A Roving Commission: or, Through the Black Insurrection at Hayti
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"Bring them along to the galley, Sam. I must get your father to wash them. Pomp," he went on to the cook, "have you got plenty of hot water?"
"Yes, sah; allus hab hot water."
"Well, look here, I want you and Sam to set to work and wash these clothes at once. The boy I brought on board turns out to be a French girl, the daughter of a planter who is in the hands of the negroes up there. We must see to-morrow what we can do in the way of rigging her out properly, but for to-day we must manage with these things. Get them as white as you can, and then hang them up to dry. I want her on deck again as soon as possible to give us information as to where her friends are confined."
"All right, sah, we soon gets dese clean."
"And you may as well heat up a basin of that turtle-soup we had yesterday. I expect she has had little enough to eat of late."
Then he went back to the quarter-deck.
"It seems to me, sir," Turnbull said, "that if the girl would go ashore with us as a guide, we might succeed. After it gets dark, put me and one of the hands on shore, with a saw and a bottle of oil to make it work noiselessly. Then we could crawl up to this little window by which she got out, and cut away the wood – for no doubt it is a wooden hut – till the hole is large enough for all of them to get out."
"That seems a good plan, Turnbull, certainly; the only drawback is that probably before it gets dark the negroes will have discovered that the boy, as they consider her, has escaped, and will keep a sharp look-out on the others. Then, too, although one or two might get out noiselessly and make their escape, the chances of ten people doing so would be much smaller, and if the attempt were detected you might only share their fate. If we had all the crew close at hand to cover their retreat it might be managed, great as would be the odds against us, but you see there is this boat attack to be guarded against. I don't think that I could allow you to run such a risk, Turnbull."
"Still, something must be done, sir."
"Yes, we are agreed as to that," Nat said, and going to the rail he stood there gazing at the shore for some minutes.
"I have an idea," he said, suddenly turning round. "You see that point near the mouth of the bay, where the rock rises eight or ten feet straight out from the water's edge; there are trees behind it. It will be a dark night, and if we could get the schooner over there without their noticing it, as I think we could, we could probably lay her pretty close alongside, and when the boats came, the betting is that they would never find her. They would row about for a bit looking for us where we are anchored, and, not finding us, would come to the conclusion that we had got up sail and gone away after dark. In that way we could land our whole party."
"I think that would do first-rate, sir."
"Of course there is a certain amount of risk of their discovering her," Nat went on, "but we must chance that.We will send her topmasts down as soon as it is dark, so that they won't show against the sky-line, and boats might then row within twenty yards of her without noticing her, especially if we can get her in pretty close. It is just possible that we may be able to lay her right against the rock. The water is deep pretty close in, even opposite to us, for the girl was not more than four or five yards from the shore when she was up to her neck in water, and no doubt it is a good deal deeper than that, at the foot of those rocks. As soon as it is dark, Mr. Lippincott, you had better take the boat and sound along there. Of course you will muffle your oars. It would be a great thing if we could get alongside. In the first place, the nearer she gets in the less likely that she would be to be seen, and in the next place it would be very important, if we are hotly pursued, to be able to get on board without having to use boats."
"Certainly," Turnbull agreed.
"When we have got her in her place," Nat went on, "we will take a light anchor out fifty fathom or so, and put the hawser round the windlass, so that the instant we are on board, four men, told off beforehand, can run forward and set to work. Once we are three yards out we should be safe from boarding, however strong their force may be. We will have the guns on that side loaded with a double charge of grape before we land, and once out we will give them a dose they will remember for a long time. Now, we may as well tell the crew; they will be delighted at the prospect of a fight."
The men were clustered together forward discussing whether anything was likely to take place, for the arrival of the boy, the fact that he had been taken down to the cabin aft and had not reappeared, and the evident anxiety of their officers, sufficed to show them that something unusual was on hand. When they came aft Nat said, "My men, we are about to undertake an enterprise that will, I am sure, be after your own heart. The apparent boy we brought on board is a young French lady. Her parents, sister, and seven white men are in the hands of the negroes, who each day murder one with horrible torture. Now we are going to rescue them."
A cheer broke from the men.
"The job will be a pretty tough one, men, but you won't like it any the worse for that. There are, I hear, two or three hundred of those murderous brutes up there. Of course, if we can get the prisoners out without a fight we shall do so, but I hardly think we shall be able to manage that. The matter is somewhat complicated by the fact that I hear that a boat attack is going to be made upon us to-night. Now, we are certainly not strong enough to carry off this party and at the same time to leave enough men on board to defend the schooner. After it is dark, therefore, I intend to take her across to that rock over there, moor her as close to it as I can, and strike the topmasts. In that way we may hope that on a moonless night, as this will be, the boats will not find her, but will suppose that we have sailed away. However, of that we must run the risk. I shall take every man with me. Of course, we shall batten the hatches down, and fasten them so that if they do find her it will give them as much trouble as possible, and we may possibly catch them at work as we return.
"You will, of course, take muskets and a brace of pistols each, and your cutlasses. I have no doubt that we are being watched from the shore, therefore go about your work as usual. Do not gather together talking, or give them any cause to suppose that we are intending to do anything. It is not likely that the escape of the girl has yet been discovered, for if they were watching among the trees up there they would hardly have noticed that the boat took an extra person from the shore. Grease the falls of the gig, so that she can be lowered noiselessly, and muffle the oars. As soon as it is quite dark Mr. Lippincott will take soundings, in order to see how close into the rock it will be safe to take her."
With another low but hearty cheer, expressing the satisfaction they felt at the prospect of a fight with the negroes, the crew went forward again. One of them set to work to grease the falls not only of the gig but of the other boats, in case these should also be required, two others cut up some old guernseys and lashed them round the gig's oars at the point where they would touch the thole-pins, others resumed their occupation of polishing the brass-work, while the rest sat down under the shelter of the bulwark and talked over the adventure on which they were about to engage. In an hour the girl's clothes were washed and dried. One of the crew who had served as an assistant sail-maker had at once, under Nat's instructions, set to work to sew half a dozen flags together, and with these he had constructed a garment which, if primitive in design, was at least somewhat feminine in appearance.
Round the top was a deep hem through which was run a thin cord. By the aid of this it could be drawn together and gathered in at the neck. Six inches from the top, two of the seams between the flags were left open, these were for the arm-holes. This primitive pinafore was to be drawn in at the waist by a belt. The man had chosen from among the signal flags those whose colours went best together, and though the result was extremely motley, it was yet a very fair substitute for a dress. The three officers could not help laughing as he brought it aft to show them.
"That is very well contrived, Jenkins," Nat said. "I have no doubt the young lady will greatly prefer it to going about dressed as a boy."
As the clothes were by this time dry, Nat told Sam to take them below with the new garment, to lay them down outside his state-room door, and then to knock and tell the young lady that they were there in readiness for her, and that as soon as she was dressed lunch would be ready. When he had done this he was to come up on deck again. A quarter of an hour later Nat himself went down. The clothes had disappeared, and the girl, who was about thirteen years of age, came out. She had, with the exception of the coat, donned her former garments, and over these had put the flag pinafore. Her arms were covered by those of the light flannel shirt, and the dress hung straight down all round.
"It is a queer-looking thing," he said with a smile, "but it is the best we can manage in the emergency. Here is a belt, if you strap that round your waist it will make the thing look more comfortable."
The girl smiled wanly. Now that her face and hands were clean, Nat saw that she was a pretty little thing, and would have been prettier had not her hair been cut quite short.
"We are going this evening," Nat went on, "to try to rescue your parents and sister from those black fiends."
She clasped her hands before her.
"Oh, sir, that is good of you!"
"Not at all. You don't suppose that we are going to remain here quietly, knowing that close by there are white people in the hands of those scoundrels. We shall want you to act as our guide. We are going to take a saw with us and cut away the wood round that hole you escaped by, and hope to get your friends out without the negroes seeing us. If they do, so much the worse for them. Now, will you sit down while the steward lays the cloth for lunch? – it will be ready in two or three minutes; then I will bring the other two officers down to introduce them to you." He raised his voice: "Sam! luncheon as soon as possible."
The young negro was expecting the order, and ran in at once with a table-cloth and a plate-basket, and in two or three minutes the table was laid; then he went out and returned with the plates.
"Eberyting ready, sah; me bring down de soup when you gib de word."
"Give my compliments to Mr. Turnbull and Mr. Lippincott, and ask them to come down to lunch."
The girl looked anxious and shy as she heard the footsteps coming down the companion, but an expression of relief came over her face as she saw that they were even younger than the officer she had already seen.
"These are my officers, mademoiselle – Mr. Turnbull and Mr. Lippincott. Their French is not of the best, but you must make allowance for them."
The girl smiled and held out her hand to the two middies. The news that her parents and sister might yet be rescued had already greatly raised her spirits.
"I do look funny, do I not?" she said.
"I am sure you look very nice," Turnbull replied. "It is quite a novelty for us to have a lady on board."
"And are you both going to help bring my friends down?"
"Yes, we are all going. We will get them down, and I hope we shall have a chance of punishing some of the murderous niggers."
"You mean you hope that there will be a fight?" she asked in a tone of surprise, as she took her seat on Nat's right hand.
"That I do," Turnbull said heartily. "There is not a man on board who would not be sorry if we were to get down again without an opportunity of having a slap at the beggars."
"Mr. Turnbull is a very bloodthirsty character," Nat said gravely. "I don't know whether you have in French a history of Jack the Giant Killer?"
"I never saw such a book," she said, looking a little puzzled. "Did he really kill giants?"
"Yes, Jack did; he was wonderful that way. Mr. Turnbull has never been able to find any giants, but he means to take it out of the blacks."
"I am sorry to say, mademoiselle," Turnbull said, "that although when on the quarter-deck our captain's word may be received as gospel, he permits himself a very wide latitude of speech in his own cabin. The fact is, that whatever my disposition may be, I have never yet had any opportunity for performing any very desperate actions, whereas Lieutenant Glover has been killing his enemies by scores, fighting with wild beasts, attacking pirates in their holds, has been blown up into the air, and rescued ladies from slaughter by the negroes."
The French girl turned her eyes wonderingly towards Nat.
"You need not believe more than you like, mademoiselle," he said with a laugh. "I am afraid that we are all given to exaggerate very much, but Mr. Turnbull is the champion fabricator."
"But is it quite true that you are going to try to get my father and mother and sister away from the negroes?"
"That is quite true," Nat said earnestly. "We are certainly going to try to get them, and I think that we have a good chance of doing so. Much will depend, of course, upon whether we can reach the hut where they are confined before being discovered. You see, we have only twenty-five men, or, counting us all, including the quarter-master, steward, and cook, thirty-one. It is a small force, and though we might bring all the prisoners off in safety if we once got them into our hands, it would be a serious thing if the negroes had time to rally round the hut before we got there. How does it stand, is it surrounded by trees?"
"No, it is at the edge of the forest. There is a large indigo field in front, and it is there most of the negroes are. There may be some in the forest, but I did not see any as I came down here."
"That is good. How many do you say there are?"
"Seven men, without counting my father."
"We will tell eight of the sailors to carry up boarding-pikes, Turnbull. Unfortunately we have no spare firearms. However, boarding-pikes are not bad weapons, and as no doubt only a small portion of the negroes have guns, it will add a good deal to our strength if it comes to a hand-to-hand fight."
"That it will," Turnbull agreed. "That will bring us up to thirty-nine, and thirty-nine whites ought to be able to fight their way easily enough through this black mob, especially as we shall take them by surprise, and they won't know how many of us there are."
As soon as it became dark, Lippincott went off in the gig, and returned in half an hour with the news that there were six feet of water at the foot of the rock, and twelve feet ten yards away.
"I think, sir," he said, "that we could get her in within three or four yards of the rock."
"That would do excellently," Nat said. "The carpenter had better set to work at once and nail three planks – we have got some down below fifteen feet long – side by side. Let two of the hands help him. Tell him, if he does not think that it will be stiff enough, to nail one of the spare oars on each plank."
He had learned from the girl that many of the negroes sat up by their fires nearly all night, and that therefore there was no advantage in delaying the landing, and he was anxious to move the schooner as soon as possible, as the boats might appear at any time. Everything was in readiness – the arms had been brought on deck, the muskets and pistols loaded, and as soon as the gangway was knocked together, which did not take many minutes, Lippincott went off in the gig with a long hawser. As soon as he returned and reported that he had fastened it to a tree above the rock, the crew tailed on, and the schooner was noiselessly towed to her place. Another hawser was taken on shore, and she was hauled broadside on until she lay, with only a few inches of water under her keel, within ten feet of the line of rock.
The hatchways had all been securely fastened down, and an old chain was taken round the trunk of a large tree, and its ends shackled round the mainmast. This could be loosed almost instantaneously by the crew when they returned, but would much increase the difficulty that the negroes would encounter in getting the vessel away if they discovered her. The edge of the rock was but some three feet higher than the rail, and there was therefore no difficulty in ascending the gangway. When all had crossed, this was pulled up and pushed in among the bushes. They followed the shore till they reached the spot at which the girl had come down, as she would more easily find her way from there than from the place where they had landed. Telling the others to follow in single file, Nat took his place with the girl, at their head.
"How far is it?" he said to her in low tones.
"It is just at the top of the hill. We shall be there in less than a quarter of an hour." The sailors had been warned to walk with the greatest caution, and especially to avoid striking any of their weapons against the trees.
They went slowly, for it was very dark in the forest. Beyond the fact that she had come straight down the hill when she escaped, she could give no information about the way.
"I did not look," she said; "I ran straight down. But I am sure that if we go as straight as we can up from the water, we shall come upon the plantation, and then I shall be able to tell you exactly where the hut is."
Keeping therefore upward, they went on until they reached level ground, and saw by the faint light ahead that they were nearing the edge of the forest. They stepped even more cautiously then until they arrived at the open ground. A dozen great fires blazed in various places in front of them, and they could hear the laughing and talking of the negroes.
"It is more to the right," the girl said. "It is nearly in the corner of the field where you see that fire; that is close to the hut. They always keep a big fire there, and the leaders sleep round it. There are always two negroes on guard in front of the hut."
"I expect they have got one behind now. Of course they have found out by this time that you have escaped, and they must have known that it could only have been by that window."
Keeping well inside the line of trees, they crept along to the corner of the clearing. The two negroes had been instructed in the part they were to play, and as soon as they got well round behind the house the others halted, and knife in hand they crept through the trees, and then upon their hands and knees crawled forward. The others listened intently. The gabble of voices continued on the other side of the hut, and when a louder yell of laughter than usual broke out they saw a figure appear at one corner and look round, as if anxious to hear what was going on. Suddenly two arms appeared from the darkness behind him. He was grasped by the throat and disappeared suddenly from sight. Two minutes later Sam came through the trees.
"Dat chile no gib de alarm, sah. Can go on now and cut him window."
The carpenter and the man told off to assist him at once ran forward, accompanied by the girl and Nat, who went straight to the little window. He had told her that she must not speak, for her mother or sister might utter a sudden exclamation which would alarm the sentries on the other side. Putting his face to the window, he said in a low voice, "I pray you be silent, the slightest sound might cost you your lives. We are here to rescue you; your daughter is safe and sound with us. Now we are going to enlarge the window." Low exclamations of delight told him that he was heard.
The carpenter at once set to work, the man with him oiling his saw very frequently; nevertheless it seemed to Nat to make even more noise than usual. Suddenly, however, one of the prisoners began to utter a prayer in a loud voice.
"That is papa," the girl whispered; "he used to say prayers every night."
"It was a very good idea to begin now," Nat said. "What with the row by the fires, and his voice inside, the guard are not likely to hear the saw."
In ten minutes the window had been enlarged to a point sufficient for a full-sized person to get through.
"Now, madam, will you come first," Nat said. "We will pull you through all right."
One by one the captives were got out. There were still two men left when the door opened, and three or four negroes appeared with blazing brands.
"We have come to fetch one of you out to give us a lillie fun. Bake 'im some ober de fire."
Then he broke off with a shout of astonishment as he saw that the hut was almost untenanted, and he and the others were about to rush forward at the two men still there when Nat thrust his arm through the opening. Two shots cracked out, one after the other. The two leading negroes fell, and the others with a yell of terror rushed out of the hut.
"Quick, for your lives!" he said to the two men, one of whom was already half through the window. "We shall have them all on us in a few minutes."
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