F. S. Brereton
THE PIRATES' STRONGHOLD
It was a balmy autumn day four years after Queen Victoria ascended the throne, and the neighbourhood of Southampton Water was looking perhaps more brilliant and more beautiful than it had during the long summer which had just passed. Already the leaves were covering the ground, and away across the water pine-trees stood up like sentinels amidst others which had already lost their covering. A dim blue haze in the distance denoted the presence of Southampton, then as now a thriving seaport town.
Situated on a low eminence within some hundred yards of the sea, and commanding an extended view to either side and in front, was a tiny creeper-clad cottage with gabled roof and twisted chimneys. Behind the little residence there was a square patch of kitchen-garden, in which a grizzled, weather-beaten individual was toiling, whilst in front a long strip of turf, in which were many rose beds, extended as far as the wicket-gate which gave access to the main Portsmouth road.
Seated in the picturesque porch of the cottage, with a long clay pipe between his lips, and a telescope of large dimensions beside him, was a gray-headed gentleman whose dress at once betokened that in his earlier days he had followed the sea as a calling. In spite of his sunken cheeks, and general air of ill-health, no one could have mistaken him for other than a sailor; and if there had been any doubt the clothes he wore would have at once settled the question. But Captain John Richardson, to give him his full title, was proud of the fact that he had at one time belonged to the royal navy, and took particular pains to demonstrate it to all with whom he came in contact. It was a little vanity for which he might well be excused, and, besides, he was such a genial good-natured man that no one would have thought of blaming him.
On this particular day some question of unusual importance seemed to be absorbing the captain's whole attention. His eyes had a far-away expression, his usually wrinkled brow was puckered in an alarming manner, and the lips, between which rested the stem of his clay pipe, were pursed up in the most thoughtful position. Indeed, so much was he occupied that he forgot even to pull at his smoke, and in consequence the tobacco had grown cold.
"That's the sixth time!" he suddenly exclaimed, with a muttered expression of disgust, awaking suddenly from his reverie. "I've used nearly half the box of matches already, and that is an extravagance which I cannot afford. No, John Richardson, matches are dear to you at least, for you are an unfortunate dog with scarcely enough to live on, and with nothing in your pocket to waste. But I'd forego many little luxuries, and willingly cut down my expenditure, if only I could see a way of settling this beggarly question. For three years and more it has troubled me, and I'm as far now from a solution as I was when the matter first cropped up. There's Frank, my brother at Bristol, who has offered his help, and I fully realize his kindness; but I am sure that his plan will fail to satisfy the boy. That's where the difficulty comes. The lad's so full of spirit, so keen to follow his father's profession, that he would eat his heart out were I to send him to Bristol, but what else can I suggest as a future for him?"
Once more Captain John Richardson became absorbed in thought, and, leaning back against the old oak beam which supported the porch, became lost to his surroundings. So lost indeed that he failed to hear the creak of the wicket, while his dim eye failed to see the youth who came striding towards him. But a moment later, catching sight of the figure screened amidst the creepers in the porch, the young fellow gave vent to a shout which thoroughly awakened the sailor.
"Sitting in your usual place, Father, and keeping an eye upon every foot of Southampton Water. Why, you are better even than the coast-guard, and must know every ship which sails into or out of the docks."
"Ay, and the port from which she set out or to which she's bound in very many cases," answered the captain with a smile, beckoning to his son to seat himself beside him in the porch. "And talking of ships reminds me, my lad, to broach a certain subject to you. A big overgrown fellow like yourself, with calves and arms which would have been my admiration had I possessed them when I was your age, should be doing something more than merely amusing himself. You've the future to look to, your bread and butter to earn, and how d'you mean to set about it? Come, every young man should have his choice of a calling, though I think that his parent or guardian should be at hand to aid him in his selection. What do you propose to do?"
Captain Richardson once more leaned back against the oaken prop and surveyed his son, while he slowly abstracted a match from a box which he produced from a capacious pocket, and set a light to his pipe once more.
"Come, sonny," he continued, "in a couple of years you will be almost a man, and you are as strong as many already. You were seventeen three months ago, and since that date you have amused yourself without hindrance from me. But your playtime must come to an end. Your father is too poor to keep you longer at school, and has so little money that he can give you nothing but his good wishes towards your future."
For more than a minute there was silence in the porch, while Tyler Richardson stared out across the neat stretch of turf at the dancing water beyond, evidently weighing the words to which the captain had given vent. That he was strong and sturdy no one could deny. This was no little vanity on the part of his father, but a fact which was apparent to any who glanced at the lad. Seated there with his cap dangling from his fingers, and the sunlight streaming through the creepers on to his figure, one saw a youth whose rounded features bore an unmistakable likeness to those possessed by the captain. But there the resemblance ceased altogether; for Tyler's ruddy cheeks and sparkling eyes betokened an abundance of good health, while his lithe and active limbs, the poise of his head, and the breadth of his shoulders, showed that he was a young man who delighted in plenty of exercise, and to whom idleness was in all probability irksome. Then, too, there was an expression upon his face which told almost as plainly as could words that he was possessed of ambition, and that though he had at present nothing to seriously occupy his attention, yet that, once his vocation was found, he was determined to follow it up with all eagerness.
"I know the matter troubles you, Dad," he said, suddenly turning to his father, "and I know what difficulties there are. Were it not so my answer would be given in a moment, for what was good enough for my father is a fine profession for me. The wish of my life is to enter the royal navy."
"And your father's also. If I saw some way in which I could obtain a commission for you, why, my lad, you should have it to-morrow, but there!" (And the captain held out his palms and shrugged his shoulders to show how helpless he was.) "You know as well as I do that I cannot move a finger to help you in that direction. I must not grumble, but for all that, your father has been an unfortunate dog. I entered the service as full of eagerness as a lad might well be. I was strong and healthy in those days, and the open life appealed to my nature. Then came an unlucky day; a round-shot, fired from one of the French forts which our ships were blockading, struck me on the hip, fracturing the bone badly. You are aware of this. I barely escaped with my life, and for months remained upon the sick-list. Then, seeing that I was useless upon a ship, the Lords of the Admiralty gave me a shore billet, and for two years I struggled wearily to perform the work. But the old wound crippled me, and was a constant source of trouble, so that in the end I was pensioned off, and retired to this cottage to spend the remainder of my life. I'm a worn-out hulk, Tyler, and that's the truth. Had I remained on the active list I should no doubt have made many friends to whom I could have applied at this moment. Perhaps even were I to state the facts to the Admiralty they would find a commission for you, but then my means are too small to equip you for the life, and you would start so badly that your future might be ruined. But there is Frank, your uncle, who lives at Bristol, and conducts a large trade with foreign parts; we never had much in common, but for all that have always been excellent friends, and on more than one occasion he has suggested that you might go to him and take a post in his warehouse. If that did not suit you, he would apprentice you to one of his ships, and the life for which you long would be before you. There, I have told you everything, and seeing that I cannot obtain a commission for you in the royal navy, I urge upon you to consider your uncle's proposition seriously. Who knows, it may mean a great future. He is childless, and might select you as his successor; and, if not that, he would at least push on your fortunes and interest himself on your behalf."
Once more the old sea-captain leaned back in his seat and groped wearily for his matches, while he fixed a pair of anxious eyes upon his son. As for the latter, he still remained looking steadily out across the water, as if searching for an answer from the numerous vessels which floated there. At last, however, he rose to his feet and replaced the cap upon his head.
"It's a big matter to settle," he said shortly, "and, as you say, I had better consider it thoroughly. I'll give you my answer to-morrow, Father, and I feel sure that I shall do as you wish. Every day I see the necessity of doing something for my living, and as the navy is out of the question I must accept the next best thing which comes along. I should be an ungrateful beggar if I did not realize the kindness of my uncle's offer, and if I decide to take advantage of it, you may be sure that I shall do my best to please him in every particular. And now I will get off to Southampton, for there is a big ship lying there which I am anxious to see. She's full of grain, and hails from America."
Nodding to the captain, Tyler turned and strolled down the garden. Then, placing one hand lightly upon the gate-post, he vaulted over the wicket and disappeared behind a dense mass of hedge which hid the dusty road from view. A moment or two later his father could hear him as he ran in the direction of Southampton.
Half an hour later Tyler found himself amidst a maze of shipping, with which the harbour was filled, and at once sought out the vessel of which he had spoken. She was a big three-master, and lay moored alongside the dock, with a derrick and shears erected beside her. A couple of gangways led on to her decks, while a notice was slung in the rigging giving warning to all and sundry that strangers were not admitted upon the ship.
A few minutes before Tyler arrived at his destination the stevedores had knocked off work in order to partake of their dinner, whilst the hands on board had retired to their quarters for the same purpose. In fact, but for one of the officers, who strolled backwards and forwards on the dock-side, the deck of the ship was deserted, and Tyler could have gone on board without a soul to oppose him. But he knew the ways of shipping people, for scarcely a day passed without his paying a visit to the harbour. Indeed, so great was his love of the sea that during the last three months he had spent the greater part of his time at the docks, and, being a cheerful, gentle-mannered young fellow, had made many friends amongst the officers and crew of the various vessels which had put in there with cargoes for the port. Without hesitation, therefore, he accosted the mate, who was strolling up and down upon the quay.
"May I go aboard?" he asked. "I hear that you carry a cargo of grain, and I'm anxious to see how it's loaded."
"Then you've come at the right moment, sir," was the answer. "Step right aboard, and look round as much as you want. We've been terrible hard at work these last two days getting a cargo of cotton ashore, and now we've just hove up the lower hatches, and shall be taking the grain out of her when dinner's finished. It's come all this way for your naval johnnies—at least that's what the boss has given me to understand; and we are expecting a party of officers along any moment to take a look at the stuff. I suppose they'll pass it right away, for it's good right down to the keel. Then these fellows will tackle it with shovels and bags, and you will see they'll hoist it up in a twinkling. Helloo! Blessed if that ain't the party coming along this way!"
He turned, and indicated his meaning by a nod of his head in the direction of three smartly-dressed naval officers who had just put in an appearance.
"The party right enough," he said. "Just excuse me, sir, and get right aboard if you care to."
Having obtained permission to go aboard, Tyler at once stepped to the gangway, and was quickly upon the deck. Then he went to the hatchway, which occupied a large square in the centre of the vessel, and leant over the combing so as to obtain a good view of the scene below. Beneath was a lower deck and a second hatchway of similar dimensions, the covering of which had evidently been recently removed. A glance showed him that the hold was filled with loose grain to within some six feet of the hatchway, and he was occupied in wondering how many sacks of corn had been necessary to fill it, when he was aroused by a voice at his elbow. Turning swiftly, he found the three naval officers and the mate standing beside him.
"A fine cargo, and in splendid condition," the latter was saying. "We've just hove up the hatches for your inspection, and that's the way down."
He pointed to a perpendicular ladder which led from the upper hatch to the one below, and stepped aside to allow the officers to approach it. At the same moment Tyler caught the eye of the elder of the three naval gentlemen, and at once, standing erect, he raised his hand as his father had long since taught him to do.
"Ah, the correct salute, and I thank you for it!" said the officer, acknowledging it swiftly. "Where did you learn it, my lad? I can see that you have been taught by someone who was no landsman."
"My father, Captain Richardson, late of the royal navy, instructed me, sir. He lives close at hand, and would spend his days here upon the docks were it not that he is crippled and cannot get about."
"By a gun-shot wound—obtained in warfare?" asked the officer with interest.
"Yes, sir. He was struck by a round-shot fired from a French fort, and was pensioned from the service."
"That is sad, very unfortunate," said the officer; "but his son must take his place, and repay the wound with interest when we have war with France again. But I must see to this cargo. This is one of the many duties which we sailors have to perform. At one time sailing a three-master, and then conning one of the new steam-vessels which have been added to our fleets. Another day we muster ashore, and then an officer can never say what he may find before him. He may have to visit the hospitals, the barracks, or inspect a delivery of hammocks before it is divided amongst the men. To-day we are here to see this cargo of grain, and to pass it if in good condition."
"Which it is, right away down to the keel, you guess!" burst in the American mate. "Say, sir, there's the ladder, and if you'll excuse me, the sooner the inspection's done with the sooner we'll clear the hold and get away out to sea."
"Then oblige me by slipping down, Mr. Maxwell, and you too, Mr. Troutbeck. Take one of those wooden spades with you, and turn the grain over in every direction. Be careful to see that it is not mildewed or affected by the damp. You can bring a specimen on deck for my benefit."
Hastily saluting, the two officers who had been addressed sprang towards the steep gangway which led below, and swarmed down it with an agility which was commendable. Then they paused for a moment or two upon the edge of the lower hatch until a wooden spade had been tossed to them, when they leapt upon the glistening mass of grain which filled the hold. Meanwhile Tyler and the officer who had remained above stood leaning over the upper hatch, looking down upon the figures below. Indeed, the former was fascinated, for the sight of a naval uniform filled him with delight, while to be able to watch officers at their work was a treat which he would not have missed for anything. It was queer to see the way in which the younger of the two juniors tossed his cane aside with a merry laugh and commenced to delve with the spade; and still more quaint to watch the second as he thrust his two hands into the corn, and, having withdrawn them filled to the brim, walked towards the edge of the hatch with the intention of spreading the grains there the better to inspect them. But—that was stranger still, for, missing his footing, the officer gave a violent swerve, and with difficulty saved himself from tumbling full length. The sight, the exclamation of astonishment and disgust, brought a smile to Tyler's lips; but a second later his expression changed to one of amazement. Why, the officer had again all but lost his footing, and—yes, as Tyler stared down at him, he staggered to one side, threw one hand up to his face, and then collapsed in a heap, where he lay with hands and toes half-buried in the corn. Almost at the same moment his companion, who had been digging vigorously, let his spade drop from his fingers, and looked about him as if dazed. Then he struggled towards his comrade with a low cry of alarm, only to stumble himself and come crashing into the grain.
"There's something wrong down there!" shouted Tyler, realizing that some terrible misfortune had suddenly and unexpectedly overtaken the naval officers. "Look, sir, they are on their faces, and appear to be insensible!"
He tugged at the sleeve of the senior officer without ceremony, and directed his attention to those below, for the former had been engaged in conversation with the mate, and had not witnessed what had happened.
"Something wrong!" he exclaimed in astonishment. "Why, what could be wrong? Ahoy, there, Troutbeck and Maxwell! Why, they are on their faces, and, as I live, they are insensible!"
His amazement was so great that he stood there dumbfounded, and stared at Tyler as though he could not believe his eyes. But a shout of alarm from the mate quickly aroused him.
"It's the gas!" he cried in shrill anxious tones. "Quick, or they'll be suffocated! Hi, for'ard there! All hands on deck to the rescue!"
He went racing towards the quarters in which the men were enjoying their meal, leaving Tyler and the naval officer alone. As for the latter, his astonishment was still so great that he remained rooted to the spot, leaning over the hatchway, the combing of which he grasped with both hands, whilst he stared down at the two prostrate figures huddled below upon the corn as though the sight was too much for him. Then he suddenly stood erect and screwed his knuckles into his eyes, as though he feared that they were misleading him.
"Gas!" he murmured doubtfully. "What gas? How could there be such a thing down there?" Then, suddenly recollecting the condition of his juniors, and realizing that they were in the gravest danger, he sprang towards the ladder which led to the hold below, and commenced to descend it as rapidly as possible.
But Tyler was before him, for though dumbfounded at first at what was beyond his comprehension, the shout to which the mate had given vent had instantly caused him to understand the danger of the situation. There was gas in the hold, some poisonous vapour unseen by those who entered through the hatchway, but lying there floating over the corn ready to attack any who might enter into the trap. What should he do? The question flashed through his mind like lightning, and as quickly the answer came.
"We must get them out of it," he shouted hoarsely, "and by the quickest way too. Hi, there, get hold of the winch and lower away!"
As in the case of the officer who had stood beside him, his first thought had been to rush for the ladder, and to descend to the hatch below by that means. But a quick glance at the figures lying half-buried in the corn, and an instant's reflection, told him that rescue would be difficult, if not impossible, in that way. For, supposing he leapt from the lowest rung on to the cargo of grain, could he hope to be able to lift one of the victims and carry him up the steep ladder which led to safety? Such an attempt would require more than double the strength which he possessed, and besides there was the deadly gas to be reckoned with. Like a flash the thoughts swept through his brain, for Tyler was a sharp young fellow, and ere another moment had passed his plan for rescue was formed. Pointing to the winch, from which a stout rope ran through a block attached to the boom above, and from thence dangled down into the hold, he called to the mate, who now came running along the deck with three of the hands, to get hold of the levers and prepare to work upon them. Then, tearing his handkerchief from his pocket, he hastily tied it round his face, fastening the knot behind his head as tightly as possible, so that the thickest folds came across his mouth and nostrils. A moment later he had grasped the rope which hung at one side of the hatchway, and at once passed it around his waist. A rapid hitch which his father had taught him secured it there, and a moment later he had thrust himself over the hatchway and was swinging in mid-air.
"Lower away!" he shouted, "and when you see me pass the loop round one of them, hoist as fast as you can. Now, let her go!"
Grasping the length of rope which dangled beneath him, and which he had been careful to leave, he tied it into a strong loop as the men above lowered him into the hold. Then, holding it in both hands, he awaited the moment when he should alight upon the corn. Ah! He was there, and his feet were already sunk ankle-deep in the cargo. Then he became aware of the fact that, though perfectly clear, the atmosphere was stifling. He felt as though he were choking, for in spite of the thick handkerchief about his face the biting gas seemed to fly into his lungs, and at once set him coughing violently. But, determined not to be beaten, he overcame the spasm, and, carefully holding his breath, moved towards one of the prostrate figures.
It was no easy matter to pass the loop around the helpless man, but Tyler worked vigorously at the task. Placing the coil of rope upon the corn close to the feet of one of the officers, he held it there with one toe, and at once grasped the man by the ankles. A lusty heave brought him sliding along through the grain, and scarcely three seconds had passed before the loop was about his body and securely fastened beneath his arms.
"Hoist!" he endeavoured to shout, but his muffled face and the choking gas deadened the words. But for all that, his wishes were clear to those above, who stood staring over the hatchway, for Tyler stood erect and waved eagerly to them. There was a shout, the rope tautened, and then at first slowly, and afterwards with a rush which showed that willing hands were at the winch, Tyler and the officer for whose rescue he had so gallantly descended were hoisted out of the hold. With a swing the boom was brought towards the side, a couple of men rushed at the dangling figures, and ere the naval officer who witnessed the scene had time to give the hoarse command, "Lower away!" the two were lying upon the deck, while the mate of the freight-ship was eagerly removing the loop from the figure of the unconscious officer. As for Tyler, he sat for a short space as if dazed, while he gasped and struggled for his breath. But the knowledge that one victim still remained below, that a second life was at stake, roused him to energy. With a shiver which he could not suppress in spite of every effort, he struggled to his feet and dashed at the hatchway.
"Lower again!" he managed to call out between the paroxysms of coughing which shook him. "Now, let go!"
There was no doubt that the real danger, the urgency of the situation, was impressed upon all who were helping in the rescue; and it did not need the frantic gestures and husky words of command of the elderly naval officer to stimulate the hands to rapid action. By now, too, some fifteen men had assembled, and while a few promptly carried the unconscious officer aside, and set about to restore his animation, the remainder at once leapt to the winch, and set the handles whirling round at such a pace that the rope and its burden were swiftly at their destination. At the same instant the American mate swung himself on to the ladder and went swarming down till he reached the deck below, where he remained ready to lend assistance should he be called for. And well was it that he did so, for that stifling gas well-nigh overcame Tyler in his work of rescue. Holding his breath as he had done before, the latter dashed towards the second prostrate figure once he had obtained a foothold. Then, following the same tactics, he placed the loop in position and grasped the man by his ankles.
"Heave! Pull ho!" As if the words would help the gallant young fellow below, the anxious watchers above gave vent to them, their shouts increasing almost to shrieks of encouragement in their eagerness. "Heave! He's almost through. Once more, and you will have him in position. Ah! he's down!"
A feeling of consternation and dismay suddenly silenced the voices, and a crowd of eager, anxious faces hung over the hatchway, while a couple of volunteers sprang at the ladder.
"Stand aside!" shouted one of them huskily, a big, raw-boned American sailor. "The lad's down, and we're not the boys to stand here looking on and see him die. Say, maties, pitch me the end of the rope, and I'll go in for him!"
Swiftly descending the ladder, he had almost reached the deck below, and was looking eagerly about him for the expected rope, when another voice reached the ears of the onlookers.
"Easy there! I'm nearest the spot, and I'll pull them out, whatever the cost. Jim Bowman, you can make a turn about your body with the rope, and stand ready if there's need. I'm for it right away as I am."
Stuffing a bulky red handkerchief between his teeth, the mate glanced swiftly at his comrade to see that the words were fully understood. Then with a bound he leapt over the low combing of the hatchway, and alighted on the piled-up corn.
"He'll do it! He's the right man to tackle the business! Stand ready, boys!"
Those above stared down at the scene below with eyes which threatened to burst from their sockets, so great was each one's eagerness. And all the while, as the plucky mate tugged at the prostrate figure of the officer, they sent hoarse shouts echoing down into the hold. Breathlessly they watched as the loop slipped upwards till it encircled the body, and then a dozen lusty individuals rushed towards the winch, ready to lend a hand should those already stationed there prove too weak for the task.
"Hoist!" The big American, who stood on the lower deck, bellowed the command so loudly that it was heard far away along the dock "Hoist smartly, boys!"
Round went the winch, but on this occasion less swiftly than before, for the load to be dragged from the hold was heavier! But still the handles flew round rapidly, and within a short space of time Tyler, the officer, and the American mate lay in a heap upon the deck, where they were instantly pounced upon by those who had helped in the rescue.
How's that, my lad? There, open your eyes and look about you, and then take a sip at this glass."
Tyler felt a strong arm about his shoulders, and a hard rim of something cold against his teeth. Then a few drops of water flowed into his mouth, and instantly he was awake, though only half conscious of his surroundings.
"Eh," he murmured, "what's the matter? Time to get up? Oh!"
He gave vent to a little cry of pain as he suddenly became aware of the fact that a red-hot band seemed to encircle his waist. Then he quickly realized the cause, and sat up with a start, remembering that he had placed a coil of rope about him, and that the loop to which the officer was hung must have pulled strongly upon him.
"Feeling sore, my lad?" was asked in tones which seemed familiar. "The rope had hitched as tight as a hangman's noose, and we had to cut it adrift before we could free you. No wonder you have pain, for I expect that your sides and chest are badly chafed. But you're alive, thank God! And have come to at last. Gracious! What a fright you have given us all! But come, see if you cannot stand on your feet and walk about, for it will do you all the good in the world."
"Stand! Rather! I should think I could!" responded Tyler eagerly, suddenly becoming aware of the fact that the elderly naval officer supported him. "Thank you, sir! I'll get up at once."
"Then heave, and there you are."
Placing his hand beneath Tyler's arms, the officer helped him to rise to his feet, and then, fearful lest he should be giddy and fall, stood beside him holding him by the coat.
"Feel steady?" he asked. "A bit shaky, I've no doubt, but another sip and a little water on your head will put you right. Here, one of you lads give a hand and we'll take him to the nearest pump."
There was a group of sailors standing around watching Tyler with interested eyes, and instantly a number sprang forward to support him. Then with faltering steps, and gait which would have caused him to reel from side to side had it not been for their help, they led him across the dock to a shed some little distance away. A pump was erected beside it, and before many seconds had passed a stream of ice-cold water was gushing from the spout into the trough below.
"Now, off with his coat and shirt, and one of you boys hop right along to fetch him a towel," cried the big American, who happened to form one of the party. "Slick's the word, my lad, and back with it smartly. Here, stand right aside, and let me hold on to the youngster."
A big, muscular arm was put around Tyler's tottering figure, and he was deftly placed in such a position as would enable the water to flow upon his head and shoulders. Gush! It came surging from the pump at the handle of which one of the men worked vigorously, and in a little while Tyler was glad to withdraw with dripping head and face, gasping for breath with almost as much energy as had been the case after his first ascent from the hold. Then a towel was thrown over his shoulders, and willing hands set to work to dry him.
"Feel more like yourself, eh? Just bring along that comb, sonny, and we'll fix him up, proper," said the American. "Now, on with your shirt and coat, and where's the boy that's holding on to his cap?"
Their friendly attentions almost bewildered Tyler, for he was unused to them, and, in fact, at another time would have blushed for shame at finding himself treated so much like a child. But in spite of the cold douche to his head he still felt dizzy. His brain swam with the effects of the choking gas, which had been given off by the cargo of corn, while huge black spots seemed to float dreamily about in the air and disturbed his vision. Then, too, though he manfully endeavoured to keep his figure erect, his legs would tremble in spite of himself, while his knees shook and knocked together in a manner which threatened to bring him headlong to the ground.
"I'm a baby!" he managed to gasp in tones of vexation. "Just fancy a fellow of my age not being able to stand up alone!"
The thought distressed him so greatly that once again he made a futile effort to remain on his feet, only to find himself in much the same helpless condition. Then a biscuit-box was placed beneath him, and he sat down with a feeling of relief.
"Baby! No sich thing, let me tell you, sir!" exclaimed the big American indignantly. "You're just shook up, and that's the truth of it, for I reckon that that 'ere gas wur strong enough to upset a Red Injun, and much more a chap of your constitootion. Jest you sit tight and hold on to your tongue while we pour a few drops of this stuff down yer throat. Baby! Ho!"
With a shake of his head the big sailor turned to one of his comrades and took from him a cracked glass containing a dark and evil-smelling liquid.
"Up with your chin," he said, placing the glass to Tyler's lips. "Now, down with this at a gulp."
Obedient to the order, Tyler opened his mouth and swallowed the draught. Then he shivered again, for the spirit was strong and pungent. But in spite of its nasty flavour, and of the uncomfortable sense of burning which it left in his throat, he was bound to confess that the draught did wonders for him. Indeed, scarcely five minutes were gone before strength came back to his legs, while his brain and eyes seemed to have cleared wonderfully. A pat on the back from the big hand of the American encouraged him to stand again, and with a gay laugh he found himself on his feet.
"That's better!" he exclaimed in cheery tones. "What's become of the officers?"
"I reckon they're jest like you, a trifle shook up and put out, don't yer know," was the answer. "Yer must understand, young fellah, that chaps can't go right down into a hold what's full of that gas without feeling mighty bad. You've all had a near squeak for yer lives, I reckon, and ef it hadn't er been for you, young shaver, them two officers would have been awaiting their funeral right now. I tell yer, me and the other covies is jest hoping to make yer acquaintance. We'd be proud to get hold of yer fingers, and, Jehoshaphat! as soon as you're well we hope to do it. Now, will yer come aboard and take a sleep in one of our bunks, to drive the muddle out of yer head, or will yer go slick away home? Jest say the word, and we'll help you, whatever's the case."
"One moment, please. I desire to speak to this young gentleman," called someone from outside the circle, and as the sailors sprang aside the naval officer who had already befriended Tyler entered the circle and grasped the latter warmly by the hand.
"You are more yourself now," he said with a friendly smile, "and I can therefore speak to you as I would have done half an hour ago had you been in a fit condition to listen to me. On behalf of the two young officers, whose lives you so gallantly saved, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. The deed was a noble one, for, seeing their insensible figures lying in that poisonous hold below, you, like everyone else, must have realized instantly the great risk to be incurred by attempting their rescue. The warning which the mate gave told you that gas lay below the hatchway, and that it had been the cause of striking down my officers. In spite of that you rushed to help them, and I must admit that the promptness of your action, the remarkable rapidity with which you took in the situation and formed your plans, filled me with amazement. To be candid, I myself was so dumbfounded and taken aback that I stood there helpless. But then, you see, I am no longer a young man, and have lost that keenness with which the junior members of my service are invariably filled.
"Now that I come to look into the facts carefully it is a matter of surprise to me that you did not rush to the ladder the instant you realized the necessity for action. But how could you possibly have rescued either of those unfortunate fellows by that means? Obviously two men at least would have been required for the task. You saw that, and at once decided upon an easier and more effective plan. No one could have made his preparations more completely or more rapidly. Your loops were made in a sailor-like manner which does credit to your father's teaching. For the rest, I am too full of gratitude to you to say much at this moment. Your courage and resolution have delighted me and I congratulate you most heartily."
Placing one hand upon Tyler's shoulder the officer grasped his fingers eagerly with the other, and squeezed them in a manner which showed better than words how much his feelings were aroused. Indeed he might have remained there for many minutes, patting Tyler gently upon the back meanwhile, had it not been for the enthusiastic sailors who stood around, and who had without exception pressed eagerly forward to hear what he had to say. Seeing his final action, however, at once reminded them of their own decision, expressed by their burly comrade, who once more came to the front.
"You'll excuse us, Admiral," he said with a slouching salute, "but like you we're firm set on shaking. Say, young fellow, we're proud to know yer."
Unabashed by the presence of an officer of such seniority in the navy, they crowded forward, and each in turn grasped the blushing Tyler by the hand. Then, as if that had been insufficient to satisfy them, they tossed their caps high in the air, and gave him three rousing cheers.
"There," said the officer, lifting his hands as soon as the shout had died down, "like myself you have shown your appreciation; and now, if you will leave this young gentleman to me, I will see that he is taken home. Come," he continued, turning to Tyler with a smile, "you are still shaken and feel the effects of that poisonous gas. It will be as well if you return to your father, and rest for the remainder of the day. Hail a conveyance, my lads, and tell the man to drive right on to the dock, for we must not allow this young man to walk too much at present. Yes, those are the doctor's orders, and I am here to see that they are strictly enforced," he went on, as Tyler directed an appealing glance towards him. "Fortunately for you and my two officers, one of our ship's surgeons happened to be passing as you were hauled up from the hold, and he was able to attend to you at once. Seeing that you were coming round he left you in my hands and devoted all his care to the others, who were in a very grave condition. They, too, I am thankful to say, have regained consciousness, so that I no longer feel anxiety on their behalf. Permit me, young gentleman, here is the conveyance."
Taking Tyler by the arm, he led him to a fly which had just driven up, and having ushered him in, took the remaining vacant seat himself.
"Drive to Captain John Richardson's," he called out, and then resumed his conversation with Tyler, telling him as they went that the mate of the American ship, who had pluckily helped in the rescue, had suffered no ill effects. Half an hour later, much to the astonishment of the captain, who still sat in his porch keeping watch upon the long strip of water which ebbed before his cottage, a conveyance came rolling along the main Portsmouth road, and halted just opposite the wicket which gave access to his garden. At once his spy-glass went to his eyes, for he was somewhat short-sighted, and his amazement was profound when he discovered Tyler walking towards him, looking pale and shaky, and arm in arm with a gray-headed naval officer. Had it not been for his shattered hip he would have risen to his feet to greet the new-comer, for naval officers seldom or never came his way. As he had said when speaking to his son, he was a poor old hulk, doomed to live in that out-of-the-way spot, forgotten or unknown by men who might have been his comrades had ill-luck not assailed him. In his excitement, the clay pipe and box of matches went tumbling to the ground, where the former smashed into a hundred pieces. Then the old instincts of discipline came back to him and he lifted his hand to his cap with all the smartness he could command.
It was fine to see the way in which this stranger approached the captain. Halting there for one moment, and drawing himself stiffly erect, he returned the salute swiftly. Then he sprang forward and greeted the old sailor effusively.
"Proud to meet you, Captain Richardson!" he exclaimed. "Delighted to make your acquaintance, and to know the father of this gallant young fellow. But, surely we have met before? Richardson? Tell me, sir, when did you enter the service?"
"Forty years ago the fifth of November next. Midshipman aboard the flag-ship Victory, bound from Portsmouth for the Mediterranean. And you?"
"An old ship-mate of yours or I much mistake?" exclaimed the officer with eagerness. "Don't you remember Davies—Tom Davies, of the Victory—my first commission too. Why, of course you do. A year after I joined I was drafted into another ship, and so we were separated, and have remained so until this moment."
"And I remained aboard for five solid years," burst in the captain enthusiastically, his face all aglow at the recollection of his earlier days. "Then I was transferred to the Bellerophon,and again to another ship. We cruised in the East, and many's the brush we had with rascally slave-dealers. Then came war with France, and, returning to home waters, we coasted along the enemy's country, popping in here and there to survey the forts, and dropping upon any vessels that we could come across. At Brest we were under a heavy fire, and that, sir, was the time when the rascals winged me with a shot. It broke me up, and as a consequence of the wound I was laid aside for good in this old cottage."
As the two spoke they still gripped hands, while tears of excitement and happiness streamed down the sunken cheeks of the captain. Poor fellow! It was joy indeed to him to meet a comrade after all these years, and still greater happiness to find himself conversing with a man still upon the active list of the service to which he had belonged. For many years now he had occupied that cottage, and owing to the wound which had crippled him had seldom moved beyond the garden. Occasionally the old salt who lived with him, and acted as his only servant, placed him tenderly in a wheeled chair, and took him for an airing. But Southampton was beyond his reach, and Portsmouth utterly out of the question, and so it had fallen out that the captain had on very few occasions met with officers of the royal navy. A few who had retired lived in the neighbourhood, but they were active men, able to get about, and seldom dropped in for a chat at the cottage. Therefore this unexpected visit, the meeting with a man who had skylarked with him when they were lads, roused him out of his melancholy, and raised his spirits to the highest.
Seating himself beside Captain Richardson, Admiral Davies,—for that was the rank to which the officer had attained,—conversed with him in animated tones for more than half an hour, telling him of the rescue from the hold, and of the gallant conduct of his son.
"I am thankful that it occurred to me to visit the shipping myself," he said. "As a rule two officers would have been considered sufficient for the task, and it is most unusual for one of my rank to undertake such a duty. However, on this occasion I felt bound to go, for the Lords of the Admiralty are trying an experiment. The greater part of their flour is home-grown, but prices are high, and England is not a large corn-growing country. For that reason cargoes have been ordered from America, and when the ships arrive a careful inspection of the grain is necessary. Had that not been the case I should have remained in my office, for I am in charge of the station, and thereby should have lost this opportunity of renewing our friendship. But about your son; have you decided what to do with him? He is a fine young fellow, and would look well in naval uniform."
"And he himself longs for the life," exclaimed the captain. "Though I myself had the worst of fortune in the service, and in spite of the fact that their lordships have not treated me too well, I still think that there is nothing like a commission in Her Majesty's fleet. But it is out of the question, for to obtain a nomination nowadays influence is required, and also I have not the means to supply the proper outfit. The lad would be miserable, for he would not have a sixpence to jingle in his pocket, and would have the mortification of living with comrades who were better off than himself. And besides, he is too old. To have obtained a commission I should have applied three or four years ago. Now he is seventeen, and almost a man."
"In pluck and resolution he is at any rate," said the admiral warmly, "and he deserves far more than words of thanks for his gallant action of this morning. Now listen to me. I like the lad, and, as in your case, I too am devoted to the navy. I have by chance come across a young fellow eminently fitted for the service, and I shall not stand aside and allow Her Majesty to lose the opportunity of obtaining such a suitable young officer. As your son he has a claim on the Admiralty, and when I describe to their lordships the manner in which he rescued two of my officers they will at once waive all question of his age, and I feel sure will promptly appoint him to a ship. But influence, as you very truly say, is necessary to push a young man on in the world. I do not mean that a midshipman cannot fight his way upwards without friends, for that has been done on scores of occasions; but it gives a lad a better chance if he is put under the eye of some commander who will take an interest in him. Then he will get opportunities of special duties, and if he is a smart lad he may distinguish himself. Will you leave the matter in my hands, and trust to me to do the best for him? I would take him myself, as I have a decided interest in him, but then, as I have told you, I have a shore billet, and his duties would give him but few chances of promotion. He must be appointed to a ship cruising in foreign waters, and he must be placed under an officer who is a friend of my own. There will be no difficulty about the matter, for one of the rescued officers happens to be of excellent family, and a son of one of the sea-lords. He will see to it that the commission is granted, and I have little doubt that within a few weeks I shall be able to return to you with the information that your son is appointed to the China squadron, and under the friendly wing of Keppel, a smart young officer with whom I am well acquainted. There, say no more, for I see that you fully agree. Good-bye for the present! I shall hope to have the pleasure of calling again."
Rising from his seat the admiral squeezed the captain's hand, and then, having gone through the formality of saluting, an act of courtesy which pleased his host vastly, he walked with Tyler towards the gate, one hand placed affectionately on his shoulder.
It would be impossible to describe the delight and happiness with which each inhabitant of the tiny cottage was filled at the good news which the admiral had brought. Captain Richardson could scarcely contain himself for joy, and but for the hip which crippled him would have strutted about the place puffed up with pride at the action of his son. As for Tyler, the prospect of a commission was so fascinating and so absolutely unexpected that he felt in a whirl, and, finding conversation impossible, snatched at his cap and went bounding along the great main road.
A month later, as the captain occupied his accustomed seat in the porch of the cottage, a cloud of dust and the clatter of wheels attracted his attention in the direction of Southampton, and instantly up went his spy-glass, one hand steadied the end, and he looked casually to see what might have caused it; for to this poor crippled officer anything, each conveyance which passed, was of interest, and served to brighten the long days. He was familiar with each of the coaches which drove along the main road, the drivers in every case saluting him with their whips as they came rattling by, and no doubt turning the next moment to the passengers seated upon the box to describe the old salt who occupied the cottage. On this occasion, however, it was no coach which had given rise to the cloud of dust, but a smaller conveyance, at the sight of which the captain was thrown into a condition of excitement.
"There's not more than one which passes here in a week," he said, "and for that reason I am sure that that will be the admiral. Tyler! Tyler! Where are you? Just run down to the gate and be ready to meet him."
It proved to be the admiral, as he had prophesied, and within a little while that officer was standing before him, greeting him with a hearty shake of the hand, and looking at him with a smile the sereneness of which told that he had been successful. Behind him stepped the same two officers who had been rescued from the hold, and these at once came forward to be introduced. Then they turned to Tyler and gripped his hand in a manner which showed their gratitude.
"For you," said the admiral, suddenly producing a long blue envelope, and handing it to Tyler. "I will save you the trouble of reading it by telling you that you have been given a commission, and that orders are enclosed within for you to sail without delay for the China station. Your post will be on H.M.S. Dido, and your commander will be the Honourable Henry Keppel, Captain in the Royal Navy. And now, if you will kindly show my officers over the garden, I will discuss a little matter with your father.
"I have more to say," he went on, addressing Tyler's father, when the three had moved away, "and my news, I hope, will give you great pleasure. When I left you I went straight to those in authority and represented matters as I had found them. They agreed with me that it was a scandal and a shame that an officer should be treated as you have been. I pointed out that your pension was insufficient, with the result that it has been largely increased, and will enable you to reside, if you wish it, in a more populated district. Another point, you can now see your way to giving your son a small allowance, and so putting him upon an equal footing with his comrades. Then, too, I propose to help, for I am a single man, and my pay is of ample dimensions. I have taken a liking to the lad, and I mean to push his fortunes to the utmost. And now let us consider the question of his outfit, which must be gone into immediately. He will require uniform suited to this climate and also to the China seas, and must be equipped as well as the most fortunate of youngsters. That, again, I shall make my business if you have no objections, for you must recollect that you cannot easily see to the matter yourself, and, besides, it would gratify me to be allowed to provide all that is necessary. Unfortunately it turns out that no ship belonging to our fleets is bound for the East at this moment, and therefore Tyler will have to make the passage in a merchantman. But that will do no harm, for it will give him an opportunity of getting used to the sea, and will prepare him for his coming duties."
"Quite so," gasped the invalid captain, scarcely able to believe the good words to which he had been listening, or to understand the sudden change in his fortunes. "But he is no landlubber, let me tell you, Admiral, for he has hosts of friends in these parts, and during the holidays has often put to sea for quite a week at a time. He can splice and knot, for Tom Erskine, the old pensioner who acts as my servant, has taught him thoroughly. But how can I thank you?"
"Thank the lad, my dear Captain. Tyler is the one to whom you must show your gratitude, and I, too, feel indebted to him; for had it not been for his gallant action you and I would still have remained ignorant of one another, though living separated by but a mile or two. Think of the yarns we shall have together, and of the tales of our boyhood's days which we shall be able to spin. You must come and live close into the town, and I know of a little house there which would suit you admirably, for it is posted high up, and there is a sheltered seat before it from which a more extensive view even than this can be obtained. There is many an old sailor living there who will be delighted to come in and smoke a pipe with you, and instead of sitting here alone for the greater part of every day you will find that you have a new and happier life before you; for you are a man who loves companionship, and in Southampton you will make many a friend.
"And now to complete this matter, for we have very little time in which to delay. Sit here and think quietly about the question of the house, and let me know in a couple of days or more, when I return to visit you. Meanwhile I will take Tyler to my quarters, and will see to his outfit. Let him come for a week, which will give sufficient time to the tailors to try on the various garments. Then he can return to you, and can spend the remainder of his time in England at home."
It wanted very little persuasion on the part of the admiral to convince Captain Richardson that he had made a staunch friend, who was acting for his and Tyler's benefit. And therefore he placed no difficulty in the way of the latter's proposed visit to Southampton, but instead at once shouted for him.
"The admiral has kindly asked you to go into the town with him for a week," he called out. "Run to your room at once, like a good fellow, and pack your best clothes into a bag, for you must remember that you are now a Queen's officer and must dress becomingly."
Half an hour later the admiral and the two officers who had accompanied him to the cottage took their leave of Captain Richardson, and having been joined by Tyler, crowded into the hackney-coach which had conveyed them from the town of Southampton, and went trundling away along the road. Behind them they left the captain, jubilant at the good fortune which had suddenly come to him and his son, and eagerly looking forward to the change before him. No longer was he troubled by the question of Tyler's future, for now that was thoroughly settled. Then, again, the long dreary winter, which had usually dragged by miserably for him, was likely to prove in the coming months the happiest he had spent for many a year; for he would certainly leave this out-of-the-way spot, to which ill-health and inadequate income had fixed him, and would make his future home in Southampton, where he would be within easy reach of any who cared to show their friendship. In addition he would have the patronage of Admiral Davies, and that, together with the fact that they had been shipmates together in their earlier days, would secure a number of acquaintances—and, with such a man as Captain Richardson was, acquaintanceship would lead to certain and lasting friendships. Yes, the prospect was a bright one, and on that day, as the old white-headed sailor sat back in the porch, pipe and spy-glass in hand, and the old familiar scene before him, he felt that he was about to commence another existence altogether; he looked younger, the sunken cheeks seemed to have filled out a little, whilst the eyes sparkled in an unusual manner. Indeed, so alluring was the future that the captain remained at his post long after the hackney-coach had reached its destination, and only retired within the cottage when night was falling. Then, seated in his cosy parlour, he took up the Navy List and looked up the names of a few of his old comrades and that of the officer under whose command Tyler was to be.
"Yes," he murmured, "the lad will have every opportunity, for I have heard of Captain Keppel, and everyone agrees that he is a dashing and distinguished officer."
When Tyler returned to the cottage a week later his father scarcely recognized the spruce young fellow who came walking through the garden towards him, for our hero had now discarded civilian clothes and was dressed in a blue uniform which suited him admirably. Behind him he had left in the admiral's quarters his sea-chest and a very complete outfit with which his generous friend had provided him. In addition, he came primed with the information that he was to sail at the end of three weeks, and that his destination was to be Singapore, where the Dido would eventually put in to victual.
The remaining days of his stay in England were extremely busy ones, for, once Admiral Davies had taken an interest in any matter, he was not the man to permit of delay. Indeed, within a very few hours of Tyler's return he drove up in a hackney-coach prepared for the reception of the invalid, with a comfortable couch and thick soft cushions stretched between the seats. On this Captain Richardson was gently placed, and the trio at once drove to the house which the admiral had selected as a likely residence. Arrived there, the captain was carried to the sheltered seat of which mention had been made, and was then shown the interior of the dwelling.
"It will do splendidly!" he exclaimed with enthusiasm as they returned to the cottage. "For, thanks to my increased income, I shall easily be able to pay the rent demanded by the agent. Then, again, the furniture in the cottage will be sufficient to fill the rooms, while outside there is a garden which with Tom's help will produce all the vegetables that we require. But more than all, the sheltered seat commands a view up and down the Water, and from it I can see not only the ships sailing there, but can look right into the harbour, while the Portsmouth road stretches like a white ribbon clearly before me, and my own seat in the porch is under view. No doubt on many a day in the future I shall fix my glass upon it, and bear in mind the times when a poor old crippled sailor sat there forlorn and eager for friends. If it can be arranged I will change houses before Tyler starts; and there should be no difficulty in the matter, for the cottage is held on a monthly tenancy, while the residence in Southampton is ready and waiting for me."
Accordingly notice was promptly given to the owner of the cottage, while certain necessary decorations and repairs were made to the new house. Then a large van arrived, to which, under the admiral's friendly superintendence, the goods and chattels belonging to the captain were transferred, while that individual was once more put into the hackney-coach and driven to temporary quarters in the town. A few days later he was settled in his new residence, and when Tyler set sail from the harbour en route to Plymouth, where he was to embark upon a merchantman bound for Singapore, he had the satisfaction of knowing that his father was in comfortable surroundings, with many friends at hand. Standing by the after-rail he steadied himself against it and fixed the spy-glass, with which he had been presented by the officers whom he had rescued, upon the sheltered corner high up in the town. There was the old crippled captain, his gaze directed through his glass at the vessel which bore his son away. That he realized the fact of Tyler's presence there upon the poop was evident, for as the latter snatched at his cap and waved it about his head, the old sailor dragged a huge red handkerchief from his breast-pocket and let it blow out in the breeze. Thus did father and son take leave of one another, the former to commence a life of happiness to which he had been too long a stranger, and the latter to cross the sea, where many adventures were to befall him.
Six days had passed, from the date when Tyler Richardson set out from Southampton and dropped down to the open sea, before he reached Plymouth Harbour, for the vessel upon which he had sailed had met with contrary winds, and was much delayed. However, arrive he did at last at the busy port, to find the Alice Mary on the point of departure. Indeed, as Tyler ascended the gangway, followed closely by his chest, the bell was ringing loudly to warn friends and relatives to leave, while the blue-peter at the fore showed that all was in readiness. Sailors were running about the decks in obedience to the orders of the captain, while passengers stood about in every position, hampering the movements of the men, as they looked towards the shore and waved their hands and handkerchiefs. A few of the gentlemen were smoking placidly on the poop, as though departure from England on a long voyage was nothing out of the ordinary, while elsewhere some of the ladies were weeping bitterly at the thought of leaving. Tyler threaded his way amongst them, and having seen the cabin which he was to occupy, and deposited his smaller belongings there, he returned to the deck and looked on at the scene with interest.
"A big muddle it all looks, does it not?" said a voice at his elbow, and, turning swiftly, he became aware of the fact that one of the passengers, a tall, bearded gentleman, stood beside him with a pleasant smile of greeting upon his face.
"But it will all settle down within a few hours," went on the stranger, without waiting for Tyler's answer, "and, bless you! we shall all feel perfectly at home before we are much older. In fact, within a week we shall be the best of friends, and, I doubt not, shall feel as though we had known one another all our lives. By the end of the voyage some of us will have made such excellent companions that we shall be loth to part, while a few, wearied by the monotony of the long passage, will have squabbled. That is often the ending of a trip like this. But, pardon me, my name is Beverley, and I am for Singapore. May I ask your destination?"
Tyler at once told him, and then the two fell into conversation, which lasted until the ship had warped out of the harbour and was steering for the sea. Then they separated to go to their cabins, only to find that they were to share the same. And so it happened that throughout the voyage, which lasted for three months, they were continually together, and became the fastest of friends.
"And so you, like myself, are bound for Singapore," said Mr. Beverley two months after the Alice Mary had sailed from Plymouth; "and you tell me that you are likely to join theDido there. I think that you will be fortunate if you do so, for I happen to be well informed as to the movements of the ships, and I know that the vessel of which we speak is at present in the China Sea, engaged on a special mission, and is not likely to return to Singapore until late next year. Consequently you will either have to remain kicking your heels at the latter place, or you will have to tranship and go aboard the first merchantman bound for Hong-Kong. Now let me tell you of my plans. I am engaged by the Government to go to the island of Borneo, with a view to obtaining information as to its products. At the same time I have other people's interests in hand, for I am travelling for a firm of rubber merchants who are seeking a new field from which to obtain their supplies. Once before I was in the Eastern Archipelago, and on that occasion I obtained experience which will be of great value to me and which will help me on my journey. But you may wonder why I am troubling you so much with my own affairs, and for that reason I will explain. I told you that the Dido was in the China seas, and was not likely to reach Singapore for many months. But I did not say what was also in my knowledge, namely that Captain Keppel has been ordered to return by way of the archipelago, where he is to do his best to exterminate the pirates, who are very numerous and infest the islands. Now, supposing you sailed to Hong-Kong and missed the Dido!"
"It would be very disappointing," exclaimed Tyler, "and in that case I should scarcely be able to report myself before a year had passed."
"Quite so! but if there was news at Singapore that the Dido was already on her way, but would be delayed in the neighbourhood of Borneo, how would you care for a trip to the island yourself, with the hope that you might have the fortune to join her there?"
"Nothing I should like better!" burst in Tyler eagerly. "With you, do you mean?"
"That is my proposition. I want a comrade to accompany me, and if he is an officer in the British navy, all the better, for the power of England is known in Borneo, and your uniform would command respect on the coast. In the interior it would be a different matter, for there the Dyak tribes have probably never seen a white man. Indeed I hear that the country has never been explored, but rumours which have reached us through the Malays tell how the tribes within are for the most part fierce and warlike, and spend their time in attacking one another, often with the sole object in view of obtaining the heads of their enemies. But to return to my proposition. I have known you now so long that I feel sure that we should be capital friends. As I have said, I want a companion, while you desire to join your ship. Her destination is the coast of Borneo, while I also am bound in that direction. If on arrival at Singapore you find it unwise to proceed to China, and can obtain permission from the authorities, will you join me, in the hope of falling in with the Dido? There will be no expense, but I can promise you a trip which you may never have another opportunity of taking."
"It would be grand, and there is nothing that I should like more, Mr. Beverley," cried Tyler with eagerness. "Of course I know nothing about this Eastern Archipelago, and indeed did not know that I was bound in that direction until a very few days before leaving England. I am sure that the excursion would, as you say, be most fascinating, and I will join you with the greatest pleasure if the authorities will allow me to do so."
"Then I think that there will be no difficulty, though I am uncertain at the present moment to whom your request should be made. I am aware that there is a resident governor at Singapore, but whether the Admiralty has a representative is another matter. In any case I should go with you, and should show my orders, which would command some amount of influence; then again, in six weeks' time, when we hope to arrive at our destination, those at Singapore will be able to tell us more about the Dido, and will be able to say whether she is then in the China seas or whether she is shortly due at the port. We must be guided by their report, though I think that you will find that your ship is on her way to Borneo, and to the islands thereabout. That being the case, we shall promptly get sanction for you to join me, and as soon as we have made the necessary preparations shall set sail. As for the latter, I propose to purchase a small sailing schooner, and fit her up with a quantity of muskets and a couple of six-pounder guns, for our journey will take us into a part where the pirates from Sarebus abound, and they will think nothing of pouncing upon us. However, if they see that we are fully prepared, they will be more inclined to leave us alone, while, should they be bold enough to attack us, we shall, I hope, beat them handsomely, for we shall carry a crew of Malays, besides an interpreter. But how is it that you obtained your commission? You are decidedly over the age when youngsters are admitted to the navy, and as you have never broached the subject yourself I have not ventured to open it for fear of seeming curious. However, should you care to tell me I should be most interested to hear."
Thus invited to give an account of his adventure at the docks, Tyler did not hesitate to describe the latter in full, and to tell Mr. Beverley how Admiral Davies had come forward to help the family.
"It was done on the spur of the moment," he said, as if in excuse for his action, when referring to the rescue. "You see, there were the two officers insensible, a shout from the mate told us clearly that gas was the cause of the mishap, and, of course, after that the only thing to do was to get them out as rapidly as possible."
"That may be so, Tyler, my lad," responded Mr. Beverley warmly, "but I tell you that, though the need for rescue was apparent, there are many who would have stood there on the deck wringing their hands and incapable of giving active help. That's just where you came to the fore, and it must have been solely due to your promptness that those officers are alive to-day to tell the tale. I am glad that you have won your commission in such a manner, and I prophesy that your promotion will be rapid, for you are about to serve under a very distinguished officer, and will come to him with a character which will at once command his respect and approval. If he sees that you are level-headed and a hard worker he will no doubt give you many an opportunity of showing your worth. But it's time for dinner, and we had better go below and dress. Later on we can discuss the question of this trip to Borneo more completely. At the present moment it is sufficient for me to know that I have obtained the services of a young fellow who will be a companion, and who, moreover, will be of great assistance should it ever be our fortune to get into a tight corner."
Five weeks later the Alice Mary sighted the Island of Sumatra, and, having passed through the Malacca Strait, made for the harbour of Singapore. Tyler and Mr. Beverley, having seen their baggage landed, at once went to an hotel, the latter promptly despatching a note to the governor to ask for an appointment. Then they walked about the town for an hour, to find on their return that an answer had arrived requesting them to attend at the residency immediately.
"Glad to meet you," said the governor cordially, as they were ushered into his room. "I am aware of your proposed expedition, Mr. Beverley, for I have had orders to help you as much as possible. Advices also have reached me with the information that Mr. Richardson would come here with the object of joining H.M.S. Dido; but I fear that there is disappointment before him, for a brig which arrived last week came with the news that the ship in question had left Hong-Kong recently in search of the pirates in the neighbourhood of Borneo, and also to forward, if possible, the work of an ardent philanthropist, by name James Brooke. I fear that our young friend will have to remain in idleness for many weeks, unless, of course, he receives orders to proceed to some other port in the Archipelago."
"Which would exactly suit him, sir," exclaimed Mr. Beverley, who at once proceeded to tell the governor of the proposal which he had made to Tyler.
"It sounds an excellent plan to keep him out of mischief," was the answer, given with a smile, "and I am sure that the voyage would be most instructive for a young fellow such as he is. As to the necessary permission, I can give you that on the spot, for there is not a single representative of the royal navy in port at this moment. I will write a letter, which he can carry with him, stating that as the Dido is not likely to put in an appearance for some little time, and is in all probability cruising in the neighbourhood of Borneo, this officer is to proceed there with you on the distinct understanding that he is to join the Dido as soon as he obtains news of her precise whereabouts. That will smooth all possible difficulties, will it not?" he went on with a pleasant smile, seating himself at the desk which stood in the room, and making ready to write. "If questions are asked as to why he did not remain here, he has only to produce the letter; while again, should it turn out that by going with you the date of his joining is delayed longer than it would have been had he remained at Singapore, why, my written orders will clear him from all reprimand."
Taking a piece of official paper, the governor hastily scrawled some lines on it and stamped it at the bottom. Then he enclosed the letter in an envelope and sealed it with wax.
"There," he said, handing it to Tyler, "may you have a very pleasant trip! and when you fall in with the Dido just be so good as to give my compliments to her commander. For you, Mr. Beverley, I trust that your journey into the interior may lead to a favourable report, for I myself am deeply interested in the island, and in Mr. James Brooke, whose name I have already mentioned to you. I met him here, where he stayed quite recently, refitting his vessel, the Royalist, and I had the opportunity of many a conversation with him. He has the interests of the Dyaks and inhabitants of Borneo Proper at heart, and for that purpose he has sailed a second time for Sarawak. I fear that he will encounter many difficulties and dangers, and that it will be long before he meets with real success. But excuse me, I am very busy to-day, and there are many others waiting to speak with me."
Extending his hand the governor bade them farewell, and ushered them out of his room, promising to help them in their preparations if they should be in need of assistance. As for Tyler and his friend, they returned to the hotel, and began to discuss the preparations to be made before their departure.
"We shall require special clothes, of course," said the latter, "and I think that corduroy breeches and high boots, and a strong but thin linen jacket, will be necessary. A light sun-hat, which will retain its position on the head when the wearer is moving actively, must form part of the outfit, and in addition a cloak of heavy material must be taken, for in Borneo scarcely a night passes without rain, often amounting to a heavy downpour, from which we must be protected. Indeed, my experience of these regions has taught me that a white man rapidly falls a victim to ague if he is exposed to much damp and cold. We must try to keep fever at arm's-length, and
Verlag: BookRix GmbH & Co. KG
Tag der Veröffentlichung: 23.12.2013
Alle Rechte vorbehalten