In the King's Name; or, The Cruise of the Kestrel, by George Manville Fenn.
This is quite a long book, and one of G.M. Fenn's very best, for his hero gets into all sorts of tight corners, from which there appears no possible escape, just in the manner of most of Fenn's books, for he is the very master of suspense.
It starts off with a coastguard vessel, the "Kestrel", on patrol looking for smugglers, Jacobites, or anything else that appears suspicious.
Most of the action, however, takes place on the land, though sometimes in smugglers' caves near the shore.
It makes a brilliant audiobook for your enjoyment.
IN THE KING'S NAME; OR, THE CRUISE OF THE KESTREL, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
ON BOARD THE "KESTREL."
Morning on board the Kestrel, his Britannic majesty's cutter, lying on and off the south coast on the lookout for larks, or what were to her the dainty little birds that the little falcon, her namesake, would pick up. For the Kestrel's wings were widespread to the soft south-easterly breeze that barely rippled the water; and mainsail, gaff topsail, staysail, and jib were so new and white that they seemed to shine like silver in the sun.
The larks the hover-winged Kestrel was on the watch to pick up were smuggling boats of any sort or size, or Jacobite messages, or exiles, or fugitives—anything, in fact, that was not in accordance with the laws of his most gracious majesty King George the Second, whose troops had not long before dealt that fatal blow to the young Pretender's hopes at the battle of Culloden.
The sea was as bright and blue as the sea can look in the Channel when the bright sun is shining, and the arch above reflects itself in its bosom. The gulls floated half asleep on the water, with one eye open and the other closed; and the pale-grey kittiwakes seemed to glide about on the wing, to dip down here and there and cleverly snatch a tiny fish from the surface of the softly heaving sea.
On the deck of the little cutter all was in that well-known apple-pie order customary on board a man-of-war, for so Lieutenant Lipscombe in command always took care to call it, and in this he was diligently echoed by the young gentleman who acted as his first officer, and, truth to say, second and third officer as well, for he was the only one—to wit, Hilary Leigh, midshipman, lately drafted to this duty, to his great disgust, from on board the dashing frigate Golden Fleece.
"Man-o'-war!" he had said in disgust; "a contemptible little cock-boat. They ought to have called her a boy-o'-war—a little boy-o'-war. I shall walk overboard the first time I try to stretch my legs."
But somehow he had soon settled down on board the swift little craft with its very modest crew, and felt no small pride in the importance of his position, feeling quite a first lieutenant in his way, and for the greater part of the time almost entirely commanding the vessel.
She was just about the cut of a goodsized modern yacht, and though not so swift, a splendid sailer, carrying immense spars for her tonnage, and spreading canvas enough to have swamped a less deeply built craft.
The decks were as white as holystone could make them, the sails and the bell shone in the morning sun like gold, and there was not a speck to be seen on the cabin skylight any more than upon either of the three brass guns, a long and two shorts, as Billy Waters, who was gunner and gunner's mate all in one, used to call them.
Upon this bright summer morning Hilary Leigh was sitting, with his legs dangling over the side and his back against a stay, holding a fishing line, which, with a tiny silvery slip off the tail-end of a mackerel, was trailing behind the cutter, fathoms away, waving and playing about in the vessel's wake, to tempt some ripple-sided mackerel to dart at it, do a little bit of cannibalism, and die in the act.
Two had already been hauled on board, and lay in a wooden bucket, looking as if they had been carved out of pieces of solid sea at sunrise, so brilliant were the ripple marks and tints of pink and purple and grey and orange and gold—bright enough to make the gayest mother-o'-pearl shell blush for shame. Hilary Leigh had set his mind upon catching four—two for himself and two for the skipper—and he had congratulated himself upon the fact that he had already caught his two, when there was a sharp snatch, the line began to quiver, and for the next minute it was as though the hook was fast in the barbs of a silver arrow that was darting in all directions through the sea.
"Here's another, Billy!" cried the young man, or boy—for he was on the debatable ground of eighteen, when one may be either boy or man, according to one's acts, deeds, or exploits, as it used to say in Carpenter's Spelling.
Hilary Leigh, from his appearance, partook more of the man than the boy, for, though his face was as smooth as a new-laid egg, he had well-cut, decisive-looking Saxon features, and one of those capital closely-fitting heads of hair that look as if they never needed cutting, but settle round ears and forehead in not too tight clustering curls.
"Here's another, Billy," he cried; and a stoutly built sailor amidships cried, "Cheer ho, sir! Haul away, sir! Will it be a mess o' mick-a-ral for the lads to-day?"
"Don't know, Billy," was the reply, as the beautiful fish was hauled in, unhooked, a fresh lask or tongue of silvery bait put on, and the leaded line thrown over and allowed to run out fathoms astern once again.
Billy Waters, the gunner, went on with his task, rather a peculiar one, which would have been performed below in a larger vessel, but here the men pretty well lived on deck, caring little for the close stuffy quarters that formed the forecastle, where they had, being considered inferior beings, considerably less space than was apportioned to their two officers.
Billy's work was that of carefully binding or lashing round and round the great mass of hair hanging from the poll of a messmate, so as to form it into the orthodox pigtail of which the sailors of the day were excessively vain. The tail in question was the finest in the cutter, and was exactly two feet six inches long, hanging down between the sailor's shoulders, when duly lashed up and tied, like a long handle used for lifting off the top of his skull.
But, alas for the vanity of human nature! Tom Tully, owner of the longest tail in the cutter, and the envy of all his messmates, was not happy. He was ambitious; and where a man is ambitious there is but little true bliss. He wanted "that 'ere tail" to be half a fathom long, and though it was duly measured every week "that 'ere tail" refused to grow another inch.
Billy Waters had a fine tail, but his was only, to use his own words, "two foot one," but it was "half as thick agen as Tom Tully's," so he did not mind. In fact the first glance at the gunner's round good-humoured face told that there was neither envy nor ambition there. Give him enough to eat, his daily portion of cold water grog, and his 'bacco, and, again to use his own words, he "wouldn't change berths with the king hissen."
"Easy there, Billy messmet," growled Tom Tully; "avast hauling quite so hard. My tail ain't the cable."
"Why, you don't call that 'ere hauling, Tommy lad, do you?"
"'Nuff to take a fellow's head off," growled the other, just as the midshipman pulled in another mackerel, and directly after another, and another, for they were sailing through a shoal, and the man at the helm let his stolid face break up into a broad grin as the chance of a mess of mackerel for the men's dinner began to increase.
"Singing down deny, down deny, down deny down, Sing—"
"Easy, messmet, d'yer hear," growled Tom Tully, straining his head round to look appealingly at the operator on his tail. "Why don't yer leave off singing till you've done?"
"Just you lay that there nose o' your'n straight amidships," cried Billy, using the tail as if it was a tiller, and steering the sailor's head into the proper position. "I can't work without I sing."
"For this I can tell, that nought will be well, Till the king enjoys his own again."
He trolled out these words in a pleasant tenor voice, and was just drawing in breath to continue the rattling cavalier ballad when the young officer swung his right leg in board, and, sitting astride the low bulwark, exclaimed—
"I say, Billy, are you mad?"
"Mad, sir? not that I knows on, why?"
"For singing a disloyal song like that. You'll be yard-armed, young fellow, if you don't mind."
"What, for singing about the king?"
"Yes; if you get singing about a king over the water, my lad. That's an old song; but some people would think you meant the Pretend—Hallo! look there. You look out there forward, why didn't you hail? Hi! here fetch me a glass. Catch hold of that line, Billy. She's running for Shoreham, as sure as a gun. No: all right; let go."
He threw the line to the gunner just as a mackerel made a snatch at the bait, and before the sailor could catch it, away went the end astern, when the man at the helm made a dash at it just as the slight cord was running over the side.
Billy Waters made a dash at it just at the same moment, and there was a dull thud as the two men's heads came in contact, and they fell back into a sitting position on the deck, while the mackerel darted frightened away to puzzle the whole shoal of its fellows with the novel appendage hanging to its snout.
"Avast there, you lubber!" exclaimed Billy Waters angrily. "Stand by, my lad, stand by," replied the other, making a dart back at the helm just as the cutter was beginning to fall off.
"Look ye here, messmet, air you agoin' to make my head shipshape, or air you not?" growled Tom Tully; and then, before his hairdresser could finish tying the last knot, the lieutenant came on deck.
For when Hilary Leigh ran below, it was to seize a long spyglass out of the slings in the cabin bulkhead, and to give his commanding officer a tremendous shake.
"Sail on the larboard bow, Mr Lipscombe, sir. I say, do wake up, sir; I think it is something this time."
The officer in question, who was a hollow-cheeked man of about forty, very sallow-looking, and far from prepossessing in his features, opened his eye, but he did not attempt to rise from the bunker upon which he was stretched.
"Leigh," he said, turning his eye round towards the little oval thick glass window nearest to him, "You're a most painstaking young officer, but you are always mare's-nesting. What is it now?"
"One of those three-masted luggers, sir—a Frenchman—a chasse maree, laden deeply, and running for Shoreham."
"Let her run," said the lieutenant, closing his eye again; the other was permanently closed, having been poked out in boarding a Frenchman some years before, and with the extinction of that optic went the prospect of the lieutenant's being made a post-captain, and he was put in command of the Kestrel when he grew well.
"But it is something this time, sir, I'm sure."
"Leigh," said the lieutenant, yawning, "I was just in a delicious dream, and thoroughly enjoying myself when you come down and bother me about some confounded fishing-boat. There, be off. No: I'll come this time."
He yawned, and showed a set of very yellow teeth; and then, as if by an effort, leaped up and preceded the young officer on deck.
"Let's have a look at her, Leigh," he said, after a glance at a long, low, red-sailed lugger, about a couple of miles ahead, sailing fast in the light breeze.
He took the spyglass, and, going forward, looked long and steadily at the lugger before saying a word.
"French lugger, certainly, Leigh," he said, quietly; "fresh from the fishing-ground I should say. They wouldn't attempt to run a cargo now."
"But you'll overhaul her, sir, won't you?"
"It's not worth while, Leigh, but as you have roused me up, it will be something to do. Here, call the lads up. Where's Waters? Waters!"
"Ay, ay, sir," replied that worthy in a voice of thunder, though he was close at hand.
"Load the long gun, and be ready to fire."
"Ay, ay, sir."
There was no beating to quarters, for the little crew were on deck, and every man fell naturally into his place as the lieutenant seemed now to wake up to his work, and glanced at the sails, which were all set, and giving his orders sharply and well, a pull was taken at a sheet here and a pull there, the helm altered, and in spite of the lightness of the breeze the Kestrel began to work along with an increase of speed of quite two knots an hour.
"Now then, Leigh, shall we ever have her, or shall we have to throw a shot across her bows to bring her to?"
"Let them have a shot, sir," cried the young officer, whose cheeks were beginning to flush with excitement, as he watched the quarry of which the little falcon was in chase.
"And waste the king's powder and ball, eh? No, Leigh, there will be no need. But we may as well put on our swords."
Meanwhile, Billy Waters was busy unlashing the tail of Long Tom, as he called the iron gun forward, and with a pat of affection he opened the ammunition chest, and got out the flannel bag of powder and smiled at a messmate, rammer in hand.
"Let's give him his breakfast, or else he won't bark," he said, with a grin; and the charge was rammed home, the ball sent after it with a big wad to keep it in its place, and the men waited eagerly for the order to fire.
Billy Waters knew that that would not come for some time, so he sidled up to Hilary, and whispered as the young man was buckling on his sword, the lieutenant having gone below to exchange a shabby cap for his cocked hat, "Let me have your sword a minute, sir, and I'll make it like a razor."
Hilary hesitated for a moment, and then drew it, and held it out to the gunner, who went below, and by the time the young officer had had a good inspection of the lugger, Billy came back with his left thumb trying the edge of the sword.
"I wouldn't be too hard on 'em, sir," he said, with mock respect.
"What do you mean, Billy?"
"Don't take off too many Frenchies' heads, sir; not as they'd know it, with a blade like that."
"Are we gaining on her, Leigh?" said the lieutenant.
"Just a little, sir, I think; but she creeps through the water at an awful rate."
The lieutenant looked up at the white sails, but nothing more could be done, for the Kestrel was flying her best; and the water bubbled and sparkled as she cut her way through, leaving an ever-widening train behind.
There was no chance of more wind, and nothing could be done but to hold steadily on, for, at the end of half an hour, it was plain enough that the distance had been slightly reduced.
"However do they manage to make those luggers sail so fast?" exclaimed the lieutenant impatiently. "Leigh, if this turns out to be another of your mares' nests, you'll be in disgrace."
"Very well, sir," said the young man quietly.
And then to himself: "Better make some mistake than let the real thing slip by."
The arms were not served out, for that would be but a minute's task; but an arm chest was opened ready, and the men stood at their various stations, but in a far more lax and careless way than would have been observed on board a larger vessel, which in its turn would have been in point of discipline far behind a vessel of the present day.
The gulls and kittiwakes rose and fell, uttering their peevish wails; a large shoal of fish fretting the radiant surface of the sea was passed and about a dozen porpoises went right across the cutter's bow, rising and diving down one after the other like so many black water-boys, playing at "Follow my leader;" but the eyes of all on board the Kestrel were fixed upon the dingy looking chasse maree, which apparently still kept on trying hard to escape by its speed.
And now the time, according to Billy Waters' judgment, having come for sending a shot, he stood ready, linstock in hand, watching the lieutenant, whose one eye was gazing intently through the long leather-covered glass.
"Fire!" he said at last. "Well ahead!"
The muzzle of the piece was trained a little more to the right, the linstock was applied, there was a puff of white smoke, a heavy deafening roar; and as Hilary Leigh gazed in the direction of the lugger, he saw the sea splashed a few hundred yards ahead, and then dip, dip, dip, dip, the water was thrown up at intervals as the shot ricochetted, making ducks and drakes right across the bows of the lugger.
"Curse his impudence!" cried the lieutenant, as the men busily sponged out and began to reload Long Tom; for the lugger paid not the slightest heed to the summons, but sailed away.
"Give her another—closer this time," cried the lieutenant; and once more the gun uttered its deep-mouthed roar, and the shot went skipping along the smooth surface of the sea, this time splashing the water a few yards only ahead of the lugger.
"I think that will bring him to his senses," cried the lieutenant, using his glass.
If the lowering of first one and then another sail meant bringing the lugger to its senses, the lieutenant was right, for first one ruddy brown spread of canvas sank with its spar into the lugger, and then another and another, the long low vessel lying passive upon the water, and in due time the cutter was steered close up, her sails flapped, and her boat which had been held ready was lowered, and Leigh with three men jumped in.
"Here, let me go too," exclaimed the lieutenant; "you don't half understand these fellows' French."
Hilary flushed, for he fancied he was a bit of a French scholar, but he said nothing; and the lieutenant jumped into the boat. A few strokes took them to the dingy lugger, at whose side were gathered about a dozen dirty-looking men and boys, for the most part in scarlet worsted caps, blue jerseys, and stiff canvas petticoats, sewn between the legs, to make believe they were trousers.
"Va t'en chien de Francais. Pourquoi de diable n'arretez vous pas?" shouted the lieutenant to a yellow-looking man with whiskerless face, and thin gold rings in his ears.
"I say pourquoi n'arretez vous pas?" roared the lieutenant fiercely.
"I ar'nt a Dutchman. I don't understand. Nichts verstand," shouted the man through his hollow hands, as if he were hailing some one a mile away.
"You scoundrel, why didn't you say you could speak English?"
"You never arkst me," growled the man.
"Silence, sir. How dare you address an officer of a king's ship like that!"
"Then what do you go shooting at me for? King George don't tell you to go firin' guns at peaceable fisher folk, as me."
"Silence, sir, or I'll put you in irons, and take you on board the cutter. Why didn't you obey my signals to heave-to?"
"Signals! I never see no signals."
"How dare you, sir! you know I fired."
"Oh, them! We thought you was practisin', and hauled down till you'd done, for the balls was flying very near."
"Where are you from?"
"From? Nowheres. We been out all night fishing."
"What's your port?"
"And what have you on board? Who are those people?"
Those two people had been seen on the instant by Hilary Leigh, as they sat below the half-deck of the lugger, shrinking from observation in the semi-darkness. He had noticed that, though wearing rough canvas covering similar to those affected by a crew in stormy weather, they were of a different class; and as the lieutenant was in converse with the skipper of the lugger, he climbed over the lowered sail between, and saw that one of the two whom the other tried to screen was quite a young girl.
It was but a momentary glance, for she hastily drew a hood over her face, as she saw that she was noticed.
"Jacobites for a crown!" said Hilary to himself, as he saw a pair of fierce dark eyes fixed upon him.
"Who are you?" he exclaimed.
"Hush, for heaven's sake!" was the answer whispered back; "don't you know me, Leigh? A word from you and they will shoot me like a dog."
At the same moment there was a faint cry, and Hilary saw that the young girl had sunk back, fainting.
A STRICT SEARCH.
"Sir Henry!" ejaculated Hilary Leigh; and for the moment his heart seemed to stand still, for his duties as a king's officer had brought him face to face with a dear old friend, at whose house he had passed some of his happiest days, and he knew that the disguised figure the Jacobite gentleman sought to hide was his only daughter, Adela, Hilary's old playmate and friend, but so grown and changed that he hardly recognised her in the momentary glance he had of her fair young face.
"Hush! silence! Are you mad?" was the reply, in tones that set the young man's heart beating furiously, for he knew that Sir Henry Norland was proscribed for the part he had take in the attempt of the Young Pretender, and Leigh had thought that he was in France.
"Who are they, Mr Leigh?" said the lieutenants striding over the lumber in the bottom of the boat.
"Seems to be an English gentleman, sir," said Leigh, in answer to an agonised appeal from Sir Henry's eyes.
"I am an English gentleman, sir, and this is my daughter. She is very ill."
"Of course she is," cried the lieutenant testily. "Women are sure to be sick if you bring them to sea. But look here, my good fellow, English gentleman or no English gentleman, you can't deceive me. Now then, what have you got on board?"
"Fish, I believe," said Sir Henry.
"Yes, of course," sneered the lieutenant; "and brandy, and silk, and velvet, and lace. Now then, skipper, you are caught this time. But look here, you scoundrel, what do you mean by pretending to be a Frenchman?"
"Frenchman? Frenchman?" said the skipper with a look of extreme stupidity. "You said I was a Dutchman."
"You lie, you scoundrel. Here, come forward and move that sail and those nets. Now no nonsense; set your fellows to work."
He clapped his hand sharply on the skipper's shoulder, and turned him round, following him forward.
"Take a man, Mr Leigh, and search that dog-hole."
Hilary Leigh was astounded, for knowing what he did he expected that the lieutenant would have instantly divined what seemed patent to him—that Sir Henry Norland was trying, for some reason or another, to get back to England, and that although the lugger was commanded by an Englishman, she was undoubtedly a French chasse maree from Saint Malo.
But the lieutenant had got it into his head that he had overhauled a smuggling vessel laden with what would turn into prize-money for himself and men, and the thought that she might be bound on a political errand did not cross his mind.
"I'll search fully," said Leigh; and bidding the sailor with the long pigtail stay where he was, the young officer bent down and crept in under the half-deck just as the fainting girl recovered.
As she caught sight of Hilary she made a snatch at his hand, and in a choking voice exclaimed:
"Oh, Hilary! don't you know me again? Pray, pray save my poor father. Oh, you will not give him up?"
The young man's heart seemed to stand still as the dilemma in which he was placed forced itself upon him. He was in his majesty's service, and in the king's name he ought to have called upon this gentleman, a well-known Jacobite, to surrender, and tell the lieutenant who he was.
On the other hand, if he did this unpleasant duty he would be betraying a dear old companion of his father, a man who had watched his own career with interest and helped him through many a little trouble; and, above all, he would be, as the thought flashed upon him, sending Adela's father—his own old companion's father—to the scaffold.
These thoughts flashed through his mind, and with them recollections of those delightful schoolboy days that he had passed at the Old Manor House, Sir Henry's pleasant home, in Sussex, when boy and girl he and Adela had roamed the woods, boated on the lake, and fished the river hard by.
"No," he muttered between his teeth; "I meant to be a faithful officer to my king; but I'd sooner jump overboard than do such dirty work as that."
There was an angry look in the young girl's eyes; and as Hilary read her thoughts he could not help thinking how bright and beautiful a woman she was growing. He saw that she believed he was hesitating, and there was something scornful in her gaze, an echo, as it were, of that of her grey-haired, careworn father, whose eyebrows even seemed to have turned white, though his dark eyes were fiery as ever.
There was no doubt about it; they believed that he would betray them, and there was something almost of loathing in Adela Norland's face as her hood fell back, and the motion she made to place her hands in her father's brought her head out of the shadow into the bright morning light.
"Thank ye, ma'am," said Hilary in a rough, brisk voice; "I was just going to ask you to move. You'd better come in, Tom Tully, there's a lot of things to move. P'r'aps this gentleman will stand outside."
"Ay, ay, sir," growled Tom Tully, as Hilary darted one meaning look at the proscribed man.
"Look here, sir," continued Hilary, as he heard the lieutenant approaching, "you may just as well save us the trouble by declaring what you have hidden. We are sure to find it."
"Got anything, Mr Leigh?" said the lieutenant briskly.
"Nothing yet, sir. Have you?"
"Not a tub, or a package."
"If you imagine, sir, that this boat is laden with smuggled goods you may save yourselves a great deal of trouble, for there is nothing contraband on board, I feel sure."
"Thank you," said the lieutenant politely, and with a satirical laugh; "but you'd hardly believe it, my dear sir, when I tell you that dozens of skippers and passengers in boats have said the very same thing to me, and whenever that has been the case we have generally made a pretty good haul of smuggled goods. Go on, my lads; I can't leave a corner unsearched."
Sir Henry gave his shoulders a slight shrug, and turned to draw his daughter's hood over her head.
"You'll excuse my child, gentlemen," he said coldly. "She is very weak and ill."
"Oh! of course," said Hilary; "we've searched here, sir; she can lie down again."
Adela uttered a low sigh of relief, and she longed to dart a grateful look at the young officer, but she dared not; and knowing that in place of looking pale and ill a warm flush of excitement was beaming in her cheeks, she hastily drew her hand closer over her face, and let her father place her upon a rough couch of dry nets.
"Heaven bless him!" muttered Sir Henry to himself; "but it was a struggle between friendship and duty, I could see."
Meanwhile the lugger was ransacked from end to end, three more men being called from the cutter for the purpose. Tubs were turned over, spare sails and nets dragged about, planks lifted, bunks and lockers searched, but nothing contraband was found, and all the while the skipper of the lugger and his crew stood staring stupidly at the efforts of the king's men.
"Labour in vain, Leigh," said the lieutenant at last. "Into the boat there. Confound that scoundrel! I wish he was overboard."
The lieutenant did not say what for, but as soon as the men were in the boat he turned to the skipper:
"Look ye here, my fine fellow, you've had a narrow escape."
"Yes," said the man stolidly, "I thought you'd have hit us."
The lieutenant did not condescend to reply, but climbed over the side into the cutter's boat, and motioned to Leigh to follow, which he did, not daring to glance at the passengers.
"Are you quite done, officer?" growled the skipper.
No answer was given, and as the boat reached the side of the cutter the sails of the lugger were being hoisted, and she began to move quickly through the water at once.
"Lay her head to the eastward," said the lieutenant sourly; "and look here, Leigh, don't you rouse me up again for one of your mare's nests, or it will be the—"
"Worse for you," Hilary supposed, but he did not hear the words, for the lieutenant was already down below, and the young officer took the glass and stood watching the lugger rapidly growing distant as the cutter began to feel the breeze.
A curious turmoil of thought was harassing the young man's brain, for he felt that he had been a traitor to the king, whose officer he was, and it seemed to him terrible that he should have broken his faith like this.
But at the same time he felt that he could not have done otherwise, and he stood watching the lugger, and then started, for yes—no—yes—there could be no mistake about it, a white handkerchief was being held over the side, and it was a signal of amity to him.
Quite a couple of hours had passed, and the lugger had for some time been out of sight round the headland astern, when all at once the lieutenant came on deck to where his junior was pacing up and down.
"Why, Leigh," he exclaimed, "I did not think of it then; but we ought to have detained that chasse maree."
"Indeed, sir; why?"
"Ah! of course it would not occur to you, being so young in the service; but depend upon it that fellow was a Jacobite, who had persuaded those dirty-looking scoundrels to bring him across from Saint Malo, or some other French port, and he's going to play spy and work no end of mischief. We've done wrong, Leigh, we've done wrong."
"Think so, sir?"
"Yes, I'm sure of it. I was so intent on finding smuggled goods that I didn't think of it at the time. But, there: it's too late now."
"Yes, sir," said Leigh quietly, "it's too late now."
For he knew that by that time the fugitives must be in Shoreham harbour.
THE LIEUTENANT'S BARGAIN.
Three days of cruising up and down on the lookout for suspicious craft, some of which were boarded, but boarded in vain, for, however suspicious they might appear at a distance, there was nothing to warrant their being detained and taken back into port.
Hilary used to laugh to himself at the impudence of their midge of a cutter firing shots across large merchantmen, bringing them to, and making them wait while the cutter sent a boat on board for their papers to be examined.
It gradually fell to his lot to perform this duty, though if it happened to be a very large vessel Lieutenant Lipscombe would take upon himself to go on board, especially if he fancied that there would be an invitation to a well-kept cabin and a glass of wine, or perhaps a dinner, during which Hilary would be in command, and the cutter would sail on in the big ship's wake till the lieutenant thought proper to come on board.
The men sang songs and tied one another's pigtails; Hilary Leigh fished and caught mackerel, bass, pollack, and sometimes a conger eel, and for a bit of excitement a little of his majesty's powder was blazed away and a cannonball sent skipping along the surface of the water, but that was all.
Hilary used sometimes to own to himself that it was no wonder that Mr Lipscombe, who was a disappointed man, should spend much time in sleeping, and out of sheer imitation he once or twice took to having a nap himself, but twice settled that. He had too much vitality in his composition to sleep at abnormal times.
"Hang it all, Billy Waters," he said one day, after a week's sailing up and down doing nothing more exciting than chasing fishing-luggers and boarding trading brigs and schooners, "I do wish something would turn up."
"If something real don't turn up, sir," said the gunner, "I shall be certain to fire across the bows of a ship, from its always being my habit, sir, and never hit a mark when I want it."
"Here, hi! hail that fishing-boat," he said; "I've fished till I'm tired, and can't catch anything; perhaps we can get something of him."
He pointed to a little boat with a tiny sail, steered by its crew of one man by means of an oar. The boat had been hanging about for some time after pulling off from the shore, and its owner was evidently fishing, but with what result the crew of the cutter could not tell.
"He don't want no hailing, sir; he's hailing of us," said Billy.
It was plain enough that the man was manoeuvring his cockleshell about, so as to get the cutter between it and the shore, and with pleasant visions in his mind of a lobster, crab, or some other fish to vary the monotony of the salt beef and pork, of which they had, in Hilary's thinking, far too much, he leaned over the side till the man allowed his boat to drift close up.
"Heave us a rope," he said. "Got any fish?"
"Yes. I want to see the captain."
"You'll see. I want the captain. Are you him?"
"No; he's down below."
"I want to see him. May I come aboard?"
"If you like," said Hilary; and the man climbed over the side.
He was a lithe, sunburnt fellow, and after looking at him for a few moments with a vague kind of feeling that he had seen him before, Hilary sent a message below, and Mr Lipscombe came up with his hand before his mouth to hide a yawn.
"Are you the captain?" said the man.
"I command this ship, fellow. What is it?"
"What'll you give me, captain, if I take you to a cove where they're going to run a cargo to-night?"
"Wait and see, my man. You take us there and you shall be rewarded."
"No, no," said the man laughing; "that won't do, captain. I'm not going to risk my life for a chance of what you'll give. I want a hundred pounds."
"Rubbish, man! Ten shillings," said Lipscombe sharply.
"I want a hundred pounds," said the man. "That there cargo's going to be worth two thousand pounds, and it's coming in a fast large French schooner from Havre. I want a hundred pounds, or I don't say a word."
A cargo worth two thousand pounds, and a smart French schooner! That would be a prize indeed, and it made the lieutenant's mouth water; but he still hesitated, for a hundred pounds was a good deal, perhaps more than his share would be. But still if he did not promise it they might miss the schooner altogether, for in spite of his vigilance he knew that cargoes were being run; so he gave way.
"Very well then, you shall have your hundred pounds."
"Not likely. Earn your wages first."
"And then suppose you say you won't pay me? What shall I do?"
"I give you my word of honour as a king's officer, sir."
The man shook his head.
"Write it down," he said with all the low cunning of his class. The lieutenant was about to make an angry reply, but he wanted to take that prize, so he went below and wrote out and signed a memorandum to the effect that if, by the informer's guidance, the French schooner was taken, he should be paid one hundred pounds.
Lipscombe returned on deck and handed the paper to the fisherman, who took it and held it upside down, studying it attentively.
"Now you read it," he said to Hilary; who took it, and read it aloud.
"Yes," said the fellow, "that's it. Now you sign it."
Hilary glanced at his superior, who frowned and nodded his head; and the young man went below and added his signature.
"That'll do," said the man smiling. "Now look here, captain, as soon as I'm gone you sail right off out of sight if you can, and get her lying off the point by about ten o'clock—two bells, or whatever it is. Then you wait till a small lugger comes creeping off slowly, as if it was going out for the night with the drift-nets. I and my mates will be aboard that lugger, and they'll drop down alongside and put me aboard, and I'll pilot you just to the place where you can lie in the cove out of sight till the schooner comes in. If I come in my little boat the boys on shore would make signals, and the schooner would keep off, but if they see us go as usual out in our lugger they'll pay no heed. But don't you come in a bit nigher than this. Now I'm off!"
Lieutenant Lipscombe stood thinking for a few minutes after the man had gone, stealing over the side of the cutter farthest from the shore, so that when his boat drifted by it was not likely that his visit on board would have been seen.
Then turning to Hilary:
"What do you think of it, Leigh?"
"It may be a ruse to get us away."
"Yes, it may be, but I don't think it is. 'Bout ship, there!" he shouted; and the great boom of the mainsail slowly swung round, and they sailed nearly out of sight of land by sundown, when the helm was once more rammed down hard, the cutter careened round in a half circle, and as the white wings were swelling, they made once more for the coast.
It was about nine o'clock of a deliciously soft night, and the moist sweet air that came off the shore was sweetly fragrant of flowers and new-mown hay. The night was cloudy, and very dusky for the time of year, a fact so much in their favour, and with the watch on the alert, for the lieutenant would not call the men to quarters in case the informer did not come, he and Hilary leaned over the side, gazing at the scattered lights that twinkled on the shore.
An hour and a half had passed away, and the time, which a church clock ashore had struck, ten, seemed to have far exceeded this hour, when, as they all watched the mist which hung between them and the invisible shore, a light was suddenly seen to come as it were out of a bank of fog, and glide slowly towards them, but as if to go astern.
The cutter had a small lamp hoisted to the little masthead, and the lieutenant knew that this would be sufficient signal of their whereabouts, and so it proved, for the gliding light came nearer and nearer, and soon after a voice they both recognised hailed them.
The light came on nearer and nearer, and at last they could dimly make out the half-hoisted sails of a small fishing lugger, which was run cleverly enough close alongside, her occupants holding on by boathooks.
"Mind what you are doing there," cried the lieutenant sharply; "jump aboard, my man."
"All right, captain."
"Go down and get my sword, Leigh," whispered the lieutenant; "and put on your own."
It was as if just then an idea had occurred to him that there might be treachery, and the thought seemed to be communicated to Hilary, who ran down below, caught up the two swords from the hooks where they hung upon the bulkhead, and was on his way up, when the lieutenant came down upon him with a crash, there was the rattling on of the hatch, the trampling of feet, and a short scuffle, and as Hilary leaped over his prostrate officer, and, sword in hand, dashed up at the hatch, it was to find it fastened, for they had been cleverly trapped, and without doubt the cutter was in the smuggler's hands.
Hilary Leigh was only a boy, and he acted boyishly at that moment, for in his rage and mortification he first of all struck at the hatch with his fist, and then shouted to the people on deck.
"Here, hi! you sirs, open this hatch directly."
But as he shouted he knew that his order was absurd, and tucking the lieutenant's sword under his arm he buckled on his own before leaping down to where his leader lay.
"Are you much hurt, sir?" he asked; but there was no answer.
"I've got a orfle whack side o' the head, sir," growled Tom Tully.
"So've I, sir," said another man.
"Serve you right too, for not keeping a good lookout," cried Hilary savagely; "here, it's disgraceful! A king's ship taken by a set of smuggling rascals. Look alive, there, my lads. Here, you marines, be smart. Where's Billy Waters?"
"Here, sir," cried that worthy.
"Serve out the arms smart, my man. Two of you carry the lieutenant into the cabin. Steady there! He isn't dead."
For two of the men had been seen, by the dim light of a horn lantern, to seize their commanding officer in the most unceremonious way, to lug him into the cabin.
By this time the 'tween decks of the cutter was alive with dimly-seen figures, for in a vessel of this description the space devoted in a peaceful vessel to the storage of cargo was utilised for the convenience of the comparatively large crew.
"Heave those hammocks out of the way," cried Hilary next; and this being done, he stood there with twenty well-armed men awaiting his next orders—orders which he did not give, for the simple reason that he did not know what to do.
It was a ticklish position for a lad of his years, to find himself suddenly in command of a score of fighting men, one and all excited and ready for the fray, as, schooled by drill and discipline, they formed themselves into a machine which he was to set in motion; but how, when, and where?
There was the rub, and in the midst of a dead silence Hilary listened to the trampling of feet overhead.
It was a curious scene—the gloomy 'tween decks of the cutter, with the group of eager men standing about awaiting their young officer's orders, their rough, weatherbeaten faces looking fierce in the shadowy twilight, for the lanterns swinging fore and aft only seemed to make darkness visible; and as the trampling went on, evidently that of men wearing heavy fisher-boots, the steps were within a few inches of the heads of the crew.
"Pair o' pistols, sir," said a low, gruff voice; and Hilary started, for the gunner had come up quite silently. "Shall I shove 'em in your belt, sir?"
"Yes," said Hilary sharply; and the gunner thrust the barrels of the two heavy, clumsy weapons into the young officer's sword-belt, where they stuck in a most inconvenient way.
"Both loaded, sir, and cocked," said the gunner quietly. Hilary nodded, and stood thinking.
It was an awkward time for quiet thought, for he knew that the men were anxiously awaiting some order; but, for the reasons above given, no order came, and the force of his position came with crushing violence upon the young officer's head.
He knew that the lieutenant was to blame for not being prepared for an attack, however little it might be anticipated; but at the same time he would have to share the lieutenant's disgrace as second officer—the disgrace of a well manned and armed king's ship falling into the hands of a pack of smugglers.
He knew, too, that if he had proposed taking precautions, Lieutenant Lipscombe would have laughed at him, and refused to take his advice; but he would have felt more at rest if he had made the suggestion.
But the mishap had happened, and according to the old proverb it was of no use to cry over spilt milk. What he felt he had to do now was to find a cow and get some more.
By the sounds on deck it was evident that the cutter had been seized by quite a strong party, and it was no less certain that they would not have made so desperate a move if they had not some particular venture on the way. What Hilary felt then was that he must not only turn the tables on the attacking party, but try and make a valuable capture as well.
He could not answer the question, but as he tried to solve the difficulty the feeling was strong upon him—could he manage to do this before the lieutenant recovered?
The excitement produced by this idea was such that it drove away all thoughts of peril and danger, and he could think of nothing but the dash and daring of such an exploit.
As he thought, his hand gripped the hilt of his sword more tightly, and he whispered an order to the men:
The crew eagerly pressed up to him, and he spoke.
"We've got to wipe out a disgrace, my lads—hush! don't cheer, let them think we are doing nothing."
"Ay, ay, sir," came in a low growl.
"I say, my lads, we've got to wipe out a disgrace, and the sooner the better. One hour ought to be enough to get on deck and drive these scoundrels either overboard or below. Then I think there'll be some prize-money to be earned, for they are sure to be running a cargo to-night. Silence! No cheering. Now then, to work. Waters, how are we to get up the hatch?"
"Powder, sir," said the gunner laconically.
"And blow ourselves to pieces."
"No, sir, I think I can build up a pile of hammocks and fire half-a-dozen cartridges atop of it, and blow the hatch off without hurting us much below."
"Try it," said Hilary shortly. "You marines, come aft into the cabin and we'll get the ventilators open; you can fire through there."
The four marines and their corporal marched into the cabin, where a couple kneeled upon the little table, and two more stood ready to cover them, when the folly of attempting to blow off the hatch became apparent to Hilary; for he saw that he would do more harm to his own men than would warrant the attempt.
"Get axes," he said.
This was done, and the gunner brought out a long iron bar used in shifting the long gun, but he muttered a protest the while that there was nothing like the powder.
"Silence there," cried Hilary. "Waters, pass that bar to Tully, and you with your men go forward and keep the fore-hatch. If they open it and try to come down to take us in the rear when we begin to break through here, up with you and gain the deck at all costs. You understand?"
"Ay, ay, sir."
"I'll send you help if you get the hatch open. Go on!"
The gunner and half-a-dozen men went forward and stood ready, while at a sign from the young officer the dimly-seen figure of Tom Tully took a couple of steps up the cabin-ladder, and there he stood with the bar poised in his bare arms ready to make his first attack upon the wooden cover as soon as the order reached his ears.
Just then a rattling noise was heard, and the hatch was evidently about to be removed. The next moment it was off, and the light of a lantern flashed down, showing that half-a-dozen musket barrels had been thrust into the opening, while about them flashed the blades of as many swords.
There was a dead silence below, for Hilary and his men were taken by surprise, and though the hatch was now open there was such a terrible display of weapons in the opening that an attempt to rush up seemed madness.
"Below there!" cried a harsh voice; "surrender, or we fire."
"Is Hilary Leigh there?" cried another voice, one which made the young man start as he recognised that of Sir Harry Norland.
"Yes, sir, I am here," he said after a moment's pause.
"Tell your men to surrender quietly, Mr Leigh, and if they give their word not to attempt rescue or escape they will have two of the cutter's boats given to them, and they can row ashore."
"And what about the cutter, Sir Henry?" said Hilary quietly.
"She is our lawful prize," was the reply.
"And no mistake," said the rough, harsh voice, which Hilary recognised now as that of the apparently stupid skipper of the chasse maree.
"Come up first, Mr Leigh," said Sir Henry; "but leave your arms below. I give you my word that you shall not be hurt."
"I cannot give you my word that you will not be hurt, Sir Henry, if you do not keep out of danger," cried Hilary. "We are all coming on deck, cutlass in one hand, pistol in the other. Now, my lads! Forward!"
Madness or no madness he made a dash, and at the same moment Tom Tully struck upwards with his iron bar, sweeping aside the presented muskets, half of which were fired with the effect that their bullets were buried in the woodwork round the hatch.
What took place during those next few moments Hilary did not know, only that he made a spring to mount the cabin-ladder and got nearly out at the hatch, but as Tom Tully and another man sprang forward at the same moment they hindered one another, when there was a few moments' interval of fierce struggling, the sound of oaths and blows, a few shots were fired by the marines through the cabin skylight, and then Hilary found himself lying on the lower deck under Tom Tully, listening to the banging down of the cabin-hatch.
"Are you much hurt, sir?" said one of the men.
"Don't know yet," said Hilary, as Tully was dragged off him. "Confound the brutes! I'll serve them out for this. Is any one killed?"
"I ain't," growled Tom Tully, with his hand to the back of his head. "But that there slash went half through my tail, and I've got one on the cheek."
Tom Tully's wound on the cheek proved to be quite a slight cut, and the other man was only stunned, but the injury to his pigtail was more than he could bear.
"Of all the cowardly games as ever I did come acrost," he growled, "this here's 'bout the worst. Think o' trying to cut off a sailor's pigtail! It's worse than mutiny!"
"Hold your tongue, you stupid fellow!" cried Hilary, who could not help feeling amused even then. "Why, don't you see that your tail has saved your head?"
"Who wanted his head saved that way?" growled Tom Tully. "It's cowardly, that's what it is! I don't call it fair fighting to hit a man behind."
"Silence!" exclaimed Hilary; and as the trampling went on overhead he tried to make out what the enemy were doing.
He was startled to find Sir Henry on board, but though he looked upon him as a friend, he felt no compunction now in meeting him as an enemy who must take his chance. Betraying him when a fugitive was one thing, dealing with him as one of a party making an attack upon a king's ship another.
A chill of dread ran through him for a moment as he thought of the possibility of Sir Henry's daughter being his companion, but a second thought made him feel assured that she could not be present at a time like this.
"And Sir Henry would only think me a contemptible traitor if I surrendered," he said to himself; and then he began to make fresh plans.
He stepped into the cabin for a moment or two, to find that the lieutenant was lying in his bed place, perfectly insensible, while the marines, with their pieces in hand, were waiting fresh orders.
The difficulty was to give those orders, and turn which way he would there was a pair of eyes fixed upon him.
He had never before understood the responsibility of a commanding officer in a time of emergency, and how great a call there would be upon him for help, guidance, and protection. One thing, however, he kept before his eyes, and that was the idea that he must retake the cutter, and how to do it with the least loss of life was the problem to be solved.
In his extremity he called a council of war under the big lantern, with Billy Waters, the corporal of marines, and the boatswain for counsellors, and took their opinions.
"Well, sir, if it was me in command I should do as I said afore," said Billy Waters cheerfully. "A lot o' powder would rift that there cabin-hatch right off; and them as guards it."
"Yes, and kill the lieutenant and half the men below," said Hilary. "What do you say, corporal?"
"I think bayonets is the best things, sir," replied the corporal.
"Yes," exclaimed Hilary, "if you've got a chance to use them. What do you say, bo'sun?"
"Well, your honour, it seems as how we shall get into no end of a pickle if we let these here smugglers capter the Kestrel, so I think we'd best go below and scuttle her. It wouldn't take long."
"Well, but, my good fellow, don't you see that we should be scuttling ourselves too?" cried Hilary.
"Oh! no, sir, I don't mean scuttle ourselves. I only mean the cutter. She'd soon fill. We'd go off in the boats."
The boatswain did not seem to have taken this into consideration at all, but stood scratching his head till he scratched out a bright thought.
"Couldn't we let them on deck know as we're going to scuttle her, sir, and then they'd sheer off, and as soon as they'd sheered off we wouldn't scuttle her, but only go up and take possession."
"Now, Jack Brown, how can you be such a fool?" cried Hilary, impatiently. "They're sharp smugglers who have seized the Kestrel, and not a pack of babies. Can't you suggest something better than that?"
"Well, sir, let's scuttle her, and let them know as she's sinking, and as soon as they've sheered off stop the leaks."
"Oh! you great bullet-head," cried Hilary angrily. "How could we?"
"Very sorry, sir," growled the man humbly; "I don't know, sir. I can trim and bend on sails, and overhaul the rigging as well as most bo'suns, sir, but I never did have no head for figgers."
"Figures!" cried Hilary, impatiently. "There, that'll do. Hark! What are they doing on deck?"
"Seems to me as if they're getting all sail set," growled the boatswain.
"And they'll run us over to the coast of France," cried Hilary excitedly. "We shall be prisoners indeed."
He drew his breath in between his teeth, and stamped on the deck in his impotent rage.
"There!" he said, at last, as the crew stood impatiently awaiting the result of their consultation. "It's of no use for me to bully you, my lads, for not giving me ideas, when I can find none myself. You are all right. We'll try all your plans, for the scoundrels must never sail the Kestrel into a French port with us on board. Waters, we'll blow up the hatchway—but the fore-hatchway, not the cabin. Corporal, you and your lads shall give them a charge with bayonets. And lastly, if both these plans fail Jack Brown and the carpenter shall scuttle the little cutter; we may perhaps save our lives in the confusion."
It was a sight to see the satisfied grin that shone out on each of the rough fellows' faces, upon finding that their ideas were taken. It was as if each had grown taller, and they smiled at each other and at the young officer in a most satisfied way. Hilary did not know it; but that stroke of involuntary policy on his part had raised him enormously in the estimation of the crew; and the little council being dissolved, it was wonderful with what alacrity they set to work.
For the gunner's plan was at once adopted, and in perfect silence a bed of chests was raised up close beneath the fore-hatchway, whose ladder was cautiously removed. On this pile were placed hammocks, and again upon these short planks, so that the flat surface was close up to the square opening that led from the forecastle on deck.
"You see, sir, the charge won't leave much room to strike sidewise," said the gunner, as he helped to get all ready, ending by emptying the bags of powder that formed four charges for the long gun. These he rolled up in a handkerchief, tied it pretty tightly, and before putting it in place he made a hole in it, so that some of the powder would trickle out on to the smooth plank.
This being done, he laid a train from it to the end of the plank, made a slow-match with some wet powder and a piece of paper, and finished by raising the planks by stuffing blankets under them at Hilary's suggestion, till the powder charge was right up in the opening of the hatch, surrounded by the coamings, and the planks rested up against the deck.
"If that there don't fetch 'im off, I'm a Dutchman," said Billy Waters. "Here, just you keep that there lantern back, will you," he cried to the corporal of marines; "we don't want her fired before her time."
"Yes, that will do," cried Hilary. "There, stand by, my lads, and the moment the charge is fired make a dash for it with the ladder, and up and clear the deck whether I lead you or no."
There was something in those words that the men could not then understand, but they did as the gunner declared all to be ready.
"Hush! silence, my lads," cried Hilary. "Away aft, and all lie down. Now, Waters, give me the lantern."
"I'll fire the train, sir. I'm gunner," said the man.
"No, no," replied Hilary, "that is my task."
"But, if you please, sir, you might get hit, and then—"
"Silence, sir! I'll fire the train," cried Hilary, sternly. "Away aft with the men; and look, Mr Waters, my good fellow, if I go down I trust to you to retake the cutter."
"All right, sir," said the gunner. "Well, sir, if you will do it, here's my last words: open your lantern and just touch the end of the paper, then close and run aft. One touch does it; so go on, and good luck to you!"
The young officer nodded and took the lantern, while the gunner joined the men as far aft as they could go. There was something very strange and unreal to him as he took a couple of steps or so forward, and listened to the noise of men above, hesitating for the moment as he thought of the life he was about to destroy, and mentally praying that Sir Harry Norland might not be near. Then duty reasserted itself, and, not knowing whether he might not be about to destroy the vessel, and with it his own life, he slowly opened the door of the lantern.
What was it to be—life and liberty, or death and destruction? He could not say, but feeling that he ought to stick at nothing to try and retake the cutter, he held the flame of the wretched purser's dip in the lantern to the powder-besmeared paper, and there was on the instant an answering burst of tiny sparks.
A MISSING ENEMY.
As the slow-match began to sputter Hilary drew back, closed the door of the lantern, and walked backwards aft, towards where the men were gathered. The desire was strong upon him to run and rush right into the far corner of the cabin; but he was a king's officer, and the men looked up to him for example, so he told himself that he could not show the white feather.
Fortunately he was able to keep up his dignity and retreat in safety to where the men were crouching down, and, joining them, he too assumed a reclining position upon the deck, and watched the sparkling of the piece of paper in the darkness of the forepart of the cutter.
Sparkle, sparkle, sparkle, with plenty of scintillation; like some little firework made for their amusement, but no sign of the train being fired.
On deck there was an ominous silence, as if the smugglers had received warning of the coming danger, and they too were watching for the explosion.
More sparkling and more bright flashes of light, and yet the train did not catch. Never had moments seemed to Hilary so long before, and he felt sure that the slow-match had not been connected with the train, as it must have fired before now.
Then as he waited he wondered what would be the effect of the explosion, and whether it would do more harm than blow off the hatch. He hoped not, for Sir Henry's sake; and there were moments during that terribly lengthy time of watching when he hoped that after all the plan had failed, for it seemed too terrible, and he would gladly have run forward and dashed the light aside.
They were lightning like, these thoughts, for it really was but a question of very few moments before there was a flash, a hissing noise, a bright light, and then it was as though they had all been struck a violent blow with something exceedingly soft and elastic, and at the same moment there was a dull heavy roar.
Simultaneously the lower deck was filled with the foul dank choking fumes of exploded gunpowder, the thick smoke was blinding, and the men crouched in their places for the moment forgetful of their orders till they heard the voice of Hilary Leigh shouting to them to come on, and they leaped to their feet and followed.
It was a case of blindman's-buff; but the quarters below were narrow, and after a little blundering the two men who had charge of the ladder forced aside some of the heap of chests, hammocks and planks, placed the steps in position, and, sword in one hand, pistol in the other, the young officer sprang up. The gunner followed, and in less than a minute the whole crew were over the shattered coamings of the hatchway and on deck, ready to encounter the enemy.
The change from the stifling fumes below to the soft night-air was delightful, and the men leaped along the deck after their young leader, their cutlasses flashing in the faint light cast by the lanterns swung aloft and astern; but no enemy was to be seen.
They dashed aft right to the taffrail, and back along the starboard side, and away to the bowsprit; but the deck was without an enemy.
"Why, they're gone!" cried Hilary, in astonishment, as he now realised the meaning of the silence over his head when he was awaiting the explosion. "Here, hi! Waters, Brown, what does this mean? Quick! go to the helm, Brown!" he shouted; "we're going through the water at an awful pace. Quick! quick! down—down hard!" he roared. But it was too late; the wheel was lashed, and before the slightest effort could be made to check the cutter's way, she glided, with heavy sail set, over half a dozen long rollers, and then seemed to leap upon the beach, which she struck with so heavy a thud that the little vessel shuddered from stem to stern, and pretty well the whole crew were thrown upon the deck.
The causes of the enemy forsaking the cutter were plain enough now. They did not want her, and if they did it would have been without the crew, who would have been a cause of risk and trouble to them. If they could put her hors de combat it would do just as well, and to this end all the sail had been hoisted and sheeted home, the wheel lashed, and with the unfortunate cutter running dead for the beach the party who had seized her had quietly gone over the side while Hilary and his men were plotting their destruction, and knowing full well they had nothing to fear till next tide floated her off—if ever she floated again—they proceeded to carry out their plans.
The men struggled to their feet once more as the great sail flapped, while a wave that seemed bent on chasing them struck below the cutter's taffrail, and the spray leaped on board.
Fortunately for them it was calm and the tide fast falling, or the gallant little Kestrel would have flown her last flight. As it was, it was open to doubt whether she would ever spread her long wings again to skim the sea, for the rising tide might bring with it a gale, and before she could be got off her timbers might be torn into matchwood.
It was a rapid change from danger to danger. But a few minutes back they risked sinking the vessel by the explosion of gunpowder, believing her to be in the hands of the enemy who had cleverly compassed her defeat, and now they were cast ashore.
Hilary Leigh was seaman enough, however, to know what to do without consulting the boatswain, and giving his orders rapidly he stopped the heeling over and beating of the Kestrel upon the sand by relieving her of her sail, in the midst of which he was startled by the voice of Mr Lipscombe.
"Good heavens, Mr Leigh!" he exclaimed, angrily, "what does this mean? I go and lie down for a few minutes, leaving you in charge of the cutter, and I come up and find her ashore. Brown, Waters! where are you, men? Have you been mad, asleep, or drunk? Oh, my head! Good gracious, why, what's this—blood?"
He staggered, and seemed about to fall, but Hilary caught his arm.
"I am glad to see you better, sir," he cried; "but had you not better lie down?"
"Better?" he said—"better?"
"Yes, sir; don't you remember?"
"Remember? Remember?" he said, staring.
"Yes, sir, the smugglers; they knocked us down and took possession of the ship."
"Yes, of course, yes," said the lieutenant eagerly. "I remember now. Of course, yes, Leigh. But—but where are they now?"
"That's just what I should like to know, sir," said Leigh, sharply; "we've got rid of them, but they ran the little Kestrel ashore."
Fortunately for the little Kestrel the morning breeze was soft and the sea as smooth as a mirror, and all the crew had to do was to await the tide to float them off from where they were lying high and dry, with the keel driven so deeply in the sand that the cutter hardly needed a support, and the opportunity served for examining the bottom to see if any injury had been sustained.
Lieutenant Lipscombe appeared with a broad bandage round his head, for his head had been severely cut in his fall, and the pain he suffered did not improve his already sore temper.
For though he said nothing, Hilary Leigh could see plainly enough that his officer was bitterly annoyed at having been mastered in cunning and so nearly losing his ship. He knew that to go into port to repair damages meant so close an investigation that the result might be the loss of his command. So, after an examination of the injuries, which showed that the whole of the coamings of the hatchway were blown off and the deck terribly blackened with powder, the carpenter and his mate were set to work to cut out and piece in as busily as possible.
"Nothing to go into port for, Leigh, nothing at all. The men will soon put that right; but it was very badly managed, Leigh, very. Half that quantity of powder would have done; the rest was all waste. Hang it all! what could you have been thinking about? Here am I disabled for a few minutes, and you let a parcel of scoundrels seize the cutter and run her ashore, and then, with the idea of retaking her, you go and blow up half the deck! My good fellow, you will never make a decent officer if you go on like this."
"Well, that's grateful, certainly," thought Hilary; and the desire came upon him strongly to burst out into a hearty laugh, but he suppressed it and said quietly:
"Very sorry, sir; I tried to do all for the best."
"Yes; that's what every weak-headed noodle says when he has made a blunder. Well, Leigh, it is fortunate for you that I was sufficiently recovered to resume the command; but of all the pickles which one of his majesty's ships could be got into, this is about the worst. Here we are as helpless as a turned turtle on a Florida sandspit."
"Well, sir, not quite," replied Hilary smiling; "we've got our guns, and the crew would give good account of—"
"Silence, sir! This is no laughing matter," cried the lieutenant angrily. "It may seem very droll to you, but if I embody your conduct of the past night in a despatch your chance of promotion is gone for ever."
Hilary stared, but he had common sense enough to say nothing, while the lieutenant took a turn up and down the deck, which would have been a very pleasant promenade for a cripple with one leg shorter than the other; but as the cutter was a good deal heeled over, it was so unpleasant for Lieutenant Lipscombe, already suffering from giddiness, the result of his wound, that he stopped short and stood holding on by a stay.
"Most extraordinary thing," he said; "my head is always perfectly clear in the roughest seas, but ashore I turn as giddy as can be. But there; don't stand staring about, Leigh. Take half-a-dozen men and make a bit of search up and down the coast. See if you can find any traces of the smuggling party. If you had had any thought in you such a thing might have been proposed at daybreak. It will be hours before we float."
"Yes, sir, certainly," exclaimed Leigh, rather excitedly, for he was delighted with the idea. "Shall I arm the men, sir?"
"Arm the men, sir! Oh, no: of course not. Let every man carry a swab, and a spoon stuck in his belt. Goodness me, Mr Leigh, where are your brains? You are going to track out a parcel of desperadoes, and you ask me if you shall take the men armed."
"Very sorry, sir," said Hilary. "I'll try and do better. You see I am so sadly wanting in experience."
The lieutenant looked at him sharply, but Hilary's face was as calm and unruffled as the sea behind him, and not finding any chance for a reprimand, the lieutenant merely made a sign to him to go, walking forward himself to hurry on the carpenter, and then repassing Hilary and going below to his cabin.
"Skipper's got his legs acrost this mornin', sir," said Billy Waters, touching his hat. "Hope you'll take me with you, sir."
"I should like to have you, Waters, and Tom Tully. By the way, how is he this morning? He got hurt."
"Oh, he's all right, sir," said the gunner grinning. "He got a knock, sir, but he didn't get hurt. Nothin' hurts old Tom. I don't believe he's got any feeling in him at all."
"Now, if I propose to take them," thought Hilary, "Lipscombe will say they sha'n't go. Here he comes, though. I shall catch it for not being off."
He made a run and dropped down through the damaged hatchway, alighting amidst the carpenter's tools on the lower deck, ran aft to his cabin, obtained sword and pistols, and then mounted to the deck to find the lieutenant angrily addressing Waters and Tully.
For no sooner had Hilary disappeared, and the gunner made out that the chief officer was coming on deck, than he turned his back, busied himself about the breeching of one of the guns, and shouting to Tom Tully:
"Going to send you ashore, matey?"
"No," growled Tully; "what's on?"
"Oh! some wild-goose hunt o' the skipper's. I don't mean to go, and don't you if you can help it. There won't be a place to get a drop o' grog. All searching among the rocks."
"Yes, your honour."
Billy Waters' pigtail swung round like a pump-handle, as he lumped up and pulled his forelock to his angry officer.
"How dare you speak like that, sir, on the deck of his majesty's vessel? How dare you—you mutinous dog, you? Go forward, sir, and you, too, Tom Tully, and the cutter's crew, under the command of Mr Leigh, and think yourself lucky if you are not put under punishment."
"Very sorry, sir. Humbly beg pardon, sir," stammered the gunner.
"Silence, sir! Forward! Serve out cutlasses and pistols to the men, and I'll talk to you afterwards."
Billy Waters chuckled to himself at the success of his scheme, and after a word or two of command, Hilary's little party, instead of jumping into the cutter and rowing ashore, dropped down over the side on to the sands, and went off along the coast to the west.
"What's going to be done first, sir?" said the gunner.
"Well, Waters, I've just been thinking that we ought first to try and find some traces of the boats."
"Yes, sir; but how? They're fur enough away by now."
"Of course; but if we look along the shore here about the level that the tide was last night I daresay we shall find some traces of them in the sands, and that may give us a hint where to search inland, for I'll be bound to say they were landing cargo somewhere."
"I'll be bound to say you're right, sir," said Waters, slapping his leg. "Spread out, my lads, and report the first mark of a boat's keel."
They tramped on quite five miles over the sand and shingle, and amidst the loose rocks, without seeing anything to take their attention, when suddenly one of the men some fifty yards ahead gave a hail.
"What is it, my lad?" cried Hilary, running up.
"Only this here, sir," said the man, pointing to a long narrow groove in the sand, just such as might have been made by the keel of some large boat, whilst a closer inspection showed that the sand and shingle had been trampled by many feet.
"Yes, that's a boat, certainly," said Hilary, looking shorewards towards the cliffs, which rose like a vast ramp along that portion of the coast.
There was nothing to be seen there; neither inlet nor opening in the rock, nor depression in the vast line of cliffs. Why, then, should a boat be run ashore there? It looked suspicious. Nothing but a fishing lugger would be likely to be about, and no fishing lugger would have any reason for running ashore here. Except at certain times of the tide it would be dangerous.
"It's the smugglers, Billy," cried Hilary eagerly; "and there must be some way here up the rock. Hallo! what have you got there?" he exclaimed, as the gunner, true to his instinct, dropped upon his knees and scraped the sand away from something against which he had kicked his foot.
"Pistol, sir," was the reply; and the gunner brushed the sand off the large clumsy weapon, and wiped away the thin film of rust.
"And a Frenchman," said Hilary, examining the make.
"Frenchman it is, sir, and she ar'n't been many hours lying here."
"Dropped by some one last night," said Hilary. "Hurrah! my lads, we've struck the scent."
Just then Tom Tully began to sniff very loudly, and turned his head in various directions, his actions somewhat resembling those of a great dog.
"What yer up to, matey?" cried Waters. "Ah! I know, sir. He was always a wunner after his grog, and he's trying to make out whether they've landed and buried any kegs of brandy here."
"Oh, nonsense!" cried Hilary; "they would not do that. Come along, my lads. One moment. Let's have a good look along the rocks for an opening. Can any of you see anything?"
"No, sir," was chorused, after a few minutes' inspection.
"Then now let's make a straight line for the cliff, and all of you keep a bright lookout."
They had about a couple of hundred yards to go, for the tide ran down very low at this point, and as they approached the great sandstone cliffs, instead of presenting the appearance of a perpendicular wall, as seen from a distance, all was broken up where the rock had split, and huge masses had come thundering down in avalanches of stone. In fact, in several places it seemed that an active man could climb up to where a thin fringe of green turf rested upon the edge of the cliff; but this did not satisfy Hilary, who felt convinced that such a place was not likely to be chosen for the landing of a cargo.
No opening in the cliff being visible, he spread his men to search right and left, but there was no sand here; all was rough shingle and broken debris from the cliff with massive weathered blocks standing up in all directions, forming quite a maze, through which they threaded their way.
"There might be a regular cavern about somewhere big enough to hold a dozen cargoes," thought Hilary, as he searched here and there, and then sat down to rest for a few minutes, and wiped the perspiration from his forehead, when it suddenly occurred to him that they had been hours away from the cutter, and that if he did not soon make some discovery he had better return.
"And I don't like to go back without having done something," he thought. "Perhaps if we keep on looking we may make a find worth the trouble, and—what's that?"
Nothing much; only a little bird that kept rising up from a patch of wiry herbage at the foot of the cliff, jerking itself up some twenty or thirty feet and then letting itself down as it twittered out a pleasant little song.
Only a bird; but as he watched that bird, he did not know why, it suddenly went out of sight some twenty feet or so up the rock, and while he was wondering it came into sight again and fluttered downwards.
"Why, there must be a way through there," he cried, rising and gazing intently at the face of the rock, but seeing nothing but yellowish sandstone looking jagged and wild.
"No, there can't be," he muttered; "but I'll make sure."
Climbing over three or four large blocks, he lowered himself into a narrow passage which seemed to run parallel with the cliff, but doubled back directly, and in and out, and then stopped short at a perpendicular mass some twenty feet high.
"Leads nowhere," he said, feeling very hot and tired, and, turning to go back disappointed and panting, he took another look up at the lowering face of the cliff to see now that a large portion was apparently split away, but remained standing overlapping the main portion, and so like it that at a short distance the fracture could not be seen.
"There's a way round there for a guinea," thought Hilary, "but how to get there? Why, of course, one must climb over here."
"Here" was a rugged piece of rock about fifty feet back from the cul de sac to which he had reached, and placing his right foot in a chink and drawing himself up he was soon on the top with a rugged track before him to the face of the cliff; but as he took a step forward, meaning to investigate a little, and then summon his men, a low chirping noise on his right took his attention, and going cautiously forward he leaned towards a rock to see what animal it was, when something came like a black cloud over his head and he was thrown violently down.
HILARY LEIGH FINDS HIMSELF IN AN UNDIGNIFIED POSITION.
"That's a boat-cloak, and the brute's sitting on me," said Hilary Leigh to himself as he vainly struggled to get free and shout for help. He did utter a few inarticulate noises, but they were smothered in the folds of the thick cloak, and he felt as if he were about to be smothered himself. Getting free he soon found was out of the question, so was making use of the weapons with which he was armed, for his wrists were wrenched round behind his back and his elbows firmly lashed. So were his ankles, and at the same time he felt the pistols dragged out of his belt and his sword unhooked and taken away.
"Well, I've discovered the smugglers' place and no mistake," he thought; "but I might just as well have left it alone. Oh, this is too bad! Only last night in trouble, and now prisoner! I wonder what they are going to do?"
He was not long left in doubt, for he suddenly felt himself roughly seized and treated like a sack, for he was hauled on to some one's back and borne along in a very uncomfortable position, his legs being banged against corners of the rock as if he were being carried through a very narrow place.
This went on for a few minutes, during which he was, of course, in utter darkness, and panting for breath. Then he was allowed to slide down, with a bump, on to the rock.
"They're not going to kill me," thought Hilary, "or they would not have taken so much trouble. I wish I could make Billy Waters hear."
He tried to shout, but only produced a smothered noise, with the result that some one kicked him in the side.
"That's only lent, my friend," thought Hilary. "It shall be paid back if ever I get a chance. What now? I am trussed; are they going to roast me?"
For just then he felt a rope was passed round him, and a slip-knot drawn tight under his arms. Then there was a sudden snatch, and he was raised upon his feet, steadied for a moment by a pair of hands, the rope tightened more and more, and he felt himself being drawn up, rising through the air, and slowly turning round, one elbow rasping gently against the rock from time to time.
"Well, I'm learning some of their secrets," thought Hilary, "even if they are keeping me in the dark. This is either the way up to their place, or else it's the way they get up their cargoes."
"Yes, cargoes only," he said directly, as he heard indistinctly a gruff voice at his elbow, some one being evidently climbing up at his side. "I hope they won't drop me."
In another minute he was dragged sidewise and lowered on to the rock, a change he gladly welcomed, for the rope had hurt him intolerably, and seemed to compress his chest so that he could hardly breathe.
"Well, this is pleasant," he thought, as he bit his lip with vexation. "The lads will have a good hunt for me, find nothing, and then go back and tell Lipscombe. He will lie on and off for an hour or two, and then go and report that I have deserted or gone off for a game, or some other pleasant thing. Oh, hang it all! this won't do. I must escape somehow. I wish they'd take off this cloak."
That seemed to be about the last thing his captors were disposed to do, for after he had been lying there in a most painfully uncomfortable position for quite an hour, every effort to obtain relief being met with a kick, save one, when he felt the cold ring of a pistol muzzle pressed against his neck under the cloak, he was lifted by the head and heels, some one else put an arm round him, and he was carried over some rugged ground, lifted up higher, and then his heart seemed to stand still, for he felt that he was going to be allowed to fall, and if allowed to fall it would be, he thought, from the top of the cliff.
The feeling was terrible, but the fall ridiculous, for it was a distance of a foot on to some straw. Then he felt straw thrown over him—a good heap—and directly after there was a jolting sensation, and he knew he was in a cart on a very rugged road. The sound of blows came dull upon his ear, and a faint hoarse "Go on!" And in spite of his pain, misery, and the ignorance he was in respecting his fate, Hilary Leigh began to laugh with all the light-heartedness of a lad, as he mentally said:
"Oh, this is too absurd! I'm in a donkey-cart, and the fellow who is driving can't make the brute go."
LIEUTENANT LIPSCOMBE LAYS DOWN THE LAW.
"Say, lads, I'm getting tired of this here," said Tom Tully, bringing himself to an anchor on a patch of sand; "I'm as hot as I am dry. Where's our orsifer?"
"I d'no," said another. "Ahoy! Billy Waters, ahoy-y-y!"
"Ahoy!" came from amongst the rocks; and the gunner plodded up wiping his face, and another of the little party came at the same time from the other direction.
"Where's Muster Leigh?" said Tom Tully.
"Isn't he along of you?" said Waters.
"No, I ar'n't seen him for ever so long."
Notes were compared, as the hailing brought the rest of the party together, and it was agreed on all sides that Hilary had gone in amongst the rocks close by where they were standing.
"I know how it is," growled Tom Tully, "he's having a caulk under the lee of one of these here stones while we do all the hunting about; and I can't walk half so well as I used, after being shut up aboard that there little cutter."
"Oh, no, he wouldn't go to sleep," said the gunner. "He's close here somewhere. I hope he's had better luck than we, for I ar'n't found nothing; have you?"
"No, no," arose on all sides.
"Why, there ain't nothin' to find," growled Tom Tully. "I wish I was aboard. You're chief orsifer when he ar'n't here, Billy Waters. Give the order and let's go back."
"What, without Mr Leigh?" said the gunner; "that's a likely tale, that is. Here, come on lads, and let's find him. Ahoy!"
"Ahoy!" came back from the rocks.
"There he is," said one of the men.
"No, my lads, that's only the ecker," said Billy Waters. "Hark ye— Ahoy!"
"Ahoy!" came back directly.
"Hoy—hoy—hoy-y-y!" shouted the gunner again.
"Hoy—hoy-y-y!" came back.
"Mis' Leigh, ahoy!" roared the gunner.
"Leigh—hoy!" was the response.
"Told you so, my lads; he ar'n't about here. Let's go further on. Now then, Tom Tully, we must have off some o' that there tail if it's so heavy it keeps you anchored down. Get up, will you?"
The sailor got up unwillingly, and in obedience to the gunner's orders they began now, in place of searching for traces of the smugglers, to look for their missing officer, scattering along, as fate had it, farther and farther from the spot where he had disappeared, no one seeing a face watching them intently through the thin wiry strands of a tuft of grass growing close up under the cliff.
The heat was now intense, for the sun seemed to be reflected back from the face of the rocks, and the men were regularly fagged.
They shouted and waited, and shouted again, but the only answer they got was from the echoes; and at last they stood together in a knot, with Billy Waters scratching his head with all his might, and they were a good half mile now from where Hilary had made his discovery and stepped into a trap.
"Well, this here is a rummy go," exclaimed the gunner, after looking from face to face for the counsel that there was not. "Let's see, my lads; it was just about here as he went forrard, warn't it?"
"No," growled Tom Tully; "it were a good two-score fathom more to the east'ard."
"Nay, nay, lad; it were a couple o' cables' length doo west," said another.
"I think it were 'bout here," said Tom Tully; "but I can't find that there track o' the boat's keel now. What's going to be done?"
"Let's go aboard again," growled Tom Tully. "I'm 'bout sick o' this here, mates."
"But I tell yer we can't go aboard without our orsifer," cried the gunner. "'Taint likely."
"He'd go aboard without one of us," growled Tom Tully, "so where's the difference?"
"There's lots o' difference, my lad. We can't go aboard without him. But where is he?"
"Having a caulk somewhere," said Tully gruffly; "and I on'y wish I were doing of that same myself. If we stop here much longer we shall be cooked like herrings. It's as hot as hot."
"I tell you he wouldn't desert us and go to sleep," said the gunner stubbornly. "Mr Leigh's a lad as would stick to his men like pitch to a ball o' oakum."
"Then why don't he?" growled Tom Tully in an ill-used tone. "What does he go and sail away from conwoy for?"
"He couldn't have got up the cliffs," mused the gunner; "'cause there don't seem to be no way, and he couldn't have gone more to west'ard, 'cause we must have seen him. There ain't been no boats along shore, and he can't have gone back to the cutter. I say, my lads, we've been and gone and got ourselves into a reg'lar mess. What's the skipper going to say when he sees us? You see we can't tell him as the youngster's fell overboard."
"No," growled Tom Tully; "'cause there ar'n't no overboard for him to fall. I'm right, I know; he's having a caulk."
"Tell yer he ain't," roared Waters fiercely; "and if any one says again as my young orsifer's doing such a thing as to leave his men in the lurch and go to sleep on a hot day like this, he'll get my fist in his mouth."
"Sail ho!" cried one of the men; and looking in the indicated direction, there was the cutter afloat once more, and sailing towards them, quite a couple of miles away, and as they looked there was a little puff of white smoke from her side, and a few seconds after a dull report.
"Look at that now;" cried Billy Waters, "there's the skipper got some one meddling with my guns. That's that Jack Brown, that is; and he knows no more about firing a gun than he do 'bout Dutch. There was a dirty sort of a shot."
"That's a signal, that is, for us to come aboard," growled Tom Tully.
"Well, nobody said it warn't, did they?" cried Waters, who was regularly out of temper now.
"No," growled Tom Tully, "on'y wishes I was aboard, I do."
"Then you ain't going till you've found your orsifer, my lad."
"Hah!" said Tom Tully, oracularly. "Shouldn't wonder if he ar'n't desarted 'cause the skipper give him such a setting down this morning."
"Now just hark at this here chap," cried the gunner, appealing to the others. "He'd just go and do such a dirty thing hisself, and so he thinks every one else would do the same. Tom Tully, I'm 'bout ashamed o' you. I shouldn't ha' thought as a fellow with such a pigtail as you've got to your headpiece would say such a thing of his orsifer."
"Then what call's he got to go and desart us for like this here, messmet?" growled Tom Tully. "I don't want to say no hard things o' nobody, but here's the skin off one o' my heels, and my tongue's baked; and what I says is, where is he if he ar'n't gone?"
That was a poser; and as after another short search there was a second gun fired from the cutter, and a boat was seen to put off and come towards them, there was nothing for them but to go down to the water and get into the boat, after Billy Waters had taken bearings, as he called it, of the place where the young officer had left them, setting up stones for marks,—which, however, through the deceptive nature and similarity of the coast in one part to another, were above half a mile from the true spot,—and suffer themselves to be rowed aboard.
"The skipper's in a fine temper," said one of the crew. "Where's Muster Leigh?"
"Ah! that's just what I want to know," said Waters, ruefully. "He'll be down upon me for losing on him—just as if I took him ashore like a dog tied to a string. How did you get the cutter off?"
"Easy as a glove," was the reply. "We just took out the little anchor and dropped it over, and when the tide come up hauled on it a bit, and she rode out as easy as a duck. But he's been going on savage because Muster Leigh didn't come back. Has he desarted?"
The gunner turned upon him so fierce a look, and made so menacing a movement, that the man shrank away, and catching what is called a crab upset the rower behind him, the crew for the moment being thrown into confusion, just as the lieutenant had raised his spyglass to his eye and was watching the coming off of the boat.
"What call had you got to do that, Billy?" cried the man, rubbing his elbows. "There'll be a row about that. Here, give way, my lads, and let's get aboard."
The men made the stout ashen blades bend as they forced the boat through the water, and at the end of a few minutes the oars were turned up, laid neatly over the thwarts, and the bowman held on with the boathook while the search party tumbled on board, the sides of the cutter being at no great height above the water.
The lieutenant was there, with his glass under his arm, his head tied up so that one eye was covered, and his cocked hat was rightly named in a double sense, being cocked almost off his head.
"Disgraceful, Mr Leigh!" he exclaimed furiously. "You deserve to be court-martialled, sir! Never saw a boat worse manned and rowed, sir. I never saw from the most beggarly crew of a wretched merchantman worse time kept. Why, the men were catching crabs, sir, from the moment they left the shore till the moment they came alongside. Bless my commission, sir! were you all drunk?"
He had one eye shut by the old accident, as we have intimated, and the injury of the previous night had so affected the other that he saw anything but clearly, as he kept stamping up and down the deck.
"Do you hear, sir? I say were you all drunk?" roared the lieutenant.
"Please your honour," said the gunner, "we never see a drop of anything except seawater since we went ashore."
"Silence, sir! How dare you speak?" roared the lieutenant. "Insubordination and mutiny. Did I speak to you, sir? I say, did I speak to you?"
"No, your honour, but—"
"If you say another word I'll clap you in irons, you dog!" cried the lieutenant. "A pretty state of affairs, indeed, when men are to answer their officers. Do you hear, there, you mutinous dogs! If another man among you dares to speak I'll clap him in irons."
The men exchanged glances, and there was a general hitching up of trousers along the little line in which the men were drawn up.
"Now then, sir. Have the goodness to explain why you have been so long, and why all my signals for recall have been disregarded. Silence, sir! don't speak till I've done," he continued, as one of the men, who had let a little tobacco juice get too near the swallowing point, gave a sort of snorting cough.
There was dead silence on board, save a slight creaking noise made by the crutch of the big boom as it swung gently and rubbed the mast.
"I call upon you, Mr Leigh, sir, for an explanation," continued the lieutenant. "Silence, sir! Not yet. I sent you ashore to make a search, expecting that your good sense would lead you to make it brief, and to get back in time to assist in hauling off the cutter which you had run ashore. Instead of doing this, sir, you race off with the men like a pack of schoolboys, sir, larking about among the rocks, and utterly refusing to notice my signals, sir, though they have been flying, sir, for hours; and here have I been obliged to waste his majesty's powder, sir, and foul his majesty's guns, sir."
Here, as the lieutenant's back was turned, Billy Waters shook his great fist at Jack Brown, the boatswain, going through sundry pantomimic motions to show how he, Billy Waters, would like to punch Jack Brown, the boatswain's head. To which, waiting until the lieutenant had turned and had his back to him, Jack Brown responded by taking his leg in his two hands just above the knee and shaking it in a very decisive manner at the gunner.
"And what is more, sir," continued the lieutenant, "you had my gunner with you."
Billy Waters, who had drawn back his fist level with his armpit in the act of striking an imaginary blow at the boatswain, stopped short as he heard himself mentioned, and the lieutenant continued his trot up and down like an angry wild beast in a narrow cage and went on:
"And, sir, I had to intrust the firing of that gun to a bungling, thick-headed, stupid idiot of a fellow, who don't know muzzle from vent; and the wonder is that he didn't blow one of his majesty's liege subjects into smithereens."
The lieutenant's back was now turned to Billy Waters, who as he saw Jack Brown's jaw drop placed his hands to his sides, and lifting up first one leg and then the other, as if in an agony of spasmodic delight, bent over first to starboard and then to larboard, and laughed silently till the tears ran down his cheeks.
"I say, sir—I say," continued the lieutenant, pushing up his bandage a little, "that such conduct is disgraceful, sir; and what is more, I say—"
The lieutenant did not finish the sentence then, for in him angry excitement he had continued his blind walk, extending it more and more till he had approached close to where the carpenter had sawn out several of the ragged planks torn by the previous night's explosion, and as he lifted his leg for another step it was right over the yawning opening into the men's quarters in the forecastle below.
It would have been an ugly fall for the lieutenant, for according to the wholesome custom observed by most mechanics, the carpenter had turned the damaged hatchway into a very pleasant kind of pitfall, such as the gentle mild Hindoo might have dug for his enemy the crafty tiger, with its arrangements for impaling whatever fell.
In this case Chips had all the ragged and jagged pieces of plank carefully stuck point upwards, with a couple of augers, a chisel or two, and a fair amount of gimlets and iron spike-like nails, so that it would have been impossible for his officer have fallen without receiving one or two ugly wounds.
Just in the nick of time, however, Jack Brown, the boatswain, darted forward and gave the lieutenant a tremendous push, which sent him clear of the opening in the deck, but in a sitting position under the bulwark, against which his head went with a goodly rap.