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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesDick Cheveley: His Adventures And Misadventures - Chapter 11
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Dick Cheveley: His Adventures And Misadventures - Chapter 11 Post by :headdreamer Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :3268

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Dick Cheveley: His Adventures And Misadventures - Chapter 11

CHAPTER ELEVEN

The hold of the "Emu"--Further attempts at escape--The storm ceases--A rat hunt--Slippery customers--Oh, for a trap!--My ingenuity exercised--Caught at last--My repugnance to rat's flesh--Hunger needs no sauce--My subsequent impressions--Cannibal rats--My solitary life-- The rats grow cautious--The crate--I make a welcome discovery--A fresh expedition--As black as a nigger--Things might be worse.

Day and night to me were the same. My dreams having been troubled-- which was very natural considering the circumstances--I did not feel inclined to go to sleep, so I once more got up to try if I could find some food.

I first took a draught of water. Indeed, had it not been for that, I could not have existed so long. Carefully putting in the plug, for I dreaded exhausting my store, I groped my way back to the opening I had lately discovered. I knew my position by feeling for the holes I had made in the cases.

As no light reached me, I knew it was either night or that the hatch had been put on. I was puzzled to decide which was the case. I listened for the sound of human voices. None reached my ear.

My hunger had become ravenous. Food I must have, or I should perish. I felt conscious that I was much weaker. I again tried to make myself heard, shouting and shrieking as loud as I could, but my voice was faint though shrill, more like that of a puny infant than a stout boy. I was becoming desperate. I first crept in one direction, then in another, trying to force my way between the bales and other packages, but to no avail. Everywhere I was stopped by some impediment I could not remove.

The storm, I concluded, had ceased, as the ship was comparatively quiet, so that I was less afraid than before of being jammed up between the heavy packages and turned into a pancake.

I felt about in every crevice for the possibility of finding something to eat. I cared not what it was, provided I could get my teeth into it. I remembered that rats often dragged away bits of food into their holes to devour at leisure, and I would gladly have found such a store. The idea that I might do so encouraged me to proceed.

If I could get out of my confined space I knew that I should have a better chance of falling in with food, but how to get out was the question.

I crept back for the handspike, and tried to move some of the bales, but all my efforts were unavailing. I then, carrying the handspike with me, went to the bulkhead at the other end of my prison, and endeavoured by repeated blows to knock in a plank. They were all too stout to give way to my apparently feeble efforts.

I fancied that the blows must resound through the ship, and that the crew would come below to ascertain what produced the noise, but I waited and waited in vain.

At last I went back to my couch, and sat down to consider what was to be done. I knew that as I grew weaker both my strength and wits would decrease, and that I should be less capable of exerting myself.

After sitting quiet for some time, I heard the rats again running about. Frequently they passed close to me, but when I darted out my hands they slipped by them. Once I caught a fellow by the tail, but he wriggled it out of my fingers, and another whose nose I must have touched gave me a sharp nip and then bounded away.

At last I thought I would form a trap with my knife. Near me was a square case close to which I heard the rats frequently passing. I felt and discovered that there was a small opening between it and the large package. I had some string in my pocket, and my plan was to hang up my knife by the string, the lower end of which I hung close to the hole, while I passed the upper end over my finger. I thus hoped that when a rat should be running in or out of the hole it might be stopped long enough by the string to allow the knife to descend.

My first attempt was not successful. Down fell the knife, but when I felt about for the rat which I had expected to have been transfixed, it had gone. I tried again, but once more the rat escaped me.

I began to fear that the creatures would discover my device, and take some other route when they wished to emerge from their hiding-places. Still I knew that perseverance conquers all difficulties. I was convinced that my plan might succeed. Why it had before failed I could not tell. Perhaps I held the knife too high up, and the rat had got away before it had time to descend.

I now held the knife rather lower down. Several times I replaced the knife, but always found it exactly before the spot. Again it fell, when I heard a loud squeak, and sprang down on my hands and knees in a moment, and caught the handle of the knife, which was moving rapidly along the plank. The blade had entered the side of a fat rat. The creature made an attempt to bite me, but I squeezed it by the neck. It lay dead in my hands.

At first even my hunger could not overcome my disgust at the thought of eating the creature. I carried it by the tail to let the blood stream out of the body, and went to the butt, where I took a draught of water, hoping to put off the moment when I should find my teeth in its flesh.

But hunger called loudly; I could resist no longer, and having cut off its head, I skinned it as well as I could in the dark. Then stripping the flesh from the bones, I put a morsel of it in my mouth. It tasted infinitely better than I could have expected. There was no rankness, no disagreeable flavour. I wondered how I could have had so much objection to eating raw rat. I scraped the bones clean.

As there were undoubtedly plenty more in the hold, though not so many as I had seen in my dream, I hoped that I should have been able to supply myself amply with game.

I was now sorry that I had thrown away the head and the entrails, as they might have served me for bait to catch more. I therefore hunted about till I discovered the head, on the point, I suspect, of being seized by another rat, for I heard the creature scamper off as I put my hand upon my prize. The entrails must have been devoured, for I could not find them.

My success encouraged me to try and catch another rat in the same way as before. I, however, somewhat changed my mode of proceeding. I fastened the head to the end of the string, and hung up the knife directly over it, by a small splinter which I stuck lightly into the crevice of the case. My expectation was that, when the rat pulled at the head of its slaughtered fellow, the knife would fall and transfix it.

I had to wait for some time listening to the sound of the rats' footsteps. At length down came the knife, but no squeak followed, and I found it lying where it had fallen. I began to fear that the first rat had been killed by chance, and that my clever device could not be depended on.

Though the keen edge of my appetite had worn off, I knew that I should very soon be again hungry, and I therefore wanted, before I went to sleep, to catch another rat. I was aware that I must be moderate in my banquets, as I guessed that rat's flesh was not likely to prove very wholesome; but I no longer felt, as I had previously done, that I should be starved to death.

I am afraid that I could boast of very few good qualities, but I possessed at all events that of perseverance. Perhaps I had gained it during my experience as a fisherman, when I used to sit for hours by the side of a pond waiting for a bite, and seldom failed to get one at last. I therefore again hung up my knife. I can't tell how often it fell, but at last I caught one rat much as I had done the first, though at the expense of a bite on the thumb. By this time I was again hungry, and very soon had the rat's flesh between my teeth.

To those who have not suffered as I had, my proceeding must appear very disgusting, but I would only advise any fellow who thinks so to try what he would do after going without food for three or four days. I certainly, during that time, had had nothing but two buns and unlimited draught of cold water. The cold water and the long spells of sleep I had enjoyed. I believe in reality that I was much longer than four days after I had finished the last bun, but I will not be positive, lest people should doubt the fact. The greater part of the time, however, was spent in sleep. My rat-dream, as I call it, might have occupied several hours, for I have not put down half of what I heard said, nor described the curious antics I saw, as I supposed, of the rats' play. I have since recollected that the words with which the president began his speech were those used by Mark Antony at the commencement of his oration over the dead body of Caesar, which I learnt at school.

After eating the second rat I felt greatly revived, and resolved to continue my explorations, but a drowsiness came over me before I made my way to the further end of the hold. I returned to my couch and lay down to sleep.

It would be a good opportunity of sounding the praises of sleep, and if I were a poet I might indulge my fancy and produce something wonderfully novel; but as I never wrote a line in my life worthy of being called poetry, I will not inflict anything of this sort on my friends.

I was becoming wonderfully accustomed to my solitary life. Having rolled myself in the old sail, I closed my eyes with as much sense of security as I should have done in my own bed at home. I had ceased to think of my friends there, or of Aunt Deb and Mr Butterfield. I could not go on for ever troubling myself with thoughts of the anxiety my disappearance must have caused them. An intensely selfish feeling--for such I knew that it was--possessed me. My only thought was how I could get out of my prison, and if I could not succeed, how I might provide myself with food. I had no longer any fear of the rats. I had become their master. I looked upon them as the owner of an estate does on his hares and rabbits. The hold was my preserve, and I considered that I had a right to as many as I could catch.

I must proceed faster in my narrative than I have hitherto been going, and must omit some of my wakings and sleepings and hunts for rats and searches for more palatable food. The rats, after I had killed four or five, had become cautious. They are at all times cunning fellows, and must have discovered my mode of trapping them. The ship all this time was gliding on with tolerable smoothness, and on some occasions, by putting my ear down to the planks, I could hear the rippling of the water. At other times, I guessed by the dashing of the sea against the sides, that there was a strong breeze. I knew also, by the steadiness of the movement, that the ocean was tolerably calm. I should have liked to have known where we had got to. I could only guess that we were bound for South America, and that we were holding a southerly course.

I had made several exploring expeditions in search of food, when I discovered close to the bulkhead what seemed to me like a strong crate. By some chance or other I had not before put my hands upon it. I now moved them all over it, and at one place came to a space into which I could thrust my fingers. The board seemed loose. I tugged and tugged away till off it came with a crackling sound, and down I came. I picked myself up, happily not the worse for my tumble, and eagerly inserted my hand into the crate. There appeared to be several articles within, but what they were I could not make out. I had to take off another board before I could get hold of them. This I did, fixing my foot firmly so as not to fall back again, and after exerting myself for some time, the board gave way.

The first thing I laid hold of was a small keg. It seemed too heavy to contain biscuits, but I was nearly sure that there was something eatable within. I tried to open it with my knife, but nearly broke the blade in the attempt. That would have been an irreparable misfortune. My hands next came in contact with a thick glass bottle with a large mouth to it. I was too eager to ascertain the contents of the keg and bottle to continue my search. I therefore carried them down to my sleeping-place, where I had left the handspike, and there soon broke in the head of the cask. It contained some small, round, hard and greasy fruit, I eagerly tasted one. They were olives. I knew this because Mr Butterfield a few days before gave me some at dessert. I then thought them very bitter and nasty, but as I saw him eating them I nibbled at two or three. In the end I liked them rather better than at first, or rather, I didn't dislike them so much.

Having eaten half-a-dozen, I was very glad that I had found them. They were at all events a change from rat's flesh. I next took the bottle in hand, and with my knife scraped away the sealing-wax with which it was covered. Instead of trying to force out the cork I cut into it until I had made a hole big enough to insert my fingers, when I pulled it out. The bottle contained pickles. These, though they would not satisfy hunger would render the food I was doomed to live upon more palatable and wholesome. Having put them away in the most secure place I could think of, I returned to the crate.

By tearing off another plank I found that I could creep inside. It contained all sorts of things, apparently thrown in before the vessel began to be loaded to be out of the way, and afterwards forgotten. I came across two or three old brooms or scrubbing-brushes, a kettle with the spout broken, several large empty bottles, and other things I cannot enumerate. At last, when I thought I had turned everything over, my hand came against another cask, considerably larger than the first. I dragged it out. It was not so heavy as I should have supposed it would be from its size. It was too big to carry, so I rolled it along before me. From the first I fancied it must contain biscuits, but I was almost afraid to too soon congratulate myself on my good fortune. A few blows with the handspike shattered the top, and eagerly plunging in my hand, to my intense satisfaction I drew forth a captain's biscuit. I ate it at once and thought it deliciously sweet, though it was in reality musty and mouldy. I had now a store of food to last me for days, and even weeks, should I not obtain my liberation, provided I used the strictest economy. All I wanted was fresh air. To obtain that, supposing I could not work my way out or make myself heard, was now my chief object.

Before setting out on another expedition, I placed my provisions where I hoped the rats would not be able to get at them, after carefully corking down the bottles of pickles and the jar of olives, and closing the keg of biscuits. I thought it very likely that the rats would try to make their way through the latter, but I intended to examine it frequently to ascertain whether they had commenced operations. I had been turning in my mind a better means of catching the rats than the one I had before adopted. I thought and thought over the matter, but could not arrive at any conclusion. Being no longer pressed by hunger, I was less in a hurry than I should have been had I only rats' flesh to depend on. I pined for fresh air, but at the same time I was most inconvenienced for want of light. I was, however, already able to find my way about in a wonderful manner.

I had pictured in my mind's eye all the objects around, and had the whole of my prison mapped out clearly in my brain, as I supposed it to exist. Perhaps it was not exactly according to reality. There were the kelson and the stout ribs of the ship, the planking over them, the water-butts on either side, the stout bulkheads. At one end my bed-place; the opening which I had formed at the other end, the bales, the packing-cases, the casks, and last of all the crate. Into this last I intended soon again to return, in the faint hope that I might force my way through it into some upper region. It was, I judged from the ease with which I had torn off the planks, old and rotten, and I could not therefore suppose that any heavy weight had been placed above it. I should have observed that I had reason to congratulate myself the ship was new and well caulked, and that not a leak existed throughout her length, for had any bilge-water been in her the stench would have been insufferable, and would soon either have deprived me of life or produced a serious sickness. As it was, considering what ships' holds generally are, the air was comparatively pure, and I did not suffer much from the confinement. The fact I have mentioned would account for the number of rats in the hold, for being sagacious animals they are said always to desert a ship likely to go down. Probably, being inconvenienced by the water in the regions to which they are quickly driven when discovered, they take their departure on the earliest opportunity. I have known ships to founder with rats on board, so that they cannot be said to be a preventative to such a disaster.

I now set out on another expedition. As I got through the hole in the bulkhead a brighter light than I had before enjoyed came down into the open space, not directly, however, but through the various crevices among the numerous casks and cases piled up in the hold, so that I was able to distinguish the objects around me more clearly than I had hitherto done. I could not have read a book, but I could see my hands as I held them up before me, and they were as black as those of a negro. Probably my face was much in the same condition. I knew that my feet and my clothes also were begrimed with dirt. Strange as it may seem, I was so busy in taking a survey of the locality, that I forgot to shout out, for as the light came down my voice would certainly have been heard, as without doubt one of the hatches had been opened. My impulse was to take the opportunity of working my way upwards. I saw the crate close against the bulkhead and the place where I had torn off the plank. I eagerly scrambled in that direction, but could see no way over it. I must get inside, as I first intended. I thought then, if I could force off the top, I might make my way through it to an upper stratum of the cargo. I did as I proposed. In vain I tried with my back and hands to force up the top. I had forgotten to bring the handspike. It occurred to me that with that as a lever I should succeed. I returned for it.

The atmosphere I fancied had already become fresher, or at all events the foul air had escaped, and its place had been supplied by purer air through unseen openings. The light, dim as it was, which my eyes had enjoyed for a short period, made the darkness of the hold still darker. My senses were for a few moments confused, and for some time I searched in vain for the handspike. I was sure, however, that I remembered where I had left it. At last my hand touched the instrument, and I dragged it back to the scene of my intended operations. As I reached the spot, what what was my dismay to find all in darkness. The hatch, had been replaced, and I had lost the opportunity of making myself heard. Only then did it occur to me that I ought, immediately on seeing the light, to have shouted out. My wits, generally keen enough, were, I suspect, becoming somewhat confused.

I had so long been accustomed to do things with the greatest deliberation, that I had lost the impulse to prompt action which was otherwise natural to me. I now shouted, but it was too late, no one heard me. The seamen had gone to their usual occupations at a distance from the hatchway. For some minutes I sat down, vexed with my stupidity and dilatoriness.

On recovering myself I resolved never again to lose a similar opportunity. I had for so long worked in the dark, that I was not to be deterred from carrying out my intention. Armed with the handspike, I entered the crate. I first felt in each corner, to try and find an opening in which I could insert the end of my implement.

Not one was to be found. I next drove it against the ends of the planks; they were too firmly nailed down to yield. I next knocked away in the centre, hoping that one of the planks might prove rotten, and that I should be able to force it upwards. Again I was disappointed, and at last, tired with the exertions I had made, I was obliged to abandon the attempt; but I did not give it up altogether. I resolved, as soon as I had regained my strength and stretched my limbs, which had become cramped from being so long in a confined position, to set to work once more. I had been employed, I fancy, three or four hours; it may have been longer. At all events, I had become very hungry, and with a store of food near at hand I could not resist the temptation of eating. I accordingly retired to my berth and sat down. I had not contrived to catch a rat, so I had to content myself with a musty biscuit and a dozen olives for dinner, washed down by a copious draught of water. I was thankful for the food, though it could not be called a luxurious banquet.

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