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Text - "O'er Many Lands, on Many Seas" Gordon Stables


How did I come by it? I will tell you. I was born, as you know, at sea, in the Indian Ocean, in the Niobe, whilst she was cruising in that region in the search of slavers-born not long before the appearance of that terrible gale of wind described in the first chapter of this story, when the tempest was at its fiercest, and the stormy waves were doing their worst; born on board a vessel which seemed doomed to certain destruction. And it is the custom of the service to call a child by the name of the ship in which he first sees the light of day. I never knew a father's love or a mother's tender care, for the gentle lady who gave me birth lived but a little after that event; but she bequeathed me all she had-her blessing-and died. In a glade in the gloomy depths of an African forest my mother is sleeping, in the shade of a banian tree. I stood by that lonely grave one morning not many years ago. The ground, I remember, was all chequered with sunshine and with shade from the tree above; little star-like primulas grew here and there. Among these and the fallen leaves sea-green lizards were creeping; high overhead bright-winged birds sang soft lullabies, and every time the wind moved the boughs a whole shower of sparkling drops fell down, like tears. And my father? He never seemed to rally after my mother's death until one hour before his own, just a fortnight and a day from that on which he had followed her to her grave in the forest like one dazed. He did not appear in his mess-place after this. He took no food, he spoke to no one, he spent his time mostly within the screen by the empty cot where my mother had been-in grief. About the tenth day he suffered my friend Roberts (the boatswain) to lead him like a child to the spare cabin where his baby boy was sleeping; and in a daze he had seen her loved remains laid to rest beneath the tree. He bent over the grave for a moment, and then for the first time he burst into tears. The Niobe remained for ten days where she had cast anchor, in order to make good repairs. It was a very quiet spot in which she lay, a kind of bay or bight, as the sailors called it, with mangrove trees growing all around it close down to the water's edge, except at the one side where the great river stole silently away seaward, its current seeming hardly to affect in any degree the waters in the bay itself. At last all repairs were finished, and the "clang, clang, clang" of the carpenters' hammers, that had been till now incessant all day long, and far into the night, was hushed, sails were shaken half loose, and the Niobe only waited for a breeze to bear her down the river and across the great and dreaded bar, where, even in the calmest weather, the breakers rolled and tumbled mountains high. But the breeze seemed in no hurry to come. During the day those dull dreamy woods and forests lay asleep in the sunshine, and stirred not leaf or twig, and the creatures that dwelt therein were as silent as the woods around them. Had you landed on that still shore, and wandered inland through the trees, you would have seen great lizards enjoying themselves in patches of sunlight, an occasional monkey enjoying a nap at a tree foot or squatting on a bough blinking at the birds that- open-beaked as if gasping for more air-sat among the branches too languid to hop or fly. But except a startled cry at your presence emitted by some of these, hardly any other sound would have fallen on your ears. The only creatures that seemed to be busy were the beetles on the ground and the bees, the latter long, dark, dangerous-looking hornets that flew in clouds about the lime and orange-trees, and behaved as if all the forest belonged to them, the former of all shapes and sizes, and of colours more brilliant than the rainbow. No doubt they knew exactly what they were about and had their ideas carefully arranged, but what their business was in particular would have puzzled any human being to tell-why they dug pits and rolled little pieces of stones down them, or why they pulled pieces of sticks along bigger than themselves, dropped them, apparently without reason, and went in search of others. There was, one would have thought, no method in the madness of these strange but lovely creatures: it looked as though they were doomed to keep moving, doomed to keep on working, and doing something, no matter what. In the great river itself sometimes small herds of hippopotami would appear, especially in parts where the water was shallow. They came but to enjoy a sunshine bath and siesta. But at night both forest and river seemed to awaken from their slumbers. The river cows now came on shore to feed, and their grunting and bellowing, that often ended in a kind of shriek, mingled. "Well, my friend, how much for your bananas, and that bottle of honey, and those eggs, and fowls? Come, I'll buy the lot," said the boatswain. "De Arab chief come in big ship, two three week ago. De ship he hide in de bush. He come to-night when de moon am shine. He come on board you big ship, plenty knife, plenty spear, plenty gun, killee you all for true. Den he take all de money and all de chow-chow. Plenty much bobbery he makee, plenty much blood he spillee, plenty much murder. Sweeba tell you for true." While this conversation was going on the fruit, eggs, and fowls were being handed on board and money thrown into the boat, which was quickly concealed by the natives in their cummerbunds. They found themselves richer than they had ever been before in their lives. "But why do you come and tell us?" then inquired Roberts. Roberts, by the way, was the only one the native would converse with. He had eagerly requested the captain and officers to keep away, for fear of exciting the suspicion of those who he averred were lurking in the forest. "What for I come and tellee you?" he replied. "English have been good to me many time 'fore now. Arab chief he bad man. He come to my house, he tie me to a tree by de neck. He think I dead. Den he takee my poor wife away, and all de poor piccaninnies. My poor ole mudder she berry bad. She not fit to trabbel away to de bush, so he cut her head off, and trow her in de blaze. He burn all my hut, all my house. I not lub dat Arab chief berry berry much." "I shouldn't think you did," was the reply; "but now, my friend, if all goes well come back to-morrow, and we will reward you." About eight o'clock that same night, the full moon rose slowly up over the woods, bathing the trees in a soft blue haze, but changing the river, 'twixt the ship and the distant shore, into a broad pathway of light that shimmered and shone like molten gold. There was hardly a cloud in the heaven's dark blue, and the stars shone with unusual brilliancy. No one was visible on the Niobe's decks, and never a light burned aloft, but, nevertheless, sentinels were watching the water on all sides, and down below the crew, fully armed, were waiting. The guns were all ready to run out, and there was no talking save in whispers, and when any one had occasion to cross the deck he did it so lightly that you could scarcely have heard his footfall. Except the officers of the watch, all others were in the saloon or ward-room. They too were armed, but passing the time in quietly playing draughts and other games. Instead of being in his cabin, the captain was there along with his officers. Presently the boatswain, whose duty it was to keep one of the night-watches, came quietly in to make a report. "There are no signs yet, sir. The forest is quiet enough, except for the birds and beasts. It is very bright now. If they do come, we will have light enough to give 'em fits." "I hope they will, then," replied the captain; "I sincerely trust that tall native wasn't a-gammoning us." "I feel sure enough he wasn't, sir." "Hark!" cried the captain.

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