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CHAPTER 10
The Baffled Inquisitor.—Corbet’s Flight by Night.—Dead Beckoning.—His Purpose accomplished.—Once more an unwelcome Visitor.—The warning Words.—Corbet confident.—“Right straight back”—The stormy Water.—The gloomy Night and the gloomier Day.—Where is the Petrel?—Despair of Corbet.

FINDING that Captain Corbet was obstinate in his refusal to tell him about the boys, Ferguson at length desisted from his inquiries, and departed from the Antelope, much to the relief of the commander of that vessel. But, though he had left the Antelope, he had by no means given up his investigations into the cause of her present voyage. He at once rowed to the shore, with the intention of finding out from the people there what had been Corbet’s business among them.

This he had no difficulty whatever in finding out. Corbet had come there with only one purpose, and this he had made known to every one with whom he came in contact, as best he could.

He had picked up a man who spoke English, and this man had accompanied him in his rounds as interpreter. This very man fell into Ferguson’s way, and from him Ferguson was able to learn that Captain Corbet’s sole aim in visiting the Magdalen Islands was to obtain some sails. He learned that the sails, could not be obtained, and also that they had recommended him to go to Miramichi for them. By this he understood the reason why Captain Corbet was going to that place.

Now, Ferguson had taken a great fancy to the boys; but the opinion which he had formed of Captain Corbet and the Antelope was of a very different kind. That opinion he had been at no pains to conceal. He had, in fact, expressed it freely and frequently. He had called Captain Corbet an “old woman,” and the Antelope “a tub.” This opinion he still cherished. Moreover, he had prophesied solemnly that the boys were more likely than not to land at the bottom of the sea before their voyage was over, and this prophecy he still believed in. In fact, the strong regard that he had conceived for these boys made him feel uneasy about them, and he did not like to think of them sailing about these seas with such a vessel and such a commander. The sudden appearance of the Antelope had excited his apprehensions. He had seen her come in while he was ashore. He had noticed her manoeuvres. He had watched her as she rounded to and then stood off again. He had then gone in his boat to watch her, and had seen her anchor. He had seen Captain Corbet go ashore with Wade. He had then rowed to her, boarded her, and examined her. The result of this examination was anything but satisfactory. He could not see any signs of the boys. All their luggage was gone. What had become of them was his first thought, and he had waited for the return of Captain Corbet in deep uneasiness.’ That uneasiness had only been increased when the captain returned and answered his questions in so evasive a manner.

He had not been prepared for this; the evasive answers of Captain Corbet irritated him, and awakened his suspicions. The secrecy which he threw around the movements of the boys was in the highest degree annoying. He had come hoping to find them on board. Their absence had filled him with uneasiness. In this state of uneasiness he had waited on board for hours, fidgeting and fuming; and the end of it all was, that when Captain Corbet did appear, he refused to answer the simplest questions.

There were several things that troubled and perplexed him to an unusual and a most unpleasant degree.

First. What had become of the boys? Captain Corbet would not say. He had asked about every place in which it was possible that they could be, and had been told, most positively, that they were not there. Anticosti, Bay of Islands, Newfoundland, St. Pierre, St. Paul’s, Gaspe, all the coasts surrounding the gulf he had asked after, and he had been told that they were in none of them. Where, then, could they be? Such secrecy puzzled and irritated him. Captain Corbet’s story about the secret society did not deceive him for one instant. He saw through it all. He saw that Captain Corbet, though incapable of telling a falsehood, was yet willing to mislead, or to put him on a false track; but, for his part, he was not the man who could be easily misled or baffled.

Then came the discovery which he had made of the purpose which Captain Corbet had in visiting the Magdalen Islands. He had come for sails. Sails! What did he want of sails? What absurd project had he formed? And what had his search for sails to do with the absence of the boys? Yet, so great was Captain Corbet’s desire to obtain sails, that he was going to Miramichi for that very purpose.

Then, again, Ferguson could not forget the way in which Captain Corbet had come to the Magdalen Islands. He had come—he had appeared for a moment, as if about to anchor, but then had turned away, and sailed elsewhere. The whole manoeuvre had looked exactly like a wish to avoid the Fawn, and it might have been successful, had he not pursued so closely. Captain Corbet’s appearance also, when he first came on the deck of the Antelope, and found himself confronted by his visitor, his start, his look of surprise, his confusion, his hesitation,—all these things made him seem the more open to suspicion.

Suspicion!

And of what?

Now, Ferguson did not for a moment believe Captain Corbet capable of wrong. In fact, he looked upon him as an imbecile. Yet, even from that point of view, his uneasiness about the boys was none the less. These boys, under the care of an imbecile, seemed to him to be in as great peril as though their guardian had been a criminal. Where were they now? Had the folly or the imbecility of their captain drawn them into some position of danger? They were innocent and inexperienced; he was an imbecile; all were alike unprepared to encounter the dangers that might befall them; and from all these causes combined, the boys might now be in a position of very serious danger, while this incapable guardian was idly roaming the seas.

The more he thought of all these things, the more uneasy he felt; until, at length, his fears about the safety of the boys, who had so suddenly awakened his interest, grew so strong, that he determined to keep Captain Corbet in sight. Believing that they were in some situation of possible danger, into which they had been drawn by their own ignorance and Captain Corbet’s imbecility, and in which they were now left, Ferguson felt an intolerable anxiety, and so at length came to the conclusion to follow the Antelope, until some light should be thrown upon this mystery.

Meanwhile, Captain Corbet, having got rid of his troublesome visitor, waited patiently until the boat had rounded the projecting promontory of the island, and then proceeded to continue his voyage. He had already made up his mind to go to Mirami-chi, and this visit of Ferguson, together with his sharp inquiries, far from changing his purpose, had only served to intensify it. He only waited until the boat which contained his dreaded visitor was out of sight, in order to hurry his departure. Accordingly the anchor was weighed in the utmost haste, the sails hoisted, and soon the Antelope set forth on a fresh cruise. The wind was still light, yet sufficient for his purpose; and he directed his course around the island, so as to avoid, as far as possible, being seen by Ferguson. His knowledge of these waters was not very minute, yet it was sufficient to give him a general idea of his destination, and he steered the Antelope accordingly.

Evening came, and the Antelope continued on her course. All night long she traversed the waters, and on the following day approached the New Brunswick coast. Here Captain Corbet recognized the entrance to the Bay de Chaleur, and, turning southward, he sailed along the coast towards the Miramichi River. As he went on, he noticed a sail some miles away; but to this he paid no attention. It was a common enough thing in these waters, and there was no reason why he should notice it particularly. The sail remained in sight all that day; and at length, as he entered the Miramichi River and sailed up it, the fact that this stranger was following did not excite any attention on his part.

Three large towns lie on the Miramichi River,—Chatham, Douglastown, and Newcastle. Of these, two are a few miles from the mouth, on opposite sides of the stream—Chatham and Douglastown; and the three towns form together the centre of a great trade in ship-building, and in the exportation of deals and timber. Here may be found all that appertains to the outfit of a ship, and here Captain Corbet expected to procure what he wanted.

It was evening when the Antelope dropped anchor in the river opposite Chatham. It was then too late to do anything; so Captain Corbet had to postpone his business until the following day. Pleased with his prosperous voyage, and pleased still more with the easy way in which he had got rid of Ferguson, full of hope also in the successful completion of his business, he retired to bed that night, and slept placidly and profoundly. The wind that night arose, and blew hard; but the venerable captain, sunk in slumber, and surrounded by the river shores, heard nothing of the noise of the storm. Had he been out at sea, he would doubtless have thought of the boys in the distant ship; but here in the placid river there was nothing to mar his repose.

On the following morning Captain Corbet went ashore at Chatham, and began a search after the sails. The search took up some time, but at length he succeeded in finding what he wanted. He found some sails and rigging that had been taken from a condemned ship, and were held for sale. They had not been considered good enough for a ship’s outfit, and had not only been torn and rent by storms, but also, from having been kept in a damp warehouse, they were somewhat mildewed. Still they served Captain Corbet’s purpose as well as brand new ones could have done, and, in fact, even better, for their damaged condition enabled him to obtain them at a price which was commensurate with his means. It took some time to get these all stowed away properly in the Antelope; but at length the work was satisfactorily accomplished, and Captain Corbet emerged from the hold, and ascended upon deck, with a smile of serene satisfaction, and the peaceful consciousness that this had been a well-spent, day.

Thus, with this smile of serenity and this tranquil breast did our good Captain Corbet emerge from the hold and ascend to the deck of the Antelope. Scarcely, however, had he set foot thereon, scarcely had he taken one look around, than the smile on his face faded away utterly, and the tranquillity of his soul was abruptly ended.

For there, full before him, seated calmly on the rail, with a piece of soft pine stick in one hand, and a keen jackknife in the other, with a cigar in his mouth, and a pleasant glance in his eye,—there sat the dreaded Ferguson, the very man whom Captain Corbet most feared to see, and whom he believed to be far away at the Magdalen Islands.

Captain Corbet stood rooted to the spot. His jaw dropped. He was paralyzed.



0149

“You made a nice run,” said Ferguson. “A snug place this.”

Captain Corbet did not answer. He was too confused.

“I see you got your sails. I s’pose you didn’t have any trouble.”

These words increased the dismay of Captain Corbet. He thought that this would be a profound secret. Ferguson now showed that he knew it. He must have found out about this at the Magdalen Islands. Whether he knew any more or not, was a troublesome problem. Captain Corbet did not see how he could possibly know any more, and yet Ferguson had such a knowing look, that he would not have been surprised at learning that he knew all.

“I see you’ve got your sails,” said Ferguson, as Captain Corbet did not answer.

“Yes,” said the other, in a melancholy tone, and with a resigned look.

“It’s pretty difficult to get hold of things of that sort in these parts, and you were lucky enough to get them so easy. They’ll do for your purpose, I s’pose.”

“O, yes,” said Captain Corbet, “they’ll do—well enough—considerin; just as well as if they was new.”

“I s’pose you’re going right back from this?”

“Right back?” repeated Captain Corbet.

“Yes; you don’t intend to go dawdling about any longer—do you?”

“O, no.”

“And you’re going right straight back?”

“O, yes.”

“And when I say right straight back,” continued Ferguson, “I mean, of course, right straight back to the boys. It’s only the boys I consider. I feel anxious about them. I consider myself in some sort, just now, as responsible for their rescue, or, at any rate, for their safety; and, old man, let me warn you solemnly to be careful what you’re about. Don’t you go flitting about any longer in this style. Go you right straight back to where those boys are; if you don’t, there’ll be trouble.”

The tone of Ferguson was earnest and anxious. Captain Corbet looked distressed.

“O, railly, now,” he said: “see here now; railly I do assure you, sir, the boys are all right, and all happy—plenty to eat, good quarters, and old Solomon to cook for them and make their beds. Why, you don’t suppose I’m made of iron, or that I’d have the heart to leave them in any place except where they would be safe?”

“I don’t believe you’d leave them in any place that you might think dangerous, of course; but the trouble is you might leave them somewhere, not knowing it to be dangerous, while all the time it would be very dangerous indeed. Have you sailed much about these waters?”

“Wal—n—no, not to say much.”

“Well, I have; and let me tell you, it won’t do to trust to your judgment where such precious things are concerned as the lives of those boys. I felt afraid, when I first saw the Antelope without the boys, that they had fallen into some difficulty through your ignorance or carelessness, and the moment I spoke to you about it, I felt convinced of it. It has worried me ever since. I took for granted that you were going back from the Magdalen Islands, and had no idea that you would venture so far away from them as this. When I learned your object, and saw where you were heading, I followed you on purpose to say what I now say; and that is, Go back, go back, old man, go back to the boys. I feel sure that they are in danger.”

“But ain’t I going to go back?” cried Captain Corbet, with as much vexation in his tone as could be showed by one of so amiable a nature.

“I don’t know.”

“Wal, I am, then,—thar.”

“Now?”

“Yes; right away.”

“That’s right,” said Ferguson, standing up and getting over the side of the Antelope into his own boat; “and one word more: don’t you delay. Pile on all the sail this old tub’ll carry, and get back to those boys as soon as you can.”

“O, you needn’t be a mite afeard,” said Captain Corbet, in a confident tone. “Them thar boys are jest as safe as you and me. They’re not only safe, but comfortable; yes, comfortable, and jolly, and lively, and happy, and safe, and sound. All right.”

“Well, well; I only hope it may turn out so,” said Ferguson; and with these words he rowed away.

Captain Corbet had spoken these last words in a very confident tone; but, in spite of this, he was by no means so confident as he seemed. In spite of himself, the warning words of Ferguson had sunk deep into his soul, and roused very deep anxiety. Now, too, that the great purpose of his voyage had been achieved, and the sails were actually lying stowed away in the hold, he had leisure to think of those boys, and of the situation in which he had left them. He had left them far longer than he had intended. He had been gone now three days. It might take two days to get back, and in case of a calm, it might take far longer. The thought of this filled him with uneasiness.

Ferguson himself, had he been on board, would have commended the activity with which captain and mate now proceeded to hoist anchor and sail. In a very short time the Antelope was under way.

Captain Corbet’s uneasiness grew greater. The warnings of Ferguson started up in his mind, and joined themselves to his recollections of the ship. He remembered how unwilling he had been to leave them, and how they had overpersuaded him. He began to lament that he had ever gone away. The vision of sudden wealth had lost all its charm, and no longer dazzled his mind.

At length he passed out of the river into the gulf. Ever since he had started, the wind had been blowing more and more, and at length, on reaching the open sea, it was quite a gale. All around the waves tossed up their white caps, and the clouds scudded across the sky. This only increased the anxiety of the captain, and as he looked out upon the waste of waters, he trembled for the safety of those who were so helpless in that half-sunken ship. How would they endure this? For this he had not been prepared. He could not forgive himself.

All that night he sailed on, full of grief and terror. The wind increased; the sea rose higher.

The next day came, and wind and sea were yet high. The progress of the Antelope was very good, and towards evening Captain Corbet reckoned that he must be approaching the place where the Petrel lay.

But the shades of night came down, and nothing was visible. For a few hours Captain Corbet sailed on, and at length lay to. This must be the place, according to his calculations; and on the following morning he hoped to see the tall masts of the wrecked ship.

The next morning came.

All that night Captain Corbet had paced the deck in sleepless misery. With the first beam of dawn his eyes sought the horizon, and as the day grew brighter, he still sought eagerly in all directions.

In vain.

The sun rose. It was broad day.

But upon the face of the waters there was not a sign of the Petrel.

Only one sail was visible, and that was a schooner far away to the west.

Captain Corbet stood terror-struck, and looked all around with a face of despair.


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