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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesJames Braithwaite, The Supercargo - Chapter 9. Life On The Island
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James Braithwaite, The Supercargo - Chapter 9. Life On The Island Post by :spearce000 Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :2741

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James Braithwaite, The Supercargo - Chapter 9. Life On The Island

CHAPTER NINE. LIFE ON THE ISLAND

When we got sufficiently near the beach to distinguish objects, we saw the captain standing with a pistol in his hand, which was pointed at the mate, who held a long knife in his hand, with which he was about, it seemed, to make a rush at his opponent, while three or four men had arranged themselves on either side, and were nourishing various weapons. The shots we heard told us that they had already fired at each other several times, but were too tipsy to take a steady aim. One man, however, lay wounded on the ground, and from the gestures of the mate, he would in another instant plunge his knife in the bosom of the captain, unless stopped by the latter's bullet.

"You knock up the skipper's arm, while I seize the other fellow," exclaimed O'Carroll to me, springing forward.

I did as he bid me; he ran a great risk of being shot. The mate turned on O'Carroll with an oath, and the captain snapped his pistol at me, but fortunately he had already discharged it, and in another instant I brought him, as he attempted to grapple with me, to the ground. O'Carroll had mastered the mate, and the other men stood staring at us, but offering no opposition. "Is this the way for men to behave who have just been saved from death, to make yourselves worse than the brute beasts? This--this is the cause of it!" exclaimed O'Carroll, kicking a cask from which a stream of spirit was even then running out. "It would have been no loss to us if you had killed each other, but we could not see our fellow-creatures perish without trying to save them."

The bold and determined tone in which O'Carroll spoke, aided by the arrival of the rest of our friends, had such an effect on the seamen, that those who were still able to move slunk away to a distance, while the captain and his mate, when we let them go, sat down helplessly on the sand, forgetting entirely their quarrel and its cause. There they sat, laughing stupidly at each other, as if the affair had been a good joke. While O'Carroll was emptying the rum cask, which it appeared had been washed on shore and secreted by the captain, his men went to the wounded man. He did not speak: he seemed scarcely to breathe. I took his hand: it was already cold. All this time he had been bleeding to death: an artery had been shot through. We did our best in the dark to bind up the wound and stop the bleeding; the spirit which might have kept his heart beating till nature, in her laboratory, had formed more blood, was gone; indeed, probably in his then condition it would not have had its due effect. The wretched man's breath came fainter and fainter. There was no restorative that we could think of to be procured. We lifted him up to carry him to the camp, but before we had gone many paces, we found that we were bearing a corpse.

"That man has been murdered," exclaimed O'Carroll, turning to the captain. "By whose hand the shot was fired which killed him I know not, but I do know that his blood is on the head of the man who ought to have set a good example to his inferiors, and prevented them from broaching the cask they had found."

Whether this address had any good effect we could not tell, but hoping that the men would remain quiet and sleep off the effect of their debauch, we returned to our tent, leaving the body on the ground. The next morning we returned to the beach. The captain and his drunken companions still lay on the sand asleep. They were out of the reach of the sea, but the hot rays of the rapidly rising sun, which were striking down on their unprotected heads, would, I saw, soon give them brain fever or kill them outright, if they were to be left long exposed to their influence. I therefore proposed that we should rouse them up, and advise them to go and lie down in the shade of some shrubs and rocks at a little distance.

"Before we do so, we'll take away their weapons, and at all events make it more difficult for them to do mischief to us or to themselves," said O'Carroll. Some of the men grumbled on being disturbed, as we turned them round to take away their knives. We left the unloaded pistols, which, as they had no powder, could do little harm. Having taken their arms to our tents, we returned and awoke them, not without difficulty, by shaking them and shouting in their ears. One after the other they got up, lazily rubbing their eyes and stretching themselves, and staring stupidly about them. The captain was one of the last to come to his senses. He started when he saw the dead body of his companion.

"Who killed that man?" he exclaimed, in an anxious tone.

"You did, most probably," answered O'Carroll. "We heard shots fired and found the man dead."

The captain felt in his pocket, and drew out a pistol with the hammer down: it had been discharged. "Then I am a murderer!" he exclaimed, in a tone of horror, his countenance expressing his feelings. "It wanted but that to make up the measure of my crimes."

"It is but too true, I fear," said O'Carroll.

"Yes, too true, too true!" cried the captain, rushing off towards the sea, into which he would have thrown himself, had not O'Carroll, William, and I held him back. It was some time before we could calm him sufficiently to leave him alone. He then went and sat down in the shade at a little distance from his companions, who looked on at him with dull apathy, while he gave way to the feelings which the prickings of his awakened conscience had produced. How he and the mate had got possessed of the pistols we could not guess, till we found the chest of one of the emigrants, a young man, broken open, and from this they had helped themselves. One of them soon after came for a spade which had been landed, and we saw them hurriedly bury the corpse, as if eager to get the silent witness of their crime out of sight. For the remainder of the day they were perfectly quiet, the mate coming humbly when the provisions were served out to ask for their share; still we could not trust them, as we knew that if they could get at more liquor, they would very quickly again be drunk. In the evening, indeed, they were seen walking along the beach, evidently watching for the chance of another cask being washed on shore. They did not find one, however, and the next morning were excessively sulky, keeping together and evidently plotting mischief. They, with the rest of us, were aroused, however, soon after breakfast by the appearance of a sail in the offing. The more sanguine at once declared that she was standing towards us, and that our fears regarding a prolonged stay on the island were groundless; others thought that she would pass by and leave us to our fate. Every spyglass was in requisition, and numerous were the surmises as to the character and nationality of the stranger.

"What if she is an enemy?" observed William.

"She will not find much plunder, at all events," answered Trundle. "There is nothing like being at the bottom of the hill, so that you cannot be kicked lower."

"Even an enemy would respect our condition," remarked O'Carroll; "we have nothing to fear from one, I should hope."

"No, but an enemy would leave us where we are: a friend would carry us away, or send us assistance," said I. It was dinner-time, and Jacotot had prepared our messes with his usual skill; but so eager were the people watching the approaching stranger, that the food was scarcely touched, except by the children, who of course little knew how much depended on her character. At length there was no doubt that she was standing for the island, and the exhibitions of joy and satisfaction became general among the unfortunate emigrants. They would now be able to leave the island and reach their land of promise; every countenance beamed brightly except O'Carroll's. After some time I saw his fall. It gained a more and more anxious look. He scarcely withdrew the glass from his eye.

"What do you make her out to be, O'Carroll?" I asked.

"Braithwaite, as I am a living man, she's the _Mignonne_," he answered, in a hoarse voice, his countenance still further showing the agitation of his mind: "if that villain La Roche gets hold of me again, he'll not let me escape with my life. And these poor emigrants to have his lawless crew come among them,--it will be terrible; better rather that they had all gone to the bottom in their ill-fated ship with their drunken captain."

Notwithstanding O'Carroll's opinion, I doubted whether the stranger was the _Mignonne_, for she was still too far off, I thought, for him to be certain on the subject. I therefore tried to tranquillise his mind, wondering that a man so brave, and cool, and collected, as he generally was, should have such a dread of the French captain.

"I tell you yonder vessel is the _Mignonne_, and if you had been treated as I was, and had witnessed the scenes I saw enacted on board, you would not have a less horror of La Roche and his scoundrel crew than I have. My reason does not help me; I cannot think of that man without trembling."

I understood him, for I have myself been affected in the same way with regard to one or two people who have done me some injury, or would, I have had reason to believe, do me one should they have the opportunity.

"The only way to escape the pirates is to remain concealed while they are passing," he observed. "As there is no harbour here, and there are no signs of them having been here, they will, in all probability, go to the other side of the island, and we may escape them."

As I still further examined the stranger I began to fear that O'Carroll was right in his conjectures, and I therefore agreed to assist him in trying to persuade the rest of the people to hide themselves till the privateer was out of sight. The emigrants, frightened out of their wits by the account O'Carroll gave of the privateer's men, were ready enough to do as he advised, and began running here and there, not knowing where to hide themselves. We advised them simply to pull down the tent, to put out the fire, and to sit quiet among the rocks and shrubs till the ship had passed.

We then went on to see the captain and his men. As we got in sight of where they were, we saw that they had already got up a spar, which had been washed on shore, and were in the act of hoisting a man's shirt to the top of it in order to attract the attention of the stranger. On this O'Carroll shouted out to them in no very gentle tones, "Fools! idiots! what are you about? would you bring an enemy on shore to murder us?" I then told them the character of the vessel in sight. "What's that to us?" answered one of the men. "All masters are much the same to us; they'll use us while they want us, and cast us adrift when they've done with us. Whether French or Spaniards, they'll not harm us. They'll have liquor aboard, and that is what we shan't have as long as we remain here."

It was useless attempting to argue with such men. I turned to the captain. He had lost all authority over his people, who treated him as an equal, or rather as an inferior. He shrugged his shoulders and walked away without speaking. I saw that it was time, therefore, to interfere, and William and I, rushing forward, hauled down the signal, which one of the men was on the point of hoisting. "If you are willing to become slaves, we are not!" I exclaimed, in a determined tone, seizing the halliards and hauling down the signal. The men threatened, but as they had no arms, and we were firm, they did not attempt to prevent us from carrying off the spar.

The ship approached, and as she passed along the coast so that we had a broadside view of her, I had no longer any doubt that she was the _Mignonne_. I observed that even the seamen, notwithstanding their bravado, kept so far among the rocks, that unless the privateer's men had been especially examining the shore there was not much probability of our being discovered. We watched the vessel from the highest point of ground we could reach, and we conjectured that she must have touched at the other side of the island, concealed by an intervening ridge of elevated land. "If we are careful we shall escape all molestation from the privateer's men," I remarked, addressing the emigrants. "They are not likely to come to our part of the island."

It was curious to observe the change which had come over O'Carroll. He was no longer the bold and sagacious seaman, but an anxious, nervous, timid man. At night I frequently heard him crying out in his sleep, thinking that the dreaded La Roche was on him, and was about to carry him on board the privateer. As we could not do without a fire to obtain fresh water, we were compelled to light one, though we thus ran the risk, should any of the privateer's men wander into the country, of being discovered. Still that was a risk which must be run. It was curious, also, to observe the humble way in which, after a few hours, the seamen came to beg for a draught of the pure liquid. I was very glad of this, as I saw that it would enable us to exert an influence over them and to keep them in order. The wretched captain held out for some time, but at last came, with parched lips and bloodshot eyes, entreating even for a few drops of the precious fluid to cool the tip of his tongue. It raised our pity to see how the wretched man suffered, physically and mentally, and all the time without hope. In vain I urged him to seek for mercy as a penitent. "Impossible! impossible!" he exclaimed, with a wild laugh. "You do not know what I have done, what I am doomed to do." And tearing himself away from me, he rushed off, and was hid from sight among the rocks and bushes. Day after day passed by, and we kept anxiously hoping that the privateer would take her departure. It was suggested that if she came to the island to refit, the Frenchman might possibly have a storehouse, with boats, perhaps, or means of building one, and that we might thus be assisted to make our escape. At last, so long a time had elapsed since her arrival, that we began to fancy that she had gone out of harbour during a moonlight night, and reached the offing without our perceiving her. To settle the point, William and Trundle volunteered to reconnoitre, and I, afraid that they might venture too far, resolved to go with them. We fixed on that very afternoon to start, our intention being to get as close to the harbour as we could before dark, and then to rest till the moon rose and afforded us light.

"I hope that you'll have success, but it is a dangerous work you are going on, young gentlemen," observed one of the emigrants, a Mr Peter Lacy, or Lazy, as he was generally called, for it was most difficult to arouse him to any exertion.

"Never fear, Mr Lazy, danger is a sweet nut we midshipmen are fond of cracking to get at the kernel--honour. We shall be back all safe before morning, and able to give a satisfactory report."

In good spirits we set off, for a considerable part of the distance keeping along the shore, to avoid the tangled bush and rocks of the interior. As, however, we approached the harbour, or rather the place where we supposed the harbour to be, we left the beach and kept a more inland course, taking advantage of all the cover we could find to conceal ourselves. At last the sun went down and it quickly grew dark, so we called a halt, and ate some of our provisions with a good appetite. We listened attentively, but could hear no sound, so we agreed to push on directly the moon got up. As we did not speak above a whisper, a very soporiferous proceeding, I was not surprised that both Toby and William fell asleep. It was more necessary, therefore, that I should keep my eyes and ears open. At last I saw what looked like the illuminated dome of some vast cathedral slowly emerge from the dark line of the horizon; up it rose, till it assumed a globe-like form, and appeared to decrease in size, while it cast a bright silvery light over the hitherto obscured landscape. I roused up the two midshipmen, who were sleeping as soundly as if they had been in their hammocks. We worked our way onward among tangled underwood, not without sundry scratches and inconvenient rents in our clothing, till we reached a hill, up which we climbed. From the top we looked down, as we had expected to do, on the harbour. Below us lay the _Mignonne_, or a ship very like her; her sails were loose and bulging out with the land breeze, while from the sounds which reached us it was evident that her crew were heaving up the anchor preparatory to sailing; boats were moving backwards and forwards over the surface of the calm water of the harbour, on which the moon shone with a refulgence which enabled us to see all that was taking place. The anchor was shipped, the sails were sheeted home, and the privateer slowly glided out of the harbour on her errand of mischief; two, if not more, boats returned to the shore fully manned. Farther up the harbour lay three large hulks, with their lower masts only standing; they were high out of the water, showing that they had no cargoes in them. There were also several smaller craft, but all were dismantled, and looked as if they had been there for some time. The French, then, had a settlement on the island. The inhabitants were sure to be armed, and probably were as numerous as our party. If so, it would be unwise to attempt gaining anything by force, though of course we might surprise them. We waited till the people in the boats had had time to turn in and go to sleep, and then descended to reconnoitre the place more nearly. We crept cautiously on till we reached several scattered cottages, or huts rather, built, without any regularity, as the nature of the ground seemed most suitable. There were also two or three storehouses close to the water; indeed, we saw enough to show us that there was a regular settlement made by the French for the purpose of refitting their ships. The barking of several poodles in the cottages made us afraid of moving about much, lest their inmates should look out and discover us. We therefore retraced our steps to the hill.

"A magnificent idea," exclaimed Trundle, as soon as we called a halt. "We'll surprise and capture the place and hold it for the King of England. You'll be made governor, Braithwaite, to a certainty."

"To be turned out by the first French privateer which enters the harbour--to be thrown into prison and perhaps shot. Thank you," said I, "I would rather not."

"This establishment solves a mystery," observed William. "We have often been puzzled to know what has become of vessels which have disappeared, and which, from the fineness of the weather, and for other reasons, we did not suppose had been lost. We should do good service if we could get away without being discovered, and send some of our cruisers to watch in the neighbourhood."

I agreed with William; at the same time the idea of capturing the place was very attractive. If we should make the attempt and succeed, however, we should find liquor there, and the seamen would certainly get drunk and mutinous. No object would be gained, either, unless we could immediately send a vessel to sea, to give notice at the Mauritius of our success and obtain assistance. Discussions on these points occupied us till daylight, when we recommenced our journey to the tents. The news we brought was so far satisfactory to our companions, that we were not likely to be starved to death, and as peace would come some day or other, we might then hope to make our escape. No one, however, seemed at all desirous of attacking the French settlement; the risk was considerable, the gain problematical. It was finally agreed that we should remain quiet where we were, and only in case of extremity make ourselves known to our foreign neighbours. The more energetic of the party became, as may be supposed, very impatient of the inactive life we were compelled to lead. We could do little else than fish all day, and make expeditions in search of water. In this we were at last successful; the spring was more than a mile away, and it became a question whether we should move our camp there, the objection to our so doing being that it was so much nearer the French settlement. The next morning, on going near the spot where the captain and his companions had erected their tent, I saw no one moving. I called to them. There was no reply. I went to the tent. It was empty! It was supposed that they had gone to the newly-discovered spring, but those who had gone to bring water from it told us that they were not there. While we were wondering what had become of the men, as William happened to be sweeping the horizon with his telescope, he cried out that he saw a sail in the offing. In a short time afterwards another was descried, her topsails gradually rising out of the water. She was pronounced to be larger than the first which had appeared.

"It is that scoundrel La Roche again!" exclaimed O'Carroll, after eyeing the nearest stranger for some time. "I knew that it would not be long before he would be back again, and there he comes with a big prize, depend on it."

"But suppose, instead of the big ship being his prize, he has been captured by one of our cruisers, and has been sent in first to show the way?" I suggested.

"No, no, the headmost craft is the _Mignonne_, and the big one is an Indiaman, her prize, depend on that," said O'Carroll.

There seemed every probability that he was right, but this did not increase our satisfaction. The only thing that could be said was that we should now have companions in our misfortune. As may be supposed, however, we watched the approach of the two ships with the greatest interest, feeling assured that in some way or other they would have a considerable influence on our fate.

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