I have for many years when bored, generally trolled Project Gutenberg for interesting or entertaining things to read. Sometimes I’ve found things that were just too good to not remember. I propose to excerpt some of those things and display them in posts with the forestory explained.
To start, I will select “The Adventures of Don Lavington; or, Nolens Volens” by George Manville Fenn: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/21316
As a Project Gutenberg book, the copyright has expired and the text I am reproducing below is free for all.
So far: Don Lavington, a boy, and Jem, a laborer working for Don’s uncle, are kidnapped one night by a press gang and end up on a British navy ship in New Zealand. After failing to escape several times along the way, they attempt to try again by going overboard one night and meeting a friendly Maori dude who promised to be nearby in his canoe.
“Jem!” in a tone of despair.
“What is it!”
“The rope’s cut!”
“What? So it is. Never mind. After me! There’s the one in the forechains.”
In the midst of a loud buzz of voices, and the pad, pad—pad, pad of bare feet on the deck, Jem and Don reached the forechains; and Jem ran his hand along in the darkness till he felt the knot by which he had secured the rope.
“Here she is, Mas’ Don. Now, then, over with you quick, or I shall be a-top of your head.”
“I’ve got it,” whispered Don.
Then in a voice full of despair,—
“This is cut, too!”
At the same moment the captain’s voice rang out,—
“Look out there, you in the watch forward; two men are trying to leave the ship!”
“What’s to be done, Mas’ Don?” whispered Jem, whom this second proof of treachery against them seemed to have robbed of the power to act.
“This way,” cried a voice, which they recognised as Ramsden’s. “By the forechains.”
[Ramsden is a minor villain on the ship, something of a tattletale but worse]
“Oh, if I had hold of you,” snarled Jem, as he ground his teeth.
“Do you hear me?” whispered Don. “Come on.”
He spoke from where he stood on the bulwark, holding by one of the shrouds, and offering his hand to Jem, who could not see it, but climbed to his side.
“Header?” he whispered.
Don gave the word as he glanced in the direction where he believed the canoe to lie; and then, raising his hands above his head, he sprang right off the bulwark into the sea.
A moment’s pause and then—
Jem had followed suit, and there was a faint display—if the expression is allowable—of water fireworks, as innumerable pinhead-like beads of light flashed away in every direction.
“Lanthorns here!” cried the captain. “Sentries, quick! This way.”
[At the time this story is set, lanthorn was the common spelling of “lantern”]
He reached the spot from which Don and Jem had taken their daring leap, and in less than a minute the light of a couple of lanthorns was thrown upon the sea.
“Come back!” roared the captain, “or I fire. Marines, make ready.”
The lanthorns’ light gleamed further on the sea as those who held them clambered up the shrouds and held them at arms’ length, and then dimly-seen were the backs of the heads of the two swimmers, who made the water swirl as they struck out with all their might.
“Do you hear, you scoundrels?” roared the captain again. “Come back, or I fire.”
There was no reply and the heads began to grow more faint in the gloom, while now the news had spread through the ship, and officers and men came tumbling up the companion ladder and out of their cabins.
“Marines, present—fire!” cried the captain.
There were two sharp clicks and as many tiny showers of sparks. That was all.
[The guns were flintlocks, which would use these flint sparks to fire the charge in the barrel]
“Why, you were not loaded!” cried the captain, fiercely, “Where is the lieutenant? Where is the sergeant? Load, you scoundrels, load!”
The men grounded arms, and began to load quickly, the thudding of their iron ramrods sounding strangely in the still night air.
“Pipe away the first cutter!” cried the captain. “Mr Rogerson, bring those scoundrels back.”
The shrill pipe of the boatswain was heard, and there was a rush of feet as the captain shouted again,—
There was a sharp flash, a loud report, and the captain stamped with rage.
“Fire, you scoundrel, fire!” he roared at the second man, who was about to lower his clumsy musket, after tugging in vain at the trigger, when the piece went off, and the bullet fled skyward, sending the nearest lanthorn held up in the shrouds out of its holder’s hand, to fall with a splash in the sea, and float for a few moments before it filled and sank, the candle burning till the water touched the wick.
[If it didn’t rust, that would make an interesting archaeological artifact now (:]
“’Pon my word!” cried the captain. “Nice state of discipline. Now you—fire again. And you, sir, load. Can you see the men, marines?”
“No, sir. Right out of sight.”
“Then fire where they were when you saw them last.”
“But they won’t be there now, sir.”
“Silence, you scoundrel! How dare you? Fire!”
[One senses the captain isn’t thinking too clearly]
“Now you: are you ready?”
“Load again!” cried the captain. “Now, you scoundrels, come back or you shall have a volley.”
A strange noise came off the sea.
“Hark! What’s that?” cried the captain. “A cry for help!”
“What was it, then?”
“Beg pardon, sir; but I think it was one on ’em a-larfin’.”
The captain gave the speaker—one of the warrant officers—a furious look.
“Now, then, is that boat going to be all night?” he shouted.
“All ready, sir. Lower away.”
The boat kissed the sea with a faint splash; she was thrust off; and as the oars dropped and the men gave way the cutter went rapidly through the water, at a rate which would have soon made the fugitives prisoners but for the fact that boat and swimmers were taking different directions, and the distance between them increased at every stroke.
“They’ve taken no lanthorn!” cried the captain. “Surely no one’s orders were ever worse obeyed.”
“Shall I call them back, sir?” said the second lieutenant.
“No, no; let them find it out for themselves. Here, marines, ten of you load. Quick, my lads, clear the way from up here.”
“Make ready, take good aim at the scoundrels—present—fire!”
This time the whole of the pieces went off with a loud rattle, which brought lights out in the New Zealand village, and a buzz of excitement came from the men.
“More lanthorns there!” cried the captain. “See them?” he cried, to the officer in the boat.
“Not yet, sir.”
“Take a sweep round to the southward. They’re more there.”
“Ay, ay, sir!” came faintly out of the darkness; and the dull rattle of the oars reached those on deck.
“I’ll have those two back, dead or alive!” cried the captain, stamping about in his rage. “Pipe down the second cutter.”
His orders were obeyed, and in a short time, with a lanthorn in bow and stern, the second boat touched the water, and rowed off, the officer in command receiving instructions to bear off more still to the southward, and finally sweep round so as to meet the first boat.
Directly this was started a happy thought seemed to strike the captain, who had a third boat lowered, with instructions to row right ashore, land the men, and divide them in two parties, which would strike off to right and left, stationing a man at every fifty yards; and these were to patrol the beach to and fro, keeping watch and a sharp look out for the fugitives.
“That will checkmate them, Mr Jones,” he said. “I wish I had thought of this before. Now go.”
Mr Bosun Jones was in command of this boat, and he gave orders to his men, the oars splashed, and away they went into the darkness, their lights growing fainter and fainter, till they seemed to be mere specks in the distance; but they did not die out, and as those left on deck watched the progress, they saw the lanthorns of the last boat become stationary, and knew that the men had reached the shore, while the lanthorns of the second cutter were faintly visible, moving slowly far away to the south.
The captain rubbed his hands with satisfaction, and kept walking to the gangway and using his night-glass without any greater result than that of seeing a couple of faint specks of light, when he got the boats’ lanthorns into the field. Then he listened in the hope of hearing shouts, which would suggest the capture of the fugitives; but half an hour—an hour—glided by, and all was still. The buzz and cries which had arisen from the collection of huts had ceased, and the lights shown there had been extinguished, while the darkness which hung over the sea appeared to grow more dense.
At last there was a hail about a hundred yards away, and the officer in the first boat answered the captain’s eager inquiry.
“No, sir; no luck. Not a sign of any one. I’m afraid—”
“They have got ashore and escaped?”
“No, sir,” said the lieutenant, gravely; “I don’t think a man could swim ashore in this darkness and escape.”
“Why, the distance is very short!”
“Yes, sir; but there are obstacles in the way.”
“Well, sir, I’ve seen some tremendous sharks about in the clear water; and I don’t think any one could get any distance without having some of the brutes after him.”
A terrible silence followed this declaration, and the captain drew his breath hard.
“Come aboard,” he said. “It is too dark for further search to be made.”
The boat was rowed alongside, the falls lowered, the hooks adjusted, and she was hoisted up and swung inboard.
“I’d give anything to capture the scoundrels,” said the captain, after walking up and down for a few minutes with the lieutenant; “but I don’t want the poor fellows to meet with such a fate as that. Do you think it likely?”
“More than likely, sir,” said the lieutenant, coldly.
The captain turned aft, made his way to the quarter-deck, and remained there attentively watching shoreward to where he could faintly see the lights of the last boat.
“We must leave further search till morning,” muttered the captain; and giving his order, signal lamps were run up to recall the boats; and before very long they were answered, and the lanthorns of Bosun Jones’ boat could soon after be seen heading slowly for the ship, the second boat following her example a few minutes later.
“No signs of them, Mr Jones?” said the captain, as his warrant officer reached the deck to report himself.
“No, sir,” said the boatswain, sadly; “but I heard a sound, and one of my men heard it too.”
“A sound? What sound?”
“Like a faint cry of distress, sir.”
“Yes; and what did you make of that?”
The boatswain was silent a moment.
“The harbour here swarms with sharks, sir, and the cry sounded to me like that of a man being drawn under water.”
“No, no; no, no; not so bad as that,” said the captain, rather excitedly. “They’ve got to shore, and we will have them back to-morrow. The people will give them up either by threats or bribes.”
“I hope so, sir,” said the boatswain, coldly. And, then, as he went below, “Poor lad! I’d have given a year of my life rather than it should have happened. This pressing is like a curse to the service.”
By this time the officer in the last boat had reported himself, the crews were dismissed, the watch set, and all was silence and darkness again.
Afterwards: Don and Jem do escape, and later serve Marsden appropriately before eventually returning home, older and wiser.