Yule Logs/The Slaver's Revenge
|←Sir Richard's Squires||The Slaver's Revenge
|On a Mexican Ranche→|
|published in Yule Logs, G. A. Henty, ed.|
THE SLAVER'S REVENGE
By HARRY COLLINGWOOD
Author of "The Log of a Privateersman," &c. &c.
THE BEGINNING OF THE ADVENTURE
YOU ask me to relate to you the most terrible adventure I ever experienced? Well, my whole life, from the time when, as a lad of fifteen, I first took to the sea, has been one of adventure, and I have passed through several rather thrilling experiences, so that it is not quite so easy a matter as you may imagine for me to say, off hand and at a moment's notice, which was the most terrible of them all. But, as you seem anxious for a yarn, I will tell you of an adventure that befell me shortly after I received my first command.
I was serving on the West Coast at the time, and, when this yarn begins, held the position of third lieutenant on board the Narcissus, a corvette belonging to the slave squadron. It was in the year 1826, just two years after slave-trading had been declared to be piracy in the eye of the law, and its perpetrators subject to the punishment of death if caught in the act. Popular feeling at home was very strong upon the subject; the sympathy of the nation had been powerfully aroused by the stories which from time to time found their way into the papers of the sufferings inflicted upon the blacks in the process of converting them into slaves; strenuous orders had been sent out to us to be unsparing in our efforts to suppress the infamous traffic; and we were all as keen as hounds in our endeavours to run down and bring to book the rascals who openly laughed at and defied us.
My adventure may be said to have commenced with a slice of luck that befell us in this wise. We were cruising at the time in the neighbourhood of Cape Lopez, standing close-hauled to the northward under easy canvas, when, about three bells in the afternoon watch, the lookout aloft reported a sail broad on our starboard bow. We could see nothing of her from the deck, so I took my glass and went up on to the fore top-gallant-yard, from which position I made out the craft to be a smallish schooner, with stumpy but very raking spars upon which was spread an enormous show of canvas. My first look at her satisfied me that she was a slaver; and the fact that she was steering to the westward under every thread that she could show to the hot, languid breeze, was proof enough that she had a cargo of slaves under her hatches. Of course I lost no time in reporting my convictions to the skipper, and in another instant all was bustle and activity on board the corvette as we crowded sail in chase.
As the afternoon wore on, the wind fell light; but so well was the corvette handled that when at length the sun went down in a clear sky, giving promise of a breathless night, we had the satisfaction of seeing that the slaver was helplessly becalmed, as was our own case soon afterwards.
Some time before this, however, I had observed Captain Pascoe and our first luff in close confabulation; and shortly after the golden orb of the sun had disappeared beneath the horizon the former beckoned to me and said——
"Mr. Farmer, I believe we are about to have a fine, calm night; I have therefore determined to send the boats away to capture that schooner; and I intend to put the expedition under the command of Mr. Richardson"—the first lieutenant—"with you to second him. Have the goodness, therefore, to proceed at once with the necessary preparations, as the boats will shove off the moment that it is sufficiently dark to conceal your movements. I have no doubt the fellow will expect you, but it is hardly worth while to tell him plainly what our intentions are."
Our preparations were soon made and I then dived below, snatched a hasty substitute for dinner, in the shape of some cold meat and pickles, and was all ready, with my sword belted to my side, and a brace of freshly-loaded pistols stuck in my belt, in time for the skipper's inspection of our little party prior to shoving off.
Captain Pascoe waited patiently until the darkness had closed down upon us sufficiently to completely hide the chase from even his penetrating gaze, and then he gave the word to shove off; whereupon away we went, with muffled oars, and the boat binnacles so carefully shrouded that we felt perfectly secure against our presence being betrayed by any stray glimmer of light emanating from them. The master had taken the bearings of the schooner with the utmost nicety just before she disappeared in the darkness, and he gave us the course which we were to steer.
Our expedition consisted of the first cutter and the gig, under Mr. Richardson, and the second cutter and the jolly-boat, under my command; the whole mustering forty-eight hands, all told, including two venturesome mids who, preferring the excitement of a scrimmage to the more solid delights of dinner, had begged permission to be placed in charge of the gig and jolly-boat respectively.
We had been pulling about half-an-hour when the dull muffled roll of sweeps became audible, and upon listening intently we discovered that the schooner was sweeping away in a southerly direction, or at right angles to the course which we were steering. We therefore shifted our helm to cut her off.
The men now bent to their oars with a will, keeping up a steady but fairly fast pace for an hour, by which time we were able not only to distinctly hear the roll and splash of the sweeps, but also to see the schooner as a small, vague, indefinite shadow of deeper blackness against the dark background of the overcast sky. The rascals had taken in every thread of canvas, so that it was only her hull we saw; but having once sighted this, we never again allowed our glances to stray from it.
We had arrived within about a quarter of a mile of our quarry, and were congratulating ourselves upon having so far escaped detection, when a voice from the shadow hailed us in Spanish, demanding who we were and what we wanted.
"Oars!" murmured the first luff, in tones of deep but suppressed excitement; "do not answer! not a sound, for your lives!"
About half a minute of intense anxiety now ensued, when the hail was repeated ; and immediately afterwards the ghastly blue-white radiance of a portfire lit up the scene, distinctly revealing the hull, spars, and rigging of the schooner, with the figure of the man who held the firework standing by the fore rigging, one hand grasping a backstay, and the other holding the portfire high above his head, with sparks shooting and dropping into the water alongside, and the white smoke curling lazily upward between the naked masts.
"Boats ahoy!" hailed the voice again, "if you do not instantly sheer off I will open fire upon you! Do you hear?"
"What does the fellow say, Farmer?" demanded Richardson; "you understand that lingo, don't you?"
I translated; whereupon he murmured——
"Oh yes, my hearty, we hear well enough; but we shall just have to take our chance. Give way, men, with a will! At them before they have time to recover from their surprise! You will board on the port side, if you please, Mr. Farmer."
"Ay, ay, sir!" answered I. "Bend your backs, my lads, and let's get alongside! Marines, stand by to return their fire if they open upon us!"
I was in hopes that, having recognised our strength, they would see the folly of resisting us; but they did not; on the contrary, they gave us a broadside of four guns—six-pounders they sounded like—and at the same time opened upon us a confused fire of musketry. One of the men in my boat gave a gasping groan as he dropped his oar and reeled off his thwart into the bottom of the boat; but we had no time to attend to him just then, for in another minute we were alongside, and I sprang over the low bulwarks of the schooner, closely followed by the men of my own division, as Richardson, with his two boats, swept under the stern to board on the starboard side.We were met by a ragamuffin crowd of swarthy, black-haired, fierce-eyed ruffians, rendered visible by the light of a second portfire which a burly negro held aloft, who greeted us with a lively popping of pistols, followed by a great brandishing of cutlasses and knives. But our fellows meant making short work of the job, and laid about them with such energy and good-will that the Spaniards almost instantly gave way before us, only to find themselves attacked in the rear by the first luff and his party. This was altogether too much for them: they flung down their weapons and bolted incontinently for the fore-scuttle, down which they tumbled helter-skelter, one on the top of another; and almost before we were able to realise our success we were in possession of the schooner.
"We were met by a ragamuffin crowd of swarthy, black-haired, fierce-eyed ruffians."
THE CAPTURE OF THE "ST. IAGO DE CUBA"
Our prize turned out to be the Don Cristoval—a craft notorious alike for her astounding sailing powers, for the insolent daring of her commander, and for the success with which she had hitherto eluded all our efforts to overhaul her. Her capture, therefore, was quite a feather in our caps, altogether apart from the fact that two hundred and forty-four negroes were stowed under her hatches, for whom we should in due course receive head-money. Brief as the struggle for her possession had been, it had not been altogether bloodless; for when we came to investigate, it was discovered that we had three men wounded, while, on the side of the slavers, their loss amounted to two killed and seven wounded, one of them being their skipper, the infamous Captain Lenoir—a Frenchman—whose skull I had cloven upon the instant of boarding, and who was found to be so desperately hurt that there appeared but little prospect of his surviving to take his trial.
Having secured our prisoners, and made the wounded as comfortable as possible, we made the pre-arranged signal of success by hoisting three lanterns, one over the other, at the mainmast-head; after which we got the canvas set, and then disposed ourselves to wait as patiently as might be for a breeze to spring up and enable us to close with the corvette. Meanwhile, having nothing better to do, we released the cook and bade him go to work to cook the best dinner—or supper—for us that the resources of the ship would permit.
It was not until some time after midnight that a soft, warm air came stealing out to us from off the land; and then we obtained an insight into the marvellous sailing powers of our prize that was a revelation to us. With a breeze so light that it had not strength to keep the mainsheet taut, the little witch sneaked along through the water at a good four and a half knots, with scarcely a ripple under her sharp bows to indicate that she was moving! We closed with the Narcissus about an hour later, when Mr. Richardson went on board—taking the wounded with him—to report, and to receive the skipper's instructions in reference to the prize. Shortly afterwards a boat came alongside with a request that I would proceed on board the corvette, leaving the prize in charge of one of the midshipmen. This I did, and, upon my arrival, discovered that our good-natured "first" had spoken so highly of my conduct that I was appointed prize-master, with instructions to select a crew of ten men, to return to the schooner with all speed, and to make the best of my way to Sierra Leone, there to await the arrival of the Narcissus. These orders I carefully carried out, arriving in the roadstead two days later, and exactly thirty hours in advance of the corvette.
The Don Cristoval having been captured with negroes actually on board, the Mixed Commission promptly condemned her, while her crew were committed for trial; and upon the day following her condemnation I learned that the schooner had been purchased into the service for use against some of her equally notorious sisters. There was one craft in particular—a barque named the Josepha—that we were especially anxious to lay hands upon, as hitherto she—or rather, her skipper—had simply laughed at and defied us; but now, with the Don Cristoval in our possession, it was confidently believed that we should at length succeed in capturing the too-successful barque, and bringing her insolent commander and crew to justice.
To capture such a craft would be fame indeed, and would almost certainly mean promotion as well—imagine, therefore, if you can, the delight with which I shortly afterwards received the intelligence that, through our skipper's representations, I had been appointed to the command of the Don Cristoval!
So rapidly did I push forward our preparations that on the eighth day after our arrival we sailed again, my instructions being to thoroughly beat up every known spot frequented by slavers, and especially to keep a sharp look-out for the Josefa.
"From information received" I had been enabled to accurately fix the date of the barque's last visit to the coast, from which I had no difficulty in calculating pretty closely when she might be expected in those waters again; and finding that I had plenty of time, I determined to stand to the southward and take a look in at the Congo, gradually working my way northward again from there.
We made rather a long passage of it, taking things very quietly, in the hope that we might encounter some slave craft either making or running off the coast, in which case I hoped that ignorance of the fact that the Don Cristoval had fallen into our hands might enable us to make one or two very easy captures. But no such luck befell us, and it was not until we arrived at Banana—a small trading settlement at the mouth of the Congo—that we sighted a craft of any kind. There, however, anchored off French Point, at the mouth of Banana Creek, we came upon quite a little fleet, numbering eight sail in all, three of which were undoubtedly honest traders, beamy, round-bowed, motherly-looking craft, the best of which might possibly be capable of going seven—or maybe eight—knots with a gale of wind over her quarter; while the remaining five—consisting of a slashing brig, two smart brigantines, and two as wicked-looking schooners as I ever set eyes on—were as undoubtedly slavers. But in hoping, as I did, that I should catch some of these gentry napping, I was reckoning without my host; whether news of the capture of the Don Cristoval had already got wind and been spread along the coast, or whether there was something in the set of the schooner's canvas or our method of handling her that aroused their suspicions, I could not tell, but certain it is that when I boarded them their skippers one and all produced papers which certified to their absolute honesty, while they were virtuously indignant at the doubts which led me to intimate that I must nevertheless take the liberty of overhauling their holds. Of course no opposition was raised—they were fully aware that anything of that kind would have been worse than useless—but many a scowling look did I intercept, and many a muttered execration reached my ear as I proceeded with my search. Needless to say that my labour was all in vain; the rascals had been too smart for me; I found neither irons, nor farina, nor any excess of water-casks on board any of them to give colour to the suspicion that they were otherwise than honest; but all the same I was perfectly well aware that there was neither palm-oil nor ivory in anything like sufficient quantity in Banana to account for the presence of so many craft off its wharves. And upon my hinting as much to one of the traders ashore, he frankly admitted that such was the case, but he explained that large quantities of both were on their way down to the coast, and might be expected to arrive at any moment. I remained at anchor there for the next three days, prowling about on shore—taking the precaution to always go well armed—and exploring in a boat the intricate network of creeks in the neighbourhood, but I made no discoveries; and the only incident worthy of note that occurred during this period was the sudden sailing of one of the schooners within three hours of our arrival.
On the evening of the third day I weighed and stood out to sea under a press of canvas, hauling up to the northward as soon as I had cleared the mouth of the river, carrying on until dark, in the hope of impressing those who I knew were watching me, with the belief that I had somehow obtained important intelligence upon which I was acting. But as soon as the night had closed down upon us sufficiently to conceal our movements, I wore round and stood to the southward again, finally anchoring in seventy fathoms of water at a distance of some twenty-two miles north-west of Padron Point. Having done this, I ordered the royal, top-gallant, and topsail yards to be sent down, and the fore-topmast to be housed, after which there was nothing for us to do but to possess our souls in patience and wait for some of the slavers to come out and fall into our clutches, as I felt confident they would in the course of a day or two, provided that in the meantime no inward-bound craft hove in sight to tempt us from our watching-place, or to slip past us and give the alarm. And I had every justification for this feeling of confidence, for two nights later, as I was in the very act of going below to turn in after chatting with the youngster who acted as my "first," and who was in charge of the deck, the look-out aloft hailed—
"On deck, there!"
"Hillo!" I responded; "do you see anything?"
"Well, I ain't quite certain yet, sir, but for the last ten minutes I've been thinkin' that there's a small spot of darkness showin' out again' the sky right ahead, and I thought I'd better let you know, sir," was the answer.
"Quite right, my lad," I responded. "Keep your eye on it, and I will send up the night-glass to you by way of the signal halliards."
"Ay, ay, sir," the fellow answered; and in another half-minute the glass was bent on and making its way aloft to the gingerly swaying away of the quartermaster, while a faint murmur of eager anticipation came floating aft from the forecastle upon the heavy, damp night breeze, which was blowing off the land.
For several long minutes after the instrument had reached its destination we were kept upon the tenter-hooks of suspense; but at length another hail, in low, cautious tones, came down from the mast-head—
"On deck, there! there's something coming out of the river, sir! No mistake about it this time, because her canvas has just shut out a star that's risin'. And she's comin' along fast, too, sir; I can make her out quite distinct with the naked heye."
"Capital!" I exclaimed; "that is good news indeed! Can you make out how she is heading?"
"Well, only in a general sort of way, sir," was the reply. "She's steerin' this way, o' course, but she's edgin' away to the nor'ard too. I reckon that if we stays where we are now, she'll pass us about a matter of three or four mile to the nor'ard."
"Very well," I responded. "Keep your eye upon her; do not lose sight of her for an instant. Now, Mr. Adams," I continued to the midshipman in charge of the deck, "have all hands called, if you please, and let some of them man the capstan and get the anchor to the bows, while the rest get the fore-topmast on end and the yards across. And, remember, they will have to see with their hands, for no lights whatever must be shown. With only ordinary care we ought to nab that fellow easily."
And we did, regulating our movements so accurately that, although we were soon afterwards discovered, we contrived to get alongside her within an hour, ranging up on her weather quarter and hailing her to heave-to, which she did without attempting any resistance; and a few minutes later we found ourselves masters of the St. Iago de Cuba—the brig I had boarded in the river—with three hundred and eighty-four slaves in her hold! I could spare but a very small prize crew to take her into Sierra Leone, I therefore took the precaution to put the whole of her people in irons; having done which, I sent her away in charge of my senior mid and ten men, giving him instructions to carry on day and night until his arrival. This done, we parted company, and I returned to my former lurking-place off the mouth of the Congo, where I was next day fortunate enough to capture a fine brigantine with three hundred and twelve slaves under hatches.
"CAPITAN ST. CROIX"
The prize crew necessary to man this second capture left me so very short-handed that, after due consideration, I decided to escort her to Sierra Leone in the schooner, which would enable me to get my men back quickly, and would at the same time afford me an opportunity to replenish my stores and water. This I accordingly did, arriving only a few hours later than the St. Iago de Cuba. I soon had reason, however, to regret the decision at which I had arrived, for several unexpected difficulties arose over the adjudication of my prizes, involving so serious a delay that when at length we got to sea again I was tormented with anxiety lest the Josefa should have arrived upon the coast, shipped another cargo of slaves, and slipped off again ere I could obtain news of her. I had been given to understand, however, that, although somewhat erratic in her movements, she chiefly frequented the Congo; I determined, therefore, to make the best of my way back to that river in the first place, trusting to chance for information as to her whereabouts upon my arrival.
I was not destined, however, to wait so long, for while slipping across the Gulf of Guinea, in the latitude of the island of St. Thomas, we sighted a small felucca, to which we at once gave chase. This craft, however, instead of attempting to avoid us, promptly bore up and came running down to meet us. She ran down across our stern, and, in response to my hail, rounded to on our lee quarter, lowered her single lateen sail, and launched a boat from her gangway, in which her skipper, with two hands as boat's crew, presently pulled alongside us. The man—a bare-footed, decidedly unclean, and rather disreputable-looking Frenchman, attired in a suit of once white nankin, topped by a broad-brimmed straw hat—appeared to be labouring under much ill-repressed excitement as he climbed our low side and stepped in on deck, casting quick, anxious glances about him as he did so. When, however, his gaze encountered me I was wearing my uniform cap at the moment—his anxiety appeared to subside to a considerable extent, and he at once doffed his hat as he made me a sweeping bow, exclaiming at the same time—
"Bon jour, monsieur! Have I ze honour to address an officer of Grand Bretagne?"
"Yes, sir, you have, if you choose to put the matter that way," I replied. "This vessel is his Britannic Majesty's schooner Curlew, late the Don Cristoval; and my name is Farmer. Am I correct in supposing that you have boarded me because you stand in need of assistance?"
"Ah, oui, monsieur, it is so," was the reply, given with much gesticulation. "I have been hoping to fall in wiz a Breetish man-o'-war evaire since I have sailed from ze Congo; it is two day since. Saire"—here the fellow's excitement began to grow upon him again—"I desire revenge! I have been rob, saire, by one rascal pirate who come alongside my leetle sheep, as I sail out of ze Congo; he board me, saire, with un bateau full of men, arm to ze teeth, as you Angleesh say, and he take from me all my cargo of ivory and caoutchouc, leaving me wiz only my leetle eighty barrel of palm-oil. Saire, I am ruin unless you will get back my ivory and caoutchouc for me!"
"I shall be very pleased to do my best for you, certainly, if you can put me on the track of the pirates who robbed you," answered I. "Where did they go after they had cleared you out?"
"Saire," answered the Frenchman eagerly, "dhey did sail right into ze Congo river, where dhey are doubtless now shipping a cargo of esclaves. I know ze sheep well, for I have often see her when I have been waiting for my ivory to come down."
"Oh!" exclaimed I interestedly, "so she is a slaver as well as a pirate, is she?"
"Yais, yais, pirate and slavaire both, monsieur," answered the Frenchman. "She is a large—what you call, eh?—un—un—barque—oui, monsieur, a barque call ze Josefa, commande par un coquin——"
The Josefa?" interrupted I. "Are you quite sure of what you say, monsieur?"
"Oui, oui, monsieur," answered the fellow, "I am quite certaine; I have made no mistake; I know ze barque well as I know my own poor leetle Muette. I am not likely to make ze mistake when they have rob me of all my ivory and caoutchouc!"
"Very well, sir," responded I; "I will make a bargain with you. Guide us to where you suppose the Josefa to be; and should I find her with your assistance, I promise you that you shall have all the ivory and caoutchouc that we may find on board her."
The man clasped his hands rapturously. "Bon, mon cher monsieur; bon!" he exclaimed. "It is ze bargain; it is agreed!"
"Then that is all right," I remarked. "And now, monsieur, having made our bargain, I shall be very pleased if you will do me the honour to remain on board and dine with me; we can then talk over matters a little more in detail, and you can explain to me where the Josefa is to be found."
The Frenchman—who, by the way, now introduced himself to me as "Capitan St. Croix"—at once accepted my invitation; having done which, he sent his boat back to the felucca, with instructions to his mate to make sail and keep close in our wake, whereupon we filled upon the schooner and resumed our course to the southward.
By the time that dinner was served in our hot, stuffy little cabin that evening, I had succeeded in extracting from M. St. Croix the information that the Josefa would be found concealed in a certain creek of the Congo, which had been so thoroughly fortified as to be practically impregnable. This was bad news; moreover, I found it a little difficult to clearly follow some of St. Croix' descriptions; but by the time that he left me that night to return to his felucca, I had learned enough to clearly understand that I must depend upon stratagem rather than force for success.
All this threw me into a perfect fever of impatience to get back to the river, which was not lessened when I discovered that the wretched little felucca seemed incapable of doing anything better than five knots under the most favourable conditions that we were likely to meet with on our voyage. I stood it for twenty-four hours, during which we in the schooner jogged along under nothing but a double-reefed mainsail, fore staysail, and jib, in order that we might not run away from our slow-moving consort; and then my impatience so far mastered me that I proposed to St. Croix that he should take up his quarters aboard the Curlew—as we had renamed the Don Cristoval—and leave the felucca to follow at her leisure. For two whole days the Frenchman obdurately rejected my proposal; but on the third my perseverance triumphed, and late in the afternoon we parted company with the Muette, having St. Croix on board the schooner, and with him one of his Krumen—who, he assured me, knew every creek on the river, from Shark Point up to Boma—and a small canoe, which I understood him to say would be an absolute necessity if we wished for success in our hazardous attempt.
We arrived off the mouth of the river on the following evening, about half-an-hour before sunset, and, nothing being in sight, at once stood in to make the entrance. The sky was overcast, and the night promised to be dark; but this was all in our favour, since the darkness would help to conceal our presence, while the mouth of the river being free from dangers, we could easily feel our way in with the lead.
Fortunately for my impatience, a fresh breeze happened to be blowing from the westward; we therefore crowded sail upon the schooner, and, despite the strong current, fetched up abreast of Shark Point about three bells in the first watch, when we rounded to and came to a single anchor in three fathoms in Diego Bay, just inside the river's mouth.
In accordance with the plans which I had already made, it now became necessary for me to leave the schooner, and to accompany St. Croix on a reconnoitring expedition which I was given to understand would occupy the whole of the next day, and, including the time necessary to return to the schooner, a good part of the succeeding night. I had not made up my mind to this very decisive step without due consideration, for I fully recognised the exceedingly perilous character of the adventure; but I felt convinced, from all St. Croix had told me, that my only hope of success lay in taking the Josefa and the slave factory by surprise—so preventing the possibility of the slaves being driven off to a place of safe hiding at the first alarm—and, to accomplish this surprise successfully, it was absolutely necessary that I should make myself fully acquainted, by personal observation, with every feature of the position. Attiring myself, therefore, in an old suit of slops, I embarked, with St. Croix and his Kruman, in the small canoe, leaving the schooner in charge of young Adams; when, under the impulse of a small sail, we shoved off and sped rapidly in the darkness up the river.
The Kruman who acted as pilot undoubtedly appeared—as St. Croix had asserted—to know the river thoroughly, for dark as the night was, he evinced no sign whatever of doubt or hesitation. Perched up in the stern of the canoe—which he steered with a short paddle laid out over the quarter—he sat silent and motionless as a bronze image, holding the boat's head straight for some unseen point, and never swerving a hair's-breadth from his course until, at the expiration of about two hours, we suddenly found ourselves entering a tolerably wide creek, only distinguishable as such by the deeper and more palpable darkness that enveloped us as the canoe slid in between its bush-lined banks. We were a taciturn trio, St. Croix having scarcely uttered a word since we shoved off from the schooner; while as for me, my thoughts were too full of the adventure before me to leave me much inclination for speech.
We navigated this winding creek for about three quarters of an hour, passing several branches on our way, and then, as the Kruman brought the canoe noiselessly alongside a low, gravelly bank, St. Croix leaned forward, and, laying his hand upon mine, remarked in a whisper—
"We land here, mon ami; the remainder of our journey we must perform on our feet if we desire not our throats to be cut. Tread cautiously, for ze bush it is full of snakes!"
That was a pleasant little item of news, truly, to be told on a dark night while feeling one's way along a bush path so narrow and so overgrown that the darkness was absolutely a thing to be felt! But it was a part of the adventure, so I murmured an acknowledgment of the caution and stepped over the gunwale of the canoe on to the bank, the gravel of which crunched under my feet with alarming loudness in the oppressive silence of the hot, damp night. As I did so, St. Croix said something to the Kruman in a language which I did not understand, and the next instant I received a crashing blow on the head from some hard, heavy instrument, a thousand stars danced before my eyes as I reeled forward under the impact of the stroke, and then I knew no more.
When I recovered consciousness, the first thing of which I became aware was that I was suffering from a splitting headache; the next, that I was again afloat, for I could hear the soft gurgle of water close to my ear on either side; and the next, that it was still as dark as ever. I was occupying a very cramped and uncomfortable position, lying on my right side, or shoulder, rather, with my hands behind me, and my legs doubled up so that my heels seemed to be tucked into the small of my back; but, upon attempting to move, I made the unwelcome discovery that I was lashed hard and fast, hands and heels together. Then, before my bemuddled brain had time to do more than suggest an inquiry as to what had happened, I heard St. Croix' voice.
Thereupon I spoke. "Are you there, St. Croix?" I inquired.
"Ay, I am here!" he answered, in a tone curiously suggestive of exultation.
"What has happened?" I next demanded.
"Happened?" he reiterated. "Why, you have simply fallen into ze tr-r-r-ap zat I set for you, scélérat, and are now in my power!"
"Your power?" I repeated. "I don't understand. Pray explain yourself. But, first of all, if you are free yourself, just cast off these lashings of mine, will you; they hurt most abominably!"
"Ha! ha! zhey hurt, do zhey?" he retorted. "Bon! so much ze better-r-r; I am glad! Listen, mon bon capitan! I am not Jules St. Croix at all; I am Jules Lenoir, ze elder brother of ze man you killed vhen you capture ze Don Cristoval, and I am also ze capitan of ze Josefa! Vhen I hear zhat my brother vhas kill, I svear zhat I vill have my revanche; and vhen ve hear zhat you have capture ze St. Iago and ze Mercedes" (the brigantine) "it vhas agree zhat you make yourself too troublesome, and zhat you must be remove out of our way. So I plan vone leetle plan, and go to sea in ze Muette to look for you; and behold! here you are!"
"So!" ejaculated I; "I begin to understand. And, now that you have me, pray what are you going to do with me? Murder me?"
"Non! non!" answered my captor, "I vill not stain my hands vith your dirty blood; I vill make a present of you to my good friend King Plenty. He vill know vhat to do vith you!"
King Plenty! I had heard of him as a most ferocious savage inhabiting a spot on one of the creeks on the southern bank of the river, a potentate who, thanks to his dealings with the slavers, had accumulated a vast store of wealth in the shape of rum, muskets, and ammunition, and who, with the aid of the two latter, had become quite a power among his neighbour kings. Naturally, therefore, the objects of his deepest and most concentrated hatred were those pestilent white men who were making such strenuous efforts to suppress the slave-trade; and it was rumoured that when, at rare intervals, one of these hated beings had the misfortune to fall into his hands, the event was celebrated by a festivity the principal feature of which consisted in putting the captive to death with every refinement of torture that the savage imagination could devise. And this was the individual into whose power I was to be delivered, bound hand and foot!
And this—a cruel, lingering death at the stake, most probably—was to be the end of all the high hopes and aspirations with which I had entered upon this disastrous adventure! What a fool I had been to allow myself to be so easily trapped, I reflected; and yet when I recalled all that had passed between this villain Lenoir and myself, I could remember no single word or look in the least calculated to arouse my suspicion; the whole plot had been woven with such diabolical skill, the story told had been so cunningly plausible, that, as it seemed to me, no man anxious to do his duty could fail to have been caught by it. Well, I could at least die game; I would not disgrace myself and my cloth by showing fear or pleading for mercy; and, having come to this resolution, I turned a deaf ear to all the revilings, the sneers, and the brutal jocosities to which Lenoir treated me. Then, just as day was breaking, I suddenly became aware of a group of tall trees towering overhead, and the next instant the canoe gently grounded on a sandy beach. Lenoir at once sprang to his feet and shouted something in a language that I did not understand; and presently a great crowd of jabbering savages came swarming round the canoe, and I was lifted out and carried off to a palm-leaf hut, upon the floor of which I was unceremoniously flung. But in the short interval of my transit from the canoe to the hut I managed to catch a fleeting glimpse of a broad creek, with the Josefa and a schooner at anchor on its placid bosom, a native town of probably a hundred and fifty huts, and two immense barracoons standing under the shadow of a clump of enormously tall trees. Lenoir quickly followed me into the hut, to examine my lashings, turning me over unceremoniously with his foot to do so; when, having satisfied himself that I was absolutely secure, he walked out again without uttering a word.
I was now left undisturbed for about a couple of hours, during which I strove my utmost to loosen my lashings; but I might as well have striven to fly, I was bound with new ratline, and it had been drawn so tight and knotted so securely that I was as helpless as though chained.
All this while I was conscious of the sounds of many feet passing to and fro outside the hut, and of a perfect babel of jabbering, excited tongues; and at length a couple of natives entered the hut and by significant gestures indicated that I was to rise and follow them. But, bound as I was, the thing was impossible; so after prodding me ineffectually several times with their spears they cut my feet loose, and, seizing me by the arms, half led, half dragged me from the hut.
Once in the open air, I was immediately surrounded by a crowd of laughing, shouting, gesticulating savages, who seemed to be vastly entertained by my helpless appearance—for my limbs had become so completely benumbed by the tightness of my bonds that I had no feeling or strength in them. Thus surrounded, I was dragged for about a quarter of mile to a great open space in the centre of the town, and there securely bound to the trunk of an immense tree, the scorched, blackened, and leafless branches of which told me only too well to what fiendish purpose it was from time to time put. And here for the remainder of that terrible day I was kept bareheaded, exposed to the full blaze of the relentless sun, without either food or drink, while the natives swarmed round me, discussing with great delight and animation what from their looks and gestures I divined to be the subject of my approaching torments.What my sufferings, mental and physical, were during those few brief hours, language has no words to express;
"A gang of some fifty negroes appeared."
At length, when the sun had declined to within about two hours of his setting, a gang of some fifty negroes appeared, each bearing either a heavy log or a large bundle of brushwood upon his shoulder, which they forthwith began to arrange in a wide circle round the tree to which I was bound. These fellows were speedily followed by others similarly burdened, so that within half-an-hour I was hemmed in by a compact wall of logs and brushwood standing about breast-high. I needed no explanation of these sinister preparations; but, that I might be left in no possible doubt, Lenoir made his appearance outside the barrier, over which he shouted the intelligence that some time that night it would be fired, and, when well ablaze, would be gradually pushed forward, so that I might be slowly roasted to death!
The heat that afternoon was positively frightful, for the wind died away to a breathless calm, and while the savages were building my funeral pyre, I noticed the upper edge of a great bank of purple-grey cloud soaring gradually into the western heavens, and spreading as it soared, the sure precursor of one of those terrific thunder-storms to which the Congo district is subject at certain periods of the year; so that, as I reflected dismally, I was likely to go to my fiery doom in a sufficiently picturesque and dramatic manner. When the sun at length plunged behind this livid curtain, the latter had spread in a crescent shape until a full quarter of the firmament was obscured, and I observed that it was rising and spreading with great rapidity.
The darkness gathered early that night, and as it did so the savages provided themselves with torches, gathering in such vast numbers round the circle of combustibles that hemmed me in that it soon became almost as light as day again, although not so light but that I could detect through the yellow, smoky glare the flickering lightnings wherewith the coming storm heralded its approach.
By-and-by the slow, measured beat of a tom-tom became audible through the noisy chattering of the vast crowd that had gathered about me, and immediately the excited jabbering subsided into an almost breathless silence. Then another tom-tom joined in, and another, and another, until there must have been a full dozen of them going, the beating becoming momentarily more rapid, until my throbbing brain fairly reeled with the giddy sounds, above which the low, sullen rumble of distant thunder now made itself heard. Presently I became aware, by the increasing loudness of the savage music, that the tom-tom beaters were approaching, and two or three minutes later they wheeled into the open space in front of me, and squatted down upon their haunches, with their tom-toms—now being most furiously beaten—between their knees. They were followed by about a hundred men fully armed with spear and shield, in the midst of which, borne aloft on a sort of rude throne supported upon the shoulders of eight stalwart negroes, sat an enormously fat man, black as ebony, naked save for a leopard skin apron about his loins, armed with some half-dozen long, broad-bladed, cruel-looking spears. This potentate, whom I rightly surmised to be King Plenty, halted his bearers square in front of me, scrutinised me curiously, and with a savage leer of delight upon his bloated features, for fully ten minutes. Then he made a sign by raising his right hand in the air, and on the instant some thirty or forty savages sprang forward with a shout and thrust their blazing torches into the heart of the combustibles by which I was surrounded.
"Thank God," thought I, "it will soon be over now!" and I only regretted that there was no wind to blow the smoke my way and suffocate me out of my misery. But the air was breathless, and the brown wreaths of pungent smoke went curling straight upward to the black heavens in an unbroken circle.
"Borne aloft on a sort of rude throne supported upon the shoulders of eight stalwart negroes."
Meanwhile the storm was gathering apace; the lightning was rapidly becoming more vivid and frequent; the thunder louder, deeper, and nearer every moment; and I remember wondering whether the fire, when fully ignited, would have power enough to withstand the pelting torrents of rain that would by-and-by come, and whether I should be still alive to feel its refreshing coolness.
But, rapidly as grew the storm, the fire grew more rapidly—for the savages had been careful to collect only thoroughly dry wood—and within ten minutes of its ignition the zone of flame which encircled me had become a roaring furnace, giving out an amount of heat that was already scarcely endurable, while fresh supplies of wood were being thrown upon the blazing pile, and the savages were pushing it slowly inward toward me with long poles.
Another ten minutes and I could tell by the smell that my clothing was scorching on my body, while the skin of my face and hands began to blister here and there under the influence of the fierce heat that now played upon me, and the air that I breathed burnt my nostrils like flame. The tom-toms were still being furiously beaten, the lightning was flashing and quivering continuously athwart the black heavens, and the thunder was booming overhead like the salvoes of artillery from hostile fleets in close action, but I was only dimly conscious of it all. I had attention for but one thing—the fierce, intolerable heat that played about me, searing my eyeballs, and leaping toward me in long, crackling tongues of roaring flame that momentarily threatened to envelop me as a garment.
I was tottering upon the very verge of insensibility—or was it death?—when I was aroused by the splashing of a few heavy drops of delicious coolness upon my upturned, blistering face; another breathless moment, during which a terrific flash of sun-bright lightning clove the darkness and dimmed even the fierce light of the flames that encompassed me, and down came the rain in true tropical style, a perfect cascade of sweet, tepid water that in an instant drenched me to the skin, and revived me as though the shower had been the very elixir of life. I opened my mouth and allowed the blessed drops to fall upon my cracked lips and parched tongue; and so great was the refreshment of them that I actually forgot the fire that roared and crackled and hissed about me! In a moment I found myself enveloped in a dense cloud of steam, through which the leaping flames flickered and dwindled, growing less and less, until, almost before I had time to realise what was happening, the fire was extinguished, and I found myself plunged in darkness and silence, save for the frequent glare of the lightning, and the almost continuous crash of the thunder. The storm having extinguished the fire, the natives had beaten a hasty retreat to their huts, leaving me to the tender mercies of the elements. A few minutes later, however—by which time the storm was raging furiously, thunder and lightning, wind and rain, seeming to be striving together in one tremendous effort of destruction—Lenoir, wet to the skin, and with the rain literally streaming off him, suddenly appeared beside me, and in another moment I felt him trying my lashings. Apparently they were secure enough to satisfy him, for presently he came round in front of me, and, watching me by the continuous flickering glare of the lightning, remarked—
"So ho, mon ami, how do you like dis after your roasting? Quite cool and refreshing, eh? Ah, but perhaps it is too cool! Vell, nevaire mind, mon cher, it vill not last long; ze sun vill rise again to-morrow and warm you, and to-morrow night ze good King Plenty he vill light anoder fire for you! You vill not mind staying here all night, eh? No, of course not. But I—I am afraid of ze fevaire, so I vill go aboard, dry myself, and turn in; because, you see, dere is a big cargo of esclaves coming down for me to-morrow, and aftaire I have shipped dem I vill only stay to see ze last of you, and den I vill be off. Bon soir, mon cher! A pleasant night and happy dreams I vish you!"
And, so saying, he bowed ironically, and disappeared in the darkness.I was, however, not destined to endure the sufferings to which this scoundrel so exultingly looked forward; for scarcely had he disappeared when I became aware of the presence of another visitor. I suddenly felt that some one was manipulating the lashings that Lenoir had so carefully scrutinised a few minutes previously, and presently, to my inexpressible surprise and delight, I discovered that I was free. At the same moment a small, soft hand grasped mine, and gently drew me round to the other side of the tree, where I found myself confronted by a young native girl, who promptly intimated the necessity for caution by placing her finger on her lips. We waited where we were for a few seconds, until an unusually vivid flash of lightning rendered the whole scene as bright as day, and then, in the opaque darkness that followed, I felt myself being led swiftly out of the circle of half-burnt logs into the concealing shadows of a dense clump of bush that grew at no great distance. Here we paused again for a few brief seconds, taking advantage of the short and uncertain intervals of darkness that followed the lightning flashes to flit from clump to clump of bush, until in a few minutes we found ourselves deep in the heart of the bush, secure from discovery by prying eyes, and moving rapidly along a bush path that I presently discovered was winding round toward the river. Ten minutes later we emerged upon a small strip of sandy beach occupying the angle of a bend of the creek, about a hundred yards or so above the spot where I must have been landed, for below me I just caught sight indistinctly of the Josefa and the schooner, riding dark and silent on the rain-lashed bosom of the creek. There were a dozen or more canoes, of different sizes, drawn up on this strip of beach, and, selecting the smallest of them, my companion slid it gently into the water. Then motioning me to enter, she placed a paddle in my hand, pointed up the creek, and with a vigorous push sent the canoe surging a dozen yards toward midchannel, motioning me to paddle hard. I lost no time in obeying her behest, paddling first on one side and then on the other, and managing the canoe with little or no difficulty. As soon as my deliverer saw that I was all
"She waved her hand above her head by way of farewell."
I was by this time chilled to the marrow with the drenching to which I had been exposed, and so stiff from being tightly lashed for so many hours that I could scarcely move, while I was still dazed at my sudden and unexpected deliverance from a cruel death; nevertheless I had sense enough to understand that my situation was still one of the utmost peril, out of which I must extricate myself without loss of time, so I paddled away with all the vigour I could muster, and presently had the satisfaction of shutting in the Josefa and her consort round the bend of the creek, without the occurrence of anything to indicate that my escape had been discovered. The exertion of paddling soon restored my circulation, and I made fairly rapid way down the creek, observing, by the glare of the lightning, that the waterway broadened rapidly as I went. I kept on thus for about twenty minutes, and then, to my great joy, discovered that I was nearing some very considerable expanse of water, which a few minutes of further paddling convinced me must be nothing less than the main stream of the Congo, into which I presently shot. But at the junction of the creek with the main stream I sheered the canoe in alongside the bank, and, holding on by the branches of an overhanging bush, securely lashed my pocket-handkerchief to a bough in such a manner that it could readily be seen at some considerable distance. Then I shoved off again and turned the canoe's head down stream.
The wind was blowing more than half a gale by this time, but it was fortunately from the southward, so that by hugging the southern bank pretty closely I was fairly well sheltered; and fortunate was it for me that it was so, for at the distance of a quarter of a mile from the bank the whole surface of the river was a boiling caldron of breaking seas, that would have swamped the canoe in five minutes. I managed fairly well, however, venturing as far out as I dared, so as to secure the utmost benefit possible from the strong downward current; and so well did this befriend me that in little more than an hour and a half I sighted the Curlew riding at anchor where I had left her; and in another ten minutes I once more stood on her deck, free and safe!
Late as was the hour, I found everybody wide awake and on the look-out aboard the schooner, with young Adams, clad from head to heel in oilskins, anxiously pacing the deck—for, although I was by no means overdue, he informed me that he was already growing extremely anxious as to my safety—and it was pleasant, indeed, to observe the air of relief that seemed to pervade the ship upon the discovery that I had returned safe, and apparently not much the worse for wear. I quickly told my story, and, ere I had well finished it, all hands were on deck, and, without waiting for orders, were busying themselves in getting the schooner under way; and from a few muttered remarks that I overheard I gathered that the men had made up their minds to visit with dire retribution the treachery that had involved me in such deadly peril and suffering. Adams—spirited lad that he was—implored me to go below and turn in, pledging himself faithfully that not one of the slavers should escape him; but, of course, that was not to be thought of for a moment, so I contented myself with a change of clothing and a fairly hearty meal off the viands that the steward had immediately produced, and then returned on deck to take charge.
By the time that I was once more in the open air the schooner was under way and foaming up the river under all the canvas she dared show to the piping breeze. The rain had ceased, the storm had swept across the river and was now flashing and muttering intermittently some seven or eight miles away, and a few stars were peeping out here and there overhead and to the southward. It took the schooner but half-an-hour to traverse, against the current, the distance that I had taken three times as long to cover in the canoe, and I had not been on deck many minutes when a hail came from the forecastle of—
"There's somethin' white flutterin' from a bough inshore there on our starboard bow! Is that your handkercher, sir? "
"Likely enough," I answered, peering over the rail at the dark shadow to windward. "Can you see anything like the opening of a creek near it?"
"Yes, sir," came the answer; "there's a blackness just to the east'ard of it that looks like a break in the bushes."
"Then that will be it," I remarked to young Adams. "Ay, I can see the handkerchief now—there it is! Clew up and furl your topsail, Mr. Adams, and settle away the peak and throat of your boom foresail. Ready about!"
The men sprang to their stations; the topsail and foresail were taken in; the schooner was hove round on the port tack, and two or three minutes later we were gliding up the creek under mainsail and jib, with the wind scuffling wildly overhead among the bush and trees that bordered the creek on either hand. Once fairly within the creek, I ordered the remainder of our canvas to be taken in, feeling assured that the schooner would hold her way long enough to carry us alongside the Josefa; and, this done, the men, with drawn cutlasses, stood by to heave the grappling-irons and board, my hope being that I should take both craft by surprise. But as we rounded the bend in the creek which brought us within sight of our quarry, a low hum and clamour of voices became audible, and a glare of torches shone through the bushes from the shore; moreover, the creek was full of canoes paddling excitedly hither and thither. Unless I was greatly mistaken, my escape had been discovered, and the savages were all out in pursuit of me.
"Before he could pull the trigger I had struck up the weapon."
A great shout went up from the occupants of the canoes as the schooner glided round the bend, and there was an instant and general retreat toward the shore. There was also a sudden shouting and confusion aboard the barque and the schooner; but before anything could be done we were alongside and fast to the Josefa, with our lads pouring over her rail after me. The first individual I encountered was Lenoir, who was raving at his crew like a madman in an unavailing effort to rally them. Upon seeing me he snatched a pistol from his belt and levelled it at my head, but before he could pull the trigger I had struck up the weapon, and the next instant he crashed to the deck, struck senseless by a blow fair between the eyes which I let him have with all the energy and good-will of which I was capable. That settled the matter so far as the Josefa was concerned, for her crew, taken by surprise, could do nothing against our people, they simply retreated to their forecastle and were there promptly battened down. Nor did the schooner fare any better, for although her people cut her cables and tried to get the canvas on her, young Adams—who with a few men remained by my orders on board the Curlew to take care of her—at once opened fire with his larboard broadside with such effect that her people were compelled to run her ashore to save her from sinking under them. They made good their escape into the forest, but we set fire to the schooner and burned her to the water's edge. As for King Plenty and his people, they evacuated their town at the first sound of the firing; but as soon as I had secured the Josefa's people I landed with a party of bluejackets, and we burned the slave barracoons and the King's "palace"—a collection of some thirty huts surrounded by a strong palisade. I felt sorely tempted to destroy the entire town, but refrained for the sake of the girl who had taken compassion upon my helplessness and set me free.
Five days later we arrived at Sierra Leone with the Josefa in company, and in due course the latter was condemned and her crew committed for trial. But I knew nothing of it, having succumbed to a sharp attack of fever within a few hours of clearing the Congo; and when I regained my senses it was to find myself in hospital, weak as a new-born babe, but high in favour with everybody for what they were pleased to term my "dashing exploit," and with my commission as commander in my pocket. Lenoir and nine of his companions were subsequently hanged for piracy and murder upon the high seas upon evidence of the most convincing character.
|This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.
The author died in 1922, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.