Chapter 8 | My Plan | Blue Jackets

Chapter Eight.

“Shut the door, Mr Herrick,” said the captain, as he threw himself into a chair, and I obeyed and remained standing there.

“Come close up to the table, my lad, and I’ll hear what you have to say, for I should be sorry to discourage a young officer who was in earnest about his profession, as I have noted that you seem to be.”

“Thank you, sir,” I faltered, as I walked forward to where the swinging lamp cast its full light on my face, making my eyes ache, after being so many hours in the darkness, while I noticed that the captain sat in the shade.

“Now, Mr Herrick,” he said, “I talked of one fable, let me say a word about another. I hope this is not going to be a case of the mountain in labour, and out crept a mouse.”

This put me quite out of heart, my hands grew damp, and I felt a tickling sensation of dew forming upon my temples and at the sides of my nose. My throat felt dry, and my lips parted, but no words came.

“There, there,” he said kindly, “don’t be afraid. Speak out.”

“Yes, sir,” I said hastily. “It was only this. I think I read somewhere once, in a paper, about a Malay prahu being taken by the captain of a ship pretending to be helpless, and this made the prahu, which could sail twice as fast as his ship, come close up to attack him.”

“Yes; and what then?”

“The captain sunk the prahu, sir.”

“Humph!” said Captain Thwaites, frowning and leaning back in his chair. “That’s what I should like to do to the piratical junks, Mr Herrick. But—”

He stopped, and I saw that he was watching me keenly. But he had not ordered me out of the cabin, nor called me an impertinent puppy, so I felt better. The plunge had been made, and I waited not quite so nervously for his next words.

“Yes—what I should like to do, Mr Herrick; but I am dealing with cunning Chinese, and not with bold Malays.”

“No, sir,” I said; “but could not we—you—I mean we—I mean—” I stammered.

“Come, come, Mr Herrick, there is no need for all this tremor. Sit down, my lad.”

“Thank you, sir; I would rather stand, please. I think I could talk better.”

“Very well, then,” he said, smiling; “stand. You have some notion in your head, then?”

“Yes, sir,” I said eagerly, for the nervousness all passed away in the excitement I felt. “I thought that if I could do as I liked, I’d take the Teaser up some creek where she couldn’t be watched, and then I’d close all the ports, send the men over the side to paint out the streak, and I’d paint the funnel another colour, and get yards all anyhow, and hide all the guns. I’d make her look like one of the tea-screws, and get a lot of Chinamen on board for sailors.”

I saw that he kept on bowing his head, and I was so excited that I went on.

“No, I know. If you tried to get some Chinese sailors on board, it would be talked about, and perhaps the pirates would get to know, for they must have friends in some of the ports.”

“Then down go some of your baits, my lad.”

“No, sir. I know. You could make Ching—”

“That Chinese interpreter?”

“Yes, sir. Make him do up some of our lads with pigtails made of blackened oakum, and in duck-frocks they’d do at a distance.”

“Heads not shaven?”

“No, sir; but they could have their hair cut very short, and then painted white—I mean yellow, so that the pirates wouldn’t know at a distance.”

“Humph! anything else?” said the captain drily, but I did not notice it; I was too much taken up by my ideas.

“Yes, sir. Ching could be going about very busily in all directions, showing himself a great deal, and there’s no mistake about him.”

“No,” said the captain, “there is no mistake about him.”

“And it wouldn’t be a bad plan to be at anchor near the place where you thought they were, sir, with some of the spars down as if you were repairing damages. That would make them feel sure that they were safe of a prize, and they’d come off in their boats to attack.”

“And then you would let them board us and find out their mistake?”

“That I wouldn’t, sir!” I cried eagerly; and, oddly enough, my side began to ache where I had had that blow. “I wouldn’t risk any of our poor fellows being hurt. I’d sink them before they got alongside.”

“Humph! Well, you’re pretty bloodthirsty for your time of life, young gentleman,” said the captain quietly.

“No, sir,” I replied in confusion; “but I was with Mr Barkins and Mr Smith, and nearly killed by these people, and yesterday I saw what they had done aboard that barque.”

“There? So you did, my lad. Well,” he said, “what more have you got to suggest?”

“I think that’s all, sir,” I said, beginning to grow confused again, for my enthusiasm was dying out before his cool, matter-of-fact way of taking matters.

“Then we will bring this meeting to an end, Mr Herrick.”

“Yes, sir,” I said dolefully, for I was wishing intensely that I had not said a word. “Shall I go now?”

“If you please, Mr Herrick.”

“Good-night, sir.”

“Good-night, Mr Herrick; and the sooner you are in your berth the better.”

“Yes, sir,” I said; and then to myself, as I reached the door, “and I wish I had gone there at once, instead of stopping on deck.”


I turned with the door-handle in my fingers.

“You had better not say anything about the communication you have made to me—I mean to your messmates.”

“No, sir, I will not,” I replied.

“Nor to any one else, least of all to that Chinaman.”

“Oh no, sir, I’ll be careful.”

He nodded, and I slipped out, feeling, to use an old expression, “horrid.”

“Tell anybody about what a stupid donkey I’ve been,” I said angrily—“likely.” Then to myself, as soon as I was past the marine sentry, “Why, it would be nuts for Tanner and Blacksmith, and they’d go on cracking them for ever. There was I all red-hot with what I thought was a good thing, and he was just like a cold codfish laughing at me.”

I could not help smiling at the absurdity of my idea, for I recalled that I had never seen a cold codfish laughing.

I had no more time for musing then, for I received a sharp slap on the back from Barkins.

“Never mind, Gnat; we all get it some time.”

I saw that Smith was hurrying up, for I caught sight of him by the light of one of the swinging lanterns, and had to be on my guard.

I did not want to deceive my messmates nor to be untruthful, but I could not open my heart to them and tell them all that had passed.

“What cheer, messmet?” whispered Smith. “Had a wigging?”

I nodded my head sulkily.

“What had you been up to? Skipper had you into the cabin, didn’t he?”

“Let him alone, will you,” cried Barkins. “What do you want to worry the poor chap for? The skipper’s had him over the coals.”

“Well, I know that, Bark. But what for?”

“What’s that to you? Let him alone.”

“But he might tell.”

“Well, he isn’t going to tell. If you must know, the Grand Panjandrum came and catched him talking to Squeezums, hanging over the bulwarks together.”

“Talking to who?”

“Well then, to Teapot, old Chinese Ching, and snubbed him for having the Yellow-skin so far aft. Didn’t he, Gnat?”

“Yes,” I said, quite truthfully.

“Then I say it’s too bad,” cried Smith. “As the snob speakers say, are we—er—serlaves? Besides, ‘a man’s a man for a’ that,’ ain’t he, Tanner?”

“Chinamen have no business abaft the funnel,” said Barkins. “Did he give it to you very warmly, Gnat?”

“Pretty well,” I said, glad to escape Smith’s examination. “I wasn’t sorry to get out of the cabin.”

“No, I should think not. Why, what’s come to the old boy—taking to bully us himself? I thought he always meant to leave that to Dishy.”

“He’s getting wild at not catching the pirates, I suppose,” said Barkins. “Then all that badger gets bottled up in him, and he lets it off at us. Well, I don’t see any fun in watching the fire; I’m going down for a snooze.”

“Wish I could,” said Smith. “The fellow who invented night-watches ought to have been smothered. I daresay he was a man who had something the matter with him and couldn’t sleep. I hate it.”

“Pooh!” cried Barkins, laughing. “You haven’t got used to it yet, old chap. It’s an acquired taste. After a bit you won’t care a dump for a regular night’s rest, but’ll want to get up and take your turn. Won’t he, Gnat?”

I laughed.

“I haven’t got the right taste yet,” I said.

“And never will,” grumbled Smith, as we turned to have another look at the burning barque.

“How long will a ship like that be burning, Jecks?” I said to one of the watch.

The man scratched his head, and had a good stare at the glowing object in the distance, as if he were making a careful calculation.

“Well,” said Barkins, “out with it, Tom Jecks; we don’t want to know to two minutes and a half.”

“Well, sir,” said the man very deliberately, “I should say as a wessel o’ that size—”

“There goes her mainmast!” some one shouted, as a portion of the fire fell off to our left, and lay in the sea.

We stood gazing at this part for a few minutes, during which the light faded slowly out, quenched in the waves.

Then Jecks began again, speaking very oracularly—

“I should say as a wessel o’ that size—”

“Yes,” said Barkins, imitating him; “a wessel o’ that size—”

“Yes, sir—might go on burning till ’bout eight bells.”

“Or perhaps a little longer, Tom?”

“Well, yes, sir; little longer, perhaps. ’Morrow night, say.”

“Or ’morrow morning, Tom?”

“Well, no, sir; because you see it’s ’morrow morning now.”

“I meant t’other ’morrow morning, Tom. Nex’ day.”

“Well, yes, sir; she might last till then.”

“Or even next day?”

“Well, sir, I hayve knowed ’em go on mouldering and smouldering for days and days.”

“A week, perhaps?”

“Oh yes, sir, quite a week.”

“Thankye, Tom,” said Barkins, giving me a nudge with his elbow. “I thought you’d know. Nothing like going to a man who has had plenty of experience.”

“No, sir, there ain’t nothin’ like it; and I should say as if you young gen’lemen was to stand here and watch, you’d finally see that there wessel give a bit of a roll to starboard and one to port, and then settle down and go out of sight all to oncet, like putting a stingwisher on a candle; and there! what did I tell yer?”

For all at once the blaze rose quite high, as if it were driven upwards by some explosion below. We saw what looked like tiny sparks falling all around, and some of them floating upon the sea, and then there was the sound as of a puff of wind—heavy and short; and, where the barque had lain blazing and sending up its great waving tongue of fire, there was now darkness, save here and there a few dull specks of light, which went out one by one.

“The last act of a tragedy,” said a voice close by us; and Mr Brooke, who had the watch, stood gazing at the dark waters for a few moments. Then in his quiet, decided tones—

“Now, Mr Barkins—Mr Herrick, it is not your watch. You had better go below.”

“Yes, sir; good-night, sir.”

“Good-morning, you mean,” he replied; and we two went down and turned in.

“I say, Gnat,” cried Barkins in a sleepy voice; “old Tom Jecks’ll be more chuckle-bumptious than ever.”

“Yes,” I said; “that happened just right for him.”

“Yes, that’s the luck that kind of bumble-head always gets. He’ll set up—now—for—snore—set up for—oh, how sleepy I am! What say?”

“I didn’t speak,” I replied drowsily.

“Who said you did? Oh, I remember now. Tom Jecks’ll set up for boss—know—all now. Look here—you help me, and we’ll gammon him into—be—believing—he ought to make an alma—alma—nick—nack,”—snore.

Barkins was fast asleep, and I was just thinking how suddenly a drowsy person dropped off, when all at once I seemed to be back in the cabin of the burned ship, where I was searching the lockers for pirates, and then some one hauled me out of my berth by one leg, and I raised myself on my elbow to stare wildly at Smith.