These were the last words poor Jack heard as the two worthies entered the cabin.
"We are in a bad case, Jack, I am afraid," said Adair, "though I could not exactly make out what the fellows said."
"It was not pleasant," answered Jack, briefly. "Terence, have you ever thought of dying?"
"Yes, I have; that is to say, I have known that I was running many a chance of being knocked on the head or finished in some way or other," answered Adair, with some little hesitation.
"Then, Terence, my dear fellow, let us look at it as an awful reality, which is about speedily to overtake us," said Jack solemnly. "These fellows threaten to at once take our lives; depend on it, they will put their threats into execution."
"It is hard to bear, Jack dear," replied Adair; "I am so sorry for you and for all your brothers and sisters at home. I don't think mine care much for me; that's one comfort. But I say, I wish that the blackguards would let us have our arms free, that we might still have a fight for our lives."
"Don't speak thus, Terence," said Jack, who was almost overcome by Adair's allusion to his family. "Don't let us think of the past, but keep our thoughts fixed on the future world we are about to enter, and think how very unfit we are of ourselves for the glorious place we would wish to go to."
Terence listened, and responded in the same tone to his messmate. Much more they said to the same effect, nor did they forget to offer up their prayers for preservation from the terrible danger which threatened them. Then, with the calmness of Christians and brave men, they awaited the doom they believed prepared for them. Such consolation as they could give also they offered to the survivors of their crew. Two poor fellows had been killed outright; another was bleeding to death on the deck, nor would the brutal Spaniards offer him the slightest assistance, while they prevented his shipmates from giving it him. Jack himself was suffering also much pain from his wound, while he felt so faint from loss of blood that he could scarcely support himself. He had told Needham that the Spaniards threatened to kill them all.
"Well, sir, they may do it if they dare, but they will be sure to be caught some day or other," answered Needham. "I wouldn't change places with them. We shall die having done our duty; they will be hung up like dogs. If I knew their lingo I would tell them so."
The English were not long left in quiet. So many of the Spaniards had been wounded that some time was spent by them in bandaging up their hurts, and as soon as this was done they came on deck eager to wreak their vengeance on their captive foes. They now came about them with their long knives, flourishing them before their eyes, and pretending to stab at them. Some indeed, more brutal than the rest, actually stuck their knives into their flesh, but though blood was drawn, the seamen generally disdained even to utter a word, though one or two said, "I'll tell you what, you villains, if I can get my fists at liberty, I'll give it you." At length Don Diogo and the captain of the schooner came out from the cabin. They had apparently made up their minds what to do. The latter gave orders to reeve ropes to each yard-arm, while planks were got up and placed over the sides, secured on board by lanyards. On these being cut, of course the end of the plank overboard would instantly sink down and let the person standing on it into the water. Don Diogo had, it seemed, taken upon himself the direction of the executions. Jack and Adair had supposed that the Spaniards would wait till the morning to kill them, but the little Don evidently had no wish to delay his vengeance.
"Cast the prisoners loose, and bring them aft," he cried out. "Now, you scoundrel heretics, what have you got to say for yourselves? Nothing? I thought so. Well, I will be merciful. You shall choose the mode of your death. What shall it be—will you be hung or walk the plank? There are plenty of sharks alongside who will be happy to entomb you either way."
No one replied to this address.
"Speak, you heretics," he cried, stamping with rage.
The two midshipmen cast their eyes about them to assure themselves that what was taking place was a reality; the whole scene appeared so like some horrid dream that they could scarcely believe it true. As they looked up they discovered that a strong breeze had sprung up, and that the vessel was moving rapidly through the water. The deck was crowded with seamen, many of whom held lanterns, so that the whole ship was lighted.
"It is time to begin," cried the Don. "Come, as you will not choose for yourselves, I must choose for you. Here, seize that lad and run him up to the mainyard-arm."
He pointed at Adair. Several of the ruffian crew rushed forward and seized poor Terence, and dragged him up to the rope which hung from the yard-arm. They were about to take hold of it to adjust it round Adair's neck, when down by it came gliding an apparition which, in the uncertain light cast by the lanterns aloft, looked so like old Don Diogo himself, that the superstitious Spaniards, believing that it was his wraith or ghost, let go the rope and sprang back to the other side of the vessel. The old Don was not less astonished than the rest, but not exactly recognising himself, it occurred to him that some spirit of evil had come on board to watch his proceedings. Queerface, meantime, for the apparition was no other than him, seeing the confusion he had created, shinned up the rope again, and on reaching the yard-arm, finding it slack, hauled it up after him, and there he sat chattering away and wondering what the strangers were going to do to his master. The wicked old Don, though astonished at first, was not altogether overcome, and soon recovering himself, began to get an idea of the true state of the case. Once more he ordered the crew to go on with their cruel work, but no one would venture aloft to overhaul the whip, and Queerface showed no disposition to help them. The Don began to swear and stamp with rage, calling them all by certain uncomplimentary epithets, in which the Spanish language is so rich. The crew swore and abused him in return. In the midst of the confusion a voice hailed them through a speaking-trumpet.
"What schooner is that? Heave-to, or I will fire into you."
"We are in the hands of a set of bloody pirates. I'm Jack Rogers," sang out Jack, at the top of his voice. Never had he sung out louder.
"Take that for speaking," exclaimed the little Don, levelling a pistol at his head. He pulled the trigger. It missed fire, and before he could again cock the lock, Needham, who had been working his hands free, sprang aft, and with a blow of his fist levelled him with the deck. It was the signal for the Spaniards to set upon them, and they would all have been cut down, but the next instant a loud crash was heard, and the dark hull of a man-of-war brig, with her taunt masts and wide spread of canvas, was seen ranging up alongside. The next instant twenty or more stout English seamen, led by Alick Murray, came pouring down on the slaver's deck. The brig which had thus providentially fallen in with them was the Archer. She was on her passage to the northward with despatches for Captain Lascelles, recalling him and his frigate homewards. The news was received by all hands with unmitigated joy. The tables on board the schooner were quickly turned. The Spaniards were all handcuffed, and a strict guard set over them. The midshipmen and their followers went on board the brig, where they were cordially welcomed, and their wounds looked to. The felucca escaped, but as she was never again heard of, it was supposed that she was lost in a fierce gale which occurred two days afterwards. The schooner was found to be full of slaves, and proved a rich prize. Don Diogo escaped hanging, but was reduced to abject beggary, for he had not even the means of leaving Sierra Leone, and very soon afterwards was found dead on the beach. This was the last adventure either of the three midshipmen met with on the coast of Africa. They were all three pretty well tired of it, and delighted indeed were they when they once more found themselves in sight of Old England. The frigate and brig were paid off about the same time, and Alick and Terence accompanied Jack to that often-talked-of and well-loved home of his in Northamptonshire. It must not be forgotten that they had in their train the most sensible of travelled apes. Master Queerface, who, by his amusing antics and performances, and extraordinary monkeyish sagacity, gained the admiration of the whole surrounding neighbourhood. There they remained for some weeks, when, after Alick and Terence had paid a short visit to their own friends, they were all once more summoned afloat.
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE.
BOUND FOR CHINA.
Her Majesty's frigate Dugong was fitting with all despatch for sea at Portsmouth; so was her Majesty's brig-of-war Blenny, just commissioned by Commander Hemming, well-known, as the papers stated, for his gallantry on the coast of Africa, and on every occasion when he had an opportunity of displaying it. The papers spoke truly, and well had our old friend won his present rank. Both the frigate and the brig were destined, it was supposed, for the China seas; but this was not known to a certainty. The Dugong had been commissioned by Captain Grant, Alick Murray's old commander in the Archer, who had some short time before received his post rank. Captain Lascelles, with whom the three midshipmen first went to sea, commanded at this time a line-of-battle ship on the Indian station.
Who has not heard of the Blue Posts at Portsmouth, to be found not far from the landing-place known as the Point, now sadly encroached on by new batteries and a broad wooden pier?
One afternoon, at the time of which I am speaking, a cab stopped at the door of that well-known inn, with a portmanteau outside, and a cocked-hat case, a sword, a gun-case, and several other articles, including a young naval officer inside. He nodded smilingly to the waiter and boots, who came to get out his things, as to old acquaintances, and then, having paid the cabman, entered the inn. No sooner had he put his head into the coffee-room, than another young officer, in the uniform of a mate or passed midshipman, jumped up, and, seizing him by the hand, exclaimed—
"I am delighted to see you, my dear Jack. You've come to join the Dugong, I hope."
"If you belong to her, Adair, I wish I was," answered Jack Rogers, for he was the new-comer. "But I am not. The fact is, Hemming has got command of the Blenny, and I applied and got appointed to her. It can't be helped now. Any news of Murray? He wrote me word, some little time ago, that he expected to get appointed to a ship. I wish that I could have had him with me; but we three have been on the same station, and mostly together all our lives, and we can scarcely expect the same good fortune to continue."
"We tried to keep together, and we succeeded," answered Adair. "There's nothing like trying, in my opinion."
"You are right there, old fellow; there isn't a doubt of it," exclaimed Jack Rogers, who had been a little out of spirits, and inclined to take a somewhat gloomy view of affairs in general.
No wonder, for he had just left as happy a home as any to be found in Old England. It was a cold March day too, and he was chilled with his journey. He took off his great coat, which, with his other things, Boots carried to his room, and then the two old messmates sat down before the fire. They had been talking on for some time while their dinner was getting ready, when Adair observed a young man sitting at a table a little way off, narrowly observing them. Terence looked at him in return.
"Do you know, Jack, I do verily believe that there sits no other than Bully Pigeon," he whispered. "What can he be doing down here?"
The stranger, seeing them looking at him, got up, and approaching them with his hand extended, said—
"What, do I see some old friends? Rogers! Adair! Very glad to see you. How de do? How de do? You remember me, surely. I'm Pigeon."
Thus addressed, it would not have been in the nature of either of the two midshipmen to have refused to shake hands with their old schoolfellow, bully though he had been. They invited him to join them; and when they had dined they all three sat over their wine together, talking merrily of former days.
"I'm going out to China in the diplomatic line," observed Pigeon, in his old tone. "I have a notion that I shall be able to manage the Celestials. There are few people who can deceive me."
These, and a few other similar remarks, showed that Pigeon in one respect was little changed from what he had been in his early days. When or how he was going out to China he did not say.
They had been chatting away for some time when another cab rattled up to the inn, and presently at the door of the coffee-room who should appear, to the delight of Rogers and Adair, but Murray himself. They dragged him into the room, each eager to know what ship he was come to join. Paddy gave a shout of delight when he heard that he was appointed to the Dugong. He told them besides that she was certainly under orders for China, to sail as soon as ready for sea, and that the Blenny was also to be sent there.
The old schoolfellows, as may be supposed, passed a very pleasant evening, their pleasure being heightened with the anticipation of being together in whatever work they might be engaged. Even Bully Pigeon was sufferable (as Paddy observed), if he was not altogether agreeable. He had a number of strange adventures to narrate, of which he was the hero. Although his accounts were not implicitly believed, it was agreed that, at all events, they were possible, which was somewhat in his favour.
Two weeks after this, her Majesty's ships Dugong and Blenny were gliding under all sail across the Bay of Biscay.
"The frigate looks something like a dowager with her small daughter following in her wake, sir," observed Jack, glancing his eye from the brig to her big consort, as he walked the deck with his captain.
"We must try and make the little daughter win a name for herself out among the Celestials," said Captain Hemming in return.
"That we will, sir, if we get the chance," answered Jack.
"Ay, Rogers, but we must make the chance," remarked his captain with emphasis.
"So we will, sir," said Jack warmly. "There is not a man on board who'll not be glad of it."
Captain Hemming had a sincere regard and respect for Jack, as Jack had for him. They had both seen each other well tried and never found wanting, and they could thus converse frankly and without reserve. Neither Hemming nor Jack were people to talk without fully intending to perform. Indeed, those who knew them felt sure that when dash or cool courage, or perseverance and intelligence, were especially required, they would show that they possessed them all. Jack liked his ship and most of his brother officers, as well as his captain, and was a general favourite with them. He had brought two companions, Adair's old African follower, Queerface, which he had given to Jack; and a fine Newfoundland dog, Sancho by name. Jack had intended leaving Queerface at home, as Paddy remarked, to remind his brothers and sisters of him. The compliment was somewhat doubtful. But the monkey had played so many curious tricks, and had committed so much mischief, that no one would undertake the charge of him; and therefore, like a bad boy, he was sent off to sea again in disgrace. As was natural, Sancho and Queerface became very intimate, though not at the same time perfectly friendly. Each, it appeared, was striving for the mastery. Queerface, monkey though he was, gained the day; and one of his great amusements was to mount Sancho's back, and to make him run round and round the deck with him, whipping him on and chattering away all the time most vociferously, to the great amusement of the seamen, if not always to that of the first lieutenant.
Jack had another charge to look after, a young midshipman, Harry Bevan by name, who had been especially committed to his charge. The little fellow had been a petted somewhat spoilt child, an only son, yet go to sea he would; and his parents never had refused him anything, so they let him have his will, though it almost broke their hearts. Jack promised to take the best care of him he could. Harry was not exactly a pickle, but he had very little notion of taking care of himself; so Jack had quite enough to do to look after him, in addition to Queerface and Sancho. Harry and Sancho were very great friends, but Queerface evidently looked upon him as a rival in his master's affections, and bore him no good-will. This feeling of the monkey was increased by the tricks which the young midshipman played him whenever he had the opportunity. At last he was never able to approach Queerface without a rope in his hand, which he held behind his back, or doubled up in his pocket. The monkey, in the most sagacious way, would skip about till he had ascertained whether the weapon was there or not. If it was there, as soon as he caught sight of it, he would spring up into the rigging and sit on a ratline, as quiet and demure as a judge, without attempting to retaliate.
On board the frigate there was little to interrupt the usual routine. Murray had carried one of his parrots with him, and the sagacious bird afforded almost as much amusement as did Bully Pigeon, who soon showed that he was very little altered from what he had been in his youth. He could not bully, but he could give abundant evidence of being still an arrant donkey. Pigeon now called himself a philosopher, and used to be very fond of broaching his philosophical principles, as he denominated his nonsense. One day, when dining in the gun-room, he began as usual. As he drank his wine he grew bolder and bolder in his assertions. At last he declared that he did not believe that there was a place of punishment after death. He had taken it into his head that the surgeon would side with him.
"I'm sure, doctor, a sensible man like you will not assert that such is a fact?" he continued. "What use would there be in it?"
"I'll tell you what, ma laddie, there's one vary good use it will be put to, and that will be to stow away all such vicious, ignorant donkeys as you are," answered the doctor with great emphasis and deliberation.
Pigeon was no way disconcerted at this somewhat powerful rebuke, but continued as before. Indeed, nothing is so difficult as to make a conceited fool cease from talking folly. At last the first lieutenant struck his fist on the table with a force which made all the glasses ring, as he exclaimed—
"I'll tell you what, Mr Pigeon. This ship belongs to a Christian Queen, and while I'm the senior officer present I'll not allow you to sneer against religion, or a word to be spoken which her gracious Majesty would not approve of. Now, sir, hold your tongue, or I'll report your conduct, and have you put under arrest."
The diplomatist, though looking very silly, began again, but another loud rap on the table silenced him. It did not, however, silence Murray's parrot, who had found its way, as it often did, into the cabin, and the moment the voices ceased Polly set up such a roar of laughter, that Pigeon fancied that she was laughing at him. The silly fellow's rage knew no bounds. There was, however, nothing else on which he dared to vent it, except on the loquacious bird. A bottle of port wine stood near. He seized it by the neck to throw it at Polly, who, unconscious of the coming storm, only chattered the louder. The stopper was out. As he lifted it above his head, a copious shower of the ruddy juice descended over his white shirt and waistcoat, and head and face, so blinding him that he missed his aim, but broke the bottle, while Polly gave way to louder laughter than ever, in which everybody most vociferously joined. The wretched Pigeon had to make his escape to his cabin to change his dress, nor did he venture out again for the rest of the day, some of the time being passed in listening to the not very complimentary remarks made upon him and his so-called philosophy. If anything would have cured him of his folly, that might have done so. He had some glimmering suspicion that he was wrong, but he had no hearty desire to be right, and when that is the case a man is certainly in a bad way.
Day after day the two ships sailed on in sight of each other. The brig was very fast, and, though so much smaller, could outsail the frigate, which was not remarkable for speed. Frequently, when they were together, Polly used to take a flight, to pay her old friend Queerface a visit, and he always seemed delighted to see her. He exhibited his pleasure by all sorts of antics, though he could not express what he felt so fluently with his tongue as she did. At length the Cape of Good Hope was doubled without the Flying Dutchman having been seen, though the philosopher Pigeon kept a bright lookout for him. One night he declared that he saw the phantom bark sailing right up in the wind's eye, but it was found to be only the Blenny following the frigate under easy sail with a fair wind astern. Pont de Galle, in the island of Ceylon, celebrated for the rich spices it exported, and supposed to be one of the most ancient emporiums of commerce, was visited, and at last the most modern and yet the largest emporium in the Indian seas, Singapore, was reached. This wonderful city, which was founded as late as 1824 by Sir Stamford Raffles, on a spot where, though formerly the site of a Malay capital, at that time but a few huts stood, is now the most wealthy and flourishing on the shores of those eastern seas. Here vessels bring produce and manufactures from all parts of the world, again to be distributed among all the neighbouring countries. There are no duties levied of any sort or description, so that people of all nations are encouraged to come there with their goods. The Chinese especially flock to the port, and great numbers are settled in the city and throughout the island, largely contributing by their persevering industry to its prosperity. Who does not know the look of a Chinese, with his piggish eyes, thatched-like hat, yellow-brown skin, black tail, and wide short trousers? The streets swarmed with them, ever busy, ever toiling to collect dollars, the most industrious people under the sun— yet the least lovable or attractive. Their houses may be known by the red lintels of the door-posts covered with curious characters and designs; while at night the persevering people may be seen still working away by the light of huge paper lanterns covered with the strangest of devices. The whole island is not larger than the Isle of Wight, but already there are a hundred thousand people living on it, collected from all quarters of the globe. There are numerous very handsome houses in the town, mostly roofed with red-brick tiles, while the higher spots in the neighbourhood are chiefly occupied by the villas of the European merchants and other principal residents. Such was the place before which her Majesty's ships Dugong and Blenny brought up, outside a fleet of strange-looking junks, with flags of all colours, devices, and shapes flying at their mast-heads, while in different part of the extensive roads were ships belonging to nearly all the countries in the world, English, American, and Dutch, however, predominating.
Although just then the British and Chinese empires were linked in the bonds of peace, the ships of war of the former had plenty to do in keeping in order the numerous hordes of pirates which infested those seas, and considerably impeded her commerce, plundering her merchantmen, and cutting the throats of the crews whenever opportunity offered.
The frigate and brig had been at Singapore but a few days when an open boat under sail was seen entering the harbour. She stood for the Blenny, which was the outer vessel. Jack Rogers, who was doing duty as officer of the watch, hailed her to know what she wanted. A glance at the condition of her crew told him more than any words could have done. Their faces were wan and bloodless, their dresses torn, and several had their heads and limbs bound up. One man sat at the helm, and another forward to manage the sail; the rest lay along the thwarts or at the bottom of the boat, apparently more dead than alive. The boat came alongside, but no one in her had strength left to climb on board. Even the man at the helm sank back exhausted as she was made fast. Jack ordered some slings to be got ready to hoist them up, and then, taking some brandy and water in a bottle, he leaped down into the boat to administer it to the poor people. His restorative was only just in time, for many of them were already almost dead. The surgeon and most of the officers of the brig were on shore. Jack, therefore, signalled to the frigate to send a doctor forthwith. Doctor McCan, who had been appointed to the frigate, accompanied by Murray, soon came on board, and every possible assistance was given to the famished strangers. After some time the man who had steered the boat recovered. He said that he was mate of a ship bound from China to the Australian colonies, and that when she was about three hundred miles distant from Singapore, she had been attacked by a fleet of piratical Illanoon prahus, and her captain and crew had resisted to the utmost, but she was reduced almost to a wreck, and at night by some accident caught fire. The first mate was the only surviving officer; the captain and the rest, with many of the crew, had been killed by the pirates. During the darkness the survivors made their escape unpursued, though they could see the prahus approaching the burning wreck soon after they had left her.
As soon as this information was conveyed on shore, the frigate and brig were ordered to proceed to sea in search of the pirate fleet. No one was sorry to have work to do, though small amount of glory was to be obtained in pirate hunting.
"It's our duty, at all events, and that is one comfort," observed Jack to Adair, who had been lent to the brig in consequence of the illness of her second lieutenant. Thus two of the old schoolfellows were together.
The squadron, sailing to the northward, cruised in every direction where they were likely to fall in with the piratical fleets; but though many traces of them were discovered in ruined villages and stranded vessels, the crews of which had been murdered or carried off into slavery, the pirates themselves were nowhere to be seen. At last it occurred to Captain Grant that in all probability the pirates were receiving constant information of their movements, and had thus managed to elude them. He therefore determined to fit out three boats, which would, by being able to steal along shore, and pull head to wind, be more likely to come on the pirates unawares.
No sooner was the thought conceived than it was put into execution. Each boat was fitted with a long gun on the bows, besides swivels at the sides for closer quarters, and manned with twelve hands armed to the teeth, besides officers; and in the larger boats two or three extra men. Rogers and Adair got charge of two of the boats. Murray would gladly have gone in the third with Mr Cherry, the second lieutenant of the frigate, who had command of the expedition, but two midshipmen had already been directed to get ready to go in her, and he did not like to deprive either of them of the pleasure they anticipated. The boats did not leave the ships till some two or three hours after dark, that none of the friends of the pirates might discover what had occurred.
No one expected anything but amusement from the expedition. Nat Cherry, their leader, was one of the most good-natured, jolly fellows in the navy, and seldom failed to make everybody under him happy. They could not bring themselves to believe that a whole fleet of pirate prahus would ever wait their attack for a moment, they felt almost sure that directly they appeared the enemy would attempt to escape. Just as Jack was shoving off from the brig, Queerface, who had been watching his opportunity, made a spring into the boat, and there was instantly a loud cry from all on board her, that he might be allowed to remain.
"Oh, he's such a divertin' rogue, he'll keep every mother's son of us as merry as crickets," sang out an Irish topman, whose own humour generally proved a source of amusement to all with him.
The request was granted, and Queerface seemed to enjoy the prospect of the trip as much as his companions. Away pulled the squadron of boats. When daylight dawned they were coasting along the shore of an island fringed with cocoa-nut trees, and hills rising in the centre. There were numerous deep indentations, bays, and gulfs, with bluff cliffs here here there, and high rocks scattered about, capital spots in which whole fleets of prahus might lie hid without much chance of being discovered. The weather was very hot, as it is apt to be within a few miles of the equator; and when there was no wind, and the sea shone like a burnished mirror, the sun came down with very considerable force on the top of the heads of the party in the boats. Still their spirits did not flag. Jack and Adair, indeed, had been pretty well seasoned to the heat of the coast of Africa, where, if not greater, it was often far less supportable.
Mr Cherry led: Jack and Terence followed side by side. A constant fire of jokes was kept up between the two boats. Queerface evidently thought that there was something in the wind, and kept jumping about with unusual activity, keeping apparently as bright a lookout as anybody on board. Not an inlet was passed unexplored, still not a sign of the pirates could they discover. On going up one small but deepish river, they came, close to the banks, on a native village. The inhabitants must have taken to flight on their approach, for not a human being was to be seen.
"That looks suspicious," exclaimed Adair. "We ought to burn this village to teach them better manners."
Mr Cherry fortunately had no such intention. He had an idea that burning people's houses was not the best way of making friends of them.
"Indeed, it would be a pity to have to destroy so picturesque a place," observed Jack Rogers.
The houses were mostly separate, built on piles four or five feet above the ground. They were of one storey, with a deep verandah or gallery running round them, a ladder leading up to it. The roofs, which were high and pointed with deep eaves, were covered with a thick coating of palm-leaves, and so were the walls, while the floors were made of bamboo cut in strips and placed nearly an inch apart, being covered with a thick, beautifully woven mat. They appeared strong, but very springy, so much so, that when Adair began to dance a polka on one of them, he very nearly bounded up to the roof. The village was surrounded and interspersed with cocoa-nut and other palm-trees, and with bananas, whose dark-green foliage gave effect to lighter tints of the forest. The thick jungle pressed hard on every side, leaving space only here and there for some small fields and gardens. Mr Cherry would not allow the slightest injury to be done to the houses; for though it was suspected that they belonged to the pirates, no traces of booty were to be discovered.
After spending some time in examining the locality, they were about to embark, when a dark visage was seen peering out at them from among the trees. Instead of making chase to catch him, Mr Cherry stood still and beckoned to him. This gave the native courage, who, seeing also that no injury had been done to the village, after a little hesitation advanced. One of Jack's crew was a Malay, who could speak not only his own language, but that of many of the surrounding tribes. He had no difficulty in entering into conversation with the native, who asserted that his people had taken the British for pirates, and had run away in consequence. To prove his sincerity, he offered to pilot the boats to the chief haunts of the pirates. As there was no reason to doubt him, his offer was accepted. He merely requested time to equip himself for the expedition. He entered one of the houses, and soon returned with a couple of creeses stuck in his sash, and a sword by his side, and the whole party, embarking once more, proceeded on their voyage. Their volunteer pilot was a merry, talkative fellow. What his real name was it was difficult to make out exactly, so Jack gave him that of Hoddidoddi, which it sounded very like, and he at once readily answered to it.
All that day they sailed on without seeing anything of the pirates. They began to last to fancy that Hoddidoddi was deceiving them; but he entreated them not to despair, and promised, by noon the next day at farthest, to bring them in sight of the marauders. They brought up at night in a sheltered bay, where the water was as smooth as a mill-pond. Jack and Adair grew very sentimental as they leaned back in the stern-sheets of Mr Cherry's boat, where all the officers had collected to smoke their cigars, and looked up into the dark sky, sprinkled with stars innumerable. What they said need not be repeated.
"Come, lads, dismount from your Pegasus, and turn in and get a little sleep," cried their commanding officer; "we've a hard day's work before us to-morrow, I suspect."
This warning brought their thoughts back to the business in which they were engaged, and, returning to their respective boats, those not on watch were very quickly wrapped in what, as Paddy said, "might have been 'soft repose,' if it wasn't that the planks were so mighty hard." They were awoke before dawn by a summons from Hoddidoddi, who declared that there was sufficient light for him to pilot them, if they wished to proceed. The anchors were at once got up, and they pulled away along shore.
By daylight they came to a broad channel some miles wide. Their pilot averred that they should find the pirate fleet across it. Away they dashed. A thin silvery mist hung over the ocean; sufficient, however, to conceal them from any one on the lookout on the opposite shore. Only here and there, as they approached, a few palm-trees, rearing their heads above the mist, showed where the shore itself was.
"If the pirates only happen to be there, we shall catch them to a certainty," shouted Paddy to Jack, as they pulled rapidly on.
Soon all were ordered to keep silence, and Hoddidoddi was seen to be indulging in a variety of curious and somewhat violent gesticulations. Just then appeared the masts and yards of a whole fleet of Illanoon prahus. There could be no doubt that they were the pirates. Mr Cherry had no necessity to order his followers to give way. The seamen laid their backs to the oars, and made the boats fly hissing through the water. They thought that they should take the enemy by surprise; but the sound of tom-toms beating, pistols being fired, and loud shouts showed them that the pirates were not asleep, and that they themselves had been heard, if not seen. Just then a puff of wind blew aside the mist, and exhibited some twenty prahus or more drawn up in order of battle, and ready to receive them. A larger body than they were might have hesitated about attacking; still it did not enter the head of their gallant leader that it would be possible to retreat. He ordered Jack to attack on one wing and Adair on the other, while he pulled for the centre of the fleet, firing his long gun as he did so. The pirates were evidently astonished at this bold proceeding, and at the way the shots pitched into them. Probably they thought that the boats they saw were only the advanced guard, and that a much stronger force was following. First one and then another cut their cables, and, getting out their long sweeps, pulled away on either hand. Some four or five stood to the southward, and Jack in hot haste followed them. Adair pursued nearly the same number round the north end of the island, while the main body, with whom Mr Cherry was engaged, showed a disposition to run up a narrow inlet or channel, which appeared astern of them. Jack cheered on his men, and they, nothing loth, gave way with a will. Still the pirates showed that they possessed very fast heels, besides which they could kick, as the British found to their cost, and several shots from their stern guns struck the boat as she got nearer to them. A groan burst from the lips of one of the seamen. He pulled on; but Jack saw his hands suddenly let go his oar, and down he sank. Directly afterwards another poor fellow was hit. This loss considerably lessened the speed of the boat; some little time also was occupied in placing the wounded men in the stern-sheets, and in looking to their wounds.
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR.
With Jack Rogers had come little Harry Bevan; Jack, not believing that there would be any fighting, had got leave to bring his young charge with him. As the shot were flying thickly about, how gladly would he have shielded the young lad with his own body. He wished that he could have ventured to stow him down at the bottom of the boat, out of harm's way; but he knew well enough that Harry would not have remained there a minute had he done so. Not a thought that he himself might be hit crossed Jack's mind. His whole anxiety was for the young boy. Harry, however, seemed unconscious of danger. He was leaning over one of the wounded men, assisting to bind up his arm, when Jack saw his hand drop powerless by his side, while he fell forward. Jack caught him in time. "What is the matter, Harry?" he exclaimed. "Are you hurt, lad?"
"A strange pain about my shoulder and arm and neck," he answered faintly. "Oh, I am very sick, Rogers, very sick." Jack saw that the boy's jacket was torn. He cut away the cloth with his knife; the blood how gushed out freely; there was a desperate wound on the shoulder. No woman could have dressed it with more care and gentleness than did Jack. He poured some brandy and water down the lad's throat, which much revived him, though his suppressed groans showed that he was still in great pain.
Many people would have given up the chase under these circumstances, but Jack Rogers was not a fellow to do that. He found, however, that he could do the enemy more damage by keeping out of the range of their guns, and yet keep them within range of his. Miles were thus passed over. As the sun rose the heat increased. There was a breeze, and the prahus profited by it by spreading all their sails, but it did not serve to cool the air. At length Jack found that he had got round the island, and greatly to his delight he saw the other portion of the pirate squadron followed closely by Adair. The two boats were soon alongside each other. A council of war was held. It was a question whether they should wait for their commander or pursue the enemy. It was quickly decided that they should continue the chase. There were groups of islands ahead, and the chances were that if they did not follow the enemy they would escape among them. So on they pulled. The pirates fired as before, though without doing any further damage. The only person who seemed to wish to be elsewhere was Queerface. He jumped about and chattered incessantly. Then he would try and hide himself; but could not remain quiet, but every time he heard a shot he popped up his head to see where it was going. Suddenly it grew perfectly calm again. A lurid look came over the sky. Evidently there was going to be a change in the weather. The pirates seemed to know what was about to occur. There was an inlet in an island close at hand: towards it they rapidly pulled. Jack and Adair were about to follow, when down upon them came a terrific squall, which very nearly blew both their boats right over. They happily got them before it, and away they flew towards the island they had left. To weather it was impossible. The best chance of saving the boats was to beach them. They prayed that there might be no rocks in the way, but the fierce breath of the tornado was sweeping up such vast masses of foam into the air, that they could see but a few fathoms before them. Side by side the two boats sprang on. Jack stood up. As his boat rose on the top of a sea, he saw the land: close under her bows it appeared.
"Be ready, lads, to spring out, and to carry our wounded shipmates up the beach," he exclaimed. The next instant the boat struck with a force which shattered her almost to pieces. The seething, foaming waters rushed round her, and would have swept her off again, had not her crew, leaping out, seized her gunwale and dragged her up the beach, while the wounded men were carried to a spot where they were safe.
Jack having placed little Harry, whom he carried in his arms, in a place of safety, looked anxiously round for Terence. The boat of the latter had received even greater damage, but his people had escaped with their lives. Some of the provisions had, however, been washed out of her.
"I fear we are on a very dissolute island," exclaimed Adair as he came up to Jack. It was certainly a most unpromising spot. There were a few palm-trees to be seen here and there at a distance, but of a stunted growth, as if there was but little soil to nourish their roots, while all around was sand and rock. On hauling up the boats they were both discovered to be unseaworthy; their stock of provisions was much reduced; and what was worst, most of their powder was spoilt, and the boats' guns rendered useless, a very important loss in the neighbourhood of so numerous and vindictive an enemy. The men had their muskets and cutlasses, however, and there was no doubt but that should the pirates attack them, they would fight to the last. The great hope was that the tornado which had driven them on shore, might have treated their enemies in the same way.
"We ought not to wish our enemies ill," observed Terence; "but I suppose that it would not be wrong to wish that they may be no better off than we are."
Jack had nothing to say against this principle. Another source of anxiety was for Mr Cherry. They had left him attacking a very superior force; and even had he come off the victor, how would his boat have withstood the tornado?
Still no one despaired or even lost their spirits, neither were they for a moment idle. The men joked and laughed as much as ever, especially at Queerface, who, delighted to get on shore, leaped and frolicked about in the highest glee. Jack and Terence, after a short consultation, agreed that as they could not get away, it would be safer to fortify themselves, in case the pirates should discover and attack them.
They were not long in selecting a spot among some rocks, where, by throwing up banks of sand and digging holes in which to shelter themselves, they hoped that they might bid defiance to ten times their own number of enemies. The tornado kept blowing very fiercely for most of the time; at length, when their work was far advanced, it subsided considerably. Their labours were, however, not ended till nearly dark, by which time it was again calm. They made an awning with the boats' sails, and were all glad to lie down and get some rest after the fatigues of the day, the necessary guards having been placed to give notice of the approach of an enemy. They prudently would not light a fire lest the light should be seen by the pirates, who might be on the lookout for them.
Jack's chief concern was for Harry Bevan. The men bore their sufferings well, though they groaned in their sleep as wounded men generally do, even when not in much pain; but their pulses kept up, and their minds were collected. Jack and Adair had gone to the highest point of rock in the neighbourhood, to ascertain, if they could, if any enemy was near; but far as their gaze could extend across the starlit ocean, no vessel of any sort floated on its surface. Hoping that they might be left in peace till daylight, and thus give longer time for Mr Cherry to rejoin them, they returned to their encampment. They found poor little Harry talking away vehemently about people and circumstances of which they knew nothing, relating undoubtedly to his far-distant home. His mind was wandering. He thought Jack was his mother, and blessed him for all the care and kindness he was showing him. He fancied, however, that Adair was Queerface; and told him that he would rope's-end him if he came near him, a compliment Paddy did not altogether approve of. The worst part of the business was, that they could do nothing for the poor boy. They had no medicine, and had no notion of what to administer if they had had any. Jack was afraid of giving more brandy, so he let him have as much water as he wanted to drink; and by soothing words tried to calm his mind, and lull him to sleep. At length Dick Needham, who belonged to Jack's boat, woke up and entreated to be allowed to sit by the side of the poor little fellow. Who could wish for a more tender, gentle nurse than a true-hearted British sailor can make when he is aware that grog, however good in its way, is not, under all circumstances, the very best of medicines that can be administered? Leaving Harry therefore to Needham's care, Jack and Terence sat up talking for some time longer, making arrangements, like wise commanders, what, under the various circumstances which might occur, they would do. At length they threw themselves on the ground, and endeavoured to obtain a little rest in preparation for the work before them.
Jack thought that he had been only a few minutes asleep, when he started to his feet on hearing Needham's voice. "What is it?" he exclaimed, looking around. It was daylight, but a thick white mist hung over the sea.
"The enemy are not far off, I suspect, sir," answered Needham, who at that instant was entering the encampment. "My mind misgave me somehow, and I went to the top of the rock." Before he could finish the sentence Jack sprang on towards the place mentioned, followed by Terence, who roused up the moment he heard Jack's voice. On reaching the top of the rock, they cast their eyes eagerly seaward. At first nothing but a mass of white mist could be seen. Jack thought that Needham had been mistaken. While, however, they were still in doubt, a current of air it seemed blew off the top of the mist just as froth is blown from a mug of ale, and the upper sails of a fleet of prahus appeared not a quarter of a mile from the shore.
"The pirates must be looking for us," exclaimed Terence; "it will be fortunate if the mist continues, and they slip by without pitching on us."
"Pitching into us, you mean," said Jack, with a laugh. "Well, if they find us out, we must drive them off, and hold our own till the frigate sends to look for us. Still as they are ugly customers, we'll do our best to keep out of their sight." In this strain the two midshipmen talked on for some time, watching the movements of the prahus. Now the fog closed round them—now it lifted and exposed their sails to view. They seemed to be gliding by the island. Yet they were unpleasantly near.
"If the fog lifts, they can scarcely fail to see us," remarked Terence.
"Then, Paddy, we must fight it out to the last, and I am sure that you are of my opinion too," said Jack.
"That I am, Jack," cried Adair, wringing his hand. "But I say, what is that? I heard the splash of oars." They listened. There could be no doubt of it, and their practised ears told them that it was not the stroke of British seamen. The pirates, it was too probable, had sent on shore, and would land close to the very spot where the wreck of the boats lay. They would in all probability betray them. It could not be helped, so they hurried back to the camp to prepare for whatever might happen. As they passed along the beach, they could still hear the sound of oars, which was borne for a considerable distance over the calm water. The men stood with their muskets in their hands ready for the attack. Even the wounded men begged to be propped up against the bank that they might get a shot at the enemy.
Poor little Harry had dropped off into a deep slumber, and knew nothing of the preparations taking place. Needham volunteered to go down and watch behind a rock close down to the water, so as to give the earliest notice of the approach of the pirate-boats, should they come on shore at that point.
They had not long to wait. Louder and more distinct grew the splash of the oars.
Presently Needham came running up to the fort. "There are pretty nearly a dozen boats in," he exclaimed; "you'll see them in a moment coming out of the fog. They can't very well miss finding us."
"Very well," said Jack, coolly. "They'll be sorry that they did find us, that's all."
As Needham had said, in another minute the long black hulls of the pirate's boats appeared through the fog, and being run up on the beach, the crew leaped out of them. The swarthy savages, with sharp creeses by their sides and long jingalls in their hands, looked about on every side, and seemed surprised at not finding an enemy. They examined the boats, and then looked about again. So well was the fort constructed among the rocks, that in the fog they did not discover it. They began to scatter about; they were evidently persuaded that the English had made their escape across the island. At length three or four Malays wandered close up to the fort. They stood for a moment as if transfixed, and then, as it beamed on their comprehension what it really was, they beat a retreat, shouting to their companions.
The seamen were for firing at the intruders, but Jack ordered them not to throw a shot away, or to fire till they were attacked. They had not long to wait. The whole band of Malays quickly collected, and, with glittering creeses in their hands, rushed on to the attack.
"Now, boys, give it them," cried Jack, and Terence repeated the order almost in the same breath, for he knew that it was coming. Half the seamen only fired, and then began again to load. The other half waited till the first were ready, and the Malays had got close up to the bank. The latter, fancying probably that only a few had firearms, came on courageously.
"Fire, boys," cried Jack, quietly. The seamen jumped up, and the pirates, not expecting so warm a reception, wavered and fell back, leaving several dead and wounded close to the fort.
Jack and Terence began to hope that they would retreat altogether, but, encouraged by their chiefs, once more they were seen to come on. At the same time several more boats reached the shore. Jack and Terence could not conceal from themselves that they were in a dangerous position.
With loud, horrible shrieks, the Malays rushed up to the fort. The noise of the firing woke up little Harry, and, just as the pirates had a second time reached the embankment, Jack found him standing close to him, his clothes bespattered with blood, and his face looking pale as a sheet of paper. For a moment Jack thought it was the ghost of his young charge; but he had no time to think about it, for the next instant the enemy were close to them. Again and again the English sailors fired and kept the enemy back, but the pirates so far outnumbered them that there seemed but little hope of their ultimate success. Again, by their unflinching bravery, they drove the enemy back. The Malays, however, kept up a hot fire at them when they got to a distance, and several of the English were hit and unable longer to fight. Two poor fellows were killed outright. The fog now cleared, and Jack saw that the prahus themselves were drawing in with the land. With their own scanty numbers diminishing, and those of the enemy increasing, Jack and Terence could not help acknowledging that their case was desperate. Still, when the enemy once more came on, they received them with as firm hearts and as hearty a cheer as before. For a short time there was a cessation of firing. Queerface, who had wisely got into a hole, looked out to see what had happened. At that moment a bird was seen flying towards the fort. To the surprise of all, it pitched close to Queerface, who seemed delighted to see it. Adair turned round. "Why," he exclaimed, "there is Polly. Where can she have come from?" It was a question no one could answer. The boats had gone off to the prahus, and now returned with more men. With terrific shrieks and cries of vengeance, the Malays rushed towards the gallant little band of Englishmen, resolved to destroy them.
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE.
IN DESPERATE CONDITION.
The Malay pirates surrounded the fort, uttering the loudest shrieks and cries, in the hope of terrifying the defenders, but they did not know what British seamen were made of; and in spite of the fierce and terrific looks of the enemy, Jack and his little band stood fast, prepared to receive the onslaught. Poor Harry Bevan had sunk to the ground, not through fear, but weakness; and Jack had placed himself over his body, determined to defend him as long as he himself had life or strength. He felt and looked not a little like a lion prepared to do battle for her young. Jack had now grown into a very strong fine young man. He was not very tall, but he had broad shoulders and an expansive chest; and now, as he stood cutlass in hand, with a profusion of light hair streaming back from his honest sunburnt countenance, he was the picture of a true British sailor, and might well have been likened to the noblest type of the king of beasts. Adair was not a whit behind him in courage, though his physical powers were not so great. What hope was there though for them and their gallant men? At that moment there appeared but very little. Both of them knew that braver savages than the Malays were not to be found. Jack, as he stood there, with his muscular arm bared and his sharp weapon in his hand, did not put his trust in either. He knew and felt that the arm of One alone who is mighty to save could preserve him and his companions; and with deep earnestness and perfect faith he lifted up his heart to heaven, and prayed that assistance might be sent them. The British seamen returned the shrieks of the Malays with shouts of defiance, and kept up a rapid fire as they came on. Now their weapons cross. There is the loud sounding clash of steel, the sharp crack of muskets and pistols, the shouts and shrieks of the combatants. There is the thick smoke from the firearms mixed with the mist, rapid flashes of flame, and all the other sounds and appearances of a desperate struggle. Still, though the pirates hemmed them closely round, the seamen stood as before, boldly at bay, and no impression was made on their front.
"Jack," cried Adair, in the middle of the fight, "I don't think Polly came here for nothing. Hold on for a short time, and we shall be relieved, depend on it. She and the monkey have been talking away together, and Master Queerface looks as if he knew all was right."
I rather suspect that Adair was allowing his imagination to run away with him, or that he spoke thus to keep up the spirits of his men. Still the appearance of Polly was very extraordinary, and could only be accounted for by supposing that the frigate was not far off; or that she had accompanied Mr Cherry, and that his boat was in the neighbourhood. The idea might have encouraged the seamen to still further resistance, but the Malays pressed them hard; and, overwhelmed with numbers, it appeared as if their fate was sealed. Even Jack began to fear that this was the case. He saw that the fire of his men began to slacken, and the dreadful report ran round among them that their ammunition was almost expended.
"What is to be done, Rogers?" said Adair in Jack's ear.
"Trust to Heaven, Terence," answered Jack, warding off a blow which a Malay who had leaped forward made at his head. The next moment the savage rolled over, a lifeless corpse, down the embankment. For another minute the desperate struggle continued with unabated fury. Then a sound was heard which made the hearts of the British seamen leap within their bosoms—it was the loud report of a heavy gun which echoed among the rocks. The seamen answered it with a hearty cheer, for no guns but those of their own ship could give forth that sound. Another and another followed. At the same time the breeze which the frigate had brought up blew away the mist; and just above the rocks her topsails could be seen as she stood after the Malay prahus. The pirates saw her too. If they would save their vessels and their lives, they knew that there was not a moment to be lost. At a sign from their chiefs, as if a blast of wind had suddenly struck them, before the English knew what they were about, they rushed away like a heap of chaff before the gale. Jack and Terence, knowing their cunning nature, and fancying that they might rally again, hesitated to follow, and kept back their men.
"They are off," at length cried Terence. "Hurrah, my lads. Let's after them!"
Jack did not spring forward at once. He had not forgotten for a moment his young charge. He knew that, driven to desperation, the Malays were very likely to run amuck, and, if they found him, to kill him. He felt sure that he would only be safe if he had him with him. Stooping down, therefore, he seized the little fellow in his arms, and, holding him as much as possible behind his back, he sprang on, and overtaking his companions, made chase after the retreating Malays. The other wounded men, in the excitement of the fight, had forgotten their hurts, and were pursuing with the rest. Queerface and Polly had, therefore, no fancy to be left behind, so off they set also, though they took care to keep in the rear of their friends.
The Malays had reached the beach, and some were swimming and others wading off to their boats, when the two midshipmen and their followers got up with them. All were too eager to escape to attempt to offer any resistance. Jack had to recollect that they really were most atrocious robbers, or he could scarcely have brought himself to allow his men to fire on them. Not many shots, however, were fired, for the last cartridge in their pouches was expended. Happily, the Malays were in too great a hurry to be off, to turn and let fly at them. The frigate, under all sail, was coming round the point on the left hand, while the prahus were endeavouring to get away out of the range of her shot to the right or south side of the island. They were catching it, however, pretty severely, and more than one appeared to be in a sinking condition. The midshipmen were now eager to try and get their own boats afloat, but they were in an utterly unfit state for launching, so all they could do was to make signals to the frigate that she might return and take them off, after she had destroyed the pirates. This there was very little doubt she would do. In the eagerness of the chase, however, Jack bethought him that those on board would very likely not observe their signals.
"Never mind," cried Adair, as a bright thought struck him; "we'll send Polly off; she'll carry our message." A note was accordingly written on the leaf of a pocket-book, and being secured under Polly's wing, Adair lifted her up, and showing her the frigate, gave her a shove off towards it. She seemed to know exactly what was expected of her, for, giving one glance only round at her friends, away she darted towards the ship. They watched her anxiously till she was lost to sight. Still, they had little doubt about her reaching her destination, and in the course of a very few minutes their anxiety was relieved by their seeing a flag run up to the mast-head of the frigate, while a gun was fired to leeward. She, however, passed before them, and soon disappeared again on the other side of the island. A rapid and continuous fire told them what she was about. Jack and Adair would gladly have gone round to see what was occurring, but the distance was considerable, over hot burning sand and rocks, and they would not leave their wounded and tired men to gratify their curiosity. They very soon remembered, after the excitement of the work in which they had been engaged was over, that they had not breakfasted; so all hands who could move about set to work to collect sticks to light a fire. It soon blazed up, and speedily coffee and cocoa were boiling, and bits of meat were roasting away at the ends of ramrods and sticks. The poor wounded men, when the excitement was over, began to feel not hunger, but the pain of their hurts, and several sank to the ground unable to move. Their shipmates did their best for them, and rigged an awning with the boats' sails, under which they were placed. Some of the men wandered away, and brought back a supply of cocoa-nuts, the milk of which afforded a deliciously cooling beverage to the poor fellows. Jack, meantime, was tending his young charge with as much care and tenderness as a mother would a child. At length he was rewarded by seeing Harry come to himself. The boy looked up in his face, and the first words he uttered were—
"We've beat them, Rogers, have we? Hurrah! hurrah!"
"Yes, Harry," answered Jack, "it is all right. The enemy have taken to flight, and we shall soon, I hope, be on board the frigate. But here, you will be the better for some cocoa. Take this."
Jack sat down under the shade of the sail, and Needham having brought him a mug of cocoa, he broke some biscuit into it, and stirring it up while the boy's head rested on his knee, he fed him as he would have done a baby. Harry, who had soon again relapsed into apparent unconsciousness, opened his lips and ate a little with a dreamy expression of countenance, as if he himself fancied that he was still a baby being fed by his nurse. The food, however, Jack saw was doing him good, for the colour slowly returned to his cheeks, and his pulse began to beat more regularly.
"He will be all right soon," exclaimed Jack to Adair. "It is wonderful what Nature will do if we don't play tricks, and take liberties with her."
Harry Bevan, though delicately nurtured, was of a sound constitution, which he had not injured by either drinking or smoking, or by any other means, as many poor silly lads do, thinking they are behaving in a manly way by so doing. Had he been inclined to do so, Jack Rogers would have taken very good care to prevent him. Thus it was, however, that he did not succumb to the fearful injury he had received. Still Jack was very anxious to get him safe on board, and under the doctor's care. Time went on, and still the frigate did not appear. Adair proposed starting off to the other side of the island to ascertain what had become of her, when a boat was seen rounding the point. "She is Mr Cherry's boat," was the cry. "Hurrah! hurrah!" With hearty cheers, Mr Cherry was welcomed on shore. He had had a severe struggle, and had lost two of his men killed, and three wounded, but had succeeded in putting the pirates to flight. His boat was not large enough to carry all the party, but he had one of the carpenter's crew with him, and some tools; and, after a little examination, Tom Gimlett declared that he could patch up one of the boats so as to make her in a fit condition to launch. All hands helping, and with the aid of some planks from the other boat, this was done, and at length the two boats were on the water, on their way to look for the frigate. When Mr Cherry heard how long it was since she had passed the island, he began to be somewhat anxious about her. The boats, however, were so heavily laden, that they could not make much speed to satisfy themselves as to what had happened. The men did their best, and it was wonderful how they kept up their spirits under the hot broiling sun, which, as Paddy observed, "was roaring away like a furnace, right over their heads." No sooner had they rounded the island than the sound of a gun, booming over the smooth waters, reached their ears. At slow intervals another and another followed. "The ship is in distress," observed Adair to Jack. "What can have happened?"
"Give way, lads," cried Jack, seizing the stroke oar, and bending his back to it with a will. It was the only answer he made to Adair's remark. Little Harry looked up at him with admiration and affection, and the men exerted themselves more than ever. On they pulled, hour after hour. No one proposed resting, even to take any refreshment, except a piece of biscuit, which the men chewed during the intervals that they were relieved at the oars.
"There she is at last," cried Jack, standing up on the stern-sheets. He took a steady look at her through his glass. So did Mr Cherry through his. Her sails were set, but with heavy hearts, they both agreed that, from her appearance, she must be hard and fast on shore, and if on a coral reef there was too great a probability that she might not be got off again.
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX.
ANOTHER FIERCE CONFLICT.
A ship on shore is, at all times, a melancholy spectacle; but very sad it makes the hearts of those feel who see their own vessel lying among rocks in strange seas, far away from any friendly ports, and surrounded by enemies. Mr Cherry and his companions pulled away with all their might to ascertain the worst. The frigate, during this time, occasionally fired one of her bow guns. As they drew nearer, they perceived that she was doing so at a fleet of war-junks clustering in the distance, but who prudently were keeping out of range of her shot. Still, from their remaining where they were, it was evident that they were meditating an attack on her should another gale spring up, or any other occurrence give them a chance of success. The boats could not be of any great assistance, but still they would be of some use in the exertions to be made in getting her off. The brig would be of far more service; but where she was, it was difficult to say. When last seen, she was in a chase of another fleet of pirates to the northward. When they got alongside, every man of the frigate's crew was busily engaged in efforts to get the ship off. Mr Cherry and his party were warmly welcomed, however, and in spite of the fatigue they had gone through, they all at once lent a hand to effect the desired object. Anchors were got out astern, the anchors and some of the heavy guns were lowered into the boats, and the capstan was manned. Round went the men with the capstan bars, but the cables were soon stretched to their utmost, and there they stood pressing with might and main, but not an inch did the frigate move.
"We shall have to start the water and heave some of the stores and guns overboard, I fear," observed the first lieutenant to the captain.
"We will do anything rather than lose our guns," said Captain Grant. "I have no fancy to have our teeth drawn. The crew may rest for a spell. See, there is a breeze coming ahead," observed the captain, after some time. "Man the capstan again. Set the mainsail, mizen-topsail, and topgallant-sail. Let the people run from side to side as the capstan goes round."
The orders were put into execution. The men strained every nerve as before. Suddenly the capstan went round an inch; then another and another. Was it the anchors coming home? No: the ship herself was moving. Everybody on board felt her move. "Hurrah! hurrah!" There was a general shout. Again the men sprang round with the capstan bars; the frigate was afloat. She was soon hauled off into deep water. The well was sounded, but she did not appear to have received any damage. Night was now coming on, and the master was unwilling to take the ship through the intricate channels, among which she was entangled, without daylight to guide him. She was therefore brought up with a spring on her cables, ready to make sail, should any emergency arise to make this necessary.
The three old messmates were now together again, for the first time since they left England. Jack and Adair had all their adventures to tell to Murray, who was keeping the first watch, and so, though tired as they were, they preferred walking the deck with him to turning in and going to sleep. The night was very dark, but the wind fell, and it became almost calm, so that the only sound was the splash of the water as the swell broke over the reef ahead. All on board had reason to be thankful that they were not on it. The young men had a good deal to talk about; but it did not prevent them keeping their eyes about them, or their ears open. Jack, also, did not forget his young charge, little Harry Bevan.
"It is high time we should be thinking of turning in," he observed. "But I must see first how Harry gets on."
He went below to the berth where the young midshipman had been placed, and found one of the assistant-surgeons with him. The poor boy was very feverish, and was continually crying out for lemonade, and other cooling beverages. Jack sat with him for some time till he became calmer and better, and then went on deck to have another look out before he turned in for the night, as, not belonging to the ship, he had no watch to keep. He found the officer of the watch, Murray, and others peering through the darkness, over the frigate's quarter.
"Some suspicious sounds were heard coming from that direction," remarked Murray. "There were voices, and creaking of blocks, and the splash of oars. It is just to windward, and sounds travel a long distance in a dark night. Our friends, the pirates, are about some mischief. Perhaps they expect to find us napping, and purpose paying a visit."
Everybody on deck was on the alert, and there was not much chance of the crew of the frigate being taken by surprise at all events. Captain Grant was told of what had occurred; they waited and waited, but still nothing more was seen, or rather heard, of the pirate junks. Yet Murray and Mr Cherry, and all the officers who had been on deck, were so certain that they had not been deceived, that it was concluded that the pirates had been really close to them, but finding the frigate afloat, had thought better of the matter and hauled off.
Jack and Adair at last went below. Jack did not turn in, but lay down on one of the lockers in the midshipmen's berth, with a writing-desk for a pillow, and a boat-cloak for a mattress. The instant he put his head on the desk he was fast asleep. It appeared to him but a moment afterwards that he heard the cry, "All hands on deck." Immediately afterwards several shots were fired from the frigate. He was up in a moment. On looking out he saw the dark shadowy forms of numerous large war-junks gliding round the ship, and the next instant a shower of jingall balls and round shot came rattling on deck. The salute was returned by a broadside from the frigate, which, if it did not send several of the pirate's junks to the bottom, must have severely crippled a number of them. They must have thought that the frigate was still ashore, or that she had hove her guns overboard to get off, or they would not have ventured so near.
Still the unseen enemy showed more courage than might have been expected, and from every direction, on each beam and ahead, and astern, a shower of missiles came crashing in which could not fail to do a considerable amount of damage. The cries of several poor fellows showed that they were badly wounded, while one seaman, standing close to Jack Rogers, fell heavily to the deck. Jack stooped to raise him, but the man did not speak, and from the inert weight of the body, he feared too truly that he was killed. The worst part of the business was that, from the excessive darkness of the night and the thick mist which hung over the water, it was only from the flashes of the enemy's guns that the frigate's crew were able to see how to point theirs. By the cries and shrieks which arose every now and then in the distance they had reason to believe that their shot had told with dire effect. Still the pirate's shot was doing them a great deal of mischief, and, notwithstanding all their courage and power, all they could do in return was blindly to blaze away. Still there could be no doubt that the pirates would ultimately get the worst of it, and haul off long before morning. Of course, in daylight they would not venture to remain near her. After the frigate had fired several broadsides, it was discovered that the enemy on each side did not reply, but that all the shot came from ahead or astern. Again, the guns being loaded, Captain Grant hauled in on the spring so as to bring the broadsides in the direction the head and stern had before been. The word "fire!" was given. Instantly the terrific shrieks which rent the air showed that the enemy had there most thickly assembled. Some random shots were fire in return, and then all was silent.
"Really it is difficult to believe that so short a time ago the ship was surrounded by bloodthirsty enemies," observed Murray to Jack, as they stood together looking out into the darkness. "Besides the poor fellows who have been hit, I dare say that our running rigging and sails will show that we have been engaged; yet now how calm and quiet everything is."
"I, for one, would not trust them, though," said Jack; "if they can play us a trick they will."
The night, however, wore on. The pirates had evidently a sufficient taste of the frigate's quality, and had no wish to try it further.
Once more Jack was going below to finish his nap on the locker, when he heard Adair sing out, "There are two big junks close aboard us."
Captain Grant was on deck in an instant, and ordered the capstan to be manned to work the ship round as might be required.
"They are desperate fellows on board those crafts, or they would not attempt to get so near us," observed Adair.
"They are indeed," said Jack. "See, there's another of them. I don't like their looks. I wonder the captain has not ordered us to fire at them."
Just then Captain Grant's voice was heard ordering the boats to be lowered. Scarcely were the words out of his mouth than a bright light burst out of one of the junks, and instantly she was in flames, casting forth rockets and missiles of every description.
"They are fire-ships," cried numerous voices—a very evident fact. Without a moment's delay, Jack and Murray and Adair, with two of the lieutenants of the frigate, and the men nearest at hand, jumped into the boats, and, being lowered, pulled off to tow the fire-ships away from her; as, in consequence of the darkness, they had been brought thus close up before they were discovered, there was little time to spare. One in another minute would be alongside. Jack boldly sprang up her high bow, and making fast a tow-rope, ordered the men to give way. The spring on the frigate's cable was manned, and her broadside was turned away from the approaching fire-ships. Scarcely had Jack got hold of his prize than the flames burst forth from her, and he and the crew were covered with sparks and burning fragments of wood, which several times nearly set their clothes on fire and singed them not a little. Fortunately the rockets and other fireworks on board took an upward flight, but they soon found themselves pulling under a complete cascade of fire. Jack cheered them on: "Never mind, my lads," he shouted; "it's better than having the old frigate burnt, at all events."
He could scarcely bear the heat of the fire; still he persevered. At last he got his unpleasant captive just clear astern of the frigate, and a little way to leeward. Still a shift of wind might send her back, so he was towing her a little farther, when, with a loud roar, some magazine, which had been hitherto preserved at the bottom of the ship, exploded, sending every particle of her which remained high into the air, and as the wreck came down, the fragments very nearly swamped the boat and killed all in her. No one was hurt, however, and he and his brave crew instantly pulled back to grapple with another foe. All the other fire-ships had been seized hold of and were very nearly towed clear of the frigate.
Jack heard Murray's voice calling to him. Alick was fast to one which seemed heavier than the rest, and he had great difficulty, apparently, in moving her. Had not Jack gone to his assistance, in a few seconds she would have been alongside the frigate. When just under her stern, she broke out into the fiercest flames, and Jack, whose clothes were by this time very nearly done brown, was glad enough to cast loose from her. In another moment she blew up with a violent explosion, and as before, fragments of the burning wreck came flaming down into and around the boats, while the other fire-ships were still burning away brightly to leeward. Once more the boats were hoisted up, and the frigate was made ready to get under weigh the instant daylight would allow her to be carried free of the reefs. Just as one of the quarter boats was being secured, a splash was heard, and instantly the cry was raised of "A man overboard!"
Jack Rogers, who was on the quarter-deck, without stopping to ask who it was, kicked off his shoes, and threw off his jacket, and gliding down a rope, struck out astern. There was a strong current running, he had before discovered, and he knew that the man who had fallen overboard would be carried rapidly away from the ship.
"Who are you?" he sang out in a loud voice. "Tell me, that I may know where to swim to you."
There was no answer.
"It was Mr Murray, sir," cried some one from the ship. "We are afraid that he must have hurt himself as he fell."
This was sad news to Jack. Still he determined to persevere. The only light he had to guide him was from the burning fire-ships now drifting away. Should Murray come to the surface, he hoped he might see him and be near enough to support him, till a boat could arrive and pick them up. He heard the sounds of a boat being lowered from the frigate. He raised himself out of the water for an instant to look around, and he felt sure that he perceived a person's head not far off. He made strenuous efforts to reach it. Just then also he saw, the glare of the burning vessel being cast on it, what he would rather not have seen—a large Chinese boat. He was certain that the head was Murray's. His old friend was drifting rapidly down towards the pirates. He had every reason to fear that they would strike at Alick the moment he got near. He knew also that they would equally strike at him, but this did not make him hesitate a moment. He clove the water with all his might, dashing on till he was close up to the drowning man. He hoped that the pirates might not have seen him.
"A few more strokes, and I shall have him," he exclaimed to himself. Just then he saw some of the savage-looking pirates standing up in the boat peering towards him. A gleam of light fell on the head of the person in the water. It was Murray. He seized his friend by the collar and turned him on his back, then struck out once more towards the frigate. Of course he had but one hand at liberty, and in spite of all his efforts he could not stem the current, but found himself and Murray still drifting down towards their relentless foes. Some accident had, apparently, happened to the boat, and he could not tell whether or not she was even yet in the water. He could do nothing but keep himself and his companion afloat. He dared not shout, as his so doing would draw the attention of the pirates towards them, and he felt sure that, at all events, a boat would be sent to look for him. Jack and Alick had now another danger to encounter. They were drifting down on one of the fire-ships, and ran a great chance of being burnt. To avoid the fire-ship, Jack was obliged to approach nearer the pirate-boat, which had been keeping so as to leave the burning vessel between her and the frigate. The miscreants now saw him, and dashing their paddles in the water, were rapidly up to him. He fully expected that the next moment would be his last; but he still held fast the senseless form of his friend. He looked up for an instant, and saw the hideous countenances of the Chinamen glaring down on him over the side of their boat.
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN.
CHASING THE PIRATE FLEET.
Adair had just come on deck when Jack jumped overboard to save Murray, and he was on the point of jumping in after him, when his arm was seized, and he found himself held back by Captain Grant.
"You would uselessly risk your life, Adair!" exclaimed the captain. "Lower that gig; be sharp about it: you may go in her."
Several men with Adair had instantly flown to the boat nearest them, and, under the direction of the captain, were lowering her, when the after-fall gave way, and up she hung by the bows, most of her gear falling into the water, as did one of the two men in her. He was a good swimmer, and struck out boldly to keep up alongside the ship, but the current was too strong for him, and before a rope could be heaved to him, he gradually dropped astern. The fall had been injured by one of the enemy's shot. Another boat was now lowered, but in consequence of the darkness, and the disarrangement incidental to the work in which the men had been engaged, more delay than usual occurred. At last the boat was lowered and manned, and Adair and Mr Cherry jumping into her, away they pulled to pick up, in the first place, the poor fellow who had just fallen into the water. They shouted out his name: a faint cry reached their ears. He had already got a long way from the ship; it took some time before they could find him. He must have sunk once, and they caught him just as he came up again; he was insensible when they hauled him into the boat. Adair wanted to go on, but Mr Cherry said that he feared the man would die if they did, and that it was his duty to carry him on board.
"I fear, too, that there is but little chance of our picking up the other two poor fellows," he observed. "They must have drifted a long way by this time, and can scarcely have kept afloat."
"You don't know, sir, what a superb swimmer Jack Rogers is," exclaimed Adair: "he will keep up for an hour or more; I have no fear on that score. Let us get this man on board, and we will soon find him."