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Hair-Breadth Escapes: The Adventures of Three Boys in South Africa

H. C. Adams

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  Hair-Breadth Escapes, by Rev H.C. Adams.


  ________________________________________________________________________HAIR-BREADTH ESCAPES, BY REV H.C. ADAMS.


  To the Rev G.G. Ross, D.C.L., Principal of St Andrew's College,Grahamstown, Cape Colony.

  My dear Ross,

  I dedicate this Tale to you for two reasons: first, because it is, insome sort, a souvenir of a very interesting visit to South Africa,rendered pleasant by the kind hospitality shown us by so many inGrahamstown, and by no one more than yourself. Secondly and chiefly,because it gives me the opportunity of expressing publicly to you mysympathy in the noble work you are carrying on, under the gravestdifficulties--difficulties which (I am persuaded) many would help tolighten, who possess the means of doing so, were they but acquaintedwith them.

  H.C. Adams.

  Dry Sandford, _August 1876_.



  It was the afternoon of a day late in the November of the year 1805.His Majesty's ship _Hooghly_, carrying Government despatches and stores,as well as a few civil and military officers of the East India Company'sservice, was running easily before the trade wind, which it had caughtwithin two days' sail of Madeira--and was nearing the region of thetropics. The weather, which had been cold and stormy, when thepassengers left England some weeks before, had been gradually growingbright and genial; until for the last three or four days allrecollections of fog and chill had vanished from their minds. The skywas one vast dome of the richest blue, unbroken by a single cloud, onlygrowing somewhat paler of hue as it approached the horizon line. Thesea stretched out into the distance--to the east, an endless successionof purple wavelets, tipped here and there with white; to the west, wherethe sun was slowly sinking in all its tropical glory, one seething massof molten silver.

  It was indeed a glorious sight, and most of our readers will be ofopinion that those who had the opportunity of beholding it, would--forthe time at least--have bestowed little attention on anything else. Butif they had been at sea as long as Captain Wilmore, they might perhapshave thought differently. Captain Wilmore had been forty years asailor; and whether given, or not given, to admire brilliant skies andgolden sunsets in his early youth, he had at all events long ceased totrouble himself about them. He was at the outset of this story sittingin his cabin--having just parted from his first lieutenant, Mr Grey--and was receiving with a very dubious face the report of an oldquartermaster. A fine mastiff was seated by the captain's chair,apparently listening with much gravity to what passed.

  "Well, Jennings, Mr Grey tells me you have something to report, whichhe thinks ought to be brought straight to me, in order that I mayquestion you myself about it. What is it? Is it something about thesegentlemen we have on board? Are they dissatisfied, or has Lion hereoffended them?"

  "No, cap'en," said the old sailor; "I wish 'twas only something o' thatsort. That would be easy to be disposed of, that would."

  "What is it, then? Is it the men, who are grumbling--short rations, orweak grog, or what?"

  "There's more rations and stronger grog than is like to be wanted,cap'en," said Jennings, evasively, for he was evidently anxious toescape communicating his intelligence, whatever it might be, as long aspossible.

  "What do you mean, Jennings?" exclaimed Captain Wilmore, roused by thequartermaster's manner. "More rations and stronger grog than the menwant? I don't understand you."

  "Well, cap'en, I'm afraid some on 'em won't eat and drink aboard thisship no more."

  "What, are any of them sick, or dead--or, by heaven, have any of themdeserted?"

  "I'm afeared they has, cap'en. You remember the Yankee trader, as senta boat to ask us to take some letters to Calcutta?"

  "Yes, to be sure; what of him?"

  "Well, I've heard since, as his crew was going about among our chaps allthe time he was aboard, offering of 'em a fist half full of guineasapiece, if they'd sail with him, instead of you."

  "The scoundrel!" shouted Captain Wilmore. "If I'd caught him at it, I'dhave run him up to the mainyard, as sure as he's alive."

  "Ay, cap'en; and I'd have lent a hand with all my heart," said the oldseaman. "But you see he was too cunning to be caught. He went back tohis ship, which was lying a very little way off, for there wasn't abreath of wind, if you remember. But he guessed the breeze would springup about midnight, so he doesn't hoist his boats up, but hides 'em underhis lee, until--"

  "I see it all plain enough, Jennings," broke in the captain. "How manyare gone?"

  "Well, we couldn't make sure for a long time, Captain Wilmore," saidJennings, still afraid to reveal the whole of his evil tidings. "Someof the hands had got drunk on the rum fetched aboard at Madeira, andthey might be lying about somewhere, you see--"

  "Well, but you've found out now, I suppose?" interjected his questionersharply.

  "I suppose we has, cap'en. There's Will Driver, and Joel Grigg, andLander, and Hawkins, and Job Watson--not that _he's_ any great loss--andDick Timmins, and--"

  "Confound you, Jennings! how many?" roared the captain, so fiercely,that the dog sprang up, and began barking furiously. "Don't keep onpottering in that way, but tell me the worst at once. How many aregone? Keep quiet, you brute, do you hear? How many, I say?"

  "About fifteen, cap'en," blurted out the quartermaster, shaking in hisshoes. "Leastways there's fifteen, or it may be sixteen, as can't befound, or--"

  "Fifteen or sixteen, or some other number," shouted the skipper. "Tellme the exact number, you old idiot, or I'll disrate you! Confound thatdog! Turn him out."

  "Sixteen's the exact number we can't find," returned Jennings, "but someof 'em may be aboard, and turn up sober by-and-by."

  "Small chance of that," muttered the captain. "Well, it's no usefretting; the question is, What's to be done? We were short-handedbefore--so you thought, didn't you, Jennings?"

  "Well, cap'en, we hadn't none too many, that's sartain; and we shouldhave been all the better for half a dozen more."

  "That comes to the same thing, doesn't it?" said the skipper, who, vexedand embarrassed as he was, could not help being a little diverted at theold man's invincible reluctance to speaking out.

  "Well, I suppose it does, sir," he answered, "only you see--"

  "I don't see anything, except that we are in a very awkward scrape,"interposed the other. "It will be madness to attempt to make thepassage with such a handful as we have at present. If there came agale, or we fall in with a French or Spanish cruiser--" He paused,unwilling to put his thoughts into words.

  "'Twouldn't be pleasant, for sartain," observed Jennings.

  "But, then, if we put back to England--for I know no hands are to be hadat Madeira, we should be quite as likely to encounter a storm, or aFrenchman."

  "A good deal more like," assented the quartermaster.

  "And there would be the loss and delay, and the blame would be safe tobe laid on me," continued the captain, following out his own thoughtsrather than replying to his companion's observations. "No, we must goon. But then, where are we to pick up any fresh hands?"

  "We shall be off the Canaries this evening, cap'en," said Jennings."We've been running along at a spanking rate with this wind all night.The peak's in sight even now."

  "The Canaries are no good, Jennings. The Dons are at war with us,
youknow. And though there are no ships of war in the harbour at SantaCruz, they'd fire upon us from the batteries if we attempted to holdcommunication with the shore."

  "They ain't always so particular, are they, sir?" asked the sailor.

  "Perhaps not, Jennings. But the Dons here have never forgiven theattack made on them seven or eight years ago, by Nelson."

  "Well, sir, they might have forgiven that, seeing as they got the bestof it I was in that, sir--b'longed to the _Foxy_ and was one of Nelson'sboat's crew, and we got nothing out of the Dons but hard knocks and noha'pence that time."

  "That's true. But you see Nelson has done them so much harm since, thatthe damage they did him then seems very little comfort to them. No, wemustn't attempt anything at the Canaries."

  "Very good, sir. Then go on to the Cape Verdes. If this wind holds, weshall soon be there, and the Cape Verdes don't belong to the Dons."

  "No; to the Portuguese. Well, I believe that will be best. I havereceived information that the French and Spanish fleets are off CapeTrafalgar; and our fellows are likely to have a brush with them soon, ifthey haven't had it already."

  "Indeed, sir! Well, Admiral Nelson ain't likely to leave many of 'em tofollow us to the Cape. We're pretty safe from them, anyhow."

  "You're right there, I expect, Jennings," said the skipper, relaxing forthe first time into a grim smile. "Well, then, shape the ship's coursefor the Cape Verdes, and, mind you, keep the matter of those scoundrelsdeserting as quiet as possible. If some of the passengers get hold ofit, they'll be making a bother. Now you may go, Jennings. Stay, handme those letters about the boys that came on board at Plymouth. I'vebeen too busy to give any thought to them till now. But I must settlesomething about them before we reach the Cape, and I may as well do sonow."

  The quartermaster obeyed. He handed his commanding officer the bundleof papers he had indicated, and then left the cabin, willing enough tobe dismissed. The captain, throwing himself with an air of wearinessback on his sofa, broke the seal of the first letter, muttering tohimself discontentedly the while.

  "I wonder why I am to be plagued with other people's children? BecauseI have been too wise to have any of my own, I suppose! Well, Frank ismy nephew, and blood is thicker than water, they say--and for once, andfor a wonder, say true. I suppose I _am_ expected to look after him.And he's a fine lad too. I can't but own that. But what have I to dowith old Nat Gilbert's children, I wonder? He was my schoolfellow, andpulled me out of a pond once, when I should have been drowned if hehadn't I suppose _he_ thought that was reason enough for putting off hisboy upon me, as his guardian. Humph! I don't know about that. Let ussee, any way, what sort of a boy this young Gilbert is. This is fromold Dr Staines, the schoolmaster he has been with for the last four orfive years. I wonder what he says of the boy? At present I knownothing whatever about him, except that he looks saucy enough for amidshipman, and laughs all day like a hyena!

  "`Gymnasium House, Hollingsley,

  "`September 29th, 1805.

  "`Sir,--You are, no doubt, aware that I have had under my charge, forthe last five years, Master George Gilbert, the son of the late MrNathaniel Gilbert, of Evertree, a most worthy and respectable man. Iwas informed, at the time of the parent's decease, that you had beenappointed the guardian of the infant; but as Mr Nathaniel had, with hiscustomary circumspection, lodged a sum in the Hollingsley bank,sufficient to cover the cost of his son's education for two years tocome, there was no need to trouble you. You were also absent fromEngland, and I did not know your direction.

  "`The whole of the money is not yet exhausted; but I regret to say I amunable to retain Master George under my tuition any longer. I must begyou to take notice that his name is _George_, as his companions are inthe habit of calling him "Nick," giving the idea that his name, or oneof his names, is Nicodemus. Such, however, is not the case, Georgebeing his only Christian appellative. Why his schoolfellows should haveadopted so singular a nomenclature I am unable to say. The onlyexplanation of it, which has ever been suggested to me, is one soextremely objectionable, that I am convinced it must be a mistake.

  "`But to proceed'--(`A long-winded fellow this!' muttered the captain ashe turned the page; `who cares what the young scamp's called?')--`But toproceed. I cannot retain Master George any longer. His continuallyrepeated acts of mischief render it impossible for me any longer totemper the justice due to myself and family with the mercy which it ismy ordinary habit to exercise. I will not detail to you his offencesagainst propriety'--(`thank goodness for that,' again interjectedCaptain Wilmore, `though I dare say some of his offences would beentertaining enough')--`I will not detail his offences--they would filla volume. I will only mention what has occurred to-day. If there isany practice I consider more objectionable than another, it is that ofusing the dangerous explosives known as fireworks. Master Gilbert isaware that I strictly interdict their purchase; in consequence of whichthey cannot be obtained at the only shop in Hollingsley where they aresold, by any of my scholars. But what were my feelings--I ask you,sir--when I ascertained that he had obtained a large number ofcombustibles weeks ago, and had concealed them--actually concealed themin a chest under Mrs Staines's bed! The chest holds a quantity oflinen, and under this he had hidden the explosives, thinking, Iconclude, that it was seldom looked into. Seldom looked into! Why,merciful heaven, Mrs Staines is often in the habit of examining even bycandlelight'--(`I say, I can't read any more of this,' exclaimed thecaptain; `anyhow, I'll skip a page or two.' He turned on a long way andresumed.)--`When I found out this morning that he was missing, I felt nodoubt that my words had produced even a deeper effect than I haddesigned. Mrs Staines and myself both feared that in his remorse hehad been guilty of some desperate act; and we made every effort,immediately after breakfast, to discover the place of his retreat.Being St Michael's day, it was a whole holiday, and we were thus enabledto devote the entire day to the quest. It has been extremely rainythroughout; but when we returned, two hours ago, exhausted and wet tothe skin, after a fruitless search, we found him, dry and warm, awaitingus in the hall. This was some relief; but judge of our feelings when wediscovered that the shameless boy had put on my camlet-cloak andoveralls--they had been missing, and I had been obliged to go withoutthem! he had taken Mrs Staines's large umbrella, and had waited for us,from breakfast time, round the corner, under the confident assurancethat we should go to look for him. Sir, it has been his amusement tofollow us about all day, gratifying his malevolent feelings with thespectacle of our exposure to the elements, our weariness, ourever-increasing anxiety! You will not wonder after this, sir--'"

  "There, that will do," once more exclaimed the skipper, throwing asidethe letter with a chuckle of amusement. "I must say I don't wonder atthe doctor's refusing to keep him any more after that! Well, his fatherwanted him to be a sailor, and maybe he won't make a bad one. Only wemust have none of his tricks on board ship. I'll have a talk with him,when I can spare the time. That's settled. And now I can see Dr Lavieabout this other lad, young Warley. Hallo there, Matthews, tell thedoctor I am at liberty now."

  In a few minutes the person named was ushered into Captain Wilmore'spresence. The new comer was a gentlemanly and well-looking young man,and bore a good character, so far as he was known, in the ship. Thecaptain was pleased with his appearance, and felt at the moment morethan usually gracious--possibly in consequence of his recent mirth overGeorge Gilbert's exploits. He spoke with unusual kindness.

  "Well, doctor, what can I do for you? You have come to speak to meabout young Ernest Warley, I think?"

  "Yes, Captain Wilmore, I want to ask your advice. His father was thebest friend I ever had. He took me by the hand when I was left anorphan without a sixpence, and put me to school, and took care of me.When he was dying, he made me promise to do my best for his boy, as hehad for me. But I'm afraid I can't do that, glad as I should be to doit, if I could--"

  "But I don't understand, doctor. Old Warley--I knew a
little of him--was a wealthy man, partner in Vanderbyl and Warley's house, one of thebest in Cape Town. The lad can't want for money."

  "Ah, he does, though. His elder brother has all the money. He was theson of the first wife, old Vanderbyl's daughter, and all the moneyderived from the business went to him. The second wife's fortune wassettled on Ernest; but it was lost, every farthing of it, in the failureof Steinberg's bank last year."

  "Won't the elder brother do anything?"

  "No more than very shame may oblige him to do. He hated his father'ssecond wife, and hates her son now."

  "How old is the lad?"

  "Past nineteen; very steady and quiet, but plenty of stuff in him. Hewouldn't take his brother's money, if he had the chance; says he meansto work for himself. He wanted to be a parson, and would have gone thisautumn to the University, but for the smash of the bank. He'll doanything now that I advise him, but I don't know what to advise."

  "`Nineteen!'--too old for the navy. `Wanted to be a parson!'--wouldn'tdo for the army. `Do anything you advise!' Are you sure of that? Fewyoung fellows now-a-days will do anything but what they themselveslike."

  "Yes, he'll do anything I advise, because he knows I really care forhim. Where he fancies he's put upon, he can be stiff-backed and defiantenough. I've seen that once or twice. Ernest hasn't your nephewFrank's temper, which is hot and hasty for the moment, but is rightagain the next. He doesn't come to in a minute, as Frank does, but he'sa good fellow for all that."

  The captain's brow was overcast as he heard his nephew's name. "Frank'sspirit wants breaking, Mr Lavie," he said in an angry tone. "I shallhave to teach him that there's only one will allowed aboard ship, andthat's the captain's. Frank can ride and leap and shoot to a bead theytell me, but he can't command my ship, and he shan't. I won't have himasking for reasons for what I order, and if he does it again--he'll wishhe hadn't. But this is nothing to the purpose, Mr Lavie," he added,recovering himself. "We were talking about young Warley. You hadbetter try to get him a clerkship in a house at Cape Town. You mean tosettle there yourself after the voyage, do you not?"

  "Well, no, sir, I think not I had meant it, but my inclination nowrather is to try for a medical appointment in Calcutta. You see itwould be uncomfortable for Ernest at the Cape with his brother--"

  "I see. Well, then, both of you had better go on to Calcutta with me.I dare say--if I am pleased with the lad--I may be able to speak to oneof the merchants or bankers there. What does he know? what can he do?"

  "He is a tolerable classical scholar, sir, and a good arithmetician, DrPhelps told me--"

  "That's good," interposed the captain.

  "And he knows a little French, and is a fair shot with a gun, and canride his horse, though he can't do either like Frank--"

  "Never mind Frank," broke in Captain Wilmore hastily. "He'd behavehimself at all events, which is more than Frank does. Well, that willdo, then. You two go on with the _Hooghly_ to Calcutta, and then I'llspeak to you again."

  Mr Lavie rose and took his leave, feeling very grateful to hiscommanding officer, who was not in general a popular captain. He was inreality a kind-hearted man, but extremely passionate, as well astenacious of his authority, and apt to give offence by issuing unwelcomeorders in a peremptory manner, without vouchsafing explanations, whichwould have smoothed away the irritation they occasioned. In particularhe and his nephew, Frank Wilmore, to whom reference more than once hasbeen made, were continually falling out Frank was a fine high-spiritedlad of eighteen, for whom his uncle had obtained a military cadetshipfrom a director, to whom he had rendered a service; and the lad was nowon his way to join his regiment. Frank had always desired to be asoldier, and was greatly delighted when he heard of his good fortune.But his uncle gave him no hint that it was through him it had beenobtained. Indeed, the news had been communicated in a manner so gruffand seemingly grudging, that Frank conceived an aversion to his uncle,which was not removed when they came into personal contact on board the_Hooghly_.

  The three lads, however, soon fraternised, and before they had sightedCape Finisterre were fast friends. Many an hour had already beenbeguiled by the recital of adventures on shore, and speculation as tothe future, that lay before them. Nor was there any point on which theyagreed more heartily than in denunciation of the skipper's tyranny, andtheir resolve not to submit to it. When Mr Lavie came on deck, afterhis interview in the captain's cabin, they were all three leaning overthe bulwarks, with lion crouching at Frank's side, but all three, for awonder, quite silent. Mr Lavie cast a look seaward, and saw at oncethe explanation of their unusual demeanour. The ship had been makinggood way for the last hour or two, and was now near enough to theCanaries to allow the Peak of Teneriffe to be clearly seen, like a lowtriangular cloud, and the rest of the island was coming gradually intoclearer sight Mr Lavie joined the party, and set himself to watch whatis perhaps the grandest spectacle which the bosom of the broad Atlantichas to exhibit. At first the outline of the great mountain, twelvethousand feet in height, presented a dull cloudy mass, formless andindistinct. But as the afternoon wore on, the steep cliffs scored withlava became visible, and the serrated crests of Anaga grew slowly uponthe eye. Then, headland after headland revealed itself, the heavy darkgrey masses separating themselves into hues of brown and red andsaffron. Now appeared the terraced gardens which clothe the cultivatedsides, and above them the picturesque outlines of the rocks intermingledwith the foliage of the euphorbia and the myrtle, and here and thereopening into wild mountain glens which the wing of the bird alone couldtraverse. Lastly, the iron-bound coast became visible on which the surfwas breaking in foaming masses, and above the rocky shelf the long lowline of spires and houses which distinguish the town of Santa Cruz. Fora long time the red sunset light was strong enough to make clearlydistinguishable the dazzling white frontages, the flat roofs, andunglazed windows, standing out against the perpendicular walls ofbasaltic rock. Then a dark mist, rising upwards from the sea, like thecurtain in the ancient Greek theatre, began to hide the shipping in theport, the quays, and the batteries, till the whole town was lost in thedarkness. Higher it spread, obscuring the masses of oleander, andarbutus, and poinsettia in the gardens, and the sepia tints of the rocksabove. Then the white lava fissures were lost to the eye, and the Peakalone stood against the darkening sky, its masses of snow bathed in therich rosy light of the expiring sun. A few minutes more and that toowas swallowed up in darkness, and the spell which had enchained the fourspectators of the scene was suddenly dissolved.