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In another few moments the white-stemmed trunks fell aside again, and they drove out once more into clear and swiftly-flowing water. Then the Spaniards howled together, and Austin, twining his hand in the lanyard, unloosed the whistle, and hurled back a great vibratory blast at the beaten forest. It was, he admitted afterward, a somewhat feeble thing, but he said he felt the occasion demanded something then.
After that they had no great difficulty, and by nightfall they drove her out with sluicing decks over the smoking bar, dipping the bleached and rotten ensign to the little white gunboat that lay rolling behind the island. Then Austin felt a great weight lifted off him as he flung himself into a canvas chair upon his bridge. There was now only open sea in front of them, and he had seen that the big pump could keep the water down. He felt that he could contrive by some means to make Las Palmas.
Austin was quite aware that he had his work cut out when he was left in command of the Cumbria, with half her crew sick, and her skipper raving deliriously. He knew very little about medicine, and certainly no more about what he termed the astronomical side of navigation, and after several attempts decided that it was beyond his ability to take an accurate solar observation. There were, however, other, though not very reliable, means of approximately ascertaining the ship's position which he was acquainted with, and he nerved himself afresh for a grapple with what most men would, under the circumstances, have considered insuperable difficulties.
He had two Spaniards who could be trusted to keep the steamer more or less on the course he gave them, while the Cumbria steerd handily, which is more than all steamers do. There was a large-scale chart, considerably mildewed, but still legible, in the skipper's room, as well as a pilot guide to the West African coast, while the patent log that towed astern to record the distance run appeared to be working accurately. He could thus, it was evident, depend in some degree upon what is termed dead reckoning, which is comparatively reliable in the case of short distances run in the vicinity of a high, well lighted coast. The one the Cumbria steamed along was, however, not lighted at all, and most of it scarcely rose a foot above sea-level, while when he had ruled the line she was presumed to be travelling on across the chart, and pricked off the distance the patent log told him she had run, there remained the question how far the tide and the Guinea stream had deflected it, and whether the steering and her compasses could be trusted.
It was also rather an important question; and when he had, on several occasions, peered for an hour at a time through Jefferson's glasses in search of a cape or island which the chart indicated should be met with, and saw only a hazy line of beach, or a dingy smear on the horizon which might be mangroves, or, quite as likely, a trail of mist, the probability of his ever reaching the Canaries seemed very remote indeed.
There would, he fancied, be no great difficulty in obtaining a mate and two or three seamen from one of the steamers he came across, but in that case the strangers would expect half the value of the Cumbria
's hull and cargo, and very likely make their claim to it good. He was also aware that more experienced skippers than he was had put their ships ashore upon that coast. But what troubled him most was the fact that if he lost sight of it, or found no point that he could identify, he would have nothing to start from when he must boldly head her out across the open ocean.
She had rolled along at six to eight knots, with the big pump going, for several days, when a trail of smoke crept out of the Western horizon. Austin watched it anxiously, and when at last a strip of black hull and a yellow funnel grew into shape beneath it, summoned the donkey-man, and with his assistance, which was not especially reliable, worried over the signal code painted on the flag rack in the wheel-house when he had stopped the engines. It was almost obliterated, and most of the flags themselves were missing; but between them they picked out sundry strips of mildewed bunting and sent them up to the masthead. The little West-coast mailboat was close alongside now, and flags also commenced to flutter up between her masts, while her whistle screamed in long and short blasts. Austin, anxious as he was, laughed a little.
"That is apparently the Morse code, and it's unfortunate that neither of us understands it," he said. "I presume it means that they can make nothing of our flags, and one could hardly blame them. Any way, we have got to stop her."
Tom grinned as he pulled an armful of tattered ensigns out of a locker. "This one should do the trick," he said. "I'd start the whistle."
Austin drew the lanyard, and when the ensign blew out on the hot air Union down, the mailboat stopped, and, considering that they were steamboat men, her crew had a white gig over in a very creditable time. She came flying towards the Cumbria with four negroes at the oars, and when she slid alongside a young mate in trim white uniform came up a rope.
"You might have slung me the ladder down," he said, gazing about him in blank astonishment. "Paint is evidently scarce where you come from. I've seen smarter craft in a wrecker's yard. Still, I can't stop here talking. What do you want?"
"A doctor, for one thing," said Austin, to gain time.
"We have half the crew down in the forecastle."
The mate walked to the rails and shouted to his boat-boys, while, when the gig slid away, he pointed up at the drooping flags as he turned to Austin.
"I suppose it's artistic, the colouring, I mean," he said.
"Still, it's a trifle difficult to make out by either code." Austin laughed. "Come into my room and have a drink. There are one or two things I want to ask you."
Five minutes later he spread a mildewed chart on the table as they sat with a bottle of Jacinta's wine before them.
"Now," he said, "if you will tell me exactly where we are, I'd be much obliged to you."
"You don't know?" and the mate looked at him curiously.
"Since you can't undertake any salvage operations with the mails on board, I don't mind admitting that I'm far from sure. You see, we have only one navigator, and if you were forward just now you would hear him raving. I've got to take her somehow – on dead reckoning – to the Canaries."
The mate opened his mouth and gasped. "Well," he said simply, "may I be – !"
"I suppose that's natural, but it isn't much use to me. I've been creeping along the coast, so far, but it's evident that if I stick to it I won't reach Las Palmas. I want a definite point from which to make a start for the ocean run."
The mate pulled a pin out of the chart, and, measuring with the dividers, stuck it in again. "You're not quite so much out as I expected you would be," he said. "It's a straight run to the Isleta, Grand Canary. Whether you'll ever get there with the compass and the patent log is another matter, though, of course, if you go on long enough, you'll fetch some part of America. I don't want to be unduly inquisitive, but you will have lost, at least, an hour of our time before I put Pills on board again, and I really think there is a little you should tell me."
Austin briefly outlined his adventures, and when he had finished the mate brought his fist down with a bang on the table.
"Well," he said, "you have evidently excellent nerves of your own, and I'm not quite so sure as I was that you'll never get her home. I don't mind admitting now that at first I thought you were crazy. It's evident that your compass and patent log are all right, but you'll have to get your latitude and longitude, at least, occasionally, and I'll bend on some signals any skipper you come across would understand. If he's particularly good-natured he might chalk it on a board."
He stopped a moment with a little sardonic smile. "As a matter of fact, it's not quite so unusual a question as you might suppose."
Austin thanked him profusely, and felt a good deal easier when he and the mailboat's doctor, who arrived presently and gave him good advice, went away. Then, with a blast of her whistle, the Cumbria steamed on to the West again, and it was three or four days later, and she was plunging along with dripping forecastle at a little over six knots against the trades, when Austin had trouble with Jefferson. He was asleep in his room, aft, and, awakening suddenly, wondered for a moment or two what was wrong, until it dawned on him that it was the unusual quietness which had roused him. Then he sprang from his berth and hastened out on deck, for it was evident that the engines had stopped.
There was clear moonlight overhead, and the ship was rolling heavily, while as he looked forward a clamour broke out beneath the bridge, where grimy men came scrambling up from the stoke-hole gratings. It was light enough for him to see their blackened faces and their excited gestures. Other men were, he fancied, from the pattering on the iron deck, also moving in that direction from the forecastle; but what most astonished him was the sight of a gaunt white figure pacing up and down the bridge. While he gazed at it, Wall-eye came running towards him breathlessly.
"The Se?or Jefferson has stopped the ship!" he said. "He has a pistol, and Maccario, who is shut up in the wheel-house, shouts us that he will go back to Africa again!"
Austin, who knew a little about malarial fever by this time, ran forward, and met Tom at the foot of the bridge ladder. The latter laid a grimy finger on his forehead significantly.
"Right off his dot! I don't know what's to be done," he said. "It would be easier if he hadn't that pistol."
A gong clanged beneath them while they considered it, and Tom shook his head. "He has been ringing all over the telegraph, from full speed to hard astern," he said. "I don't know if he'd give you the pistol, but when I got half way up the ladder he said he'd put a bullet into me. Any way, if you went up and talked to him while I crawled up quiet by the other ladder, I might get him by the foot or slip in behind him."
Austin was by no means anxious to face the pistol, but it was evident that something must be done, and he went up the ladder as unconcernedly as he could. When he reached the head of it Jefferson beat upon the wheel-house window with his fist.
"What's her head to the westwards for?" he said. "Port, hard over! Can't you hear inside there?"
The steering engine rattled, and it was evident that the helmsman was badly afraid, but in another moment Jefferson had swung away from the wheel-house, and was wrenching at the telegraph again.
"What's the matter with these engines?" he said. "I want her backed while I swing her under a ported helm. I'll plug somebody certain if this is a mutiny."
He opened the big revolver, and closed it with a suggestive click, while it cost Austin an effort to walk quietly along the bridge. Jefferson's eyes were glittering, his hair hung down on his face, which was grey and drawn, dark with perspiration, and his hands and limbs were quivering. His voice, however, although a trifle hoarser, was very like his usual one, so much so, in fact, that Austin found it difficult to believe the man's mind was unhinged by fever. He whirled round when he heard Austin, without a trace of recognition in his eyes.
"Now," he said, "why can't I get what I want done?"
"You're very sick," said Austin quietly. "Hadn't you better go back to bed?"
Jefferson laughed. "Yes," he said, "I guess I am, or these brutes wouldn't try to take advantage of me. Still, in another minute you're going to see me make a hole in somebody!"
He leaned heavily on the bridge rails, with the pistol glinting in his hand, and Austin endeavoured to answer him soothingly.
"What do you want to go back to Africa for?" he said. "There wouldn't be any difficulty about it if it was necessary."
"Funnel-paint's there. They brought me away when I was sick, or I'd have killed him." He made a little gesture, and dropped his hoarse voice. "You see, I had a partner who stood by me through everything, and Funnel-paint sent down a – rotting nigger!"
"Your partner's all right," said Austin, who saw that Jefferson was as far from recognising him as ever. "I've excellent reasons for being sure of it."
Jefferson leaned towards him confidentially, with one hand on the rails.
"It hasn't come out, but it's bound to get him. The nigger had his arms round him. Then he'll have to hide in a dark hole where nobody can see him, while the flesh rots off him, until he dies."
Austin could not help a shiver. He knew the thing might happen, and he realised now that it had also been in Jefferson's mind. Still, it was, in the meanwhile, his business to get the pistol from the latter, and then put him in his berth, by force, if necessary.
"The difficulty is that you can't kill a man twice," he said. "I seem to have a notion that you hove a stick of dynamite into Funnel-paint's canoe."
"I could have done, and I meant to, but my partner was with me. I had to humour him. That man stood by me."
Austin stood still, looking at him, a little bewildered by it all. The mailboat doctors and some of the traders he had met at Las Palmas had more than once related curious examples of the mental aberration which now and then results from malarial fever. Still, Jefferson, whom he had left scarcely fit to raise his head in his bunk, was now apparently almost sensible; and, what was more astonishing, able, at least, to walk about. Then, when he wondered how he was to get his comrade down from the bridge, the latter turned to him with a sudden change of mood.
"You're keeping me talking while they play some trick on me," he said. "All right! In another moment you'll be sorry."
The pistol went up, and Austin set his lips while a little shiver of dismay ran through him. The ladder he had come up by was some distance away, the wheel-house, at least, as far, and he stood clear in the moonlight, realising that the first move he made would probably lead to Jefferson squeezing the trigger. Then, with sudden bitterness, he remembered what, it seemed, was in his blood, and felt astonished that he should be troubled by physical fear. It would be a swifter and cleaner end if his comrade killed him there. That consideration, however, only appealed to his reason, and the reflection came that Jefferson would probably never shake off the recollection of what he had done; and, knowing it was safest, he braced himself to stand motionless, while the perspiration dripped from him, steadily eyeing the fever-crazed man.
"If you will let me tell you why we are steaming west it would save a good deal of trouble," he said, as soothingly as he could, though his voice shook. "You see, you were too sick to understand, and you're not very well yet."
Jefferson, somewhat to his astonishment, seemed willing to listen, but he was, unfortunately, far from the side of the bridge below which Austin surmised that Tom was crouching. He risked a glance round, but the helmsman evidently dare not leave the wheel-house, for which Austin could not blame him, and the Spaniards stood clustered together gazing up at them from below. Austin decided that if he signed or called to them Jefferson would use the pistol, though he fancied that one of them was trying to make him understand something.
Then suddenly a shadowy form glided out from behind the wheel-house, where Jefferson could not see it. There was a rush of feet, and a spring, and Jefferson went down heavily with another man, who wound his arms round him. They rolled against the bridge rails, and a breathless voice called to Austin.
"Get hold of the pistol!" it said.
Austin wrenched it from his comrade; men came scrambling up the ladder, and in another moment or two they had Jefferson helpless, and set about carrying him to his room. When they laid him in his berth his strength seemed to suddenly melt away, and he lay limp and still, only babbling incoherently. Austin ventured to give him a sedative, and then, leaving Wall-eye to watch him, went out on deck. Tom, who was waiting for him, made a little deprecatory gesture.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Austin, but he never came near my side of the bridge," he said. "If I had got up he'd have dropped me with the pistol, and that wouldn't have done much good to anybody."
"Of course not," said Austin. "I was uncommonly thankful when Bill got hold of him. Send him along to my room, and then start your engines."
In another two or three minutes the Cumbria was steaming west again, and Bill, the fireman, stood, somewhat sheepishly, in the doorway of Austin's room.
"I owe you a good deal, and when the time comes I'll endeavour to remember it," said the latter. "Still, I don't want Mr. Jefferson ever to know anything about the thing. You did it cleverly."
Bill grinned. "Well," he said, "I'm quite glad I did. I felt I had to do something for my five pounds, any way."
It dawned upon Austin that once or twice, when he had somewhat risky work to do, Bill had been near him.
"What five pounds?" he asked.
"The five pounds she shoved into my hand one night on board the Estremedura– no – the fact is, I'm feeling a little shaky, and I don't quite know what I'm saying. The getting hold of Mr. Jefferson has upset me. When you think of it, it's only natural."
"Then it has come on very suddenly," said Austin. "You seemed all right a moment or two ago. Am I to understand that somebody gave you five pounds to look after me?"
It was evident to Bill that there was nothing to be gained by further reticence, and he edged out of the doorway, grinning more broadly than ever.
"Well," he said, "I guess she meant you, though she said it was both of you. Still, you won't tell her, or I sha'n't get any more."
He had vanished before Austin could ask another question, but the matter was quite clear to the latter, and his face grew hot while a little thrill of satisfaction ran through him as he recognised that Jacinta had felt it worth while to do what she could to ensure his safety. Then he remembered something else, and his face grew hard as he pulled off his jacket and glanced at his bare arm.
He had torn and abraded it heaving in oil and coal, and the gunboat's surgeon had warned him that it was advisable to keep his skin unbroken. There were several half-hardened scars upon it now, and another had been torn away when he fell against the rail in a heavy lurch a day or two earlier. He had worn no jacket at the time. He had since noticed a curious tingling sensation in that part of his arm, and, holding it nearer the lamp, he saw that the flesh was inflamed about the wound. There was no doubt about the fact. When he pressed it with his thumb all the lower arm was sore, and he let it fall limply to his side, and sat down with a little groan. The horrible thing he shrank from had, it seemed, come upon him. He sat very still for half an hour, grappling with a numbing sense of dismay, and then, with a little shake of his shoulders, went back to the bridge, for he had still a duty to his comrades.
AUSTIN IS MISSING
It was a fine morning, and the signal, "Steamer approaching from the South," was flying from the staff high up on the Isleta hill, when Pancho Brown's boat lay heaving on the smooth swell at the entrance to Las Palmas harbour. Mrs. Hatherly, Jacinta, and Muriel sat in the stern-sheets, and beyond them two barefooted Canarios were resting on their oars, while two or three miles away a smear of smoke that half hid a streak of dusky hull moved towards them across the shining sea. Brown was watching it attentively with a pair of marine glasses in his hand.
"You have brought me off several times for nothing, but I almost think our friends have turned up at last," he said. "Of course, from Lieutenant Onslow's cable she should have been here several days ago, but it's very likely the engines would give them trouble. Any way, we'll know in ten minutes or so. There's the Sanidad going off."
A launch crept out from the mole, and behind her in the harbour boats were being got afloat. Coaling clerks, tobacco and wine merchants, and a miscellaneous crowd of petty dealers, were waiting to step on board, but two, at least, of Pancho Brown's party had no eyes for them. They were watching the incoming steamer rise higher out of the shining sea, and wondering if she was the one they had for the last few days looked for with tense anxiety. They had Onslow's cable from Sierra Leone, and the skipper of a big tramp which had come in for coals reported that a small British steamer had asked him for the latitude and longitude a week before. Nothing, however, had since been heard of her, and Jacinta had found the last three or four days as trying as Muriel did. The latter had, however, borne the suspense bravely, and displayed a sublime confidence in her lover which Jacinta, for no very obvious reason, found almost exasperating at times.скачать книгу бесплатно