Chapter 13 | A Wild-Beasts’ Cage | Blue Jackets

Chapter Thirteen.

All doubts as to our next destination were set at rest the next morning, for it was generally known that we were making for Tsin-Tsin, at the mouth of the Great Fo river, where the prisoners were to be delivered over to the Chinese authorities.

I had been pretty busy all the morning with Barkins and Smith, going from one to the other, to sit with them and give them what news I could, both looking rather glum when I went away, for they were feverish and fretful from their wounds. But I promised to return soon with news of the men, who were all together in a cool, well-ventilated part of the ’tween-decks, seeming restful and patient, the doctor having been round, and, in his short, decisive way, given them a few words of encouragement.

I saw their faces light up as I went down between the two rows in which they were laid, and stopped for a chat with those I knew best, about the way in which they had received their wounds, the coxswain of our boat being the most talkative.

“They all got it ’bout the same way, sir,” he said. “It all comes of trying to do the beggars a good turn. Who’d ever have thought it, eh, sir? Trying to save a fellow from drownding, and knives yer!”

They were all very eager to know what was to become of the prisoners, and upon my telling the poor fellows what I knew, I heard them giving their opinions to one another in a lying-down debate.

“Seems a pity,” said one of the men. “Takes all that there trouble, we does; captivates ’em; and then, ’stead o’ having the right to hang ’em all decently at the yard-arm, we has to give ’em up to the teapots.”

“How are you going to hang ’em decently?” said another voice.

“Reg’lar way, o’ course, matey.”

“Yah, who’s going to do it? British sailors don’t want turning into Jack Ketches.”

“’Course not,” said a third. “Shooting or cutting a fellow down in fair fight’s one thing; taking prisoners and hanging on ’em arterwards, quite another pair o’ shoes. I says as the skipper’s right.”

“Hear, hear!” rose in chorus, and it seemed to be pretty generally agreed that we should be very glad to get rid of the savage brutes.

I was on my way back to where Smith lay, when I encountered the doctor, who gave me a friendly nod.

“At your service, Mr Herrick,” he said, “when you want me; and, by the way, my lad, your messmate Barkins has got that idea in his head still, about the poisoned blade. Try and laugh him out of it. Thoughts like that hinder progress, and it is all nonsense. His is a good, clean, healthy wound.”

He passed on, looking very business-like, and his dresser followed, while I went on to see Smith.

“Good, clean, healthy wound!” I said to myself; “I believe he takes delight in such things.”

I turned back to look after him, but he was gone.

“Why, he has been to attend to the prisoners,” I thought, and this set me thinking about them. To think about them was to begin wishing to have a look at them, and to begin wishing was with me to walk forward to where they were confined, with a couple of marines on duty with loaded rifles and fixed bayonets.

The men challenged as I marched up.

“It’s all right,” I said. “I only want to have a look at them.”

“Can’t pass, sir, without orders,” said the man.

“But I’m an officer,” I said testily. “I’m not going to help them escape.”

The marine grinned.

“No, sir, ’tain’t likely; but we has strict orders. You ask my mate, sir.”

“Yes, sir; that’s it, sir,” said the other respectfully.

“What a bother!” I cried impatiently. “I only wanted to see how they looked.”

“’Tain’t my fault, sir; strict orders. And they ain’t very pretty to look at, sir, and it’d be ’most as safe to go in and see a box o’ wild-beasts. Doctor’s been in this last hour doin’ on ’em up, with depitty, and two on us inside at the ‘present’ all the time. They’d think nothing o’ flying at him, and all the time he was taking as much pains with them as if they were some of our chaps. They have give it to one another awful.”

“Well, I am sorry,” I said. “I should have liked to see them.”

“So’m I sorry, sir; I’d have let you in a minute, but you don’t want to get me in a row, sir.”

“Oh no, of course not,” I said.

“My mate here says, sir—”

“Get out! Hold your row,” growled the other, protesting.

“Yes, what does he say?” I cried eagerly.

“That if we was to shut ’em up close in the dark and not go anigh, sir, till to-morrow morning, there wouldn’t be nothing left but one o’ their tails.”

“Like the Kilkenny cats, eh?” I said, laughing; and I went back on deck with the desire to see the prisoners stronger than ever.

Captain Thwaites was on the quarter-deck, marching up and down, and the men were hard at work cleaning up, squaring the yards, and repainting. The spars were up in their places again, and the Teaser was rapidly resuming her old aspect, when I saw Mr Reardon go up to the captain.

“I’ll ask leave,” I said. “He has been pretty civil;” and I made up my mind to wait till the lieutenant came away.

“No, I won’t,” I said. “I’ll go and ask the captain when he has gone.”

The next moment I felt that this would not do, for Mr Reardon would be sure to know, and feel vexed because I had not asked him.

“I’ll go and ask leave while they are both together,” I said to myself. “That’s the way.”

But I knew it wasn’t, and took a turn up and down till I saw Mr Reardon salute and come away, looking very intent and busy.

I waited till he was pretty close, and then started to intercept him.

His keen eye was on me in an instant.

“Bless my soul, Mr Herrick!” he cried, “what are you doing? Surely your duty does not bring you here?”

“No, sir,” I said, saluting. “I beg your pardon, sir; I’ve been going backward and forward to Mr Barkins and Mr Smith.”

“Ho! Pair of young noodles; what did they want in the boats? Getting hurt like that. Well?”

“Beg pardon, sir; would you mind giving me permission to see the prisoners?”

“What! why?”

“I wanted to see them, sir, and go back and tell my messmates about how they looked.”

“Humbug!” he cried. “Look here, sir, do you think I have nothing else to do but act as a wild-beast showman, to gratify your impertinent curiosity? Let the miserable wretches be.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And be off to your cabin and study your navigation, sir. Your ignorance of the simplest matters is fearful. At your age you ought to be as well able to use a sextant as I am.”

“Beg pardon, sir, I am trying.”

“Then be off and try more, and let me see some results.”

I touched my cap, drew back, and the lieutenant marched on.

“Jolly old bear!” I muttered, looking exceedingly crestfallen.

“Herrick!” came sharply, and I ran up, for he was walking on, and I had to keep up with him.

“Yes, sir.”

“You behaved very well yesterday. I’m horribly busy. Here, this way.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said, wondering what he was going to set me to do, and thinking that he might have given me the permission I asked.

“Now then, quick,” he said; and, to my surprise, he led the way to the hatchway, went down, and then forward to where the two marines were on duty, ready to present arms to the officer who always seemed of far more importance in the ship than the captain.

“Let Mr Herrick pass in, marines,” he said. “Keep a sharp eye on your prisoners.”

I gave him a look of thanks, and then felt disappointed again.

“Stop,” he said; “fetch up two more men and a lantern, Herrick.”

I gladly obeyed; and then the door was opened. After a look in through the grating, and followed closely by three of the marines with their rifles ready, we walked in to where the prisoners were squatted upon their heels all round close up against the bulkheads, bandaged terribly about the faces and necks, and with their fierce eyes glowering at us.

I had expected to find them lying about like wounded men, but, bad as several were, they all occupied this sitting position, and glared at us in a way that told us very plainly how unsafe it would be to trust our lives in their keeping even for a minute.

“Beg pardon, sir,” whispered the corporal of marines, who was carrying a lantern; “better be on the look-out.”

“Oh yes,” said Mr Reardon. “We shall not stay. I only wanted a look round. Look sharp, Mr Herrick, and see what you want of them.”

“Doctor was dressing that farthest chap’s head, sir,” whispered the corporal to me; “and as soon as he was about done, the fellow watched his chance and fixed his teeth in the dresser’s arm, and wouldn’t let go till—”

“Well? Till what?” said Mr Reardon, gazing fixedly at the brutal countenance of one of the men right before us.

“We had to persuade him to let go.”

“Humph!” ejaculated the lieutenant. “Wild-beast.”

“How did you persuade him?” I whispered.

“With the butt-end of a rifle, sir; and then we had to wrench his teeth open with bayonets.”

I looked round from face to face, all ghastly from their wounds, to see in every one a fierce pair of eyes glaring at me with undying hatred, and I was wondering how it was that people could think of the Chinese as being a calm, bland, good-humoured Eastern race, when Mr Reardon said to me—

“Nearly ready, Herrick? The sight of these men completely takes away all compunction as to the way we treat them.”

“Yes, sir; and it makes one feel glad that they are not armed.”

“Ready to come away?”

“Yes, sir,” I said; “quite.”

“Come along, then.”

He took a step towards the door, when the corporal said, “Beg pardon, sir; better back out.”

“Eh? oh, nonsense!” said the lieutenant, without changing his position, while I, though I began to feel impressed with the glaring eyes, and to feel that the sooner we were out of the place the pleasanter it would be, thought that it would be rather undignified on the part of officers to show the wretches that we were afraid of them.

Just then Mr Reardon glanced sidewise to where one of the men on our left crouched near the door, and said quickly—

“The surgeon saw all these men this morning?”

“Yes, sir,” said the corporal, “not half an hour ago.”

“He must be fetched to that man. The poor wretch is ready to faint.”

“Yes, sir; he shall be fetched.”

Mr Reardon bent down to look at the prisoner more closely.

“Hold the lantern nearer,” he said.

The corporal lowered the light, which shone on the pirate’s glassy eyes, and there was a fixed look in his savage features which was very horrible.

“Get some water for him,” said Mr Reardon.

But hardly had the words left his lips when I was conscious of a rushing sound behind me. I was dashed sidewise, and one of the prisoners, who had made a tremendous spring, alighted on the lieutenant’s back, driving him forward as I heard the sound of a blow; the corporal was driven sidewise too, and the lantern fell from his hand. Then came a terrible shriek, and a scuffling, struggling sound, a part of which I helped to make, for I had been driven against one of the prisoners, who seized me, and as I wrestled with him I felt his hot breath upon my face, and his hands scuffling about to get a tight grip of my throat.