The Rock Scorpions by Anonymous
The screw steamer Jenny Jones was lying alongside a coal-hulk at Gibraltar one October afternoon. By three o'clock her bunkers were nearly filled, and the captain was getting ready for casting off, when one of the natives came on board. Captain Hindhaugh looked about for something to throw at the visitor, and only the difficulty of selecting an efficient missile from a large and varied assortment prevented him from letting fly at once.
The "Scorpion" said, "Ah, no, no, Capeetan! No been throw nothin' at myself. Beesiness! I'se been com' for beesiness. Big thing, Capeetan!"
The last phrase was spoken with such a profound wink that Hindhaugh held his hand, and, addressing the man as one would an ill-conditioned dog, said, "Don't keep bowing and scraping there, you tastrel! Get it out sharp!"
The Scorpion whispered, "No been talk up here. Keep ship one hour, two hour, three hour. You'se been com' with me, and I speak you somethin' myself."
Like many of his tribe, this interesting native spoke a kind of English which is not heard anywhere else on the Mediterranean shore. A few of the people on the Rock learn to talk very well to our men, but most of those who come about the ships use a picturesque lingo in which "myself" the place of quite a variety of parts of speech.
Hindhaugh invited the man below, and asked him to explain himself. The fellow leaned over the table and chattered on, throwing quick side glances at every few words.
"This been big thing, Capeetan. You get away a little; drop your anchor a little. Then three felucca com' alongside, and you'se been hoist bales. Then you 'se go where agent say you. Very big thing. Five thousand sovereign."
"What is it? tobacco?"
"That been it."
"I'm not going out of Portuguese waters at no price."
"Ah, no, no, Cheesu, Capeetan--no! Five mile. We have felucca there ready. I 'se been see him myself."
"What's the figure? what's the money?"
"You com' 'shore and see agent with myself."
Hindhaugh put a revolver in his pocket and went on deck; the Scorpion got ashore, and hung about with an air of innocence. The captain was about to follow when the man in charge of the hulk called out, "Do you intend to keep bumping us like this all night? Why don't you cast off? You're knocking us all to flinders."
Hindhaugh beckoned. "Look here, my good chap, it won't matter to you for a couple of hours. Let us lie till dusk, and then I'll get away. I've got important business ashore."
"That's very well, Captain. But look here; if there's anything on, I'm in it. You understand --I'm in it."
"You understand that, do you? Well then, I'll tell you to keep your mouth shut just now, or never another ton of coal will you put aboard of us as long as I run here."
"All right, Captain. No need to be nasty. You'll do the square thing, I bet."
Then Hindhaugh went ashore, and the Scorpion walked on ahead, gazing on architectural beauties with easy interest. Presently the two men came to a narrow stairway, and the Englishman gripped his revolver. A dark-eyed Spaniard was waiting on a landing, and held up two fingers when the guide passed. The Scorpion knocked at a greasy door, and an ugly fellow, with a cowl on, looked out and nodded. Hindhaugh stepped into a room that reeked with garlic and decay. Two men sat in the steamy dusk at the far side. An oily gentleman rose and bowed. "I'm the interpreter, Captain. You and this merchant must do your business through me. What'll you take to drink?"
"Get through your business, mister. I'm not wanting any drink."
In brief, jerky sentences the interpreter explained what was wanted.
"You steam slowly till you're near the Fleet. Then put all your men on and get the stuff up. This man goes with you, and he'll tell you where to go. Lie five miles off Huelva."
"I sha'n't go except to Portuguese waters."
"Good. Then the lighters will come and the men will discharge you."
"And now," said the captain, "what about me? How much?"
"One hundred and twenty pounds."
"Can't be done. Make it two hundred and fifty."
After some haggling, a bargain was made for two hundred and twenty. Then Hindhaugh went further: "I want one hundred and ten down before we start, and the balance before you take an ounce of tobacco out of us."
This was settled; the merchant bowed, and the skipper went away, still keeping his hand on the revolver. Every cranny in the walls seemed fit to hide a murderer--seemed made for nothing else; and Hindhaugh thought what a fool he must have been to venture under that foul arch.
On getting aboard, the captain sent for his brother, who sailed as mate with him. He said, "Now, Jack, I'm going to run some risk. You take this pistol, and get her oiled and put right. When you see three feluccas coming alongside, get all the chaps on deck--the Dora's crew as well as ours." (Hindhaugh was taking home a ship-wrecked crew, and he was very grateful just then for that accession of force.) "Whack on everything you know, and get the bales up sharp. Tell the engineers to stand by for driving her, and leave the rest to me. If we're nailed we'll be detained, and I don't know what may happen; so you'll have to look slippy."
Jack replied, "All right, sir!" Quarter-deck manners were punctiliously observed by one of the brothers.
The shadows fell low, and the crown of the Rock grew dim. The creeping wind stole over the Pearl Rock, and set the sinister ripples dancing; the bugles sang mysteriously through the gloom, and the mystery of the night was in the air. The Jenny Jones stole quietly toward the broad sheet of water where the vessels of the Fleet heaved up their shadowy bulk above the lapping flood. All the English sailors were stripped to the shirt, and a low hum of excited talk came from amidships. Suddenly the raking yard of a felucca started out from amid the haze; then came another, and another. A sailor slipped a cork fender over the side, and there was a muffled bump and a slight scrape. Jack, the mate, whispered, "Now, you cripples!" and a brief scene of wild hurry and violent labour ensued. Bale after bale was whisked aboard; the Englishmen worked as only English sailors can, and the Scorpions excelled themselves under the influence of fear and black wine. When the last bale was up, Hindhaugh said to the man who first boarded him, "Who's got the money?"
"Me, Capeetan. All right. Honest man myself. You'se been have every dollar."
"Well then, it's neck or nothing. We have half an hour to clear out into the Gut. Come below, and shell out."
The Scorpion counted out one hundred pounds in gold, and then asked, "That be enough? Other money all right other end."
"Deuce a bit! Down with the other ten or I sliver you."
The Scorpion did not know what "sliver" meant, but the gleam of the skipper's cold eye was enough for him. He paid up and went on deck.
Hindhaugh had just said to the engineer, "Now, rive the soul out of her," when a low, panting sound was heard, and a white shape appeared gliding over the water. The captain had let the feluccas go, and the Jenny Jones was moving. He waved for the mate. "It's all up. Here's a mess. You must go home overland; suppose you swim ashore. Steady the men down."
Jack performed one or two steps of a dance, and placed his finger against his nose. He rather enjoyed a scrape, did this frivolous chief officer. The white shape came nearer, and a sharp whistle sounded. Hindhaugh had known well enough that it was a steam-launch that made the panting noise, and he got ready for the worst. The launch drew right across the bows of the steamer, and then the throbbing of the little engines ceased. Again the whistle sounded; the launch gave a bound forward; then she struck away into the darkness, and Hindhaugh drew a long breath.
In an instant every possible ounce of steam was put on, and the Jenny Jones went away at eleven knots toward the Gut. All night long the firemen were kept hard at it, and before morning the Rock was far astern of the driving steamboat.
Three of the Scorpions had stayed aboard, and Captain Hindhaugh noticed that they earned their knives. He noticed, too, that the cringing manner which the fellows had shown before the Rock was cleared had given place to a sort of subdued swagger.
About noon the engines were slowed down almost to nothing, and the Jenny Jones crept gently on toward the shore. By four o'clock the vessel was well into Portuguese waters, and Hindhaugh was prepared to defy any quantity of Spanish coast-guards. When the sun had dipped low the Scorpion-in-chief came aft, and pointed mysteriously to the northeast.
"You'se been look where I point myself. Feluccas! You'se follow them in and drop anchor."
Hindhaugh smiled. "Do you think you're talking to a fool? Come you below there, and let me have that other money sharp."
"Ah, Capeetan, wait till agent's man come with felucca. I'se been have no money myself."
Hindhaugh was not a person to be trifled with. He quietly took out his revolver. "Now, do you see that pretty thing? First shot for you. Look at that block forrad, and see how much chance you'll have if I fire at you." The pop of the revolver sounded, and then Hindhaugh went forward, pulling the Scorpion with him. "Do you see that hole, you image? How would you like if that was your gizzard? Now, no games, my joker."
The Scorpion begged for time, and Hindhaugh was so sure of his man that he made no further objection. He had another conference with Jack, and, to that worthy man's great delight, he expressed certain forebodings.
"We're going to have a fight over this job," said the skipper. "I'm dead sure of it. Go down and load the two muskets, and give them to the safest men. When the lighters do come, borrow the fireman's iron rods. I've lent the steward my bowie that I got at Charleston, and you can try and hold that old bulldog straight. We mustn't show the least sign of funking."
Then Hindhaugh and his brother called for tea, and fed solidly.
The Scorpion whispered down the companion, "They'se been com'," and the captain went on deck. Two large felucca-rigged lighters hove up slowly through the dusk, and the chief Scorpion's signal was answered. Hindhaugh saw both lighters draw near, he felt the usual scraping bump, and then he heard a sudden thunder of many feet. The second mate sung out, "Here's half a hundred of these devils, sir. They're all armed to the teeth." And sure enough, a set of ferocious-looking rapscallions had boarded the steamer. They looked like low-class Irishmen browned with walnut-juice. Each man had a heavy array of pistols in his sash, and all of them carried ugly knives. The Scorpion waved to the gang, and they arranged themselves around the pile of bales that stuck out through the after-hatch. Hindhaugh had fully discounted all the chances, and had made up his mind to one thing: he wouldn't be "done."
The Scorpion imperiously observed, "Come below, Capeetan," and Hindhaugh went. Then the defiant native of the Rock put his back against the cabin door, heaved out his chest in a manly way, and said, "Now, Capeetan, you no have more money. You speak much, and I'se been get your throat cut myself."
"You've got no money?"
"No; not a damn dollar."
"You won't keep to your bargain?"
"No; you come 'shore for your money if you want him."
Hindhaugh made up his mind in a flash. In spite of his habit of wearing a frock-coat and tall hat, he was more than half a pirate, and he would have ruffled it, like his red-bearded ancestors, had fighting been still the usual employment of Norsemen. He marked his man's throat, and saw that the insolent hands could not get at a knife quickly. Then he sprang at the Scorpion, gripped him by the windpipe, and swung him down. The fellow gurgled, but he couldn't cry out. Hindhaugh called the steward, and that functionary came out of his den with the long bowie. "Sit on him," said the captain. "If he stirs cut his throat. Now, you, if you move a finger you're done." The steward straddled across the Scorpion, and held the knife up in a sarcastic way.
Hindhaugh went swiftly on deck, and stepped right among the jabbering Spaniards. He smiled as though nothing had happened, but when he saw one man lay hold of a bale he pulled him back. "Tell them I'll shoot the first man that tries to lift a bale till I'm ready."
This message brought on a torrent of talk, which gave the captain time. He whispered to Jack, "Sneak you round through the engine-room. That lighter's made fast forrad; the second one's fast here. Get a hatchet from the carpenter, and set him alongside of the second rope. When I whistle twice, both of you nick the ropes, and we'll jink these swindling swine." The engineer also received orders to go full speed ahead on the instant that the whistle sounded.
Hindhaugh kept up his air of good-humour, although the full sense of the risk he ran was in his mind. His threat of shooting had made the Spaniards suspicious, although they were used to big talk of the kind. One peep into the cabin would have brought on a collision, and although the Englishmen might have fought, there was nothing to gain by a fight. Everything depended on swiftness of action, and Hindhaugh determined grimly that if rapidity could do anything he would teach the "furriners" a lesson for trying to swindle him.
He said, very politely, "We're all ready now. You get your men aboard the lighters, and we'll soon rash your cargo over the side." This was transmitted to the smugglers, and immediately they swarmed aboard their own boats. They had rather expected a quarrel, and this pacific solution pleased them. As Jack afterward said, "They blethered like a lot o' wild geese."
All the foreigners were gone but three. Hindhaugh stepped quietly up to the interpreter, and said, very low, "I'm covering you with my revolver from inside my pocket. Don't you stir. Is that other money going to be paid?"
The interpreter had been innocent of all knowledge of the wild work in the cabin. He stammered, "I thought by your way it was all right. Where's our man?"
"I've got him safe enough. Ask those fellows in the lighters if any of them can pay the freight for the job. If you tell them to fire they may miss me, and I can't miss you."
No one, not even the consignee's man, had any money; the smugglers meant to trick the Revenue, and the English captain as well. Hindhaugh whistled, and then roared out, "Lie down, all of you! Ram her ahead!" The hatchets went crack, crack; the steamer shuddered and plunged forward; and the lighters bumped swiftly astern.
"Over the side, you animals, or I'll take you out to sea and drown you."
The three Spaniards rushed to the side, and took flying leaps into the lighters. Hindhaugh stooped low and ran to the companion. "Let that beggar up," he shouted. The Scorpion scuttled on deck. "Now, mister, I'll let you see if you'll take me in. Over you go. Over the stern with you, and mind the propeller doesn't carve you." Two shots were fired, but they went wild. The Scorpion saw the whole situation; he poised for a second on the rail, and then jumped for it, and Hindhaugh laughed loudly as his enemy came up blowing. Jack performed a triumphal war-dance on the steamer's bridge, and the Jenny Jones was soon far out of pistol range.
All that night Captain Hindhaugh did not sleep a wink. He was quite persuaded that he had acted the part of an exemplary Briton. What is the use of belonging to the ruling race if a mere foreigner is to do as he likes with you? But the adventurous skipper had landed himself in a pretty mess, and the full extent of his entanglement grew on him every minute. At twelve o'clock, when the watch was relieved, Jack came aft in a state of exultation that words cannot describe. He chuckled out, "Well, sir, we've made our fortunes this time." Hindhaugh damped his spirits by saying, slowly, "Not too fast; that 'baccy's got to go overboard, my boy." Jack's mental processes became confused. He had been measuring the cubic contents of the smuggled goods, and the thought of wasting such a gift of the gods fairly stunned him. Had it been cotton, his imagination would not have been touched. But 'baccy! and overboard! It was too much, and he groaned. He was ready with expedients at once.
"Why not run it to Holland?"
"Can't be done; where's our bill of lading?"
"Make up one yourself; you have plenty of forms."
"And suppose the luck goes the wrong way. What's to happen to me--and to you too for that matter?"
"Run to a tobacco port, and warehouse the stuff in your own name."
"We're not bound for a tobacco port. What's to be done about the cargo of ore that we are carrying? No, John; the whole five thousand pounds must go over the side."
Next morning broke joyously. The sea looked merry with miles of brisk foam, and the little Portuguese schooners flew like butterflies hither and thither. Every cloud of spray plucked from the dancing crests flashed like white fire under the clear sun. It was one of the mornings when one cannot speak for gladness. But Hindhaugh's thoughts were fixed on material things. The rich bales lay there, and their presence affected him like a sarcasm. The men were called aft, and the shovels used for trimming grain were brought up. Then the captain said, "Now each of you take a pound or two of this tobacco, and then break the bales and shovel the rest overboard." The precious packages were burst, and the sight of the beautiful leaf, the richness of the tender aroma, affected the sailors with remorse. It was like offering up a sacrifice. But the captain's orders were definite; so until near noon the shovels were plied smartly, and one hundredweight after another of admirable tobacco drifted away on the careless sea.
Hindhaugh watched grimly until at last his emotions overcame him. He growled, "Confound it, I can't do it! Belay there, men; I'll have another think over this job." And think he did, with businesslike solemnity, all day long. He saw that he might make a small fortune by risking his liberty, and the curious morality of the British sailor prevented him from seeing shades of right or wrong where contraband business was concerned. Had you told him that the tobacco was stolen, he would have pitched you overboard; he felt his morality to be unimpeachable; it was only the question of expediency that troubled him. For three days it was almost unsafe to go near him, so intently did he ponder and plan. On the fifth day he had worked his way through his perplexities, and was ready with a plan. A pilot cutter came in sight, and Hindhaugh signalled her. The pilot's boat was rowed alongside, and the bronzed and dignified chief swaggered up to the captain with much cordiality. No one is so cordial as a pilot who has secured a good ship. The two men exchanged news, and gradually slid into desultory talk. Suddenly Hindhaugh said, "Are you game for a bit of work? Do you ever do anything?"
The pilot was virtuously agitated. He drew himself up, and, taking care that the mate should hear, answered, "Me! Not for the wurrrld, Cap'n. I've got a wife and children, sir."
"All right, Pilot, never mind; come down and have some tea."
Then Hindhaugh gradually drew his man out, until the pilot was absolutely confidential. The captain knew by the very excess of purity expressed in the pilot's first answer that he was not dealing with a simpleton; but he carefully kept away from the main subject which was in his (and the pilot's) mind. At last the man leaned over and gave a masonic sign. "What was that job you was speaking about, Cap'n? We're near home now, you know. Better not go too near."
Hindhaugh played a large card. He smiled carelessly. "Fact is, I've just told the fellows to shy the stuff overboard; I shall risk no more."
"Mercy me, Cap'n! You're mad. How did I know who you were? I see all about it now, but I did not know what game you might have on with me. I'm in it, you know, if the dimes is right!"
"Why, if the job's big enough. You stand off for a day; go down to the Sleeve, and hang round, and I'll find you a customer."
"If you do, I pay you three hundred pound as soon as his money's down."
"Done, then. My boat's not gone far. Whistle her, and I'll go slap for Bristol. Never you mind for a day or two. How's your coals?"
"They're all right. You scoot now, and fetch your man over this way. I'll go half-speed to the sou'west for twelve hours, another twelve hours half-speed back. You'll find us."
In thirty-six hours the pilot cutter came back, and a Hebrew gentleman boarded the Jenny Jones from her. After a long inspection, the visitor said, "Now look here, I must have a hundred per cent. margin out of this. What's your figure?"
"Two thousand five hundred."
"Won't do. Say two thousand, and you pay the jackal out of that."
"Done. And how do you manage?"
"I'll split the lot up among three trawlers. You wait off, and give the jackal an extra fifty for bringing the boats down. I risk the rest."
Another night passed, and the dawn was breaking coldly when the dirty sails of the trawlers came in sight. Ship after ship had hailed Hindhaugh, and offered to tow him if anything had happened to his engines. He knew he would be reported as lying off apparently disabled, and he was in a feverish state of excitement. The Hebrew speculator watched the last bale down the side, and then handed over the money, had a glass of brandy with the pilot, and departed--whither Hindhaugh neither knew nor cared. The Jenny Jones ran for her port. She had just slowed down, and the great waves of smoke from the town were pouring over her, when two large boats, heavily laden with men, came off to her. The men swarmed up the side, and the officer in command shouted, "Bring up the pickaxes, and go to work!" The hatches were pulled off before the steamer had taken up her moorings, and the men went violently to work among the ore. Hindhaugh looked innocent, and inquired, "What's all this about, officer?"
"Fact is, Captain, we've got a telegram from Gibraltar to say you have contraband on board. You may save all trouble if you make a clean breast."
"Contraband! Who told you that?"
"Oh, we should have known without the wire. That gentleman on the quay there came overland, and he put us up to you."
Hindhaugh looked ashore, and saw a dark face that he knew well. He whistled and smiled. Then he said to the officer, "You may just as well stop those poor beggars from blistering their hands. You won't find anything here except what the men have in the forecastle. You're done this journey fairly. Come away down and liquor, and I'll tell you all about it." Then Hindhaugh gave an artistic account of the whole transaction, and put the matter in such a light that the custom-house officer cordially congratulated him on having escaped without a slit weasand.
The Jenny Jones went back to Gibraltar, and Captain Hindhaugh was very careful never to go ashore without a companion. One day he was passing a chandler's shop when a sunken glitter of dark eyes met him. His old acquaintance, the chief Scorpion, was looking stilettos and poison at him. But Hindhaugh went by in his big, burly way, and contented himself with setting on three watchmen every night during his stay. To this day he is pleased with himself for having given the foreigners a lesson in the elements of morality, and he does not fear their knives one whit.