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   Chapter 6 No.6

A Final Reckoning By G. A. Henty Characters: 30511

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The next day the Paramatta weighed anchor and proceeded down the river. Reuben had no time to look at the passing ships, for he was fully occupied with the many odd jobs which are sure to present themselves, when a ship gets under weigh. The wind was favourable, and the Paramatta ran down to the mouth of the Medway before the tide had ceased to ebb. She anchored for three hours, and then made her way up to Chatham, where she brought up close to the government yard.

It was not till late in the evening that Reuben had finished his work, and was at liberty to look round, and to take an interest in what was going on on deck.

"This is your first voyage, my lad, I reckon," an old sailor, who was standing leaning against the bulwark, smoking his pipe, remarked.

"Yes," Reuben said cheerfully, "this is my first voyage. I have shipped as carpenter, you know, to work my way out to Sydney."

"You could not have chosen a better ship than this 'ere barkee," the sailor said; "though I wish she hadn't got them convicts on board. She will sail all the faster, 'cause, you see, instead of being choked up with cargo, the deck below there has been set aside for them. That will make easy sailing and quick sailing; but I don't like them, for all that. They are a lot of trouble, and they has to be watched, night and day. There's never no saying what they might be up to; there's mostly trouble on board, with them. Then one can't help being sorry for the poor chaps, though they does look such a villainous bad lot. They are treated mostly like dogs, and I have been on board ships where the rations was not what a decent dog would look at."

"But I thought there was regular food, according to a scale," Reuben said.

"Ay, there's that," the sailor replied, "and the government officers see that the quantity's right; but, Lor' bless you! They don't trouble as to quality, and some of the owners buys up condemned stores, and such like; anything, thinks they, is good enough for a convict ship-biscuits as is dropping to pieces, salt junk as 'as been twenty years in cask, and which was mostly horse to begin with. No wonder as they grumbles and growls. A convict is a man, you see, though he be a convict; and it ain't in human nature to eat such muck as that, without growling."

"What tonnage is the vessel?" Reuben asked.

"'Leven hundred and fifty ton, and as fine and roomy a ship as there is in the trade, and well officered. I have made three v'yages with the captain and first mate, and the second mate was with us on the last v'yage."

"How many hands are there, altogether?"

"Twenty-five, counting you as one, and not a-counting the two stewards."

"We are going to take some passengers, I see," Reuben said. "I have been at work, putting up pegs and shelves for them."

"Yes, there's eight or ten passengers, I hears," the sailor said. "Passengers don't mostly like going by convict ships, but then the fares are lower than by other vessels, and that tempts a few. Besides, the Paramatta is known to be a fast ship, and the skipper has a good name; so we shall have a better class of passengers, I expect, than usually voyages with convict ships; and besides the passengers there will be the officer of the convict guard, and a surgeon, so we shall be pretty full aft."

"And what will my duties be, when we are at sea?"

"It just depends on the captain," the sailor said. "You will be put in a watch, and work with the others, except that they may not send you aloft. That depends on the terms that you shipped."

"I shipped as carpenter, and to make myself generally useful, and to obey orders. I shall be happy to do anything I can; hard work is better than doing nothing, any day."

"That's the sort, my lad," the sailor said heartily. "Now I am sail maker, but, bless your heart! Except putting a patch on a sail, now and then, there's nothing to do that way; and when not so wanted I am one of the ordinary crew. Still, if you works your passage, it ain't to be expected as they will drive you the same as a man as is paid. He's a fair man, is the skipper; and you won't find yourself put upon, on board the Paramatta."

"Can't I go up aloft now?" Reuben asked. "I would rather accustom myself to it while we are lying steady, than go up when the wind's blowing, and she is heeling over."

"Go up! To be sure you can, and I will go up with you, and tell you some of the names of the ropes, and put you up to things. There's a pleasure in helping a lad who seems in any way teachable. Some of they boys as comes on board a ship ain't worth their salt, in these days."

The sailor led the way up the shrouds. Reuben found it much more difficult than it looked. He had seen the sailors running up and down, and it looked as easy as mounting a ladder; but the slackness of the ratlines-which, as the sailor told him, was the name of the pieces of rope which answered to the rounds of a ladder-made it at first awkward. When they reached the main top the sailor told him to sit down, and look round quietly, till he became accustomed to the height.

"It looks unnatural and risky, at first," he said; "but when you get accustomed to it, you will feel just as safe, when you are astraddle the end of a yard, and the ship rolling fit to take her masts out, as if you were standing on the deck."

As Reuben had heard the sailors laughing and joking aloft, as they hauled out the earrings of the sails, he had no doubt that what the sailor said was true; but it seemed, to him, that he should never accustom himself to sit at the end of a spar, with nothing but the water at a vast depth below. It would be bad, even with the ship lying quiet, as at present. It would be terrible with the vessel in a heavy sea.

The sailor now told him the names of the masts and stays, giving him a general idea of the work aloft, and presently asked him whether he would like to return to the deck now, or to mount a bit higher. Although Reuben was now becoming accustomed to the position, he would, had he consulted his inner feelings, have rather gone down than up; but he thought it was better to put a good face on it, and to accustom himself, at once, to what he would probably have to do sooner or later.

Holding on tight then, and following the instructions of his companion, he made his way up until he was seated on the cap of the top-gallant mast, holding tight to the spar, which towered still higher above him. He was surprised at the size and strength of the spars, which had looked so light and slender, from below.

"Very well done, lad," the sailor said approvingly. "You would make a good sailor, in time, if you took to a seafaring life. There's not one in ten as would get up there, the first time of going aloft. You don't feel giddy, do you?"

"No," Reuben replied, "I don't think I feel giddy, but I feel a strange shaky feeling in my legs."

"That will soon pass off," the sailor said. "You look at them hills behind the town, and the forts and works up there. Don't think about the deck of the vessel, or anything, but just as if you were sitting in a chair, watching the hills."

Reuben did as the sailor instructed him and, as he did so, the feeling of which he was before conscious passed completely away.

"I feel all right now," he said, after sitting quietly for a few minutes.

"All right, then; down we go. Don't look below, but just keep your eyes in front of you, and never leave go of one grip till you make sure of the next."

Five minutes later he stood on the deck.

"Well done, my lad, for the first time," the first mate said, as Reuben put his foot on the deck "I have had my eye on you. I shouldn't have let you go beyond the top, at the first trial; but I didn't think you would go higher, till you were fairly up, otherwise I should have hailed you from the deck.

"You ought not to have taken him up above the top, Bill. If he had lost his head, it would have been all up with him."

"I could see he wasn't going to lose his head. Trust me for not leading a young hand into danger. He was a little flustrated, when he got into the top; but after he had sat down a bit, his breath come quiet and regular again, and I could see there was no chance of his nerve going."

The next morning, soon after daybreak, the dockyard boats began to row alongside, with grey-coated convicts. Reuben watched them as they came on board, with a sort of fascination with their closely cut hair, bullet heads, and evil faces. Although he had no doubt that the repulsive expression was due partly to the close-cut hair and shaved faces, and their hideous garb, he could scarcely repress a shudder as he looked at them. In some faces an expression of brutal ferocity was dominant. Others had a shifty, cunning look, no less repulsive.

There were a few good-humoured faces, one or two so different from the others, that Reuben wondered whether they were innocent victims of circumstances, as he had so nearly been. Not till now did he quite realize how great his escape had been. The thought that he might have had to spend the rest of his life herding with such men as these, made him feel almost sick; and he thanked God more fervently, even, than he had done when the verdict was returned which restored him to his liberty, that he had been saved from such a fate.

A hundred and eighty convicts came on board. They were in charge of ten warders, with loaded muskets, and an hour later a party of twenty marines, under the charge of an officer, also embarked. They were on their way out to join a ship in Australian waters, and were to aid the warders in keeping the convicts in good order.

The wind being favourable, no time was lost after the marines had come on board. The moorings were cast off and sails hoisted, and the Paramatta made her way against the tide to the mouth of the Medway; and there dropped her anchor to wait until the tide began to ebb, for the wind was so light that little would have been gained by an attempt to proceed at once. Sail was made again as soon as tide turned and, on turning out next morning at daylight, for he had not yet been assigned to a watch, Reuben found that the ship was lying at anchor in the Downs.

Two or three hours passed.

"What are we doing here, Bill?"

"We are waiting for the passengers. They are all coming on board here. I expect that big lugger you see, running out direct for us, 'as got them on board."

"I wonder they didn't come on board when we started," Reuben said. "I should think it would have been pleasanter than coming all the way down to Dover by coach."

"So I should think, my lad; but you see, it ain't every time as a ship has the luck we've had. It's a long job coming down to the Downs, if the wind don't serve. We might have been beating about there, at the mouth of the Thames, for a week. So you see, most of these 'longshore chaps like to send their traps on board while the vessel's in the docks, and then to come down here and stop till she comes round."

In a few minutes the lugger was alongside, the gangway was lowered, and the passengers began to come on board. They were, as the sailor had said they would be, some ten in number. There were six men, four ladies, and three children, the latter not counting as regular passengers, as they were stowed away in their parents' cabins.

The convicts who were on deck looked over the bulwarks, and cracked coarse jokes among themselves, as the passengers ascended the gangway. Reuben found that only one-third of the number were allowed on deck at once. Two soldiers paced up and down the deck, on guard of the hatchway leading below, and two sentries were posted at other points.

A number of small boxes, bags, coats and cloaks were handed up, and then the rope was cast off, and the lugger made her way back to Dover, and the Paramatta again got under sail. While they had been waiting, the chief mate had told Reuben that, according to the captain's orders, he would henceforth be in his watch.

"As you are not regularly shipped as a sailor," the mate said, "the captain does not wish you to go aloft, unless by your own desire; but there will be plenty of work for you to do on deck, hauling at the braces, scrubbing, and so on."

"I should be glad to do my work with the rest," Reuben said, "as soon as I feel I can be useful aloft. I was up two or three times yesterday, and hope in a few days to be quite accustomed to it."

"I have noticed you, my lad, and you could not be in better hands than Bill's. He is a capital sailor, and as he has taken to you, and you are willing to learn, you will be a useful hand before we get to Sydney; and even if you never go to sea again, all your life, you will find that you have learned a great deal that is useful on board the Paramatta."

The fine weather, which the Paramatta had experienced so far, speedily left her. The sky grew overcast, and the wind freshened fast, and the next morning the ship was staggering, under close-reefed canvas, in the teeth of the southwesterly gale.

For the next three days Reuben made no advance in seamanship, being prostrated with seasickness. At times he crept out from the forecastle, and tried to lend a hand whenever he saw a party of men hauling at a rope; but the motion of the ship was so great that he could scarce keep his feet on the slippery decks, and at last the mate ordered him to go back to the forecastle, and remain there until he recovered somewhat from his sickness.

"I see you are no skulker, my lad; but you will do no good on deck here, and are not unlikely to get a heavy fall, and perhaps a nasty hurt, so you had best lie off till you get over your sickness."

Reuben was already drenched to the skin by the spray, and felt so weak that he was not sorry to avail himself of the mate's orders, and to turn in again to his bunk in the forecastle.

On the morning of the fourth day he felt himself again, and turned out. The gale had almost blown itself out, but the sea was very heavy. The fresh air was delightful to Reuben, after the confinement in the forecastle; and as his watch was on deck, he at once went up to Bill and asked him what he could do.

"Glad to see you about agin, Reuben," the sailor said. "You have had a worse time of it than most. There is a lot of difference atween chaps. Some takes it bad, and some is never ill from the first. Well, there ain't nothing to do at present, but just hold on and get to feel your legs. Don't you try to go across the deck, if the hands are called, until you are accustomed to it; else you will get a fall, to a certainty."

"Is the gale nearly over, Bill?"

"Why, it's quite over. Don't you see that for yourself?"

"It seems to me to blow hard now."

"Blow hard! Why, there ain't a capful of wind. It was blowing pretty hard yesterday, if you like, but not worth calling a gale. If you are lucky, you are like to know what a gale is, when we get south of the Cape. The wind does blow there, when it has made up its mind. That's the place where they say as the helmsman has to have two men, regular, to hold on his hair."

Reuben laughed.

"I think on the whole, Bill, I would rather get to Sydney w

ithout meeting a storm like that. This has been quite enough for me. Why, some of the waves hit the vessel's bow as if they would have knocked it in."

"Wait till you have a gale in earnest, Master Reuben, and you will know about it then. Of course it seemed worse to you, because you were lying there a-doing nothing, and was weak-like with heaving yourself up. If you had been on deck, you would have seen as it was nothing worth talking about.

"Look at the ship. Everything's in its place, and ship-shape."

"Why, what has become of the tall spars aloft," Reuben said, looking up.

"Oh, they were sent down when the wind freshened," Bill said. "There ain't nothing in that."

"Where are the convicts, Bill?"

"Oh, they are all battened down below," the sailor said carelessly. "They only come up for an airing when the weather is fine. They are like the passengers only, instead of pleasing themselves, their ways are marked out for them."

"Have any of the passengers been up?"

"Two or three of the men have shown, and a gal. It ain't her first voyage, I'll bet. A pretty thing she is, and as straight as a mast. She's been on deck, off and on, ever since we started."

The next morning the sea moderated greatly and, the wind having gone round to the southeast, the Paramatta made the most of it, to get west as far as possible before turning her head to the south.

"That's a slice of luck," Bill Hardy said to Reuben; "there's nothing like getting well off, at the start. With luck, now, we oughtn't to see the land till we make the Cape."

"But I would rather see the land, Bill. When one is going half round the globe, it is pleasant to touch at ports on the way, and to get a glimpse at foreign peoples and ways."

"Ay, I like a spree on shore," Bill agreed; "but after all, it don't last long; and when you are near land, there's always the chance that the wind may shift round, and you may find yourself dead on a lee shore. The skipper gets anxious and the mates out of temper, and if it does come on to blow hard, from the wrong quarter, there's never no saying what will come of it.

"No, my lad, there's nothing like a good open sea, with no land within five hundred miles of you, at the least. The coast of Africa ain't a pleasant neighbour. What with the low shores, which you don't see till you are pretty nigh close to them; what with the currents and the changeable winds, and the precious bad lookout there is, if you do get cast ashore, I tell you the wider berth you gives it, the better."

The next morning was so fine and bright that all the passengers were on deck, and after breakfast the word was passed forward that the carpenter was wanted. Reuben found that he was wanted to nail some strips of wood on the floor of some of the cabins, to prevent the boxes from shooting out from under the berths when the vessel rolled. As he was at work at one of these, a young lady came to the door of the cabin, and uttered a little exclamation of surprise at seeing Reuben kneeling on the floor. Then, seeing what he was doing, she said:

"Oh, you are the carpenter, I suppose?"

"Yes, miss."

"I wish you would screw on some pegs I brought with me, to hang things upon. Everything does get thrown about so, when the ship's rolling. They are in that trunk, if you will not mind pulling it out."

Reuben pulled out the trunk, which the girl opened and, after some search, produced half-a-dozen iron clothes pegs. She showed him where she wished them screwed on, and stood looking on while he carried out her instructions.

"Are you the ship's carpenter?"

"Yes, miss."

"You seem very young for a carpenter, don't you?"

"I am young," Reuben replied, smiling, "and this is my first voyage. Fortunately for me, the hand who was engaged hurt himself, just as the vessel was sailing, so I obtained the berth. So far it does not appear that it is a difficult one."

The girl looked at him a little curiously. His manner of talk and conversation differed, so much, from the sailors in general.

"Are you really a carpenter?" she asked. "You don't look like a carpenter."

"Yes, I am really a carpenter," Reuben answered; "at least, I am a mill wright by trade. We are a sort of half and half between carpenter and smith.

"Is there anything else?" he asked, as he finished screwing the last screw.

"No, nothing else, thank you," the girl answered. "That will do very nicely, and I am much obliged to you."

After finishing his work in the cabins, Reuben went forward.

"Captain," the young lady said, as she went upon deck, "I have been talking to that young carpenter of yours. I am quite interested in him. Is he really a carpenter? He does not talk a bit like one."

"I believe so, Miss Hudson," the captain replied. "At least, he produced an excellent testimonial from his last employer, when I engaged him. Of course, it might not have been genuine. If there had been time, I should have made more inquiries; but he was well spoken, and had an earnest look about him. But, now you mention it, I don't know that it is very wise letting him go into all the cabins, when I know so little about him."

"Oh, I never thought of that!" the girl exclaimed. "I am sure he looks honest. It was only because he spoke so well that I mentioned it."

"He seems to be a sharp young fellow," the captain remarked, "and I see that he has taken to going aloft with the rest of the crew already. He is an emigrant rather than a sailor, for he has only shipped for a passage. I don't know whether he is going to join a man, out there; but if not, he is certainly young to go out on his own account. I do not think he's more than eighteen. He looks so young, he cannot have served all his time at his trade."

"I really feel quite interested in him, Captain Wilson," the girl said, turning to a gentleman standing by, who had been listening to the conversation. "I wish, if you get an opportunity, you would get into conversation with this carpenter of ours, and find out something about him."

"I will, if you like, Miss Hudson; but I don't suppose there's much to find out, and what there is, he's not likely to tell me. From what you say, I should guess that he had had a bad master, and had run away."

"But the captain said he had good testimonials," Miss Hudson persisted.

"As to testimonials," the gentleman said, "anyone can write a testimonial."

"How suspicious you are, Captain Wilson!" the girl laughed. "That's the worst of being a police officer, and having to do with criminals. You think whoever you come across is a rogue, until you find out he is an honest man. Now, I think everyone is honest, till I find him out to be a rogue."

"My way is the safest," the officer laughed. "At any rate, on board this ship there are five rogues to each honest man."

"Ah, but that's not a fair average," the girl objected. "Of course, in the colony one has to be careful, considering that half the shepherds and stockmen are convicts, and I must own that the natives are nearly all thieves; but how could it be otherwise, when England sends all its rogues out to us? You see, when free labour gets more abundant, and we can do without convicts, the colonists will protest against it."

"Very likely they will," the officer agreed; "but what is England to do, if she has nowhere to send her rogues?"

"That is her business," Miss Hudson said carelessly. "There is no reason why they should be shoved on to us. In the old time, when there were no colonies, England managed somehow, and I suppose she could do so again."

"She managed in a very short way," Captain Wilson said. "She hung them as fast as she caught them. It did not matter much what the offence was, whether stealing a loaf or killing a man; but she could hardly go back to that, now."

"No, she could not," Miss Hudson agreed; "but I have no doubt she can find something useful for them to do, when she has to keep them at home.

"Don't you think so, captain?"

"I daresay she could," the captain answered. "Certainly, if I were a colonist living in a lonely part of the country, I should object to transportation for, what with the natives and bush rangers and bad characters generally, no one can say their life is safe."

"Oh, it's not so bad as that, captain!" Miss Hudson said indignantly. "You are giving the place a bad character."

"I think Captain Wilson will agree it's a true one," the captain said, smiling.

"Eh, Captain Wilson?"

"I am afraid so," the latter replied. "I know they keep me pretty busy. However, after a year's holiday, I must not grumble if I find plenty to do when I get there."

The voyage down to the Cape was wholly uneventful. The Paramatta was most fortunate in her weather and, beyond trimming the sails, the crew had a very easy time of it. Captain Wilson had, as he promised Miss Hudson, taken the opportunity, when Reuben was sitting idly on deck, of having a chat with him; but he did not learn much in the course of the conversation.

"Your young carpenter puzzles me, Miss Hudson," he said to her at dinner. "He is certainly an altogether exceptionally well-spoken young fellow, for his condition of life; but I can't quite make him out. I think that he has worked as a mill wright. He spoke openly and without hesitation as to his work. But how it is he has thrown it up and emigrated, so young, I can't make out. Of course he cannot have served his time and yet, somehow, I don't think that he has run away, from the manner in which he spoke of his employer.

"He has no friends whatever in the colony, as far as I could learn. I should say he has certainly been fairly educated, and yet he seems, from his own account, to have worked three or four years at his trade.

"I certainly like the lad, though I own that, so far, I cannot altogether make him out. Perhaps I shall learn somewhat more about him, before we get to the end of the voyage, and in that case I will tell you all I know."

Miss Hudson was the daughter of a wealthy flock owner-or, as he was called, squatter-in New South Wales. Her father and mother were on board the ship with her. This was her fifth voyage. She had gone out as a baby with her parents; and had returned to England, at the age of ten, to be educated. When eighteen, she had joined her mother and father in Australia and, two years later, had come with them to Europe, and had spent some months travelling on the Continent. They were now on their way back to the colony.

The only other single lady among the passengers of the Paramatta was going out, under the charge of the captain, to fill a place as governess in a family in Sydney. Miss Furley was somewhat quiet, but a friendship had naturally sprang up between her and Miss Hudson, as the only two young women on board the ship; and the life and high spirits of the young colonist, and the musical acquirements of Miss Furley, helped to make the voyage pass pleasantly for the passengers in the Paramatta.

Captain Wilson had a good tenor voice, and sang well; and one of the other passengers was able to furnish a bass. Almost every evening, as the ship was running down the tropics before a gentle favouring breeze, the sound of solo and glee singing rose from the little party gathered on the poop; and even the convicts, on deck forward, ceased their talk and listened to the strains.

Although the passage had been a pleasant one, there was a general feeling of satisfaction when the ship dropped her anchor in Table Bay. Most of the passengers went on shore at once, to take up their quarters at the hotel till she sailed again. The captain said that it would take at least a couple of days to fill up the water tanks, and take in a supply of fresh provisions.

On the afternoon of the second day, Reuben asked permission of the first mate to go ashore for a few hours.

"Certainly, Whitney," the officer said. "You have proved a very useful hand on the way out, which is more than most do who work their passage. Nine out of ten of them are not worth their salt, to say nothing of the rest of their rations. You can stay on shore tonight, if you like; but you must come off early in the morning. We hope to get away in good time."

On landing, Reuben was much struck with the variety of the scene. In the streets of Cape Town were men of many types. Here was the English merchant and man of business, looking and dressing just as he would at home. Names over the shop doors were for the most part Dutch, as was the appearance of the majority of the white men in the streets. Dutch farmers in broad hats and homespun garments, mounted on rough ponies, clattered along through the streets. The manual work was for the most part done by swarthy natives, while among the crowd were numbers of Malays, with dark olive skins, small eyes, and jet-black hair, their women being arrayed in every shade of gaudy colour.

For some time Reuben wandered about the streets, greatly amused at all he saw. Towards evening he turned his face towards the sea, as he had no wish to avail himself of the permission given him to sleep on shore. Presently he encountered Miss Hudson and Miss Furley, walking the other way. The former nodded brightly, for she had several times spoken to Reuben, since their first acquaintanceship.

Reuben touched his hat, and proceeded on his way. He had gone but a few yards when he heard a loud cry, and everyone darted suddenly into shops or round corners.

Looking round in surprise, Reuben saw what had caused the movement. A Malay, with his long hair streaming down his shoulders, was rushing down the street, giving vent to terrible yells; in his hand he held a crease, with which, just as Reuben looked round, he cut down a native who had tried, too late, to make his escape.

The two English girls, confused and alarmed at the sudden outburst; and unable, until too late, to comprehend the cause of it, stood alone in the middle of the street and, too terrified now to move, clung to each other, regardless of the shouts to fly raised by people at the windows and doors.

The Malay, with a howl of exultation, made at them with uplifted crease. Reuben sprang forward, passed the terrified women when the Malay was within four paces of them, and threw himself with all his force upon him. The Malay, whose eyes were fixed upon the ladies, was taken by surprise by the assault; and his crease had not time to fall when Reuben sprang upon him.

The shock threw both to the ground; Reuben, as he fell, throwing both arms round his adversary. The Malay struggled furiously, and the combatants rolled over and over on the ground. Strong as Reuben was, the frenzy of the Malay gave him greater power; and the lad felt he could not long retain his grip of the arm with which the Malay strove to use his crease.

Help, however, was not long in coming. A native policeman ran up at full speed; and brought his heavy club, with his full force, down on the head of the Malay. The latter's limbs at once relaxed, and Reuben sprang to his feet; breathless, but not seriously harmed, although the blood was freely flowing from some slight wounds he had received from the Malay's sharp-edged weapon.

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