Harold Bindloss.

For Jacinta



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By afternoon Austin's hands were bleeding, and one of his knees was raw where he pressed it as a point of resistance to paddle from on the craft's bottom; but he took his place when his turn came, though his eyes were dazzled, and the headache that had crept upon him was growing insufferable. He was now distinctly anxious as to when they would reach the Cumbria, for, though Bill said she lay up a big muddy creek north of the island, he appeared by no means sure that was the one, and Austin felt he could not logically blame him. Creeks, it was evident, were bewilderingly plentiful in that country, and there were no distinctive features in the scenery. Dingy, white-stemmed mangroves, fermenting mire, and yellow water, were all the same, and as they crept on past bend and island there was no sign of change.

The shadows lay black upon the water when they stopped again, all of them horribly cramped, and aching in every limb; but when they had sat portentiously silent, with the craft moored to a mangrove root, for half an hour or so, Bill stood up in the bow.

"Did you hear anything, Mr. Austin?" he asked.

Austin fancied that he did, though for a moment or two he was not sure that it was not the ticking of his watch, for the sound, which was very faint, had a beat in it. Then it grew a little louder, and he felt a curious thrill of satisfaction.

"Engines!" he said sharply. "It's the launch."

She swung out, apparently from the mangroves, in another few minutes, and came on towards them, clanking and wheezing horribly, with the yellow foam piled about her, but Austin felt that he had never seen anything more welcome than that strip of mire-daubed hull with the plume of smoke streaming away from it. Then she stopped close alongside them, and Austin shook hands with Tom as he climbed on board.

"Did you come across any niggers, sir?" asked the latter.

"No," said Austin. "How's Mr. Jefferson?"

"Comin' round," said Tom, with a grin. "I've worked most of the fever – an' the sunstroke – out of him. It was a big load off me when, as I took him his mixture one morning, he looks up at me. 'Who the devil are you poisoning?' says he, quite sensible, an' like himself again."

"You were coming down to look for us?"

"We were – an' uncommonly glad to see you. The blame niggers is getting aggravating. Came down, two canoe loads of 'em, a night or two ago, an' only sheered off when we tumbled one o' them over with a big lump o' coal. Wall-eye dropped it on to the man in the bow of her from the bridge, an' so far as we could make out it doubled him up considerable."

Wall-eye was apparently the squinting Spaniard who acted as fireman, and when he saw Tom glance at him he stood up, with a grimy hand clenched, and unloosed a flood of Castilian invective. Austin, who smiled as he watched him, felt that while most of what he said could not be effectively rendered into cold Anglo-Saxon, it was probably more or less warranted.

In the meanwhile the launch was coming round with backed propeller, and in another moment or two she was clanking away into the darkness that descended suddenly, towards the Cumbria.

CHAPTER XII
NOCTURNAL VISITORS

Jefferson was standing at the open door of the house beneath the Cumbria's bridge when Austin first caught sight of him, as he groped his way forward along the slanted deck. The black, impenetrable obscurity that descends upon the tropic swamps when the air is full of vapour, hung over the stranded steamer, and the man's gaunt figure cut with harsh sharpness against the stream of light. The thin duck he wore clung about him, soaked with perspiration and the all-pervading damp, emphasising the attenuated spareness of his frame, and Austin could almost have fancied it was a draped skeleton he was gazing at. Still, he was a trifle reassured when he felt the firm grasp of a hot, bony hand.

"So you have come?" said the American. "It's good to get a grip of you. I guessed you would."

He drew Austin into the deck-house, and they sat down opposite each other, and said nothing for almost a minute, though there was a little smile in Jefferson's face as he leaned back against the bulkhead. His hair, which had grown long since he left Las Palmas, hung low and wet upon his forehead, and the big cheek bones showed through the tight-stretched skin, which was blanched, though there was a faint yellow tinge in it which relieved its dead whiteness. This had its significance, for the coast fever has not infrequently an unpleasant after effect upon the white man's constitution.

"It isn't quite a sanatorium," he said, as though he guessed his comrade's thoughts. "Port Royal, Santos, Panama – I know them all – aren't a patch on these swamps. Still, we needn't worry now you have come."

Austin smiled as he looked at him. "To be correct, I'm not quite sure that I did," he said, reflectively. "I mean, it wasn't exactly because I wished to."

"Ah!" said Jefferson, as comprehension dawned on him. "Then the quarter share – that offer stands good – didn't bring you? Well, I was wondering if she would make you go."

Austin was a trifle astonished, for, though he had a somewhat hardly acquired acquaintance with human nature, it had never occurred to him that the patronage Jacinta extended to her masculine friends naturally attracted some attention, or that in this particular case the onlookers might most clearly grasp the points of the game.

"I can't quite see why she should have wanted me to," he said.

There was another brief silence, during which the men looked at one another. This was not a subject either of them had meant to talk about. Indeed, it was one which, under different circumstances, they would have kept carefully clear of, but both realised that conventional niceties did not count for much just then: They were merely men who had henceforth to face the grim realities of existence with the shadow of death upon them, and they knew that the primitive humanity in them would become apparent as the veneer wore through.

"Still," said Jefferson, "I can think of one reason. There was a time when Muriel was good to her, and Jacinta can't forget it. She's not that kind. The first day I met her I felt that she was taking stock of me, and I knew I'd passed muster when she made you stop the Estremedura. Perhaps, it wasn't very much in itself, but I was thankful. I've done a few tough things in my time, but I know I'd never have got Muriel if that girl had been against me. Still, it wasn't altogether because of Muriel she sent you."

Austin showed his astonishment this time, and Jefferson smiled. "You can't quite figure how I came to understand a thing of that kind? Well, some of you smart folks have made the same mistake before. You don't seem to remember when you waste ten minutes working a traverse round what you could say in one, that however you dress it up, human nature's much the same. Now you're astonished at me. I'm talking. Sometimes I feel I have to. You want to know just why she really sent you?"

"To be frank, I have asked myself the question, and couldn't be quite sure it was altogether because she wanted me to get this unfortunate steamboat off."

"It wasn't. You're getting as near to it as one could expect of an Englishman. It hurts some of you to let anybody know what you really think. Well, I'll try to make my notion clear to you. There was a lady in France who threw her glove among the lions long ago, but the man who went down for it was of no great account after all. He hadn't sense enough to see the point of the thing."

"There were apparently folks who sympathised with him," said Austin, with a reflective air. "I'm not sure the man could reasonably have been expected to go at all, since the lady in question evidently only wished to show everybody how far he would venture to please her."

"Now it seems to me quite likely that she meant to do a good deal more. The man may have been content to fool his time away making pretty speeches to the court ladies and walking round dressed in silk while the rest of them rode out in steel. Can't you fancy that she wanted him to find out that he had the grit of the boldest of them, and could do something worth while, too? She probably knew he had, or she would never have sent him."

A little colour crept into Austin's face, but he laughed. "One could, no doubt, imagine a good many other reasons, and most of them would probably be as wide of the mark. Any way, they don't concern us. If the thing ever happened, it was a very long while ago. We know better now."

"Well, I guess you can't help it," and there was a twinkle in Jefferson's eyes. "Your shell's quite a good fit, and you don't like to come out of it, though I almost thought you were going to a moment or two ago."

"I don't like to be pulled out. One feels that it isn't decent. The shell's the best of some of us," said Austin.

"Then we'll come down to business. You brought the giant powder?"

"A case of it, with fuses and detonators," and Austin's relief at the change of subject was evident. "Are you contemplating blowing her up?"

"No, sir. She's worth too much. It is, however, quite likely that we'll make a hole in the mangrove forest and shake up the bottom of this creek. That is, when we're ready. There's a good deal to be put through first."

"Have you found the gum?"

"I haven't looked. She's full to the orlops, and we haven't started in to pump her out. Didn't seem much use in trying while she had so much weight in her, and we'll want all the coal we've got. When we have hove most of it and the oil out I'll start the big centrifugal. You see, she hasn't a donkey on deck. That's why, though it cost me a good deal, I bought the locomotive boiler. You folks have a library of Shipping Acts, but you don't show much sense when you let anything under 2,000 tons go to sea with her pumps run from the main engines. When you most want steam for pumping it's when your fires are drowning out."

It was once more evident to Austin that Jefferson knew his business, and had foreseen most of the difficulties he would have to grapple with. Still, he fancied, by his face, that he had not quite anticipated all.

"Where are you putting the oil you take out of her?" he asked.

"On a strip of sand up a creek. That's one of the few things that are worrying me. We'll have to get it on board as soon as we float her off when the rain comes, or the creek will get it ahead of us. The next point is that it will be a little rough on the men who have to watch it after working all day long."

"To watch it! Who is likely to meddle with it here?"

"Niggers," said Jefferson drily. "They cleaned most everything they could come at off the boat before I got to her, but they couldn't break out cargo with the water in her, and didn't know enough to get at the provisions in the lazaret. Still, while these particular swamps don't seem to belong to anybody, there's trade everywhere, and oil's a marketable commodity."

"Where's the Frenchman who chartered the Cumbria?"

"Dead. I've been up to his place in the launch. I found it caved in, and trees growing up in it already. Nature straightens things up quite smartly in this country. Any way, I'll show you round to-morrow; and, in the meanwhile, it's about time that Spaniard brought you some supper."

"It seems to me that everybody who had anything to do with this unfortunate vessel invariably died."

Jefferson smiled a trifle grimly. "That's a fact," he said.

Then one of the Canarios brought in a simple meal, and when they had eaten and talked for another hour, Austin stretched himself out on the settee and Jefferson climbed into his slanted bunk. They left the light burning and the door wide open, and both of them lay down dressed as they were; but while Jefferson seemed to fall into a somewhat restless doze, Austin found that sleep fled the further from him the more he courted it that night. It was very hot, for one thing, and stranded steamer and mangrove forest alike seemed filled with mysterious noises that stirred his imagination and disturbed his rest. It was only by a strenuous effort he lay still for a couple of hours, and then, rising softly, with a little sigh, went out into the night.

The darkness closed about him, black and impenetrable, when he stepped out of the stream of light before the deck-house door, and the feeble flame of the match he struck to light his pipe as he leaned upon the rail only made it more apparent. He could see nothing whatever when the match went out, but the oily gurgle of the creek beneath him suggested the height of the steamer's hove-up side. She lay, so Jefferson had told him, with her inshore bilge deep in the mire, and two big derrick-booms slung from the wire hawser that ran from her stern to the mangroves along what should have been the bank, as a precaution against any nocturnal call by negroes in canoes. Her outshore side, which he looked down from, was, he surmised by the slant of deck, between ten and fifteen feet above the creek.

It was a little cooler there, and the sounds were less disquieting than they had been in the room. He could localise and identify some of them now – the splash of falling moisture, the trickle of the stream, and the soft fanning of unseen wings as one of the great bats which abound in that country stooped towards the light. Still, behind these were mysterious splashings among the mangroves and wallowings in the creek, while the thick, hot darkness seemed to pulse with life. He could almost fancy he heard the breathing of unseen things, and it did not seem strange to him that the dusky inhabitants of that country should believe in malevolent deities. Indeed, as he leaned upon the rail, with its darkness enfolding him, he was troubled by a sense of his own insignificance and a longing to escape from that abode of fear and shadow. Other men, including those who had come out with a salvage expedition, had found the floating of the Cumbria too big a thing for them, and he already understood that there are parts of the tropics where the white man is apt to find his courage melt away from him as well as his bodily vigour.

Then he commenced to wonder dispassionately why Jacinta had sent him, or if he had, after all, been warranted in considering that she had done so. She had, though he admitted it unwillingly, at least, not bidden him go, but she had certainly done what she could to make him understand that he was wasting his life on board the Estremedura. It would have been a consolation to feel that he was obeying her command and doing her a definite service, if it was only to bring Jefferson home to Muriel Gascoyne; but she had not laid one upon him, and even Jefferson seemed to understand that her purpose went further.

He was less pleased with the fancy that Jacinta had undertaken what she apparently considered his reformation. He had been, in some respects, content as he was, for while there was no other woman he had the same regard for, he had forced himself to recognise that it was quite out of the question that she should ever entertain more than kindliness for him. Austin could be practical, and remembered that young women with her advantages, as a rule, looked higher than a steamboat purser, while even if Jefferson succeeded in his venture, and he went home with four or five thousand pounds, which appeared just then distinctly unlikely, Jacinta was the only daughter of a man whose income was supposed to amount to as much a year.

Austin sighed a little as he decided that he did not really know why he had come. In the meanwhile he was there, and there was nothing to be gained by being sorry, especially as he could not even console himself with the fancy that Jacinta was grieving over him. She was probably, as usual, far too busy by that time with somebody else's affairs. He was also averse from permitting himself to feel any glow of self-congratulation over the fancy that he was doing a chivalrous thing. In fact, he saw it with realistic clearness of vision as one that was wholly nonsensical, and it did not occur to him that the essence of all that was best in the old knightly days might be surviving still, and, indeed, live on, indestructible, even in the hearts of practical, undemonstrative Englishmen, as well as garlic-scented Spaniards, and seafaring Americans. Still, when he had yielded himself instinctively to Jacinta's will he had vaguely realised that, after all, the bonds of service are now and then more profitable to a man than dominion.

In the meanwhile the damp soaked through his clothing, and his physical nature shrank from the hot steaminess and the sour odours of putrefaction. It was unpleasant to stand there in that thick darkness, and even a little hard upon the nerves, but he had had enough of the deck-house, and he could not sleep, which is by no means an unusual difficulty with white men in the tropics. It was a relief when at last a sound that grew louder fixed his attention, and resolved itself into a measured thudding. Here were evidently canoes coming down the creek, but Austin was a little uncertain what to do. He had no wish to rouse the worn-out men, who probably needed all the sleep they could get, if this was a usual occurrence; but it did not appear advisable that there should be nobody but himself on deck in case the canoes ran alongside. He was considering what he should do when Jefferson, who held a glinting object in his hand, appeared in the door of the deck-house. Then there was a patter of feet on a ladder below, and another dim figure materialised out of the darkness.

"That – Funnel-paint come back again," said the half-seen man.

Jefferson laughed unpleasantly. "He's getting monotonous, but he's taking steep chances this time."

The beat of paddles slackened a little, there was a murmur of voices beneath the steamer's side, and Jefferson leaned out, looking down into the impenetrable blackness beneath him. A scraping sound came out of it, and apparently moved along, while, when the half-seen man thrust a big block of coal upon him, Austin turned and strode softly after Jefferson, who walked forward beside the rail.

"Better let him have it now, sir," said the other man. "She's quite low on the other quarter, and if they try swimming round her stern the booms won't stop them."

Then there was a vivid streak in the darkness, and a detonation that was twice repeated, while Austin, who hurled his lump of coal down with all his strength, caught a whiff of acrid smoke. There was also a splash below, and a confused clamour that was lost in the hasty thud of paddles as the invisible canoes got away. Then, while the Canarios came floundering across the deck, a single voice rose up.

"Bimeby we done lib for cut you t'roat!" it said.

"Oh, go to the devil!" said Jefferson, and the big revolver flashed again.

There was no answer, and the splash of paddles slowly died away. It was evident that the affair was over, and Austin fancied that nobody was much the worse. Jefferson sauntered towards him snapping the spent shells out of his pistol.

"Funnel-paint is getting on my nerves. I'll have to drop half a stick of giant powder on him next time he comes," he said.

"He didn't make much of a show," said Austin. "You think he meant to come on board?"

"If there had been nobody round he would have done so, but how far he'd have gone then is another question. He probably knows that nigger stockades are apt to get blown up when a white man disappears, and it's quite likely his nerve would have failed him. Any way, he's hanging out at a village up the creek, and we'll probably go round to-morrow with some giant powder and make a protest. In the meanwhile, I don't know any reason why you shouldn't go to sleep again."

Austin went back with him to the house beneath the bridge, and, though it was not perceptibly cooler, found sleep come to him. His vague apprehensions had vanished in the face of a definite peril.

CHAPTER XIII
TOIL

A faint light was creeping into the skipper's room when Austin awakened, and, seeing his comrade's berth unoccupied, went out on deck. The swamps were wrapped in woolly vapour, and a column of dingy smoke went up straight and unwavering from the funnel of the locomotive boiler. The hot land breeze had died away, and it would be some time yet before that from the sea set in. In the meanwhile it was almost cool, and very still; so still, in fact, that Austin was startled when a flock of parrots, invisible in the mist, swept past, screaming, overhead.

Then the sounds of man's activity suddenly commenced, for there was a clatter forward where the Spaniards flung the loose covers from the hatch, and a harsh rattle of chain mingled with the soft patter of their naked feet. In another few moments a sharp, musical clinking broke out, and Austin saw Tom, who had served as a steamer's donkey-man, straighten his bent back when a rush of white vapour whirled with a strident hissing about the locomotive boiler, which now drove the winch. He grinned at Austin, and glanced at the misty creek, far down which a faint screaming was dying away.



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