Chapter 31 | Getting Warm | Blue Jackets

Chapter Thirty One.

The men were in high glee, and, had they not been checked, would have sent the boat spinning up the river, in their delight to escape from the monotony of harbour-life, and the natural love there is in Englishmen for a bit of sport.

“Steady, my lads,” said Mr Brooke quietly. “Just give her headway, and back water the moment I speak.”

I did not hear what one of the men whispered to his messmate, but I saw his face as he leaned forward, and it certainly suggested to me that he said—

“They mean some of the tame ducks to make sure.”

“No, we do not, my man,” said Mr Brooke, and I stared at him in astonishment, that he should have taken the same idea as I had.

The man coloured through his tan, and Mr Brooke; said in a low voice to me—

“Our work’s cut out, Herrick; how are we to pick out the right two junks from all this crowd?”

“I don’t know, sir,” I said. “But I don’t fancy they would be down here where other people might talk about them. I should think they would be up the river.”

“Well, we must find them, my lad, so use our brains as much as you can, and if you see a junk with a very evil-looking lot aboard, just give me a hint as we pass.”

“I’ll ask Ching what he thinks, sir.”

Mr Brooke nodded, and I turned to the interpreter, who was squatting in the bottom of the boat right aft, his eyes half shut, and apparently taking no heed of anything.

“How are we to know which are the junks we want, Ching?” I said.

“Oh, velly soon find,” he said. “Ching look along. Not these. Pilate boat big and tall. Empty. No got big calgo aboard. Stand high up now. Velly full and low down when full of plize-money.”

“Then you don’t think they are down here?”

He shook his head as he glanced at the various forms of trading-boat moored off the town, from the tiny sampan to the heavy, clumsy mat-sailed vessel, whose stern towered up, and whose great bamboo yards looked as if they must be perfectly unmanageable.

“What do you think we had better do, then—row about here and watch?”

“No good,” he said; “makee men low fast light up liver, findee, pilate junk.”

“But suppose we pass them?” I said.

“No pass pilate boat: Ching here.”

“And so you think you will know them?”

The Chinaman screwed his face up into a curiously comic smile.

“Ching know pilate when he see him.”

“And you think it better to go right up the river?” said Mr Brooke, turning suddenly to join in the conversation.

“Yes; pilate junk long way.”

“How do you know?”

He gave a cunning smile at us both, his little eyes twinkling in a singularly sly manner.

“You see vegetable boat come along mo’ning?”

“Yes, I saw the boat come alongside.”

“Blought Ching ’nothee lettee, allee same fliend. Say pilate boat long way uppee liver in big cleek, waitee come down along lunning water in the dalk.”

“Then you pretty well know where they are?” said Mr Brooke.

“No; far uppee liver; in cleek.”

“I suppose this is right?” said Mr Brooke to me.

“Yes, quite light. Ching likee see Queen Victolia ship killee catch pilate.”

“Give way, my men,” said Mr Brooke, and the boat shot forward, while, relieved for the moment from the task of scanning the different boats, I sat gazing at the beautiful panorama of quaint houses, narrow streets debouching on the river, and the house-boats all along the edge of the river, while smaller boats were swinging here and there wherever there was room.

It was a wonderfully interesting sight, for, in addition to the curious shapes of the buildings, there was plenty of brilliant colour, and every now and then patches of brightest blue and vivid scarlet were heightened by the glistening gilding which ornamented some particular building. Then there were temples dotted about amongst the patches of forest, which fringed the high ground at the back of the city, and away beyond them the steep scarps of rugged and jagged mountains, which stood up looking of so lovely a pinky-blue, that I could for the moment hardly believe they were natural, and was ready to ask whether it was not some wonderful piece of painting.

The house-boats took my fancy greatly, for, in endless cases, they were of a variety of bright colours, pretty in shape, and decorated with showy flowers in pots and tubs; some had cages containing brightly-plumaged birds, and in most of them quaint bald-headed little children were playing about or fishing.

Higher up we saw men busy with nets which were attached to the end of a great bamboo pole, balanced upon a strong upright post fixed in the river’s bottom, and by means of this balanced pole the net was let down into the depths of the river, and hoisted from time to time, sometimes with a few glittering little fish within the meshes, sometimes having nothing but weed.

“Yes, catchee fish; catchee velly big fish some time.”

About ten minutes after, Ching pulled my sleeve and pointed to the other side of the river, where I caught sight of a very familiar old friend sitting in his boat, just as I had seen him in an old picture-book at home.

There he sat with a big umbrella-like sunshade fixed up over him on a bamboo pole, in front of him a kind of platform spread across the front of his moored boat, and upon it sat perched eight or nine of my old friends the cormorants, one of which dived into the river from time to time, and soon after emerged and made its way back to the boat with a fish in its beak.

“See that, Mr Brooke?” I cried eagerly. “I suppose we can’t stop to watch them?”

“Not when on Her Majesty’s service, Herrick,” he said, with a smile, and we glided rapidly on, till the houses, which had long been growing scattered, finally disappeared, and we were following the windings of the river in company with a few small junks and sampans, which seemed bound for one of the cities higher up the great waterway.

“Shoot bird now,” said Ching, in answer to an inquiring look from Mr Brooke.

“Yes; but do you think the junks are up here?”

“Oh yes, velly quite su’e. Plenty eye in boat watchee see what Queen Victolia offlicer going to do uppee river.”

“What does he mean?” said Mr Brooke, who was puzzled by this last rather enigmatical speech. “Of course we have watchful eyes in our boat, but I don’t see anything yet worth watching.”

“He means that very likely there are friends of the pirates in one of these boats, and that we had better begin shooting, so as to take off attention from our real purpose.”

“Yes, allee same; p’laps pilate fliend in lit’ boat go and tell Queen Victolia foleign devil sailor boy come catchee.”

“Oh, I see,” said Mr Brooke. Then, turning to me, “You do understand a little French, don’t you?”

“Well, sir, I used to learn some at school,” I replied, feeling very doubtful about my proficiency.

“I daresay you can understand my Stratford-atte-Bow French,” said Mr Brooke, laughing.

“I’ll try, sir,” I said; and he said to me directly in excellent French—

“I feel doubtful about this man. You have seen more of him than I have. Do you think he is honest, or leading us into a trap?”

“Honest, sir,” I said, “I feel certain.”

“Well, then, we will trust him fully; but if he betrays us, and I can get a last shot—well, then—”

“He’ll be sorry for it, sir,” I said, for Mr Brooke did not finish his remark.

“Exactly; get out your gun and put on your cartridge belt.”

I followed his example, and Ching smiled.

“Velly good thing,” he said. “Now pilate fliend, see jolly sailor boy, and say—Come killee duck-bird, goose-bird to make nicee dinner, not come catchee catchee pilate.”

“You hear what this man says, my lads?” said the young lieutenant, addressing the men.

“Ay, ay, sir.”

“Then you understand now that we have not only come up to shoot?”

“Ay, ay, sir.”

“Keep your rifles and cutlasses quite handy in case they are wanted. No confusion, mind, but at the word be ready.”

Mr Brooke’s words seemed to send a thrill through the men, who pulled on now with a more vigorous stroke, while, with our guns charged, and the butts resting on our knees, we gave place to the coxswain, who took the tiller.

“We’ll go forward, Herrick,” said my companion; and he stepped over the thwarts into the coxswain’s place, and I sat by him, watching alternately for birds, junks, and creeks, up which the latter might lie.

“Begin shootee soon,” said Ching rather anxiously.


“Velly muchee sail boat behind think why we come.”

“There goes something, Herrick,” said Mr Brooke just then, and I looked up and saw a bird flying over the river at a tremendous rate.

I raised my piece quickly, fired, and as soon as I was a little clear of the smoke, fired again.

“You hit him, sir!” said our stroke-oar. “I see him wag his tail.”

“It was a miss,” I said quietly.

“Velly good,” whispered Ching. “Allee men in other boat look see;” while I replaced the cartridges in my gun, and looked shoreward, to see that the land was level for miles, and that little flocks of duck or other birds were flying here and there. Soon after a wisp of about a dozen came right over head, and as they approached the men rested upon their oars till Mr Brooke had fired, without result.

He looked at me and smiled, while the men pulled again, and we went merrily along, getting a shot now and then, but the result for the game-bag was very meagre indeed, at which I was not surprised on my own account, but I fully expected Mr Brooke to have done some good.

And still we went on along the great river, with the country, save for the distant mountains, looking wonderfully English, and making it hard to believe that we were in China. In places where we were close to the shore I could see forms of growth different to our own, but at a little distance the trees, shrubs, and reeds looked much the same as those we should have encountered at home, and I confess to feeling a little disappointed. Then all at once, as if he too were suffering from the same sensation, Mr Brooke spoke.

“They will laugh at us when we get back, Herrick,” he said, “as far as our birds are concerned, but I am beginning to think that we shall find the pirate junks are somewhere up here.”

“You think so, sir? Look, a flock coming this way!”

“Of pirate junks?” he said drily.

“No, sir, ducks.”

“Give it them, then, my lad—both barrels.”

I took aim and fired both barrels quickly one after the other, but as I drew trigger I felt that I had done wrong, for I had aimed right in front of the swiftly-flying flock.

“Umbrellas up!” shouted one of the men. “Rains geese!” and there was a cheer and a roar of laughter, as one by one five geese fell with a splash in the river, two to lie perfectly still while they were retrieved—the others, poor birds, to make desperate efforts to swim broken-winged away, but to be shot one by one by Mr Brooke, and after a sharp row dragged into the boat.

“Velly nicee,” said Ching, smiling.

“Yes, I must take lessons in shooting from you, Mr Herrick,” said the young lieutenant, smiling. “It’s my turn next.”

I felt hot and uncomfortable, for my success seemed to be the result of pure accident, and I said so, but Mr Brooke laughed and shook his head.

“Never mind the birds, Herrick,” he said; “I feel sure our other game is close by somewhere.”

“Yes, up cleek somewhere,” said Ching.

“Why do you say that?”

“No pointee—no look. I tell you,” said the Chinaman, taking up and pretending to examine the mottled brown wing of the goose he opened out. “Boat come behind, pilate fliend come see which way we go.”

“Yes, I’m sure you are right,” said Mr Brooke, taking up another of the birds; “and if I’m not very much mistaken, that other boat you see ahead has his eye upon us.”

“Ching not velly sure, p’laps; only see one man look over side thlee times.”

“There’s a bit of a river runs off here, sir, to the right,” said one of the men, nodding to his left, where there was an opening in a patch of forest which came down to the river, with fine timber trees overhanging the muddy banks, and their branches every here and there showing dead grass and reeds caked with mud, as if at times this part of the country was deeply flooded.

“Yes,” said Ching very quietly; “p’laps plenty mud up there. Go see.”

“And while we are up a side branch of the river, they may come down the main stream and escape.”

Ching shook his head.

“Fliend say pilate junk hide up liver in cleek.”

“Yes, but—”

“Wait lit’ bit,” said Ching, with a cunning look. “Go up lit’ way, shoot birds, and no lit’ boat come after, no pilate fliend. If come after, plenty muchee pilate fliend, and junk not vellee far.”

“He’s right, Herrick,” said Mr Brooke, nodding. “Turn up the side branch, my lads. Keep up the comedy of the shooting, and have a shot at something.”

“But there’s nothing to shoot at, sir,” I said, feeling rather doubtful of the accuracy of Ching’s ideas.

But as we turned up the narrow branch of the river—a creek not much wider than an English canal, I caught sight of a black-looking bird, which rose from the water and flew away paddling the surface with its feet.

I fired and dropped the bird, but it flapped along, and the men cheered and pulled in chase for two or three hundred yards before it was retrieved.

“It’s a sort of moor-hen,” I said, as I looked up from my captive.

“One of the pirate’s hens, perhaps, Herrick,” said Mr Brooke, smiling.

“Well, Ching, had we better go on?”

“Yes, go ’long,” said the Chinaman rather huskily. “Velly good place.”

We rowed on for another three or four hundred yards, the branch winding a great deal, so that we seemed to be in a succession of lakes, while the trees on either side completely shut us in.

“Stream runs very fast,” I said.

“Yes, velly fast,” said Ching.

“There, I think we had better turn back now,” said Mr Brooke, but Ching smiled in a curious way.

“What go turnee back? Pilate fliend both come in cleek after, to see what Queen Victolia jolly sailor boy go to do.”

“Are you sure?” said Mr Brooke excitedly.

“Yes, sir, I see the top of one of their sails,” said Tom Jecks.

“Then, by George, we are in the right track,” cried Mr Brooke, and, as my heart began to beat rapidly, “Give way, my lads,” he cried, “give way.”