Chapter XVIII. Slaves in the Bermudas.
 

The Good Intent, upon which Harry Furness with thirty-five other Royalist prisoners were embarked, was a bark of two hundred tons. She carried, in addition to the prisoners, sixty soldiers, who were going out to strengthen the garrison of Barbadoes. The prisoners were crowded below, and were only allowed to come on deck in batches of five or six for an hour at a time. Four of them had died on the way, and the others were greatly reduced in strength when they landed. As soon as they reached Bermuda the prisoners were assigned as slaves to some of the planters most in favor of the Commonwealth. Four or five were allotted to each, and Harry having placed Mike next to him at the end of the line, when they were drawn up on landing, they were, together with two others of the soldiers who had defended the tower of Drogheda with him, assigned to the same master.

"He is an evil-looking scoundrel," Harry said to the Irish boy. "He looks even more sour and hypocritical than do the Puritans at home. We have had a lesson of what their idea of mercy and Christianity is when they get the upper hand. I fear we have a hard time before us, my lad."

The four prisoners were marched to the center of the island, which seemed to Harry to be, as near as he could tell, about the size of the Isle of Wight. Their new master rode in front of them, while behind rode his overseer, with pistols at his holsters, and a long whip in his hand. Upon their way they passed several negroes working in the fields, a sight which mightily astonished Mike, who had never before seen these black creatures. At that time the number of negroes in the island was comparatively small, as the slave trade was then in its infancy. It was the want of labor which made the planters so glad to obtain the services of the white prisoners from England. Many of the slaves in the island had been kidnaped as boys at the various ports in England and Scotland, the infamous traffic being especially carried on in Scotland.

When they reached the plantation the horsemen alighted in the courtyard of the residence, and the planter, whose name was Zachariah Stebbings, told the overseer to take them to the slave quarters.

"You will have," he said harshly, "to subdue your pride here, and to work honestly and hard, or the lash will become acquainted with your backs."

"Look you here, Master Stebbings, if such be your name," Harry said, "a word with you at the beginning. We are exiled to this place, and given into servitude to you through no crime but that of having fought bravely for his majesty King Charles. We are men who care not greatly for our lives, and we four, with seven others, did, as you may learn, defend the tower of Drogheda for two days against the whole army of Cromwell, and did only yield to thirst, and not to force. You may judge then, of our mettle from that fact. Now, hark you; having fallen into this strait, we are willing to conform to our condition, and to give you fair and honest work to the best of our powers; but mind you, if one finger be laid on us in anger, if so much as the end of a whip touch one of us, we have sworn that we will slay him so ventures, and you also, should you countenance is, even though afterward we be burned at the stake for doing it. That is our bargain; see you that you keep to it."

So stern and determined were Harry's words, so fierce and haughty his tone, that the planter and his overseer both turned pale and shrank back. They saw at once the manner of men with whom they had to deal, and felt that the threat would be carried out to the fullest. Muttering some inarticulate reply, the planter turned and entered the house, and the overseer, with a dogged, crestfallen look, led the way to the slave quarters. The place assigned to them was a long hut, the sides lightly constructed of woven boughs, with a thick thatch overhead. Along one side extended a long sloping bench, six feet wide. This was the bed of the slaves.

An hour afterward the other inmates of the hut entered. They consisted of four white men who had been kidnaped as boys, and two who had been apprentices, sent out, as Harry soon learned, for their share in the rising in the city, which he had headed. The negroes on the estate, some twenty in number, were confined in another hut. There were, besides, four guards, one of whom kept sentry at night over the hut, while another with a loaded firearm stood over them while they worked. The garrison of the island consisted, as Harry had learned before landing, of two hundred and fifty soldiers, besides the militia, consisting of the planters, their overseers and guards, who would number altogether about five hundred men.

The next day the work in the fields began. It consisted of hoeing the ground between the rows of young sugar canes and tobacco plants. The sun was extremely powerful, and the perspiration soon flowed in streams from the newcomers. They worked, however, steadily and well, and in a manner which gave satisfaction even to their master and his overseer. Harry had impressed upon his two men and Mike the importance of doing nothing which could afford their employer a fair opportunity for complaint. He would not, Harry felt sure, venture to touch them after the warning he had given, but he might send one or all of them back to the town, where they would be put to work as refractory slaves on the fortifications, and where their lot would be far harder than it would be on the plantation. He urged upon them above all things to have patience; sooner or later the people of England would, he felt sure, recall the young king, and then they would be restored to their country. But even before that some mode of escape, either by ship, or by raising an insurrection in concert with the white slaves scattered through the island, might present itself.

The white slaves and negroes were kept as far as possible apart during their work in all the plantations in the island. The whites were deemed dangerous, and were watched with the greatest care. The blacks were a light-hearted and merry race, not altogether discontented with their position, and the planters did their utmost to prevent the white slaves having communication with them, and stirring them up to discontent and rebellion. At the same time they were not absolutely forbidden to speak. Each slave had a small plot of ground assigned to him near the huts, and on these, after the day's work was over, they raised vegetables for their own consumption.

Mike, who, as a lad, was much less closely watched than the men, soon made friends with the negroes. He was full of fun and mischief, and became a prime favorite with them. He learned that at night, as no watch was kept over them, they would often steal away and chat with the negroes on other plantations, and that so long as there were no signs of discontent, and they did their work cheerfully, the masters placed no hindrance upon such meetings. Often at night, indeed, the sound of the negro singing and music could be heard by the prisoners, the overseers troubling themselves in no way with the proceedings of their slaves after nightfall, so long as their amusements did not interfere with their power of work next morning. Mike heard also that the treatment of the slaves, both white and black, varied greatly on different plantations, according to the nature of their masters. In some the use of the lash was almost unknown, the slaves were permitted many indulgences, and were happy and contented; while in others they were harshly and cruelly treated. Mr. Stebbings was considered one of the worst masters in the island, and, indeed, it was everywhere noticed that the masters who most conformed to the usages and talk of the Puritans at home were the most cruel taskmasters to their slaves. Many times Harry Furness' blood boiled when he saw the lash applied to the bare shoulders of the slaves, often, as it seemed to him, from pure wantonness on the part of the overseer. But the latter never once ventured to touch Harry or his three companions.

Through the negroes Mike learned that to each of the four plantations adjoining their own four white prisoners had been assigned, and among these, Harry found, on obtaining their names, were the other five soldiers who had fought with him at Drogheda.

Mike soon took to going out at night with the negroes, making his way through a small opening in the light wall of the hut. This was easily closed up on his return, and by choosing a time when the sentry was on the other side of the house, he had no difficulty in leaving or entering unseen. By means of the negroes he opened up a communication with the other soldiers, and informed them that Colonel Furness bade them hold themselves in readiness when an opportunity for escape should arise. It might be weeks or even months before this would come, but the signal would be given by a fire burning at daybreak upon a hill at no great distance from the plantation. He bade them use their discretion as to taking any white slaves with them into their confidence. At nightfall, after seeing the column of smoke, they were, as best they could, to make their way from the huts, and meet in a clump of trees near the house of Mr. Stebbings.

Harry had, indeed formed no distinct plan for escape; but he wished, should an opportunity offer, to have such a body of men at hand as might stand him in good stead.

One day, about a month after their arrival on the plantation, the overseer brutally beat an old negro who was working next to Mike. The old man resumed his work, but was so feeble that he in vain endeavored to use his hoe, and the overseer struck him to the ground with the butt end of his whip. Mike instinctively dropped his hoe and sprang to lift the old man to his feet. The infuriated overseer, enraged at this interference, brought down his whip on Mike's head and felled him by the side of the negro. In an instant Harry sprang forward, armed with his hoe; the overseer seeing him coming, retreated a step or two, drew his pistol from his belt and fired--the ball flew close to Harry's ear, and the latter, whirling his hoe round his head, brought it down with his full strength upon that of the overseer; the man fell in his tracks as if smitten with lightning. The guard ran up with his musket pointed, but Harry's two companions also advanced, armed with their hoes, and the guard, seeing that even if he shot one, he should assuredly be killed by the others, took to his heels and ran off to the house. A minute later Zachariah Stebbings with the four guards was seen running up to the spot.

"What is this?" he exclaimed furiously. "Mutiny?"

"No, Master Stebbings," Harry said calmly. "We have, as you know, worked honestly and well, but your brutal overseer has broken the agreement we made, and struck this lad to the ground without any cause. I, of course, carried out my part of the compact, though I doubt me the fellow is not killed. His hat is a thick one, and may have saved his skull. You had best leave matters alone. I and my three men are a match for you and your guards, even though they have guns, and you best know if our services are worth anything to you."

The planter hesitated. He was unwilling indeed to lose four of his best slaves, and he knew that whether he attacked them now, or whether he reported the case to the commandant of the island, he would assuredly do this. After a moment's hesitation, he said:

"The fool has brought it on himself. Do you," turning to the guards, "lift him up and carry him to the house, and let old Dinah see to his head. It is an ugly cut," he said, leaning over him, "but will do him no harm, though it will not add to his beauty."

The blow had indeed been a tremendous one, and had it alighted fairly on the top of his head, would assuredly Lave cleft the skull, in spite of the protection afforded by the hat. It had, however, fallen somewhat on one side, and had shorn off the scalp, ear, and part of the cheek. It was three weeks before the overseer again resumed his duty, and he cast such a deadly look at Harry as assured him that he would have his life when the occasion offered.

Two days later, when the planter happened to be in the field with the overseer, two gentlemen rode from the house, where they had been to inquire for him. The sobriety of their garments showed that they belonged to the strictest sect of the Puritans.

"I have ridden hither," one said, with a strong nasal twang, "Zachariah Stebbings, having letters of introduction to you from the governor. These will tell that I am minded to purchase an estate in the island. The governor tells me that maybe you would be disposed to sell, and that if not, I might see the methods of work and culture here, and learn from you the name of one disposed to part with his property."

At the first words of the speaker Harry Furness had started, and dropped his hoe; without, however, looking round, he picked it up and applied himself to his work.

"I should not be unwilling to sell," the planter answered, "for a fair price, but the profits are good, and are likely to be better, for I hear that large numbers of malignants, taken by the sword of the Lord Cromwell at Dundalk and Waterford in Ireland, will be sent here, and with more labor to till the fields, our profits will increase."

"I have heard," the newcomer said, "that some of the ungodly followers of the man Charles have already been sent here."

"That is so," the planter agreed. "I myself, standing well in the favor of the governor, have received four of them; that boy, the two men next to him, and that big man working there. He is a noted malignant, and was known as Colonel Purness."

"Truly he is a stalwart knave," the other remarked.

"Ay is he," the planter said; "but his evil fortune has not as yet altogether driven out the evil spirit within him. He is a man of wrath, and the other day he smote nigh to death my overseer, whose head is, as you see, still bandaged up."

"Truly he is a son of Belial," the other argued, but in a tone in which a close observer might have perceived a struggle to keep down laughter. "I warrant me, you punished him heartily for such an outbreak."

"To tell you the truth," the planter said, "the man is a good workman, and like to an ox in his strength. The three others were by his side, and also withstood me. Had I laid a complaint before the governor they would all have been shot, or put on the roads to work, and I should have lost their labor. My overseer was in the wrong, and struck one of them first, so 'twas better to say naught about the matter. And now will you walk me to the house, where I can open the letter of the governor, and talk more of the business you have in hand."

The instant the man had spoken Harry had recognized the voice of his old friend Jacob, and doubted not, though he had not ventured to look round, that he who accompanied him was William Long; and he guessed that hearing he had been sent with the other captives spared at the massacre of Drogheda to the Bermudas, they had come out to try and rescue him. So excited was he at the thought that it was with difficulty he could continue steadily at his work through the rest of the day. When at nightfall he was shut up in the hut with his companions, he told them that the Puritan they had seen was a friend of his own, a captain in his troop, and that he doubted not that deliverance was at hand. He charged Mike at once to creep forth to join the negroes, and to bid them tell one of their color who served in the house to take an opportunity to whisper to one of his master's guests--for he learned that they were biding there for the night, "Be in the grove near the house when all are asleep." The negroes willingly undertook the commission, and Mike rejoined the party in the hut. Two hours later Harry himself crept out through the hole, which they had silently and at great pains enlarged for the purpose, and made his way round to the grove. There were still lights in the house, and the negroes in their hut were talking and singing. An hour later the lights were extinguished, and soon afterward he saw a figure stealthily approaching.

"Jacob," he whispered, as the man entered the shelter of the trees, and in another moment he was clasped in the arms of his faithful friend. For some time their hearts were too full to speak, and then Harry leading his companion to the side of the wood furthest from the house, they sat down and began to talk. After the first questions as to the health of Harry's father had been answered, Jacob went on:

"We saw by the dispatch of Cromwell to Parliament that the sole survivors of the sack of Drogheda, being one officer, Colonel Furness, a noted malignant, and thirty-five soldiers, had been sent in slavery to the Bermudas. So, of course, we made up our minds to come and look after you. Through Master Fleming I obtained letters, introducing to the governor the worshipful Grace-be-to-the-Lord Hobson and Jeremiah Perkins, who desired to buy an estate in the Bermudas. So hither we came, William Long and I; and now, Harry, what do you advise to be done? I find that the ships which leave the port are searched before they leave, and that guards are placed over them while they load, to see that none conceal themselves there, and I see not, therefore, how you can well escape in that way. There seem to be no coasting craft here, or we might seize one of these and make for sea."

"No," Harry replied. "They allow none such in the port, for fear that they might be so taken. There are large rowing boats, pulled by twelve slaves, that come to take produce from the plantations farthest from the port round to ships there. But it would be madness to trust ourselves to sea in one of these. We should either die of hunger and thirst, or be picked up again by their cruisers. The only way would be to seize a ship."

"That is what William Long and I have been thinking of," Jacob said. "But there is a shrewd watch kept up, and the ships are moored under the guns of the battery. We passed, on our way hither, a bark bringing a number of prisoners taken at Waterford. She is a slow sailer, and, by the calculations of our captain, will not arrive here for some days yet."

"If we could intercept her," Harry said thoughtfully, "we might, with the aid of the prisoners, overcome the guard, and then turning her head, sail for Holland."

"That might be done," Jacob assented, "if you have force enough."

"I can bring forty men," Harry answered. "There are eight here, and we have communication with those in the neighboring plantations, who are ready to join me in any enterprise. That should be enough."

"It is worth trying," Jacob said. "I will hire a rowboat, as if to bring round a cargo of sugar from this plantation to the port. I will station a man on the highest point of the hills to give me notice when a sail is in sight. He may see it thence forty miles away. The winds are light and baffling, and she will make slow progress, and may bring up outside the port that night, but assuredly will not enter until next morning. The instant I know it is in sight I will ride over here, and William Long will start with the barge from the port. When you see me come, do you send round word to the others to meet at midnight on the beach, where you will see the boat drawn up. Can you let your friends know speedily?"

"Yes," Harry replied. "My signal was to have been given at daybreak, but I will send round word of the change of hour, and that if, when they are locked up for the night, they see a fire burning on the point agreed, they are to meet on the shore at midnight. Tell William Long to haul the boat up, and let the rowers go to deep on the shore. We will seize them noiselessly. Then we will row along the shore till off the port, and at first daybreak out to the ship if she be at anchor, or away to meet her if she be not yet come. They will think that we bear a message from the port."

After some further discussion of details the friends separated, and the next day Mike sent round by the negroes the news of the change of plans. Two days later Jacob rode up to the plantation. He had upon the first occasion told Stebbings that the sum he asked for the estate seemed to him too high, but that he would return to talk it over with him, after he had seen other properties. Immediately upon his arrival, which happened just as the slaves returned from work, Mike sent off one of the negro boys, who had already collected a pile of brushwood on the beacon hill. Half an hour later a bright flame shone out on its summit.

"I wonder what that means?" the planter, who was sitting at dinner in his veranda with Jacob, said angrily.

"It looks like a signal fire," Jacob remarked calmly. "I have heard that they are sometimes lit on the seacoast of England as a signal to smugglers."

"There are no smugglers here," the planter said, "nor any cause for such a signal."

He clapped his hands, and ordered the black slave who answered to tell the overseer to take two of the guards, and at once proceed to the fire, and examine its cause. After dinner was over the planter went out to the slave huts. All the white men were sitting or lying in the open air, enjoying the rest after their labor. The negroes were singing or working in their garden plots, The list was called over, and all found to be present.

"I expect," the planter said, "that it is only a silly freak of some of these black fellows to cause uneasiness. It can mean nothing, for the garrison and militia could put down any rising without difficulty and there is no hope of escape. In a week we could search every possible hiding-place in the island."

"Yes, that is an advantage which you have over the planters in Virginia, to which place I hear our Scottish brethren have sent large numbers of the malignants. There are great woods stretching no man knoweth how far inland, and inhabited by fierce tribes of Indians, among whom those who escape find refuge."

That night when all was still Harry Furness and his seven comrades crept through the opening in the hut. In the grove they were joined by Jacob. They then made their way to the seashore, where they saw lying a large shallop, drawn partly up on the beach. A man was sitting in her, while many other dark figures lay stretched on the sand near. Harry and his party moved in that direction, and found that the men from two of the other plantations had already arrived. A few minutes later the other two parties arrived. The whole body advanced noiselessly along the shore, and seized and gagged the sleepers without the least difficulty or noise. These were bound with ropes from the boat, and laid down one by one on the sand, at a distance from each other.