Chapter 44 | Within an Ace | Blue Jackets

Chapter Forty Four.

Ching’s words sent a thrill of delight through me, rousing me, and bringing me out of my half-delirious state.

Without a word, I crept cautiously up to my look-out place, listening to the loud shouting and gabbling of the Chinamen as I got nearer to the tuft of greeny growth, which I parted without so much hesitation now, and, looking out, I could see that by the warm glow of the late afternoon sun which made me shrink back with my heart sinking, and creep down again to Ching.

“Yes?” he whispered. “Allee going ’way?”

“No,” I replied, with my lips to his ear; “they are carrying up boards and pieces of the wreck and sails, and making themselves a shelter. They are going to stay.”

Ching drew his breath with a low hiss, and was silent for a few minutes. Then, quite cheerfully, he whispered—

“Velly bad job. Don’tee want bad wicked pilate here. Nevy mind: come, eat blisket, dlink watee. Muchee best place. Muchee better than pilate. Then go have good long s’eep.”

We stole back to where the biscuit and water vessel had been placed for safety; but when Ching handed me some biscuits I felt as if I could not eat, though a little water refreshed me.

“No dlinkee much; no get more till pilate gone.”

I shuddered as I thought of the consequences of being without water in that stifling place, but the simple refreshments did me a wonderful amount of good, and, after dipping my handkerchief in the vessel and squeezing a few drops from time to time between Tom Jecks’ lips as he began to mutter, he dropped off to sleep again.

I sat listening then to the smothered sounds from without, where the enemy were evidently very busy, and I was just dropping off again into an uneasy slumber, when I started into wakefulness, for there was a loud shout from the opening we had blocked up, and I felt that all was over. They had found the way in, and in a few moments we should be dragged out.

Directly after there was the babble of several other voices, and a discussion went on in Chinese, not a word of which could I understand. Then, to my utter wonder, the voices which had come over the top as if speaking close by me, suddenly ceased, and I could hear the pad pad of bare feet on the sands.

“Velly neally catchee catchee, and choppee off head,” said Ching softly. “Begin to be velly solly for poor Mis’ Hellick. Pilate say, ‘Heah good place, make hole s’eep in.’ ’Nothee pilate say, ‘Big fool; allee wet damp; wildee beast live in hole, and allee ’tink. Come back, makee better place.’”

It was a narrow escape, and it was long enough before my heart calmed down, left off throbbing, and I fell asleep.

Utter exhaustion had done its work, and my sleep was deep and dreamless. Once my eyes had closed, they did not open again till long after sunrise the next morning, when I lay there puzzled, and wondering where I was and what was the meaning of the murmur of voices apparently from somewhere overhead.

Ching’s voice chased away the remaining mists.

“You had velly good s’eep?” he whispered. “Feel muchee better?”

I did not answer, only squeezed his hand, and turned to see how Tom Jecks was, but he did not seem to have stirred, and we then ate sparingly of our biscuits, and drank more sparingly of the water.

“Must be velly careful,” Ching said again; “no get more till pilate gone ’way.”

That day went by like a portion of some feverish dream. My head burned and throbbed; my thirst grew terrible in the hot, close place, and Ching owned to suffering terribly in the same way; but the faithful fellow never touched a drop of the water, save when the evening came, and we partook together of our rapidly-diminishing store of biscuits, the very touch of which on my lips increased the agony of my thirst.

And all the while we were awake to the fact that the Chinamen had an ample supply of food and water, for they kept dragging up to the camp they had formed casks and chests which had been washed up from the wreck of their junk; and when I climbed up and looked out, I could see them apparently settled down and resigned to their fate, until some friendly junk came along or they could surprise another, feasting away, or playing some kind of game with stones.

“Waitee lit’ bit,” Ching whispered. “Allee s’eep, and Ching get eat dlink.”

But I felt certain that he would be caught, and begged him not to go till we were absolutely driven by hunger and thirst; and so that day passed, with the rock growing hotter, and the air too stifling almost to breathe, while, to my horror, I found that Tom Jecks was growing more and more feverish. At times he began to mutter so loudly that we were obliged to throw my jacket over his face to prevent the sounds from drawing the attention of the enemy.

I believe I was half-delirious all that day, and when the night came our little supply of water was running so low that Ching asked if he had not better climb over the wall and go and fetch some more.

“No,” I said; “it means discovery. We must wait.”

I dropped soon after into a heavy stupor-like sleep, and this time I was the first to wake and see the sun’s rays stealing in through the growth in the rift. Ching was sleeping calmly enough, but Tom Jecks had been tossing about, and lay in a very peculiar position, which startled me—it looked so strange. But Ching woke just then, and, nodding and smiling, he helped me to turn our poor companion back, when we found him flushed and excited, muttering angrily, quite off his head.

“Nevy mind; pilate get tired; go to-day,” whispered Ching. “Get bettee soon. Now have bleakfast. Waitee bit: Ching makee butiful bleakfast, chicken, toast, egg, nice flesh tea. There. On’y ’nuff blisket for to-day. Ching go out to-night get plenty blisket, plenty watee, plenty—plentee—oh, deah—oh, deah!”

“What is it?” I whispered.

“Oh deah! Not drop watee left. You get up dlink allee watee?”

“No; did you?”

“No. Ching see. Pooh Tom Jeck knock over with arm.”

It was only too evident, for the water vessel had been laid upon its side, and the sand beneath was soaked.

“Ching velly solly,” said the Chinaman softly. “No gettee more watee till quite dalk.”

My head sank against the rock, and I hardly stirred the whole of that day. Ching pressed me to eat some of the remaining biscuits, but I could not touch them, only rest my burning head there, and try to think of what was to come. Ching would certainly be caught if he ventured out, for the enemy never all lay down to sleep together; and, what was worse, I felt convinced, though in a confused way, that sooner or later the delirious mutterings and talkings of Tom Jecks must be heard.

I can only remember patches of that day. The rest is all burning heat and wandering away amongst grass and flowers and purling streams, whose trickling I seemed to hear.

It was getting well on in the afternoon, I suppose, that Tom Jecks’ fever came to a height. He muttered, and then began to talk angrily, but in an incoherent way, and his voice grew so loud that at last I roused myself and went up to the look-out, to watch whether it was heard without.

But the Chinamen heard nothing, only sat or lay about, talking or sleeping. It was getting close upon evening, for the sunshine was warm and golden, and cast long shadows from the rocks and the cliff above us over the level sand.

How beautiful it all looked! that golden sea, with a distant sail here and there. And now suddenly I found that there was a great deal of excitement amongst the Chinamen, who were talking loudly.

My head was hot and confused, but I soon saw the reason why, and hope began to revive, for about a couple of miles out I could see two junks standing in, and my heart throbbed again with excitement as I noted their rig, and could feel certain they were the pair we had watched through that strange night.

“I must go and tell Ching,” I said to myself. “Those junks will take the wretches off. Only a few more hours, and we shall be safe.”

“Stand by, my lads! Look out! Storm’s coming down upon us. Now then; every man for himself.”

I turned cold with horror. Just then, too, when we were so near to safety. For the words were Tom Jecks’, roared in a hoarse voice in the height of his delirium, and I saw that they were heard outside.

For the Chinamen who were sitting sprang up, sword or knife in hand; those who were looking out to sea or making signals faced round, stood staring at the cliff for a few moments as if startled, and then, as Tom Jecks’ voice rose again, but in muffled tones, for Ching had thrown himself upon the poor fellow to stifle his utterances, the pirates uttered a yell, rushed to the opening, tore down the sand and stones, and Ching and Tom Jecks were dragged out on to the sand.

They had not seen me for the moment, but there was a shout directly, a man jumped up, caught me by the leg, and I was dragged along and out into the soft evening sunshine, to be forced down upon my knees close to where Tom Jecks lay, and Ching was being held, for he was struggling wildly with his captors, and talked excitedly to the fierce wretches who crowded round us.

Ching was evidently pleading for mercy, not for himself but for me. I knew it, for he kept pointing to me; and finally he made a bound, got free, and leaped to me, throwing his arms about my waist.

“No killee; shan’t killee,” he cried wildly; and then, turning round, he yelled at our captors in his own tongue, abusing them in his rage, and threatening them with his clenched fist.

But it was all in vain: a dozen hands were at him; others seized and held me. Ching was dragged away vociferating wildly, thrown down, and three men sat upon him, while another knelt down, twisted his hand in the poor fellow’s tail, and held his head fast.

I don’t think they meant to kill him, their rage being evidently directed at us; and I saw, with a peculiar kind of fascination, one man with a big sword come close to me; another, armed with a similar blade, go to where Tom Jecks lay, held down by three others.

I can hardly describe my sensations. Five minutes before, I was horribly frightened; the cold perspiration stood upon my forehead; my hands were wet, and my legs sank under me. But now, all the fear had gone. I knew I was to die, and I remembered the execution I had seen in that great enclosure, when with one whisk of the sword the executioner had lopped off head after head. It would not take long, I thought, and a curious exaltation came over me as I began to think of home, and at the same time my lips uttered the word “Good-bye,” which was followed by a prayer.

I did not cease muttering those words as I felt myself forced into a kneeling position, and saw that Tom Jecks was being treated in the same way. And somehow, as I prayed, the thought would come to me that the poor fellow would not feel or know anything about what was going to happen.

Just then, as the man with the big sword approached Tom Jecks, and I was watching, I did not see but I knew that the other was close behind me and a little on my left. But it did not trouble me any more than it did to know that the fierce wretches were all gazing excitedly at us, and in a high state of delight at being able to slay two of their foes.

It takes long to describe all this, but it happened very quickly.

The man had raised his sword to strike at Tom Jecks, and I shuddered and looked aside, to see the great shadow of a man on the sand at my feet, and there was a sword raised close by me.

At the same time Ching uttered a wild shriek, and the man who held his tail forced the poor fellow’s head down in the sand, but in vain; he wrenched his head sidewise, raised it, and looked towards the cliff, while I flinched slightly, for the shadow moved, as he who made it drew back to strike.


No: it was not the falling of the sword on my poor outstretched neck, but a volley from the top of the cliff, fired by twenty of our brave blue-jackets, and half-a-dozen of the pirates fell shrieking on the sands.

I turned faint, but I recovered my senses as I saw Ching spring up, rush at a man on the sand, snatch up his sword and run to me.

“Quick!” he cried; “jump up; fight!”

Almost mechanically I obeyed him, and snatched a knife from the hands of one of the fallen men to defend my life, just as a second volley rolled forth from the cliff, directed at the pirates as they ran toward the ridge.

For there was no need for us to fight—our enemies were in full retreat; and, as I looked up at the cliff, I could see our men drawn-up, and they were signalling evidently to some one out of sight.

The next minute we were hailed.

“Which is the way down?”

“This way,” cried Ching excitedly; and he ran south, pointing to the rift by which he had climbed the cliff, while I stood there—giddy, helpless, and at last sank down on my knees beside poor Tom Jecks, who was still muttering something about the storm.

I recovered, however, enough to watch our men descending the rift—a perilous, break-neck place; but they did not hesitate, and in a few minutes all were down, formed up, and came toward us at the double.

And now for the first time, at the head of those familiar faces, I saw Mr Reardon, who thrust his sword into his sheath as he drew near and literally rushed at me.

“My dear boy!” he cried, giving me quite a fatherly hug; “thank God, we were just in time.”

I could not speak—I was too giddy; but I tried to look my thanks.

“Not hurt, are you?”

“No, sir; only faint.”

By this time the last of the pirates had passed over the ridge, and I felt irritated with Mr Reardon for not going in pursuit. But he did not read my countenance; he called one of the men out of the line, made him give me some water from his bottle, and bent down on his knees by poor Tom Jecks.

“Ha!” he said; “fever from a wound. Give him some water too, my lad.”

He sprang to his feet then, and I understood why he had not gone in pursuit of our enemies, for just then there was a sharp volley from over the ridge somewhere.

“Ha! that’s got them,” said Mr Reardon, turning to me. “We divided, my lad! half of us came along the top of the cliff, the other half along the shore.”

There was another volley, and I saw Mr Reardon smile as he gave the orders, and out flashed the men’s cutlasses, and were fixed with a quick tingling rattle on the muzzles of their rifles.

“Here they come, sir,” cried the warrant officer at the far end of the line.

“Yes, my lad, and we’re ready for them. Now, one volley as soon as they are together, boys, and then the blades. Bayonet every wretch who does not throw down his arms.”

A low murmur ran along the little line, and I saw our men’s eyes flash in the evening sun.

But the excitement was not complete, for, gathering strength now, and recovering from the shock I had received, I was watching the pirates scrambling over the ridge in haste, as if pursued, when there was a concussion of the air, a heavy boom, and I saw the Teaser come into sight, passing through the channel south of where we stood. Then there was a quick puff of smoke, another heavy boom, and I saw that she was going full speed, leaving a black stream of smoke behind her, in chase of the two junks, one of which was about a quarter of a mile away, the other about a mile farther.

They were evidently taken by surprise, for the men were hurriedly hoisting sail, and, as I learned afterwards, the Teaser had been quite hidden till she rounded a little promontory at the mouth of the channel between the first and second islands—the channel for which we had so vainly steered on the night of the storm.

The firing went on steadily, the crash of the great shell following the report of the piece, but I had nearer and more exciting work to see close at hand; and once more my heart beat high, as the pirates gathered together, and, seeing the danger before them, paused for a moment or two at the foot of the ridge slope, looked to right to see only the perpendicular cliff, to left to see the sea, and then, uttering a savage yell, came tearing on.

“Fire!” roared Mr Reardon, when they were about fifty yards distant, and I saw several fall and others stagger and halt.

But the others continued their wild dash like men, and were met by our lads, who advanced with their cutlass-bayonets at the charge.

There was a loud cheer, a savage yelling, and I saw the blades flashing in the golden sunshine as they met. Then a minute’s fierce encounter, with men falling, and then half-a-dozen turned and fled back for the ridge, but only to stop and turn to their right, making for the sea.

For the ridge was lined with blue-jackets and marines, and shot after shot was fired at the flying men, who without hesitation plunged into the sea and swam out a few yards, while our lads pursued them, but only to halt on the hard wet sand, where the waves now gently rippled.

There was a strange fascination in the scene, and I watched the six shaven heads of the swimming pirates till the first threw up his hands, battled the air for a few moments, and went down. The others turned and slowly swam shoreward till they could wade, when they approached our men and flung their weapons on the sand in token of surrender.

There was a triumphant shout at this, and then another—a loud and frantic cheer. For the firing of the Teaser had been going on rapidly, and all at once the first junk was seen to heel over, and gradually settle down, leaving the sea strewn with fragments of timber, to which the crew were left clinging; while the gunboat raced on, sending shell after shell rapidly at the other, till she was nearly alongside, when there was a tremendous roar, following the crashing into her of a shell, and the second junk flew up in fragments.

The shell had reached her little magazine of powder; and then the work of mercy began.

I was watching the boats being lowered when I heard a shout from behind, and, looking round, saw the second line of our blue-jackets advancing from the ridge. To my great joy, I saw with them those whom we had mourned as drowned, while the next minute Mr Brooke had me by the hands, and I heard a strange gulping noise, ending in quite a howl.

I looked sharply round, and saw Ching seated on the sand, wiping his eyes with his sleeves.

“What’s the matter, Ching—hurt?” I asked.

“No, not hurt, Mis’ Hellick; Ching so velly glad.”