Fitz the Filibuster, by George Manville Fenn.
Another well-written book of nautical adventure by a writer who is a master of suspense. Our hero is a young midshipman called Fitzgerald Burnett, but always known as Fitz. The warship in which he serves is on Channel Patrol, and they are on the lookout for a smuggler who is running arms to a friendly Central American small Republic. They get more caught up in the struggle that is going on in that country, and so take part in several small fights and other tense situations.
The book is full of well-drawn characters, especially some of the old seamen that Fitz has to deal with. NH
FITZ THE FILIBUSTER, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
ABOARD A GUNBOAT.
"Well, Mr Burnett, what is it?"
"Beg pardon, sir."
"Now, my good boy, have I not told you always to speak out in a sharp, business-like way? How in the world do you expect to get on in your profession and become a smart officer, one who can give orders promptly to his men, if you begin in that stammering, hesitating style? Here, I'm busy; what do you want?"
"I beg pardon, sir, I—"
"Yes, sir; Mr Storks is going off to-night with an armed boat's crew—"
"Thank you, Mr Burnett, I am much obliged; but allow me to tell you that your news is very stale, for I was perfectly aware of that fact, and gave the orders to Mr Storks myself."
"Yes, sir; of course, sir; but—"
"My good boy, what do you want?"
"To go with them, sir."
"Oh! Then why didn't you say so at first?"
"I didn't know how you'd take it, sir."
"Then you know now: very badly. No; the boat's going on important business, and I don't want her packed full of useless boys. What good do you expect you could do there?"
"Learn my profession, sir."
"Oh! Ah! H'm! Well—that's smart. Yes, I like that, Mr Burnett, much better. Well, I don't know what to say. There's no danger. Perhaps you will be away all the night and get no sleep."
"Shouldn't mind that, sir. Mr Storks said that he wouldn't mind."
"Doesn't matter whether Mr Storks minds or not. Well—yes; you may go. There, there, no thanks; and—er—and—er—don't take any notice, Mr Burnett; I am a little irritable this evening—maddening toothache, and that sort of thing. Don't get into mischief. That'll do."
Commander Glossop, R.N., generally known as Captain of H.M. Gunboat Tonans, on special duty from the Channel Squadron, went below to his cabin, and Fitzgerald Burnett—Fitz for short—midshipman, seemed suddenly to have grown an inch taller, and comparatively stouter, as he seemed to swell out with satisfaction, while his keen grey eyes literally sparkled as he looked all a boy.
"Thought he was going to snap my head off," he mattered, as he began to walk up and down, noticing sundry little preparations that were in progress in connection with one of the quarter-boats, in which, as she swung from the davits, a couple of the smart, barefooted sailors, whose toes looked very pink in the chill air, were overhauling and re-arranging oars, and the little mast, yard and sail, none of which needed touching, for everything was already in naval apple-pie order.
Fitz Burnett ended his walk by stopping and looking on.
"Going along with us, sir?" said one of the sailors.
"Yes," said the lad shortly, and sharply enough to have satisfied his superior if he had overheard.
"That's right, sir," said the man, so earnestly that the boy looked pleased.
"Know where we are going, sir?" the other man ventured to ask.
"Is it likely?" was the reply; "and if I did know do you suppose that I would tell you?"
"No, sir, of course not. But it's going to be something desperate, sir, because we have got to take all our tools."
"Ah, you'll see soon enough," said the boy, and full of the importance of being one in some expedition that was to break the monotony of the everyday routine, as well as to avoid further questioning, and any approach to familiarity on the part of the men, Fitz continued his walk, to come in contact directly after with another superior officer in the shape of the lieutenant.
"Hullo, Mr Burnett! So you are to go with us to-night, I hear."
"Yes, sir," cried the boy eagerly. "Would you mind telling me what we are going to do?"
"Then you don't know?"
"Then why did you ask the captain to let you go?"
"I wanted to be there, sir. Armed boat's crew going off! It sounded so exciting."
"I don't think that you will find much excitement, Mr Burnett; but wait and see. If you want more information I must refer you to the captain."
This last was accompanied by a nod and a good-humoured smile, as the officer moved away to look at the boat, but turned his head to add—
"Better put on a warm jacket; I dare say we shall have a cold night's work."
"I don't care," said the boy to himself. "Anything for a change. I do get so tired of this humdrum steaming here and steaming there, and going into port to fill up the coal-bunkers. Being at sea isn't half so jolly as I used to think it was, and it is so cold. Wish we could get orders to sail to one of those beautiful countries in the East Indies, or to South America—anywhere away from these fogs and rains. Why, we haven't seen the sun for a week."
He went forward, to rest his arms on the bulwark and look out to sea. The sight was not tempting. The mouth of the Mersey is not attractive on a misty day, and the nearest land aft showed like a low-down dirty cloud. Away on the horizon there was a long thick trail of smoke being left behind by some outward-bound steamer, and running his eyes along the horizon he caught sight of another being emitted from one of two huge funnels which were all that was visible of some great Atlantic steamer making for the busy port.
Nearer in there were two more vessels, one that he made out to be a brig, and that was all.
"Ugh!" ejaculated the boy. "I wish—I wish—What's the use of wishing? One never gets what one wants. Whatever are we going to do to-night? It must mean smuggling. Well, there will be something in that. Going aboard some small boat and looking at the skipper's papers, and if they are not right putting somebody on board and bringing her into port. But there won't be any excitement like one reads about in books. It's a precious dull life coming to sea."
Fitz Burnett sighed and waited, for the evening was closing in fast, and then he began to brighten in the expectation of the something fresh that was to take place that night. But knowing that it might be hours before they started, he waited—and waited—and waited.
There is an old French proverb which says, Tout vient a point a qui sait attendre, and this may be roughly interpreted, "Everything comes to the man who waits." Let's suppose that it comes to the boy.
The dim evening gave place to a dark night. The Tonans had for some two or three hours been stealing along very slowly not far from land, and that something important was on the way was evident from the captain's movements, and the sharp look-out that was being kept up, and still more so from the fact that no lights were shown.
The gunboat's cutter had been swung out ready for lowering down at a moment's notice, the armed crew stood waiting, and one man was in the stern-sheets whose duty it was to look after the lantern, which was kept carefully shaded.
Fitz, who was the readiest of the ready, had long before noted with intense interest the fact that they showed no lights, and his interest increased when the lieutenant became so far communicative that he stood gazing out through the darkness side by side with his junior, and said softly—
"I am afraid we shall miss her, my lad. She'll steal by us in the darkness, and it will all prove to be labour in vain."
Fitz waited to hear more, but no more came, for the lieutenant moved off to join the captain.
"I wish he wouldn't be so jolly mysterious," said the midshipman to himself. "I am an officer too, and he might have said a little more."
But it was all waiting, and no farther intercourse till close upon eight bells, when Fitz, feeling regularly tired out, said to himself—
"Bother! I wish I hadn't asked leave to go. I should have been comfortably asleep by now."
He had hardly thought this when there was a quick movement behind him, and simultaneously he caught sight of a dim light off the starboard-bow. An order was given in a low tone, and with a silence and method learned on board a man-of-war, the boat's crew, followed by their officers, took their places in the cutter, and in obedience to another command the boat was lowered down, kissed the water, the hooks were withdrawn, she was pushed off, the oars fell on either side, and away they glided over the dancing waters in the direction of the distant light.
"Now we are off, Fitz," said the lieutenant eagerly, speaking almost in a whisper, but without the slightest necessity, for the light was far away.
"Yes, sir, now we are off," replied the boy, almost resentfully, and his tone suggested that he would have liked to say, Why can't you tell me where we are going? Possibly the officer took it in this light, for he continued—
"This ought to be a bit of excitement for you, Burnett. We are after a schooner bound for somewhere south, laden with contraband of war."
"War, sir?" whispered the lad excitedly.
"Well, some petty Central American squabble; and the captain has had instructions that this schooner is going to steal out of port to-night. Some one informed. We got the information yesterday."
"Yes; guns and ammunition which ought not to be allowed to be shipped from an English port against a friendly state.—Give way, my men!"
The rowers responded by making their stout ashen blades bend, and the cutter went forward in jerks through the rather choppy sea.
"Then we shall take the schooner, sir?"
"Yes, my lad, if we can."
"Then that means prize-money."
"Why, Burnett, are you as avaricious as that?"
"No, sir; no, sir; I was thinking about the men."
"Oh, that's right. But don't count your chickens before they are hatched."
"We mayn't be able to board that vessel, and if we do, possibly it isn't the one we want. It's fifty to one it isn't. Or it may be anything— some trading brig or another going down south."
"Of course, sir. There are so many that pass."
"At the same time it may be the one we want."
"And then we shall be in luck."
"They must surrender to our armed boat."
Fitz Burnett had had little experience of the sea, but none as connected with an excursion in a boat on a dark night, to board a vessel whose sailing light could be seen in the distance.
They had not gone far before the lieutenant tabooed all talking.
"Still as you can, my lads," he said. "Sound travels far over the sea, and lights are very deceptive."
The midshipman had already been thinking the same thing. He had often read of Will-o'-the-Wisps, but never seen one, and this light seemed to answer the description exactly, for there it was, dimly-seen for a few moments, then brightening, and slowly going up and down. But the great peculiarity was that now it seemed quite close at hand, now far distant, and for the life of him he could not make out that they got any nearer. He wanted to draw his companion's attention to that fact, but on turning sharply to the lieutenant as if to speak, he was met by a low "Hist!" which silenced him directly, while the men rowed steadily on for quite a quarter of an hour longer, when all at once the lieutenant uttered in an angry whisper—
"What are you doing, you clumsy scoundrel?"
For there was a sudden movement behind where they sat in the stern-sheets, as if the man in charge of the lantern had slipped, with the result that a dull gleam of light shone out for a few moments, before its guardian scuffled the piece of sail-cloth by which it had been covered, back into its place, and all was dark once more.
"Why, what were you about?" whispered the lieutenant angrily.
"Beg pardon, sir. Slipped, sir."
"Slipped! I believe you were asleep."
The man was silent.
"You were nodding off, weren't you?"
"Don't think I was, sir," was the reply.
But the man's officer was right, and the rest of the crew knew it, being ready to a man, as they afterwards did, to declare that "that there Bill Smith would caulk," as they termed taking a surreptitious nap, "even if the gunboat were going down."
"Put your backs into it, my lads," whispered the lieutenant. "Now then, with a will; but quiet, quiet!"
As he spoke the speed of the boat increased and its progress made it more unsteady, necessitating his steadying himself by gripping Fitz by the collar as he stood up, shading his eyes and keeping a sharp look-out ahead.
A low hissing sound suggestive of his vexation now escaped his lips, for to his rage and disgust he saw plainly enough that their light must have been noticed.
Fitz Burnett had come to the same conclusion, for though he strained his eyes with all his power, the Will-o'-the-Wisp-like light that they were chasing had disappeared.
"Gone!" thought the boy, whose heart was now beating heavily. "They must have seen our light and taken alarm. That's bad. No," he added to himself, "it's good—capital, for it must mean that that was the light of the vessel we were after. Any honest skipper wouldn't have taken the alarm."
"Use your eyes, Burnett, my lad," whispered the lieutenant, bending down. "We must have been close up to her when that idiot gave the alarm. See anything?"
"Oh, tut, tut, tut, tut!" came in a low muttering tone.
"Look, boy, look; we must see her somehow. How are we to go back and face the captain if we fail like this?"
The boy made no reply, but strained his eyes again, to see darkness everywhere that appeared to be growing darker moment by moment, except in one spot, evidently where the land lay, and there a dull yellowish light glared out that seemed to keep on winking at them derisively, now fairly bright, now disappearing all at once, as the lantern revolved.
"Hold hard!" whispered the lieutenant, and the men lay on their oars, with the boat gradually slackening its speed till it rose and fell, rocking slowly on the choppy sea, and the eye-like lantern gave another derisive wink twice, and then seemed to shut itself up tight.
"It's of no use to pull, Burnett," whispered the lieutenant. "We may be going right away. See anything, my lads?"
"No, sir," came in a low murmur, and the culprit who had gone to sleep sat and shivered as he thought of the "wigging," as he termed it, that would be his when he went back on board the gunboat; and as the boat rocked now in regular motion the darkness seemed to grow more profound, while the silence to the midshipman seemed to be awful.
He was miserable too with disappointment, for he felt so mixed up with the expedition that it seemed to him as if he was in fault, and that when they returned he would have to share in the blame that Captain Glossop would, as he termed it, "lay on thick."
"Oh, Mr Bill Smith," he said to himself, "just wait till we get back!"
And then a reaction took place.
"What's the good?" he thought. "Poor fellow! He'll get it hot enough without me saying a word. But how could a fellow go to sleep at a time like this?"
"It's all up, Burnett," came in a whisper, close to his ear. "The milk's spilt, and it's no use crying over it, but after all these preparations who could have expected such a mishap as that?—What's the matter with you?" he added sharply. "You'll have me overboard."
For the midshipman had suddenly sprung up from where he sat, nearly overbalancing his superior officer as he gripped him tightly by the chest with the right hand, and without replying stood rigidly pointing over the side with his left, his arm stretched right across the lieutenant's breast.
"You don't mean—you can see—Bravo, boy!—Pull, my lads, for all you know."
As he spoke he dropped back into his seat, tugging hard with his right hand at one of the rudder-lines, with the result that as the cutter glided once more rapidly over the little waves she made a sharp curve to starboard, and then as the line was once more loosened, glided on straight ahead for something dim and strange that stood out before them like a blur.
As the men bent to their stout ash-blades, pulling with all their might, a great thrill seemed to run through the cutter, which, as it were, participated in the excitement of the crew, boat and men being for the time as it were one, while the dark blur now rapidly assumed form, growing moment by moment more distinct, till the occupants of the stern-sheets gradually made out the form of a two-masted vessel gliding along under a good deal of sail.
She had so much way on, as the cutter was coming up at right angles that instead of beating fast, Fitz Burnett's heart now continued its pulsations in jerks in his excitement lest the schooner should glide by them and leave them behind.
It was a near thing, but the lieutenant had taken his measures correctly. He was standing up once again grasping the rudder-lines till almost the last moment, before dropping them and giving two orders, to the coxswain to hook on, and to the crew to follow—unnecessary orders, for every man was on the qui vive, knew his task, and meant to do it in the shortest possible time.
And now a peculiar sense of unreality attacked the young midshipman, for in the darkness everything seemed so dream-like and unnatural. It was as if they were rowing with all their might towards a phantom ship, a misty something dimly-seen in the darkness, a ship-like shape that might at any moment die right away; for all on board was black, and the silence profound. There was nothing alive, as it were, but the schooner itself, careening gently over in their direction, and passing silently before their bows.
One moment this feeling strengthened as Fitz Burnett dimly made out the coxswain standing ready in the bows prepared to seize hold with the boat-hook he wielded, while the men left their oars to swing, while they played another part.
"The boat-hook will go through it," thought the lad, as, following the lieutenant's example, he stood ready to spring up the side. The next moment all was real, for the cutter in response to a jerk as the coxswain hooked on, grated against the side and changed its course, gliding along with the schooner, while, closely following, their officers, who sprang on board, the little crew of stout man-of-war's men sprang up and literally tumbled over the low bulwarks on to the vessel's deck.
For a short period during which you might have counted six, there was nothing heard but the rustle of the men's movements and the pad, pad, pad of their bare feet upon the deck.
What the lieutenant would have said in continuation was not heard. Surprised by the utter silence on board, he had shared with Fitz the feeling that they must have boarded some derelict whose crew, perhaps in great peril, had deserted their vessel and sought safety in the boats.
But the next moment there was a sudden rush that took every one by surprise, for not a word was uttered by their assailants, the thud, thud, thud of heavy blows, the breathing hard of men scuffling, followed by splash after splash, and then one of the schooner's masts seemed to give way and fall heavily upon Fitz Burnett's head, turning the dimly-seen deck and the struggling men into something so black that he saw no more.
It is a curious sensation to be lying on your back you don't know where, and you can't think of the reason why it should be so, but with your head right off, completely detached from your body, and rolling round and round like an exceedingly heavy big ball, that for some inexplicable reason has been pitched into a vast mill on purpose to be ground, but, probably from its thickness and hardness, does not submit to that process, but is always going on and on between the upper stone and nether stone, suffering horrible pain, but never turning into powder, nor even into bits, but going grinding on always for a time that seems as if it would never end unless the millstones should wear away.
That is what seemed to be the matter with Fitz Burnett, for how long he could not tell. But a change came at last, with the gnawing, grinding pain becoming dull. Later on it did not seem that his head was detached from his body, and he had some undefined idea that his hands were where he could move them, and at last, later on still, he found himself lying in comparative calmness and in no pain, but in a state something between sleeping and waking.
Then came a time when he began to think that it was very dark, that he was very tired, and that he wanted to sleep, and so he slept. Then again that it was very light, very warm, and that something seemed to be the matter with his berth, for he was thinking more clearly now. He knew he was lying on his back in his berth, and curiously enough he knew that it was not his berth, and while he was wondering why this was, something tickled his nose.
Naturally enough as the tickling went on, passing here and there, he attributed it to a fly upon his face, and his instinct suggested to him to knock it off. He made a movement to do this quickly and suddenly, but his hand fell back upon his chest—whop! It was only a light touch, but he heard it distinctly, and as the movement resulted in dislodging the fly, he laughed to himself, perfectly satisfied. He felt very comfortable and went to sleep again.
Hours must have passed, and it was light once more. He turned his head and looked towards that light, to see that it was dancing and flashing upon beautiful blue water all rippled and playing under the influence of a gentle breeze. He could not see much of it, for he was only looking through a round cabin-window. This was puzzling, for there was no such window as that in the gunboat, and the mental question came—where was he?
But it did not seem to matter. He was very comfortable, and that dancing light upon the water was one of the most lovely sights he had ever seen. He thought that it was a beautiful morning and that it was very nice to lie and watch it, but he did not think about anybody else or about whys or wherefores or any other puzzling problems, not even about himself. But he did think it would be pleasant to turn himself a little over on his side with his face close to the edge of the berth, and take in long breaths of that soft, sweet air.
Acting upon this thought, he tried to turn himself, and for the first time began to wonder why it was that he could not stir; and directly after he began to wonder what it was he had been dreaming about; something concerning his head aching horribly and going round and round in a mill.
It was while he was obliged to give this up as something he could not master that he heard a click as of a door opening, and the next moment some one came softly in, and a face was interposed between his and the cabin-window.
It was a rather rough but pleasant-looking face, with dark brown eyes and blackish curly hair, cut short. The face was a good deal sunburnt too. But he did not take much notice of that; it was the eyes that caught his attention, looking searchingly into his, and Fitz waited, expecting the owner of the eyes would speak; and then it seemed to him that he ought to ask something—about something. But about what? He did not quite know, for he felt that though he was wide-awake he could not think as he should. It was as if his apparatus was half asleep.
But the owner of the eyes did not say anything, only drew back and disappeared, and as he did so, Fitz found that he could think, for he was asking himself how it was that the fellow who had been looking at him had disappeared.
He came to the conclusion directly afterwards that it was a dream. Then he knew it was not, for he heard a gruff voice that seemed to come through the boards say—
"All right, Poole. Tumble up directly. What say?"
"He's awake, father, and looks as if he had come to himself."
"Eh? Oh, that's good news. Come and see him directly."
Now Fitz began to think fast, but still not about himself.
"Father, eh?" he thought. "Whose father is he? He said he was coming to see some one directly. Now I wonder who that may be."
That was as much as Fitz Burnett could get through upon this occasion, for thinking had made his eyelids heavy, and the bright flashing water at which he gazed seemed to grow dull and play upon the boards of his berth just over his head and close at hand.
From growing dull, this rippling water grew very dark indeed, and then for some time there was nothing more but sleep—beautiful sleep, Nature's great remedy and cure for a heavy blow upon the head that has been very close upon fracturing the bone, but which in this case fell so far short that Fitz Burnett had only had severe concussion of the brain.
It was either sunrise or sunset, for the cabin was full of a rich warm glow, and Fitz lay upon his back listening to a peculiar sound which sounded to him like fuzz, whuzz, thrum.
He did not attempt to turn his head for some moments, though he wanted to know what made those sounds, for during some little time he felt too lazy to stir, and at last he turned his head gently and remembered the eyes that had looked at him once, and recalled the face now bent down over something before him from which came those peculiar sounds.
Fitz felt interested, and watched the busy ringers, the passing and re-passing needle, and the manipulation of a mesh, for some time before he spoke.
"How quick and clever he is!" he thought, and then almost unconsciously a word slipped out.
"Netting?" he said.
Needle, string and mesh were thrown down, and Fitz's fellow-occupier of the cabin started up and came to his side, to bend over and lay a brown cool hand upon his forehead.
"Feel better?" he said.
"Better?" said Fitz peevishly.
"Yes, of course."
"Why—Here, stop a moment. Who are you?"
"No doubt about it," was the reply. "That's the first time you have talked sensibly."
"You be hanged!" said Fitz sharply.
But as he spoke it did not seem like his own voice, but as if somebody else had spoken in a weak, piping tone. He did not trouble himself about that, though, for his mind was beginning to be an inquiring one.
"Why don't you answer?" he said. "Who are you? What's your name?"
"Oh! Then how came you in my cabin?"
"Well," said the lad, with a pleasant laugh, which made his rather plain face light up in the warm sunset glow and look almost handsome; not that that was wonderful, for a healthy, good-tempered boy's face, no matter what his features, always has a pleasant look,—"I think I might say what are you doing in my cabin?"
"Eh?" cried Fitz, looking puzzled. "How came I—your cabin—your cabin? Is it your cabin?"
The lad nodded.
"I don't know," said Fitz. "How did I come here?"
"But it is my cabin—rather."
"Yes, yes; but how did I come here?"
"Why, in the boat."
"In a boat?" said Fitz thoughtfully—"in a boat? I came in a boat? Yes, I suppose so, because we are at sea. But somehow I don't know how it is. I can't recollect. But I say, hasn't it turned very warm?"
"Yes. Getting warmer every day."
"But my head—I don't understand."
"Don't you? Well, never mind. How do you feel?"
"Oh, quite well, thank you. But I want to know why I am here—in your cabin."
"Oh, you will know soon enough. Don't worry about it now till you get strong again."
"Till I get strong again? There, now you are beginning to puzzle me once more. I am strong enough now, and—No, I am not," added the lad, rather pitifully, as he raised one hand and let it fall back. "That arm feels half numbed as if it had been hurt, and," he added, rather excitedly, "you asked me how I was. Have I been ill?"
"Yes, very," was the reply. "But don't fret about it. You are coming all right again fast."
Fitz lay back with his brow wrinkled up, gazing at his companion and trying to think hard; but all in vain, and with a weary gesticulation—
"I can't understand," he said. "I try to think, but my head seems to go rolling round again, and I can only remember that mill."
"Then take my advice about it. Don't try to think at all."
"But I must think; I want to know."
"Oh, you'll know soon enough. You can't think, because you are very weak now. I was just the same when I had the fever at Vera Cruz—felt as if my head wouldn't go; but it got better every day, and that's how yours will be."
"Did I catch a fever, then?" said Fitz eagerly.
"No," was the reply. "You caught something else," and the speaker smiled grimly.
"Caught something else? And been very bad?"
The lad nodded.
"Then—then," cried Fitz excitedly, "Captain Glossop had me sent aboard this ship to get me out of the way?"
"Well, not exactly. But don't you bother, I tell you. You are getting right again fast, and father says you'll be all right now you have turned the corner."
"Who's 'father'?" said Fitz.
"That's a rum question. Why, my father, of course—the skipper of this schooner."
"Oh, I see; the skipper of this schooner," said Fitz thoughtfully. "Is it a fast one?"
"Awfully," said the lad eagerly. "You will quite enjoy seeing how we can sail when you are well enough to come on deck. Why, if you go on like this we ought to be able to get you up in a day or two. The weather is splendid now. My father is a capital doctor."
"What!" cried Fitz. "Why, you told me just now that he was the skipper of this schooner."
"Well, so he is. But I say, don't you worry about asking questions. Couldn't you drink a cup of tea?"
"I don't know; I dare say I could. Yes, I should like one. But never mind about that now. I don't quite understand why Captain Glossop should send me on board this schooner. This is not the Liverpool Hospital Ship, is it?"
"How many sick people have you got on board?"
"None at all," said the lad, "now you are getting well."
Fitz lay looking at the speaker wistfully. There was something about his frank face and manner that he liked.
"I don't understand," he said sadly. "It's all a puzzle, and I suppose it is all as you say through being so ill."
"Yes, of course. That's it, old chap. I say, you don't mind me calling you 'old chap,' do you?"
"Well, no," said Fitz, smiling sadly. "You mean it kindly, I suppose."
"Well, I want to be kind to you, seeing how bad you've been. I thought one day you were going to Davy Jones's locker, as the sailors call it."
"Was I so bad as that?" cried Fitz eagerly.
"Yes, horrid. Father and I felt frightened, because it would have been so serious; but there, I won't say another word. I am going to get you some tea."
The invalid made an effort to stay him, but the lad paid no heed— hurrying out of the cabin and shutting the door quietly after him, leaving Fitz deep in thought.
He lay with his white face wrinkled up, trying hard, in spite of what had been said, to think out what it all meant, but always with his thoughts tending towards his head rolling round in a mill and getting no farther; in fact, it seemed to be going round again for about the nth time, as mathematicians term it, when the cabin-door once more opened, and his attendant bore in a steaming hot cup of tea, to be closely followed by a bluff-looking, middle-aged man, sun-browned, bright-eyed and alert, dressed in semi-naval costume, and looking like a well-to-do yachtsman.
He smiled pleasantly as he gave a searching look at the invalid, and sat down at once upon a chair close to the lad's pillow, leaning over to touch his brow and then feel his pulse.
"Bravo!" he said. "Capital!—Humph! So you are thinking I don't look like a doctor, eh?"
"Yes," replied Fitz sharply. "How did you know that?"
"Because it is written in big letters all over your face. Why, you are getting quite a new man, and we will have you on deck in a day or two."
"Thank you," said Fitz. "It is very good of you to pay so much attention to an invalid. I knew you were not a doctor because your son here said so; but you seem to have done me a great deal of good, and I hope you think I am grateful. I am sure Captain Glossop will be very much obliged."
"Humph!" said the skipper dryly. "I hope he will. But there, try your tea. I dare say it will do you good."
As he spoke the skipper passed one muscular arm gently under the boy's shoulders and raised him up, while his son bent forward with the tea.
"Thank you," said Fitz, "but there was no need for that. I could have— Oh, how ridiculous to be so weak as this!"
"Oh, not at all," said the skipper. "Why, you have been days and days without any food—no coal in your bunkers, my lad. How could you expect your engines to go?"
"What!" cried Fitz. "Days and days! Wasn't I taken ill yesterday?"
"Well, not exactly, my lad," said the skipper dryly; "but don't you bother about that now. Try the tea."
The cup was held to his lips, and the lad sipped and then drank with avidity.
"'Tis good," he muttered.
"That's right," said the skipper. "You were a bit thirsty, I suppose. Why, you will soon be ready to eat, but we mustn't go too fast; mind that, Poole. Gently does it, mind, till he gets a bit stronger.—Come, finish your tea.—That's the way. Now let me lay you down again."
This was done, and the boy's face wrinkled up once more.
"I am so weak," he said querulously.
"To be sure you are, my lad, but that will soon go off now. You've got nothing to do but to lie here and eat and drink and sleep, till you come square again. My boy Poole here will look after you, and to-morrow or next day we will carry you up on deck and let you lie in a cane-chair. You will be able to read soon, and play draughts or chess, and have a fine time of it."
"Thank you; I am very much obliged," said the young midshipman warmly. "I want to get well again, and I will try not to think, but there is one thing I should like to ask."
"Well. So long as it isn't questions, go on, my lad."
"I want you to write a letter home, it doesn't matter how short it is, about my having been ill—so long as you tell my mother that I am getting better from my attack. Your son said when I asked him, that I got it on the head, and I am afraid my mother would not understand that, so you had better say what fever it was, for I am sure she'd like to know. What fever was it, Captain? You might tell me that!"
"Eh, what—what fever?" said the skipper. "Ah, ah," and he gave a peculiar cock of his eye towards his son, "brain-fever, my lad, brain-fever. It made you a bit delirious. But that's all over now."
"And you will write, sir? I'll give you the address."
"Write?" said the captain. "Why not wait till you get into port? You will be able then to write yourself."
"Oh, but I can't wait for that, sir. If you would kindly write the letter and send it ashore by one of the men in your boat, it will be so much better."
"All right, my lad. I'll see to it. But there, now. You've talked too much. Not another word. I am your doctor, and my orders are that you now shut your eyes and go to sleep."
As he spoke the skipper made a sign to his son, and they both left the cabin, the latter bearing the empty cup.
As the cabin-door closed Fitz lay back, trying to think about his position, but he felt too comfortable to trouble much. There had been something so soft and comforting about that tea, which had relieved the parched sensation in his throat and lips. Then the skipper and his son had been so kind and attentive. It was so satisfactory too about getting that letter off, and then that evening glow rapidly changing into a velvety gloom with great stars coming out, was so lovely that he felt that he had never seen anything so exquisite before.
"There, I won't think and worry," he said to himself, and a minute later he had fallen into a sleep which proved so long and restful, that the sun had been long up before he unclosed his eyes again to find his younger attendant once more netting.
"Morning," said the lad cheerily. "You have had a long nap, and no mistake."
"Why, I haven't been asleep since sunset, have I?"
"You have, and it seems to have done you a lot of good. You can eat a good breakfast now, can't you?"
"Yes, and get up first and have a good wash. I long for it."
"You can't. I shall have to do that. Here, wait a minute. I will go and tell the cook to get your breakfast ready, and then come back and put you all a-taunto."
The lad hurried out of the cabin, leaving Fitz wide-awake now in every sense of the word, for that last rest had brought back the power of coherent thought, making him look wonderingly out of the window at the glorious sea, so different from anything he had been accustomed to for months and months, and setting him wondering.
"Why, this can't be the Irish Channel," he thought, "and here, when was it I was taken ill? I seem to have been fast asleep, and only just woke up. Where was I? Was that a dream? No, I remember now; the lieutenant and the cutter's crew. That schooner we were sent to board in the darkness, and—"
Here his young attendant re-entered the cabin with a tin-bowl in one hand, a bucket of freshly dipped sea-water in the other, and a towel thrown over his shoulder.
"Here, hullo, midshipman!" he cried cheerily. "My word, you do look wide-awake! But there's nothing wrong, is there?"
"Yes! No! I don't know," cried Fitz excitedly. "What's the name of this schooner?"
"Oh, it's all right. It's my father's schooner."
"And you sailed from Liverpool?"
"I haven't come here to answer your questions," said the lad, almost sulkily.
"That proves it, then. I remember it all now. We boarded you in the dark, and—and—"
Before the speaker could continue, the cabin-door was thrust open and the bluff-looking skipper entered.
"Hullo!" he said sternly, "what's the matter here?"
"Your son, sir, won't answer my questions," cried Fitz excitedly.
"Quite right, my lad. I told him not to until you get better, so don't ask."
"I am better," cried the boy, trying to spring up, but sinking back with a groan.
"There, you see," said the skipper, "you are not. You are far too weak. Why not take my word for it, my lad, as a bit of a doctor? Now, look here! You want to know how it is you came on board my craft—wait patiently a little while, and when I think you are well enough to bear it I will tell you all."
"But I don't want to be told now," cried the boy passionately—"not that. I boarded with our men, and I can remember I felt a heavy blow. I must have been knocked down and stunned. What has become of our lieutenant, the boat and men?"
"Oh, well, my lad, if the murder must out—"
"Murder!" cried Fitz.
"Murder, no! Nonsense! That's a figure of speech. I mean, if the story must come out, here it is. I was going peacefully down channel when your boat boarded us."
"As she had a right to," cried Fitz, "being from one of the Queen's ships on duty."
"Oh, I am not going to argue that, my lad," said the skipper coolly. "I was sailing down channel, interfering with nobody, when I was boarded by a lot of armed men in the dark, and I did what any skipper would do under the circumstances. The boat's crew meant to capture my craft and my valuable cargo, so after a scuffle I had them all pitched overboard to get back to their boat, and gave them the go-by in the darkness, and I haven't seen anything of them since."
"Oh!" exclaimed Fitz. "Resisting one of Her Majesty's crews! Do you know, sir, what it means?"
"I know what the other means, my lad—losing my craft and valuable cargo, and some kind of punishment, I suppose, for what I have done."
"But you have taken me prisoner, then?" cried Fitz.
"Well, not exactly, my lad," said the skipper, smiling. "I shouldn't have done that if I had known. Nobody knew you were on board till the next morning, for we were all too busy clapping on all sail so as to give your gunboat a clean pair of heels."
"Never mind me," cried Fitz excitedly. "What about the boat's crew?"
"Oh, they'll be all right. They got back to their boat. We could hear plainly enough the shouting one to the other, and your officer hailing till the last man was picked up. They were showing their lantern then without stint, not giving us a mere glimpse like they did when we saw it first."
"Oh!" ejaculated Fitz, drawing his breath between his teeth as he recalled the dropping off to sleep of poor Bill Smith.
"It was not till sunrise, my lad, that I knew you were on board. You had had an unlucky crack on the head which sent you down the companion-ladder, and when my lads brought and laid you up on deck it seemed to me the worst part of the night's business."
"Then why didn't you put me ashore at once?" cried Fitz. "You were keeping me a prisoner here," and he looked from father to son, the former where he had seated himself quietly by the head of the middy's berth, the other standing leaning against the bulkhead folding and unfolding the clean towel, with the bucket of water and tin-bowl at his feet.
"Why didn't I put you ashore at once?" replied the skipper. "Say, why didn't I put myself and men all in prison for what I had done? Well, hardly likely, my lad. I couldn't afford it, between ourselves. There! It was your people's fault. You may call it duty, if you like. Mine was to save my schooner if I could—and I did. So now you know the worst. Come; be a good boy and let Poole there wash your face."
"Oh, this is insufferable," cried Fitz. "You are insulting a Queen's officer, sir."
"I am very sorry, sir," said the skipper coolly, "but I have got another duty to do now, and that is to make you quite well. This is only a fast trading schooner, but in his way a skipper is as big a man as the captain of a Queen's man-of-war. He is master, and you have got to obey—the more so because it is for your own good. Why don't I set you ashore? Because I can't. As soon as I safely can, off you go, but till then just you take it coolly and get well."
"Put me aboard the first ship you see."
"I shall put you where I like, my boy; so once more I tell you that you have got to obey me and get well. If you go on like this, exciting yourself, we shall have the fever back again, and then, mark this, the words of truth, you will be too ill to ask me to write to your mother and tell her how bad you are."
Poor Fitz's lips parted, and he lay back upon his pillow speechless and staring with a strange, wistful look in his eyes, making not the slightest resistance, not even attempting to speak again, as the skipper laid a hand once more upon his forehead, keeping it there a few minutes before he removed it.
"Not so hot," he said, "as I expected to feel it. Go on, Poole, my boy, and get him his breakfast as soon as you can."
The lad took his father's place as he vacated it and moved towards the cabin-door, but only to return directly, step to the side of the berth, and take one of the middy's hands and hold it between his own.
"There, there," he said, "I am sorry to be so hard with you, my lad, for you have spoken very bravely and well. Come! A sailor has to take the ups and downs of his profession. You are all in the downs now, and are, so to speak, my prisoner; but we shan't put you in irons, eh, Poole?"
"No, father," said the lad addressed, smiling; "not quite."
"And I shall be disgraced—disgraced!" groaned the midshipman.
"Disgraced! Nonsense! What for? Why, my lad, your captain when he knows all ought to put a big mark against your name; and I have no doubt he will."
As he spoke he left the cabin without another word, and the silence was just as great within; but it was a busy silence all the same, while Fitz lay back, unable to avoid feeling how cool and pleasant was the touch of the water, and how gentle were his attendant's hands.
He was still miserable, but there was something very satisfying later on in being propped up with a great locker-cushion and a well-stuffed pillow, feeling the deliciously warm morning air float through the open cabin-window, what time, by the help of the skipper's son, he partook of a capital breakfast, at first feeling that every mouthful was choking him, then with eager appetite, Poole smiling pleasantly at him all the while.
It was annoying too, for the middy felt that, to use his own term, he ought to hate this "filibustering young ruffian" with all his heart. As for speaking to him unless it were to give him some imperious order, he mentally vowed he would not do that.
But that coffee was newly roasted, and though they were far at sea, the fresh bread-cakes were nice and warm, and the butter not in the slightest degree too salt. Fitz had been long without any food to signify, returning health was giving him the first instalments of a ravenous appetite, and somehow it seems to be one of Nature's rules that one fasting has his temper all on edge, while when he is satisfied it does not take much to make him smile.
So it was that before the breakfast was over, Fitz Burnett had forgotten his mental vow. Curiosity got the better of him.
"How far are we from land?" he said.
"Oh, about eight hundred miles."
"And where's that? Somewhere south?"
"No, north by east."
"Do you mean it?"
It was Poole's turn now to nod.
The young midshipman sank back aghast, trying to mentally fill up the blank between that night off the dark waters near Liverpool, and the bright sunny sea before him now.
It was a thorough failure, for before many minutes had passed, his thinking powers seemed to be rendered misty by a sunny glow through which he was wafted back to England, Kent, and his own old pleasant home.
His head had sunk back, and he was sleeping peacefully and well, not in the least disturbed by his attendant as the breakfast-things were removed and the cabin touched up. This done, Poole stood beside him, examining his position.
"Seems comfortable enough," he said, "and I don't think he can roll over. Poor old chap! It does seem a nasty turn, but it was not our fault. I hope he'll soon settle down, because he seems to be the sort of fellow, if he wasn't quite so cocky, that one might come to like."
ON TWO SIDES.
Fitz Burnett slept on during the greatest part of that day and most of the next; each time that he woke up he seemed better, and ready for the food that he had missed for so long and which was now so carefully prepared for him.
Very little had been said; the skipper's son attended upon him assiduously, and was ready to enter into conversation, but his advances were met so shortly and snappishly, that he soon contented himself with playing the nurse seriously, while the invalid frowned and kept his eyes fixed upon the sea through the open cabin-window, rarely glancing at his attendant at all.
It was on the fourth day after the lad had recovered his senses and learned the truth of his position, that Poole made a remark about this change in their passenger to his father, who had come into the cabin to find the midshipman fast asleep.
"Is it right, father, that he should sleep so much?" said the lad.
"Certainly. He's getting on fast. Let him sleep as much as he can. His wound is growing together again as quickly as it can. Can't you see how much better he is?"
"Well, I thought I could, dad," was the reply; "but every now and then I think he's getting worse."
"Eh? What makes you think that, lad? Does he begin to mope for his liberty?"
"I dare say he does, dad. It's only natural; but that isn't what I meant. What I thought was that though he seemed rather nice at first, he keeps on growing more and more disagreeable. He treats me sometimes just as if I were a dog."
"Well, you always were a precious young puppy, Poole," said the skipper, with a twinkle of the eye.—"Ah! No impudence now! If you dare to say that it's no wonder when I am such a rough old sea-dog, I'll throw something at you."
"Then it won't be thrown," said the lad, laughing. "But really, father, he is so stuck up and consequential sometimes, ordering me about, and satisfied with nothing I do, that it makes me feel peppery and ready to tell him that if he isn't satisfied he'd better do the things himself."
"Bah! Don't take any notice of him, boy. It's all a good sign, and means he's getting well fast."
"Well, it's not a very pleasant way of showing it, father."
"No, my boy, no; but we can't very well alter what is. Fellows who have been ill, and wounded men when they are taking a right turn, are weak, irritable, and dissatisfied. I think you'll find him all right by and by. Take it all calmly. He's got something to suffer, poor fellow, both mentally and from that hurt upon his head. Well, I'll go back on deck. I did come down to examine and dress his sconce again, but I'll leave that till another time."
He had hardly spoken before Fitz opened his eyes with a start, saw who was present, and turned pettishly away.
"Oh, it's you, doctor, is it?" he said. "I wish you wouldn't be always coming in here and bothering and waking me up. What do you want now?"
"I was only coming to bathe and re-plaster your head, squire," replied the bluff skipper good-humouredly.
Fitz gave himself an angry snatch round, and fixed his eyes frowningly upon the speaker.
"Look here," he said, "let's have no more of that, if you please. Have the goodness to keep your place, sir. If you don't know that you have a gentleman on board, please to learn it now, and have the goodness to be off and take that clumsy oaf with you. I want to sleep."
"Certainly," said the skipper quietly, and his son gave him a wondering look. "But as I am here I may as well see to your head. It is quite time it was done again."
"Look here," cried Fitz, "am I to speak again? I told you to go. When I want my head bandaged again I will send you word."
"All right, my lad," said the skipper good-humouredly.
"All right, what?" cried Fitz. "Will you have the goodness to keep this familiar way of speaking to people of your own class!"
"Oh, certainly," said the skipper. "Very well, then; send for me when you feel disposed to have it dressed; and I'll tell you what, you can let Poole wait till the cool of the evening, and he can bathe it and do it then."
"Bah!" cried the lad angrily. "Is it likely I am going to trust myself in his clumsy hands? There, stop and do it now, as I am awake. Here, stop, get some fresh cool water and hold the basin. Pish! I mean that nasty tin-bowl."
Poole got what was necessary without a word, and then stood by while the injury was carefully bathed and bandaged, the patient not uttering a single word of thanks, but submitting with the worst of graces, and just giving his doctor a condescending nod when with a word of congratulation the latter left the cabin.
There was profound silence then, saving a click or two and a rustle as Poole put the various things away, Fitz lying back on his pillow and watching him the while, till at last he spoke, in an exacerbating way—
"Here, you sir, was that doctor, skipper, or whatever he calls himself, trained before he came to sea?"
Poole flushed and remained silent.
"Did you hear what I said, boy?" cried Fitz.
"Yes," was the short reply, resentfully given.
"Yes, sir. Impudent scoundrel! Do you know whom you are addressing? Sir to an officer in Her Majesty's service, whatever his rank."
"Oh, yes, I know whom I am talking to."
"Yes, sir, you oaf! Where are your manners? Is that fellow a surgeon?"
"No; he is captain of this ship."
"Ship! Captain!" sneered the boy, in a contemptuous tone which made his listener writhe. "Why, it's a trading schooner, isn't it?"
Poole was about to speak out sharply, when a glance at the helpless condition of the speaker disarmed him, and he said quietly—
"Oh, yes, of course it's a trading schooner, but it was originally a gentleman's yacht, and sails like one."
"Indeed!" said the boy sneeringly. "And pray whose is it?"
Poole looked at him open-eyed as if expecting to see him suffering from a little deliriousness again; but as no sign was visible he merely said quietly—
"And pray who's your father?"
Poole looked at him again, still in doubt.
There was silence for a few moments, before Fitz turned himself wearily and said in a careless, off-hand tone—
"And what's the name of the craft?"
"The Silver Teal."
"Silver Eel—eh? What a ridiculously slippery name for a boat!"
"Silver Teal," said Poole emphatically.
"Silver Grandmother! A nice set you must be to give your gimcrack craft such a name as that! But you may take my word for it that as soon as ever you are caught in your slippery eel you will all either be hung or go to penal servitude for life—though perhaps you'll be let off, as you are nothing better than a boy."
"Oh yes, I am only a boy," said Poole, rather bitterly; "but the Silver Teal, or Silver Eel as you call it, has to be caught yet. Your people did not make a very grand affair of it the other night."
"Pooh! That's only because one of our stupid fellows who had been on the watch the night before dropped to sleep. They'll soon have you. You'll have the Tonans thundering on your heels before you know where you are. I am expecting to hear her guns every minute."
"That's quite possible," said Poole quietly; "but our little schooner will take some catching, I can tell you."
"So you think," said Fitz, "but you in your ignorance don't know everything. You only sail, and what's the use of that against steam? Just let our gunboat be after you in a calm, and then where are you going to be?"
"I don't know, and I don't think it's worth while to argue about it when we are out here in mid-ocean, and I suppose your gunboat is hanging about somewhere off the port of Liverpool. But look here, hadn't you better take father's advice and not talk so much? I don't mind what you say to me, and it doesn't hurt a bit, but you are rather weak yet, and after all you have gone through I shouldn't like to see you go back instead of forward. Why not have another nap?"
Fitz gave a contemptuous sniff, held his tongue as if his companion in the cabin were not worthy of notice, and lay perfectly still gazing out to sea, but with his face twitching every now and then as he lay thinking with all his might about some of the last words Poole had said connected with the possibility of the gunboat being so far away, and he alone and helpless among these strangers, his spirits sank. How was it all going to end? he thought. What a position to be in! The skipper had said something about putting him aboard some vessel, or ashore;—but how or when? The position seemed hopeless in the extreme, and the poor weak lad thought and thought till his tired brain began to grow dizzy and ache violently, when kindly Nature led him to the temporary way out of the weary trouble which tortured him, and he fell fast asleep.
GETTING THE WORST OF IT.
Another morning passed, and the schooner was once more sailing away through the beautiful calm blue see, heaving in long slow rollers which seemed to be doing their best to rock the injured prisoner back to a state of health.
He had breakfasted and been dressed by his sea-going attendant, and was so much better that he was more irritable than usual, while the skipper's son met all his impatient remarks without the slightest resentment.
The result was that the sick middy in his approach to convalescence was in that state called by Irish folk "spoiling for a fight," and the more patient Poole showed himself, the more the boy began to play the lord.
It was not led up to in any way, but came out in the way of aggravation, and sounded so childish on this particular occasion that Poole turned his head and crossed to the cabin-window to look out, so that Fitz should not see him smile.
"I have been thinking," he said, with his back to the boy's berth, "that while we are sailing along here so gently, I might get some of old Butters' tackle."
"Who's Butters?" said Fitz shortly.
"But what do you mean by his tackle? You don't suppose that I am going to do any hoisting, or anything of that sort, do you?"
"No, no; fishing-tackle. I'd bait the hooks and throw out the line, and you could fish. You'd feel them tug, and could haul in, and I'd take them off the hook?"
"What fish would they be?" cried the boy, quite eagerly, and with his eyes brightening at the idea.
"Bonito or albicore."
"What are they?"
"Ah, you have never been in the tropics, I suppose?"
"Never mind where I've been," snapped out the boy. "I asked you what fish those were."
"Something like big mackerel," replied Poole quietly, "and wonderfully strong. You would enjoy catching them."
The way in which these words were spoken touched the midshipman's dignity.
"Hang his impudence!" Fitz thought. "Patronising me like that!"
"Shall I go and ask him for some tackle?"
"No," was the snappish reply. "I don't want to fish. I have other things on my mind. I have been thinking about this a good deal, young man, and I am not going to put up with any of your insolence. I am an officer in Her Majesty's service, and when one is placed in a position like this, without a superior officer over one, it is my duty to take the command; and if I did as I should do, I ought to give orders to 'bout ship and make sail at once for the nearest port."
"That's quite right; and why don't you?"
"Here, I say, old chap, don't be so cocky. What's the good of making a windbag of yourself? I've only got to prick you, and where are you then? You don't think you are going to frighten my dad with bluster, do you?"
"Yes, b-l-u-s-t-e-r. You can't call it anything else. I know how you feel. Humbled like at being caught like this. I'm sorry for you."
"Well, I am, really; but, to tell the truth, I should be more sorry if you could get away. It's rather jolly having you here. But you are a bit grumpy this morning. Your head hurts you, doesn't it?"
"Hurts? Horrid! It is just as if somebody was trying to bore a hole in my skull with a red-hot auger."
Poole sprang up, soaked a handkerchief with water, folded it into a square patch, and laid it on the injured place, dealing as tenderly with his patient as if his fingers were those of a woman, with the result that the pain became dull and Fitz lay back in his bunk with his eyes half-closed.
"Feel well enough to have a game of draughts?" said Poole, after a pause.
"No; and you haven't got a board."
"But I have got a big card that I marked out myself, and blackened some of the squares with ink."
"Where are your men?"
"Hanging up in that bag."
Poole took a little canvas bag from the hook from which it hung and turned out a very decent set of black and white pieces. "You didn't make those?"
"Yes, I did."
"How did you get them so round?"
"Oh, I didn't do that. Chips lent me his little tenon-saw, and I cut them all off a roller; he helped me to finish them up with sandpaper, and told me what to soak half of them in to make them black."
The invalid began to be more and more interested in the neat set of draughtsmen. "What did you soak them in—ink?" he asked. "No; guess again."
"Oh, I can't guess. Ship's paint, perhaps, or tar."
"No; they wouldn't have looked neat like that. Vitriol—sulphuric acid."
"What, had you got that sort of stuff on board the schooner?"
"The governor has in his big medicine-chest."
"And did that turn them black like this?"
"Yes; you just paint them over with it, and hold them to the galley fire. I suppose it burns them. They all come black like that, and you polish them up with a little beeswax, and there you are."
"Well, it was rather clever for a rough chap like you," said Fitz grudgingly. "Can you play?"
"Oh, just a little—for a rough chap like me. One has so much time out at sea."
"Oh, well, we'll have just one game. How many pieces shall I give you?"
"Oh, I should think you ought to give me half," was the reply.
"Very well," said Fitz cavalierly; "take half. I used to be a pretty good fist at this at school. Where's your board?"
Poole thrust his hand under the cabin-table and turned a couple of buttons, setting free a stiff piece of mill-board upon which a sheet of white paper had been pasted and the squares neatly marked out and blacked.
The pieces were placed, and the game began, with Fitz, after his bandage had been re-moistened, supporting himself upon his left elbow to move his pieces with his right hand, which somehow seemed to have forgotten its cunning, for with double the draughts his cool matter-of-fact adversary beat him easily.
"Yes," said Fitz, rather pettishly; "I'm a bit out of practice, and my head feels thick."
"Sure to," said Poole, "knocked about as you were. Have some more pieces this time."
"Oh no!" said Fitz, "I can beat you easily like this if I take more care."
The pieces were set once more, and Fitz played his best, but he once more lost.
"Have some more pieces this time," said Poole.
"Nonsense!" was snapped out. "I tell you I can beat you this way, and I will."
The third game was played, one which took three times as long as the last, and as he was beaten the middy let himself sink back on his pillow with a gesture full of impatience.
"Yes," he said; "I know where I went wrong there. My head burns so, and I wasn't thinking."
"Yes, I saw where you made that slip. You might as well have given up at once."
"Oh, might I?" was snapped out.
"Here, let me give that handkerchief a good soaking before we begin another."
"Yes, you didn't half wet it last time. Don't wring it out so much."
"All right. Why, it's quite hot. It must have made your head so much the cooler. There, does that feel more comfortable?"
"Yes, that's better. Now make haste and set out the men."
Poole arranged the pieces, and Fitz sat up again.
"Here, what have you been doing?" he cried. "You have given me two more."
"Well," said the skipper's son, smiling, "it'll make us more equal."
"Don't you holloa till you're out of the wood," cried Fitz haughtily, and he flicked the two extra pieces off the board. "Do you think I'm going to let you beat me? My head's clearer now. I think I know how to play a game of draughts."
The sick boy thought so, but again his adversary proved far stronger, winning easily; and the middy dropped back on the pillow.
"It isn't fair," he cried.
"You didn't tell me you could play as well as that."
"Of course not. I wasn't going to brag about my playing. Let's have another game. I think we're about equal."
"No, I'm tired now. I say," added Fitz, after a pause, as he lay watching the draughtsmen being dropped slowly back into the bag, "don't take any notice of what I said. I don't want you to think me cocky and bragging. My head worries me, and it makes me feel hot and out of temper, and ready to find fault with everything. We'll have another game some day if I'm kept here a prisoner. Perhaps I shall be able to play better then."
"To be sure you will. But it doesn't matter which side wins. It is only meant for a game."
A BASIN OF SOUP.
Fitz had just finished his semi-apology when the fastening of the door clicked softly; it was pushed, and a peculiar-looking, shaggy head was thrust in. The hair was of a rusty sandy colour, a shade lighter than the deeply-tanned face, while a perpetual grin parted the owner's lips as if he were proud to show his teeth, though, truth to tell, there was nothing to be proud of unless it was their bad shape and size. But the most striking features were the eyes, which somehow or another possessed a fiery reddish tinge, and added a certain fierceness to a physiognomy which would otherwise have been very weak.
Fitz started at the apparition.
"The impertinence!" he muttered. "Here, I say," he shouted now, "who are you?"
"Who am I, laddie?" came in a harsh voice. "Ye ken I'm the cook."
"And what do you want here, sir? Laddie, indeed! Why didn't you knock?"
"Knock!" said the man, staring, as he came right in.
"I didna come to knock: just to give you the word that it's all hot and ready now."
"What's hot and ready?"
"The few broth I've got for you. Ye didna want to be taking doctor's wash now, but good, strong meaty stuff to build up your flesh and bones."
"Look here, you, Poole Reed; what does this man mean by coming into my cabin like this? Is he mad?"
"No, no," said Poole, laughing. "It's all right; I'd forgotten. He asked me if he hadn't better bring you something every day now for a bit of lunch. It's all right, Andy. Mr Burnett's quite ready. Go and fetch it."
The man nodded, grinned, in no wise hurt by his reception, and backed out again.
"Rum-looking fellow, isn't he, Mr Burnett?"
"Disgusting-looking person for a cook. Can anybody eat what he prepares?"
"We do," said Poole quietly. "Oh, he keeps his galley beautifully clean, does Andy Campbell—Cawmell, he calls himself, and the lads always call him the Camel. And he works quite as hard."
He had only just spoken when the man returned on the tips of his bare toes, looking, for all the world, like the ordinary able seaman from a man-of-war. He bore no tray, napkin, and little tureen, but just an ordinary ship's basin in one hand, a spoon in the other, and carefully balanced himself as he entered the cabin, swaying himself with the basin so that a drop should not go over the side.
"There y'are, me puir laddie. Ye'll just soop that up before I come back for the bowl. There's pepper and salt in, and just a wee bit onion to make it taste. All made out of good beef, and joost the pheesic to make you strong."
"Give it to me, Andy," cried Poole, and the man placed it in his hands, smiled and nodded at the prisoner, and then backed out with his knees very much bent.
Poole stood stirring the broth in the basin slowly round and round, and spreading a peculiar vulgar odour which at first filled the invalid with annoyance; but as it pervaded the place it somehow began to have a decided effect upon the boy's olfactory nerves and excited within him a strange yearning which drove away every token of disgust.
"It's too hot to give you yet," said Poole quietly. "You must wait a few minutes."
Fitz's first idea had been that he would not condescend to touch what he was ready to dub "a mess." It looked objectionable, being of a strange colour and the surface dotted with yellowish spots of molten fat, while mingled with them were strange streaky pieces of divided onion. But animal food had for many days been a stranger to the sick lad's lips— and then there was the smell which rapidly became to the boy's nostrils a most fascinating perfume. So that it was in a softened tone that he spoke next, as he watched the slow passage round and round of the big metal spoon.
"It doesn't look nice," he said.
"No. Ship's soup never does," replied Poole, "but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, you know. The Camel's about right, though. This is the best physic you can have. Will you try it now?"
This was an attack that the boy could not stand. He wanted to say No, with a gesture of disgust, but Nature would not let him then.
"I dunno," he said dubiously. "Did he make it?"
"But he looks like a common sailor; not a bit like a cook."
"He is a foremast-man, and takes his turn at everything, like the rest; but he does all the cooking just the same."
"But is he really clean?"
"He made all those bread-cakes you have eaten," was the reply.
"Oh," said Fitz quickly, for the soup smelt aggravatingly nice. "Would you mind tasting it?"
Poole raised the spoon to his lips, and replaced it.
"Splendid," he said. "You try."
He carefully placed the basin in his patient's lap, with the spoon ready to his hand, and drew back, watching the peculiar curl at the corners of the boy's lips as he slowly passed the spoon round and then raised it to his mouth.
A few seconds later the spoon went round the basin again and was followed by an audible sip, on hearing which Poole went to the window, thrust out his head, and began to whistle, keeping up his tune as if he were playing orchestra to a banquet, while he watched the dart and splash of a fish from time to time about the surface, and the shadowy shapes of others deep down below the schooner's stern-post, clearly enough seen in the crystal sunlit water set a-ripple by the gentle gliding through it of the vessel's keel.
After waiting what he considered a sufficient time, Poole said loudly, without turning round—
"There's plenty of fish in sight."
But there was no reply, and he waited again until in due time he heard a sharp click as of metal against crockery which was followed by a deep sigh, and then the lad turned slowly, to see the midshipman leaning back in the berth with his hands behind his head, the empty basin and spoon resting in his lap.
Poole Reed did not say what he would have liked, neither was there any sound of triumph in his voice. He merely removed the empty vessel and asked a question—
"Was it decent?"
And Fitz forgot himself. For the moment all his irritability seemed gone, and the natural boy came to the surface.
"Splendid!" he cried. "I never enjoyed anything so much before in my life."
And all that about a dingy basin of soup with fragments of onion and spots of fat floating therein. But it was the first real meal of returning health.
A MON FRAE THE NORTH.
Poole looked as solemn and calm as a judge as he raised the soup-basin and listened to his patient's words, while all at once a suspicious thought glanced through Fitz's brain, and he looked at the lad quickly and felt relieved, for no one could have imagined from the grave, stolid face before him that mirth like so much soda-water was bubbling and twinkling as it effervesced all through the being of the skipper's son.
"I couldn't have held it in any longer," said Poole to himself, with a sigh of relief, for just then the door clicked and the Camel's head came slowly in with the red eyes glowing and watchful.
Then seeing that the meal was ended he came right in, and took basin and spoon from Poole as if they were his own special property.
"Feel better, laddie?" he said, with a grin at the patient.
"Oh yes, thank you, cook," was the genial reply. "Capital soup."
"Ay," said the Camel seriously, "and ye'll just take the same dose every morning at twa bells till you feel as if you can eat salt-junk like a mon. Ah weel, ah weel! They make a fine flather about doctors and their stuff, but ye mind me there isn't another as can do a sick mon sae much good as the cook."
"Hear that, Mr Burnett?"
"Oh yes, I hear," said Fitz, smiling, with a look of content upon his features to which they had for many days been strangers.
"I am not going to say a word the noo aboot the skipper, and what he's done. He's a grand mon for a hole or a cut or a bit broken leg. He's got bottles and poothers of a' kinds, but when the bit place is mended it's the cook that has to do the rigging up. You joost stick to Andy Cawmell, and he'll make a man of you in no time."
"Thank you, cook," said Fitz, smiling.
"And ye'll be reet. But if ye'd no' mind, ye'll joost kindly say 'Andy mon,' or 'laddie' when you speak to me. It seems more friendly than 'cook.' Ye see, cook seems to belang more to a sonsy lassie than a mon. Just let it be 'Andy' noo."
"All right; I'll mind," said the middy, who looked amused.
"Ah, it's a gran' thing, cooking, and stands first of all, for it keeps every one alive and strong. They talk a deal about French cooks and their kickshaws, and about English cooks, and I'm no saying but that some English cooks are very decent bodies; but when you come to Irish, Ould Oireland, as they ca' it, there's only one thing that ever came from there, and that's Irish stew."
"What about taters, Andy?"
"Why, isna that part of it? Who ever heard of an Irish stew without taters? That's Irish taters, my lad, but if you want a real good Irish stew you must ha'e it made of Scotch mutton and Scotch potatoes, same as we've got on board now. And joost you bide a wee, laddies, till we get across the ocean, and if there's a ship to be found there, I'll just show you the truth of what I mean. Do ye mind me, laddie?" continued the cook, fixing Fitz tightly with his red eyes.
"Mind you? Yes," said Fitz; "but what do you want with a ship to make a stew in?"
"What do I want with a ship?" said Andy, looking puzzled. "Why, to cook!"
"Cook a ship?"
"Ah, sure. Won't a bit of mutton be guid after so much salt and tinned beef?"
"Oh, a sheep!" cried Fitz.
"Ay, I said so: a ship. Your leg of mutton, or a shouther are all very good in their way, but a neck makes the best Irish stew. But bide a wee till we do get hold of a ship, and I'll make you a dish such as will make you say you'll never look at an Irish stew again."
"Oh!" cried Poole. "He means one of those—"
"Nay, nay, nay! Let me tell him, laddie. He never ken'd such a thing on board a man-o'-war. D'ye ken the national dish, Mr Burnett, sir?"
"Of course," said Fitz; "the roast beef of old England."
"Pugh!" ejaculated the Scot. "Ye don't know. Then I'll tell ye. Joost gi'e me the liver and a few ither wee bit innards, some oatmeal, pepper, salt, an onion, and the bahg, and I'll make you a dish that ye'll say will be as good as the heathen deities lived on."
"Do you know what that was?" said Fitz.
"Ay, laddie; it was a kind of broth, or brose—ambrose, they called it, but I dinna believe a word of it. Ambrose, they ca'ed it! But how could they get hahm or brose up in the clouds? A'm thinking that the heathen gods didn't eat at all, but sippit and suppit the stuff they got from the top of a mountain somewhere out in those pairts—I've read it all, laddies, in an auld book called Pantheon—mixed with dew, mountain-dew."
"Nonsense!" cried Fitz, breaking into a pleasant laugh.
"Nay, it's no nonsense, laddie. I've got it all down, prented in a book. Ambrosia, the chiel ca'ed it, because he didn't know how to spell, and when I came to thenk I see it all as plain as the nose on your face. It was not ambrose at all, but Athol brose."
"And what's that?" cried Fitz.
"Hech, mon! And ye a young laird and officer and dinna ken what Athol brose is!"
"No," said Fitz; "we learnt so much Greek and Latin at my school that we had to leave out the Scotch."
"Hearken to him, young Poole Reed! Not to know that! But it is Greek— about the Greek gods and goddesses. And ye dinna ken what Athol brose is?"
"No," said Fitz; "I never heard of it in my life."
"Weel, then, I'll just tell ye, though it's nae good for boys. It's joost a meexture half honey and half whisky, or mountain-dew; and noo ye ken."
"But you are not going to make a mess like that when you get a sheep."
"Ship, laddie—ship. If ye ca' it like that naebody will think ye mean a mutton that goes on four feet."
"Well, pronounce it your own way," said Fitz. "But what is this wonderful dish you mean to make?"
"He means kidney-broth, made with the liver," said Poole.
"Nay, nay. Dinna you mind him, laddie. He only said that to make you laugh. You bide a wee, and I'll make one fit for a Queen. You've never tasted haggis, but some day you shall."
Andy Cawmell closed one eye and gave the convalescent what was intended for a very mysterious, confidential look, and then stole gravely out of the cabin, closed the door after him, and opened it directly after, to thrust in his head, the basin, and the spoon.
"D'ye mind, laddie," he whispered, tapping the basin, "at twa bells every day the meexture as before."
He closed the door again, and this time did not return, though Fitz waited for a few moments before speaking, his eyes twinkling now with merriment.
"Haggis!" he cried. "Scotch haggis! Of course, I know. It's mincemeat boiled in the bag of the pipes with the pipes themselves chopped up for bones. You've heard of it before?"
"Oh yes, though I never tasted it. Andy makes one for the lads whenever he gets a chance."
"Do they eat it?"
"Oh yes, and laugh at him all the time. I dare say it's very good, but I never felt disposed to try. But he's a good fellow, is Andy, and as fine a sailor as ever stepped. You'll get to like him by and by."
"Get to like him?" said Fitz, pulling himself up short and stiff. "Humph! I dunno so much about that, young fellow. Look here, how long do you expect it's going to be before I am set aboard some ship?"
"Ah, that's more than anybody can say," replied Poole quietly.
Fitz was silent for a few moments, and then said sharply—
"What's the name of the port for which you are making sail?"
"Name of the port?" said Poole.
"Yes; you heard what I said, and I want to know."
"Yes; it's only natural that you would," said Poole. "I say, shall I get the tackle now?"
"No; I want an answer to my question," replied Fitz, firing up again.
"Well, I can't tell you. That's my father's business. We are sailing under what you would call sealed orders on board a Queen's ship."
"That's shuffling," cried Fitz angrily, with the black clouds coming over the little bit of sunshine that lit up his face after his soup. "Now, sir, I order you to tell me, an officer in the Queen's service, where this schooner is bound."
Poole was silent. "Do you hear me, sir?"
"Oh yes, I hear," said Poole, "but I am in a state of mutiny, and I'm going to ask old Butters to lend me his long line and hooks."
He moved towards the door as he spoke, but Fitz shouted to him to stop.
It was all in vain, for the lad closed the door and shut in the midshipman's angry face.
"Gone!" ejaculated Fitz. "He's too much for me now; but only just wait till I get well and strong!"
WHAT FITZ WANTED.
"What do you think of this for weather?" said Poole, one morning. "Isn't it worth sailing right away to get into such seas as this?"
"Yes," said Fitz dreamily, as he lay on one side in his berth with his hand under his cheek, gazing through the cabin-window at the beautiful glancing water; "it is very lovely."
"Doesn't it make you feel as if you were getting quite well?"
"I think it would," said the boy, almost as if speaking to himself; "it would be all right enough if a fellow could feel happy."
"Well," said Poole, "you ought to begin to now. Just see how you've altered. Father says you are to come up this afternoon as soon as the heat of the day has passed."
"Come on deck?" cried Fitz, brightening. "Ah! That's less like being a prisoner."
"A prisoner!" said Poole merrily. "Hark at him! Why, you are only a visitor, having a pleasant cruise. Father's coming directly," he added hastily, for he saw the look of depression coming back into the boy's face. "He says this is the last time he shall examine your head, and that you won't want doctoring any more. Come, isn't that good news enough for one morning?"
Fitz made no reply, but lay with his face contracting, evidently thinking of something else.
"As soon as he's gone," continued Poole, "I am going to bring the lines and some bait. Old Butters said you could have them as much as you liked. Don't turn gruff again this time and say you don't want to try."
Fitz appeared to take no notice, and Poole went on—
"There are shoals of bonito about, and the Camel can dress them fine. You don't know how good they are, freshly caught and fried."
Fitz made an impatient gesture.
"How soon is your father coming below?" he said.
"Oh, he may be down any moment. He and Mr Burgess are taking observations overhead and calculating our course."
"Then he won't be very long," said Fitz.
"Oh no. Want to speak to him?"
Poole gave the speaker a sharp look, which evidently meant, I wonder what he wants to say.
At that moment the boys' eyes met, and Fitz said, as if to evade a question—
"Don't you learn navigation—take observations, and that sort of thing?"
"Oh yes, lots of it; but I have been having a holiday since you've been on board. So have you. It must be quite a change after your busy life on board a gunboat, drilling and signalling, and all that sort of thing."
Fitz was hearing him speak, but listening intently all the time, so that he gave an eager start and exclaimed—
"Here's your father coming now."
For steps were plainly heard on the companion-ladder, and the next minute the door was thrust open, and the bluff-looking skipper entered the cabin.
"Morning, sir," he cried. "How are we this morning? Oh, it doesn't want any telling. You are getting on grandly. Did Poole tell you I wanted you to come up on deck this afternoon?"
"Yes, sir; thank you. I feel a deal better now, only my legs are very weak when I try to stand up holding on by my berth."
"Yes, I suppose so," said the skipper, sitting down by the boy's head and watching him keenly. "You are weak, of course, but it's more imaginary than real. Any one who lays up for a week or two would feel weak when he got out of bed."
"But my head swims so, sir."
"Exactly. That's only another sign. You are eating well now, and getting quite yourself. But I am going to prescribe you another dose."
"Physic?" said Fitz, with a look of disgust.
"Yes, fresh air physic. I want you to take it very coolly for the next few days, but to keep on deck always except in the hottest times. In another week you won't know yourself."
"Hah!" ejaculated the boy. "Then now, sir—don't think me ungrateful, for nobody could be kinder to me than you and Poole here have shown yourselves since I have been aboard."
"Thank you, my lad, for both of us," said the skipper, smiling good-humouredly. "I am glad you give such ruffians as we are so good a character. But you were going to say something."
"Yes, sir," said the boy excitedly, and he cleared his voice, which had grown husky.
"Go on, then. You are beating about the bush as if you had some favour to ask. What is it?"
"I want," cried Fitz excitedly, and his cheeks flushed and eyes flashed—"I want you, sir," he repeated, "now that you say I'm better and fit to get about—"
"On deck," said the skipper dryly.
"Oh yes, and anywhere as soon as this giddiness has passed off... I want you now, sir, to set me ashore."
"Hah! Yes," said the skipper slowly. "I knew we were coming to that."
"Why, of course, sir. Think of what I must have suffered and felt."
"I thought Poole here had done his best to make you comfortable, my lad."
"Oh yes, and he has, sir," cried the boy, turning to look full in his attendant's eyes. "He has been a splendid fellow, sir. Nobody could have been kinder to me than he has, even at my worst times, when I was so ill and irritable that I behaved to him like a surly brute."
"It's your turn now, Poole," growled the skipper, "to say 'Thank you' for that."
"But you must feel, sir, how anxious and worried I must be—how eager to get back to my ship. In another day or two, Captain Reed, I shall be quite well enough to go. Promise me, sir, that you will set me ashore."
The skipper had pursed up his lips as if he were going to whistle for the wind, and he turned his now frowning face to look steadfastly at his son, who met his eyes with a questioning gaze, while the midshipman looked anxiously from one to the other, as if seeking to catch an encouraging look which failed to come.
At last the boy broke the silence again, trying to speak firmly; but, paradoxically, weakness was too strong, and his voice sounded cracked as he cried, almost pitifully—
"Oh, Captain Reed! Promise me you will now set me ashore!"
The skipper was silent for a few moments, before turning his face slowly to meet the appealing look in the boy's eyes.
"Set you ashore?" he said gruffly.
"Yes, sir, please. Pray do!"
And the answer came—
"Where, my boy? Where?"
THOUGHTS OF HOME.
Fitz Burnett looked wonderingly at the skipper as if he did not comprehend the bearings of the question. "Where?" he faltered. "Yes; you asked me to set you ashore. I say, where?"
"Oh, at any American or English port, sir."
"Do you know how far we are from the nearest?"
"No; I have no idea how far we have come."
"Never mind that," said the skipper gravely. "Let's take it from another way of thinking. Do you know what it means for me to set you ashore at some port?"
"Oh yes, sir: that I shall be able to communicate with any English vessel, and get taken back to Liverpool."
"Well," said the skipper grimly, "you are a young sailor, but I am afraid that you have very small ideas about the size of the world. I dare say, though, that would be possible, sooner or later, for you go to very few ports now-a-days without coming across a ship flying British colours. It would be all right for you; but what about me?"
Fitz looked at him wonderingly again. "What about you, sir?" he stammered. "I was not thinking about you, but about myself."
"That wanted no telling, my lad. It's plain enough. You were not thinking about me, but I was. Look here, my boy. Do you know what my setting you ashore means just now?"
"Yes, sir," said the boy sharply. "Getting rid of a very troublesome passenger."
"Oh, you think so, do you? Well, I'll tell you what I think. It would mean getting rid of one troublesome passenger, as you call yourself, and taking a dozen worse ones on board in the shape of a prize crew. Why, young Burnett, it would mean ruin to me and to my friends, whose money has been invested in this cargo."
"Oh no, no, sir. I am alone out here, and my captain's vessel is far away. I couldn't go and betray you, even if I wanted to. You could set me ashore and sail away at once. That's all I want you to do."
"Sweet innocency!" said the skipper mockingly. "But I won't set it down to artfulness. I think you are too much of a gentleman for that. But do you hear him, Poole? Nice ideas he has for a beardless young officer in Her Majesty's Navy. Why, do you mean to tell me, sir, you know nothing about international politics, and a peculiar little way that they have now-a-days of flashing a bit of news all round the world in a few minutes of time? Don't you think that after that bit of a turn up off Liverpool way, a full description of my schooner and her probable destination has been wired across the Atlantic, and that wherever I attempted to land you, it would be for the port officials to step on board and tap me on the shoulder with a kindly request to give an account of myself?"
"I didn't think of that," said Fitz, slowly.
"No," said the skipper. "You thought that I could hail the first ship I saw, or sail up to the side of a quay, pitch you ashore, and sail off again. Why, Fitz Burnett, as soon as I came in sight I should be overhauled, seized, delayed for certain, and in all probability end by losing schooner, cargo, and my liberty."
"Surely it would not be so bad as that, sir?"
"Surely it would be worse. No, my lad; I am sorry for you. I regret the ugly accident by which you were knocked over; but you are thinking, as we said before, about your position, your duty. I have got to think of mine. Now, here's yours; you came on board here, unasked and unseen until the next morning when we had put a good many knots between us and your gunboat. It was impossible to land you, and so we made the best of it and treated you as well as we could. Time is money to me now, and my coming up punctually means something much more valuable than hard cash to the people I have come to see. To be plain, I can't waste, even if I were so disposed, any time for sailing into port to put you ashore."
"Never mind that, then, sir," cried Fitz excitedly. "Speak the first vessel you see, of any country, under any flag, and put me aboard there."
"No, my lad," said the skipper sternly. "And I can't do that. I am going to speak no ships. My work is to sail away and hold communication with no one. I have no need to make all this explanation to you, my boy, but I am doing it because we are sorry for you, and want to make things as easy as we can. Now, look here, you are a sensible lad, and you must learn to see your position. I can do nothing for you beyond treating you well, until I have made my port, run my cargo of knick-knacks, and cleared for home. By that time I shall have a clean bill of health, and be ready to look all new-comers in the face."
"But how long will that be, sir?" cried Fitz excitedly.
"Dunno, my lad. It depends on what's going on over yonder. If all goes smooth it may be only a month; if all goes rough, perhaps two, or three. I may be dodging about a long while. Worse still, my schooner may be taken, condemned, and my crew and I clapped in irons in some Spanish-American prison, to get free nobody knows when."
"Oh!" groaned Fitz excitedly.
"I am being very plain to you, my lad, now that the cat's out of the bag, and there's nothing to hide. I am playing a dangerous game, one full of risk. It began when I was informed upon by some cowardly, dirty-minded scoundrel, one who no doubt had been taking my pay till he thought he could get no more, and then he split upon me, with the result that your captain was put upon the scent of my enterprise, to play dog and run me down in the dark. But you see I had one eye open, and got away. Now I suppose the telegraph will have been at work, and the folks over yonder will be waiting for me there, so that I shall have to hang about and wait my chance of communicating with my friends. So there, you see, you will have to wait one, two, perhaps three months, before, however good my will, I can do anything for you."
"But by that time," cried Fitz, "I shall be disgraced."
"Bah! Nonsense, my lad! There can be no disgrace for one who boarded a vessel along with his crew, and had the bad luck to be struck down. Now, my boy, you know I'm a father. Let me speak like a father to you. Your real trouble is this, and I say honestly I am sorry, and so's Poole there, not so much for you as for your poor relatives. There, it's best I should speak quite plainly. It's as well to know the worst that can have happened, and then it generally proves to have been not so bad; and that's what clever folks call philosophy. The real trouble in your case is this, that by this time your poor relatives will probably know that your number has been wiped off your mess; in short, you have been reported—dead."
"What!" cried the boy, in a tone full of anguish. "They will have sent word home that I am dead?"
"I am afraid so," said the skipper. "It's very sad, but you have got to bear it like a man."
"Sad!" cried the boy passionately. "It's horrible! It will break her heart!"
"You mean your mother's," said the skipper gravely, and he laid his hand kindly on the boy's shoulder. "But it's not so bad as you think, my lad. I have had a little experience of women in my time—wives and mothers, boy—and there's a little something that generally comes to them in cases like this and whispers in their poor ears. That little something, my boy, is always very kind to us sea-going people, and it's called Hope. And somehow at such times as this it makes women think that matters can't be so bad as they have been described, or that they can't be true. Now I'd be ready to say that in spite of the bad news that's come to your mother about you, she won't believe it's true, and that she's waiting patiently for the better news that will some time come, and that it will be many, many months, perhaps a year, before she will really believe that you are dead."
"Oh, but it's too horrible!" cried the boy wildly.
"No, no, no. Come! Pluck up your spirits and make the best of it. Look here, boy. You must bear it for the sake of the greater pleasure, the joy that will come when she finds that she was right in her belief, and in the surprise to all your friends when they see you come back alive and kicking, and all the better for your voyage. I say, look at the bright side of things, and think how much better it has all been than if you had been knocked overboard to go down in the darkness at a time when it was every one for himself, and no one had a thought for you."
Fitz turned away his head so that neither father nor son could see the workings of his face.
"There, my lad," said the skipper, rising, "I was obliged to speak out plainly. I have hurt you, I know, but it has only been like the surgeon, to do you good. I am wanted on deck now, so take my advice; bear it like a man. Here, Poole, I want you for half-an-hour or so, and I dare say Mr Burnett would like to have a bit of a think to himself."
He gave the boy a warm pressure of his hand, and then strode out of the cabin, his example being followed the next moment by Poole, whose action was almost the same as his father's, the exception being that he quickly caught hold of the middy's hand and held it for a moment before he hurried out.
Then and then only did Fitz's face go down upon his hands, while a low groan of misery escaped his lips.
"Well, what is it?" said the skipper gruffly, as his son followed him on deck and touched him on the arm.
"Don't you think it possible, father, that—"
"That I could turn aside from what I have got to do, boy? No, I don't."
"But he's ill and weak, father."
"Of course he is, and he's getting better as fast as he can. What's more, he's a boy—in the depth of despair now, and in half-an-hour's time he'll be himself again, and ready to forget his trouble."
"I don't think he will, father."
"Don't you? Then I do. I have had more experience of boys than you have, and I have learned how Nature in her kindness made them. Look here, Poole, I believe for the time that boys feel trouble more keenly than do men, but Nature won't let it last. The young twig will bend nearly double, and spring up again. The old stick snaps."
The skipper walked away, leaving his son thinking.
"I don't believe father's right," he said. "Fitz doesn't seem like most boys that I have met. Poor chap, it does seem hard! I don't think I ever felt so bad as he must now. I wish I hadn't had to come away, for it was only an excuse on father's part. He doesn't want me. It was only to leave the poor chap alone."
Acting upon these thoughts, Poole tried to think out some excuse for going down to the cabin again as soon as he could. But as no reasonable excuse offered itself, he waited till the half-hour was expired, and then went down without one, opened the cabin-door gently, and gravely stepped in, to stop short, staring in astonishment at the change which had come over his patient, for he was sitting bent down with his hands upon his knees at the edge of his berth, swinging his legs to and fro, with every trace of suffering gone out of the eyes which looked up sharply.
If Poole Reed was surprised at the midshipman's appearance, he was far more so at his tones and words.
"Hallo!" he cried. "Thought you'd gone to fetch those fishing-lines."
"I—I—Oh, yes, I'll get them directly," stammered Poole.
"Look sharp, then. The fish are playing about here like fun. I saw one spring right out of the water just now after a shoal. The little ones look like silver, and the big chap was all blue and gold."
"All right; I won't be long," cried Poole, and he hurried out, letting the door bang behind him.
"Well, I was a fool to worry myself about a chap like that. Why, he doesn't feel it a bit."
But Poole Reed was not a good judge of human nature. He could not see the hard fight that was going on behind that eager face, nor how the well-trained boy had called upon his pride to carry him through this struggle with his fate.
Poole thought no more of his patient's condition, but hurried to the boatswain, who scowled at him fiercely.
"What!" he said. "Fishing-lines? Can't you find nothing else to do, young fellow, on board this 'ere craft, besides fishing?"
"No; there is nothing to do now."
"You know I spoke about them before. It is to amuse the sick middy."
"Yah!" came in a deep growl. "Why didn't you say so before? Poor boy! He did get it hot that time."
"Yes," said Poole maliciously, "and I believe it was you who knocked him down."