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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Three Midshipmen - Chapter 20. Slave-Hunting
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The Three Midshipmen - Chapter 20. Slave-Hunting Post by :Satish Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :2166

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The Three Midshipmen - Chapter 20. Slave-Hunting

CHAPTER TWENTY. SLAVE-HUNTING

The big schooner and the _Venus were soon hove-to, and while the two vessels were bowing and bobbing away at each other, a boat was lowered from the quarter of the former, which came dashing over the seas urged by four stout hands towards them. Jack Rogers sat in the stern-sheets. He sprang on board and grasped Alick's and Terence's hands. For nearly a minute he could not speak. He looked at one and then at the other.

"My dear fellows, you do look terribly pulled down," he exclaimed at length. "Still I am glad to see you even as you are. The truth is that it has been thought you were lost, when week after week passed and you did not appear. Many of them gave you up altogether, and thought that you and the schooner had gone to the bottom, but I never entirely lost heart. I couldn't have borne it if I had, and I was certain that you would turn up somewhere or other. What have you been about?" Their story was soon told. "That's just like you," cried Jack, again, wringing Murray's and then Paddy's hand. "You are right. A fellow should do anything rather than desert his colours. I am glad, indeed, that you've got safe through it. But, I say, the craft seems to be moving in a very uneasy way. What is the matter?"

"If we don't keep the pumps going, she'll be going down in a few minutes," put in Needham, touching his hat.

Jack called his crew out of the boat, and all hands set to work at the pumps. It was high time, for the crazy little craft was settling fast down in the water. Four fresh hands pumping away while the rest baled once more got the leaks under, and in a couple of hours, Jack returning on board his schooner, sail was made for Sierra Leone. The schooner was a prize lately captured by the _Ranger_, and Captain Lascelles had put Jack in charge of her to carry her up to Sierra Leone, while the frigate continued her cruise to the southward. He was to find his way back to his ship by the first man-of-war calling at the port. Jack wished very much that he could remain on board the _Venus_, to keep up, as he said, his friends' spirits, but as he had two or three hundred slaves on board his prize, he had to return to her to preserve order.

He promised, however, to stay by the _Venus_, come what might, and Alick and Paddy had no fear that he would desert them. He lent them a couple of hands to work at the pumps, but even with this assistance they had the greatest difficulty in keeping the schooner afloat.

"If another gale should spring up, I really do not think the craft would keep afloat an hour," exclaimed Adair, with a ruthful countenance, after he had been pumping away for an hour, till he was, as he said, like Niobe, all tears, or a water-nymph.

"Then we must let her sink," answered Alick, calmly. "We have done our best to keep her above water, though it would be hard to bear if, after all, we should be unable to carry her into Sierra Leone."

"Never fear, Alick," exclaimed Paddy, warmly. "As long as any of us have life in our bodies, we'll pump away, depend on that. If pumping can do it, we'll keep the old craft afloat."

Not the least anxious of the many anxious hours they had passed on board the _Venus were those they had now to endure. Jack Rogers, however, kept close to them, so that they had no fear about their lives. It was with no slight satisfaction, therefore, that at length they heard the cry from the foretopmast head of the _Felicidade_, Jack's prize, of "land ahead," and soon afterwards the high cape of Sierra Leone hove in sight. They ran up the river above five miles, when they came to an anchor off Freetown, the picturesque capital of the colony. It is backed by a line of lofty heights of different shapes and sizes, which are covered to their summits with trees, and add much to the beauty of the scenery, the Sugarloaf rising in the distance behind them. The river immediately in front of the town forms a bay, which affords good anchorage to vessels of all classes. The town rises with a gentle ascent from the banks of the river, and presents a very good appearance for nearly a mile long, and the streets are broad and intersect each other at right angles. The town is open to the river on the north, but on the east, south, and west it is hemmed in by the wood-crowned hills, which are about a mile or so from it, the intervening space being filled up with undulating ground, forming altogether a scene of great beauty. Here and there in the distance could be seen the palm-thatched roofs of the cottages, which form several villages scattered about on the sides of the hills, and all united by good roads.

"What a pleasant place this would be to live in if it wasn't for the yellow fever, and the coast fever, and a few other little disagreeables," observed Adair to Murray, as they stood on the deck of the _Venus waiting for Jack Rogers, who was coming to take them on shore. Meantime Needham and the rest of the crew were still hard at work at the pumps, to keep the craft afloat. The schooner's sails being stowed, Rogers was soon alongside. With no little satisfaction they stepped into his boat. Just as they were shoving off, Queerface, who had hitherto been looking over the side, chattering in the most voluble manner, made a spring and leaped in after them, and took his seat aft as if he thought himself one of them, as Paddy remarked. He looked about him in so comical a way that they all burst into fits of laughter, and when they tried to catch him to put him on board again, he leaped about so nimbly, that they were obliged to give up the chase and allow him to accompany them on shore.

"If Master Queerface was asked, I have not the slightest doubt but that he would say there were four of us in the boat now," said Paddy, laughing. "Just see what a conceited look the little chap puts on; eh, Master Queerface, you think yourself a very fine fellow now."

"Kack, kack, kack," went Queerface, looking about him in the most self-satisfied manner.

"Hillo, who comes here?" cried Jack, as the boat was nearing the shore. He pointed at the _Venus_, whence two large parrots were seen flying towards them.

"Those are my pets," exclaimed Murray, laughing. "We should in England be looked upon as the advertising members of some travelling menagerie."

When they got on shore Queerface walked alongside Paddy with the greatest gravity, except that he every now and then turned round to grin at the little negro boys who followed, making fun at him in a way he did not approve of. One of them, more daring than the rest, tried to tweak him by the tail, when he made chase in so heroic a manner that he put them all to flight. Meantime Polly and Nelly, the parrots, kept flying above their heads, and occasionally alighting to rest on Murray's shoulder. Sometimes for a change one of them would pitch on the head or back of Master Queerface, with whom they were on the most friendly terms. The dangers they had gone through together seemed to have united them closely in the bonds of unity. Thus the party proceeded till they reached the governor's house. They in vain tried to keep out Queerface and the parrots, but the governor, hearing the disturbance, desired that all hands should be admitted. He was highly amused at the pertinacity with which the parrots and monkey stuck to their masters, and still more interested with the account Murray and Adair gave of their voyage. Indeed, they gained, as they deserved, great credit for the way in which they had stuck to their vessel. All three midshipmen were treated with the greatest kindness by the residents at Freetown, so that they had a very pleasant time of it, and were in no hurry for the arrival of a vessel to carry them back to their ships. They made friends in all directions, both among the higher as well as among the less exalted grades of society; indeed, they were general favourites. Even Queerface and Polly and Nelly came in for some share of the favour they enjoyed, for although neither monkeys nor parrots can be said to be scarce in Africa, their talents were so great and of so versatile a character, that their society was welcomed almost, Adair declared, as much as that of their masters. Queerface more than once, however, got into disgrace. The three midshipmen were spending the day at the house of a kind old gentleman a short distance from the town. It was as cool and airy a place and as pleasant an abode as could be found under the burning sun of Africa, surrounded with broad verandahs, French windows, and Venetian blinds. The hour of dinner arrived, and all the family assembled in the dining-room, but Mr Wilkie, the host, did not make his appearance. They began to get anxious about him, and some of the ladies hurried off to call him, when at length he came up the room laughing heartily with a white night-cap on his head. "I must apologise, ladies and gentlemen," he said, "but the truth is, I wear a wig, a fact you are probably aware of; but while I was taking my siesta somebody came and took my wig away. Sambo and Julius Caesar and Ariadne have been hunting high and low and on every side without success, and what is extraordinary my dressing-gown disappeared at the same time. However, I hope that you will excuse me, for I thought it better to appear as I am than not at all; for, I confess it, I have but two wigs, and my other one has been left at the barber's to be refrizzled."

Some dreadful suspicions came over Paddy's mind when he heard this, and his fears were not allayed when he heard a loud chattering, and presently Queerface, with Polly and Nelly, appeared at the open window, the former with the missing wig on his head and the dressing-gown over his shoulders. In he popped, nothing daunted, and seeing an empty chair--the intended occupant had died of the coast fever that morning-- he squatted himself down in it, and began bowing and grinning away round to all the company.

Paddy began to scold him, but Queerface merely lifted a glass which stood near him and nodded his head at him in the most cool and impudent way, as much as to say, "We understand each other perfectly--we are both men of the world." Then he turned to the master of the house, and steadfastly looking at his white night-cap, adjusted the wig he had stolen in the most comical manner. Everybody present all the time was roaring with laughter, in which no one joined more heartily than did the master of the house.

"Come, come, Master Queerface, I want back my wig," he exclaimed, at last; "my wig, old fellow--my wig--ha--ha--ha!"

But not a bit of it. Queerface was evidently too much delighted with the ornament on his pate to think of abandoning it, and the more vehement were the signs Mr Wilkie made the tighter did he haul it down over his ears. As he sat up in a big chair, with the coloured dressing-gown over his shoulders, and the wig hanging down on each side of his head, Paddy declared that he looked exactly like a judge on the bench.

"Will you or will you not give me up my wig?" at length exclaimed the owner of it--but Queerface held it tighter than ever. "Take that, then!" cried Mr Wilkie, recollecting a well-known story of his youth, and seizing his white night-cap he flung it at Queerface. The monkey was not slow to imitate the example, but whipping off the wig, he threw it at the owner with one hand while he caught the white cap with the other, and soon his ugly mug was grinning with delight from under it. Mr Wilkie, having delivered over his wig to one of his negro servants to be brushed and cleansed, begged his guests and family to begin dinner. Adair and his brother midshipmen apologised for the behaviour of their companion, but he assured them that he would not have missed the fun on any account, and that his wig was not a bit the worse for having been worn by the monkey.

After dinner they strolled out to see a monkey bread-tree, the baobab, a huge monster which Mr Wilkie asserted was three or four thousand years old. It was not more than seventy feet high, but the stem was close upon thirty feet in diameter, with immensely long roots, while the boughs hung down to the ground, forming altogether a wonderful mass of verdure.

"A jolly abode for the monkeys," observed Adair. "I wonder whether my friend Queerface would like to take up his lodgings there, if I were to leave him on shore?"

Queerface seemed to understand the remark, and jumping up on Adair, showed no inclination to leave him. Murray had held up wonderfully during all the hardships he had undergone, and even after he came on shore he was able for some time to go about, but a few days after this the fever, which had been hovering about him, seized him. He would have had to go to the hospital, but Mr Wilkie sent a litter for him, and had him carried to his own house, and nursed him as if he had been his son. Jack and Terence went there every day, and assisted in nursing him, but for long he appeared to be hovering between life and death. Often his two messmates left him with sad and sorrowing hearts, believing that they might never see him again. At last he rallied, and seemed to be getting better. Now they longed for a ship, because they hoped that breathing again the pure sea air, unmixed with any exhalation from the land, might restore him. He was at last able to accompany them about the town.

Everybody will remember old Hobnail, the coloured boot and shoe-maker at Freetown. What a jolly, good-natured, genial-hearted man he was! Every naval officer was welcome at his shop, not because he wanted to make customers of them, for it seemed all the same to him whether they bought his boots and shoes, but really from his genuine kindliness of heart. He had a little room, cool and at the same time airy, with the last newspaper from England, and lemonade, or some other refreshing beverages, and not unfrequently a cigar of a quality rarely to be surpassed. Hobnail's shop, as may be supposed, was often visited by the three midshipmen. They were good customers too, for Murray and Adair had worn out their shoes before landing, and Jack very soon finished off his with walking about.

The first ship which looked into the river was the _Ranger herself, and as it was very important for Murray's health that he should get afloat, Captain Lascelles carried him off, as well as his own two midshipmen, with, of course, Queerface and the two parrots. The _Ranger went away to the southward, where she cruised without much success. Those only who have been long on the coast know what dreary work it often is, how homesick many poor fellows become, how easily, when the coast fever gets hold of them, the destroyer gains the victory. They had been some two or three weeks at sea, when a man-of-war schooner fell in with them, and handed a letter-bag from England, with some letters from Sierra Leone. Murray got several. One from the latter place. It was from no less a person than Mr Hobnail, who had taken a great fancy to him. It ran as follows:--

"Honoured and respected Sir,--You are a member of that profession which I deem the noblest and most praiseworthy of any in which man is employed, and more especially that branch of it which is engaged, like that of the squadron on this coast, in relieving suffering humanity, and thus I feel a great satisfaction in the privilege I enjoy of inditing a few lines to make inquiries respecting you. I trust, dear sir, that you may now be enjoying that _seabreezetical health which a residence on the bounding billows of the free ocean is calculated to bestow. May you soon again return to this truly charming and delectable, though much and unjustly abused town, when I may again have the pleasure of holding those agreeable conversations on subjects of interest which have formed the solace of many hours which might otherwise have been spent in the society of ungenial spirits, whose base-born spirits cannot soar to those exalted heights of poetical sentiment in which I, it must be confessed, with due humbleness, delight to roam. Hoping soon to receive a response congenial to my heart, no more at present from your attached friend, if I may take the liberty of so calling myself,

"Peter Hobnail."

The worthy shoe-maker's epistle caused great amusement in the midshipmen's berth, and Murray lost no time in replying to it in a strain which he hoped would be congenial to Mr Hobnail's heart. The ship was some way to the southward, and had stood in for the land at a place called Elephant Bay. The boats were sent on shore to bring off water, the weather being fine, and the state of the surf allowing of a landing. Paddy and one of the assistant-surgeons were in one boat. While the casks were being filled, they came to a shallow pool, where the medico discovered a quantity of leeches.

"These will be most welcome on board," he exclaimed. "We have been out of them for some time, and Dr McCan will be most thankful for a supply."

Paddy had been carrying a jar for Frazer, the assistant-surgeon, for the purpose of holding any aquatic specimens of natural history they might fall in with. They were all now turned out, and the jar filled with leeches. They had got further than they intended, and when they returned to the beach they found all the boats gone, and only one canoe manned with Kroomen left to bring them off. The surf had in the meantime got up; however, the canoe was as well able to pass through it as any of the other boats.

"We must not run the risk of losing the leeches," observed Paddy. "I will fasten the jar with a lanyard round my neck, and then, if the canoe is capsized, that will be saved at all events, as we can easily scramble into her again."

This was done, and into the surf the canoe was launched. She breasted the rising seas bravely, for she was very light, and her black crew handled her beautifully. Both Adair and Frazer thought the last rollers passed, and were congratulating themselves on being certain to get on board without a ducking, when unexpectedly a white-topped sea rose directly upon them, and in a moment they found themselves rolled over into the water. They clung to the canoe, and the black crew swam round her, and striking out before they attempted to right her, towed her away entirely from the influence of the breakers. Paddy and Frazer had some unpleasant misgivings about sharks, but the blacks shouted and shrieked so loudly, that if there were any they were kept at a distance. They were soon, however, again seated in the canoe; and as the frigate had stood in to meet them, it was not long before they were close to her.

"I say, doctor, I feel some rather unpleasant sensations about my neck," observed Paddy. "I can't help thinking that some nettle-fish must have got hold of me in the water. I feel the stinging all over me, right down my breast. What can it be?"

"Bear a hand there and get that canoe up alongside," sang out the officer of the watch from the deck of the frigate.

The order was speedily obeyed, and the dripping officers and black crew were soon standing on the deck.

"Hillo, Paddy, why what's the matter with you?" exclaimed Jack, who had been watching the canoe, "you are all streaming with blood."

"It's a jelly-fish got hold of me, I conclude," answered Paddy; but looking down he saw the jar into which he had put the leeches dangling at his neck, but the cork was out, so were the leeches, and they, of course, had fixed themselves to the first body with which they had come in contact. This was Paddy's neck. They had just now begun to drop off, and streamlets of blood were running down from him in every direction. Poor Paddy was indeed a most pitiable object, with his hair all lank and wet hanging down his face, for he had lost his hat, and he had on only a linen jacket over his flannel shirt, inside of which some of the greedy leeches had crawled, while the rest hung round his neck and throat, their black bodies quickly swelling out and looking like so many pendants of polished ebony.

No sooner did Queerface, who happened to be up the rigging sunning himself, recognise his master, than down on deck he scuttled and hurried up to him. He seemed very much astonished at the look of the leeches, and evidently could not make out what they were. Adair held out his hand, when up he jumped, and thrusting his paw down his shirt pulled out a leech which had not yet fixed itself. The monkey's first impulse was to put it to his nose, towards which the creature made a twist and fixed itself firmly. Poor Queerface opened his paw, and not knowing what had happened, off he scuttled again up the rigging with the leech hanging to his nose, and apparently not liking the feel of it, he had not the courage to pull it off till it dropped off itself on the deck. Everybody laughed, so did Adair, in spite of the pain and annoyance he was suffering.

"A pretty sort of a necklace for a nice young Irish gentleman of polite manners and respectable connexions," he exclaimed, still laughing away. "But I say, doctor, do bear a hand and get these brutes off me, for they are becoming remarkably troublesome."

"That I will, my boy," answered Dr McCan, to whom he had spoken. "You are suffering in my service, and I am bound to do my best for you."

The doctor at once got Adair below, and by applying salt to the tails of the leeches made them let go. And then a little cooling ointment set him all to rights, while the bleeding did him no particular harm. It was many a day, however, before he got rid of the marks of the bites.

As the appearance of the frigate off the coast put all the slave-dealers on the alert, Captain Lascelles adopted a plan which has frequently been successful. Standing in-shore, he would suddenly make all sail away, either to the northward or southward, as if in chase of some vessel, and then when the ship could no longer be seen from the land he would heave-to and send the boats in-shore, when very frequently they would pounce upon slave-vessels totally unsuspicious of their presence. While the boats were on shore watering, Hemming had with a few hands walked along the coast and ascertained that a number of blacks, prisoners-of-war they were called, were collected in the neighbourhood, and there could be no doubt that a vessel would soon be coming to take them off. Accordingly the usual ruse was put in practice, and the pinnace, under the command of Hemming, with Jack Rogers and Adair, left the ship to watch for her. Murray was still too unwell to engage in any such duty. They left the ship in the evening, so that it was dark by the time they neared the land. Hemming had fixed upon a spot among some high rocks where the boat might remain completely concealed either from people on the shore or from any one afloat. The only difficulty was finding the way into it among the rocks at night, still he hoped to effect that. There was a slight crescent moon, which shone on the calm waters and showed the white sandy breach and the tall wide-topped palm-trees rising up against the clear sky. There hung also over the land a slight gauze-like mist, which somewhat distorted objects. They rowed steadily on with muffled oars, making as little splash as possible.

"Starboard a little," said Hemming to Jack, who was steering. "I think that I can make out the opening I want to find; yes, that's it, I'm sure." In a few minutes the boat glided in between high ocean-worn rocks, round from the waves of the Atlantic dashing against them for thousands of years past. A grapnel was hove on to the rocks, and there she lay as snug as any on board could desire. The boat was furnished with a little stove for cooking, and they had a good supply of eatables and drinkables on board, the latter being, however, more in the shape of tea, coffee, and cocoa, than spirits. Having supped, all hands turned in to sleep except two, an officer and man, who sat up to keep watch. Jack, Adair, and Hemming succeeded each other, but though they kept their ears open not a sound could they hear to indicate the approach of any vessel. At length the sun rose, but Hemming determined to remain where he was all day, hoping that, should a breeze spring up, the looked-for slaver might make her appearance. Hour after hour passed pleasantly enough, however, for they had no lack of provisions, and books, and chess, and games for the men. Captain Lascelles thought that his seamen, wearing out their days under the broiling sun of Africa, required being amused just as much as the gallant fellows who have been shut up for many dreary months amid the snow and ice of the Arctic regions. The consequence of his care in that and in a variety of other ways, was that he lost fewer men than any other ship on the station.

At last Jack suggested that it might be possible to make a lookout place from the top of one of the rocks. He first ordered the men to cut a quantity of seaweed and to tie it up in bundles, and then getting on to one of the rocks he crawled along on hands and knees till he reached the outer edge, when he found a cleft which exactly answered his wishes. Hauling up the bundles of seaweed, he placed them before him, so that he could look out without being seen himself. Without much difficulty he could crawl backwards and forwards to it from the boat. He had gone several times, when at length, early in the afternoon, he made out a sail in the offing. He watched her eagerly through his glass. She was a felucca, and as she drew near he made her out to be a large vessel for her rig, and a most rakish, wicked-looking craft. Her very appearance made him certain that she was engaged in no lawful calling. At last, when he saw her stand into the bay and drop her anchor, he hurried back to give the information to Hemming. Jack was for dashing out at once and capturing her, but his more cautious superior shook his head; "No, no, my boy, wait till she has got all her slaves on board and then we'll have her and them too." The boat, therefore, remained snugly hid. During daylight Jack kept crawling up to his lookout place to see what was going forward. At last he came back reporting that a raft had come off from the shore loaded with slaves, and that they were being shipped on board the felucca.

"All right," observed Hemming, "it will take some time before they get their whole cargo on board, then we'll be up and at them."

"Does it not strike you that they are a long time getting the slaves on board?" said Jack at last to his superior.

"Why, yes, they are somewhat; but it is extraordinary how many poor wretches they will stow away between decks in those small crafts; but they take some time packing," answered Hemming, in a whisper. "Probably too the raft is small and does not carry many at a time." They waited some time longer till the former sounds continued, which showed that the raft was still going backwards and forwards.

"I cannot make it out," muttered Hemming; "the villains are a long time about their work. They little dream that we are close to them, or they would be rather smarter about it."

Some time longer passed, and then Jack proposed returning to his lookout place, to try and make out what was occurring. It was no easy undertaking, scrambling along over the slippery rocks in the dark, with a chance, if he lost his hold, of a tumble into some dark deep pool, or of getting jammed in some crevice, or perhaps being caught by some prowling ground shark or other monster of the ocean. However, he reached the point as which he aimed, but he had not been there a minute before he heard that peculiar sound of heavy blocks working, _cheep, cheep, cheep_. He made out clearly the tall pointed lateen sails of the felucca rising from her decks, and then the sound of the windlass working reached his ears; while a breeze, not felt below and every moment increasing, fanned his cheeks. He hurried back as fast as he could to the boat. As he sprang on board, he exclaimed, "The felucca is under weigh, and there's a breeze off the land."

In a moment the crew threw up their oars, the boat was shoved off from the rocks, and emerging from their hiding-place, away she started in chase of the slaver.

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