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"I wonder," said Jacinta, "whether you, who know all about ships and engines, did not feel tempted to go with Mr. Austin?"
The engineer smiled curiously. "Tempted!" he said. "It was like trying to be teetotal with a whisky bottle in the rack above one's bunk; but I am a married man, with a wife who has a weakness for buying dining-room suites."
"Dining-room suites! What have they to do with it?"
"Just everything," and Macallister sighed. "She will only have the biggest ones the doors will let in, and she has furnished a good many dining-rooms altogether. Ye will mind that we lived here and there and everywhere, while she's back in England now. Ye would not meet a better woman, but on ?20 a month ye cannot buy unlimited red-velvet chairs and sideboards with looking-glasses at the back o' them."
Jacinta laughed as she rose. "You will tell Mr. Austin we are sorry we did not see him."
"I will," and Macallister stood up, too. "Perhaps ye mean it this time, and I'm a little sorry for him myself. There are men who get sent off with bands and speeches and dinners to do a smaller thing, but Mr. Austin he just slips away with his box o' dynamite and his few sailormen."
He stopped and looked hard at her a moment before he turned to Muriel. "Still, we'll have the big drum out when he brings Mr. Jefferson and the Cumbria back again, and if there's anything that can be broken left whole in this ship that night it will be no fault o' mine."
They went out and left him, but Jacinta stopped when they came upon the man he had ejected from his room, sitting on the companion stairway and smoking a very objectionable pipe. She also held a little purse concealed beneath her hand.
"You are going back with Mr. Austin to the Cumbria?" she said.
The man stood up. "In course," he said. "It's eight pound a month, all found, an' a bonus."
"Ah!" said Jacinta. "I suppose there is nothing else?"
The man appeared to ruminate over this, until a light broke in on him.
"Well," he said, "Mr. Jefferson does the straight thing, an' he fed us well. That is, as well as he could, considering everything."
Jacinta smiled at Muriel. "You will notice the answer. He is a man!" Then she held out a strip of crinkly paper. "That will make you almost a month to the good, and if you do everything you can to make things easier for the man who wants to get the Cumbria off, there will probably be another waiting for you when you come back again."
The man, who took the crinkly paper, gazed at it in astonishment, and then made a little sign of comprehension. "Thank you kindly, miss, but which one am I to look after special? You see, there's two of them."
Jacinta was apparently not quite herself that night, for the swift colour flickered into her face, and stayed there a moment.
"Both," she said decisively. "Still, you are never to tell anybody about that note."
The man once more gazed at her with such evident bewilderment that Muriel broke into a little half-audible laugh.
Then he grinned suddenly, and touched his battered cap.
"Well, we'll make it – both," he said.
They went up the companion, and left him apparently chuckling, but Jacinta appeared far from pleased when she got into the waiting boat.
"That was to have gone to England for a hat and one or two things I really can't do without – though I shall probably have to now," she said. "Oh, aren't they stupid sometimes – I felt I could have shaken him."
In the meanwhile the man in the fireman's serge went back to Macallister's room.
"Give me an envelope – quick!" he said.
Macallister got him one, and he slipped a strip of paper inside before he addressed it and tossed it across the table.
"You'll post that. There's a Castle boat home to-morrow, and I'd sooner trust you with it than myself," he said, with a little sigh, which, however, once more changed to a chuckle.
"If there's money inside it ye're wise," said Macallister drily. "Still, what are ye grinning in yon fashion for?"
"I was thinking it's just as well I've only – one – old woman. It would make a big hole in eight pounds a month – an' a bonus – if I had any more of 'em. But you get that letter posted before I want it back."
"Wanting," said Macallister, reflectively, "is no always getting. Maybe, it's now and then fortunate it is so, after all."
It was two hours later, and Jacinta stood on the flat roof of Pancho Brown's house looking down upon the close-packed Spanish town, when the crash of a mail gun rose from the harbour and was lost in the drowsy murmur of the surf. Then the other noises in the hot streets below her went on again, but Jacinta scarcely heard the hum of voices and the patter of feet as she watched a blinking light slide out from among the others in the harbour. It rose higher and swung a little as it crept past the mole, then a cluster of lower lights lengthened into a row of yellow specks, and she could make out the West-coast liner's dusky hull that moved out with slanting spars faster into the faintly shining sea. Jacinta closed one hand as she leaned upon the parapet and watched it, until she turned with a little start at the sound of footsteps. She was, one could have fancied, not particularly pleased to see Muriel Gascoyne then.
"We were wondering what had become of you, and Mrs. Hatherly is waiting to go home," said the latter. Then she turned and caught a glimpse of the moving lights that were closing in on one another and growing dim again. "That must be the African boat?"
"It is. She is taking out six careless sailormen whose lives are, perhaps, after all, of some value to them."
Muriel looked at her, and wished she could see her face. "Every one of them may be of some value to somebody else."
"I suppose so," and Jacinta laughed curiously. "You obvious people are now and then to be envied, Muriel."
"If there is anything you would like to tell me – " and Muriel laid a hand upon her arm with a gesture of sympathy.
"There isn't. We all have our discontented fits, and mine is, no doubt, more than usually unreasonable since everything has turned out as I wanted it."
Then she rose and turned towards the stairway with a little laugh which Muriel fancied had a hint of pride in it. "I really don't think I would have had anything done differently, after all, and now I must not keep Mrs. Hatherly waiting."
THE LAND OF THE SHADOW
It was towards the end of the afternoon when the skipper of the West-coast mailboat, peering through his glasses, made out two palms that rose apparently straight out of the sea. He watched them for some minutes, and then took their bearing carefully upon the compass, before he rang for half speed and called Austin to the bridge.
"That's your island, and we'll run in until I get under six fathoms," he said. "After that it will have to be the surfboat, and I fancy you will be very wet when you get ashore."
It seemed to Austin that this was more than probable, for although there was not an air of wind to wrinkle it, a long heave came up in vast, slow undulations out of the southern horizon, and the little mailboat swung over them with sharply slanted spars and funnel. She stopped once for a few moments while the deep-sea lead plunged from her forecastle, and then, with propeller throbbing slowly, crept on again. She had come out of her course already under the terms of the bargain Austin had made with the Las Palmas agent, for some of those steamers have the option of stopping for odd boatloads of cargo and passengers wherever they can be found along the surf-swept beaches, and since no offer he could make would have tempted her skipper to venture further in among the shoals, Austin had fixed upon that island as the nearest point of access to the Cumbria. He did not, however, know how he was to reach her when he got there.
In the meanwhile they were slowly raising the land, or the nearest approach to it to be found in that part of Africa, which consists of mire and mangroves intersected everywhere by lanes of water. It lay ahead, a grey smear streaked with drifting mist against which the palms that had now grown into a cluster rose dim and indistinct, and a thin white line stretched between themselves and it. The skipper appeared to watch the latter anxiously.
"There's considerable surf running in on the beach, and I'm a little uneasy about my boat," he said. "I suppose it wouldn't suit you to go on with us, and look for a better place to get ashore to-morrow?"
"No," said Austin, decisively. "I'm far enough from where I'm going already, and one would scarcely fancy that there are many facilities for getting about in this country."
The skipper made a little gesture of resignation. "That's a fact," he said. "Well, I can't go back on the agent, but if the boat turns you and the boys out before you get there you can't blame me."
Austin laughed. He had got many a wet jacket, and had once or twice had to swim for it, in the surf of the Canary beaches, though he was quite aware that there are very few places where the sea runs in and breaks as it does on the hammered coast of Western Africa. Indeed, as he watched the blur of steamy mangroves grow clearer, and the filmy spouting increase in whiteness, he could have fancied that nature, in placing that barrier of tumbling foam along its shore, had meant it as a warning that the white man was not wanted there. The air was hot and heavy, the sky a dingy grey, the sea a dim, slatey green, and there came off across the steep heave a dull booming like the sound of distant thunder.
It was not an encouraging prospect, and Austin knew from what he had heard about the country that he was not likely to be more favourably impressed with it upon closer acquaintance. He also felt that if there was not quite so much at stake he could very willingly leave the salving of the Cumbria to Jefferson and take the next steamer back again. He could fix upon no sufficient reason for his being there at all, since the very uncertain profits on a quarter share in the venture did not account for it. In one respect, also, Jacinta's favourable opinion could scarcely be of any practical value to him, since she would naturally marry a man of means by and by, and forget all about him. Still, she had, dropping now and then a barbed word which rankled in his memory, striven to stir him to endeavour; and now he was watching the spray drive across a beach of Western Africa, while he wondered what the result of it all would be, and whether he or the men he had brought with him would escape the fever. So far as he was concerned, it did not seem to greatly matter. He had taken life easily, but he realised that it had very little to offer him, and it was, perhaps, fortunate that he did so, since it is, as a rule, broken men and those who have nothing to fall back upon who accomplish what is most worth doing in the lands that lie beneath the shadow.
In any case, it was clear that he had broken down the last bridge behind him when the mailboat stopped and lay rolling more wildly than ever athwart the long swell. A big surfboat sank down her side amidst a clatter of blocks and complaining of davit-falls, down which a cluster of almost naked black men slid on board. It was not an easy matter to descend after them. The steamer rolled one way, the boat another, while the latter swung up one moment almost level with her rail and swooped down beneath a fathom of streaming side the next. Austin, Bill, the fireman, and the Canarios, however, accomplished it, and there was a waving of hats among the cluster of passengers who watched them above. Then the negroes, perched six or seven on either side, took up the paddles, and Austin was sensible of a momentary sinking of his heart as the boat slid out from the rolling steamer. She was a part of the civilisation he had been accustomed to, and when a sonorous blast of her whistle came throbbing after him in farewell he sighed.
He would, however, at least not look behind, and sitting in the stern-sheets, out of the paddlers' way, he tossed the Canarios a bundle of maize-husk cigarettes, and passed one to Bill, the fireman, who glanced at it scornfully. Then he made himself as comfortable as he could upon the box of dynamite while he lighted another, for that compound of nitro-glycerine is supposed to require a detonator, and nobody is very particular who has lived in Spain. The black men wanted cigarettes, too, but Austin did not hand them any. The island was still a good way off, and it seemed to him advisable that they should devote their attention to their paddling.
They did it, swaying rhythmically, with toes in a loop of fibre, and naked black bodies that straightened suddenly and bent again, while some kept up a measured hissing and the rest broke into a little doleful song. A brawny man, with a blue stripe down his forehead, stood upright grasping the sculling oar astern, and the boat swung along smoothly, with big, dim slopes of water rolling up astern of her. They, however, grew steeper as she drew in with the shore, and the easy dip and swing became a succession of fierce rushes, during which she drove onwards, lifted high, with the foam seething to her gunwale, and then swooped suddenly into the hollow. When she did so Austin, glancing aft, could see a great slope of water that grew steeper and steeper as it came speeding after her.
Then the slopes became ridges that frothed above and roared, and the paddles whirled faster, while the big muscles bunched beneath the helmsman's skin, and the veins began to stand out on his sable forehead. The boat no longer sailed inshore. She sped like a toboggan on an icy slide, though it seemed to Austin that the comparison was faulty, because she went fastest uphill, while when he rose upright for a moment he could see no shore at all. There was only a succession of parallel white ridges in front of them and a filmy cloud of spray. The afternoon was also wearing through, and the vapours from the steaming swamps obscured the dingy heavens.
It was even less consoling to glance astern, for the surf that sweeps the fever coast was evidently rather worse than usual that day, as it is now and then for no very apparent reason. The ridges had become walls, with great frothing crests and sides that were smeared with spumy lines. They had the vast, slow lift and fall of the ocean behind them, and were running up a smoothly slanted plane of shoals.
The black men paddled faster, and they no longer sang. They hissed and shrieked and whistled, while the thud of their paddles rose in a strenuous rhythm like the tapping of a great drum, and the craft careered at furious speed beneath them, driven by the sea. The foam stood feet above her now when she sped along, very like an arrow, and boiled in over her high, pointed stern every now and then. There was a foot of brine inside her that swilled to and fro, and every man was dripping, while the roar of the tumbling rollers had grown bewildering. They appeared to be crumbling upon hammered sand not very far away.
How the negroes meant to beach her, Austin did not know, and he was content that it was their business and not his. The Canarios were evidently uneasy, for, sailormen as they were, they had never run through surf like this; but they were also of Iberian extraction, and, when discussion is clearly useless, and the last crisis must be faced, the Spaniard is, at least, as capable of calm resignation as most other men. In any case, there is certainly no better boat-boy than the West African Kroo, and Austin left the affair to the helmsman, when there was a sudden horrifying crash that threw three or four of the paddlers down together. It was evident that they had touched bottom, but, fortunately for them, the swirl of the shore-running sea dragged them off again, and they went up, not more than half swamped, sideways, with the foam seething into her, on the next roller. Then the spouting chaos about them seemed to suddenly melt away, and Austin, wiping the water from his eyes, saw that they were sliding round a sandy beach into a little bay.
In another few minutes they were out on the sand, though they toiled for the next half hour helping the negroes to tilt the great boat and run her in again when they had emptied the water out of her. It was done at last, and Austin felt almost sorry, while he was once more sensible of vague but unpleasant misgivings when the negroes drove her lurching out into the spray. Night was not very far away, and he had no notion of where he was to sleep, or what he was to eat, for that matter, since the provisions the steward had given him were, for the most part, saturated. A little muddy creek oozed down amidst the mangroves across the bay, and there were a few huts, apparently made of rammed soil, beside it, as well as a canoe. The light was going when they reached them, and Bill, who went into the nearest, came out suddenly.
"There's a dead nigger inside," he said.
Austin looked at him with a little smile. He had reasons for surmising that the man's nerves were good, but his voice had an uncertain tone in it, and his eyes were anxious.
"Well," he said, "I suppose one must expect to come across a dead nigger now and then in this country."
Bill glanced furtively over his shoulder towards the hut, as though he desired to be rather farther away from it.
"That one wasn't nice to look at," he said. "What did they leave him there for when there's a creek just outside the door, and where are the rest of them? I'd like to know what he died of. It might be catchin'."
Austin was once more sensible of a little thrill of apprehension as he looked about him and considered the question. On the one side a tuft of palms dominated the narrow strip of sand, but the little ridge of high land behind it was covered with apparently impenetrable jungle. Elsewhere the dingy mangroves rose from black depths of mire on slimy roots and pale stems that glimmered, blanched, amidst the drifting steam that clung about them. Night was close at hand, and, though there was no sign of the land breeze yet, the air was thick and heavy with a hot, sour smell. The clamour of the surf made the deep silence more apparent, for there was no sound of life about the clustered huts. Austin knew that the black man is frequently stricken by the pestilence, and as he stood there on the little strip of desolate beach he felt his courage melting away from him. The Canarios he also saw were standing close together and murmuring excitedly, while every now and then one of them would glance askance at the huts.
"If there was any niggers but dead ones in the place they'd have been out by now," said Bill.
"The Cumbria should lie about north from here up the biggest creek," said Austin. "If we borrowed the canoe yonder you could find your way to her?"
"I'd try that, or anything, so long as it was to get out of this."
He glanced towards the hut again, and Austin, who could not quite explain it, then or afterwards, became sensible that if he waited much longer he would say or do something that would not be seemly in one who was there as leader. He felt that had he been alone he would probably have turned and run.
"Well," he said, as quietly as he could contrive, "we will run the canoe down. I believe some of the things they get are infectious now and then."
He had no need to repeat the order. The Canarios jumped at the word, and in another few minutes they had launched the canoe and were paddling her out of the creek clumsily, as men unaccustomed to the oar might do. It opened into a wider one, through which the heave of the sea pulsed languidly, until they crawled round a point and the streamy mangroves closed in on them. Then suddenly the thick, hot darkness fell.
They moored the canoe to a slimy stem, and lay down in her, packed like herrings; but in spite of the mosquitoes Austin slept a little of the night. He was glad when all the swamps steamed again as the dawn broke suddenly upon them; and when they had eaten they took up the paddles. The mists thinned and melted, the sun that sucked the damp from their dew-soaked clothing scorched their skin, and the glare from the yellow water became intolerable. Still, it was evident that it would not be advisable to waste any time, and through the long hot hours the canoe crept on.
Now she slid into steamy shadow among the mangrove islets, skirting belts of mire, and now crept, a slender strip of hull, packed with wearied and perspiring humanity, across broad reaches of flaming water that moved on inland under her, streaked with smears of yellow foam. It was evident to Austin that the flood tide ran longer than usual there, as it sometimes does about an island, or the Guinea stream had backed it up along the shore. The stream, however, did not only set up the creek, but slid through the forest, where the trees rose on arched roots above the water; and here and there they had to paddle hard to avoid being drawn into branch-roofed tunnels that smelt like open sewers. The refuse of leagues of forest seemed to lie rotting there.скачать книгу бесплатно