Chapter 40 | Another Enemy | Blue Jackets

Chapter Forty.

For as I looked towards the horizon away to the east, a curious lurid glow spread upward half-way to the zenith, and for the moment I thought that in a short time we should see the full-moon come slowly up out of the sea. But a few moments’ reflection told me that we were long past the full-moon time, and that it would be the last quarter late on in the night. The sea, too, began to wear a singular aspect, and great frothy clouds were gathering rapidly in the south. And even as I looked there was a peculiar moaning sigh, as if a great wind were passing over us at a great height, though the sea was only just pleasantly rippled, and a gentle breeze was sweeping us rapidly along and away from the great junk, which now seemed hazy and distant, while those we had watched so long were quite out of sight.

“Feel cold?” said Mr Brooke quietly. “I ought to have told you to take off and wring out your clothes.”

“Cold, sir!” I said wonderingly. “I hadn’t thought about it; I was so excited.”

“Yes; we had a narrow escape, my lad. It is a lesson in being careful with these cunning, treacherous wretches. You made sure it was a trader, Ching?”

“Ching neve’ quite su’e—only think so,” was the reply, accompanied by a peculiar questioning look, and followed by a glance over his right shoulder at the sky.

“No, I suppose not. I ought to have been more careful. They threw something down at the boat as soon as we had mounted: did they not, Jecks?”

“Yes, sir; I see it coming. Great pieces of ballast iron, as it took two on ’em to heave up over the bulwarks. I just had time to give the boat a shove with the hitcher when down it come. Gone through the bottom like paper, if I hadn’t. But beg pardon, sir, arn’t we going to have a storm?”

“Yes,” said Mr Brooke quietly; “I am running for the river, if I can make it. If not, for that creek we were in last night. Take the tiller, Mr Herrick,” he said, and he went forward.

“Going blow wind velly high. Gleat wave and knock houses down,” said Ching uneasily.

“Yes, my lad; we’re going to have what the Jay-pans calls a tycoon.”

“No, no, Tom Jecks,” I said, smiling.

“You may laugh, sir, but that’s so. I’ve sailed in these here waters afore and been in one. Had to race afore it with bare poles and holding on to the belaying-pins. Tycoons they call ’em, don’t they, Mr Ching?”

“Gleat blow storm,” said Ching, nodding. “Hullicane.”

“There you are, sir,” said Jecks. “Hurricanes or tycoons.”

“Typhoons,” I said.

“Yes, sir, that’s it, on’y you pernounces it different to me. Don’t make no difference in the strength on ’em,” he continued testily, for his wound was evidently painful, “whether you spells it with a kay or a phoo. Why, I seed big vessels arterwards, as had been blowed a quarter of a mile inland, where they could never be got off again.”

“Yes, I’ve heard of that sort of thing,” I said. “They ride in on a great wave and are left behind.”

“Lookye here, sir,” whispered the coxswain, who seemed to ignore his wound; “I don’t want to show no white feathers, nor to holler afore I’m hurt, but if I was you, I should ask Mr Brooke to run straight for the nearest shore—say one o’ them islands there, afore the storm comes; you arn’t got no idea what one o’ them tycoons is like. As for this boat, why, she’ll be like a bit o’ straw in a gale, and I don’t want to go to the bottom until I’ve seed you made a skipper; and besides, we’ve got lots more waspses’ nests to take, beside polishing off those three junks—that is, if they’re left to polish when the storm’s done.”

“Stand up, Mr Herrick,” cried the lieutenant. “Look yonder, due north. What do you see?”

I held the tiller between my knees as I stood up and gazed in the required direction, but could see nothing for a few minutes in the dusk.

“Can’t you see?”

“Yes, sir, now. Small round black cloud.”

“Yes, of smoke.”

“Ay, ay, sir, I see it,” said one of the sailors. “Hooray! it’s the Teaser with the wind blowing hard astern and carrying the smoke of her funnel right over her and ahead.”

“The Teaser or some other steamer; and she’s running fast for harbour. Let’s see: those are the Black Gull Islands to port there. Were you with us when the cutter’s crew landed, Jecks?”

“Yes, sir; I rowed stroke-oar, sir.”

“To be sure. The second one from the north had the highest ground.”

“Yes, sir; but you couldn’t land for the surf and the shark-fin rocks, if you remember.”

“Exactly; and we rowed along the south channel till we found a sheltered sand-cove, where we beached the cutter, and then explored the island. We must make for that channel, and try to reach it before the storm comes down. We could not get half-way to the river, and, thank heaven, the Teaset will soon be in safety.”

“No, sir, you couldn’t make no river to-night.”

“It will be dark too soon.”

“Not to-night, sir,” said Jecks sturdily.

“Yes, man; there will be no moon.”

“No, sir; but in less nor an hour’s time the sea ’ll be white as milk, and all of a greeny glow, same as it is some still nights in port. There won’t be no difficulty, sir, about seeing.”

“But you think it will be hard to make the channel?”

“I hope not, sir, but I’m afraid so; we can only try.”

“Yes, we can only try,” said Mr Brooke slowly, as he came and sat beside me. “And we must try, Herrick—our best. For this is no night to be out in almost an open boat.”

“Then you think there is danger, sir?” I said anxiously.

“No, Herrick,” he replied, smiling; “sailors have no time to think of danger. They have enough to think about without that. We must get in the lee of that island to-night, and it the storm holds back, and the little boat spins along like this, we ought to do it.”

“And if it doesn’t, sir?”

“If it doesn’t? Ah, well, we shall see. Stand by, two of you, ready to lower that sail at a moment’s notice.”

“Ay, ay, sir,” was the ready reply as two of the men changed their places; and just then I looked at Ching, to see that his face was lit up by the reflection of the strange light on our right and behind, which grew more striking, while away before us the land disappeared, and we were gazing at a bank of clouds of an inky black.

The effect was very curious: behind us the dull coppery glow becoming fainter minute by minute, as the darkness increased the blackness before us; and one’s instinct seemed to warn one to turn from the black darkness to sail away towards the light. Tom Jecks took the same idea, and said, in an irritable whisper, exactly what I thought—

“Seems rum, sir, don’t it, sir?—makes believe as that’s the best way, when all the time the wussest looking is the safest.”

Just then, after a glance round, Mr Brooke uttered another warning to the men to be ready, and settled himself down to the tiller.

“Sit fast, all of you; the hurricane may be down upon us at any moment now.”

I looked at him wonderingly, for it was painfully still, though the darkness was growing intense, and the great junk seemed to have been swallowed up by the clouds that hung low like a fog over the sea.

“There will be such a turmoil of the elements directly,” continued Mr Brooke in a low voice, but only to me, “that I don’t suppose a word will be heard.” Then aloud, “Look here, my lads; I shall try and run the boat high upon the sands at the top of some breaker. Then it will be every man for himself. Never mind the boat—that is sure to be destroyed—but each man try to save his arms and ammunition; and if the two wounded men are in difficulties, of course you will lend a hand. Now then, one more order: The moment I say, ‘Down with the sail,’ drag it from the mast, and two oars are to be out on either side. The wind will catch them and send us along, and I want them to give a few dips to get on the top of a roller to carry us in.”

“Ay, ay, sir.”

“That’s all.”

His words in that terrible stillness sounded to me as almost absurd, for the sea was still calm, and save that sighing in the air of which I have before spoken, there was no further sound; and at last I said to him—

“Do you really think we shall have a hurricane?”

“Look at the sky, my lad,” he replied; “and take this as a lesson to one who will have men’s lives depending upon his knowledge and skill some day. If ever there were signs of an awful night in the Chinese seas, it is now. Hark at that!”

“Guns! The Teaser!” I exclaimed excitedly.

“Heaven’s artillery that, my lad,” he said solemnly. Then in a whisper, “Shake hands! I’ll help you all I can, Herrick, but heaven knows how we shall be situated soon.”

I felt a strange sensation of awe creep over me, as he gripped my hand warmly, and then snatched his away, and sat up firm and rigid, turning his head to the east as all now became suddenly black—so dark that I could hardly see the men before me and the sail. But still we glided rapidly on over the long smooth rollers, on and on toward the islands, which lay a short distance from the mainland.

“It will be all guess work,” whispered Mr Brooke. “I am keeping her head as near as I can guess for the channel, but the breakers will soon be our only guide.”

Then came the heavy roar again, which I had taken for guns, but it did not cease as before, when it sounded like a sudden explosion. It was now continuous, and rapidly increasing.

“Thunder?” I asked in a low voice.

“Wind. Tremendous. It will be on us in five minutes.”

But even then it seemed impossible, for we were still sailing swiftly and gently along towards the channel between the islands, and the roar like distant thunder or heavy guns had once more ceased.

“We shall get to the shore first after all,” I whispered.


At that moment there was a sensation as of a hot puff of air behind us. It literally struck my head just as if a great furnace door had been opened, and the glow had shot out on to our necks.

“Here she comes,” growled Tom Jecks; “and good luck to us.”

And then, as if to carry out the idea of the opened furnace, it suddenly grew lighter—a strange, weird, wan kind of light—and on either side, and running away from us on to the land, the sea was in a wild froth as if suddenly turned to an ocean of milk.

“Down with the sail!” shouted Mr Brooke, who had held on to the last moment, so as to keep the boat as long as possible under his governance; and quickly as disciplined men could obey the sail was lowered, and as far as I could see they were in the act of stowing it along the side, when it filled out with a loud report, and was snatched from their hands and gone.

“Any one hurt?”

“No, sir,” in chorus.


I heard the rattle of the two pairs being thrust out. Next Mr Brooke’s words, yelled out by my ear—“sit fast!” and then there was a heavy blow, heavy but soft and pressing, followed by the stinging on my neck as of hundreds of tiny whips, and then we were rushing along over the white sea, in the midst of a mass—I can call it nothing else—of spray, deafened, stunned, feeling as if each moment I should be torn out of my seat, and as if the boat itself were being swept along like lightning over the sea, riding, not on heavy water, but on the spray.

Then all was one wild, confusing shriek and roar. I was deafened; something seemed to clutch me by the throat and try to strangle me; huge soft hands grasped me by the body, and tugged and dragged at me, to tear me from my hold; and then, two arms that were not imaginary, but solid and real, went round me, and grasped the thwart on which I sat, holding me down, while I felt a head resting on my lap.

I could see nothing but a strange, dull, whitish light when I managed to hold my eyelids up for a moment, but nothing else was visible; and above all—the deafening roar, the fearful buffeting and tearing at me—there was one thing which mastered, and that was the sensation of being stunned and utterly confused. I was, as it were, a helpless nothing, beaten and driven by the wind and spray, onward, onward, like a scrap of chaff. Somebody was clinging to me, partly to save himself, partly to keep me from being dragged out of the boat; but whether Mr Brooke was still near me, whether the men were before me, or whether there was any more boat at all than that upon which I was seated, I did not know. All I knew was that I was there, and that I was safe, in spite of all the attempts made by the typhoon to drag me out and sweep me away like a leaf over the milky sea.

It cannot be described. Every sense was numbed. And if any lad who reads this were to take the most terrible storm he ever witnessed, square it, and then cube it, I do not believe that he would approach the elemental disturbance through which we were being hurled.

There was a rocky shore in front of us, and another rocky island shore to our left; and between these two shores lay the channel for which we had tried to make. But Mr Brooke’s rule over the boat was at an end the moment the storm was upon us, and, as far as I could ever learn afterwards, no one thought of rocks, channel, saving his life, or being drowned. The storm struck us, and with its furious rush went all power of planning or thinking. Every nerve of the body was devoted to the tasks of holding on and getting breath.

How long it lasted—that wild rush, riding on the spray, held as it were by the wind—I don’t know. I tell you I could not think. It went on and on as things do in a horrible dream, till all at once something happened. I did not hear it, nor see it, hardly even felt it. I only know that something happened, and I was being strangled—choked, but in another way. The hands which grasped my throat to keep me from breathing had, I believe, ceased to hold, and something hot and terrible was rushing up my nostrils and down my throat, and I think I then made some effort with my hands. Then I was being dragged along through water and over something soft, and all at once, though the deafening, confusing noise went on, I was not being swept away, but lying still on something hard.

I think that my senses left me entirely then for a few moments—not more, for I was staring soon after at the dull light of white water sweeping along a little way off, and breathing more freely as I struggled hard to grasp what it all meant, for I did not know. I saw something dim pass me, and then come close and touch me, as if it sank down by my side; and that happened again and again.

But it was all very dream-like and strange: the awful, overwhelming, crushing sound of the wind seemed to press upon my brain so that I could not for a long time think, only lie and try to breathe without catching each inspiration in a jerky, spasmodic way.

I suppose hours must have passed, during which I stared through the darkness at the dull whitish phosphorescent glow which appeared through the gloom, and died out, and appeared and died out again and again, passing like clouds faintly illumined in a ghastly way, and all mingled with the confusion caused by that awful roar. Then at last I began to feel that the rush of wind and water was passing over me, and that I was in some kind of shelter; and when I had once hit upon this, I had as it were grasped a clue. I knew that I was lying on stones, and saw that rising above me was a mass of rock, which I knew by the touch, and this stone was sheltering me from the wind and spray.

“We must have reached the shore safely, then,” I said to myself, for my head was getting clearer; “and—yes—no—I was not hurt. We were all saved, then.”

At that point a terrible feeling of dread came over me. I was safe, but my companions?

The shock of this thought threw me back for a bit, but I was soon struggling with the confusion again, and I recalled the fact that I had felt some one touch me as he sank down by my side.

Arrived at this point, I turned a little to look, but all was perfectly black. I stretched out my hand and felt about.

I snatched it back with a cry of horror. Yes, a cry of horror; for, though I could not hear it, I felt it escape from my lips. I had touched something all wet and cold lying close beside me, and I felt that it was one of my companions who had been cast up or dragged ashore—dead.

Shivering violently, I shrank away, and stretched out my hand in the other direction—my left hand now, with my arm numbed, and my shoulder aching when I moved it, as if the joint had become stiffened and would not work.

I touched somebody there—something cold and smooth and wet, and drew my hand away again, when, as it glided over the sand, it touched something else round and soft and long, and—yes—plaited. It was a long tail.

“Ching!” I ejaculated; and, gaining courage, I felt again in the darkness, to find that it grew thinner. I tried again in the other direction, and once more touched the round wet object, which did not seem so cold, and then the next moment a hand caught mine and held it.

I was right; it was Ching. I knew him by his long nails.

Not alone! I had a companion in the darkness, one who was nearly as much stunned as I, for he moved no more, but lay holding on by my left hand, and for a time I was content to listen to the savage roar of the wind. But at last, as my brain worked and I mastered the sensation of horror, I began to feel about again with my right hand, till I touched the same cold, wet object I had encountered before.

It was an arm, quite bare and cold; while now I could not withdraw my hand, but lay trembling and shuddering, till I felt that perhaps I was not right—that any one lying dead would not feel like that; and my hand glided down to the wrist.

I knew nothing about feeling pulses only from having seen a doctor do so, but by chance my fingers fell naturally in the right place in the hollow just above the wrist joint, and a thrill of exultation ran through me, for I could distinctly feel a tremulous beating, and I knew that my imagination had played me false—that the man was not dead.