind dat," returned Peter, feeling really uneasy. "De back's all right now. Moreober I did deserb it, for I's an awrful sinner! Wuss dan you t'ink! Now, if you keep right up as you go, an' when you comes to de Kasba turn to de right an' keep so till you comes to de right angle ob de sout' wall. De fadder he work dar. I'll send Ali arter you, quick's I can."
They parted, and while the Moor stalked sedately up the street, the negro hurried back to the cellar with a message to Ali to follow Osman without a moment's delay.
Meanwhile Ali had been cleverly engaged by the ready-witted Mrs Lilly, who, after fiercely ordering the coffee-pounder to "stop her noise," come out of the hole, and retire to the kitchen, drew forth a large leathern purse, which she wisely chinked, and, going towards the stairs, invited her master to "come to de light an' receibe de money which she hab made by de last sale ob slippers."
Of course the bait took—none other could have been half so successful. But Hester apparently had not courage to take advantage of the opportunity, for she did not quit the hole. Fortunately Peter arrived before the cash transaction was completed. On receiving Osman's message Ali balanced accounts promptly by thrusting the purse and its contents into his pocket and hastening away.
Then Peter the Great and Lilly sat down, took a long grave look at each other, threw back their heads, opened their cavernous mouths, and indulged in a quiet but hearty laugh.
"Now you kin come out, dearie," said Lilly, turning to the coffee-hole on recovering composure.
But no response came from the "vasty deep."
"De coast's cl'ar, my dear," said Peter, rising.
Still no response, so Peter descended the few steps, and found Hester lying insensible on a heap of coffee-beans, and still firmly grasping the big pestle. The trial had been too much for the poor child, who had fainted, and Peter emerged with her in his arms, and an expression of solemn anxiety on his countenance.
In a few minutes, however, she revived, and then Peter, hurrying her away from a locality which he felt was no longer safe, placed her under the charge of his sister Dinah—to the inexpressible regret of Mrs Lilly and her black maid-of-all-work.
In her new home the fugitive's circumstances were much improved. Dinah and her husband had great influence over their owner, Youssef, the proprietor of the small coffee-house already described. They not only managed most of its details for him, but were permitted a good deal of personal liberty. Among other things they had been allowed to select the top of the house as their abode.
To European ears this may sound rather strange, but those who have seen the flat roofs of Eastern lands will understand it. Youssef's house, like nearly all the other houses of the city, had a flat roof, with a surrounding parapet nearly breast-high. Here had been placed a few wooden boxes filled with earth and planted with flowering shrubs. These formed quite a little garden, to which Youssef had been wont to retreat of an evening for meditative and, we may add, smokative purposes. But as Youssef had grown old, his eyes had nearly, and his legs had quite, failed him. Hence, being unable to climb to his roof, he had latterly given it up entirely to the use of his black slaves, Samson and Dinah White.
There was a small excrescence or hut on the roof—about ten feet by six in dimensions—which formed—their residence. Behind this, hiding itself as it were and almost invisible, nestled a smaller excrescence or offshoot. It was a mere bandbox of a thing, measuring five feet by four; it had a window about twelve inches square, and was entered by a door inside the larger hut. This was the apartment now assigned to Hester, who was quietly introduced into the household without the knowledge or consent of its blind proprietor.
There was a little bed in the small room. True, it was only a trestle frame, and a straw-stuffed mattress with a couple of blankets, but it was clean, and the whole room was neat, and the sun shone brightly in at the small window at the moment that the new occupant was introduced. Poor Hester fell on her knees, laid her head on the bed, and thanked God fervently for the blessed change. Almost in the same moment she forgot herself, and prayed still more fervently for the deliverance of her father.
The view over the housetops from the little window was absolutely magnificent, including as it did domes, minarets, mosques, palm-trees, shipping, and sea! Here, for a considerable time, Hester worked at her former occupation, for Dinah had a private plan to make a little money for her own pocket by means of embroidery.
In this pleasant retreat our fugitive was visited one day by Peter the Great, the expression of whose visage betokened business. After some conversation, he said that he had come for the express purpose of taking Hester to see her father.
"But not to talk to him," he added quickly—"not eben to make you'self known to him, for if you did, not'ing would keep 'im quiet, an' you an' he would be parted for eber. Mind dat—for eber!"
"Yes, yes, I will remember," said the poor girl, who was profoundly agitated at the mere thought of such a meeting.
"But you mus' promise," said Peter solemnly.
"Promise on you' word ob honour dat you not say one word; not make a sound; not gib an unor'nary look; not try in any way to attrack his attention. Come—speak, else I go home ag'in."
"I promise," said Hester, in a low voice.
"An' you won't cry?"
"I'll try not to."
"Come 'long, den, wid me, an' see you' poor fadder."
THE MIDDY, BECOMING DEFIANT AND VIOLENT, COMES TO GRIEF, AND HESTER'S BLACK FRIENDS DEVISE STRANGE THINGS.
On the afternoon of the day in which Peter the Great paid his visit to Hester Sommers in the little boudoir, Ben-Ahmed sent for George Foster and bade him make a portrait of a favourite dog.
It so happened that our artist had run short of some of his drawing materials, and said that he could not get on well without them.
"Go to the town, then, got a supply, and return quickly," said Ben-Ahmed, who was smoking his hookah in the court at the time and playing gently with the lost Hester's pet gazelle.
The graceful little creature had drooped since the departure of his mistress, as if he felt her loss keenly. Perhaps it was sympathy that drew it and Ben-Ahmed more together than in times past. Certainly there seemed to be a bond of some sort between them at that time which had not existed before, and the Moor was decidedly more silent and sad since Hester's flight. In his efforts to recover the runaway he had at first taken much trouble, but as time passed he left it in the hands of Osman, who seemed even more anxious than his father to recover the lost slave.
As the midshipman was leaving the court the Moor called him back, addressing him as usual in Lingua Franca, while the youth, taking his cue from Peter the Great, answered in English.
"You know something about this English girl?" he suddenly said, with a steady look at his slave.
"I—I—yes, I do know something about her," replied Foster, in some confusion.
"Do you know where she hides?"
"N-no; I do not."
"I have been led to understand that British officers never tell lies," returned the Moor sternly.
The blood rushed to the middy's face as he replied boldly, "You have been correctly informed—at least, in regard to those officers who are true gentlemen."
"Why, then, do you hesitate?" retorted the Moor. "Do Englishmen blush and stammer when they tell the truth? Tell me the truth now. Do you know where the English girl hides?"
The Moor spoke very sternly, but his slave, instead of becoming more confused, suddenly drew himself up, and replied in a voice and with a look as stern as his own—
"Ben-Ahmed, I told you the truth at first. I do not know where she is hiding. I did, indeed, know some time ago, but the place of her abode has been changed, and I do not know now. I may as well however say at once that, if I did know, nothing that you can do would induce me to tell you where she hides. You may imprison, torture, or slay me if you choose, but in regard to Hester Sommers I am from this moment dumb!"
There was a curious smile on the Moor's lips while the midshipman delivered this speech with flashing eyes and energetic action, but there was no anger in his tone as he replied—
"Englishman," he said quietly, "you love this girl." If a bombshell had exploded under his feet our middy could hardly have been taken more by surprise. But he had been put on his mettle now, and scorned to show again a wavering front.
"Yes, Moor," he replied, "I do love her, though I have never told her so, nor have I the slightest reason to believe that she cares a fig for me. But I now tell you plainly that I will take advantage of every opportunity that comes in my way to serve her and help her to escape. I now also recall the promise—the word of honour—I gave you, not to try to escape. There was a time," continued the middy, in a softened tone, "when I thought of recalling this promise with defiance to you to do your worst; but, Ben-Ahmed, I have lived to learn that, after a fashion, you have been kind to me; that I might have fallen into worse hands; therefore I am not ungrateful, and I now recall the promise only with regret. All the same, my resolve is fixed."
The curious smile still lingered on the Moor's lips as he said, almost in a jesting tone—
"But you will not try to escape to-day if I let you go into the town for colours?"
"I make no promise, Ben-Ahmed. Yet this I may safely say, that I will not try to clear off on my own account. Unless to save Hester I will not at present try to escape; so far you may be sure of my return; but if I get the chance I will either rescue her or die for her—God helping me."
The smile vanished from the Moor's lips as he turned, and said gravely—
"It is well, young man, that you confess to the true and only source of all help. You Christians, as you call yourselves, have ever seemed to me unwilling to mention the name of God save when cursing your fellows, and then you misuse it glibly enough. Yet there are some among you who are more consistent in their professions. Go, fulfil your commission. I will trust you."
"Thank you, Ben-Ahmed," returned the middy; "but remember, if I never return, you will understand that I have not broken my word of honour."
The Moor bowed his head in acquiescence, and took a long pull at his pipe as the midshipman went away.
George Foster was half-way to the town before he recovered from his astonishment at the strange and unexpected way in which Ben-Ahmed had received his very plain speaking. He had expected that chains and the bastinado, if not worse, would certainly follow, but he had made up his mind to go through with it—if need be to die—for Hester's sake. To find himself, therefore, free to go where he pleased, and to help Hester to escape if the opportunity to do so should come in his way, was an amazing state of things which he could scarcely bring himself to believe.
Of course, our hero had not the slightest expectation of encountering Hester that day, when he thus freed himself from his parole, and we need scarcely add that, even if he had met her, he could not have devised any sudden scheme for her deliverance. Nevertheless, the mere fact that he was at liberty to act as he pleased in her behalf had such an effect on him that he entered the town with a lighter heart than he had possessed for many a day. Humming a nautical air as he walked along, and almost if not quite, for the moment, oblivious of the fact of his condition of slavery, he became keenly interested in all that he saw as he passed through the crowded streets, now stopping to admire a picturesque group of figures with jars and pitchers, awaiting their turn to draw water from a public fountain, or pausing in front of a turner's shop to observe with curiosity and interest, the deft way in which the workman used his toes as well as his fingers in the operations of his trade.
He was thus engaged, in calm contemplation with his back to the street, when he was very slightly jostled by a passer-by. He scarcely noticed the incident, but if he had known who it was that touched him he would not have remained so placid, for it was Hester herself, in company with Peter the Great, on their way to the city walls.
As Hester's eyes were fixed on the ground and her thoughts on her father, while Foster's attention was concentrated on the turner's toes, neither observed the other, but Peter's sharp eyes had noted the middy, and he hurried past to prevent a recognition, which might be awkward, if not dangerous, at the moment.
Presently Foster's attention was attracted by a Moor who was riding along the street, sitting side-wise as was the wont of Algerines of the trading-class. What struck Foster particularly about this man and his donkey was that the latter was trotting very fast, although it was a very small animal, and the man on its back a very large one. He also observed that the donkey tossed its head and put back its ears as if it were suffering pain. As the Moor's hand rested on the donkey's haunch, the reason at once occurred to Foster, for he had noticed the same thing before. It was the practice, among cruel men, to create, and keep open, a small sore on the haunch of each animal, by irritating which with a little bit of stick they managed to make their donkeys go in a way that a spur or a thick stick could not accomplish!
Now, our middy possessed a tender heart, which shrank sensitively from the idea of giving pain to any living creature, and which almost exploded with indignation at the sight of wanton cruelty to dumb animals.
When, therefore, the Moor came alongside of him, Foster gave him a look of tremendous indignation, at the same time exclaiming, "Shame on you!"
The Moor turned on him a look of mingled surprise and scorn. At the same time muttering, "Christian dog!" he brought a stick smartly down on the middy's shoulders.
This was too much to bear meekly. The boiling blood in the youth's heart boiled over into his face. He leaped forward, seized the donkey's rein with one hand, caught the man's left leg with the other, and hurled the rider backward to the ground.
The bump with which the Moor's head came down had the effect of keeping it low, but the spectators of the incident, who were numerous, rushed upon the poor middy, seized him, and carried him straight to a court of justice.
They had a summary method of transacting business in those courts, especially in simple cases like that of which we treat. The investigation was rapid; the evidence of the witnesses emphatic. Almost before he had recovered breath our hero was thrown down, his feet were raised by two strong attendants, his shoes plucked off, and the soles of his feet made to tingle as if they had been set on fire.
After a few strokes, which he bore in silence, he was led to the common prison, thrust into it, and left to his meditations.
Meanwhile, Peter the Great conducted Hester to that part of the city wall where her father was at work among the other slaves. It chanced to be the hour when the wretched creatures were allowed to cease work for a brief space in order to rest and eat.
Poor Hugh Sommers chanced to have seated himself a little apart from the others, so as to get the benefit of a large stone for a seat. His figure was, therefore, prominent, as he sat there worn, weary, and dejected, consuming his allowance of black bread. Peter the Great knew him at once, having already, as the reader knows, seen him in his slave garb; but Hester's anxious eyes failed for a few moments to pick out the emaciated frame and strangely clad, ragged figure which represented her once jovial, stalwart, and well-clothed father.
"Das him," whispered Peter, as he loosely grasped the girl's arm by way of precaution.
"Where—oh, where?" asked the poor creature, glancing round among the slaves.
"Now, 'member your promise. Spoil eberyt'ing if you screech or run to him. Look, dis way! De man what's settin' on de stone!"
"Yes, yes, I see! Oh—"
She stopped abruptly and trembled, for at the moment her father turned his woe-begone face unconsciously towards her. Even the much-increased grey tinge in the hair and beard, the lines of despair on the brow, and the hollow cheeks could not disguise the face that she loved so well. A sharp cry burst from her, and she made an attempt to rush towards him, but the iron grip of Peter restrained her.
"It's a dead man he'll be if you do!" he said, in a stern but low tone. "Don't you see de janissary? Your promise—"
"Yes, yes! I'll restrain myself now, Peter. Do let me stay a minute—just to look—"
"No, no! Come 'long wid you—idle t'ing!" he exclaimed, with sudden severity, and apparent though not real violence, for at the moment his watchful eye had observed one of the slave guards approaching them.
As the two went hurriedly past the place where Hugh Sommers was sitting, he looked up with an expression of pity.
"Poor thing!" he said. "The black scoundrel is cruel to you, and I am powerless to kick him!"
He clinked the fetters on his legs significantly as he spoke.
The mingled pathos and indignation of the loved voice was too much for poor Hester. She was on the point of exclaiming "Father!" when Peter's great black paw extinguished her mouth, and was not removed till they were out of danger.
"You's like all de rest ob de womans," said the negro, as they hurried through the streets; "awrful dif'cult to manidge. Come 'long, we'll go home and hab a talk ober it."
Hester was too miserable to reply. She did not again speak till they were both safe in the boudoir.
There she sat down on the bed, laid her face in her hands, and burst into a passion of tears, while Peter stood looking on, his head nearly touching the low ceiling, his bulky frame filling half the remainder of the little room, and two mighty unbidden tears in his great eyes.
"Das right, Geo'giana," he said, in a soft voice; "cry away, it'll do you good. Nuffin like cryin' w'en you's fit to bust! An' w'en you's got it ober we'll talk all about it."
"Oh, Peter!" cried Hester, drying her eyes somewhat impatiently; "how could you be so cruel? Why—why could you not have waited just one minute to let me look at him?"
"Because, my dear, de man wid de whip was comin', an' he'd bery soon hab laid it across my back," replied the negro gently.
"And what if he had done so?" demanded Hester, with a slight touch of indignation; "could you not have suffered a little whipping for my sake?"
"Yes, Geo'giana," returned Peter, with much humility, "I could suffer great deal more'n dat for your sake; but dere's no sich t'ings as little whippin's know'd ob in dis yar town. W'en de lash am goin' he usu'lly makes de hair fly. Moreober, dey whip womans as well as mans, an' if he was to took de bit out ob your pretty shoulder, I couldn't suffer dat, you know. Likewise," continued Peter, becoming more argumentative in his manner, "you was just a-goin' to took de bit in your teef; an' if you'd bin allowed to frow your arms round your fadder's neck an' rub all de black ober his face what would hab bin de consikence?"
Peter felt his position so strong at this point that he put the question almost triumphantly, and Hester was constrained to acknowledge that he had acted wisely after all.
"But," continued she, with still a little of reproach in her tone, "what was the use of taking me to see my darling father at all, if this is all that is to come of it?"
"You's a leetle obstropolous in you' fancies, Geo'giana. Dis am not all what's to come ob it. You see, I has pity on your poo' heart, so I t'ink you might go ebery oder day an' hab a good look at your fadder; but how kin you go if you not know whar he works? So I tooked you to show you de way. But I's a'most sorry I did now, for you's got no self-'straint, an' if you goes by you'self you'll git took up for sartin', an' dey'll whip your fadder till he's dead, or frow him on de hooks, or skin him alive, or—"
"Oh, horrible! Don't say such dreadful things, Peter!" exclaimed Hester, covering her face with her hands.
Feeling that he had said quite enough to impress the poor girl with the absolute necessity of being careful, he promised earnestly never again to allude to such dreadful things.
"But, Geo'giana," he added impressively, "you mus' promise me on your word ob honour, w'ich Geo'ge Foster says English gen'lemans neber break—an' I s'pose he's right."
"Yes, quite right, Peter; true gentlemen never break their word."
"An' I s'pose female gen'lemans am de same."
"Of course! Go on," replied the girl, with a faint smile.
"Well, as I was 'bout to say, you mus' promise me on your word ob honour, dat you'll neber go alone to see your fadder, but allers in company wid Sally; dat you neber, neber speak to him, an' dat you neber make you'self know'd to him till de right time comes."
"These are hard conditions, Peter, but I see the reasonableness of them all, and promise—at least I promise to do my best."
"Das 'nuff, Geo'giana. Neezer man nor womans kin do more'n deir best. Now I mus' bid you good-day, so keep up your heart an' you'll see eberyt'ing come right in de end."
With these cheering words the sympathetic negro took his leave; and Hester, resuming her embroidery, sat down at her little window, not to work, but to gaze dreamily at the beautiful sea, and cast about in her mind how she should act in order to alleviate if possible her father's sad condition.
That very afternoon she received a visit from her stolid but affectionate friend Sally, who at once said that she knew of a splendid plan for doing him a great deal of good.
"And what is your plan?" asked Hester eagerly.
"Gib him two or t'ree biscuits," said Sally.
Her friend received the suggestion with a look of disappointment.
"What a stupid thing you are, Sally! How could that do him any good?"
Sally looked at her friend with an air of pity.
"Didn't you say he was awrful t'in?" she asked.
"Thin? Oh yes—dreadfully thin."
"Well, den, isn't dat 'cause he not hab 'nuff to eat? I knows it, bress you! I's bin wid a missis as starved me. Sometimes I t'ink I could eat my shoes. Ob course I got awrful t'in—so t'in dat w'en I stood side-wise you could hardly see me. Well, what de way to get fat an' strong? Why, eat, ob course. Eat—eat—eat. Das de way. Now, your fadder git not'ing but black bread, an' not 'nuff ob dat; an' he git plenty hard work too, so he git t'in. So, what I prupposes is to gib him two good biskits ebery day. We couldn't gib him more'n two, 'cause he'd hab to hide what he couldn't eat at once, an' de drivers would be sure to diskiver 'em. But two biskits could be gobbled quick on de sly, an' would help to make him fat, an' to make you easy."
"So they would," said Hester, eagerly entertaining the idea after this explanation; "you're a clever girl, Sally—"
"You say I's stoopid jest now!"
"So I did, Sally. Forgive me! I was stupid besides unkind for saying so. But how shall we manage it? Won't the guards see us doing it?"
"No fear, Geo'giana! De guards am fools—t'ink dere's nobody like 'em. Dey forgit. All de asses in Algiers am like 'em. Dis de way ob it. You an' me we'll go to markit ebery day wid baskits on our arms, an we'll ob course go round by de walls, where your fadder works. No doubt it's a roundabout way, but what ob dat? We'll go at de hour your fadder feeds wid de oder slabes, an' as we pass we'll drop de two biskits in his lap."
"But won't he be taken by surprise, Sally?"
"De fust time—yes; but dat won't prevent him gobblin' up de biskits quick. Neber fear, you an' me'll manidge it 'tween us."
"Thank you, dear Sally, I'll never, never forget your kindness, and we will try your plan to-morrow."
HESTER AND HER FATHER SEVERELY TESTED.
The very next day, accordingly, Hester Sommers and her friend sallied forth to present Hugh Sommers with a couple of biscuits!
It was arranged that the two girls should carry baskets of fruit on their heads, and that Hester should have the biscuits conveniently in her right hand, so as to be able to drop them into her father's lap without stopping or even checking her pace as they passed.
Of course, Hester was by this time thoroughly alive to the danger of her intended proceedings, both to herself and her father, and was firmly resolved to restrain her feelings. Nevertheless, she could not help trembling when she came in sight of the gang, with which her father worked.
Sally observed this and grasped her by the arm.
"Geo'giana," she said, "if you gibs way, or speaks, or trembles, or busts up in any way, I grips you by de neck, as I once did before, an' shobes you along wid scolds and whacks—so you look out!"
"Anxiety for my darling father will be a much more powerful restraint, Sally, than your threats," replied the poor girl.
Nevertheless, the threat was not without its effect, for it showed Hester that she must have been on the point of giving way, and impressed on her more than ever the necessity of self-restraint.
"W'ich am him? I don't see him," said the negress as they advanced.
"There he is, don't you see, just before us," replied Hester, in a low, hurried voice.
"No, I's growin' blind, I t'ink."
"There—look! by himself, on the stone. He seems always to sit on the same spot at dinner-time."
"Oh yes, I sees. Now you go on—stiddy. Mind what you's about!"
With a brief prayer for help to control herself, Hester went straight to where her father sat. He was languidly chewing a piece of the regulation black bread at the time, and looked up at her with the vacant indifference born of despair.
The desire to fall on his neck and kiss him was, need we say, almost irresistible, but the poor girl had received strength for the duty in hand. She went close to him—even brushed past him—and dropped the biscuits into his lap.
At first the poor man was so astonished that he gazed after the retiring figure and made no effort to conceal this unexpected addition to his meal. Fortunately, his wits revived before any of the guards observed him. He slid the biscuits into his shirt bosom with conjurer-like facility, and at the same moment broke off a large bit of one, which he devoured with unwonted satisfaction. The addition did not indeed furnish the unfortunate slave with a full meal, but it at least tended towards that desirable end, and sent him to work with a full heart, because of the assurance that there was in the city, at all events, one human being—and that being, strange to say, a negress!—who pitied him in his forlorn condition.
During the remainder of that day Hugh Sommers almost forgot his toils in consequence of his mind being so thoroughly taken up with meditation on the wonderful incident. At night, although wearied, almost worn out, and anxious to sleep, he found it impossible to rest in the dismal Bagnio. It chanced that he occupied the cell which had formerly been apportioned to George Foster on the occasion of his first visit to that cheerless prison, and his next neighbour was the despairing Frenchman who had given such poor comfort to the middy in his distress. Finding that this Frenchman spoke English so well, and that they worked together in the same gang during the day, Hugh Sommers had struck up an acquaintance with him, which, after they had spent some weeks together in toiling by day and groaning side by side at night, ripened into a curious sort of growling friendship.
This friendship began with a quarrel. The night in which they were first placed in neighbouring cells, or niches, followed a day in which Sommers had received an application of the bastinado, and been put into irons for fierce rebellion. Being a man of strong emotions, he had groaned a little as he lay trying to sleep in spite of his suffering feet. Failing of his purpose, he took to thinking about Hester, and the groans which had been but feeble for himself became more intense on her account.
"Can you not stop that noise?" growled the irate Frenchman, who was kept awake by it.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, friend," said Sommers gently, for he was really an unselfish man; "but if you knew all I've had to suffer you would excuse me."
"Oh, I know what you have had to suffer!" said his comrade testily. "I saw you get the bastinado; I've had it often myself, but—it is bearable!"
"It's not that, man!" returned the Englishman, with a touch of indignation. "If I had nothing to worry me but the pain of my feet I'd have been asleep by now. I have worse things to groan about than you can guess, maybe."
"Well, well, monsieur," said the Frenchman, in a resigned tone, as he raised himself on one elbow and leaned his back against the stone wall, "since you have driven sleep from my eyes, perhaps you will give employment to my ears, by telling me for what it is that you groan?"
There was something so peculiar in the tone and manner in which this was said—so cool and off-hand, yet withal so kind—that Sommers at once agreed.
"I'll do it," he said, "if you will treat me to the same thing in return. Fair exchange! You see, I am by profession a merchant, and must have value for what I give."
And thus on that night the two unfortunates had exchanged confidences, and formed the friendship to which we have referred.
To this man, then—whose name was Edouard Laronde—Sommers related the incident that had occurred that day during the noontide period of rest.
"It is strange. I know not what to think," said Laronde, when his friend concluded. "If it had been a white girl I could have understood that it might be your daughter in disguise, though even in this case there would have been several reasons against the theory, for, in the first place, you tell me that your daughter—your Hester—is very pretty, and no pretty English girl could go about this city in any disguise without being discovered at once. Now you tell me that this girl was black—a negress?"
"Ay, as black as a coal," responded the merchant.
"Well, if, as you say, your Hester is pretty—"
"Pretty, man! She's not pretty," interrupted the Englishman impatiently; "I tell you she is beautiful!"
"Of course, I understand," returned the other, with a smile that the darkness of the place concealed, "I should have said beautiful! Well, thick lips and flat nose and high cheek-bones and woolly hair are, you know, incompatible with beauty as understood by Englishmen—"
"Or Frenchmen either," added Sommers. "That's quite true, Laronde, though I must confess that I paid no attention to her face when she was approaching me, and after she dropped the biscuits in my lap she was so far past that I only saw a bit of her black cheek and her back, which latter, you know, was enveloped from head to foot in that loose blue cotton thing which does not tell much about the wearer."
"True, true," returned the Frenchman; "and, after all, even if the girl's features had not been negro-like, you could not have been sure that it was her, for some of the blacks who come from the interior of Africa have features quite as classical as our own."
"Laronde," said the merchant impressively, "I wonder to hear you, who have a daughter of your own, suggest that I could fail to recognise my Hester in any disguise. Why, if she were to paint her face scarlet and her nose pea-green I'd see through it by the beautiful shape of the features and the sweet expression of her face."
"Forgive me, Monsieur Sommers, I doubt not that you would. As to your reference to my daughter, you forget that she was a little child when I last saw her, so I have no experience of a father's powers of penetrating disguises."
Laronde sighed deeply at this point, and then hurriedly continued, as if to prevent further reference to his own sorrows.
"It is possible, however," he said, "that she may pass you again to-morrow, and so give you another opportunity of seeing her features. But let me ask, my friend, what will you do if you discover that she is your Hester?"
"Do?" exclaimed the merchant, with an energetic action that caused his fetters to rattle. "I—I—I'll—well—I don't know what I'll do!"
"Of course you don't!" returned Laronde, with something of the old cynicism in his tone. "You Englishmen are always so cock-sure—as you express it—of success that you make no provision for defeat or failure. It may seem very heroic, but it is mere pride and folly. Now, if you will take a real friend's advice, you will go out to-morrow with the determination to curb yourself and refrain from taking any notice whatever of this girl, whether she turns out to be your daughter or not, and leave her to work out her plan, for you may be quite sure she has some end in view. Just consider what would be the consequence of your giving way to your feelings and embracing her. You would by so doing expose her disguise, cause her to be taken up and sent to the harem of some one of the notables, and get heavier irons put on yourself, besides another touch, perhaps, of the bastinado. Be wise, and consider well what you intend to do."
"Thank you, friend, for your warning. It is well timed. If you had not spoken I would certainly have gone forth to-morrow unprepared."
"But what is your preparation? What will you do?" persisted the Frenchman.
"What can I do?" replied Sommers. "Have you not just shown me that I am utterly helpless? In such a case there is only one course left— namely, to go to Him who can succour the helpless. I will ask counsel of God. The pride you have referred to I admit, though it is by no means confined to my own countrymen! Too long have I given way to it, and acted independently of my Maker. Perhaps God sent me here to convince me of my sin and helplessness."
"There is no God. I do not believe in a God," said Laronde calmly.
"Why not?" asked Sommers, in surprise.
"Because," replied Laronde bitterly, "if there was a God He could not stand by and see me suffering such prolonged and awful misery."
"If, instead of misery, you had been placed during the last twelve years in supreme felicity, would you have believed in a God?" asked Sommers.
Laronde was silent. He saw that the reason which he had given for disbelief was untenable, and he was too straightforward to quibble about it.
"I don't know," he said at last angrily. "No doubt there are hundreds of men in happy and favourable circumstances who say, as I do, that they don't believe in a God. I don't know. All I do know is that I am supremely miserable!"
"Now you are reasonable," returned the merchant, "for you talk of what you do know, and you admit that in regard to God you 'don't know,' but you began by stating that 'there is no God.' Ah, my friend, I sympathise with you in your terrible sorrow, even as you have sympathised with me in mine, but don't let us give way to despair and cast the only Refuge that remains to us behind our backs. I will not ask you to join me in praying to One, in whom you say you do not believe, but I will pray for you."
Hugh Sommers got upon his knees and then and there—in the dark and dank prison-house—prayed most earnestly for guidance and spiritual light in the name of Jesus. At first the Frenchman listened with what we may style kindly contempt, and then with surprise, for the Englishman drew to the conclusion of his very brief prayer without any mention of his own name. Just at the close, however, Sommers said, "O God! show to my friend here that he is wrong, and that Thou art Love."
It was with eager and trembling heart next day that Hugh Sommers watched, during the noontide meal, for the coming of his mysterious black friend, and it was with no less anxiety and trembling of heart that Hester approached her father at the same hour.
"Now mind how you doos," said the doubtful Sally, as she glanced keenly at Hester's face. "Mind, I'll hab no marcy on you if you gibs way!"
Hester made no reply, for she was drawing near to her father, and saw that he was gazing at her with fixed intensity. She raised her heart to God and received strength to pass without a word or look, dropping the biscuits as on the previous day. The man, however, proved less capable of self-restraint than the girl, for he could not resist whispering, "Hester!"
The poor girl turned towards him as if by an irresistible impulse, but her black guardian angel was equal to the emergency. Seizing Hester by the shoulder, she pushed her violently forward, storming at her loudly as on the former occasion.
"What, you black t'ing! Hab you neber seen slabes before? You no better'n de white folk, wastin' ob your purcious time. My! won't you get a whackin' fro' missis w'en you gits home!"
Recovering herself, Hester at once submitted.
At first the poor father was about to start up and run to embrace his child, as well as to rescue her from her rude companion, but, being what is termed a "sharp man of business," he received into his mind, as it were, a flash of light, and sat still. If this flash had been analysed it would probably have produced the following thoughts—"biscuits! kindness! companion a friend! ignorance impossible! violence unaccountable! a ruse, perhaps! sit still!"
Thought, they say, is swifter than light. At all events, it was swift enough on the present occasion to prevent the shadow of a suspicion arising in the minds either of slaves or guards, who seemed to be rather amused at what they fancied was the bad temper of Sally.
Next day the biscuit-dropping was repeated without the scene that had followed, and so wisely was this affair managed by all the parties concerned, that it was carried on for several weeks without a hitch. Under the influence of hope and improved fare, Hugh Sommers became so much brighter in spirits and better in health, and so much more tractable, that his guards at length removed his heavy fetters and allowed him to toil with free limbs, like the majority of the slaves. Hester also became almost cheerful under the wonderful influence of hope. But Hester and her father were each overwhelmed, more or less, by a wet blanket at that time, and, strange to say, their wet blankets happened to be their best friends.
In the case of Hester, it was Sally. The more hopeful and cheery Hester became, the more did her black friend shake her woolly head and look dismal.
"Why, Sally, dear, what's the matter with you?" asked the former one day, as they sat together in the bower on the roof, after returning from their visit to the slave-gang.
A shake of the girl's head and an unutterable expression in her magnificent black eyes made Hester quite uneasy.
"Do tell me, Sally. Is there anything the matter with you?"
"De matter wid me? Oh no! Not'ing's neber de matter wid me—'cept when I eats too much—but it's you an' your fadder I's t'inkin' ob."
"But we are both getting on very well, Sally, are we not? I am quite safe here, and darling father is growing stronger and fatter every day, thank God! and then our hope is very strong. Why should you be anxious?"
Sally prefaced her reply with one of the professional gasps wherewith she was wont to bring down the iron pestle.
"Well, now, you white folks am de greatest ijits eber was born. Do you t'ink you'll deliber your fadder from de Moors by feedin' him on biscuits an' hope? What's de end ob all dis to come to? das what I want to know. Ob course you can't go on for eber. You sure to be cotched at last, and de whole affair'll bust up. You'll be tooked away, an' your fadder'll be t'rowed on de hooks or whacked to deaf. Oh! I's most mis'rable!"
The poor creature seemed inclined to howl at this point, but she constrained herself and didn't.
In the gloom of the cheerless Bagnio, Hugh Sommers found his wet blanket in Edouard Laronde.
"But it is unwise to look only at the bright side of things," said the Frenchman, after sympathising with his friend's joy in having discovered his daughter so unexpectedly and in such a curious manner. "No doubt, from her disguise, she must, as you say, be in hiding, and in comparative safety with friends, else she could not be moving so freely about this accursed city, but what is to be the end of it all?"
Laronde unconsciously echoed Sally's question to Hester, but Hugh Sommers had not as much to say in reply as his daughter, for he was too well acquainted with the possibilities of life to suppose that biscuits and hope would do much towards the "end," although valuable auxiliaries in the meantime.
"I see not the end, Laronde," he said, after a pause; "but the end is in the hands of God, and I will trust Him."
"So is the middle, and so is the beginning, as well as the end," returned Laronde cynically; "why, then, are you so perplexed and anxious about these if the end is, as you seem to think, so sure? Why don't you trust God all through?"
"I do trust God all through, my friend, but there is this difference— that with the end I have nothing to do save to wait patiently and trustfully, whereas with the beginning and middle it is my duty to act and energise hopefully."
"But why your anxiety if the whole matter is under safe guidance?" persisted the Frenchman.
"Because, while I am absolutely certain that God will do His part wisely and well, I am by no means sure that I shall do my part either well or wisely. You forget, Laronde, that we are free agents as well as sinful and foolish, more or less, so that there is legitimate room for anxiety, which only becomes evil when we give way to it, or when it goes the length of questioning the love, wisdom, and power of the Creator!"
"All mystery, all mystery, Sommers; you are only theorising about what you do not, cannot, know anything. You have no ground for what you hold."
"As you confess never to have studied, or even seriously contemplated, the ground on which I hold it, there is—don't you think?—a slight touch of presumption on your part in criticising so severely what you do not, cannot, understand? I profess to have good reasons for what I hold; you profess merely to disbelieve it. Is there not a vast difference here?"
"Perhaps there is, but I'm too sleepy to see it. Would you oblige me by putting your foot on that centipede? He has made three ineffectual attempts to pass the night under my wing. Make sure work of him. Thanks. Now I will try to sleep. Oh! the weary, heart-sickness of hope deferred! Good-night, Sommers."
A BRAVE DASH FOR LIFE AND FREEDOM.
"Geo'ge, come wid me," said Peter the Great one afternoon, with face so solemn that the heart of the young midshipman beat faster as he followed his friend.
They were in Ben-Ahmed's garden at the time—for the middy had been returned to his owner after a night in the common prison, and a threat of much severer treatment if he should ever again venture to lay his infidel hands on one of the faithful.
Having led the middy to the familiar summer house, where most of their earnest or important confabulations were held, Peter sat down and groaned.
"What's wrong now?" asked the middy, with anxious looks.
"Oh! Geo'ge, eberyt'ing's wrong," he replied, flinging himself down on a rustic seat with a reckless air and rolling his eyes horribly. "Eberyt'ing's wrong. De world's all wrong togidder—upside down and inside out."
The middy might have laughed at Peter's expression if he had not been terribly alarmed.
"Come, Peter, tell me. Is Hester safe?"
"I don' know, Geo'ge."
"Don't know! Why d'you keep me in such anxiety? Speak, man, speak! What has happened?"
"How kin I speak, Geo'ge, w'en I's a'most busted wid runnin' out here to tell you?"
The perspiration that stood on Peter's sable brow, and the heaving of his mighty chest, told eloquently of the pace at which he had been running.
"Dis is de way ob it, Geo'ge. I had it all fro' de lips ob Sally herself, what saw de whole t'ing." As the narrative which Peter the Great had to tell is rather too long to be related in his own "lingo," we will set it down in ordinary language.
One day while Hester was, as usual, passing her father, and in the very act of dropping the customary supply of food, she observed that one of the slaves had drawn near and was watching her with keen interest. From the slave's garb and bearing any one at all acquainted with England could have seen at a glance that he was a British seaman, though hard service and severe treatment, with partial starvation, had changed him much. He was in truth the stout sailor-like man who had spoken a few words to Foster the day he landed in Algiers, and who had contemptuously asserted his utter ignorance of gardening.
The slaves, we need hardly say, were not permitted to hold intercourse with each other for fear of their combining to form plans of rebellion and escape, but it was beyond the power of their drivers to be perpetually on the alert, so that sometimes they did manage to exchange a word or two without being observed.
That afternoon it chanced that Sommers had to carry a stone to a certain part of the wall. It was too heavy for one man to lift, the sailor was therefore ordered to help him. While bearing the burden towards the wall, the following whispered conversation took place.
"I say, old man," observed the sailor, "the little girl that gives you biscuits every day is no more a nigger than I am."
"Right!" whispered the merchant anxiously, for he had supposed that no one had observed the daily gift; "she is my daughter."
"I guessed as much by the cut o' your jibs. But she's in danger, for I noticed that one o' the drivers looked at her suspiciously to-day, and once suspicion is roused the villains never rest. Is there no means of preventing her coming this way to-morrow?"
"None. I don't even know where she comes from or goes to. God help her! If suspected, she is lost, for she will be sure to come to-morrow."
"Don't break down, old man; they'll observe you. If she is taken are you willing to fight?"
"Yes," answered the merchant sternly.
"I am with you, then. Your name?"
A driver had been coming towards them, so that the last few words had been spoken in low whispers. A sharp cut of the whip on the shoulders of each showed that the driver had observed them talking. They received it in absolute silence and without any outward display of feeling. To that extent, at all events, they had both been "tamed."
But the stout seaman had been for many weeks acting a part. At first, like Sommers, he had been put in heavy irons on account of his violence and ferocity; but after many weeks of childlike submission on his part, the irons were removed. Despite the vigilance of the guards, a plot had been hatched by the gang to which Brown belonged, and it was almost, though not quite, ripe for execution when the events we are describing occurred. Poor Hester's action next day precipitated matters and caused the failure of the plot—at least to some extent.
She had gone as usual with Sally to visit the slave-gang, and had dropped her biscuits, when her anxious father said, in a low but hurried voice, "Pass quickly, and don't come again for some time!"
Hester involuntarily stopped.
"Darling father!" she said, restraining herself with difficulty from leaping into his arms, "why—oh! why am I not—"
She had only got thus far when the janissary, whose suspicions had been aroused, pounced upon her, and, seizing her by the wrist, looked keenly into her face.
"Ho! ho!" he exclaimed, glancing from the girl to her sire, "what mystery have we here? Come, we must investigate this."
Poor Hester winced from the pain of the rude soldier's grip as he proceeded to drag her away. Her father, seeing that further concealment was impossible, and that final separation was inevitable, became desperate. With the bound of an enraged tiger he sprang on the soldier and throttled him. Both being powerful men they fell on the ground in a deadly struggle, at which sight Hester could only look on with clasped hands in helpless terror.
But the British seaman was at hand. He had feared that some such mischief would arise. Seeing that two other soldiers were running to the aid of their fallen comrade, he suddenly gave the signal for the revolt of the slaves. It was premature. Taken by surprise, the half-hearted among the conspirators paid no attention to it, while the timid stood more or less bewildered. Only a few of the resolute and reckless obeyed the call, but these furnished full employment for their guards, for, knowing that failure meant death, if not worse, they fought like fiends.
Meanwhile the first of the two soldiers who came running, sword in hand, towards Sommers, was met by Brown. With a piece of wood in his left hand, that worthy parried the blow that was delivered at his head. At the same time he sent his right fist into the countenance of his adversary with such force that he became limp and dropped like an empty topcoat. This was fortunate, for the companion janissary was close to him when he wheeled round. The blazing look of the seaman, however, induced so much caution in the Turk that, instead of using his sword, he drew a long pistol from his girdle and levelled it. Brown leaped upon him, caught the pistol as it exploded just in time to turn the muzzle aside, wrenched the weapon from his foe's grasp, and brought the butt of it down with such a whack on his head that it laid him beside his comrade.
Turning quickly to the still struggling pair, he saw that the janissary was black in the face, and that Sommers was compressing his throat with both hands and had his knee on his stomach, while Hester and Sally were looking on horrified, but hopeful. At the same time he saw fresh soldiers running up the street to reinforce the guard.
"Hester," he said sharply, and seizing the girl's hand, "come, bolt with me. I've knowed your father a good while. Quick!"
"Impossible!" she cried, drawing back. "I will not leave my father now!"
"You'll have to leave him anyhow," cried the sailor. "You can do him no good. If free you might—"
A shout at the moment caused him to glance round. It proceeded both from slaves and guards, for both at the same moment caught sight of the approach of the reinforcements. The former scattered in all directions, and the latter gave chase, while pistol-shots and yells rent the air.
Instead of wasting more breath in useless entreaty, Brown seized the light form of Hester in his arms and ran with her to the ramparts. In the confusion of the general skirmish he was not observed—or, if observed, unheeded—by any one but Sally, who followed him in anxious haste, thinking that the man was mad, for there could be no possible way of escape, she thought, in that direction. She was wrong. There was method in Brown's madness. He had for a long time previously studied all the possibilities with reference to the meditated uprising, and had laid down for himself several courses which he might pursue according to the success, failure, or partial failure of their plans.
There was one part of the rampart they were engaged in repairing at that time which had given way and partly fallen into the ditch outside. The portion of the wall still remaining had been further demolished in order that a more secure foundation might be laid. The broken wall here had been but partially rebuilt, and was not nearly as high as the completed wall. A jump from this might be possible to a strong active man if the ground below were soft, or even level—though the risk of broken limbs was considerable.
Brown had observed, however, that at this place a small tree grew out from a mass of rock which had been incorporated as part of the wall, and that just below it there stood a huge bush of the cactus kind. To these two he had made up his mind to intrust himself in the event of things coming to the worst.
Accordingly it was to this part of the rampart he ran with Hester in his strong arms. We have said that Sally ran after the sailor with anxiety, but that feeling was deepened into dismay when she saw him approach the portion of the wall just described, and she gave out one of her loudest coffee-pestle gasps when she saw him jump straight off the wall without a moment's hesitation.
Craning her neck and gazing downward, she saw the sailor go crashing through the little tree and alight with a squash in the heart of the watery cactus, out of which he leaped with such agility that Sally was led to exclaim under her breath—
"Hoh! don't de spikes make 'im jump!"
Whether it was the spikes or other influences we cannot tell, but certain it is that Brown did jump with wonderful activity, considering the burden he carried, dashed up the opposite bank, cut across country like a hunted hare, and found shelter in a neighbouring wood before the revolt in the city was completely quelled.
Here he pulled up and set the terrified Hester down.
"You'll excuse me, miss," he said pantingly, as he wiped his brows with the sleeve of his shirt—which garment, with a pair of canvas trousers, a grass hat, and thin carpet shoes, constituted his costume. "I'm wery sorry to carry you off agin' your will, but you'll thank me for it yet, maybe, for if I had left you behind, you couldn't have helped your poor father, and they'd have took you off for sartin to be a slave. Now, d'ye see, if you an' I manage to escape, there's no sayin' what we may do in the way o' raisin' ransom to buy back your father. Anyway, he has been so anxious about you, an' afraid o' your bein' catched, an' the terrible fate in store for you if you are, that I made up my mind for his sake to carry you off."
To this explanation Hester listened with varying feelings.
"I believe, from the honesty of your look and tone," she said, at last, "that you have acted for the best, whether wisely or not remains to be seen; but I thank you heartily for your intentions, and especially for your kind feelings towards my dear father; but now I must claim the right to use my own judgment. I will return to the city and succour my father, or perish with him. Yet, rest assured, I will never forget the brave seaman who has so nobly risked his life to save me. Your name is—"
"Brown, miss—at your service."
"Well, good-bye, Brown, and God's blessing attend you," she said, extending her black little hand.
The seaman gently took it and gave it a timid pressure, as if he feared to crush it in his brawny hand.
"I'll shake hands with you," he said, "but I won't say good-bye, for I'll steer back to the city with you."
"Brown, this is sheer madness. There is no reason in what you propose to do. You cannot help me by sacrificing yourself."
"That's exactly what yer father would say to you, miss, if he was alongside of us—'You can't help me by sacrificin' of yerself.' Then, p'r'aps he would foller up that obsarvation by sayin', 'but you may an' can help me if you go wi' that sailor-friend o' mine, who may be rough and ready, but is sartinly true-blue, who knows the coast hereaway an' all its hidin'-places, an' who'll wentur his life to do me a good turn, cause why? I once wentured my life to do him a good turn o' the same kind.'"
"Is this true, Brown? Did you know my father before meeting him here; and did he really render you some service?"
"Yes, indeed, miss; I have sailed in one o' your father's wessels, an' once I was washed overboard by a heavy sea, and he flung over a lifebuoy arter me, and jumped into the water himself to keep me afloat till a boat picked us up, for I couldn't swim. Now, look 'ere, miss, if you'll consent to sail under my orders for a short spell, you'll have a better chance o' doin' your father a sarvice than by returnin' to that nest o' pirates. Moreover, you'll have to make up your mind pretty quick, for we've lost too much time already."
"Go on, Brown, I will trust you," said Hester, placing her hand in that of the seaman, who, without another word, led her swiftly into the bush.
Now, all this, and a great deal more was afterwards related by Hester herself to her friends; but at the time all that was known to Sally—the only witness of the exploit—was that Hester Sommers had been carried off in the manner related by an apparently friendly British sailor. This she told soon after to Peter the Great, and this was the substance of the communication which Peter the Great, with glaring eyes and bated breath, made to George Foster, who received it with feelings and expressions that varied amazingly as the narrative proceeded.
"Is that all?" he asked, when the negro at length came to a decided stop.
"Das all—an' it's enuff too! 'Pears to me you's not so much cut up about dis leetle business as I 'spected you would be."
"I am anxious, of course, about Hester," returned the middy; "but at the same time greatly relieved, first, to know that she is in the hands of a respectable British sailor; and, second, that she is not in the hands of these bloodthirsty piratical Moors. But what about her father? Nothing more, I suppose, is known about his fate?"
"Not'ing, on'y it's as sure as if we did know it. If his carcass isn't on de hooks by dis time it'll soon be."
As the negro spoke the midshipman started up with flashing eyes, exclaimed angrily, "It shall never be," and ran out of the bower.
Entering the house, he went straight to Ben-Ahmed's private chamber, which he entered boldly, without even knocking at the door.
The Moor was seated cross-legs on a mat, solacing himself, as usual, with a pipe. He was not a little surprised, and at first was inclined to be angry, at the abrupt entrance of his slave.
"Ben-Ahmed," said the middy, with vehemence, "the father of the English girl you are so fond of—and whom I love—is in terrible danger, and if you are a true man—as I firmly believe you are—you will save him."
The Moor smiled very slightly at the youth's vehemence, pointed with the mouthpiece of his hookah to a cushion, and bade him sit down and tell him all about it.
The middy at once squatted a la Turk, not on the cushion, but on the floor, in front of his master, and, with earnest voice and gesture, related the story which Peter the Great had just told him.