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The Perils and Adventures of Harry Skipwith by Land and Sea

William Henry Giles Kingston

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  The Perils and Adventures of Harry Skipwith, by W.H.G. Kingston.


  ________________________________________________________________________THE PERILS AND ADVENTURES OF HARRY SKIPWITH, BY W.H.G. KINGSTON.



  The love of travel was a family instinct, and was born with me. Mymaternal grandfather went to Central Africa--at least, he left usintending to do so, but never came back again. I had a great uncle whovoyaged three times round the world, and one sailor uncle who, half acentury ago, spent a winter at the North Pole along with Parry andFranklin. Then I had a cousin who was very ambitious of reaching themoon, and spent his life in studying its maps and making preparationsfor the journey, which, however, he never accomplished. When asked whenhe was going to start, he always replied that he had deferred hisjourney for six months--circumstances requiring his longer sojourn onthis planet Tellus; but he never expressed the slightest doubt about hisbeing able ultimately to accomplish his proposed journey. I held him ingreat respect (which was more than any of the rest of the family did);but as my ambition never soared beyond an expedition round thissublunary globe, I resolved as soon as possible to commence my travelsin the hopes of having the start of him.

  My voluntary studies were of a character to feed my taste. The travelsof the famed Baron Munchausen, "Gulliver's Travels," those of Sir JohnMandeville and Marco Polo, were read by me over and over again. Iprocured others of a more modern date, and calculated to give morecorrect information regarding the present state of the world; but Istuck to my old friends, and pictured the globe to myself much in thecondition in which they described it. Not having the patience to waittill I grew up, I resolved at the commencement of my summer holidays tostart by myself, hoping to come back before their termination, having afull supply of adventures to narrate. I was some days maturing my plansand making preparations for my journey. I had denied myself suchluxuries as had been brought to our school by the pieman, and had savedup my pocket-money--an exercise of self-denial which proved theearnestness of my resolve. I had had too several presents made to me byrelations and friends who happened to be in the house. I paid a visitalso to my cousin, Booby Skipwith, as he was called. I did not confideto him all my plans; but I hinted that I had one of great importance inhand, and, to my great delight, he presented me with a five-pound note,observing that he believed that such things were not current in themoon, and that, therefore, he could dispense with them. I hinted thatif such was the case he might hand me out a few more, for that where Iwas going they would be greatly in demand; but it proved that this wasthe only one of which he was possessed.

  I had got a small portmanteau, into which I packed all my best clothesand valuables, with a few glass beads and knives which I had purchasedto bestow on any savages I might encounter. I had a lance-head broughthome by my great uncle. With this I purposed manufacturing a lance formy defence. I knew that, as England is an island, I must cross thewater. My idea, when on the other side, whether north, south, east, orwest I did not care, was to purchase two steeds--one for myself andanother for my luggage and a squire, whom I intended to find. I wascertain that he would turn up somewhere, and be very faithful and brave.The first, thing, however, was to get away from home. I wrote anaffectionate letter to my father, telling him that I was going on mytravels as my ancestor had done, and that I should be back, I hoped, bythe end of the holidays; that if I was not, it could not much signify,as I should be gaining more information from my intercourse with thegreat world than I could possibly hope to reap from the instruction ofDr Bumpus.

  This done, one very fine morning I crept out of the house with myportmanteau on my shoulders, and getting over the park palings, so asnot to be seen by the lodge-keeper, I stood ready for a coach that wouldpass by, I had ascertained, about that time. I waited anxiously,thinking that it must have already passed. At last I saw it comingalong the road in a cloud of dust. I hailed it in a knowing way, handedup my portmanteau to be placed by the coachman in the boot under hisfeet, and climbing up behind in a twinkling before any questions wereasked, away we bowled at a famous rate. "All right," I thought; "I amnow fairly off on my travels." We had twenty miles to get to therailway station. Once in the train, I should be beyond pursuit. I hadno fear of that, however. I should not be missed for some hours, andthen no one would know in what direction I had gone.

  We approached the station near Burton. My heart throbbed witheagerness. In a few minutes the train would be starting. The coachstopped before the hotel. At that a moment a gentleman on horseback waspassing. He saw me before I had time to hide my face.

  "Why, Harry, where are you going?" he exclaimed. It was my uncle,Roland Skipwith, the arctic voyager. He looked into the coach,expecting to see some one. "What, are you all alone? Where are yougoing, boy?"

  "On my travels, uncle," I answered, boldly, hoping that he might approveof my purpose, seeing that he was himself a great traveller. "You willnot stop me, I know."

  "We'll see about that," he answered, in a tone I did not quite like."Get down, youngster. I'll give you a little advice on the subject.You can't go by this train, that's certain."

  While I reluctantly obeyed, he inquired of Tomkins, the coachman, how hecame to bring me away from home. Tomkins apologised--thought that I wasgoing on a visit to my aunt, Miss Rebecca Skipwith, who lived at Burton,and finished by handing out my portmanteau, and receiving my fare toBurton in exchange.

  I was sold, that was clear enough. The portmanteau was deposited in thebar till the coach would return soon after noon.

  "Come along," said my uncle, who had given his horse to the hostler. "Ihave ridden over to breakfast with your Aunt Rebecca, so we'll hear whatshe has to say on the matter."

  I felt rather foolish as he took my hand and led me away.

  We soon reached Aunt Becky's neat trim mansion. My uncle had time tosay a few words to her before she saw me. She received me with herusual cordiality, for I was somewhat of a pet of hers. I wasdesperately hungry, and was soon seated at a table well spread with allsorts of appetising luxuries. My uncle, after a little time, when I hadtaken the edge off my hunger, began to question me as to my proposedplans, to an account of which he and Aunt Becky listened with profoundgravity. I began to hope that he was going to approve of them, tillsuddenly he burst out laughing heartily. Aunt Becky joined him. Ifound that they had been hoaxing me. I was sold again. This was thelast attempt I made during that period of my existence to commence mytravels.

  On arriving at manhood, and having just quitted college and had anindependence left me, the desire once more came strongly on me to seethe world--not the fashionable world, as an infinitesimal portion of thehuman race delight to call themselves, but the great big round globe,covered with our fellow-creatures of varied colours, languages, customs,and religions.

  "Good-bye, Aunt Becky! I really and truly am off this time," Iexclaimed, as I rushed into my dear, good old aunt's drawing-room atBurton, she looking as neat and trim as ever, being the perfection ofnice old-maidenism, not a whit older than when, some thirteen yearsbefore, I had been brought there a prisoner by my uncle.

  "Where are you going to, my dear?" asked Aunt Becky, lifting up herspectacles from her nose with a look of surprise.

  "Oh, only just across the Atlantic, t
o take a run up and down North andSouth America, as a kind of experiment before I attempt a tour, by landand water, to China and Japan, and home again by way of Australia, NewZealand, and Tahiti, by the Panama route, which I mean to do some ofthese days."

  "Well, well," said Aunt Becky, "you are a true Skipwith, and if thatCaptain Grant hadn't got the start of you, I suppose you would havediscovered the source of the Nile and the snow mountains under theequator, and, like Hercules, in that gem on my finger, which I wear forthe sake of an old friend, have come home with a lion's skin across yourshoulder, or dressed up like an ape, as Monsieur de Chaillu did sometimeago. However, I shall wish, Harry, if you ever want an additionalhundred pounds or so, draw on me; I have always some spare cash at thebanker's. But you'll never came back if you attempt half you talk ofdoing. You'll be scalped by Indians, or roasted and eaten by othersavages; or be tossed by buffaloes, or lost in the snow; or be blown upin one of those dreadful American steamers, which seem to do nothingelse; or you'll catch a fever, or be cast away on a desolate island, andwe shall never hear anything more of you; or something else dreadfulwill happen to you, I am certain."

  "Never mind, Aunt Becky; I shall be embalmed in your memory, at allevents," I answered; "and besides, I am going to have a companion tolook after me."

  "Who can he be who would venture to accompany such a harum-scarum fellowas you are, Harry?" said my aunt, looking more satisfied.

  "One who has ever proved faithful, aunt: his name is Ready."

  "Why, he's your dog, Harry!" she exclaimed, disappointed.

  "Could I have a more trustworthy and, at the same time, active andintelligent follower?" I asked. "I had thought of taking Bunbry," (hewas my father's old butler, and remarkable for his obesity andlaziness); "but you see, aunt, in the first place, my father could notspare him; and, in the second, he could not exactly keep up with me on aday's march of thirty or forty miles, and would certainly be nowherewhen chasing wild buffaloes, or hunting panthers or grizzly bears. So Igave up the idea of having a servant at all; and as for a friend, Idon't happen to be supplied with one ready to go, and I hope to findplenty on the way."

  Having at length consoled Aunt Becky, by assuring her that I would takevery good care of myself, and promising to bring her home trophies fromall the lands I should visit, I gave her a parting kiss, in return forher blessing, and a few days afterwards I found myself, with Liverpoolastern, sailing down the Mersey on board the good ship _Liberty_, boundfor New Orleans, which the people on board pronounced New Orle-e-ens.

  The striped and starry banner waved over our heads. "There, now, that'sthe flag of flags," said the skipper, pointing to it. "You Britisherstalk of your flag which has `braved a thousand years the battle and thebreeze,' but I guess that flag of ours will be flying proudly in everyquarter of the globe when your old obsolete government will have come toa consummate smash." He looked so savage at me, that Ready would haveflown at his leg, had I not held him back.

  I was determined not to be put out of temper, so I answered quietly--

  "Now, captain, I should be very happy to suppose that your stars andstripes will fly to the end of the world; but I do not see why thebanner of old England should not be allowed to wave as long. There'sroom for both of us, surely. It's my principle to live and let live."

  "Why, stranger, because you are not a nation of free men, you don't knowwhat true liberty is," he replied, gnashing his teeth in a way whichmade Ready show his in return.

  "Our old obsolete government showed that it appreciated liberty when, ata vast cost, it knocked off the shackles from every slave owned by aBriton," I observed, calmly.

  "I guess you'd better not touch on that there subject, stranger, whenyou get to New Orle-e-ens, or Judge Lynch may have a word to say toyou," croaked out the skipper, curling his nose, and giving a maliciouswink at me while he squirted a stream of tobacco juice into the eye ofpoor Ready, who went howling round the deck with pain.

  I took the hint, and held my tongue on the dark subject. It's ill totalk of the gallows to a man whose father has been hung, and none but aKnight of La Mancha runs a tilt against windmills when travelling inforeign lands. Still, I say, do not do at Rome as Rome does, butprotest, if not loudly, silently--by your conduct--against vice andimmorality, and all the abominations you may meet with.

  We had a large number of emigrants on board, who were fully persuadedthat they were going to enjoy not only the most perfect government underthe sun, but every blessing this world can supply. Poor people! howdifferent did they find the reality. We kept to the southward of thatmighty stream which, coming out of the Gulf of Mexico, sweeps awaynorth, across the Atlantic, and, with its well-heated waters, addsconsiderably to the warmth of our shores at home. We saw neitherfloating icebergs, whales, nor sea serpents, but had several births anddeaths, and at last made the island of St. Thomas, which appearedfloating like a blue cloud on the ocean. As we drew nearer, a vastmountain rose before us, seemingly, directly out of the water, having asterile summit, sprinkled round with spots of refreshing verdure. Theharbour is in the form of an amphitheatre, and the land round, with itsglittering white town on three hills, its old fort advancing into thesea, its green valleys, groves of cocoa-nuts, and fields of sugar-cane,is a highly picturesque spot. We put in to get a supply of water,fruit, vegetables, and fresh provisions; but, as the yellow fever was atthe time carrying off about twenty of the inhabitants a day, negroes andmulattoes as well as white people, I was satisfied with admiring itsbeauties at a distance. Putting to sea again as fast as we could, weweathered the north-western point of Cuba, and entered the Gulf ofMexico, between that island and Florida.

  About a week afterwards vast numbers of logs of wood, floating in yellowwater, indicated that we were at the mouths of the Mississippi, for, ofcourse, a mighty stream a thousand miles long, would not be content withone mouth, like our poor little humble Thames. The scenery, consistingof mud-banks and swamps, as far as the eye can reach, is not veryattractive. It is curious to look back after making numerous windings,and to observe the sea over the mud-banks, considerably lower than thewater on which the ship is floating. With a fair wind stemming thestream for a hundred and thirty miles, we found ourselves amid a crowdof vessels of all nations off New Orleans, the capital of Louisiana. Itis a large handsome looking city, but, as the ground on which it standsis lower than the surface of the river, I could not help feeling, whileI was there, that some night I might find myself washed out of my bed byits muddy waters.

  Intending to return to New Orleans, I left my traps at my hotel, andembarked with Ready on board a huge steamer bound up the Mississippi. Acockney might describe her as like a Thames wherry with an omnibus onthe top of it, and vast paddles outside all. I found that passengerscould only ascend to the upper saloon, which ran the whole length of thevessel, the roof being of necessity sacred to the officers and crew.There were numerous galleries, however, on each side of thepaddle-boxes, and forward and aft, whence I could observe the scenery.It was not very attractive, consisting chiefly of low swamps--thehabitations of alligators and rattlesnakes. Here and there were moreelevated spots, on which villages were perched, and patches where oncethe forest grew, but which were now covered with fields of sugar-cane,maize, and cotton bushes.

  We were dashing on at a prodigious rate--I fancy the engineer must havebeen sitting on the safety-valve--when, feeling a dreadful concussion,and being thrown forward with my nose on the deck, I heard those aroundme exclaim, "Snagged!" "We are sinking!" A snag is a log of timberstuck sloping in the mud. Against one of these snags we had run. Down,down sank the huge machine. "Aunt Becky forgot to mention this, amongthe other modes of losing my life which she enumerated," I thought tomyself. "She forgot that Mississippi steamers could sink as well asblow up." However, I had no intention of going out of the world justthen, if I could help it.

  The river was at that part very wide and shallow; but I observed anisland not far off, and I hoped to reach it. If there w
ere any boatsround the vessel, there was no time to lower them. The awful plungecame. Some hundred human beings were hurled amid the turbid waters.Many were carried down with the vessel; others were shrieking piteously,and struggling for life. The weather was intensely hot. I had on butlittle clothing. I struck out towards the island. As I did so, thethought occurred to me, "For what purpose was my great strength givenme? Surely to be of use to my fellow-creatures. I can save one ofthese poor people at all events." I turned back. The first person Isaw was a poor lad, who had been my fellow-passenger on board the_Liberty_. I had more than once spoken to him. His name was Peter."Help, help!" he shrieked out. "Oh, Mr Skipwith, save me." I caughthim by the collar, and threw him on to my back. "There, Peter," said I,"cling on, but don't touch my arms, and, with Heaven's support, I'llcarry you on shore." The lad made no answer, but did as I bade him, andaway Ready and I swam towards the island. I cannot forget the shrieksand cries for help of the unfortunate beings drowning round me. Now anarm was lifted up; now two hands in the attitude of supplication. Nowthe countenance of some strong man full of horror and despair came intoview. Women and children were floating about, held up for a while bytheir clothes, and others were clinging to chairs, and stools, and bitsof the wreck, which had risen to the surface. I felt many clutch at me.A sad necessity compelled me to shake them off. I should haveendangered Peter's life, as well as my own, had I attempted to helpthem.

  It was no easy work. The current was strong, and there were eddieswhich whirled me round and round, while Mississippi's muddy waters wereless buoyant than those of the ocean. The island for which I was makingwas lower down than where the steamer had struck, or I doubt if I shouldhave been saved. As I approached the bank, I saw that there werenumerous reeds flinging it, which I doubted if I could penetrate. Stillthe attempt must be made. I looked about, till I saw a space whichappeared more clear, and I swam at it to force my way through. Thereeds seemed to grow thicker and thicker. It became very heavy work,and I feared that I should get my legs entangled, and be held fast. Atlast I saw a thick log of wood floating a little way on.

  "I will let Peter rest on it while I make my way to the shore, and,after recovering my strength, I will go off and tow him in," I thoughtto myself: and then I told him what I proposed doing. I swam up to thelog, lifted Peter off with my left hand, and had placed him on it, whileI kept myself afloat with my right, when Ready began to bark furiously,turning round his head at the log, and swimming off in an oppositedirection. I thought this odd, when suddenly the log began to move. Avast pair of jaws, with long rows of formidable teeth, opened, butinstead of snapping at me, the alligator (for such it was, and ofprodigious size) swam away after my faithful Ready. I eased poor Peter,who, terror-stricken, was about to take a most uncomfortable ride on thealligator's back, and dragging him off before the creature had towed usmany yards, I succeeded, by efforts which the greatest alarm alone couldhave enabled me to make, in reaching the shore. I climbed up the bankmyself, and was dragging up poor Peter, when the alligator, disappointedin catching the sagacious Ready, who was safe on land, furiously barkingat him, made a dash towards us. I had just time to draw the boy up by aviolent jerk, when the monster's long jaws closed with a loud clackclose to his heels. Peter shrieked out, believing that he was caught,but I soon reassured him, and, by setting him on his legs, proved thathe had retained them. The alligator, or cayman, was, however, not to bebaulked of his prey, and, not being aware of the number of peoplefloating away helplessly down the stream, he began to climb up the bankwith the intention of catching one of us at least. The island was ofabout twenty acres in extent, with a clump of cypress trees and a palmor two in the centre; but the ground of the greater portion was soft andboggy, and covered with reeds, and long grass springing up among logs oftimber, in all stages of decay, which had been washed up during thefloods of spring. This was not very convenient ground for activeoperations; yet still the alligator took care that we should be activelyemployed. As we had no arms with which to assail him, we could only acton the defensive.

  The alligator soon got up the bank, and then stopped and eyed us allthree, meditating, apparently, which he should first devour. I had madePeter move a little way off on one side of me, while Ready ran about onthe other. The brute was hungry, and, seeing that I was the largestanimal, he made up his mind to have me first; so on he waddled throughthe grass, at so rapid a rate, that the consequences, had I tumbled,would have been very serious.

  Ready played his part admirably, and directly he saw that the cayman wasrunning at me, he began to bark more furiously than ever, so as todistract the monster's attention. He succeeded, for the alligatorstopped several times to look at him, but his mouth was watering withthe anticipation of the _bonne bouche_ my substantial carcass wouldprove, and he again made chase after me. I shouted to the lad to runfor the clump of trees. He obeyed my directions as well as he could,but twice he fell and disappeared between some logs, and I was afraid hewas lost, but he scrambled out and ran on. I had to keep my eyes aboutme, as I leaped from log to log, watching the alligator, and looking tosee where I was going. I had got more than half way to the clump oftrees, when I heard a loud hissing, and looking down, I found that I wasabout to leap into a nest of snakes. Mrs Snake put up her head, offlat, venomous form, and I thought would have flown at me, but I sprangon one side with more agility than ever. I had not much fear of thecayman, but no courage, strength, or activity would avail against asingle serpent, and the island, I suspected, swarmed with them. Itwould not, however, have done to stop, as the alligator, having no dreadof the snakes, did not. Peter had reached the clump, and had wiselybegun to climb a tree. I dashed after him, kicking up severalrattlesnakes who had not time to bite me, Ready running by my side, andour pursuer, as the ground was smoother, following faster than ever. Iseized Ready in my arms, and threw him up to Peter, who caught him, andplaced him safely on a branch, while I sprang up after him, and thealligator, who darted on, snapped his jaws within a foot of my legs as Iswung them up out of his way. A pretty predicament we were in, perchedon the branch of a cypress tree with the monster cayman leering up at usfrom below, and thinking it very hard, after all the trouble he hadtaken, that we should have escaped his jaws. Still I felt how muchbetter off we were than the several hundred human beings who had sosuddenly met a watery grave. I looked out from our perch towards thespot where the steamer had gone down. Not a creature could I see: thepieces of wreck, with people floating on them, had been carried out ofsight down the stream, but whether any were likely to reach the shore Icould not tell. I thought that some might; but I pictured them roamingabout through those vast swamps, without food, far from humanhabitations, till at length they fell a prey to alligators, or werekilled by serpents, or sank down and died from hunger and fatigue. Ourposition was not very pleasant either, for the river was so wide that Iwas not at all certain that we should be seen by vessels passing up anddown; and I dreaded that we might be starved before we could get off. Igrew very hungry, for I had been waiting to rush into dinner when thevessel sank. Peter had scarcely spoken; indeed, I was uncertain whetheror not he was grateful to me for saving him; but he was evidently not alad of words. I remarked that I had had nothing to eat since breakfast.

  "What, haven't you had your dinner, sir?" he exclaimed, in a tone ofsurprise. "Well, things always turn out lucky with me. Here, sir."

  Diving into his coat-pockets, he produced some meat and cheese, and twolarge lumps of bread, which, however, were rather mashed by the soakingthey had got.

  "There, take that; it will do you good; you want something after thatlong swim," said he.

  "Thank you, I will take a piece of bread and meat gladly," I answered."You, Peter, keep the rest for yourself."

  "No, no, it's yours, sir. I'll not touch it," he replied in adetermined, steady tone. I ate a small portion, and begged him to keepthe rest.

  "There's another friend wants something," he remarked, cutting of
f apiece of the cheese rind and some gristle from the meat, and giving themto Ready, who had looked up wistfully at him as he was handing me thefood. "There, old fellow, you deserve it, I am sure you do," said he,patting the dog's head.

  I had little doubt after this that Peter's heart was in the right place.Night, was coming on, and the danger of our position increased. Whenthe sun went down, the mosquitoes attacked us furiously, and ran theirhuge probosces into our skins, till there was scarcely a spot without awound. The only satisfaction was that they kept us awake; for had wegone to sleep, we might have fallen off the bough; and had we fallen offthe bough, we should have tumbled into the jaws of the alligator,waiting anxiously below to devour us. Such were the not over-pleasantprospects for the approaching night.