Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 26

Merrily, merrily goes the bark

Before the gale she bounds;

As flies the dolphin from the shark,

Or the deer before the hounds.

One day, shortly after the death and demolition of the unfortunate ox, Rashleigh and some others were dispatched to cut a quantity of mangrove timber in a swamp, this wood being required to be sent to Sydney, where it was to be used for the manufacture of stone-cutter’s mallets, as it was both light and tough. In selecting the proper pieces for this purpose, the men were dispersed in all directions, nearly up to their necks in mud and water; and our adventurer, having strayed at last as far as the bank of the river, was much surprised to see a boat which apparently lay dry upon a sand-bank, having canted a little on one side, no person being observable either in or near it.

As the place where the boat lay was secluded from observation by a projecting point of land covered with mangroves, Rashleigh thought he might gratify his curiosity with impunity by looking into the little vessel. Accordingly he waded to the side of it and found to his great surprise that a man was lying fast asleep in its bottom. The boat here appeared, too, of much greater size when he looked into it than when seen from the shore; and it contained two half-decks, as they are called, under each of which two or three persons could sleep comfortably. There seemed to be a quantity of provisions and other things on board, and Ralph could also perceive the butt ends of some muskets peeping out from under a sail, which was appended to the mast that lay fore and aft along the thwarts.

Quick as lightning a hope of liberty darted into his brain. The breeze was blowing freshly down the river to seaward, and he hastily returned in quest of some companions. Unperceived by any overseer, he soon collected several of the men, and Ralph having briefly explained his hopes and his views, they were easily induced to risk one bold attempt for life and freedom, the bare thought of which animated their pallid features with unwonted fires and appeared to nerve their debilitated frames to dare any danger.

On returning under Rashleigh’s guidance to the boat, they found its unlucky occupant still fast asleep. They quickly pushed the bark off the bank she lay on into the deep water that flowed swiftly beside her and drew up the anchor that held her there. They were now drifting rapidly down towards the harbour’s mouth; but on their quickly setting up the mast, the sail swelled, and oh! what joy filled their breasts as they stood over to the southern shore and placed an island between themselves and their late dreaded scene of confinement.

When they were thus sheltered from immediate view, they awoke the slumbering boat-keeper, whose consternation was dreadful at observing in his boat upwards of half a dozen gaunt, animated skeletons, perfectly naked, smeared with filth and mud, and their faces overgrown with hair from their heads and beards. One of the fugitives held a musket to his head, ordering him to strip in silence. This he was fain to comply with, and his clothes being put on by one of their number, who had been selected from his knowledge of the management of a boat for this purpose, the rest lay down all together in the bottom of the bark, lest their nakedness might attract observation, and consequently, pursuit from the garrison.

When the helmsman judged he was at a sufficient distance from Limeburners’ Bay, he recrossed the harbour before the boat approached too near the settlement, and the bells being now ringing there for the men’s dinner-hour, the fugitives rejoiced in the idea that nearly all the people at the town of Newcastle would be under cover of their several dwellings when they passed on the river before it, and consequently that there would not be so many eyes to observe their motions.

The breeze continued to favour them. In a very short space they were opposite the wharf of the coal mines, and in reply to the anxious questions poured thick and fast upon him by his comrades below, who could not see anything, the helmsman continued to report progress every now and then, assuring them that all was right. They were soon abreast of Nobby’s island, a bluff rock which projects out of nearly the centre of the mouth of Hunter’s river.

“Blow, good breeze! Another mile, and all is safe,” was uttered in tones of triumph by the steersman when “Boat ahoy!” was thundered in their ears from the rocky islet.

Forgetful of prudential considerations in the anxiety of the moment, two of the naked runaways partially raised themselves from their place of concealment.

“Haul down your sail directly or I’ll fire into your boat!” roared the person on shore, who proved to be one of the military officers that had gone on the rock to shoot sea-fowl; and finding the fugitives paid no attention to his repeated cries, he shouted once more and louder than ever, “Halloo! Shore ahoy! Help!! Mutiny!!!” at the same time levelling his piece and firing. But the shot spattered harmlessly far astern of the boat, in the water, the little bark meanwhile still increasing the distance between the parties.

All concealment being now useless, the runaways stood up in the boat and Rashleigh could observe the whole settlement was in commotion, aroused probably by the firing, for the report of the officer’s piece had been repeated by one of the sentries posted at the signal station, and the verandah of Government house being full in his sight, he could even observe the dreaded person of their haughty commandant, who rushed out, and mounting a horse, galloped down to the sea-beach, where by his gestures he seemed to be urging some men, who were busily launching a boat, to increased exertion.

One party of soldiers quickly came flying, rather than running, down the hill to their commander, and another body of military, who had, in the hurry of the first alarm, apparently posted towards the gaol, now made their appearance upon the high ground at the back of Nobby’s island. The alarm bells were rung, and two pieces of cannon that were placed upon a green in front of the Government house, being hastily loaded, were fired, one of the balls from which whizzed just over their little mast, and then, plunging into the sea, appeared to skip from wave to wave until it buried itself deep in a bank on the northern shore, raising a cloud of sand in its career.

Until now Rashleigh had not observed a little boat containing only two persons that had put off from the rocky islet directly after the fugitives had passed. These were the officer who had first given the alarm, and his servant, who, although they had apparently but one fire-arm between them, were yet bold enough to persevere in a chase against such overwhelming odds, both of numbers and weapons, for the runaways, on searching the bark they had seized, discovered a good store of powder, ball and six muskets on board. The little boat, being so much smaller and lighter than that in which Rashleigh was, now gained rapidly upon them, and our adventurer hailed the officer, begging him as he valued his life to keep off, at the same time intimating the number of their weapons, which were also presented at the young ensign; but the latter perhaps thought he had gone too far to retract with honour, and the only reply he deigned to give was by discharging his gun, on which the steersman’s left arm dropped motionless to his side; and the report of six muskets from the convicts’ boat sounded the requiem of the gallant young soldier, who, as Rashleigh could see, fell bleeding overboard. His attendant was now too much occupied in endeavouring to recover his master to pursue the chase, even if he had been disposed to do so, and the fugitives had leisure to observe their other pursuers.

Foremost of these was a whale-boat, apparently impelled by sixteen oars, helped on by an enormous sail, which seemed to make her actually fly through the water. As the rowers bent to the stroke, she appeared, at least in the estimation of our terrified adventurer, positively to bound off the face of the deep. In the bow of this boat, bare-headed and apparently stimulating the boatmen by threats, oaths and promises to increase their already almost superhuman efforts, stood the commandant, with a musket in his hand, which he now and then presented at the escaping convicts as if measuring the distance between them with his eyes. Then, withdrawing it, he would shake his fist in the direction of the fugitives, turning at last again to the boatmen, his urgent imprecations to whom began now faintly to be borne on the wings of the breeze past the ears of those whom he so fain would overtake.

Behind this first boat were three others nearly abreast, all of them containing soldiers, as well as the first, and all impelled by both oars and sails, except the last, which was soon recognised by its peculiar rig to be the pilot-boat, known to be much swifter on the water than any other belonging to Newcastle, and which gallantly supported its fame on the present occasion by rapidly overhauling the foremost of the pursuers.

About five miles ahead, towards the north, in which direction the steersman held his course, was a point that terminates the bay into which the river Hunter erupts itself. From this promontory a number of rocks stretch out nearly a mile into the sea. These crags can only be seen at low water, or when the fury of tempestuous waves lashes the billows over them into rude and boisterous breakers. At other times they lie concealed. The freshness of the present breeze curled the waters into white and sparkling foam over and around this reef. The helmsman of the fugitive boat, who despite the wound that had broken his arm, and even now dropped blood on the deck at his feet, still maintained. his post, and now appeared, maugre the danger which was apparent even to the inexperienced eye of our adventurer, to steer full towards these breakers, instead — as Rashleigh thought would be the better course — of holding out into the open sea. Ralph ventured to hint as much to Roberts the helmsman, who only replied with great calmness that “he knew what he was about, and was doing all for the best”.

Meanwhile Rashleigh could observe that the pilot-boat had now overtaken the one which, hitherto foremost, had conveyed the commandant. The former lay to alongside the other for an instant; and when she resumed her way, the fugitives could see that dreaded officer on her forepart.

The breeze continued to freshen the more they got from under the lee of the land; and the boiling surf upon the sunken rocks was but a very short distance ahead, when Roberts roared out, “Lay down, every man!” setting the example himself by falling flat on the half-deck, still, however, retaining his hold of the tiller and keeping his eye fixed on a hill at some distance straight ahead.

A volley of musketry pealed from the pilot-boat, some of the bullets tearing through the sail of the fugitive craft; and instantly afterwards the voice of the commandant, known, alas, too well to all the runaways, was now heard thundering in imperious tones, “Strike your sail, you infernal scoundrels, and surrender; or we’ll run you down!”

Roberts raised himself to his knee and gave the tiller to another man, whose musket he took. Then, after looking carefully to the flint and priming, he said, “Now, my lads, if we were once inside of that reef we should be safe. There is but one passage through it, and I believe there is not a man in either of the boats who knows that course except myself. So if we can, we must stop the pilot-boat somehow. I’ll aim at that damned tyrant in her bow; and you other men, never mind those on board her, but fire at the slings of her sails. If any of your shots tell, they must stop and the devil thank them. So say when you’re ready, my lads.”

The others examined their pieces and levelled them when Roberts resumed, “Now, my boys, the slings, mind . . . Let fly!”

The reports boomed along the main, and Rashleigh, who was anxiously observing the effect of their volley, when the smoke cleared away, saw the commandant stagger. He let his musket fall with an oath and then sank into the arms of one of the boatmen who extended them to receive him. The after sail fluttered a moment in the breeze like a wounded bird and then dropped over the heads of the steersman and soldiers in the stemsheets. All were in confusion. The boat yawed quite out of her course in an instant, and that instant saved her from driving full split upon a rock that was not an oar’s length from her bow.

The boat manned by the runaways now was in the thick of the breakers that leaped, foamed and dashed on every side of her. There seemed to be scarcely her own breadth free from danger; but that narrow inlet lay right ahead. And the vessel answered helm sweetly, for Roberts, who had thrown his musket on the deck the instant it was fired, was now steadily guiding her by some well-known token on the opposite shore. On she flew, like a courser impelled by the spur, while the surf and spray broke fairly over her from either side, forming a perfect arch above the heads of the trembling fugitives, who every instant expected to be whelmed in the ocean, that seemed, like an insatiate monster, expanding its hungry jaws to receive them.

This wild commotion of broken waters was not more than a hundred yards in extent, which space was quickly passed by the gallant little bark that bore the flying convicts. They were then in comparative safety. On their left lay the mainland, on their right was the open sea; but between them and the latter, at about the distance of a mile, the thundering noise of breakers indicated the existence of a reef, or barrier of rocks, which is frequently found to guard the approach to the iron-bound coast of eastern Australia. Around and in front of the fugitives’ boat, the water, through the freshness of the breeze, was slightly rippled on its surface, but was undisturbed by any wave of magnitude, the fury of the boundless Pacific Ocean being expended upon the rocks by which this space was, as it were, girdled in.

Rashleigh had noticed and much admired the cool self-possession of Roberts their steersman, who amid the dreadful commotion of the roaring breakers through which they had passed, had not betrayed the least shadow of fear, but merely kept his lips sternly compressed and his eye fixed upon the land mark he seemed to be steering for. Our adventurer, now the danger was passed, could not help praising the dexterity of his seamanship. Roberts only smiled and replied, “We shall see directly how the sojers get through it; for look, by George! they are going to try it on!”

On turning his head, Ralph could see the sixteen-oared boat making for the opening in the surf. Impelled by the fresh breeze and the ardour of her crew, who still pulled unflinchingly at their oars, she came dashing at the reef like a high-mettled steed at some opposing barrier. Another instant a wild cry arose from all on board of her. She was upset. They were engulfed in the roaring breakers, the crashing noise of her parting planks and the cries of her crew for assistance being heard far above the din of the elements.

“Aye, aye,” said Roberts. “I thought some of you would cool your courage there!” And turning his back on the sight, he sat down very composedly alongside the tiller, which he leaned upon with one arm, while he asked another of his companions to bind up the wound he had so long before received.

Rashleigh continued to gaze upon the scene of their pursuers’ discomfiture, and he had the satisfaction of seeing that the remaining three boats quickly came up; for he could not help hoping that none of the crew of the swamped bark would lose their lives, though he felt at the same time that any of those he pitied would most probably have either shot or helped to hang himself with no more remorse than they would feel for the fate of a dog.

The boats from the settlement were now pulled round the reef and out into the open sea; but by the time they had reached the latter they were scarcely visible to the fugitives, who then felt themselves at leisure to answer those clamorous appeals that hunger had been making to each for some time past. Luckily there was abundance of water and provisions in the boat, which they now ascertained, by questioning the man who had been in charge of her, was originally equipped in Sydney for the service of two gentlemen of capital lately arrived from England, and about to settle in the Colony. They were bound on a voyage up the river Hunter to select land, and it seemed they had gone on shore at Newcastle to spend the day and dine with the commandant, when, unluckily for them, Rashleigh had discovered their little bark, which they had left at anchor where the officers’ gig bearing them the invitation had chanced to overtake their boat on their passage up the river.

After the first plentiful meal any of the poor wretches had partaken of for some time had been discussed, they held a consultation respecting their future proceedings. It was finally agreed upon that they should run along the coast to the north, as Rashleigh remembered having read of Captain Bligh and his boat’s crew doing after the famous mutiny of the Bounty, British man-of-war in the South Seas; and they doubted not by this means to reach some of the Dutch settlements in the Indian archipelago, where they hoped to pass for shipwrecked mariners. They therefore resolved to be as sparing as possible of their provisions and to eke them out as much as they could with fish. These views they kept secret from the boat-keeper, whom they put on the land, giving him directions how to follow the beach until he arrived at the north shore of the harbour opposite Newcastle.

The first night of Rashleigh’s freedom for several years passed away very pleasantly. He slept only a short time indeed, but talked over their plans with the steersman Roberts, who at length yielded to the entreaties of our adventurer, that he would take some rest. And the former now resigned to Ralph the guidance of the boat, directing him to keep her head towards a certain star which he indicated; but if the wind should alter or fade or any breakers should be near, all the men were to be instantly aroused.

Rashleigh spent the hours that remained until morning thinking over the various chances, whether of danger or success, which appeared to await their enterprise. It was certain, no doubt, that Captain Bligh and his companions had some years before traversed much more than twice the distance over the self-same track they were now pursuing, and had at last safely accomplished their voyage in an open boat, which was also very indifferently supplied with water and provisions; while the bark that bore our adventurer was half-decked, tolerably well stocked with food, to which, as they discovered a quantity of tackle in the boat, they might add abundance of fish, which absolutely teemed in the ocean around them, while, as they need not leave the sight of land, they could surely obtain a supply of fresh water as often as they required it. Upon the other hand, the danger was great that they might be pursued by some armed vessel, for they well knew that one of the colonial cutters was expected in Newcastle every day, and no doubt the commandant, who had shown so much personal anxiety to recapture them, would, if he had survived his wound, dispatch her to run down the coast as quickly as possible. Then again, it was questionable whether there was any passage through which the boat could pass into the open sea from the inlet they were now sailing over; or if there was, might not the boats of their pursuers intercept them at it?

Being, however, willing to hope for the best, and conscious that of himself he could do but little either to help or hasten their deliverance, our adventurer consoled himself at last by thinking that they all had at least a chance of escape; and if it should fail them, still, it was better to die in freedom than to linger out a miserable existence in that abode of horrors which they had quitted.

The dawn of day surprised Rashleigh upon his post. A sort of haze overspread the surface of the deep, and as he had no longer a beacon by which to steer, it became necessary to arouse Roberts. The latter speedily came from beneath the half-deck, and looking around at the shore, where only the summits of distant and lofty mountains were as yet visible. he exclaimed, “We have made a most capital run. We are beyond my knowledge of the coast, and that extends at least a hundred miles to the north of Newcastle.”

The increasing light soon made them aware that their pursuers in the pilot-boat, which was the only one that had continued the chase, were now nearly abreast of them, but still divided by the distance of nearly a mile and a half beyond the barrier of rocks, while to add to the discomfiture of the fugitives, the thundering noise of breakers full in their front gave evidence that they were approaching the termination of that inlet which had hitherto proved their safeguard. The breeze also had been gradually dying away, and it shortly became stark calm, so that they pulled the boat into shoal water among some mangrove bushes and anchored her there.

They continued anxiously to observe the motions of their enemies in the pilot-boat, who after some time also took to their oars and pulled slowly along the exterior of the reef, stopping every now and then, as if looking for a passage through it. After a brief consultation, therefore, the convicts, who feared their pursuers eventually discover some means of reaching them on the water, took everything out of their boat, carried whole on shore, and buried it in the sand, above high-water mark. They then filled the little vessel herself and sank her in a place of concealment, where the water was not very deep, a manoeuvre that was instigated by our adventurer, who hoped by this means to puzzle their pursuers very much, if they did not throw them off the scent altogether.

Each man now taking a small stock of provisions with him, some ammunition, and their muskets, they penetrated into a dense thicket, through which they made their way for nearly a mile with great difficulty, halting at length on the summit of an eminence that afforded a view of the ocean though not of their pursuers, who, having got over the reef, were now too close under the shore to be visible.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05