Chapter 34 | The Untrustworthy Agent | Blue Jackets

Chapter Thirty Four.

“Eaten, Herrick,” said Mr Brooke in a low voice.

“Not yet, sir,” I said.

I don’t know how it was that I said those words. They came to my lips and I uttered them, making Mr Brooke turn round upon me sharply, in the grey light of dawn.

“What do you mean by that, boy?” he said.

“Mean? I don’t—I—that is,”—I stammered; “I wouldn’t give up yet, sir.”

“What would you do? wait for them to come back?” he said bitterly.

“No,” I cried, gaining courage; “go after them, sir.”

“And attack and take them with this boat, Herrick?” he said, smiling at me rather contemptuously.

“Of course we couldn’t do that, sir,” I said, “but we might follow and keep them in sight. We should know where they went.”

“Yes,” he said, after a moment’s thought; “but we may be away for days, and we must have provisions. What is to be done?”

“You likee me buy blead and fish, and plenty good to eat?” said Ching in rather a shrinking way.

“Yes,” said Mr Brooke, turning upon the Celestial sharply. “Where shall we land you?”

“There,” said Ching, pointing to the shore about a mile up from where we lay.

“But it’s going back, and we shall lose sight of the junks, Ching,” I said.

“Plenty blead there. Ching know the way.”

“But one moment, Mr Brooke,” I said; “are we sure that those are the right junks?”

“I feel sure,” he said. “What do you say, my lads?”

“Ay, ay, sir, them’s right,” chorussed the men.

“Yes, Ching velly sure those pilate junk.”

“I know one on ’em, sir,” said Jecks, “by her great yard. I never see a junk with such a big un afore. Talk about the cut of a jib—I says, look at the cut of her mainsail.”

“Well, we must have food and water, if we are going out of the mouth of the river,” said Mr Brooke, and he turned the boat’s head shoreward.

“No makee haste,” said Ching deprecatingly. “Too soon, evelybody fas’ asleep.”

Mr Brooke gave an impatient stamp on the frail bamboo half-deck, but said no more for a few moments.

“We must wait if we are too soon, for it would be madness to go without food and water.”

He was silent for a time, during which the men watched the distant junks, and as they stood out more and more boldly in the morning light, we compared notes, and made comments upon them, all growing more and more satisfied that these were the two of which we were in search.

“Yes, they must be,” said Mr Brooke at last, after listening for some time to the men’s conversation. “The very fact of their sailing in company is suggestive. Seems odd, though, doesn’t it, Herrick?” he half whispered.

“What? their getting by us, sir, in the dark?”

“No; I mean, after making up my mind that this fellow Ching was a traitor, and that I would have no more to do with him, to find myself forced at every turn to rest upon him for help. Lesson for you, lad.”

“In what way, sir?”

“Not to have too much faith in yourself. I am beginning to hope that I have been deceived about him, but we shall soon have proof.”

“I feel sure you are misjudging him, sir,” I said eagerly.

“Yes, with a boy’s readiness to trust.”

“But I feel sure he is honest, sir.”

“Well, we shall soon see.”

I looked at him for an explanation, and he smiled.

“I am going to give him some money, and send him ashore to buy provisions. If he is dishonest he will not come back.”

“But he will come back,” I said confidently.

“We shall see, my lad,” he replied; and once more he was silent, after handing the tiller to me, and looking back longingly at the two junks, which were apparently making no way, for the wind was blowing dead now into the mouth of the river.

Early as it was, there were people stirring as we approached the landing-place Ching had pointed out, and he nodded with satisfaction.

“Allee light,” he said, smiling. “Get plenty blead, meat. You fillee big tub with water;” and he pointed to a large rough vessel, and another which was a great earthenware jar.

“But where are we to get the water?” I said.

“Out o’ liver. Plenty water in liver.”

“We can’t drink that peasoup,” I said, as I looked over the side in disgust at the yellow solution of mud.

“Velly good water. Allee salt gone now. Plenty clear by and by.”

“We must make the best of it, Herrick,” said my companion; and then turning to Ching, he said rather sternly—

“Here are eight dollars: buy as much bread and cooked meat as you can, and get back as quickly as possible, when we set you ashore.”

Ching nodded and smiled.

“Be velly quick,” he said; “and you take boat lit’ way out, and stop till come back.”

“Of course; trust us for that, my man.”

Ten minutes later we ran alongside some rough bamboo piles, to which about half-a-dozen Chinamen hurried, to stand staring at us. But Ching paid no attention to them. He only made a leap from the boat when we were a couple of yards from the platform, landed safely but with tail flying, and his blue cotton garment inflating balloon-like with the wind. Then he walked away among the houses, and one of our men pushed the boat off again, evidently to the intense wonder of the people, who stared hard to see a British sailor managing a native vessel; while two others, in a costume perfectly new to them, sat looking on.

Then our men were packed out of sight, some in the little cabin, others hidden at the bottom of the boat, beneath a matting-sail.

When we were about a hundred yards from the shore, a clumsy wooden grapnel, to which a heavy stone was bound with a twisted rope of bamboo, was dropped overboard, and then we lay in the swift tide, with the boat tugging at the line as if eager to be off on the chase the stern necessity concerning food kept us from carrying on at once.

“How these people do seem to detest us, Herrick!” said Mr Brooke, after we had been waiting patiently for about a quarter of an hour, impatiently another, but not quite in idleness, for, after tasting the river water to find that it was very slightly brackish now, the tub and the jar were both filled and left to settle.

“Yes, they’re not very fond of us,” I replied, as I noted how the numbers were increasing, and that now there was a good deal of talking going on, and this was accompanied by gesticulations, we evidently being the objects of their interest. “They can’t have much to do.”

Mr Brooke made no reply, but moment by moment he grew more uneasy, as he alternately scanned the people ashore and the junks in the offing.

“Oh,” I said at last, “if we could only see the Teaser coming up the river!”

“I’d be content, Herrick,” said Mr Brooke bitterly, “if we could only see the messenger coming back with our stores.”

“Yes,” I said uneasily, for I had been fidgeting a good deal; “he is a long time.”

“Yes,” said Mr Brooke, looking at me very fixedly, till I avoided his gaze, for I knew he was thinking of my defence of Ching.

“Perhaps the bakers’ shops are not open,” I said at last.

“Perhaps this is not London, my lad. It’s of no use for you to defend him; I begin to feel sure that he has left us in the lurch.”

“Oh, wait a little longer, please, Mr Brooke,” I cried; and I vainly scanned the increasing crowd upon the platform and shore, and could see, instead of Ching, that the people were growing more and more excited, as they talked together and kept pointing at us.

“I shall not wait much longer,” said Mr Brooke at last. “He has had plenty of time. Look here, my lads, we have plenty of water, and the business is urgent. You’ll have to be content with a drink and a pull at your waistbelts.”

“All right, sir,” said the coxswain; “what’s good enough for the orficers is good enough for us. We won’t grumble, eh, mates?”

There was a low growl here, but not of discontent.

“Then in another five minutes, if our Celestial friend does not come back, we shall start. I’ll give him that time.”

“Beg pardon, sir; they’re a siggling of us.”

“Signalling! who are?”

“The Chinees, sir.”

“Yes, look,” I said; for, after a good deal of talking and shouting, one man was standing close at the edge of the landing-place, and beckoning to us to come closer in.

“Likely,” I heard one of our men whisper. “Ducks.”

“Eh?” said another.

“Dill, dill, dill; will yer come and be killed?”

“What do they want, Herrick? To inveigle us ashore?”

“I know, sir for the reason of their excitement now came to me like a flash, and I wondered that I had not thought of it before.”

“Well, then. Speak out if you do know, my lad.”

“That’s it, sir. We’ve got a boat they know, and they think we’re stealing it.”

“Tut, tut, tut. Of course. That explains it. Very sorry, my friends, but we cannot spare it yet. You shall have her back and be paid for the use of it, when we’ve done with her.”

The shouts, gesticulations, and general excitement increased, two men now beckoning imperiously, and it was evident that they were ordering us to come to the landing-place at once.

“No, my friends,” said Mr Brooke, “we are not coming ashore. We know your gentle nature too well. But Ching is not coming, Herrick, so we’ll heave up the grapnel and be off.”

The crowd was now dense, and the excitement still increasing, but the moment they saw our coxswain, in obedience to an order given by Mr Brooke—in spite of an appealing look, and a request for another ten minutes—begin to haul up the rough grapnel, the noise ashore was hushed, and the gesticulations ceased.

“Five minutes more, Mr Brooke,” I whispered; “I feel sure that Ching will come.”

“Silence, sir,” he said coldly. “It is only what I expected. The man knows he is found out.”

By this time the boat was hauled up over the grapnel, and I shrank away in despair, feeling bitterly disappointed at Ching’s non-appearance, but full of confidence in him—faith the stronger for an intense desire to make up to the man for misjudging him before.

Then the grapnel was out of the mud, and hauled over the side; the boat began to yield to the tide; and Mr Brooke stepped to the mast himself, being unwilling to call the men in the cabin into the people’s sight.

“Come and take a hand at the rope here, coxswain,” said Mr Brooke. “Mr Herrick, take the tiller.”

But at the first grasp of our intention, as they saw the preparation for hoisting the sail, there was a fierce yell from the shore, and the people scattered to right and left.

“What does that mean?” I said to myself. But the next instant I knew, for they were making for different boats, into which they jumped, and rapidly began to unmoor.

“Humph! time we were off,” said Mr Brooke. “Hoist away, man, I cannot do it alone.”

“I am a-hysting, sir, but the tackle’s got foul somehow. It’s this here rough rope. The yard won’t move.”

“Tut tut—try, man, try.”

“All right, sir, I’ll swarm up the the mast, and set it free.”

“But there is no time, my man. Haul—haul.”

The man did haul, but it was like pulling at a fixed rope, and the sail obstinately refused to move, while to my horror there were no less than six boats pushing off, and I foresaw capture, a Chinese prison, and severe punishment—if we could not get help—for stealing a boat.

“All hands on deck,” cried Mr Brooke, making use of the familiar aboard-ship order, and just as the first two boats were coming rapidly on, and were within a dozen yards, our Jacks sprang up armed and ready.

The effect was magical. Evidently taken by surprise, the Chinamen stopped short, and the boats all went on drifting slowly down the stream. But at the end of a minute, as we made no attack, but all stood awaiting orders, they recovered their confidence, uttered a shout to encourage one another, and came on.

“I don’t want to injure them,” Mr Brooke muttered, but he was forced to act. “Give them the butts of your pieces, my lads, if they try to lay hold of the boat. Mind, they must be kept off.”

He had no time to say more, but seized the fowling-piece as the first boat was rowed alongside, and amidst a fierce burst of objurgations, in a tongue we could not understand, a couple of men seized the gunwale of the boat, while two more jumped aboard.

The men who caught hold let go again directly, for the butts of the men’s rifles and the gunwale were both hard for fingers, and the Chinese yelled, and the two who leaped aboard shrieked as they were seized and shot out of the boat again.

But by this time another craft of about our own size had come alongside, and was hanging on to us, while four more were trying to get in, and others were pushing off from the shore.

We were being surrounded; and, enraged by our resistance, while gaining courage from their numbers and from the fact that we made no use of cutlass or rifle, they now made desperate efforts to get aboard.

Our men were getting desperate too, and in another minute there must have been deplorable bloodshed, the more to be regretted as it would have been between our sailors and a friendly power, when Jecks, after knocking a Chinaman back into his own boat with his fist, stooped and picked up the boat-hook we had brought on board from our now sunken cutter. With this he did wonders, using it like a cue, Barkins afterwards said, when I described the struggle, and playing billiards with Chinese heads. But, be that as it may, he drove back at least a dozen men, and then attacked one of the boats, driving the pole right through the thin planking and sending the water rushing in.

But we were still in imminent danger of being taken prisoners, and, as he afterwards told me, Mr Brooke was thinking seriously of sending a charge of small-shot scattering amongst the crowd, when two of our lads seized the sheet and began to try and hoist the matting-sail, and to my intense delight I saw it begin to go up as easily as could be.

I flew to the tiller, but found a big Chinaman before me, and in an instant he had me by the collar and was tugging me over the side. But I clung to it, felt a jerk as there was a loud rap, and, thanks to Tom Jecks, the man rolled over into the water, and began to swim.

“Now for it, my lads,” shouted Mr Brooke. “All together; over with them!”

The men cheered and struck down with the butts of their rifles, the boat-hook was wielded fiercely, and half-a-dozen of our assailants were driven out of the boat, but not into the others, for they fell with splash after splash into the river. For our vessel careened over as the sail caught the full pressure of the wind, and then made quite a bound from the little craft by which she was surrounded.

Then a cheer arose, for we knew we could laugh at our enemies, who were being rapidly left behind; and, while some dragged their swimming companions into their boats, the others set up a savage yelling; gesticulating, and no doubt telling us how, if they caught us, they would tear us into little bits.

“Well done, my lads,” cried Mr Brooke. “Splendid, splendid. Couldn’t have been better. Excellent, Mr Herrick; ease her a little, ease her. We must have a reef in that sail. All left behind, then; no pursuit?” and he looked astern as our boat rushed through the water, and then he frowned, for one of the men said—

“Yes, sir; here’s one on ’em from the shore coming arter us full sail, and she’s going as fast as we.”

And once more, as I looked behind me, holding on the while by the tiller, I seemed to see the inside of a Chinese prison after we had been pretty well stoned to death; for it was a good-sized boat that was gliding after us at a rapid rate, and threatening to overtake us before long.