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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Three Midshipmen - Chapter 14. In The Negro Prison
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The Three Midshipmen - Chapter 14. In The Negro Prison Post by :Satish Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :1699

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The Three Midshipmen - Chapter 14. In The Negro Prison


Jack Rogers stood near the gun at which he had been placed in the slavers' fort. He had plenty of time to consider how he should act; but, turn the matter over in his mind as much as he would, he could not arrive at a satisfactory decision. The alternatives left for his choice were to fire at his friends or to be shot himself. The slave-traders and their assistants, and the slavers' crews who stood around him, were fellows whose very ill-looking countenances showed that they would not scruple to execute with very scant warning any threat they had made. An older man than Jack might have felt very uncomfortable under such circumstances. A more evil-disposed band of ruffians could not often have been collected together. They were of all colours, from those who called themselves white to negroes of the most ebon hue. Not that the whites had much claim to the distinction, for they were so bronzed by sun and wind that they were almost as dark as the Africans, and certainly they were not the least villainous-looking of the gang. Two of them especially, who had belonged to the crew of the schooner Jack had assisted to capture, seemed to have recognised him, and paid him very particular and disagreeable attention. One of them politely handed him a rammer, and showed him how he was to load his gun, while the other put a pistol under his nose, and exhibiting the perfect condition of the lock, explained with a mild smile that it was not at all likely to miss fire. Jack smelt at the pistol, and flourished the rammer.

"Very good powder I have no doubt," he remarked, looking as unconcerned as possible, "but I cannot say that I admire its odour. If any of you have a pinch of snuff to offer me now, I should be obliged to you. I want something to overcome the smell of the mud, which is anything but pleasant, let me assure you."

The Spaniard, though he did not understand what Jack said, comprehended his signs; and, thus appealed to, could not resist pulling out his snuff-box and offering it to him, though he fully intended, in case of any sign of insubordination, to blow out his brains at a moment's notice. Jack dipped his fingers into the snuff-box with all the coolness and as great an air as he could command. He knew that his best chance of escape was to throw his captors off their guard. "_Bueno, bueno_," he remarked, scattering the snuff under his nose as he had seen Spaniards do, for in reality he had no wish to take any up his nostrils. The slave-traders could not help shrugging their shoulders, and thinking that they had got hold of a very independent sort of young gentleman. They talked together a good deal, and from what they said Jack made out that they were proposing to invite him to join them. "A very good joke," he thought to himself; "the rascals! I'll humour them in it, however; it will certainly afford me a better chance of escape."

During this time a number of blacks were pouring into the fort, carrying all sorts of arms, most of them matchlocks of very antique construction, though some were muskets which had probably not long before left the workshops of Birmingham. Jack, hoping that he had thrown his captors a little off their guard, shouldered his rammer, and walked about to try and obtain a more perfect notion of the state of affairs. Looking through the stockades, he saw that the fort commanded entirely the reach of the river, at the extreme upper end of which it was situated. The stream there made a sudden bend, nearly doubling back on itself; and as the fort was placed almost on this point, the guns in it could fire point-blank right down the stream. No boats had yet appeared, but from the look of intense eagerness exhibited on the countenances of all the blacks, he had no doubt that they were near at hand. The whole fort was in a great state of bustle, if not of confusion. The black warriors were running about here and there, chattering away to each other, and examining not only their own arms, but those of everybody else. Some of them Jack saw squinting down the barrels of their companions' muskets, to try and ascertain the cause, apparently, of their not going off, while the man at the other end would snap the lock without giving the slightest warning. One of them after this came up to Jack, and, by signs and a few words of English, requested him politely to look into the muzzle of his musket and ascertain why it would not "fire! bang!" as he expressed it, intimating that he had already put in several charges.

Jack declined that mode of proceeding, but begged to look at the other end. Jack burst into a fit of laughter. "The reason, _amigo_, is this _intendez ustedes_," he answered, as soon as he could find breath to speak. "There's no flint to your lock, and if there had been, the touch-hole is well stopped up with rust, so you had two very secure preventives against its going off. I only hope that the rest of you have arms of a like character. Not much fear for my friends then." He picked out the touch-hole, however, for the negro, telling him that he must put a match into the pan when he wanted to fire it. He resolved, however, to stand clear of the negro when he fired it; for he had little doubt that when he did so the barrel would burst, and do much more damage to the defenders of the fort than to the assailants. Jack was in hopes that the guns mounted in the fort would prove to be in a similar condition; but on examining them he soon saw that they were ship's guns, and were in very good order. He had managed by his independent manner, by this time, to throw the slave-dealers off their guard. He waited for an opportunity when they were not watching him, and then hurried back to the gun of which they had given him charge. As he could not manage to withdraw the shot, he knocked in a wedge, which gave it an elevation calculated to carry it far over the heads of any of the attacking party. He looked round when he had done this, to ascertain whether he had been observed, but the white men had turned round for some purpose, and the blacks did not seem to comprehend what he had been about. "At all events, I shall not have to fire at my friends," he thought to himself, "and now the sooner they come on the better for me." Scarcely had these words passed through his mind than he observed a great commotion among the motley garrison of the fort, and, looking through the embrasure at which his gun was placed, he caught sight of several boats just rounding the point at the other end of the reach. He could not make out who was commander-in-chief of the present gang of villains with whom he was associated. The two Spaniards, who had at first paid him so much polite attention, were evidently not even officers. A huge black man, with a very ugly visage, seemed to have considerable authority. He was engaged in marshalling the negroes, and posting them at the stockades ready to make use of their firearms. The burly sovereign of the territory was nowhere to be seen. He probably thought discretion the best part of valour, and had retired again to his capital, to await the results of the contest. At last Jack's eyes fell on a little wizened old Spaniard in a straw hat, nankeen trousers, and a light blue coat, who, as soon as he made his appearance, began to order about everybody in an authoritative and energetic manner, and very quickly brought the confused rabble of defenders into order. Two or three other Spaniards, who from their appearance seemed to be officers, came with him. He had evidently just arrived from a distance, summoned in a hurry, probably, to defend the fort. He went round, looking at the guns, and Jack was very much afraid that he would examine his. Just, however, as he was about to do so up went a rocket high into the sky, let off probably as a signal for some purpose or other. It had the effect of calling off the old man's attention from him. The people in the advancing boats seemed not to have any notion that they were so near the fort, for they pulled on, without in any way quickening their speed, right up towards the guns.

Jack had remarked the mode in which the place was fortified, so likely to lead strangers into a trap. In front of the stockades was a deep broad ditch, and then beyond it rose a low bank of soft slimy mud, held together by reeds and aquatic plants, and which sloped away again down to the river. This bank was covered at high water, but even then Jack doubted whether a boat could be got across it. The slave-traders and blacks grinned as they thought of the trap into which the British seamen were about to fall. Jack watched the approach of the boats. Oh! how he longed to warn his friends of the danger threatening them. He would have shouted out to them, but they could not have heard him; and then he thought that he would climb up to the top of the stockade and warn them off; but he knew that the moment he was seen by the blacks to make any signal, a pistol-bullet would be sent through his head. Jack was perfectly ready to run any risk for an adequate object; but after a moment's reflection he felt perfectly sure that the boats would come on notwithstanding anything he might do, and that the moment for sacrificing his life had not yet arrived.

As the boats drew near so did the flurry and excitement among the blacks increase: the white men looked along their guns and prepared for action; the little wizened old Spaniard posted himself in a position whence he could observe all that was going forward. Jack saw that he was watching him, and he also heard him tell one of the Spaniards, who had before paid him so much polite attention, to keep an eye on his movements. The old man, probably, had no great confidence in Jack's honesty of intentions. Luckily no one found what Jack had been about with the gun, or it would have fared ill with him. Jack cast many an anxious glance through the embrasure, to catch the movements of the boats. There were a good many of them--that was one comfort. His friends were not so likely to be overpowered as he at first feared. Evidently another ship, or perhaps more, had joined the _Archer and accompanied her boats up the river. He could not help also turning round to see what the old Spaniard was doing. There he stood on his perch surveying his motley crew--the impersonation of an evil spirit--so Jack thought. Yet he looked quite calm and quiet, with a smile--it was not a pleasant one, however--playing on his countenance. In a moment afterwards his whole manner changed; he sprang off the ground and clapped his hands, crying out loudly, "_Tira! tira, amijos_." "Fire! fire, my friends! and send all those English to perdition." He was under the belief that the boats had just come in a direct line with his guns, and that every shot would tell on them. The Spaniards and blacks were not slow to obey the order. Off went the guns, and the small-arm men began peppering away till the whole fort was in a cloud of smoke. Jack delayed firing as long as he could, that he might be more certain that his shot would fly over the heads of his friends. He would have waited still longer, had he not seen a Spaniard near him cocking his pistol and giving a very significant glance towards him. He had already begun to stoop down to fire, when a bullet whistled by his head, and he heard the sharp voice of the old Spaniard, "Take that, young traitor, if you don't choose to obey orders."

Jack felt that he had had a narrow escape of his life. Looking along his gun, and seeing that the arc he believed the shot would make would extend far beyond the boats, he fired. He could not see where his shot went, for at the same moment the British, though at first not a little surprised at the warm reception they had encountered, had brought the guns in the bows of the boats to bear on the fort, and had opened a hot fire in return.

With loud cheers they advanced; but Jack guessed that they had something in store which would astonish the blacks much more than the round shot; nor was he mistaken. Up flew, whizzing into the air, a shower of rockets, which came down quickly into the middle of the fort, and made both Spaniards and negroes scamper here and there at a great rate, knocking each other over, shrieking out oaths and prayers in a variety of dialects, and trying to hide themselves from their terrific pursuers. It was as if a number of wriggling serpents had been turned loose among a crowd of people. The old Spaniard stamped and swore with rage, calling the people back to their guns, abusing them, and firing his pistols right and left at them to bring them to order. Jack ran a great risk of being shot in the _melee_, either by friends or foes. Oh, how he wished that the former knew the state of affairs inside the fort, and would make a dash at that moment and get into it! It was high tide, and the water covered the mudbanks. The favourable moment was however lost, and by the fierce energy of the little old Spaniard the defenders of the fort were driven back to their guns. Jack pretended to be very busy loading his. He had managed to get in a shot during the confusion, and one of the blacks next rammed in the powder and put another shot in after it. "All right! now blaze away, my hearty!" he sang out. He had piled up a good quantity of powder over the touch-hole, so there was an abundance of smoke, and the negro whom he addressed fully believed that the gun had gone off.

"Now more powder and shot, old boy," cried Jack; "ram away!"

Jack's gun was not likely to hurt his friends, but had the old Spaniard seen his tricks, he would very likely have had another bullet fired at him. Fortunately the old fellow was too much engaged. The whole fort was full of smoke, and the defenders, having got over their first alarm at the rockets, were blazing away with all their might. Jack caught sight of the boats for an instant, separating on either hand so as to avoid the direct fire from the fort, and then he heard in another minute that true hearty British cheer, which has so often struck terror into the hearts of England's enemies. On either flank there came pouring into the fort a fresh flight of rockets, and almost the next instant Jack saw the boats' bows run stem on to the mudbank, which almost surrounded the fort. In vain the seamen endeavoured to shove the boats over it--they stuck fast. Jack shouted as loud as he could, in hopes that his voice might be heard, for he caught a glimpse of Alick Murray in one of the boats and Paddy Adair in another, using every effort to get up to the stockade. Perhaps they heard him, for he saw them leap overboard, followed by their men, with the intention clearly of wading up to the stockade, ignorant of course of the deep ditch between them and it. Jack felt sure that they would be shot down by the blacks if they made the attempt. He could restrain himself no longer, but ran towards them, shouting out, "Back, back! you can't get in that way!" Whether they heard him or not he could not tell, for a heavy blow on the head was dealt him by the butt end of a pistol, the owner of which, one of his Spanish friends, would certainly have shot him had it been loaded, and he fell to the ground, stunned and helpless.

How long he thus lay he could not tell. It could not have been for any length of time, for the battle was still raging when he came to his senses. He instantly crawled to one of the embrasures, and looked out. The English had suffered severely. One boat lay on the mud, disabled, and the dead bodies of several men strewed the mudbank, which the falling tide had left dry. Then he turned his head, for he heard loud cheers and shouts, and cries and howls, on one side of the fort. A fresh attack, he suspected, had just been made. It was resisted with all the desperation of despair by most of the Spaniards and many of the blacks. The British were forcing their way in. He caught sight of the heads of the seamen surmounting the stockade, and then he saw that it was Alick Murray leading them on. The spectacle gave him fresh life. He jumped on his legs and gave a loud huzzah.

He had better have been silent. The old Spaniard, who had been flying about in every direction with the most wonderful activity, encouraging the people, pointing the guns, and showing himself the leading spirit of the gang, caught sight of him. It had now become evident that the fort would be taken; there was but one outlet by which the gang could escape; the ruffians began to give way. Numbers were wounded; many lay dead on the ground. Several of the fugitives passed him. He was hoping that the moment of his deliverance was at hand, when he felt his shoulder grasped by the little old Spaniard, and found himself dragged along by a power he could not resist. He struggled, but struggled in vain. Small as the old man was, he was all sinew and muscle; his clutch was like that of a vice. There was a fierce rush, blacks, Spaniards, and mulattoes were all mingled together; and good reason they had to run, for at their heels came fast a body of English seamen, slashing away with their cutlasses, and firing their pistols. Hemming, Murray, and Adair were leading them, and Jack recognised some of the officers of his own ship, the _Ranger_. He now knew how it was the expedition had been strengthened. He sought to escape from his captor. "If you shout, I'll shoot you!" said the old man, in English, grinning horribly. He was in hopes his old schoolfellows would have recognised him. Back he was hurried. Still he felt sure that his friends would overtake him. The retreating villains had got close to the barracoon, and not far from the last entrance to the fort. The seamen pressed on. There was still some space between the parties, when the old man fired his pistol into a cask sunk into the ground; a thick smoke came out of it. Back, back the pirates pushed. In an instant more a dense mass rose before them of earth, and stone, and timbers, horribly mingled with the arms and legs and bodies of human beings;--a mine had been sprung. Jack was in an agony of fear for the fate of his friends. He could see nothing of them. He observed only that the mine had taken effect under one end of the barracoon. The terrible shrieks and cries of its wretched inmates rang in his ears. A large number of them had been liberated, and with loud yells were following in the rear of the slave-dealers, for whom they served as an effective shield against the shot of the seamen. The slaves had been told that the English would kill them, so they ran away as soon as they were let out of the barracoon, as fast as the rest. The piratical crew, for such they really were, took their way up the hill, towards the king's residence, followed closely by the slaves and all the rabble who had escaped out of the fort. Jack expected that his friends would have pursued, and should he escape the pistol of the old gentleman who had him by the arm, he hoped before long to be rescued. They had not, however, got far up the hill when he saw flames burst forth from the barracoon, in which he knew, judging from those following, that a number of poor wretches had been left in chains, and he truly guessed that his countrymen were stopping to try and rescue them. The flames burst fiercely, and blazed up high, as they caught the dry inflammable timber of which the building was composed. Nothing could arrest their progress. The gallant seamen, he knew, would be dashing in among them in spite of the hot smoke, and doing their best to rescue the unfortunate wretches, but he feared that few would be saved. Even where he was he could hear their piteous shrieks, as the flames caught hold of them, chained as they were and unable to escape. As was too likely the pirates had set fire to the barracoon on purpose to delay the English; this plan succeeded perfectly. Often the same sort of thing has been done at sea, and when a slaver has been hard-pressed, blacks have been thrown overboard by the crew, to induce the English cruiser to stop and pick them up, and thus enable them to escape. Jack was dragged away up the hill, through the gateway of the town, and into the king's palace. That worthy was seated where Jack had first seen him, and employed much in the same way--smoking a pipe.

"Why have you brought him?" inquired his sable majesty of the little old Spaniard, whom Jack heard addressed as Don Diogo.

"He will serve as a hostage--they have got some of our people," was the answer.

"But will they give us back any of the slaves?" asked the king.

"Not one--whatever we may threaten," replied the Don, grinding his teeth. "They will not have got many, that is one comfort. A considerable number came with us, and most of those we were unable to set loose have been burnt. Our enemies have not gained much by their victory in any way, for we killed a good many of them, and destroyed some of their boats. We have had a desperate fight of it, though."

"It may be as well, then, not to kill the youngster, though it might be a satisfaction to you," said the king, looking at the Don.

"Not for the present," said Don Diogo. "We will keep him for a short time, and see how high his friends value him. If they refuse to give enough in exchange for him, as he can be of no use here, we can then shoot him!"

Jack, of course, could not understand all this conversation; but he made out enough to comprehend its tenor, which was certainly not of a character to enliven him. After a little time he found himself hauled out of the king's presence and thrust into a small hut by himself. A black, with a brace of pistols in his belt, and a musket which looked as if it would go off, was placed sentry over him. He either would not, or probably could not, reply to any of the questions Jack put to him, whenever he thrust his head in at the door, apparently to ascertain that his prisoner was all safe.

Thus passed the day. Towards the evening Jack began to be very hungry and very sick, and to wonder whether he was to be starved to death. He pointed to his mouth, and made every sign he could think of to show that he was hungry, but the sentry appeared to take no notice of him. At last, however, another man opened the door and placed a bowl of farina before him. It was not very dainty fare, but he was too sharp set to be particular, and so set to on it at once and gobbled away till he had finished it. He was wondering whether he should have to sleep on the bare ground, when the same man appeared with a bundle of Indian corn and other leaves, and threw them down in the corner, making a sign that they were to serve him as his bed. "Thank you, old fellow, I might go farther and fare worse." His spirits rose somewhat, for he judged rightly that his captors would not take so much trouble about him had they intended to murder him. He did not forget how mercifully his life had been preserved during the day, and he offered up his thanks on high before he threw himself on his bed of leaves to go to sleep.

He slept as soundly as a top all night, and when he awoke he could scarcely remember what had occurred during the previous day. Before long his former attendant appeared and placed another bowl of farina before him. "If they were cannibals, I might have some suspicions of their intentions," he said to himself; "they don't propose to eat me; but I know that I shall grow enormously fat if I go on long ramming down such stuff as this." However, as he was very hungry, he did swallow the whole of it. Hours passed away; no one else came near him. He fully expected to find the town attacked by the English, and waited impatiently to hear the sounds of the commencement of the strife; but, except that occasionally he heard tom-toms beating at a distance, and a few shots fired, everything in the town was quiet. It was sometime in the afternoon when two armed blacks appeared, and marched Jack out of his prison up to the king's palace. The king scarcely took any notice of him as he entered the reception-room. Soon after Don Diogo appeared.

"Will they give up the slaves?" asked the king.

"Not a bit of it," answered Don Diogo. "They say that if we kill that lad, then they will kill six times as many people of ours."

"That can't be helped," observed the king. "The people were born to be killed."

"Certainly," answered Don Diogo; "but there are some Spaniards among them, and I require their services."

"But is it not possible that they may come and burn my town? I have no wish for that to happen, even for your sake, my friend," said the king.

"Shoot the midshipman if they do," answered Don Diogo, turning a not very pleasant glance at Jack. "At present, however, they do not seem disposed to attack us. We have given them enough to attend to for the present. We killed a good number, and the boats have gone back with the wounded and prisoners."

"Then the young jackanapes of an officer may be shut up in prison again," said the king.

Scarcely had the order been given when a Spaniard rushed with fierce gestures into the room. "Those English have killed some of our friends, and we are resolved to have our revenge," he exclaimed, looking savagely at Jack, and handling his long knife.

"Don't kill him yet, though," said Don Diogo, with his usual coolness; "it will be time enough when he is of no further use. Take him away now."

These were not exactly the words Jack heard used, but he made out that such was their tenor.

Poor Jack! He was thrust rudely back into his dark, dirty hut, and the only food he received was a bowl of the ill-dressed farina, of which he was getting heartily tired. His spirits began to fall lower than they had ever before done. He saw no hope of escape; for he was certain that should the English threaten to attack the town, that instant he would put be to death, even should he escape the long knives of some of the Spaniards who had evidently a hankering for his blood. At last he fell asleep. Midshipmen have a knack of sleeping under the most adverse circumstances. His powers in that way were very considerable. It was daylight when he awoke; but there were no sounds to indicate that the negro population was astir. He could not help fancying that some attempt would be made by Captain Lascelles and Captain Grant to rescue him; but the day passed on, and no one except the man who brought him his insipid farina came near him. If he had had any mode in which to employ himself, he could, he thought, have the better borne his imprisonment and the dreadful state of suspense in which he was placed. All he could do was to walk about or sit on his bed of leaves with his head resting on his knees. Now and then, as the evening approached and his weariness increased, he jumped up and thought that he would force his way out and make a run for it: but then the feeling that he would most certainly be killed if he made the attempt, besides recollecting not knowing where he should run to, induced him to sit down again and chew the cud of impatience. Night came again. He was more melancholy than ever. He thought that he was deserted, or that probably his friends fancied he was killed, and would not trouble themselves further about him. He had no inclination to sleep even after it grew dark. He listened to the various noises in the village, or rather city it should be called. They amused him somewhat--the odd tones of the negroes' voices, the shouts, the laughter, the cries of babies, the barking of curs, the beating of tom-toms. At last, however, even they ceased, and he dozed away till he forgot where he was and everything that had happened. How long he had slept he could not tell; or rather, had he been asked he would have asserted that he had not been asleep at all, when he opened his eyes and saw by the light of the moon, which shone through a hole in the roof, the round face of a black boy looking down upon him with a friendly and compassionate expression.

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