If they should reach the vessels before the middle one had burst into flame, he felt that his chances of getting away were small indeed. When would the flame appear? It might check the pursuers, throw them into consternation, confuse and delay the pursuit. Would the longed-for blaze never show itself? And how slowly his gallivat was moving! The rowers were bending to their work with a will, but six men are but a poor crew for a vessel of a hundred tons, and the slow progress it was making was in fact due more to the still ebbing tide than to the frantic efforts of the oarsmen. The wind was contrary; it would be useless to hoist the sail. At this rate they would be half an hour or more in reaching the three grabs anchored nearer the mouth of the harbor. The willing rowers on their benches could not know how slowly the vessel was moving, but it was painfully clear to Desmond at the helm; relative to the lights on shore the gallivat seemed scarcely to move at all.
He called to Fuzl Khan, who left his oar and hurried aft.
“We must make more speed, Fuzl Khan. Release the prisoners’ hands; keep their feet tied, and place them among our party. Don’t take an oar yourself: stand over them ready to strike down any man who mutinies.”
The Gujarati grunted and hurried away. Assisted by Surendra Nath, who, being his companion on the rowing bench, had perforce dropped his oar, he soon had the prisoners in position. Urging them with terrible threats and fierce imprecations, he forced them to ply their oars with long steady strokes. The way on the gallivat increased. There was not a great distance now to be covered, it was unnecessary to husband their strength, and with still more furious menaces Fuzl Khan got out of the sturdy Marathas all the energy of which they were capable. The escaped prisoners needed no spur; they were working with might and main, for dear life.
Desmond had to steer by guesswork and such landmarks as were afforded by the lights on shore. He peered anxiously ahead, hoping to see the dim shapes of the three grabs; but this was at present impossible, since they lay between him and the seaward extremity of the fort, where lights had not yet appeared. Looking back he saw a number of torches flitting along the shore; and now two or three dark objects, no doubt boats, were moving from the farther side of the jetty towards the gallivats. At the same moment he caught sight of these he saw at last, rising from the gallivats, the thin tongue of flame he had so long expected.
But now that it had come at last, showing that the work on board had been thorough, he almost regretted it, for it was instantly seen from the shore and greeted by a babel of yells caught up in different parts of the town and fort. As at a signal the torches no longer flickered hither and thither aimlessly, but all took the same direction towards the jetty. The hunt was up!
Glancing round, Desmond suddenly gave the order to cease rowing, and putting the helm hard down just avoided crashing into a dark object ahead. The sweeps grated against the side of what proved to be one of the grabs for which he had been looking. A voice from its deck hailed him.