“This is a very serious matter for us, Captain Blockstrop,” said Sam, as they were walking back to the boats. “An exceedingly serious matter.”
“I have only one advice to give you, Mr. Buckley,” said the Captain; “which is unnecessary, as it is just what your father will do. Fight, sir! — hunt ’em down. Shoot ’em! They will give you no quarter: be sure you don’t give them any.”
A wild discordant bellow was here heard from the ship, on which the Captain slapped his leg, and said —
“Dash my buttons, if he hasn’t got hold of my speaking-trumpet.”
The midshipman came up with a solemn face, and, touching his cap, “reported,”—
“Colonial Secretary hailing, sir.”
“Bless my soul, Mr. Vang, I can hear that,” said the Captain. “I don’t suppose any of my officer would dare to make such an inarticulate, no sailor-like bellow as that on her Majesty’s quarterdeck. Can you make out what he says? That would be more to the purpose.”
Again the unearthly bellow came floating over the water, happily deadened by the wind, which was roaring a thousand feet over head. “CAN you make out anything, Mr. Vang?” said the Captain.
“I make out ‘pork-chops!’ sir,” said the midshipman.
“Take one of the boats on board, Mr. Vang. My compliments, and will be much obliged if he will come ashore immediately! On important business, say. Tell him the convicts have landed; will you? Also, tell the lieutenant of the watch that I want either Mr. Tacks, or Mr. Sheets: either will do.”
The boat was soon seen coming back with the Colonial Secretary in a statesman-like attitude in the stern sheets, and beside him that important officer Mr. Tacks, a wee little dot of a naval cadet, apparently about ten years old.
“What were you bellowing about pork-chops, Pollifex?” asked the Captain, the moment the boat touched the shore.
“A failure, sir,” said the Colonial Secretary; “burnt, sir; disgracefully burnt up to a cinder, sir. I have been consulting the honourable member for the Cross-jack-yard (I allude to Mr. Tack’s N.C., my honourable friend, if he will allow me to call him so) as to the propriety of calling a court-martial on the cook’s mate. He informs me that such a course is not usual in naval jurisprudence. I am, however, of opinion that in one of the civil courts of the colony an action for damages would lie. Surely I have the pleasure of seeing Mr. Buckley of Baroona?”
Sam and he had met before, and the Secretary, finding himself on shore and where he was known, dropped his King Cambyses’ vein, and appeared in his real character of a shrewd, experienced man. They walked up together, and when they arrived at the summit of the ridge, and saw the magnificent plains stretching away inland, beyond the narrow belt of heath along the shore, the Secretary whispered to the Captain —
“I have been deceived. We shall get some breakfast, after all. As fine a country as I ever saw in my life!”
The party who were just sitting down to breakfast at the station were sufficiently astonished to see Captain Blockstrop come rolling up the garden walk, with that small ship-of-war Tacks sailing in his wake, convoying the three civilians; but on going in and explaining matters, and room having been made for them at the table, Sam was also astonished on looking round to see that a new arrival had taken place since that morning.
It was that of a handsome singular-looking man. His hair was light, his whiskers a little darker, and his blonde moustache curled up towards his eyes like corkscrews or a ram’s horns (congratulate me on my simile). A very merry laughing eye he had, too, blue of course, with that coloured hair; altogether a very pleasant-looking man, and yet whose face gave one the idea that it was not at all times pleasant, but on occasions might look terribly tigerish and fierce. A man who won you at once, and yet one with whom one would hardly like to quarrel. Add to this, also, that when he opened his mouth to speak, he disclosed a splendid set of white teeth, and the moment he’d uttered a word, a stranger would remark to himself, “That is an Irishman.”
Sam, who had ensconced himself beside Alice, looked up the long table towards him with astonishment. “Why, good gracious, Captain Desborough,” he said, “can that be you?”
“I have been waiting,” said Desborough, “with the greatest patience to see how long you would have the audacity to ignore my presence. How do you do, my small child? Sam, my dear, if ever I get cashiered for being too handsome to remain in the Service, I’ll carry you about and exhibit you, as the biggest and ugliest boy in the Australian colonies.”
Captain Desborough has been mentioned before in these pages. He was an officer in the army, at the present time holding the situation of Inspector of Police in this district. He was a very famous hunter-down of bushrangers, and was heartily popular with every one he was thrown against, except the aforesaid bushrangers. Sam and he were very old friends, and were very fond of one another.
Desborough was sitting now at the upper end of the table, with the Colonial Secretary, Major Buckley, Captain Blockstrop, Captain Brentwood, and Doctor Mulhaus. They looked very serious indeed.
“It was a very lucky thing, Desborough,” said the Major, “that you happened to meet Captain Blockstrop. He has now, you perceive, handed over the care of these rascals to you. It is rather strange that they should have landed here.”
“I believe that they were expected,” said the Doctor. “I believe that there is a desperate scheme of villany afloat, and that some of us are the objects of it.”
“If you mean,” said Desborough, “that that man you saw on the Cape last night was watching for the boat, I don’t believe it possible. It was, possibly, some stockman or shepherd, having a look at the weather.”
The Doctor had it on the tip of his tongue to speak, and astound them by disclosing that the lonely watcher was none other than the ruffian Touan, alias George Hawker; but the Major pressed his foot beneath the table, and he was silent.
“Well,” said Desborough, “and that’s about all that’s to be said at present, except that the settlers must arm and watch, and if necessary fight.”
“If they will only do that,” said the Colonial Secretary; “if they will only act boldly in protecting their property and lives, the evil is reduced by one-half; but when Brallagan was out, nothing that I or the Governor could do would induce the majority of them to behave like men.”
“Look here, now,” said Barker, the host, “I was over the water when Brallagan was out, and when Howe was out too. And what could a lonely squatter do against half-a-dozen of ’em? Answer me that?”
“I don’t mean that,” said the Colonial Secretary; “what I refer to is the cowardly way in which the settlers allowed themselves to be prevented by threats from giving information. I speak the more boldly, Mr. Barker, because you were not one of those who did so.”
Barker was appeased. “There’s five long guns in my hall, and there’s five long lads can use ’em,” he said. “By-the-bye, Captain Desborough, let me congratulate you on the short work you made with that gang to the north, the other day. I am sorry to hear that the principal rascal of the lot, Captain Touan, gave you the slip.”
The Doctor had been pondering, and had made up his mind to a certain course; he bent over the table, and said —
“I think, on the whole, that it is better to let you all know the worst. That man whom we saw on the cliff last night I met afterwards, alone, down on the shore, and that man is no other than the one you speak of, Captain Touan.”
Any one watching Desborough’s face as the Doctor spoke would have seen his eyebrows contract heavily, and a fierce scowl settle on his face. The name the Doctor mentioned was a very unwelcome one. He had been taunted and laughed at, at Government-house, for having allowed Hawker to outwit him. His hot Irish blood couldn’t stand that, and he had vowed to have the fellow somehow. Here he had missed him again, and by so little, too! He renewed his vow to himself, and in an instant the cloud was gone, and the merry Irishman was there again.
“My dear Doctor,” he said, “I am aware that you never speak at random, or I should ask you, were you sure of the man? Are you not mistaken?”
“Mistaken in HIM — eh?” said the Doctor. “No, I was not mistaken.”
“You seem to know too much of a very suspicious character, Doctor!” said Desborough. “I shall have to keep my eye on you, I see!”
Meanwhile, at the other end of the table, more agreeable subjects were being talked of. There sat our young coterie, laughing loudly, grouping themselves round some exceedingly minute object, which apparently was between Sam and Alice, and which, on close examination, turned out to be little Tacks, who was evidently making himself agreeable in a way hardly to be expected in one of his tender years. And this is the way he got there:—
When Captain Blockstrop came in, Alice was duly impressed by the appearance of that warrior. But when she saw little Tacks slip in behind him, and sit meekly down by the door; and when she saw how his character was appreciated by the cattle-dogs, one of whom had his head in the lad’s lap, while the other was licking his face — when she saw, I say, the little blue and gold apparition, her heart grew pitiful, and, turning to Halbert, she said —
“Why, good gracious me! You don’t mean to tell me that they take such a child as that to sea; do you?”
“Oh dear, yes!” said Halbert, “and younger, too. Don’t you remember the story about Collingwood offering his cake to the first lieutenant? He became, remember, a greater man than Nelson, in all except worldly honour.”
“Would you ask him to come and sit by me, if you please?” said Alice.
So Halbert went and fetched him in, and he sat and had his breakfast between Alice and Sam. They were all delighted with him; such a child, and yet so bold and self-helpful, making himself quietly at home, and answering such questions as were put to him modestly and well. Would that all midshipmen were like him!
But it became time to go on board, and Captain Blockstrop, coming by where Alice sat, said, laughing —
“I hope you are not giving my officer too much marmalade, Miss Brentwood? He is over-young to be trusted with a jam-pot — eh, Tacks?”
“Too young to go to sea, I should say,” said Alice.
“Not too young to be a brave-hearted boy, however!” said the Captain. “The other day, in Sydney harbour, one of my marines who couldn’t swim went overboard and this boy soused in after him, and carried the lifebuoy to him, in spite of sharks. What do you think of that for a ten-year-old?”
The boy’s face flushed scarlet as the Captain passed on, and he held out his hand to Alice to say good-bye. She took it, looked at him, hesitated, and then bent down and kissed his cheek — a tender, sisterly kiss — something, as Jim said, to carry on board with him!
Poor little Tacks! He was a great friend of mine; so I have been tempted to dwell on him. He came to me with letters of introduction, and stayed at my place six weeks or more. He served brilliantly, and rose rapidly, and last year only I heard that Lieutenant Tacks had fallen in the dust, and never risen again, just at the moment that the gates of Delhi were burst down, and our fellows went swarming in to vengeance.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56