Chapter 42 | For Dear Life | Blue Jackets

Chapter Forty Two.

It was all clear enough: the great junk which had so deceived Mr Brooke and Ching had been cast ashore and shattered, these men having escaped and been exploring the island, or perhaps they were only coming down now from the spot where they had taken refuge after being cast ashore.

“Why, Ching,” I whispered, “perhaps there are more of them about!”

“P’laps,” he replied.

We dared not move, but remained there watching; and it now became pretty evident that the men had come down to examine the wreck, for they began to hurry about, chattering away as they searched in all directions amongst the fragments, one or another setting up a shout from time to time, which brought others to him. Then we saw them drag out now a chest from the sand in which it was bedded, now a cask; and soon after there was a burst of excitement over something we could not make out; but it was evidently a satisfactory find, for they bore it up from the sea to the soft, warm, dry sand, and all sat down round about it.

“Find something velly good to eat,” whispered Ching. “Now allee velly busy; come along, hide.”

It was very good advice; and we followed him down from the ridge, and in and out at the foot of the cliff, seeking for some place of concealment; for I had not a doubt about our fate if we were seen. In fact, I did not breathe freely until the great ridge and several masses of rock were between us; and only then, a good half-mile away in the direction from which we had come, did we venture to speak above our breath.

“Velly big pity,” said Ching, whose face was all in wrinkles. “Velly muchee wish back at fancee shop.”

“Let’s find a place before we talk about that,” I said.

“Yes; soon findee place.”

“Here, what is it, Jecks?” I cried, catching our companion’s arm; for he suddenly gave a lurch as we struggled through the loose sand, and nearly fell.

“Bit done up, sir,” he said, with a piteous smile. “Wound in my leg makes me feel sick, and the sun’s hot. Is there a drop o’ water to be got at anywhere?”

I looked round at the glowing sand and rocks with a feeling of horrible despair coming over me. Yes, there was water—hundreds and thousands of miles of water, blue, glistening, and beautiful in the calm morning, but none that we could give a parched and fainting man to drink.

“Try and creep along a little farther,” I said. “Let’s get you in hiding, and then Ching and I will search for some and bring it—”

As I spoke I remembered that I had nothing that would hold water, and I felt constrained to add—

“Or fetch you to it.”

“All right, sir,” said the man, with a weary smile; “allus obey your officers.”

Ching went to his other side, and supported him some fifty yards farther, our way now being through quite a chaos of rocks, which had been loosened in bygone times from the cliff above. Then, so suddenly that we were not prepared, the poor fellow dropped with his full weight upon our arms, and we had to lower him down upon a heap of drifted sand.

“No go, sir,” he said softly; “I’m a done-er.”

“No, no; rest a bit, and we’ll find a cool place somewhere. I daresay we shall see a cave along here.”

“Can’t do it, sir,” he said feebly; “I’ve kep’ on as long as I could. It’s all up. Never mind me. If those beggars see you, they’ll have no mercy on you, so go on and try and get away.”

“Yes; velly muchee makee haste. Pilate come soon.”

“Yes, sir; he’s quite right, sir. You two cut and run.”

“And let them come and murder you, while we go?” I said.

“Well, yes, sir,” said the poor fellow faintly; “there’s no good in having three killed when one would do.”

“Look about, Ching,” I said sharply. “Is there any place where we can hide?”

“No,” he replied disconsolately. “Only place for lit’ dog; no fo’ man.”

“You can’t do it, sir,” said our poor companion. “Good-bye, sir, and God bless you; you’ve done all a orficer can.”

“Oh, have I? I should look well when Mr Reardon or the captain says, ‘What have you done with your men?’”

“Don’t! stop a-talking, sir,” he cried, clinging to my hand. “You know what these beggars are, and you’ll have ’em on to you, sir.”

“Yes; and we shall have them on to you if we don’t find a place soon. Here, Ching, don’t run away and leave us;” for I could see the interpreter climbing up a gap in the cliff.

“He’s quite right, sir; you go after him. I tell you it’s all over and done with me. If you got me along a bit farther, I should only go off all the same. It’s all up. Now, pray go, sir. It’s no use to stay.”

“Hold your tongue!” I cried angrily; for with the feeling on me strong that the pirates might be down on us directly, and the only thing to do was to set off and run for my life, the poor fellow’s imploring words were like a horrible temptation that I was too weak to resist.

“I must speak, sir,” he whispered, with his eyes starting, and his lips black and cracked by the heat and feverish thirst caused by his wound. “There, you see, Mr Ching’s gone, and your only chance is to follow him.”

I looked up, and just caught sight of one of the Chinaman’s legs as he disappeared over the edge of the cliff to which, high up, he had crawled. And once more the desire to escape came upon me, but with increased strength, that made me so angry at my weakness that I turned upon the poor fellow almost threateningly.

“Will you hold your tongue?” I whispered hoarsely.

“Will you go, sir?” he pleaded. “I tell yer it’s all up with me, and the Teapots can’t hurt me worse than what I’ve got now. Arn’t got your dirk, have you?”

“No; why?”

“’Cause it would ha’ been an act o’ kindness to put me out of my misery, and save me from being cut to pieces by them there wretches. Now, sir, good-bye, and God bless you, once more! Tell the skipper I did my duty to the last.”

I broke down as I sank on my knees by the poor fellow; and I didn’t know my voice—perhaps it was being husky from the heat-as I said to him, very chokily—

“And if you get away, tell the captain I did my duty to the last.”

“Yes, sir; but do go now.”

I jumped up again, ashamed of the blinding tears that came for a few moments into my eyes.

“Look here,” I said; “if you weren’t so weak, I’d kick you, old a man as you are. Likely thing for a British officer to sneak off and leave one of his men like this!”

“But the beggars are coming, I’m sure, sir.”

“Very well,” I said gloomily, “let them come. It’s all very well for a full-moon-faced Chinaman to go off and take care of himself, but it isn’t English, Tom Jecks, and that you know.”

The poor fellow hoisted himself a little round, so that he could hide his face on his uninjured arm, and as I saw his shoulders heave I felt weaker than ever; but I mastered it this time, and knelt there with a whole flood of recollections of home, school, and my ambitions running through my brain. I thought of my training, of my delight at the news of my being appointed to the Teaser, of my excitement over my uniform; and that now it was all over, and that in all probability only the sea-birds would know of what became of me after the Chinamen had done.

Then I thought of Ching’s cowardice in leaving me alone with the poor wounded fellow like this.

“I knew he wasn’t a fighting man,” I said sadly; “but I couldn’t have believed that he was such a cur.”

At that moment there was a quick scrambling sound, which made me start to my feet, and Tom Jecks started up on his elbow.

“Here they come, sir,” he gasped. “Now, sir,” he whispered wildly, “do, pray, cut and run.”

“With you,” I said resolutely.

He made an effort to rise, but fell back with a groan.

“Can’t do it, sir. Without me. Run!”

I put my hands in my pockets without a word, and then started, for a voice said—

“You think Ching lun away allee time?”

“Ching!” I cried, grasping his arm.

“Yes; no good. Can’t findee big hole to hide. Ching tumblee down off rock, and hurt him.”

“Much?” I said.

“Yes, plentee plentee. Time to go now. Pilate all come along this way.”

He passed his hand involuntarily straight round his neck edgewise, as if thinking about how a knife or sword would soon be applied.

“You saw them?” I cried.

“Yes,” he said sadly. “Allee come along. You lun away now with Ching?”

“I can’t leave Tom Jecks,” I said. “Off with you, and try and save yourself. Never mind us.”

Ching looked at the injured sailor.

“You no get up, lun?” he said.

“Can’t do it, mate,” groaned the poor fellow. “I want Mr Herrick to make a dash for his life.”

“Yes, velly good. You makee dashee you life, Mr Hellick.”

“No, I stay here. Run for it, Ching; and if you escape and see the captain or Mr Reardon again, tell him we all did our duty, and how Mr Brooke was drowned.”

“Yes, Ching tellee Mr Leardon evelyting.”

“Then lose no time; go.”

“No; Ching velly tire, velly hot; wantee bleakfast, flesh tea, nicee new blead. Too hot to lun.”

“But I want you to save yourself,” I said excitedly.

“Yes; allee save evelybody, alleegether. Ching won’t go leave Mr Hellick.”

“Ching!” I cried.

“Hush! No makee low. Lie down likee lit’ pigee in sand. Pilate come along.”

His ears were sharper than mine; for, as I dropped down at full length in the sand upon my chest, I saw him drag a good-sized stone in front of his face to screen it, while I, in imitation, rapidly scooped up some of the sand and spread it before me, so as to make a little mound of a few inches high, just as a couple of the junk’s crew came into sight about a hundred and fifty yards on our left, and as close down to the sea as the billows would allow. Then a few more appeared; and at last the whole party, walking almost in single file, and looking sharply from left to right as they came.

There was a space of about sixty yards from the face of the cliff to the edge of the water, and the shore, after about twenty yards of perfect hard level, rapidly rose, the interval being a rugged wilderness of rock half buried in the driven sand.

It was up nearly at the highest part of this chaos of rocks, where we had been seeking along the cliff face for a cavern, that we three lay, many feet above the level strip by the sea; and there were plenty of rocks protruding from the sand big enough to hide us; but it could only be from a few of the men at a time. To the others I felt that we must be so exposed that some one or other must of necessity see us if he looked our way.

There was no need to whisper, “Be silent,” for we lay there perfectly motionless, hardly daring to breathe, but forced, fascinated, as it were, into watching the long procession of our enemies, walking along, chattering loudly, and every now and then stooping to pick up something which had been driven up by the sea.

At times I saw them gazing right in our direction, and then up, over us, at the cliff with its patches of grey-green vegetation; but fully half of them passed by without making a sign of being aware of our presence, and hope began to spring up of the possibility of their all going by without noticing us.

The next moment it seemed impossible, and my heart sank as one active fellow stepped toward us, apparently coming straight to where we lay, and appearing to be watching me all the time.

And now more strongly than ever came the feeling that I must leap up and run for my life, though I knew that if I did the mob of Chinamen would give chase, like the pack of savage hounds that they were, and never give up till they had run me down; and then—

I felt sick with the heat of the sun, and the horror of my position. There, say it was all from the latter cause; and the rocks, sea, pirates, all swam before me in a giddy circle, with only one clear object standing out distinct upon the sands—imagination, of course, but so real and plain before my dilated eyes, that I shuddered at its reality—it was myself, lying in the baking sunshine, after the pirates had overtaken me and passed on!

It was very curious in its reality, and so clear before me that I could hardly believe it true, when the man who was coming toward us suddenly stooped, picked up something, and then turned and went back to his position in the line.

For I had not calculated in my excitement upon the deceptive nature of the ground upon which we lay, with its large masses of rock and scattered fragments of endless shapes, some partly screening, some blending with our clothes as we lay motionless; and above all, upon the fact that our presence there was not expected. Otherwise there might have been quite another tale to tell.

Even when I knew that they were passing on, I hardly dared to draw my breath, and lay still now, with my head pressed down sidewise in the sand; till at last I could keep from breathing no longer, and the dry sand flew at one great puff.

I lay trembling the next moment, fearing that the sound would bring the bloodthirsty wretches back, hot and eager to hack to pieces the foreign devil who had escaped from their clutches the day before; but the sound of their voices grew more and more faint, till the last murmur died away, and I raised my head slowly, an inch at a time, till I could gaze along the strand.

There was nothing visible but the scattered rocks, sun-bleached sand, and the dark, smooth surface over which the foaming water raced back each time a glistening billow curved over and broke. And in proof that the enemy were some distance away, I could see the pale-feathered, white-breasted gulls passing here and there in search of food, while able at any moment to spread their wings and escape.