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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Three Midshipmen - Chapter 15. In Search Of Jack
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The Three Midshipmen - Chapter 15. In Search Of Jack Post by :Satish Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :1035

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The Three Midshipmen - Chapter 15. In Search Of Jack

CHAPTER FIFTEEN. IN SEARCH OF JACK


Three of the _Archer's boats were manned, and under the command of Lieutenant Hemming, Murray having charge of one and Adair of the other, were about to shove off and proceed up the river to search for their missing shipmates, when a sail was seen from the mast-head standing down toward them. She was quickly made out to be a large ship, and in a short time little doubt remained that she was an English frigate. Captain Grant, therefore, ordered the boats to delay their departure that a more powerful expedition might be forthwith despatched to compete with any enemies with whom they might fall in. "Hurrah! she's our own ship the _Ranger_," exclaimed Adair, who had gone aloft to have a look at the stranger, and now came below to make his report to Hemming; "Captain Lascelles is just the man to back up Captain Grant; if he knows of any barracoons or slavers' strongholds of any description, he will be for going in and blowing them all up without a moment's delay."

To prove that Adair was right, the _Ranger soon after made her number, and at the same time another sail appeared to the northward. She turned out to be a brig-of-war, the _Wasp_. Captain Grant immediately went on board the frigate. Captain Lascelles entered fully into his plan, and instead of three, as soon as the _Wasp came up, fortunately ten boats started on the expedition. Hemming was much gratified when Captain Lascelles declined to supersede him, assuring him that no one was better qualified to be entrusted with the command. There is always something very exciting in an expedition, no matter what the object, but when there is some uncertainty and danger, and a prospect of fighting, everybody gets into the highest possible spirits. Murray and Adair would have been in high spirits also had they not been anxious about Jack. Not that they were very unhappy. They had all so often missed each other, and been in difficulties and dangers, that they thought he would turn up somewhere before long. The boats dashed over the bar, and pulled up the south branch. As it was flood-tide they made rapid progress. They had gone some way up when they saw some one on the bank of the river beckoning to them. "A mere naked nigger," said Adair, looking through his glass, "not worth waiting for him I should think." Hemming seemed to be of the same opinion, for the boats continued their progress. Seeing this the negro set off running as fast as he could go, and was soon lost to sight in the jungle. Not long after they came to the end of a reach, and then it appeared that the river doubled back as it were on itself.

"Hillo, there is something in the water ahead of us," sang out Adair to Murray.

"It is a negro swimming off to us. Do you see him, sir?" said Murray to Hemming, whose boat was near his.

The negro lifted up his hand, as if trying to make a signal to them, and wishing to be taken into one of the boats. Hemming told Murray to pull towards the negro, and ascertain what he wanted. In a few minutes Murray had hauled a young negro lad into his boat. "What is it you want, my lad?" asked Alick, in his usual kind way. The poor negro evidently wanted to speak, but could not find English words enough to express himself, though he was very voluble when employing his own language. No sooner, however, had Murray returned to the line of boats and retaken his place near Hemming, than the black lad's countenance brightened up. "Ah, Massa Hemming, Massa Hemming," he exclaimed, trying to spring into the lieutenant's boat. He would in his eagerness have jumped overboard, had not some of the seamen held him back.

"He seems to know you, sir," said Murray.

"Is, is--me know Massa Hemming; is, is, kind massa," exclaimed the young negro, eagerly catching at the words.

"Let him come into my boat, and I'll hear what he has got to say," said Hemming, greatly to the delight of the negro, who clearly understood him. No sooner was the black lad on board Hemming's boat, than he seized his hand and kissed it, and showed every mark of affection. Then with evident eagerness and haste he made all sorts of signs, aiding them by such few words as he knew. "Man come--bad, no, no," he said, pointing up the river. Hemming understood that some one would come and try and mislead them, and that they were not to trust to him. Then Hemming tried to ascertain the fate of the missing boat's crew. His heart sank when the negro explained by signs that he could not mistake that they had all been murdered.

"No one escaped?" he asked.

The negro shook his head, no, not one survived, it appeared. Murray and Adair were soon made acquainted with the information, and then indeed they began to fear that Jack Rogers, their gallant jovial companion, was lost to them for ever. Grief and indignation, and a desire to punish the perpetrators of the deed, took possession of their hearts. That was but natural. It is difficult to distinguish between revenge, which is wrong, and a desire to punish evil-doers, when we ourselves are affected by their misdeeds.

The young negro, after talking away and making signs to Hemming for some time longer, desired to be put on shore. Murray was ordered to convey him there.

"Good man--good man, Massa Hemming," he kept saying all the time. "Take care, bad man come off shore."

As soon as he landed, off he darted again through the mangrove bushes, and was lost to sight.

"He seems to be an old friend of yours, sir," observed Murray when he got back.

"Yes, I find that he is a lad I once, when he was a young boy, jumped overboard to save in the West Indies after he had been taken out of a slaver," answered Hemming carelessly. "He made me out when we were in the river before taking the Spanish schooner, and has ever since been watching for an opportunity to speak to me. I cannot make out exactly what he wishes to guard us against--some treachery, I conclude. I could not fancy that he would have recollected me so long. It shows that blacks have grateful hearts."

Hemming sympathised much with Murray and Adair, for he knew of their attachment to Jack, and he fully believed that he had been lost with the rest. Bitter and sad were their feelings. "Oh, Jack, Jack!" muttered Adair in a tone of grief, "are you really gone?" The flotilla of boats proceeded some way farther, when a large canoe was seen paddling out towards them from the shore. A burly negro sat in the stern and made a profound salaam with his palm-leaf hat as he approached.

"Me first pilot in dis river," he shouted with a stentorian voice, "take me board--me come show way."

Hemming ordered his crew to cease rowing, and took him into his boat to hear what he had got to say for himself. He had, however, exhausted nearly all his vocabulary in his first address, and there was some difficulty in understanding him. In vain Hemming tried to gain some information about the missing boat and her crew. The negro either knew nothing or was resolved not to tell. At last he produced a book of certificates, and when Hemming had glanced over them he burst into a fit of laughter, and handed them back. The big negro looked exceedingly indignant, and, striking his breast, repeated vehemently--

"Me good man--me show way."

Many of the certificates had been far from complimentary to the negro, but still Hemming thought that he might be useful as a pilot, till he recollected the warning he had just before received.

"This is undoubtedly the very fellow I was to expect," he said to himself. "No, no, you go on shore; we can do without you," he exclaimed, addressing the negro.

The burly savage blustered and protested, but he was made to step into his canoe, which had been paddling alongside, and Hemming signified to him clearly that he must take himself off. They observed him watching them for some way; then he hauled up his canoe, and taking a path inland, they saw no more of him. They had pulled on for half an hour or more when Murray caught sight of a board floating in the water. He could scarcely account for the impulse which made him steer towards it and pick it up. His eye brightened as he looked at it.

"Hurrah!" he shouted joyfully; "hurrah! Jack Rogers is alive; here is a note from him. There is no doubt about it. It is short though--he says, `A prisoner. Up south branch. Jack R.'" The shout was taken up by his own crew and the crews of all the other boats, and the banks of the stream rang with their loud hurrahs. This brief notice instigated all hands to make still greater exertions to try and recover Jack, wherever he might be. On they went; reach after reach of the winding river was passed, and they had got a long way up, higher than any of them had been before, when a shot, seeming as if it came out of the bank, flew over their heads. Another and another followed.

"We are just in front of the pirates' battery," exclaimed Hemming; "on, lads, on! we'll storm it without delay." The seamen required no further encouragement. A shower of rockets was first fired into the enemy's fort, and then on they dashed, in spite of the heavy fire of musketry, as well as of grape-shot and langrage, which was opened on them in return. To their rage and disappointment, the boats stuck on the mudbank just outside the stockades, which they only then discovered. Many of the seamen leaped out of the boats and attempted to wade onwards, but they either at once sank into the mud or fell forward into the deep ditch, where several were shot down before they could be rescued by their comrades, while others were drowned or smothered in the mud. It was horrible work. An enemy whom they despised was close to them, and yet could not be got at. Hemming, his heart burning with anger and grief at the loss of so many poor fellows and the almost hopelessness of success, ordered the boats to shove off, with the intention of making an attack on some other part of the fort. The blacks continued firing away under cover without much fear of being hit in return. It was melancholy to have to retire, and to see the bank, from off which the water had begun to recede, strewed with the bodies of those who a few minutes before were as full of life and energy as themselves. Before getting to any great distance, Murray thought he saw a channel to the right, which must run near the fort. He pointed it out to Hemming, who told him to lead the way. He was right; the negroes had neglected to fortify it, and in a few seconds the boats were close up to the stockades. Not a moment was lost in storming them and hauling them down. In rushed the gallant bluejackets, led on by Hemming, Murray, Adair, and other officers, and at length they got their black enemy face to face.

"There's Rogers, there's Rogers!" shouted Murray and Adair, for they both saw him at the same time. They were certain of it, though his features were considerably begrimed with powder, smoke, and dirt. This was incentive enough to make them push on with still greater haste, had they not been eager to punish the abominable slave-dealers and their crew of ruffians. The brave fellows little knew the terrible trap prepared for them. Murray and Adair had sprung on ahead, and believed that in another minute they would have rescued Jack from the grasp of his captors, when they felt themselves suddenly pulled back by Hemming and Will Needham.

"Back, back, lads, back!" sang out the lieutenant. At that moment up ascended right before them a mass of earth and stones and wood, with a dense cloud of smoke and dust, accompanied by a terrific roar, and they felt themselves lifted off their feet and sent heels over head, while down upon them came showering all the more solid portions of the above-mentioned materials about their ears, as they lay half stunned and stifled and vainly endeavouring to rise. Another foot in advance, and they would have been blown to destruction. Hemming had seen the old Spaniard fire his pistol into the tub, and guessed what was coming. Murray and Adair felt themselves very much hurt, so indeed were Hemming and Needham; while several poor fellows were maimed or killed outright. The two schoolfellows, after lying stupefied for a few seconds, lifted up their heads and began to crawl out from the mass of ruins which surrounded them.

"Where's Jack?" exclaimed Murray.

"Where's Jack?" cried Adair, getting upon his legs and helping Murray, who was hurt more than he was.

These were the first words they uttered. He had not been out of their thoughts, in spite of the dreadful commotion. As the smoke cleared away they caught sight of the group of fugitives, among whom they supposed he was, ascending the hill which rose beyond the fort. They were eager to pursue, but when they looked round and saw so many of their companions disabled, and Lieutenant Hemming himself on the ground, they could not help fearing that pursuit would be hopeless. Still they were moving on, when Hemming, recovering himself, called them back.

"It is of no use, lads," he cried. "The scoundrels have escaped us this time. See, see, too, we have work here," As he spoke, flames burst forth out of the barracoon, part of which had been blown up by the mine. The seamen who could stand, wounded or not, rushed forward, led by their officers, to help the miserable slaves. They hacked away desperately to get them free of their manacles, trying to cut through the solid iron or the beams to which the chains were secured. Meantime the hot flames were raging around them, and almost prevented them from performing their work of mercy. Still, in spite of the fire, the heat, and the smoke, and the possibility of being again blown up, the undaunted fellows laboured on. Numbers of the poor slaves had been liberated, and several children had been carried off who would otherwise have been left with their mothers to perish; but at last the terrific element gained the upper hand. The seamen's clothes were literally scorched off their backs before they would quit the work of humanity on which they were engaged, but even they were at last obliged to retreat, leaving the miserable captives to their fate. Again and again, however, now one, now another, would make a dash in among the flames, and try to haul out some poor burning creature whose imploring cries their tender heart could not withstand. One gallant fellow was killed by the falling of a burning beam before they would desist altogether from their brave efforts.

By this time the retreating slave-dealers had got completely out of sight, and when Lieutenant Hemming looked round and saw the number of men he had lost, and the disabled state of some of his boats, and of so many of his followers, he felt that he could in no way be justified in attempting to continue the pursuit. An officer often shows his bravery and fitness for command as much by his discretion and by holding back as by pushing forward.

Hemming was just one of these men. If he thought a thing ought to be done, he did not stop to consider what others would say about it, he did it. He now ordered his party to collect, and having conveyed some of the lighter guns to the boats, and spiked and turned the others over into the mud, and set fire to what would burn in the fort, he ordered all hands to make preparations for embarking with the rescued slaves, as well as with four Spaniards, three of whom were wounded, and several negroes who had been captured. He had formed a plan which he hoped to carry out. Some time, however, was occupied in repairing two of the boats; one was so completely destroyed that he could not carry her off. Before all these arrangements were concluded and the party were prepared to embark, it was late in the day. Hemming wanted, by a show of retreating, to throw the slave-dealers and negroes off their guard; and then to make a sudden dash up the stream and to come upon them unawares, having previously sent down the river to the ships some of the boats with the captured slaves. The rest of the officers agreed to the plan as soon as he propounded it to them, and Murray and Adair were consoled at the thought of soon being able to return and attempt Jack's rescue. The state, however, of his wounded men, and the difficulty of navigating the river in the dark, compelled Hemming to bring up sooner than he had intended. A spot of high ground near the river which he thought might be easily defended induced him to land. Some bamboos and young trees were cut down to form a stockade, fires were lighted, sails were spread to form tents, and every preparation was made for passing the night.

"I only wish that Jack was here; he would enjoy this," observed Paddy to Alick. "I say, by hook or by crook, we must get him out of the hands of those ruffians. I've been turning the matter over in my mind, and I am resolved, if Mr Hemming does not think fit to go back and try and rescue Jack, that I will make the attempt myself. I could very soon black myself all over, and a nigger's costume will not take long to extemporise. I would soon frizzle up my hair, and with an old palm-leaf hat on the top of it, and my shirt with the tails hanging down, and tied round the waist by a piece of rope-yarn, I should look every inch of me a blackamoor."

"Capital," observed Murray; "I'll accompany you if we find better measures fail; but still I fear that we should run a great risk of being discovered by the blacks."

"Not a bit of it," answered Adair; "the very daring of the thing would throw them off their guard. They would never expect that two white people could so speedily turn themselves into niggers. Of course we must pretend to be dumb: though we can talk first-rate nigger gibberish in the berth, it won't pass current, I fear, among the natives of these parts."

"Not very likely. However, your idea of pretending to be dumb is good. I think I had better pretend to be an idiot," answered Murray. "But the question is, who will they take us for? where do you fancy they will think we have come from? My idea is that we should rather try and find where Jack is, without falling foul of any of the natives. I want to set off directly it is dark, clamber up the hill where we saw him last, and cut him out. It is to be done, I am certain, and Jack is well worth all the risk we should have to run."

"That he is," exclaimed Adair warmly. "There's nothing I wouldn't do for him, and I'm sure he would do anything for us."

The subject was fully discussed, and then the midshipmen went to Hemming, and asked leave to put their plan into execution. Hemming might on another occasion have been inclined to laugh at the proposal, but he was too anxious to get Jack out of the slavers' power, for he felt his hands tied somewhat with the fear of what the blacks might do to the midshipman should he attack their town. He was, therefore, ready to try any plan, however desperate, to recover Rogers. Having obtained the leave they wanted to put their plan into execution, Murray and Adair set to work to devise the details. As they could only hope to carry out their scheme at night, they agreed that they need not be very particular as to the correctness of their masquerade. There was no time to get any dye, but burnt cork well rubbed in with oil they agreed would answer the purpose. It was too late, however, to take any active steps that night. It was settled that the next morning the flotilla, with some parade, should proceed down the river, while they, with Dick Needham and a picked crew, should lie hid in the smallest boat till dusk the next evening; then they were to land and try and find out where Jack was.

Once discovering the locality of his prison, they fully believed that they could, as they called it, "cut him out as easily as many a rich Spanish galleon has in days of yore been cut out from an enemy's fort, even though protected by the guns of the fort."

The night passed away quietly. The party had expected an attack from the slave-dealers, but these gentry had received a sufficient notice of the warm reception they were likely to encounter, not to make the attempt. In the naming, however, Murray, who had the lookout while the rest were preparing to strike their tents, observed a party approaching with a white flag. He reported what he had seen to Lieutenant Hemming.

"The impudent scoundrels," he exclaimed; "no flag of truce ought to shelter them. However, while poor Rogers is in their power we must treat with them as we best can."

The party soon arrived at the temporary encampment. The most prominent person was the burly negro who had introduced himself down the river as a pilot, and there was a Spaniard and several blacks. The big negro was spokesman, as he professed to know more English than any of the rest. Hemming received them in a very haughty way.

"What is it you want? Have you come to excuse yourselves for firing on my boats and killing my people?" he asked in a stern voice.

It was difficult to understand exactly what the negro said in return, but Hemming made out that he knew nothing about firing on the boats, as he had not been at the fort, but that he had been sent by the king of the country to demand back some prisoners who had been taken while defending the territories of the said king against an unlawful attack made on them by the English boats. Also, there were some Spanish cavaliers, his honoured allies, who must be likewise restored to liberty: there were some slaves too, who must be given up, or the king would visit the English with his intense displeasure.

The long rigmarole speech, of which this was the substance, would have made Hemming laugh on any other occasion. However, now he merely replied, "Listen. Tell the king, or whatever he calls himself, that the English are here to punish evil-doers, to set slaves at liberty, to put a stop to the slave-trade, to encourage commerce, and to prevent wars. If the people we have caught are found to be pirates, as such they will be hung. We keep no terms with people who, like him, support piracy and the slave-trade."

Hemming said something more to the same effect. The negro had, however, a last card to play, which he fancied would win the game.

"Ah, then, if you kill our people, the king says he will kill a little officer we have of yours. His life may not be worth much, but he shall die." The negro grinned horribly as he said this.

"If he does," exclaimed Hemming furiously, "tell the king that we will never rest till we have pulled him off his throne and his town about his ears, and burnt up all his country. Now you have got my answer. Go." Hemming wisely would not condescend to say another word after this. He knew pretty well how to treat such barbarians. The sable ambassador and his motley suite, finding that nothing more was to be got out of the English officer, took his departure. Scarcely had he gone, when a figure was seen to creep out from among some bushes in the neighbourhood. It proved to be the negro lad who had warned them of the black pilot's intended treachery. He ran forward and threw himself at Hemming's feet, showing every sign of delight at finding him again. Hemming at once thought of asking him about Jack. The very thing it proved he had come about. He had heard of him, had gone and discovered where he was shut up, and understood that his captors talked of killing him should any harm befall their people who had been taken prisoners.-- Hemming felt sure that he might be fully trusted, so did Murray and Adair. They therefore explained their plan to him, and asked him to assist them. This he at once joyfully undertook to do. Very little change in their plan was necessary. He agreed to act as their guide. They were to assume the character of slave boys belonging to a distant tribe whom he was conducting to his uncle, a chief of some influence in the country, and who was secretly favourable to the English. Wasser, the negro lad, assured them that he was very glad they had not ventured to make the attempt by themselves, as their detection would have been almost certain. Hemming delayed as long as he could before embarking, and he promised to wait for Murray and Adair some way down the river while they went on their expedition. Their boat, with Dick Needham, their new friend Wasser, and three other picked men, all well-armed, shoved off with the other boats, and soon darting in towards a sheltered nook, which they had before observed, lay as they believed perfectly concealed from all passers-by. Wasser, however, advised them to cut down boughs, and to fasten them in front of the boat. This they did, and, as Paddy observed, they could not desire to pass the day in a pleasanter way than in a shady bower with nothing to do and plenty to eat.

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