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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Three Midshipmen - Chapter 11. Life On An African Cruiser
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The Three Midshipmen - Chapter 11. Life On An African Cruiser Post by :Satish Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :2248

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The Three Midshipmen - Chapter 11. Life On An African Cruiser

CHAPTER ELEVEN. LIFE ON AN AFRICAN CRUISER


That naval officers do not idle away their time when at sea, on beds of roses, the adventures of my three old schoolfellows will, I think, convince all my readers. Who would have thought when we were together at dear old Eagle House, that they would, ere many years had gone over their heads, have actually crossed swords with real red-capped or turbaned Mahomedans, fought with true Greek romantic pirates, hunted down slavers, and explored African rivers with voracious sharks watching their mouths, hungry crocodiles basking in their slimy shallows, and veritable negroes inhabiting their banks; yet here were all the three, Alick Murray, Jack Rogers, and Terence Adair, collected on board Her Majesty's brig of war _Archer_, commanded by Captain Grant. Alick had come out in the brig from England, the other two, after being shipwrecked, nearly drowned, murdered, and starved, eaten up by sharks, and having undergone I do not know how many other terrible dangers, had at last been picked up by the _Archer_, their own ship, the _Ranger frigate, being they did not exactly know where. This last circumstance did not probably weigh very much with them. Midshipmen are not generally given to suffer from over anxiety from affairs terrestrial; but Rogers certainly did wish that he could let his family know that he was well, and picked up again, after having, as was supposed, gone down in a slaver the frigate had captured off the African coast. They were capital fellows, those three old friends of mine. Rogers was a good specimen of the Englishman--genus middy--so was Paddy Adair of Green Erin's isle, full of fun and frolic; and a more gentlemanly, right-minded lad than Alick Murray Scotland never sent forth from her rich valleys or rugged mountains. He too was proud of Scotland, and ever jealous to uphold the name and fame of the land of his birth.

The _Archer was a fine brig, and Captain Grant was a first-rate officer. When naval officers or seamen go on board ships of war they have to take their share of the duty with the rest of the crew; so Rogers and Adair found that they should have plenty of employment, even though they might not for some time be able to join their own ship. Captain Grant considered that idleness is the mother of all vice, so he took care that no one in his ship should be idle, and certainly he had the knack of making good seamen of all who sailed with him.

The midshipmen's berth in the _Archer was a very happy place, because the occupants were, with few exceptions, gentlemanly, well-disposed, and, more than all, well and religiously educated young men. I do not mean to say by that, that they always acted with the wisdom and discretion of a bench of judges. Far from that. They were merry, light-hearted fellows, full of fun and frolic, but they could be grave, and treat serious things as they ought to be treated, with reverence and respect. Jack and Paddy quickly found themselves perfectly at home among them. The _Archer had been standing off the coast of Africa under easy sail, when, just as the cold grey light of day stole over the waters, a vessel was seen inside of her, evidently making for a harbour in the neighbourhood. As the light increased, she was discovered to be a schooner.

"All hands make sail," cried the officer of the watch, who had just made his report to the commander.

"All hands make sail," echoed the boatswain, giving with his shrill pipe the well-known signal. "Tumble up there, tumble up there," roared out the boatswain's mates, with their gruff voices, to the sluggards who seemed inclined to stick in their hammocks.

In a few moments the watch below were rushing up on deck and flying to their stations, and then, as if by magic, the masts and yards of the brig were covered with the broad sheets of canvas which had been furled during the night. Topgallant-sails, royals, and studding-sails being set in rapid succession, away glided the brig with her head towards the land, through the calm, leaden-coloured water. Jack and Terence had with the rest sprung on deck, not taking many moments to slip into their clothes. Few landsmen can understand how quickly that operation can, by constant practice, be performed. They had there joined Alick, who had the morning watch. Together they all went aloft to take a look at the chase.

"She's a slaver, from her evident wish to avoid us, and from the way she is standing," observed Alick, after having taken a long look at her through his glass. "We may prevent her from embarking her slaves, and save the poor wretches the horrors to which they are always exposed, when once they get on board these iniquitous prison-ships. To look down on a slave-deck crowded with human beings, is quite sufficient to make a man abhor slavery for ever after, and to desire to put an end, with all his might, to the system which can produce such horrors."

Jack and Adair agreed that they should have great satisfaction in capturing or destroying every slaver on the coast. The stranger soon discovered that the brig of war was in chase of her, and having crowded all sail, kept away directly for the land. From the wide spread of her white canvas, and from the way she had behaved, there was no doubt she was a slaver. Everybody felt certain that they should capture the stranger; the _Archer was undoubtedly overhauling her, and she could not escape either to the north or south without their perceiving her, and cutting her off. An hour's chase brought them in sight of the land. It was a low, uninviting shore, lined with a dense belt of mangrove bushes, a few tall palms appearing here and there above them; then the ground rose slightly, with some ranges of blue hills in the distance. As the sun rose, a mist was drawn up which floated just above the water and shut out the lower branches of the mangrove-trees, though their tops, forming a wavy dark line, could just be seen above it. None of the officers of the _Archer had been on the coast before, and as she had no pilot, it was necessary to approach it with caution. The lead was therefore kept going. The schooner stood boldly on.

"The fellows will, I am afraid, run her on shore, if they can find no other means of escaping," observed the captain, after scrutinising the chase and the coast she was approaching through his glass.

"We shall have her, she can't escape us, that's one comfort," cried Jack Rogers.

On flew the schooner. The wind freshened somewhat. Suddenly she entered the belt of mist. Everybody on board the brig rubbed their eyes. Where was she? Not a vestige of her was to be seen. As they approached the land, the roar of the surf on the shore reached their ears. There could be little doubt that the schooner had been run on shore, and would probably soon be knocked to pieces, while her crew had made their escape to the land. Captain Grant was anxious to stand in as close as he could.

"By the deep nine," sang out one of the men in the chains.

"By the mark seven," soon repeated another.

To approach nearer would not have been prudent. The canvas was therefore flattened in, and the brig's head was once more turned to seaward. Scarcely had she hauled her wind, than the sun having risen high above the land, the mist lifted, and the whole line of coast fringed with mangrove bushes, and here and there with a white belt of sand, appeared in sight. But the chase, where was she? Not a sign of her appeared on the shore, while neither to the north nor to the south was she to be seen. Jack looked at Adair, and Adair looked at Jack, and together they discussed the matter with Alick, but neither of the three could offer any satisfactory explanation of the matter. Captain Grant and the rest of the officers appeared equally puzzled. As the brig stood closer in-shore there was a chance of the mystery being solved. The hands in the chains were kept heaving the lead, which showed that the brig was slowly shoaling her water. At length she was hove-to, and two boats were lowered. Their own lieutenant, Hemming, who had escaped with them from a sinking slaver, volunteered to take charge of one of them, and Evans, the second lieutenant of the brig, went in the other. The former, as the senior officer, had charge of the expedition.

"As she cannot have escaped along shore, and certainly has not evaporated into the air, the chase must have got into some creek or inlet, the mouth of which we cannot distinguish," observed the captain. "You will therefore search for such an entrance, and pursue, and bring her out if you can."

"Ay, ay, sir!" answered Hemming, delighted with the work in prospect.

The three midshipmen got leave to go in the boat. Jack accompanied Evans, the other two went with Hemming, as did Jack's old follower Dick Needham. Away they pulled in high spirits. As they approached the shore they observed that a long line of white surf was breaking heavily on it. Hemming stood up and scanned the coast narrowly, thinking that after all the schooner might have been run on shore, and as slavers are but slightly put together, might have speedily been knocked to pieces. As he stood up, and the boat rose to the top of the swell, he saw not what he expected, but a piece of clear water inside a narrow spit of sand, and a little to the south he observed a spot where the surf broke less heavily, and which he concluded was the entrance to the creek or river.

"I have little doubt that this must be the place where the schooner has taken refuge; and as she has gone up, so may we," shouted Hemming, pointing it out to his brother officer.

Evans agreed with him, and the two boats pulled away in the direction indicated. That there was an entrance was evident, but it required great caution in approaching it. A capsize would probably prove fatal to all hands--for had any escaped drowning, they would have fallen a prey to the sharks, which in southern latitudes generally maintain a strict blockade at the mouths of rivers, to pick up any offal which the stream may bring down. The boats rose and fell on the smooth swells as they came rolling in. At last Hemming observed a space on the bar clear of broken water. He gave the signal to go ahead.

"Now, my lads, now pull away," he shouted.

The boats dashed on, the surf roared and foamed on either side of them, and not only did the three midshipmen, but most of the older men in the boats, hold their breath till they were well through it, and once more floating in smooth water inside the bar. Instead of being in a mere creek, they found that they had entered a broad deep river which seemed to come down from a considerable distance in the interior. They pulled on more certain than before of finding the chase. However, after they had gone some distance, they arrived at a spot where the river formed two distinct branches, or, rather, it might be, where another broad stream joined the main current. Up which the schooner had proceeded it was impossible to say.

"I'll take one stream, you take the other," shouted Hemming to Evans; and the boats dashed on.

It was important to overtake the schooner before she got higher up, and perhaps hidden away in some narrow creek where it might be no easy matter to find her. The scenery was far from attractive. Little else on either side was to be seen but long lines of mangrove bushes, and as the tide fell black banks of mud began to appear, which it was evident would soon narrow the width of the stream. Evans and Jack took the branch of the stream which came from the southward. It wound about a good deal, so that they were aware they might any moment come on the schooner. They kept their muskets by their sides ready loaded.

"I say, Mr Evans, I wish that we could see the chase some time before we get up to her," observed Jack. "What are we to do should we find her, sir?"

"Jump on board, and knock every fellow down who resists," was the lieutenant's answer. "Depend on it she is a slaver or pirate, probably both, and her crew will not give in without a tussle."

"With the greatest pleasure in the world," replied Jack, who was very practical in his notions about fighting, and had no idea of half measures.

The current was now making down very strong, and the boat consequently progressed but slowly. Still Mr Evans persevered. The men bent lustily to their oars, and reach after reach of the river was passed, but there was no sign of the chase. Now and then there were openings in the mangrove bushes, and more than once Jack felt certain that he saw some dark figures running along parallel with the river, and evidently watching their movements. Jack pointed them out to Mr Evans.

"That looks as if we had enemies in the neighbourhood," observed the lieutenant. "Be ready, my men--marines, look to your arms."

The boat pulled eight oars, and there were two marines in the bows, and two in the stern-sheets, sitting with their muskets between their knees. In the bows of the boat was a small swivel-gun, and all the bluejackets with cutlasses and pistols. Besides the lieutenant and Jack, there was the coxswain, and there were some half-dozen long pikes which, as the latter observed, would come in handy, if they had a fight with another boat or had to attack a fort, but for boarding he would not give a rush for them. The ebb-tide rushed past the boat dark and smooth, but with swirling eddies, which showed the strength of the current against which they had to contend.

"I wonder whether the other boat has fallen in with the slaver."

"I envy them if they have," observed Jack, who didn't much like being silent just then.

There was something very oppressive in the atmosphere, and in the dark solemn scenery which surrounded them. The sea-breeze had by this time set in and blew up the river, but it had not yet been strong enough to make it worth while to hoist the sail.

"I scarcely think the schooner could have got up so far as this," observed Mr Evans. "But we will pull on a little farther, and then if we do not see her, we will go back, and join the other boat."

They had just then arrived at the end of a reach. The extent of the next one was hidden from their sight by a point of land thickly covered with trees. They pulled on, and soon doubled the point. Directly they did so there appeared before them, pressing up the stream, under all sail, the object of their search. The men required no urging, but, bending to their oars, away they pulled in hot chase after her. The schooner stood on steadily, as if no one on board was aware of the presence of the boat of a British man-of-war. The boat rapidly came up with her. As they drew near, Jack remarked that her decks were crowded with a very ill-looking set of ruffians, but he cared little for that, and he knew that every man in the boat would be ready to attack even twice as many as there were there. They had got up to within a hundred yards of the schooner without any notice being taken of them.

"Give way, my lads; we'll be alongside in a moment," shouted the lieutenant.

Scarcely had he uttered the words, when a couple of guns were ran out at the schooner's stern ports, and a shower of langrage, nails, bits of iron, lead, and missiles of all sorts, came rattling among them, accompanied by a volley of musketry. One or two of the seamen and one of the marines were hit, but the boat pulled on as fast as before.

"Marines, give it the scoundrels," cried Mr Evans. The red-jackets, turning round, deliberately picked off several of the people who had fired at them. They had scarcely time to load again before the boat was alongside the schooner, and the seamen, cutlass in hand, began to scramble up on her decks. Pikes were poked out at them, pistols were flashed in their faces, and cold shot hove into their boat, but fiercely as the pirates fought, they could not prevent the British seamen from gaining the deck of their vessel. Desperate was the struggle which took place there. Both parties fought for their lives. The English knew that they should receive no quarter. The pirates did not expect it either. Jack was soon knocked down, but he got up again with a somewhat ugly gash on his arm, and went at it as hard as ever. At length Mr Evans and his men gained the afterpart of the vessel, and were thus able to command her movements, but the pirates still clustered thickly in the bows, and were evidently preparing to make a rush aft. The English had left their boat, which was alongside, with her painter made fast to the fore-chains. This was an oversight. The pirates perceived it, hauled her ahead, and instead of attempting to regain their vessel, the greater number, jumping into her, made off, leaving four or five of their companions in the hands of the British. These few threw down their arms and sang out for quarter. This was granted them, little as they deserved it. Meantime the rest of the pirates pulled away for the shore, and were soon concealed from view behind a wooded point.

"See the cable ranged, to bring up, Mr Rogers," was the first order given by the lieutenant.

"Ay, ay, sir," answered Jack, but he found that he could not obey the order, as there were neither cables nor anchors on board. It was therefore necessary to keep the vessel under weigh, and to endeavour to beat down the river. Had the English known the channel, this might have been a more easy task than it was likely to prove. They were obliged to make very short tacks for fear of getting on shore, and in whatever reach they were the wind always seemed to head them, so that their progress, notwithstanding the strong current in their favour, was but slow. Their victory had not been gained without considerable loss: a marine had been killed, and three other men, besides Jack, had been wounded, two of them so badly that they were unable to help in working the vessel. This made Mr Evans not a little anxious, and he kept looking out ahead, in the hopes of seeing the other boat coming to his assistance. Jack also, who never failed to make good use of his eyes, was not altogether comfortable, for he had observed in the openings where he had before seen people, a much greater number, evidently keeping a watch on the movements of the schooner. As long as she could be kept moving, there was no great cause for fear; but should she get on the mud, it was difficult to say what might happen. Jack was stationed forward. At length the schooner entered a reach which ran nearly north and south, and the wind enabled her to lay nearly down it.

"No sign of the boat yet, Mr Rogers?" sang out Mr Evans, from aft.

"No, sir," answered Jack; "but there are a number of dark objects in the water which look remarkably like canoes. They seem to be waiting for us at the end of the reach, where we must go about."

"We must run some of them down, and give the rest a taste of the pirate's guns," replied Mr Evans. The guns were got forward, but neither shot nor powder was to be found. Still undaunted, the seamen and marines stood ready to receive the expected attack. Things looked serious. Jack soon made out not less than twenty canoes full of men, with a couple of large boats so posted that it would be almost impossible to avoid them. The schooner was but a very little way from the junction of the two rivers, and the other boat might come to her assistance, but her best chance of escaping was by getting a strong breeze, so that she might dash past the fleet of canoes before they could manage to catch hold of her. There was a prospect of this. The wind had for some time been blowing in fitful gusts, and now it came down on them stronger than ever. To shorten sail was out of the question, but in another minute Jack and his companions found that they had more than the little vessel could well stagger under. That was all right though. On she flew towards their enemies.

"Why, there is our boat among them," exclaimed Jack; "she must have got down by some other channel. We shall have a hard tussle for it." The critical moment was approaching. They could already see the faces of their enemies, and most villainous-looking ruffians they were. Many of them were blacks, but there were several white men among them.

"Steady, my lads, now. Don't throw a shot away till they attack us," sang out Mr Evans. "Stand by to go about." Down went the helm. The jib was shivering in the breeze. A loud shout arose from the canoes and boats, and, making a dash at the schooner, many of the villains began clambering up on each quarter. At that moment a violent gust coming down between an opening in the trees struck the vessel. It was not a moment to start sheet or tack. Every one, indeed, was engaged in the desperate conflict with their assailants. Jack was rushing forward to drive back some fellows who had just hooked on their canoe at the lee fore-chains. The marines were thrusting away with their bayonets. A huge mulatto had grasped Mr Evans by the throat, and several of the seamen were grappling with their opponents. Over heeled the vessel. Just as she was in midstream another gust, more furious than the first, struck her. In an instant Jack felt that she had gone over not to rise again. He scrambled up over the bulwarks into the weather-chains, where he hung on while the rest of the combatants, English, pirates and negroes, were precipitated into the rapidly running stream. Two or three of the canoes were swamped. Some of the blacks swam to the other canoes, and were picked up, but numbers of the combatants, grappling with each other, went down in the dark whirling stream, their shouts, cries, and struggles quieted only by the water which closed over their heads. Jack climbed up to the bottom of the vessel and looked around. His heart sank within him. Where were his late gallant comrades, Mr Evans and the rest? Not one remained. The capsized schooner was drifting rapidly down the stream.

Jack, however, found that he was not alone; but he would gladly have dispensed with his companions. Two blacks had hung on by the rudder-chains, and now, as they climbed up, they caught sight of him. Their eyes flashed vindictively. They had their knives in their belts, but no other weapons. He had retained his grasp on his cutlass, and he had a pistol in his belt, but he feared that the priming must have got wet. The blacks began to creep slowly towards him. They grinned horribly, and were evidently intent on his destruction. Jack saw that he had not the slightest prospect of escape, and must depend entirely on his own exertions. He had no notion, however, of giving in.

The schooner rapidly drifted away from the place where she upset, and none of the canoes were following her. Jack grasped firm hold of the keel of the vessel while he held his weapons in his hands ready for action. Fortunately the blacks could only move on by following each other. They shouted to him in fierce, rough tones, but what they said he could not understand. He was not alarmed, but he held his pistol very tight. The ruffian got close to him; Jack cocked and presented his pistol: if it missed he had his cutlass ready. The negro smiled or rather grinned. He thought the pistol would not go off. Jack pulled the trigger; the negro fell over and over down the side of the vessel into the water. He tried to swim and to regain his lost hold, but his strength failed him, and, with a cry of disappointed rage, he sank under the tide, a small circle of ruddy hue marking the spot where he had gone down.

Jack had not, however, a moment to think about this; he had just time to grasp his cutlass in his right-hand, before his enemy made a spring on him. Jack was still only a boy, though a good stout one, but his nerves were well strung and his muscles were strong. He swung his cutlass round with all his might till the blade met the neck and shoulders of the black, and over he went into the water, where he at once sank, without even attempting to strike out for his life, indeed Jack's blow had almost severed his head from his body. A very short time had been occupied in this encounter; still the schooner had drifted down some way, and neither the pirates nor their allies seemed inclined to follow her. Notwithstanding this, Jack's position was far from a pleasant one. If the vessel drifted on to either bank of the river, he would probably be murdered, and if she continued in the stream, she would soon be among the heavy breakers on the bar, where he would, in all probability, be washed off and devoured by the sharks. With straining eyes he looked out for Hemming's boat, but she was nowhere to be seen. He soon drifted past the channel up which she had gone: not a sign of her could he perceive.

On drifted the schooner. The channel must be very deep, he knew, or the masts must have stuck in the bottom. Should this latter happen, he was afraid that the current gathering round her would speedily wash him off his hold. He felt very grave and sad, and though he was certainly not afraid, he could not help being aware that the life he had found so pleasant and so cheerful, and to which he had so many ties, was slipping away from him. The courage of an older man might well have given way. Jack sighed deeply, but his courage did not give way, for he said to himself, "God's will be done." In that feeling was his strength and support. "I am in God's hand, He will preserve me if He thinks fit."

On drifted the schooner. The current, strengthened by the additional stream, grew more rapid. The vessel kept in mid-channel. He might have gained nothing had she verged on either side, unless he could have got near enough to catch hold of a stout branch of some mangrove bush, where he might have hung on to it till the boat came by, when, should anybody see him, he might be rescued, otherwise a lingering and painful death would be his lot, instead of the speedy one he had every reason to expect. The roar of the breakers on the bar sounded mournfully on his ears. He could see the white surf dancing less high above the sandbank, and he knew that in a few minutes he must be among those roaring, hissing, raging breakers. He thought that he could see the white sails of the brig in the offing, but she was much too far off to render him the slightest assistance. There was, he thought, one chance more. The current might set against the sandspit which crossed its course, and if so, he might be washed on shore. He watched eagerly to ascertain if any logs or branches floating down took that direction. There was nothing to give him assurance of this. For a minute he thought that she was going towards the spit, but the current again seized her, and whirling her round, sent her driving rapidly onwards towards the boiling breakers. Jack felt the wreck rise and fall. He clutched firmly hold of the keel, useless as he believed it to be. The foaming waters sounded in his ears, the foam washed over him, and he knew that he was on that terrible bar, in the midst of the raging breakers.

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