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[-86-]

CHAPTER CLXVIII.

THE PLAGUE SHIP.

    It wanted half-an-hour to day-break, when the splash of oars alongside met their ears; and in a few moments Swot, the foreman, made his appearance.
    "I've got all ready for you, my boys," said that individual; "a good boat, and two stout chaps to help."
    "Have they got their barkers?" demanded the Resurrection Man, thereby meaning pistols.
    "A brace each," replied the foreman. "But they must only be used in case of desperation. There's a false bottom to the boat; and there I've stowed away five cutlasses."
    "All right!" cried the Buffer. "Now, Moll, you make yourself comfortable till we get back again."
    "You're a fool, Jack, not to let me go along with you," observed the woman.
    "Nonsense," answered her husband. "Some one must stay on board to take care of the lighter."
    "Well, do n't say that I'm a coward  that's all," exclaimed Moll.
    "We won't accuse you of that," said the Resurrection Man. "But now let's be off. Where shall we meet you at Gravesend?"
    "You know the windmill about a mile below the town," returned Swot, to whom this question was addressed. "Well, close by is the Lobster Tavern and there's a little jetty where the boat can be fastened. Meet me at that tavern at ten o'clock this evening."
    "Agreed," answered Tidkins.
    The three men then ascended to the deck.
    The dawn was at that moment breaking in the east; and every moment, mast after mast on the stream, and roof after roof on the shore, appeared more palpably in the increasing light of the young day.
    On board of the Blossom, the Black was busily employed in washing time deck, and seemed to take no notice of any thing that was passing elsewhere.
    "The tide will be with us for nearly three hours," said Tidkins. "Come  we won't lose a moment."
    The foreman retraced his steps across the barges to the wharf; while the Resurrection Man and the Buffer, each armed with a pair of pistols, leapt into the boat, that lay alongside the lighter.
    Two stout fellows, dressed like watermen, and who were already seated in the boat, instantly plied their sculls.
    The skiff shot rapidly away from the vicinity of the barges, and was soon running down the middle of the river with a strong tide.
    The morning was beautiful and bright: a gentle breeze swept the bosom of the stream:  and when the sun burst forth in all Its effulgent glory, a few fleecy clouds alone appeared on the mighty arch of blue above.
    Here and there the mariners on board time outward-bound vessels were busy in heaving up their anchors  a task which they performed with the usual cheering and simultaneous cry,  or in loosening the canvass that immediately became swollen with the breeze.
    At distant intervals some steamer, bound to a native or foreign port, walked, as it were, with gigantic strides along the water, raising with its mighty Briarean arms, a swell on either side, which made the smaller craft toss and pitch as if in a miniature whirlpool.
    Alas! how many souls have found a resting-place in the depths of those waters; and the spray of the billow seems the tears which old Father Thames sheds as a tribute to their graves! Then, at dark midnight, when the wind moans over the bosom of the river, the plaintive murmurs sound as a lament for those that are gone.
    Vain are thy tears, O River! But if they must be shed, let them flow for the living, whose crimes or whose miseries may, with Orphic spell, awaken the sympathy of even inanimate things.
    The boat shot rapidly along, the sun gilding its broad pathway.
    What evidence of commercial prosperity appears on either side! The clang of mighty hammers de[-87-]note the progress of new vessels in the various building-yards; and in the numerous docks the shipwright is busy in repairing the effects of past voyages, and rendering the gallant barks fit to dare the perils of the ocean once more!
    The river-pirates, whose course we are following, pursued their way: the old Dreadnought, stripped of the cannon that once bristled on its lofty sides, and now resembling the worn-out lion that has lost its fangs, was passed;  the domes of Greenwich greeted the eye;  and now the boat merged upon the wide expanse which seems to terminate with Blackwall.
    But, no! the stream sweeps to the right' and onward floats the skiff  skirting the Kentish shore.
    At length the gloomy and sombre-looking hulks off Woolwich are reached: the boat shoots in between the shipping; and there the pirates landed.
    At Woolwich they repaired to a low public-house with which they were acquainted; and, as the fresh air of the river had sharpened their appetites, they called into request every article of food which was to be found in the larder. Liquors in due proportion were ordered; the Resurrection Man paid the score for all; and in this manner the four pirates contrived to while away the time until the tide turned once more in their favour in the afternoon.
    At three o'clock they retraced their steps to the boat; and in a few minutes were again gliding rapidly along on the bosom of the river.
    "Now," said the Resurrection Man, "as we have drunk a glass and smoked a pipe together, we are better acquainted with each other."
    These words were especially addressed to the two men whom the foreman at Mossop's wharf had provided.
    "Of course," continued the Resurrection Man, "I needn't ask you if you know the exact nature of the business which we have in hand. I did n't think it prudent to talk about it when we were at the crib in Woolwich just now, because walls have ears; but I took it for granted, from certain words which you two chaps said, that it's all right."
    "Yes, yes, master," returned one, who was called Long Bob, in consequence of his height: Swot put us up to the whole thing."
    "We know the risk, and we know what's to be got by it," added the other, who delighted in the name of the Lully Prig,* [*A thief who steals damp linen off the hedges in the country.] from the circumstance of his having formerly exercised the calling with which in flash language, the name is associated, before he became a river-pirate.
    "Then we understand each other," said the Resurrection Man, "without any farther wagging of the tollibon."*[*Talking  palaver. "Tollibon" is the tongue.]
    "We cut the same lock that you do,*[*get our living in the same way], old feller," answered the Lully Prig; "and as long as we snack the bit*[*share the money] in a reg'lar manner, we're stanch to the back-bone."
    "So far, so good," said the Resurrection Man "But you're also aware that the swag must be taken up the river and put on board the Fairy where it must stay some time till Swot can find a safe customer for it, because it's sure to be chanted on the leer."*[*advertised in the newspapers.]
    "We 're fly to all that," said Long Bob. "But Swot promised us ten neds*[*sovereigns] each, if the thing succeeds to-night; so that we shan't object to waiting for the rest of our reg'lars till the swag is dinged."*[*sent to the receiver.]
    "Who knows that we shan't find come gobsticks,*[*silver spoons] clinks,*[*silver milk jugs or sugar basins] or other things of the same kind?" exclaimed the Lully Prig; "and, if so, they can soon be walked off to the melting-pot fence,*[*persons who receive and melt down stolen metal.] and the glanthem will be dropped*[*money will be obtained] in no time."
    "That's understood, my boys," exclaimed the Resurrection Man. "Now, give way with a will and do n't let's delay."
    On went the boat with increased rapidity, the Lully Prig and Long Bob plying the oars with strength and skill. Then, when they were wearied the Resurrection Man and the Buffer took their turns. Occasionally Tidkins handed round his flask, which he had taken good care to have replenished with rum at Woolwich; and at intervals the Buffer or the Lully Prig cheered their labours with a song.
    In this manner Erith was reached and passed:  Greenhithe and Ingress Abbey, the front of which splendid mansion is built with the stones of old London Bridge, were in due course left behind;  and soon the antique windmill and the tall tower of Gravesend greeted the eyes of the river-pirates.
    At the two piers of the town were numerous steam-packets;  there were large merchant-vessels riding at anchor in the middle of the river;  and, on the opposite side, Tilbury Fort commanded the expanse of water with its cannon.
    "Since we're to meet Swot at the Lobster Tavern," said the Resurrection Man, "we may as well run down to that place at once."
    " So we will," returned the Buffer.
    The boat continued its course; and in a short time it was made fast to the little jetty which affords a convenient means of landing at the point mentioned.
    The Lobster Tavern is a small isolated place of entertainment, upon the bank of the Thames, and is chiefly frequented by those good folks who, in fine weather, indulge in a trip on Sundays from London to Gravesend.
    There are sheds, with seats, built in front of the tavern; and on a calm summer's evening, the site and view are pleasant enough.
    The four pirates entered the establishment, and called for refreshments.
    They thus passed away the time until ten o'clock, when Mossop's foreman joined them.
    In another half-hour they were all five seated in the boat; and, in the darkness of the night, they bent their way towards the plague-ship.
    They kept close along the Kentish shore; and when Swot imagined that they must be within half-a-mile of the place where the Lady Anne was stranded, the oars were muffled.
    The sky was covered with dense black clouds: no moon and not a star appeared.
    The water seemed as dark as ink.
    But the foreman knew every inlet and every jutting [-88-] point which marked the course of the Thames, and, with the tiller in his hand, he navigated the boat with consummate skill.
    Not a word was spoken; and the faint murmurs of the oars were drowned in the whistling of the breeze which now swept over the river.
    At length the foreman said in a low whisper, "There is the light of the police-boat."
    At a distance of about a quarter of a mile that light appeared, like a solitary star upon the waters.
    Sometimes it moved  then stopped, as the quarantine officers rowed, or rested on their oars.
    "We must now be within a few yards of the Lady Anne," whispered Swot, after another long pause: "take to your arms."
    The Buffer cautiously raised a plank at the bottom of the boat, and drew forth, one after another, five cutlasses.
    These the pirates silently fastened to their waists. The boat moved slowly along; and in another minute it was by the side of the plague ship.
    The Resurrection Man stretched out his arm, and his hand swept its slimy hull.
    There was not a soul upon the deck of the Lady Anne; and, as if to serve the purposes of the river-pirates, the wind blew in strong gusts, and the waves splashed against the bank and the vessel itself, with a sound sufficient to drown the noise of their movements.
    The bow of the Lady Anne lay high upon the bank: the stern was consequently low in the water.
    As cautiously as possible the boat was made fast to a rope which hung over the schooner's quarter; and then the five pirates, one after the other, sprang on board.
    "Holloa!" cried a boy, suddenly thrusting his bead above the hatchway of the after cabin.
    Long Bob's right hand instantly grasped the boy's collar, while his left was pressed forcibly upon his mouth and in another moment the lad was dragged on the deck, where he was immediately gagged and bound hand and foot.
    But this process had not been effected without some struggling on the part of the boy, and trampling of feet on that of the pirates.
    Some one below was evidently alarmed, for a voice called the boy from the cabin.
    Long Bob led the way; and the pirates rushed down into the cabin, with their drawn cutlasses in their hands.
    There was a light below; and a man, pale and fearfully emaciated, started from his bed, and advanced to meet the intruders.
    "Not a word  or you're a dead man," cried Long Bob, drawing forth a pistol.
    "Rascal! what do you mean?" ejaculated the other; "I am the surgeon, and in command of this vessel. Who are you? what do you require? Do you know that the pestilence is here?"
    "We know all about it, sir," answered Long Bob. Then, dropping his weapons, he sprang upon the surgeon, whom he threw upon the floor, and whose mouth he instantly closed with his iron hand.
    The pirates then secured the surgeon in the same way as they had the boy above.
    "Let's go forward now," cried Swat. "So far, all's well. One of you must stay down here to mind this chap."
    The Lully Prig volunteered this service; and the other pirates repaired to the cabin forward.
    They well knew that the plague-stricken invalids must be there; and when they reached the hatch-way, there was a sudden hesitation  a simultaneous pause.
    The idea of the pestilence was horrible.
    "Well," said the foreman, "are we afraid?"
    "No  not I, by God!" ejaculated the Resurrection Man; and he sprang down the ladder.
    The others immediately followed him.
    But there was no need of cutlass, pistol, or violence there. By the light of the lamp suspended to a beam, the pirates perceived two wretched creatures, each in his hammock,  their cadaverous countenances covered with large sores, their hair matted, their eyes open but glazed and dim, and their wasted hands lying like those of the dead out-side the coverlids, as if all the nervous energy were defunct.
    Still they were alive; but they were too weak and wretched to experience any emotion at the appearance of armed men in their cabin.
    The atmosphere which they breathed was heated and nauseous with the pestilential vapours of their breath and their perspiration.
    "These poor devils can do no harm," said the Resurrection Man, with a visible shudder.
    The pirates were only too glad to emerge from that narrow abode of the plague; and never did air seem more pure than that which they breathed when they had gained the deck.
    "Now then to work," cried Swat. "Wait till we raise this hatch," he continued, stopping at that which covered the compartment of the ship where the freight was stowed away; "and we'll light the darkey when we get down below. You see, that as they had n't a light hung out before, it would be dangerous to have one above: we might alarm the police-boat or the guard ashore."
    The hatch was raised without much difficulty: a rope was then made fast to a spar and lowered into the waist of the schooner; and Long Bob slid down.
    In a few moments he lighted his dark lantern; and the other three descended one after the other, the Lully Prig, be it remembered, having remained in the after cabin.
    And now to work they went. The goods, with which the schooner was laden, were removed, unpacked, and ransacked.
    There were gums, and hides, and various other articles which the western coast of Africa produces; but the object of the pirates' enterprise and avarice was the gold-dust, which was contained in two heavy cases. These were, however, at the bottom of all the other goods; and nearly an hour passed before they were reached.
    "Here is the treasure  at last!" cried Swot, when every thing was cleared away from above the cases of precious metal. "Come, Tony do n't waste time with the brandy flask now."
    "I've such a precious nasty taste in my mouth," answered the Resurrection Man, as he took a long sup of the spirit. "I suppose it was the horrid air in the fore-cabin."
    "Most likely," said the foreman: "come  bear a hand, and let's get these cases ready to raise. Then Long Bob and me will go above and reeve a rope and a pulley to haul 'em up."
    The four men bent forward to the task; and as they worked by the dim light of the lantern, in the [-89-] 

depths of the vessel, they seemed to be four demons in the profundities of their own infernal abode.
    Suddenly the Resurrection Man staggered, and, supporting himself against the side of the vessel, said in a thick tone, "My God! what a sudden head-ache I've got come on!"
    "Oh! it's nothing, my dear feller," cried Swot.
    "And now I'm all cold and shivering," said Tidkins, seating himself on a bale of goods; "and my legs seem as if they'd break under me."
    The Buffer, the foreman, and Long Bob were suddenly and simultaneously inspired with the same idea; and they cast on their companion looks of mingled apprehension and horror.
    "No  it can't be!" ejaculated Swot.
    "And yet  how odd that he should turn so," said Bob, with a shudder.
    "The plague!" returned the Buffer, in a tone of indescribable terror.
    "You're a fool, Jack!" exclaimed the Resurrection Man, glaring wildly upon his comrades, and endeavouring to rise from his seat.
    But he fell back, exhausted and powerless.
    "Damnation"' he muttered in a low but ferocious tone; and he gnashed his teeth with rage.
    "The plague!" repeated the Buffer, now unable to contain his fears.
    Then he hastily clambered from the hold of the schooner.
    "The coward!" cried Swot: "such a prize as this is worth any risk."
    But as he yet spoke, Long Bob, influenced by panic fear, sprang after the Buffer, as if Death itself were at his heels, clad in all the horrors of the plague.
    "My God! don't leave me here," cried the Resurrection Man, his voice losing its thickness and assuming the piercing tone of despair.
    "Every man for himself, it seems," returned Swot, whom the panic had now robbed of all his courage; and in another moment he also had disappeared.
    "The cowards  the villains!" said Tidkins, clenching his fists with rage.
    Then, by an extraordinary and almost superhuman effort, he raked himself upon his legs: but they seemed to bend under him.
    He, however managed to climb upon the packages [-90-] of goods; and, aided by the rope, lifted himself up to the hatchway. But the effort was too great for his falling strength: his hands could not retain a firm grasp of the cord; and he fell violently to the bottom of the hold, rolling over the bales of merchandize in his descent.
    "It's all over!" he muttered to himself: and then he became rapidly insensible.
    Meantime the Lully Prig, who was mounting sentry upon the surgeon in the after cabin, was suddenly alarmed by hearing the trampling of hasty steps over head. He rushed on deck, and demanded the cause of this abrupt movement.
    "The plague!" cried the Buffer, as he leapt over the ship's quarter into the boat.
    The Lully Prig precipitated himself after his comrade; and the other two pirates immediately followed.
    "But we are only four!" said the Lully Prig, as the boat was pulled away from the vessel.
    "Tidkins has got the plague," answered the Buffer, his teeth chattering with horror and affright.
    Fortunately the police-boat was at a distance; and the pirates succeeded in getting safely away from that dangerous vicinity.
    But the Resurrection Man remained behind in the plague-ship!

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