George Henty.

A Roving Commission: or, Through the Black Insurrection at Hayti

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"You are very young to be an officer," the girl said.

"Oh, I have been an officer for more than two years," he said. "I was only fourteen when I joined, and I am nearly sixteen now."

"And have you been in battles?"

"Not in a regular battle. You see England is not at war now with anyone, but I have been in two or three fights with pirates and that sort of thing."

"And now, Myra, you must not talk any more," her father said. "You know the doctor gave strict orders that he was to go to bed as soon as he arrived here."

At this moment the door opened and a slave girl brought in a basin of strong broth.

"Well, you may stop to take that."

Nat spent a delightful month at Monsieur Duchesne's plantation. For the first few days he lay in a hammock beneath a shady tree, then he began to walk, at first only for a few minutes, but every day his strength increased. At the end of a fortnight he could walk half a mile, and by the time the month was up he was able to wander about with Myra all over the plantation. Monsieur Duchesne, on his return one day from town, brought a letter for him. It was from the captain himself:

Dear Mr. Glover, – I hope you are getting on well, and are by this time on your legs again. As far as I can see, we are not likely to be at Cape Fran?ois again for some time, therefore, when you feel quite strong enough, you had better take passage in a craft bound for Jamaica, which is likely to be our head-quarters for some time. Of course if we are away, you will wait till our return. I have spoken to a friend of mine, Mr. Cummings – his plantation lies high up among the hills – and he has kindly invited you to make his place your home till we return, and it will be very much better for you to be in the pure air up there than in this pestilential place.

Nat would have started the next day, but his host insisted upon his staying for another week.

"You are getting on so well," M. Duchesne said, "that it would be folly indeed to risk throwing yourself back. Every day is making an improvement in you, and a week will make a great difference."

At the end of that week the planter, seeing that Nat was really anxious to rejoin his ship, brought back the news that a vessel in port would sail for Port Royal in two days.

"I have engaged a cabin for you," he said, "for although we shall be sorry indeed to lose you, I know that you want to be off."

"It is not that I want to be off, sir, for I was never happier in all my life, but I feel that I ought to go. It is likely enough that the ship may be short of middies, one or two may be away in prizes, and it will be strange if no one falls sick while they are lying in Port Royal. It would be ungrateful indeed if I wanted to leave you when you are all so wonderfully kind to me."

M. Duchesne drove Nat down to the port the next morning. The midshipman as he left the house felt quite unmanned, for Myra had cried undisguisedly, and Madame Duchesne was also much moved.

They passed M. Demaine's house without stopping, as he and his wife had spent the previous evening at the Duchesnes', and had there said good-bye to him.

"It is quite time that I was out of this," Nat said to himself as he leaned on the rail and looked back at the port. "That sort of life is awfully nice for a time, but it would soon make a fellow so lazy and soft that he would be of no use on board ship. Of course it was all right for a bit, but since I began to use my arm a little, I have wanted to do something. Still, it would have been no good leaving before, for my arm is of no real use yet, and the doctor said that I ought to carry it in a sling for at least another month. But I am sure I ought to feel very grateful to our doctor and Lepel, for I expect I should have lost it altogether if they hadn't taken such pains with it at first. Well, it will be very jolly getting back again. I only hope that the captain won't be wanting to treat me as an invalid."

To Nat's delight he saw, as he entered Port Royal, the Orpheus lying there, and without landing he hailed a boat and went on board. As soon as he was made out there was quite a commotion on board the frigate among the sailors on deck and at the side, while those below looked out of the port-holes, and a burst of cheering rose from all as the boat came alongside. As he came up on to the deck the midshipmen crowded round, shaking him by the hand; and when he went to the quarter-deck to report his return, the lieutenants greeted him as heartily. The captain was on shore. Nat was confused and abashed at the warmth of their greeting.

"It is perfectly ridiculous!" he said almost angrily, as he rejoined the midshipmen; "as if there was anything extraordinary in a fellow fighting a dog!"

"It depends upon the size of the dog and the size of the fellow," Needham, the senior midshipman, said, "and also how he got into the fight."

"The fact is, Needham, if I had killed the dog with the first stroke of my dirk nobody would have thought anything about the matter, and it is just because I could not do so, and therefore got badly mauled before I managed it, that all this fuss is made! It would have been much more to the point if you had all grumbled, when I came on board, at my being nursed and coddled, while you had to do my duty between you, just because I was such a duffer that I was a couple of minutes in killing the dog instead of managing it at once."

"Well, we might have done so if we had thought of it, but, you see, we did not look at it in that light, Nat," Needham laughed; "there is certainly a good deal in what you say. However, I shall in future look upon my dirk as being of more use than I have hitherto thought; I have always considered it the most absurd weapon that was ever put into anyone's hand to use in action. Not, of course, that one does use it, for one always gets hold of a cutlass when there is fighting to be done. How anyone can ever have had the idea of making a midshipman carry about a thing little better than a pocket-knife, and how they have kept on doing so for years and years, is most astonishing! For the lords of the admiralty must all have been midshipmen themselves at one time, and must have hated the beastly things just as much as we do. If they think a full-sized sword too heavy for us – which it certainly isn't for the seniors – they might give us rapiers, which are no weight to speak of, and would be really useful weapons if we were taught to use them properly.

"Well, we won't say anything more about your affair, Nat, if you don't like it; but we sha'n't think any the less, because we are all proud of you, and whatever you may say, it was a very plucky action. I know that I would rather stand up against the biggest Frenchman than face one of those savage hounds. And how is the arm going on? I see you still have the arm of your jacket snipped open and tied up with ribbons, and you keep it in a sling."

"Yes; the doctor made such a point of it that I was obliged to promise to wear it until Bemish gives me permission to lay it aside." He took it out of the sling and moved it about. "You see I have got the use of it, though I own I have very little strength as yet; still, I manage to use it at meals, which is a comfort. It was hateful being obliged to have my grub cut up for me. How long have you been in harbour here?"

"Three days; and you are in luck to find us here, for I hear that we are off again to-morrow morning. You have missed nothing while you have been away, for we haven't picked up a single prize beyond a little slaver with a hundred niggers on board."

When the captain came off two hours later with Dr. Bemish he sent for Nat.

"I am heartily glad to see you back again, Mr. Glover, and to see you looking so vastly better than when I saw you last; in fact, you look nearly as well as you did before that encounter."

"I have had nothing to do but to eat, sir."

"Well, the question is, how is your arm?"

"It is not very strong yet, sir, but I could really do very well without this sling."

"Well, you see I have to decide whether you had better go up to the hills until we return from our next cruise or take you with us."

"Please, sir, I would much rather go with you."

"Yes; it is not a question of what you like best, but what the doctor thinks best for you. You had better go to him at once, he will examine your arm and report to me, and of course we must act on his decision."

Nat went straight to the doctor.

"Well, you are looking better than I expected," the latter said, holding the lad at arm's-length and looking him up and down; "flesh a good deal more flabby than it used to be – want of exercise, of course, and the result of being looked after by women. Now, lad, take off your shirt and let me have a regular examination."

He moved the arm in different directions, felt very carefully along each bone, pressing rather hard at the points where these had been broken, and asking Nat if it hurt him. He replied "No" without hesitation, as long as the doctor was feeling the forearm, but when he came to the upper-arm and shoulder he was obliged to acknowledge that the pressure gave him a bit of a twinge.

"Yes, it could hardly be otherwise," the doctor said; "however, there is no doubt we made a pretty good job of it. Stretch both arms out in front of you and bring the fingers together. Yes, that is just what I expected, it is some two and a half inches shorter than the other; but no one will be likely to notice it."

"Don't you think, doctor, that I can go to sea now? The captain said that you would have to decide."

"I think a month up in the hills would be a very desirable thing, Glover. The bones have knit very well, but it would not take much to break them again."

"I have had quite enough of plantations for the present, doctor, and I do think that sea air would do me more good than anything. I am sure I feel better already for the run from Cape Fran?ois here."

The doctor smiled. "Well, you see, if you did remain on board you would be out of everything. You certainly would not be fit for boat service, you must see that yourself."

"I can't say that I do, sir; one fights with one's right arm and not with one's left."

"That is so, lad, but you might get hit on the left arm as well as the right. Besides, even on board, you might get hurt while skylarking."

"I would indeed be most careful, doctor."

"Well, we will see about it, and talk it over with the captain."

All that evening Nat was in a state of alarm whenever anyone came with a message to any of his mess-mates; but when it was almost the hour for lights out he turned into his hammock with great satisfaction, feeling sure that if it had been decided that he must go ashore next morning a message to that effect would have been sent to him. The sound of the boatswain's whistle, followed by the call "All hands to make sail!" settled the question. He had already dressed himself with Needham's assistance, but had remained below lest, if the captain's eye fell on him, he might be sent ashore. As soon, however, as he heard the order he felt sure that all was right, and went up on deck. Here he took up his usual station, passing orders forward and watching the men at work, until the vessel was under sail. The want of success on the last cruise made all hands even keener than usual to pick up something worth capturing.

"I suppose there is no clue as to the whereabouts of those three pirates," he said to Needham as the latter, after the vessel was fairly under weigh, joined him.

"No; twice we had information from the captains of small craft that they had seen suspicious sail in the distance, but there is no doubt that the niggers had been either bribed or frightened into telling us the story, for in each case, though we remained a fortnight cruising about, we have never caught sight of a suspicious sail. When we returned here we found to our disgust that they must have been at work hundreds of miles away, as several ships were missing, and one that came in had been hotly chased by them, but being a fast sailer escaped by the skin of her teeth. That is the worst of these negroes, one can never believe them, and I think the best way would be when anyone came and told a yarn, to go and cruise exactly in the opposite direction to that in which he tells us he has seen the pirates."

"It is a pity we cannot punish some of these fellows who give false news," Nat said.

"Yes; but the difficulty is proving that it is false. In the first place, one of these native craft is so much like another that one would not recognize it again; besides, you may be sure that the rascals would give Port Royal a wide berth for a time. On our last cruise we did take with us the negro who brought the news, but that made the case no better. He pretended, of course, to be as anxious as anyone that the pirates should be caught, and as he stuck to his story that he had seen a rakish schooner where he said he did, there was no proof that he was lying, and he pretended to be terribly cut up at not getting the reward promised him if he came across them.

"I have no doubt that he was lying, but there was no way of proving it. You see, the idea of getting hold of a trader and fitting her up with a few guns and some men is all well enough when you have only got to deal with a single schooner or brigantine, but it would be catching a tartar if these three scoundrels were to come upon her at once. Of course they are all heavily armed and carry any number of men, nothing short of the frigate herself would be a match for them. And one thing is certain, we can't disguise her to look like a merchantman. Do what we would, the veriest landlubber would make her out to be what she is, and you may be sure the pirates would know her to be a ship of war as soon as they got a sight of her topsails."

"You have not heard, I suppose, where our cruising ground is going to be this time?" Nat asked.

"No, and I don't suppose we shall know for a few hours. You may be sure that whatever course we take now will not be our real course, for I bet odds that after dark some fast little craft will sneak out of harbour to take the pirates news as to the course we are following, and to tell them that we have not taken a negro this time who would lead us a dance in the wrong direction. I should not be surprised if we are going to search the islands round Cuba for a change. We were among the bays and islets up north on our last cruise, and the captain may be determined to try fresh ground."

Needham's guess turned out to be correct, for after darkness fell the ship's course was changed, and her head laid towards Cuba. After cruising for nearly three weeks without success, they were passing along the coast of the mainland, when Nat, who had now given up his sling, went aloft with his telescope. Every eye on deck was turned towards the island, but their continued failures had lessened the eagerness with which they scanned the shore, and, as there was no sign of any break in its outline, it was more from habit than from any hope of seeing anything that they looked at the rugged cliffs that rose forty or fifty feet perpendicularly above the water's edge, and at the forest stretching up the hillsides behind them.

"You have seen nothing, I suppose, Tom?" he asked the sailor stationed in the main-top.

"Not a thing, Mr. Glover."

Nat continued his way up, and took his seat on the yard of the topsail. Leaning back against the mast, he brought his telescope to bear upon the land, and for half an hour scanned every rock and tree. At last something caught his eye.

"Come up here, Tom," he called to the sailor below. "Look there, you see that black streak on the face of the cliff?"

"I see it, yer honour."

"Well, look above the first line of trees exactly over it: isn't that a pole with a truck on the top of it?"

"You are right, sir! you are right!" the sailor said, as he got the glass to bear upon the object Nat had indicated, "that is the upper spar of a vessel of some sort, sure enough."

"On deck there!" Nat shouted.

"What is it, Mr. Glover?" the first lieutenant answered.

"I can make out the upper spar of a craft in among the trees over there, sir."

"You are sure that you are not mistaken?"

"Quite sure, sir. With the glass I can make out the truck quite distinctly. It is certainly either the upper spar of a craft of some kind or a flag-staff, of course I cannot say which."

The first lieutenant himself ran up the ratlines and joined Nat. The breeze was very light, and the Orpheus was scarcely moving through the water. Nat handed his telescope to Mr. Hill.

"There, sir, it is about a yard to the west of that black streak on the rock."

"I see it," the lieutenant exclaimed after a long gaze at the shore. "You are right, it must be, as you say, either the spar of a ship or a flag-staff; though how a ship could get in there is more than I can say. There, it has gone now!"

"The trees were rather lower at the point where we saw it, and the higher trees have shut it in."

He descended to the deck followed by Nat.

"Well, what do you make of it, Mr. Hill?" enquired the captain, who had come out of his cabin on hearing Nat's hail.

"There is no doubt that Mr. Glover is right, sir, and that it is the upper spar of a craft of some kind, unless it is a flag-staff on shore, and it is hardly the sort of place in which you would expect to find a flag-staff. It is a marvel Mr. Glover made it out, for even with his glass I had a great difficulty in finding it, though he gave me the exact bearing."

"Thank you, Mr. Glover," the captain said. "At last there seems a chance of our picking up a prize this cruise. The question is, how did she get there?"

"I am pretty sure that we have passed no opening, sir. I have been aloft for the past half-hour, and have made out no break in the rocks."

"That is quite possible," the captain said, "and yet it may be there. We are a good three-quarters of a mile off the shore, and some of these inlets are so narrow, and the rocks so much the same colour, that unless one knows the entrance is there, one would never suspect it. At any rate we will hold on as we are for a bit."

The hail had set everyone on deck on the qui vive, and a dozen telescopes were turned upon the shore.

"Unlikely as it seems, Mr. Hill," the captain said, after they had gone on half a mile without discovering any break in the line of rock, "I am afraid that it must have been a flag-staff that you saw. There may be some plantation there, and the owner may have had one put up in the front of his house. However, it will be worth while to lower a boat and row back along the foot of the cliff for a mile or so, and then a mile ahead of us; if there is an opening we shall be sure to find it. Tell Mr. Playford to take the gig; Mr. Glover can go with him as he is the discoverer."

The boat was lowered at once, and as soon as the officers had taken their place the six men who composed the crew bent their backs to the oars, the coxswain making for a point on the shore about a mile astern of the frigate, which was lying almost becalmed. The men had taken muskets and cutlasses with them, for it was probable enough that a watch might have been set on the cliff, and that, should there be an inlet, a boat might be lying there ready to pounce out upon them as soon as they reached it.

Every eye was fixed upon the boat as she turned and rowed along within fifty yards of the foot of the rocks.

"I thought I could not have been so blind as to pass the entrance without seeing it," one of the sailors who had been on watch aloft said, in a tone of satisfaction. "Now, I don't mind how soon the boat finds a gap."

But when the boat had paddled on for another mile without a pause, a look of doubt and dissatisfaction showed itself on every face.

"You are quite sure, Mr. Hill," the captain asked, "that it was a staff of some kind that you saw, and not, perhaps, the top of a dead tree whose bark had peeled off?"

"I am quite certain, sir. It was too straight and even for rough wood; and I made out a truck distinctly: but it is certainly strange that no entrance should be discovered. I am afraid that 'tis but a flag-staff after all."

"I can hardly imagine that," the captain said. "I have often seen flag-staffs in front of plantation houses, but never one so high as this must be to show over the trees. If it had been nearer to the edge of the cliff it might have been a signal-post, but they would hardly put it a mile back from the edge of the cliff and bury it among trees. At any rate, if we find no entrance I will send a landing-party ashore to see what it really is, that is to say if we can find any place where the cliff can be scaled."

"What is it, Mr. Needham?" as the midshipman came up and touched his hat.

"The boat is rowing in to shore, sir."

The two officers went to the side.

"They have either found an entrance or some point at which the rock can be scaled – Ah, there they go!" he went on, as the boat disappeared from sight, "though from here there is no appearance whatever of an opening."

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