ON AFRICAN SHORES
There was no doubt that Jim had good cause to be thankful, for his had been an extremely narrow escape; and as he turned away from his companion, he was quite overcome at the thought, for this was the very first time he had known what it was to be face to face with death. Burying his face in his hands, so that Tom should not see his emotion, he stood there, leaning upon the bulwark, for at least five minutes. Then suddenly he roused himself, and went to join his comrade, who respecting his feelings, had walked away to the other side of the deck.
“Well, Tom,” he said cheerfully, “the expedition has so far proved an undoubted success, and this gun-runner is safely in our hands. The next question to be considered is what we are to do with her. You said that you would probably sail her back to Aden; but doesn’t it seem a shame, now that we are almost within sight of Africa, to return to our starting-point?”
“It does, Jim; and I am in hopes that that will not be necessary. As far as I have been able to make out, we have held steadily upon our course since we left Aden; and in that case the gunboat should soon catch us up. I propose that we remain where we are until she comes up with us, and then we’ll ask them to do us the favour of taking us on to Berbera. They’ll be glad enough to help us, for this capture will appear in their names, and will be a feather in the captain’s cap, though he will not fail to give us the credit that is due to us. You see, it wouldn’t do to publish the full facts of the case, for, if the natives learnt that I had a hand in the capture, my life would not be worth an hour’s purchase, and I should have to leave Aden for good and all. But, I say——”
“What?” asked Jim. “You were about to suggest something.”
“About those fellows there, old man,” Tom replied, pointing to the bodies of the natives.
“They’re not very pleasant objects to look at, Tom; and if you think it right, I vote that we tie some weights to them and throw them over the side. Half a dozen guns should be sufficient if we cannot find anything better. What do you think of the plan?”
“It will have to be done sooner or later, Jim, and I think had better be carried out at once. Let’s slip down into the hold and see what we can find. But—that would not do, for there is no trusting these native beggars; and it’s more than possible that while we were beneath decks they would play a trick upon us.”
“That has occurred to me, too, Tom; but from the look of them, I don’t think we have much to fear. They are thoroughly cowed, and go in terror of our revolvers. I’ll wait here at the stern while you go below. Just order the master to go forward, so that I can keep an eye upon both of them. If they show signs of wishing to attack me, I’ll shout, and you can hop up to my help.”
“That will do famously,” answered Tom. “Look here,” he continued, addressing the late commander of the dhow, who stood a few paces away, watching his captors through the corners of his eyes, “get away forward to your comrade, and sit upon the deck. If either of you attempts to move, you will be shot. So take good care to keep absolutely still, for my friend is a capital shot, as you have been able to see for yourself.”
The precaution was a wise one; but a glance at the two prisoners showed that it was scarcely necessary, for all their courage had fled. Indeed, at the mention of Jim’s prowess with the revolver, they shivered visibly, while their eyes wandered to the two figures lying upon the deck.
“You can trust us to be still,” said the master humbly. “We have seen your bravery, and know that we are beaten. Promise that you will spare our lives.”
“I can make no promise at all,” answered Tom sternly. “You have been caught in the act of carrying arms to the Mullah, and in aiding the enemies of the Government, and to the latter you must answer.”
“What is the talk about?” asked Jim at this moment; for, being entirely ignorant of the language, he could not even guess the drift of the conversation. “I hear you chatting away to these fellows, and long to be able to join in and understand what is said. I’ve quite made up my mind that, at the first opportunity, I shall begin to take lessons.”
“He is asking me to promise them their lives,” explained Tom, “and I have told him that it is impossible, and that someone else will have to do that for them.”
“But you could say that you would speak for them,” exclaimed Jim, a sudden thought occurring to him.
“And why? You seem to forget, old boy, that a few minutes ago these fellows were doing their best to kill us. And now you want to help them to escape the punishment which they have earned.”
Tom became quite indignant at Jim’s words, and turned away from him impatiently, as if it angered him to listen.
“Steady. Wait until you have heard all that I have to say,” cried Jim, catching him by the arm and detaining him. “Did you not tell me that one of the crew knew more than he would admit about that white prisoner of the Mullah?”
“Yes, that is the case,” answered Tom, unable as yet to follow his companion’s meaning.
“Well,” continued Jim eagerly, “these fellows deserve to lose their lives, but, you know, the Government are no more fond of hanging people than we are. You could, therefore, safely say to them that you would speak on their behalf on certain conditions. Don’t you see my point now?”
“By Jove! Of course, I do, Jim! What a duffer I am, to be sure! I’ll see what I can do at once.”
They went along the deck towards the natives, who watched them furtively, fearful of what was coming, and expecting at any moment to be shot where they sat.
“I have talked this matter over with my friend,” said Tom sternly, addressing the man who had commanded the captured dhow. “We both agree that we should be within our rights if we shot you. But you have asked me to promise you your lives, and I am inclined to do so on certain conditions. The first is that you solemnly promise to remain faithful to us until we hand you over to the Government; and the second, that you tell us all you know about this white man who recently fell into the hands of the Mullah.”
“We shall fall in with your wishes gladly,” replied the native, scarcely able to repress a shout of joy. “We solemnly declare that we will be true to you, and will not venture to attack you. As for the other matter, we do not know much, but we have heard that the prisoner was a soldier, what the Hindoos in Aden call a ‘sahib.'”
“He says that the prisoner was an officer,” explained Tom, turning to Jim, so that he should be able to follow the conversation.
“Ask him if he heard the name,” was the eager reply.
“My friend wishes to know more,” said Tom, continuing his interrogation. “What was the name of this prisoner?”
“That I cannot say; but he was ‘sahib’ and ‘colonel,’ so the man who told me of his capture said.”
Jim was listening eagerly, vainly endeavoring to understand all that passed, and he could have leapt for joy when Tom translated the man’s answer.
“That settles it, then,” he said. “Up to this there has been some doubt as to whether my father was the man who reached shore alive, but now I am certain that it was he; for I have been through the list of passengers, and there was only one colonel on board, and he, of course, was Colonel Hubbard.”
“I think you are right in what you say,” answered Tom, after a pause. “I must confess that, until this moment, I have been very doubtful, far I happen to know that nine British officers out of ten wear a watch bracelet upon their wrists. It is a habit which seems to have become general during the Boer war. Still, the fact that this survivor was tall, and in other respects corresponded with your father, made it possible that it would turn out to be he. Now, however, the question is settled, for, no doubt, when the Mullah’s men captured him he gave his name, hoping that that would cause them to release him. They know quite sufficient of the British to feel sure that a colonel is a man of some importance, and they must have boasted of it. That’s how the news has got to this fellow’s ears. Yes, I think you may take it as certain that your father is the white prisoner spoken of, for if not, who else could it be?”
“There is no doubt about it,” answered Jim emphatically. “I was never very doubtful, and now any fears I may have had are absolutely set at rest. But ask him more, Tom. For instance, perhaps he knows where father has been taken, and whether he is being well treated.”
Turning again to the native, Tom plied him with question after question, and was able to elicit the fact that the white prisoner was constantly with the Mullah, who often changed his whereabouts. Also that he acted as a slave, but was safe for the time being.
“How long he will continue to be sure of his life I cannot say,” the master continued thoughtfully. “But I feel certain that if the Mullah suffers at the hands of the British troops, he will avenge himself by slaying the white man. Indeed, I wonder at his allowing him to remain alive so long, for all those who are not of his own color and religion are his bitter enemies, and he slays them without remorse.”
“So you can feel easy about his safety for a time,” said Tom, as he discussed the facts with Jim; “we know that the Government is making preparations for a general advance, and that nothing can be done till all is absolutely ready. I should say that we have quite two months, and perhaps more than that, in which to effect his rescue.”
“We must try to do it in two weeks, if that is at all possible,” said Jim with decision. “You see, there is always an element of doubt, and until my father is out of the Mullah’s hands, I do not think we can ever consider him out of danger. These native beggars are cruel and capricious; at least, so I have always been given to understand. He might order his prisoner to be killed in his rage at hearing that the British were preparing to attack him, and even might make the capture of these guns sufficient excuse to execute father. It is horrible to imagine such a thing.”
“Don’t be down-hearted, old boy,” exclaimed Tom encouragingly. “If you allow yourself to think in that way, you will be miserable. Make up your mind that your gov’nor is alive and well, and badly in need of his freedom; and that you are going to bring it to him. That’s the way to look at the matter.”
“You’re right,” answered Jim with a sigh of relief.
“Better look at the bright side of things, and just put all one’s back into the task. Yes, that is the way, I’m sure; and by Jove! I’ll do as you advise, and what’s more, I’ll rescue father, or die in the attempt.”
“Spoken like a man! If you say that you’ll carry the job out successfully, I am sure that that is half the battle, and that you will get along ever so much better. I can tell you this, that I will help you to the best of my power, for this expedition has taken my fancy; and besides, Jim, I owe you something. Remember that half an hour ago you saved my life. I want to pay back the debt, you know; and how could I do it better than by standing beside you in this affair?”
There was no doubt that Tom was thoroughly in earnest, for he spoke with a vigor to which his companion was unused, and to show how deeply he felt, grasped him firmly by the hand.
“Thank you,” Jim answered, returning the clasp with one as warm. “As to the debt, I fancy that we are quits, for, had you not stood by me, we should both have been like those two poor fellows there. Let’s get rid of them. I cannot bear to look at them, for it reminds me that it was I who caused their death.”
“Right. We’ll set these two natives to work, for they will understand it better.”
Tom beckoned to the master, and gave him instructions to tie half a dozen guns to each corpse, and then consign them to the sea. When that necessary but unpleasant task was satisfactorily accomplished, he ordered the two prisoners into the bows again, and retired with Jim to the stern, from which point of vantage they could keep a watch upon their prisoners. Not that that was necessary now, for the promise that he would speak on their behalf, made by Tom, had put the natives on their best behavior. Indeed, unbidden, they began to sweep the decks, and then suggested that they should prepare some food.
“We have taken nothing to break our fast,” said the master, coming to them as they sat by the tiller. “Is it your wish that I and my comrade should go in search of something with which to stave off our hunger?”
“You can go, certainly,” answered Tom readily; “but one at a time. It does not matter what it is so long as there is sufficient, for we are badly in want of food.”
In a short time the master returned and placed before them a plate of dried meat and some pieces of wheaten cake. This they devoured with the utmost satisfaction, completing the repast with a copious draught of cool water. Then both rose to their feet, and began to patrol the deck, for after having lived ashore for the greater part of one’s existence, the craving for movement, for exercise of some description, when aboard a ship of such small proportions as the dhow, is very great. Half an hour later Jim gave vent to a sudden shout of joy and pointed astern.
“What do you make of that?” he asked in excited tones.
“No, not there, but more to the left.”
Stretching out his arm so that his companion could follow the direction, he pointed to the horizon, where a faint streak of dark color was visible. Tom looked at it for some minutes without answering, but at last he turned to Jim with smiling features, which told that he had guessed at the origin of the cloud.
“It’s the gunboat, sure enough,” he said, “and I tell you that it lifts a weight from my mind. You see, things have been rather uncertain, and there is no doubt that we have been in great danger. Of course, we came through this scuffle remarkably well, but if that pirate fellow had turned up again we should have been in a nasty mess. There can be no doubt that the patch of dark color on the horizon is a steamer of some sort, and I fancy it will turn out to be the gunboat, for this is right out of the track of ordinary shipping, and though a few steamers are just now engaged in bringing stores to Berbera for the Mullah’s expedition, I happen to know that none were leaving Aden during this week. So we can take it for certain that that is the gunboat, and I can tell you I am jolly glad. Won’t it be grand when she comes alongside and finds the capture already made!”
“It ought to get you promotion, at any rate,” answered Jim. “After all, when you come to look at the matter quietly, you must admit that it was rather a risky thing to do. Who else would have thought of making up as a Somali native and shipping aboard the very dhow upon the capture of which you were bent? Mind you, I take no credit to myself for that part of the adventure. It was you who planned the whole thing, and I think you deserve no end of praise. But, I say, look at her again.”
By now the dark streak had developed into a low-lying hull, which was fast coming up from the horizon. Very soon a stumpy mast could be seen, poking up barely into the blue sky, and, within twenty minutes, Jim and Tom could even make out her guns, two of which stood amidships, and formed her only broadside, an amply sufficient one in such waters. Half an hour had barely passed before the gunboat came rushing alongside, surging through the swell, and sending the foam seething in a broadband of white from her cut-water. Then she put her helm hard over, and turning upon her heel in the space of a few seconds, and with a heave which caused her to roll her scuppers into the sea, she came up on the other quarter, and lay to, with the muzzle of one of her quick-firers grinning at the occupants of the dhow.
“Dhow ahoy!” came in stentorian tones. “Who’s that?” shouted Tom in reply, springing upon the bulwark to obtain a better look. “Is it Humphreys?” “Yes; and who are you?” “Government agent from Aden,” sang out Tom, refraining from giving his name, for, had he done so, the natives would have heard, and it would have become common property before very long. “I want to hand over this vessel to you. She’s full of cheap guns, which were going to the Mullah. We’ve a couple of prisoners, too.”
“Bravo! Congratulate you!” was shouted from the gunboat, while at the same moment a figure, clad from head to foot in snowy white, leapt upon the diminutive bridge and signaled to the dhow. “We’ll come right alongside, and then you can slip aboard, and give us the tale. Any casualties?”
“None, I’m glad to say, though one, if not both, of us, was nearly killed. But we shot two of the crew, and threw their bodies overboard half an hour ago.”
“Look out for us now,” was shouted from the gunboat. “If you have a rope fender, or two, you might sling them overboard. Our plates are too thin to stand bumping, even against the wooden sides of your dhow.”
Jim saw the commander of the gunboat grasp the handle of the telegraph, and, so short was the distance intervening between the two vessels, that he could actually hear the tinkle of the bell sounding down in the engine-room. Then the screws whirled around, the blades churning the waters of the gulf into white foam, which went hissing and frothing along the sides of the vessel as she ran astern. Five minutes later, she was securely fastened to the dhow, great care being taken to place several thick rope fenders between the vessels, together with some fibre matting which happened to be aboard the dhow. No sooner was all to his liking than the captain of the gunboat stepped on to the bulwark of his own vessel, and leapt lightly upon the deck of the one which Jim and his companion had contrived to capture. A particularly smart officer he looked, too, in his spruce and neatly cut white drill-clothing. Coming forward, with outstretched hand, he advanced towards Tom with a smile of welcome.
“Glad to see you—heartily glad to see you!” he said. “‘Pon my word, when the Governor told me for what I was wanted, and packed me off post-haste last night, I quite thought I was on a wild-goose chase. It seemed to me that you and your young friend must have run your heads into a perfect hornets’-nest, and I tell you, had I come across your bodies floating in the sea, I should not have been by any means astonished. But I’m bound to say that the Governor, though fully realizing the extent of the danger, thought far better of your chances than I did. You see, I’ve often met you before and known you in the Club at Aden as a clerk in the Civil Service, and as a particularly good billiard-player. And to hear suddenly that you were an Intelligence officer, who was notorious for success in worming out the secrets of the natives, was quite astonishing, for you must understand that I always looked upon you as a peaceful sort of fellow.”
“And so I am,” laughed Tom. “You see, I’ve lived the best part of my life in Aden, so that to appear as a native is nothing out of the way for me. I am so thoroughly used to it that I run very little danger. But it’s different with my friend here, for he is only just from school, and doesn’t understand a word of the language, and yet he boldly came with me; and if it had not been for his help, I can honestly say that this would have proved my last adventure. But he turned out trumps, and proved to be as cool and steady as an old hand, and thoroughly plucky into the bargain. But, I say, let me introduce him. Jim Hubbard—Captain Humphreys.”
“Glad to meet you, and I congratulate you on coming so well out of your first engagement,” said the officer, gripping Jim by the hand. “Never been under fire before, I suppose, and never seen men fighting in real earnest?”
“Never!” answered Jim, returning the handshake with equal fervour; for the captain of the gunboat was an open-hearted, cheery individual, to whom one was bound to take on the instant. “I must admit, too, that the experience for the first time was far from pleasant; and if it hadn’t been that the fighting came suddenly, and before I was really prepared for it, I am sure I should have been in a regular funk. You see, waiting always did upset me. I was the same at school when I was in for a licking and had orders to attend in a few hours at the Doctor’s study. I’m too impatient, I suppose, and employ the interval in imagining all kinds of awful things. But I’m sorry to say that I killed two of the natives during the struggle.”
Jim looked the captain steadily in the face, and then flushed guiltily, for it appeared to him a terrible admission to have to make.
“I know what you feel, my lad,” was the hasty answer, given with an encouraging smack upon the back. “But that’s the fortune of war, you know, and everyone has the same regrets at first. Why, I remember how terribly upset I was when I sent a bullet into the body of a rascally slave-dealer. It thoroughly unnerved me when I looked at the fellow afterwards. But my chief took me aside, and just put the matter to me as I have to you. You may take it from me, that if you engage in adventures of this sort, you will kill more men before you have done, though always in self-defense. It’s just that that helps one to get over the feeling.”
“And now about the dhow,” interposed Tom. “She’s full up to her hatches with cheap guns and ammunition, and I now hand her over to you. In return, I ask you, if you possibly can, to take us to Berbera, for we are bound for Africa.”
“So the Governor told me, and you may rely on it that I shall do as you ask, for I know how important it is for you both to make an early start into the interior. You say that the dhow is full of cheap arms. If that is the case, they are unlikely to prove of any use to the Government, and we should not be thanked for bringing them back. I’ll just pop below, and look for myself, and then we’ll put a charge of gun-cotton into her and blow her to pieces. It will be the cheapest and best plan in the end. But you may rely upon it, Dixon, that I shall make a full report to the Governor, and if there is no promotion in your particular branch, then I prophesy that your salary will be increased, for there is no doubt that this is a most important capture. Indeed, had all these guns reached the Mullah, so many more lives would be lost in the coming expedition. So you can see for yourself what good service you have done.”
“It’s very good of you to say so, Humphreys,” answered Tom, “and I will only ask you, while mentioning the fact to the Governor, to be sure that my name is not published in connection with the capture, for it is important for me to continue to be known as a simple clerk in the Civil Service.”
The captain of the gunboat readily assented to this proposal, and then, stepping along the deck, quickly disappeared through the hatchway. Ten minutes later he appeared again, and returned aboard his own vessel. An order was given, and within a short while a couple of seamen went into the hold of the dhow, where they remained for half an hour. Meanwhile, the lashings which connected the two vessels were cast off, the fenders and matting removed, and all aboard the dhow, except the men who were placing the fuse, were ordered to leave and take up their quarters upon the gunboat. Five minutes later the two British tars appeared, and when they had joined their own ship again, she sheered off from the low-lying gun-runner. When she had run a mile at the top of her speed, she went about, and stopped her engines. And there, with eyes fixed upon the distant vessel, all waited for the explosion that was to rend her to pieces and send her cargo to the bottom.
Bang! The roar of the bursting fuse could be loudly heard, followed by a spurt of fire which rose high into the air, accompanied by a dense column of smoke. As the latter cleared away, all looked to see what had become of the dhow, but not a vestige of her was to be seen.
“The Mullah will grieve for her, and will grind his teeth with rage when he learns that the freight of guns and ammunition is lost to him,” laughed Captain Humphreys. “But we can smile, for we have done a good turn to those who are going with the expedition. And now, I want to ask you, young fellows, whether you intend to land as you are. If you would prefer to change into European costume, I have plenty of togs aboard which will fit you, and to which you are heartily welcome.”
For the moment neither answered, but each looked at the other, as if awaiting a reply.
“I’ve been thinking the matter out,” said Jim at length, “and I’ve come to the conclusion that we should be wise to make no alteration in our dress. Secrecy seems to me to be the object at which we particularly aim. Now, if we take advantage of your kind offer, and appear as Englishmen, our coming will certainly be noticed at Berbera.”
“No doubt about it, Hubbard,” said Captain Humphreys decisively. “Like Aden, Berbera has a very large native population, consisting, for the most part, of Arabs. The landing of a couple of Somali men would pass unnoticed, whereas it is perfectly certain that each white man causes a stir. He becomes the subject of conversation in the bazaars, and if his mission to the town is not perfectly clear, it sets every native wondering. Of course, if you were officers come to join the troops there, you would arouse no further interest. But as you are not that, and not traders, then for what reason have you come to Berbera? That’s how these fellows look at such a matter, and they’re cute enough and curious enough to go more deeply into it. Therefore, I think you will be wise to make no change in your dress.”
“And I fully agree,” cried Tom. “Our aim, as Jim has just said, is to arouse no curiosity, and to maintain our incognito. That can be best done by appearing as Somali natives. Once ashore, we can go to the Consul’s to tell him our plans, and from there we shall strike straight away for the camp, where Ali Kumar awaits us with the followers. The same night we shall disappear, and when we have received our baggage and stores, and put a day’s march between ourselves and the coast-line, we can get rid of this paint and these long white robes, and reappear in our ordinary costume.”
“And now for a meal!” interposed the commander of the gunboat. “I expect you two fellows will be glad of one, for the grub aboard that dhow must have been of the coarsest. Let me see, it’s a hundred and forty miles from Aden across to Berbera, and I reckon we have already steamed the greater part of the distance. By the time we come on deck again the coast should be in sight, and shortly after noon we should be at our destination.”
Accordingly, the trio descended to the tiny cabin, where they did ample justice to an excellent luncheon. Then they chatted for an hour before going on deck again. When they did so, it was to discover a low-lying coast before them, with purple headlands, and a long range of hazy blue hills in the distance. Indeed, at the first glance, it was a hospitable-looking coast, for the sand-dunes and the desolate, treeless wastes were not visible. Soon Berbera itself was sighted, and the gunboat was headed for the harbor, which seemed to be filled with trading dhows, and with a few steamers of small size, which had come there with stores for the troops. Half an hour later they were safely moored inside.
Jim and his companion took farewell of the captain, and watched him as he was rowed to the tumble-down pier which did duty as a landing-place. Then, as the dusk of evening fell, they put off in a small dinghy which the gunboat carried, and were landed at a deserted part of the town. Stealing away in the darkness, they were soon lost among the Arab streets, and had the satisfaction of feeling that their expedition was to begin under the best auspices. For who would take the trouble to enquire about them? Captain Humphreys had impressed upon his men the need for silence, while the two prisoners who had been captured with the dhow could do them no harm, for they were at that moment in irons beneath the deck of the gunboat, and likely to remain there until they were thrown into prison at Aden.
It was, therefore, in the highest spirits that they sauntered through the town, and made their way towards the British Consuls.
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