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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe African Trader - Chapter 5
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The African Trader - Chapter 5 Post by :Tom_Sheltraw Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :2360

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The African Trader - Chapter 5

CHAPTER FIVE

WE AT LENGTH GET OUT OF THE RIVER INTO THE OPEN SEA, BUT A CALM COMES ON, AND THE CAPTAIN AGAIN BECOMES VERY ILL.--NO ONE ON BOARD UNDERSTANDING NAVIGATION, I DOUBT WHETHER I SHALL FIND MY WAY TO SIERRA LEONE.--THE CAPTAIN DOES NOT BELIEVE THAT HE IS IN DANGER.--PAUL PLEADS WITH HIM ABOUT THE SAFETY OF HIS SOUL.--A FIRE BREAKS OUT IN THE HOLD.-- WE IN VAIN ENDEAVOUR TO EXTINGUISH IT.--THE REST OF THE CREW DESERT US.--PAUL AND I ENDEAVOUR TO SAVE THE CAPTAIN, BUT DRIVEN FROM THE CABIN BY THE FLAMES LEAP OVERBOARD AND REACH A SMALL BOAT, WHICH WE RIGHT AND GET INTO.--SEE A SCHOONER APPROACHING US.

At day-break the pilot came on board, the sails were loosed, the anchor hove-up, and the "Chieftain," with a hot land breeze, which still blew strong, glided down the river. Captain Willis, who had been brought from his cabin by Paul and Sambo, sat propped up with pillows on the deck. It was melancholy to see him, his once strong frame reduced to a mere skeleton, his countenance pale and haggard, and his strong voice now sounding weak and hollow, and scarcely to be heard by those to whom he issued his orders. I stood by him to repeat them. I saw him cast an eye towards the spot which contained the graves of our shipmates, and I could divine his thoughts. Perhaps he might have reflected that had he not been so greedy of gain, many of them might be still alive, while he himself might be enjoying health and strength.

The mangrove covered shores looked even more sombre and monotonous than before, in the grey light of morning, as we glided down between them. The air was hot and oppressive, and full of pestilence, and it seemed a wonder to me that I should have lived so many weeks while breathing such an atmosphere. I dreaded lest the breeze should fail us, and we should be compelled to spend another night under its influence; but the wind held, the tide was in our favour, and we had nearly reached the mouth of the river before the wind dropped, and we had to bring up. A few minutes afterwards the fresh sea breeze came rushing in, pure and sweet, and comparatively cool. With what delight did I gulp it down. I quickly felt like another creature. The captain also seemed to revive rapidly under its influence, and I began to hope that he would ultimately recover.

I eagerly watched the sparkling lines of white foam as the ocean waves, meeting the ebbing current of the river, broke across the bar. How I longed for the evening, when the land breeze would again fill our sails, and carry us out into the open bounding ocean. It seemed to me that then all difficulty would be passed, and we should only have to shape our course for England, and steer on till we should reach it.

The captain, unwilling again to go below, sat all day on deck under an awning, ready for the moment when we might venture to weigh anchor. It came at last. Just before sunset the hot wind began to blow. Although the bar still wore a threatening aspect, the pilot declared that, without fear, we might venture over it.

Not a moment was lost, on we stood towards it. In a short time foaming breakers were hissing and bubbling around us. Once more I felt the vessel rising to the heaving wave, and welcomed the showers of spray which flew over her deck. On she sped, but very slowly; now she sank downwards, and it seemed as if the next roller would send her back on the bar. It glided under her, however, and then she appeared floating, as it were, almost at rest on its summit, and then downwards she slid, slowly making her onward way.

In a few minutes more we were in the free open ocean, and the dark sombre river, with its gloomy associations, was far astern. Every inch of canvas the vessel could carry was set, that we might get a good offing before nightfall, when a calm was to be expected.

"I never wish to see that place again," I could not help exclaiming.

"Don't say that, Harry," answered the captain. "We may hope to have better luck the next time. If you ever want to grow rich you must run some risk. We have had an unusually sickly season, which may not again occur; and if the owners ask me to go back, I am not the man to refuse to do so, and I should look to you to go along with me."

Can it be possible, I thought, that a man, after running so fearful a risk, would willingly again expose himself to the same danger, merely for the sake of rapidly gaining wealth? I forgot at the moment that people not only hazard their health but their souls, for that object. Had I remembered the fact, I should not have been surprised at what the captain had said.

We had got out of sight of land, but the wind was very light, and we made little progress. In a short time it fell calm altogether, and the vessel lay like a log on the water. The heat, too, was very great, and the captain appeared to suffer from it. It was evident, indeed, that he was falling rapidly back, and he had now no strength to come on deck. I was much alarmed on his account, for I thought it too likely that, after apparently being so near recovery, he would die. I was anxious also on our own account, for knowing so little as I did about navigation, I could not tell how I should take the vessel into port. I got out a chart and studied it, and marked the spot where I believed we then were. I then drew a line from it to Sierra Leone, the place for which I intended to steer. It lay about north-west of us, and I hoped that if I could sight the land to the southward I might coast along till I came to it. There were, however, I knew, strong currents running, which might take us out of our course, and we might have contrary winds, which would further increase the difficulty. I thought that very likely some of the blacks knew more about the matter than I did, but I did not like to confess my apprehensions to them lest they might be tempted to play some trick, and perhaps run away with the vessel altogether.

The only person in whom I could confide was Paul. I knew that I could trust him thoroughly, but then I suspected that he was not a better navigator than I was, as he had only served on board a man-of-war and merchantmen, when he would not have been able to learn anything about the matter.

The captain caught sight of me through the open door of his berth, as I was poring over the chart spread out on the table of the main cabin. "What are you about, Harry?" he asked.

I told him that I was looking at the chart to see what course we ought to steer.

"Don't trouble yourself about that, lad," he answered; "I shall be well as soon as the breeze comes. It's this hot calm keeps me down. If the wind had continued, I should have been myself again by this time, though I have had a narrow squeak for it I'll allow."

His face looked so pale and haggard, his eyes so sunken, his voice so weak and trembling, that I could not help fearing that he was mistaken. I was unwilling to alarm him, but it was so important that I should know how to act in case of his death, that I could not help saying,--"But suppose anything was to happen to you, sir, what should you advise me to do?"

"I do not intend that anything shall happen to me, Harry," he answered, evidently annoyed at my remark. "After having got this valuable cargo on board we must not think of such a thing. Why Harry, in all my voyages I have never collected half so rich a freight."

"I earnestly hope that you may recover your health, sir," I said. "I mentioned the subject simply in case of accidents, and I did not suppose that you would be offended."

"Of course I am not, Harry," he replied. "You don't suppose that I am a coward and afraid to die; and if it was not for the sake of the vessel and her freight, I should not care, I fancy, so much about the matter; but it would never do now to knock under--so don't, Harry, put those gloomy thoughts again into my head."

On going on deck I told Paul my fears about the captain. "Yes, he very bad," he said; "but I more sorry about him soul. He think more of the cargo, which may go to the bottom in one moment, than of his soul, which live for ever and ever. O Massa Harry, we must speak again to him about dat. We will plead with him with tears in our eyes, that he think about his soul, and we will tell him not to trouble about the vessel."

Without loss of time we went to the captain. At first he listened somewhat coldly to what Paul said, but he did not grow angry. "I thank you for interesting yourself about me," he said at last. "You may be right, and if you will pray with me I will try to join you."

Paul and I thereon knelt down, as we had done before, and Paul, in very plain language, earnestly besought God to send His Holy Spirit to soften the captain's heart, to show him that he was a lost sinner, and had need of a Saviour--to enlighten his mind, and to enable him to take hold of Christ as the only way whereby he could be saved.

The captain remained for a long time afterwards silent. At length he put out his hand and grasped Paul's. "I see it now," he said, sighing deeply. "I have been, and still am, a great sinner. Oh, that I knew better how I could be saved."

"Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved," said Paul, in a firm voice. "That is God's loving message. He sends no other; and, captain, if all the ministers of your country were to come to you, they could bring you no other. If you do believe on Jesus, and are to die this very day, He says to you just what He said when hanging on the cross on Calvary to the dying thief, 'This night thou shalt be with me in paradise.'"

The captain was greatly moved, and I heard him, between his sobs, exclaiming, "Lord, I believe, help Thou my unbelief."

Oh how necessary is that prayer! and I am sure it is one which is always answered, when the sinner is truly desirous of turning from his sins, and is seeking, by every means in his power, to strengthen his belief.

I had got out my Bible several days before, and I now read it constantly to the captain, as well as to myself. Whenever I came to a passage which seemed to meet his case, he desired me to read it over and over again. Notwithstanding this, the desire was strong within him to recover, for the sake of carrying home the vessel and her rich freight in safety. That was but natural, and I earnestly hoped that he might be restored to health. Instead, however, of gaining strength, he appeared to grow weaker and weaker.

The calm had now continued for several days. Often as I looked over the side I saw dark triangular fins just rising above the surface, and moving here and there round the ship, and frequently the whole form of the monster could be discerned as it glided by; and when I saw its keen cruel eyes glancing up towards me, I felt a shudder pass through my frame, such as, according to the vulgar notion, a person feels when it is said that some one is walking over his grave. Occasionally, when anything was thrown overboard, a white flash was seen rising out of the deep, and a large pair of jaws, armed with sharp teeth, opening, gulped it down, and directly afterwards the creature went swimming on, watching for any other dainty morsel which might come in its way. "How dreadful it would be to fall overboard," I thought. "Calm as the sea is, a person, with those creatures around, would have very little chance of escaping with life."

Dark clouds had been gathering around, and the wavelets began to play over the hitherto calm ocean. Although as yet there was not much wind, the sails were trimmed, and, by the captain's orders, the vessel was put on a north-west course. I concluded, consequently, that he at all events intended touching at Sierra Leone, to obtain a mate and some white hands. The wind, however, rapidly increased, sail was taken in, and before long it was blowing a perfect hurricane. This made the poor captain more anxious than ever to get on deck, but when he attempted to move he found that he had not strength even to sit up. The wind howled and whistled, the vessel tumbled fearfully about, and the seas, which rose up in foaming masses, frequently broke on board, deluging her deck.

I had gone down to the captain, who had directed me to visit him every quarter of an hour to let him know how things were going on, when, as I entered the cabin, I discovered a strong smell of burning, and directly afterwards I saw thin wreaths of black smoke making their way through the forward bulk-head. The dreadful conviction came upon me that the vessel was on fire. I sprang on deck, and calling the boatswain and Paul, I told them my fears. That they were too well founded we had soon fearful evidence, for the smoke, now in thick volumes, rose above the deck, both fore and aft. Still there might be time to extinguish the fire. To do this it was necessary to take off the main-hatchway, and, in spite of the risk of a sea beating over us, it was done. The instant it was off dense masses of black smoke rose up from below, preventing all attempts which the boatswain and some of his men made to discover the seat of the fire.

"We must take to the boats," he exclaimed, "the ship soon all in flames, then the boats burn and we no get away."

Paul and I as well as Sambo tried to persuade him and his Krumen to make more efforts to put out the fire before they lowered the boats. With the sea then running, indeed there was every probability that they would be swamped. We set them the example, by rigging the pumps, and filling buckets from alongside to heave down the hold. Thus encouraged, they laboured for a short time, but finding their efforts of no effect, they abandoned the work and began to lower the boats.

The wind had happily by this time somewhat moderated; while most of the people were engaged in launching the long boat, Paul and I with two other men set to work to lower one of the smaller boats. We had not forgotten the poor captain, and as the smoke had not yet made its way into his cabin, I did not intend to let him know what had occurred till the last, when I hoped, with the assistance of Paul and others, to get him lowered safely into one of the boats.

All hands were working away with frantic haste, for we could not tell at what moment the flames might burst forth, and render the deck untenable. At length the long boat was launched, and the boatswain and the Krumen leaped into her. They called to Sambo and the rest to follow. I thought Sambo would have remained faithful to the captain, and have come to assist him, but at that moment a forked flame burst up from the hold, so alarming him, that he followed the rest. Paul and I entreated the other men to remain by the smaller boat, while we went into the cabin to bring up my poor friend the captain. As I was descending the companion hatch, I heard the boatswain shouting to the other men, and caught sight of them running to the side. Still I hoped that should they desert us, Paul and I might be able, after placing the captain in the boat, to lower her in safety.

"The ship on fire," exclaimed Captain Willis, when I told him what had occurred, "Heave water down the hold. Do all you can to save our rich freight, that must not be lost on any account."

I told him that we had done what we could, and that the rest of the crew had already deserted the vessel.

The captain sank back on his pillow, "I Have no strength to move," he murmured, "and you and Paul cannot lift me."

"We will try, Massa Captain," said Paul.

I proposed that we should lift him in his cot through the skylight. The captain at length agreed to this. I sprang on deck, intending to secure a tackle to the main boom, by which we might carry out my proposal with greater ease. What was my horror on reaching the deck, to find that the blacks, on quitting the falls, had neglected to secure them, and that the boat having fallen into the water had been washed away and capsized. The flames, too, which were now ascending through the main-hatchway had caught the other boat, and already her bows were burned through.

With this appalling intelligence I returned below. Escape seemed impossible. I proposed building a raft, it was a desperate resource, and there might not be time even to lash a few spars together. I could not bear the thought of allowing the poor captain to perish miserably without an attempt to save him. He divined my thoughts. "Its of no use, Harry, I am prepared for death, and resign myself to the arms of that merciful God whom I have so lately learned to know," he said, with perfect calmness.

Paul, while the captain had been speaking, seized a bright axe which hung against the bulk-head as an ornament, intending to cut away whatever might assist in forming a raft, and had sprang on deck with it. He now came down through the skylight hatch, "It is too late," he exclaimed, "the flames come aft."

He spoke too truly. At that instant dense masses of smoke rushed into the cabin, and the flames burst through the after bulk head. I was scorched, by the heat and almost suffocated. So dense was the smoke which filled the captain's berth, that I could no longer see him.

I felt Paul grasping my hand, "Come Harry, come, too late to save poor captain," he said, dragging me after him. I was almost stifled, and gasped for breath. In another moment I should have fallen, indeed I was so overcome with the smoke that I did not know what was happening.

Happily however I kept firm hold of Paul, and suddenly I found myself plunged headlong into the water. He had hauled me through the cabin window.

"Now strike out Massa Harry, I see boat not far off, we get to her," he exclaimed. I did as he directed me, but the thought of the horrid sharks I had seen swimming about the vessel, almost paralysed my senses, and every moment I expected to find myself seized by the cruel jaws of one of them.

"Cheer up Harry, cheer up," shouted Paul; "there is the boat, we got Friend in heaven who look after us; never fear, we reach her soon, cheer up."

With such like cries he continued to animate me. He shouted thus not only for that object, but to keep any sharks which might be inclined to seize us at a distance. The boat, as we got near her, was, I saw, keel upwards.

"Never fear Massa Harry," said Paul, "we soon right her."

We at length reached the boat, and Paul showing me the way, after some exertion, he going ahead and I keeping astern, we managed to turn her over. We then shook her from side to side till we had hove out a considerable amount of water in her. He told me to get in over the stern, and to begin bailing with my hat. I did as he advised, thankful to find myself out of the grasp of the sharks. He kept splashing about with his heels, and constantly turning round to see that none of the monsters were near. Looking up I caught sight of the long boat standing away from us under sail towards the shore. She had already got too far off to allow of our cries reaching her, or even indeed for those on board to see us. We were thus cruelly deserted by our shipmates. We could only hope for their credit that they supposed we had already lost our lives, and that there would be no use looking for us.

At length I having partially cleared the boat, Paul also got in, and we both began bailing away as hard as we could with our hats. While thus employed I saw a huge shark approaching, and I fancied looking disappointed at our having escaped his hungry maw. Happily the sea by this time had gone considerably down, or our task would have been rendered hopeless. As it was it took us a considerable time to lessen the water in the boat, for deep as she was, the water which leaped in often again nearly refilled her. Still we persevered, for we were, we knew, labouring for our lives. Meantime the shark, as if longing to make us its prey, kept swimming round and round the boat. At a short distance the brigantine was burning furiously, and already the flames, ascending the masts, had caught the rigging and sails.

While as I could not help doing, I turned my gaze at her I saw far away in the horizon the white sail of a vessel. "A sail! a sail!" I shouted; "we are saved Paul, we are saved."

Paul looked up for a minute. "Yes," he said, "she standing this way. The burning ship bring her down to us. She big schooner. May be good, may be bad! though."

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