The Bravest of the Brave by G. A. Henty
Chapter V: The Pirate Hold
"The frigate was again disguised as a merchantman, as, if she had passed within sight of the island looking like a ship of war, it would have put the pirates on their guard, and I had told the captain there were guns enough at the mouth of the cove to blow the ship's boats out of the water. As to the frigate getting in, I knew she couldn't, for there was only just enough water at the entrance for the pirate vessels to enter in. I was not in irons now, but spent my time on deck; and a wretched time it was, I can tell you, for not a sailor on board would speak to me.
"For three weeks we cruised about, sailing round island after island, but at last as we were approaching one of them I saw the three trees.
"'That's the place,' I said to the boatswain, who was standing near me, and he carried the news to the quarterdeck, and brought back word I was to go to the captain.
"You are sure those are the trees?'
"'Quite sure, sir.'
"'They answer to your description certainly,' the captain said. 'Keep her away, master, I don't want them to think we are steering for the island.'
"The ship's course was altered, and she sailed along parallel with the coast.
"'I beg your pardon, sir,' I said, touching my hat, 'but they have got some wonderful good glasses up at the lookout, and if I might make so bold I should say that they will make out that we have got a lot more men on deck than a merchant ship would carry.'
"'You are right, lad,' the captain said, and he at once gave orders that all hands with the exception of half a dozen should sit down under the bulwarks or go below. The captain and first lieutenant kept a sharp lookout through their glasses until we had passed the end of the island. I pointed out to them the exact position of the cove, but it was so shut in that even when I showed where it was, it was as much as they could do to make it out.
"'Now, lad, do you know of any other landing places on the other side of the island?'
"'No, sir, and I don't believe there is any,' says I. I know the captain said to me the first day I was on shore, 'It's no use your thinking of making a bolt, for there ain't no other place but this where you could get to sea--not though you had twenty boats waiting to take you off.' I expect that's why they chose it. Anyhow, there never was any watch kept up on shore, though. I have no doubt there was many a one who had been pressed into pirating just as I was, to save their lives, would have made off had they seen ever such a little chance of getting away.
"'Just come into the cabin with me,' says he; 'I want you to show me exactly where are these batteries, and the position of the village on shore.'
"The first lieutenant came too, and I drew them out a chart as well as I could, showing them the position of things, and told them that every evening a boom was floated across the entrance.
"'What sentries are there on at night?'
"'Four, sir; two close down to the water, one each side of the cove, and two in the batteries at the top. That's the watch, but besides there are six men sleep in each of the other batteries, and six in each of the batteries inside.'
"'Tell me more about the place and the life you led there,' the captain said, 'and then I shall understand the position of things better.'
"So I spun him a regular yarn about the place and the people. I told him about the captain's wife, and she being an English woman, and how she was taken, which indeed was the way of most of the women there.
"'I suppose that a good many of the men were pressed too,' the captain said.
"'I expects so, sir; but when we were together on guard or on board a ship I noticed we never talked of such things. It seemed to me as if every one was trying to forget the past, and I think that made them more brutal and bloody minded than they would have been. Every one was afraid of every one else guessing as he wasn't contented, and was wanting to get away, and so each carried on as bad as he could.'
"'I dare say you are right, lad; it must be a terrible position for a man to be in; but you see the law can make no distinctions. If it wasn't thoroughly understood that if a man took up the life of a pirate, whether willingly or unwillingly, he would assuredly be executed if he was caught, we should have the sea swarming with pirates. Now, lad, you know how this boom was fastened; can you suggest any way that we could get over it or loosen it without giving the alarm?'
"'There is no way, sir. One end is fastened by a big chain which is fixed to a great shackle which is let into a hole in the rock and fastened in there with lead; that's the fixed end of the boom. The other end, which is swung backward and forward when the ships go in port, has got a big chain too. It goes under an iron bar which is bent, and the two ends fastened in a rock. When they want to fix the boom the end of the chain is passed under this iron loop and then fastened to some blocks and ropes worked from the battery above, and the end of the chain is drawn up tight there, so that there is no loosing the chain till that battery is taken.'
"'And you say the guns of the lower batteries at the inner point sweep the entrance?'
"'They do, sir. There are ten of them on each side, twelve pounder carronades, which are always charged, and crammed up to the muzzle with bullets and nails and bits of iron. The batteries on the top of the cliff at the entrance are the heaviest metal. They have got twenty guns in each of them. They are loaded with round shot to keep a vessel from approaching, though of course they could fire grape into any boats they saw coming in.'
"'This does not seem an easy business by any means, Mr. Earnshaw,' the captain said.
"'It does not, sir,' the lieutenant agreed in a dubisome sort of way; 'but no doubt it can be done, sir--no doubt it can be done.'
"'Yes, but how?' the captain asked. 'You will be in command of the boats, Mr. Earnshaw, and it will never do to attack such a place as that without some sort of plan.'
"'What is the boom like, my lad?' the lieutenant asked; 'is it lashed together?'
"'No, it is a solid spar,' I said. 'The entrance is not more than forty feet wide, and the boom is part of the mainmast of a big ship.'
"'It seems to me,' said the lieutenant, 'that the only way to get at it would be to go straight at the boom, the two lightest boats to go first. The men must get on the spar and pull the boats over, and then make a dash for the batteries; the heavy boats can follow them.'
"'It would never do, Mr. Earnshaw,' the captain said. 'You forget there are twelve guns loaded to the muzzle with grape and musketballs all trained upon a point only forty feet across. Would it be possible to land just outside the boom, lad, on one or both sides, and to keep along the edge, or wade in the water to the batteries?'
"'No, sir, the rock goes straight up from the water both sides.'
"'Well, the two sentries, how do they get down to the water's edge?'
"'They are let down by rope from above, sir, and the rope is hauled up as soon as they are down.'
"'This is a deuce of a place, Mr. Earnshaw,' the captain said. 'We must do nothing hastily in this matter, or we shall only be throwing away the lives of a lot of men, and failing in our object. I was intending to sail on and not return for a week, for no doubt they will be specially vigilant for a time after seeing a large ship pass them. As it is, I will return tonight to the back of the island, and will there leave the cutter and my gig. You will be in charge of the cutter, and Mr. Escombe will take the gig. I shall then sail away again before daylight; for although from what the lad said there is no watch kept on that side of the island, it cannot be more than three miles across, and any of the men or women might stroll across or might from any high point in the island obtain a view that way. You will make a thorough survey of all that side. The cliffs certainly seem, so far as we could see them as we left the island, as perpendicular as they are on the side we passed; but there may be some place easier than another--some place where, by setting our wits to work, we may make a shift to climb up. Get into the island I will, if I have to blast a flight of steps up the cliff.'
"'I will do my best to find a place, sir,' the lieutenant said; 'and, if there isn't one, I will make one.'
"The lieutenant told me that I was to accompany him in the cutter, and all was got ready for the trip. Water and a week's rations of food were placed on board the boats; for in that climate there was no saying when a gale might spring up, or how long the vessel might be before she got back to pick up the boats.
"When we were fairly out of sight of the island we lay to till it got dusk, and then her head was pointed back again. There was scarce a breath of wind stirring, and the vessel went through the water so slowly that a couple of hours later the captain ordered the boats to be lowered, for he saw that if the wind didn't freshen the ship could not get to the island, much less get away again, before daylight. The oars were got out and off we started, and after four hours' steady rowing, the lieutenant, who was steering by compass, made out the land looming high above us. Another quarter of an hour's row and we dropped our grapnels close to the foot of the cliffs, and the men were told to get a sleep as well as they could till morning.
"As soon as it was daylight we were off again and rowed to the end of the island; for, as Mr. Earnshaw said to the third lieutenant, we had best begin at the end and do the work thoroughly. When we got to the point we turned and rowed back, keeping about two hundred yards from the cliff, so that we could see well up. They were about a hundred feet high--sometimes a little less, sometimes a good bit more, and they went as straight up from the water's edge as the cliffs at Dover, only there weren't no beach. It was deep water right up to the foot.
"We went along very slowly, the men only just dipping their oars into the water, and all of us watching every foot of the cliffs. Sometimes we would stop altogether while the officers talked over the possibility of any one climbing up at some place where the water trickling down from the top had eaten away the face a little; but not a goat in the world could have climbed up them, not to say men. So we kept on till we got to the other end of the island, which must have been five miles long. Not a place could we see.
"'Unless we are going to do as the captain said--blast steps up the face of that rock--I don't believe it's to be done,' Lieutenant Earnshaw said to Mr. Escombe. 'Well, there's nothing to do, lads, but to row in and drop your grapnels again and wait till we see the ship's lights tonight.'
"Although we rowed in to within an oar's length of the cliff, there was eight fathoms of water when we dropped the grapnels. We had been lying there an hour when the third lieutenant said:
"'I should think, Mr. Earnshaw, that if we were to bring the pinnace with that four pounder gun in the bow and up end it, and with a small charge fire a ball with a rope fastened to it up into that clump of trees we saw just about the middle of the island, it might get caught.'
"'So it might, Escombe, and the idea is a good one; but I doubt whether there's a man on board ship could climb a rope swinging like that against the face of those cliffs.'
"'He might if we used a knotted rope,' Mr. Escombe said.
"'I wouldn't mind making a try, yer honor,' one of the sailors said, and half a dozen others volunteered their readiness to make the attempt.
"'I will put it to the captain,' Mr. Earnshaw said; 'if he agrees, as you were the first to volunteer, Jones, you shall have the chance.'
"The day was dead calm, so was the night that followed it; and although we rowed back to the end of the island from which we had come, no lights were to be seen that night.
"The next day passed slowly. The sun was hot; but toward evening the lieutenant gave permission for the men to bathe; but warned us that no man must go far from the boats, because there might be sharks about. However, we didn't see none, and we enjoyed the dip, and were in better humor still when we found that a light breeze was springing up. It might have been about midnight when the men on watch made out a light to seaward, and we weren't long in getting up our grapnels and sitting our oars. In half an hour we were on board, and were soon sailing away from the island again.
"The next night in we came again, and I saw that the third lieutenant's plan was going to be adopted; in fact, I guessed so before; for the sail makers had been at work with two light ropes making a rope ladder, and the ship's smith had got some empty shells on deck, and had made a shift to screw some iron eyes into them for fixing ropes to. The gun was taken out of the pinnace and a little mortar fixed in her, and half a dozen ropes, each a hundred fathoms long, had knots put in them every two feet.
"The launch and the two cutters were lowered as well as the pinnace this time, and the crews were armed with cutlass and pistol. I went with them as before, as I should be wanted to guide them when they got near the village. It was a bright starlight night without haze, so that when we got close we could make out the outline of the cliffs, and could see the thick wood growing on the top. When we got within about a hundred yards of the cliffs the boat stopped rowing.
"'Don't use more powder than you can help, gunner,' Mr. Earnshaw said. 'In the first place, we don't want to do more than carry out the rope to its full length; in the next place, we don't want to make more noise than we can help. What wind there is is fortunately blowing seaward, and being so close under the cliff the sound will be echoed back. At the same time the less noise the better.'
"'I will begin with very little, sir. If the ball don't go to the top of the cliff I shall put a trifle more into the gun next time; it's better to make a mistake on the right side.'
"A small quantity of powder was put in the mortar, which was only a four inch one. Then a wad was put in, and a shell with one of the knotted ropes fastened to it dropped in the top. The rope had been coiled in a tub so as to run out easily. The gunner applied the match. There was a dull report, and every man held his breath to listen. There was a thud high up on the cliff and then a splash.
"'A few feet short of the top, I should say, gunner. You must put in more next time, for the shell must go well up over the trees and drop among them; otherwise it won't catch.'
"The gunner by the light of the lantern measured out half as much powder again as he had used before, and then fired. This time we heard no sound till there was a faint splash in the water.
"'The rope's gone, sir,' the gunner said, looking into the tub. 'There was a little too much this time.'
"'I don't think so,' Mr. Escombe said. 'I think that splash was the end of the rope touching the water. In that case it will be just right, a hundred feet up the cliffs, and five hundred feet among the trees. No fear of the rope coming back to us.'
"It took us a quarter of an hour's search in the dark to find the rope; but at last we came upon it, and sure enough there was only four or five fathoms in the water.
"'Now, Jones,' Mr. Earnshaw said, 'it's your turn. Put that light line over your shoulders, and when you get to the top haul on it till you get up the rope ladder, and fasten that to a stout trunk and give a low hail. We will hold the rope as steady as we can below while you mount.'
"'Ay, ay, sir,' said the man, who was an active young chap; 'I will be up there in a jiffy.'
"We fastened the lower end round one of the thwarts of the boat, and then he began to climb. It was near five minutes before he got to the top, for there were some nasty places where the cliff jutted out, and the rope was hard against it; but presently the shaking ceased, and a minute later the light line was hauled tight. There was a low cheer in the boats, and then up went the rope ladder. A minute or two later there was a hail from the top.
"'All taut, sir.'
"'I will go first,' Mr. Earnshaw said.
"Accordingly up he went, and one by one we followed, each waiting for the signal that the one before him had got up, till all had gone except the two told off as boat watch. Then the men of the launch and cutters followed, and in about two hours they were all at the top, and a lantern was shown to tell the ship we were there.
"We started at once across the island, Mr. Earnshaw keeping the line by a pocket compass. It was rough work, though, and at last the lieutenant said:
"'We make such a noise going through the bushes that we had better wait till daylight, so just halt where you are, lads.'
"As soon as the first ray of light showed we were off again, and an hour later reached the edge of the slope down to the cove.
"'Now, remember,' the lieutenant said, 'that no woman is to be hurt. All the men who resist are to be shot or cut down; but you are to take prisoners all who throw down their arms. Some of them may be able to prove themselves less guilty than the rest. At any rate, there is no fear of the Spanish authorities being too merciful. These pirates have been the scourge of these seas for the last six years.'
"Well, lad, there ain't much more to tell you. We took them completely by surprise, and the men in the village were all knocked down and bound, without firing a shot. The men in the batteries tried to slew their guns round, but we didn't give 'em time. They fought desperately, for they knew what their doom was, and there weren't any prisoners taken there. As soon as the village was taken I went straight with Mr. Escombe to the captain's house. His wife was standing at the door, and she gave a little cry as she saw the British uniforms, and ran a step or two to meet us, then she stopped, and her arms dropped by her side.
"'What! you, Peter!' she said as we came up. 'Is it you who led them here?'
"'Yes, ma'am, it was me,' says I, 'and the best thing I could do for you, for you could not wish to stay here all your life with just the people that are here.'
"'But what has happened?' she said. 'How is it you are here? What has become of the schooner?'
"'The schooner is sunk, ma'am, and the brig is captured.'
"'And my husband?'
"'Well, ma'am, don't you take on, but your husband went down with the schooner.'
"She tottered, and I thought she would have fallen, but Mr. Escombe put his arm round her and led her to the house and left her there, putting two sailors on guard to see as she wasn't disturbed. An hour or two later the frigate was off the cove, and the captain landed. We stopped a week there, and carried off all there was worth taking; and I tell you there was enough to give every man Jack on board a handsome share of prize money when the things came to be sold afterward.
"Money, there was lots of it, all stored away in what they called the treasure house, for money was no good there. Jewels and ornaments, watches, and the things which they uses in them Catholic churches, and all kinds of valuable things, and stores of silks and velvets and all kinds of materials; and as to wine and such like, there was enough to have lasted them for years, for from first to last it was shown afterward that those fellows must have captured more nor fifty vessels. Why they shouldn't have stopped ashore and enjoyed what they got was a mystery to me. But I suppose they couldn't do without excitement, and though every man talked of the time when the treasure would be divided and they were to scatter, I don't suppose as one ever expected as the time would really come.
"Well, arter everything was on board, and the women and children, the place was burned, and we sailed for the nearest Spanish port. We had had a sort of court martial on board the frigate, and two or three young chaps like myself, and two men as was proved to have been captured in the pirates' last cruise, and who hadn't been to sea with them or taken part in any of their bloody doings, was kept on board ship, and the rest was handed over to the Spanish authorities. Most of them was garroted, and a few was condemned to work on the roads for life. I and the others was taken back to England in the frigate, whose foreign time was up, and when we got to Portsmouth we was drafted into a regiment there, and lucky we thought ourselves to get off so easy. The captain's wife and some of the other white women came home to England on board the frigate. She was very low at first, but she brightened up a good deal toward the end of the voyage, which lasted two months. She grieved over her husband, you see, but she couldn't but have felt that it was all for the best. I heard afterward as how two years after she married Mr. Earnshaw, who by that time had got to be a captain. So that, you see, my lad, is how I came to fight under the black flag first and then to be a soldier of the queen. I didn't mean it to be sich a long yarn, but when I once began it all came back to me, and you see, I haven't spoken of it for years. You don't think altogether as I was very wrong, I hope."
"I thank you very much for your story, sergeant," Jack replied. "I only wish it had been longer; and although it's very easy to say that a man ought to die rather than consent to be a pirate, I don't think there are many lads who would choose death if they were placed as you were."
"I am glad you think that, young un; it's always been a sore point with me, I have done my duty since, and no one can say as he's ever seen Sergeant Edwards show the white feather. But the thought that that once I did not act as a brave man would have done has always troubled me."
The next day, as the sea went down, and the recruits recovered from the effects of the confinement and sickness, they again began to talk among themselves. The fact that all the other vessels of the fleet were out of sight naturally encouraged them. Jack observed, however, that the call to parade on deck was answered with more quickness than before, and the exercises were gone through with a painstaking steadiness greater than had been shown since the embarkation. When the men were dismissed from parade Jack remarked this to the sergeant.
"Ay, ay, lad, I noticed it too," the sergeant said, shaking his head, "and in my opinion it's a bad sign. They want to throw the officers off their guard. It's a pity you have been seen talking so much to me, because, of course, they won't say anything when you are listening; but one or two of the men who came into the regiment with me have dropped a word as they happened to pass this morning that they wanted to have a word if they could get one without being noticed, so I hope to hear a little more tonight."
That evening, before going below, Jack had an hour's talk with Sergeant Edwards.
"It's just as I thought," the latter said, "they've got an idea of seizing the ship. The men I spoke of managed to get a few words with me this evening. They don't know anything about piracy. All they have heard is that there is a proposal to seize the ship and to carry her into one of the northern ports of Spain, where the men will land and give up their arms to the Spanish authorities, and then either disperse and make their way home by twos and threes as best they can, or they will take service with the King of Spain, who, they think, will pay them a deal better than the English government.
"A part of the crew are in the scheme. These, the men tell me, do not intend to land, but only tell the others that they shall sail away. That's about what I thought would be. The greater part of these fellows only wants to get quickly home again, while the sailors, who may want to go abuccaneering, would not care about having the soldiers with them. I shall give a hint to the captain of my company tonight as to what is going on, but I don't much expect he will pay any attention to it. Officers never believe these things till it is too late, and you see I can't give them any names yet or prove what I say; besides, likely enough, any inquiry set on foot would only bring the matter to a head. We must wait till we know something sure.
"You keep your ears open, my boy, and your eyes too, and I will do the same. If it comes, and you see a chance of warning the captain of the ship or the first lieutenant in time, you do it; but don't you do it if you don't think there's time enough, or if you can't do it without being seen. If it's too late, and you are found out, they would just chuck you overboard or knock you on the head, and you will have done no good after all, and perhaps only caused bloodshed. Like enough, if matters go quietly, there won't be no bloodshed, and the officers and those who stick to them will just be turned adrift in the boats, or maybe handed over to the Spanish at the port they go into as prisoners."
Jack promised to follow the sergeant's instructions, and went below. He thought that the men were unusually quiet, and taking his blanket--for although some of the soldiers slept in hammocks, the majority lay on the deck wrapped in their blankets--he lay down by the side of a gun whose port had been opened to admit air between decks. After thinking the matter over for some time, and wondering what would be the end of it, he dropped off into a light sleep.
Presently he was aroused by a confused sound. Looking round cautiously, he saw by the dim light of the lantern that most of the men were on their feet. Some of them were taking down their firearms from the arm racks; small groups were stooping over some of the sleeping figures; and to the mast, close to which one of the lanterns hung, two or three men were bound, and two soldiers with pikes were standing by them. The crisis, then, had come, and Jack at once proceeded to carry out the plan he had thought out after he lay down.
Very quietly he crawled out through the porthole, and then raised himself and stood on the muzzle of the gun. There he could reach the foot of the shrouds of the foremast, which happened to be immediately above the port. He swung himself up, and, placing his hands on the edge of the bulwark, cautiously looked over.
At present all was quiet there; the signal from below had not been given, and the troops on deck--for, owing to the numbers on board, one fourth were always on deck in fine weather--were standing about or sitting in groups. Keeping his feet on the ledge which ran round level with the deck, and his fingers on the top of the bulwark, Jack managed to edge his way aft until he reached the line of the quarterdeck. Here the line of the bulwark ceased, the cabins of the officers rising, as was usual in those days, in a double tier high about the waist.
The nearest porthole, which was open, was but three feet long, and Jack, reaching forward, put one hand in it and continued his way. The porthole was but just large enough for him to squeeze through. Looking in before he attempted it he saw an officer asleep immediately below him. It was the ensign of his own company. Leaning in he touched him gently. After one or two attempts, the young officer opened his eyes, saying, "What is it? It's not morning yet."
"Hush, sir," Jack said earnestly; "I am Jack Stilwell of your company. There is a mutiny, sir, forward. Please help me in, I want to warn the captain of the ship, and he will know what to do."
The young officer leaped from his bunk and assisted Jack to enter.
"I will come with you," he said, hastily dragging on his trousers and coat. "Are you sure of what you say?"
"Quite sure, sir; the noncommissioned officers are bound; it may begin at any moment."
The ensign led the way to the captain's cabin, which he opened and entered without ceremony.
"What is it?" the captain exclaimed. The ensign said who he was, and Jack repeated his story.
"The dogs!" the captain said, "we will teach them a lesson. Let me see, the second lieutenant is on duty; rouse all the other officers;" and he himself assisted them to do so. In a minute or two they were gathered hastily attired, with sword and pistol, in the captain's cabin.
"Do you, Mr. Hartwell," the captain said, addressing the first lieutenant, "go below and rouse the boatswain and petty officers, and bid them get together all the men they can depend upon, arm them quietly, and be ready to rush on deck the instant a stir is heard forward among the soldiers. Any man who disobeys orders, shoot him instantly. Do you, sir," he said to the second officer, "go to the magazine with four of the midshipmen, open it and bring up charges of grape for the guns on the quarterdeck. Be as quick as you can. Now, gentlemen, the rest of us will make our way up quietly, one by one, to the quarterdeck. Go well aft, so that the men in the waist will not notice you. Directly the cartridges come up we will load the guns, and be in readiness to slew them across the deck; and in the mean time, if they should attack before we are ready, we must hold the ladders to the last."
One by one the officers stole out from the cabin with bare feet, and made their way up to the quarterdeck, until some thirty of them were gathered there, being all the officers of the regiment, the naval officers, and midshipmen. The night was a dark one, and this was accomplished without the movement being noticed by any of those in the waist of the ship.