Charles James Lever.

[Charles Lever's novels (Volume 5) online

. (page 13 of 50)
Online LibraryCharles James Lever[Charles Lever's novels (Volume 5) → online text (page 13 of 50)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

feared them with a fear I should not have felt in presence of
a wild beast, and I was confident that, had I been attacked
vigorously by even a single rat, the natural disgust would
have rendered me unable to cope with him. When very
young, I remembered hearing the story of an officer, who,
desirous of visiting the vaults under St. Patrick's Church, in
Dublin, descended into them under the escort of the sexton.
By some chance they separated from each other, and the
sexton, after in vain seeking and calling for his companion
for several hours, concluded that he had already returned to
the upper air ; and so he returned also, locking and barring
the heavy door, as was his wont. The following day the
officer's friends, alarmed at his absence, proceeded to make
search for him through the city, and at last, learning that he
had visited the cathedral, went thither, and even examined
the vaults, when, what was their horror to discover a portion
of the brass ornament of his shako, and a broken sword, in
the midst of several hundreds of rats, dead and dying, the
terrible remains of a combat that must have lasted for hours.
This story, for the truth of which some persons yet living
will vouch, I heard when a mere child, and perhaps to its
influence may I date a species of terror that has always been
too much for either my reason or my courage.

If I slept, then, it was more owing to my utter weariness
and exhaustion than to that languid frame of mind ; and,
although too tired to dream, my first waking thought was
how to commence hostilities against the rats. As to any
personal hand-to-hand action, I need scarcely say I declined
engaging in euch, and my supply of gunpowder being scanty,
the method I hit upon was to make a species of grenade, by
inserting a quantity of powder with a sufficiency of broken
glass into a bottle, leaving an aperture through the cork fora
fuze ; then, having smeared the outside of the bottle plenti-
fully with oil, of which I discovered a supply in bladders


suspended from the ceiling, I retired to my berth, with tho
other extremity of the fuze in my hand, ready to ignite
when the moment came.

I had not long to wait ; my enemies, bold from long impu-
nity, came fearlessly forward, and surrounded the bottle in
myriads ; it became a scene like an election row, to witness
their tumbling and rolling over each other. Nor could I
bring myself to cut short the festivity, till I began to enter-
tain fears for the safety of the bottle, which already seemed
to be loosened from its bed of clay. Then at last I applied a
match to my cord, and almost before I could cover my head
with the blanket, the flask exploded, with a crash and a cry
that showed me its success. The battle-field was truly a
terrible sight, for the wounded were far more numerous
thaji the dead, and I, shame to say, had neither courage nor
humanity to finish their sufferings, but lay still, while their
companions dragged them away in various stages of suffering.

I at first supposed that this was an exploit that could only
succeed but once, and that the well-known sagacity of the
creatures would have made them avoid so costly a temptation.
Nothing of the kind ; the) were perfect Scythians in their
love of oil ; and as often as I repeated my experiment, they
were ready to try their fortunes. Or perhaps they had some
of the gambler's element in their nature, and each felt that
he might win where others lost.

I had made Halkett a promise that for a couple of days, at
least, I would not hoist the signal flag, lest any accident
should induce Sir Dudley to suspect my place of refuge, so
that I was completely reduced to my campaign against the
rats for occupation and amusement. So far as I could dis-
cover, the little island, traverse it how I would, never varied,
the same rise and swell of surface, clad with loose stone, lay
on every side ; and so depressing had this mournful uniformity
become to me, that I rarely ventured out of the hut, or, when
I did, it was to sit upon the little bench outside the door,
from which a sea view extended over the wide waters of the

To sit here and try to decipher the names cut into the wood
was my constant occupation. What histories, too, did I weave
of those who carved these letters ; and how did they fix
themselves in my mind, each name suggesting an identity,
till I felt as if I had known them intimately. Some seemed
tho precious work of weeks ; and it was easy to see that after
the letters were cut, the sculptor had gone on embellishing
and ornamenting his work for very lack of labour. Others,


again, were mere initials, and one was a half-finished name,
leaving me to the perpetual doubt whether he had been
rescued from its captivity, or died ere it was completed.

Between my hours spent here and the little duties of my
household, with usually three or four explosions against my
rats, the day went over I will not say rapidly, but pass it
did ; and each night brought me nearer to the time when I
should hoist my signal and hope ay, that was the great
supporter through all hope for rescue.

It was now the third night of my being on the island,
and I sat at my fire, trying to invent some new mode for the
destruction of my enemies, for my last charge of powder had
been expended. I had nothing remaining save the loading in
my pistol. It was true that I had succeeded to a great extent ;
the creatures no longer appeared with their former air of
assurance, nor in large bodies. Their army was evidently
disorganized ; they no longer took the field in battalions, but
in scattered guerilla parties, without discipline or courage.
Even had my ammunition lasted, it is more than doubtful
that my tactics would have continued to have the same
success : they had begun to dread the bottle, like a reformed
drunkard. Often have I seen them approach within a few
feet of it, and wait patiently till some younger and more
adventurous spirit would venture nearer, and then, at the
slightest stir the least rustling of my bed-clothes away
they went in full career. It was evident that the secret, like
most great mysteries of the same kind, had had its day.
This was consolatory, too, as I had no longer the means of
continuing my siege operations ; while the caution and reserve
of the enemy suggested a system of defence of the simplest,
but most effectual, kind, which was, to place a certain number
of bottles at different parts of the hut, the very sight of which
inspired terror ; and if followed by any noise, was certain to
secure me, for some time at least, from all molestation.

Shall I tell the reader how this stratagem first occurred to
me ? It was simply thus : In one of the early but un-
recorded years of my history, I used to act as driver to the
Moate and Kilbeggan caravan not, indeed, as the recognized
coachee of that very rickety and most precarious conveyance,
but as a kind of " deputy assistant" to the paid official ; who,
having a wife at Kilbeggan, usually found some excuse for
stopping at Clara, and sending me forward with the passen-
gers, a proceeding, I am bound to own, not over consistent
with humanity to "man or beast." Many were the misad-
ventiires of that luckless conveniency, and the public were


loud in their denunciations of it; but as nobody knew tho
proprietors, nor did the most searching scrutiny detect the
ex^tence of a " way-bill," the complaints were uttered to tho
wind, and I was at full liberty "to do my stage" ill three
hours, or one half the time, as I fancied.

The passengers at length learned this valuable fact, and
found that greasing my palm was a sure method of oiling the
wheels. All complaints gradually subsided ; in fact, the dumb
animals were the only ones who had any right to make them.
I drove then at a very brisk pace a thriving trade the
caravan became popular, and my fame rose, as the horses'
condition declined. At last the secret was discovered ; and
instead of my imposing whip of four yards and a half of
whip-cord, they reduced me to a stunted bit of stick, with a
little drooping lash that wouldn't reach the tail of my one
leader. My receipts fell off from that hour : in fact, instead
of praises and sixpences, I now got nothing but curses and
hard names; and at one hill, near "Horse-leap," which I
used in my prosperous days to " go at" in a slashing canter,
amid a shower of encomiums, I was now obliged to stagger
slowly up, with four-and-twenty small farmers, and maybe a
priest, in full cry at my sulkiness, laziness, incivility, and other
good gifts ; and all this, ay, and more, for lack of a bit of

I have been told that very great people will stoop to low
alliances when hard pressed : even cabinet ministers, I believe,
have now and then acknowledged very dubious allies. Let
not Con Cregan, then, be reproached if he called in the help
of a little bare-footed boy, who used to beg on the hill of
Horse-leap, and who, at the sound of the approaching caravan,
sallied forth with a long branch of an ash tree, and belaboured
the team into some faint resemblance to a canter. Through
this auxiliary, I recovered in part my long-lost popularity,
and was likely to be again reinstated in public favour, when
my assistant caught the measles, and I was once more re-
duced to my own efforts.

In this emergency I had nothing for it but a stratagem,
and so, as the conveyance arrived at the foot of tho hill, and
the horses, dropping their heads, were gradually subsiding
into the little shuffling amble that precedes a slow walk, I
used to scream out at the top of my voice all my accustomed
exhortations to the boy. " Ah, hit him again, Tommy,
into him, boy, under the traces, my lad I give him enough
of it I welt him well. Ha! there!" exclamations that,
from old associations, always stimulated the wretched beasts


into a canter : and under the impression of this salutary
terror, we used to reach the top almost as speedily as in the
old days of the penal code.

The same device now aided me against the rats of Anti-
costi ; and if any one will say to what end this narrative of
an encounter so insignificant, my answer is, that whether in
the St. Lawrence or in St. Stephen's rats are far more for-
midable than their size or strength would seem to imply:
and whether they nibble your rags or your reputation, their
success is invariably the same.

Four days had now elapsed, and I concluded that the yacht
must ere this have been miles on her voyage up the river.
The next morning, then, I should venture to hoist the signal,
and thus apprise the passing ships that one deserted and for-
lorn creature, at least, still lingered on the miserable island.

I sat at my fire till a late hour. I was lower in spirits tkan
usual. I had watched the Gulf from sunrise to sunset, and
without seeing one sail upon its surface. A light breeze Avas
blowing from the northward, and on this I supposed many of
the outward vessels would be borne along, but not one ap-
peared. From time to time a fleeting cloud, resting for a
moment on the horizon, would assume the semblance of a
ship, but at length I grew accustomed to these deceptions,
and suffered little or no disappointment when a second
glance at the spot failed to detect them.

Once or twice the thought crossed my mind that I might
never leave the island, that winter might close in, and the
Gulf be frozen before I could make my escape ; and I actually
shuddered at the very notion of a fate so terrible. I cowered
nearer to the fire as the flame subsided, and was sitting with
my hands outstretched over the blaze, when the sudden crash
of one of the bottles behind startled me. Were the rats
already regaining courage in anticipation of the time when I
could no longer resist them ? With this idea I turned my
head round. The flame threw a long lay of light upon the
floor as I moved, and in the midst of this I beheld, at a dis-
tance of about three yards off, a large black head, with two
immense and bloodshot eyes, glaring fixedly at me. It seemed
to rise out of the earth, above which it rose scarcely more
than a foot in height.

Paralyzed by terror, I could not stir, I could scarcely
breathe, as with a slow and nodding motion the large black
face came nearer ; and now I could see that it was a man a
negro who on hands and knees was slowly creeping towards
me. Overwhelmed by fear as I was, I noted the features, as


marked by age and worn by want ; they resembled those of
a wild beast rather than of a human creature. More from
the force of a mere mechanical impulse, than with any notion
of defence, for which my terror totally incapacitated me, I
had drawn my pistol from my bosom, and held it pointed
towards him. " No fire ! no fire ! " cried the creature, in a
low faint voice, and at the same time, while resting on one
hand, he held up with the other a long bright knife in an
attitude of menace.

" No nearer, then ! " screamed I, as I fell back beside the
stove, and still kept my eyes fixed upon him, whom now I
knew to be the Black Boatswain ; and thus we remained,
each watching the other, while the fire flickered and threw its
fitful glare over the gloomy space around us. As we were
thus, I saw, or I thought I saw, the negro stealthily drawing
up his legs, as if for a spring, and in my terror I believe I
should have pulled the trigger, when suddenly the knife
dropped from his hand, and pointing with his finger to his
dry, cracked lips, he said, " A-boire " water.

The look of earnest, almost passionate entreaty of the poor
creature's face the expression of want and misery, struggling
with a faint hope, as he uttered these words, routed all fears
for myself; and filling a cup from the tank with water, I
emptied the last remaining drops of my brandy-flask into it,
and held it to his mouth.

He swallowed it greedily ; and then clasping my wrist
with his gaunt and bony fingers, held me fast for a few
seconds, while he recovered his breath ; at last, with an effort
that seemed almost convulsive, he said some words in Spanish,
which I could not understand. I shook my head to show him
my ignorance of the language, and then fixing his eye full
upon me, he said, " Alone, here ? boy alone ? "

Understanding that this referred to myself, I answered at
once, that I was alone, and had been deserted by my com-

" Bad men, white men ! " cried he, gnashing his teeth
savagely ; while again he pointed to his lips, and muttered
" water ! " I endeavoured to free myself from his grasp to
fill the cup once more ; but he held me firmly, and showed by
a sign that he wished me to assist him to reach the tank. I
accordingly stooped down to help him, and now perceived
that he could do little more than drag his legs forward and
support himself on the knees ; being either wholly or in part
paralyzed from his hips downwards. " Ah, foco ! " cried he,
twice or thrice, and then changed to the word " Feu ! " " Le


feu ! " on which his gaze was fixed with a horrid earnest-

It was not without labour and much exertion that I suc-
ceeded in dragging him near the embers of the fire ; but
having done so, I quickly replenished the dying flame, and
fanning it with my hat, soon succeeded in making a cheerful
blaze once more. "Buono! goot ! goot! " said he, several
times, as he held his shrivelled and wasted fingers almost into
the fire.

" Are you hungry ? " said I, bending down to make myself

He nodded, twice.

" Can you eat biscuit ? I have nothing else," said I ; for I
half feared that the hard dry food would be impracticable for
his almost toothless jaws.

He said something about " Guisado," once or twice ; and
at last made a sign, that I understood to mean that the biscuit
might be softened in water for him. And with that I placed
a pot of water on the fire, and soon saw by the expression of
his eye that I had divined his meaning.

As 1 continued to blow the fire, and occasionally examined
the water to see if it boiled, I could mark that the negro's
eyes never once quitted me, but, with a restless activity,
followed me wherever I went, or whatever I did ; and,
although from his age, and the dreadful infirmity he laboured
under, I felt I should prove his equal in any struggle, I own
that I cast many a sidelong look towards him, lest he should
take me by surprise. That he was the notorious Black Boat-
swain of whom I had heard so much, I had no doubt what-
ever; and I felt not a little vain of my own courage and
presence of mind, as I saw myself so possessed and collected
in such company.

" Give ! give ! " cried he, impatiently, as I examined the
mess of steeping biscuit, and for which he seemed ravenously
eager ; and at length I removed it from the fire, and placed
it before him. Such voracity as his I never witnessed, save
in the case of Sir Dudley's lions ; he crammed the food with
both hands into his mouth, and devoured it with all the
savage earnestness of a wild beast. Twice was I obliged to
replenish the mess ; and each time did it vanish with the
same dispatch.

He now lay back on one arm, and, half closing his eyes,
appeared as if he was going asleep ; but at the least stir or
movement on my part, I saw that his wild red-streaked eyes
followed me at once.


Halkett had given mo a little bag of tobacco at parting,
saying, that although I was no smoker, I should soon learn
to become one in my solitude. This I now produced, and
offered him a handful.

The dark features were immediately lighted up with an
almost frantic expression of pleasure, as he clutched the
precious weed ; and tearing off a fragment of the paper, he
rolled it into the shape of a cigarette.

" No smoke ? " asked he, as I sat watching his prepara-

I shook my head. " Ah ! " cried he, laying down the
tobacco before him. " Tehoka, here ! " said he, pointing
to it.

" I don't understand," said I ; " what is Tehoka ? "

" Bad ! bad ! " said he, shaking both hands ; " weed make

negro so , so ," and he opened his mouth wide, and

dropped his arms heavily backwards, to represent sickness, or
perhaps death.

" No, no," said I ; " this is good, a friend gave it to me."

" Smoke," said he, pushing it over towards me ; and I saw
now that my abstaining had excited his suspicions.

" If you like, I will smoke," said I ; setting to work to
manufacture a cigar like his own.

He sat eyeing me all the while ; and when I proceeded to
fill it with tobacco, he leaned over to see that I did not
attempt any sleight of hand to deceive him.

" Will that do ? " said I, showing him the little paper

" Smoke," said he, gravely.

It was only after watching me for several minutes, that he
took courage to venture himself; and even then he scruti-
nized the tobacco as keenly as though it demanded all his
acuteness to prevent stratagem. At length, he did begin ;
and certainly never did anything seem to effect a more
powerful and more immediate influence. The fiery restless
eyes grew heavy and dull ; the wide-distended nostrils ceased
to dilate with their former convulsive motion. His cheek,
seamed with privation and passion, lay flaccid and at rest, and
a look of lethargic ease stole over all the features one by one,
till at last the head fell forward on his chest ; his arm slipped
softly from beneath him, and he rolled heavily back sunk in
the deepest sleep.

I soon abandoned my tobacco now, which had already
begun to produce a feeling of giddiness and confusion, very
unfavourable to cool determination sensations which did not


subside so readily as I could have wished ; for as I sat gazing
on my swarthy companion, fancies the wildest and most
absurd associated themselves with the strange reality. The
terrible tales I once listened to about the " Black Boatswain "
came to mingle with the present. The only remnant of right
reason left prompted me to keep up my fire ; a certain terror
of being alone, and in the dark, with the negro, predominating
over every other thought.

By the bright blaze, which soon arose, I could now mark
the enormous figure, which, in all the abandonment of heavy
slumber, lay outstretched before me. Although it was evi-
dent he was very old, the gigantic limbs showed what im-
mense strength he must have possessed ; while in the several
white cicatrices that marked his flesh, I could reckon a great
number of wounds, some of them of fearful extent. The
only covering he wore was a piece of sail-cloth wrapped
round his body ; over this he had a blanket, through a round
hole in which his head issued, like as in a Mexican poncho,
leaving his sinewy limbs perfectly naked. A bit of ragged,
worn bunting part, as it seemed, of an old union-jack was
bound round his head, and, in its showy colours, served to
enhance the stern expression of his harsh features.

As my senses became clearer, I began to imagine how it
happened that he came to the hut, since in all the narratives
I had heard of him, the greatest doubt existed that he was
still living, so effectually did he manage his concealment.
At last, and by dint of much thought, I hit upon what I
suspected to be the real solution of the difficulty, which was,
that he was accustomed to venture hither whenever the
signal-flag was not hoisted ; and as I had not done so, that
he was under the belief that he was the only living man on
the island.

That he must have contrived his hiding-place with gi'cat
success was clear enough ; for whether the allegations against
him were true or false, they were so universally believed by
sailors, that if he had been discovered they would unquestion-
ably have carried him off to Quebec. It was now in my
power "to do the state this service ; " and I began to canvass
with myself all the reasons for and against it. If, on the
one hand, it reminded me of the old legends I used to read
about striplings that led captive huge giants or fierce dragons,
on the other, I felt it would be a species of treachery to one
who had eaten bread from my hands. Besides, to what end
even supposing him guilty to any extent to what end
bring him now to justice, when a few days, or hours, perhaps,


would close a life whose suffering was manifest enough !
And lastly, was I so certain of escape myself, that I already
plotted carrying away a prisoner with me ? The last reflec-
tion saved me the trouble of thinking much more on the others ;
and so I fell a pondering over myself and my destitution.

Not long was I permitted to indulge in such reveries ; for
the negro now began to dream, and talk aloud with arapidity
of utterance and vehemence very different from the mono-
syllabic efforts he had favoured me with. As ihe langnage
was Spanish, I could catch nothing of his meaning ; but I
could see that some fearful reminiscence was agitating his
mind by the working of his fingers, and the violent contor-
tions of his face.

In the struggle of his paroxysm for it was really little less
he toi-e open the coarse rag of canvas that he wore, and I
could perceive something fastened round his neck by a piece
of spun-yarn. At first I thought it one of those charms that
seamen are so fond of carrying about them amulets, against
Heaven knows what kind of dangers : but, on stooping
down, I perceived it was an old leather pocket-book, which
once had been red, but by time and dirt was almost black.

More than once he clutched this in his hand, with a wild
energy, as if it was his heart's treasure, and then the great
drops of sweat would start out upon his forehead, and his
parted lips would quiver with agony. In one of these
struggles, he tore the book from the cord, and opening it,
seemed to seek for something among its contents. The rapi-
dity of the movement, and the seeming collectedness of every
gesture, made me believe that he was awake ; but I soon saw
that his great and staring eye-balls were not turned to the
spot, but were fixed on vacancy.

His motions were now more and more hurried : at one time
his fingers would turn over the papers in the pocket-book, at
another he would grope with his hand along the ground, and
pat the earth down with his palm, as if, having buried some-
thing in the earth, he would conceal every trace of it from
discovery; and at these moments the Spanish word " oro "
gold would escape him in a half-sigh, and this, and the

Online LibraryCharles James Lever[Charles Lever's novels (Volume 5) → online text (page 13 of 50)