A Master of Fortune
Part 4 out of 5
All sailormen who have done business on the great sea highway between
West and East during recent years have had the yarn given to them at one
time or another, and most of them have regarded it as gratuitous legend.
Kettle was one of these. But he was beginning to think there was
something more in it than a mere sailor's yarn, and he was anxious to
see if there was any new variation in the telling.
So he sent for Murray, his mate, a smart young sailor of the newer
school, who preferred to be called "chief officer," made him sit, and
commenced talk of a purely professional nature. Finally he said: "And
since I saw you last, the schedule's changed. We call in at Dunkhot, for
that passenger Mr. Wenlock to do some private business ashore, before we
go on to our Persian Gulf ports."
Murray repeated the name thoughtfully. "Dunkhot? Let's see, that's on
the South Arabian coast, about a day's steam from Aden, and a beast of a
place to get at, so I've heard. Oh, and of course, that's the place
where the She-Sultan, or Queen, or whatever she calls herself, is boss."
"So there is really a woman of that kind there, is there? I'd heard of
her, like everybody else has, but I thought she was only a yarn."
"No, she's there in the flesh, sir, right enough; lots of flesh,
according to what I've gathered. A serang of one of the B. and I. boats,
who'd been in Dunkhot, told me about her only last year. She makes war,
leads her troops, cuts off heads, and does the Eastern potentate up to
the mark. The serang said she was English, too, though I don't believe
much in that. One-tenth English would probably be more near the truth.
The odds are she'll be Eurasian, and those snuff-and-butter colored
ladies, when they get amongst people blacker than themselves, always try
to ignore their own lick of the tar-brush."
"Fat, is she?"
"The serang said she-was a big buffalo bull of a woman, with a terror of
a temper. I don't know what's Mr. Wenlock's business, sir; but whether
he wants to start a dry-goods agency, or merely to arrange for smuggling
in some rifles, he'd better make up his mind to square her first and
foremost. She will have a finger in every pie. She's as curious as a
monkey, too, and there's no doing anything without letting her know. And
when she says a thing, it's got to be done."
"Is she the head chief's favorite wife, then?"
"That's the funny part of it: she isn't married. These Orientals always
get husbands early as a general thing, and you'd have thought that in
her juvenile days, before she got power, they'd have married her to some
one about the town, whether she liked it or not. But it seems they
didn't, because she said she'd certainly poison any man if they sent her
into his zenana. And later on, when she came to be boss, she still kept
to spinsterhood. Guess there wasn't any man about the place white enough
to suit her taste."
"H'm. What you've told me seems to let daylight on to things."
"Beg pardon, sir?"
Captain Kettle put his hand kindly on Murray's shoulder. "Don't ask me
to explain now, my lad, but when the joke comes you shall share the
laugh. There's a young man on this ship (I don't mind telling you in
confidence) whose ways I don't quite like, and I think he's going to get
He went out then under the awnings of the bridge deck, and told Wenlock
that he would probably be able to earn his fee for helping on the
marriage, and Wenlock confidently thought that he quite understood the
"Skipper's a bit of a methody," thought Mr. Hugh Wenlock, "but his
principles don't go very deep when there are fifty sovereigns to be
earned. Well, he's a useful man, and if he gets me snugly married to
that little girl, he'll be cheap at the price."
The _Parakeet's_ voyage to Dunkhot was not swift. Eight-and-a-half knots
was her most economical pace for coal consumption, and at that gait she
steamed. With a reputation to make with his new owners, and two and
a-half per cent, commission on all profits, Kettle had developed into a
regular glutton for cargo; and the knowledge of men and places which he
had so laboriously acquired in former days served him finely. Three
times he got doles of cargo at good stiff freights at points where few
other men would have dreamed of looking. He was an ideal man for the
master of an ocean tramp. He was exactly honest; he had a world of
misfortunes behind to spur him on; he was quick of decision; and he had
developed a nose for cargo, and a knack of extorting it from merchants,
that were little short of miraculous. And, in fact, if things went on as
they had started, he stood a very good chance of making 50 per cent, on
the _Parakeet's_ capital for the voyage, and so earning promotion to one
of the firm's better ships.
But though in the many days of his adversity Captain Kettle had never
shunned any risks which came in his way, with this new prosperity fresh
and pleasant at his feet, he was beginning to tell himself that risks
were foolish things. He arrived off Dunkhot and rang off his engines,
and frowned angrily at the shore.
The town stood on an eminence, snugly walled, and filled with cool,
square houses. At one side, the high minaret of a mosque stood up like a
bayonet, and at the other, standing in a ring of garden, was a larger
building, which seemed to call itself palace. There was a small fringe
of cultivation beside the walls of the town, and beyond was arid desert,
which danced and shimmered under the violent sun.
But all this lay small and far off, like a tiny picture in some huge
frame, and showing only through the glass. A maze of reefs guarded the
shore, and tore up the sleek Indian Ocean swells into spouting breakers;
and though there was anchorage inside, tenanted indeed by a score of
sailing craft, the way to it was openly perilous. And so for the present
the _Parakeet_ lay to, rolling outside the entrance, flying a pilot
jack, and waiting developments.
Captain Kettle might have his disquieting thoughts, still outwardly he
was cool. But Mr. Hugh Wenlock was on deck in the sprucest of his
apparel, and was visibly anxious and fidgety, as befitted a man who
shortly expected to enter into the bonds of matrimony.
A double-ended boat came off presently, manned by naked Arabs, and
steered by a man in a white burnous. She swept up alongside, caught a
rope and made fast, and the man in white introduced himself as a pilot.
They are all good Mohammedans down there, or nominally, and so of course
there was no question of a clean bill of health. Islam is not impious
enough to check the spread of any disease which Allah may see good to
send for its chastening.
The pilot wanted to take them in at once. He spoke some English, and
carried an air of confidence. He could guide them through the reefs in
the most complete of safety, and he could guarantee fine openings for
trade, once inside.
"I dare say," grunted Kettle under his breath, "but you're a heap too
uncertificated for my taste. Why, you don't even offer a book of forged
logs to try and work off your humbug with some look of truth. No, I know
the kind of pilot you are. You'd pile up the steamboat on the first
convenient reef, and then be one of the first to come and loot her."--He
turned to Murray: "Now, look here, Mr. Mate. I'll leave you in charge,
and see you keep steam up and don't leave the deck. Don't let any of
these niggers come on board on any pretence whatever, and if they try it
on, steam out to sea. I'll get through Mr. Wenlock's business ashore as
quick as lean, and perhaps pick up a ton or two of cargo for ourselves."
Below, in the dancing boat which ground against the steamer's side, the
pilot clamored that a ladder might be thrown to him so that he might
come on board and take the _Parakeet_ forthwith into the anchorage; and
to him again Kettle turned, and temporized. He must go ashore himself
first, he said, and see what offer there was of trade, before he took
the steamer in. To which the pilot, though visibly disappointed, saw fit
to agree, as no better offer was forthcoming.
"Now, sir," said Kettle to Wenlock, "into the boat with you. The less
time that's wasted, the better I shall be pleased."
"All right," said Wenlock, pointing to a big package on the deck. "Just
tell some of your men to shove that case down into the boat, and
Kettle eyed the bulky box with disfavor. "What's in it?" he asked.
"A present or a bribe; whichever you care to call it. If you want to
know precisely, it's rifles. I thought they would be most acceptable."
"Rifles are liked hereabouts. Is it for a sort of introductory present?"
"Well, if you must know, Captain, it's occurred to me that Teresa is
probably an occupant of somebody's harem, and that I shall have to buy
her off from her husband. Hence the case of rifles."
A queer look came over Captain Kettle's face. "And you'd still marry
this woman if she had another husband living?"
"Of course. Haven't I told you that I've thought the whole thing
thoroughly over already, and I'm not inclined to stick at trifles? But I
may tell you that divorce is easy in these Mohammedan countries, and I
shall take care to get the girl set legally free before we get away from
here. You don't catch me getting mixed with bigamy."
"But tell me. Is a Mohammedan marriage made here binding for an
"It's as legally binding as if the Archbishop of Canterbury tied the
"Very well," said Kettle. "Now let me tell you, sir, for the last time,
that I don't like what you're going to do. To my mind, it's not a nice
thing marrying a woman that you evidently despise, just for her money."
Wenlock flushed. "Look here," he said, "I refuse to be lectured,
especially by you. Aren't you under promise to get L50 from me the
moment I'm safely married? And didn't you fairly jump at the chance of
Captain Kettle did not hit this man who cast such an unpleasant
imputation on him; he did not even let him feel the lash of his tongue
in return. He merely smiled grimly, and said: "Get down into the boat,
you and your case of rifles."
For the moment Wenlock started and hesitated. He seemed to detect
something ominous in this order. But then he took a brace on his
courage, and after a couple of deck hands had lowered the rifles into
the dancing boat, he clambered gingerly down after them, and sat himself
beside the white-robed man in the stern sheets. Kettle followed, and
the boat headed off for the opening between the reefs.
The Indian Ocean swells swung beneath them, and presently were breaking
on the grim stone barriers on either hand in a roar of sound. The
triangular dorsal fins of a couple of sharks convoyed them in, in case
of accidents; and overhead a crowd of sea-fowl screamed and swooped and
circled. But none of these things interested them. The town ahead, which
jerked nearer to every tug of the oars, held the eye. In it was Teresa
Anderson, heiress, a personage of whom each of them had his own private
conception. In it also were fanatical Arabs, whom they hoped the fear of
shadowy British gunboats would deter from open piracy.
The boat passed between a cluster of ragged shipping which swayed at the
anchorage, and Wenlock might have stared with curious eyes (had he been
so minded) on real dhows which had even then got real slaves ready for
market in their stuffy 'tween decks. But he was gazing with a fascinated
stare at the town. Over the arch of the water-gate, for which they were
heading, was what at first appeared to be a frieze of small rounded
balls; but a nearer view resolved these into human heads, in various
stages of desiccation. Evidently justice in Dunkhot was determined that
the criminal who once passed through its hands should no more tread the
paths of unrighteousness.
The boat landed against a jetty of stone, and they stepped out dryshod.
Wenlock stared at the gate with its dressing of heads as though they
"And Teresa will have been brought up within sight of all this," he
murmured to himself, "and will be accustomed to it. Fancy marrying a
woman who has spent twenty years of her life in the neighborhood of all
"Strong place in its way," said Kettle, squinting up at the brass cannon
on the walls. "Those guns up there are well kept, you can see. Of course
one of our cheapest fourpenny gunboats could knock the whole shop into
bricks in half an hour at three-mile range; but it's strong enough to
hold out against any niggers along the coast here, and that's all the
Queen here aims at. By the way, Emir, not Queen, is what she calls
herself, so the pilot tells me. I suppose she thinks that as she's doing
a man's job in a man's way, she may as well take a full man's ticket."
They passed in through the gate, the sentries staring at them curiously,
and once inside, in the full heat and smell of the narrow street beyond,
Wenlock said: "Look here, Skipper, you're resourceful, and you know
these out-of-the-way places. How had we better start to find the girl?"
Kettle glanced coolly round at the grim buildings and the savage Arabs
who jostled them, and said, with fine sarcasm: "Well, sir, as there
doesn't appear to be a policeman about, I should recommend you to apply
at the post office."
"I don't want to be mocked."
"Then, if you'll take the tip from me, you'll crowd back to my steamboat
as fast as you can go. You'll find it healthier."
"I'm going on with it," said Wenlock doggedly. "And I ask you to earn
your L50, and give me help."
"Then, if you distinctly ask me to help you on into trouble like that,
of course, the best thing to do is to go straight on to the palace."
"Show the way, then," said Wenlock curtly.
Kettle gave the word to the white-robed pilot, and together they set off
down the narrow winding streets, with an ever-increasing train of Arabs
and negroes following in their wake. Wenlock said nothing as he walked,
but it was evident from the working of his face that his mind was very
full. But Kettle looked about him with open interest, and thoughts in
verse about this Eastern town came to him with pleasant readiness.
The royal residence was the large building encircled with gardens which
they had seen from the sea, and they entered it with little formality.
There was no trouble either about obtaining an audience. The Lady Emir
had, it appeared, seen the steamer's approach with her own eyes; indeed,
the whole of Dunkhot was excited by such an unusual arrival; and the
Head of the State was as human in her curiosity as the meanest nigger
among her subjects.
The audience hall was imposing. It was bare enough, according to the
rule of those heated Eastern lands, but it had an air of comfort and
coolness, and in those parts where it was not severely plain, the beauty
of its architecture was delicious. Armed guards to the number of some
forty men were posted round the walls, and at the further end,
apparently belonging to the civil population, were some dozen other men
squatting on the floor. In the centre of the room was a naked wretch in
chains; but sentence was hurriedly pronounced on him, and he was hustled
away as the two Englishmen entered, and they found themselves face to
face with the only woman in the room, the supreme ruler of this savage
South Arabian coast town.
She was seated on a raised divan, propped by cushions, and in front of
her was a huge water-pipe at which she occasionally took a meditative
pull. She was dressed quite in Oriental fashion, in trousers, zouave
jacket, sash, and all the rest of it; but she was unmistakably English
in features, though strongly suggestive of the Boadicea. She was a
large, heavily-boned woman, enormously covered with flesh, and she
dandled across her knees that very unfeminine sceptre, an English
cavalryman's sword. But the eye neglected these details, and was
irresistibly drawn by the strongness of her face. Even Kettle was almost
awed by it.
But Captain Owen Kettle-was not a man who could be kept in awe for long.
He took off his helmet, marched briskly up toward the divan, and bowed.
"Good afternoon, your Ladyship," he said. "I trust I see you well. I'm
Captain Kettle, master of that steamboat now lying in your roads, and
this is Mr. Wenlock, a passenger of mine, who heard that you were
English, and has come to put you in the way of some property at home."
The lady sat more upright, and set back her great shoulders. "I am
English," she said. "I was called in the Giaour faith Teresa Anderson."
"That's the name," said Kettle. "Mr. Wenlock's come to take you away to
step into a nice thing at home."
"I am Emir here. Am I asked to be Emir in your country?"
"Why, no," said Kettle; "that job's filled already, and we aren't
thinking of making a change. Our present Emir in England (who, by the
way, is a lady like yourself) seems to suit us very well. No, you'll be
an ordinary small-potato citizen, like everybody else, and you will
probably find it a bit of a change."
"I do not onderstand," said the woman. "I have not spoke your language
since I was child. Speak what you say again."
"I'll leave it to Mr. Wenlock, your Majesty, if you've no objections, as
he's the party mostly interested; and if you'd ask one of your young men
to bring me a long drink and a chair, I'll be obliged. It's been a hot
walk up here. I see you don't mind smoke," he added, and lit a cheroot.
Now, it was clear from the attitude of the guards and the civilians
present, that Kettle was jostling heavily upon court etiquette, and at
first the Lady Emir was very clearly inclined to resent it, and had
sharp orders for repression ready upon her lips. But she changed her
mind, perhaps through some memory that by blood she was related to this
nonchalant race; and presently cushions were brought, on which Captain
Kettle bestowed himself tailor-fashion (with his back cautiously up
against a wall), and then a negro slave knelt before him and offered
sweet sticky sherbet, which he drank with a wry face.
But in the mean while Mr. Wenlock was stating his case with small
forensic eloquence. The sight of Miss Teresa Anderson in the flesh awed
him. He had pictured to himself some slim, quiet exile, perhaps a little
gauche and timid, but at any rate amenable to instruction and to his
will. He had forgotten the developing power of tropical suns. The woman
before him, whose actual age was twenty-nine, looked fifty, and even for
a desperate man like himself was impossible as a wife in England.
He felt daunted before her already. It flashed through his mind that it
was she who had ordered those grisly heads to be stuck above the
water-gate, and he heartily wished himself away back on the steamer,
tramping for cargo. He was not wanting in pluck as a usual thing, this
unsuccessful solicitor, but before a woman like this, with such a record
behind her, a man may well be scared and yet not be accused of
But the Lady Emir looked on Wenlock in a very different way to that in
which she had regarded Kettle. Mr. Wenlock possessed (as indeed he had
himself pointed out on the _Parakeet_) a fine outward appearance, and in
fact anywhere he could have been remarked on as a personable man. And
things came about as Kettle shrewdly anticipated they would. The Lady
Emir had not remained unmarried all these years through sheer distaste
for matrimony. She had been celibate through an unconquerable pride of
blood. None but men of colored race had been around her in all her wars,
her governings, and her diplomacies; and always she had been too proud
to mate with them. But here now stood before her a male of her own race,
handsome, upstanding, and obviously impressed by her power and majesty.
He would not rule her; he would not even attempt a mastery; she would
still be Emir--and a wife. The chance had never occurred to her before;
might never occur again. She was quick to make her decision.
Ruling potentates are not as other folk with their love affairs, and the
Lady Emir of Dunkhot (forgetting that she was once Teresa Anderson, and
a modest English maiden) unconsciously fell in with the rule of her
caste. The English speech, long disused, came to her unhandily, but the
purport of what she said was plain. She made proclamation that the
Englishman Wenlock should there and then become her husband, and let
slaves fetch the mullah to unite them before the sun had dropped below
another bar of the windows.
She did not ask her future husband's wishes or his permission. She
simply stated her sovereign will and looked that it should be carried
A couple of slaves scurried out on their missions--evidently their Emir
was accustomed to have her orders carried out with promptness--and for
long enough Wenlock stood wordless in front of the divan, far more like
a criminal than a prospective bridegroom. The lady, with the tube of the
water-pipe between her lips, puffed smoke and made no further speech.
She had stated her will: the result would follow in due course.
But at last Wenlock, as though wrenching himself into wakefulness out of
some horrid dream, turned wildly to Kettle, and in a torrent of words
implored for rescue.
The little sailor heard him quite unmoved. "You asked my help," he said,
"in a certain matter, and I've given it, and things have turned out just
as I've guessed they would. You maundered about your dear Teresa on my
steamboat till I was nearly sick, and, by James! you've got her now, and
no error about it."
"But you said you didn't approve," cried the wretched man.
"I quite know what I said," retorted Kettle grimly. "I didn't approve of
your way. But this is different. You're not a very fine specimen, but
anyway you're English, and it does good to the old shop at home to
have English people for kings and queens of foreign countries. I've got
a theory about that."
[Illustration: "I'M A BRITISH SUBJECT"]
Now the Lady Emir was not listening to all this tirade by any means
unmoved. To begin with, it was not etiquette to speak at all in her
presence if unaddressed, and to go on with, although she did not
understand one word in ten of what was being spoken, she gathered the
gist of it, and this did not tend to compose her. She threw away the
snaky stem of water-pipe, and gripped both hands on the trooper's sword,
till the muscles stood out in high relief.
"Do you say," she demanded, "you onwilling marry me?"
"Yes," said Wenlock, with sullen emphasis.
She turned her head, and gave orders in Arabic. With marvellous
readiness, as though it was one of the regular appointments of the
place, a couple of the guards trundled a stained-wooden block into the
middle of the floor, another took his station beside it with an
ominous-looking axe poised over his shoulder, and almost before Wenlock
knew what was happening, he was pinned by a dozen men at wrist and
ankle, and thrust down to kneel "with his neck over the block.
"Do you say," the Lady Emir repeated, "you onwilling marry me?"
"I'm a British subject," Wenlock shouted. "I've a Foreign Office
passport in my pocket. I'll appeal to my Government over this."
"My lad," said Kettle, "you won't have time to appeal. The lady isn't
being funny. She means square biz. If you don't be sensible, and see
things in the same way she does, it'll be one _che-opp_, and what
happens afterward won't interest you."
"Those spikes," said Wenlock faintly.
"Above the water-gate?" said Kettle. "Queer, but the same thing occurred
to me, too. You'd feel a bit lonely stuck up there getting sun-dried."
"I'll marry her."
"You'd better spread a bit more politeness about," Kettle advised. "It
will be all the more comfortable for you afterward if you do." And so
Wenlock, with desperation nerving him, poured out all the pretty
speeches which he had in store, and which he had looked to use to this
very woman under such very different circumstances. But he did not even
suggest taking his future spouse back to England.
She, too, when she graciously pardoned his previous outburst, mentioned
her decision on this matter also.
"I am Emir here," she said, "and I could not be Emir in your England
without many fights. So here I shall stay, and you with me. When there
is war, you shall ride at my side; in peace I will give you a
governorship over a ward of this town, from which you can get your
taxes. And if there are children, you shall bring them up."
The mullah, who knew better than to keep his ruler waiting, had come in,
and they were forthwith married, solemnly and irrevocably, according to
the rites and ceremonies of the Mohammedan Church, as practised in the
kingdom of Dunkhot. And in witness thereof, Captain Kettle wrote his
name from left to right, in contradistinction to all the other
signatories, who wrote from right to left, except the bridegroom.
"And now, Mr. Wenlock, if you please," said Kettle, "as you're
comfortably tied to the lady of your choice, I'll trouble you for that
fee you promised."
"I'll see you in somewhere hotter than Arabia," said the bridegroom,
mopping his pale face.
"Now look," said Kettle, "I'm not going to scrap with you here, and I
don't want to break up this happy home with domestic unpleasantness; but
if you don't hand me over that L50, I shall ask your good lady to get
it for me."
Wenlock sullenly handed out a note.
"Thank you. I know you feel injured, but I'm earning this money exactly
according to promise, and of you don't quite like what's been done, you
must remember that it's your own fault for not wording the agreement a
bit more carefully. And now, as I seem to have got through my business
here, if it's agreeable to all parties, I'll be going. Good-by, Mrs.
Wenlock, madam. Let me call you by your name for the first time."
The Lady Emir set back her great shoulders. "That is not my name," she
said. "I am Emir. My name does not change."
"Beg pardon," said Kettle, "he takes yours, does he? Didn't know that
was the custom of this country. Well, good-afternoon."
"But do you want," said the lady, "no present?"
"Thank you," said Kettle, with a cock of the head, "but I take presents
from no one. What bit of a living I get, your ladyship, I earn."
"I do not onderstand. But you are sailor. You have ship. You wish
Captain Kettle snapped his fingers ecstatically. "Now, ma'am, there
you've hit it. Cargo's what I do want. I'll have to tell you that
freights are up a good deal just now, and you'll have to pay for
accommodation, but my ship's a good one, and my firm's reliable, and
will see that you are dealt by honest at the other end."
"I do not onderstand."
"Of course you don't, your Majesty; of course you don't. Ladies like you
don't have to bother with the shipping trade. But just you give me a
line to the principal merchants in the town saying that you'd like me to
have a few tons of their stuff, and that'll do. I guess that what your
ladyship likes round here is usually done."
"You wish me write. I will write. Now we will wash hands, and there is
And so it came to pass that, some twenty-four hours later, Captain
Kettle returned to the _Parakeet_ sun-scorched, and flushed with
success, and relieved the anxious Murray from his watch. The mate was
naturally curious to know what happened ashore.
"Let me get a glass of Christian beer to wash all their sticky
nastinesses from my neck, and I'll tell you," said Kettle, and he did
with fine detail and circumstance.
"Well, Wenlock's got his heiress anyway," said Murray, with a sigh, when
the tale was over. "I suppose we may as well get under way now, sir."
"Not much," said Kettle jubilantly. "Why, man, I've squeezed every ton
of cargo they have in the place, and stuck them for freights in a way
that would surprise you. Here's the tally: 270 bags of coffee, 700
packets of dates, 350 baskets of figs, and all for London. And, mark
you," said Kettle, hitting the table, "that or more'll be waiting for me
there every time I come, and no other skipper need apply."
"H'm," said the mate thoughtfully; "but will Wenlock be as civil and
limp next time you call, sir?"
Captain Kettle winked pleasantly, and put a fifty-pound note in his
lock-up drawer. "That's all right, my lad. No fear of Master Wenlock
getting his tail up. If you'd seen the good lady, his wife, you'd know
why. That's the man that went hunting an heiress, Mr. Murray; and by the
holy James he's got her, and no error."
A MATTER OF JUSTICE
It was quite evident that the man wanted something; but Captain Kettle
did not choose definitely to ask for his wishes. Over-curiosity is not a
thing that pays with Orientals. Stolid indifference, on the other hand,
may earn easy admiration.
But at last the man took his courage in a firmer grip, and came up from
the _Parakeet's_ lower deck, where the hands were working cargo, and
advanced under the bridge deck awnings to Captain Kettle's long chair
and salaamed low before him.
Kettle seemed to see the man for the first time. He looked up from the
accounts he was laboring at. "Well?" he said, curtly.
It was clear the Arab had no English. It was clear also that he feared
being watched by his fellow countrymen in the lighter which was
discharging date bags alongside. He manoeuvred till the broad of his
back covered his movements, materialized somehow or other a scrap of
paper from some fold of his burnous, dropped this into Kettle's lap
without any perceptible movement of either his arms or hands, and then
gave another stately salaam and moved away to the place from which
he had come.
"If you are an out-of-work conjuror," said Kettle to the retreating
figure, "you've come to the wrong place to get employment here."
The Arab passed out of sight without once turning his head, and Kettle
glanced down at the screw of paper which lay on his knees, and saw on it
a scrawl of writing.
"Hullo," he said, "postman, were you; not conjuror? I didn't expect any
mail here. However, let's see. Murray's writing, by James!" he muttered,
as he flattened out the grimy scrap of paper, and then he whistled-with
surprise and disgust as he read.
"_Dear Captain_," the letter ran. "_I've got into the deuce
of a mess, and if you can bear a hand to pull me out, it
would be a favor I should never forget. I got caught up that
side street to the left past the mosque, but they covered my
head with a cloth directly after, and hustled me on for half
an hour, and where I am now, the dickens only knows. It's a
cellar. But perhaps bearer may know, who's got my watch. The
trouble was about a woman, a pretty little piece who I was
photographing. You see_--"
And here the letter broke off.
"That's the worst of these fancy, high-toned mates," Kettle grumbled.
"What does he want to go ashore for at a one-eyed hole like this? There
are no saloons--and besides he isn't a drinking man. Your new-fashioned
mate isn't. There are no girls for him to kiss--seeing that they are all
Mohammedans, and wear a veil. And as for going round with that
photography box of his, I wonder he hasn't more pride. I don't like to
see a smart young fellow like him, that's got his master's ticket all
new and ready in his chest, bringing himself down to the level of a
common, dirty-haired artist. Well, Murray's got a lot to learn before he
finds an owner fit to trust him with a ship of his own."
Kettle read the hurried letter through a second time, and then got up
out of his long chair, and put on his spruce white drill uniform coat,
and exchanged his white canvas shoes for another pair more newly
pipeclayed. His steamer might merely be a common cargo tramp, the town
he was going to visit ashore might be merely the usual savage settlement
one meets with on the Arabian shore of the Persian Gulf, but the little
sailor did not dress for the admiration of fashionable crowds. He was
smart and spruce always out of deference to his own self-respect.
He went up to the second mate at the tally desk on the main deck below,
and gave him some instructions. "I'm going ashore," he said, "and leave
you in charge. Don't let too many of these niggers come aboard at once,
and tell the steward to keep all the doors to below snugly fastened. I
locked the chart-house myself when I came out. Have you heard about
"Ah, I thought the news would have been spread well about the ship
before it came to me. He's got in trouble ashore, and I suppose I must
go, and see the Kady, and get him bailed out."
The second mate wiped the dust and perspiration from his face with his
bare arm, and leant on the tally-desk, and grinned. Here seemed to be an
opportunity for the relaxation of stiff official relations. "What's
tripped him?" he asked. "Skirt or photographing?"
"He will probably tell you himself when he comes back," said Kettle
coldly. "I shall send him to his room for three days when he gets
The second mate pulled his face into seriousness. "I don't suppose he
got into trouble intentionally, sir."
"Probably not, but that doesn't alter the fact that he has managed it
somehow. I don't engage my mates for amusements of that kind, Mr. Grain.
I've got them here to work, and help me do my duty by the owners. If
they take up low class trades like artisting, they must be prepared to
stand the consequences. You'll remember the orders I've given you? If
I'm wanted, you'll say I'll probably be back by tea."
Captain Kettle went off then in a shore-boat, past a small fleet of
pearling dhows, which rolled at their anchors, and after a long
pull--for the sea was shallow, and the anchorage lay five miles
out--stepped on to the back of a burly Arab, and was carried the last
mile dry-shod. Parallel to him were lines of men carrying out cargo to
the lighters which would tranship it to the _Parakeet_, and Kettle
looked upon these with a fine complacency.
His tramping for cargo had been phenomenally successful. He was filling
his holds at astonishingly heavy freights. And not only would this bring
him credit with his owners, which meant promotion in due course to a
larger ship, but in the mean time, as he drew his 2-1/2 per cent, on the
profits, it represented a very comfortable matter of solid cash for that
much-needing person himself. He hugged himself with pleasure when he
thought of this new found prosperity. It represented so many things
which he would be able to do for his wife and family, which through so
many years narrow circumstances had made impossible.
The burly Arab on whose hips he rode pick-a-back stepped out of the
water at last, and Kettle jumped down from his perch, and picked his
way daintily among the litter of the foreshore toward the white houses
of the town which lay beyond.
It was the first time he had set foot there. So great was his luck at
the time, that he had not been forced to go ashore in the usual way
drumming up cargo. The shippers had come off begging him to become their
carrier, and he had muleted them in heavy freights accordingly. So he
stepped into the town with many of the feelings of a conqueror, and
demanded to be led to the office of a man with whom he had done
profitable business that very morning.
Of course, "office" in the Western meaning of the term there was none.
The worthy Rad el Moussa transacted affairs on the floor of his general
sitting-room, and stored his merchandise in the bed-chambers, or
wherever it would be out of reach of pilfering fingers. But he received
the little sailor with fine protestations of regard, and (after some
giggles and shuffling as the women withdrew) inducted him to the dark
interior of his house, and set before him delicious coffee and some
Kettle knew enough about Oriental etiquette not to introduce the matter
on which he had come at the outset of the conversation. He passed and
received the necessary compliments first, endured a discussion of local
trade prospects, and then by an easy gradation led up to the powers of
the local Kady. He did not speak Arabic himself, and Rad el Moussa had
no English. But they had both served a life apprenticeship to sea
trading, and the curse of the Tower of Babel had very little power over
them. In the memories of each there were garnered scraps from a score of
spoken languages, and when these failed, they could always draw on the
unlimited vocabulary of the gestures and the eyes. And for points that
were really abstruse, or which required definite understanding, there
always remained the charcoal stick and the explanatory drawing on the
face of a whitewashed wall.
When the conversation had lasted some half an hour by the clock, and a
slave brought in a second relay of sweetmeats and thick coffee, the
sailor mentioned, as it were incidentally, that one of his officers had
got into trouble in the town. "It's quite a small thing," he said
lightly, "but I want him back as soon as possible, because there's work
for him to do on the steamer. See what I mean?"
Rad el Moussa nodded gravely. "Savvy plenty," said he.
Now Kettle knew that the machinery of the law in these small Arabian
coast towns was concentrated in the person of the Kady, who, for
practical purposes, must be made to move by that lubricant known as palm
oil; and so he produced some coins from his pocket and lifted his
Rad el Moussa nodded again, and made careful inspection of the coins,
turning them one by one with his long brown fingers, and biting those he
fancied most as a test of their quality. Finally, he selected a gold
twenty-franc piece and two sovereigns, balanced and chinked them
carefully in his hand, and then slipped them into some private
receptacle in his wearing apparel.
"I say," remarked Kettle, "that's not for you personally, old tintacks.
That's for the Kady."
Rad pointed majestically to his own breast. "El Kady," he said.
"Oh, you are his Worship, are you?" said Kettle. "Why didn't you say so
before? I don't think it was quite straight of you, tintacks, but
perhaps that's your gentle Arab way. But I say, Whiskers, don't you try
being too foxy with me, or you'll get hurt. I'm not the most patient man
in the world with inferior nations. Come, now, where's the mate?"
Rad spread his hands helplessly.
"See, here, it's no use your trying that game. You know that I want
Murray, my mate."
"Then hand him out, and let me get away back on board."
"No got," said Rad el Moussa; "no can."
"Now look here, Mister," said Captain Kettle, "I've paid you honestly
for justice, and if I don't have it, I'll start in pulling down your old
town straight away. Give up the mate, Rad, and let me get back
peacefully to my steamboat, or, by James! I'll let loose a wild
earthquake here. If you want battle, murder, and sudden death, Mr. Rad
el Moussa, just you play monkey tricks with me, and you'll get 'em
cheap. Kady, are you? Then, by James! you start in without further talk,
and give me the justice that I've bought and paid for."
Though this tirade was in an alien tongue, Rad el Moussa caught the
drift from Captain Kettle's accompanying gesticulations, which supplied
a running translation as he went on. Rad saw that his visitor meant
business, and signed that he would go out and fetch the imprisoned mate
"No, you don't," said Kettle promptly. "If your Worship once left here,
I might have trouble in finding you again. I know how easy it is to hide
in a-warren like this town of yours. Send one of your hands with
Now, to convey this sentence more clearly, Kettle had put his fingers
on the Arab's clothing, when out fell a bag of pearls, which came
unfastened. The pearls rolled like peas about the floor, and the Arab,
with gritting teeth, whipped out a knife. Promptly Kettle drew also, and
covered him with a revolver.
"See here," he said, "I'm not a thief, though perhaps you think I pulled
out that jewelry purse on purpose. It was an accident, Rad, so I'll
forgive your hastiness. But your Worship mustn't pull out cutlery on me.
I'll not stand that from any man living. That's right, put it up. Back
goes the pistol into its pocket, and now we're friends again. Pick up
the pearls yourself, and then you'll be certain I haven't grabbed any,
and then send one of your men to fetch my mate and do as I want. You're
wasting a great deal of my time, Rad el Moussa, over a very simple job."
The Arab gathered the pearls again into the pouch and put it back to its
place among his clothes. His face had grown savage and lowering, but it
was clear that this little spitfire of a sailor, with his handy pistol,
daunted him. Kettle, who read these signs, was not insensible to the
compliment they implied, but at the same time he grew, if anything,
additionally cautious. He watched his man with a cat-like caution, and
when Rad called a slave and gave him orders in fluent Arabic, he made
him translate his commands forthwith.
Rad el Moussa protested that he had ordered nothing more than the
carrying out of his visitor's wishes. But it seemed to Kettle that he
protested just a trifle too vehemently, and his suspicions deepened.
He tapped his pistol in its resting-place, and nodded his head
meaningly. "You've friends in this town," he said, "and I dare say
you'll have a goodish bit of power in your small way. I've neither, and
I don't deny that if you bring up all your local army to interfere, I
may have a toughish fight of it; but whatever happens to me in the long
run, you may take it as straight from yours truly that you'll go to your
own funeral if trouble starts. So put that in your hookah and smoke it,
tintacks, and give me the other tube."
Captain Kettle was used to the dilatory ways of the East, and he was
prepared to wait, though never doubting that Murray would be surrendered
to him in due time, and he would get his own way in the end. So he
picked up one of the snaky tubes of the great pipe, and put the amber
mouthpiece between his lips; and there for an hour the pair of them
squatted on the divan, with the hookah gurgling and reeking between
them. From time to time a slave-girl came and replenished the pipe with
tobacco or fire as was required. But these were the only interruptions,
and between whiles they smoked on in massive silence.
At the end of that hour, the man-slave who had been sent out with the
message re-entered the room and delivered his tidings. Rad el Moussa in
his turn passed it on. Murray was even then waiting in the justice
chamber, so he said, at the further side of the house, and could be
taken away at once. Kettle rose to his feet, and the Arab stood before
him with bowed head and folded arms.
Captain Kettle began to feel shame for having pressed this man too
hardly. It seemed that he had intended to act honestly all along, and
the suspiciousness of his behavior doubtless arose from some difficulty
of custom or language. So the sailor took the Rad's limp hand in his own
and shook it cordially, and at the same time made a handsome apology for
his own share of the misunderstanding.
"Your Worship must excuse me," he said, "but I'm always apt to be a bit
suspicious about lawyers. What dealings I've had with them have nearly
always turned out for me unfortunately. And now, if you don't mind,
we'll go into your court-house, and you can hand me over my mate, and
I'll take him back to the ship. Enough time's been wasted already by
both of us."
The Arab, still bowed and submissive, signed toward the doorway, and
Kettle marched briskly out along the narrow dark passage beyond, with
Rad's sandals shuffling in escort close at his rear. The house seemed a
large one, and rambling. Three times Rad's respectful fingers on his
visitor's sleeve signed to him a change of route. The corridors, too, as
is the custom in Arabia, where coolness is the first consideration, were
dimly lit; and with the caution which had grown to be his second nature,
Kettle instinctively kept all his senses on the alert for inconvenient
surprises. He had no desire that Rad el Moussa should forget his
submissiveness and stab him suddenly from behind, neither did he
especially wish to be noosed or knifed from round any of the dusky
In fact he was as much on the _qui vive_ as he ever had been in all his
long, wild, adventurous life, and yet Rad el Moussa, who meant treachery
all along, took him captive by the most vulgar of timeworn stratagems.
Of a sudden the boarding of the floor sank beneath Kettle's feet. He
turned, and with a desperate effort tried to throw himself backward
whence he had come. But the boarding behind reared up and hit him a
violent blow on the hands and head, and he fell into a pit below.
For an instant he saw through the gloom the face of Rad el Moussa turned
suddenly virulent, spitting at him in hate, and then the swing-floor
slammed up into place again, and all view of anything but inky blackness
was completely shut away.
Now the fall, besides being disconcerting, was tolerably deep; and but
for the fact that the final blow from the flooring had shot him against
the opposite side of the pit, and so broken his descent at the expense
of his elbows and heels, he might very well have landed awkwardly, and
broken a limb or his back in the process. But Captain Owen Kettle was
not the man to waste time over useless lamentation or rubbing of
bruises. He was on fire with fury at the way he had been tricked, and
thirsting to get loose and be revenged. He had his pistol still in its
proper pocket, and undamaged, and if the wily Rad had shown himself
anywhere within range just then, it is a certain thing that he would
have been shot dead to square the account.
But Kettle was, as I have said, wedged in with darkness, and for the
present, revenge must wait until he could see the man he wanted to shoot
at. He scrambled to his feet, and fumbled in his pocket for a match. He
found one, struck it on the sole of his trim white shoe, and
The place he was in was round and bottle shaped, measuring some ten feet
across its floor, and tapering to a small square, where the trap gave it
entrance above. It was a prison clearly, and there was evidence that it
had been recently used. It was clear also that the only official way of
releasing a prisoner was to get him up by a ladder or rope through the
small opening to which the sides converged overhead. Moreover, to all
common seeming, the place was simply unbreakable, at least to any
creature who had not either wings or the power of crawling up the
under-side of a slant like a fly.
But all these things flashed through Kettle's brain in far less time
than it takes to read them here. He had only two matches in his
possession, and he wished to make all possible use of the first, so as
to keep the second for emergencies; and so he made his survey with the
best of his intelligence and speed.
The walls of this bottle-shaped prison were of bricks built without
visible mortar, and held together (it seemed probable) by the weight of
earth pressing outside them; but just before the match burned his
fingers and dropped to the floor, where it promptly expired, his eye
fell upon an opening in the masonry. It was a mere slit, barely three
inches wide, running vertically up and down for some six courses of the
brick, and it was about chin-high above the ground.
He marked this when the light went out, and promptly went to it and
explored it with his arm. The slit widened at the other side, and there
was evidently a chamber beyond. He clapped his hands against the lip of
the slit, and set his feet against the wall, and pulled with the utmost
of his strength. If once he could widen the opening sufficiently to
clamber through, possibilities lay beyond. But from the weight of wall
pressing down above, he could not budge a single brick by so much as a
hairs-breadth, and so he had to give up this idea, and, stewing with
rage, set about further reconnoitring.
The darkness put his eyes out of action, but he had still left his hands
and feet, and he went round with these, exploring carefully.
Presently his search was rewarded. Opposite the opening he had
discovered before, was another slit in the overhanging wall of this
bottle-shaped prison, and this also he attacked in the hope of wrenching
free some of the bricks. He strained and panted, till it seemed as
though the tendons of his body must break, but the wall remained whole
and the slit unpassable; and then he gave way, almost childishly, to his
passion of rage, and shouted insults and threats at Rad el Moussa in the
vain hope that some one would hear and carry them. And some one did
hear, though not the persons he expected.
A voice, muffled and foggy, as though it came from a long distance, said
in surprise: "Why, Captain, have they got you here, too?"
Under cover of the darkness, Kettle blushed for shame at his outcry.
"That you, Murray? I didn't know you were here. How did you guess it
The distant voice chuckled foggily. "I've heard you giving your blessing
to the hands on board, sir, once or twice, and I recognized some of the
words. What have they collared you for? You don't photograph. Have you
been messing round with some girl?"
"Curse your impudence; just you remember your position and mine. I'll
have respect from my officers, even if I am in a bit of a fix."
"Beg pardon, sir. Sorry I forgot myself. It sha'n't occur again."
"You'll go to your room for three days when we get back on board."
"Ay, ay, sir."
"I decided that before I left the ship. I can't have my officers staying
away from duty without leave on any excuse. And if they have such low
tastes as to bring themselves on the level of common mop-headed portrait
painters and photographers, they must pay for it."
"Ay, ay, sir."
"What were you run in for?"
"There you are, then! And did they bring you straight along here?"
"Yes, sir. And lowered me in a bowline to this cellar."
"Ah," said Kettle, "then you don't want so much change out of them. They
dropped me, and some one will have a heavy bill to square up for, over
that. Do you know whose house this is?"
"Haven't a notion. After I'd been here an hour or so, some heathen
sneaked round to a peep-hole in the wall and offered to take off a
message to the ship, on payment. I hadn't any money, so I had to give up
my watch, and before I'd written half the letter he got interrupted and
had to clear off with what there was. Did he bring off the
"He did. And I came ashore at once. You remember Rad el Moussa?"
"The man that consigned all that parcel of figs for London?"
"That man. I considered that as he'd been doing business with the
steamer, he was the best person to make inquiries of ashore. So I came
to him, and asked where I could find the Kady to bail you out. He
shuffled a bit, and after some talk he admitted he was the Kady, and
took palm-oil from me in the usual way, and then I'll not deny that we
had a trifle of a disagreement. But he seemed to simmer down all right,
said he'd send along for you, and after a bit of time said you'd come,
and wouldn't I walk through the house and see you myself. The crafty old
fox had got his booby trap rigged in the mean time, and then I walked
straight into it like the softest specimen of blame' fool you
"Rad el Moussa," came the foggy comment. "By Jove! Captain, I believe
we're in an awkward place. He's the biggest man in this town far and
away, and about the biggest blackguard also from what I've heard. He's a
merchant in every line that comes handy, from slaves and palm fibre to
horses and dates; he runs most of those pearling dhows that we saw
sweltering about at the anchorage; and he's got a little army of his own
with which he raids the other coast towns and the caravans up-country
when he hears they've got any truck worth looting. I say, this is
scaring. I've been taking the thing pretty easily up to now, thinking it
would come all right in time. But if I'd known it was old Rad who had
grabbed me, I tell you I should have sat sweating."
"It takes a lot more than a mere nigger, with his head in clouts, to
scare me," said Kettle truculently, "and I don't care tuppence what he
may be by trade. He's got a down on me at present, I'll grant, but I'm
going to give Mr. Rad el Moussa fits a little later on, and you may
stand by and look on, if you aren't frightened to be near him."
"I'm not a funk in the open," grumbled Murray, "and you know it. You've
seen me handle a crew. But I'm in a kind of cellar here, and can't get
out, and if anybody chooses they can drop bricks on me, and I can't stop
them. Have they been at you about those rifles, sir?"
"What rifles? No, nobody's said 'rifles' to me ashore here."
"It seems we've got some cases of rifles on board for one of those
little ports up the coast. I didn't know it."
"Nor did I," said Kettle, "and you can take it from me that we haven't.
Smuggling rifles ashore is a big offence here in the Persian Gulf, and
I'm not going to put myself in the way of the law, if I know it."
"Well, I think you're wrong, sir," said the Mate. "I believe they're in
some cases that are down on the manifest as 'machinery.' I saw them
stowed down No. 3 hold, and I remember one of the stevedores in London
joking about them when they were struck below."
"Supposing they were rifles, what than?"
"Rad wants them. He says they're consigned to some of his neighbors up
coast, who'll raid him as soon as they're properly armed; and he doesn't
like the idea. What raiding's done, he likes to do himself, and at the
same time he much prefers good Brummagen rifles to the local
"Well," said Kettle, "I'm waiting to hear what he thought you could do
with the rifles supposing they were on board."
"Oh, he expected me to broach cargo and bring them here ashore to him.
He's a simple-minded savage."
"By James!" said Kettle, "the man's mad. What did he think I should be
doing whilst one of my mates was scoffing cargo under my blessed nose?"
"Ah, you see," said the foggy voice, with sly malice, "he did not know
you so well then, sir. That was before he persuaded you to come into his
house to stay with him."
It is probable that Captain Kettle would have found occasion to make
acid comment on this repartee from his inferior officer, but at that
moment another voice addressed him from the slit at the other side of
his prison, and he turned sharply round. To his surprise this new person
spoke in very tolerable English.
"Capt'n, I want t'make contrack wid you."
"The deuce you do. And who might you be, anyway?"
"I cullud gen'lem'n, sar. Born _Zanzibar_. Used to be fireman on P. and
O. I want arsk you--"
"Is this the Arabian Nights? How the mischief did you get here, anyway?"
"Went on burst in Aden, sar. Th'ole Chief fired me out. Went Yemen.
Caught for slave. Taken caravan. Brought here. But I'm very clever
gen'lem'n, sar, an' soon bought myself free. Got slave of my own now.
An' three wives. Bought 'nother wife yesterday."
"You nasty beast!" said Kettle.
"Sar, you insult me. Not bally Christian any longer. Hard-shell
Mohammedan now, sar, and can marry as many wives as I can buy."
"I'm sure the Prophet's welcome to you. Look here, my man. Pass down a
rope's end from aloft there, and let me get on deck, and I'll give you a
sovereign cash down, and a berth in my steamboat's stoke-hold if you
want one. I'm not asking you to help me more. I guess I'm quite
competent to find my way on board, and to wipe this house tolerably
clean before it's quit of me."
"Nothing of the kind, sar," said the man behind the slit. "You insult
me, sar. I very big gen'lem'n here, sar, an' a sovereign's no use to me.
Besides, I partner to ole man Rad, an' he say he want dem rifles you got
on your ole tramp."
"Does he, indeed? Then you can tell him, Mr. Nigger
runaway-drunken-fireman, that I'll see you and him in somewhere a big
sight hotter than Arabia before he gets them. I didn't know they were
rifles; if I had known before this, I'd not have put them ashore; but as
things are now, I'll land them into the hands of those that ordered
them, and I hope they come round to this town of yours and give you
fits. And see here, you talk more respectful about my steamboat, or
you'll get your shins kicked, daddy."
"An ole tramp," said the man relishingly. "I served on P. an' O., sar,
an' on P. an' O. we don't care 'sociate wid tramps' sailors."
"You impudent black cannibal. You'll be one of the animals those
passenger lines carry along to eat the dead babies, to save the trouble
of heaving them overboard."
The ex-fireman spluttered. But he did not continue the contest. He
recognized that he had to deal with a master in the cheerful art of
insult, and so he came back sulkily to business.
"Will you give Rad dem rifles, you low white fellow?"
"No, I won't."
"Very well. Den we shall spiflicate you till you do," said the man, and
after that Kettle heard his slippers shuffling away.
"I wonder what spiflicating is?" mused Kettle, but he did not remain
cudgelling his brain over this for long. It occurred to him that if this
negro could come and go so handily to the outside of this underground
prison, there must be a stairway somewhere near, and though he could not
enlarge the slit to get at it that way, it might be possible to burrow a
passage under the wall itself. For a tool, he had spied a broken crock
lying on the floor, and with the idea once in his head, he was not long
in putting it to practical effect. He squatted just underneath the slit,
and began to quarry the earth at the foot of the wall with skill and
But if Kettle was prompt, his captors were by no means dilatory. Between
Kettle's prison and the mate's was another of those bottle-shaped
_oubliettes_, and in that there was presently a bustle of movement.
There came the noises of some one lighting a fire, and coughing as he
fanned smouldering embers into a glow with his breath, and then more
coughing and some curses as the fire-lighter took his departure. The
door above clapped down into place, and then there was the sound of
someone dragging over that and over the doors of the other two prisons
what seemed to be carpets, or heavy rugs.
There was something mysterious in this manoeuvre at first, but the
secret of it was not kept for long. An acrid smell stole out into the
air, which thickened every minute in intensity. Kettle seemed dimly to
recognize it, but could not put a name to it definitely. Besides, he was
working with all his might at scraping away the earth from the foot of
the wall, and had little leisure to think of other things.
The heat was stifling, and the sweat dripped from him, but he toiled on
with a savage glee at his success. The foundations had not been dug out;
they were "floating" upon the earth surface; and the labor of
undermining would, it appeared, be small.
But Murray in the other prison had smelt the reek before, and was able
to put a name to it promptly. "By Jove! Captain," he shouted mistily
from the distance, "they're going to smoke us to death; that's
"Looks like trying it," panted the little sailor, from his work.
"That's dried camel's dung they're burning. There's no wood in Arabia
here, and that's their only fuel. When the smoke gets into your lungs,
it just tears you all to bits. I say, Skipper, can't you come to some
agreement with Rad over those blessed rifles? It's a beastly death to
"You aren't dead--by a long chalk--yet. More'm I. I'd hate to
be--smoke-dried like a ham--as bad as any Jew. But I don't start in--to
scoff the cargo--on my own ship--at any bally price."
There was a sound of distant coughing, and then the misty question:
"What are you working at?"
"Taking--exercise," Kettle gasped, and after that, communication between
the two was limited to incessant staccato coughs.
More and more acrid grew the air as the burning camel's dung saturated
it further and further with smoke, and more and more frenzied grew
Kettle's efforts. Once he got up and stuffed his coat in the embrasure
from which the smoke principally came. But that did little enough good.
The wall was all chinks, and the bitter reek came in unchecked. He felt
that the hacking coughs were gnawing away his strength, and just now the
utmost output of his thews was needed.
He had given up his original idea of mining a passage under the wall.
Indeed, this would have been a labor of weeks with the poor broken crock
which was his only tool, for the weight of the building above had turned
the earth to something very near akin to the hardness of stone. But he
had managed to scrape out a space underneath one brick, and found that
it was loosened, and with trouble could be dislodged; and so he was
burrowing away the earth from beneath others, to drop more bricks down
from their places, and so make a gangway through the solid wall itself.
But simple though this may be in theory, it was tediously difficult work
in practice. The bricks jammed even when they were undermined, and the
wall was four bricks thick to its further side. Moreover, every
alternate course was cross-pinned, and the workman was rapidly becoming
asphyxiated by the terrible reek which came billowing in from the
Still, with aching chest, and bleeding fingers, and smarting eyes,
Kettle worked doggedly on, and at last got a hole made completely
through. What lay in the blackness beyond he did not know; either Rad el
Moussa or the fireman might be waiting to give him a _coup de grace_ the
moment his head appeared; but he was ready to accept every risk. He felt
that if he stayed in the smoke of that burning camel's dung any longer
he would be strangled.
The hole in the brickwork was scarcely bigger than a fox-earth, but he
was a slightly built man, and with a hard struggle he managed to push
his way through. No one opposed him. He found and scraped his only
remaining match, and saw that he was in another bottle-shaped chamber
similar to the one he had left; but in this there was a doorway. There
was pungent smoke reek here also, and, though its slenderness came to
him as a blessed relief after what he had been enduring, he lusted
desperately for a taste of the pure air outside.
The door gave to his touch, and he found a stair. He ran up this and
stepped out into the corridor, where Rad had lured him to capture, and
then, walking cautiously by the wall so as not to step into any more
booby-traps, he came to the place where he calculated Murray would be
jailed. A large thick carpet had been spread over the door so as to
prevent any egress of the stinging smoke, or any ingress of air, and
this he pulled away, and lifted the trap.
There was no sound from below. "Great heavens," he thought, "was the
mate dead?" He hailed sharply, and a husky voice answered. Seeing
nothing else at hand that would serve, he lowered an end of the carpet,
keeping a grip on the other, and presently Murray got a hold and
clambered up beside him.
In a dozen whispered words Kettle told his plans, and they were on the
point of starting off to carry them out, when the _slop-slop_ of
slippers made itself heard advancing down the corridors. Promptly the
pair of them sank into the shadows, and presently the ex-fireman came up
whistling cheerfully an air from some English music-hall. He did not see
them till they were almost within hand-grips, and then the tune froze
upon his lips in a manner that was ludicrous.
But neither Kettle nor his mate had any eye for the humors of the
situation just then. Murray plucked the man's legs artistically from
beneath him, and Kettle gripped his hands and throat. He thrust his
savage little face close down to the black man's. "Now," he said,
"where's Rad? Tell me truly, or I'll make you into dog's meat. And speak
quietly. If you make a row, I'll gouge your eyes out."
"Rad, he in divan," the fellow stuttered in a scared whisper. "Sort o'
front shop you savvy, sar. Don' kill me."
"I can recommend my late state-room," said Murray.
"Just the ticket," said Kettle. So into the _oubliette_ they toppled
him, clapping down the door in its place above. "There you may stay, you
black beast," said his judge, "to stew in the smoke you raised yourself.
If any of your numerous wives are sufficiently interested to get you
out, they may do so. If not, you pig, you may stay and cure into bacon.
I'm sure I sha'n't miss you. Come along, Mr. Mate."
They fell upon Rad el Moussa placidly resting among the cushions of the
divan, with the stem of the water-pipe between his teeth, and his mind
probably figuring out plans of campaign in which the captured rifles
would do astonishing work.
Kettle had no revolver in open view, but Rad had already learned how
handily that instrument could be produced on occasion, and had the wit
to make no show of resistance. The sailor went up to him, delicately
extracted the poignard from his sash, and broke the blade beneath his
feet. Then he said to him, "Stand there," pointing to the middle of the
floor, and seated himself on the divan in the attitude of a judge.
"Now, Mr. Rad el Moussa, I advise you to understand what's going to be
said to you now, so that it'll be a lesson to you in the future.
"I came to you, not very long ago, asking for your card to the Kady. I
told you my business was about the mate here, and you said you were Kady
yourself. Whether you are or not I don't know, and I don't vastly care,
but anyway, I paid for justice in hard money, and you said you'd give up
the mate. You didn't do that. You played a trick on me, which I'll own
up I was a fool to get caught by; and I make no doubt that you've been
laughing at me behind my back with that nasty nigger partner of yours.
"Well, prisoner at the bar, let alone I'm a blooming Englishman--and
Englishmen aren't sent into this world to be laughed at by any
foreigners--I'm myself as well, and let me tell you I don't stand either
being swindled out of justice when I've paid for it, or being played
tricks on afterward. So you are hereby sentenced to the fine of one bag
of pearls, to be paid on the spot, and furthermore to be incarcerated in
one of those smoke boxes down the alleyway yonder till you can find your
own way out. Now, prisoner, don't move during the next operation, or
I'll shoot you. Mr. Mate, you'll find a small bag inside the top part of
his nightgown, on the left-hand side. Got 'em?"
"Here they are, sir," said Murray.
"Thanks," said Kettle, and put the bag in his pocket. "And now, if you
please, Mr. Mate, we'll just put His Whiskers into that cellar with the
nigger, and leave him there to get smoked into a better and, we'll hope,
a more penitent frame of mind."
They completed this pious act to their entire satisfaction, and left
the house without further interruption. The townspeople were just
beginning to move about again after the violence of the midday heat, but
except for curious stares, they passed through the narrow streets
between the whitewashed houses quite without interruption. And in due
time they came to the beach, and hired a shore boat, which took them off
to the steamer.
But here Kettle was not inclined to linger unnecessarily. He saw Grain,
the second mate, and asked Mm how much more cargo there was to come off.
"The last lighter load is alongside this minute, sir."
"Then hustle it on deck as quick as you can, and then call the
carpenter, and go forward and heave up."
Grain looked meaningly at Murray. "Am I to take the fore deck, sir."
"Yes, I appoint you acting mate for three days; and Mr. Murray goes to
his room for that time for getting into trouble ashore. Now put some
hurry into things, Mr. Grain; I don't want to stay here longer
Grain went forward about his business, but Murray, who looked somewhat
disconsolate, Kettle beckoned into the chart-house. He pulled out the
pearl bag, and emptied its contents on to the chart table. "Now, look
here, my lad," said he, "I have to send you to your room because I said
I would, and because that's discipline; but you can pocket a thimblefull
of these seed pearls just to patch up your wounded feelings, as your
share of old Rad el Moussa's fine. They are only seed pearls, as I say,
and aren't worth much. We were due to have more as a sheer matter of
justice, but it wasn't to be got. So we must make the best of what there
is. You'll bag L20 out of your lot if you sell them in the right place
ashore. I reckoned my damages at L500, and I guess I've got here
"Thank you, sir," said Murray. "But it's rather hard being sent to my
room for a thing I could no more help than you could."
"Discipline, my lad. This will probably teach you to leave photographing
to your inferiors in the future. There's no persuading me that it isn't
that photograph box that's at the bottom of the whole mischief. Hullo,
there's the windlass going already. I'll just lock up these pearls in
the drawer, and then I must go on the bridge. Er, and about going to
your room, my lad: as long as I don't see you for three days you can do
much as you like. I don't want to be too hard. But as I said to old Rad
el Moussa, justice is justice, and discipline's got to be kept."
"And what about the rifles, sir?"
Captain Kettle winked pleasantly. "I don't know that they are rifles.
You see the cases are down on the manifest as 'machinery,' and I'm going
to put them ashore as such; but I don't mind owning to you, Mr. Mate,
that I hope old Rad finds out he was right in his information. I suppose
his neighbors will let him know within the next week or so whether they
are rifles really, or whether they aren't."
"I'm real glad to be able to call you 'Captain,' my lad," said Kettle,
and Murray, in delight at his new promotion, wrung his old commander's
hand again. "You've slaved hard enough as mate," Kettle went on, "though
that's only what a man's got to do at sea nowadays if he wants
promotion, and it'll probably amuse you to see Grain, who steps into
your shoes, doing the work of four deck hands and an extra boatswain as
well as his own. Grain was inclined to stoutness--he'll soon be thin
again. As for you, you've sweated and slaved so much that your clothes
hang on like you a slop-chest shirt on a stanchion just now. But you'll
fill 'em out nicely by the time you get back to England again. Shouldn't
wonder but what you turn out to be a regular fat man one of these
days, my lad."
Murray stood back and looked humorously over Captain Kettle. The pair of
them liked one another well, but the ties of discipline had kept them
icily apart up to now. Murray's promotion put them on equal footing of
grade now, and they were inclined to make the most of it for the short
time they had together. "Running the _Parakeet_ doesn't seem to have
made you very plump, Skipper."
"Constitutional, I guess," said Kettle. "I don't believe the food's
grown that'd make me carry flesh. I'm one of those men that was sent
into the world with a whole shipload of bad luck to work through before
I came across any of the soft things."
"If you ask me," said Murray, cheerfully, "you haven't much to grumble
at now. Here am I kicking you out of the command of the _Parakeet_, to
be sure. And why? Because whilst you've been her old man you've made her
pay about half what she originally cost per annum, and as out of that
the firm's saved enough to build a new and bigger ship, they're
naturally going to give her to you to scare up more fat dividends.
Lord," said Murray, hitting his knee, "the chaps on board here will be
calling me the 'old man' behind my back now."
"You'll get used to hearing the title," said Kettle grimly, "before you
make your pile. You'll get married, I suppose, on the strength of the
promotion? I saw a girl's photo nailed up in your room."
The new captain nodded. "Got engaged when I passed for my master's
ticket. Arranged to be hitched so soon as I found a ship."
Kettle sighed drearily. "I was that way, my lad. I was married, and a
kid had come before I was thirty. Not that I ever regretted it; by
James! no. But for long enough I was never able to provide for the
missus in the way I'd like, and I can tell you it was terrible gall to
me to know that our set at the chapel looked down on her because she
could only keep a poor home. Yes, my lad, you'll have a lot to
"Well," said Murray, "I've got this promotion, and I'm not going to
worry about dismals. I suppose you go straight home by mail from
"Hullo, haven't they told you?"
"My letter was only the dry, formal announcement that you were promoted
to the new ship, and I was to take over the _Parakeet_."
"They don't waste their typewriter in the office. I suppose they thought
I'd hand on my letter if I saw fit. Read through that," said Kettle, and
handed across his news. This is how it ran:--
BIRD, BIRD & CO.,
Ship and Insurance Brokers,
Agents to the Bird
Managers of the
Bird Steam Company.
759, Euston Street,
21st March, 1896.
_Swan_, 375 tons. Captain R. Evans.
_Sparrow_, 461 tons. Captain James Evans.
s.s. _Starling_, 880 tons. Captain Enoch Shaw.
s.s. _Parakeet_, 2,100 tons. Captain Murray.
s.s. Building, 3,500 tons. Captain O. Kettle.
s.s. Building, 3,500 tons. Captain ...
s.s. Building, 4,000 tons. Captain ...
"The superb vessels of the Bird Line!"
_Dear Captain Kettle,--
Having noted from your cables and reports you are making a
good thing for us out of tramping the "Parakeet," we have
pleasure in transferring you to our new boat, which is now
building on the Clyde. She will be 3,500 tons, and we may
take out passenger certificate, she being constructed on that
specification. Your pay will be L21 (twenty-one pound) per
month, with 2-1/2 per cent. commission as before. But for the
present, till this new boat is finished, we want you to give
over command of the "Parakeet" to Murray, and take on a new
job. Our Mr. Alexander Bird has recently bought the wreck of
the s.s. "Grecian," and we are sending out a steamer with
divers and full equipment to get the salvage. We wish you to
go on board this vessel to watch over our interests. We give
you full control, and have notified Captain Tazzuchi, at
present in command, to this effect_.
_Yours truly, p.p. Bird, Bird and Co. (Isaac Bird.)_
_To Captain O. Kettle, s.s. "Parakeet," Bird Line, Aden._
"I see they have clapped me down on the bill heading for the _Parakeet_
already," said Murray, "and you're shifted along in print for the new
ship. Birds are getting on. But I've big doubts about three new boats
all at one bite. One they might manage on a mortgage. But three? I don't
think it. Old Ikey's too cautious."
"Messrs. Bird are your owners and mine," said Kettle significantly.
"Oh!" said the newly-made captain, "I'm not one of your old-fashioned
sort that thinks an owner a little tin god."
"My view is," said Kettle, "that your owner pays you, and so is entitled
to your respect so long as he is your owner. Besides that, whilst you
are drawing pay, you're expected to carry out orders, whatever they may
be, without question. But I don't think we'll talk any more about this,
my lad. You're one of the newer school, I know, and you've got such a
big notion of your own rights that we're not likely to agree. Besides,
you've got to check my accounts and see I've left it all for you
ship-shape, and I've to pull my bits of things together into a
portmanteau. See you again before I go away, and we'll have a drop of
whisky together to wish the _Parakeet's_ new 'old man' a pile of luck."
At the edge of the harbor, Aden baked under the sun, but Kettle was not
the man to filch his employer's time for unnecessary strolls ashore. The
salvage steamer rolled at her anchor at the opposite side of the harbor,
and Kettle and two portmanteaux were transhipped direct in one of the
He was received on board by an affable Italian, who introduced himself
as Captain Tazzuchi. The man spoke perfect English, and was hospitality
personified. The little salvage steamer was barely 300 tons burden, and
her accommodation was limited, but Tazzuchi put the best room in the
ship at his guest's disposal, and said that anything that could act for
his comfort should be done forthwith.
"Y'know, Captain," said Tazzuchi, "this is what you call a 'Dago' ship,
and we serve out country wine as a regular ration. But I thought perhaps
you'd like your own home ways best, and so I've ordered the ship's
chandler ashore to send off a case of Scotch, and another of Chicago
beef. Oh yes, and I sent also for some London pickles. I know how you
English like your pickles."
In fact, all that a man could do in the way of outward attention
Tazzuchi did, but somehow or other Captain Kettle got a suspicion of him
from the very first moment of their meeting. Perhaps it was to some
extent because the British mariner has always an instinctive and special
distrust for the Latin nations; perhaps it was because the civility was
a little unexpected and over-effusive. Putting himself in the Italian's
place, Kettle certainly would not have gone out of his way to be
pleasant to a foreigner who was sent practically to supersede him in
But perhaps a second letter which he had received, giving him a more
intimate list of the duties required, had something to do with this
hostile feeling. It was from the same hand which had written the firm's
formal letter, but it was couched in quite a different vein. Isaac Bird
was evidently scared for his very commercial existence, and he thrust
out his arms to Kettle on paper as his only savior. It seemed that
Alexander Bird, the younger brother, had been running a little wild
The wreck of the _Grecian_ had been put up for auction; Alexander
strolled into the room by accident, and bought at an exorbitant figure.
He came and announced his purchase to Isaac, declaring it as an instance
of his fine business instincts. Isaac set it down to whisky, and
recriminations followed. Alexander in a huff said he would go out and
overlook the salvage operations in person. Isaac opined that the firm
might scrape to windward of bankruptcy by that means, and advised
Alexander to take remarkable pains about keeping sober. But forthwith
Alexander, still in his cups, "and at a music hall, too, a place he
knows 'Isaac's' religious connection holds in profound horror," gets to
brawling, and is next discovered in hospital with a broken thigh.
"_I have found Alexander's department of the business very tangled_,"
wrote Isaac, "_when I began to go into his books the first day he was
laid up, and the thought of this new complication drove me near crazy.
Salvage is out of our line; Alexander should never have touched it. But
there it is; money paid, and I've had to borrow; and engaging that
Italian firm for the job was the best thing I could manage. What English
firms wanted was out of all reason. I don't wonder at Lloyds selling
wrecks for anything they will fetch. A pittance in cash is better than
getting into the hands of these sharks_" (sharks was heavily
underscored). "_And what guarantee have I that the firm will pocket even
that pittance? How do I know that I shall see even the money outpaid
again, let alone reasonable interest? None_."
There were several words erased here, and the writer went on with what
was evidently considered a dramatic finish. "'_But stay,' I say to
myself, 'you have Kettle. He is down in the Red Sea now, doing well. You
had all along intended to promote him. Do it now, and set him to
overlook this Italian salvage firm whilst the new boat is building. He
is the one to see that Isaac Bird's foot doth not fall, for Captain O.
Kettle is a godly man also_.'"
The letter was shut off conventionally enough with the statement that
the writer was Captain Kettle's truly, and ended in a post-scriptum tag
to the effect that the envoy should still draw his two and a-half per
cent. on net results. The actual figures had evidently not been conceded
without a mental wrench, as the erasion beneath them showed, but there
they stood in definite ink, and Kettle was not inclined to cavil at the
process which deduced them.
However, although in his recent prosperity Kettle had assumed a hatred
for risks, and bred a strong dislike for all those commercial adventures
which lay beyond the ordinary rut and routine of trade, he took up his
duties on the salvage steamer with a stout heart and cheerful estimate
for the future. Ahead of him he had pleasant dreams of the big boat that
was "building," and the increased monthly pay in store; and for the
present, well, here was an owner's command, and of course that settled
him firmly in the berth. He had been too long an obedient slave to
shipowners of every grade to have the least fancy for disputing the
imperial will of Bird, Bird and Co.
Murray tooted his cheerful farewells on the _Parakeet's_ siren as the
little Italian salvage boat steamed out of the baking airs of Aden
harbor, and ensigns were dipped with due formality. Tazzuchi was all
hospitality. He invited Kettle to damage his palate with a black Italian
"Virginia" cigar with a straw up the middle; he uncorked a bottle of the
Scotch whisky with his own hand, splashed away the first wineglassful to
get rid of the fusel oil, and put it ready for reference when his guest
should feel athirst; and he produced a couple of American pirated
editions of English novels to give even intellect its dainty feast.
Kettle accepted it all with a dry civility. He had every expectation of
upsetting this man's plans of robbery later on, and very possibly of
coming into personal contact with him. But the ties of bread and salt
did not disturb him. Though it was Tazzuchi who presented the Virginias
and the novels, he took it for granted that Messrs. Bird, Bird and Co.
had paid for them, and he was not averse to accepting a little luxury
from the firm. The economical Isaac had cut down the commissariat on the
_Parakeet_ till a man had to be half-starved before he could stomach
The salvage steamer had a South of Europe leisureliness in her
movements. Her utmost pace was nine knots, but, as eight was more
economical for coal consumption, it was at that speed she moved. The
wreck of the _Grecian_ was out of the usual steam lane. She had, it
appeared, got off her course in a fog, had run foul of a half-ebb reef
which holed her in two compartments, and then been steered for the shore
in the wild attempt to beach her before she sank. She had ceased
floating, however, with some suddenness, and when the critical moment
came not all of her people managed to scrape off with their lives in the
boats. Those that stayed behind were incontinently drowned; those that
got away found themselves in a gale (to which the fog gave place), and
had so much trouble to keep afloat that they had no time left to make
accurate determination of where their vessel sank; and when they were
picked up could only give her whereabouts vaguely. However, they stated
that the _Grecian's_ mast-trucks remained above the water surface, and
by these she could be found; and this fact was brought out strongly by
the auctioneer who sold the wreck, and had due influence on the
enterprising Alexander. "Masts!" said Alexander, who daily saw them
bristling from a dock, "don't tell me you can miss masts anywhere."
But, as it chanced, it was only by a fluke that the salvage steamer
stumbled across the wreck at all. She wandered for several days among an
intensely dangerous archipelago, and many times over had narrow escapes
from piling up her bones on one or other of those reefs with which the
Red Sea in that quarter abounds. Tazzuchi navigated her in an ecstasy of
nervousness, and Kettle (who regarded himself as a passenger for the
time being) kept a private store of food and water-bottles handy, and
saw that one of the quarter-boats was ready for hurried lowering. But
nowhere did they see those mast-trucks. They did not sight so much as a
scrap of floating wreckage.
There seemed, however, a good many dhow coasters dodging about in and
among the reefs, and from these Kettle presently drew a deduction.
"Look here," he said to Tazzuchi one morning, "what price those gentry
ashore having found the wreck already? I guess they aren't out here
taking week-end trippers for sixpenny yachting cruises."
"No," said Tazzuchi, "and they aren't fishing; you can see that."
"Well, I give you the tip for what it's worth," said Kettle; and that
afternoon the steamer was run up alongside a dhow, which tried
desperately to escape. Her captain was dragged on board, and at that
juncture Captain Kettle took upon himself to go below. He knew what
would probably take place, and, though he disapproved of such methods
strongly, he felt he could not interfere. He was in Bird, Bird and Co.'s
employ, and what was being done would forward the firm's interest.
But presently came a noise of bellowing from the deck above, and then
that was followed by shrill screams as the upper gamut of agony was
reached. Kettle was prepared for rough handling, but at information
gained by absolute torture he drew the line. It was clear that these
cruel beggars of Italians were going too far.
"By James!" he muttered to himself, "owners or no owners, I can't stand
this," and started hurriedly to go back to the deck. But before he
reached the head of the companion-way the cries of pain ceased, and so
he stood where he was on the stair, and waited. The engines rumbled, and
the steamer once more gathered way. A clamor of barbaric voices reached
him, which gradually died into quietude. It was clear they were leaving
the dhow behind.
Captain Kettle drew a long breath. They would stick at little, these
Dagos, in getting the salvage of the _Grecian_, and it seemed
preposterous to suppose that once they gripped the specie in their own
ringers they would ever give it up for the paltry pay which had been
offered by Bird, Bird and Co. Their own poverty was aching. He saw it
whenever he looked about the patched little steamer. He felt it whenever
he sat down to one of their painfully frugal meals.
Still, though no man knew more bitterly than Kettle himself from past
experience what poverty meant, and how it cut, the poverty of these
Italians was no concern of his just then. They were paid servants of the
owners exactly as he was, and it was his duty to see that they earned
their hire. He took it that he was one against the whole ship's company,
but the odds did not daunt him. On the contrary, something of his old
fighting spirit, which had been of late hustled into the background by
snug commercial prosperity, came back to him. And besides, he had always
at his call that exquisite pride of race which has so many times given
victory to the Anglo-Saxon over the Latin, when all reasonable balances
should have made it go the other way.
By a sort of instinct he buttoned up his trim white drill coat, and
stepped out on deck. There would be no scuffle yet awhile. With the
specie that would make the temptation still snugly stored on the
sea-floor, the dirty, untidy Italians were still all affability. Indeed,
as soon as he appeared, Tazzuchi himself stepped down off the upper
bridge to give him the news.
"How do you think those crafty imps have managed it?" he cried, with a
gesture. "Why they dived down and cut off her masts below water level.
The funnel was out of sight already. They just thought they were going
to have the skimming of that wreck themselves. No wonder we couldn't
pick her up."
"Cute beggars," said Kettle.
"I've bagged a pilot. If he takes us there straight, he gets backsheesh.
If he doesn't, he eats more stick. I think," said Captain Tazzuchi, with
a wide smile, "that he'll take us there the quickest road."
"Shouldn't wonder," said Kettle. "But don't be surprised if his friends
come round and make things ugly. When those Red Sea niggers get their
fingers in a wreck, they think's it's their wreck."
"Let them come. We were ready for this sort of entertainment when we
sailed, and there are plenty of rifles and cartridges in the cabin. If
there is any trouble, we shall shoot; and if we begin that game, we
shall just imagine they are Abyssinians, and shoot to kill. The Italians
have a big bill to pay with those jokers, anyway." He tapped Kettle on
the shoulder. "And look at those two brass signal guns, Captain. If we
break up some firebars for shot, they'll smash the side of any dhow in
the Red Sea."
Under the black captive's guidance, the salvage steamer soon put a term
to her search. For two more hours she threaded her way among surf which
broke over unseen reefs, and swung round the capes of a rocky
archipelago, and then the pilot gave his word and the engines were
stopped and a rusty cable roared out till an anchor got its hold of the
ground. A boat was lowered with air-pump already stepped amidships, and
the boat's crew with eager hands assisted the diver to make his toilet.
"You chaps seem keen enough," said Kettle, as he watched the trail of
air bubbles which showed the man's progress on the sea floor below.
"They have each got a stake in the venture."
"I bet they have," was Kettle's grim comment to himself.
The kidnapped skipper of the dhow, it seemed, had done his pilotage with
a fine accuracy. The salvage steamer had been anchored in a good
position, and between them two divers in two boats found the _Grecian's_
wreck in half an hour. Indeed, they had made their first descent
practically within hand-touch of her, but the water was full of a milky
clay and very opaque, and sight below the surface was consequently
They came up to the air for a quarter of an hour's spell and made their
announcement, and then the copper helmets were clapped into place again,
and once more like a pair of uncouth sea monsters they slowly and
clumsily faded away into the depths. A gabble of excited Italian kept
pace to the turning of the air-pumps, and of that language Kettle knew
barely a score of words. Practically these people might have weaved any
kind of plot noisily and under his very nose without his being any the
wiser, and this possibility did little to quell his suspicions.
But still Tazzuchi was all outward frankness. "It's as well we brought
out this little steamboat just to skim the wreck and survey her," he
said. "If they'd waited to fit out a big salvage expedition, to raise
her straight off, I reckon there wouldn't have been much left but iron
plates and coal bunkers. These Red Sea niggers are pretty useful at
looting, once they start. The beggars can dive pretty nearly as well and
as long in their naked skins as their betters can in a proper
Each time the divers came up from the opaque white water they brought
more reports. Binnacles, whistle, wheels, and all movable deck fittings
were gone already. The chart-house had been looted down to the bare
boards. Hatches were off, both forward and aft, and already the cargo
had begun to diminish. The black men of the district had been making
good use of their time; and as the probabilities were that they would
return in force to glean from this store which they considered legally
theirs, it was advisable to collect as much as possible into the salvage
steamer before any disturbances began.
News came from the cool mysterious water to the baking region of air
above, almost at the second hour of the search, that the _Grecian_ could
never be refloated. In addition to the holes already made in two of her
compartments, she had settled on a sharp jag of rock, which had pierced
her in a third place aft. But at the same time this one piece of rock
was the only solid spot in the neighborhood. All the rest of the sea
floor was paved with pulpy white clay, and in this the unfortunate wreck
had settled till already it was flush with her lower decks. There were
evidences, too, that the ooze was creeping higher every day, so that all
that remained was to strip her as quickly as might be before she was
swallowed up for always.
Tazzuchi asked Captain Kettle for his opinion that night in the
chart-house. "I'm to be guided by you, of course," he said, "but my idea
is that we should go for the specie first thing, and let everything
slide till that's snugly on board here. Birds gave L5,400 for the wreck,
and there's L8,000 in cash down there in a room they built specially for
it over the shaft-tunnel. If we can grab that, it will pay our expenses
and commission and all the other actual outlay, and Birds will be out of
the wood. Afterward, if we can weigh any more of the cargo, well, that
will be all clear profit."
"Yes," thought Kettle, "you want those gold boxes in your hands, you
blessed Dago, and then you'll begin to play your monkey tricks. I wonder
if you think you're going to jam a knife into me by way of making things
snug and safe?" But aloud he expressed agreement to Captain
He felt that this was diplomacy, and though the diplomatic art was new
and strange to him, he told himself that it was the correct weapon to
use under the circumstances. He had risen out of his old grade of
hole-and-corner shipmaster, where it had been his province to carry
things through by rough blows and violent words. He was a Captain in a
regular line--the Bird line--now, and (with a trifle of a sigh) he
remembered that wild fights and scrimmages were beneath the dignity of
Accordingly, as soon as dawn gave a waking light, the boats were put out
again, and the divers were given orders to let the further survey of the
vessel rest, and put all their efforts into getting the specie boxes on
to the end of the salvage steamer's winch chain. They were quickly
helmed and sent below, and presently an increased cloudiness in the
water told him that they were actively at work. A lot of dhows were
showing here and there amongst the reefs, obviously watching them, and
Tazzuchi was beginning to get nervous.
"We're in for trouble, I'm afraid," he said to Kettle. "That rock on
which she's settled astern has made a hole in her you could drive a cart
through. I suppose it was a tight-fitting hole at first, but as she
settled more and moved about, it's got enlarged same as the hole in a
tin of beef does when you begin to waggle it with the can-opener."
"Didn't you hear the report they've just sung off from the boats? Oh, I
forgot, you don't understand Italian. Well, the news is that the rock's
acted as a can-opener to such fine effect that it's split a hole in the
bottom of the strong room, and those gold boxes have toppled through."
"And buried themselves in the slime?"
"That's it. And Lord knows how many feet they've sunk. It's dreadful
stuff to dig amongst--slides in on you as soon as you start to dig, and
levels up. They'll have to brattice as they work. It'll be a big job."
All that day Kettle watched the sea with an anxious eye. In the two
boats men ground at the air-pumps under the aching sunlight. From below
the mud came up in white billows, which danced, and swirled, and eddied
as the air bubbles from the divers' exhaust valves stirred it. And out
beyond, in and among the reefs, and along the distant shore, which swung
and shimmered in the heat haze, hungry dhows prowled like carrion birds
temporarily driven away from a prey.
Tazzuchi and the chief engineer busied themselves in binding together
fragments of fire-bars with iron wire. The Italian shipmaster had a
great notion of the damage his signal-guns could do against a dhow, if
they were provided with orthodox solid shot. As a point of fact they
never came into action. As soon as the second night came down, and the
darkness became fairly fixed in hue, there began to crackle out of the
distance a desultory rifle fire from every quarter of the compass. It
was not very heavy--at the outside there were not a score of weapons
firing, and it could not be called accurate since not one bullet in
twenty so much as hit the steamer; but it was annoying for all that, and
as the marksmen and their vessels were completely swallowed up by the
blackness of the night, it was impossible to repay their compliments
Morning showed the damage of one port window smashed, two panes gone
from the engine-room skylight, and the air-pump in one of the boats
alongside with a plunger neatly cut into two pieces. But there was a
spare air-pump in store, and after dawn came, work went on as usual. The
dhows came no nearer, neither did they go much further away. They
pottered about just beyond rifle shot, and their numbers were slightly
increased. Tazzuchi, full of enthusiasm for his artillery, tried a
carefully aimed shot at one of the largest. But the explosion was quite
outdone in noise by the cackle of laughter which followed it. So slow
was the flight of the missile that the eye could trace it. So short was
its journey, and so curved its trajectory, that it came very near to
hitting one of the boats of the divers, and the men working there cried
out in derision that they would catch cold by being wetted by the spray.
"Well," thought Kettle, "these are pretty cool hands for Dagos, anyway.
I'm going to have a fine tough time of it when my part of the
That night he had a still further taste of their quality. So soon as
darkness fell, the dhows closed in again and recommenced their sniping.
They kept under weigh, and so it did little enough good to aim back at
the flashes. But Tazzuchi, with half a dozen keen spirits, got down into
one of the boats with their rifles and knives, and a drum of paraffin,
and pulled away silently into the blackness.
There was silence for quite half an hour, and the suspense on the
anchored steamer was vivid enough to have shaken trained men. Yet these
Italian artificers and merchant seamen seemed to take it as coolly as
though such sorties were an everyday occurrence. But at the end of that
time there was a splutter of shots, a few faint squeals, and then a
bonfire lighted up away in the darkness.
The blaze grew rapidly, and showed in its heart the outline of a dhow
with human figures on it. With promptness every man on the steamer
emptied his rifle at the mark, and continued the fusillade till the dhow
was deserted. They had all done their spell of military service, and
they chose to decide that these snipers were Abyssinians, and did their
best toward squaring the national accounts.
Tazzuchi and his friends returned in the boat, safe and jubilant, and
for the rest of that night the little salvage steamer was left in
quietude. With the next daybreak the divers and their attendants once
more applied themselves to labor. Kettle, as he watched, was amazed to
see the energy they put into it. Certainly they seemed keen enough to
get the specie weighed, and on board. Whatever piratical plans they had
got made up were evidently for afterward.
But when day after day passed, and still none of the treasure was
brought to the surface, he began to modify this original opinion.
Tazzuchi--translating the divers' reports--said that the cause of the
delay was the softness of the sea-floor. The heavy chests had sunk deep
into the ooze, and directly a spadeful of the horrible slime was dug
away, more slid in to fill the gap. Of course this might be true; but
there was only Tazzuchi's word for it. The sea was too consistently
opaque to give one a chance of seeing down from above the surface.
Now as suspicion had got so deep a hold on Captain Kettle's mind, he
began to cudgel his brain for some new method by which the Italians
could serve their purpose. He put himself supposititiously in Tazzuchi's
place, and made piratical theories by the score. Most of them he had to
dismiss after examination as impracticable, others he eliminated by
natural selection; and finally one stood out as practicable beyond
all the rest.
For one thing it did not want many participants; only the actual divers
and Tazzuchi himself. For another, it would not brand the whole gang of
them as criminals and pirates, but (properly managed) would make them
rich without any advertised stigma or stain. In simple words, the method
was this: the gold boxes must be removed from their original site, and
hidden elsewhere under the water close at hand. The friendly slime would
bury them snugly out of sight. The old report of "un-get-at-able" would
be adhered to, and finally the steamer would give up further salvage
operations as hopeless (after fishing up some useless cargo out of the
holds as a conscience salve) and steam away to port. There Tazzuchi and
his friends would either desert or get themselves dismissed, charter a
small vessel of their own, and go back for the plunder; and with L8,000
in clear hard cash to divide, live prosperously (from an Italian
standpoint) ever afterward.
Kettle felt an unimaginative man's complacency in ferreting out such a
dramatic scheme, and began to think next upon the somewhat important
detail of how to get proofs before he commenced to frustrate it. Chance
seemed to make Tazzuchi play into his hand. The air-pump which had been
damaged by the rifle bullet had been mended by the steamer's engineers,
and as there were two or three spare diving dresses on the ship, Captain
Tazzuchi expressed his intention of making a descent in person to
"I didn't do it before, because I didn't want to make the men break
time, but I can go down now without interrupting their work. Will you
come off in the boat with me, Captain, and hand my lifeline?"
"I'll borrow one of those spare dresses and share the pump with you,"
Tazzuchi was visibly startled. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that the pump will give air for two, and I'm coming down with
"But you know nothing about diving, and you might have an accident, and
I should be responsible."
"Oh, I'll risk that! You must nursery-maid me a bit."
Tazzuchi lowered his voice. "To tell the truth, I'm going to pay a
surprise visit. I want to make sure those chaps below are doing the
square thing. If they aren't, and I catch them, there'll be a row, and
they'll use their knives."
"H'm!" said Kettle, "I've got no use for your local weapon as a general
thing. I find a gun handiest. But at a pinch like this I'll borrow a
knife of you, and if it comes to any one cutting my air-tube you'll find
I can use it pretty mischievously."
"I wish you wouldn't insist upon this," said Tazzuchi persuasively.
"I'm going to, anyway."
"I'm going down merely because it's my duty."
"That's the very same reason that's taking me, Captain. I must ask you
not to make any more objections. I'm a man that never changes his mind,
once it's made up."
Whereupon Tazzuchi shrugged his shoulders, and gave way.
"Now," thought Kettle to himself, "that man's made up his mind to kill
me if he gets the glimmer of a chance, and, as I'm not going to get
wiped out this journey, he'll do with a lot of watching."
It has been the present writer's business at one time and another to
point out that Captain Owen Kettle is a man of iron nerve; but I cannot
call to mind any instance where his indomitable courage was more
severely tried than in this voluntary descent in the diving dress. The
world beneath the waters was strange and dangerous to him; his companion
was a man against whom he held the blackest suspicion; the men at the
pump (whose language he did not understand) might any moment cut off his
supply, and leave him to drown like a puppy under a bucket. The
circumstances combined were enough to daunt a Bayard.
But Kettle felt that the men in the boat, who helped to adjust his
stiff rubber dress, were regarding him with more than ordinary
curiosity, and, for his own pride's sake, he preserved an unruffled
face. He even tried a rude jest in their own tongue before they made
Back to Full Books