Chapter 19 | Up the River | Blue Jackets

Chapter Nineteen.

The threatening of a storm had passed away, and the sun rose upon us, showing distant mountains of a delicious blue, and the river winding inland broader than at its mouth, and, as far as could be seen, free of additional entrances through which an enemy could escape to sea.

Steam was got up, the Teaser’s head swung round, and, after the lead had shown great depth and a muddy bottom, we began to glide steadily up with the tide.

Our progress was very slow, for, as you will easily understand, and must have noted scores of times in connection with some wreck, a ship is of immense weight, and, even if moving ever so slowly, touching a rock at the bottom means a tremendous grinding crash, and either the vessel fixed, perhaps without the possibility of removal, or a hole made which will soon cause it to sink. Navigation, then, is beset with dangers for a captain. If he is in well-known waters, matters are simple enough; every rock will be marked upon his chart, every mile near shore will have been sounded, and he will know to a foot or two how much water is beneath his keel. But as soon as he ventures up some strange creek or river, paradoxically speaking, “he is at sea.” In other words, he would be journeying haphazard, if the greatest precautions were not taken.

These precautions were soon taken, a couple of boats being sent on ahead with a man in each taking soundings, while we had this advantage—we were journeying with a rising tide, and the river naturally grew deeper and deeper.

But we encountered no difficulty; we steamed on just fast enough to give the vessel steerage way, while the boats went on, the leads were heaved, and the result was always the same; plenty of water, and so soft and muddy a bottom, that even if we had gone aground, all that would have happened would have been a little delay while we waited for the tide to lift us off.

The course of the river was so winding that we could not see far ahead. Hence it was that a careful look-out was kept as we rounded each bend, expecting at every turn to see a kind of port to which the piratical junks resorted, and with a village, if not a town, upon the shore. But we went on and on without success, the river, if anything, growing wider, till all at once, as we were slowly gliding round a bend, leaving a thick track of black smoke in the misty morning air, one of the men in the top hailed the deck.

“Sail ho, sir!”

“Where away?”

“Dead astarn, sir!”


“Dead astarn, sir!”

Two of the men near me burst into a laugh, which they tried to hide as the first lieutenant looked sharply round. But there, sure enough, were the tops of the junk’s masts dead astern, for the course of the river proved to be just there almost exactly like that piece of twisted flat wire which ladies fasten on the backs of their dresses, and call an eye; the great stream forming first a small circle, and then going right away to form the large loop of the eye, while the junks were lying at the far side of the loop, so that to reach them where they lay, right across an open plain about two miles in width, we had to sail for some distance right away, apparently leaving them right behind.

A little use of the telescope soon showed that we were going quite right, though, and we went steadily on with the boats ahead sounding, and the men waiting to be called to quarters.

“I don’t believe it’s going to be a fight, Gnat!” cried Smith.

“Why not?”

“Can’t smell anything like prize-money in it. They’re only a couple of big trading junks.”

“Then why did they run away from us as they did?”

“Same reason as the one did last time. Thought we meant mischief. How stupid it is taking all this trouble to crawl up a muddy river.”

“What’s he talking about?” said Barkins, stepping over to our side for a moment before every one would have to be in his place, and unable to stir.

“Says they’re trading junks.”

“Then it’s all up. He knows. Either his wound or the doctoring has made him go better. He’s awfully sharp now. I’ll go and tell the skipper to turn back.”

“That’s right; chaff away,” cried Smith. “Look at the place we’re in! There isn’t a sign of a town. What would bring pirates up here?”

“Pirates don’t want towns, do they, stupid?” cried Barkins; “they want a place to lay up their ships in, and here it is. I’ll bet anything those are pirates, but we shan’t catch ’em.”

“Why?” I asked. “Think they’ll go up higher where we can’t follow?”

“Could follow ’em in the boats, couldn’t we, clever? Hi! look! they’re on the move! They’re pirates, and are going up higher because they see us. But we shan’t catch ’em. If they are getting the worst of it, they’ll run themselves aground, and get ashore to make a dash for it.”

Barkins was right; they were on the move, as we could distinctly see now, and my messmate said again—

“Yes, it’s all over; they’ll follow this river right away to the other side, and come out in the Black Sea, or somewhere else. We draw too much water to follow them farther.”

But we did follow them a great deal farther, and found that on the whole, in spite of our careful progress, we gained upon the junks, getting so near them once from their position across a bend of the river that a discussion took place as to whether it would not be advisable to open fire at long range.

But no gun spoke, and we kept on slowly, carried by the tide, and with the screw revolving just sufficiently for steering purposes, till once more the course of the river grew pretty straight, and the junks were in full view, our glasses showing the men toiling away at the long sweeps, and that the decks were crowded.

This last was intensely satisfactory, for it swept away the last doubts as to the character of the vessels. Up to this point it was possible that they might have been trading junks whose skippers had taken alarm, but no mercantile junks would have carried such crews as we could see, with their bald heads shining in the sun.

Just about that time Smith and I passed Tom Jecks, who gave me a peculiar look.

“What is it?” I said, stopping to speak.

“Can’t you put in a word to the skipper, sir, and get him to stir up the engyneers?”

“What for, Tom?”

“To go faster, sir. It’s horrid, this here. Why, I could go and ketch ’em in the dinghy.”

“Do you want the Teaser stuck in the mud?” I said.

“No, sir, o’ course not; but I say, sir, do you think it’s all right?”

“What do you mean, Jecks?”

“This here river, sir. I ayve read in a book about Chinee Tartars and magicians and conjurors. There was that chap in ‘Aladdin’ as left the boy shut up down below. He were a Chinee, wasn’t he?”

“I think so, Tom; but what have the Arabian Nights got to do with our hunting these pirates?”

“Well, that’s what I want to know, sir. If there was magic in them days in China, mayn’t there be some left now?”

“No, Tom,” I said. “We’ve got more magic on board the Teaser in the shape of steam, than there is of the old kind in all China.”

“Well, sir, you’ve had more schooling than ever I’ve had, but if it ain’t a bit magicky about them boats, I should like to know what it is.”

“What’s he talking about?” said Smith. “What do you mean?”

“They’re will-o’-the-wispy sort o’ boats, sir,” replied Jecks. “Don’t you see how they keep dodging on us? Just now they was in easy shot, now they’re two mile away. What does that mean?”

“Physical conformation of the road,” said Smith importantly.

“Oh, is it, sir?” said Jecks, scratching his head, with a dry smile on his face. “Well, I shouldn’t have thought as physic had anything to do with that, but I daresay you’re right, sir. Wish we could give them junks physic.”

“I don’t believe we shall get near enough to give them a dose,” said Smith discontentedly. “If I were the skipper, I’d—”

Smith did not say what he would, for just then there was a shout from the boat, the man with the lead giving such shallow soundings that we heard the gongs sound in the engine-room, and the clank of the machinery as it was stopped and reversed.

Then orders were given for soundings to be taken right across the river, but the result was always the same; the stream had suddenly shallowed, and it was at first supposed to be a bar; but sounding higher up proved that the shoal water was continuous, and though the lighter-draft junks had gone on, they had now come to a standstill, which suggested that they too had been stopped.

“Told you so,” grumbled Barkins, joining us. “All this trouble for nothing. Why didn’t the skipper open fire and blow ’em out of the water when he had a chance?”

“Go and ask him, Mr Barkins,” said Mr Brooke, who overheard his remark. “And if I were you, I’d ask him at the same time why it is amateurs can always manage better than the leader.”

Mr Brooke nodded, and I saw that he looked very serious as he walked aft, and a minute later I knew why.

“Bah!” growled Smith, as soon as he was out of hearing. “Shouldn’t have listened.”

“No,” said Barkins. “It isn’t quite manly to play the spy. Talk about snubbing, why is it officers should think it so precious fine to be always dropping on to their juniors? Now, then, look out! there’s orders coming. The old Teaser’s going to waggle her tail between her legs, and we’re going back again. More waste of Her Majesty’s coals.”

“If we don’t lie-to till the tide turns,” I said. “Oh, I say, you two look sharp and get quite well again; I didn’t know that having wounds would make fellows so sour.”

“Who’s sour. Here, let’s get aft; quick, or we shall be out of the fun.”

For the whistles were going, and the men springing to the boats, three of which were manned, and the one lying alongside being filled with a strong, well-armed crew.

We all three did press forward, in the full hope of being sent as well, and made ourselves so prominent that I saw Mr Reardon frown. But no orders came; and at last, in a great state of excitement, Barkins seized the opportunity to speak.

“May I go in the longboat, sir?”

“You—lame still from your wound, sir? Absurd! No, nor you neither, Mr Smith.”

He caught my eye just then, but turned away, and I could not help feeling disappointed, though I knew well enough that the risk would have been great.

“Oh, I do call it a shame,” grumbled Barkins, as the order was given, the men cheered, and, under the command of Mr Brooke, the four boats pushed off, the oars dropped, the oily water splashed in the bright sunshine, and each boat with its colours trailing astern glided rapidly up-stream.

“Yes, it’s too bad,” grumbled Smith in turn, who unconsciously began nursing his arm as if it pained him.

“Why, it’s worse for me,” I cried. “I’m quite strong and well. I ought to have gone.”

Barkins exploded with silent laughter, laid his hand on Smith’s shoulder, and said huskily, as if he were choking with mirth—

“I say, hark at him! What for? There’ll be plenty of mosquitoes up there to sting the poor fellows; they don’t want a gnat to tickle them and make them fight.”

“No,” said Smith. “Never mind, little boy, be good, and we’ll take you on an expedition some day.”

“All right,” I replied; “I don’t mind your chaff, only you needn’t be so nasty because you are disappointed.”

“Mr Herrick! Where’s Mr Herrick?” cried the first lieutenant.

“Here, sir,” I shouted; and I could not help giving my companions a look full of triumph as I dashed aft.

“Oh, there you are, sir. Now look here, I’m going to mast-head you. Got your glass?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then up with you, right to the main-topgallant cross-trees. Notice everything you can.”

My heart began to beat before I reached the main shrouds, and it beat more heavily as I toiled up the rattlins, reached the top, and then went on again, too much excited to think of there being any danger of falling, my mind being partly occupied with thoughts of what Barkins and Smith were saying about my being favoured in this way.

“Just as if they could have come up,” I said half-laughing; “one with a game leg, the other with a game arm.”

My thoughts ran, too, as much upon what I was about to see, so that beyond taking a tight hold, and keeping my spyglass buttoned up in my jacket, I paid little heed to the height I was getting, I reached the head of the topmast, and then began to mount the rattlins of the main-topgallant mast, whose cross-trees seemed to be a tremendous height above my head.

But I was soon there, and settled myself as comfortably as I could, sitting with an arm well round a stay, and one leg twisted in another for safety; but the wood did not feel at all soft, and there was a peculiar rap, rap, rap against the tapering spar which ran up above my head to the round big wooden bun on the top of all, which we knew as the truck.

For a moment or two I couldn’t make out what the sound was. Then I saw it was caused by the halyards, the thin line which ran up through the truck and down again to the deck, for hoisting our colours. This doubled line, swayed by the breeze, was beating against the tall pole, but I checked the noise by putting my arm round it and holding the thin halyard tight.

I looked down for a moment or two at the deck which lay beneath, giving me a bird’s-eye view through the rigging of the white decks dotted with officers and men, and the guns glistening in the sunshine. There were several faces staring up at me, and I made out Barkins and Smith, and waved my hand. But these were only momentary glances; I had too much to see of far more importance. For there, spread out round me, was a grand view of the low, flat, marshy country, through which the river wound like a silver snake. Far away in the distance I could see villages, and what seemed to be a tower of some size. Beyond it, cultivated land and patches of forest; behind me, and to right and left, the shimmering sea, and straight in front the two junks; while almost at my feet, in spite of their hard rowing, there were our four boats, with the oars dipping with glorious regularity, and making the water flash and glitter, but not so brightly as did the bayonets of the few marines in each, as they sat in the stern-sheets with their rifles upright between their legs, and the keen triangular blades at the tops of the barrels twinkling at every movement of the boats.

It was a sight to make any one’s heart throb, and in spite of my splendid position for seeing everything I could not help wishing I was there to help make a part of the picture I saw, with the men in their white ducks and straw hats, the marines glowing like so many patches of poppies, and the officers with their dark blue coats faintly showing a lace or two of gold.

How I longed to be with them bound upon such an exciting trip, and all the time how glad I was to be up there in so commanding a position, as, after watching the progress of the boats for a few moments, I opened and focussed my glass, rested it against a rope, and fixed it upon the junks.

The first thing I noticed was that one of them lay a little over to port, as if from being too heavily laden on one side; while, as I gazed, the other was evidently settling in the other direction.

I wondered what they were doing to them, and whether it meant changing heavy guns over to one side, when I grasped the fact,—they had gone as high up-stream as they could, and then run aground, and were fixed in the sticky mud of which the bottom of the river was composed.

“Ahoy! there aloft,” shouted Mr Reardon. “What do you make out?”

I did not take the glass from my eye, but shouted down to him—

“Both junks fast aground, sir. Chinese crews running backwards and forwards, trying to work them off, sir.”

An eager conversation ensued between Mr Reardon and the captain, during which I carefully scanned the two Chinese vessels, and could see the men swarming here and there, as if in an intense state of agitation, but they soon ceased trying to rock the junks, and, as I judged, they were waiting for the tide to rise higher and float them off.

There was nothing between to hinder my having a thoroughly good view of where they lay, just round a slight bend, but I felt certain that they could not see our boats, and I had proof that this was the case, on noticing that a group of men had landed, and were running towards a clump of tall trees, where they disappeared amongst the growth.

“Cowards!” I said to myself, for I felt that they were deserters, and, after watching for their reappearance, I was about to turn the glass upon the junks again, when I noticed a peculiar agitation of the branches of one tree, which stood up far above the others.

“Well, Mr Herrick, I am waiting for your reports,” cried the first lieutenant.

“Yes, sir,” I shouted. “Half-a-dozen men landed from one of the junks, and ran across to a patch of wood.”

“Deserters? Any more leaving the ship?”

“No, sir.”

“Ah, they saw the boats coming, I suppose?”

“No, sir, but they soon will. One of them is climbing a big tree, much higher than the junk’s masts.”

“For a look-out, eh?”

“Yes, sir, I think so,” I shouted; and then to myself, “Oh, bother! It’s hard work talking from up here. There he is, sir, right up at the top. You could see him from the deck.”

“No, I can see nothing from here. Well, what is he doing?”

“Making signals with his hands, sir, and now he’s coming down again.”

“Then you think he has seen the boats?”

“No, sir; they are following one another close in under the bank.”

“Then they can’t see them,” cried Mr Reardon, “and Mr Brooke will take them by surprise.”

He did not shout this, but said it to the captain. Still the words rose to where I sat watching, till the Chinamen ran out from among the bushes at the foot of the trees, and I saw them making for the junks again.

I could not see them climb on board, but I felt that they must have jumped into a boat and rowed off to their friends, and, fixing my glass upon the deck of first one and then the other, I began to make out more and more clearly the actions of the crews, and, judging from the glittering, I saw some kind of arms were being distributed.

I announced this at first as a supposition, telling Mr Reardon what I thought it was.

“Yes, very likely,” he replied; and a few minutes after I saw something else, and hailed.

“Yes,” he said, “what now?” and I saw that, though he did not speak, the captain was listening attentively.

“They’re burning something, sir.”

“Confound them! Not setting fire to the junks?”

“I don’t know, sir; I think so,” I replied, still watching intently; and, as I gazed through my glass, I saw black smoke rising in little coils from both junks, at first very thick and spreading, then growing smaller.

“I think, sir, they’ve set fire to the junks in several places,” I said.

He asked me why, and I told him.

“Watch attentively for a few minutes.”

I did so, and felt puzzled, for it seemed so strange that the fire should grow smaller.

“Well,” he said, “are the junks burning?”

“The little curls of smoke are rising still, sir.”

“Have the men left the decks?”

“Oh no, sir! They’re running here and there, and seem very busy still.”

“Then they have not set fire to the vessels,” he cried decisively. “Pirates, without a doubt. Those are stink-pots that they have been getting ready. Go on watching, and report anything else.”

A noise below, familiar enough, with its rattle and splash, told me that an anchor had been dropped from the bows; and as the Teaser slowly swung round from the force of the tide, I also had to turn, so as to keep the telescope fixed upon the enemy, who were as busy as ever, though what they were doing I could not make out. The flashes of light came more frequently, though, as the sun played upon their weapons; and now I had something else to report—that they had both assumed a different position, being lifted by the tide and floated upon an even keel.

My first idea was, that now they would sail on beyond our reach; in fact, one moved a good deal, but the other stopped in its place, so that at last they were so close together that they seemed to touch.

“Make out the boats?” came from the deck.

“No, sir; they’re close under the bank.” Yes, I caught a glimpse of the marines’ bayonets just then.

“How far are they away from the junks, do you think?”

“I can’t tell, sir; about a quarter of a mile, I think.”

Mr Reardon was silent while I gazed intently at a patch of open water just beyond a curve of the bank, hoping to see the boats there, though I felt that as soon as they reached that spot, if the enemy had not seen them before, they would be certain to then, for beyond that the junks lay clearly to be seen from where I sat.

“Well? See the boats?” came from the deck.

“No, sir, not yet.”

I glanced down to answer, and could see that every one who possessed a glass was gazing anxiously aft, the only face directed up to me being the first lieutenant’s. Then my eye was at the glass again.

“More smoke from the junks, sir,” I cried; but there was no sign of fire, and I felt that Mr Reardon must be right, for if they had set a light to the inflammable wood of the vessels, they would have blazed up directly.

“Can’t you see the boats yet?” cried the first lieutenant impatiently, and his voice sounded as if he were blaming me.

“No, sir, but the junks are more out in the middle of the stream. I can see them quite clearly now, away from the trees. They are crowded with men, and—”

“The boats—the boats?”

“No, sir;—yes, hurrah! There they go, sir, all abreast, straight for the junks.”

“Ha!” came in one long heavy breath from below, as if all left on board had suddenly given vent to their pent-up feelings.

“How far are they away from the junks?” cried Mr Reardon.

“About two hundred yards, sir; you’ll see them directly.”

“Yes, I see them now, sir,” cried Barkins, who was a little way up the mizzen-shrouds, where I had not seen him before.

“Silence!” cried the captain sternly. “Go on, Mr Herrick; report.”

“Smoke from the junks, sir—white,” I cried, and the words were hardly out of my mouth when there came the report of guns—first one and then another; then two together; and I fancied that I could see the water splashing up round about the boats, but I could not be sure.

“Boats separating,” I shouted.

“Go on.”

“Pulling hard for the junks.”

“Yes, go on; report everything.”

I needed no orders, for I was only too eager to tell everything I saw.

“Two boats have gone to the right; two to the left.—More firing from the junks.—Boats separating more.—Two going round behind.—Both out of sight.”

By this time, in addition to the sharp reports of the small guns on board the junks, the sharper crackle of matchlocks and muskets had begun; but so far I had not seen a puff of smoke from our boats.

“Are our men firing?”

“No, sir; the two boats I can see are pulling straight now for the junks.—Now the water splashes all about them.”

“Yes? Hit?”

“Don’t think so, sir.—Now.—Ah!”

“What—what is it, boy?”

“Can’t see anything, sir; they’ve rowed right into the smoke.”

My hands which held the telescope were quite wet now with the excitement of the scene I had tried to describe to my superior officer, and I thrust the glass under my left arm, and rubbed them quickly on my handkerchief, as I gazed at the distant smoke, and listened to the crackle of musketry alone, for the guns had now ceased from fire.

This I felt must be on account of the boats coming to closer quarters, and then to the men boarding. But I could see nothing but the smoke, and I raised the glass to my eye again.

Still nothing but smoke. I fancied, though, that the firing was different—quicker and sharper—as if our men must have begun too.

“Well, Mr Herrick?” now came from below. “Surely you can see how the fight is going on?”

“No, sir, nothing but smoke,—Yes,” I cried excitedly, “it’s lifting now, and floating away to the left. I can see close up to the junks. Yes; now the decks. Our right boat is empty, and there is a great fight going on upon the junk.”

“And the other?”

“There are two boats close up, and our men are firing. There is black smoke coming out of one boat. Now the men are climbing up, and—now, the smoke is too thick there.”

“Go on, boy; go on,” shouted the first lieutenant, stamping about, while the captain stood perfectly still, gazing at the rising smoke, from the bridge.

“They seem to be fighting very hard, sir,” I said, trembling now like a leaf. “I can see quite a crowd, and that some of the people are in white.”

“But who is getting the best of it?”

“I can’t see, sir,” I said sadly.

“Then for goodness’ sake come down, and let some one else come up,” roared Mr Reardon.

“Yes, sir.”

“No, no; stay where you are, boy. But use your glass—use your glass.”

I tried my best, but I could only make out a blurred mass of men on board both junks. They seemed to be swaying to and fro, and the smoke, instead of passing off, once more grew thicker, and in place of being white and steamy, it now looked to be of a dirty inky black, completely enveloping the vessels and our boats.

This I reported.

“They surely cannot have set them on fire?” said Mr Reardon.

“I can’t see any flames, sir.”

Silence again; and we found that the firing had ceased, all but a sharp crack from time to time, sounds evidently made by rifles. But there was nothing more to see, and, in spite of the angry appeals of the lieutenant, I could report no more than that the black smoke was growing thicker, and hanging down over the water, hiding everything, to the bushes and trees upon the bank.

And now, as I gave one glance down, I saw that the captain was walking to and fro upon the bridge, evidently in a great state of excitement, for there was not a sound now; the firing had quite ceased; the black cloud seemed to have swallowed up our four boats and men; and a chilly feeling of despair began to attack me, as I wondered whether it was possible that our poor fellows had been beaten, and the boats burned by the stink-pots the pirates had thrown in.

The thought was almost too horrible to bear, and I stared hard through the glass again, trying to make out the junks beyond the smoke, and whether it was really our boats which where burning, and raising the black cloud which hid all view.

“I can see a boat now, sir,” I cried excitedly, as one of them seemed to glide out of the end of the cloud; but my heart sank as I made the announcement, for I saw only that which confirmed my fears.

“Well, go on, lad,” cried Mr Reardon, stamping with impatience, “what are they doing in her?”

“She’s empty, sir, and floating away, with a cloud of black smoke rising from her.”

“Ah!” he exclaimed, with quite a savage snarl, and I saw the captain stop short and raise his glass again, though I knew that from where he stood he could see nothing.

“We’re beaten,” I said to myself. “Oh, our poor lads—our poor lads!”

A mist rose before my eyes, and I nearly dropped the glass, but I passed my hand across my face and looked again, sweeping the telescope from the left side, where the boat was gliding up-stream smoking more than ever, to the right and the shore.

“Hooray!” I yelled.

“Yes! what?” roared the captain and Mr Reardon together.

“Chinese running in a regular stream away from the shore; making for the woods. One down—another down.”

At the same moment almost came a couple of volleys, then several men went down, and the crackle of firing commenced again.

“Go on, Herrick!” cried Mr Reardon.

“Our fellows ashore, and running Jacks and jollies together, sir. Stopping to fire. Running again.”

“And the enemy?”

“Running like deer, sir. More of them down. Making for the wood.”

“One man stopped, sir, and returning.”

“Yes, yes, that’s good. What now?”

“Boat out from the smoke, rowing after the other one, sir. They’ve got it. Yes, I can see. They’re throwing something out that smokes—now something more.”

“Bah! stink-pots!” roared Mr Reardon. “Now then, quick!—quick! Don’t, go to sleep, sir. What next?”

“I’ll shy the spyglass at you directly,” I muttered; and then aloud, “Fire, sir; both junks blazing.”

“Hurrah!” came from the deck as the rest of the crew set up a tremendous cheer, for the smoke had suddenly grown less dense; and the junks gradually grew visible as it floated away; while even in the bright sunlight the flames were visible, and I could now make out that they were two floating furnaces with the great tongues of fire licking the broad matting-sails: and, best news of all, there, quite plainly, were our four boats, with the men just visible above their sides.

I reported this, and cheer after cheer rose again. After which there was dead silence once more, so that my reports could be heard.

“Now, Mr Herrick, what now?” cried Mr Reardon.

“Two boats lying in mid-stream, sir; the others are rowing to the side.”

“To pick up the men who were sent ashore, I suppose. Good.”

“Junks burning very fast, sir; and they’re floating across to the other side. The wind’s taking them straight, for the smoke floats that way.”

“Very likely,” said Mr Reardon; and there was a long pause.

“One junk has taken the ground, sir,” I said, “and—”

“Yes, well, what?”

“Her masts and sails have fallen over the side.”

“And our boats?”

“Lying-to, sir, doing nothing.”

But that was as far as I could see, for they were doing a good deal, as we afterwards heard.

“Other junk has floated over, sir, nearly to the same place.”

“Good; burning still?”

“Oh yes, sir—very fast.”

He need not have asked; for, as Barkins told me afterwards, they could see the flames from the deck, though our boats were invisible.

“Well, what now?” cried Mr Reardon, as I saw the captain quietly pacing to and fro on the bridge.

“Other two boats pushed off from the shore, sir.”

“Ha! that’s right. See anything of the Chinamen?”

“No, sir; the forest goes right away for miles. There isn’t one to be seen.”

“And the boats?”

“All rowing back, sir, close under the left bank.”

“Can you see them?”

“Only three of them, sir,” I replied. “Now another is out of sight.”

“Then, as soon as they are all invisible, you can come down,” cried Mr Reardon.

“Yes, sir; all out of sight now.”

“Then come down.”

“Thankye for nothing,” I muttered; and then aloud, “Yes, sir;” and I closed my glass, and wiped my wet forehead, feeling stiff and sore, as if I had been exerting myself with all my might.

“I suppose I’m very stupid,” I said to myself, as I began to descend slowly, “but I did try my best. What a height it seems up here! If a fellow slipped and fell, he would never have another hour up at the mast-head.”

I went on downward, with my legs feeling more and more stiff, and a sense of heavy weariness growing upon me. My head ached too, and I felt a pain at the back of my neck, while mentally I was as miserable and dissatisfied as ever I remember being in my life.

“I hope he’ll send old Barkins up next time,” I thought. “He wouldn’t feel so precious jealous then. Nice job, squinting through that glass till one’s almost blind, and nothing but bullying for the result.”

It seemed to be a very long way down to the deck, but I reached the remaining few rattlins at last, and I was nearly down to the bulwarks, meaning to go below and bathe my head, if I could leave the deck, when I was stopped short, just in my most gloomy and despondent moments, by the captain’s voice, his words sounding so strange that I could hardly believe my ears.

For, as I held on to the shrouds, and looked sharply aft at the mention of my name, he said—

“Thank you, Mr Herrick; very good indeed;” while, as I reached the deck, Mr Reardon came up—

“Yes, capital, Mr Herrick. A very arduous task, and you have done it well.”