Ben-Ahmed was visibly affected by it.
"But how can I save him?" he asked, with a look of perplexity.
"Did you not once save the life of the Dey?" asked Foster.
"I did. How came you to know that?"
"I heard it from Peter the Great, who aided you on the occasion. And he told me that the Dey has often since then offered to do you some good turn, but that you have always declined."
"That is true," said Ben-Ahmed, with the look of a man into whose mind a new idea had been introduced.
"Yes, something may be done in that way, and it would grieve me that the father of my poor little Hester should die. I will try. Go, have my horse saddled, and send Peter to me."
Our midshipman bounded rather than rose from the floor, and uttered an irresistible, "God bless you," as he vanished through the doorway on his errand.
"Peter," he cried—encountering that worthy as he ran—"we'll manage it! Go to Ben-Ahmed! He wants you—quick! I'm off to fetch his horse."
Foster was much too anxious to have the thing done quickly to give the order to the head groom. He ran direct to the stable, and, choosing the fleetest of the Moor's Arab steeds, quickly put on its crimson saddle, with its un-European peaks before and behind, and the other gay portions of harness with which Easterns are wont to caparison their horses.
In a wonderfully short space of time he had the steed round to the front door, and sent another slave to tell his master that it was ready.
The Moor had also caparisoned himself, if we may say so, for the intended visit, and he had evidently done it in haste. Nevertheless, his gait was stately, and his movements were slow, as he gravely mounted the horse and rode away. The impatience of the middy was somewhat relieved, however, when he saw that Ben-Ahmed, on reaching the main road, put spurs to his horse, and rode towards the city at full gallop.
A STRANGE VISIT, A STRANGE COMMISSION, AND A STRANGE DISPLAY OF TEMPER.
After Ben-Ahmed had departed on his mission to the Dey of Algiers, George Foster and Peter the Great re-entered the house, and in the seclusion of the bower continued to discuss the hopes, fears, and possibilities connected with the situation.
"Dat was a clebber dodge ob yours, Geo'ge," remarked the negro, "an' I's got good hope dat somet'ing will come ob it, for massa's pretty sure to succeed w'en he take a t'ing in hand."
"I'm glad you think so, Peter. And, to say truth, I am myself very sanguine."
"But dere's one t'ing dat 'plexes me bery much. What is we to do about poo' Hester's fadder w'en he's pardoned? De Dey can spare his life, but he won't set him free—an' if he don't set him free de slabe-drivers 'll be sure to kill 'im out ob spite."
The middy was silent, for he could not see his way out of this difficulty.
"Perhaps," he said, "Ben-Ahmed may have thought of that, and will provide against it, for of course he knows all the outs and ins of Moorish life, and he is a thoughtful man."
"Das true, Geo'ge. He am a t'oughtful man. Anyhow, we kin do not'ing more, 'cept wait an' see. But I's much more 'plexed about Hester, for eben if de sailor am a good an' true man, as you say, he can't keep her or his-self alibe on not'ing in de mountains, no more'n he could swim wid her on his back across de Mederainyon!"
Again the middy was silent for a time. He could by no means see his way out of this greater difficulty, and his heart almost failed him as he thought of the poor girl wandering in the wilderness without food or shelter.
"P'r'aps," suggested Peter, "she may manage to git into de town an' pass for a nigger as she's dood before, an' make tracks for her old place wid Missis Lilly—or wid Dinah."
"No doubt she may," cried Foster, grasping at the hope as a drowning man grasps at a plank. "Nothing more likely. Wouldn't it be a good plan for you to go into town at once and make inquiry?"
"Dessay it would," returned the negro. "Das just what I'll do, an' if she's not dere, Dinah may gib my int'lec' a jog. She's a wonderful woman, Dinah, for workin' up de human mind w'en it's like goin' to sleep. Poo' Samson hab diskivered dat many times. I'll go at once."
"Do, Peter, my fine fellow, and you'll lay me for ever under the deepest ob—"
He was interrupted by a slave who at the moment approached the bower and said that a man wanted to see Peter the Great.
"To see Ben-Ahmed, you mean," said Peter.
"No—to see yourself," returned the slave.
"Sen' 'im here," said the negro, with a magnificent wave of the hand.
In a few minutes the slave returned accompanied by a negro, who limped so badly that he was obliged to use a stick, and whose head was bandaged up with a blue cloth. Arrived at the bower, he stood before Peter the Great and groaned.
"You may go," said Peter to the slave, who lingered as if anxious to hear the news of the visitor. When he was out of hearing, Peter turned to the lame man, looked him sharply in the face, and said—
"You's bery black in de face, my frind, but you's much blacker in de h'art. What business hab you to come here widout washin' your white face clean?"
"Well, you're a pretty smart chap for a nigger. An' I dare say you'll understand that I'd have had some difficulty in fetchin' this here port at all if I'd washed my face," answered the lame man, in excellent nautical English.
While he spoke, Foster ran towards him, laid a hand on his shoulder, and looked earnestly into his face.
"You are the British sailor," he said, "who rescued Hes—Miss Sommers from the janissaries?"
"That's me to a tee," replied the sailor, with a broad grin.
"Is Miss Sommers safe?" asked the middy anxiously.
"Ay! safe as any woman can be in this world. Leastwise, she's in a cave wi' three o' the toughest sea-dogs as any man could wish to see—one o' them bein' a Maltese an' the other two bein' true-blue John Bulls as well as Jack Tars. But Miss Sommers gave me orders to say my say to Peter the Great, so if this nigger is him, I'll be obleeged if he'll have a little private conversation wi' me."
"Did Miss Sommers say that I was not to hear the message?" asked the middy, in some surprise.
"She made no mention o' you, or anybody else at all, as I knows on," returned the sailor firmly, "an' as my orders was to Peter the Great, an' as this seems to be him, from Sally's description—a monstrous big, fine-lookin' nigger, with a lively face—I'll say my say to him alone, with your leave."
"You may say it where you is, for dis yar gen'lem'n is a frind ob mine, an' a hofficer in the Bri'sh navy, an' a most 'tickler friend of Hester Sommers, so we all frinds togidder."
"You'll excuse me, sir," said the seaman, touching his forelock, "but you don't look much like a' officer in your present costoom. Well, then, here's wot I've got to say—"
"Don't waste your time, Brown, in spinning the yarn of your rescue of the girl," said Foster, interrupting; "we've heard all about it already from Sally, and can never sufficiently express our thanks to you for your brave conduct. Tell us, now, what happened after you disappeared from Sally's view."
The sailor thereupon told them all about his subsequent proceedings—how he had persuaded Hester to accompany him through the woods and by a round about route to a part of the coast where he expected ere long to find friends to rescue him. From some reason or other best known to himself, he was very secretive in regard to the way in which these friends had managed to communicate with him.
"You see I'm not free to speak out all I knows," he said. "But surely it's enough to say that my friends have not failed me; that I found them waitin' there with a small boat, so light that they had dragged it up an' concealed it among the rocks, an' that I'd have bin on my way to old England at this good hour if it hadn't bin for poor Miss Sommers, whom we couldn't think of desartin'."
"Then she refused to go with you?" said Foster.
"Refused! I should think she did! Nothing, she said, would indooce her to leave Algiers while her father was in it. One o' my mates was for forcing her into the boat, an' carryin' her off, willin' or not willin', but I stood out agin' him, as I'd done enough o' that to the poor thing already. Then she axed me to come along here an' ax Peter the Great if he knowed anything about her father. 'But I don't know Peter the Great,' says I, 'nor where he lives.' 'Go to Sally,' says she, 'an' you'll get all the information you need.' 'But I'll never get the length o' Sally without being nabbed,' says I. 'Oh!' says she, 'no fear o' that. Just you let me make a nigger of you. I always keep the stuff about me in my pocket, for I so often cry it off that I need to renew it frequently.' An' with that she out with a parcel o' black stuff and made me into a nigger before you could say Jack Robinson. Fort'nately, I've got a pretty fat lump of a nose of my own, an' my lips are pretty thick by natur', so that with a little what you may call hard poutin' when I had to pass guards, janissaries, an' such like, I managed to get to where Missis Lilly an' Sally lived, an' they sent me on here. An' now the question is, what's to be done, for it's quite clear that my mates an' me can't remain for ever hidin' among the rocks. We must be off; an' I want to know, are we to take this poor gal with us, or are we to leave her behind, an', if so, what are her friends a-goin' to do for her?"
"There's no fear of your friends going off without you, I suppose?"
"Well, as they risked their precious lives to rescue me, it ain't likely," returned the seaman.
"Would it not be well to keep Brown here till Ben-Ahmed returns?" asked Foster, turning to Peter the Great.
The negro knitted his brows and looked vacantly up through the leafy roof of the bower, as if in profound meditation. Some of the brighter stars were beginning to twinkle in the darkening sky by that time, and one of them seemed to wink at him encouragingly, for he suddenly turned to the middy with all the energy of his nature, exclaiming, "I's got it!" and brought his great palm down on his greater thigh with a resounding slap.
"If it's in your breeches pocket you must have squashed it, then!" said Brown—referring to the slap. "Anyhow, if you've got it, hold on to it an' let's hear what it is."
"No—not now. All in good time. Patience, my frind, is a virtoo wuf cultivation—"
"You needn't go for to tell that to a Bagnio slave like me, Mister Peter. Your greatness might have made you aware o' that," returned the sailor quietly.
An eye-shutting grin was Peter's reply to this, and further converse was stopped by the sound of clattering hoofs.
"Massa!" exclaimed the negro, listening. "Das good. No time lost. Come wid me, you sham nigger, an' I's gib you somet'ing to tickle you stummik. You go an' look arter de hoss, Geo'ge."
While the middy ran to the gate to receive his master, Peter the Great led the sham nigger to the culinary regions, where, in a sequestered corner, he supplied him with a bowl containing a savoury compound of chicken and rice.
"I hope that all has gone well?" Foster ventured to ask as the Moor dismounted.
"All well. Send Peter to me immediately," he replied, and, without another word, hurried into the house.
Calling another slave and handing over the smoking horse to him, Foster ran to the kitchen.
"Wanted 'meeditly—yes, yes—I knows dat. What a t'ing it is to be in'spensible to anybody! I don't know how he'll eber git along widout me."
Saying which he hurried away, leaving the middy to do the honours of the house to the sailor.
"I s'pose, sir, you haven't a notion what sort o' plans that nigger has got in his head?" asked the latter.
"Not the least idea. All I know is that he is a very clever fellow and never seems very confident about anything without good reason."
"Well, whatever he's a-goin' to do, I hope he'll look sharp about it, for poor Miss Sommers's fate and the lives o' my mates, to say nothin' of my own, is hangin' at this moment on a hair—so to speak," returned the sailor, as he carefully scraped up and consumed the very last grain of the savoury mess, murmuring, as he did so, that it was out o' sight the wery best blow-out he'd had since he enjoyed his last Christmas dinner in old England.
"Will you have some more?" asked the sympathetic middy.
"No more, sir, thankee. I'm loaded fairly down to the water-line. Another grain would bust up the hatches; but if I might ventur' to putt forth a wish now, a glass o'—no? well, no matter, a drop o' water'll do. I'm well used to it now, havin' drunk enough to float a seventy-four since I come to this city o' pirates."
"You will find coffee much more agreeable as well as better for you. I have learned that from experience," said the middy, pouring out a tiny cupful from an earthen coffee-pot that always stood simmering beside the charcoal fire.
"Another of that same, sir, if you please," said the seaman, tossing off the cupful, which, indeed, scarcely sufficed to fill his capacious mouth. "Why they should take their liquor in these parts out o' things that ain't much bigger than my old mother's thimble, passes my comprehension. You wouldn't mind another?—thankee."
"As many as you please, Brown," said the middy, laughing, as he poured out cupful after cupful; "there's no fear of your getting half-seas-over on that tipple!"
"I only wish I was half-seas-over, or even a quarter that length. Your health, sir!" returned Brown, with a sigh, as he drained the last cup.
Just then Peter the Great burst into the kitchen in a very elated condition.
"Geo'ge," he cried, "you be off. Massa wants you—'meeditly. But fust, let me ax—you understan' de place among de rocks whar Brown's mates and de boat am hidden?"
"Yes, I know the place well."
"You knows how to get to it?"
"Of course I do."
"Das all right; now come along—come along, you sham nigger, wid me. Has you got enuff?"
"Das good now; you follow me; do what you's tol'; hol' you tongue, an' look sharp, if you don' want your head cut off."
"Heave ahead, cap'n; I'm your man."
The two left the house together and took the road that led to the hill country in rear of the dwelling.
Meanwhile George Foster went to the chamber of the Moor. He found his master seated, as was his wont, with the hookah before him, but with the mouthpiece lying idly on his knee, and his forehead resting on one hand. So deeply was he absorbed in communing with his own thoughts, that he did not observe the entrance of his slave until he had been twice addressed. Then, looking up as if he had been slightly startled, he bade him sit down.
"George Foster," he began impressively, at the same time applying a light to his hookah and puffing sedately, "you will be glad to hear that I have been successful with my suit to the Dey. God has favoured me; but a great deal yet remains to be done, and that must be done by you—else—"
He stopped here, looked pointedly at the middy, and delivered the remainder of his meaning in pufflets of smoke.
"I suppose you would say, sir, that unless it is done by me it won't be done at all?"
To this the Moor nodded twice emphatically, and blew a thin cloud towards the ceiling.
"Then you may count upon my doing my utmost, if that which I am to do is in the interest of Hester Sommers or her father, as no doubt it is."
"Yes, it is in their interest," rejoined Ben-Ahmed. "I have done my part, but dare not go further; for much though I love little Hester—who has been to me as a sweet daughter—I must not risk my neck for her unnecessarily. But, if I mistake not, you are not unwilling to risk that?"
"Ay, fifty necks would I risk for her sake if I had them," returned our middy with enthusiasm, for he was in that stage of love which glories in the acknowledgment of thraldom.
Ben-Ahmed looked at him with interest, sighed, and sought solace in the pipe.
After a few meditative puffs, he continued—
"After all, you run little risk, as you shall see. When I asked the Dey, with whom I am familiar, for the pardon of the slave Sommers, he did not seem pleased, and objected that there had been too many revolts of late; that this man's case was a bad one, and that it was necessary to make an example or two.
"'Very true, your highness,' I replied, 'but may I beg you to make an example of some other slaves, and forgive Sommers?'
"'Why do you take so much interest in this man?' demanded the Dey, who seemed to me rather short in his temper at the time.
"'Because he is the father of one of my female slaves, your highness,' I replied; 'and it is the fear that they will be separated for ever that makes the man desperate and the girl miserable. If you will permit me, I should like to reunite them. Your highness has often expressed a wish to do me some kindness for the privilege I once had of saving your highness's life. Will you now refuse me this man's life?' 'Nay, I will not refuse you, Ben-Ahmed. But I do not see that my granting your request will reunite the father and child, unless, indeed, you are prepared to purchase the man.'
"'I am prepared to do so, your highness,' I said.
"'In that case you are at liberty to go to the Bagnio and take him out. Here is my ring.'
"Now, Foster," continued the Moor, drawing the ring in question from his vest-pocket, "take this. Show it to the captain of the guard at the Bagnio, who will admit you. Tell him that I sent you for one of the slaves. After that your own intelligence must guide you. Go, and God go with you."
"I will do as you command, Ben-Ahmed," said Foster; "but I must tell you frankly that I will not—"
"Silence!" thundered the Moor, with a look of ferocity which the amazed midshipman could not account for. "Have you not understood me?"
"Yes, sir, perfectly, but—"
"When a slave receives a command," cried Ben-Ahmed in rising wrath, "it is his duty to obey in silence. Again I say—go!"
The middy bowed with feelings of indignation, but on reaching the door paused, and again essayed to speak.
"I give you fair warning, Ben-Ahmed, that I will not—"
"Silence!" again roared the Moor, seizing an ornamental box and hurling it violently at his slave, who, dipping his head, allowed it to go crashing against the wall, while he went out and shut the door.
"Well, old boy, I'm absolved from any allegiance to you," he muttered, as he walked smartly down the garden walk towards the gate; "so if I do a good deal more than your bidding you mustn't be surprised. But your sudden burst of anger is incomprehensible. However, that's not my business now."
Had any one been there to observe the Moor after the middy had taken his departure, he would have seen that the passion he had displayed evaporated as rapidly as it had arisen, and that he resumed the amber mouthpiece of his hookah with a peculiar smile and an air of calm contentment. Thereafter he ordered out his horse, mounted it in his usual dignified manner, and quietly rode away into the darkness of the night.
It may be observed here our middy had improved greatly in the matter of costume since his appointment to the rank of limner to Ben-Ahmed. The old canvas jacket, straw hat, etcetera, had given place to a picturesque Moorish costume which, with the middy's fine figure and natural bearing, led people to suppose him a man of some note, so that his appearance was not unsuited to the mission he had in hand.
We need scarcely say that his spirit was greatly agitated, as he walked towards the town, by uncertainty as to how he ought to act in the present emergency, and his mind was much confused by the varied, and, to some extent, inexplicable incidents of the evening. His thoughts crystallised, however, as he went along, and he had finally made up his mind what to do by the time he passed the portals Bab-Azoun and entered the streets of Algiers.
MYSTERIOUS AND DARING DEEDS ARE CROWNED WITH SUCCESS.
Threading his way carefully through the badly lighted streets, our middy went straight to the Kasba, and, rapping boldly at the gate, demanded admittance.
"Show me to the guard-room. I wish to speak with the officer in command," he said, in the tone of one accustomed to obedience.
The soldier who admitted him introduced him to the officer in charge for the night.
"I come, sir," said Foster, with quiet gentlemanly assurance, "to demand an escort for slaves."
"By whose orders?" asked the officer.
"The order of his Highness the Dey," answered Foster, producing the ring.
The officer examined it, touched his forehead with it in token of submission, and asked how many men were required.
"Six will do," returned the middy, in a slow, meditative manner, as if a little uncertain on the point—"yes, six will suffice. I only wish their escort beyond the gates. Friends might attempt a rescue in the town. When I have them a short distance beyond the gates I can manage without assistance."
He touched, as he spoke, the handle of a silver-mounted pistol which he carried in his belt. Of course, as he spoke Lingua Franca, the officer of the guard knew quite well that he was a foreigner, but as the notables and Deys of Algiers were in the habit of using all kinds of trusted messengers and agents to do their work, he saw nothing unusual in the circumstance. Six armed soldiers were at once turned out, and with these obedient, unquestioning slaves he marched down the tortuous streets to the Bagnio.
The ring procured him admittance at once, and the same talisman converted the head jailer into an obsequious servant.
"I have come for one of your slaves," said the middy, walking smartly into the court where most of the miserable creatures had already forgotten their wretchedness in the profound sleep of the weary. The tramp of the soldiers on the stone pavement and the clang of their arms awoke some of them. "The name of the man I want is Hugh Sommers."
On hearing this one of the slaves was observed to reach out his hand and shake another slave who still slumbered.
"Rouse up, Sommers! You are wanted, my poor friend."
"What say you, Laronde?" exclaimed the merchant, starting up and rubbing his eyes.
"Get up and follow me," said Foster, in a stern commanding tone.
"And who are you, that orders me as if I were a dog?" fiercely returned Sommers, who, since the day of the unsuccessful mutiny, had again become desperate, and was in consequence heavily ironed.
"The Dey of Algiers gives the order through me," replied Foster, pointing to the soldiers, "and it will be your highest wisdom to obey without question. Knock off his irons," he added, turning abruptly to the chief jailer.
The air of insolent authority which our 'hipperkritical' middy assumed was so effective that even Sommers was slightly overawed. While the irons were being removed, the unhappy Frenchman, Edouard Laronde, sought to console him.
"I told you it would soon come to this," he said in English. "I only wish I was going to die with you."
"Knock off this man's irons also," said the middy, to whom a new idea had suddenly occurred, and who was glad to find that his altered costume and bearing proved such a complete disguise that his old comrade in sorrow did not recognise him.
"I thought," said the jailer, "that you said only one slave was wanted."
"I say two slaves are wanted," growled the midshipman, with a look so fierce that the jailer promptly ordered the removal of Laronde's fetters.
"Did I not often tell you," muttered Hugh Sommers, "that your unguarded tongue would bring you to grief?"
"It matters not. I submit, and am ready," returned the Frenchman in a sad tone. "If it were not for my poor wife and child, the world would be well rid of such a useless rebel as I."
When the two slaves were ready, Foster demanded a piece of rope with which he fastened the left and right wrists of the two men together. Then, placing them in the midst of the soldiers, he led them out of the prison and along the main street in the direction of the western gate of the city. Passing through this the little party advanced into the suburbs until they reached a part of the road beyond which pedestrians usually found it convenient not to travel after dark. Here Foster called a halt.
"I thank you," he said to the leader of the soldiers, at the same time giving him a piece of money. "There is no further occasion for your services, all danger of rescue being past. I can now take care of them myself, being armed, as you see, while they are bound. Convey my thanks and compliments to your commanding officer."
The soldier acknowledged the piece of money with a grave inclination of the head, ordered his men to right-about-face, and marched back to the Kasba, leaving the three slaves standing not far from the seashore, and gazing at each other in silence.
"You seem to have forgotten me, friends," said the middy in English, pulling a clasp-knife out of his pocket. "Yet you have both met me before when we were slaves."
"Were slaves!" repeated the Frenchman, who was the first to recover from his astonishment, "are we not still slaves?" he asked, glancing at the cords that bound their wrists.
"Not now," said Foster, cutting the cords with his knife—"at least we shall soon be free if we make good use of our opportunities."
"Free!" exclaimed both men together, with the energy of a sudden and almost overwhelming hope.
"Ay, free! But this is no time for explanation. Follow me closely, and in silence."
Scarcely crediting their senses, and more than half disposed to believe that the whole affair was one of their too familiar dreams, yet strangely convinced at the same time that it was a reality, the two men followed their young leader with alacrity.
The reader will remember that before parting from Foster that day Peter the Great had taken special care to ascertain that he knew the whereabouts of the rocks where the boat belonging to Brown and his friends was concealed. As Foster walked along in the dark he thought a good deal about this, and felt convinced that Peter must have had some idea of the event that was likely to follow from his mission to the Bagnio. But he was much perplexed in attempting to account for his reticence in the matter. Altogether, there was mystery about it which he could not see through, so he wisely gave up thinking about it, and braced his energies to the carrying out of his own little plot. This was, to lead Hugh Sommers to his daughter and assist them to escape in the boat, along with Brown the sailor and his companions—intending, of course, to escape along with them! His taking advantage of the opportunity to free Edouard Laronde was the result of a sudden inspiration—a mere afterthought!
The distance to the spot for which they were making was considerable, and at first the fugitives proceeded with caution and in silence, but as their distance from the pirate city increased, and the danger of pursuit diminished, the middy relaxed a little, gave his companions interjectional scraps of information, and finally revealed to them all that he knew and purposed.
Suddenly their conversation was interrupted by the sight of something moving at the side of the road. It looked too small for a man, yet its movements seemed too intelligent for a dog or a stray donkey.
"Stay here, I will soon find out," whispered Foster, drawing his pistol, and bounding towards the object in question.
It ran from him, but our middy was swift of foot. He quickly overtook it, and seized firmly by the arm what in the dark he thought to be a boy.
A slight scream undeceived him, and at the same time caused his heart to bound.
"Oh, you hurt me!" exclaimed a well-remembered voice.
"Hester!" cried the youth, and next moment, folding her in his arms, he kissed her—quite unintentionally, but irresistibly.
Thrusting him away with indignation, the maiden said, with flashing eyes, "You forget yourself, sir, and take advantage of my defenceless position."
"No—no, indeed! I did not intend to frighten you, dear child," (in his desperation the middy assumed the paternal role). "Pray forgive me, it was only my joy at the prospect of reuniting you to your father, and—"
"My father!" cried Hester, forgetting her offended dignity. "Where is he? You are alone! Peter the Great sent me here to meet him, but he did not say I should meet you."
"Peter the Great sent you here—and alone!" exclaimed Foster, in amazement.
"Yes; he went out first to make sure that my father was coming, and then sent me to meet him that we might be alone. But Peter is close at hand."
"Ho, yis! bery close at hand, Geo'ge!" said Peter himself, suddenly emerging from a place of concealment. "Now you come along wid me, sar, an' let dat poo' chile meet her fadder in private."
"But she cannot do that, Peter, for Edouard Laronde is with him."
"Who'n all de wurld's Eddard Larongd?"
Before Foster could reply Hester had bounded from his side, and next moment was locked in her father's arms.
"Come away, Geo'ge—an' you too, Eddard La—La-whatever-it-is!" cried the negro, grasping the latter by the arm and hurrying him along the road in the direction of the seashore, while the reunited father and child knelt down together and poured out their gratitude to God.
"Dey'll foller us in a minnit or two," continued the negro. "What kep' you so long, Geo'ge?"
"Couldn't manage it sooner. But can you guess, Peter, why Ben-Ahmed behaved in the strange way he has done? He got into a rage when I attempted to tell him honestly, that I did not intend to go back to him, or to take Sommers to his house, and that I'd try to escape along with him if I could, but he would not listen or let me say a word."
"Did you t'ink ob tellin' him all dat?" asked Peter.
"I certainly did."
"Well, you're not half such a hipperkrite as I t'ink you was."
"I'm glad to hear you say so, for I don't like to play the part of a hypocrite, Peter; I like to be all fair and above-board."
"Was it all fair an' above-board, Geo'ge, to kiss dat leetle gal when she was all alone and unpurtected? Was it all fair an' above-board to call her you dear chile, as if you was her fadder?"
"Come, come, Peter, 'everything is fair,' you know, 'in love and war.' But that's not the point. Can you guess, I ask, Ben-Ahmed's motive for acting so oddly?"
"Oh! yis, Geo'ge, I kin guess a'most anybody's motives, zough, p'r'aps, I mightn't guess right. I shouldn't wonder, now, if Ben-Ahmed will hab to account to do Dey for de tottle disappearance of Hugh Sommers—to say not'ing ob Eddard La—La—what's-'is-name—an' p'r'aps he'd like to be able to say he'd no notion o' what de man he sent to fetch de slabe was goin' to do. Now he couldn't hab say dat, you know, if he let you tell him all about it—like a goose as you was. So he let you go off, d'ye see, gib you your orders so far, an' labes de rest to your good sense— zough dere wasn't too much ob dat to leab it to, or you wouldn't hab bring away Eddard La—La—t'ing-um-bob."
"But do you really mean to tell me, Peter, that Ben-Ahmed intended me and Hugh Sommers to escape?"
"Das really what I means to tell you, Geo'ge."
"Then why didn't you tell me all, this before, and save me from a deal of uncertainty?"
"Cause, in de fuss' place, I had no time to tell you; in de second place, I was ordered not to tell you; in de t'ird place, it's good for midshipmen to be put on deir mettle, an' lef' to find deir own way out ob diffikilties, an', in de fourf place, slabes hab no business to be axin' de outs an' ins, de whys an' de wherefores of deir massa's affairs."
"Well, I always knew Ben-Ahmed had a kind heart, but little thought it was so kind and self-sacrificing as to buy Sommers for the very purpose of setting him free. I regret, deeply, that I did not know this sooner, and that I cannot now have the chance of thanking him with all my heart and soul, and bidding the good man farewell. It is one comfort, however, that I'll be able to send a message back by you. And I'm also glad that I shall not have to part from you, my dear Peter, without telling you how much I love you and how sorry, very, very sorry, I am to say good-bye."
"Geo'ge," returned the negro earnestly, "don't you count your cheekins afore dey's hatched! You're not away yit."
Foster made no reply. To say truth, he felt a little hurt by the way in which his protestations of regard were received, and, by way of changing the subject, he asked if Peter had ever heard anything about the old Dane and his wife and daughter who had been captured at the same time with himself.
"Dey's bin ransom'd, all ob dem. Got rich friends, you see. Hole your tongue now, Geo'ge, we's comin' to de place."
By that time Sommers and his daughter had overtaken the party. As they all proceeded silently along the road, wondering how the matter would end, they observed a figure, like that of a female, glide, as it were, out of the darkness, and, taking Peter quietly by the arm, walk along with him.
Impelled by curiosity, Foster went forward and looked into her face.
"Angelica!" he exclaimed in surprise.
"Ob course!" answered her husband for her, "you don't suppose de wife ob Peter de Great would let Geo'ge Foster go away widout comin' to de boat to see him off?"
Ere the middy could recover from his astonishment, the party came suddenly upon a small cavern in which a light glimmered. At its entrance lay a boat, and beside it, engaged in putting it to rights, were Brown and his three companions—the two British tars and the Maltese seaman.
"Is all right?" asked Brown, in a low voice, as they approached.
"All right," answered Peter.
"Now, Geo'ge, you go in."
The middy entered the cave, and with, if possible, increased surprise, he found Ben-Ahmed standing there!
"You are astonished, my friend," said the Moor with a gentle smile, as he extended his hand.
"I am indeed," returned the middy, heartily grasping and warmly shaking it, "but I am also rejoiced that I have the opportunity—which I had not hoped for—of thanking you for all your great kindness to me in time past—especially for this crowning act."
"You have not to thank me," returned the Moor, "you have to thank the little English girl;" as he spoke he made a graceful motion of the hand towards Hester, who, with her father, entered the cave at the moment. "Little Hester has taught me—not by word but by example—the grand lesson of your Christian Scriptures, that a man should do to others what he would have others do to him. I have resolved to keep no more slaves, and, as a first step, I now set you all free!"
"God's blessing rest on you for that, sir," said Hugh Sommers, stepping forward and grasping the hand that Foster had relinquished. "Have you, then, forsaken the faith of Mohammed and adopted that of Christ?"
"Be not over-curious," said the Moor reprovingly. "Sufficient for you to know that fresh water cannot spring from a salt fountain. We must not waste time. The boat is in the water by this time. Farewell. Kiss me, my child. We may not meet again on earth, but—we shall certainly meet hereafter!"
Hester, who saw the Moor assume all shapes and sizes through the tears that filled her eyes, ran to him, and, throwing her arms round his neck gave him a hug that made even her father jealous.
"Now, away, all of you," cried Ben-Ahmed, when he was released, "and may the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob go with you."
While he was yet speaking the clatter of horses' hoofs in the distance was heard. Instantly the party made for the boat. There was no time for last adieux. Ben-Ahmed helped to shove off the boat and bundle them in.
"You will hear pistol-shots," he cried, "but fear not for me. My horse can outrun the best in Algiers. I will only fire to decoy them away. Farewell!"
He ran up into the shrubbery that bordered the road, and next minute the sound of the horse's feet was heard in the distance, as the boat skimmed swiftly out to sea under the powerful impulse of its stalwart crew.
A few minutes later and, as the Moor had prophesied, pistol-shots were heard on shore. From the sound they appeared to come from a short distance in the interior of the land, but musket-shots were also heard among them, and from the flashes on the beach it became evident that the Moor had not succeeded in turning all their pursuers off the scent—a fact which was further illustrated by the skipping of a musket ball close past the boat.
Just then it struck George Foster that Peter the Great and his wife were seated beside him.
"Hallo, Peter!" he exclaimed; "how are you and Angelica to get on shore?"
"We's not goin' on shore at all, Geo'ge."
"What do you mean, Peter?"
"I means what I says. De fact is, Geo'ge, dat I's come to de conclusion dat I couldn't lib widout you. Angelica's ob de same opinion, so we's made up our minds, wid massa's purmission, to go wid you to ole England. We's all goin' togidder, Geo'ge. Ain't dat jolly?"
"But how can we ever get to England in a small boat like this?" asked the middy, in much anxiety, for in the hurry and excitement of the start the difficulty had not occurred to him.
"No fear about that, sir," answered Brown, who pulled the bow oar; "we ain't such fools as to make the voyage in a cockle-shell like this! The boat b'longs to a privateer as is owned by a friend o' mine, an' the wessel's lyin' off an' on waitin' for us."
"There she goes!" said one of the sailors. "Look out!"
As he spoke a large schooner loomed up against the dark sky, and was hailed. A gruff voice replied. Another moment the sails flapped, and the boat was towing alongside. Our middy was first to leap on deck—and not without a purpose in view, for he was thus in a position to hand up the passengers.
"Do you forgive me, Hester?" he whispered humbly, as he stooped to grasp her little hand.
"I forgive you!" she whispered timidly, as she passed him, and was led by her father into the vessel's cabin.
That night two of the swiftest of the piratical war-vessels were seen to warp out from the Mole, and put to sea, but long before the land breeze filled their peaked sails the privateer was cleaving her way, homeward bound, through the dark waters of the Mediterranean.
"Geo'ge, your mudder wants you."
Such were the words which aroused George Foster from a reverie one morning as he stood at the window of a villa on the coast of Kent, fastening his necktie and contemplating the sea.
"Nothing wrong, I hope," said the middy, turning quickly round, and regarding with some anxiety the unusually solemn visage of Peter the Great.
"Wheder dere's anyfing wrong or not, 'snot for me to say, massa, but I t'ink dere's suffin' up, for she seems in a carfuffle."
"Tell her I shall be with her instantly." Completing his toilet hastily, our hero repaired to his mother's apartment, where he found her seated in dishabille with an open letter in her hand, and some excitement in her face.
"Is Laronde better this morning?" she asked as her son sat down on a sofa at the foot of her bed.
"I don't know, mother—haven't been to his room this morning. Why do you ask? Has anything happened?"
"I will tell you presently, but first let me know what success you have had in your search."
"Nothing but failure," said the middy, in a desponding tone. "If there had been anything good to tell you I would have come to your room last night despite the lateness of the hour. We were later than usual in arriving because a trace broke, and after that one of the horses cast a shoe."
"Where did you make inquiries, George?"
"At the solicitors' office, of course. It is through them that we obtained what we hoped would be a clue, and it is to them that poor Marie Laronde used to go to inquire whether there was any chance of her husband being released for a smaller sum than was at first demanded. They had heard of a dressmaker who employed a girl or woman named Laronde in the West End, so I hunted her up with rather sanguine expectations, but she turned out to be a girl of sixteen, dark instead of fair, and unmarried! But again I ask, mother, what news, for I see by your face that you have something to tell me. That is a letter from Minnie, is it not?"
"It is, George, and I am very hopeful that while you have been away on the wrong scent in the West End of London, Minnie has fallen, quite unexpectedly, on the right scent in one of the low quarters of Liverpool. You know that she has been nursing Aunt Jeanette there for more than a fortnight."
"Yes, I know it only too well," answered the middy. "It is too bad that Aunt Jeanette should take it into her head to get ill and send for Minnie just three weeks after my return from slavery!—But what do you mean by her having fallen on the right scent? Surely she has not found leisure and strength both to hunt and nurse at the same time!"
"Yes, indeed, she has. Our last winter in that charming south of France has so completely restored her—through the blessing of God—that she has found herself equal to almost anything. It happens that Aunt Jeanette has got a friend living close to her who is an enthusiastic worker amongst the poor of the town, and she has taken your sister several times to visit the districts where the very poor people live. It was while she was thus engaged, probably never thinking of poor Laronde's wife at all, that she—but here is the letter. Read it for yourself, you need not trouble yourself to read the last page—just down to here."
Retiring to the window the middy read as follows:—
"Darling Mother,—I must begin at once with what my mind is full of, just remarking, by the way, that Aunt Jeanette is improving steadily, and that I hope to be home again in less than a week.
"Well, I told you in my last that Miss Love—who is most appropriately named—had taken me out once or twice on her visits among the poor. And, do you know, it has opened up a new world of ideas and feelings to me. It is such a terrible revelation of the intensity of sorrow and suffering that is endured by a large mass of our fellow-creatures! I am persuaded that thousands of the well-to-do and the rich have no conception of it, for it must be seen to be understood. I feel as if my heart had become a great fountain of pity! And I can well—at least better—understand how our dear Saviour, when He wanted to give evidence of the truth and character of His mission, said, 'The poor have the gospel preached unto them,' for if any class of beings on the face of this earth stand in need of good news it is the poor. God help and bless them!
"Well, the other day Miss Love came to ask me to go out with her to visit some of her poor people, among others one—a very singular character—a woman who was reported to be a desperate miser, insomuch that she starved herself and her child for the sake of saving money. It was said that she was very ill at the time—thought to be dying— and seemed to be in a wretched state of destitution. Her name, Miss Love told me, was Lundy.
"As Auntie was pretty well that day I gladly accompanied my friend to her district. And it was an awful place! I shudder even now when I think of the sights and sounds and dreadful language I saw and heard there—but I must not turn aside from what I have to tell. I pass over our visits to various families and come at once to the reputed miser. She was in bed, and from her flushed face and glittering eyes I could see that she was in high fever. She started, raised herself on an elbow, and glared at us as we entered.
"I was deeply interested in her from the first moment. Although worn and thin, with lines of prolonged suffering indelibly stamped on her, she had a beautiful and refined face. Her age appeared to be about thirty-five. A lovely, but wretchedly clothed girl, of about fourteen years of age, sat on a low stool at her bedside. And oh! such a bed it was. Merely a heap of straw with a piece of sacking over it, on a broken bedstead. One worn blanket covered her thin form. Besides these things, a small table, and a corner cupboard, there was literally nothing else in the room.
"The girl rose to receive us, and expressed regret that she had no chairs to offer. While Miss Love went forward and talked tenderly to the mother, I drew the girl aside, took her hand affectionately, and said, 'You have not always been as poor as you now are?'
"'No indeed,' she said, while tears filled her eyes, 'but work failed us in London, where we once lived, and mother came to Liverpool to a brother, who said he would help her, but he died soon after our arrival, and then mother got ill and I had to begin and spend our savings—savings that darling mother had scraped and toiled so hard to gain—and this made her much worse, for she was so anxious to save money!'
"This last remark reminded me of the reports about the mother's miserly nature, so I asked a question that made the poor girl reply quickly—
"'Oh! you mustn't think that darling mother is a miser. People so often fall into that mistake! She has been saving for ever so many years to buy father back—'
"'Buy father back!' I repeated, with a sudden start.
"'Yes, to buy him from the Algerine pirates—'
"I waited for no more, but, running to the bedside, looked the poor woman steadily in the face. There could be no doubt about it. There was the fair hair, blue eyes, and clear complexion, though the last was sadly faded from ill-health.
"You should have seen the look of surprise she gave me. But I had been foolishly precipitate. Her mind had been wandering a little before we came in. The shock seemed to throw it further off the balance, for she suddenly looked at me with a calm sweet smile.
"'Yes,' she said, 'he always called me Marie, though my name was Mary, being a Frenchman, you know—his little Marie he called me! I often think how pleased he will be to see another little Marie grown big when we get him back—but oh! how long—how long they are about sending him, though I have sent the money over and over again. Hush!'
"She looked round with a terrified expression and clutched my shawl with her thin hand. 'You won't tell, will you?' she went on; 'you have a kind face, I am sure you will not tell, but I have been saving—saving—saving, to send more money to the Moors. I keep it in a bag here under my pillow, but I often fear that some one will discover and steal it. Oh! these Moors must have hard, hard hearts to keep him from me so long—so very long!'
"Here she thrust me from her with unexpected violence, burst into a wild laugh, and began in her delirium to rave against the Moors. Yet, even in the midst of her reproaches, the poor thing prayed that God would soften their hearts and forgive her for being so revengeful.
"Now, mother, I want to know what is to be done, for when we sent for a doctor he said that not a word must be said about the return of her husband until she is out of danger and restored to some degree of health."
Thus far the middy read the letter.
"Mother," he said, firmly, "the doctor may say what he likes, but I am convinced that the best cure for fever and every other disease under the sun is joy—administered judiciously, in small or large doses as the patient is able to bear it! Now, the primary cause of poor Marie's illness is the loss of her husband, therefore the removal of the cause— that is, the recovery of her husband—"
"With God's blessing," interjected Mrs Foster.
"Admitted—with the blessing of the Great Physician—that is the natural cure."
"Very true, George, but you wisely spoke of small doses. I am not sure that it would be safe to tell Monsieur Laronde that we have actually found his wife and child. He also is too weak to bear much agitation."
"Not so weak as you think, mother, though the sufferings of slave-life and subsequent anxiety have brought him very near to the grave. But I will break it to him judiciously. We will get my dear little Hester to do it."
"Your Hester!" exclaimed Mrs Foster, in surprise. "I trust, George, that you, a mere midshipman, have not dared to speak to that child of—"
"Make your mind easy, mother," replied the middy, with a laugh, "I have not said a word. Haven't required to. We have both spoken to each other with our eyes, and that is quite enough at present. I feel as sure of my little Hester as if we were fairly spliced. There goes the breakfast-bell. Will you be down soon?"
"No. I am too happy to-day to be able to eat in public, George. Send it up to me."
The breakfast-room in that seaside villa presented an interesting company, for the fugitives had stuck together with feelings of powerful sympathy since they had landed in England. Hugh Sommers was there, but it was not easy to recognise in the fine, massive, genial gentleman, in a shooting suit of grey, the ragged, wretched slave who, not long before, had struggled like a tiger with the janissaries on the walls of Algiers. And Hester was there, of course, with her sunny hair and sunny looks and general aspect of human sunniness all over, as unlike to the veiled and timid Moorish lady, or the little thin-nosed negress, as chalk is to cheese! Edouard Laronde was also there, and he, like the others, had undergone wonderful transformation in the matter of clothing, but he had also changed in body, for a severe illness had seized him when he landed, and it required all Mrs Foster's careful nursing to "pull him through," as the middy styled it. Brown the sailor was also there, for, being a pleasant as well as a sharp man, young Foster resolved to get him into the Navy, and, if possible, into the same ship with himself. Meanwhile he retained him to assist in the search for Marie Laronde and her daughter. Last, but by no means least, Peter the Great was there—not as one of the breakfast party, but as a waiter.
Peter had from the first positively refused to sit down to meals in a dining-party room!
"No, Geo'ge," he said, when our middy proposed it to him, on the occasion of their arrival at his mother's home—"No, Geo'ge. I won't do it. Das flat! I's not bin used to it. My proper speer is de kitchen. Besides, do you t'ink I'd forsake my Angelica an' leabe her to feed alone downstairs, w'ile her husband was a-gorgin' of his-self above? Neber! It's no use for you, Geo'ge, to say you'd be happy to see her too, for she wouldn't do it, an' she's as obsnit as me—an' more! Now you make your mind easy, I'll be your mudder's black flunkey—for lub, not for munny. So you hole your tongue, Geo'ge!"
Thus the arrangement came to be made—at least for a time.
The middy was unusually grave that morning as he sat down to breakfast. They were all aware that he had returned from London late the previous night, and were more or less eager to know the result of his visit, but on observing his gravity they forbore to ask questions. Only the poor Frenchman ventured to say sadly, "Failed again, I see."
"Not absolutely," said Foster, who was anxious that the invalid should not have his breakfast spoilt by being excited. "The visit I paid to the solicitor did indeed turn out a failure, but—but I have still strong hopes," he added cheerily.
"So hab I, Geo'ge," remarked Peter the Great, from behind the chair of Miss Sommers, who presided at the breakfast table, for although Peter had resigned his right to equality as to feeding, he by no means gave up his claim to that of social intercourse.
"Come, Laronde. Cheer up, my friend," said Hugh Sommers heartily; "I feel sure that we'll manage it amongst us, for we have all entered on the search heart and soul."
"Right you are, sir," ejaculated Brown, through a mouthful of buttered toast.
"It only requires patience," said the middy, "for London is a big place, you know, and can't be gone over in a week or two."
"Das so, Geo'ge," said Peter, nodding approval.
After breakfast Foster sought a private interview with Hester, who undertook, with much fear, to communicate the news to Laronde.
"You see, I think it will come best from you, Hester," said George in a grave fatherly manner, "because a woman always does these sort of things better than a man, and besides, poor Laronde is uncommonly fond of you, as—"
He was going to have said "as everybody is," but, with much sagacity, he stopped short and sneezed instead. He felt that a commonplace cough from a man with a sound chest would inevitably have betrayed him—so he sneezed. "A hyperkrite as usual!" he thought, and continued aloud—
"So, you see, Hester, it is very important that you should undertake it, and it will be very kind of you, too."
"I would gladly undertake a great deal more than that for the poor man," said Hester earnestly. "When must I do it?"
"Now—at once. The sooner the better. He usually goes to the bower at the foot of the garden after breakfast."
Without a word, but with a glance that spoke volumes, the maiden ran to the bower.
What she said to the Frenchman we need not write down in detail. It is sufficient to note the result. In the course of a short time after she had entered the bower, a loud shout was heard, and next moment Laronde was seen rushing towards the house with a flushed countenance and the vigour of an athlete!
"My little girl has been too precipitate, I fear," remarked Hugh Sommers to the middy.
"Your little girl is never 'too'—anything!" replied the middy to Hugh, with much gravity.
The ex-Bagnio slave smiled, but whether at the reply or at the rushing Frenchman we cannot tell.
When Laronde reached his room he found Peter the Great there, on his knees, packing a small valise.
"Hallo! Peter, what are you doing? I want that."
"Yes, Eddard, I know dat. Das why I's packin'."
"You're a good fellow, Peter, a true friend, but let me do it; I'm in terrible haste!"
"No, sar, you's not in haste. Dere's lots ob time." (He pulled out a watch of the warming-pan type and consulted it.) "De coach don't start till one o'clock; it's now eleben; so dere's no hurry. You jest lie down on de bed an' I'll pack de bag."
Instead of lying down the poor Frenchman fell on his knees beside the bed and laid his face in his hands.
"Yes—das better. Dere's some sense in dat," muttered the negro as he quietly continued to pack the valise.
Two hours later and Laronde was dashing across country as fast as four good horses could take him, with George Foster on one side, Peter the Great on the other, and Brown on the box-seat—the fo'c'sl, he called it—beside the red-coated driver.
Whatever may be true of your modern forty-mile-an-hour iron horse, there can be no question that the ten-mile-an-hour of those days, behind a spanking team with clattering wheels, and swaying springs, and cracking whip, and sounding horn, felt uncommonly swift and satisfactory. Laronde shut his eyes and enjoyed it at first. But the strength engendered by excitement soon began to fail. The long weary journey helped to make things worse, and when at last they arrived at the journey's end, and went with Miss Love and Minnie to the lodging, poor Laronde had scarcely strength left to totter to his wife's bedside. This was fortunate, however, for he was the better able to restrain his feelings.
"She has had a long satisfactory sleep—is still sleeping—and is much better," was the nurse's report as they entered. The daughter looked with surprise at the weak worn man who was led forward. Laronde did not observe her. His eyes were fixed on the bed where the pale thin figure lay. One of Marie's hands lay outside the blanket. The husband knelt, took it gently and laid his cheek on it. Then he began to stroke it softly. The action awoke the sleeper, but she did not open her eyes.
"Go on," she murmured gently; "you always used to do that when I was ill or tired—don't stop it yet, as you always do now, and go away."
The sound of her own voice seemed to awake her. She turned her head and her eyes opened wide while she gazed in his face with a steady stare. Uttering a sharp cry she seized him round the neck, exclaiming, "Praise the Lord!"
"Yes, Marie—my own! Praise the Lord, for He has been merciful to me—a sinner."
The unbeliever, whom lash, torture, toil, and woe could not soften, was broken now, for "the goodness of the Lord had led him to repentance."
Did the middy, after all, marry Hester, alias Geo'giana Sommers? No, of course, he did not! He was a full-fledged lieutenant in his Majesty's navy when he did that! But it was not long—only a couple of years after his return from slavery—when he threw little Hester into a state of tremendous consternation one day by abruptly proposing that they should get spliced immediately, and thenceforward sail the sea of life in company. Hester said timidly she couldn't think of it. George said boldly he didn't want her to think of it, but to do it!
This was putting the subject in quite a new light, so she smiled, blushed, and hurriedly hid her face on his shoulder!
Of course all the fugitive slaves were at the wedding. There was likewise a large quantity of dark-blue cloth, gold lace, and brass buttons at it.
Peter the Great came out strong upon that occasion. Although he consented to do menial work, he utterly refused to accept a menial position. Indeed he claimed as much right to, and interest in, the bride as her own radiant "fadder," for had he not been the chief instrument in "sabing dem bof from de Moors?"
As no one ventured to deny the claim, Peter retired to the privacy of the back kitchen, put his arm round Angelica's neck, told her that he had got a gift of enough money to "ransom his sister Dinah," laid his woolly head on her shoulder, and absolutely howled for joy.
It may be well to remark, in conclusion, that Peter the Great finally agreed to become Mrs Foster's gardener, as being the surest way of seeing "Geo'ge" during his periodical visits home. For much the same reason Hugh Sommers settled down in a small house near them. Laronde obtained a situation as French master in an academy not far off, and his wife and daughter soon gave evidence that joy is indeed a wonderful medicine!
As for George Foster himself, he rose to the top of his profession. How could it be otherwise with such an experience—and such a wife? And when, in after years, his sons and daughters clamoured, as they were often wont to do, for "stories from father," he would invariably send for Peter the Great, in order that he might listen and corroborate or correct what he related of his wonderful adventures when he was a Middy among the Moors.