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Chapter XV THE DEFENCE OF THE TEMPLE
WHEN I recovered my senses the sun had risen above the horizon, and I found myself lying within the stockade of the temple—not in the clutches of the bloodthirsty savages, but surrounded by my friends. Yet without the wooden fence were the natives, who, judging by their shrill cries and shouts of defiance, had recovered from their superstitious panic. I sat up and looked wearily around.

The idol, with its outstretched sword, doubtless a relic from a castaway Spanish warship, still remained as if to dispel any thoughts that the previous night had been but a horrible dream; there was the stone of sacrifice, and two smouldering heaps of charred wood still marked the spot where the fires for the interrupted cannibal feast had been lighted.

The stockade had been hastily adapted for purposes of defence. The Maxim, on its light tripod, commanded the open square without the gate, and around it was a group of seamen, to whom my father was giving various orders.

Uncle Herbert, with the rest of the men—for the whole of the "Fortuna's" crew save two, who were left on board, had taken part in the brave attempt at rescue—was busily engaged in loopholing the stockade at convenient distances, while Dr. Conolly, who had apparently completely recovered from his terrible ordeal, had regained possession of his revolver and was overhauling its mechanism. Yadillah still preserved his impassive demeanour, but into the folds of his voluptuous girdle, which he had recovered in a practically unsoiled state, he had thrust a long knife and a heavy Service revolver.

"Hello, Reggie!" exclaimed my father, who, seeing me slowly arise, had left the party with the Maxim and had hastened over to where I was sitting. "Feeling better, eh? Well, pull yourself together, and give a hand, for every man has his work cut out if we want to get out of this fuss with whole skins."

He spoke cheerily, but I afterwards learnt he was almost distracted when on the arrival of the rescue party, too late as he feared, we had been found bound to the altar stone.

I staggered to my feet, and, dizzy and faint from the effects of being in a cramped position during those terrible hours, I had great difficulty to prevent myself from falling, but a draught from a tin pannikin revived me wonderfully. My sporting rifle was hopelessly lost, so, picking up a revolver and a well-filled bandolier, I made my way across the courtyard to where the Maxim was trained ready to open fire.

The natives had gathered in a dense and disorderly mob around the chief's house and were making preparations to rush the gateway of the stockade. There were, I should think, nearly a thousand of them, against which a little band of Britishers, fifteen in all, had an almost superhuman task to perform, the result of which was to be either victory or a dreadful death.

"Steady, lads! Here they come!"

The two men at the Maxim, cool and collected, worked as calmly as if taking part in a sham fight.

"Commence!"

How shall I describe the terrible scene that followed?

Pop-pop-pop! Pop-pop-pop! The cartridge belt with its string of 250 rounds of .303 ammunition began to run swiftly through the breech-block, and from the water-jackets the steam rose in a thick cloud.

The centre of the dense mass of natives was literally crushed and beaten to the earth, but with redoubled shouts the flanks converged on the gate. At the critical moment there was a sudden pause in the firing—the Maxim had jammed!

Rapidly the men withdrew the belt, to find that a badly placed cartridge had projected sufficiently to prevent its passing through the breech; but even as they were thus engaged the foremost of the savages were almost within striking distance of the gate.

In obedience to a hoarse order the rest of the men temporarily forsook their stations at the loopholes, and, doubling up with fixed bayonets, poured in a rapid magazine fire upon the dense mass, while the deeper crack of the Webleys added to the deafening noise.

With a reckless disregard of their own safety; the natives, brandishing their terrible sharks'-toothed swords and spears, rushed dauntlessly towards the gate. Some, bearing the bodies of their slain comrades, strove to cast them upon the bayonets to break down the line of glittering steel; others, trusting to the protection afforded by their shields, found to their cost that fanatical bravery was useless before the weapons of the white man.

In the struggle we did not come of scatheless. One of the seamen, Barnes, lay on the ground, his leg transfixed with a jagged spear; nevertheless he continued firing, emptying his magazine with undiminished energy. Another, though who it was I was at the time unable to see, was doubled up in a heap by the side of the Maxim, while others received wounds of a less serious nature.

Notwithstanding the hot rifle and revolver fire, the savages kept up the attack with indomitable courage till, the jam having been cleared, the Maxim reopened fire, and under the withering blast the attackers melted and dispersed in utter disorder, leaving over a hundred of their number piled in ghastly heaps before the gate. Nor did they cease their headlong flight till well out of range.

The moment the fight was over, the doctor began his work of succouring the wounded. Barnes's case was by far the worst, as the fearful wound caused by the triple-headed spear had severed an artery, while Dr. Conolly had reason to suspect that the weapon was poisoned. Being without medical appliances, all that could be done for the sufferer was to apply a rough tourniquet, carefully wash the wound, and place a temporary bandage round the limb. The other man, who turned out to be Hinks, the "No. 1" of the Maxim, had been stunned by a large stone thrown at close range; but by a liberal application of cold water, of which there was fortunately a good supply, he was revived.

"We must get back to the ship as soon as possible," said my father. "The ammunition will run short if we stay here much longer."

"Let's hope they won't attack us on the way," replied the bos'n. "With two badly wounded men it would be hard for us."

"Yes, two men as stretcher-bearers to carry each of them, and two for the Maxim. That leaves but seven able to bear arms."

"Do you propose to burn the village? It would serve to impress the lesson more deeply."

"No; I think the poor fellows have suffered enough. Look upon the case from their point of view. Suppose, for instance, a party of niggers interfered with us at home—committed sacrilege, and otherwise trod on the corns of our feelings—wouldn't you cut up rough? Yet Conolly, by potting their sacred water-god, or whatever they call it, set the whole swarm of them buzzing round our heads. It's natural, after all. But there is one thing I'll burn, however."

"And that is——?"

"The idol."

Two stout levers were placed under the base of the grinning image, and with a hearty cheer the men bent to their work, and the ponderous mass of painted wood trembled, swayed for a few moments, then pitched headlong on the ground.

My father bent over it to more closely examine the painted and befeathered object. Suddenly he gave an exclamation of surprise.

"Herbert," he called to his brother, "come here and tell us what you think of this."

"Why," replied my uncle, "it's a figure-head."

"It is, or rather was. But it is more than that. See, the pedestal is carved with long staves, each surmounted by a cross."

"Well?"

"A cross-surmounted pole is the symbol of St. Philip the Apostle; consequently, unless I am much mistaken, the idol was at one time the figurehead of the 'San Philipo.' Of course, we cannot take it with us now; but, should an opportunity occur, I mean to have this relic on board the 'Fortuna.' Is everything ready, Mr. Wilkins?"

"Yes, sir."

"Very well; we'll try and make our way back to the ship."

A final examination showed that there were no signs of the natives in the vicinity of the village; so, taking the two wounded men on stretchers roughly improvised from bamboo poles and belts, we began our retreat.

It was a nerve-racking ordeal. From the pitiless glare of the sun the narrow path looked black and forbidding under the trees, and with the possibility that every thicket concealed a bloodthirsty enemy, every man was keenly on the alert. The snapping of a twig or the passage of a bird amongst the treetops caused the men to halt, with rifle at the ready, in anticipation of a fierce onslaught from an unseen foe; while, to add to our difficulties, Hinks began to show symptoms of lightheadedness, shouting and struggling so violently that he had to be strapped to the litter, while Barnes groaned loudly at each jolt of the stretcher.

But nothing of a hostile nature occurred, and at length, after a tedious two hours' march, we emerged from the wood and reached the beach; and it is doubtful whether Xenophon's Ten Thousand hailed the sight of the sea with greater delight than we did. For there lay the "Fortuna," riding easily to her anchor.

In obedience to a signal the two men who had been left on board manned the whaler and pulled for the beach, and ten minutes later the boat, heavily laden, was making its way back to the yacht.

Worn out with the effects of our terrible experience, we spent the rest of the day in idleness. For my part, after a good lunch, I turned in and slept till next morning, although once or twice I woke up in a bath of perspiration, the outcome of that horrible night.

Half an hour later we were over the scene of operations, and the divers immediately descended. It was a slow, tedious task, the clearing away of the weed and silt over the deck of the wreck, but before we could use a blasting charge it was necessary to thoroughly explore the hull, in order to make sure that the wreck was not too rotten to withstand the explosion.

Two hours elapsed, and the divers ascended, reporting good progress, but a lot of work lay before them, the tendrils of seaweed proving stubborn guardians of the hidden treasure; still, already they had made a passage to within a few feet of where the main hatch should be. After the midday meal down went the divers again for another two hours, and to me, sitting in the whaler, the monotony was most trying. Seeking for rich cargoes is all very well when one is taking an active part in the search, but when it comes to sitting in an open boat all day, literally with arms folded, and not knowing what is taking place beneath you, the enforced idleness soon palls even on the most sanguine spirits.

Next day came the same round of comparative idleness, save for the divers, who laboured incessantly, and the men at the pumps.

Another trying day came, and then, just before sunset, we were startled by hearing a terrific shouting on the beach. Bringing glasses to bear on the spot, we found that the natives had rejected their idol, which was indeed the figurehead of the "San Philipo," and had dragged it down to the sea shore, believing it to belong to the white men. However that may be, there it lay in the sand. The pater there and then determined that he would carry it home with him. As with the treasure of the sunken ship, he felt he had a certain proprietary right in the "San Philipo" and all belonging to her.



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