Chapter 30 | A Fresh Start | Blue Jackets

Chapter Thirty.

“Mr Herrick,” said the captain, as I saluted, “I have decided that, as you know so much about this business, you shall go with Mr Brooke in one of the boats; but I wish you to observe what I say: the success of our expedition depends a great deal upon secrecy, so do not chatter anything about your mission in the hearing of the men.”

“No, sir, certainly not,” I said, wondering what the mission might be, and whether we were going to cut out the junks.

“That’s right; you had better take the interpreter with you.”

“To search for the junks, sir?”

“Hush; guard your tongue, sir. You are ostensibly going up the river with Mr Brooke upon a little shooting expedition for wild-fowl, so get rid of your uniform. I daresay we can lend him a gun, Mr Reardon?”

“If he’ll take care of it, he can have mine, sir,” said Mr Reardon.

“Then off with you, my lad, and be as observant as you can. Mr Brooke will tell you, I daresay, all about his instructions.”

I saluted, and darted away in time to see that Smith had been watching me, for he drew back as I approached, and I found him standing by where Barkins sat, looking exceedingly glum.

I daresay it was very petty, but Smith had been so malicious, and had so often made himself disagreeable, that I could not help feeling a delicious sensation of triumph as I bustled into the cabin and rushed to my locker, without taking any notice whatever of Smith, while I felt sorry for big burly Barkins, who I felt would not say an unkind word if it were not for Smith’s influence.

I remember Charles Dickens saying in one of his tales something about it being hard enough to live with any one who had a bad temper in a large house, but to be shut up with the said person in a cart or travelling van was terrible. Of course I am not giving his exact words, only making the allusion to illustrate the fact that it is quite as bad to exist with an ill-tempered person in the small cabin of a vessel at sea. For you may depend upon it there is no better—or worse—way of finding out a companion’s peculiarities than that.

I acted pettily, but then I was only a boy; and now I am a man, getting on in years, I don’t know that I am much better. But it was very comic all the same to see those two fellows try to ignore my proceedings, poor old Barkins following Blacksmith’s lead once more. They did not want to know what I was going to do—not a bit. And I laughed to myself as I hurriedly kicked off my shoes and put on a pair of strong boots, carefully took off my uniform jacket and replaced it by a thin tweed Norfolk, after which I extricated a pith helmet from its box, having to turn it upside down, for it was full of odds and ends.

Smith had taken up a book and pretended to read, while Barkins sat back on a locker with his hands in his pockets, and his lips thrust out and screwed as if he were whistling, but no sound came, and he stared hard at the bulkhead facing him.

But try how he would he could not keep his eyes fixed there—they would follow my movements; and twice over I caught Smith peeping round the side of the book with which he was screening his face.

I began to whistle as I rapidly made my preparations, and at last Smith could bear it no longer.

“What’s the idiot dressing himself up for?” he cried contemptuously.

That started Barkins, and he burst out with—

“What’s up, Gnat? Shore leave?”

“Eh! Didn’t you know?” I said coolly. “Shooting.”

“What!” they exclaimed in a breath, and Smith’s eyes were more wide open than I had ever seen them.

“Shooting,” I said coolly. “Brooke and I are going after ducks.”

“Gammon!” cried Barkins. “Why, you have no gun.”

“No,” I said. “Reardon is going to lend me his double breech-loader, central fire, number twelve.”

Barkins gave his leg a sharp slap.

“We’re going up the river; plenty of sport up there among the marshes.”

“Going to walk?” said Barkins.

“Oh no; we’re to have a crew and one of the cutters.”

“Don’t you believe him, Barkins, it’s all gammon. The little humbug can’t deceive me.”

“All right, call it gammon,” I said, stooping to tighten my boot-laces. “Roast duck for dinner, Tanner, to-morrow.”

Barkins rushed on deck, leaving me with Smith, and the next minute he was back again.

“It’s all right, Smithy,” he cried; “and they’re shoving in a basket of prog for the beggars.”

“What!” yelled Smith. “Do you mean to say that Brooke and this—this—thing are going off wasting Her Majesty’s time shooting?”

“Yes; I saw Brooke, and he said it was so.”

“Then I shall resign. Hang me if I’ll stop in a service where such beastly favouritism is shown. Profession for gentlemen’s sons, is it? I call it a mockery!”

“Oh, don’t be so snaggy, Smithums,” I said banteringly; “wait till his poor old wing’s all right again, and he shall go a shooting too.”

That was too much. He made a rush at me, but Barkins flung an arm round his waist, and as they struggled together I dodged to the other side of the table and escaped from the cabin, but popped my head in again.

“Don’t hit him, Tanner,” I cried; “he ain’t got no friends. Good-bye, old chap, I wish you were coming too.”

Our eyes met, and I suppose my tone and the look I gave him seemed sincere, for, as he held Smith, his arms tightly round him from behind, and his chin resting upon our messmate’s shoulder, he gave me a friendly nod.

“All right, old chap,” he said; “I hope you’ll enjoy yourself.”

“And I hope the John Teapots ’ll get hold of you, you miserable little cad!” cried Smith. “I shan’t be there to help you this time.”

I burst out laughing and ran on deck, to find the men mustered ready, and Mr Brooke standing there in sun helmet and gaiters, looking as unlike a naval officer as he could be.

“Oh, there you are, Herrick,” he said, giving me a look over. “Yes, that will do.”

“But the men,” I whispered. “Oughtn’t they to be armed?”

“All right, my lad; plenty of tackle in the boat under the thwarts.”

“But my gun—I mean Mr Reardon’s?”

“In the stern-sheets, with plenty of cartridges. Where’s Ching?”

“I don’t—down below, I suppose.”

“Fetch him up; we’re off at once.”

There was no need, for the interpreter appeared smiling and happy, looking as if he had not passed through such a terrible ordeal a short time before.

The captain and Mr Reardon came up then.

“Ready, Mr Brooke?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Order the crew into the boat, Mr Reardon.”

As the men sprang in, the captain came close to us.

“You’ll keep up the appearance of a sporting expedition, Mr Brooke,” he said in a low voice. “I expect you’ll find the junks in the river off some village. The rest I must leave to you.”

“Take them, sir, if I feel pretty certain?”

Captain Thwaites knit his brows, and stood as if thinking for a few moments.

“No,” he said at last; “but that I leave all to your discretion. Don’t risk your men, if they are strong. I’m afraid some of these mandarins are mixed up with the piratical expeditions, and share in the plunder, and I am certain that every movement we make is watched. There, off with you; don’t let Mr Herrick get hurt. I trust you to do your best.”

We sprang into the boat, which was lowered down; the falls were unhooked; and as Tom Jecks, who was coxswain, gave us a shove off, the tide, which was running up, bore us right aft; then the oars dropped with a splash, the rudder lines were seized, and away we went up-stream on as glorious a day as ever made a dirty Chinese city look lovely.

I looked back, and there were Barkins and Smith leaning over the side watching us, but I hardly noticed them, for something else caught my eye.

“Why, they’re getting up steam, Mr Brooke!” I said.

“Yes, my lad, they’re getting up steam, and I hope your information may mean some good active service for us. Here, Ching,” he whispered, “you have not told the men anything about our business?”

Ching shut his eyes and shook his head solemnly.

“Velly muchee keepee mouf shut,” he said, with the addition now of a few nods of the head. “Nobody but Ching an’ officer know.”