Chapter 27 | A Surprise | Blue Jackets

Chapter Twenty Seven.

That night had set in very dark. The clouds were heavy overhead, and the river now looked intensely black, but toward the shore there were the dull lights of the Chinese town glimmering in the water, while from some building, whether on account of a religious ceremony or a festival, a great gong was being beaten heavily, its deep, sonorous, quivering tones floating over the place, and reaching my ears like the tolling of a church bell.

It only wanted that depressing sound to make my spirits at the lowest ebb, and set me thinking of home, the perils of the career in which I was engaged, and wondering whether I should ever see England again.

The watch had been set, and from time to time Mr Reardon came aft to look anxiously astern.

The last time Mr Brooke was with him, and they stopped near where I was standing.

“But they ought to be back by now,” Mr Reardon said.

“It’s a long pull,” Mr Brooke replied, “and the tide is terribly sharp at this time.”

“Yes, yes—it is; but I want to see them back. Who’s that?”

“Herrick, sir.”

“Oh! Looking out for the boats?”

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s right. I like to see a young officer take an interest in the men.”

They moved away to walk forward, while my face burned, for I did not deserve the praise, and my words had not been quite so honest as I could have wished.

All at once, from out of the blackness astern, I heard the regular dip of oars, and at the same moment one of the watch challenged and received an answer. A minute later they were close up, and I shouted—

“Found him?”

“No, sir; not a sign of him anywhere.”

I uttered a low groan, and the boats separated, one going to starboard and the other to port, to be hauled up to their quarters, and there was the customary trampling of the men going to their positions to run them up.

“Poor old Ching!” I said aloud; and then I started back as if I had received a stroke, for my name was uttered from below in a sharp whisper.

“Mister Hellick! Mister Hellick!”

“Ching!” I cried, leaning over as far as I could reach, and gazing down at the water. “Help!—help!” I shouted. “Here he is!”

Mr Brooke ran to me.

“What do you mean, my lad?”

“He’s down here,” I cried, “clinging to the chains.”

“Nonsense! the boats would have seen him.”

“But he is,” I cried. “He has just called me. Below there! Ching!”

“Yes; help! Velly cold,” came up in a piteous wail.

“Hold hard there!” shouted Mr Brooke. “Port boat back here under the counter.”

The falls were unhooked, and the boat drawn back by the coxswain till she passed round close to the rudder.

“Any one there?” cried Mr Brooke.

“Ay, ay, sir!” and a cheer broke out from the men hurrying aft.

“Help! help!” came in a sharp wail. “No cut tow-chang! No cut tow-chang!”

“Nobody’s going to cut it, my lad. All right, we’ve got you,” came up from close under the stern windows, where even if it had been light we could not have seen.

“Found him?” cried the captain, who now came up.

“Ay, ay, sir! Will you lower us down a lantern, sir? He’s tied up somehow to the chain and a ring-bolt. We can’t quite lee.”

The next minute, as I stood there longing to lower myself down into the boat, a lantern was swung over to them; while the men came swarming up the hatchway, for the news had soon spread, and they came running as far aft as they dared.

“Now then, steady,” came from beneath us. “Let go; we’ve got you, I say.”

“No cuttee tow-chang! No cuttee tow-chang!”

“Then he must have caught at the rudder-chains as he was swept along the side,” said the captain. “Why didn’t the fellow hail us, instead of letting the boats go on such a fool’s errand?”

“Too much scared, sir,” replied Mr Reardon. “Below there! Got him in the boat?”

“Got him, sir, and we can’t get him,” said one of the men. “He’s all twissen up round the chain in a knot somehow.”


“He’s tied hisself up somehow.”

“Well, then, cut him loose, man,” cried Mr Reardon.

“No cuttee tow-chang! No cuttee tow-chang!” cried Ching in a piteous wail.

“Not cut his toe?” said the captain in a tone full of disgust. “What does he mean? He can’t have tied his foot to the chain.”

“Hold still, will yer!” growled a deep voice; “I’m only untwisten on it. Nobody wants to cut yer pigtail.”

“Oh, no cuttee tow-chang!” wailed Ching piteously.

“Tow-chang?” said the captain.

“Yes, sir; his tail,” I said.

“Oh, I see! They’re very proud of the length.”

“Well, I’m blessed if ever I see such a snarl,” cried the man below. “That’s it. There you are. Here, cut this hankychy thing.”

“Got him now?”

“Ay, ay, sir! all right,” came from the boat; and at this the men burst out cheering again like mad, while the boat was drawn along the side with difficulty till the falls were reached, hooked on, and with a stamp and a run she was hauled up, and I was close up to the side as she was swung in, and Ching lifted out dripping, and sank down in a heap as soon as the men tried to set him on his feet.

“Here, let me have a look at him,” said the doctor.

“But first of all, why did you cling there instead of calling for help?” cried Mr Reardon angrily.

“Bah! don’t worry the man, sir,” said the doctor sharply. “He’s nearly insensible. What’s this canister doing at the end of his tail?”

“Bah!” ejaculated the captain angrily, and he said something to Mr Reardon, and then went down to the cabin.

“Look here,” cried the lieutenant angrily, “I want the names of the men who played this blackguardly trick upon the poor fellow.”

“Yes, afterwards,” said the doctor. “He’s insensible, poor fellow. Here, one of you, a knife?”

Half-a-dozen jack-knives were opened and presented to the doctor, but I sprang forward.

“Don’t do that, sir, please!” I cried excitedly.

“Eh? Not cut off this absurd thing?”

“No, sir. The poor fellow went overboard to escape having the pigtail cut, and it would break his heart.”

Mr Reardon turned upon me sharply, and I anticipated a severe reproof, but he only gave me a nod.

“Carry him below,” he said. And I walked beside the men to save the poor fellow from any fresh indignity, while half-an-hour later he had had a good rubbing and was lying in hot blankets fast asleep, partly from exhaustion, partly consequent upon having had a tumbler of mixture, steaming and odorous, which the doctor had administered with his own hands.

“Not to be taken every three hours, Herrick,” he said, with a curious dry smile. “Fine mixture that, in its proper place. Know what it was?”

“It smelt like grog, sir,” I replied.

“Oh, did it? Now, do you for a moment suppose that when a carefully-trained medical man of great experience is called in to a patient suffering from shock and a long immersion he would prescribe and exhibit such a commonplace remedy as grog?”

“Don’t know, sir,” I said. “But I should.”

“Then, my good lad, as soon as you get back from this unpleasant voyage, the best thing you can do will be to go straight to your father and tell him that you have made a mistake in your vocation, and that he had better enter you for a series of terms at one of the universities, and then as a student at one of the hospitals.”

“But I’m going to be a sailor, sir.”

“Yes, a bad one, I daresay, my lad, when you might become a good doctor or surgeon.”

“But I don’t want to be one,” I replied, laughing.

“Of course not, when it is the grandest profession in the world.”

“But do you think he will come round all right, sir?” I said anxiously.

“Oh yes, of course. But you are not going to let that absurd thing stop on the end of his tail?”

“No, sir,” I replied. “I’m going to try and get it off directly.”


“Lay it on a stool and stamp upon it.”

“Good! that will flatten it and make the opening gape.”

It did, after the exercise of a fair amount of pressure; and then, by the help of Tom Jecks, who was wonderfully penitent now, and eager to help with a tool he brought—to wit, a marlinespike—the star-like points of tin were one by one forced out, and the tail withdrawn uninjured, except that the silk ribbon at the end was a good deal frayed.

“Ha!” ejaculated Tom. “We’ve made an end of it at last. My word, Mr Herrick, sir, it’s truly-thankful-Amen I am that the poor chap’s all right again.”

“And so am I, Tom Jecks,” I replied.

“O’ course you is, sir; I never meant to cut his tail, only to frighten him a bit; but, poor heathen, he took it all as serious as seas. Shall I go and chuck the tin-can overboard?”

“No; leave it here for him to find when he wakes up.”

“Right it is, sir. But what a fuss for a man to make about a bit o’ hair. He never howls about having his head shaved.”

“No,” I said; “but you see he would have given anything sooner than have his tail touched.”

“And most got drownded, sir. Well, that all come o’ the lads skylarking. If ever I’m skipper of a ship, no skylarking then. I s’pose there’ll be a reglar hooroar in the morning, and Mr Reardon wanting to know who started the game.”

“And you’ll tell him, Tom?” I said.

“O’ course, sir,” he replied, with a solemn wink. “I’m just the man to go and split upon my messmates.”

“But you’ll be punished if you don’t tell. You can’t get out of it, because it’s known that you were teasing him; and it wouldn’t be fair for you to be punished and for them to escape.”

“No, sir, it wouldn’t; but sech is life. Wrong chap generally gets the kick as some one else ought to have ketched, but ’tarn’t your fault, and it’s no use to grumble.”

“But it is your fault, if you know who were the offenders and will not tell.”

“Is it? Humph! S’pose it is, sir. You’re right. That’s where you gents as is scholards gets over the like of me. I see it now; you are right, sir. What a wonderful head you’ve got for arguing, sewerly!”

“Then you’ll tell Mr Reardon in the morning?”

“I didn’t say as I would, sir.”

“No; but you will?”

“No, sir, but I won’t!” he said emphatically. “But I say, sir, do you think if I was to go overboard, and then hitch myself on to the rudder-chains till I was took aboard, the doctor’d give me a dose of that same physic as he give him?”

“Very likely, Tom,” I said. “But you’d rather be without, wouldn’t you?”

He smiled.

“But it was physic?”

“Oh yes, sir, it was physic. But then you see there’s physic as he takes out of one of his little bottles with stoppers, and there’s physic as he makes out of the ship’s rum, hot with sugar. I could take a dose now easy, and it would do me good.”

“Nonsense!” I said, after a glance at the sleeping Chinaman. “But I say, Jecks, how did he manage?”

“Oh, easy enough, sir. Tide would suck him right along the side, and he’d catch the chains.”

“But how did he get in such a tangle?”

“Tied hisself on, sir, with a handkerchy round his left arm, to the chain; and then Dick Spurling says he twissened his tow-chang, as he called it, round and round, and tucked the canister in at the neck of his frock and buttoned it. Dick had no end of a job, as you know, to get him undone.”

“Yes,” I said thoughtfully, “I know that; but a man couldn’t hang by his hair.”

Tom Jecks laughed softly.

“Oh yes, he could, sir. There’s no knowing how little a man can hang by when he’s obliged. Why, ain’t you heard how we men hangs on to the yards when we’re aloft?”

“Oh yes, I’ve heard,” I said; “by your eyelids.”

“That’s it, sir,” he said, with a dry grin; “and that’s harder than a man hanging on by his hair.”

Ching was still sleeping heavily, and our conversation did not disturb him, and after a few moments’ thought I said—

“But I don’t feel at all sure why he did not hail the boats when they were going off.”

“Oh, I do, sir,” replied Tom Jecks. “I wouldn’t ha’ thought it possible, but the poor fellow was regularly scared, and wouldn’t speak at first, because he thought that if he was hoisted on board the first thing we would do would be to go for his tail.”

“Yes,” I said, “that sounds likely; but he did hail after all.”

“And enough to make him, sir; poor chap. Do you know why?”

“Well, not exactly,” I said.

“A’cause the first fright had gone, and the bigger one had come. At first he was all in a squirm about losing his tail, but after a bit he got wacken up to the fact that if he didn’t get took aboard he’d precious soon lose his life.”