Chapter 6 | My First Horror | Blue Jackets

Chapter Six.

I was in a great state of excitement, and stood watching the vessel through my spyglass, longing for the distance to be got over and what promised to be a mystery examined. For a wreck was possible and a fire at sea equally so, but a ship ashore and burning seemed to be such an anomaly that the officers all looked as if they felt that we were on the high road to something exciting at last.

In fact, we had been so long on the station for the purpose of checking piracy, but doing nothing save overhaul inoffensive junks, that we were all heartily sick of our task. For it was not, as Smith said, as if we were always in some port where we could study the manners and customs of the Chinese, but for ever knocking about wild-goose chasing and never getting a goose.

“Plenty on board,” cried Barkins. “I say, Gnat, isn’t he a humbug? Ha, ha! Study the manners and customs! Stuffing himself with Chinese sweets and hankering after puppy-pie, like the bargees on the Thames.”

“Oh, does he?” cried Smith. “Who ate the fricassee of rats?”

“Oh, bother all that!” I said. “Here, Blacksmith, lend me your glass a minute; it’s stronger than mine.”

“Ho, ho!” laughed Barkins. “His! The wapping whacker! Why, it’s a miserable slopshop second-hand thing. You should have had mine. That was something like, before you spoiled it.”

“Here you are,” said Smith, lending me his glass. “It’s worth a dozen of his old blunderbuss.”

I took the glass and had a good long inspection of the large barque, which lay heeled over on the outlying reef of one of the many islands, and could distinctly see the fine curl of smoke rising up from the deck somewhere about the forecastle.

“Make out any one on board, Mr Herrick?” said a sharp voice behind me, and I started round, to find that my companions had gone forward, and the first lieutenant was behind me with his spyglass under his arm and his face very eager and stern.

“No, sir; not a soul.”

“Nor signals?”


“No more can I,” my lad. “Your eyes are younger and sharper than mine. Look again. Do the bulwarks seem shattered?”

I took a long look.

“No, sir,” I said. “Everything seems quite right except the fore-topmast, which has snapped off, and is hanging in a tangle down to the deck.”

“But the fire?”

“That only looks, sir, as if they’d got a stove in the forecastle, and had just lit the fire with plenty of smoky coal.”

“Hah! That’s all I can make out. We’ve come to something at last, Mr Herrick.”

“Think so, sir?” I said respectfully.

“Sure of it, my lad;” and he walked off to join the captain, while just then Ching came up softly and pointed forward.

“Big ship,” he said. “Pilate; all afire.”

“Think so?”

Ching nodded.

“Hallo, Gnat, what does the first luff say?” asked Barkins, who joined us then.

“Thinks it’s a vessel cast ashore by the pirates.”

“Maybe. I should say it’s one got on the reef from bad seamanship.”

“And want of a Tanner on board to set them right,” said Smith.

“Skipper’s coming,” whispered Barkins; and we separated.

For the next hour all was eager watchfulness on board, as we approached very slowly, shortening sail, and with two men in the chains heaving the lead on account of the hidden reefs and shoals off some of the islands. But, as we approached, nothing more could be made out till the man aloft hailed the deck, and announced that he could read the name on the stern, Dunstaffnage, Glasgow. Another hour passed, during which the island, a couple of miles beyond, was swept by glass after glass, and tree and hill examined, but there was no sign of signal on tree or hill. All was bare, chilly, and repellent there, and we felt that the crew of the vessel could not have taken refuge ashore.

At last the crew of a boat was piped away, and, as I was gazing longingly at the men getting in under the command of Mr Brooke, a quiet, gentlemanly fellow, our junior lieutenant, Mr Reardon said, as he caught my eye—

“Yes; go.”

I did not wait for a second order, you may be sure, but sprang in, and as the Teaser was thrown up in the wind with her sails flapping, it being deemed unsafe to go any nearer to the barque, the little wheels chirrupped, and down we went, to sit the next moment lightly upon a good-sized wave which rose up as if to receive us; the falls were cast off, the oars dropped, and the next minute we glided away towards the stranded vessel.

“Quite a treat to get a bit of an adventure, eh Herrick?” said Mr Brooke.

“Yes, sir. Been slow enough lately.”

“Oh, you need not grumble, my lad. You did have one good adventure. By the way, how are your sore ribs?”

“My ribs, sir? Oh, I had forgotten all about them. But do you think this is the work of pirates, or that the ship has run ashore?”

“I’m not sure, my lad, but we shall soon know.”

We sat watching the fine well-built barque, as the men pulled lustily at their oars, making the water flash and the distance grow shorter. Then all at once my companion said shortly—


“Where, where?” I said eagerly, and my hand went to my dirk.

Mr Brooke laughed, and I saw all the men showing their teeth.

“No, no, my lad,” he said. “I meant this was the work of pirates.”

“How do you know, sir?”

“Look at those ropes and sheets hanging loose. They have been cut. The barque has not been in a storm either. She has just gone on to the rocks and the fore-topmast evidently snapped with the shock.”

“And the smoke? Is that from the forecastle?”

He shook his head, and stood up in the boat, after handing me the lines, while he remained scanning the vessel attentively.

“Hail her, Jones,” he said to the bowman; and the man jumped up, put his hands to his mouth, and roared out, “Ship ahoy!”

This again and again, but all was silent; and a curious feeling of awe crept over me as I gazed at the barque lying there on the reef as if it were dead, while the column of smoke, which now looked much bigger, twisted and writhed as it rolled over and over up from just abaft the broken foremast.

“Steady,” cried the lieutenant; “the water’s getting shoal. Keep a good look-out forward, Jones.”

For all at once the water in front of us, from being smooth and oily, suddenly became agitated, and I saw that we had startled and were driving before us a shoal of good-sized fish, some of which, in their eagerness to escape, sprang out of the water and fell back with a splash.

“Plenty yet, sir,” said the man in the bows, standing up now with the boat-hook. “Good fathom under us.”

“Right. Steady, my lads.”

We were only about a hundred yards from the barque now, and the water deepened again, showing that we had been crossing a reef; but the bottom was still visible, as I glanced once over the side, but only for a moment, for there was a peculiar saddening attraction about the silent ship, and I don’t know how it was, but I felt as if I was going to see something dreadful.

Under the lieutenant’s directions, I steered the boat so that we glided round to the other side, passing under the stern, and then ran alongside, with the bulwarks hanging over towards us, and made out that the vessel had evidently been in fairly deep water close by, and had been run on to the rocks where two reefs met and closed-in a deep channel.

How are we going to get on board? I asked myself, as I looked upward; but I was soon made aware of that, for right forward there was a quantity of the top-hamper of the broken mast with a couple of the square sails awash, so that there was no difficulty about scrambling up.

“I don’t think there is any one on board, Herrick,” said Mr Brooke, “but sailors should always be on the qui vive. Stay in the boat, if you like.”

“I don’t like, sir,” I said, as soon as he had given orders to four men to follow us, and the next minute we were climbing up to stand upon the deck.

“No doubt about it,” said Mr Brooke through his teeth. “She has been plundered, and then left to drift ashore or to burn.”

For there from the forehold curled up the pillar of smoke we had seen, and a dull crackling noise came up, telling that, though slowly, the fire was steadily burning.

We could not see much below for the smoke, and Mr Brooke led the way forward to the forecastle hatch, which lay open.

“Below! Any one there?” cried my officer, but all was silent as the grave.

One of the men looked at him eagerly.

“Yes, jump down.”

The man lowered himself down into the dark forecastle, and made a quick inspection.

“Any one there?”

“No, sir. Place clear and the men’s kits all gone.”

“Come up.”

We went aft, to find the hatches all off and thrown about anyhow, while the cargo had been completely cleared out, save one chest of tea which had been broken and the contents had scattered.

“No mistake about it, Herrick,” said Mr Brooke; and he went on to the after-hatch, which was also open and the lading gone.

The next minute we were at the companion-way, and Mr Brooke hailed again, but all was still. Just then the man peering over my shoulder sniffed sharply like some animal.

The sound sent a shudder through me, and Mr Brooke turned to the man sharply—

“Why did you do that?”

“Beg pardon, sir,” stammered the man; “I thought that—as if—there was—”

He did not finish.

“Come on,” said Mr Brooke sternly, while I shuddered again, and involuntarily my nostrils dilated as I inhaled the air, thinking the while of a butchered captain and officers lying about, but there was not the faintest odour, and I followed my officer, and then for a moment a horrible sickening sensation attacked me, and I shuddered.

But it all passed off, and, myself again directly, I was gazing with the others at the many signs which told us as plainly as if it had been written, that the crew of the unfortunate barque had barricaded themselves in here and made a desperate resistance, for her broken doors lay splintered and full of the marks made by axes and heavy swords. The seats were broken; and bulkheads, cabin windows, and floor were horribly stained here and there with blood, now quite dry and black, but which, after it had been shed, had been smeared about and trampled over; and this in one place was horribly evident, for close up to the side, quite plain, there was the imprint of a bare foot—marked in blood—a great wide-toed foot, that could never have worn a shoe.

“Rather horrid for you, Herrick,” said Mr Brooke in a low voice, as if the traces of death made him solemn; “but you must be a man now. Look, my lad, what the devils—the savage devils—have done with our poor Scotch brothers!”

“Yes, I see,” I whispered; “they must have killed them all.”

“But I mean this—there, I mean.”

I looked at him wonderingly as he pointed to the floor, for I did not understand.

The next moment, though, I grasped his meaning, and saw plainly enough what must have happened, for from where we stood to the open stern windows there were long parallel streaks, and I knew that, though they were partially trampled out by naked feet, as if they had been passed over dozens of times since, the savage wretches must have dragged their victims to the stern windows and thrust them out; any doubt thereon being cleared away by the state of the lockers and the sills of the lights.

Just then a peculiar hissing sound came to my ears, and I faced round quickly, as did Mr Brooke, for I felt startled.

For there behind me was one of our men—a fine handsome Yorkshire lad of three or four and twenty—standing glaring and showing his set teeth, and his eyes with the white slightly visible round the iris. His left fist was firmly clenched, and in his right was his bare cutlass, with the blade quivering in his strong hand.

“Put up your cutlass, my lad,” said Mr Brooke sternly; and the man started and thrust it back. “Wait a bit—but I don’t know how I am to ask you to give quarter to the fiends who did all this. No wonder the place is so silent, Herrick,” he added bitterly. “Come away.”

He led us out, but not before we had seen that the cabins had been completely stripped.

We did not stay much longer, but our time was long enough to show us that everything of value had been taken, and nothing left in the way of log or papers to tell how the barque had fallen in with the wretches. The crew had probably been surprised, and after a desperate resistance, when driven back into the cabin, fought to the last with the results we had seen.

“But surely they must have killed or wounded some of the pirates?” I said.

“Possibly,” replied Mr Brooke; “but there has been rain since; perhaps a heavy sea, too, has washed over the deck and swept away all traces here. Let’s hope they made some of them pay dearly for their work.”

A short inspection below showed that the barque’s planking was crushed in, and that she was hopelessly damaged, even if she could have been got off, so soon after Mr Brooke gave the word to return to the boat.

“I shall not touch the fire,” he said. “If the captain has any wishes the boat can return. For my part I should say, let her burn.”

The captain listened with his brow contracted to Mr Brooke’s recital, when we were back on board; I being close at hand, ready to answer a few questions as well.

“Yes, let her burn,” said the captain; and then he turned his back to us, but seemed to recollect himself directly, for he turned again.

“Thank you, Mr Brooke,” he said. “Very clear and concise. You could not have done better.”

Then turning to the first lieutenant, he said in a low voice—

“Reardon, I’m at my wit’s end. The wretches are too cunning for us. What are we to do?”