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Black Bar

George Manville Fenn

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  The Black Bar, by George Manville Fenn.


  HMS Nautilus is on patrol off the west coast of Africa, interceptingthe American slave ships that were trying at that time to purchasecargoes of slaves from the dealers, and then to take them across theAtlantic in loathsome conditions. Slavery had been abolished inBritish territories in 1772, many years before, and the British wereactively policing African waters in the hope of deterring the Americansand the Portuguese from retaining the slave trade.

  Nautilus has two midshipmen aboard, and one of these, Mark Vandean, isthe hero of the story. The book is in the usual Manville Fenn style,with a succession of dreadful situations in which the hero findshimself. "How ever does he extricate himself from this?" the reader iscontinually asking. Of course he does, but it is often by means ofsomething quite unexpected.

  A Black Bar is a device in heraldry, indicating that there is somethingshameful in the wearer's ancestry. NH





  "We've done wrong, Van. There'll be a jolly row about it."

  "Get out! What's the good of talking now? You were as ready to havehim as I was. Lie still, will you? or I'll pitch you overboard."

  Two middies talking in the stern-sheets of the cutter belonging to HerMajesty's fast little cruiser _Nautilus_, stationed on the west coast ofAfrica "blackberrying," so the men called their duty, Tom Fillot, one oftheir jokers, giving as the reason that the job was "black and berrynasty." The sun shone as it can shine in the neighbourhood of theequator, and the sea looked like so much glistening oil, as it slowlyheaved up and sank with the long ground swell, the light flashing fromthe surface attacking the eyes with blinding power, bronzing the facesof some, peeling the noses of others.

  Setting aside the smart crew of the cutter in their white duck shirtsand trousers and straw hats, with faces, necks, and hands of a mahoganybrown, the two speakers may be taken as fair samples of what the suncould do with a fresh-coloured English lad of sixteen or seventeen.Mark Vandean, who leaned back and had wrenched himself round to sharplyadjure something behind him in the bottom of the boat, was burned of agood warm Russian leather brown, while his companion, Bob Howlett, whoheld the rudder-lines, displayed in addition to ruddy brown cheeks anose in a most disreputable state of rag.

  The boat went swiftly through the water, as the men bent with regularstroke, and made the tough ash blades of their oars curve ere they roseand scattered the flashing drops, which seemed to brighten the scenewhere all was flat and monotonous, and the view contracted by a deadsilvery haze of heat. Behind them was the low flat shore with a fewscattered white houses and factories behind a rough landing-stage.There were palms of different kinds in a straggling line, and on eitherside of the opening out of a muddy river, a bordering of dingy greenmangroves--tree cripples, Mark Vandean called them, because they alllooked as if standing up on crutches. A few boats lay in the mouth ofthe river, a dissolute-looking brig with its yards unsquared was atanchor higher up, and a sharp eye could detect a figure or two about thebeach. On either side, as far as eye could reach, there was a line ofsurf.

  That was all shoreward, while out to sea, a couple of miles or so away,smart and business-like, with her tall spars and carefully squared yardsand rigging, cobweb-like in texture at that distance, lay at anchor inthe open road-stead HMS _Nautilus_ waiting to gather "blackberries" atthe first opportunity, and toward which smart little vessel the cutterwas being steadily propelled.

  The object ordered to lie still under pain of being pitched overboarddid not lie, but crouched a little lower, and increased the wrinkles inits deeply lined forehead, above which was a thin fringe of hair,blinked its wondering eyes, and looked piteously at the speaker.

  It was the face of an old man with enormous mouth pinched together, anddevoid of lips, but giving the idea that it was about to smile; nosethere was none, save a little puckering in its place, but as if to makeup for the want, the ears were largely developed, rounded, and stood outon either side in a pronounced fashion. For it was the most human ofall the apes, being a chimpanzee about as big as a sturdy two-year-oldboy.

  All at once the stroke oarsman ceased rowing, and began to wipe theperspiration from his open, good-humoured face.

  "Hullo!" shouted one of the middies, "what's that mean? Why are you notpulling?"

  "Beg pardon, sir; won't be none of me left to," said the man, "I'mtrickling all away. Like to put the new hand in my place?"

  "New hand?" said the other middy; "what do you mean?"

  "Gent as you have behind you there."

  Mark Vandean frowned, and drew himself up, tried to look severe as anofficer, but he was confronted by five grinning faces, and the mirth wascontagious; he smiled at the idea, and the men roared.

  "There, pull away, my lads, and let's get on board. This is no time forskylarking."

  The men bent to their oars again, and the boat answered to its name,cutting swiftly through the water towards the little man-o'-war.

  "But there will be a row about it, old fellow," whispered Bob Howlett.

  "Oh, very well then, they must row," said Mark Vandean pettishly."There's no harm in having a monkey onboard--if we can get it there."

  "Don't you be uneasy about that, Mr Vandean, sir," said the strokeoarsman; "me and my mates'll smuggle the young nigger gent aboardsomehow, even if I has to lend him my duds."

  "You leave off cutting jokes, Tom Fillot, and pull hard."

  "Ay, ay, sir," cried the man, chuckling, and he and his fellows made theboat skim through the glowing water.

  "Perhaps the letter is important," said the first middy, "and may meanbusiness at last."

  "I hope not," said the other. "I'm sick of it. Nothing but wild-goosechases after phantom ships. I don't believe there are any slavers onthe coast."

  "Oh, aren't there, Bob?"

  "Don't seem like it. Where are they, then; and why don't we catch 'em?"

  "I dunno."

  "Fancy going off again to-night sneaking down to another of these riversall among the mosquitoes and fever mists. Ugh! If I'd known, youwouldn't have caught me coming to sea."

  "Oh, we shall catch one of 'em yet. A big Yankee schooner full ofslaves; and then look at the prize-money."

  "No catchee, no havee, Van. Oh, I say, I am hot. Why, I believe youcould fry eggs in the sun."

  "Dare say you might if you could get there, Bob."

  "Oh, my! aren't we witty this morning! I say, I wonder what old Stapleswill say to the monkey, Van."

  "So do I," said the first middy, uneasily. "I half wish we hadn'tbought it. But it seemed such a chance."

  "Well, we're in for it now. Staples will give it us pretty sharply, andthen forget all about it."

  "But then there's the skipper."

  "Ah," said the second middy, thoughtfully; "I forgot about him. Botherthe monkey! Phew! I am hot. I say, they may well call this OilyBight. The sea looks just as if it had been greased. Oh, don't I wishI were in a good wet fog in the Channel. This is a scorcher."

  The lads ceased speaking, and sat back watching the anchored vessel andrelieving the tedium of the long row by scratching the monkey's head andpulling its ears, the animal complacently accepting both operations, andturning its head about so that every portion should receive its share ofthe scratching, till all at once the boat was run alongside, thecoxswain took hold with his boathook, and while the falls were hookedon, an order was given above, and they were run up to the davits.

rectly after, Mark Vandean stepped on deck, touched his cap to asevere-looking officer, and presented a letter.

  "Take it in to the captain," he said; and Mark marched off to the cabin,while the first lieutenant, who had turned toward the boat, out of whichthe men had sprung, suddenly raised one hand, and pointed at the boat'sside, above which a head had been raised, and its owner was gazing roundwith wrinkled forehead as if wondering what was going to happen next.

  Bob Howlett saw the first lieutenant's fixed stare and pointing hand,and glancing round, he caught sight of the head with its chin on thegunwale.

  "Who's that?" cried the first lieutenant, sharply; and the men screwedup their faces and looked comically solemn on the instant, but no onespoke.

  "Mr Howlett," cried the officer again, "I asked you who that was in theboat!"

  "Beg pardon, sir; didn't know you were speaking to me. Which, sir?"

  The lieutenant's lips were compressed as he took a couple of strides andbrought himself alongside of the middy.

  "If you are not careful, sir," he said severely, "trouble will followthis. You did know I spoke to you, sir. I said, `Who is that youngblack?' Why, it's an ape."

  "Yes, sir; chimpanzee, sir."

  "How dare you bring a monkey on board, sir?"

  "Only a natural history specimen, sir; and I thought--"

  "Oh, there you are, Staples," said the captain, coming up. "Look, Ithink this is right at last;" and he handed the letter to his second incommand.

  "Looks correct, sir," said the lieutenant, after reading the letter."Shall you act upon it?"

  "Act upon it, man! Of course."

  The monkey was forgotten. The boatswain's pipe rang out, the men cametumbling up, and as fast as it could be achieved, the anchor was raised,sail after sail hoisted, and an hour after, with every scrap of canvasthat could be set, the _Nautilus_ was slowly gliding along right out tosea, with the palm and mangrove-lined shore slowly fading into the haze,while the men collected together in knots and discussed the possibilityof catching a slaver that night.

  "What's it to be, Van," said Bob Howlett, "fun or flam?"

  "Tell you to-morrow morning," was the reply. "I say, I've fed thechim', and he's asleep."

  "Wish I was too," said Bob Howlett, "Oh, I say, ain't it hot?"