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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesTessa - Chapter 7
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Tessa - Chapter 7 Post by :brettslane Category :Long Stories Author :Louis Becke Date :May 2012 Read :3931

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Tessa - Chapter 7

CHAPTER VII

All that day the three boats made excellent progress, for though the wind was but light, the sea was very smooth, and a strong northerly current helped them materially.

As night approached heavy white clouds appeared on the eastern horizon--the precursors of a series of heavy rain squalls, which in those latitudes, and at that season of the year--November to March--are met with almost nightly, especially in the vicinity of the low-lying islands of the Marshall and Caroline Groups.

Then, as the sun set, the plan of murder that was in the hearts of the captain and supercargo began to work. During the day they had been unable to converse freely, for fear of being overheard by the two firemen, but now the time had come for them to act.

In all the boats' lockers Harvey and Latour had placed a two gallon wicker-covered jar of rum, and presently Hendry hailed Oliver, whose boat was still towing astern. It was the first time that he had taken any notice of the occupants of the other boats since the morning.

"You can give your men some grog if you like, Mr. Oliver," he said, "and you might as well hail the second mate, and tell him to do the same. I shall have to cast you off presently, as the first rain squall will be down on us, and each boat will have to take care of herself. We are bound to part company until the morning, but I rely on you and the second mate to keep head to wind during the squalls, and stick to the course I have given you between times."

"Very well, sir."

Chard took out the rum and filled a half-pint pannikin to the brim.

"Here you are, boys," said he pleasantly to the two firemen, who looked gloatingly at the liquor; "this will warm you up for the drenching you will get presently."

The unsuspecting, unfortunate men drank it off eagerly without troubling to add water, and then Chard, who feared that Hendry sober would be too great a coward for the murderous work that was to follow, poured out a stiff dose into another pannikin, and passed it to him. Then he took some himself.

"Pass along that pannikin, boys," he said; "you might as well have a skinful while you are about it."

The men obeyed the treacherous scoundrel with alacrity. Like their shipmates who had perished the previous night, they were thoroughly intemperate men, and were only too delighted to be able to get drunk so quickly.

Filling their pannikin, which held a pint, to the brim, Chard poured half of it into his own empty tin, and then passed them both to the men. They sat down together on the bottom boards amidships, and then raised the pannikins.

"Here's good luck to you, Mr. Chard, and you, skipper."

"Good luck, men," replied Hendry, watching them keenly as they swallowed mouthful after mouthful of the fiery stuff, which from its strength was known to the crew of the _Motutapu as "hell boiled down to a small half-pint."

Ten minutes passed, and then as the darkness encompassed the three boats, a sudden puff of wind came from the eastward. Hendry hailed the mate.

"Here's a squall coming, Mr. Oliver; haul in your painter."

He cast off the tow line, and Chard lowered the mainsail and jib, the two firemen taking not the slightest notice as they continued to swallow the rum.

In another five minutes the white wall of the hissing rain squall was upon them, and everything was hidden from view. Hendry swung his boat's head round, and let her drive before it. The other boats, he knew, would keep head on to the squall, and in half an hour he would be a couple of miles away from them.

The captain's boat drove steadily before the rushing wind, and the stinging, torrential rain soon covered the bottom boards with half a foot of water. Chard took the bailer, and began to bail out, taking no heed of the firemen, who were lying in the water in a drunken stupor, overcome by the rum.

At last the rain ceased, and the sky cleared as if by magic, though but few stars were visible. Chard went on bailing steadily. Presently he rose, came aft, took a seat beside Hendry and looked stealthily into his face.

"Well?" muttered the captain inquiringly, as if he were afraid that the two poor wretches who but a few feet away lay like dead men might awaken.

For the moment Chard made no answer, but putting out his hand he gripped Hendry by the arm.

"Did you hear what Carr and Atkins said?" he asked in a fierce whisper.

Hendry's sullen eyes gleamed vindictively as he nodded assent.

"Well, they mean it--if we are fools enough to give them the chance of doing it. And by God, Louis, I tell you that it means hanging for us both; if not hanging, imprisonment for life in Darlinghurst Gaol. We shot the niggers, right enough, and every man of the crew of the _Motutapu_, from Oliver down to Carr's servant, will go dead against us."

He paused a moment. "This has happened at a bad time for us, Louis. Two years ago Thorne, the skipper of the _Trustful_, labour schooner, his mate, second mate, boatswain and four hands were cast for death for firing into native canoes in the New Hebrides. And although none of them were hanged they are rotting in prison now, and will die in prison."

"I know," answered the captain in a whisper. "Thorne was reprieved and got a life-sentence, the other chaps got twenty-one years."

"And I tell you, Louis, that if you and I face a jury we shall stand a worse chance than Jim Thorne and his crowd did. The whole crew will go dead against us, and swear there was no attempt to mutiny--that girl and her servant too, and Jessop as well. Jessop would give us away in any case over the cause of the fire, if he said nothing else. It's their lives or ours."

"What is it to be?" muttered Hendry, drawing the steer oar inboard, and putting his eager, cruel eyes close to Chard's face.

"This is what it must be. You and I, Louis, will be _'the only survivors of the "Motutapu" which took fire at sea. All hands escaped in the three boats, but only the captain's boat, containing himself and the supercargo, succeeded in reaching Ponape after terrible hardships. The mate's and second mate's boats, with all their occupants, have undoubtedly been lost._' That is what the newspapers will say, Louis, and it will be quite true, as all those in the other boats will perish. By sunrise tomorrow none of the ship's company but you and I must be alive."

"How are we going to do it?"

"Wait till nearly daylight, and then we can get within range of them, and pick them off one by one, if there is a good breeze. If there is no wind and we cannot keep going, we must put it off for the time. There's two hundred and thirty Winchester and Snider cartridges in that handkerchief--I've counted them--and we can make short work of them."

"What about these fellows?" said Hendry, inclining his head towards the drunken firemen.

"They go first. They must go overboard in the next squall, which will be upon us in a few minutes. Take another drink, Louis, and don't shake so, or--" and Chard grasped Hendry by the collar and spoke with sudden fury--"or by God, I'll settle _you first, and do the whole thing myself!"

"I'll do it, Sam; I'll do it."

Again the hissing rain and the hum of the squall was upon them as the ocean was blotted out from view.

"Now," said Chard--"quick." They sprang forward together, lifted the unconscious men one by one, and threw them over the side.

"Run up the jib," said Hendry hoarsely; "let us get further away."

"You rotten-hearted Dutch cur," and Chard seized the captain by the beard with his left hand and clenched his right threateningly, "brace yourself up, or I'll ring your neck like a fowl's, and send you overboard after them. Think of your wife and family--and of the hangman's noose dangling between you and them."

*****

Throughout the night the rain squalls swept the ocean at almost hourly intervals, with more or less violence, but were never of long enough duration to raise more than a short, lumpy sea, which quickly subsided.

About an hour before dawn, however, a more than usually heavy bank formed to windward, and Harvey, with Huka and the other natives, could see that there was more wind in it than would be safe for the mate's boat, which was deep in the water, owing to the number of people in her. Oliver agreed with them that they should tranship three or four of their number into the second mate's boat.

"Better be sure than sorry, Carr," he said; "can any one of you see Mr. Atkin's boat?"

Nothing could be seen or heard of her until a boat lantern was hoisted on an oar by Oliver, and a few seconds after was responded to by Atkins soaking a piece of woollen cloth in rum, wrapping it round the point of a boathook, and setting it alight. Its flash revealed him half a mile away to leeward. Hendry and Chard, who by this time were quite three miles distant, saw the blazing light, and the latter wondered what it meant.

"They have parted company, I think," said Hendry, "and as the mate's boat is too deep I daresay he wants Atkins to take some of his people before this big squall comes down. It's going to be an ugly fellow this, and we'll have to drive again. I wish it would swamp 'em both. The sharks would save us a lot of trouble then."

As quickly as possible Oliver paddled down to Atkins, and Harvey, Latour, Huka, and another native got into the second mate's boat.

"We'll have to run before this, Atkins," said the mate, alluding to the approaching squall; "it will last a couple of hours or more by the look of it. Are you very wet, Miss Remington?"

"Very, Mr. Oliver," answered the girl, with a laugh; "but I don't mind it a bit, as the rain is not cold. I am too old a 'sailor man' to mind a wetting. Are you all quite well? I can't see your face, Mr. Studdert, nor yours, Mr. Morrison, it is so dark. Oh, Mr. Studdert, I wish I had one of your cigarettes to smoke."

"I wish I had one to give you, miss," answered the pale-faced young engineer. "A pipe is no to my liking, but I fear me I'll have to tackle one in the morning."

Alas, poor Studdert, little did he know that the morning, now so near, was to be his last.

"Goodbye for the present, Miss Remington," called out Oliver as the boats again separated. "Take good care of her, Harvey, and of yoursels too. He'll be getting an attack of the shakes in the morning, miss, after all this wetting. Give him plenty of rum, my dear, whether he likes it or not. You're a plucky little lady, and next to having you in my own boat I am glad to see you with Atkins. Cheer up, lads, one and all; we'll have the sun out in another hour."

Half an hour later both boats were driving before the fury of the squall, and the crews had to keep constantly bailing, for this time the violence of the wind was such that, despite the most careful steering of the two officers, large bodies of water came over amidships, and threatened to swamp the boats.

When dawn came the sky was again as clear as it had been on the previous morning, and Atkins stood up and looked for the captain's and mate's boats.

"There they are, Harvey," and he pointed to the westward; "the skipper is under sail, and making back towards Oliver. Well, that's one thing about him, dog as he is--he's a thorough sailor man, and is standing back to take Oliver in tow again."

At this time the captain's boat was about three miles distant from that of the second mate, and Oliver's between the two, but much nearer to Hendry and Chard's than to Atkins's. She was under both mainsail and jib, and as the sea was again very smooth was slipping through the water very quickly under a now steady breeze, as she stood towards the mate's boat.

As the red sun burst from the ocean Atkins told the crew to cease pulling for a few minutes and get something to eat. The men were all in good humour, though they yet meant to wreak their vengeance on Chard and Hendry for the murder of their shipmates. The wounded man who had been put in Oliver's boat they knew had also died, and this had still further inflamed them. But for the present they said nothing, but ate their biscuit and tinned beef in cheerful silence, after waiting for Tessa and Maoni to begin. Huka, their recognised leader, and Malua, Harvey's servant, had both assured them that the captain and Chard would be brought to punishment, but this assurance was not satisfactory to the majority of them. One of them, the big Manhikian who had helped Latour to rescue Tessa and Maoni from their cabin, was a brother of the man who had just died from his wounds in Oliver's boat, and he had, during the night, promised his shipmates to take his own and give them their _utu (revenge) before the boats reached Ponape.

"Turn to again, boys," said Atkins presently, as soon as the men had satisfied their hunger; "we must catch up to the others now."

The natives bent to their oars again, and sent the boat along at a great rate, when suddenly Harvey heard the sound of firearms. He stood up and looked ahead.

"Good God!" he cried, "look there, Atkins! The captain and Chard are firing into Oliver's boat!"

Even as he spoke the repeated crackling of Winchester rifles could be heard, and the mate's boat seemed to be in great confusion, and her occupants were paddling away from their assailants, who, however, were following them up closely at a distance of about fifty yards.

"Pull, men, pull! For God's sake, lay into it! The captain and firemen are murdering Mr. Oliver and his party."

The seamen uttered a shout of rage, and made the boat leap through the water as now, in addition to the sharp crackle of the Winchesters, they heard the heavier report of a Snider, and Harvey, jumping up on the after whaleback, and steadying himself with one hand on Atkins's shoulder, saw that only two or three of Oliver's crew were now paddling--the rest had been shot down.

"We'll never get there in time, Atkins," he cried, "unless we can hit those who are firing. It's Chard and the skipper! Let Huka steer."

In a few seconds the change was effected. Huka took the steer-oar, two of the after-oars were double-banked, and Atkins and Harvey sprang forward with their Sniders, and began firing at the captain's boat, though at a range which gave them little chance of hitting her. Every moment, however, the distance was decreasing, and the two men fired steadily and carefully. But the Winchesters still cracked for another five minutes. Then the fire from the captain's boat ceased as a shot from Atkins's rifle smashed into her amidships. She was suddenly put before the wind, and then Chard came aft, and began firing at the approaching boat with his Snider, in the hope of disabling her, so that he and his fellow-murderer (now that their plan of utterly destroying all the occupants of both boats had been so unexpectedly frustrated) might escape.

But the work of slaughter in which he had just been engaged and the rolling of the boat, together with the continuous hum of bullets overhead, made his aim wild, and neither the second mate's boat nor any of its people were hit, and she swept along to the rescue.

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