Chapter 18 | In a Trap | Blue Jackets

Chapter Eighteen.

“Ever feel at all uncomfortable about—that—Chinaman, Morris?” I said one day, after we had been coasting along the shore southward for about a week. I had not encountered that marine sentry alone since the terrible scene in the place where the prisoners were confined; and now, as soon as I saw him, the whole affair came back with all its shuddering horrors, and I felt quite a morbid desire to talk to him about it.

“What, bayoneting him, sir?” said the man quietly. “Well, no, sir, it’s very odd, but I never have much. I was so excited when I see him with his knife ashining by the light o’ the corporal’s lantern, that all the bayonet practice come to me quite natural like, and, as you know, I give point from the guard, and he jumped right on it, and I held him down after as you would a savage kind of tiger thing, and felt quite pleased like at having saved the first luff’s life. After you’d gone all the lads got talking about it, and I felt as proud as a peacock with ten tails. And I got wondering, too, about what Mr Reardon would do, for he said he would see me again. It was all very well then, but that night when I turned in I felt quite sick, and I couldn’t sleep a wink. The more I turned about in my hammock, the hotter and worser I got. There it all was before me, I could see myself holding that pirate chap pinned down, and there was his eyes rolling and his teeth snapping as he twisted about. Ugh! it was horrid, sir; and I felt as I was in for it, and began to understand what one has read about chaps as commits murder always being haunted like with thoughts of what they’ve done, and never being happy no more. Then it got worse and worse, and I says to myself, ‘If it was as bad as that for just doing your duty, and saving your officer’s life, what must it be when you kills a man out o’ sheer wickedness to get his money?’”

The man stopped then, and looked round to see if any one was within hearing, but we were quite alone, and he went on quietly—

“You won’t laugh at me, sir, will you?”

“Laugh?” I cried wonderingly. “It’s too horrible to laugh about.”

“Yes, sir; but I meant, feel ready to chaff about it, and tell the other young gentlemen, and get thinking me soft.”

“Of course not, Morris.”

“No, sir, you ain’t that sort. You’ve got a mother, too, ain’t you?”

“Yes; but I shouldn’t have liked her to see all we saw that day.”

“No, sir, you wouldn’t. I haven’t got no mother now, sir, but I did have one once.”

I felt ready to smile, but I kept my countenance.

“Seems rum of a big ugly fellow like me talking about his mother, sir; but, Lor’ bless you! all us chaps has got a bit of a soft spot somewhere insides us for our old woman, even them as never talks about it; and do you know, sir, that night just when I felt worst as I rolled about in my hammock, and was going to get out and find the bucket of water for a drink, I got thinking about my old mother, and how she used to come and tuck me up in bed of a night, and kiss me and say, Gawd bless me, and then of how she used to talk to me and tell me always to do what was right, and, no matter what happened, I should feel at rest. And then I got thinking as I must have done very wrong in killing that Chinee, to feel as bad as I did. And I got arguing it over first one way and then the other for a minute or two, and the next thing I remember is it being tumble-up time, and till you spoke to me about it just now, I’ve never hardly thought about it since. It was doing my duty, sir, of course; now, warn’t it?”

“Of course, Morris,” I said importantly; and the man nodded, looked satisfied, and then glanced to right and left again before unbuttoning his jacket and cautiously pulling out an old-fashioned gold watch.

“Why, hallo, Morris!” I cried.

“Hush, sir; keep it quiet. Mr Reardon give it to me the day afore yesterday, and said I wasn’t to talk about it, for it was just between ourselves.”

“It’s a fine old watch,” I said, feeling glad that the man we lads looked upon as such a stem tyrant could show so warm and generous a side to his nature.

“Said, sir, he gave it to me for attending so well to dishipline, as he called it, for he said if I had not attended well to my drill, there would have been no first lieutenant to give me a watch out of gratitude for saving his life.”

“You must take care of that, Morris,” I said.

“Yes, sir,” he said dolefully. “That’s the worst of it. Gold watch is an orkard thing for a marine, but I mean to try.”

“And be very careful to wind it up regularly every night.”

He looked at me with his face all wrinkled up.

“Would you, sir—would you wind it up?”

“Why, of course; what’s a watch for?”

“Well, that depends, sir. It’s all right for a gentleman, but don’t seem no good to me. We allus knows how many bells it is, and the sergeants takes good care that we’re in time for everything. It’s rather in my way, too. Look here, sir; s’pose you took care of it for me to the end of the voyage?”

“Oh no, Morris. You’ll soon get used to having a watch,” I said. “Take care of it yourself.”

He shook his head.

“I don’t know as I can, sir,” he said. “If it had been a silliver one, I shouldn’t so much have minded. I was thinking of sewing it up in the padding of my jacket.”

“No, no; keep it in your pocket and never part with it,” I said. “It’s a watch to be proud of, for it was earned in a noble way.”

“Thankye, sir,” he cried, as I stood wondering at my own words; “that’s done me good;” and he buttoned his jacket up with an intense look of satisfaction.

“I’m beginning to think the doctor was right, Gnat,” said Barkins one morning.

“What about?” I said.

“My wound; I don’t think the knife was poisoned.”

“Why, of course it wasn’t; you fancied it all.”

“Well, I couldn’t help that, could I? You wait till you get your wound, and then see how you’ll begin to fancy all sorts of things. I say, though, Smithy’s getting right pretty quick. The doctor’s pitched him over. I should have sent him back to his duty before, if I’d been old Physic. He was all right yesterday.”

“How do you know?”

“Because he was so nasty tempered. Nothing was good enough for him.”

“Oh, come, I like that,” cried Smith, who overheard him. “Why, I was as patient as could be; I appeal to the Poet. Did I ever go fussing about telling people I was wounded by a poisoned knife?”

“No,” I said; “you were both magnificent specimens of brave young midshipmen, and behaved splendidly.”

“Oh, did we?” cried Barkins. “Look here, Blacksmith, we’ll remember this, and as soon as we’re strong enough we’ll punch his head.”

“Agreed. He’s been growing as cocky as a bantam since we’ve been ill. We must take him down.”

“Why, what for?” I cried.

“Making game of your betters. Sarce, as Tom Jecks calls it.”

We had something else to think of three days later, and in the excitement both my messmates forgot their wounds, save when some quick movement gave them a reminder that even the healing of a clean cut in healthy flesh takes time.

For we overhauled a suspicious-looking, fast-sailing junk, which paid no heed to our signals, but was brought to after a long chase, and every man on board was chuckling and thinking about prize-money.

But when she was boarded, with Ching duly established as interpreter, and all notion of returning to the “fancee shop” put aside for the present, the junk turned out to be a peaceful trader trying to make her escape from the pursuit of pirates, as we were considered to be.

Ching soon learned the cause of the captain’s alarm. The day before he had come upon a junk similar to his own, with the crew lying murdered on board, and, judging from appearances, the wretches who had plundered her could not have gone long.

Mr Brooke was the officer in charge of the boat, and he told Ching to ask the master of the junk whether he had seen any signs of the pirates.

The man eagerly replied that he had seen three fast boats entering the Ayshong river, some thirty miles north of where we then were, and as soon as he found that we really were the boat’s crew of a ship working for the protection of the shipping trade, his joy and excitement were without bounds, and showed itself in presents,—a chest of tea for the crew, and pieces of silk for Mr Brooke and myself; parting with us afterwards in the most friendly way, and, as Ching afterwards told me, saying that we were the nicest foreign devils he ever met.

Our news when we went on board made the captain change our course. We were bound for a river a hundred miles lower down, but it was deemed advisable to go back and proceed as far up the Ayshong, as a fresh nest of the desperadoes might be discovered there.

By night we were off the muddy stream, one which appeared to be of no great width, but a vast body of water rushed out from between the rocky gates, and from the desolate, uninhabited look of the shores it seemed probable that we might find those we sought up there.

It was too near night to do much, so the captain contented himself with getting close in after the boat sent to take soundings, and at dark we were anchored right in the mouth, with the watch doubled and a boat out as well to patrol the river from side to side, to make sure that the enemy, if within, did not pass us in the darkness.

All lights were out and perfect silence was maintained, while, excited by the prospect of another encounter, not a man displayed the slightest disposition to go to his hammock.

It was one of those soft, warm, moist nights suggestive of a coming storm, the possibility of which was soon shown by the faint quivering of the lightning in the distance.

“Storm before morning,” whispered Barkins.

“Yes,” said Smith; “storm of the wrong sort. I want to hear our guns going, not thunder.”

From time to time the boat which was on the patrol duty came alongside to report itself, but there was no news; in fact, none was expected, for such a dark night was not one that would be chosen by vessels wishing to put to sea.

I had been disposed to ask for permission to go in the boat, but Mr Reardon’s countenance looked rather stormy, so I had given up the idea, and contented myself with stopping on board with my two messmates, to watch the dark mouth of the river.

It soon grew very monotonous, having nothing to see but the shapes of the distant clouds, which stood out now and then like dimly-seen mountains high up above the land. But by degrees the distant flickering of the lightning grew nearer, and went on slowly growing brighter, till from time to time, as we leaned over the bulwarks, listening to the faint rushing sound of the river, sweeping past the chain cable, and dividing again upon our sharp bows, we obtained a glimpse of the shore on either side. Then it glimmered on the black, dirty-looking stream, and left us in greater darkness than ever.

Once we made out our boat quite plainly, and at last there came so vivid a flash that we saw the river upward for quite a mile, and I made out the low shores, but could see no sign of house or vessel moored anywhere near where we lay.

Another hour must have passed, during which we made out that the country on either side was flat and marshy, but we could see no sign of human habitation. As far as could be made out, the river was about three hundred yards broad, and about this time we became aware that it must be very nearly low tide, for the stream which passed us was growing more and more sluggish, till at last it ceased ebbing, and the Teaser began to swing slowly round, a sufficient indication that the tide had turned.

We had swung to our anchor till we were right across the stream, when from higher up a shot was fired, and, as if caused by the report, a dazzling flash cut right across the heavens, lighting up the river with its muddy sides, and there, not five hundred yards away, we made out two large junks that had come down with the tide, which had now failed them, just as they were close to the mouth.

All had been perfectly silent so far, but as the intense darkness succeeded the brilliant flash, there was a loud gabbling and shouting from the direction of the junks, then came the splashing of great oars, followed by their regular beating, and, as we swung further round with the men hurrying to their quarters, the boat came alongside, and was hoisted.

“Well, Mr Brooke?”

“Two large junks, sir; come down with the tide; they’ve put about, sir, and are going back.”


“Yes, sir, certain. Hark!”

The hissing sound of the tide had recommenced, and above it we could hear the splash, splash of great sweeps, sounding hurried and irregular, as if the men at them were making all the haste they could. Every now and then, too, came a curious creaking sound, as wood was strained against wood.

“Tide’s setting in very hard, sir,” said Mr Brooke.

“Yes,” said the captain. “Come on board; ha!”

There was another vivid flash, and we distinctly saw the great matting-sails of two junks for a moment, and again all was black.

“Come on board, Mr Brooke; they could not sweep those great craft out against such a tide as this, and there is no wind to help them even if they wished.”

Then the falls were hooked on, after the coxswain had with some difficulty drawn the cutter up to where the light of a lantern was thrown down for his guidance, the men stamped along the deck, and the cutter rose to the davits for the men to spring on board.

Daylight found us lying head to sea, with the tide rushing up, a beautifully verdant country spreading out on either side, but no habitation in sight, and our men in great glee, for it was pretty evident that unless the junks should prove to be merchantmen, we had come upon a little-known river, up which we had trapped the pirates, who had been to land plunder at their nest, and were about to make their way again to sea.