previous
next



  ― 205 ―

Chapter XVIII. Mr. Silliman's Studies in Natural History.

THE report of the musket discharged by Mr. Jeremiah Silliman in the excess of his fright from the sudden clutch of the iron fingers of the mate, the faint echo of which was wafted in the silence of the night over the waters of the bay where the brig was temporarily moored, was not unmarked by the watchful desperado who had possession of the vessel.

The bushranger felt that the sound boded no good to him! It must have been heard, he feared, by some prying scout from the party in the boat; and the junction of the parties of the major and of the constable was thus certain; but although that was an


  ― 206 ―
anticipation, in point of time, of a mutual discovery which could not fail to take place, it was not an event which he had left out of his calculations. But he had hoped that the junction would have been deferred until a late hour in the morning; and, in the mean time, he trusted to his good fortune, that, at the dawn of day, a change of wind might take place, which would enable him to make his way through the narrow passage which formed the entrance of the bay; but now it was likely that he should have the two parties to contend against instead of one, and it was possible that the boats might be made use of to intercept his passage.

However, he reckoned that he should be able, from the vantage ground of the higher deck of the brig, to beat off the boats; and he trusted that the fire of the shore party would not be sufficient to clear his decks and prevent the manœuvring of the vessel before the wind would take him out to sea and place him beyond the danger of further pursuit.

He busied himself, therefore, during the night, with putting the vessel into the best state of


  ― 207 ―
defence against boarding of which she was capable and the materials at hand afforded; and, taking care that each sail was ready to be set to the wind, and that every rope was in order, he scanned the sky with eager gaze, and waited anxiously for the change of wind which the experience of his smuggler's life told him was preparing.

In this way the night was passed by the respective parties; the sailors attached to the pursuing body, with the crew of the brig working vigorously at their oars to bring the boat round to the entrance of the bay before the change of wind,—which, with nautical foresight of the weather, they were aware, from the appearance of the clouds, was likely to take place in a few hours,—should come; the convicts in the brig, with the wakefulness of the fear which accompanies crime, afraid to trust themselves to sleep lest they should be surprised they knew not when nor how, remaining in anxious watchfulness; and the united party on shore seeking in a brief repose for the renewed strength which would be wanted on the morrow.

Their peaceful slumbers, however, were suddenly broken at the earliest dawn of day by loud


  ― 208 ―
cries for help from the vicinity of the encampment.

The luckless Mr. Silliman was unable to close his eyes that night, partly from his excessive joy at being restored to the presence of his divinities, Helen and Louisa, and partly from the inconvenience of the flesh-wounds which had been inflicted by the mate, when that active officer mistook him for a native. It was with extreme apprehension of the fatal consequences that he reflected, that bayonet-wounds were, of all others, the most dangerous and the most difficult to heal, from the triangular form of the weapon which prevented the orifices from closing and healing, as the surgeons term it, “with the first intention.”

Full of these thoughts, and sorely grieved with the smart, he cast about, being as he was apt to boast, of a reflecting turn of mind, for some means of relief. Fortunately, as he thought, it occurred to him that the natives of some island in the South Seas, the name of which he had forgotten, made use of chewed leaves to apply to the wounds made by their spears and tomahawks. Much pleased with himself at this ready recollection


  ― 209 ―
of his reading from books of useful knowledge, he resolved to lose no time in turning it to account on the present occasion. He looked about, therefore, for a tree or shrub of an aspect sufficiently inviting for his experiment.

Seeing a noble tree at no great distance from the fire, he threaded his way cautiously to its base, and then he had the satisfaction of learning the cause of a particular sort of squealing and scratching which he had heard during the night, and for which he had been unable to account. Looking up to a projecting bough over his head, he saw that it was almost covered with some furry little animals resembling cats or squirrels, and which his knowledge of natural history enabled him at once to recognise as opossums. There was sufficient moonlight to allow him to see that the creatures devoured the leaves of the tree with much apparent relish.

This was another fact in natural history which he considered was of infinite advantage to him on the present occasion; for he had learned from descriptions of foreign countries, that travellers might safely venture to eat of that which they


  ― 210 ―
observed animals, and especially the birds, to feed on. He was by no means inclined to carry that theory into practice in respect to thistles, but, fortified by this demonstration of the taste of the opossums, he plucked some of the leaves of the luxuriant tree, which was one of those known by the name of “peppermint trees,” which abound in Australia, and whose odours perfume the air very pleasingly at a distance. Collecting a handful of these leaves, he forthwith set to at chewing them.

If the opossums were as curious in studying objects of natural history as their spectator, doubtless they would have admired the extraordinary contortion of countenance exhibited by the venturesome Jerry, as he became aware of the horrible nastiness of his first experience in practical botany. But the smart of the tattoeing of the bayonet at that moment becoming sharper, and acting as it were as a counter-irritation to the filth in his mouth, he recovered his surgical courage; and calling to mind that, by some curious ordinations of Providence, almost all medicines are valuable and curative in the inverse ratio of


  ― 211 ―
the pleasingness of their gustation, he resolutely chewed on; and having reduced the leaves to a proper state of pulp, he applied it in the form of a poultice to the part affected, and reclining himself in a convenient posture, endeavoured to compose himself to sleep.

But alas! little was he aware of the potent effects of the leaves of the fragrant peppermint tree! The acrid juices of the leaves acting on parts already vulnerised, had the same effect as cayenne pepper on an excoriation!

Wild and energetic was the dance now performed by the burning Jerry under the branches of the deceitful tree! His dance of the polka with the kangaroo was not to be compared with it! In vain he hastily divested himself of his torment, and threw it in his rage at the opossums chattering above his head! The smart grew sharper and sharper! and still the opossums, as it seemed, chattered and grinned at him from the bough, and hung by their tails, and turned over head and heels as if in scorn and mockery of the intruder on their retreats.

Stung with indignation at their taunts, and


  ― 212 ―
furious with the pain, the angry Jerry determined to take signal revenge on the little wretches, and he looked about for the means of climbing the tree, that he might secure some of the animals as offerings to his mistresses, opossum skins, as he had heard, being useful to make up into tippets and coverings for footstools. Presently spying out some inequalities on the bark of the tree, he climbed from knob to knob, till he reached the base of the branch on which he had watched his prey, which now, however, had retreated into the interior of the decayed trunk.

Nothing doubting that he should easily make prizes of some of those Australian curiosities, and balancing himself as well as he could, over the interior of the cavity, he dived his arm down boldly, expecting to reach the heads or tails of some of them. In this attempt he was, unhappily for himself, too successful; for the attacked opossums, as if with one consent, instantly seized upon his arm with teeth and claws.

The astonished Jerry, terrified at these unexpected assaults, and losing his presence of mind and his balance at the same time, fell into the hole


  ― 213 ―
among the opossums, when the enraged animals, looking at this fresh aggression as an overt act of hostility, fastened upon him with the most vehement squeaks, which were exceeded, however, by the violent shrieks of Jerry for assistance!

The horrid noise of the combined squealings and scufflings of the opossums, and the excited lamentations of Jeremiah, quickly roused up every one from his sleeping place; and the soldiers starting from the ground, seized their ready arms, and stood prepared to repel the enemy, who they supposed was close upon them.

“Now, major,” said the ensign, as the former emerged from the interior of the cave, “we shall have a brush! those impudent rascals are upon us!”

“Give me a sword,” said the major, seizing a ship's cutlass. “Now Trevor, I consider that you are in command! Where is the enemy?”

“Murder!” shrieked a stifled voice from the interior of the tree, about a hundred yards from the fires; “Murder! help!”




  ― 214 ―

“That's Mr. Silliman's voice,” said the major, “surely; but where is he?”

“Murder!”

“It is Mr. Silliman's voice,” said both the girls, who, unable to restrain their curiosity, had come to the cave's mouth. “It's impossible to mistake it!”—

“Murder!”

“It comes from that tree,” said the ensign.

“Corporal, take two file to that decayed tree yonder, with the thick wide-spreading branches, and see what's the matter.”

The corporal, making his military salute, immediately obeyed, and took his way rapidly but warily to the point.

At this moment, the head of the unfortunate Jerry appeared for an instant above the cavity, and as all eyes were directed to the spot, it was visible to the whole party. The head cast an imploring look at its friends, and then with another vociferous shout of—murder! instantaneously disappeared!

“Some wild beast must have got hold of him,” said the ensign. “This is a false alarm, it seems,


  ― 215 ―
excepting so far as it concerns that poor gentleman! It is the same person, is it not, whom your mate punctured last night to keep him quiet?”

“It is the same—poor fellow!—he was nearly drowned, too, yesterday.”

“Indeed! He seems to be unlucky. But I see the corporal has extricated him from his trap. What has happened, sir? What made you cry out so loudly?”

“Oh! the little devils! They have got claws like cats, and teeth like rats! Look at me!” said Jerry, displaying his hands and face, which were scratched and bitten in a hundred places. “In trying to catch an opossum, I fell into the hollow of the tree, and a whole host of the brutes fastened on me with all their teeth and claws! and all smelling like essence of peppermint! ….”

A general burst of laughter saluted the mortified Jerry at this pathetic account of his reception by the opossum family—so prone are people in general to treat with ridicule such comical disasters as do not harm themselves; but the general attention was suddenly turned from the spectacle


  ― 216 ―
of Jerry's damaged person, by the information of a sentinel posted on an adjacent eminence, which commanded a view of the bay, that “the brig was in motion!”

previous
next