The Golden Pool. A Story of a Forgotten Mine - R. Austin Freeman - ebook

The Golden Pool. A Story of a Forgotten Mine ebook

R. Austin Freeman



This novel begins with Robert Englefield, a young Englishman, taking on a job with a vessel sailing for northern Africa. Once there, Englefield is placed in the position of running the store through which the captain sells and trades his goods. As Englefield spends more and more time at this outpost on the African coast, he hears stories a legendary mine in the interior of Africa where the priests capture unwary travelers and blind them to prevent escape. Purely out of curiousity, Englefield finally decides to go looking for this mine in spite of the obvious dangers presented to a white man traveling in the rural African interior. Once Englefield departs and inevitably runs into trouble, the story finally takes on some suspense and unpredictability.

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It must have been a matter of surprise to most of us who have arrived at, or passed, middle life, on looking back through a vista of years, to note what an astonishingly important part has been played in our lives by entirely trivial circumstances. It has, indeed, become a commonplace that “great events from little causes spring;” but we do not realise, until we actually submit our experiences to analysis, how the whole tenor and meaning of our lives has in many cases been determined by some occurrence so unimportant that, at the time, it appears incredible that it should have any consequences at all.

Yet so it is. Not only great and critical events which occupy our attention at the time and impress themselves afterwards upon our memory, but trifling circumstances that pass almost unnoticed and are straightway forgotten generate each its train of consequences; and when in retrospect we retrace our steps through the busy years, we are apt to find the starting point of the main action of our life in some little incident that had long since passed out of recollection until thus recalled by association.

These reflections are suggested to me as I review the series of strange and well-nigh incredible adventures that befell me in the early years of my manhood–adventures which it is the purpose of this narrative to chronicle; for their occurrence is traceable to an event so insignificant that its mention would appear an impert-inence but for this connection.

This event was, in fact, nothing more than the mislaying of a matchbox. Yet, but for this trifling accident, not only would those marvellous experiences never have befallen me, but the entire course of my life–indeed, my very personality–would have been quite different.

It happened thus:

On a windy September evening I was standing on the quay of the inner basin of Ramsgate harbour, filling my pipe with the shavings that I cut from a cake of “hard.” I had just descended the worn steps of Jacob’s Ladder, and still lingered in its shelter until my pipe should be fairly alight, and when I had finished stuffing the bowl with the fresh-rubbed, clammy shavings, I thrust my hand into the pocket of my monkey jacket for the matches. But the box was not there. I hastily searched other pockets, but, as I expected, without success; for I am methodical in small things, and that box had its abode in that particular pocket.

I was somewhat vexed at the loss, although the thing was of no intrinsic value, for it was only a copper case, into which an ordinary matchbox slipped; but it had been made for me by a friendly shipwright from the sheathing of an old corvette (a portrait of which was etched on the copper), and I set some store by it.

As I walked on, sucking the unlit pipe, I tried to recall the last occasion on which I had used it; and suddenly I remembered having passed it to a collier skipper some evenings ago, in the parlour of the “Hovelling Boat” Inn; so thither I immediately turned my steps.

It must not be supposed that I was, in those days, a frequenter of taverns. But to a young man, deeply in love with the sea, the “Hovelling Boat” had special attractions. It was situated in a little narrow street full of crinkled gables and odd bay windows, and blocked at its end by a medley of masts and spars; a street in which anchors and cables sprawled on the pavements, sidelights glared from ship chandler’s windows, and suits of oilskins dangled from projecting poles, as if some fisher of men were lurking inside and had just had a “bite.”

The inn itself had a coloured lamp, surmounted by a gilded lugger in full sail, and its cosy parlour abounded in all sorts of sea monsters–piratical-looking fishermen from Gravelines in knitted caps and stockings and mosaic breeches, whose principal patches hinted at sedentary habits; jolly Dutchmen from square-bowed schuyts, pale Scandinavians with colourless hair and faded blue eyes; smacksmen, colliers, and coasters from the “West Country:” all foregathered here to smoke and drink and gossip in the lurid dialect of the salt sea.

I had pushed open the door and was making for the parlour, when the landlady spied me and held up her hand.

“I think I’ve got something of yours, Muster Englefield,” she said, reaching up to a shelf. “Doesn’t this matchbox belong to you? I found it in the parlour last Tuesday.”

“Thank you,” I said, seizing the treasure and dropping it into my pocket. “I had come to ask about it. It’s an old friend, and I should have been sorry to lose it.”

I was turning to go out again when she stopped me once more.

“There’s a bit of an unpleasantness going on in there,” she said, nodding towards the parlour. “I should be glad if you could find time to sit down there for a few minutes, sir. Perhaps the presence of a stranger and a gentleman might keep them in order.”

“Very well,” I said. “Send me in a glass of grog and I’ll smoke my pipe in the parlour, and hear what they have to say.”

As I entered and looked round through the blue haze of tobacco smoke, it was not difficult to see who were the parties to the “unpleasantness” for the inmates of the room, about a dozen in number, lounged on the settles, regarding with placid expectancy two men who occupied separate tables near the fireplace.

They were both mariners of the better class, apparently shipmasters; and one of them–a tall, burly Norwegian with the palest blue eyes and a mass of straw-coloured hair and beard–stood resting his knuckles on the table while he glared ferociously at his antagonist–a thick-set, powerful man, apparently English, whose swarthy face was made remarkable by a deep scar on the jaw, the contraction of which had drawn his mouth and nose somewhat to one side.

“I ask you again,” exclaimed the Norwegian, huskily, “do you say I am a liar?”

The Englishman made no reply, but a curious, sour, one-sided smile spread over his face, giving it a rather sinister appearance.

“Whoy don’t ye answer the man, ‘nstead o’ settin’ there a-agravatin’ of ‘im?” protested a jovial smacksman (who appeared to be attired for a dress rehearsal of “Puss in Boots”).

“I have answered him,” replied the other gruffly. “I have told him that I have got a smashed channel and he has a dent on his stem; he’s lost half a jibboom and I’ve found one–on my deck.”

“What’s the row about?” I asked a Cockney bargeman who sat near the door, fondling a pewter pot.

“It’s all along of a collision. ‘E begun the rumpus,” replied the bargeman jerking his head vaguely at the fireplace.

“Which one?”

“‘Im,” responded the bargee, nodding again. “That bloke with the kink in ‘is dial.”

This delicate allusion to the Englishman’s facial peculiarity appeared to reach the ears of its subject, for he turned sharply and inquired–“What’s that you’re saying?”

“I was telling this gentleman what the trouble was about,” replied the bargee, meekly, evidently wishing he had clothed his ideas in less allegorical language.

“And what the devil has it got to do with either you or him?” demanded the Englishman.

“Why there y’are. ‘Tain’t got nothing’; but I’m arst a civil question and I gives a civil answer,” and the bargee veiled his countenance with the pewter pot.

“As to me,” said I, as persuasively as I could, “I hope you won’t take offence at my curiosity, which is really not unnatural, you know.”

“I’m not taking any offence as long as you don’t interfere with what doesn’t concern you. If you want to know what the row was about, I’ll tell you–”

“Not here,” I urged.

“And why not here?” demanded the other, blazing up into sudden wrath. “D’ye suppose I’m afraid to speak before any putty-faced Dutchman that ever trod the rotten deck of a Baltic sea-knacker? I’ll speak where I please and say what I like; and what I mean to say is that these damned Scandinavians are the pest of the high seas. Why, devil take it! They navigate their rickety derelicts as if they’d served their time in Noah’s Ark. Perhaps one of ‘em did, too,” he added, with a sour grin all on one side of his face, “and then I’d lay anything that it was his watch on deck when she got ashore on Mount Ararat.”

A chorus of guffaws greeted this sally and threatened to bring the quarrel to a crisis, for the Norwegian, who had reseated himself, now rose, crimson in the face and, thrusting his hand under the skirt of his coat, stepped forward, shouting hoarsely:

“You are a dommed liar–a cursed, ugly-faced wrecker, and I am going to show you–”

“Here, Oi say, none o’ that!” interposed the jolly smacksman at this juncture, for a broad-bladed “green river” had made its appearance from under the foreign sailor’s coat. “Do what ye loike with yer fists, but no cold iron without you want to find yer head jammed in the bight of a rope.”

“Let me go!” roared the Norwegian, struggling in the grasp of the smacksman and a couple of sturdy colliers, “let me get at him! I am going to show him something.”

Englishman, pushing forward with a very ugly expression on his unsymmetrical face.

“Don’t be a fool, mate,” said the smacksman interposing his massive person between the belligerents, adding in a lower tone, “They’ve sent for the police, I think.”

Thinking this a favourable opportunity to intervene, I laid my hand on the Englishman’s arm.

“Come,” I said coaxingly, “this won’t do, you know. For a man in your position–a stranger in the town, too–to be mixed up in a tavern brawl with people like this,” and I nodded vaguely at the company in general. I had no idea what the man’s position was, but it seemed a politic thing to say, and so it turned out, for he faced me with a mollified growl that encouraged me to proceed. “I’m sure it wouldn’t suit you to be involved in any scandal here. Why not come and have a drink with me somewhere else? Come along. I want to hear all about this.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” he replied in a quieter tone, and was turning towards the door when it suddenly opened and a tall elderly man in a peaked cap and black uniform entered.

“Here’s Muster Jenkins,” announced the smacksman as the newcomer, raising his hand, inquired in rounded oratorical tones:

“What’s hall this disgraceful noise and riot about?”

“Out you come!” I exclaimed; and without more ado I seized my new acquaintance by the arm and fairly dragged him out at the door, and hauling him up the passage, shot him out on to the pavement.

“Now, leg it before they come out,” I commanded, and my friend having by this time awakened to his position, we made off together for the harbour like a pair of quite exceptionally agile lamplighters, and did not slacken our pace until we were halfway along that stretch of quay known as the Military Road. In this secluded spot, with the dim shapes of the colliers’ masts looming above us on one side, and the tall black sail lofts on the other, we halted to listen for the footsteps of pursuers, but all being silent we resumed our progress at a more leisurely pace.

“Have a smoke?” asked my companion as he hoisted out of an enormous side pocket a handful of cigars.

“Thanks,” I replied; and then when we had lighted our respective weeds with some stinking Swedish matches from the same receptacle, I ventured to ask: “By the way, what was all that row about?”

My companion took his cigar from his mouth and laughed a little shyly.

“The fact is,” he said, “I opened the ball by making a confounded fool of myself. You must know, I have a pet aversion–call it prejudice if you like–that pet aversion is Dutchmen, or rather, I should say, Scandinavians.”

“Why, I thought they were considered excellent seamen,” I said.

“So they may be,” he replied. “Anyhow, I don’t like ‘em, and I am more than usually down on ‘em just now, for one of the beggars got aboard of me last Tuesday night and played the deuce with my vessel.”

“Indeed!” said I, pricking up my ears.

“Ah! It was about seven bells in the middle watch–half-past three in the morning, you know–and as dark as a vault. We were slipping along with a nice little bit of easterly breeze, just abreast of the East Goodwin light, making for the Downs. It was the mate’s watch, and, my mate being a careful man, he had a lookout on each bow; the sidelights were burning brightly, everything was shipshape and Bristol fashion, and nobody dreaming of any danger, when suddenly the port lookout gave a shout, and before anyone could stir, a vessel heaves up out of the darkness, with never a blessed light about her, mind you! And bumps right into us amidships. Her jibboom snapped off in our main shrouds and brought our main t’gallant clattering down about our ears, and then she came grinding along our side clawing about half our bulwarks away with the fluke of her anchor, and tearing our shrouds all to rags.”

“And what had her skipper to say for himself?” I asked.

“Say?” shouted my companion. “Why, bless your heart! Before we could get about to speak to him he was off into the darkness without a sign; he might have been a derelict–but he wasn’t, for we saw a man at the wheel.”

“How did you know he was a Scandinavian?” I inquired with my friends’ admitted prejudice in my mind.

“Why you see,” he replied, “we always keep a lighted lantern on deck to show to any vessel that may be overhauling us; so when she ran us down, the mate caught up the lantern and threw a glimmer of light on her. We could have spotted her by her deck-load of timber and her jolly old windmill, but the mate managed to get a squint at her stern as she went by and, although he couldn’t make out the name, he could see that she belonged to Brevig. Now we hadn’t been in Ramsgate twelve hours when in comes a crazy old barque from Brevig with half her jibboom gone and a dent on her stem just the height of our channels. That Dutchman in the pub is her skipper, and he swears his jibboom was carried away a week ago by a steamer, but he won’t let us try the broken piece on his stump. So now you understand why I pitched into him.”

“Quite. But you’ll have a Board of Trade inquiry, won’t you?”

“Of course, we shall; in fact, it’s on now, and that’s why I was such an infernal donkey to quarrel with him; and I am very much obliged to you, sir, for getting me out of that pub before anything unpleasant happened.”

He laid a huge hand on my shoulder as he spoke and, in the dim light, his twisted face took on a more pleasant expression than I had thought possible.

“Not a bit of it,” I replied; “but that reminds me that we were going to clink a glass together. Where shall we go? The coast will be quite clear by now.”

“I’ll tell you what,” said he. “You come aboard with me, and we’ll have a glass and a yarn in the cabin, and let the pubs go to blazes. How will that suit you?” for I did not care to be seen in the ordinary taverns of the town, whereas a ship’s cabin had an alluring smack of romance to a sea-smitten landsman like myself.

As we talked we had been strolling round the basin, and now, having passed over the second bridge on the Crosswall, made for the gates by the Custom House.

“My craft’s berthed in this corner opposite the ‘Queen’s Head,’” said my new friend. “I’m having a new t’gallant mast fitted, and this berth is handy for the riggers.”

As he spoke we turned out of the gates into Harbour Street, and almost at once I perceived, shooting up into the black void, a tall and shapely mast that even in that light I could not fail to recognise.

“Surely,” said I, “this is the brig that came in from the Downs some four or five days ago?”

“That’s so,” replied my companion; “did you see her come in?”

“Yes, and, by Jove! what a beauty she looked in spite of her damaged mainmast.”

“You’re right,” my friend responded, “she’s a remarkably pretty model, and the owners don’t mind spending a few pounds on keeping her up; and then, of course, a vessel that goes foreign has to be fitted out a little differently from a craft like that,” and he nodded superciliously at a grimy, battered collier that lay close by, “that’s always mucking about in harbours and rivers round the coast. But here we are–mind your shins on this ladder. Anyone on board, Moloney?”

“No, sorr,” replied a tall sailor who was pacing the deck in company with a portly black cat. “Misther Jobling and Misther Darvill have gone to the theayterr, and the new stcheward hasn’t come aboard yet.”

“All right, Michael,” said the Captain, for such I judged him to be; “when the steward comes aboard send him to me.”

“Ay, ay, sorr,” replied Moloney, smartly touching his cap; and having adroitly hoisted the cat some half-dozen paces along the deck with his foot, he resumed his walk, apostrophising his feline companion in a grumbling bass as he went.

“Will ye kape out o’ the fairway, ye great, fat, lazy, lollopin’ black divil!” But I noticed that the pair seemed on excellent terms despite the Irishman’s rather abrupt manner.

The cabin as we entered from the dark companionway, looked singularly cosy and homelike. A large oil lamp which swung from one of the deck beams shed a cheerful light over the little interior and showed it to be in keeping with the brig’s smart design and rig. The panelling was of mahogany and bird’seye maple, the ceiling was painted a dead white; broad, cushioned lockers surrounded the table–now gay with a crimson cloth–and the aperture of the skylight was covered in by handsome red silk curtains.

“This is my little home,” said my host, looking round, somewhat complacently I thought, upon the trim little apartment, “and I bid you welcome in it, Mr–”

“Englefield,” said I. “Richard Englefield.”

“My name is Bithery,” my companion volunteered in return.

“Christian name Nicholas, trade or profession master mariner, of Bristol City, at present commander of the brig Lady Jane, from Hamburg to the West Coast of Africa.” As he, half jokingly, furnished these details, the Captain’s face again lighted up with the singularly genial smile that I had observed before, in which its trifling deformity was forgotten.

“Sit ye down there on that locker,” said he, and proceeded to make the most formidable preparations for a carouse, reaching out of a cupboard in the bulkhead a veritable battalion of bottles–high-shouldered Dutch bottles, tall brown stone German jars, squat bloated bottles of unknown nationality, and lastly a bottle of old French brandy. Then he discharged a cargo of cigars from his coat pocket, and taking a couple of tumblers and a water bottle from the swing tray that hung above the table, he sat down with a sigh of content.

“There now,” he said, “out of that lot we ought to be able to get a drink. There’s German gin, Squareface, and the Lord knows what else, but if you take my advice you’ll stick to that cognac–it’s the right stuff.”

I charged my tumbler with this highly-recommended beverage and, the Captain having followed my example, we sat and smoked in silence for some time.

“So you like my little ship?” said the skipper presently.

“I fell in love with her the first time I saw her,” I replied. “I’ve never seen a brig at all like her before.”

“I don’t suppose you have,” rejoined the Captain. “Probably there isn’t another like her afloat, for they don’t build clippers of this size nowadays. You see, our owner is a bit of a sportsman and this brig is his fancy. By the way, you’re in the shipping line yourself, aren’t you?”

“Not I,” I answered, smiling a little bitterly, “I wish I were. No, I’m a clerk in Jobson’s Bank.”

“My eye!” exclaimed the skipper. “I couldn’t stand that. Sitting in a cellar all day counting other people’s money. What made you take that job on?”

“Well, it was this way. When I was about twelve my father was offered a post in the bank, so he came down here from London and brought me with him. Then, about eight years ago, he was taken off suddenly by influenza and, as my mother had died when I was quite a child I was left high and dry to shift for myself; so I applied at the bank for some kind of work and was taken on as junior clerk–and there I’ve been ever since, and pretty sick of it I get sometimes, I can tell you.”

“I expect you do,” said the Captain, regarding me meditatively through a haze of tobacco smoke. “It must be a dog’s life. Why don’t you chuck it?”

“What could I do?” I asked.

“Well, what can you do?” the Captain inquired by way of a Scotch answer.

“I can write a decent hand,” said I. “I can keep books of a kind, can speak French and German fairly–I pick up languages rather easily–I can sail a boat and I can build one, too, if necessary.”

“Can ye, though?” said the Captain, pricking up his ears, as I thought.

“Yes. I built myself a little canoe yawl, and I sail her about here a good deal. On Sundays in summer I often take her right round the Goodwins–start in the early morning and come home in the dusk. And I made every bit of her myself in off times: hull, spars, sails, blocks–everything but just the iron fittings.”

“Did ye now?” said the Captain approvingly. “Sails and all? You’re a pretty handy man then.”

“Yes, I’m pretty handy at wood and metalwork and such like, but that doesn’t help one much towards getting a living.”

“No, I suppose it doesn’t. It’s useful though. What should you like to do if you had your choice?”

“Oh,” said I, “if I could see a chance I would go abroad and see foreign lands and knock about the world for a time. I’ve been on the lookout for a billet of the kind for years, but nothing ever seems to turn up.”

The Captain remained silent for some time after this, surrounding himself with a dense cloud of smoke and regarding me as attentively as if I had been some rare and curious work of art.

At length he removed his pipe from his mouth and, still regarding me fixedly, said: “How should you like to come with me this trip?”

The question staggered me for a moment, but recovering myself I asked: “Do you mean to Africa?”

“Yes,” said the Captain.

“There is nothing,” I replied eagerly, “that I should like better, but I don’t see what use I should be on board. I’m no seaman, and you don’t want clerks on board ship.”

“Well, the fact is we do in this trade,” said Captain Bithery. “You see, this isn’t just a vessel with a cargo consigned to a merchant at a given port. This is a floating shop. The cargo is our own, and we sell it where we can, and how we can, mostly to small native traders, and we trade and swap and chaffer for the produce with which we fill up for the homeward trip. That’s where you would come in. Most of the actual trading was managed last trip by our steward, who was practically the purser; but he got typhoid, so we had to leave him at Hamburg, and although we are taking on a new steward here, he will only be a sort of cook and cabin steward–we ship a black cook on the Coast–and he doesn’t know anything about the trade. Now, I’ve taken a bit of a fancy to you, and I think you and I could get on together pretty comfortably, so if you like to ship with me to help me keep the books and work the trade, I’ve got a spare berth that you can have, and I’ll pay you eight pounds a month and a commission on any profits you make; and you shall be at liberty to leave the brig at any time if anything should turn up that would suit you better.”

This was unquestionably a very handsome proposal, and so much in excess of any expectations I had formed that, without pausing to give the matter any further consideration, I accepted the Captain’s offer with many expressions of gratitude and delight.

“Very well, then,” said the skipper, pushing the bottle across to my side of the table, “that’s settled. You come with us this jaunt and, as you must have some title on the articles, we’ll call you the purser, although that’s only what you’d call an honorary title, you understand. So here’s a health to the new purser,” and as I mixed a fresh glass with a trembling hand, Captain Bithery emptied his tumbler at a draught and slapped it down on the table with a flourish.

Thus was the curtain rung down on the first act of my life’s little drama. A few words spoken, like a magic incantation, had changed my identity; and when I scrambled up the ladder on the quay as the harbour clock was striking twelve, I barked the shins, not of Mr Englefield of Jobson’s Bank, but of the purser of the Lady Jane.

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