― 52 ―

Chapter VI. The Stratagem.

THE gallant brig had nearly reached the entrance of D'Entrecasteaux' channel when the squall from Mount Wellington ceased as suddenly as it rose; and presently the wind was lulled into a calm. The experienced mate, however, was not to be deceived by this suspicious suspension of the blast.

“What are we going to have now?” he said to the leader of the bushrangers, whom, in his capacity of pilot, it was his duty to consult: “I don't like this lull; they are only getting ready a fresh hand to the bellows, I fancy. I suppose the wind shifts on this side of the world much as it does on t'other. I think the bank

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right ahead—to the south, yonder—begins to rise.”

“You are quite right,” replied the supposed pilot; “and with such a man as you on board you have no need of a pilot; the vessel is quite safe in your hands: you seem to know the way of the winds in the New World as well as if you had been born among them. A better seaman I never.…”

“Avast there, mate!” said the honest officer; “you give us too much of that; why, you have got the gift of the gab like a sea-lawyer! To be sure this is not the first time I've looked the winds in the face. But we had better try to put her head about; if it comes on to blow from the south, it will be a fair wind for us up the channel.”

“Better get out,” said the pilot, “and have searoom; when it comes on to blow from the southward it always blows great guns; and this is a nasty channel to be sticking in—full of shoals and rocks, and headlands stretching out in every direction.”

“You seem to have taken a great dislike to

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the channel,” replied the mate: “for my part I don't see any great harm in it: and Horseman says it's good enough if you mind your soundings; and the chart is clear. What makes you so anxious to get out of it?”

Two or three of the yellow jackets were standing in the fore part of the vessel near the pilot and the mate during their brief colloquy, and it struck the worthy officer that there was an expression in their faces incongruous with their characters; and he thought he observed a glance of intelligence pass between one of them and their leader. A vague suspicion crossed the mate's mind; but as there was nothing definite to give it substance, it passed way for the moment, but afterwards it recurred to him. As he went aft to take the orders of the major, he heard a voice, which it seemed to him proceeded from the same man whose look he had observed, ask in a low tone:—

“Is it time?”

The mate turned round, and gazed inquiringly at the group in the forecastle.

“Is it time?” he repeated; “time for what?”

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“He was asking,” replied the pilot, rather hastily, “if it was time to go about: but I see the major has come on deck; we will consult him as to what he would like to do with his vessel.” Saying this, he went aft, following the mate.

The sisters were gazing listlessly at the land from which they were unwillingly receding with the change of tide, and the gallant Mr. Silliman found it impossible to inspire either of them with those feelings of mirthful gaiety with which they were accustomed to receive his assiduities. The major was supporting his youngest daughter by the arm, as the motion of the vessel from the broken sea rendered it difficult for her to stand on deck. Helen, on the contrary, stood erect and alone, with one hand grasping the bulwark, and the other holding the ship's glass, which she condescended to allow Mr. Silliman to support at the other end, to keep it steady. The honour of this position was perfect bliss to that enraptured individual, who made extraordinary exertions to call into exercise the utmost dexterity of his sea legs, so that the view of the beautiful Helen might not be disarranged.

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“Do you see anything, Miss Helen?” he ventured to inquire in a tone of extreme insinuation.

“Nothing but the brim of your ugly hat,” replied the lady.

“Bless me! I beg a thousand pardons; it's the rolling of the sea: there again; I hope I did not hurt you: now do you see anything?”

“I see something. Papa, come and look through the glass just as it is now. Stand still,” she said to Mr. Silliman, “and do try to be steady: a pretty sailor not to be able to bear the rolling of the ship! Look, papa, I see something like a swan.”

“A swan! my love: then it must be a black one, for all the swans are black, they say on this side of the earth. A swan! my dear; no it's no swan, but the sail of a boat that you see, I think.—Mr. Northland, what do you make of it?”

“A boat with her square-sail up,” pronounced the mate, with professional precision, after taking a brief earnest look at the object. “She looks like a large whale-boat by her make; but she is too large for that work,—she is coming down with the tide. What do you say to it, pilot?”

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There was a visible embarrassment, on the part of the supposed pilot, at this communication. A slight paleness came over his countenance, as if he was struck with some uncontrollable emotion, and then his face flushed with excitement. As he looked round with an attempt to appear unconcerned, he encountered the eye of Helen, which was fixed steadfastly upon him. He quailed for an instant beneath the penetrating gaze of that brilliant eye, and, hastily taking the ship's glass from the mate's hands to cover his confusion, he directed it towards the object; but his hand trembled, and the glass shook visibly.

“Rather a shaky hand,” remarked the mate to the major, in a whisper; “but there's no duty on grog in this part of the world.”

The whisper of the mate seemed to discompose the pilot a little. He took his eye from the glass, and searched the countenances of the bystanders; but seeing nothing in them to alarm, he applied himself again to his scrutiny of the boat.

While he was so employed, Helen made a sign to her father to come near her. They moved

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round to the side of the binnacle, leaving the pilot, with his back towards them, looking through the glass.

“Papa,” said Helen, in a whisper, “I have been watching the countenance of that man. He changed colour when the mate spoke of the boat. Depend upon it, there is something about that boat that troubles him.”

“It must be fancy, my love; there can be nothing in the appearance of a boat to disturb the pilot. It is only fancy.”

“Dear papa, it is not fancy. I cannot be mistaken in the countenance of that man; it is one of the most remarkable I ever saw. I watched him; and I am sure that the boat in sight has had some powerful effect on him. He does not look like a man to be moved by a slight cause.”

“Well, my dear girl, the shortest way is to ask him.—Pilot,” said the major, addressing the bushranger, “what do you see in that boat to disturb you?”

“To disturb me!” replied the pilot, regarding the major fixedly. “Why do you suppose that the sight of that boat disturbs me? What do you

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suppose the boat has to do with us—I mean, with me?”

“But what do you think of her?” interrupted the mate, who was a little out of patience with the lengthened examination of the pilot. “You have had a pretty long spell at the glass; long enough to make her out, I'm sure. What do you think of her?”

“I will take another look at her,” replied the bushranger, who was anxious to gain time to enable him to devise some scheme to counteract the dangerous approach of the boat, which, he had no doubt, had been despatched after him and his associates by the government authorities; “I can see her plainer now.”

“And what do you make of her?” repeated the mate.

“It's only a boat,” replied the bushranger, continuing to look anxiously through the glass.

“Well, if it's only a boat, there's an end of it,” said the mate. “There's a light air coming from the southward,” he said to the major; “I suppose we may stand up now with the wind in our favour.”

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“But the tide is against us,” observed the pilot, “and if it comes on to blow—and I don't like the looks of that bank which you first observed rising yonder—you would find yourself cramped in this narrow channel.”

“I'll never agree to go out of the channel with a fair wind up,” exclaimed the mate. “Why, friend, you are for not going up the channel any way! Before, it was the wind that was against us, and then we were not to go up; and now that we are getting the wind, it is because the tide is against us that we are not to go up! Beg pardon —no offence meant; but, to my thinking, you don't want us to go up the channel at all?”

“The boat is coming nearer,” cried out Mr. Silliman, who, as all the others had done with it, was allowed to use the glass: “I can see it as plain as can be; and they have taken the sail down, and they are pulling with all their might, I can see. They have got the tide in their favour, and they will soon be down on us; we shall hear some news now! Hurrah!”

The bushranger snatched the glass out of the exulting Mr. Silliman's hand with an abruptness

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which made that astonished individual open his mouth with surprise. With a firm hand, and with a certain air of determination, he applied the glass to his eye, and directed it to the still distant boat, which, however, propelled by the oars of the pursuing party, and assisted by the tide, was rapidly approaching the brig. Helen had observed the impetuous motion of the pilot, and had watched his varying countenance as he gazed through the glass. Prompted by an irresistible impulse, she gave vent to her vague suspicion of danger, and spoke:—

“Sir,” she said to the pilot, “I am sure there is something about that coming boat which disturbs you. You know something about it, you do—I am sure you do,” she repeated, her eyes kindling, and her cheeks reddening with excitement. “If there is danger, do not deceive us, but tell us in time, that we may be prepared for it. Do not suppose,” she said, taking hold of her sister's hand, “that because we are women we are afraid. We have looked on the dangers of the sea without terror, confident in our skill and our courage; and we can look without fear

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on this new danger—for danger there is, I know, by your look and manner at this moment, Speak, I say, and let us know at once what the danger is?”

The spirited words of the heroic girl unfortunately inspired the bushranger with a happy thought. He seized on the suggestion of danger from the boat with the readiness of practised dissimulation. Forming his plan on the instant, he replied without hesitation, and with an expression of feeling and interest in the welfare of the women which disarmed suspicion:—

“Major, I fear your gifted daughter is right. I wished to make my communication when they were gone below; but there is no time to be lost; and these courageous girls shame us with their spirit. But I will do justice to their courage! and say at once there is danger. ……”

“Danger!” said the mate, looking about him: “where from?”

“Danger!” repeated the major, in a voice of mingled surprise and emotion, and clasping his youngest daughter with instinctive tenderness,— “danger from that boat?”

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“Yes,” replied the supposed pilot; “and there is no time to lose if we are to defend ourselves. That boat, I have no doubt, contains the party of bushrangers that broke away from camp some days ago: the commandant at the look-out has had notice of them; and their design must be to endeavour to take this vessel. They are well armed; it is supposed there are about a dozen of them: and as the villains are desperate, they will make a determined attack on us. However, I for one am ready to fight for you; and if you will arm your men, my people shall work the vessel while they defend us.”

“Let it be done at once,” said the major. “This is a most unlucky accident! However, it is fortunate that we have you on board to help us.” So saying, he descended to the cabin in all haste to prepare the arms and ammunition.

The bushranger, meantime, went forward, as if for the purpose of giving directions to the party under his control. As he passed his confederates, he said, in a low firm voice, to each of them:—

“Be ready.”