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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWe And The World: A Book For Boys - Part 2 - Chapter 12
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We And The World: A Book For Boys - Part 2 - Chapter 12 Post by :tinabarr4 Category :Long Stories Author :Juliana Horatia Ewing Date :May 2012 Read :795

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We And The World: A Book For Boys - Part 2 - Chapter 12

PART II CHAPTER XII

"Be stirring as the time; be fire with fire;
... so shall inferior eyes,
That borrow their behaviours from the great,
Grow great by your example, and put on
The dauntless spirit of resolution."

King John, V. i.


"Creaky doors" are said to "hang long," and leaky ships may enjoy a similar longevity. It certainly was a curious fact that the _Water-Lily hardly suffered in that storm, though the damage done to shipping was very great. Big and little, men-of-war and merchantmen, very few escaped scot-free, and some dragged their anchors and were either on the reef in the harbour, or ran foul of one another.

Repairs were the order of the day, but we managed to get ours done and to proceed on our voyage, with very little extra delay.

I cannot say it was a pleasant cruise, though it brought unexpected promotion to one of the Shamrock three. In this wise:

The mate was a wicked brute, neither more nor less. I do not want to get into the sailor fashion of using strong terms about trifles, but to call him less than wicked would be to insult goodness, and if brutality makes a brute, he was brute enough in all conscience! Being short-handed at Bermuda, we had shipped a wretched little cabin-boy of Portuguese extraction, who was a native of Demerara, and glad to work his passage there, and the mate's systematic ill-treatment of this poor lad was not less of a torture to us than to Pedro himself, so agonizing was it to see, and not dare to interfere; all we could do was to aid him to the best of our power on the sly.

The captain, though a sneaking, unprincipled kind of man, was neither so brutal nor, unfortunately, so good a seaman as the mate; and the consequence of this was, that the mate was practically the master, and indulged his Snuffy-like passion for cruelty with impunity, and with a double edge. For, as he was well aware, in ill-treating Pedro he made us suffer, and we were all helpless alike.

His hold over the captain was not from superior seamanship alone. The _Water-Lily was nominally a "temperance" vessel, but in our case this only meant that no rum was issued to the crew. In the captain's cabin there was plenty of "liquor," and the captain occasionally got drunk, and each time that he did so, the influence of the mate seemed riveted firmer than before. Crews are often divided in their allegiance, but the crew of the _Water-Lily were of one mind. From the oldest to the youngest we all detested the mate, and a natural manliness of feeling made us like the captain better than we ought otherwise have done, because (especially as regards the drinking) we considered his relations with the mate to be characterized by anything but "fair play." No love was really lost between them, and if the captain came on deck and took the lead, they were almost certain to quarrel (and none the less so, that _we rushed with alacrity to obey the captain's orders, whereas with the mate's it was all "dragging work," as nearly as we dare show unwillingness).

What led to the extraordinary scene I am about to relate, I do not quite know. I suppose a mixture of things. Alister's minute, unbroken study of what was now his profession, the "almost monotonous" (so Dennis said) perseverance with which he improved every opportunity, and absorbed all experience and information on the subject of seamanship, could hardly escape the notice of any intelligent captain. Our captain was not much of a seaman, but he was a cute trader, and knew "a good article" in any line. The Scotch boy was soon a better sailor than the mate, which will be the less surprising, when one remembers how few men in any trade give more than about a third of their real powers to their work--and Alister gave all his. This, and the knowledge that he was supported by the public opinion of a small but able-bodied crew, may have screwed the captain's courage to the sticking-point, or the mate may have pushed matters just too far; what happened was this:

The captain and the mate had a worse quarrel than usual, after which the mate rope's-ended poor Pedro till the lad lost consciousness, and whilst I was comforting him below, the brute fumed up and down deck like a hyena ("sight o' blood all same as drink to the likes of him," said Alfonso, "make he drunk for more")--and vented some of his rage in abuse of the captain, such as we had often heard, but which no one had ever ventured to report. On this occasion Alfonso did report it. As I have said, I only knew results.

At eight o'clock next morning all hands were called aft.

The captain was quite sober, and he made very short work of it. He told us briefly and plainly that the mate was mate no longer, and asked if we had any wish as to his successor, who would be chosen from the crew. We left the matter in his hands, as he probably expected, on which, beckoning to Alister, he said, "Then I select Alister Auchterlay. He has proved himself a good and careful seaman, and I believe you all like and trust him. I beg you to show this now by obeying him. And for the rest of the voyage remember that he is _Mister Auchterlay."

"Mr. Auchterlay" more than justified the captain's choice. His elevation made no change in our friendship, though the etiquette of the vessel kept us a good deal apart, and Dennis and I were all the "thicker" in consequence. Alister was not only absolutely loyal to his trust, but his gratitude never wearied of displaying itself in zeal. I often wondered how much of this the captain had foreseen. As Alfonso said, he was "good trader."

The latter part of the voyage was, in these altered circumstances, a holiday to what had gone before. The captain was never actually drunk again, and the _Water-Lily got to look clean, thanks largely to the way Pedro slaved at scraping, sweeping, swabbing, rubbing, and polishing, to please his new master. She was really in something like respectable harbour trim when we approached the coast of British Guiana.

Georgetown, so Alfonso told me, looks very odd from the sea. The first thing that strikes you being the tops of the trees, which seem to be growing out of the water; but as you get nearer you discover that this effect is produced by the low level of the land, which is protected from the sea by a sea-wall and embankment, I have no doubt Alfonso was right, but when the time came I forgot all about it, for it was not in ordinary circumstances that I first saw Georgetown.

It was one of those balmy, moonlit tropical nights of which I have spoken; but when we were within about an hour's sail of the mouth of the Demerara river, the sky ahead of us began to redden, as if the evening had forgotten itself and was going back to sunset. We made numberless suggestions, including that of a display of fireworks in our honour; but as the crimson spread and palpitated like an Aurora Borealis, and then shot up higher and flooded a large area of sky, Alister sang out "Fire!" and we all crowded forward in anxious curiosity.

As might be expected, Alfonso and Pedro were in a state of the wildest excitement. Alfonso, of course, thought of his lady-love, and would probably have collapsed into complete despair, but for the necessity of keeping up his spirits sufficiently to snub every suggestion made by the cabin-boy, whose rival familiarity with the topography of Georgetown he could by no means tolerate; whilst Pedro, though docile as a spaniel to us, despised Alfonso as only a half-caste can despise a negro somewhat blacker than himself, and burned for safe opportunities of displaying his superiority. But when Pedro expressed a somewhat contemptuous conviction that this glowing sky was the result of rubbish burning on plantations up the country, and skilfully introduced an allusion to relatives of his own who had some property in canefields, Alfonso's wrath became sublime.

"You no listen to dat trash ob cabin-boy," said he. "Wait a bit, and I'se find him dirty work below dat's fit for he. Keep him from troubling gentlemen like us wid him lies. Plantation? Yah! He make me sick. Tell you, me know Demerary well 'nuff. De town is in flames. Oh, my Georgiana!"

So much, indeed, was beyond doubt before long, and as the fire seemed perilously close to the wharves and shipping, the captain decided to lie off for the night. The thermometer in his cabin stood at ninety degrees, which perhaps accounted for his having no anxiety to go ashore; but, in spite of the heat, Dennis and I were wild to see what was going on, and when Alister called to us to help to lower the jolly-boat, and we found we were to accompany him, we were not dilatory with the necessary preparations, and were soon rapidly approaching the burning town.

It was a strange sight as we drew nearer and nearer. Before us, on the sea, there was a line where the cold silver of the moonshine met the lurid reflections of the fiery sky, and the same cool light and hot glow changed places over our cheeks as we turned our heads, and contrasted on the two sides of the sail of the jolly-boat. And then we got within earshot. A great fire is terrible to see, but it is almost more terrible to hear, and it is curious how like it is to the sound of great waters or a great wind. The roar, the hiss, the crackle, the pitiless approach--as Dennis said,

"I'll tell ye what it is, Jack. These elemental giants, when they do break loose from our service, have one note of defiance amongst them; and it's that awe-ful roar!"

When we stood in the street where the fire was, it was deafening, and it kept its own distinctness above all other noises; and with the fire-bells, the saving and losing of household goods, and the trampling and talking of the crowd, there were noises not a few. Dennis and I were together, for Alister had business to do, but he had given us leave to gratify our curiosity, adding a kindly warning to me to take care of myself, and keep "that feather-brained laddie," Dennis, out of danger's way. We had no difficulty in reaching the point of interest, for, ludicrous to say, the fire was in Water Street; that is, it was in the street running parallel with the river and the wharves, the main business street of Georgetown. We were soon in the thick of the crowd, protecting our eyes from the falling fragments of burning wood, and acquiring information. That heap of smoking embers--so we were told--was the big store where it first broke out; the house yonder, where the engines were squirting away, and the fire putting tongues of flame out of the windows at them, as if in derision, cost two thousand dollars--"Ah! there goes the roof!"

It fell in accordingly; and, in the sudden blaze of its destruction, I saw a man come riding along, before whom the people made way, and then some one pulled me back and said,

"The governor."

He stopped near us, and beckoned some one to his side.

"Is he coming?"

"He's here, sir;" and then into the vivid glare stepped a tall, graceful, and rather fantastical-looking young gentleman in a white jacket, and with a long fair moustache, who raised his hand with a quick salute, and then stood at the governor's stirrup.

"I know that fellow, I'm sure," said Dennis.

"Royal Engineers officer," said my neighbour. "Mark my words, that means gunpowder," and the good man, who was stout and steaming with perspiration, seemed to feel like one who has asked for a remedy for toothache and been answered by the dentist--"Gunpowder is what it means! And if our governor had sent for a cobbler, _he'd have said, 'Nothing like leather,' and mended the hose of the steam-pump. And that store of mine, sir, didn't cost a cent less than--"

But I was watching the engineer officer, and catching fragments of the rapid consultation.

"Quite inevitable, sir, in my opinion."

"Very good. You have full powers--instruct--colonel--magazine--do your best."

The engineer officer had very long white hands, which I noticed as one went rapidly to his forehead, whilst with the other he caressed the dark nose of the governor's horse, which had been rubbing its head against his shoulder. And then the governor rode away and left him.

The word "gunpowder" seemed to have brought soldiers to the spot in a sort of natural sequence. There was more quick saluting and short orders, and then all disappeared but one bronzed-looking sergeant, who followed the engineer stripling up and down as he jerked his head, and pulled his moustache, and seemed to have some design upon the gutters of the house-eaves, which took a good deal of explaining and saluting. Then we heard wheels and running footsteps, and I became sensible of great relief from the pressure of the crowd. The soldiers had come back again, running a hand-cart with four barrels of gunpowder, and the public made way for them even more respectfully than for the governor. As they set it down and wiped their faces, the sergeant began to give orders rather more authoritatively than his superior, and he also pointed to the gutters; on which the soldiers vanished as before.

"Can't we help, I wonder?" said I.

"That's just what I'm thinking," said Dennis, and he strode up to the officer. But he was busy with his subordinate.

"Well, sergeant?"

"Not a fuse in the place, sir."

"Pretty state of things! Get a hatchet."

"They sent one, sir."

"All right. This is the house."

"The roof _'as caught, you know, sir?"

"The less time to waste," was the reply, and the young man took up a barrel in his hands and walked in with it, kicking the door open with his foot. The sergeant must almost have trodden on his officer's heels, as he followed with the second, and before I could speak Dennis had shouldered the third.

"Here's diversion!" said he, and away he went.

There was the fourth barrel and there was I. I confess that I felt a twinge, but I followed the rest, and my barrel behaved as well as if it had been a cask of molasses, though the burning wood fell thickly over us all. As I groped my way in, the sergeant and Dennis came out, and by the time that they and some soldiers returned, dragging pieces of house-gutters after them, the fantastic young officer was pouring the gunpowder into a heap in the middle of the floor, by the light of a corner of the ceiling which was now on fire, and I was holding up a shutter, under his orders, to protect it from premature sparks. When he set down the barrel he shook some dirt from his fingers, and then pushing back his white shirt-sleeves from his wrists; he filled his joined hands as full with gunpowder as they would hold, and separating them very slightly let a tiny stream run out on to the floor as he walked backwards; and, as fast as this train was laid, the thin line was covered from falling embers by the gutters turned over it upside down. Through the room, down along a passage between two houses, and so into the street, where the crowd had more or less assembled again. Then the officer emptied his hands, dusted them together, and said, "Clear everybody out."

The sergeant saluted--"May I fire it, sir?"

"No, thank you, sergeant; clear everybody out." The sergeant was evidently disappointed, and vented this on the civilian public.--"_That_" said he, turning a blackened thumb over his shoulder, "is a 'eap of gunpowder. It's just a going to be hexploded." There was no need to "clear everybody out." _They went_. And we found ourselves alone with the soldiers, who were laughing, and saying that the crowd had taken a big cast-iron tank for the heap of gunpowder. We stood a little aside in obedience to a wave of the young officer's arm. Then he crossed the street to pick up a long piece of burning wood, and came back, the moonlight and the firelight playing by turns upon him.

I honestly confess that, fierce as the heat was, I turned cold. The experiences of the next few minutes were as follows: I saw the young engineer fire the train, and I heard a puff, and then I saw him fall, face downwards, behind the tank. I gave a cry, and started forward, and was brought up short by a back-hander on my chest from the sergeant. Then came a scrambling, rushing sound, which widened into a deep roar, shaking the ground beneath our feet, and then the big building at which we were gaping seemed to breathe out a monstrous sigh, and then it fell in, and tumbled to pieces, quietly, swiftly, and utterly, like a house of cards.

And the fantastic-looking young officer got up and shook himself, and worried the bits of charred wood out of his long yellow moustaches.

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