"God of mercy! can it be possible?" ejaculated Lance. "Yes, it must be. Fly for your lives; we may not have a moment to lose."
"What is it?" gasped Captain Staunton, as the three started at a run up the gallery in the direction of the great cavern.
"A volcano," answered Lance. "There are subterranean fires in activity at no great depth beneath our feet, and they may break into open eruption at any moment."
This was enough; his companions wanted to hear no more. The few words they had already heard lent wings to their feet, and in an incredibly short time they found themselves, panting and exhausted with their unwonted exertions, once more in the open air.
"Now we are comparatively safe," said Lance as they walked rapidly down the ravine. "What I chiefly feared was one of those earthquake shocks such as sometimes precede a volcanic eruption. A comparatively insignificant one might have proved sufficient to cause the walls of the cavern to collapse and bury us. Of course the ladies must be cautioned not to venture near the place again; but I think perhaps it will be better not to tell them why. It will only alarm them—perhaps unnecessarily—and keep them on the tiptoe of nervous anxious expectancy. The better plan will be to say that we consider we have now as much gold as we think it probable we shall be able to take away. Don't you think so, Staunton?"
"Assuredly I do," answered the skipper emphatically. "Why, I would not allow my wife to enter that cavern again for all the gold it contains."
They reached the cottage without further adventure; and on the following morning the ladies were told by Captain Staunton that, sufficient gold having now been collected, there would be no further necessity for them to continue their visits to the cavern, which, moreover, Mr Evelin considered unsafe, the peculiar noises which had startled them all being in his opinion an indication of its liability to collapse at any moment.
After this a month passed away unmarked by anything worthy of record, except the ever-increasing insolence and tyranny of Ralli toward our unfortunate friends.
The battery was by this time complete, the guns mounted, and the ammunition stored in its magazine; whilst the schooner was also in a very forward state. She was fully planked, decks laid, the ballast stowed, bulwarks and hatchways completed, her bottom coppered up to the load water-line, her hull outside painted with a coat of priming, and the carpenters, assisted by the handiest men they could pick out, were busy finishing off the fittings of the cabin and forecastle. Lance had been anxiously watching for a favourable opportunity to put into operation Dickinson's suggestion as to the mode in which Ralli should be approached in order to secure the completion of the work in the manner most favourable to their own plans, but hitherto no such opportunity had presented itself. This was peculiarly unfortunate, as the work was now in so forward a state that, whenever Ralli opened his mouth, he expected to hear the dreaded order given for the preparation of the ways and the construction of the cradle for launching.
But at length the coveted opportunity came. It was about nine o'clock in the morning when Lance saw Ralli step out of his gig on to the rocky platform at the lower end of the shipyard and walk straight toward the schooner. The Greek paused at a little distance from where Lance was at work, taking up a position from which he could obtain a favourable view of the vessel's beautifully modelled hull and gracefully sweeping lines; and then, with one eye shut, he began a critical scrutiny of her, shifting his position a few inches occasionally in order to test the perfection of the various curves.
"Now," Lance thought, "is my time. I must tackle him at once, whatever comes of it; it will never do to defer the matter any further. Another hour's delay may upset all our plans."
So, throwing down his tools, he stepped up to Ralli and said—
"I want to speak to you about the launch. We have now done nearly all that we can do to the schooner whilst she remains on the stocks, and our next job will be to lay down the ways and—"
Ralli turned suddenly upon him with an evil gleam and glitter in his eyes which spoke volumes as to the envy and hatred he bore to this man, who, though a prisoner and practically a slave, still revealed in every word and gesture his vast and unmistakable superiority to every other man on the island, its ruler included.
"Aha! mister soldier," he said—using the mode of address which, for some reason known only to himself, he deemed most offensive to Lance— his lips curling into a sneering smile as he spoke, "what are you doing away from your work? Go back to it at once, unless you wish me to start you with a rope's-end as I would an unruly boy."
"I have no work to go back to," said Lance; "I am simply wasting my time at present, and I wanted to learn your wishes as to what is to be done next I presume you will have the craft launched forthwith, as she is now ready to take to the water; and I should be glad to know what timber we are to use for the ways."
"You presume I will have the craft launched at once," repeated Ralli, the spirit of opposition rising strong within him, and the sneer upon his lips growing more bitter with every word he uttered. "Why should you presume any such thing, eh, you sare?"
"Because it is the right and proper thing to do," answered Lance. "Every lubber knows that a ship is launched before she is rigged. Besides, if you were to decide upon having the spars stepped and rigged, the stores stowed, and the guns hoisted in before she leaves the stocks, I should have a lot of extra trouble in calculating the proper distribution of the weights so as to ensure her being in proper trim when she takes to the water, and I want to avoid all that if possible."
The Greek grinned with vindictive delight as he listened to this apparently inadvertent admission on Lance's part. It revealed to him, as he thought, a new and unexpected method of inflicting annoyance upon this man whom he hated so thoroughly, and his eyes fairly sparkled with malice as he answered—
"What do you suppose I care about your extra trouble, you lazy skulking hound? I tell you this: I will have every spar stepped, rigged, and put in its place; the running rigging all rove; every sail bent; every gun mounted; the magazine stowed; the stores and water all put on board; and everything ready for the schooner to go straight out to sea from the stocks, before she leaves them. Poole! Dickinson!"—to the two chums who were working at no great distance—"come here and listen to what I say. This stupid fellow—this soldier who thinks himself a sailor—says that the schooner ought to be launched at once. I say that she shall be finished ready for sea before she leaves the stocks; and I place you, Dickinson, in charge of the work to see that my orders are obeyed. This fellow will no longer give any orders; he will be only a common workman; he will obey you in future, or you will freshen his way with a rope's- end. You understand?"
"Ay, ay," answered Dickinson, "I understands yer, Ralli, and I'll do it too, never fear,"—with a scowl at Lance for Ralli's benefit. "Why, the man must be a fool—a perfect fool—not to see as it'd be ever so much easier to get things aboard now than when she's afloat. Now, you"— turning to Lance—"you just top your boom and git away back to your work at once, and don't let me see no more skulking or you'd better look out."
Lance simply shrugged his shoulders, as was his habit whenever he received any insolence from the members of the "Brotherhood," and, turning on his heel, walked back to his work, secretly exulting in the complete success of his manoeuvre.
Dickinson looked after him contemptuously for a moment or two, and then, his face clouding, he remarked—
"Arter all, I wish I hadn't spoke quite so rough to him; the chap's got his head screwed on the right way; he knows a mortal sight of things as I don't understand, and I'd ha' been glad to ha' had his help and adwice like in many a little job, as I'm afeared we'll make a bit of a bungle of without him."
"That is all right," said Ralli. "You shall be able to talk him over, Dickinson. Be a bit civil to him and he will tell you all that you will want to know. Leave the—what you call?—the bullying to me; I shall take the care that he enough has of that."
And now—on that same morning, and only an hour or two after the conversation just recorded—there occurred an unfortunate incident which completely dissipated Lance's exultation, filling him with the direst and most anxious forebodings, and threatening to utterly upset the success of all their carefully arranged plans.
It happened thus. Some timber was required by the carpenters on board the schooner; and Dickinson, eager to properly play his part in the presence of the Greek—who was standing close by—ordered Lance and Captain Staunton to bring up a large and heavy plank which he pointed out. They accordingly shouldered it, and, staggering under the load, proceeded upon their way, which led them close past the spot where Ralli stood. As they were passing him it unfortunately happened that Lance stepped upon a small spar, which, rolling under his feet, caused him to stagger in such a way that the plank struck Ralli full in the mouth, knocking away three or four teeth and cutting open both lips. The fellow reeled backwards with the severity of the blow, but, recovering himself, whipped out his long knife, and, pale as death with passion, rushed upon Lance. Captain Staunton saw what was about to happen, and shouted in warning, "Look out, Evelin!" flinging the plank to the ground at the same instant in such a way as to momentarily check the rush of the Greek. Lance at the call turned round, and was just in time to save himself from an ugly blow by catching Ralli's uplifted arm in his left hand. The pirate, lithe and supple as a serpent, writhed and twisted in Lance's grasp in his efforts to get free, but it was all in vain; he was helpless as a child in the iron grasp of the stalwart soldier, and he was at length compelled to fling his knife to the ground and own himself vanquished.
But no sooner was he once more free than, calling to his aid a dozen of the most ruffianly of his band, he ordered them to seize Lance and the skipper, and to lash them hand and foot until the irons could be brought and riveted on.
This was done; and an hour afterwards, to the grief and consternation of all concerned in the plan of escape, the two to whom they chiefly looked for its success were marched off to the "Black Hole," each man's ankles being connected together by a couple of close-fitting iron bands and two long fetter-links.
BOB GIVES WAY TO VIOLENCE.
Great was the consternation and distress at Staunton Cottage that night when the workers returned from the shipyard and reported the arrest and imprisonment of Captain Staunton and Lance Evelin. That these two should be placed in durance at all was regarded as a serious misfortune; but, coming as it did at so critical a time, just as the work on the schooner was drawing near its completion and when the long-looked-for opportunity to escape might present itself at almost any moment, it was justly regarded as a disaster of the gravest character. The imprisoned men were the two who had most completely retained their coolness and self-possession throughout the whole of the reverses which had befallen the party; it was their fertile brains which had devised the audaciously daring plan of escape, and without them the rest of the party felt that they dare not do anything for fear of marring the whole scheme. And there was still another misfortune attending this arrest: supposing a favourable opportunity presented itself for the carrying out of the plan, it could not be seized so long as these two men were prisoners; all, even to Dale, were fully agreed that escape without them was not to be thought of for a moment. For two of the party—poor Mrs Staunton and Blanche—there was still another source of anxiety. Now that Ralli had at last completely laid aside the mask of friendliness which had at first concealed his feeling of ill-will—now that he had cast off the last remains of a semblance of forbearance—to what terrible lengths might he not allow his vindictiveness to carry him? Would he stop short at the humiliation of imprisonment and fetters? Or was it not too greatly to be dreaded that he would now proceed also to active violence! This fear was fully shared by the rest of the party, but they were careful to hide it from the two poor heart-broken women who were chiefly interested in the prisoners, striving rather to inspire them with hopes which they themselves did not entertain. A long and most anxious discussion of the situation that night, Rex and Bowles taking the lead by virtue of their superior resolution and experience, was productive of absolutely no result except to place an additional damper upon their already sufficiently depressed spirits. Bob said nothing, but, like the queen's parrot, he thought the more. Brook frankly acknowledged himself quite unequal to the emergency, as did Dale, but both cheerfully stated their readiness to do anything they might be directed to do. And here it may be stated that misfortune had been gradually doing for the latter—as it does for so many people—what prosperity had utterly failed to do, it had been driving out of him that peevishness of temper and that utter selfishness of character which had been his most disagreeable characteristics, and it had developed in their place an almost cheerful resignation to circumstances and a readiness to think and act for others which promised to make of him eventually a man whom it would be possible to both respect and esteem.
The following day brought with it a full revelation of the state of things which our friends would have to expect in the future; Captain Staunton and Lance being taken out of their confinement only to be employed all day in fetters upon work of the most laborious description, and locked up again at night in the loathsome Black Hole; while for the benefit of the whole party—and for the rest of the prisoners also, for that matter—Ralli had provided himself with a "colt," which he applied with merciless severity to their shoulders whenever the humour seized him. This last indignity was almost greater than they could bear; but Lance saw that the time was not yet ripe for action, and that there was really nothing for it but to bear everything in dignified silence at present and with as much fortitude as they could summon to their aid, and he managed to whisper as much to Bob, and to request him to "pass the word" to the others, which at intervals during the day Bob did. Before the day was over most of the prisoners, excepting those belonging to the Galatea party, had had enough of Ralli's colt, and signified their readiness to join the "Brotherhood;" they were accordingly sworn in at nightfall on their return from work.
This most unfortunate state of affairs had prevailed for nearly a fortnight, during which Ralli's arrangements for the entire completion of the schooner whilst yet upon the stocks had been pressed vigorously forward, when Dickinson found himself in a position to announce to the Greek that another three days would see the schooner ready for sea, and that—a sufficient number of men being now at liberty to proceed with the work—the time had arrived for the laying-down of the ways and the construction of the cradle. The eyes of the Greek sparkled with delight. Three days!—Only three days more, or four at most, and the time for which he had so anxiously waited would have arrived; the time when he would find himself master not only of a battery which would enable him to hold the island against all comers—Johnson included—or rather, Johnson especially—but also of a smart little craft capable of sailing round and round the Albatross, and heavily enough armed to meet her upon equal terms. Let but those three or four days pass without interruption, and with what sincere delight would he view the approach of Johnson and his brig, and with what a warm and unexpected welcome would he receive them! He rubbed his hands with fiendish glee as he thought of this, and slapped Dickinson playfully on the shoulder as he bid him commence the necessary work forthwith.
Thereupon Dickinson boldly stated that he must have the advice and assistance of Captain Staunton and Lance, as he didn't know enough about cradles and ways and suchlike to build 'em properly, and he couldn't find anybody on the island as did!
The ex-boatswain's mate was in hopes that this proposition of his would load to at least a temporary amelioration of the condition of his two friends, if not the absolute establishment of a better state of things; but his hopes were unexpectedly and effectually quenched by the announcement that the Greek knew all about it, and intended to superintend that part of the work himself. The time had now arrived when a definite plan of action at the decisive moment ought to be fully agreed upon; and feeling this, Dickinson arose from his bunk about midnight that night, and lighting his pipe sauntered in the direction of the Black Hole, hoping for an opportunity to confer and finally arrange matters with the prisoners confined therein. To his great disappointment and chagrin he found the door of the place—a small low building roughly but very solidly constructed of stone, with no windows and no means of ventilation save such as was afforded by the momentary opening of the door for ingress or egress—guarded by a couple of the most ruffianly of the pirates, fellows who were completely the creatures of Ralli, and who had on more than one occasion thrown out strong hints of their suspicion that Dickinson was on more friendly terms than he ought to be with the men now in confinement. To their searching inquiries as to the reasons for Dickinson's untimely and suspicious visit to them the ex-boatswain's mate was driven to reply with a complaint as to the extreme heat and closeness of the night, and of his inability to sleep in consequence, his restlessness being such as to constrain him to rise and come outside for a smoke and a chat with somebody; and, there being no one else to chat with, he had just come to them. To this explanation he added a careless offer to relieve them of their guard for the rest of the night; but this offer provoked such an expression of unqualified suspicion from both the guards that he at once saw he was treading on very dangerous ground, and was accordingly fain to abandon his well-intentioned effort to communicate with those inside the prison door.
Driven thus into a corner, he resolved to get a word or two, if possible, with the inmates of Staunton Cottage; and he accordingly sauntered off, taking a very roundabout way, as long as he thought it at all possible for his movements to be seen by the already suspicious guards.
Dickinson's complaint as to the heat and closeness of the night was quite sufficiently well founded to have been accepted as perfectly genuine. It was pitchy dark, the sky being obscured by a thin veil of cloud which was yet sufficiently dense to completely obscure the light of the stars; the air was still to the extent of stagnation; and the temperature was so unusually high that Dickinson found the mere act of walking, even at the idle sauntering pace which he had adopted, a laborious exertion. In the great and oppressive stillness which prevailed, the hoarse thunder of the trampling surf upon the rocky shores of the island smote so loudly upon the ear as to be almost startling; and to the lonely wanderer there in the stifling darkness the sound seemed to bring a vague mysterious premonition of disaster.
Dickinson had almost reached the cottage when he became conscious of another sound rising above that of the roaring surf, the sound as of a heavily-laden wagon approaching over a rough and stony road, or of a heavy train rumbling through a tunnel at no great depth beneath the surface of the earth. The sound, dull and muffled still, swept rapidly toward him from seaward, and at the moment of its greatest intensity there was for an instant a vibrating jar of the ground beneath his feet; the next moment it had passed, and the sound swept onward toward the interior of the island until it again became lost in the hollow roar of the distant breakers.
Somewhat startled by this singular and unusual phenomenon, Dickinson hurried forward, and soon stood beneath the walls of the cottage. A light was still burning in one of the upper rooms; so, seizing a handful of fine gravel, he flung it against the window in the hope of quietly attracting the attention of the inmates. After two or three essays his efforts were rewarded with success, the window being softly opened and Bowles' head thrust out, with the low-spoken ejaculation:
"Hillo, below there!"
"It's me—Dickinson," was the equally low-spoken response. "If you're not all turned-in I'd be glad to have a few words with some of yer."
"All right, my lad!" said Bowles. "I'll be down in a jiffey. Nothing else gone wrong, I hope?"
"No," said Dickinson; "I only wants to make a few arrangements; that's all."
In another minute the ladder was cautiously lowered, and Rex and Bowles joined their visitor.
"I say, gen'lemen, did you hear anything pecoolyer a few minutes ago?" was Dickinson's first remark.
"Yes," said Rex; "did you? Unless I am greatly mistaken we have been visited by a slight shock of earthquake."
"'Arthquake, eh? Well, if 'tain't nothing worse than that I don't mind," was the response. "You see I don't know much about 'arthquakes, not bein' used to 'em, and I felt a bit scared just at first, I own; but if so be as it's only a 'arthquake, why that's all right. If anything like that happens I like to know, if it's only to keep my mind quiet. But that ain't what I've come up here to rouse you gen'lemen out in the middle watch about; it's just this here."
And therewith he proceeded to lay before his hearers his own view of the state of affairs, pointing out to them the fact—already keenly recognised by them—that the moment for action might now present itself at any time, and explaining his own anxiety for a definite arrangement of some plan of operations, together with an agreement upon certain preconcerted signals to be of such a character as should be easily understood by the initiated while unlikely to arouse the suspicions of the rest.
A long conference ensued, at the close of which Dickinson quietly returned to his hammock with a greatly relieved mind. The others also retired, but not to sleep. They felt that the decisive moment was at hand, the moment upon the right use of which depended their liberty, if not their lives, for they were fully persuaded that if their first attempt failed they would never be allowed to have another—and, though still anxious, their recent talk with Dickinson had made them more hopeful of success than they had ever felt before. Hitherto they had always been haunted by a lurking doubt; but now they began for the first time to think that there really was a fair prospect of succeeding if they faced the dangers and difficulties of the attempt with boldness and resolution. Their chief anxiety now was how to free their two comrades; and to this they were as yet quite unable to see their way. Their anxiety and distress were greatly increased on the following day by finding that Ralli had given orders that his two prisoners, the skipper and Lance, were henceforth to be kept in close confinement altogether, with a double guard fully armed at the door, instead of being released during the day to work with the others at the shipyard. To be confined at all in the noisome "Black Hole" was bad enough, and their fortnight's incarceration had already told visibly on the health of the prisoners, even when they had had the opportunity of breathing a pure atmosphere during the day; but now that they were doomed to remain in the place both day and night their friends became seriously alarmed; they felt that the sentence was tantamount to one of a slow but certain death. And the most trying part of it was that there seemed no possibility of affording any succour to the doomed men; no attempt to help or relieve them could be devised except such as must necessarily bring the party into immediate collision with Ralli and his myrmidons.
The Greek had now entirely laid aside all pretence of treating his prisoners with any show of consideration. They had served his purpose; he had made them his tools as long as their assistance had been necessary to the advancement of his ambitious schemes; but now their help was no longer necessary to him, and he felt free to gratify, without stint, the malignant and vindictive feeling with which he had from the first regarded them. One or two of them, too, notably Lance and Captain Staunton, had on more than one occasion successfully opposed him in his efforts to have things entirely his own way; and that also must be amply atoned for. So he now amused himself at intervals in devising fresh indignities, in planning new hardships, to be heaped upon the unfortunate Galatea party.
It was in this vindictive spirit that, on the second evening after Dickinson's midnight visit, Ralli walked up to the cottage, and, unceremoniously opening the door, obtruded his unexpected and most unwelcome presence upon its inmates. As he made his appearance the conversation, which had been of a somewhat animated character, suddenly ceased.
He noted this circumstance as he glanced suspiciously round the room, with his features twisted into the now too familiar malicious smile.
Bowing with a sarcastic affectation of politeness, he remarked:
"I am afraid my sudden appearance has interrupted a very interesting conversation. If so, I am vary sorray. But pray go on; do not allow my praisance to be any—what you call it—any—any—ah, yes, I have it—any restraint."
Then, suddenly changing his manner as his naturally suspicious nature asserted itself, he demanded:
"What were you talking about? Tell me—you; I insist."
"We were talking about matters chiefly interesting to ourselves," answered Bowles. "If 't had been anything we wanted you to know, we'd have sent for you."
"Ha! my big strong friend, how you are funny to-night! You want to make a laugh at me, is it not? All right; wait till to-morrow; I then shall make a laugh at you. It is I that shall be funny then," returned Ralli with the evil smile broadening on his face and his eyes beginning to sparkle with anger.
"Well," he continued, "since you will not so civil be as answer my polite question, I will tell you what I have come to say. It is this. You men are working—after a very lazy fashion it is the truth—for your living, and from now I intend that the women—oh? I beg the pardon, I should have said the ladies—shall work for theirs too. I am not any more going to allow laziness; you must all work, beginning to-morrow."
Here was an announcement which fairly took away the breath of the party. Ralli saw the consternation which his speech had produced, and laughed in hearty enjoyment of it.
"I tell you what it is, my good sir," said Rex, recovering his presence of mind. "You may say what you please as to the manner in which we work, but you know as well as I do that our services are ample payment for the food and lodging which we and the ladies get; and as to their working—why, it is simply preposterous; what can they do?"
"What can they do?" repeated Ralli. "Ha, ha! I will tell you, my very dear sair, what they can do, and what they shall do. There are three of them and the shild. One shall do the cooking for the men; one shall clean out the sleeping-room, repair the men's clothes, and make their hammocks; and one—the prettiest one—shall cook for me and keep my cabin in order, make and mend my clothes, and attend to me generally. As for the shild, she shall gather firewood and—ah! there she is. Come and kees me, you little girl."
May had, in fact, at that moment entered the room with a happy laugh; but catching sight of Ralli, the laugh was broken off short, and she sought shelter and safety by her mother's side, from which she manifested a very decided disinclination to move at Ralli's invitation.
"Come here and kees me, little girl," repeated the Greek, his anger rapidly rising as he saw how unmistakably the child shrank from him.
"You must please excuse her," said Mrs Staunton, with difficulty restraining the expression of her resentment; "the child has not been accustomed to kiss strangers."
"Come and kees me, little girl," repeated Ralli for the third time, holding out his arms to May, and entirely ignoring Mrs Staunton's remark. But his sardonic smile and his glittering eyes were the reverse of attractive to the child. Besides, she knew him.
"No," said she resolutely, "I will not kiss you. I don't love you. You are the naughty wicked cruel man that locked up my dear papa and Mr Evelin, and won't let them come home to me."
"Hush, May, darling!" began Mrs Staunton. But her warning came too late; the unlucky words had been spoken; and Ralli, smarting under a sense of humiliation from the scorn and loathing of him so freely displayed by this pretty child—scarcely more than a baby yet—sprang to his feet, and, seizing May roughly by the arm, dragged her with brutal force away from her mother's side, and before anyone could interfere, drew out his colt and struck her savagely with it twice across her poor little lightly-clad shoulders.
The little creature shrieked aloud with the cruel pain as she writhed in the ruffianly grasp of the pirate; yet the fiendish heart of her tormenter felt no mercy, his lust of cruelty was aroused, and the colt was raised a third time to strike.
But the blow never fell Bob was the nearest to the pirate when he made his unexpected attack upon May, and though the occurrence was too sudden to admit of his interfering in time to prevent the first two blows, he was on hand by the time that the third was ready to fall. With a yell of rage more like that of a wild beast than of a man he sprang upon Ralli, dealing him with his clenched left hand so terrific a blow under the chin that the pirate's lower jaw was shattered, and his tongue cut almost in two. Then, quick as a flash of light he released poor May from the villain's grasp, wrenched the colt out of his hand, and, whilst the wretch still writhed in agony upon the ground where he had fallen under the force of Bob's first fearful blow, thrashed him with it until the clothes were cut from his back, and his shoulders barred with a close network of livid and bloody weals. The miserable cowardly wretch screamed at first more piercingly even than poor May had done; but Bob commanded silence so imperatively and with such frightful threats that Ralli was fairly cowed into submitting to the rest of his fearful punishment in silence, save for such low moans as he was utterly unable to suppress.
As may well be supposed, this startlingly sudden scene of violence was productive of the utmost confusion in the room where it originated. The ladies, hastily seizing poor little moaning May in their arms, beat a precipitate retreat, while the men sprang to their feet and tried—for some time in vain—to drag Bob away from his victim. But the lad was now a tall, stalwart, broad-shouldered fellow; his anger was thoroughly roused by the Greek's cruel and cowardly conduct; and it was not until he had pretty well exhausted himself in the infliction of a well- deserved punishment that he suffered himself to be dragged away. And it was now too, in the desperate emergency with which our friends found themselves in a moment brought face to face, that Bob showed the sterling stuff of which he was made. Cutting short the horrified remonstrances of his friends he took the reins of affairs in his own hands, issuing his instructions as coolly as though he had been a leader all the days of his life.
"The time has come," said he. "Mr Bowles, get a piece of rope, lash that fellow hands and heels together, and gag him. The rest of you get our few traps together; tell the ladies to do the same; and let all muster down at the landing as quickly as possible. I'm off to warn Dickinson and the rest, and to release the captain and Mr Evelin. Ah! I may as well take these," as his eye fell upon a brace of revolvers in Ralli's belt. He withdrew the weapons, hastily examined them by the light of the lamp to ascertain whether they were loaded or no, found that they were; and then, repeating his injunctions as to rapidity of action, he slipped the pistols one into each pocket, opened the door, and disappeared in the darkness.
Once fairly clear of the house, Bob paused for a minute or two to collect his thoughts. Then he walked on again toward the large building in which the men were housed, and on reaching it coolly thrust his head in at the open door, and looked round as though in search of someone.
"Well, matey, what is it?" asked one of the pirates.
"Is Dickinson here?" inquired Bob boldly.
"I think he is," was the reply. "Yes, there he is, over there. Here, Dickinson! you're wanted."
"Ay, ay," answered Dickinson. "Who wants me?"
"I do," answered Bob. "Mr Ralli says you're to shift over at once."
This was simply a form of words which had been agreed on when Dickinson paid his midnight visit to the cottage, and meant that the moment for action had arrived, and that a muster was to be made at the landing- place.
The sudden summons took Dickinson rather by surprise, though he had been schooling himself to expect it at any moment; he instantly recovered himself, however, and rising to his feet with a well-assumed air of reluctance asked:
"Does he mean that we are to go now—to-night?"
"He said 'at once,'" answered Bob.
"Oh! very well," growled Dickinson, "I s'pose we must obey orders. Here you—Tom Poole, Sullivan, Masters"—and he glanced his eye round the room, apparently hesitating whom to choose, but gradually picking out, one after the other, all the men who had cast in their lot with our friends—"muster your kits and then go up to the capstan-house; you've got to turn-in aboard the battery to-night, my beauties."
The men named, taking their cue from Dickinson, and acting up to instructions already received, assumed a sulky unwilling demeanour as they set about the work of packing a small quantity of already carefully selected clothes in their bags, growling and grumbling at having to turn out just when they were thinking of tumbling into their hammocks, and so on, but using the utmost expedition all the same.
In a little over ten minutes from the time of their first being called, the men, sixteen in number, stood in the large loft of the capstan- house. Poole had brought with him the key of the arm-chest, and, opening the case, he rapidly served out to every man a cutlass with its belt and a pair of six-chambered revolvers, every one of which he had himself fully loaded only the day before, in preparation for such an emergency as the present. The chest was then relocked and left, it being too heavy for them to carry away with them, to say nothing of the suspicion which such an act would excite if witnessed, as it would almost certainly be. But Poole slipped the key back into his pocket again, knowing that the strength of the chest and the solidity of the lock were such as to involve the expenditure of a considerable amount of time in the breaking open; and every minute of detention suffered by the pirates would now be almost worth a man's life to the escaping party.
"Now, lads," said Dickinson, "are yer all ready? Then march; down to the beach we goes, and seizes the two whale-boats, eight of us to each boat. But mind! there's to be no getting into the boats or shoving off until the ladies and gentlemen from the hut's all here. Mayhap we shall have to make a fight of it on the beach yet; so keep dry land under your feet until you has orders contrariwise."
The men descended the ladder leading from the capstan-house loft, and ranging themselves in a small compact body, two abreast, marched down to the landing-place, being joined on their way by some half-dozen curious idlers who had turned out to see what was in the wind. Dickinson was most anxious to get rid of these unwelcome attendants, and did all he could think of to persuade them to return to the house; but though quite unsuspicious as yet, they were not to be persuaded; they preferred rather to march alongside the other party, keeping up a constant fire of such jests and witticisms as sailors are wont to indulge in.
Bob, from a secluded and shadowy corner, watched this party as long as he could see them, and then began to look out for his own particular friends. He had not long to wait; barely five minutes afterwards he saw them also pass down on their way to the boats.
He allowed these a sufficient time to reach the boats, and then set off at a brisk pace to the "Black Hole." He soon reached it; and on his approach was promptly challenged by the two guards, who happened to be the same two truculent ruffians who were on guard when Dickinson tried to communicate with the prisoners.
In reply to the challenge, Bob informed them that they were wanted by Ralli, immediately, at the cottage (that being the most distant building), and that he had orders to keep guard until their return.
"What are we wanted for?" was the suspicious question.
"Oh! I believe there's some more people to be locked up here," answered Bob nonchalantly.
"All right!" answered the one who had asked the question. "Come on, Mike. And you—you young swab—mind you don't let a soul come near here while we're gone; if you do, Ralli'll just skin yer. D'ye hear?"
"All right!" answered Bob, placing his back against the door; "you go on; I won't give Ralli a chance to skin me, never fear. He's a good deal more likely to skin you if you don't look sharp."
The two guards accordingly set out in the direction of the cottage; but they had not gone half a dozen steps before they returned, cursing and swearing most horribly.
"Here, you young cub, what's the pass-word? Damn me if I hadn't forgotten that," exclaimed one of them, making towards Bob with outstretched hand.
"Stand back!" said Bob. "If you advance another step I'll shoot you both like dogs."
"The pass-word; the pass-word," demanded the ruffianly pair. "Give the pass-word at once, or by —- I'll split your skull with this cutlass."
Bob saw that he had not a moment to lose; that his life hung upon a thread; and that, moreover, if he allowed these fellows to overpower him, the whole scheme would probably fail; he therefore whipped out his pistols, and, taking rapid aim, pulled both triggers at the same instant. There was a single report; and one of the men staggered forward, shot through the body, whilst the other threw up his arms and fell back heavily to the ground with a bullet in his brain.
Bob remembered for many a long day afterwards, and often saw in his dreams at night, the wild despairing glare in the eyes of the dying pirate as the flash of the pistol glanced upon the glazing eyeballs for an instant; but he had no time to think about such things now. Stooping down and applying his mouth to the keyhole he said, loud enough to be heard by those within:
"Stand clear in there; I'm about to blow the lock to pieces. It is I— Robert. The time has come."
"Fire away, my lad!" was the reply. "You will not hurt us."
Bob applied the muzzles of both pistols to the lock, and pulled the triggers. Fortunately, the lock was not a particularly strong one; and a supplementary kick sent the door flying open.
Captain Staunton and Lance at once emerged from their dark noisome prison and glanced eagerly around them.
"Thank you, Robert," hurriedly exclaimed the skipper. "There is no time to say more now, I know; so tell us what we are to do, my lad, and we'll do it."
Bob pointed to the prostrate bodies of the two pirates and said:
"Take their arms, and then we must make a rush to the landing; this firing is sure to have raised an alarm, but it could not be helped. But how is this! Where are your manacles!"
"Slipped them off, my lad, the moment we heard your voice," answered the skipper. "Price—fine fellow that he is—managed that for us by putting us in irons several sizes too large for us. Now, Evelin, are you ready! I fancy I hear footsteps running this way."
"All ready!" said Lance.
"Then, off we go!" exclaimed Bob. "This way, gentlemen—sharp round to the right for a couple of hundred yards, and then straight for the landing. It will give us a better chance if the pirates suspect anything and place themselves to cut us off."
Away went the trio at racing-pace, Bob slightly taking the lead and striking sharply away to the right. It was well for them that they did so, as they were thus enabled to dodge a crowd of men who came excitedly running up from the landing on hearing the pistol-shots.
The party from the cottage had safely reached the boats some few minutes before this; Dickinson having very cleverly got them through the crowd on the landing-place by calling out in an authoritative voice as soon as he saw them coming:
"Now then, lads, make way there, make way for the prisoners to pass."
The men accordingly gave way, forming a lane in their midst through which our friends passed in fear and trembling, exposed for a minute or so to the coarsest ribaldry which the ruffianly band could summon to their lips on the spur of the moment. It was not until they had all been passed safely into the two whale-boats, and Dickinson's little band had drawn themselves closely up with drawn cutlasses in a compact line between the boats and the shore, that the suspicions of the pirates became in the least aroused.
Then there gradually arose an eager whispering among them; suspicious glances were turned first upon Dickinson's party and then toward the buildings; and upon the noise of shots being heard they all set out at a run in the direction of the sound, fully persuaded that affairs had somehow fallen out of joint with them, and that it was quite time for them to be stirring.
They had run about half the distance between the boats and the capstan- house when someone caught a glimpse of three flying figures indistinctly made out through the gloom. The alarm was instantly given, and in another moment the entire crowd had turned sharply off in pursuit.
It now became a neck-and-neck race between the two parties as to which should reach the boats first. The pirates were poor runners, not being much accustomed to that kind of exercise; but so unfortunately were two out of the three fugitives of whom they were in chase. Bob was fleet as a deer for a short distance, but he was far too loyal to leave his two friends; and they, poor fellows, weak and cramped as they were with their recent confinement, already began to feel their limbs dragging heavy as lead over the ground. The pirates gained upon them rapidly.
Presently one of the pursuers was so near that they could hear him panting heavily behind.
"You keep steadily on," murmured Bob, as he pushed in for a moment between his two companions; "I'll stop this fellow."
Then, allowing the skipper to pass ahead of him, he sprang suddenly aside, and, grasping one of his pistols by the barrel, brought down the butt of the weapon heavily upon the pirate's head as he rushed past. The fellow staggered a pace or two further and then fell heavily to the ground, where he lay face downwards and partially stunned until his comrades came to his assistance. As, fortunately, they all stopped and gathered round the man, raising him to his feet and eagerly questioning him, the diversion thus created gave the three fugitives time to reach the boats without further molestation.
Here they were, of course, received with open arms; but before their greetings were half exchanged the armed guard had turned to the boats, and, exerting their whole strength, shot them out upon the glassy waters of the bay, springing in themselves at the same moment and taking to their oars without an instant's delay.
As soon as the boats' heads were turned round and fairly pointed away from the shore and toward the shipyard, Dickinson, taking off his hat in salutation to Captain Staunton, said in a loud voice so that all in the boats could hear:
"Now, sir, we're fairly launched upon this here henterprise at last, and may luck go with us! We've all had to manage as best we could for the last few days—since you was locked up, you know, sir; but now as you're free again we wants you to understand as we all looks upon you as our lawful leader and cap'n, and that from henceforth all you've got to do is to give your orders, and we'll obey 'em."
A NIGHT OF TERROR.
Captain Staunton's first act, after suitably acknowledging Dickinson's expression of fealty, was to inquire how the crisis had been brought about. The explanation made his eyes flash fire; he ground his teeth and clenched his fists with rage as he thought of how he would have punished the ruffian who had laid such brutal hands upon his little pet. And when the explanation was complete, he wrung Bob's hand until it fairly ached as he thanked him for what he had done. Meanwhile poor May still lay in her mother's arms moaning with pain; and when the skipper took her on his knee the little creature once more screamed out, and complained that it hurt her shoulder. Upon this Lance, thinking that something must be wrong, made a careful examination of the child, when it was found that Ralli's brutal violence had resulted in the dislocation of her shoulder. It was of course at once pulled back into place, but the poor little creature's screams at the pain of the operation were terrible to hear; and Captain Staunton in the hastiness of his anger registered a solemn vow that if he ever again met Ralli he would make the wretch pay dearly for his brutality.
How little he dreamed of the terrible circumstances under which he would next see this miserable man.
The two whale-boats sped swiftly across the glassy surface of the bay, propelled by six stalwart oarsmen each, a little jet of phosphorescent water spouting up under their sharp stems, a long ripple spreading out and undulating away on either side of them, and half a dozen tiny whirlpools of liquid fire swirling in the wake of each as their crews strained at the stout ash oars until they bent again. The night had grown black as pitch, not a solitary star was visible, and the heat was so intense as to be almost insufferable; but the men thought nothing of this in their eagerness and zeal now that they had taken the decisive step of throwing up their old life of crime and had fairly enrolled themselves once more on the side of law and order.
In a very short time the boats had made the passage across the bay and were brought with an easy graceful sweep alongside the landing at the shipyard. The occupants quickly disembarked; and while the ladies proceeded at once under the care and guidance of Rex and Bob to safe and comfortable quarters in the schooner's spacious cabin, Captain Staunton gave orders that two large fires should be immediately lighted, one on each side of the landing, for the double purpose of affording them a light to work by and of enabling them to perceive the approach of their enemies.
"For," he remarked to Lance, "you may depend upon it that their suspicions are thoroughly aroused by this time, and it will not be long before they are after us to see what it all means."
A couple of huge heaps of shavings, chips, and ends of timber were speedily collected and ignited, the blaze soaring high in the motionless air and throwing a strong ruddy light for a considerable distance round.
Then Lance, with Bowles, Dickinson, Poole, and three or four other reliable hands armed with torches, went carefully round the schooner, inspecting the cradle. It was unfinished; but Lance thought that a couple of hours more of energetic labour expended upon it would make it sufficiently secure to enable them to effect the launch. Time was now of immense value to them; they could not afford to be very particular, and so long as the cradle would serve its purpose that was all they cared about.
They accordingly set to with a will, and very soon the yard resounded with the harsh rasping of saws and the heavy blows of mauls wedging the timbers into their places.
In the meantime Captain Staunton with the rest of the party went on board the schooner, and, after fully arming themselves with cutlass and revolver, opened the magazine, passed a good supply of ammunition on deck, cast loose the guns, and carefully loaded them, cramming them almost to the muzzle with bullets, spike-nails, and anything else they could lay hold of. This done, the skipper, unwilling to leave the ship himself, called for a volunteer to go to the battery, spike the guns there, and lay a fuse in the magazine. Bob at once stepped forward, and, being accepted, provided himself forthwith with a hammer and a sufficient length of fuse, and set out upon his errand.
He had scarcely disappeared in the gloom when Dale, who had volunteered to keep a look-out, gave warning of the approach of two boats—the launch and the pinnace—full of men.
They were observed almost at the same moment by Lance, who hailed:
"Schooner ahoy! Do you see the boats coming?"
"Ay, ay," answered Captain Staunton. "We see them, and we'll give them a warm reception presently."
"Very well," returned Lance; "we shall stick to our work and leave you to do the fighting. If you require any assistance, give us a call."
"All right!" answered the skipper. Then turning to the men on the schooner's deck, he shouted:
"Run those two guns out of the stern-ports there, and train them so as to sweep the boats just before they reach the landing. So! that's well. Now wait for the word, and when I give it, fire."
The boats, however, were meantime lying upon their oars, their crews apparently holding a consultation. The fire-light which revealed their approach revealed to them also the fact that the occupants of the shipyard were fully prepared to emphatically dispute any attempt on their part to land; and the sight brought vividly to their minds the aphorism that "discretion is the better part of valour."
At length, after some twenty minutes of inaction—during which the workers underneath the schooner's bottom plied their tools with a skill and energy that was truly astounding—the two boats were once more put in motion, their crews directing their course toward the landing, each boat having a rude substitute for a white flag reared upon a boat-hook in the bow.
The moment that they were near enough for their occupants to hear him Captain Staunton hailed them with an imperative order to keep off or he would fire into them.
They at once laid upon their oars, and a man rising in the stern-sheets of the launch returned an answer, which was, however, quite unintelligible. Meanwhile the boats, still having way upon them, continued slowly to approach.
"Back water!" shouted the skipper, seizing the trigger line of one of the guns, whilst Brook stood manfully at the other. "Back water, all of you, instantly, or we will fire."
The man in the stern-sheets of the launch waved his hand; the oars again flashed into the water, and both boats dashed at the landing-place.
"Wait just a moment yet," said the skipper, raising a warning hand to Brook and squinting along his gun at the same time. "Now, fire!"
The report of the two brass nine-pounders rang sharply out at the same moment, making the schooner quiver to her keel, and severely testing the construction of her cradle. A crash was heard, then a frightful chorus of shrieks, yells, groans, and execrations; and as the smoke curled heavily away, both boats were seen with their planking rent and penetrated here and there, and their occupants tumbling over and over each other in their anxiety to get at the oars—many of which had been suffered to drop overboard—and withdraw as quickly as possible to a somewhat safer distance.
A hearty cheer was raised by the party in possession of the shipyard. Those on board the schooner reloaded their guns in all haste, and the hammering down below went on with, if possible, still greater energy.
The boats were suffered to retire unmolested, and nothing further was heard of them for over half an hour. Then Dale, who was still maintaining a careful look-out, suddenly gave notice that they were again approaching.
The two aftermost guns were accordingly once more very carefully pointed and fired, Captain Staunton giving the word as before. But by some mischance the muzzles were pointed a trifle too high, and both charges flew harmlessly over the boats, tearing up the water a few yards astern of them. The pirates, upon this unexpected piece of—to them—good fortune, raised a frantic cheer of delight, and, bending at their oars until they seemed about to snap them, dashed eagerly at the landing- place.
There was no time to reload the guns, so, seizing his weapons and calling upon all hands to follow him, the skipper hastily scrambled over the schooner's bulwarks, and, making his way to the ground, rushed forward to meet the enemy, who had by this time effected a landing.
The two opposing forces met within half a dozen yards of the water's edge, and then ensued a most desperate and sanguinary struggle. The pirates had by this time pretty nearly guessed at the audacious designs of those to whom they were opposed. They had seen enough to know not only that an escape was meditated, but that it was also proposed to carry off the schooner—that beautiful craft which their own hands had so largely assisted to construct, and in which they had confidently expected to sail forth upon a career of unbounded plunder and licence, in full reliance that her speed would insure to them complete immunity from punishment for their nefarious deeds. Such unheard-of audacity was more than enough to excite their anger to the pitch of frenzy, and they fought like demons, not only for revenge, but also for the salvation of the schooner. But if these were the motives which spurred them on to the encounter, their adversaries were actuated by incentives of a still higher character. They fought for the life and liberty, not only of themselves, but also of the weak defenceless women, whose only trust under God was in them; and if the pirates rushed furiously to the onset, they were met with a cool, determined resolution, which was more than a balance for overpowering numbers. Captain Staunton looked eagerly among the crowd of ruffianly faces for that of Ralli, determined to avenge with his own hand the multitudinous wrongs and insults which this man had heaped upon him and his dearest ones; but the Greek was nowhere to be seen. On the skipper's right was Lance, and on his left Dickinson, the former fully occupying the attention of at least three opponents by the marvellous play of his cutlass-blade, whilst the latter brandished with terrible effect a heavy crow-bar which he had hurriedly snatched up on being summoned to the fight. Rex and Brook were both working wonders also. Bowles was fighting as only a true British seaman can fight in a good cause; and Dale, with a courage which excited his own most lively surprise, was handling his cutlass and pistol as though he had used the weapons all his life. Steadily, and inch by inch, the pirates were driven back in spite of their superior numbers; and at last, after a fight of some twenty minutes, they finally broke and fled before a determined charge of their adversaries, rushing headlong to their boats and leaving their dead and wounded behind them.
Captain Staunton did not follow them up, although the two whale-boats still lay moored at the landing as they had left them. He was anxious to avail himself of the advantage already gained in making good the escape of his own party rather than to risk further losses by an attempt to inflict additional punishment upon his adversaries. Besides, that might possibly follow later on when they had got the schooner afloat. His first act, therefore, after the flight of the pirates, was to muster his forces and ascertain the extent of the casualties.
The list was a heavy one.
In the first place, nine of the little band were missing at the muster. Bowles presented himself with his left arm shattered by a pistol bullet; Brook was suffering from a severe scalp-wound; and every one of the others had a wound or contusion of some sort, which, whilst it did not incapacitate them for work, was a voucher that they had not shrunk from taking their part manfully in the fight.
This first hasty examination over, an anxious search was instituted for the missing. The first man found was Dickinson, dead, his body covered with wounds, and a bullet-hole in the centre of his forehead. Near him lay Dale, bleeding and insensible, shot through the body; and a little further on Bob was found, also insensible, with a cutlass gash across the forehead. Then Dick Sullivan was found dead, with his skull cloven to the eyes; and near him, also dead, one of the seamen of the Galatea. And lastly, at some distance from the others, Ned Masters, with another seaman from the Galatea, and two of the escaped prisoners, were found all close together, severely wounded, and surrounded by a perfect heap of dead and wounded pirates. These four, it seemed, had somehow become separated from the rest of their party, and had been surrounded by a band of pirates. This made a list of three killed and six severely wounded.
The latter were gently raised in the arms of their less injured comrades and taken with all speed on board the schooner, where they were turned over for the present to the care of the ladies; while those who were still able to work resumed operations underneath the ship's bottom.
Another quarter of an hour's hard work, and then Lance's voice was heard ordering one hand to jump on board the schooner and look out for a line.
"All right!" exclaimed Bob's voice from the deck; "heave it up here, Mr Evelin."
"What! you there, Robert? Glad to hear it, my fine fellow. Just go forward; look out for the line, and, when you have it, haul taut and make fast securely."
"All right," answered Bob with his head over the bows; "heave!"
The line, a very slender one, was thrown up, and Bob, gathering in the slack, and noticing that it led from somewhere ahead of the schooner, bowsed it well taut and securely belayed it. He knew at once what it was.
"Hurrah!" he shouted joyously. "That means that we are nearly ready for launching."
Bob's unexpected reappearance, it may be explained, was due to the fact that he had been merely stunned, and had speedily recovered consciousness under the ministering hands of his gentle friends in the cabin, upon which, though his head ached most violently, he lost no time in returning to duty.
Lance now made a second careful inspection of the cradle; and upon the completion of his round he pronounced that, though the structure was a somewhat rough-and-ready affair, it would do; that is to say, it would bear the weight of the schooner during the short time she was sliding off the ways, and that was all they wanted.
"And now comes the wedging-up, I s'pose, sir?" remarked Poole interrogatively.
"Wedging-up?" returned Lance with a joyous laugh. "No, thank you, Poole; we'll manage without that. Do you see these two pieces of wood here in each keel-block? Well, they are wedges. You have only to draw them out and the top of the block will be lowered sufficiently to allow the schooner to rest entirely in the cradle. Get a maul, Poole, and you and I will start forward, whilst you, Kit, with another hand, commence aft. Knock out the wedges on both sides as you come to them, and work your way forward until you meet us. The rest of you had better go on board and see that everything is clear and ready for launching."
"When you're quite ready to launch, let me know, if you please, Mr Evelin, and I'll go and light the fuse that's to blow up the battery," said Bob.
"Ah! to be sure," answered Lance, "I had forgotten that. You may go up now if you like, Bob, and I'll give you a call when we're ready."
Bob thereupon set off on his mission of destruction, while Lance and Poole with a couple of mauls began to knock out the wedges which Evelin, foreseeing from the very inception of the work some such emergency as the present, had introduced in the construction of the keel-blocks.
In a few minutes both parties met near the middle of the vessel, and the last pair of wedges were knocked out.
"That's a good job well over," exclaimed Poole; "and precious glad I am now that I thought of soaping them ways this morning. I knowed this here business must come afore long, and I detarmined to get as far ahead with the work as possible. Now I s'pose, sir, we're all ready?"
"Yes, I think so," answered Lance, "but I'll just go forward and take a look along the keel to see that she is clear everywhere."
He accordingly did so, and had the gratification of seeing by the still brilliant light of the fires that the keel was a good six inches clear of the blocks, fore and aft.
"All clear!" he shouted. "Now, go on board, everybody. Light the fuse, Robert, and come on board as soon as possible."
"Ay, ay, sir," answered Bob from the not very distant battery.
A tiny spark of light appeared for an instant in the darkness high up on the face of the rock as our hero struck a match, and in another couple of minutes he was running nimbly up the steep plank leading from the rocks beneath to the schooner's deck.
"Kick down that plank, Robert, my lad, and see that it falls clear of everything," said Lance. "Are we all clear fore and aft?"
"All clear, sir," came the hearty reply from various parts of the deck.
"Are you ready with the axe forward there, Kit?"
"All ready, sir."
A dull cheeping thud of the axe was immediately heard, accompanied by a sharp twang as the tautly strained line parted; then followed the sound of the shores falling to the ground; there was a gentle jar, and the schooner began to move.
"She moves!—she moves!" was the cry. "Hurrah! Now she gathers way."
"Yes," shouted Lance, joyously. "She's going. Success to the Petrel"—as he shivered to pieces on the stem-head a bottle of wine which the steward, anxious that the launch should be shorn of none of its honours, had brought up from the cabin and hastily thrust into his hand. "Three cheers for the saucy Petrel, my lads—hip, hip, hip, hurrah!"
The three cheers rang lustily out upon the still air of the breathless night as the schooner shot with rapidly increasing velocity down the ways and finally plunged into the mirrorlike waters of the bay, dipping her stern deeply and ploughing up a smooth glassy furrow of water fringed at its outer edge with a coruscating border of vivid phosphorescent light.
"The boats—the boats again!" suddenly shouted Bowles, as the schooner, now fairly afloat, shot rapidly stern-foremost away from the rock—"Good God! they are right in our track; we shall cut them in two."
"That is their look-out," grimly responded Captain Staunton; "if they had been wise they would have accepted their defeat and retired to the shore; as, however, they have not done so, they must take the consequences. Remember, lads, not a man of them must be suffered to come on board."
A warning shout from the helmsman of the pinnace announced his sudden discovery of the danger which threatened the boats, and he promptly jammed his helm hard a-starboard. The launch was on his port side; and the result was a violent collision between the two boats, the pinnace striking the launch with such force as to send the latter clear of the schooner whilst the pinnace herself, recoiling from the shock, stopped dead immediately under the schooner's stern. There was a sharp sudden crash as the Petrel's rudder clove its irresistible way through the doomed boat, and a yell of dismay from its occupants, several of whom made a spring at the schooner's taffrail, only to be remorselessly thrust off again.
"There is a chance for them yet," said the skipper, as the schooner continued to drive astern leaving the wretches struggling in the water, "the launch has escaped; she can pick them up."
At length the schooner's way slackened sufficiently to enable Lance, by looking over the bow and stern, to ascertain her exact trim.
"It is perfect," he exclaimed to Captain Staunton as he rejoined the latter near the companion, "she sits accurately down to her proper water-line everywhere, thus proving the correctness of all my calculations—a result which pleases as much as it surprises me, since I have had to depend entirely on my memory for the necessary formula. Well, Captain Staunton, my task is now finished; here is the schooner, fully rigged and fairly afloat; take charge of her, my dear sir; and may she fully answer all your expectations!"
"Thanks, Evelin; a thousand thanks!" exclaimed the skipper, heartily grasping Lance's proffered hand. "You have indeed executed your self- imposed task faithfully and well. Let me be the mouth-piece of all our party in conveying to you our most hearty expressions of gratitude for the noble manner in which you have aided us in our great strait. To you is entirely due the credit of bringing our project thus far to a successful issue; but for your skill, courage, and resolution we might have been compelled to remain for years—Ha! what is that?"
A low rumbling roar was faintly heard in the distance, rapidly increasing in volume of sound, and breaking in with startling effect upon the breathless stillness of the night.
"It is another earthquake," exclaimed Lance. "Thank Heaven, we are afloat! Had it caught us upon the stocks it would doubtless have shaken the cradle to pieces, and, in all probability, thus frustrated our escape."
The ominous sound drew swiftly nearer and nearer, filling the startled air with a chaos of sound which speedily became absolutely deafening in its intensity; the waters of the bay broke first into long lines of quivering ripples, then into a confused jumble of low foaming surges; the schooner jarred violently, as though she was being dragged rapidly over a rocky bottom; there was a hideous groaning grinding sound on shore, soon mingled with that of the crashing fall of enormous masses of earth and rock, above which could still be feebly heard the piercing shriek of horror raised by the occupants of the launch. The shock passed; but was immediately followed by one of still greater intensity; the waters were still more violently agitated; the schooner was swept helplessly hither and thither, rolling heavily, and shipping great quantities of water upon her deck as the shapeless surges madly leaped and boiled and swirled around her. Finally, a long line of luminous foam was seen to be rushing rapidly down upon the schooner from the harbour's mouth, stretching completely across the bay. As it came nearer it was apparent that this was the foaming crest of a wall of water some twelve feet in height which was rushing down the bay at railway-speed.
"Hold on, every one of you, for your lives!" hoarsely shouted the skipper, as the wave swept threateningly down upon the schooner; and the next moment it burst upon them with a savage roar.
Luckily, the Petrel's bows were presented fairly to it, or the consequences would have been disastrous. As it was it curled in over the stem, an unbroken mass of water, filling the decks in an instant and carrying the schooner irresistibly along with it toward the shore at the bottom of the bay.
"Let go the anchor," shouted Captain Staunton, as soon as he could get his head above water.
But before this could be done the wave had swept past, rushing with a loud thundering roar far up the beach even to the capstan-house, and then rapidly subsiding.
"Get the canvas on her at once," ordered Captain Staunton—"close-reefed main-sail, fore-sail, and jib; we shall have some wind presently, please God, and we'll make use of it to get out of this as speedily as possible—Merciful Heaven! what now?"
A sullen roar; a rattling crash as of a peal of heaviest thunder; and the whole scene was suddenly lit up with a lurid ruddy glow. Turning their startled glances inland, our adventurers saw that the lofty hill- top, dominating the head of the ravine, near which was situated the gold cavern, had burst open and was vomiting forth vast volumes of flame and smoke. As they looked the top of the hill visibly crumbled and melted away, the flames shot up in fiercer volumes, vast quantities of red-hot ashes, mingled with huge masses of glowing incandescent rock, were projected far into the air; a terrific storm of thunder and lightning suddenly burst forth to add new terrors to the scene; and to crown all, a new rift suddenly burst open in the side of the hill, out of which there immediately poured a perfect ocean of molten lava.
In the face of this stupendous phenomenon Captain Staunton's order to make sail passed unheeded; the entire faculties of every man on board the schooner were wholly absorbed in awe-struck contemplation of the terrific spectacle.
Onward rolled the fiery flood. It wound in a zigzag serpentine course down the side of the hill, and soon reached the thick wood at its base and at the head of the valley. The stately forest withered, blazed for a brief moment, and vanished in its fatal embrace, and now it came sweeping down the steep declivity toward the bay.
This terrible sight aroused and vivified the paralysed energies of those on board the Petrel. Without waiting for a repetition of the order to make sail they sprang with panic-stricken frantic haste to cast off the gaskets, and in an incredibly short time the schooner was under canvas.
Still there was no wind. Not the faintest breath of air came to stir the flapping sails of the now gently rolling vessel; and her crew could do nothing but wait in feverish anxious expectancy for the long-delayed breeze, watching meanwhile the majestic irresistible onward sweep of that fiery deluge.
At last, thank God! there was a faint puff of wind; it came, sighed past, and died away. And now, another. The sails caught it, bellied out, flapped again, filled once more, and the Petrel gathered way. She had gradually swung round until her bow pointed straight for the capstan-house; and Captain Staunton sprang to the wheel, sending it with a single vigorous spin hard over. The breeze was still very light, and the craft responded but slowly to her helm; but at length she came up fairly upon a wind and made a short stretch to the eastward, tacking the moment that she had gathered sufficient way to accomplish the manoeuvre. She was now on the port tack, stretching obliquely across the bay in a southerly direction, when a startled call from Poole, repeated by all the rest, directed Captain Staunton's gaze once more landward.
"Look—look—merciful powers, it is Ralli!" was Lance's horrified exclamation as he grasped the skipper convulsively by the shoulder and pointed with a trembling hand to the shore.
Sure enough it was Ralli. The pirates had either not waited to seek him, or had not thought of looking for him in the cottage before setting out on their expedition against the shipyard, and he had consequently been left there. But somehow—doubtless in the desperation of mortal fear excited by the dreadful phenomena in operation around him—he had at last succeeded in freeing himself from his bonds, and was now seen running toward the beach, screaming madly for help.
The stream of lava was only a few yards behind him, and it had now spread out to the entire width of the very narrow valley. The unhappy wretch was flying for his life; terror seemed to have endowed him with superhuman strength and speed, and for a moment it almost appeared as though he would come out a winner in the dreadful race.
"'Bout ship!" sharply rang out the skipper's voice; "he is a fiend rather than a man, but he must not perish thus horribly if we can save him."
He put the helm hard down as he spoke, and the schooner shot up into the wind, with her sails sluggishly flapping. But before she had time to get fairly round the helm was suddenly righted and then put hard up.
"Keep all fast," commanded Captain Staunton, "it is too late; no mortal power can save him. See! he is already in the grasp of his fate."
Such was indeed the case. The fierce breath of that onward-rolling flood of fire was upon him; its scorching heat sapped his strength; he staggered and fell. With the rapidity of a lightning flash he was up and away again; but—Merciful God—see! his clothing is all ablaze; and listen to those dreadful shrieks of fear and agony—Ah! miserable wretch, now the flood itself is upon him; see how the waves of fire curl round him—he throws up his arms with a harsh despairing blood-curdling yell—he sinks—he is gone—and the surging fiery river sweeps grandly on until it plunges with an awful hissing sound into the waters of the bay and the whole scene becomes blotted out by the vast curtain of steam which shoots up and spreads itself abroad.
"What a night of horror! it is hell upon earth!" gasps the skipper, as he turns his eyes away and devotes himself once more solely to the task of navigating the schooner; "thank God the breeze is freshening, and we may now hope to be soon out of this and clear of it all. Phew! what terrific lightning, and what an infernal combination of deafening sounds!"
Fortunate was it for the schooner and her crew that the wind was from the southward, or blowing directly down into the bay; otherwise they would speedily have been lost in the thick clouds of steam which rose from the water, or set on fire by the dense shower of red-hot ashes which now began to fall thickly about them. As it was, though the wind was against them, and they were compelled to beat up the bay, the wind kept back the steam, and also to a great extent the falling ashes. But, notwithstanding these favourable circumstances, the crew were obliged to keep the decks deluged with water to prevent their being ignited.
Gradually, however, the Petrel drew further and further beyond the influence of this danger; and soon the rock at the harbour's mouth was sighted. Captain Staunton was at first somewhat anxious about risking the passage out to sea, being doubtful whether the explosion of the magazine had yet taken place; but a little reflection satisfied him that it must have occurred, as they had been drifting about the bay for nearly an hour, and he determined to push on.
Suddenly there was a shout from the look-out forward: "Boat ahead!" immediately followed by the information, "It's the launch, sir, bottom- up!"
Such indeed it proved to be when the schooner a minute later glided past it. But where were her crew? They had disappeared, leaving no sign behind them.
The hoarse angry roar of the breakers outside was now distinctly audible; and in another five minutes' time the Petrel's helm was eased up, she was kept away a couple of points, and, shooting through the short narrow passage on the eastern side of the rock, began to plunge with a gentle swinging motion over the endless procession of long slowly-moving swell outside.
The crew of the schooner had time to note, as they swept past the rock and through the passage, that the battery no longer frowned down upon the bay. In its place there appeared a yawning fire-blackened chasm; and the shipyard was thickly strewed with masses and fragments of rock of all sizes; both whale-boats were swamped; and a solitary gun, with a fragment of its carriage still attached, lay half in and half out of the water. The timbers of the dismembered cradle still floated huddled together like a raft, close to the landing.
"Now," said Lance to Captain Staunton, as soon as they were fairly outside of the harbour, "we are free, thank God! and, as there seems to be no immediate prospect of your further needing my help, I will go and look after the wounded and the ladies. Poor souls! what a fearful time of suspense and terror they must have passed, pent up there in the cabin, listening to all these fearful sounds, and not knowing what it means or what will be the end of it."
Lance accordingly descended, to find the ladies pale as death, and their eyes dilated with fear, resolutely doing their best with the aid of the steward to assuage the agonies of the wounded. He was, of course, at once assailed with a hundred questions, to which, however, he put a stop by holding up his hand and laughingly saying—
"Pray, spare me, and show me a little mercy, I beseech you; to answer all your questions would occupy me for the remainder of the night. Be satisfied, therefore, for the present with the general statement that we have successfully launched the schooner—as doubtless you have long ago found out for yourselves; that there has been a terrible earthquake, accompanied by a volcanic eruption which bids fair to completely destroy the island; that we are now in the open ocean, having made good our escape, and that there is at present nothing more to fear. Where is May?"
"She is asleep in that berth," answered Mrs Staunton, "so I hope the worst of the poor child's pain is over."
"No doubt of it," answered Lance; "the fact that she is sleeping is in itself a sufficient indication of that. And now, let me first thank you for your care of my patients here—to whom I will now myself attend—and next order you all three peremptorily off to bed. Away with you at once to the most comfortable quarters you can find, and try to get a good night's rest."
Utterly worn out, the ladies were only too glad to obey this order; and they accordingly forthwith retired to the cabins which the steward had already prepared for them.
The more severely wounded were then speedily attended to, their injuries carefully dressed, and themselves comfortably bestowed in their hammocks; after which came the turn of the others.
By the time that Lance had fully completed his arduous task the first faint streaks of dawn were lighting up the eastern horizon; and he went on deck to get a breath or two of fresh air. He found the schooner slipping along at a fine pace under every stitch of canvas she could spread, including studding-sails, with the breeze about two points on the starboard quarter, a clear sky above her, and a clear sea all round. Away astern, as the light grew stronger, could be seen a dark patch of smoke low down upon the horizon, indicating the position of "Albatross Island;" but the land itself had sunk below the horizon long before.
My story is now ended; very little more remains to be told, and that little must be told as tersely as possible.
The Petrel made a very rapid and prosperous passage home, and in due time arrived at Plymouth—long before which, however, the wounded had all completely recovered. Here the passengers landed; whilst Captain Staunton proceeded with the schooner to London, where the craft was safely docked and her crew paid off. The skipper then made the best of his way to the office of the owners of the Galatea, where he was received with joyous surprise, his story listened to with the greatest interest, and himself congratulated upon his marvellous escape from the many perils which he had encountered. And, best of all, before the interview terminated, his owners showed in the most practical manner their continued confidence in him by offering him the command of a very fine new ship which they had upon the stocks almost ready for launching.
I must leave it to the lively imaginations of my readers to picture for themselves the rapturous welcome home experienced by the other personages who have figured in this story, merely remarking that it left absolutely nothing to be desired, its warmth being of itself a sufficient compensation for all the hardship and suffering they had endured.
The gold which Bob's forethought had been the means of securing was duly divided equally between all who could fairly be regarded as entitled to a share; and, though it certainly did not amount to a fortune apiece, it proved amply sufficient to compensate the sharers for their loss of time.
On the receipt of his moiety, Bob gave a grand supper to all his friends in Brightlingsea, the which is referred to with justifiable pride by the landlady of the "Anchor" even unto this day.
It was whilst this eventful supper was in full swing that Lance Evelin unexpectedly made his appearance upon the scene. He was enthusiastically welcomed by Bob, duly introduced to the company, and at once joined them, making himself so thoroughly at home with them, and entering so completely into the spirit of the affair, that he sprang at a single bound into their best graces, and was vehemently declared by one and all to be "a real out-and-outer."
The next day found him closeted for a full hour with old Bill Maskell, after which, to everybody's profound astonishment, the pair left for London. Only to return next day, however, accompanied by a fine tall soldierly-looking old man, to whom Bob was speedily introduced, and by whom he was claimed, to his unqualified amazement, as an only and long- lost son. Sir Richard Lascelles—for he it was—was indebted to Lance for this joyous discovery; and it was almost pitiful to witness the poor old gentleman's efforts to adequately express his gratitude to Evelin for the totally unexpected restoration of his son to his arms.
Bob, now no longer Bob Legerton but Mr Richard Lascelles, was speedily transferred to his father's house in London; and, according to the latest accounts, he is now busy qualifying himself to enter the navy.
Poor old Bill Maskell was in a strangely agitated condition for some time after the occurrence of these events, being alternately in a state of the greatest hilarity at Bob's return home, and despondency at the reflection that henceforth the remainder of their lives must be spent apart. Sir Richard has, however, done what he could to console the poor old man by purchasing for him a pretty little cottage and garden in the most pleasant part of Brightlingsea, supplementing the gift with an allowance of one hundred and fifty pounds a year for the remainder of his life.
Some two months or so after the arrival home of the Petrel a notice appeared in the Morning Post and other papers announcing a double marriage at Saint George's, Hanover Square; the contracting parties being respectively Launcelot Evelin and Blanche Lascelles; and Rex Fortescue and Violet Dudley; there is every reason therefore to suppose that those four persons are at last perfectly happy.
It has been whispered—in the strictest confidence, of course—that there is some idea of fitting out an expedition to the South Pacific, for the purpose of ascertaining whether "Albatross Island" is still in existence, and, if so, whether there is any possibility of working the enormously rich gold mine, the strange discovery of which is recorded in these pages.
Should the expedition he undertaken and carried out with results worthy of note, an effort will be made to collect the fullest particulars, with the view of arranging them in narrative form for the entertainment of such readers as are sufficiently interested in our friends to wish for further intelligence about them.