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In the meanwhile the canoes were drawing level with them as they approached the islet. He could see the wet paddles glinting, and the naked bodies swing, while presently Jefferson, who made Bill a little sign to stop the engine, stood up on the deck. The case of giant-powder lay open at his feet, and Bill laid a glowing iron on the cylinder covering. The men in the canoes ceased paddling, and while the craft slid slowly nearer each other there was for a moment or two an impressive silence, through which Austin fancied he could hear a faint rhythmic throbbing. Then Jefferson, who cut one of the rolls of giant-powder through, flung up his hand.
"Where you lib for, Funnel-paint?" he shouted.
"Them beach," said the negro, and his voice reached them clearly. "We done come for them gum. You lib for 'teamboat before we cut you t'roat!"
"Then I'm going to put the biggest kind of Ju-Ju onto you," said Jefferson. "You savvy how I blow up them headman's house? If you don't want to be blown up like it, lib for up river one time, and be – to you!"
There was probably only one man among them who partly understood him, but his gesture was fierce and commanding, and the confused splashing of paddles suggested that some, at least, of the negroes were impressed. Two of the canoes moved backwards against the stream, and while Funnel-paint cried out in his own tongue, Jefferson stooped.
"Touch that on the iron, Bill," he said.
In another moment he stood very straight again with a dim object that sparkled in his hand, and then hurled it at the island. It fell amidst the brushwood, out of which there sprang a sheet of flame that was followed by a detonation and a great upheaval of flying sand. Then the paddles splashed confusedly, and in another minute or two the canoes were a hundred yards away. After that there was silence, broken only by the voice of Funnel-paint, who seemed to be flinging reproaches at his friends, and a faint, dull throbbing which Austin fancied was a trifle plainer than before. Then Jefferson laughed as he took up another stick of giant-powder.
"That seems to have scared them, but if they come back again they'll get the next one in the middle of them," he said.
"Listen!" said Austin, holding up his hand. "Can't you hear engines?"
Jefferson swung round sharply, and the scream of a whistle came shrilly across the water from the Cumbria just then. It was answered by another of a deeper tone, and a blaze of blue light sprang up, apparently out of the creek. It showed a black shape that wallowed through a mass of piled up foam.
"A launch!" said Jefferson. "A fast one!"
"No," said Austin. "A pinnace. A gunboat's pinnace. Ah! the canoes are going."
There was a sudden thudding of paddles, and the canoes melted into the darkness as the moon sailed behind a cloud again; but the whirr and thump of engines drew nearer, and Jefferson reached down for the lantern.
"Well," he said, "a good deal depends upon what country she belongs to, and it's quite likely we're going to have trouble.
Still, we have got to face it now."
He waved the lantern, and while the whirr of engines slackened a voice came out of the darkness.
"Launch ahoy! Is that the Cumbria yonder?" it said in excellent English.
Austin took the lantern from Jefferson with a soft laugh.
"I'll take charge now – you see, I'm acquainted with my countrymen's little peculiarities," he said, and raised his voice a trifle. "It is. If you don't mind steaming that far, we should consider it a pleasure to do anything we can for you."
"If you have no great objections, I'll come on board now," said the other man. "Starboard a little! Start her slow!"
There was a whirring of engines, a little, very trim pinnace crept up alongside, and a young man in immaculate white uniform stepped on the launch's deck.
"Ah!" he said, "Mr. Austin! I've had the pleasure of meeting you before. What has become of the niggers?"
"Which niggers?" asked Jefferson, carelessly.
The young officer looked at him with a little dry smile, and it was evident that his eyes were keen, for he made a sign to Bill, who was about to secrete the giant-powder.
"I am," he said, "under the impression that you know a good deal more about them than I do. We have rather good glasses, and I certainly made out four or five canoes. May I ask what that stuff is yonder?"
"It is what, I believe, is called in America giant-powder," said Austin. "We found it useful in blowing the mangroves up."
"Quite so," said the officer. "In fact, we heard the detonation. Still, I daresay there are several things we should like to ask each other about, and you suggested going across to your steamer."
"I did," said Austin. "We should be glad of your company for to-night, at least, though I'm afraid we can't offer you much to eat. This is my partner, Jefferson – Lieutenant Onslow."
An hour had passed since their first meeting, when Austin, Jefferson, and two navy men sat round a little table that had been laid out upon the Cumbria's bridge deck. It was slightly cooler there than it was below, besides which the mess-rooms reeked with damp and mildew. A lamp hung from one of the awning spars above them, and its light fell upon the men's faces and the remnants of the very frugal meal. The handful of bluejackets who came up in her had apparently gone to sleep beneath an awning on the flooring of the pinnace, which lay alongside, but a sharp clinking rose from the lighted engine room, where a couple of naval artificers were busy with Tom, the donkey-man. The gunboat's surgeon, who had been round the forecastle, was talking to Austin, while her commander lay opposite Jefferson, immaculately neat, in a canvas chair.
"Our tale," he said, "is a very simple one. As we didn't seem to be wanted anywhere just now, we moored ship snugly in the bight behind the island, and decided to get a little painting done. She was getting rusty along the water-line, and one can't get at it well when she's washing through a swell, you know. Under the circumstances, I seized the opportunity to do a little rough surveying. We are expected to pick up any information that may be of use to the Admiralty hydrographers."
Jefferson lay very limply in his chair, but his eyes twinkled appreciatively. "Well," he said, "I guess that would look all right in the log, but any one who had seen you start surveying would wonder why you brought those cases of provisions as well as engine oil and packing, and two or three ingots of bearing metal. We were uncommonly glad to get them and see the artificers, though I'm not sure your Admiralty would approve of the way you're squandering its stores."
Onslow laughed. "We are not forbidden to offer assistance to any one in want of it, and the provisions, at least, do not belong to our parsimonious Lords. In fact, they were handed me at Las Palmas by a friend of yours, on the off chance of our falling in with you. Of course, I could not exactly promise that you would get them, though I had reasons for believing the thing was possible."
Jefferson filled a wineglass, and thrust the bottle across the table.
"I think I know the lady's name," he said. "This is the first wine I've drunk since I came to Africa, and it will probably be the last until I get out of it again. To-morrow it's going forward to the sick men in the forecastle. The lady who sent it is not going to mind my passing the kindness on."
"I venture to think she would approve," and Onslow glanced at Austin. "In fact, I couldn't quite help a fancy she intended it as a peace-offering. Miss Brown is, as you are probably aware, capable of conveying an impression without saying anything very definite, and the one I received from her was that she felt she had been a trifle hard on somebody. I should, of course, not have presumed to mention it had it not been borne in on me that it was not intended I should keep that impression entirely to myself. If I have been mistaken I must apologise to her and both of you."
Jefferson stood up with the wineglass in his hand, and the others rose with him.
"This," he said, "is a little out of my usual line, but it's her wine we're drinking, and I can't quite let the occasion pass. 'To Her Serene Excellency, the cleverest woman in the Canaries, who hasn't forgotten us!'"
Austin stood opposite him, a ragged, climate-worn skeleton, with a little flush in his haggard face, and he looked at the gunboat's commander.
"My comrade hasn't gone quite far enough," he said. "The Queen, who can do no wrong!"
Then the glasses were emptied, and there was a moment's silence when they sat down. Three of them were, after all, somewhat reserved Englishmen, who had, for once, allowed their thoughts to become apparent; and Commander Onslow, who felt that he had, perhaps, exceeded his somewhat delicate commission, was distinctly displeased with himself. He had had a certain conversation with Mrs. Hatherly, who had been rather frank with him, before he left the Canaries, and the attitude of the ragged adventurer who had proclaimed his unwavering devotion to the woman who had sent him there appealed to him, so much so, in fact, that it made him uncomfortable. It was, he felt, advisable to change the subject.
"Considering everything, it was, perhaps, as well we turned up when we did. You see, those niggers don't belong to us," he said. "I was, I may admit, rather thankful when they disappeared, since it might have made a good deal of trouble if we had taken a hand in. Now you understand that, you may be willing to tell me what you purposed doing with the giant-powder."
Jefferson laughed grimly. "If you had come five minutes later I'd have blown half of them to the devil. We, at least, can't afford to be particular."
"You had, presumably, a reason? I wonder if you have any objections to telling us the rest of it in confidence?"
Jefferson, who lighted a cigar, told him the story, and Onslow lay back in his chair, listening with grave attention, while the surgeon leaned forward with elbows on the table. At last Onslow shook his head.
"It's interesting, exceedingly," he said. "Still, I don't think I'd recommend you to tell it in quite that shape to everybody. It would probably make trouble, and you mightn't find anybody very willing to believe you. Things of that kind don't happen now – at least, they're not supposed to – and I fancy it would prove a good deal more convenient just to mention the simple facts. You bought the steamer stranded, and, with considerable difficulty, got her off."
"We had practically decided on doing no more than that already," said Austin. "Still, I wonder if, now you have heard the story, one could ask your views?"
Onslow smiled drily. "I haven't any, and if I were you, I wouldn't worry about anything beyond the financial aspect of the affair. Nobody is likely to thank you, and the only men who could tell you what happened are dead, you know."
Austin saw that Jefferson also recognised that the advice was good, and, changing the subject, he spoke to the surgeon. The latter looked thoughtful.
"I can't tell you what that man was afflicted with," he said. "There are several African diseases we are not acquainted with, and a good many of their troubles are supposed to be contagious. Of course, you could apply to the College of Tropical Diseases they've lately started in Liverpool, if you are really interested."
"I am," said Austin. "In fact, I'm very much so, indeed. You see, I had practically nothing on, and he got his festering arms round me."
The surgeon looked at him gravely. "I scarcely think you need worry, but if you have to do any rough work I would endeavour to avoid any lacerated bruises, and, as far as possible, keep your skin unbroken."
"It's a little difficult on board this steamer. There are several raw patches on my arms now."
The surgeon promised to attend to them, but just then Onslow turned to Jefferson.
"Have you opened up any of the gum yet?" he asked.
Jefferson said he had not, and was rather anxious to do so, whereupon Onslow and the surgeon offered to accompany him, and they went down the ladder together to where the bags still lay upon the forward hatch.
"I shouldn't wonder if you were right about its value," said the surgeon, when Jefferson held up the lantern one of the Spaniards had handed him. "We took a Senegal Frenchman down the coast last trip, and he had rather a craze upon the subject. There is, I understood from him, a particular gum the niggers find somewhere between here and the head of the Niger, for which one could get almost what he liked to ask from the makers of special high-class varnishes. In fact, the man said that one of them who had been trying it told him that it must be used in certain processes whatever its cost might be. The only trouble was that it appeared very difficult to get hold of, except in the smallest quantities; but perhaps your Frenchman had got on the track of it."
Austin tore one of the bags, which were very rotten, across, and then slit the fibre package beneath it. The surgeon, who stooped beside him, was the first to thrust his hand into the opening.
"The nodules seem very uniform in size," he said, and then stood up suddenly, with astonishment in his face. "I'm almost afraid that somebody has been beforehand with you."
"What do you mean?" asked Austin, still tearing at the package.
The surgeon turned and gazed hard at Jefferson. "This is certainly not gum. It looks very like an ordinary palm kernel."
He held up a little, round, black object, and Jefferson's face grew grim, while he clenched one hand. Then he wrenched the knife from Austin and fell on his knees, ripping at the fibre package savagely. It opened beneath the steel, and when its contents poured out on deck he rose with a little bitter laugh. There was no doubt whatever. They were palm kernels. A curious silence followed, during which Jefferson leaned against the rail, looking down upon the bags with expressionless eyes, until he made a little gesture.
"Well," he said, very quietly, "it seems we have had our trouble for nothing. You may as well open the rest of them."
Austin was not sure how he contrived to do it. He felt suddenly limp and feeble, but holding himself in hand by an effort, he slit the remaining bags, and flooded the deck with kernels. There was nothing else, and the kernels appeared half rotten.
"This must be a little rough on you," said Onslow, with a trace of awkwardness. "I understand you expected to find more of the stuff yonder."
"I did," said Jefferson. "Funnel-paint can have it now. We have had about enough of this country, and if your artificers fancy we could trust that starboard boiler, we'll set about raising steam to take her out first thing in the morning."
Onslow made a little gesture of sympathy. "I almost think it is the wisest thing you can do," he said. "In the meanwhile, it is getting late, and we have a long trip in front of us to-morrow. I have no doubt you don't feel much like entertaining anybody just now."
He and the surgeon withdrew to the rooms prepared for them, and when Austin, who went with them, came back, he stood a moment by the doorway of the one beneath the bridge which Jefferson now occupied alone. The latter looked up at him with half-closed eyes.
"We have the oil and the ship – and that will have to be enough," he said, and then straightened himself with a fierce gesture. "Get out, and sleep – if you feel like it. The thing has shaken me, and I'm not sure I'm very well."
Austin went away, but it was almost daylight before sleep came to him, and he had only been on deck an hour when their guests departed in the morning. Jefferson, who bade them good-bye at the gangway, stood leaning on the rail while the pinnace steamed away, and then walked, with curious heaviness, towards his room. He crawled into his bunk when he reached it, and lay there, while Austin looked down on him with concern.
"I've had the fever on me for quite a while, and at last it has gripped me hard," he said. "I'll probably be raving in an hour or two. Get steam up as soon as you're able, and take her out of the devilish country."
Austin was very busy between his comrade's room, forecastle, and stoke-hold during the rest of that day, and he had very little time for rest at night, but though half the men were sick, and his own limbs were aching portentously, it was with a little thrill of exultation he climbed to the bridge early on the following morning. The windlass was rattling on the forecastle, Wall-eye stood by the winch astern, and the surfboat was sliding towards the mangroves, where a big wire hawser was made fast, in the rain. Austin was not a professional sailor, but he could handle surfboat and steam launch, and in the good days had sailed his yacht along the coast at home. He also had confidence in the grizzled, olive-faced Spaniard who stood gravely behind him, gripping the steering-wheel.
The anchor came home to the bows at last, somehow the fever-worn men on the forecastle hove it in; the after winch hammered when he made a sign, and the long, rusty hull moved backwards towards the forest as her head swung slowly round. There was a splash of dripping wire, and he swung up an arm with a cry of "Largo!"
Then the winch rattled furiously, a gong clanged below, and a wild, exultant shouting went up when the Cumbria's engines commenced to throb. The gaunt, hollow-faced men who stood, dripping, in the rain, had borne everything but cold, and now they were going home. Austin felt his eyes grow hazy for a moment as he leaned upon the rails, and then, with a little shake of his shoulders, he fixed his gaze steadily upon the mangroves that came sliding back to him ahead. He had, he felt, a task that would demand all his attention in front of him.
They slid down stream unchecked until the afternoon, and the Cumbria steered handily, which, since there were awkward bends to swing round, was fortunate for all of them; but Austin had misgivings when at last they approached one that appeared sharper than the rest, for he could only see the close ranks of dingy mangroves in front of him as he gazed into the rain and mist. The creek was too narrow to swing the steamer to an anchor, and it was evident that if she was to get around the bend at all he most go at it hard, for the yellow stream was running fast with them, and unless she steamed faster the vessel would not steer. He signed to the helmsman, who edged her in near one bank to gain a little room; and then set his lips tight as he clenched his telegraph and rang for full speed ahead. It was consoling to remember that Tom was below, for a good donkey-man is, as a rule, more to be trusted than a junior engineer.
Ahead, the oily current was sliding through the mangroves as well as among them, covering all their high-arched roots, and he knew that there were a good many feet of water there, for the creek was full, and he had heard of steamers going full tilt into the watery forest at such times. Still he breathed unevenly as he watched the dingy trees slide past one another, for the bend was opening very slowly, and there was a long tongue of mangroves close in front of him. The bridge planks were trembling beneath him now, and he could hear the thud-thud of the hard-driven screw; but the stream seemed to be running very fast at the bend, and, glancing round, he saw something very like fear in the face of the man who held the wheel. When he looked ahead again the long tongue of mangroves seemed flying towards him.
He strode to the end of the bridge and glanced down at the lift of rusty side. There was a good deal of it above the water, for the Cumbria was loaded easily, and she was also, he was very glad to remember, light of draught. He could not check her with an anchor under foot. She would only swing to it, and that would land her among the mangroves broadside on. If he backed his propeller he would as surely go ashore, and his face grew very grim as he made the helmsman a little sign. Since he must strike the forest, he would strike it fair, as hard as the engines could drive her, bows on; and he thrust down the telegraph once more for the last pound of steam.
The throb of plank and rail grew sharper, the trees seemed rushing at the forecastle, the helmsman gazed forward with drawn face over his moving wheel, and a shouting broke out on deck. Austin, however, did not move at all, save when he raised a hand to the helmsman. Once more, easy-going artist as he was, the Berserker fit was upon him, and it was with a light only one or two of his friends had ever seen there in his eyes he hurled her full speed at the forest.
She struck it, with a crash that flung two or three of the Spaniards staggering, and it crumpled up before her. Mangrove boughs came streaming down on her grinding forecastle, torn limbs clutched at rail and stanchion, and were smashed by them. Mire was whirled aloft by the thudding screw, and Austin, gripping his telegraph, laughed a harsh laugh as he saw that she was going through. How thick that belt of trees was, or what water flowed among their roots, he did not know, but he remembered that he had found no bottom among them in other places with a boathook, now and then.скачать книгу бесплатно