Yule Logs/The Venture of the "Bertha" Whaler
THE VENTURE OF THE "BERTHA" WHALER
A STORY OF THE ANTARCTIC
BY HENRY FRITH
" PAX!" cried Arthur Rushton, as he and his brother Reginald struggled amicably on the sofa in the vessel's berth.
"All right!" assented the elder, a fine lad of sixteen. "How are you feeling this morning, Arthur? Better?"
"Rather! I feel like Samson already," replied the somewhat delicate-looking boy. "I am ready for several Philistines this morning, and mean to ask the steward-fellow for a couple of asses' jaw-bones for dumb-bell practice!"
"Better keep them shut, and not exercise them so much," said Reginald politely. "No, no!" he cried, as Arthur made an attempt to assault him. "It's pax now; and, besides, I want to finish dressing." The threatened contest was thus averted, and, after some light chaff had been exchanged, the lads resumed their conversation.
"I wonder how things are at home," mused Arthur. "The dear mother was very unwilling to let us go, though the step-pater did not seem to care! Poor, dear mother! I think she spoke to the captain about us, Reggie."
"I am sure she induced Mr. Halbrake to come with us instead of the other man from the firm. Halbrake, being a doctor (surgeon, I mean), is in the right place, particularly as the captain is a bit 'touchy' and obstinate. The mate is simply a beast."
"Yes; he and the master had a nice row over that paper which was found in the chart-room, or in the cabin above. The old skipper declared it was a warning. Didn't he get riled, too? and he nearly blew himself up as well as the mate."
"Next time he'll have a fit. It strikes me the mate aggravates him purposely. The captain can't stand any kind of interference. Well, I'm going on deck. Hurry up now," said Reginald. This conversation took place in the lads' berth on board the Bertha, a sturdy barque in which they were voyaging. She was fitted as a "whaler," and belonged to the firm of Boscombe & Halbrake—chiefly Boscombe. The senior partner was the step-father of the Rushtons, for their mother, a rich widow, had married Mr. Boscombe, a gentleman whom the lads most cordially disliked. Shortly after the marriage he, at first gently, and later very firmly, had suggested a voyage for Arthur, who seemed delicate. Then he decided upon sending the Bertha to seal in the Antarctic, and to search for a missing vessel, the Gladiator. When this was arranged, Reginald volunteered to accompany his brother. Mr. Boscombe made no objection. Mr. Halbrake, a young surgeon, usually called "Doctor," also embarked under the old and experienced master, Blake, an eccentric, touchy man, obstinate to a degree, and always easily "drawn" when his attainments were questioned. He and his mate, Esau Cordell, were always at loggerheads. It seemed, as Reginald Rushton had said, that Esau had aggravated the old man on purpose.
Several days had already passed since the Bertha quitted Plymouth. She had plunged and rolled in Biscay's Bay, and flung waves over her head aft to the waist. The lads and the Doctor lay close, sometimes venturing on deck, but more frequently keeping below till the weather moderated. The auxiliary screw was now hushed, and the barque plunged on under sail with a fine breeze on the quarter. On the day on which our tale opens, Reginald again went on deck, and the master asked him and Arthur to breakfast with him in his own cabin.
"Glad to see you up again," said the captain. "Began to think you intended to stay below until we reached the tropics. Got your sea-legs, eh? and a good appetite, I hope?"
The boys replied cheerfully in the affirmative, and the meal proceeded until, about ten minutes later, Mr. Cordell intruded his red head into the cabin and said—
"Excuse me, sir, but the weather is looking ugly. I think you had better shorten sail."
"I shall shorten sail when I please," replied the master.
"You may take a reef in your jaw-tackle, Mr. Cordell, meantime."
"Best get up steam," continued the mate, without taking any notice of the suggestion.
"Get out, sir," roared the captain. "I am master of this ship! Say, what do you know of the paper about traitors aboard? Mind your own business, sir. I'll mind mine."
"There are obstinate old fools aboard, I suspect," muttered the mate. "The ship will be struck by a squall presently. You had better shorten sail, as I tell you."
"I shall not. Go forward, or I'll put you in irons. What impudence!" puffed the captain as the mate disappeared. "He thinks he commands the ship. Hum!" he muttered after a pause, during which he had consulted the barometer, "it's falling fast, but he doesn't know the ropes," continued the obstinate skipper. "Now, lads, fire away; there's no trouble; eat hearty."
"We have finished, thank you, captain. The sky is getting very dark, sir."
"Eh! eh! a bit dusky. Seems the sea is rising; wind's changing too; must go and look at it," said the old fellow, as he sauntered out of the cabin. But hardly had he emerged on deck when the mate's voice rung out loudly—
"All hands take in sail; look alive there!"
The master swore, and rushed out to confront his deputy. "Let her go as she is, Jackson," he cried to the steersman. "Go below forward," he shouted to the mate furiously. "I shall have you in limbo. Stevens" (he hailed the second mate), "stand by the watch and reduce sail. Heavens! here's the squall ahead! Let the sheets fly—smart. Up with the helm—hard up! Haul up the mainsail, down flying jib there!"
The men, fortunately, were prepared, and the mate, ignoring the threat of arrest, assisted, gave orders, and generally behaved well. The barque, taken aback, plunged, shook herself, and then fell off, careening to the blast, almost dipping her yard-arms into the sea. The captain raved; the mate shouted; the men laboured; and when the barque was brought before the gale under a furled topsail and furled foresail, the angry captain called the mate, and standing in the waist, addressed him as follows:—
"You are a mutineer, sir; you shall leave this ship. I will put into port as soon as possible and try you. Go below, sir!"
"You'll do nothing of the kind," retorted the mate; "perhaps I can break you. You had better knock under."
" Mutiny, by heavens! Mr. Stevens, send the watch aft to seize this fellow."
The captain seized the mate as he spoke. The latter resisted. A struggle ensued, in the quick course of which the older man was pinned against the bulwarks, while the vessel rolled deeply. A tremendous wave washed into the waist furiously, and then, no one knew how, the captain, overbalanced, dropped overboard, and disappeared in the raging sea. The mate had hardly saved himself, as the wave, which had nearly swamped the Bertha, rushed in cascades along the decks, and finally escaped impetuously by the scuppers.
"The captain, overbalanced, dropped overboard, and disappeared in the raging sea."
"Man overboard!" was the cry, as the mate fell back on the deck. "Down helm; make ready the quarter boat!"
In a moment all was confusion. The hands were almost paralysed by the occurrence. Mr. Halbrake, who had been below with the two youthful passengers, came hurriedly upon deck, and for a moment the Bertha was left to herself. She plunged and rolled deeply; the waves dashed wildly over her, as the high cross seas invaded the decks fore and aft. For half a minute she appeared settling down, but her stability asserted itself, and she rolled back again, when the men steadied her by the helm on her course.
All thought of saving the unfortunate master was by this time abandoned; he must have sunk immediately.
The men went about their avocations in silence. The doctor assisted the mate, who had fallen and cut his head rather badly, and interrogated him closely.
But Mr. Halbrake found himself powerless in the matter of discipline. Though so closely connected with one of the owners, he found he had no authority. The mate had had his orders from Mr. Boscombe apparently, and the three passengers were impotent in the matter. They subsequently discussed the case, for the surgeon had had his suspicions ever since the mysterious paper had been found in the captain's room, but the author of it, and the accomplice who placed it there, were unknown. The mate himself had been as furious as the captain on the subject, possibly for different reasons, but the ill-feeling then engendered had caused the tragedy which all hands regretted.
The mate took command of the barque with the tacit approval of all, though evidently against the wishes of some on board. The squall abated almost as suddenly as it had arisen. Steam was raised, and the Bertha then resumed her course in a calmer sea. The lads took the opportunity to examine the ship, and inspected the oil-tanks, the harpoon-chests, the store-cabins, and penetrated to the forecastle. They made friends with the men, and learned many things about sealing and whaling. They were much surprised at the strength of the ship—her strong hull, thick bulwarks, and clamped bows; the arm-chest and the stores, ammunition, food, were also inspected, and sampled later.
The voyage proceeded without any marked incidents. Then another, and yet another, storm attacked them. The Bertha put into no port; she proceeded southward with ever-varying weather, and novel experiences for her passengers. So the parallels were traversed to the Trades, and the Line was approached.
Day after day passed. The last storm from the northwest had at length subsided. The weather was becoming very warm; the sailors donned straw hats, or other light head-gear, and thin garments. The decks were scorching. The wind fell entirely; and one day late in October, when in a sailing barque people would have been whistling for wind, the Bertha fell in with the north-east Trades, sail-shifting ceased, and the engine was at rest.
All this time there was much dissatisfaction in the minds of the three passengers. Esau Cordell's manner was not in his favour. The boys disliked him heartily, and even the young surgeon was prejudiced against the new commander. The three friends kept together, and frequently compared notes on their experiences and feelings.
"I cannot understand why your step-father sent you fellows aboard this ship," remarked the doctor. They were lying on the hot deck, beneath the shade of the quarter boat suspended in-board. "Why couldn't he have sent Arthur to the Mediterranean if he is delicate, though I don't admit that?"
"For money reasons," replied Reginald. "The 'boss' is as stingy as a tom-cat, and he gets the jaunt gratis."
"Stingy! I believe you," said Arthur. "He declares he is as poor as a church-mouse; and mice would he poor indeed if they depended upon his offertory."
"Ah, then perhaps he had some other motive," murmured the doctor. "However," he continued aloud, "you will both go home well and fit. Reggie may still go to Cambridge, and you, Arthur, may go as you please; perhaps try the Bar, as you have private means."
"We shall see," said Arthur quietly. "But I say, doctor, somehow I can't forget that letter about the 'traitors on board.' What was it all about, I wonder? The poor old captain was enraged, but he had something to go upon, I think."
"What became of the paper?" asked Reginald. "Has the mate got it?"
"Don't know. I suspect it has been picked up somewhere," replied the doctor. "There is nothing suspicious now, at any rate."
"Isn't there?" said Arthur, nodding significantly at the last speaker. "The mate came into our berth last night very quietly, and when he saw I was awake, he mumbled something and went out."
"Why didn't you tell me?" asked Reginald. "I thought we had fastened the door."
"Perhaps you heard some one in the passage close by," said Mr. Halbrake, "or perhaps you dreamt it all."
"No, I saw the man plainly in the dim light it must have been early in the morning, I expect—and that beast Esau——"
"Meaning me, young sir? Go on! Don't mind my feelings," continued the mate sarcastically; "I am only a beast, you know!"
The three chums were perfectly dumfounded, the man had come upon them so silently and so cautiously. What had he heard?
"We are sorry that you happened to hear my young friend's opinion," said Mr. Halbrake after a pause. "He seems, however, to have some objection to you. Of course I do not understand it, but——"
"But I understand that the accredited surgeon of this vessel, and a partner, I believe, of the owners, is inciting my passengers to insult the commander. The late skipper found out what that meant when he attacked me, and if
"Hullo, my young spitfire! so you want a lesson, do you?"
you and these cubs are not careful, you may all find yourselves in limbo."
"Cubs!" exclaimed Reginald. "What do you mean by such insolence? You are a mean cad! I think you drove the old captain overboard."
"Hullo, hullo, my young spitfire! so you want a lesson, do you? Well, then, take my advice; hold your tongue in future, else both of you will be put in irons below. I'll have no mutiny here; and you, doctor, had best just keep yourself to yourself, else you will find things raspy for you!"
With this hint, and a significant nod to the three seated in the shade of the boat, the commander walked away. His advent had struck the party dumb; his departure had a similar effect upon them.
At length, after a cautious look around, Reginald remarked —
"He must have been listening. After all, he took the matter fairly well. To be called a beast, and to be spoken of as a possible murderer, is a fair test of temper."
"So is 'cubs,' " said Arthur. "And he is a beast, anyway! I would like to find that paper; then we should know what to believe."
"I am afraid he will find means to 'pay us out,' " said the surgeon, reflectively. "Let us keep quiet. Perhaps we have been too hard on him, though I cannot understand what object he had in setting the captain against him. That he did so is evident."
"What object had our 'dear papa' in sending Arthur in this ship? Yet he did, knowing I would go also. You yourself were surprised, doctor. Could it be a planned thing, do you think?"
"Oh, impossible!" exclaimed the surgeon, rising from the desk. "We must be careful, that's all."
The lads acted on this advice. Nothing occurred to alarm them. The Bertha approached the Line, and one day, after the heart-breaking "Doldrums" had been passed under steam, the Equinoctial was reached about the end of October.
"One must draw the line somewhere, I suppose," remarked Arthur to Jackson; "here it is! Can you see it?" he asked, with a great assumption of innocence.
"Certainly," replied the man, calmly, "it's just ahead. If you ascend to the cross-trees, you may see it dipping like a gold and silver rope in the waves. Take the glass and have a squint."
"Thanks!" replied Arthur, somewhat abashed; "I'll see presently." He was uncertain what pranks might be played upon him when high jinks were the rule of the road at sea near the Line; so he waited the approach of Neptune patiently.
The sea-king came over the bows in due course, accompanied by his spouse and secretary; he was attended by a number of "policemen" and followers, who seized and questioned the intended victims. These were shaved with a hoop, compelled to swallow grease pills, and then soused in the water-sail, while queerly-dressed animals, seals, and such like assisted in the ducking.
The "doctor" did not escape, and, owing to what some people thought was no accident, the young man having been roughly shaved, soused, and jumped upon in the bath, was hunted down the companion-way. Here he came into violent collision with the commander, who was at that moment ascending. The surgeon was thrown down backwards and rendered insensible by the fall.
Mr. Halbrake was carried below, attended by his young friends and the mate. The festivity of the occasion was not greatly interrupted, but Arthur sat with Reginald in the doctor's berth, conversing in whispers, and with grave faces.
"Artie," said the latter, "we are getting into a fix! It seems to me that we are doomed somehow. The Bertha is under a ban!"
"I'm afraid there is something bad here, Reggie. Cordell is at the bottom of it. I wish he was at the bottom of the sea."
"Yes, he seems inclined to remove us one by one. Who's turn next, I wonder!"
"Do you think that he is a pirate?" exclaimed Arthur. "Surely our dear step-father would not have put us in such a situation. He couldn't!"
"Perhaps he might have had reasons," whispered a strange voice.
The boys started and looked fearfully around. Who had spoken? They were alone with the sleeping man. What could he know, or how could he talk thus in his sleep, wounded as he was? Reginald looked at the invalid, and then whispered——
"The vessel is haunted! I wish we had never come on board. Let us tell Esau."
"No, certainly not," said Arthur. "He will only make things worse. Let us try to beat him at his own game!"
"Right!" whispered the strange voice. "Lie low!"
"That is mysterious," said Reginald, as he went quickly to the door and threw it open. There was no one near; the cabins were silent and darkened.
"Rum!" he remarked as he returned to the doctor's bunk. "Did you speak, doctor?"
"No," was the unexpected reply in a faint tone. "But I heard you and the strange voice. I suspect it was Jackson. He seems a good man."
The lads looked and nodded at each other, and the doctor proceeded in a whisper——
"Listen! That mate intended to seriously cripple me to-day, I'm certain, and to put the injury down to the 'larking on the Line!' Some one had guessed your stepfather's plans and warned the late captain. Now Esau thinks I am disabled. Jackson, I suspect, is on our side, and has given us a hint. See?"
"Then you think that Mr. Boscombe intended us to die!" exclaimed Reginald. "Is it possible? Oh no; he couldn't be so wicked!"
"The mate has some instructions, I believe," whispered Mr. Halbrake. "Be careful. I think we may trust Jackson, and the engineers are honest. Keep quiet now till I am well again, and wait with your eyes wide open. Later on we shall certainly see something!"
The surgeon then lay silent. During the night the lads sat up with him, watching in turn. Esau came down to make inquiry, and Jackson also looked in. The Rushtons attended to their friend under his own directions, and decided to "play possum" until they fell in with a ship or landed somewhere. In this way three weeks passed, and southern climes were reached.
By that time the doctor had perfectly recovered. He assisted in the fishing for the albatross with a hook and bait, and finally secured one of these fine birds by these means. He and all the rest on board enjoyed the novel sights of whales and porpoises, the various birds, and the unusual appearances of the southern climate. A gale drove the Bertha past the Falklands, greatly to the disgust of many on board who had anticipated a run ashore; and then, when the weather moderated, the passengers came on deck again muffled up to meet the Antarctic cold. Christmas was already looming on the horizon of the almanac, and festivity was indulged in in anticipation. The doctor stuffed birds (mollymauks and Cape pigeons); Reginald and Arthur fished, shot, and thoroughly enjoyed the voyage, while still on their guard respecting the commander. In fact, to all appearance, the ill-feeling which had arisen on board had by this time passed away.
One afternoon the thermometer fell decidedly, and a report of ice was promulgated. The air became very chilly, and bergs were anticipated. Ice for Christmas!
"What a lark!" cried Arthur. "This will be fun! May we land upon an iceberg?"
The commander, who was searching the ocean through his glass, looked steadily and with much interest at the lad. He did not reply at once, but resumed his survey.
"Can we, Mr. Cordell?" asked Arthur again.
"Perhaps," was the reply. "Would you both like it?"
"Rather! eh, Reggie! Wouldn't it be splendid to land on a real iceberg?"
"There are no sham ones here," said Mr. Cordell. "None 'made in Germany'! We shall find you one, I daresay," he concluded as he walked across to port.
"You shouldn't run risks, gentlemen," remarked Jackson, who was again at the wheel. "If ye get on, ye may never get off!"
The speaker never looked at the lads; he kept his eyes upon the ocean far ahead, and seemed as if he had been talking to himself in a low tone.
"Look," he cried suddenly, "there's a Christmas-box for you! That's a berg! See, yonder, to starboard bow."
"That!" exclaimed Reginald. "Why, it's flat, not pointed, as we have seen in pictures!"
"They is always flat in the Antarctic," replied the sailor. "They are square-looking, not peaky, down here."
By this time the hands had assembled forward to see the first berg of summer in the Antarctic. As the Bertha approached the drifting mass, it seemed to emerge from the light mist as a plateau of ice, at least a mile long and quite two hundred and fifty feet high; its breadth could not be at once estimated, but it seemed square. The summit was white and sparkling with snow, which was reflected sharply by the sunbeams, even painfully. The sides of the berg were caverned like cliffs; blue, and even green in places, against which the waves dashed with great force, leaping high up the ice, half way, at times, to the summit. The sea was roaring in the ice-caves, and presented a most magnificent appearance as it retreated, foaming and angry, only to attack the white walls anew.
It was magnificent! Splendid! Glorious! All the spectators were silent as the Bertha approached the berg.
"What are those black things, Mr. Stevens?"
Even Arthur Rushton was silent. His idea of a "lark" appeared entirely out of place vis-à-vis with the berg.
The Bertha was sailing with a south-east wind, but the berg appeared to be drifting towards the barque. At one time some fears were entertained that the vessel would collide with the mass, but the berg passed on with merely a cold recognition of the stranger. The mist seemed increasing, the weather colder, the sea lumpy, as the island of ice passed by in dignified silence.
A man was sent up to the "crow's-nest," a barrel which had been hoisted up to the main-topmast, to scan the horizon for seals, whalers, and any floes. The lookout was seated in the cask upon a board fixed within it, and he entered it by a trap-door (cut in the bottom of the barrel) from the rigging. When the apparatus had been tested, Arthur, of course, was anxious to ascend and see what he could.
"May we go up?" asked Reginald of the second mate.
"Aye," replied Stevens. "I'll see you safe up. Take care, youngster; the ship's rollin' a tidy bit up there!"
The lads had ascended the rigging before, and with a little assistance one managed to enter the crow's-nest. Arthur went first, as he had suggested the expedition.
"This is splendid," exclaimed the lad. "There are several bergs, and lumps of ice in the sea like little islands. What are those black things, Mr. Stevens?"
He indicated some distant objects which seemed to be floating between the barque and the ice-floe.
"Whales," replied Stevens. "Not right whales, though. Those are 'finners,' as we call them."
"Wrong whales, I suppose! Are 'finners,' then, 'sinners,' " asked Arthur in his most innocent tone.
"Not particularly, so far as I know," replied the mate, laughing, "but they are no use to whalers, and so we only catch 'right whales,' d'ye see?"
"Then, is that a spout?" asked the lad, as a thin and steam-like vapour arose from the neighbourhood of the whales.
"Yes, that's a spout," was the reply, as the misty vapour vanished. "It looks different in books, don't it?"
"It does," said Arthur. "I think I'll go down now. The rolling is rather trying. Besides, Reginald is waiting."
"And Tom is expecting you to pay your 'footing,'" said the mate Stevens. "Got to fork out, sir, please."
So Arthur "forked out" as desired, and descended with a light head and a lighter pocket to warn his brother. Reginald, however, ascended boldly, and entered the barrel, which the top-man had vacated.
Reginald looked around him, and could hardly realise the position. The cold and mist he did not mind; the solitude appeared fearful! There he was, swaying about high above the deck, feeling as if he must fall into the sea when the barque rolled, or upon one of the tiny creatures which, foreshortened below him, moved on the deck. It was a giddy perch!
He looked away over the sea, in which the ice masses, in detachments or skirmishing order, were keeping the advance line of the distant, unknown shore. Farther away the ice-clad ocean was rocking undulating in the swell, which was confined by the "pack." The white reflection troubled the lad, the desolation appeared complete; and shutting his ears to exclude the sounds of the slapping ropes, the noise of the sails, the cries of men and birds, Reginald could almost believe that all the prospect was unreal, as in a dream—that he would awake again in his bunk below and recover his senses! Then he took his fingers from his ears. Even then he fancied the whole incident was unreal, even as he turned to speak to the sailor beside him.
But the look-out man—always on the look-out for "footing"—assured him that all was true and distinct and real. When he had carefully pocketed the "tip," he permitted himself a long look across the ice, muttering something, looking and again muttering.
"Ship ahoy!" he cried suddenly, hailing the deck.
"Where away!" came the response.
"Broad on the starboard beam: lying low on the ice, under the lee of a berg. Looks dismantled."
"Can you make it out?" asked Arthur, when his brother had found him on deck some minutes later.
"No; not likely from here. We are heading for it now, and expect we shall pick her up. Did you like the 'crow's nest'?"
"Not much," replied Arthur. "I didn't like playing 'Cherub aloft.' Felt as if I had a body, and that my wings were making my head giddy!"
"I say, Artie," suggested Reginald, "when we reach the vessel yonder shall we go aboard?"
"Rather!" was the reply. "Listen! what does Esau say? Derelict?—that means stranded or abandoned, doesn't it?"
"Chucked up, I think. But the beast won't let us go, never fear! We and the doctor are his pet foes."
"We can try, any way. Come and see Mr. Halbrake."
The surgeon was in his cabin reading and smoking. He heard the report, and guessed the anxiety of the boys. They were most desirous to go.
"Wait until we hear the order to lower the boat," he said after a while. "Then wrap up well, and let us all go and ask the commander. Be ready, mind!"
The lads went out, dressed and made all necessary preparations for the trip, then they came into the doctor's berth again and waited, chatting at intervals, and proposing all kinds of future expeditions.
At last the anticipated order came. The three friends went on deck, and beheld four men with Jackson ready to embark in one of the boats.
"Let us go too, please, Mr. Cordell," cried Arthur. "We want to see the stranded ship. Please let us all go."
"Oh, you all wish to go, do you? Well, perhaps it will be all the better! Go then. Look sharp, now."
None of the three noticed the tone of Cordell's reply, nor the sneer which had accompanied the permission, nor the savage light in the eyes of the commander-mate. But Jackson intervened when Mr. Cordell had spoken to him.
"Haven't you got any grub?" he asked. "Best get a snack, as in case we're delayed you won't be hungry or thirsty. Where's the guns, sir?"
"They are there," replied the chief. "Mind that rifle; put it down there! I have no fancy to be shot like a jackdaw. There's some tins for you, and a keg. You may make grog if you like. Now, steady! Lower away!"
The boat, well supplied by the steward, and armed, pushed off, and under the influence of the four men rushed through the chopping sea. The eyes of the passengers were fixed upon the derelict, the eyes of the cockswain were fixed on both alternately, with suspicious glances at the lads. But Jackson made no remark. He was thinking of the message which Esau had given him, and it puzzled him; but he held his course. The man in the "crow's-nest" gave him the direction; the barque was kept alongside the floe, clear of the bergs, too, which, agitated by currents of their fellows' making, often swerved out of their course, and compelled the Bertha to "yaw," or to come up in the wind, to avoid a collision.
The men rowed well, and the hull of the stranded vessel became more distinct through the gathering mist. The Bertha kept a signal flying at the fore, but the bunting was already indistinct; and though Arthur and others noticed the gradual disappearance of the barque, no one remarked upon the fact. The men knew their bearings and felt no alarm.
"There she is," cried some one. "My stars!" exclaimed the cockswain, "she is a derelict for sure, and one of our whalers like. Give way, lads!"
Bumping, straining, and with many a shock, the boat was impelled in the direction of the derelict, which the occupants of the pinnace succeeded in reaching safely. She was half afloat, under the lee of the berg, upon a long mass of ice attached to the cliffs in front of her. Her stern was free, released by the breaking floe.
She was a barque, but smaller than the Bertha, and covered by snow and frost above the water-line, below with barnacles. Truly a derelict vessel; no living thing, save a few birds, was near her until the "Berthas" approached.
"It jolly well strikes me," remarked Jackson, "that this is the missing Gladiator, which I am told our old skipper expected to fall in with. Poor chaps! They have all died, I expect, unless mayhap they took boat and escaped. I suppose you gents won't want to go aboard?"
"Certainly we do," said Arthur. "That is why we came. Of course we shall go; shan't we, doctor?"
"I should like to look round her," answered the doctor. "What do you think, Jackson?"
"Well, sir, there's no harm, as far as I knows. But I think I wouldn't, somehow!"
"Why?" asked Reginald." What's the matter?"
"There ain't nothin' the matter," replied the cockswain, looking at the men. "Still, if you're determined, and as I have orders not to stay by the wreck, suppose I report, and come back for you later? There's grub and guns, a rifle, and plenty of daylight for weeks yet, so——"
"All right!" cried Arthur; "hand us up."
The three adventurers climbed up the side of the vessel, and then the beef in tins, the keg, the guns, rifle, and ammunition followed.
"I suppose it is all right?" asked the doctor, as the men prepared to go back. "You will return?"
"Oh, we'll come back," laughed the stroke oarsman, an ugly-looking customer. "You're all right!"
"I'd rather you'd pull in with us," said Jackson, "I would indeed. I can't wait. Here take this, sir."
"Nonsense!" cried Arthur. "This is real right down Robinson Crusoe business! Don't hurry back. Ta, ta! What did he give you, doctor?"
The cockswain waved his hand in farewell. The men gave way, and the boat quickly left the derelict and gradually was hidden in the still gathering mist, for the breeze was "northing."
Mr. Halbrake made no answer to Arthur's question. He was watching the boat. Then perceiving that the man had handed him some tobacco, he put it in his pocket, having already sufficient for present use. The lads had meantime left him, and he went aft to join them, but he suddenly became conscious of the insecurity of their position—and future!
What if this was a planned trick? Had the commander taken this opportunity to rid himself of the passengers? Jackson could not say much before the men, but, as the doctor now recalled with a fast-beating heart, he had given them broad hints—suggested food; the guns had been the commander's idea. What for? Why had he given them fire-arms?
With a mind far from easy, Mr. Halbrake rejoined the lads, who were about to descend into the cabin, or "saloon" as they pleased to call it. It was at best a wretched place to sleep in, but, under the circumstances, almost repulsive to the surgeon.
Arthur was in high spirits when he descended. Reginald liked the adventure also. The long-promised "lark" had appeared, had descended on the snow-clad berg, and had taken up its abode upon the derelict for the time being! Therefore the lads were delighted, and skipped down cheerfully. But when they had penetrated into the so-called cabin they paused and listened.
"Didn't you hear a noise, doctor?" asked Reggie.
"No; what kind of noise?" said Halbrake, coming up.
"I think I heard a grunt, or something like it," said Arthur, "a yawn, or like that."
"Perhaps some men are in the bunks there," suggested Reginald.
"Oh, no! the place seems to me too bad. Let us return; the look of the place is enough for me. We need not search far; the cabin would be quite unbearable in a warmer climate."
"I think I saw something," said Reginald. "Look! what are those? Cubs! Run, Arthur; get the guns. Here come the animals. Run, doctor!"
In the dim light two curious objects appeared, and though Halbrake did not think any bears could be there, he retreated on deck before the two animals, which walked upright and had come to meet him. They seemed to be a pair of fine bear-cubs, ragged and dirty. As the animals advanced up the ladder, the adventurers all retreated astern to pick up the guns. But the creatures took no notice of them, and in their turn retreated forward into the forecastle.
"Let's shoot them," suggested Reginald.
"Wait a while," said Mr. Halbrake. "I do not think they are bears at all. Suppose you and I go forward, Reginald, and investigate the matter. Arthur can remain here on watch, and if anything alarm him, he can fire his gun. That will suit you, Arthur; you will then be 'monarch of all you survey.'"
"Very well; only look slippy, please, because I am not up to a big bear-fight. However, I do not see anything very alarming. Make haste and settle the business, because I am getting hungry."
The doctor and Reginald loaded their guns carefully, and went forward. They disappeared down the fore-hatch. Arthur walked the after-deck and went to peep down the cabin-stairs; he even inspected the main hatch, and wondered what was within amidships. The vessel was deserted, apparently, by every one except the two bears, which walked on their hind-legs, and did not speak, as they would have done, he concluded, had they been "only foreigners," not beasts.
Arthur listened for the discharge of the guns, but no sound reached him. The fog had increased, and more icebergs appeared, very close too. They were, in his opinion, closing in towards the derelict, and they might crush it. The north-west wind was rising, and in that case snow and mist were sure to envelop the ocean; and on the whole he decided that Crusoe-life, unless upon a fine and well-supplied island, with complaisant animals for companions, and plenty of shooting and books, was a mistake.
The doctor and his companion had disappeared, and at length Arthur became restless. He called out, then listened, but no reply came to him. He did not wish to fire his gun unless on an emergency, but he felt anxious, and the more so as the fog was encroaching; the bergs looked more terrible, the silence became more distressing. He would have welcomed a bear cub as a relief, but the stern cold silence of Nature and the awful solitude of the derelict preyed upon his nerves.At length, unable to sustain the strain any longer, Arthur lifted up his voice and sent a coo-ee through the fog which must have alarmed and distressed the "King" penguins—birds which take a good deal of alarming too.
"In the dim light two curious objects appeared."
His late companions made no response at all, and Arthur Rushton made up his mind to desert his post to seek them.
The idea of playing "Crusoe" did not then appeal forcibly to the lad, but just when he was thinking very seriously about himself and his companions, he caught sight of them on the forecastle. They were accompanied by the two small "bears" which had attacked them previously. Arthur shouted with joy when he perceived them.
"Oh, I am so glad to see you," he exclaimed. "I thought you were dead! How did you tame those animals? What queer beasts!"
"They are not beasts; they are men—savages if you like, but no beasts," replied the surgeon.
"I don't like them at all," replied Arthur. "But what are they then?"
"Fuegians. They have come from Tierra del Fuego. There is a Norwegian in the forecastle very ill! He has been wrecked on the voyage round the Horn, and it seems he and his friends picked these fellows up. The Norwegians boarded the derelict weeks ago."
"Well, supposing they did, how did they get into the Gladiator?" asked Arthur.
"That is what we have been learning. Their ship was disabled, and drifted in this direction before a nor'-wester. It was entirely wrecked on these islands, but fortunately the crew sighted the derelict. They boarded her, starved here, and died here, all but this Northman and his two companions. A terrible fate!"
"Perhaps we had better examine the vessel farther," suggested Reginald. "There may be some other unfortunate fellows on board. Let us go."
This suggestion was acted upon, but not until the doctor's advice as regarded a meal had been taken. "We shall require some food," he said; "so let us brace ourselves up before we encounter what may prove unpleasant incidents."
So the tinned beef, biscuits, and the grog were partly disposed of, the savages also assisting in the feast. Then the exploration began. It was not altogether pleasant to begin with, and amidships and 'tween-decks the revelations were extremely nasty. The dead, frozen bodies, the aspects of the remains of the seals, the blubber, and the congealed blood, were too horrible, and combined to cause the adventurers to beat a hasty retreat. They all shuddered at the future prospect. If fate had an intention of keeping them on the derelict, the result would be fatal to them.
Fortunately they came upon a store of food in the captain's cabin, and thus were at ease for the present. Even if they were compelled to remain a few days longer, they need not be hungry. Then, not till then, came the idea of their situation and prospects. The mist had increased, and even Arthur began to tire of Crusoe experiences in the derelict.
"I wonder where we are," said Reginald, after a long, silent survey of the surroundings.
"Never mind where we are," replied Arthur snappishly; "let us get out of it, wherever it is. What do you think, Mr. Halbrake?"
"Well, suppose you and Reginald take the guns and try and shoot some penguins yonder. Meantime I will find fuel, and light a fire in the galley; so, even supposing the boat cannot reach us this evening, we shall be comfortable."
"Jolly!" was the reply, as the lads accoutred themselves for the expedition on the snow. They descended carefully, and passed over the ice to the deep snowy surface beyond it, sinking deeply at each step, and leaving a trail unmistakable.
The adventurers advanced cautiously, and perceived that the derelict had been driven upon the ice forward, while the stern still floated. However, she appeared firm; and, after staring at the great massive berg so close to them, so beautiful in its purity, so terrible in its calmness even in inaction, the lads advanced from the starboard side of the vessel, towards some seals, near which many penguins were resting themselves. Some of the latter actually leaped out of the "ice pools" upon the snowfield as the lads proceeded.
"Let's get close and blaze away," said Reginald. "Those birds will make soup, the doctor said."
"Look at those seals! they appear quite tame. That one," indicating a great, white-faced animal, "winked at me, Reggie; he really did. Now, look out!"
The lads had approached the penguins, and fired together. A brace fell, and the remainder of the birds scurried away, flapping, and pushing themselves along the snow like queer animated canoes. They made a curious "quacking" noise as they paddled away like aldermanic waiters, in black coats and white waistcoats, seen through the small end of an opera-glass. Their movements were very funny, and the lads laughed heartily at the evolutions of the penguins.
Several birds were secured, amongst them being a few "Cape pigeons," which, as Arthur remarked, had no "good hope" of returning thither. He would have been severely snubbed by his brother for this remark had not Reginald's attention been directed to the derelict, which appeared to be moving!
"Hullo!" he exclaimed; "the vessel is off the ice. Hurry up, Arthur, else we shall be left behind. Lucky we didn't go far!"
This was alarming news. The lads plunged into the snow deep in their tracks; the penguins danced and signalled with their flippers, as if in sympathy, or pleasure, at the occurrence. The lads sank deeply in the white carpet, shouting at times to the doctor. The stillness of the air enabled him to hear their cries, and by them he was made aware of the state of the case, which he had hitherto not suspected. But he had evidently gained the confidence of the two "Bears," for they plunged, waded, or swam to the assistance of the lads, and rescued them, dripping, freezing, numbed, from the grasp of the ice-king; they were all assisted on board the derelict by the surgeon.
He had lighted a fire; and when the half-frozen and wholly saturated lads and the "Bears" had been rescued, the former were put into bunks in the cabin and fed with hot broth. The savages did not mind the wetting; they dried by the fire, and were also fed. But when, late next day, the lads dressed, their clothes were ruined. They looked as if they had purchased the wardrobe of a "scarecrow" from a rag-and-bone merchant who had become insolvent.
The sun was setting in the southward as they came up. One can hardly say "setting," though, because it only dipped into the horizon a little way, and came up again on the rim of the ice-field. The silence was peculiar, the air sparkling and bracing, by no means very cold. The sea, where visible, was like a mirror; the mist had receded to the north, the south was clear. The floes were intersected by canals of sea-water, and the distant ice-fields looked like a series of snow-clad water-meadows in which the channels had been half frozen. Farther away the "canals" closed up, and apparently composed a level ice-continent to the sky-line. The effect was beautiful, charming, and altogether delightful; the colours of sky, ice, and water being immensely varied and most artistically combined on Nature's pallet. ******* The derelict drifted and the sick men died. The weather became uncertain, alternating mist and thin snow with gales and fierce winds, which caused the adventurers much alarm. The tossings and the crashes and bumpings of the ice caused the little barque to leak seriously, and to threaten dissolution. The end appeared near, and even the stolid "Bears" seemed upset; but release came to them all at last.
" The end appeared near."
"A ship! The barque! There, lying beside that sheltering berg. Shout—fire guns—yell loud!"
Reginald had spied the vessel lying snugly under the lee of the berg, and the three friends at once proceded to shout and fire shots as suggested. Five days had been passed by the party in the derelict, and the adventurers were satisfied with the experience.
After some delay, and while they were speculating upon whether the mate had heard the shots, a boat was lowered from the Bertha and put out for the derelict. But the channels were so winding that it was quite an hour before the boat reached the sinking ship, and fears of ultimate rescue were expressed by the lads.
Jackson was steering the boat, which came alongside. He climbed up, and stood staring at the whole party in silence, his eyes passing from one to another in turn.
"Well, I am busted!" he exclaimed at last. "Who expected to see you and them funny devils? Good job the mate's shot. Who did it, eh?"
"Shot!" exclaimed the three friends. "What do you mean?"
"Why, this. One of your bullets came along and hit him full in the chest. It settled him, you may depend. 'Spect you ain't so sorry, eh?"
"I really do not understand you," said the surgeon. "Did you not expect to see us again? Do you mean that we were sent away to die?"
"Well, sir, not you especial. But, sir, I could tell you a secret," he added, as his ruddy face became redder than his hearers', which were already well "burnt" by the snow and wind. "Have you been smoking tobacco?"
"Yes," replied the surgeon. " But what has that to do with the question?"
"Have you smoked what I gave you? No! Then look at the paper. There it is!"
Mr. Halbrake unrolled the stained wrapper which enclosed the "twist," and discovered a written communication—"To the Captain!" He read as follows:—
"There are traitors on board, captain! Oh, be careful of my boys. I cannot tell you anything. I know nothing, but I fear the worst. Be on your guard. May God keep you! I pray for my sons and you!"
"What's this," gasped Halbrake. "The disputed letter! The warning! Look here, boys!"
"Mother's writing!" they exclaimed. "Dearest mother! She did suspect, then! Oh that mate!"
"Who are the traitors, Jackson?" asked Mr. Halbrake. "I must and shall know, if I ruin myself to find out."
"Then you'll never do that either way. They are cowed now, whoever they are. The game is up, and what I suspects I sha'n't tell. Let them be, sir."
"And who was so infamous as to desire to suggest our … disappearance?" asked the surgeon, savagely.
"Ah! there I can't help you. I don't know. That's a fact. Now, gentlemen, you're waited for. Come away! What about these two ' Guy Foxes ' here? what's to be done about them? Best take 'em and drop them somewhere."
No reply was made to this remark. The boys were thinking of their mother, and of the terrible crime into which their step-father had plunged: the death of the mate his accomplice, and the narrow escape they had had! The captain had already been sacrificed. Alas! no reparation could be made to him! The mate had paid the penalty of his ill-doings—by accident—by chance!
Who could say it was "by chance"? When the rifle was placed in the boat, he had joked about it, and it had caused his death! Was not then the finger of Providence evident? Otherwise, he might have escaped, till, even if he had been convicted in England, the disclosure of the plot would have been disastrous to the family at home. Yes, the best had happened! There is no "chance" in life.
The surgeon and his party returned to the Bertha, leaving the derelict and her cargo to the sea to give up her dead. The mate's body was buried in the cold Antarctic Ocean, and the barque sailed for England. Jackson informed the lads of the manner in which Esau met his death. "He was in the 'crow's nest,'" said the sailor, "looking out; whether he expected to see you or not, we needn't say. May-be he didn't want to! But when you fired the rifle first time, the bullet—aimed high, mind you—hit him full, and he fell dead in the barrel aloft. Awful sudden it was! Then Stevens told us to go for you; and I 'spect we'd a' done that anyway. I was lookin' out for ye myself! There was friends aboard."
"I hope not many of you were concerned with the mate, Jackson," asked the surgeon.
"Oh, well, some was. But no one is now. Of course, if any was really in it all, they'd give in, and tack off the shoal pretty quick! Esau was the prop, d'ye see! I was keepin' a look-out for you."
"Thank you, Jackson. I am sure we are greatly indebted to you; and when we reach England again you shall all receive your deserts in full."
This decision did not appear very promising to Jackson, who touched his cap and went forward amid his mates. But nothing untoward occurred during the passage home; there was nothing to complain of all the while.
The Bertha returned after a three months' struggle against tempests and opposing winds. The Fuegians died on the voyage home, but the barque, her crew, and passengers, reached Plymouth in safety, and anchored in the Cattwater.
Mr. Halbrake immediately went ashore with the Rushtons to telegraph the arrival and to report. When he returned to the Bertha, he learned that the crew, with the exception of Stevens, the two engineers, Jackson, and twelve hands, had taken French leave and decamped! This was an eloquent testimony to the intentions of Mr. Cordell and his associates.
So soon as Mr. Halbrake had placed the barque in the hands of his uncle's agent, he hastened to Mr. Boscombe's residence in the neighbourhood of Exmouth. There a sinister rumour met him. He learned from the hotel manager in the town that the young gentlemen had unexpectedly returned from abroad; that Mr. Boscombe had suddenly left home on important business the next day, and was reported dead!
This rumour was based upon the testimony of an old fisherman, whose boat had been hired that night by a gentleman whose appearance tallied with that of Mr. Boscombe.
When Mr. Halbrake learned this, he returned to Plymouth and wrote to Reginald, who replied that his step-father had certainly left home, after a most unpleasant discussion; that he himself, his mother, and Arthur intended to sell the house and leave the neighbourhood, because no doubt of his step-father's fate remained. The boat Mr. Boscombe had hired had been found by a crew of "lobstermen," empty, on the morning after his departure, out at sea.
This was the last link in the terrible chain of crime which the insatiable love of money engendered in the merchant's soul. Let us close the sad chapter here.
Reginald, Arthur, and their loving mother came up to London, where in due time the young men appeared. Reginald went into the Church, Arthur became a barrister, and Mr. Halbrake still practises his profession. Indeed, it is from him that the writer of this tale obtained the information which has resulted in this narrative of the "Venture of the Bertha," which so nearly ended in the deaths of the young men themselves.