« PreviousContinue »
THE CRUISE OF THE MIDGE.
"Wherein I spoke of most disastrous chances, Of moving accidents by flood and field."-Othello.
WHEN I came to myself I was sitting in the small muddy path through which our antagonists had been driven. About a fathom from me, partly hid by the mangrove bushes, lay the dead body of one of the white crew of the polacre. He had fallen across a stout branch, that shot out horizontally from one of the trees at a height of about a foot from the ground, so that, while his feet and legs rested on the soft black alluvial soil on one side of it, his head and relaxed arms hung down on the other. He was dressed in the striped shirt already mentioned, largely open at the breast, and wide white fisherman's drawers, that reached to the knee, made of some strong cotton stuff of the same fabric as the India salampore, so that the garment looked like a Greek kilt. It was fastened at the waist by a red silk sash, one end of which hung down over the branch across which he lay, apparently saturated and heavy with black blood, that gave it the appearance of a large purple tassel. His collapsed loins, where he was doubled over the branch, looked as thin and attenuated as if he had been shot in two, and his prominent chest and lower extremities merely connected by his clothing. His feet and legs, as well as his arms, were bare-his shirtsleeves extending only three inches below his shoulder; and it was a fearful sight to look on the death-blue colour of the muscles, which no longer stood out in well-defined and high relief, but had fallen and assumed the rounded appearance of a woman's limbs. The crown of his head touched the ground, resting on his long black hair, that had been worn turned up into a knot, but was now spread out in a rich tress, a foot beyond him. He had ear-rings in his ears, and a broad gold crucifix tied round his neck by a cord of spun hair-Alas for her whose raven locks composed the strands of it! His mouth was open, but his eyes were
VOL. XXXV. NO. CCXX.
closed as if he slept; and a small coal black tuft of hair on his chin, under his nether lip, startled one, from its conspicuousness in contrast with the deathly pallor of his face. He was a very handsome youth, yet the features inverted, as his head hung down, assumed from this circumstance an expression so unusual, yet so soft and so touchingly melancholy, that although I had often looked on death before, even in my own miserable plight I could not help noticing it, and being moved by it. There was no wound that I could see, but thick black gouts were slowly trickling from the white fresh splintered end of the branch that had been split off in the rush, across which he lay; but this was only noticeable at the splinter-mark, the sluggish stream being invisible, while it crept from his body along the dark green bark of the limb of the mangrove-tree. A small pyramid had already been formed on the ground, directly below the end of the branch, by the dropping of the coagulating blood. The whole scene was pervaded by the faint mysterious light of the subdued sunbeams, as they struggled through the screen of motionless leaves, above where the dead corse slept in the deep cold shadow, that to the eye of one suddenly withdrawn from the glare of the tropical noontide, appeared to approach absolute darkness; still a soft green ray, or pensil, like moonlight piercing the thick woven leaves of a summer arbour, fell on and floated over the face and one of the naked arms, until the still features appeared to become radiant of themselves-as if they had been blanched by it into the self-luminous whiteness of fresh hewn alabaster.
It was in truth a most piteous sight, and as the image of my aged parent rose up, in my extremity, before my mind's eye at the moment, I held up my feeble hands to heaven, and prayed fervently unto the Al
mighty to bless her declining years, and, if that my race were indeed run, and that now in very truth my place was to know me no more, that my sins might, for Christ's sake, be forgiven me. "Alas, alas!" thought I, bowed down by intense suffering to the very dust, " may he too not have had a mother?" For a mi nute, as I slowly recovered from the stunning effects of the shot, I sat ob serving all this, and pressing the torn skin of my forehead to my temples with one hand, whilst with the other I kept clearing away the blood as it flowed into my eyes; but by the time I had perfectly recovered my recollection, my sympathy vanished, all my thoughts became absorbed, and my energies, small as they were at the time, excited in almost a supernatural degree by the actual approach of a hideous, and, in my helpless condition, probably the most appalling danger that a human being could be threatened with.
near the flank, so that his two hindlegs were utterly powerless, and trailing on the ground.
He scrambled on a foot or two further towards me-again all was still, and he lay quiet with his nose resting on the ground, as if he had been watching his prey; but the next moment pain appeared suddenly to overcome him again, and once more he stretched out his fore-paws straight before him, and throwing his head back, he set up the most infernal howl, that ear ever tingled to. "Merciful powers! can he mean to attack me?" thought I, as the fierce creature left the dead body he appeared to be watching, and reared himself on his fore-legs, with open mouth, and tongue hanging out, uttered the most fearful cries, between a fierce bark and a howl, and again attempted to drag himself towards me. I made a desperate effort to rise, but could not; and in the prospect of so dreadful a death, I shouted for aid, as loud as my feebleness would let me. Once more suffering seemed to overcome the creature's ferocity, and he stopped and yelled again.
Although I was still in some degree bewildered, and almost blinded from the blood that continued to flow down my forehead, and the flap of skin that covered my left eye, so as effectually to seal it, acting as a deadlight as it were; still, for dear life, I grasped my cutlass-alas, the blade was broken short off by the hilt! My left hand then mechanically clutched my belt where my pistol hung-" Ah, it is there, any how." I instantly changed the broken blade into my other hand, and with the coolness of despair cocked the pistol in my right, and lay still, awaiting the approach of my fierce antagonist, under the tremendous persuasion that my fate was inevitable if I missed him. As I looked in breathless dread, he suddenly gave a scrambling wallop towards me-" I am done for-God have mercy on me, and receive my soul!" Another scramble. I felt his hissing hot breath; and the foam that he champed from his fangs, as he tossed his head from side to side in a paroxysm of rage and pain, fell like snow-flakes over my face. "Now is the time!" I thrust the pistol into his mouth, and pulled the trigger. Almighty
For a second or two I had noticed that the branch across which the dead Spaniard lay, was slightly moved now and then, and that some object was advancing from beneath it, out of the thicket beyond. I was not long left in doubt, for one of the noble blood-hounds now dragged himself into the light, and wriggled from amongst the mangroves to within a fathom of me. At first when he struggled from beneath his master's body, he began to lick his face and hands, and then threw his head back with a loud whine, in expectation of some acknowledgment. Alas! none came; and after another vain attempt, pain seemed to make the creature furious, and he seized the arm next me by the wrist, making the dead bones crackle between his teeth in his agony. All at once he began to yell and bark, although at intervals he turned his fierce eyes on me, and then swung his head violently back, and again howled most piteously.
All this time I could hear the loud shouting of our people in the distance, and a scattering shot now and then, but the work nearer home was more than sufficient to occupy me, for the dog, after another moment of comparative repose, suddenly raised himself on his fore-paws, and for the first time I could see that he had been shot through the spine,
powers! it flashed in the pan! With my remaining strength I endeavoured to thrust it down his throat, as he coughed up blood and froth into my face; he shook his head, clutched the weapon in his teeth, and then threw it from him, as if in disappointment that it had not been part and portion of his enemy, and again made a snap at my shoulder. struck at him with my broken cutlass-he seemed not to feel the blow -and throwing myself back as far as I could, I shrieked in my extremity to that God whom I had so often slighted and forgotten, for mercy to my miserable soul. Crack-a bullet whizzed past me. The dog gave a loud, long howl, gradually sinking into a low murmur as his feet slid from under him, and his head lay open-jawed on the mud-a quivering kick of his feet-and he was dead in reality-as I was figuratively from fear.
"Hillo," quoth old Clinker, the master-at-arms, who had come up from the boats, "who is this fighting with beasts at Ephesus, eh?" The moment he recognised me, the poor fellow made his apology, although, Heaven knows, none was required.
"Beg pardon, sir; I little thought it was you, Mr Brail, who was so near being worried by that vile beast." I breathed again. The bullet that had so nearly proved my quietus at the commencement of the action, had struck me on the right temple, and, glancing, had ran along my whole forehead, ploughing up the skin, as I once saw a fallow field torn by a thunderbolt, until it reached the left eye, where it detached a large flap of the skin, that, as already mentioned, hung down by a tag over my larboard daylight, fairly blinding me on that side.
"Here, Quintin, and Mornington," said Clinker, to two of the people, who followed him," here, lend a hand to bring Mr Brail along, will ye?" They raised me on my legs, and gave me a mouthful of grog from a canteen, and we proceeded, following the voices of our shipmates. Comforted by the cordial, I found my strength return in some measure; and when I was once satisfied that no bones were broken, that I was in fact only and simply hilt, my spirits revived, and before we
overtook our allies, having bathed my wound with rum, and bound it with my handkerchief, I was quite able to walk, and talk, and in a certain degree to take care of myself.
The path continued for about half a mile farther, and in all that route we no longer heard or saw any indications of our comrades. "Why, there is no use in all this," said old Clinker; "they must have taken another direction, so we had better return, and wait the young flood to enable us to back out of the scrape."
I considered this the wisest advice that could be given, and right-aboutface was the word, when a scapegrace of a marine, who had straggled from the main body, suddenly came running at the top of his speed from the advance, and sung out,-" Lord, sir, and messmates, come here, come here!"
"Why, what do you see?" responded Clinker.
"Why, sir, here is the queerest sight I ever see'd in all my born days."
"What is it, man? what is it?" exclaimed one of the old quartermasters of the ship, as we bowled along, following the man; but the fellow gave no answer, but skipped on before us like a dancing-master. Presently we arrived at an open space, situated apparently at the head of the tortuous mangrove-fringed creek that we had landed in. The channel of it was dry, all above the crook, about fifty yards from us, where it bent towards the east, and full of black slimy mud, overarched entirely by the black snake-like roots and branches of the mangroves, whose upper branches, as usual, supported a thick matted canopy of green leaves, while all below was bare naked convolutions of green weather-stained stems and branches. The muddy canal seemed to end at this spot, under the dark green shade of the bushes. In its obscene channel, hauled close up to the head of the creek, lay a large Eboe canoe, about fifty feet long, the bottom hollowed out of one single tree, but the top-sides were built of some kind of hardwood plank, so as to raise the gunwale about a foot above the ledge of the original vessel. The two bamboo masts were unshipped, and stowed amidships on the thwarts, and
above twenty paddles were ranged uprightly, with the blade resting on the bottom, on each side of the masts.
There was a heavy log of unhewn wood, about thirty feet long, laid across the head of the creek, where it terminated, on which three grey parrots were clawing up and down, being fastened by the legs with pieces
Immediately adjoining the end of the creek, or lagoon, was an open area of about fifty yards in diameter -the soil appearing to have been mixed with white ashes, and then baked, or rammed down into a hard floor. This open space was girdled in with a thick forest of cashaw trees on the land side, through which several paths opened; while on every other, except the small space where it opened on the head of the creek, it was surrounded by thick mangrove bushes. In the very centre of the cleared space stood a native house, a long, low, one-story, mud building, about forty feet in length, by fifteen wide, and thatched with the leaves of the dwarf palm. It had one large aperture in the roof amidships, raised a foot or two by piled turf, from which curled up a thick stream of blue smoke; but there was no opening on the side we approached it from, beyond a low door, not above three feet high; indeed, the eaves of the house itself were not above four feet from the ground.
Right in front of us, and precisely opposite the door, ensconced in a curious nondescript chair of wickerwork, sat, very drunk apparently, and more than half asleep, a ponderous middle-aged negro, dressed in a most primitive fashion, his sole article of clothing being a common woollen blanket, with a hole cut in the middle for his head to pass through, while the sides were fastened together with wooden skewers, which effectually confined his arms; so that there he was, all blanket and head, and sound asleep, or pretending to be so, although the sun shone down into the open space with a fierceness that would have broiled the brains of any other man, had they been covered by a common skull. We were all speedily congregated round this beauty; there was no one in attendance on him, and we had no means of judging of his quality.
"I say, my good man," quoth Lieutenant Sprawl, " pray, did you see any white men- Spaniardspass this way?"
The sleeper appeared slowly to recover the control of his faculties; he first stared at the interrogator, then at me, and then at our people. He wished to seem, or really was, overcome with surprise. Presently the lieutenant, having for a moment left him, to look around and reconnoitre the lay of the land, a little reefer, Joe Peake by name, stole up to him, and whether or no the aforesaid mid had taken a small pull at his canteen, I cannot tell, but he rattled out in the ear of the dormant savage, "I say, my sleeping beauty, if you don't tell us in a twinkling whereabouts these Spanish raggamuffins are stowed away, by Saint Patrick, but I will make free to waken you with the point of this cutlass here, and in a way by no means ceremonious at all, at all;" and suiting the action to the word, he gave the sable Morpheus a very sufficing progue with the point of his weapon, about the region of the midriff, which instan taneously extracted a yell, worthy of any Bengal tiger that I had ever tumbled up to see. Presently the howling subsided into articulate sounds, but not one of the party could make any thing ship-shape out of the barbarous exclamations.
"Now, my darlin'," continued wee middy, "try toder tack, dear;" and he again excited the savage's corporeals, after a very sharp fashion, with the same instrument, and the howl was louder than before.
"Now, may the devil fly away with me," quoth the imp," but I will blow your brains out, you drunken thief of the world, if you don't give me a legitimate replyyou ill-bred spalpeen, you-Answer me in English, you scoundrel;" and to our very great surprise indeed, forthwith out-spoke our sable acquaintance.
"Hillo, where de devil is I-who you, eh? What you wantee here? I hab no slave to give you. De Caridad, him do get every one I get. So, good men, go to hell all of youdo-very mosh go to hell-do."
The barbarian again fell back on his seat, either asleep, or feigning to be so, and began to snore like a
rhinoceros. By this time Davie Doublepipe's attention was attracted to a noise within the house. "Now, Master Blueskin," said he, " have the kindness to open the door there;" and then, as if suddenly recollecting himself, in a voice of thunder he exclaimed-"Surround the house, men. Shoot any one who tries to escape."
All this seemed at length to arouse our sluggish friend, who immediately got up, and staggered a few paces towards the margin of the wood, where a most remarkable object met our eyes. It was a Fetish hut or temple, composed of a shed about ten feet square, raised on four bamboos. From the eaves or thatch of the roof, to the ground, might have measured ten feet; and three feet below the roof there was a platform rigged, on which sat the most unearthly and hideous production of the hand of man that I had ever witnessed. It was a round, pot-bellied, wooden figure, about two feet high, with an enormous head, a mouth from ear to ear, and little, diminutive, spindly legs and arms. A human skull, with the brain scooped out, but the red scalp, and part of the hair, and the flesh of the face adhering to it, while the lower jaw had been torn away, was hung round this horrible-looking image's neck. Immediately beneath there was a heap of white smouldering cinders, as if the embers of a large fire had been swept together, with three or four white bones protruding from the glowing fissures in the cake of white ashes, which, from their peculiar shape and extraordinary whiteness, gave me some shuddering qualms, as to the kind of living creature to which they had belonged. The whole space round the heap, under the platform on which the Fetish stood, as well as the posts of the rude and horrible temple itself, was sprinkled with fresh black spots like dried blood.-I doubted exceedingly whether the same had ever circulated through the hearts of bulls or goats.
"Now, my good man, bestir you, and let us into the house," said I, by this time renovated by another small pull at a marine's canteen. The surly savage, who, in his tempt to escape, had fallen headlong,
and had all this while lain as motionless as a coiled up hedgehog, now slowly opened his eyes, and peered at me with a sort of drunken gravitybut he did not speak. I took the cutlass from the midshipman-" Now, my darling, if you don't speak, it is spitting you on this same that I will be after;" and accordingly, to corroborate my word, I made a most furious demonstration with the naked weapon, when he sung out, in great terror, "Stop, massa, me is Sergeant Quacco of de-West India, and not a savage nigir natural to dis dam country. Long live Kin Shorge, massa."
Why," said Lieutenant Sprawl, "how came you here, my beautytell us that?"
"Surely," quoth Blackie; "no objection in de wide world, but”—
Here our people had forced the door of the long shed, on the opposite side from where we were, and we could hear from their shouts that they were now in the interior of the house. This entirely discomposed our new friend, and seemed to sober him all on a sudden, if, indeed, the appearance of inebriety had not been assumed for the occasion. "Ah, dere-all is known-all known. Call off your people, gentlemen-call off your people. Oh, what is dat ?"
Here several pistol-shots were fired in the house, and the clink of steel was heard, and loud shouting, in Spanish as well as English.
"Who are in the shed?" I called out,-"Who are concealed there?"
"How de debil can I tell?" said the man-"How de debil can I say?"
and he started from his chair, where he had again bestowed himself, and made a bolt, with intent to escape.-I tripped up his heels.
"Now, you scoundrel," said I, as the fellow lay sprawling on the ground-"confess who are concealed there, or I will run you through where you lie."
"I will confess," shrieked he-" I will confess-de crew of dat dam poleacre is dere, and her cargo of one hundred fifty slave, is dere-so sink, burn, and destroy dem all, if dat pleasure massa; but don't cut my troat, please, massa-don't, I beg you, cut my troat-God bless you, massa at--Oh-oh-no cut my troat, please, good massa?"