Black Bar, Page 2George Manville Fenn
BLACKBERRYING AT SEA.
That night the _Nautilus_ was pretty close inshore, as soon as she couldapproach without being seen. Every light was out, the sail had beenreduced, and they were gliding slowly along, watching the mouth of ariver about twenty miles south of Port Goldby. They had been lying offhere for days, waiting for the news the British agent had been tryinghard to obtain for them, so as to enable the officer in command of herMajesty's cruiser to strike a severe blow at the horrible traffic beingcarried on by swift-sailing schooners and barques trading between theWest Coast of Africa and the southern ports of the United States.
The _Nautilus_ had been for weeks upon the station, and so far all herefforts had proved vain. But now very definite information of thesailing of a large schooner from Palm River had been obtained, andeveryone on board was in a most profound state of excitement. Thenight-glasses were being used, and as the vessel cruised to and fro offthe mouth of the river, it did not seem possible for a fishing-boat toget away, leave alone a large schooner. This would be sure not to leavethe river till the turn of the tide, two hours after dark, when she wasexpected to drop down with her cargo of unfortunates, collected at akind of stockade by a black chief, who was supposed to be working incollusion with a merchant, whose store up the river had been ostensiblystarted for dealing in palm oil, ivory and gold dust with the abovechief, a gentleman rejoicing in the name of Quoshay Dooni.
Captain Maitland's plan had been well carried out, for the haze hadhelped him; and after sailing right away, the vessel had crept close inat dark; and as night fell with all the suddenness of the tropics, shehad reached the mouth of the river as aforesaid unseen.
After listening impatiently for some time, orders were given, and acouple of boats were lowered, each furnished with lanterns forsignalling, of course kept hidden; and the monkey episode being for thetime forgotten, Mark Vandean obtained permission to go in the firstcutter, Bob Howlett being sent in the second.
"Whether we catch them or no," thought Mark, as the boat kissed thewater, "it will be a bit of a change." Then, after a few whisperedorders given to the second lieutenant, who was in charge, the two boatspushed off, the men dipping their muffled oars gently, and afterseparating for a couple of hundred yards, both cutters made their waysilently through what appeared to be a wall of blackness, while each earwas alert to catch the slightest sound--the object being to make surethat the slaver did not slip down the river in the darkness, and passthe _Nautilus_ unseen.
"Keep that sail well over the lanterns, Dance," whispered the lieutenantto the coxswain; "don't show a glimmer, but mind that they are keptburning."
"Ah, ay, sir."
"Shall I take them in charge, Mr Russell?" whispered Mark.
"No, my lad; I want you for company. Keep your eyes well skinned, asthe Yankees say. If you sight the vessel first I'll give you a ring."
"Thankye, sir," said Mark, and then to himself, "No such luck!"
The next moment he was peering over the heads of the men, and to rightand left, straight into the black darkness, as the boat was steered, asnearly as they could guess, right up the river, the only guide they hadbeing the steady rush of the muddy water which they had to stem.
"Seems a Blindman's Buff sort of game, doesn't it, Mr Russell?"whispered Mark, at the end of a couple of hours.
"Yes, my lad, it's all chance work. I only wish, though, that we couldblunder on to the abominable craft. They'll be too sharp for us I'mafraid."
Another hour passed, and they were still completely shut up in thedarkness, with a thick haze overhead; and at last the lieutenantwhispered,--"Lucky if we don't some of us catch fever to-night."
"Look here, Vandean, if we don't soon see something I shall signal theship for a recall. We shall do nothing to-night. Eh? what?"
"I heard voices off to the left," Mark whispered. "Then it's theschooner," said the lieutenant, in a suppressed voice. "Give way, mylads! steady! I shall lay the boat alongside, and you must board hersomehow. Coxswain only stay in the boat."
The men received their orders in silence, but a suppressed sigh told oftheir eagerness and readiness to act.
A minute later there was a sharp rattling sound, a savage growl, and aloud burst of laughter.
The first cutter had come in contact with the second, and directly afterthere was a whirring, brushing sound of branches sweeping over theboats, one of which bumped against a root and nearly capsized.
"Tut, tut, tut!" ejaculated the lieutenant; "back water, my lads! Weare doing no good here. It is impossible to see where we are going."
There was a slight splashing, and the boats began to descend the stream,swept along by the tide for a time, till they lay on their oars again.
"What's that, Mr Russell?" whispered Mark, all at once.
"What? I heard nothing but one of the oars badly muffled."
"I didn't near anything. I meant what's that I can smell?"
The lieutenant started, and just then there was a peculiarly offensive,sickening odour perceptible.
"No mistaking that," whispered the lieutenant; and, giving orders, alantern was taken from beneath the sail, and shown above the gunwale ofthe boat.
Almost immediately a faint star-like light shone out at a distance ontheir left, and the lantern was hidden and the star disappeared.
"Why's that?" whispered Mark.
"Let the other boat know the slaver's dropping down," was whisperedback.
"But is she?" said Mark, excitedly.
"No doubt about that, my lad. Pull steady."
The men obeyed, and the boat was steered in a zigzag fashion down theriver, but there was no sign of the slaver. If she was dropping down itwas so silently that her presence was not detected, and at last afresher feeling in the air warned the occupants of the first cutter thatthey must be nearing the mouth of the river.
"Light," whispered Mark, pointing off to his right, where, faintly seen,there was a feeble ray.
"Signal," whispered the lieutenant. The lantern was shown, and therewas an answering light from behind them, proving that the one forwardmust be at sea.
"It's a recall," said the lieutenant, with a sigh of relief; "give way,my lads." Then to Mark: "The captain must be uneasy about us, or hewould never show that light. It's like letting the slaver know. Bah!what an idiot I am. That's not our light. Pull, my lads, pull! Thatmust have been shown by the ship we are after."
As he spoke the light disappeared, and a fresh one appeared from astern.
They showed their own lantern, and their signal was answered, the secondcutter running up close to them a few minutes later, while thelieutenant was boiling over with impatience, for he had been compelledto check his own boat's way.
"What is it?" he said to his second in command.
"See that light ashore, sir?"
"No; I saw one out at sea; it's the slaver. Follow us at once."
"But that light was ashore, sir."
"Mr Ramsay, do you think I'm blind? Mr Howlett, are you there?"
"Didn't you see a light off to sea?"
"No, sir; ashore."
"I tell you it was at sea, and it is the craft we are after. Now, mylads, give way."
"Why, we're among the trees again."
"Yes, sir; shore's this way," said the coxswain.
"Then where in the name of wonder is the sea?" said the lieutenant, inan angry whisper, as the tide bore them along, with the men's oarsrattling among the mangrove stems.
"I think we've got into a side channel," said Mark.
"Rubbish! How could we?"
"Beg pardon, Mr Russell, sir," came from the boat astern; "we've gotinto a sort of canal place with the tide running like a mill stream.Hadn't we better lie to till daybreak?"
"Better sink ourselves," growled the lieutenant. "Here are we regularlycaught in a maze, and that schooner getting comfortably away to sea."
bsp; "'Fraid so, sir," said the boatswain. "That there was a light showedashore to warn 'em that we were in the river; some of 'em must haveheard."
The lieutenant made no answer, but ordered the men to back water, andfor the next four hours they were fighting the swift river, trying toextricate themselves from the muddy system of branches into which theyhad been carried in the darkness, but in vain; and at last, in despair,they made fast to the mangroves, and waited for day.
Light came at last, piercing the white fog in which they lay; and in ashort time they were back in the wide river, close to the sea, dejected,weary, and wondering that they could have been so confused in thedarkness.
"Nice wigging we shall have, Vandean," said the lieutenant; "the skipperwill sarcastically tell me he had better have sent one of the ship'sboys in command. But there, I did my best. Ugh! how chilly it feels!"
An hour later they were alongside the _Nautilus_, which lay at the edgeof a bank of mist which covered the sea, while shoreward all was nowgrowing clear from a gentle breeze springing up.
The lieutenant was a true prophet, for the captain almost used hisofficer's words.
"Then you haven't seen a sign of the schooner?"
"No, sir; but we smelt it."
"What!" cried the captain.
"Sail ho!" shouted the man at the look-out, and in a moment all wasexcitement, for, about a mile away, down what looked like a clear lanethrough the white fog, was a two-masted vessel, crowded with sail; andas rapidly as possible the boats were hoisted up, and the _Nautilus_ wasin pursuit.
But hardly had she careened over under the press of sail than the fogshut the vessel from their sight, and for the next two hours she wasinvisible, while the captain of the _Nautilus_ had to lie to, for fearof some slippery trick on the part of what was undoubtedly the slaver,since she was more likely to make for the shelter of a creek than torisk safety in flight.
But the wind was not favourable for this manoeuvre, and toward mid-daythe sea grew clear, and there was the slaver plainly visible miles away,sailing out west, while the _Nautilus_ crowded on every stitch of canvasin pursuit.
A stern chase is a long one, says the proverb, and night came with thecraft still miles away, but the sky was brilliantly clear, and the moonshone forth, showing the white-sailed schooner in a strangely weirdfashion far across the flashing sea.
"We're gaining on her," said Bob Howlett, who was as full of excitementas the men, while Mark felt a strange suffocating sensation at the chestas he strained his eyes and watched the swift schooner, whose captaintried every manoeuvre to escape the dogged pursuit of the Queen'scruiser.
"Hang it all! he's a plucky one," said Bob, as the chase went on. "Hemust be taken, but he won't own to it."
"Thought a ship was a she," said Mark.
"Well, I was talking about the skipper, wasn't I?"
"A man doesn't want to lose his ship, of course."
"Nor his cargo," cried Bob. "There, give it up, old fellow; we'reoverhauling you fast."
It was a fact: the _Nautilus_, with all her studding sails set, wascreeping nearer and nearer, till at last, amid no little excitement onthe part of the two midshipmen, a gun was shotted, run out, and a turnor two given to the wheel. Then, as the _Nautilus_ swerved a littlefrom her course, the word was given, and a shot went skipping across themoonlit sea, splashing up the water in a thousand scintillations, andtaking its final plunge far ahead of the schooner.
Every eye and every glass was fixed upon the slaver, for such she waswithout a doubt, since she kept on, paying no heed to the shot and itssummons to heave to; and after a second had been sent in chase, thecaptain gave the word, and a steady fire was kept up at the spars andrigging.
"I can't fire at her hull, Staples," the captain said.
"No, it would be slaughtering the poor wretches down below; never mind,sir, we'll capture her directly. She's ours, safe."
"Then the sooner the better," said Bob to his companion.
The firing continued, and the crews of the two guns which sent theirshot in chase vied with each other in their efforts to hit a spar andbring down the sails of the schooner; but they tried in vain. Sailswere pierced, but no other harm was done, and the slaver kept gallantlyon.
But all her efforts were in vain. The _Nautilus_ crept on and on,nearer and nearer, till she was only about a quarter of a mile away, andthen the slaver altered her course, and gained a little by her quickhandling. But the _Nautilus_ was after again, and after two or three ofthese manoeuvres Captain Maitland was able to anticipate her nextattempt to escape, and all seemed over.
"I wonder how many poor wretches she has on board?" tried Mark,excitedly, as the word was passed for one of the boat's crews to beready for boarding as soon as the slaver captain struck the flag he hadrun up in defiance.
"Hundreds perhaps," said Bob, coolly; "but we haven't got her yet."
"No; but they're going to give in now. I can see the captain quiteplainly," said Mark, who was using a glass. "What are they doing? Oh,Bob, look!"
For through the glass he saw what seemed to be a struggle on the moonlitdeck, and directly after there was a splash.
"Great heavens!" cried Captain Maitland. "Staples! Look! They'rethrowing the poor fellows overboard."
"No," said the first lieutenant, with his glass to his eye; "only one."
A mist came for a moment over Mark Vandean's sight, but it passed away;and, with the feeling of suffocation at his throat increasing now, hekept his glass upon the black head in the midst of the quivering water,where a man was swimming hard for life. Brought almost close to him byhis powerful glass, Mark could nearly make out the agonised look uponthe swimmer's face, as, at every stroke, he made the water shimmer inthe moonlight; and every moment as his forehead grew wet and his handsclammy, the midship, man expected to see the waves close over the poorwretch's head.
Just then his attention was taken up by the voices of the Captain andlieutenant.
"The scoundrel! the fiend!" cried the former, with a stamp of rage uponthe deck; "if it were not for those on board I'd sink him."
"I wish we could, sir," replied the first lieutenant; "we shall losehim."
"No," cried the captain. "He has thrown that poor wretch overboard,believing that we shall heave to and pick him up sooner than let himdrown."
"While he gets a mile away," said the first lieutenant; "and as soon aswe overhaul him again, he'll throw over another--that is, sir, if westop to pick the poor creatures up."
"Help! boat! help!" cried Mark, unable to contain his feelings longer;and lowering his glass, he turned to the captain. "Look, sir, look!" hecried, pointing in the direction of the drowning black; "the poorfellow's going down."