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"ONE pound fourteen shillings and sevenpence halfpenny—not a farthing more!"
"But you cannot mean," I said, "that you have only this amount!"
"I mean," returned Fred Cornwallis, "that this is my all, unless you can set a value on my clothes. I suppose they would fetch a small sum at my 'uncle's.' Beyond this I can only see the workhouse."
"The workhouse! That is no place for a strong, active, and well-educated fellow. Surely you can turn your hand to something.
"Look here," he said, turning to me, and emphasizing his words with his forefinger; "for more than two months I have studied the columns of the daily papers; during the same period I have written innumerable replies to the advertisements in the said journals. I have tramped the streets in search of employment from early morning till after the gas-lamps were lighted, wearing out two pairs of boots in my peregrinations. I have applied personally in every kind of office; I have braved every kind of reception—some of them very queer ones, I can tell you. And here I am, as I said before, with the sum of—"
"But stay!" I interrupted. "Have you tried Jones the solicitor? You remember Jimmy Jones—he was a fourth-form boy when we were in the second? Surely he will put you on as a clerk."
"I have tried him no less than three times."
"And there is Brown the stockbroker—big Brown the football player."
"Said he didn't remember me, and had no vacancy."
"H'm—that's awkward. Oh, by the way, did you ever run across Robinson?—a vulgar fellow, but he made heaps of money in the butter and general provision line."
"Saw him yesterday—the pompous ass sent down word by a junior clerk that he had no time to devote to casuals."
"Very rude indeed. But never mind, something else must be found. Now tell me, what can you do?"
"Do? Oh, I can run, box, and fence, and shoot well enough to make a bulls-eye nine times out of ten at five hundred yards."
"Come, it is not every one who can do that," I returned with a smile. "But seriously, old chap, what can you do which we might be able to call commercially valuable?"
"Oh, I can use a pen—badly, I fear; and I can, with some difficulty, add up £.s.d. columns."
This was rather a staggerer. How on earth was such a man to obtain employment sufficient to ensure an adequate living?
I looked at him in silence for a few minutes as he stood by the fire with his elbow on the mantelpiece. He was certainly a handsome fellow—tall, well built, having a profusion of light-brown curly hair, a pair of large clear hazel eyes, a fair moustache, and an expression in which openness and ingenuousness were blended to a remarkable degree. But, then, London wants men trained in business, cute and shrewd in money matters, machine- made in habits, well accustomed to the desk and the ledger. Fred Cornwallis was not of this sort, and the modern Babylon, with its vampire-like greed, would drain him of his all, and then cast him aside, as it had done many another, as valueless for its purposes.
"Well," said my visitor, looking at me with a frank smile, "you have heard my statement; what do you advise?"
"My dear fellow, I am a city man," I replied, "and you are so obviously unfit for city life—pardon my plainness of speech—that it would be worse than useless for me to urge you to continue your attempt to find employment. Now, if you had only thought of emigrating, or something of that kind, before your money had been spent, by this time you would probably be enjoying the kind of life for which you seem eminently suited."
"A speech which does you credit," remarked my visitor, with a smile and a bow. "The only difficulty seems to be how to obtain that for which I 'seem eminently suited.'"
As we could not arrive at a satisfactory conclusion, my light- hearted friend left me, after promising to call again the next day, while in the meantime I set my brains to work to discover some way of aiding him.
Our friendship was no new thing. In our boyhood we had been chums, and the liking for each other had grown with the progress of years, so that now that I, John Elkington, was junior partner in the firm of Martin Brothers and Elkington, Shipbrokers, I was in a position to help my friend, if he was in a position to avail himself of my aid.
Unhappily such was not the case. Although there was a vacant stool at his disposal in the counting-house, he was by his own confession quite incapable of occupying it, and I knew no other way, unless it were by doles of money, of assisting him.
It was while I was employed with these thoughts that the senior partner of the firm, Mr. George Martin, entered my private office. He held a telegram in his hand, and by his grave face I could see that something serious had happened.
"What's the matter?" I exclaimed.
"Matter enough, Elkington. Just read that;" and he placed the paper in my hand.
It was a cablegram from Singapore, and ran as follows:—
WHITE ROSE ASHORE, NORTH-WEST COAST AUSTRALIA. PASSENGERS SAFE, CARGO UNINJURED.
"This is news indeed!" I exclaimed. "From whom is this message?"
"From Captain O'Grady himself. He dispatched it from the Straits; though how he got there I am unable to understand."
"And the loss to us—"
"Will be about five thousand pounds. You see, the vessel herself was insured to the full value—and a portion of the cargo. Otherwise our loss might have amounted to ten thousand or more."
"Then it would seem that the ship has been abandoned?" I remarked.
"Looks like it. But we may be sure that Captain O'Grady would not have abandoned the vessel without good reason."
"What do you propose?" I asked.
"Propose? I propose nothing but to grin and bear it, though it is hard luck to lose one's money in this way."
After he had gone I sat for some time thinking over the matter. Our firm had endured a series of losses of late. Perhaps we had been too parsimonious in the matter of insurance. However that might be, we had been hard hit, and a few more such losses would land us in serious difficulties. It was plain that we must both increase our insurance on the ships themselves as well as insure their freights to the full value.
As to the wrecked vessel, it seemed to me that nothing could be done but to grumble and bear the loss.
The next day, however, put a very different complexion on the affair. Fred Cornwallis called at the appointed hour, and, because my mind was full of the subject, I related to him what had occurred. To my surprise he asked what we proposed to do in the matter.
"Do!" I returned. "What can we do?"
"You can send out a capable person to save the cargo—and perhaps the ship also."
I laughed at him. "Long before the salvage party could arrive the storms will have destroyed the vessel," I said.
"But are you not jumping at a conclusion?" he replied. "I should suggest that you wire instructions to this worthy Captain O'Grady that he remain at Singapore, and that you at once despatch a vessel with a salvage party. If they are successful you will save more than your five thousand pounds' worth of cargo, for the underwriters will come down handsomely."
"Your idea seems to be a good one," I replied, after a few minutes' pause. "But we will consult my partners."
To my astonishment both George and James Martin, the senior partners, fairly jumped at Cornwallis's proposal.
"It can do no harm to wire to O'Grady," remarked James, as he wrote out a message directing the captain to remain at Singapore and await further orders.
"There! now we can talk over the details."
"It is plain that one of us ought to go. Which of us shall it be?"
The three partners looked at each other for a few moments after this question.
"I fear that I am too old for such a voyage," remarked George Martin.
"And I cannot be spared from the office," observed James.
"Then it only remains that I should place my services at the disposal of the firm," I said, laughing. "But, as I should like you to give me a companion, may I suggest that the firm should frank the expenses of my friend Mr. Fred Cornwallis, the suggester of the expedition?"
"He certainly ought to go," remarked my partners simultaneously.
As they spoke there was a slight sound at the door of the room, and on opening it I found Jonas Cuthbert, our chief clerk. He was standing on the mat, and seemed to be somewhat confused at my sudden appearance.
Somehow, although he was a dashing sort of fellow, with such good looks as a well-trimmed beard, glossy hair, and regular features can impart, there was something shifty in the appearance of his black eyes which always struck me as unsatisfactory. The senior partners, however, placed implicit and unlimited confidence in Cuthbert, and I hitherto had seen no cause why I should consider their trust to be misplaced.
"Do you want anything?" I inquired, rather surprised at finding the man there.
"No—at least I mean yes. I—I wasn't sure whether Mr. George was in. But it does not matter in the least, sir; I can come again." So saying, he descended the stairs.
I did not say anything at the time to my co-partners, but subsequent events vividly recalled this little incident to my mind.
"God bless you, old fellow! You have saved me from despair," cried Cornwallis, when we had regained the shelter of my sanctum.
"Riches and adventure hand in hand; that ought to suit you," I said. "For, if we succeed, the firm will do something handsome, I am sure."
And so it came to pass that within a week (sundry cablegrams having in the meantime passed between Captain O'Grady and ourselves) we were in the thick of our preparations for a salvage expedition to the north-west coast of Australia.
It took a fortnight to complete these preparations. By the end of that time we had fitted out one of our own steamships, the Empress Queen, with all the tackle needful for our salvage operations when we should reach the stranded vessel; and further, we had secured as well-trained and experienced a band of men as ever embarked on such a venture.
It was on the evening before the day on which our vessel was to leave the dock that a strange discovery was made. The clerks had departed from the office of Martin Brothers and Elkington with the exception of the one whose business it was to see to the closing of the establishment; and we, that is to say, the two senior partners, Fred Cornwallis, and myself were about to depart to the residence of Mr. George Martin, where we proposed to have a little farewell dinner, when the clerk burst in upon us with the information that the safe in the chief clerk's office was not locked.
"The door was shut, sir; but when I tried it unthinkingly, to my astonishment it opened!"
"Ah! that will never do," exclaimed Mr. James Martin. "The fellow is careless; for I stowed away a considerable sum in gold to-day. It shall go to the bank to-morrow."
He hurried away from us to lock the safe, but speedily returned in great trepidation with the tidings that the money had gone.
"It is years since I had so much loose cash in the office!" he said.
"What was the amount?" I asked.
"One thousand and forty-eight pounds."
This was a serious loss indeed, and before we departed for Mr. George Martin's house, we gave information to the police. I proposed that the departure of the ship should be delayed for a few days, but my partners would not hear of it.
"You can do nothing in the matter, and it is of the greatest importance that the Empress Queen should start at once. No! start to-morrow, as arranged, and we will keep you informed by telegraph—until you are beyond its reach—of the result of the investigation by the police. No doubt the money will be recovered. Let us hope that Cuthbert has had no hand in this."
Late that evening Fred Cornwallis and I drove to the docks; and, amid piles of merchandise and articles employed by those who "go down to the sea in ships," made our way to the vessel. She was a good type of a tramp-steamer, neither old nor particularly new. A coat of paint had smartened her considerably, but nothing would improve her speed, which would be considered, I must confess, rather slow in these days of ocean greyhounds.
In the early hours of a November morning, while the river was still half wrapped in bands of mist, the hoarse voice of Captain McIlvaine awoke us as he gave the needful orders, and we knew that the great vessel had glided out of the dock into the muddy waters of Father Thames.
We did not come on deck for some time, but after breakfast the mist cleared off, and we were tempted to admire the scenery of the river and the north coast of Kent.
"What is that large ship astern of us?" I inquired of the captain.
Screwing up one eye and glancing at the vessel, he replied, without hesitation—
"Well, sir, I know her build, though I don't know her name—she's a P. and O. boat. She'll walk past us like a gale of wind."
Steadily the huge steamship came after ours, and before we were abreast of the North Foreland she passed us, and so closely that I could almost distinguish the features of the passengers who clustered together to look at us.
Had we known who was on board that boat, and what was his errand, perchance this story might have had a very different ending.
It was at Suez that a cablegram informed us not only that the lost money had not been recovered, but, further, that Jonas Cuthbert had absconded.
"It's all along been as clear as daylight to me that he was the thief," remarked my companion, as together we read the message.
But he had not guessed the whole truth.
ALL went well with us until we had passed the Red Sea. The Empress Queen, though slow, had proved herself to be a steady, comfortable boat. Our quarters were not luxurious, but they were roomy, and we had pleasant companions. Of these, Captain John McIlvaine must first be described. He was a tall, raw-boned Scotchman hailing from Aberdeen, from which port he had formerly and for many years sailed on whaling expeditions to the Arctic regions. But the whale fishery having ceased to be a profitable one, McIlvaine for the past five years had been in the service of Martin Brothers and Elkington. McIlvaine was at once one of the bravest and one of the most simple-minded of men. Israel Bobbing, the boatswain, once spoke of him as a lion's pup; and certainly it was by no means a bad description.
The said Israel Bobbing was a very watch-dog for alertness, a bit of a bully among the men, but by no means a bad fellow at heart. Short and stumpy in stature, having a thick neck and little black, ferrety eyes, which seemed to twinkle like live coals under his heavy eyebrows, he was in appearance a strange- looking man. But, although plain, even to ugliness, Israel took the greatest pains as regards his personal adornment, always appearing with a clean-shaven face and a gorgeous necktie.
The remainder of our shipmates were thorough English seamen—perhaps a shade above the average in character and ability; for we had selected the most likely for this expedition,—and ready and willing to go anywhere and do anything.
It was after we had entered the Indian Ocean that our first delay occurred. It came in the shape of a terrific storm. For two days we were unable to make headway against it, and for the three days following our progress was anything but satisfactory, with the result that we arrived at Bombay—our first stopping- place—fully four days later than we had anticipated.
Had we known what this delay signified for us we should not have taken it so calmly.
"I only hope that similar gales have not broken up the White Rose," I remarked to Fred Cornwallis.
After a week's stay we proceeded in our leisurely fashion, and in due time arrived at Colombo, where a further cablegram awaited us, which intimated that no trace had been found of the lost money or of the missing clerk.
"Depend upon it, I am right," said Fred. "He has gone off with the coin."
It was while we were at Colombo that Israel Bobbing made what subsequently proved to be an important discovery. After having obtained leave for a few hours, he returned with the knowing look in his eyes strangely intensified.
"We're not the only party as is bound for the nor'-west coast o' Australy," he remarked dryly.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I mean, sir, that a tramp-steamer was engaged here for a job similar to our own more'n fortnight ago.'
"But not for the same place!"
"Well, the nor'-west coast o' Australy is a goodish stretch; but there are hardly likely to be two castaway wessels thereabouts."
We looked inquiringly at the captain.
"Ay, mon," he responded, "ye're recht aboot that. I canna believe that we will fin' twa steamships ashore."
"But surely," I said, "you do not suppose that the party of whom you speak has gone in search of our ship?"
"I canna tell, sir, but I am suspeecious."
"But how can news of it have reached Colombo?"
"And who could have fitted out a salvage expedition?" put in Cornwallis.
"The mon as heard o' the wreck," returned the captain.
"But how?—that is the question," we queried.
We talked over the matter for some time, but could arrive at no more satisfactory conclusion than that we must make all haste for Singapore, where Captain O'Grady awaited our arrival.
But again we were delayed, for no sooner had we fairly entered the Bay of Bengal than we encountered further tremendous storms, which lasted until we were off the Acheen coast. The consequence of these delays was that our vessel was more than a fortnight overdue at Singapore, and indeed Captain O'Grady was getting anxious about us.
He was a jolly-looking, red-faced fellow, some fifty years of age, with a good-tempered twinkle about his eyes, and the perpetual relics of a smile hovering at the corners of his rather wide mouth. Though neither born nor educated in Ireland, there was sufficient of the Irish humour about him to betray his origin; and, as we subsequently found, he was one of the most loyal of friends and lovable of men.
"And now, O'Grady, give us an account of the loss of the ship," I said, when we were assembled (that is to say, the two captains, Cornwallis, and myself) in the state-room of the Empress Queen.
"And, truth, that is just what I'm anxious to do," he replied; "for since the officers and crew, to say nothing of the passengers of the White Rose, left Singapore for England and elsewhere, I have had a lonely time here. Well, here's my story:—
"We had been 'tramping' for about three years, and had done well, favoured both by weather and trade, when I left Brisbane on the west coast of Australia for an excursion round Cape York, and a run across the mouth of the Gulf of Carpentaria, calling at small places on the coast, as far as Port Darwin, with stores. But had I known what a bare, desolate region it was, I should never have made the voyage.
"We got on very well, however, as far as Port Darwin, and I had shaped my course for the nor'-west, in order to fetch the Straits, when the most remarkable storm came on which it has ever been my lot to witness—and I've been in a few tidy gales! We did our best, gentlemen; but steam cannot do everything; and, to cut a long story short, on the second night after the gale began the ship went ashore."
"Did she break up?" I asked, fearful lest our expedition should prove to be useless.
"Not a bit of it, sir! She's as sound now, I'll be bound, as the day she was launched into the Clyde."
"But what makes you so certain of that, Captain O'Grady?"
"Well, you see, gentlemen, it happened in this way. The engines were going full speed ahead, trying to force the old hulk—askin' your pardon, sir" (with a bow to me)—"against the howling, screeching wind; but I could see all the time that every minute was carryin' us nearer the shore. Presently we could hear the roar of the breakers, and I gave ourselves up for lost, and ordered the boats to be got ready.
"While the men were doing this a terrible roaring—worse nor anything we'd heard—came from the sea, and in less than two minutes the White Rose was lifted high on the summit of the hugest tidal wave ever seen by mortal man, and we were carried shorewards with the speed of a cannonball."
"Terrible!" I exclaimed. "You must have been horror- struck!"
"Horror-struck! There was no time for that nor for anything but to hold on with nails and teeth. I expected a fearful crash and all the inside to be shaken out o' the old gal; but bless you, gentlemen, we settled down as gently as a baby going to sleep, and ten minutes found us high and dry far above the waves."
"Do you mean that you were let down gently by the retreating tidal wave?" asked Fred Cornwallis.
"Exactly, sir. There was no second tidal wave after that one; and when morning came the ship was lying on an even keel high up between the sandbanks, and the sea—it being ebb tide—was a quarter of a mile or more away."
"Wonderful!" we exclaimed. "But did not the next tide float you?"
"Tide! Nothing but such a wave, and at bang-up high tide too, will ever move the White Rose—he's far above high- water mark."
This was astonishing news indeed, and for a long time we closely questioned O'Grady concerning this most remarkable event; but he stuck to his story, and concluded by saying—
"Well, gentlemen, you say that you intend to go there and judge for yourselves. You will then learn that the account which I have given you is correct in every particular."
We hastened to assure him that we by no means doubted his veracity.
"But how did you get away?" I asked.
"By our boats, sir. They were as sound and as uninjured as the day we sailed from the Thames."
"And the cargo?"
"Is safe and sound too. I left everything secure when we deserted the ship."
"But what about natives?"
"Well, we were there about ten days looking out for a sail—which we never saw, for very few vessels visit that coast—and fitting out our boats. During that period we only saw one native, the strangest mortal I ever set eyes on. He was discovered by two of our men squatting behind some low bushes which fringed the sandhills. They captured him, and brought him on board. But, bless you! he was so scared that we were glad to let him go, and away he ran inland like a frightened hare."
"Then, depend upon it, the whole tribe know of the stranded vessel."
"Did ye fasten doon the hatches and mak all secure?" asked Captain McIlvaine.
"As secure as we could; and I hardly think the blacks will come near the ship, for some of the passengers dressed two scarecrows, and our men, with shouts of laughter, fixed 'em up in conspicuous and lifelike positions just afore we came away. It was after eight days' sailing that we were picked up, and nearly a month before we were landed here."
"So that it is now four months since you abandoned the vessel?"
"And you think we shall find her undisturbed?" I queried; for I was anxious that we should not make our voyage in vain.
"I tell ye, sir, that the White Rose'll be standing on those sandhills in fifty years time, unless some one interferes with her."
That settled the matter, and on the third day we steamed away from Singapore full of hope and good spirits, and little anticipating what was before us.
But we were not to reach our goal without further delays.
No sooner had we passed the Straits of Sunda than the weather became very rough, and before long we again encountered a tremendous gale. For some hours we struggled against it. But alas for our well-worn engines! With a jerk which shook the ship from stem to stern, the pumping-gear jammed, and at the same time a connecting-rod gave way.
There was no help for it but to lie-to under a small spread of canvas, and this we did for several days while the damages were being repaired.
This was a more difficult undertaking than we expected, as we were short of extra fittings suitable for the purpose.
It was now that Fred Cornwallis began to distinguish himself, developing such wonderful mechanical skill that our chief engineer affirmed that the "gentleman might have been apprenticed in an engine-fitting shop."
I chafed much at the delay, though for what reason it would be difficult to say, "For the White Rose will not run away," as Fred Cornwallis remarked jokingly.
However, after a few days the gale blew itself out, and the engines were sufficiently repaired for us to proceed, though both Cornwallis and the engineer affirmed that they would not endure the strain of another such a storm.
It was in the early dawn that we sighted the Australian coast. First a dim shadowy outline, then a low strip of yellowish hills, after this the clearer grouping of objects, such as trees and scrub.
"Ha' ye give me the recht latitude?" asked Captain McIlvaine of O'Grady, as they stood side by side on the bridge.
"Steamer ahead!" shouted the look-out whom we had stationed aloft.
"Ah! there she is!" exclaimed Captain O'Grady, presently.
"Yes, there is the stranded vessel!" cried Fred Cornwallis, who with myself had climbed up on to the bridge, from which we now looked out eagerly.
It was a curious sight. Right ahead of us, and far down the bay which we were entering, rose the masts and funnels of a steamship. But it soon became plain, even when we were at a considerable distance, that she was no longer on her native element.
In half an hour's time we were as near the shore as Captain McIlvaine deemed safe—that is to say, we were a short mile from the stranded ship, and, I need hardly say, brimful of anticipation.
"NOW for riches and adventure!" cried Fred Cornwallis, as the boat was lowered in which we were to proceed to the shore.
"We shall undoubtedly make a good salvage," I replied; "but as for adventures, the fewer the better, so far as I am concerned."
"Ha' ye taken firearms?" called out Captain McIlvaine, as he leaned over the end of the bridge and looked down upon our party in the boat.
"Yes, we have a revolver apiece and some cartridges," I replied.
"But we shall only need them to give you a signal that we have found all safe and sound," cried O'Grady; "and, for sure, we shall find the cargo as safe as if it was in the Bank of England," he added, turning to me.
"Now tell me," I said, as we pulled away for the shore, "what your cargo consists of."
Whereupon he gave me a list of so many bales of wool, so many cases of Australian wine, so many crates of odds and ends of various sorts, and last, but by no means least, so many chests of gold.
"It is stored away in a strong place built for the purpose in the centre of the hold," he explained.
"How many chests of gold?" inquired Cornwallis, eagerly, as he leaned forward and joined in the conversation.
"Twenty-five," replied O'Grady.
"Bless my life, that's a tidy haul!"
"But tell me," I said, "why did you not inform the owners that you had this gold? We knew nothing of this item."
"Bless you, sir, I sent a wire from the first port we touched at."
"Which we never received," I said.
"It was about a fortnight after we left Brisbane that we fell in with a derelict liner," continued O'Grady. "Her masts were gone—her rudder too. As the boats had disappeared, I suppose the passengers and crew had saved themselves. We boarded the vessel and found the twenty-five chests. They were stored in a strong room. The hold was filling rapidly, and by the time we had secured the gold the decks were nearly awash."
"What is the value of the gold?" asked Cornwallis.
I looked into his eyes as he spoke, and saw there a glitter which told me that he was already smitten with gold fever—a disease peculiarly fatal in this part of the world—and I thought of the day when he told me that his whole wealth amounted to one pound fourteen shillings and seven-pence halfpenny.
"I should say it is worth about eighty thousand pounds," replied O'Grady, calmly.
"Eighty thousand! You don't say so!" I exclaimed.
"Eighty thousand!" echoed Cornwallis. "And the whole of it abandoned in this desert! Why, the salvage of such a sum will be enough to make a man's fortune at a leap!"
Thus we talked till our boat's keel grounded on the soft sand. Cornwallis was the first to leap ashore, and without waiting for us he bounded up the sloping sand towards the strangely stranded steamship.
"Blest if the bloomin' ship doesn't look exactly like Noah's ark!" observed Israel Bobbing.
The other men laughed, for the simile was very apt. High above us, on the brow of the slope, towered the huge bulk of the vessel, looking for all the world like a modern ark. Except that the sun had blistered the paint on her sides, she looked ready enough for a voyage, and the fact that her bows were pointed seaward seemed to suggest that a great launch was about to take place.
The sand was loose and soft, but we ploughed through it as quickly as we were able, and presently overtook Fred Cornwallis. He was standing by the starboard side of the vessel, and looking at the indications of footmarks on the sands.
"I say, O'Grady," he called out, "how long since you left this place?"
"More than four months, sir."
"The footprints of your people can still be seen plainly enough," he remarked.
We hurried up and found it was as he had said. These were the footprints of civilized men—men who wore boots. They showed plainly enough round the stranded steamship. Not that the marks were altogether fresh or distinct, for the slight breeze drifted the sand hither and thither, and quite a bank had formed against the hull. But, still, the marks were in some places remarkably plain, and O'Grady gazed at them in amazement.
"I could never ha' believed that they would ha' lasted so long," he exclaimed.
"Well, let us make sure that all is right on board," I said, turning as I spoke towards the side of the ship.
"Pity you did not leave the ladder, or, at any rate, a rope," remarked Cornwallis.
"Bless my stars, but we did leave a rope!" he replied, with a puzzled look.
"Oh, never mind, probably the wind has carried it away," I said.
As there was no other way of gaining the deck, one of the seamen climbed on to the shoulders of the tallest man in our boat's crew, and swung himself aboard by means of some loose tackle which hung over the bows, and which O'Grady declared was not there when he abandoned the vessel.
We soon clambered on board.
"What's this?" cried O'Grady, in amazement, as he gained the deck. "I certainly left the main hatchway secure! And these marks?"—and he pointed to the dark stains of blood showing distinctly in many places on the deck.
We followed him, and peered down into the depths of the hold.
"Empty!" grunted a seaman.
"Empty!" we responded simultaneously.
We stooped and gazed again into the black space, and then we stood upright and looked speechless into each other's faces.
What did it mean? Who could have visited and emptied the great ship?
"This is a clean job," remarked Israel Bobbing, scratching his head reflectively; "an' if my 'pinion was axed, I should say this 'ere ship's bin cleared by purfessionals."
"What do you mean, man?" I inquired almost angrily.
"Beggin' your pardin, sir, I should say as it ain't no nigger job."
"You mean it's not the work of Australian blacks?"
The man nodded. "Them as 'as done this 'as black 'arts an' white 'ands," he said significantly.
Then we roused ourselves and began a thorough investigation of the vessel. Procuring a light, we first examined the hold. With the exception of a few chests stowed in one corner, it was empty—absolutely cleared out.
Then we poked about in other parts of the ship, sending O'Grady and the men to the fore part, while Cornwallis and I examined the cabins, pantries, and staterooms.
"There'll be nothing here. The beggars have done their work thoroughly, I fancy," remarked Cornwallis.
We were descending the companion staircase as he said this. Just then I fancied I heard a slight noise below.
"What's that?" I whispered.
We listened for a few seconds, and then the silence was broken by the sound of a woman weeping piteously.
We looked at each other in utter astonishment.
"A woman on board!" whispered Cornwallis. "What does it mean?"
I suggested that we should return and ask O'Grady for an explanation.
"No, no, we will find out the truth for ourselves!" said my companion. "Come along!"
So we crept as quietly as possible down the stairs, and then listened again. The sound now suddenly ceased, and I heard a movement within one of the cabins.
"The fourth one on the left," whispered Cornwallis.
As he spoke, the door which he had indicated opened, and there stepped out a tall, elegant girl. She was clothed in white and was very fair, and we were at once struck by her beauty. Her long hair hung over her shoulders, and it was plain that she had been weeping, for the tears were still wet upon her cheeks.
For a moment she did not seem to see us, for we were standing in the shadow of the passage, while the sun through the skylight shone full upon her; but as soon as she caught sight of our two figures she gave a little cry, and clasping her hands advanced towards us as she sobbed—
"Have you brought her back to me? Oh, tell me! tell me!"
"We are here to befriend you, madam," I said, stepping forward into the light.
For a moment she raised her hands in horror, as though to ward me off, and then tottered towards me, fainting.
I grasped her as she fell, or she might have hurt her head severely, and together we bore her into the cabin.
It was plain that she had lived here for some time, for there were the remains of food, as well as other indications of regular tenancy.
Hastily despatching Cornwallis for Captain O'Grady, I seized a water-bottle and bathed the girl's head and face, but without result, for she was in a dead faint.
"Bless me! what have we here?" cried O'Grady, as he entered the cabin panting with his exertions. "This is most extraordinary! this is truly wonderful!" he ejaculated. "How on earth—"
"Never mind that," I said. "Is there any brandy on board?"
"There's some in my pocket," he replied with a grin, at the same time drawing forth a flask. "I never go far without it—in case o' accidents."
Raising the girl's fair head and supporting it with my arm, I poured a few drops of the stimulant into her mouth. It had the desired effect, and in a few minutes she opened her eyes and stared about vacantly.
"You are with friends," I said, bending over her. As I did so she turned and looked at me, and the vacant look passed away. Then a warm blush began to spread over her face.
"You feel better now?" I said.
"Yes. Thank God, I am saved! But where is she?—where is Cecilia, my sister?"
"You must keep quiet for a while, until you are quite recovered. Have no fear but that we shall find your sister."
We lifted her on to the bed, and left her for a while, that we might discuss her strange discovery.
"Well, I'm jiggered!" exclaimed O'Grady, as we reached the saloon. "If this isn't the rummest go I've ever run across! First we find the ship cleaned out completely, then we find a lovely young lady on board!"
"Whom I suppose you accidentally deserted when you abandoned the vessel?" interrupted Cornwallis, in an indignant tone.
"Nothing of the sort, sir," retorted O'Grady, turning upon him fiercely. "Do you think, sir, that I would even leave a poor cat on the ship? We were in no hurry: the vessel was not sinking in deep water. Every living soul left the White Rose before your humble servant."
Cornwallis mumbled an apology, and I diverted the O'Gradian wrath by suggesting that we should at once make a search for the young lady's sister.
This we proceeded to do, aided by the men, who were as much surprised as ourselves at our strange discovery. But though we sought in every corner of the ship, we found no other living creature.
"By this time the sea-nymph will probably be able to give us some account of herself," remarked Cornwallis, with a smile.
We found her considerably recovered and quite able to converse with us.
"Have you news of my sister?" she inquired anxiously as we entered.
I rejoined that so far our search had not been successful, but that she must not abandon hope, for we would certainly do our best.
"But," I added, "we are very anxious to know how you came to be alone on board this ship."
"First tell me whether you are connected with the men who brought me here."
She said this with such evident anxiety and dread that we hastened to assure her that we knew nothing of any visitors to the ship, and were as much amazed at discovering her as we were at finding that the vessel had been cleared of her cargo.
When we told her this the look of terror passed away; and drying the last traces of tears which still lingered on her cheeks, our new friend related the following story:—
"My name is Lucilia Neville. It is more than three months since we left Capetown in a sailing-ship. My father, an Indian officer, was returning to his regiment.
"For a month all went well. We had baffling winds—for it was an unfavourable time of the year for the voyage—but at first no serious storms. It was not until we were some two hundred and fifty miles off the coast of Ceylon that a tremendous gale caught us. I will not describe to you all the misery and discomfort we endured during that storm. It raged for fully three days, but by that time we were reduced to a complete wreck, for our masts had gone, and we were helpless. The captain set to work to rig jury-masts, and it was while the men were thus engaged that a steamer hove in sight. She proved to be the Vixen, bound for some Australian port, of which I never learnt the name. They offered to land any passengers at Colombo, in Ceylon; and as my father's time was limited, he availed himself of the opportunity, deciding that he would proceed overland to Calcutta.
"We parted with regret from our friends who had elected to remain on the ship, and no doubt they have arrived at Colombo ere this. As for ourselves, we have never seen Ceylon."
"What!" we exclaimed simultaneously. "Do you mean that you were brought here?"
"You shall learn. I was interested in noticing that the man in charge of the vessel seemingly left the navigation of the ship to the mate. He was a tall, dashing sort of fellow, in ordinary landsman's clothing, aristocratic, and rather handsome in appearance, having a dark beard and glossy black hair, but his eyes were of the untruthful, 'shifty' variety; and my sister and I immediately took a great dislike to him.
"With what good reason you shall presently be told.
"After three days' steaming, as we did not seem to be approaching the shores of Ceylon, my father began to make inquiry. He was directed to the man whom I have described, and who was known as Captain Ospringe. This individual, in the suavest and most polite manner possible, informed him that the course of the vessel had been changed; that for private reasons he could not put in at Colombo; and that they were now crossing the Bay of Bengal, and making for the Straits. This put my father in a great rage, but he knew that a man rescued from imminent danger of shipwreck has no right to insist that his rescuers should proceed to any particular port; and, though he remonstrated with Ospringe, he was forced to submit to the inevitable.
"To our dismay an eastward course was kept. We passed through the Straits without calling at Singapore, and at length arrived here.
"It was in the middle of the night when the ship anchored, for I was awakened by the stoppage of the machinery and the rattle of the chain-cable as the anchor was let go."
"NOW we come to the exciting moment!" exclaimed Fred Cornwallis, who was eagerly following Miss Neville's narrative.
"Yes, it was exciting enough, as you shall hear," she responded, with a faint smile.
"I lay still for a while wondering what would happen. There were sounds on deck as though men were moving about, and presently a splash in the water alongside, followed by the sound of oars.
"As soon as I heard this I aroused my sister, and we hurriedly dressed. It was just as we were about to leave our cabin for the purpose of awaking my father that we were rudely thrust back by no less a personage than Captain Ospringe. Closing the door, he stood before us with a lantern in his hand and a strange, wild look in his eyes. We stared at him for a few seconds in silence.
"'You must stay in your cabins,' he said at length. 'If you remain quiet, all will be well; but if you make any disturbance, I shall be under the painful necessity of having to employ forcible measures.'
"What lay under his language we could not imagine. We were altogether too terror-stricken to reply, and after holding up the lantern and looking fixedly for a few moments into the face of my sister, he retired from the cabin, removing the key as he did so, and locking the door from without.
"During the whole of the following day we were kept prisoners. Food was brought by Ospringe himself, but he held no conversation with us. We heard much commotion on deck, and boats were constantly passing between our vessel and the shore. During the early part of the day we could only see the ocean, but when the tide turned, our steamer swung round, and through the porthole we had a view of a sandy shore, with a large steamer stranded upon the sandhills. A number of men were actively engaged upon the vessel, while throughout the day boats were constantly bringing heavy loads on board our ship.
"It was not until evening that Ospringe again visited us. This time he remained longer, and even condescended to converse with us. He began by reminding us that we were now off the north-west Australian coast, and far from civilization. He further reminded us that things might be done here which would never be heard of by the rest of the world. We were frightened by his words; but what he meant we soon discovered.
"Then, to our astonishment, this audacious fellow turned to my sister—she is barely twenty years of age—and informed her that he was deeply in love with her, and that he intended that she should marry him as soon as arrangements could be made. We were too much alarmed to answer the man. My sister only clung to my arm, while I begged that we might be permitted to see my father.
"'He is now on shore busily employed on the stranded ship. We are obliged to make every person useful,' was Ospringe's reply.
"I can hardly describe our amazement at these words. That our father should have consented to assist this man was almost beyond belief; that he knew our present position was altogether incredible; but our astonishment was turned to horror when the man calmly told us that my father was aware of his admiration for my sister, and had permitted him to pay his addresses."
"'It is an infamous untruth!' cried Cecilia, with a flash of indignation.
"'Nor can I believe it,' I added.
"Our words seemed to anger our visitor.
"'It is all very well for you to talk in this way, my fine ladies,' he said, with a cunning leer; adding, 'There are ways of dealing with you which may seem unpleasant, but which will certainly be effectual.' So saying he placed the basket containing our food on the floor, and left us.
"For several days we remained in the cabin, till we were both quite ill with the close atmosphere and the intense heat; so we determined to make a dash for liberty the very next time that Ospringe visited us. Accordingly we planned that when we heard him coming down the companion stairs, Cecilia should conceal herself behind the door, and throw some bed-clothes over his head in such a way that we could escape while he was disentangling himself.
"This seemed a likely plan. We determined, on gaining the deck, to appeal for protection to the officers and crew. Alas! little did we know what was happening on shore while we concocted this little scheme.
"Soon after midday we heard the report of firearms, and from the porthole we could see there was much commotion on the deck of the distant vessel, though for some time we were unable to ascertain the cause.
"After a while, however, that became visible; for from the further side of the ship swarmed hosts of naked black men, who soon were busily engaged in casting their long spears at the crew. These replied—that is, those among them who possessed firearms—with volley after volley, with the result that a few were killed, and their death served to exasperate the remainder. Then we saw the savages make a rush up the sloping gangway constructed at the side of the ship, and by means of which she was being unloaded. Up and up they climbed in vast swarms, looking in the distance for all the world like human ants. The English were on deck assembling to receive them, and pouring in upon this black host a most destructive fire, to which the blacks replied with their spears. Some of them gained the deck; and we could see them struggling in hand-to-hand conflict with the officers and crew. We could not distinguish any of the features of the defenders, but we feared that our dear father was there, and we prayed fervently that he might be preserved from death.
"Presently the blacks began to fall back, and at length were driven down the gangway, while the distant sound of cheers was wafted by the breeze to our anxious ears.
"'They are running away!' exclaimed Cecilia; 'but they seem to have a white man among them;' and she pointed to a group of blacks who could be seen retreating across the sandhills. We watched them for a few moments, and then they passed out of sight.
"A few hours later the boats returned to our ship. We did not see them leave the shore, as the tide had again swung the vessel round, but by the sound we could hear that more goods were being hoisted on board.
"Presently I heard the voice of the first mate speaking in the passage outside our door.
"'Gone, did you say, captain?'
"'Yes; the military gent is a prisoner. The blacks will eat him, I suppose, for they are said to devour men's flesh.'
"'Hush!' said the voice of the first mate, 'we must not talk so loud down here!' whereupon they went together into an adjoining cabin. But presently Ospringe came out.
"We were now in an agony of anxiety concerning our father. 'We must learn the truth,' I said. So leaving the bundle of bedclothes which we had prepared for his reception, we together confronted Ospringe as he entered the cabin. It was not dark, and a look of anxious terror was plainly perceptible on the man's face. He was a very different man from the individual who had visited us in the morning, for his face wore a haggard expression, and his left arm was in a sling.
"We, of course, asked immediately for our father. At first Ospringe tried to put us off with the evasive reply that he was still on the stranded ship.
"This we knew to be untrue, and we told him so boldly, and demanded the truth.
"'He has been captured by the blacks,' I said. 'We saw them make the attack on the ship.'
"In trembling accents the fellow acknowledged that it was so.
"'But I will organize an expedition without delay,' he said, 'and we will rescue your father in a few days. You may leave this cabin,' he added.
"We did not think it worth while to hinder him by asking for any explanation of our captivity, for we were too greatly alarmed and distressed at the news of our father's terrible position to think of our own forlorn situation.
"It was manifestly impossible for anything to be done until the next morning; and we passed the night in deep distress and anxiety, hoping and praying that our beloved father might be delivered from his peril.
"It was early when the expedition prepared to start, and at the last moment an idea seemed to strike Ospringe, who had stood for some time with folded arms, and with a gloomy expression on his face, watching us.
"'You can go as far as the stranded ship,' he said, addressing Cecilia.
"She thanked him warmly, but shrank back as she met his gaze.
"'My sister will accompany me, of course?' she added.
"Ospringe did not look pleased, but he bowed politely to her, and we hurried below for hats and a few necessaries. In ten minutes we had left the ship; and, except from the shore, I have not seen the Vixen since that day.
"The sun had just risen over the Australian hills and sandy plains as we were pulled ashore. There was a gentle breeze, which produced sparkling ripples on the blue waters. All nature, except ourselves, seemed to be rejoicing. The men indulged in jokes and laughter, but Ospringe sat silent and gloomy in the stern, and we, perforce, sat by his side. There were firearms in plenty in the boat, and the crew, which consisted of a dozen strong fellows, looked determined and ready to use them.
"As soon as we had landed and had climbed the slope, I was so much struck at the steamer's extraordinary situation and appearance that I ventured to ask Ospringe how he came to know that the ship was stranded in this place, and if he had been sent out for the purpose of salving the cargo.
"To my surprise he turned away without reply; and when, thinking he had not understood me, I repeated my question, to my alarm he replied with a savage oath, bidding me mind my own business. Cecilia looked frightened; but for my own part I felt supremely indignant, and made no further attempt at conversation.
"With some difficulty we climbed on board, for the staging had been removed, and the sides of the ship, being sheer above the sand, seemed to us to be a great height. We found comfortable quarters in the cabin, and felt happier at the thought that we were nearer to our father than when floating on the ocean. But had I known what was to befall us, nothing would have induced me to consent to our removal from the Vixen.
"Within an hour after our arrival the rescue-party started. We sent loving messages to our father, and watched them from the deck as they strode away over the sandhills in the direction of the interior. It was supposed that the village of the tribe who had committed the raid was not far away; but though we waited on the deck until long after the darkness had set in, the party did not return, and at length we went below and retired to rest, hoping that the following day would bring news.
"You will notice that there are two berths in this cabin. I occupied the upper one, and my sister the lower. For some time we talked and listened, and at length dropped off to sleep.
"It was broad daylight when I awoke, and I lay quiet for some time, thinking that Cecilia might still be asleep. But presently my anxiety to learn if my father had been rescued made me call to her; and when no reply came, I descended and looked into her berth. To my astonishment it was empty! Quickly putting on some clothing, I left the cabin, calling my sister's name. As there was no response, I hurried on deck, only to find that it was deserted. Then I rushed about frantically. 'Cecilia! Cecilia!' I cried; but there was no response. A strange dead silence pervaded the whole vessel.
"I ran forward and peered into the men's quarters, but found them empty, nor was there a soul in the after part of the ship. I was alone—absolutely alone on the White Rose. In an agony of apprehension I mounted to the bridge, and gazed wildly around. It was a clear, bright morning, and I could see some distance inland and far out to sea; but what almost paralyzed my limbs with terror was the fact that nowhere could I see the Vixen. I rubbed my eyes and gazed at the place where she had so long lain at anchor, but with no better result. She was gone; and the horrible truth was borne in upon me that Ospringe and his men had in some way kidnapped my sister and had departed, while I—I was alone—deserted—amid the dreary wastes of north-west Australia.
"For the next few hours my mind was almost unhinged; I roamed the vessel weeping and raving like a lunatic. Then I became calmer, and began an investigation of every corner of the ship, even descending into the engine-room and stoke-hole, but nowhere did I find any sign of life or any evidence of Ospringe and his men, except the blood upon the deck—the result, so I concluded, of the fight with the blacks. Yes, there was one thing I found—a pocket-book, which I will show you.
"For some weeks—I have lost count of time, and so cannot tell you how many—I have lived here alone. At first I was terribly afraid of an attack by the blacks, but they have not visited the ship. Perhaps they are afraid of firearms, and imagine they will have a warm reception.
"As for food, I have found plenty for my wants. For some reason the stores have not been touched by the crew of the Vixen. I cannot understand why they deserted the ship so suddenly, unless it might be that they were acting under Ospringe's orders, and that he was wishful to get away with Cecilia. I have wondered sometimes how long I could live here. The stores would have lasted me—if they kept good—five or six years. But the water would not last so long, and would certainly be bad before that period of time had elapsed. When you arrived, I was just praying that I might die, for almost all hope of rescue had left me."
Our feelings and sympathy were deeply stirred by the girl's narrative. Neither of us had ever heard such a story of heartless desertion.
"If I could but come across Ospringe," exclaimed Cornwallis, "I'd administer to him such a true British thrashing as he would never forget."
"But the pocket-book—you have not shown it to us," I said, addressing Miss Neville.
She opened a locker, and took therefrom a small leathern-bound book.
"I know not the name of the owner," she said, "but from the notes within the book I conclude that he must have known a good deal about this ship."
So saying she handed the book to me.
"Bless my life! what is this?" I exclaimed as I opened it. Within the cover was written, in a clerkly hand, the name "Jonas Cuthbert."
"THEN Cuthbert has done all this!" exclaimed Fred Cornwallis, as I repeated the name aloud.
"Cuthbert!" I cried. "Impossible!"
"There is nothing impossible in this affair," he replied quietly. "The man found out what we were after, intercepted the first cablegram sent by O'Grady informing the firm of his luck in saving the twenty-five chests of gold, stole the thousand pounds which were under his own charge in the safe, and took passage by the P. & O. boat which passed us off the North Foreland. He was lucky in finding a tramp-steamer at Colombo—what a lot of them there are!—and came on here."
"Then you think that Jonas Cuthbert and the man Ospringe are identical?"
"And that he has run away with Miss Cecilia Neville?"
"Our duty, then, is plain enough," I said, "though it may tax all our resources to perform the task. First, we must find out what has become of this lady's father, and, if possible, save him from the blacks; secondly, we must trace this man Cuthbert alias Ospringe, and, if need be, follow him round the world—for that seems to be the only way in which we can rescue Miss Cecilia Neville from his tender mercies; thirdly, we must regain possession of the cargo of the White Rose, without which our voyage will, from a pecuniary point of view, be a dead loss."
We now left Miss Neville, and assembled in the state-room for a council of war. O'Grady was of the opinion that as soon as we had conveyed Miss Neville to the Empress Queen, we should make all haste for Singapore, in order that, if the Vixen had passed, we might telegraph to all the places en route at which that vessel might touch, so that she might be detained and Cuthbert placed under restraint.
"But there is one fatal objection to this course," I protested. "We should have to abandon this Colonel Neville, or, at any rate, postpone our search for him. Now, it seems to me that our first duty is to him and his elder daughter. Let us organize a search-party and see if we cannot discover the man—if he be alive."
"But the blacks may have eaten him," said O'Grady.
"True, they may, but that is very unlikely. I am told that the aborigines of north-west Australia only devour those whom they have slain in battle. In that case Colonel Neville is still alive. I propose that we stay here till we find him."
"And lose the cargo!" put in O'Grady.
"And the chests of gold!" added Cornwallis, looking troubled.
It was plain that he was hesitating. On the one hand, the thought that a fortune was slipping through his fingers was plainly disturbing his soul, for his earthly future seemed to depend on the success of this voyage. On the other hand, his chivalrous spirit had been stirred at the sight of Miss Neville's grief. So that he sat silent and reflective for a few moments.
"I have it!" he cried presently. "We can both follow the arch- villain Cuthbert, and search for the missing colonel."
"Not at one and the same time?" I replied, smiling.
"Yes, certainly. My proposal is this. You, as the leader of this expedition, shall direct Captain McIlvaine to proceed with all despatch to the Straits. If he should fall in with the Vixen, he is to endeavour to stop her; failing that, he is to proceed to Singapore, where he can easily work the affair by means of the telegraph, which, after all, will be the better method. As for ourselves, we will make our head-quarters here until McIlvaine returns to us. This will give us time for a thorough search for the missing colonel. If he is anywhere in this neighbourhood, I think we shall find him."
I was much struck by Cornwallis's scheme. Captain McIlvaine acting alone could as easily accomplish his part as if we were on board. And he could not in any other way assist us if he should await our return from an expedition in search of Colonel Neville for he must remain with his ship.
An hour later we were being pulled across the blue water towards the Empress Queen, accompanied, of course, by Miss Lucilia Neville.
"Won't old McIlvaine be astonished when he sees the lady!" observed Cornwallis, with a laugh.
"He'll be a good deal more surprised when he learns that my good cargo has gone," remarked O'Grady, dolefully.
The individual in question was on the bridge awaiting our return.
"What luck?" he roared, as we approached. For the old fellow was mightily interested in the success of the expedition.
"Grand luck!" shouted Cornwallis, by way of reply. Whereupon our men set up such a shout of laughter that the crew ran to the side of the ship and looked over in astonished expectation.
"Ha'e ye your treasure aboard?" queried McIlvaine, as we pulled alongside. "What!" he added, in a tone of utter surprise. "A leddy! Hoo cam' ye across a white woman? She's no fra the stranded ship?"
"Indeed she is!" I returned. "Send down the ladder, and a real live mermaid shall come on board."
Miss Neville looked up and smiled sweetly as I said this.
Captain McIlvaine was completely dumbfounded when the lady herself stepped on deck. He took off his cap and gazed at her for a few moments in silence.
"She's vara like ma ain cheeld Mary," he observed to himself.
"I am glad to hear that, captain," I remarked. "You will be all the more likely to care for her. Let us find her a cabin and some comforts. Maybe her presence will atone for the loss of the cargo."
It took us some time to relate our story, as well as to explain the scheme suggested by Fred Cornwallis.
"Will you undertake your part, captain?" I asked.
"Certainly, sir; I am at the disposal of the firm; and wherever you send me, I will go. But, besides this, I shall be glad to run down this cowardly scamp Cuthbert. The sooner I start, the better, gentlemen; for if he has passed Singapore, I may find it a deefficulty to have him stopped this side of the Suez Canal."
"Do you think that he will return to Europe?" I asked.
McIlvaine thought that he would make for the port of London; but O'Grady feared that he might make for some American port, and in that case would steam across the Pacific.
"But he must coal somewhere!" I suggested.
"And if I telegraph to all the likely stations, he will be stopped," said McIlvaine.
As it was important that no time should be lost, we decided to return to the stranded steamship that very evening, in order that the Empress Queen might start without delay. As soon as our plans became known among the men, there was no scarcity of volunteers for the "Rescue-Party," as it was called. And in a short time we had selected seven strong, active fellows, with Israel Bobbing, the boatswain, whom Captain McIlvaine said he would spare.
"I'll be short-handed," he remarked, "but the colonel must be saved."
And so it came to pass that an expedition was decided upon which proved to be of the most momentous character.
As soon as I had acquainted Miss Neville with our decision, she entreated that she might be permitted to return with us.
"I can be of no service on board this ship; and it seems to me that Captain McIlvaine is not very likely to be able to overtake Ospringe and my poor sister. Give me permission to return to the shore with you, and I may be of some use on the stranded vessel—at least I shall be able to welcome my dear father when you have rescued him."
She spoke so pleadingly that I was unable to resist her entreaty; and so it came to pass that Lucilia Neville returned to the White Rose.
Captain McIlvaine was on the bridge waving his cap as we pulled away with a hearty cheer, to which the crew responded with goodwill.
"Give way, my lads," I said; "we must have all snug on board the White Rose before nightfall."
So the men bent to the oars, and we sped rapidly over the waters of the bay; but for some time the figure of Captain McIlvaine was conspicuous on the bridge, as, with his hand over his eyes, he watched our progress.
The boat contained a good deal in addition to ourselves. There were firearms—both rifles and revolvers—and an ample supply of ammunition; there were sundry cases containing tinned meat; above all, there was a liberal supply of fresh water—for the water on board the White Rose, though drinkable, was likely to be somewhat stale.
There were other useful stores, so that the boat was deeply laden. Fortunately the weather was good and the sea calm, so that our landing was effected without difficulty; and as we once more waded through the surf towards our temporary home, the sun in its crimson glory began to set behind us.
My first work was to arrange for watches during the night—for it would never do for us to be surprised by the natives. Then there was a cabin to be prepared for Miss Neville—a more comfortable one than that which she had recently occupied.
We found, as she had told us, that there was ample store of provisions on board, as well as fresh water, though we had hopes that we might be able to procure a further supply of the precious fluid from some local spring.
The night was passed without alarms, and soon after daybreak I was on the bridge with Cornwallis and O'Grady, scanning the distant horizon in search of the smoke of the Empress Queen, for she had departed during the night. A faint, smoky haze hung in the far distance, and we concluded that she was thereabouts, and well on her way to Singapore.
"Don't you think that it would be well to make a start early to-morrow morning?" suggested Cornwallis, as we paced to and fro on the deck enjoying "the weed."
"A start!" I replied. "We have first to learn the direction in which we ought to proceed. The blacks may be close at hand or they may have left this neighbourhood altogether."
"In which case our expedition would prove a failure?"
"Why not send a man to the masthead to view the land?"
"It shall be done."
"And if he reports 'smoke in the distance,' or 'natives in sight,' our task will be easy."
"Not so easy as it might appear," I said. "We may have to proceed very cautiously. Suppose the blacks number hundreds, or even thousands?"
"Ah! that would be serious. Still, we must not remain here inactive until McIlvaine returns."
"No," I said, "we must go to work, but only after taking every precaution against failure; for, remember, that might mean the annihilation of the whole party."
It was at an early hour the following morning that we left the ship—that is to say, Fred Cornwallis, O'Grady, Israel Bobbing, and myself. The remainder of the men we had left to guard Miss Neville. As the gangway used by Jonas Cuthbert and his men no longer existed, we had little fear that the blacks, even if they appeared, could make any serious attack on the vessel, and our men had arms and ammunition in abundance.
Before starting we sent a man to the masthead to spy out the land. He reported that there was a faint smoke arising among some trees growing on hills which bounded the edge of the horizon some twenty miles or more distant.
This was good news. In the best of spirits and with every anticipation of success, we buckled on our cartridge-belts and water-cans, and armed ourselves, until we looked, in the words of O'Grady, "like a party of murderous highwaymen just about to take the road."
There were tears of gratitude in Miss Neville's eyes as she shook hands with us and gave us a message for her father before we descended on to the sand. I thought that Fred Cornwallis held her hand a little longer than was necessary, and also—though I may have been mistaken—that a flush mounted into her cheeks as he bade her good-bye.
For some distance after we had left the ship our course lay across the hillocks, on the sides of which grew stunted bushes and some blades of grass. After a few miles we entered a plain, treeless and waterless, and terribly hot, but where the ground was harder and the walking more comfortable. As we went along we discussed the various suggested plans of action when we should come up with the blacks. Cornwallis was for marching boldly into their village and demanding that Colonel Neville should be given up to us.
"But you forget," I said, "that these fellows are probably well armed with bows and arrows, and that they are terribly accurate in their aim with their long spears. No, it would be better to hang about in the neighbourhood until we catch sight of the colonel. Perhaps it will be possible to communicate with him, so that he may be rescued without delay or danger to our own lives."
O'Grady's opinion, that we should conceal ourselves near the village and shoot down the blacks one by one, until in their terror the survivors fled, was unanimously rejected; for we held that our object must be attained without bloodshed, if possible.
Israel Bobbing's opinion was not asked, but I incline to the opinion that he would have favoured O'Grady's scheme.
It was at about two o'clock in the afternoon when we arrived at the outskirts of the trees. Among them we saw gigantic gums, evidently of great age. Here also we came across various small animals, especially rats of a curious grey colour, as well as the strange-looking iguana; but these mostly scuttled away amongst the undergrowth, and we did not shoot them for fear of arousing the blacks.
For some distance we forced our way among the brushwood, and I had begun to wonder whether it was safe to penetrate further, when all at once a cry came from Bobbing, who brought up the rear, and we turned to see him pull a spear from his left arm.
"One o' the bloomin' blacks 'as done this 'ere!" he cried, as he endeavoured to staunch the blood which flowed from the wound.
WE assembled around the wounded man with some alarm. There were no foes visible about us, but they were doubtless crouching amongst the bushes, and it behoved us to act with extreme caution.
Bobbing's wound was in the fleshy part of the arm, and though it bled freely, it was plainly not of a dangerous character.
"It will be all right," remarked Cornwallis, as he bound it up; "but I hope there is no poison about the spear."
We now proceeded to discuss the situation, keeping at the same time a watchful eye upon the surrounding undergrowth, for fear of a fresh attack.
Opinions were divided as to our best course. I was for a retreat beyond the forest, for fear lest we should be surrounded, but the others favoured an advance.
Accordingly we proceeded on our way, though with much watchfulness. Our path lay up a steep slope; and although, owing to the thickness of the foliage, we could not see the country about us, it was plain that we were now ascending the range of hills which had been seen from the masthead of our ship. As we advanced the bush grew thicker, until it was only with the greatest difficulty that we could force our way through it.
"What about lodgings for the night?" asked O'Grady.
"I don t see a likely hotel hereabouts," returned Cornwallis, with a smile. "I suppose we shall have to camp out; it is warm enough, in all conscience."
He mopped his face as he spoke.
I could not help feeling a little anxious concerning our position; for not only were we strangers in a very strange land, but we had no notion either of the numbers or of the exact whereabouts of the blacks. That they were savage and highly dangerous I had often read; but no civilized nation had come in contact with the people of this particular coast, hence it was impossible to tell what our reception would be.
We pushed on until it was nearly the time of sunset, and as we had not yet reached a native settlement, we were obliged to come to a halt, lest in the darkness we should fall into an ambush or other peril.
The place at which we had now arrived was a curious formation. A steep valley which opened between the hills lay ahead of us. This was filled with tall eucalyptus and other trees, but the ground was tolerably clear of undergrowth. Upon our right towered a curious pile of precipitous rocks, looking for all the world as though piled up by human agency, and by no means unlike a Norman castle in appearance. In fact, so startling was its resemblance to human handiwork that for a few minutes we gazed at it in doubt and wonder.
Opposite to this natural castle was thick and impenetrable bush.
"That, I should say, is the very place for us," said Cornwallis, pointing up to the castlelike rock. "If we can climb those ramparts, we shall be tolerably secure from attacks by those blacks fellows to-night."
But though we looked carefully, we could see no place where we could mount to the summit, until O'Grady, who had climbed a mound at the back, called to us, saying that he had discovered a way.
We followed him, and I found that at a place where the walls were not so lofty (owing to the rising of the ground) there were what appeared to be the remains of steps leading on to the upper part through a rough stone archway.
"This is very curious!" I remarked, as we stumbled up the time-worn steps. "Surely it can never be the work of man?"
"And yet, sir, it can never be the work of nature," said O'Grady, who was following me.
On our arrival at the summit, the first thing that struck us was the magnificent view which we obtained over the plain which we had crossed, as well as over the intervening forest. Far away in the remote distance we could faintly descry the dim outline of the White Rose, and beyond it the distant sheen of the ocean flashing back the last beams of the setting sun.
Then we turned and looked inland and ahead of our castle. Nothing was to be seen in that direction but the steep valley and its luxuriant growth of trees. The platform on which we were standing was apparently solid rock, on the surface of which were a few cracks, but no appearance of human workmanship. A parapet, seemingly of natural formation, ran around the edge. It was in some places fully five feet in height, in others not more than three.
"One could keep an army at bay from such a place," whispered Cornwallis, as we leaned over the edge and looked down into the valley.
"Yes, two Irish boys with good blackthorns could keep the steps behind us; and as for the front and sides, no one could climb them," put in O'Grady.
The darkness was now coming on, so we hastily descended again to the valley for some armfuls of twigs, leaves, and grass, with which to make a rough couch, for otherwise the rock would be considerably hard.
After this we ate our supper by the light of a new moon, and within an hour or two were fast asleep, with the exception of O'Grady, who had volunteered to take the first watch, and who squatted by the entrance with his rifle across his knees and his pipe in his mouth.
At about ten o'clock he aroused me to take my turn for two hours, and in a very sleepy state I settled myself down as my worthy predecessor had done, feeling as wretched as those persons do who have slept in their clothes and have been awakened out of their first sleep.
For a time I nodded and rubbed my eyes, and nodded and rubbed again. Then, fearing lest sleep should completely overcome me, I resolved to have a pipe.
It was well that I came to this conclusion just at that particular moment, for no sooner had I struck a match than, to my horror, I saw by its flickering glimmer the ugliest and most terrible-looking face it has ever been my lot to behold.
I know now that it was the face of a native; but so complete was my surprise, and so utterly unlike was the face to any I had ever seen before, that I gazed at it for a moment in speechless horror.
Its owner was not far from me, being, in fact, at the foot of the rugged steps leading to our retreat.
He did not give me time to fire upon him, as I should have certainly done had he remained ten seconds longer; but just as the match burnt down to my fingers, and was in consequence dropped, he flung his spear at me with considerable force.
I suppose that the sudden extinction of the match disconcerted him, for the man's aim, most fortunately for me, was not quite true, and the spear whizzed close past my ear, and rattled against the stone battlements on the further side of the platform.
The noise roused Cornwallis, who cried, "What's that?" And his voice awakened the others, so that in a few moments we were grouped together in the dim light of the crescent moon, gazing anxiously in the direction from whence the spear had come.
"Bless me! I hope that the fellows will not storm the place in the dark!" I said.
"An' 'twixt you an' me an' the mainmast, we'll give 'em a warm reception, sir," replied Bobbing.
For some time we waited and watched. Then O'Grady and Bobbing, the one armed with a revolver, and the other with a ship's cutlass, stole cautiously down the dilapidated steps to reconnoitre. They returned presently to report that they had walked round the 'fort,' as we termed it, but that they had seen nothing of natives.
"Maybe the man who threw the spear is the same that wounded Bobbing?"
"Hardly. The man would not throw away two of his good spears," I said.
"If only we had some means at hand of blocking up that doorway," remarked Cornwallis, "we might snooze in peace; but one hardly relishes the idea of awakening to find a spear sticking in one's stomach."
Whereupon we laughed heartily. Though, in truth, such an experience would be no laughing matter for any one of us.
"What are these spears made of?" asked O'Grady.
"'Ard wood, sir," replied Bobbing. "I was once wrecked five 'undred miles to the sou'-west o' this 'ere place, an' we wos well treated by the blacks. Just you feel the point of this 'ere spear, sir," he added, placing the weapon in the captain's hand.
The captain took it, and handled it with much curiosity, trying its point, and running his hand over its well-polished surface.
"Ah! a capital bit of wood!" he exclaimed. "I wonder whether the fellows make their bows of the same?"
So saying he placed its butt end upon the ground, to try its strength and spring, as one would test a bow.
Now, it must be explained that O'Grady was stout and well covered with flesh; further, that at this particular moment he was standing—though it was not till afterwards that we discovered the fact—exactly in the centre of the rocky surface of our retreat. We were assembled about him, but not very near, so as not to obstruct the moonbeams while he looked at the spear. For a few moments he pressed on the spear and tried its strength, grunting his satisfaction the while.
"I shall take this home," he began, "as a prize, and hang it up in my—"
The sentence was never finished, for as O'Grady spoke the words the rock beneath his feet, apparently solid, opened with a grinding, scraping sound, and, with a cry which was half a shout and half a yell of terror, the worthy captain suddenly slipped out of sight down into the black abyss.
For a moment we were almost paralyzed with horror and astonishment, but the sound of his voice recalled us to our senses, and at the same time told us that he was still alive.
"Help! help!—before I drop into the bowels of the earth!" he cried, in tones which were made all the more dismal because they came up from a subterranean cavern.
Bending down, we now perceived that our lost friend was actually hanging suspended by the hands; for in his descent he had grasped firmly the spear, which, falling athwart the opening, had brought him up smartly.
It did not take us long to drag him from his uncomfortable position.
"Bless me! I've been in a few fixes, but never in such a queer hole as this one!" he remarked, as soon as he had recovered himself, and with us was gazing down into the black hole at his feet.
It was impossible for us to gauge either its depth or its contents—if any—in the darkness; so, after again setting a watch, the rest of us retired to our respective couches, and reposed undisturbed until the morning.
On waking, my newly opened eyes rested on the hind-quarters of Captain O'Grady, who on hands and knees was peering into the cavity through which he had made such a speedy and unexpected descent only a few hours previously.
"Astonishin'! astonishin'!" he was muttering to himself. "Who'd 'a' thought it? This blessed rock looked solid enough to stand my bit of a weight!"
By the time he had finished his remarks we were by his side. The opening in the rock was certainly remarkable, for the stone on which O'Grady had stood immediately before his wonderful disappearance was hinged, and instead of falling had swung down, and now hung suspended within the yawning cavity.
"There!" I exclaimed; "that is why we heard no crash of the fall of the stone. I thought at the time that the thing happened very quietly."
"Is there anything below? any bottom to the pit?" inquired Cornwallis, as he drew near.
"If I'd a rope, I'd soon find out," remarked the captain.
"Never mind a bloomin' rope!" ejaculated Israel Bobbing.
"But I can see the bottom, my lad," said Captain O'Grady.
And sure enough, by placing my head close to the opening, I could plainly discern a flight of stone steps leading down into the very depths of the fort.
What amused us all very greatly was the fact that Captain O'Grady had hung, Quixote-like, within a short distance of the floor, and certainly could not have been much hurt by the drop of a few feet had he released his hold of the tough spear.
This most wonderful discovery kindled in us all a most ardent desire to descend and explore; but it was considered wiser to defer this until we had eaten and talked matters over.
The result was that we arranged that Bobbing and Cornwallis should make the descent. So we proceeded first to test the air by lowering a burning wax match. It blazed right to the bottom of the pit, and we felt there was no danger on that score in allowing them to adventure themselves into the mysterious depths.
Bobbing descended first. He managed it very quickly, by grasping the sloping side of the stone trap-door, and with catlike agility swinging himself to the ground. Cornwallis, though not quite so nimble as the sailor, was muscular enough, and in a few seconds was safely down.
"All right!" he cried. "We'll examine this place carefully, and be back before long. It's fortunate I've got a candle," he added, "or it would have been of little use to have come down here."
He lighted the candle, and they passed together down the steps out of sight with a "good-bye," which came reverberating up through the rocky funnel in a strange and weird fashion. Stooping, I could just catch a glimmer of his light for a few seconds, and then all was darkness and silence below.
Thus passed out of sight our two companions, Fred Cornwallis and Israel Bobbing.
What they saw and what they did must be recounted in another chapter.
"THEY ought to be returning," remarked O' Grady, after we had watched and waited for upwards of half an hour.
"Perhaps they have discovered something interesting, and are examining it," I said.
"At any rate we can but wait."
"Curious about the hinged stone, isn't it?"
"Yes, curious and perplexing. How on earth this place can have been carved out, and this great stone hinge fitted—to say nothing of the steps down there—passes my comprehension!"
"It's certain that the blacks have had no hand in the construction of this place."
"Quite. I think that we may be in the presence of a great historical mystery—the handiwork of some who landed on these shores long before the so-called 'discovery' of Australia."
I had hardly uttered these words when there came up from the depths below the distinct though faint report of a shot, followed by a strange murmur, which died away like the distant sound of breaking waves.
After this all was still, and for an hour or more we waited impatiently, becoming all the time more and more anxious concerning our two companions.
"Do you think they can have been overcome by foul air?" asked the captain.
"More likely to have burnt out the candle. In which case they are unable to find their way up. But the place cannot be very large. Let us shout to them."
So kneeling by the opening we shouted loud enough to rouse the Seven Sleepers. But, except the reverberating echo, there was no answering sound, and we looked into one another's faces blankly, hardly daring to put our fears into words.
"Let me try a rifle-shot," said O'Grady, presently. "Maybe they will hear that."
So we fired a couple of shots; but there came no answering report, though we listened intently and long.
For another hour we waited, shouting and firing shots at intervals, but without result.
The situation had now become really serious. Here we were in the Australian bush, with food sufficient to last us but two or three days at the outside, unable to desert our companions to obtain help and food from the ship, and in immediate danger of the prowling blacks, who, as we knew, were well aware of the smallness of our numbers as well as of our position. For some time we paced the narrow stage disconsolately, revolving all sorts of schemes and imagining all kinds of horrors concerning the fate of our comrades.
It was when the hour of noon had arrived, and had failed to restore our lost friends, that we resolved to arm ourselves with revolvers and to descend into the cavern—if such it were—for the purpose of making a thorough search.
We had only one small candle and some wax matches, so that it behoved us to be expeditious.
The descent was accomplished not without difficulty, for none of us were so agile as Cornwallis and the sailor. But at length we stood under the opening, with the huge hinged stone suspended above our heads.
Then we lighted our candle. Its somewhat feeble gleams did not penetrate very far, but they were sufficient to reveal to us that we were in a very remarkable place.
The passage in which we stood was clearly a work of nature. No human hands had carved out the massive stonework above us. The steps, like the trap-door, were clearly the work of man; and as we carefully descended, we noticed that they were plainly of great age, and worn with the passage of many feet.
"It strikes me that those who discovered this hole lived here for a considerable time," observed my companion, as he followed me.
"And were skilled masons," I said.
Arrived at the foot of the steps, we found ourselves in a large cavelike chamber, evidently the work of nature, though possibly it had been enlarged and improved by man. In the centre was a stone table.
"Which might have been used as an altar for some religious rites," suggested the captain.
There was no sign of our friends here; besides, had they remained in this place, they would certainly have heard our shouts and the report of our firearms; so we looked around for some exit, and found it by means of a current of air, which made our candle flicker dangerously.
"Ah! here we are!" I exclaimed. "There, through that opening to the right. No other outlet exists."
We turned down the passage, which was so low that for a little distance we were forced to bend almost double. It had very plainly been hewn out of the solid rock in ages long gone by, and the roof was grimy with the smoke of the innumerable torches which had passed beneath it.
After we had travelled about fifty yards, part of which was through a natural tunnel, and of considerable height, we entered another chamber of an oval shape. The roof was not visible by the light of our tiny candle, but the sides we could see plainly enough; for, to our wondering eyes, they presented a marvellous sight, scintillating, sparkling, and gleaming. Nor did it take us many seconds to understand the cause of this effulgence, for it was plain enough, that the walls of the cavern were lined with gold!
We noticed also that there was a strange smell of burning wood hanging about the atmosphere of the place, and presently we caught sight of a number of partly consumed torches which were strewn over the ground. On picking up one of these, I found, to my astonishment, that it had been very recently extinguished, for the charred end was still warm.
I think that, had it not been for our increasing anxiety concerning the fate of our two companions, we should have lingered in this wonderful place; for I must confess that in the whole course of our adventures we saw no more wonderful sight than the gold-bespangled walls of this marvellous subterranean chamber.
A long, narrow, square-cut passage led out of this mine of wealth at the opposite end to that at which we had entered, and penetrated deeper within the mountain.
It was just as we entered this passage, with our minds full of anxious solicitude for the safety of our companions, that we made so horrible and ghastly a discovery that even now I cannot look back upon that moment without a shudder.
We were making our way as fast as the flickering candle would allow us, when all at once, just as I stooped to ascertain that the floor was level enough for us to advance without danger of stumbling, my eye was attracted to a small dark object lying on the ground. Stooping lower, I stretched out my disengaged hand to pick it up, with the momentary thought that possibly it might be something dropped by one of our friends.
Judge our intense and horrified amazement when I raised into the light a bleeding black hand!
So ghastly did the thing look that I hastily dropped it with an exclamation, whereupon Captain O'Grady, whose sensitiveness was perhaps not quite as acute as mine, picked it up and held it close to the candle for inspection. It was plainly the hand of a native Australian—this was clear from its shape and colour. But what made it an object of absorbing interest to us was the fact that it was warm and the blood was still oozing from the wrist. To one who, like myself, has spent his life in a city office, it was a sickening sight. We looked into one another's faces for a few seconds in silence. I cannot answer for my own face, but even the captain's had lost its colour.
"What does this mean?" I whispered.
"It means, sir, that a black has just lost his hand."
"By a smart blow from a good sharp sword. I should say it looks like Bobbing's work."
"You don't say so!" I cried. "Then they have been captured by the blacks?"
"Oh well, sir, you see, that doesn't follow. Maybe the blacks are in their hands."
This might be true, but I took small comfort from it. For our own situation appeared to me to be desperate, from the fact that there was now little more than an inch of candle remaining; and it was clear that we ought to return very soon, if we would avoid being left in the pitchy gloom of this cavernous place.
"Just a few yards further, sir," said O'Grady, persuasively; and yielding, I went on another twenty or thirty yards.
Had we not done this, it is probable that a considerable portion of this narrative would never have been penned.
"Is that daylight?" exclaimed O'Grady, pointing ahead.
I shaded the candle and looked intently. There was plainly discernible a faint glimmer, which might or might not be daylight.
"We will go forward cautiously," I said.
A few more yards and the passage turned abruptly to the right. We advanced to the bend, and, on looking round, saw a sight which astonished us beyond measure.
A sandy valley lay before us. There were trees above, but the bottom of the valley was almost entirely devoid of vegetation of any kind. The passage through which we peered plainly opened into this valley, in which we could see a vast assemblage of native huts. There were many blacks in sight, some of them possessing fine, well-made bodies, though all, both men and women, had faces repulsive in their ugliness.
But it was not the blacks who especially attracted our attention. Our eyes immediately became riveted upon Fred Cornwallis and Israel Bobbing. They were standing before a man taller than the rest, whose demeanour and adornments suggested that he was the chief of the tribe. He was seated at the door of one of the huts, and held in his right hand a spear of great length. Behind him stood several women, whom we took to be his wives, and, flanking his chair on either hand, was a large body of warriors.
As we looked we saw that a man had been led forward before the chief. He staggered, as from faintness, and presently we saw that his arm, which was bandaged, dripped with blood.
"That is the fellow who has lost his hand," whispered the captain.
The chief inspected the stump, and then signed to two men who had charge of him to lead him to a fire which blazed a few yards away. Brushing back the embers, there were disclosed several red- hot stones, which they applied very skilfully to the stump, the man yelling the while with agony.
It was rough-and-ready surgery, but it was effectual, and undoubtedly saved the man's life.
The sight fairly turned me sick; but O'Grady assured me that the man would otherwise bleed to death.
As soon as this was done the poor fellow was thrust into one of the tents, there to recover himself as best he might.
Our attention was now again directed to our friends. No sooner was the mutilated man disposed of than the chief, rising from his seat, advanced a few paces towards his white visitors, and, to our astonishment, prostrated himself upon his knees before them, grovelling with his nose in the very dust, as though overcome with awe and reverence.
His example was followed by his wives and his lords, as well as by the entire assemblage. With a subdued moan, which fell upon our ears like the murmur of the waves upon the shore, many hundreds knelt before Fred Cornwallis and Israel Bobbing, as though they were Heaven-sent deities.
The effect was so ludicrous that, as the people raised their heads and peered up into the faces of their guests, Cornwallis threw back his head and gave vent to a loud and hearty laugh, at the same time smiting his thigh with vigour, at which the black heads all inclined again towards the sand with fresh demonstrations of worship.
"This is a rum go!" whispered my companion. "Shall we advance and claim a share of the adoration?"
"I think we must wait a while before we venture out," I said. "At any rate, this explains their lengthened absence."
"But who cut off the man's hand?" queried O'Grady.
"Ah! that needs explanation," I said; for this part of the business mystified me greatly.
As soon as the blacks had finished their acts of worship and had risen to their feet, the chief motioned to our friends to follow him into his hut, which was larger than the rest. But this proposal was declined with unmistakable shakings of the head on the part of Cornwallis, and we heard him say to Bobbing—
"We shall have to run for it, I fear."
"Yes, sir," replied the boatswain; "but cannot we get some news of the colonel out of these black beggars?"
As soon as the natives heard them conversing in what must have sounded a strange and uncouth tongue, they stood still to listen, and then it was that I heard Cornwallis say—
"Well, here goes! Perhaps the ugly old chief will understand me;" and he turned as he spoke, and began making the most extravagant and pantomimic signs, which were evidently supposed to convey to the savage mind the intimation that they were in search of a white man.
But whether it was that the blacks were dull of comprehension, or that they wilfully misunderstood Cornwallis's gesticulations, his words were only received with a murmur of wonder and with fresh bowings and genuflections.
"I say, Bobbing, this will never do!" he exclaimed at length; "we must run for it!"
"An' be struck through the witals wi' half a score o' spears! No, thankee, sir—not for me!"
Whereupon they stood together and talked for a while in lower tones, so that we could only catch a word here and there, while the blacks swarmed round them continually—so eager was every individual in the tribe to inspect the strangers who had so unexpectedly appeared in their midst. Presently the two men began to move slowly in our direction, and we grasped our revolvers in the hope that if they made a dash we might be able to cover their retreat.
At first the savages did not seem to grasp the object which our two friends had in view. But before they had covered more than a quarter of the distance between the chief's hut and the outskirts of the village, the chief himself laid his hand on Cornwallis's shoulder, and pointed at the same time with his great spear in the direction of his own dwelling, intimating with unmistakable gestures that he desired that they would return.
To this our friends replied by emphatic shakings of the head, while they pointed to the opening in the side of the hill, out of which, all unsuspected both by black men and by white, we were so intently gazing.
But it was plain that the chief and the rest of the blacks by no means intended to allow their visitors to slip through their fingers. Forming a ring about them, the savages slowly but surely pressed them back into the village; and at length, to our dismay and disappointment, they disappeared among the huts.
"Now what shall we do?" asked O'Grady.
I could offer no suggestion; but had I been a woman, I think I should have indulged in a good cry.
"I SUPPOSE the blacks will visit us next?" remarked the captain, after we had looked at each other disconsolately for a while.
"They will just fix up Mr. Cornwallis and Bobbing, and then pitch into us. How will it be if we retreat into one of the inner chambers?" I suggested. "We could keep an army at bay with our revolvers."
So we retired a little way, and waited in the darkness for the expected attack.
But though we remained in the gloomy cavern for nearly an hour—it seemed five—no attack was made, and at length we again ventured as far as the mouth of the passage, in the hope that we might catch sight of our friends. In this we were disappointed; no glimpse of them could be obtained; and after a while we groped our way with much toil and difficulty (for our candle was quite consumed, and we could not lay hands on the torches) to the steps, where, with the light shining down upon us through the strange trap-door, we discussed our forlorn position.
I was for returning at once to the ship for the purpose of obtaining help, as well as for further provisions; but O'Grady was against this, and urged that we should wait till the following morning.
"They will be planning escape even now," he said, speaking of our captured friends, "and may need our help at any moment."
I agreed that we would at least remain until daylight, in the hope that by that time our anxieties would be relieved by their return.
It was with considerable difficulty that we succeeded in clambering through the opening on to the upper part of the "fort." As we had to economize our store of food and water, our meal was as meagre as it was comfortless. We walked to and fro and discussed matters long into the darkness, turning over every possible scheme for the rescue of Cornwallis and the sailor, and dismissing them one by one as impracticable.
At length I became so sleepy that O'Grady, who said that he was "as fresh as a lark," persuaded me to lie down; and in a few minutes I was fast asleep.
I was awakened by the sharp report of a revolver, and started up with an exclamation.
"Hush!" said the voice of my companion.
"Did you not fire that shot?" I whispered.
O'Grady said that he had not fired.
"Then it must be Cornwallis. I will fire in reply;" and I began to grope about for my revolver.
But the captain anticipated me and fired a cartridge; whereupon, to our intense delight, the voice of Cornwallis outside the "fort" cried—
"Are you fellows there alone, or is the place occupied by the blacks?"
On our replying, we heard footsteps; and presently Cornwallis came stumbling up the rough stone steps which led on to the upper platform.
"Where is Bobbing?"
"How on earth did you manage to escape?"
"What made you return that way?"
With these and other questions we plied him until we had extracted a complete account of the doings of the two men.
"Bobbing is all right—trust him for being able to take care of himself! and so is the colonel."
"What!" I exclaimed. "Have you indeed discovered Miss Neville's father?"
"Yes; and he is safe and sound, I am glad to say. But I must begin at the beginning of my tale. After we had descended the steps—"
Here we interrupted to say that we had followed, and had witnessed both the cauterization of the black man's stump and their own vain attempt to escape.
"Then you have seen something, but by no means all. At any rate, what you have witnessed will enable you the more easily to understand the rest of my story.
"We made our way cautiously through the first chamber, and down the long passage, when a murmuring sound ahead of us attracted our attention. It was like the sound of many voices—subdued by the distance, but still distinctly audible. We proceeded for a little way very cautiously; and then, as the sounds grew louder, we caught sight of a ruddy glare, as though from a great fire within the cavern.
"Blowing out the candle—for it would be easy to relight it—we advanced and looked into the oval room. You have been there, and can therefore imagine the scene. The place was crowded with blacks, many of whom held blazing torches, whose light was reflected with marvellous and dazzling effect from every inch of the gold-glittering dome. Within the circle—for the bulk of the men were ranged round the walls—stood the man whom you recognized as the chief. He grasped a great sword of strange and antique make—probably a weapon stolen from some Malayan proa, for I have read that they sometimes visit this coast. It was raised above his head, and we instinctively craned our heads to see the point at which it was aimed. This, at first, was difficult; but in a few seconds, my eyes becoming more accustomed to the strange glare, I could discern several things. First, that right before the monarch was stretched forth a man's arm; secondly, that its owner's body was tightly grasped by several stalwart black men; and, thirdly, that the fingers of the hand were being held by an individual of tremendous strength and of terrible aspect.
"'We must stop this 'ere job, sir,' whispered Bobbing in my ear. 'The big black un is just a-goin' to chop off that bloke's 'and!'
"'What shall we do?' I said. 'We cannot trust our lives among these fellows.'
"'No, sir; but a bullet'll bring down the big un with the sword.'
"'No, I will frighten him,' I returned; and drawing my revolver I fired above the heads of the crowd.
"The shot was too late to achieve my purpose; for as I pulled the trigger the great curved blade of the chiefs sword flashed in the air, and it descended with a frightful swish upon the doomed wrist.
"I can see the scene as I speak—the repulsively ugly faces of the dusky crowd of naked blacks, their glistening teeth and white eyeballs, the muffled murmur of anticipation, and then the report of my weapon, which, in the confined space, sounded like the discharge of a hundred-ton gun. The result was magical. For a couple of seconds the sound of my shot echoed and re-echoed through the subterranean chambers; and then, with a combined yell, or rather a series of groans, the whole company turned and fled from us helter-skelter, thrusting and struggling as each man strove to be the first to escape by the narrow exit. I am surprised that none were killed, for the crowd was frantic with terror. Several fell and were severely trampled upon. But I suppose that owing to the naked feet of the rest they were not badly injured; and one by one we saw them rise and follow their fellows.
"As soon as the last had disappeared we advanced; and picking up a couple of the torches which had been thrown down in the flight, we cautiously followed the retreating throng.
"Before we had gone far, Bobbing, who went first, cutlass in hand, stumbled over a man's body—at least so it seemed. But there was life in him; and to our horror we soon perceived that it was the hapless victim himself, and that the life-blood was rapidly flowing from the stump of his arm.
"It did not take us many minutes to tie up the arm in such a way that the bleeding was nearly stopped. After a time the man came to himself, and as soon as he could move we assisted him along the passage, feeling sure that there must be an exit in that direction.
"At first the man was plainly very much afraid of us; but we patted him gently on the back, and by other signs of friendliness encouraged him; so that by the time we had caught sight of the daylight he was more at home with us.
"It was now that an idea occurred to me, which I at once communicated to Bobbing. It was that we should march boldly into the village which lay in the valley before us, in company with the man, and try to ascertain if Colonel Neville was in their hands. Nor did it require any persuasion on my part to induce Israel Bobbing to accompany me; he was only too glad of a chance of adventure; and, besides, as he put it, two lives had better be sacrificed than four—if such a sacrifice were at all needful.
"Accordingly, with stately, unhurried strides, supporting the wounded and tottering black between us, Bobbing and I marched into the camp. It was certainly a bold thing to do; but I think now we did wisely, and I sincerely hope that all will turn out well."
"And what was the effect on the natives?" I asked.
"The effect was most astonishing. At first, to our amazement, they fled in all directions. Bobbing suggested that the fellows imagined that we had come to slay them. For my own part, I have an idea that they regarded us as spirits from the nether world."
"I hope they will retain that impression," I said.
"After a while, and when they saw that no harm came to them, courage seemed to revive among the inhabitants of the village, and they gathered about us, though at a respectful distance, whispering to each other and pointing continually, as they expressed their amazement at our appearance. But familiarity, though it did not breed contempt, at least lessened the dread in which we were held, and one or two even ventured to touch us, though they did so with great caution and with every exhibition of intense curiosity.
"All this time we had not caught sight of the chief or king of the tribe; but now he strode forth from his dwelling, and, speaking in a stentorian voice, commanded his people—so we took it—to fall back.
"They obeyed immediately; and then he beckoned us to stand before him, while his wives brought out a chair, in which his majesty seated himself. First they disposed of the poor fellow who had lost his hand; and, as soon as he had retired, the tribe settled down to stare at us steadily, as though they expected us to work some remarkable miracle.
"Then it was, as you saw from the mouth of the cavern, that they prostrated themselves before us—'as if we wos gods and goddesses!' observed Israel Bobbing, with a grin and hitch of his trousers. I believe we rather added to their astonishment by laughing heartily at this performance.
"It was after this, as you saw, that we made our first attempt to escape by edging quietly in the direction of the caves. But the blacks, though uncivilized, are wide awake, and, by closing around us, soon succeeded in forcing us to the further side of the village, which was of considerable size, and contained, I should say, some two thousand people. Here they fed us, though I cannot be sure of the nature of the food—I should say it was composed of fat worms,—and assigned to each of us a hut. But we made them understand by signs that we preferred to remain together.
"In this hut we remained for some hours—in fact, until nightfall. Not that we were left alone, for a continuous stream of curious visitors appeared at our door; and so long as there was daylight we had no chance of escape.
"But our wits were at work; and when the darkness came we hoped that we might be able to slip out of the place unobserved. Alas! we did not reckon on the watchfulness of the astute blacks, two of whom kept guard before the door of the hut.
"There seemed to be nothing for it but to settle down for the night; and, indeed, we had slept for a few hours on the couch of grass provided for our use, when I was awakened by a low scratching sound against the wall of the hut just behind where we lay. For a while I listened, and then, arousing Bobbing, we gave a few little taps on the wall, to indicate to friend or foe that we were awake and on the alert.
"To our surprise answering taps replied to ours, and then the scratching was renewed with increased vigour.
"'It's a friend!' said Bobbing. 'Can it be Mr. Elkington and the captain?'
"The thought put new vigour into us, and we began cautiously to poke our knives into the earthen and wattle walls, which soon gave way, and a man's head was inserted.
"'Who may you be?' I inquired; for it was too dark within the hut for us to discern the features of the visitor.
"'Let me come in, and I will tell you,' whispered the man in excellent English, as he crawled through the hole.
"'It's Colonel Neville, I believe,' said Bobbing.
"'Yes,' was the reply; 'I am that unfortunate individual.'
"Then he told us that he had been captured by a neighbouring tribe, who had treated him with respect, though he had not been allowed to leave the camp. He said that a runner had that day come to this tribe with the news of our sudden appearance, and that during the commotion he had slipped out unobserved. At first he was at a loss to discover our whereabouts; but concluding that the two natives pacing before a certain hut were sentries, he had crept unobserved behind our lodging, and had begun to dig away the earthen wall in the hope that he might be successful in attracting our attention, with the result that I have already described."
"And how did you manage to get away?" I asked.
"And alone?" put in the captain.
"Well, you must know that we resolved to escape together," continued Cornwallis; "but in getting through the hole I unfortunately made a noise, and the two black sentries ran round to see what was the matter. It was touch-and-go with me. I slipped away in the shadow behind a neighbouring hut, and they apparently did not see me.
"Presently I heard Bobbing calling in a low tone—
"'You had better make your way to the fort, sir, and tell the others! We can take care of ourselves till you bring them—unless, maybe, we can get away very soon ourselves.'
"The blacks listened very attentively as he was saying this; but, as they could not understand a word, and were not aware that he was addressing any person outside the hut, I was able to slip away through the slumbering village in the shadows cast by the huts, and at length gained the hills. It took me a long time to hark back to this side of the valley, and I had much difficulty in locating the 'fort'—but here I am."
IT was plain that something must be done to rescue the colonel and Bobbing, so we held a council of war, while Cornwallis was refreshing the inner man by the aid of our most scanty fare, for he was much exhausted by his long tramp through the bush.
O'Grady was for our making our way once more through the caves to the valley. He thought that the blacks would be afraid of our firearms, and that, if we made an energetic attempt on the village, the inhabitants would flee.
The objection to this suggestion was that the women and children were as likely to suffer as the men, and that if the people did not flee we might find ourselves in an awkward fix.
Cornwallis suggested that he should pilot us through the bush by the way he had come; but there were such obvious advantages in the cavern route that I gave the casting vote in its favour.
The chief difficulty was a matter of light. Cornwallis had most fortunately in his pocket the remains of the candle with which he had explored the caves. This would light us as far as the Golden Cavern, as we named the scene of the strange mutilation of the black man. There we could supply ourselves with torches in abundance.
After this we discussed our plan of action, and decided to proceed as far as the mouth opening out to the valley, and there to endeavour to attract the attention of Bobbing and Colonel Neville by a revolver-shot, if need be, and to cover their retreat with our weapons.
"They will be on the look-out for some signal from us," said Cornwallis, "and a few moments will place them in safety, if they make direct for the entrance to the caves."
But that was the danger. Would they make for the caves?
It did not take us very long this time to descend into the first chamber. On arriving at the second one, and having lighted several of the torches, we were much struck by the dazzling effect of the stronger light. The dome-shaped roof and sides simply glittered with gold. There were tons upon tons of gold only waiting to be fetched away!
"Do you think, sir," said O'Grady, "that this place has been mined?"
"Possibly—but long, long ago. At least we may safely say that no European has ever been here before ourselves."
But we were too anxious concerning Bobbing and the man who had been the cause of this expedition to remain gazing upon this plethora of riches, though, indeed, there was gold enough to make each of us a millionaire. And so we hurried on, torch in hand, until we came to the mouth which opened opposite the village.
So soon as we had arrived at the point where the light of day penetrated, the torches were extinguished, and with anxious curiosity we peered out into the valley.
It was the hour of dawn, and the first streaks of light were appearing over the opposite hill. Beneath, at our feet, nestled the crowd of dome-shaped huts, but as yet we could see none of the inhabitants.
"That is the chief's dwelling," said Cornwallis, pointing to a structure larger than the rest. "The place of our confinement is away to the right."
He was unable to point out the exact spot, for the huts were much alike in appearance as well as in size, but we kept our gaze steadily in the direction he had indicated, in the hope that shortly we might catch sight of Bobbing and Colonel Neville.
For some time we watched and waited in vain, and were about to discuss a plan for a dash into the camp when O'Grady exclaimed—
"Bless my stars! what's Bobbing doing?"
Turning in the direction in which the captain was gazing, we caught sight of Israel Bobbing's unmistakable figure on the roof of a distant hut. He was dancing a sailor's hornpipe, and as his legs went merrily we heard him break out into a sea-song, which, though at a distance we could not distinguish all the words, enough reached our hiding-place to show that he was in a merry mood.
"What on earth is the fellow after?" exclaimed Cornwallis.
The blacks seemed to be one and all asking the same question; for from the low doorways of every hut peeped black heads and amazed faces, till the whole settlement was awake and the people were assembling in crowds about the dancer.
"Has the man lost his senses?" I exclaimed; for I was utterly puzzled at the boatswain's remarkable performance.
We watched him for ten minutes and still he continued the hornpipe, singing and gesticulating the while in a manner calculated to attract and impress the blacks, but hardly after the most approved rules for the execution of the sailor's dance.
So completely did Bobbing attract the attention, not only of the blacks who crowded about him, but also of ourselves, as we stood within the entrance to the caves, that it was some time ere we noticed the figure of a man in the garb of civilization—though, albeit, somewhat tattered and torn—who, on his hands and knees, was stealthily crawling round towards us, sheltered by the shadows of the huts.
"Bless me!" whispered Cornwallis. "Why, it's Colonel Neville!"
"And Bobbing is holding the attention of the blacks so that he can get away in safety!" I exclaimed.
It was so; and though we could neither understand how the colonel had managed to escape, nor why he should have deserted the boatswain, we were pleased enough at the prospect of being able to aid in his rescue.
With breathless interest we watched the crawling man as he made his way among the huts; now running in a stooping position swiftly across the open space, now crawling in the deeper shadows; and all the time Israel Bobbing was keeping up his ceaseless song and dance, while the blacks crowded about him in ever-increasing numbers.
"Why on earth doesn't the colonel up and run for it—he could reach us in three minutes?" remarked O'Grady.
"Cornwallis suggested that we should wave a handkerchief at the mouth of the tunnel as a signal to him; but I objected, on the ground that it would probably bring on us the whole body of blacks. And how should we be able to fight these thousands?" I said, little thinking how soon we should be engaged in a terrible and deadly struggle with these same blacks.
All at once Bobbing's song stopped, and we saw that he was standing, like a statue, silent upon the roof of the hut.
"He is exhausted," remarked Cornwallis.
"No man could long keep up such a hornpipe," said O'Grady, with a shake of the head.
But the attention of those on the outskirts of the crowd was now no longer held by the sailor. And presently, with yells which sounded throughout the whole village, half a dozen blacks caught sight of the form of the colonel as he ran across an open space.
Instantly, with terrific yells, they bounded after him. The colonel, hearing their cries and guessing the cause, started for the mouth of the caves at the top of his speed. He was plainly not in good form, and stumbled twice in doubling round the huts.
In less than half a minute the main body of blacks had caught sight of him, and, with shouts which fairly rent the air, the greater number of the men were in pursuit.
"It's now or never!" I cried, drawing my revolver and advancing to the entrance, followed by the others.
"He'll see this," said O'Grady, as he drew a huge silk spotted handkerchief from his pocket and waved it vigorously.
"If he can but keep clear of the spears!" exclaimed Cornwallis. For many of his pursuers were armed with those deadly weapons.
Suddenly two of the foremost blacks paused, and throwing their arms back with marvellous agility, poised their long, tapering spears.
"Take the man on the left!" I cried to Cornwallis, who, like myself, had levelled his revolver.
We fired simultaneously, and simultaneously with our bullets the two men hurled their weapons. My shot was too late to stop the throwing of the shaft, but it brought down the thrower with a crash to the earth as he hurled the weapon, where he lay to all appearance dead.
The bullet fired by Cornwallis achieved a remarkable result, for it met in mid-air the spear hurled by the left-hand black when it was not more than five yards from Colonel Neville's back. The result was that the shaft was broken in pieces, the fragments flying high into the air; whereupon we gave as loud a cheer as we could muster, and the colonel put forth all his strength, and in a few seconds he was in our arms, faint and panting with his exertions.
We now turned to see what the blacks would do, and whether Bobbing would follow the colonel; but, to our surprise and disappointment, he had disappeared.
Our attention was now entirely engaged by the natives. On they rushed in a dense black mass, until they came to the body of their dead comrade, and we saw them examine with evident curiosity the bullet-wound in his chest.
But this did not stop them. In far less time than it takes to narrate it they had assembled before the entrance to the caves, and were pouring in such a perfect storm of spears that, had we remained in our original position, I suppose it would have been altogether impossible for any of us to have escaped alive.
But we were by no means anxious to be slain, nor were we wishful to take the lives of the natives needlessly, for it was necessary to keep in mind the fact that Israel Bobbing was still at their mercy. So we hastily retreated into the "Golden Cavern," in the hope that the blacks would peaceably retire.
After waiting a while, Cornwallis, with his usual impetuosity, announced that he was resolved to go to Bobbing's rescue. We tried to dissuade him from this course, but, as he adhered to his determination, we were obliged to let him go. So, charging his revolver and taking a lighted torch, he left us for the mouth of the cavern which we had so recently abandoned.
While he was absent I discussed our position with Colonel Neville and Captain O'Grady, the former comforting us by saying that it was not until Bobbing had assured him that he was well able to secure his own safety that he had made for the caves.
We had not long to wait for Cornwallis's return. He reported that the blacks had retired from the entrance, and were holding a grand corroboree in the centre of the village.
"And did you see anything of Bobbing?" we inquired.
"Then what shall we do?"
"We must await his arrival. I am confident that he will manage to escape."
"But we are running short of provisions, and ought even now to be making our way back to the ship!"
Cornwallis looked troubled at this news.
"It is of no use for you all to remain," he said, with a shake of his head. "Leave me what food, water, and ammunition you can spare, and return to the ship. If I do not return in three days, send a party to look for me here—maybe you will find us besieged by the blacks."
"In that case a rescue-party would be of very little service," I said. "It would need a considerable body of men to raise a siege if the natives assemble in any numbers."
But the others by no means acquiesced in Cornwallis's proposal; and after a long discussion it was resolved that we should at least wait until the next morning without taking any further steps, in hope that somehow the boatswain might be able to evade the watchfulness of the blacks and return to us.
So we resolved to encamp for the night in the open air on the top of the "fort," where we should be much more likely to be able to make a good defence. For we had little doubt that, now they knew of our existence, the blacks would attack sooner or later.
With considerable trouble we succeeded in moving some large stones, with which we partly barricaded the passage leading from the side of the hill to the "fort."
Then we looked into our ammunition and provision. To our dismay the water was almost finished, and the food, even on short rations, would not be sufficient for more than twenty-four hours. There was, however, plenty of ammunition, and we did not doubt that we should be able to render a good account, should the blacks come.
The day passed without Bobbing's return.
Twice Cornwallis made his way, accompanied by myself, through the caves, and we scanned the huts from the entrance into the valley. But, although we noticed an extraordinary amount of activity among the inhabitants, we could catch no sight of the boatswain. Some of the preparations which were being made, made us feel decidedly uncomfortable. On every side we could see men and women—especially the latter—actively engaged in sharpening spears, in re-stringing bows, in filling uncouth- looking quivers with arrows, and in preparing the strange and awkward-looking weapon known as the boomerang.
We returned with this news, which produced no little consternation. And yet, as it was impossible that we could abandon Bobbing, there seemed to be nothing for it but to prepare to defend our position, and, if need be, to die like brave men.
IT was about ten p.m. when Cornwallis, who had just come off guard, aroused me.
"I have an idea!" he said.
"Why should not one of us go for reinforcements?"
"I will go, if you like. If I can but bring three or four of our sturdy fellows with some food and water for us all, it would make all the difference when the struggle comes—that is, if we are forced to fight."
I thought over his suggestion for some time. It was plain that we should have long odds against us in the event of a contest with the blacks. It was equally plain that we could on no account abandon the boatswain. Further, it was absolutely certain that we could not either exist or fight without food or water. So I said—
"It will be a risk, old fellow, both for you and for us; but if you think you can find your way to the ship, by all means carry out your idea."
"I can guide my course by the light at the masthead," he said (for we had arranged with the men to exhibit the light as a guide for us in case we should return during the night). "And, besides," he continued, "there is a little moonlight,—and plenty of stars."
In a few minutes he was ready to depart. One by one we grasped his hand and wished him God-speed. Then he climbed over the parapet of stones which we had erected, and disappeared among the undergrowth.
"We shall not see him again till long after midday to-morrow," remarked O'Grady.
But he was mistaken.
It must have been about two a.m. when I was aroused by the colonel, whose watch it was. He said that he had heard the sound of footsteps under the walls of the fort.
"If they wear boots, they must be our friends," I said.
In a few minutes we were all wide awake, and could hear the tramp of feet, as though of men stumbling over the rough stones in the valley beneath us.
"Who goes there?" cried O'Grady, looking over the ramparts.
To our joy and surprise, what should reply but the voices of Cornwallis and Bobbing; but they added that the blacks were approaching in force.
As soon as they had gained the summit of the "fort," Cornwallis said that when he left us he fully intended to make straight for the ship, and for some distance he proceeded through the bush without encountering anything more formidable than a few small nocturnal animals.
After a time, and when he was, as he thought, nearing the edge of the wooded portion of the country, he stooped at a water-hole to quench his thirst. Suddenly, as he drank, he was grasped by the back of the neck with great violence, and his head was forced down into the water, so that he was half choked.
With a struggle he grappled with his assailant, whom he imagined to be a black. But, to his amazement, his arms grasped the body of a man clothed in civilized raiment.
"Who are you?" he cried.
"Bless my bloomin' eyes," cried the voice of his opponent, "if it ain't Mr. Cornwallis!"
"And you are Israel Bobbing! What are you doing here? How did you escape?"
It did not take Bobbing long to explain that, by watching his opportunity, he had succeeded in eluding his guards.
"There's plenty of dangers to be met with at sea," he said; "but if we don't give 'em warning, our party'll think the dangers o' this ere Austraily a deal wuss than any storm as ever blew. Them bloomin' naked niggers is a-comin' to-night wi' their blessed long skewers to make roast suckin' pig o' the whole bilin' o' us! I shouldn't ha' 'scaped so easily if they hadn't bin busy," he added.
It was only what we expected; but now that Bobbing had been so unexpectedly restored to us, we felt we could fight with greater courage, for the boatswain was as strong as Samson and as brave as a lion. Cornwallis had suggested to Bobbing that one of them should return to us, while the other made for the ship; but the boatswain urged that it would be wise for the whole party to abandon the fort, and to make for the vessel as speedily as possible.
It did not take us long in making up our minds to carry out his suggestion, and in ten minutes the fort was evacuated, and the pale moon and the countless stars of the southern sky looked down upon a party of men cautiously descending the incline on which stood the wonderful and mysterious mass of rock.
"How I wish we could have taken away some of the gold!" sighed Cornwallis.
"Cheer up, sir; we'll come again for that," returned Bobbing, little thinking how soon or in how marvellous a way his pledge would be fulfilled.
We had arrived at the bottom of the valley, when a strange sound smote upon our ears. At first it was like distant water; but we were too far from the shore for the beating of the waves to be audible, and we knew that there could be no waterfall near to us.
Presently, as we listened, the sound resolved itself into the voices of men.
"They are singing!" exclaimed Cornwallis.
It was true. It was the wild war-song of savages. How strange, weird, and awe-inspiring it sounded in the night, and in that mysterious and lone land, may well be imagined.
To all appearance—so far as the moon and the stars revealed—there was no one near us, and yet the sound quickly swelled louder, seemingly arising on every side of us.
"This is their battle-song. They are coming up the valley!" exclaimed the colonel. "I well know their cry."
"Then it is plain we must retreat," I said.
Just then there was borne upon us by the faint night wind the answering cry of another army. It came from the upper part of the valley, above the point to which we had penetrated.
"It strikes me that we are hemmed in," said O'Grady.
"In that case we must at once return to the 'fort,'" I said.
Without more ado we retraced our footsteps.
Fortunately we were not very far distant from our place of refuge, and in a very few minutes were safely ensconced behind the ramparts.
"Who is to take command?" I asked.
"We will all gladly obey you," they replied.
"What about the entrance—that is our weak place?"
"Then, replace the stones and block up the doorway as much as possible," I said.
As the archway was the only vulnerable spot—unless they should come through the caves—by which an enemy could enter, I appointed three of our number, namely, O'Grady, the colonel, and Bobbing, to guard it. They would be well protected behind the pile of stones which we had placed there.
Cornwallis I directed to assist me in watching the movements of the enemy, as well as in seeing that no attack was made by way of the caves. It did not take us long to complete our preparations; but, quick as we were, the blacks were quicker, and before all the ammunition was served out a flight of spears rattled against the ramparts, some of the shafts falling within the enclosure, though fortunately none of us were wounded.
I thought it wiser that we should not reply, for the place, except by the archway and through the caves, seemed to be practically impregnable. Accordingly we lay still, keeping well under the shadow of the ramparts.
After a second flight of spears and arrows, none of which did us any harm, the attacking force paused.
They were evidently unable to understand our silence, and we began to hope that they would retire. But in this we were mistaken. With frantic yells and stentorian shouts, a large body of them rushed up the hill and attacked the weakest point of our defence—the archway.
The stones which we had piled up made a breastwork sufficiently substantial to check their onslaught. Only two men at a time could mount the broken steps; and as we watched the black men surge in double file into the narrow passage, we concentrated upon it the fire of our revolvers and rifles, and with such success that in a few moments the steps were completely blocked by the bodies of those who had fallen to our bullets, while not a man among us was wounded.
The result of our volley was most remarkable. Whether it was that they were terror-stricken at the report of firearms, or that they were dismayed at their death-dealing qualities, the whole of the attacking party turned and fled dismayed down the hill.
Seizing the opportunity thus presented, we fired from the ramparts upon the army below—for the force must have numbered several thousand men. They replied by a few arrows; but when half a dozen more of their warriors had bitten the dust, the whole army, with exclamations of fear, withdrew from beneath the rock walls of the fort, and disappeared among the trees and stunted bushes with which we were surrounded.
"Well done!" said Cornwallis, giving them a parting shot, which brought down the last of the retreating blacks. "Well done! We shall be able to start for the ship very shortly."
"Wait till daylight, I implore you!" said Colonel Neville. "You do not know the treachery of these people. They may wait for days in the hope of starving us out."
The question of food and water was a very serious one. There was less than one pint of water left, and the food for the whole party would scarcely have made one substantial meal for a hungry man.
Slowly the night wore away; and when the first rays of the morning sun glinted down the valley from the hills above, it found us both hungry and weary, and gazing with dejected hearts from the frowning walls of the fort upon the scene of last night's slaughter. The bodies of those whom we had killed lay about; but what more concerned us was that a quarter of a mile distant rose the smoke of sundry camp-fires, around which the investing army was squatted, awaiting the morning meal, which was being prepared by the women. The sight produced a sinking feeling in the region of the stomach, for our own breakfast did not amount to more than one good mouthful per man.
"Do you think there will be any chance of escape through the caves?" suggested O'Grady.
It seemed a likely course, and without delay we lowered ourselves and our belongings through the opening, and by the light of a torch once more made our way through the great caverns and long passages to the further entrance.
Great was our disgust and alarm when we found that a numerous body of blacks was squatting on the ground, "apparently awaiting our arrival," as Cornwallis put it.
They did not notice us, for we did not adventure ourselves into the mouth of the tunnel.
So, after we had satisfied ourselves that this exit was well guarded, we retired into the "golden cave," and there deliberated whether we should venture to attack this additional force, for they numbered about one hundred and fifty men, all well armed with spears and arrows.
It was decided that the risk to our own lives would be too great, and that we had better return to the defence of the fort.
With desponding hearts we retraced our steps. Our want of food was telling upon us all, and I had hardly strength to struggle through the opening and on to the platform of rock.
The blacks were still in sight; and as hour after hour wore away, we came to the conclusion that they were resolved to starve us out.
"Not a difficult task either," remarked the colonel, mournfully: "none of us can last more than a few days."
"I have known five men last twenty days, sir, in an open boat on the wide ocean, and the only food for the whole of that time was a pair of sea-boots."
O'Grady said this in a tone which suggested the immense superiority of seafaring men.
"An' I've a capital pair o' boots," put in Bobbing, with a grin, as he raised his foot for our inspection. "But, I say, sir," he continued, "why not let me make a run for it? I could make the ship in a few hours, and bring the help we need."
"My good fellow," we replied, "if you can run the gauntlet of those blacks, we could do the same. You have escaped from them once; but, remember, if they captured you now, you would certainly be devoured, for they are cannibals."
"I have thought of something better still," suggested Captain O'Grady. "Why not flash signals to the ship? If the men catch sight of them, we shall have a relief-party here before nightfall."
"But how are we to manage this?" said Cornwallis. "We have no mirror."
This seemed at first to be an insuperable difficulty, for we possessed nothing that would answer the purpose.
"You see," said O'Grady, "the men—to say nothing of Miss Neville—will now be getting very anxious, and will be looking out for our return."
"Yes, we ought to have been back two days ago," I replied.
For some time after this conversation we lay under the shade of the battlements, for the sun was intensely hot, and we were too anxious, hungry, and weary to talk very much.
All at once we missed the boatswain.
"Has he gone, after all?" we said.
There was no sign of him anywhere on the top of the fort, nor could we see him in the valley below; and as the natives—who remained at their several stations—did not seem to be disturbed, we concluded that he was concealed among the undergrowth.
Half an hour later we were aroused by a voice which seemed to come up from the bowels of the earth.
"'Ere y'are, gents! jest send down a line for the gold!"
It was the voice of Israel Bobbing. On looking down the opening by which we descended to the caves, we caught sight of his good-humoured face streaming with perspiration, while in his arms he held a great slab of shining gold!
"WHY on earth have you fetched this?" I cried.
"We cannot carry it away if we have to leave the place to- night," said the others.
"If ye'll 'elp me get it out of this 'ere hole, I'll show yer a thing or two," remarked Bobbing, dryly, in response to these and other observations.
We hauled up his burden, and he quickly followed.
"What is this for?" demanded the captain, somewhat sternly; and by his looks I imagine that he thought the boatswain was trifling in our hour of peril.
"It's the only thing I could think on—it'll do for flashing signals, won't, it sir?" returned Bobbing.
"Flashing signals! Why, it's the very thing!" returned the colonel. "I have constantly used the Morse Code among the hills in Northern India. If only we can catch the sun in the right position, there will be no difficulty in flashing a message to the ship—provided, of course, that we are in the line of sight."
"Can they flash back to us?" inquired Cornwallis.
"Why, of course they can!" returned O'Grady—"that is, if they've brains enough to unscrew the glass from the wall of the lady's cabin."
The slab which Israel Bobbing had brought up from the golden depths beneath us was a most remarkable work of nature. Its length would be about two feet, and its greatest width some fifteen or sixteen inches. The back was of quartz, rough and unhewn, but the face was as highly burnished as though fresh from the hands of a goldsmith.
"Where did you find it?" we inquired.
"Well, gents, I did not find it in the Golden Cavern, though I've no doubts but as some un has cut it out o' that rock. I was looking for somethink which would do for a reflector, when my eye lights on this 'ere slab lying face downwards bang on the top of the table in the first cave. Says I, when I turns it over, 'This 'ere's belonged to some 'andsome gal in days gone by, I'll bet.' An' so I just picks up the article—and 'ere y'are."
After this lucid explanation Colonel Neville took charge of the slab. He got Bobbing to hold it on the edge of the parapet in such a position that it caught the light of the sun as he faced the far-distant vessel.
"Is there any one on board who understands heliographic signalling?" he inquired.
"There's an old man-o'-war's man aboard the White Rose," said Captain O'Grady. "Maybe he'll twig our meaning—that is, if they catch sight of our signals."
This was the all-important point. For some time the colonel and the boatswain worked the primitive heliograph without result. The colonel tried it at every angle, but in vain.
"Perhaps as the sun draws further west it will give me a better chance," he remarked anxiously.
"I hope so, most sincerely," said Fred Cornwallis, "for the black fellows down yonder show no signs of moving away."
It was after the golden slab had been worked for upwards of an hour, during which time we had watched with strained eyes the far-distant point where our stranded ship lay, that suddenly out of the grey distance there sprang forth an answering gleam!
"Bravo! They see it!" cried Cornwallis, whose eye was the first to discern the flash.
Our very hearts could be heard beating as we held our breath in anticipation of another flash.
"That's right, colonel! give 'em another!" exclaimed O'Grady, now almost beside himself with excitement.
"I'll telegraph the words, 'Send help,'" said our operator.
Slowly he flashed forth the long and short gleams of the Morse Code which spell the two words.
But for some time no reply beyond a few meaningless flashes reached us.
"If they don't soon grasp our meaning the sun will have got too far west to be available for this work," said the colonel.
So again he spelt out the two words, and breathlessly we awaited the result.
This time it came back letter by letter, which our heliographer read with greatest ease—
"Thank God, they understand us!" I cried. "Now, colonel, tell them to bring arms, food, and water."
It did not take very long to flash this message, and we wound up by telegraphing the words, "Surrounded by blacks."
The sun, which had been of such immense service to us, soon set in a blaze of splendour, and the twinkling lights of the fires, which the natives had kindled around the "fort," warned us that we were not unwatched. No further attack was attempted, and it was plain to us that their object was to starve us into submission.
By this time the gnawing pains of intense hunger had seized us one and all. The bigger men seemed to suffer more than the rest, probably because by nature they had the larger appetite. We tightened our belts and tried to assuage our hunger by chewing small pieces of leather which we cut off from the said belts. The pains of thirst were, if anything, worse than those of hunger, and throughout the long dreary night we lay and tossed uneasily, dreaming in our fitful slumbers that we were once more on board our ship, and there indulging in the most bountiful of meals.
It had been arranged before we turned in that two of us, in turn, should keep guard; the one to watch the archway, and the other the entrance to the caves, and both to keep open eyes and ears for any signal that might be made by our party approaching from the ship.
Cornwallis and I had the middle watch, and we spent much of it sitting in a corner, while we conversed in low tones.
"Do you think that we shall get out of this mess alive?" he asked.
"Yes, if the men arrive soon," I said. "They ought to be here before dawn."
"If they left the ship within an hour after receiving our message, they will be here before daybreak."
"And their chances of breaking through the cordon of blacks?"
"Are very small."
"True; but as they know our position, no doubt the men will exercise the greatest caution, and I am pretty sure that we may expect to welcome them here."
My confidence cheered Cornwallis. We talked of the prospect of securing some of the gold, of Miss Neville, of her sister and the villain Cuthbert, and all the time we were enduring the most horrible sensation in the region of the stomach, such as I am quite unable to describe.
All at once we started to our feet, for right ahead of us the whole western sky was filled for a few seconds with a most vivid blue light.
The effect was so unexpected that we were much alarmed, and, hastening to the side, looked down into the valley. As we did so the weird flame again blazed forth, lighting up the outlines of the fort, as well as the trees and the hills behind us, with all the vivid effulgence of a flash of lightning.
"What is it?" we whispered; for the truth had not yet dawned upon us.
Succeeding the second flash were a few seconds of darkness, and then the silence of the night was broken by frantic yells and sounds, as though men were passing the fort in headlong flight.
"The blacks!" exclaimed Cornwallis, catching sight of a few dusky figures.
"Are they running away?" I inquired eagerly.
As I spoke the light again blazed forth, but this time with increased brilliance, because nearer to us, and behind it we perceived dim shadowy forms, and heard the sound of voices.
"It's the rescue-party!" shouted Cornwallis. "Here, my lads! come along!" he cried to them; and to our intense delight he was answered in the English tongue.
In two seconds the whole of our party was aroused; in two more we were pulling down the stone barricade which we had erected across the archway, and were making our way as fast as our feeble and trembling limbs would carry us in the direction of the strange light and voices.
"Give them a signal, sir!" cried Bobbing.
I fired a chamber of my revolver in the air, and we all shouted together.
It was a risk, I must confess, for the natives had not all cleared away; indeed, one party of them at the moment ran past us in the dark; but from their gibbering yells we concluded that they were equally terror-stricken with their predecessors, and much too anxious to get away to attack us.
An answering British cheer made our hearts bound for joy, and in five minutes we were warmly grasping the hands of the sailors whom we had left on the White Rose.
"But my daughter—will she be safe in your absence?" inquired Colonel Neville, anxiously.
"As right as the mainmast, sir," replied one of the men. "The young lady, bless 'er! wouldn't let one of us remain on guard. But she'll be all right, sir. She 'as a rare pluck!"
In a few minutes we were again in the fort, quaffing drink which tasted like the nectar of the gods, and indulging in a meal more delicious than any I have ever since tasted; after which we related our adventures to the men, and at daybreak, feeling wonderfully revived, we left the hospitable shelter of the fort.
Not a black was in sight. By their still-smouldering fires lay spears, bows and arrows, and cooking utensils, all of which had been abandoned in the headlong flight.
"We thought as 'ow you was waterlogged," remarked one of the men; "leastways, knowin' as 'ow these 'ere niggers wos in the way, we jest brought with us a few blue lights wot's used for signal-makin' at sea, to make 'em think as 'ow the blue demons was a-comin' after 'em."
"And the signals which we flashed—how did you make them out?" I asked.
"Well, you see, sir, it was thusly: Lime-house Bill, as we calls 'im, wot's bin in the R'yal Navy, 'e understood this 'ere flashin' business, and as soon as 'e makes out your message 'e axes the young lady if so be as she'll lend her glarss fur to reply. 'In coorse I will,' says she, with a smile like a hangel; so you see, sir, the job was soon done."
It was near evening when we arrived at the ship, for we soon discovered that we were still weak with our vigil and prolonged fast, and our journey was necessarily a slow one. As we approached the vessel we caught sight of the white-robed figure of Lucilia Neville, as she watched for our coming.
The meeting between father and daughter was a touching sight, and presently they retired below, that apart from us they might talk over the loss of Cecilia, for this was the name which burst from the lips of father and daughter as they clasped each other's neck.
"I'd give a good deal to meet that man Cuthbert," observed O'Grady, as he turned away.
"I wish we could secure some of the gold in those caves," was Cornwallis's remark, as we discussed our late adventures over a cigar on the following morning.
"There is enough to make the fortune of each of us," added O'Grady, as he emitted a long wreath of smoke.
"The only difficulty is how to bring it away," I said.
"And to keep the blacks at a respectable distance," observed Colonel Neville, as he joined our party in company with his pretty daughter.
"I propose that we take the matter in hand," resumed Cornwallis, "now that we have rescued the colonel—not that much credit is due to us in the matter. And as it must be some weeks before the Empress Queen returns, what better and more profitable employment can we find for ourselves and the men?"
We discussed the suggestion for some time, and at length it was arranged that in three days' time—that is, as soon as some of us were fairly recovered from the effects of our recent privations—a strong and well-armed party should return to the fort for the purpose of removing as much of the gold as each man could conveniently carry.
"Now, if only we could engage five hundred of these black chaps as porters, very soon a tidy part of the White Rose might be filled with the stuff," remarked the captain, in a jocular tone.
VOLUMES might be written concerning that attractive power which the metal called gold has upon men. Its possession has ever seemed so altogether desirable, so conducive to happiness, so all-sufficient in securing much that men crave for, that they have braved the fierce savages of Africa, the waterless deserts of Australia, the unendurable frosts of North- West Canada, to win a few nuggets of the precious ore. Death, in many terrible forms, has stared men in the face, and yet even where the risks were greatest and the chances of success most uncertain, the yellow metal has drawn crowds of votaries, who were happy if they could but handle it—and die!
In our own case, however, unless the blacks should reassemble about the fort—which was hardly likely—the road to wealth seemed to be free from most of the usually attendant risks.
There seemed no reason, provided it could be conveyed to the ship, why we should not all become enormously rich in a very short time. Hence the party which left the stranded White Rose soon after sunrise started in the most cheerful humour, and gaily waved to us as long as we could distinguish their figures.
Cornwallis was the leader; he was accompanied by Israel Bobbing and five seamen. They were all well armed and carried provisions and water enough to last them for a week. We arranged with them to flash a message if they were in need or in danger, and for this purpose they took a spare mirror, which we found in one of the cabins.
After they were out of sight I had a talk with O'Grady and the colonel concerning the future. We were agreed that nothing could be done until the return of the Empress Queen; and even then it seemed that our movements would depend on the success of our enterprise—for if Captain McIlvaine had not succeeded in stopping the villain Cuthbert, there would be small hope of rescuing Miss Cecilia.
The colonel was very despondent with regard to McIlvaine's mission, but his daughter and I did our best to cheer him.
"You see, father," she said, as we sat at dinner, "Cicily is a girl with a good deal of spirit—in fact, she has double my own courage," she added with a laugh—here O'Grady shook his head gravely, as though he doubted whether a more courageous girl could be found on this earth—"and I should not be surprised if she talks to him in such a way that he sheds tears of penitence, and straightway orders the ship to be put about, in order that she may be restored to her sorrowing relatives without delay."
We could not forbear a smile at this expression of her belief in her sister's powers.
The conversation then drifted into other channels.
"How wonderful is the position of this vessel!" I remarked. "Who would imagine, sitting at this table, that we were high and dry upon the edge of an Australian desert?"
"And with no prospect of floating this valuable ship," remarked the colonel.
"I don't know about that, sir," retorted Captain O'Grady, turning to him. "If we only had enough power, she might be floated to-morrow."
"But power is just what we haven't got," said I.
"No," continued the captain; "it would take some big engines to float her from the foot of the banks into deep water. It 'ud be a tremendous job!" he added with a sigh. "But nevertheless, when we get home, we'll see if it cannot be done. You see, gentlemen, the vessel would pay for moving—she would indeed! And when we've put the case before a firm of experts, they may advise sending out machinery to do the thing properly."
"But the ship may be damaged by storms or by the natives during our absence," I remarked.
"Storms'll never hurt her where she is, sir; and as for natives, I think they've had such a lesson as'll teach them to leave the ship alone."
O'Grady spoke so emphatically that I was at last convinced that he had faith in the possibility of floating the vessel.
We kept a daily watch for the signal from the fort, and about noon on the fourth day the look-out startled us by crying out that he could see flashes in the far distance.
The colonel, hastening aloft, read for us this startling message—
"Bringing a ton of gold!"
What did it mean?
"Impossible!" I cried, addressing the colonel at the masthead. "There must be some mistake!"
So Colonel Neville flashed, by way of reply, the words, "We don't understand."
To this was returned the message, the words, "Prepare for great surprise."
"But it is impossible!" we exclaimed.
"How on earth can they bring a ton of gold?"
And I must confess that I felt somewhat vexed at this practical joking—for such I took it to be.
It was a little before noon on the following day that the look-out announced the approach of an object across the sandy desert which lay between the ship and the far-distant hills.
"It looks like a big snake, sir," he called out.
"Nonsense!" I replied. "You could not see a snake unless it were close at hand."
But the man maintained that the thing looked like nothing else; and to satisfy my curiosity I climbed to his perch, and gazed over the sands in the direction which he indicated.
There, sure enough, I could plainly discern a long black object, to all appearance crawling very slowly towards the ship. The wavelike motion of its enormously long body could be clearly seen, and we could catch the glitter of the scales on its back in the sunlight as its vertebrae rose and fell, while its head, which appeared to be of a lighter colour, glittered in a most wonderful manner.
"What on earth can it be?" I whispered in an awestruck voice; for I must confess that I was quite staggered at the sight of the enormous reptile.
"Depend upon it, it's the great sea-serpent. I allus believed in that 'ere serpent; and now we've found its 'ome!"
"And what is she doing ashore?"
"Bin to lay 'er eggs—depend upon it, sir—to be 'atched by the 'eat of the sun. Each egg 'll be as large as the starn o' this 'ere wessel."
I shouted to O'Grady to bring his glass, and in a few minutes he had climbed up to our position, and by its aid was inspecting the dread form.
To my surprise he burst into a roar of laughter, succeeded by sundry exclamations, such as, "Well, I'm jiggered! Well, I'm blowed!"
"What do you make of it?" I asked, somewhat impatiently.
"It's not an it—it's a they," he replied, with a broad grin.
"What! Is there more than one of them?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that the 'sea serpent,' as you call it, is a tremendous long caravan o' black men, and Mr. Cornwallis and our fellows are marching at the head o' them. The stuff that shines is the gold," continued the captain, still with the telescope to his eye. "The blacks seem to be carrying it on their heads and shoulders in great lumps, and the sparkling points of light in front are the flashes from the weapons of our party."
This was truly astounding; and leaving the man aloft to report the progress of the party in sight, O'Grady and I descended to impart the wonderful news to the colonel and to his daughter.
In two hours' time the van of the approaching party could be discerned from the deck. As soon as he caught sight of us, Cornwallis waved his hat joyfully.
"Bless my soul!" exclaimed the captain. "How has he managed to get all these niggers in tow?"
It was certainly most marvellous. As the caravan drew near we could see that they numbered, not hundreds, but thousands of men and women, and that each of them carried a heavy load of the gold ore.
There could be no doubt but that it would realize a profit of nearly one hundred thousand pounds.
"But how has he tamed the blacks?" inquired Miss Neville.
On they came in countless numbers. We were so astonished that we almost forgot to give our friends a cheer, until aroused from our contemplation of the vast throng by their voices.
"Have you not a welcome for us?" called Cornwallis, as soon as he was within hail.
"This is wonderful!" exclaimed Colonel Neville. "It is better than a victory!"
"I call it a very great victory!" said his daughter, looking into his face with one of her sweet smiles.
Our amazement gave way to congratulations as soon as the white men of the party had clambered up the side of the ship.
"I'll tell you the whole story as soon as we are below and have had a decent feed," said Cornwallis, in reply to our numerous questions. "The fact is," he added, "we have secured more than you see."
With this enigmatical sentence he ran down the companion steps, and shut himself up in his cabin.
After a meal he told us the story of the expedition.
They had duly arrived, he said, at the fort, and were making themselves secure by barricading the archway, when to their astonishment the chief of the tribe and his principal men appeared at the foot of the great rock.
They made signs of friendliness, and to the surprise of Cornwallis and his party the chief addressed to them a few words in English.
"Which I taught him," observed the colonel. "He constantly visited the tribe which held me prisoner, and would sit for hours in my hut trying to learn the English name of objects familiar to him."
"We were not long in making out his meaning, which was that he and his people wished to make friends and be at peace, because they feared our 'thunder-weapons' and 'blue-devil flames.'
"To cut a long story short," said Cornwallis, "the whole tribe assembled and made their submission. It was most amusing to see how very greatly they stood in fear of us; and my impression is that the colonel was only detained by them because they regarded him as a deity, or a sort of natural curiosity.
"That is the reason why they paid such reverence to myself and the boatswain when we were first captured."
"And how did you make them understand that you wished to procure their aid in removing some of the gold from the cavern?" we inquired.
"Well, I admit it was a bit difficult to drive our notion into the chief's noddle," said Cornwallis; "but he is an intelligent fellow, and has his men well in hand, and as soon as he twigged my notion—which we accomplished by inducing him and half a dozen of his men to accompany us into the dark depths, where we pointed to the gold and made signs that we wanted to take some of it away—he set his fellows to work with the queerest of plant and tools, and in a very short time we had a large pile of the gold-bearing quartz—a good deal of it being pure gold—piled up in the centre of the oval cavern.
"That was two days ago. We have ever since been employed in bringing it out through the further entrance into the village of the blacks. As soon as we had accumulated a good big pile the chief despatched messengers to the chiefs of neighbouring tribes, extolling our good qualities and wonder-making, and asking for aid in transporting the gold to the stranded ship. This, as you see, secured us a vast number of porters, and the weights which some of these people have carried—especially the women—is simply astonishing."
"You had better instruct them to pile it up near the ship, for it is plain that we cannot do anything with it until the return of the Empress Queen," said O'Grady.
"I don't know about that," said Cornwallis, "for I have an idea that we can float this vessel."
"Nonsense!" we exclaimed simultaneously.
"Man alive, she'll never float this side of another deluge, unless we get the proper men and machinery from England!" the captain scornfully remarked.
"If you will but listen to me you may possibly hear something to your advantage, as the lawyers say," continued Cornwallis, in a quiet tone. "My scheme—and I have carefully thought it out—is this: With the thousands of black men which by messengers we can gather in a few days, it will be a perfectly simple matter to launch the ship."
"But, my dear sir—" began the captain.
"I know what you are about to say," he continued, raising his hand, "but at least hear my proposal. These blacks, under our direction, can dig a trench from the sea to the foot of the sandhills deep enough to float the vessel at high tide."
"Nonsense—" began O'Grady; but Cornwallis continued—
"The same army of labourers will aid us by means of hawsers to drag the vessel over the brink of the sandy mounds on which she now rests down into the channel, Once on the slope which her bow now overhangs, and she will almost go by herself."
It was certainly a daring scheme, and did great credit to its inventor. The question which presented itself to our minds was this—was it practicable?
O'Grady, who had at first seemed inclined to ridicule the plan, seemed after a little discussion to become enamoured of it.
"No harm can come of trying to float the ship, for she is sound enough," he said, in a hopeful tone.
"The worst that can happen is that we shall strain her or break her back in making the attempt; but then, if we do not make the attempt, she will lie here and rot," said Cornwallis.
My own suggestion was that we should await the Empress Queen, but I was overruled by the others on the ground that there was nothing to be gained by waiting, while it was certain that the blacks, who were essential to the success of the new enterprise, would not remain with us long.
"There are a number of small articles, such as knives and gewgaws of various kinds, in some chests in the hold, which were left behind by Cuthbert and his men. Those we can offer as rewards," suggested the colonel.
"All right, colonel, as you understand a little of the lingo of these savages, you can act as interpreter. Come and help me drive the idea into their heads."
We followed them on deck.
THE sight which met our eyes from the deck of the ship was indeed remarkable. The sandhills were dotted by innumerable parties of blacks, who were squatting around us in expectation of the reward which Cornwallis had promised them in return for the conveyance of the gold, the said gold being piled in a shining heap near the stern of the vessel.
From this concourse of people arose a babel of voices, the sound of which contrasted very forcibly with the uniform silence of the past days—a babel which increased considerably as soon as we appeared.
"Call the chief," I said to Cornwallis. "We will place the rewards in his hand, and also ask him for the aid of his people in carrying out our new plan."
But Y'Youmak—for so his name sounded to us, though I cannot be sure that this is the correct spelling—anticipated us, and at once advanced towards the side of the vessel.
We thought it wise to allow him to remain on the sand, for it was possible that if he were allowed to mount to the deck, he might be followed by unmanageable hordes of his subjects.
Between them, Cornwallis and the colonel managed to make Y'Youmak understand, first, that he was to distribute the knives and knickknacks to the members of his tribe who had conveyed the gold; and, secondly, that a very much larger reward be given if they would aid us in thrusting the 'great canoe' into the salt sea.
Before replying to the latter question Y'Youmak summoned his head men, and propounded to them our plan, so far as he understood it. He showed them the pile of presents already received, whereat their eyes dilated with surprise and delight, and he told them how easily further reward could be obtained. This and much more, with wonderful vocal sounds and innumerable extravagant gestures, he imparted to his people; and although our interpreter could only understand a few of his remarks, the attitude and expression of the man clearly indicated to us what he was saying.
Nor were their several replies less expressive; and presently the monarch informed us that the matter was most satisfactorily settled, and that they would at once commence operations, whereupon Cornwallis and the colonel, assuming to themselves the position of clerks of the works, descended fearlessly among them, and proceeded to explain by many signs and a few words that we required them to dig for our ship a deep trench from the foot of the hillocks of sand on which she rested down to the low-water level.
It was surprising how quickly the blacks grasped their meaning, and how they scooped up handfuls of the sand, and, putting their shoulders to the vessel, thrust vigorously, to signify that they understood what we wanted.
"We must leave them to carry out this work," I remarked to our two friends, as soon as they returned.
"I think they may be trusted to do their best. These fellows will do anything for knives and knick-knacks," remarked Colonel Neville.
Alas! it was not long before we had a woeful lesson of the ineradicable greed of gain and of its disastrous results in the case of these children of nature.
Very soon Bobbing reported that runners had been despatched in various directions, and we concluded that they had gone to summon other tribes, as well as the remainder of those who acknowledged the rule of King Y'Youmak.
Nor were we mistaken, for the following morning, on going on deck in company with Miss Neville, I was astonished to see that the number of our visitors had increased quite tenfold.
On every side they spread in vast swarms, till, as I looked, I began to wonder that there could be found in those wastes sufficient food to support so many souls. The smoke of innumerable fires arose on every side, and we could see that the women were already engaged in digging for worms and other delicacies on the seashore, while a continual stream of them came in from the far-distant bush, bearing rude implements and baskets of provisions.
"Suppose that they should attack us?" said Miss Neville.
"They would have a very poor chance," I said, "for they would find it impossible to scale the steep sides of the ship."
Captain O'Grady was at the bows, in company with some of the men. On approaching them we found that their attention was fixed on a large party of blacks who, under the guidance of Cornwallis and the colonel, assisted by Y'Youmak as interpreter of their orders, were already engaged on the fateful trench.
"A regular Suez Canal!" remarked O'Grady, half in irony, as he came up. For although the good captain was, as I have said, anxious enough for the launching of the White Rose, he was still a little dubious concerning the method we were adopting.
I need not describe in detail the work of the next fortnight, and will only say that from earliest dawn to sunset the blacks, in ever-increasing numbers, laboured diligently at the work of excavation. The task was a difficult and heavy one, as each tide silted up a portion of the lower part of the canal, and this had to be removed daily before the work was resumed. Meanwhile our men were preparing the hawsers and other tackle necessary for the launch.
"We shall never do it with a dead pull," remarked Cornwallis, as he surveyed the seamen at the task.
"But if we haul her with wire cables as well as with these hawsers, something may result," replied O'Grady; for he was very proud of his own share in this work of preparation.
By the time the canal was finished it looked broad and deep enough to float a man-of-war. Never, I venture to affirm, had such an engineering feat been executed at so small a cost, and never had that coast witnessed such a scene as was presented by the thousands of naked blacks of both sexes, who, like ants, toiled within the trench and up its steep sides.
Some distance below the sandhills two great spars were deeply and firmly embedded in the stones which underlay the sand. To these the seamen rove, through powerful blocks, the wire cables, of which there was slack enough for five hundred men to haul on them at one time.
There was one of these spars on either side of the canal, about halfway towards the level of low tide.
The four hempen hawsers were affixed to the hawse-holes as well as to two of the engine-room port-holes. These were for direct haulage.
"In four days, gentlemen, according to my nautical almanack, we shall have the spring tides, and on the fifth day, if the wind keeps pretty well in the present quarter—which is nor'-west by west—and which should back up the tide a little, we may make the attempt, though I have my doubts—I have my doubts!" said the captain.
But Cornwallis had no doubts at all (was there ever such an enthusiast?). He was here, there, and everywhere. Now on the shore among the diggers; now with the men who were fixing the tackle; again, in the engine-rooms, overhauling and oiling the machinery—for we must have steam up and all ready to start the ship when she was fairly afloat.
"Mr. Cornwallis is the most energetic man on earth!" remarked Miss Neville to me, as we watched him at his multifarious duties. I looked into her face as she spoke, and saw in her eyes the sparkle of admiration, and maybe of something more.
The eventful morn dawned. O'Grady said that it would be high water at half-past ten. For the previous two days the tide had filled our canal right up to the very foot of the hillocks of sand on which the ship rested. From a very early hour a gang of some two thousand five hundred blacks had been busily engaged in clearing the channel of the silt which had been washed in by the tides, and in digging away the sand under the bows and fore part of the keel of the ship. A slipway of sand, shaped to the size and contour of the vessel, had been constructed, and we calculated that we should have to draw her more than double her own length before she would enter the water sufficiently far to float.
By ten o'clock our men were in position. With the exception of the captain, we were all on the sand, including Miss Neville; for she had now lost all dread of the blacks, and we dare not leave her on the ship for fear that she might be injured in the swaying and lurching of the vessel.
Our forces were as follows:—
Captain O'Grady was, of course, in command. He took his stand on the bridge, speaking-trumpet in hand, ready to bellow to us his orders. Cornwallis was in charge of the two main gangs of blacks, each numbering five hundred and forty men. Their duty was to haul upon the wire cables, which, as we hoped, would have the greatest power in moving the huge ship. The colonel was in charge of the gang which was to haul directly upon the hawser attached to the port side; and I had a similar duty with regard to that on the starboard.
We had instructed Y'Youmak concerning the meaning of the various sea phrases for hauling, etc.; so that when at ten minutes past ten Captain O'Grady roared, "Haul away, m' lads!" upwards of two thousand pairs of black heels were dug into the sand, and the same number of sinewy black arms tugged vigorously at the cables and hawsers, while from those who pulled, as well as from the thousand or more blacks who stood in the sandhills and looked on in anxious expectation, there arose a cry strange and weird, and unlike anything I have ever heard.
"Haul away, m' lads!" roared the captain again. But though our gangs tugged until their sinews cracked, the White Rose only swayed a little, and not an inch did she move towards her ocean home.
"Come on, you black fellows!" cried O'Grady to the groups of natives who were looking on. "Come on! thrust her! pull her! get on to the slack of these 'ere cables! Come on, ye black demons!"
If they understood not his energetic language, his features were unmistakable, and the whole body of men and women came over the sandhills at a run and added their weight to those engaged on the cables and hawsers, clustering like bees upon them, and even clinging to each other's naked bodies. Others, to the number of some two or three hundred, placed their shoulders against the stern of the ship, and thrust with all their might.
"Now! ye black imps! now!" yelled the captain. "Ah! she moves!" he cried—"yes! she moves again! Haul away! We shall do it yet! That's right! She's done more than a foot!"
And in a frenzy of excitement the good man rushed from side to side of the bridge, brandishing his trumpet and shouting continuously.
Alas! it was in vain. After moving about sixteen inches, the great steamer seemed suddenly to grow heavier, and obstinately refused to budge another inch. All the shouting, straining, gasping was useless; and after urging the blacks until they were exhausted, we were forced to abandon the attempt for that day.
Thoroughly disheartened, we assembled at lunch, and discussed our morning's work.
"You see, she moved a little as soon as we had put on extra hands," remarked O'Grady. "Now, if we could procure, say, another thousand blacks, the job might be managed."
But when we had succeeded in making it clear to Y'Youmak that we wanted more men and women, he signified in an unmistakable manner that there were none to be had.
"Which means," I said, "that we have secured the services of every available inhabitant of this district."
It was in the middle of the night that I was awakened by a hand on my shoulder.
"Elkington, old man! I have it!" said the voice of Cornwallis.
"Nonsense!" I replied, half asleep.
"It's true, though. I have solved the whole difficulty. We must cut up several spars, and convert them into rollers. Over these the ship will bound merrily into the waves."
"And suppose she does not?" I said.
"We must provide against contingencies by getting up steam. The sailors can take a couple of anchors well out into the bay. On these we can haul by means of the donkey-engine. If that does not move the vessel in conjunction with our three thousand blacks, then I will give it up as a bad job, and become a nigger for the rest of my unnatural existence."
Cornwallis's suggestion was a startling one, and yet, as I lay in my bunk, it seemed feasible enough. I had intended to talk it over with the captain on rising, but long before I was up he came half dressed into my cabin, saying that Cornwallis had also paid him a nocturnal visit, and had propounded the same scheme into his sleepy ears.
We talked the matter over at some length, and finally discussed it with the rest of the party. Captain O'Grady's spirits revived greatly, for he had been very depressed on the previous evening.
"I believe we shall do it, after all," he said.
"The ship is worth a good try, at any rate," remarked Colonel Neville; "and if we fail, we shall lose nothing by our attempt."
In less than an hour our men were at work. Having rigged the necessary tackle, we brought up from the depths of the hold eight or nine large spars. These, with great labour, were cut into suitable lengths, and under Israel Bobbing's superintendence were handed over the side to the charge of a large number of blacks, who, marshalled by Y'Youmak and Cornwallis, placed them into position on the slopes of sand. In order to prevent the ship from heeling over in her downward course we had to arrange a double row of rollers, while her keel ran in a narrow trench. Meanwhile steam was got up, for there was ample supply of coal on board.
With infinite toil the two large anchors were dragged by upwards of a thousand men down the beach, and with some trouble shipped on two boats. These were then rowed by our seamen for the distance of nearly a quarter of a mile into the bay. The hawsers which were attached to them were then duly wound round the winch. It was an anxious moment when our quasi-engineer announced that steam was up.
We allowed the donkey-engine to run free for a few minutes, to see that all was in order.
"I think we shall do, sir," said Bobbing, saluting the captain, who thereupon mounted the bridge, trumpet in hand, as before.
The companies of blacks were disposed as on the previous day. Every back was ready, every muscle prepared for one great stupendous strain. Three thousand pairs of eyes fixed themselves anxiously from the various centres of workers on Captain O'Grady. On deck the group of sailors stood at their posts by the winch and donkey-engine. The rest of us were at our respective stations.
The mighty concourse almost held its breath in its intense anxiety, and one could almost imagine that the great steamship itself, like some animate creature, was quivering to put forth her energies that she might be freed from the land of her exile.
"Are ye ready?" shouted the captain.
"Ay, ay, sir!" responded the seamen, while from the sands was also raised an affirmative.
"Then pull like blazes! Full steam, my lads!"
I fully believe that I am warranted in saying that no such scene has ever been witnessed on this earth; certainly none such on the vast Australian continent.
A sound 'twixt a grunt and a roar went up towards the blue heavens from the three thousand black throats, as well as from all the white ones.
The strain was tremendous, and, to our intense relief and delight, it was successful.
"Hurrah! my lads; she moves! she moves!" shouted the captain from the bridge, as triumphantly he waved his speaking-trumpet. "Pull, ye black demons! pull! Look out, men, there! Haul away at the slack of that hawser! Down she goes! Hurrah!"
As he cried the last words the White Rose took, so to speak, the bit between her teeth, and disdaining further artificial aid rushed with ever-increasing momentum over the serried rows of rollers down the slope, and swept like an avalanche into our canal, throwing up as she did so such clouds of spray that all who stood by were instantly drenched to the skin.
But we cared not for this, for our work was accomplished—at least all the most difficult part of it. The captain gave an order at once to the engine-room to go half- speed ahead, and without more ado we were successful in bringing her through the canal.
I thought that at one time we should have stuck at its mouth, for the last tide had silted up no inconsiderable amount of sand. But, guessing at this point what might happen, Captain O'Grady again put on full speed, and she ploughed her way through the soft stuff, and in five minutes was afloat in deep water.
Although the launch had been accomplished without accident or loss of life, it had not been without its ludicrous incidents. For, in our intense anxiety concerning the launch of the ship, we had forgotten to tell Y'Youmak that his people must loose their hold on the cables and hawsers as soon as the ship had got fairly under way.
The blacks, believing that they must hold on until the word of command was given, were dragged by the advancing vessel at a rapidly increasing speed down the beach. The seamen yelled to them to loose their hold; but not understanding the meaning of the English words, they only tightened their grip, and were dragged to the number of two thousand five hundred out into the briny deep.
I fully expected that many of them would be drowned, and indeed this would have been the case had not the water cooled their ardour. Some let go when they found themselves getting beyond their depth; others held on until they had to swim for it.
But I am thankful to relate that they all escaped safe to the shore. A serious accident was averted by the foresight of the men in charge of the tackle which was attached to the spars set upright in the sand. Seeing that the ship was beyond control, they cast off the great blocks, which otherwise would have brought the vessel up.
I HAVE now to recount what took place after this most wonderful launch.
Never were men more elated with success than ourselves. Bobbing fetched us off in one of the boats as soon as the ship was fairly anchored in deep water and in a safe position. The hand-shaking and mutual congratulation I will leave to imagination. Additional good fare was served out to the men, and as for ourselves, we had a regular banquet—for how else should Britons celebrate such an occasion? Miss Neville presided, "wi' the grace of Queen Victoria herself," as O'Grady graphically expressed it.
Then came a discussion as to our future plans. It was plain that the vessel could not leave her present position until we had shipped some ballast as well as the precious gold.
"And how soon after that shall we start?" asked Cornwallis.
"Start! Why, we have to await the return of McIlvaine!" returned O'Grady, in a tone of surprise.
"And how soon should he be here?"
"If things have gone well, we may hope to see him in less than a fortnight—say three weeks at the outside."
"It will take us several days to get the gold and the ballast on board," I said.
Our first business was to reward those who had aided us in restoring the White Rose to her native element.
When he saw the immense pile of mirrors, knives and gaudy gimcracks, Y'Youmak's eyes opened so exceedingly wide that the white of those organs almost attained the size of saucers. We had much cause to regret, as I shall afterwards narrate, that we did not ourselves distribute to each of our dusky assistants the gift apportioned. But thinking his majesty might take umbrage at our interference with his prerogative, we left the things—a goodly boat-load in all—in his charge on the beach, and rowed back to the ship, laughing heartily at the grimaces of surprise which this exhibition had produced among our dusky brethren.
It was the early forenoon of the day succeeding the launch; and as we were all busy enough in stowing away the gold which we had brought away from the shore late on the afternoon succeeding that wonderful event, it did not occur to us to watch the result of our recent business transaction with Mr. Y'Youmak.
All at once Israel Bobbing called to us down the companion hatchway that there was something wrong on shore; and on arriving on deck we could very plainly see that a struggle had commenced between two bodies of blacks.
"They are fighting over the rewards!" I cried.
It did not take long for the colonel, Cornwallis, and myself to drop into one of our boats which was floating astern; and in five minutes after the alarm had been given we were pulling once more for the shore, with half a dozen armed men accompanying us.
As we drew near, the sound of savage cries and yells of pain were borne over the waves. It was plain that a furious battle was being fought. On the one side towered the huge form of Y'Youmak, whirling above his head a great ship's cutlass, which had formed a portion of his personal reward. He was surrounded by the whole of the male members of his tribe. Opposed to these were all the members of the tribes who had come to their assistance.
A glance revealed the true state of affairs, for while Y'Youmak's people were to a man all armed with the knives which we had given them, the opposing force had only bows and arrows, spears, and boomerangs. With these, however, they were doing such execution that a good many of Y'Youmak's people were already hors de combat.
"What can we do?" asked Cornwallis, anxiously. "It will never do to allow the poor wretches to cut each other to pieces."
It was easy for Cornwallis to ask the question, but how to reply I knew not. For although we shouted to them to desist, our voices were not heard above the din of the fight, in which each warrior seemed to be endeavouring to out-yell the other.
"Fire a volley over their heads, men!" I exclaimed, thinking that the sound would terrify the combatants. But in this I was disappointed. They had become accustomed to us and to our thunder-weapons, and took no heed of the report of the rifles.
"Shall we take Y'Youmak's side?" asked Colonel Neville.
"No, no," we replied; "that would be very unfair to the other poor fellows."
And so it was that we were obliged to sit still, keeping the boat's head the while towards the shore, but not allowing her to drift into the breakers, which, fortunately, were not very heavy in this part of the bay.
For a time the force which was armed with bows and spears seemed to get the advantage. The arrows went home with wonderful accuracy, and many a stalwart black fell to the blows of the terrible boomerang. But this state of things did not last very long, for Y'Youmak and his men very soon penetrated to the centre of the opposing crowd, and there dealt such terrible blows with the new sharp knives that the ghastliness of the scene was horrible in the extreme. We saw fully fifty men butchered, and many others were so badly injured that they eventually died.
In less than half an hour the victory of Y'Youmak and his people was complete, and we rowed back to the ship both sickened and sad. Nor was the impression lessened by that which took place the same evening. Huge fires, fed by the rollers which had aided the launch of the steamer, were lighted by the natives on the sandhills, and on the very spot where the White Rose had rested a corroboree was held with an orgy so fearful that the Thyestean banquets of old would have presented an inadequate parallel. I cannot bring myself to describe the sight, which was so exceedingly horrible that even now I shudder at the recollection. It was a terrible conclusion to our sojourn on the shores of North Australia.
The shipping of the ballast proved to be a toilsome business; for on the morning after the cannibal feast we found that the blacks had disappeared, and our men had to accomplish the whole task of loading the boats and carrying many tons of gravel and sand to the steamer. This necessary work proceeded so slowly that it was fully a fortnight before we had taken on board sufficient ballast to be able to proceed in safety on our voyage.
By this time we were keeping an anxious look-out for the return of the Empress Queen, and felt much concerned as day after day went by and she did not appear; for the time was hanging heavy on our hands, and Colonel Neville, at least, was very impatient to learn news of his lost daughter.
There were two, however, who did not seem to find the time of waiting too long. I refer to Cornwallis and Miss Neville. The acquaintanceship between them had ripened into a close friendship, which, to our observant eyes—for nothing escapes one's notice on board ship—seemed to be deepening into something more tender still.
"I shouldn't be a bit surprised if we woz to be inwited to a weddin' when we gits 'ome," whispered the boatswain to one of his mates, at the same time nudging his elbow to draw attention to the fact that at that particular moment the arm of a certain young man had encircled the waist of a certain young lady, and that the pair—obviously pretending to be gazing at the sandhills—were finding more attractive objects of interest in each other's eyes.
Three weeks passed—a month—five weeks, and the Empress Queen came not; till at last we determined to go in search of her.
"You see, gentlemen, if we miss the vessel, we can but return here. But it's my notion that something's gone wrong with the ship. McIlvaine is not the man to delay when the way is open for straight-sailing."
O'Grady spoke these words as we were holding a conference concerning our future movements. There could be no doubt that the steamer was much overdue, and yet it was possible that if we should leave Golden Bay (as we had named this place) we might miss her; so we decided to wait yet another week.
At the expiration of that period, as the ship had not arrived, we resolved to depart for the Straits of Sunda, in the hope that we might there encounter our friends.
"It is about time we got out to sea," remarked the captain, on the evening before our projected start. "The glass is falling," he continued, "and as the dry season is far advanced, we must be on the look-out for bad weather."
When we left the bay, which was soon after daybreak, a stiff breeze was blowing—stiffer than any since our arrival. It was with a strange mixture of regret and relief that we watched the yellow coast-line fade away into the distance. Colonel Neville paced the deck in a manner which betokened nervous excitement, for his mind was full of his missing daughter; and although he did not say much about her, we all knew that he was feeling her loss acutely.
The White Rose behaved splendidly—far better than we had anticipated, and we made excellent progress. Cornwallis was obliged to tear himself from the side of Lucilia Neville, for his capacities as an amateur engineer had secured him that post, and in company with three of the men his time was fully occupied in the engine-room and stoke-hole.
Although a careful look-out was kept, we saw nothing of the Empress Queen, and our hopes sank to zero when at length we sighted the coast of Java without having encountered her.
The western extremity of that island had been weathered, and we were fairly within the straits, when the terrible storm arose which, if it nearly proved our destruction, brought about in a wonderful way the salvation of Cecilia Neville, and ultimately the doom of Jonas Cuthbert.
But as this will bring me to the end of my story, and as, moreover, the incidents are in themselves not a little remarkable, I must devote to them a separate chapter in this narrative, only adding, by way of preface to the final scene, that what seemed to bear the similitude of misfortune brought to me the greatest of earthly blessings. So that I, at least, have daily reason to rejoice over the result of the storm which swept down upon us as we steamed through the Straits of Sunda.
THE above were Israel Bobbing's exact words—picked up, I suppose, from some play which he had witnessed with a sailor's keen relish and delight—when the affair was over—and my own—I should say, when Cecilia Neville stood on the deck of the White Rose clasped in her father's arms.
But I anticipate.
"You know these seas pretty well, captain, I suppose?" These were the very words I put to O'Grady as we steamed through the straits and past the Krakatoa Islands.
And his reply was as follows:—
"I wish, sir, that we had a good pilot aboard; for if dirty weather comes on, I confess I cannot promise not to run her nose on a reef."
It was towards sunset when we talked thus. We were on the bridge. The glass had continued to fall throughout the day, and there was a dirty haze on the water ahead which brought to the captain's bronzed brows an anxious frown. Our continued want of success was making us all feel a bit gloomy, I suppose, and the prospect of a gale did not improve matters. The captain sang out orders to the men in sharp tones, and Bobbing repeated his commands with a selection of energetic remarks which showed that the spirit of anxious care was eating into the hearts of us all. Colonel Neville paced the deck below us, muttering to himself; and the only cheerful sound came up from the engine-room in the shape of a song from the lips of Fred Cornwallis, as he applied himself to his self-imposed duties.
With the setting of the sun the wind increased, and before midnight we were staggering along amid one of the most terrific tempests it has ever been my lot to witness. By two o'clock the storm had reached such a height of fury that none of us could sleep, nor could we even retire to our berths. Two additional hands were told off to aid Cornwallis and his men, for on the steady working of the engines our safety seemed to depend. It was precisely at three o'clock that there came a shock which shook the vessel from stem to stern.
"We have struck!" some one cried.
Then I rushed on deck to ascertain the worst. But even as I did so the continual tossing of the vessel told me that, at any rate, we were not hard and fast. The first person I met was the boatswain.
"What's the matter?" I cried.
"Somethin' wrong with the engines," he replied.
The captain was bawling to the men to hoist the foresail, that the ship might be kept before the wind; then, with much difficulty, owing to the rolling of the half-empty iron vessel, he and I made our way down into the engine-room.
"Fracture of the screw-shaft!" exclaimed Cornwallis, as, aided by his men, he opened the valves for the purpose of letting off the steam.
"Is there no hope?" I cried blankly.
"None—until the weather moderates," said he.
Towards morning the wind lulled a little, and to our joy the dawn disclosed a steamer far away on our starboard bow.
"I will signal her," said O'Grady. "She may take us in tow as far as Batavia."
But though we displayed every known sign of distress, no notice was taken of our signals; and, what was more astonishing, the stranger did not seem to move from her position, though we watched her narrowly for a long time.
"It's my opinion that she has been damaged like ourselves," remarked the captain, "or she'd have been out of sight by now. At any rate we'll see if our bit of canvas will bring us nearer—the wind's right for that."
Slowly, very slowly, we made for the distant steamer. When first seen she was many miles distant, and almost hull-down, but in three hours her form could be more distinctly discerned.
The name of the steamer was not visible, nor could we understand why her crew had failed to notice our signals. Could it be possible that no one had yet perceived us? or was it that she was deserted?
These and many other guesses were made as we approached.
At length we were not more than a quarter of a mile distant, and as the gale had by this time blown itself out as quickly as it had arisen, we were able to lie-to.
"Sound the whistle!" cried the captain. Enough steam remained in the boilers to send a very powerful and penetrating shriek over the water.
The result was most astonishing.
"Is that a woman?" I exclaimed, as a figure appeared climbing the ladder which led on to the bridge.
"It is—and she is waving a handkerchief to us!"
"Give me your glass, captain!" cried the colonel, excitedly. "Yes, thank God! it is indeed my daughter Cecilia!"
It was a strange and wonderful event. But we did not waste time, and in a very few minutes Colonel Neville and myself were being pulled across the waves—how tremendous they were we only then realized!—towards the strange vessel.
No sailors appeared as we drew near; but as the young lady came to the end of the bridge we hailed her, and inquired the name of the ship, and if she was alone on board.
"This is the Vixen; and I am not alone!" she cried. "I have them safely in the engine-room!"
We were amazed at her reply, and asked if she could throw us a rope. She quickly descended from the bridge and did as we asked, so that in a very short time we were all on the deck.
"Come this way—quick! They will try to get out!" exclaimed the girl, hardly waiting to embrace her father.
She led us to the way down into the engine-room and stoke- hole, and we saw at once that the iron hatch was closed and bolted.
"I did it!" she cried, with flushed cheek. "They are all down there!"
"Ospringe and his men. The machinery went wrong in the storm last night, and they all went below to repair it—the steersman went too. The ship was left to take care of itself."
"And you were on deck?"
"Yes; I was afraid to remain below. Whither Ospringe was taking the ship I knew not. I think it was to some Australian port.
"You shall hear my story," she continued, "as soon as you have dealt with these men. They are Malays—thorough rascals!"
Even as she spoke loud cries arose from the engine-room. Hastily opening the hatch, we peered down, and a strange sight met our eyes.
Upon an iron platform, with his back against one of the cylinders, stood Cuthbert, a large steel wrench in his hand. Before him leaped and howled his Malay assistants, now become his assailants. Each man had in his right hand a murderous-looking knife of curious shape, and it was plain that Cuthbert was fighting for his life. Even as we looked one of the fellows aimed a savage thrust at his side, but before the knife had reached its mark Cuthbert had brained its owner.
We shouted to them to stand back, for we had no wish to see the man murdered; but somehow they seemed to be mad with passion, and paid no heed to us.
"We shall have to shoot them!" I exclaimed. Fortunately we were each armed with revolvers.
But we were too late to save Cuthbert, for even as I drew my weapon the leading man leaped forward and buried his terrible- looking knife in the Englishman's heart, so that with one prolonged cry of agony he threw up his arms and fell forward dead.
At the same moment I drew the trigger and shot the murderer through the head.
The others thereupon threw down their weapons, and obeyed a stern command to come on deck, where we covered them with our revolvers while our men bound their arms securely. As none of them seemed to be able to understand more than a few nautical commands in English, we had to wait until Miss Cecilia was able to tell her story. Our first business was to convey her on board the White Rose, for she was exceedingly anxious to see her sister.
It was on our arrival that the scene was enacted which drew from Israel Bobbing the words quoted at the head of this chapter; for no sooner had she stepped on deck than, throwing her arms about her sister's neck, the girl who had shown such resolute courage burst into tears.
Her story was as follows:—
She said that after her abduction Cuthbert treated her with considerable kindness, and seemed to be under the impression that he was winning her affection. She did not disabuse him of this idea, for fear that he might treat her in a very different manner. She was provided with a comfortable cabin and the best of food, and was allowed to roam the vessel as she wished.
"I soon lost fear," she said; "and had there been any other Englishman on board except the captain and the mate, they would no doubt have taken my part."
"But what became of them?" we inquired.
"They were drunken fellows, and during a quarrel concerning the course to be kept by the ship, they fell overboard. They were at the time in a state of intoxication. Cuthbert witnessed the event, and did all in his power to rescue them, but they sank like stones, and we never saw them again."
Whom the gods would destroy they first drive mad, and Cuthbert, so she told us, though he knew nothing whatever of navigation, put the vessel about and steamed away once more to the Straits of Sunda. He was three weeks before he struck the passage, and by that time the coal on board was nearly consumed. "I believe that it is from want of fuel that the engines have stopped," she added; "and somehow I am under the impression that when the Malay sailors discovered that this, and not a breakdown, was the cause of the delay, they made the attack which ended in his death."
"And where is Captain McIlvaine?" I inquired.
"We were entering the straits," she said, "when a strange steamer was sighted. She was abreast of us, and, like ourselves, steaming towards the south. To my surprise Cuthbert ordered signals of distress to be made, and as soon as they were observed and the vessels had drawn near to each other, he inquired the name of the ship. On learning that it was the Empress Queen he became strangely excited.
"For, of course, I did not know that it was one of the ships owned by your firm," she said, as she turned to me.
"'Our captain and mate have died!' cried Cuthbert, 'and I want some one to navigate us as far as Brisbane.'
"The reply came that help would be given if we would send a boat.
"Then it was that Cuthbert went among the Malays distributing money and whispering into their ears. I did not hear his words, but I was terribly frightened when I saw that each member of the large boat's crew was armed with a deadly knife.
"They were not long in reaching the ship, and, to my horror, I saw that the whole of them were swarming with wonderful agility up the side of the Empress Queen; and before I could realize what they were doing such a chorus of cries and shouts came to me across the waves that it was plain some fearful tragedy was being enacted.
"Cuthbert, who had not gone with them, paced the bridge with a combined expression of terror and hate. And I myself was so alarmed that I retired to my cabin, nor did I venture to leave it until some hours afterwards. The Empress Queen had then disappeared, nor have I the least idea either of her whereabouts or of what was actually done by our Malays when they boarded her."
This was the end of Miss Cecilia Neville's story; and I must confess that by the time she had finished it I had conceived a very great admiration for its heroine. I think she must have noticed my look, for, as she caught my glance, she blushed and looked down.
Though we had now recovered both the lost lady and the lost cargo, it was impossible for us to return to England without solving the mystery of the fate of Captain McIlvaine and the crew of the Empress Queen.
Nothing could be discovered from the Malays, who were a sullen lot and indisposed even to use the little English they understood; and had it not been for the strong current which sweeps through the Straits of Sunda, it is possible that we should have heard no more of our lost friends.
This current, though we knew it not, was bearing us with great rapidity towards the Krakatoa Islands, and the wind, which had shifted to the north-east, was adding to its power. We had been discussing our forlorn position, and were debating whether it would be possible to transfer some of our coal to the Vixen—for her engines appeared to be sound enough, while, though we had coal in abundance, our own engines were damaged beyond the skill of Cornwallis to repair them—and we had decided to attempt the trans-shipment as soon as the water was sufficiently calm, when all at once there came from the deck a cry.
"Land! land!" it said.
"There should be no land hereabouts!" exclaimed O'Grady, rising hastily.
On following him we were confronted by an extraordinary sight. The two steamships were being swept along with extraordinary velocity by the sea, which by this time was running like a mill- race. Right ahead of us we could see two islands, towards which the current was rushing. Every minute brought the shores into greater distinctness, so that even the trees quickly became distinguishable. Captain O'Grady ordered all sail to be made, in the hope of being able to steer clear of the dangers which appeared to confront us; but his efforts were without avail, for the wind was with the water. With bated breath we watched the progress of our ship as she drifted broadside on.
"Look at the Vixen!" cried Cornwallis.
We turned and saw that she was being borne along with us stern foremost, and that by no possibility could we do anything for the Malay seamen whom we had left on board securely bound. All at once Colonel Neville came up to me.
"Elkington," said he, "I will look after Lucilia—will you do your utmost for her sister?"
I knew what he meant. We grasped hands, and then I placed myself near to Cecilia.
"Is there danger?" she asked, raising her beautiful blue eyes to mine.
"Yes, I fear there is," I said; "but trust me, and should the worst come I will save you, if it be possible."
Whereupon she took my arm, and I felt as though I could face anything.
As a depth of eight fathoms was reported, the captain ordered the anchor to be let go. For a few minutes it held us, and the water swirled by at a rapid rate. But, as luck would have it, the Vixen continued her course, and struck us a blow which made both the ships tremble from stem to stern. At the same time, the cables becoming entangled, our anchor was lifted from the bottom, and the two vessels, fast locked together, continued their career.
"If we catch on that point, it's all over with us," I said, pointing to the rocks ahead.
The captain was bawling his orders, and the men were striving to disentangle the cables as well as to get the boats clear in case they were needed, when to our astonishment we were abruptly swept round the rocky head and through a narrow channel between the islands. Here the sea fairly hissed with the fury of its race; but our eyes were now fixed on the scene ahead, in which, amid clear and untroubled waters, and sheltered by the high cliffs of a third island, lay a steamer. She was a mile or more ahead, and at the rate of speed with which the current had hitherto borne us along we should soon have come up to her; but, to our relief, the current soon slackened, and before we had come to the wide entrance to this natural harbour we were drifting very slowly. By this time the sailors had been successful in separating the two ships, so that our anchor again took the ground and held. The men who had boarded the Vixen also let go an anchor, and there was presently a little fleet of three steamers riding at anchor in that out-of-the-way spot. I am sure that each of us fervently thanked the great Preserver for this deliverance.
"Surely I know that steamer!" said Cornwallis, pointing to the strange vessel.
"An' well ye may, sir!" said Bobbing; "for it's my 'pinion she's the Hempress Queen!"
And the Empress Queen she proved to be. McIlvaine, his second mate, and four seamen were on board—all the rest had been killed by the Malays, and McIlvaine and two of the survivors were badly wounded.
This was truly a providential discovery for it led to our salvation no less than theirs. They told us that the current had swept their vessel between the islands, and that, like ourselves, they had given themselves up for lost, but that there was an easy passage to the north-west. They were too short-handed, however, to work the ship.
How Lucilia and Cecilia Neville nursed McIlvaine and his men to convalescence, how we replenished the coal-bunkers of the Vixen, and how the two sound steamers towed the disabled White Rose with her valuable golden cargo to Batavia, I need not describe. No further adventures befell us. The Malays, after all, escaped their deserts, for they managed to untie the lines that bound them, and got ashore before we left the island—for they must have guessed that we were about to deliver them up to justice. When I look back I am not sorry for their escape, for more blood had been shed upon this expedition than was to the liking of any of us.
* * * * *
"Three cheers for Mr. and Mrs. Elkington! Three cheers for Mr. and Mrs. Cornwallis! Now, m' lads, give it 'em 'ot!"
There was no mistaking the voice of Israel Bobbing, and there was no doubt as to the genuine enthusiasm of the hearty English cheers from the united crews of the White Rose and Empress Queen on that bright summer morning.
They were all there as Cornwallis and I with our respective blushing brides left the church—O'Grady, with "Good luck, and a successful voyage through life to ye!" and McIlvaine, with his "Noo! I hadna' ha thought it wad end in twa weddin's! Ay, but they're gran' an' bonny lasses!"
As for Cornwallis and myself, I can only add that we each had reason to rejoice that day, and on many a subsequent one, that we had made our voyage to the north-west of Australia on a tramp- steamer.
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