Salt Water, The Sea Life and Adventures of Neil D'Arcy the Midshipman, By W H G Kingston.
One interesting feature of this book is that it must have been one of the earliest to be written by Kingston. It does not appear that there was another edition for sixty years, by which time the author had been dead for 35 years.
It is also a very good book of his genre, with lots of battle, murder, and sudden death. It deals with the adventures of a young boy who joins the Royal Navy as a midshipman in the care of his uncle. Most of the action takes place in the Mediterranean, even so far as the Ionian sea, where he visits Zante (now called Zakynthos), Cephalonia, and even Corfu.
Of course practically everybody appearing in the book is slain, except the young hero, who survives all.
If you want to read, or listen to, a rattling good yarn, try this one.
SALT WATER, THE SEA LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NEIL D'ARCY THE MIDSHIPMAN, BY W H G KINGSTON.
NEIL D'ARCY'S LIFE AT SEA.
MY ANCESTORS—LARRY HARRIGAN, AND MY EARLY EDUCATION—CHOICE OF A PROFESSION—FIRST START IN LIFE.
"The sea, the sea," if not my mother, has been my nurse (and anything but a dry one) from the earliest days of my recollection. I was born within the sound of old ocean's surges; I dabbled in salt water before I could run; and I have floated on salt water, and have been well sprinkled with it too, from that time to the present. It never occurred to me, indeed, that I could be anything but a sailor. In my innocence, I pictured a life on the ocean wave as the happiest allowed to mortals; and little did I wot of all the bumpings and thumpings, the blows and the buffetings, I was destined to endure in the course of it. Yet, even had I expected them, I feel very certain they would not have changed my wishes. No, no. I was mightily mistaken with regard to the romance of the thing, I own; but had I to begin life again, with all its dangers and hardships, still I would choose the ocean for my home—the glorious navy of England for my profession.
But now for my antecedents. I will not trouble the reader with many of them. I was born at the family seat in the south of Ireland. My mother died while I was very young, and my father, Colonel D'Arcy, who had seen much service in the army and had been severely wounded, after a lingering illness, followed her to the grave. During this time I was committed to the charge of Larry Harrigan, the butler and family factotum; and, in truth, I desired no better companion, for well did I love the old man. He was a seaman every inch of him, from his cherished pigtail to the end of the timber toe on which he had long stumped through the world. He had been coxswain to my maternal grandfather, a captain in the navy, who was killed in action. Larry had gone to sea with him as a lad, and they had seldom been separated. A few minutes before his commander, in the moment of victory, lost his life, Larry had his leg shot away; and on being paid off, he repaired to where my mother's family were residing. When my father married, he offered the old seaman an asylum beneath his roof. He certainly did not eat the bread of idleness there, for no one about the place was more generally useful. There was nothing he could not do or make, and in spite of his loss of a limb, he was as active as most people possessed with the usual complement of supporters.
Larry had loved my mother as his own child, and for her sake he loved me more than anything else on earth. As he considered it a part of his duty to instruct me in his own accomplishments, which being chiefly of a professional character, I at a very early age became thoroughly initiated in the mysteries of knotting, bending, and splicing, and similar nautical arts. I could point a rope, work a Turk's-head, or turn in an eye, as well as many an A.B. Not content with this, he built me a model of a ship, with her rigging complete. He then set to work to teach me the names of every rope and spar; and when I knew them and their uses, he unrigged the ship and made me rig her again under his inspection. This I did several times, till he considered I was perfect. He next bought fresh stuff for a new suit of rigging, and made me cut it into proper lengths and turn it all in correctly before I set it up.
"Now you see, Master Neil," said he, "we've just got the lovely Psyche out of the hands of the shipwrights, and it's our duty to get the rigging over her mastheads, and fit her for sea as fast as the work can be done; so let's see how soon we can do the job."
Such were our indoor amusements, and thus I rapidly acquired an amount of knowledge which most midshipmen take a long time to get stowed away in their heads. Larry also used to take me out on the waters of the bay, and taught me to row and to manage the sails of a small boat with tolerable dexterity. I learned also to swim; and had it not been for my possession of that art, I should probably long ago have been food for fishes. And here I must endeavour strongly to impress on the minds of my young readers the importance of learning to swim well; for not only may they thus be enabled to save their own lives, but they may have the happiness of preserving those of their fellow-creatures.
While my poor father lived, he attended to the more intellectual branches of my education. My mother taught me to read, and for her sake I loved reading. She also instilled those religious principles into me which have been my support through life. Short and fleeting as was the time she remained on earth, inestimable were the blessings she bestowed on me. Whatever of the milk of human kindness flows round my heart, from her gentle bosom I drew it forth; and surely I do not err when I believe that her earnest prayers before the throne of mercy have caused watchful spirits to shield me from the perils of the stormy ocean, and from still greater dangers, the treacherous quicksands and dark rocks which have laid in my course through life.
I was ten years old before it occurred to any one that a little of the discipline of a school might be beneficial to me, to prepare me somewhat better than I could be prepared at home to rough it in the rude world into which I was ere long to be plunged. To the academy, therefore, of a certain Doctor Studdert, near Cork, I was sent, where I contrived to pick up a few crumbs of knowledge and some experience of life. I had no great dislike to school, but liked home much better; and no one sung—
"Packing up and going away, All for the sake of a holiday,"
more joyously than did I when my first midsummer holiday came round.
Larry was on the watch for me as I jumped out of the carriage which had been sent over to Kerry to meet me. The old seaman had expected me to come back a prodigy of learning; but was horrified to discover that I was puzzled how to make a carrick-bend, and had nearly forgotten the length of the Psyche's main-top bowline.
"And that's what the Doctor calls schooling, does he, Master Neil?" he exclaimed, indignantly. "Now I'll make bold to say that among all the bigwigs he has under him, including himself, there isn't one on 'em knows how to gammon a bowsprit or turn in a dead-eye. Now, to my mind, if they can't give you more larning than you've got since you've been away, you'd better stop at home altogether."
I agreed with Larry, but the higher authorities ruled otherwise; so back to school I went at the end of the holidays, having regained all the nautical knowledge I before possessed, with a little in addition.
I will pass over the sad time of my brave father's death. I was left to the guardianship of my uncle, Counsellor D'Arcy, the great Dublin barrister, and of Doctor Driscoll. I was removed to the house of the latter, with poor Larry, who threatened to do all sorts of dreadful deeds, if he were not allowed to accompany me. My patrimony, which had become somewhat attenuated, was in the meantime put out to nurse. I was rather surprised at not being sent back to school, when one day the Doctor, as he sat cross-legged before the fire after dinner, rubbing his shins, called me to him.
"Neil, my boy, your uncle, Counsellor D'Arcy, has requested me to speak to you on a very important subject. It is time, he thinks, that your studies should be directed to fit you for the profession you may select. What would you wish to be, now? Have you ever thought on the matter? Would you like to follow his steps, and study the law; or those of your honoured father, and enter the army; or those of your grandfather, and go to sea; or would you like to become a merchant, or a clergyman; or what do you say to the practice of medicine?"
"That I would never take a drop, if I could help it, Doctor; or give it to others either," I answered. "I fear that I should make a bad minister, and a worse merchant; and as for the law, I would not change places with the Counsellor himself, if he were to ask me. I should have no objection to the army; but if I'm to choose my profession, I'll go to sea, by all means. I've no fancy for any but a sea life; but I'll just go and talk the matter over with Larry, and hear what he thinks about it."
The Doctor said nothing. He considered, I conclude, that he had obeyed my uncle's wishes in proposing the matter to me, and his conscience was at rest. I forthwith ran off and broached the subject to Larry; not that I doubted what his advice would be. The old seaman gave a hitch to the waistband of his trousers, as he replied, with no little animation—
"Why, you see, Master Neil, to my mind there's only one calling which a man, who is anything of a man, would wish to follow. The others are all very well in their way: the parsons, and the soldiers, and the big-wigged lawyers, and the merchants, and the doctors, and the ''plomatics'—them who goes abroad to desave the furriners, and takes up so much room and gives themselves such airs aboard ship; but what, just let me ax, is the best on 'em when you puts him alongside a right honest, thorough-bred seaman? What's the proudest on 'em, when it comes to blow half a capful of wind? What's the boldest on 'em in a dark night, on a lee shore? Not one on 'em is worth that!" and he snapped his fingers to show his contempt for landsmen of every degree. "On course, Master Neil, dear, you'll be a seaman. With my will, the navy is the only calling your blessed mother's son should follow. Your grandfather died in it, and your great-grandfather before him; and I hope to see you in command of one of His Majesty's ships before I die— that I do. But I was forgetting that you were growing so big, and that you would be going off to sea so soon," continued the old man, in an altered tone. "You'll remember, for his sake, all the lessons Larry gave you, Master Neil? And you'll think of your old friend sometimes in a night watch, won't you, now?"
I assured him that I would often think of him, and try not to forget any of his lessons. I then went back to the Doctor, to inform him that Larry agreed with me that the navy was the only profession likely to suit me.
My future calling being thus speedily settled, Doctor Driscoll, who was aware that knowledge would not come by intuition, sent me to an old master in the navy, who fortunately resided in the neighbourhood, to be instructed in the rudiments of navigation. As I was as wide awake as most youngsters of my age, I very soon gained a fair insight into its mysteries; and by the time the spring came round, I was pronounced fit for duty.
A brother of my mother's, who commanded a large revenue cutter on the south coast of England, having been applied to for advice by the Doctor, answered by the following short note:—
"Dear Sir,—I'll make a seaman of Neil, with all my heart, if you will send him across to Portsmouth. Let him inquire for me at the 'Star and Garter.' Should I be away on a cruise, I will leave word with the landlady what is to be done with him. My craft is the Serpent.
"I remain, faithfully yours,—
"What! send the child all the way over to Portsmouth by himself!" exclaimed good Mrs Driscoll, the Doctor's wife, on hearing the contents of this epistle. "Why, he might be spirited off to the Plantations or the Black Hole of Calcutta, and we never hear any more about him. What could Mr O'Flaherty be thinking about?"
"That his nephew is about to be an officer in His Majesty's service, and that the sooner he learns to take care of himself, the better," replied the Doctor.
"Let him begin, then, by slow degrees, as birds are taught to fly," urged the kind dame. "He has never been out of the nest yet, except to school, when he was put in charge of the coachman, like a parcel."
"He will find his way safe enough," muttered the Doctor. "Won't you, Neil?"
To speak the truth, I would gladly have undertaken to find my way to Timbuctoo, or the Antipodes, by myself; but I had just formed a plan which I was afraid might be frustrated, had I agreed with the Doctor. I therefore answered, "I'll go and ask Larry;" and without waiting for any further observations, off I ran, to put it in train. It was, that Larry should accompany me to Portsmouth; and I had also a notion that he might be able to go to sea with me. He was delighted with my plan, and backing Mrs Driscoll's objections to my being sent alone, it was finally arranged that he should take charge of me till he had handed me over to my uncle. Such parts of my outfit as could be manufactured at home, Mrs Driscoll got ready for me, and Larry was empowered to procure the rest for me at Portsmouth.
I confess that I did not shed a tear or cast a look of regret at my birthplace; but with a heart as light as a skylark taking his morning flight, I mounted alongside Larry on the top of the coach bound for Dublin. While in that city we saw my uncle, the Counsellor. I do not remember profiting much by the visit. He, however, shook me kindly by the hand, and wishing me every success, charged Larry to take care of me.
"Arrah!" muttered the old man as we walked away, "his honour, sure, would be after telling a hen to take care of her chickens now."
In London we put up at an inn at the west end, near Exeter 'Change; and while dinner was getting ready, we went to see the wild beasts which dwelt there in those days. I thought London a very smoky, dismal city, and that is all I can remember about it.
Larry was rigged for the journey in a suit of black; and though he would have been known, however dressed, by every one for a seaman, he was always taken for an officer of the old school, and was treated accordingly with becoming respect. Indeed, there was an expression of mild firmness and of unassuming self-confidence in his countenance, added to his silvery locks and his handsome though weather-beaten features, which commanded it.
We spent only one night in London; and by five o'clock in the afternoon of the day we left it we were rattling down the High Street of Portsmouth, on the top of the fast coach, while the guard played "See the Conquering Hero Comes"—which I had some notion he did in compliment to me.
I thought Portsmouth a much nicer place than London (in which idea some people, perhaps, will not agree with me); while I looked upon the "Star and Garter," where we stopped, as a very fine hotel, though not equal in dignity to the "George." My chest, made under Larry's superintendence, showed that its owner was destined for the sea. Taking my hand, Larry stumped up the passage, following the said chest and the bag which contained his wardrobe.
"What ship has your son come to join?" asked good Mrs Timmins, the landlady, curtseying, as she encountered us.
"Faith, marm, it's not after being the son of the likes of me is Master D'Arcy here," he answered, pleased at the same time at the dignity thus conferred on him. "This is the nephew, marm, of Lieutenant O'Flaherty of His Majesty's cutter, the Serpent; and I'll make bold to ax whether she's in the harbour, and what directions the Lieutenant has left about his nephew?"
"Oh dear, now, the cutter sailed this very morning for the westward," answered the landlady; "that is unfortunate! And so this young gentleman is Lieutenant O'Flaherty's nephew. Well, then, we must take good care of him, as she won't be back for a week; and you know, mister, you needn't trouble yourself more about him."
"Faith, marm, it's not I will be after leaving the young master till I see him safe in his uncle's hands," answered Larry, with a rap on his thigh. "So I'll just trouble you to give us a room with a couple of beds in it, and we'll take up our quarters here till the cutter comes back."
This arrangement of course pleased the worthy Mrs Timmins, as she got two guests instead of one; and I thus found myself established for a week at Portsmouth. Having selected our chamber, we went into the coffee-room and ordered dinner. There were several youngsters there, and other junior officers of the profession, for the "Star and Garter" was at that time more frequented than the far-famed "Blue Posts." At first some of the younger portion of the guests were a little inclined to look superciliously at Larry and me; but he stuck out his timber toe, and returned their glances with such calm independence, that they soon suspected he was not made of the stuff to laugh at; and they then showed an evident disposition to enter into conversation with him to discover who he could be. This, for my sake, he did not wish them to do; for, as he was to act the part of guardian, he thought it incumbent on him to keep up his dignity.
We passed, to me, a very interesting time at Portsmouth. We constantly visited the dockyard, which was my delight. He took me over the Victory, and showed me the spot where Nelson fell; and with old associations many a tale and anecdote which, long since forgotten, now returned to his memory, he poured into my eager ear.
Some people declare, and naval men even do so, that there's no romance in a seafaring life—that it's all hard, dirty, slaving work, without anything to repay one, except prize-money in war time and promotion in peace. Now, to my mind, there's a great deal of romance and chivalry and excitement, and ample recompense in the life itself; and this Larry, who ought to have known, for he had seen plenty of hard service, had himself discovered. It is that some do not know where to look for the romance, and if found, cannot appreciate it. The stern realities of a sea life—its hardships, its dangers, its battles, its fierce contests with the elements, its triumphs over difficulties—afford to some souls a pleasure which ignobler ones cannot feel: I trust that my adventures will explain what I mean. For my own part, I can say that oftentimes have I enjoyed that intense pleasure, that joyous enthusiasm, that high excitement, which not only recompenses one for the toil and hardships by which it is won, but truly makes them as nothing in comparison to the former. All I can say is, let me go through the world sharing the rough and the smooth alike—the storms and sunshine of life; but save me from the stagnant existence of the man who sleeps on a feather bed and always keeps out of danger.
DON THE TRUE BLUE—ROMANCE OF THE SEA—LARRY AND HIS WIFE.
My uniform was to be made at Portsmouth. Of course I felt myself not a little important, and very fine, as I put it on for, the first time, and looked at myself in the glass, with my dirk buckled to my side, and a round hat with a cockade in it on my head. We were sitting in the coffee-room, waiting for dinner, on that eventful day, when a number of youngsters belonging to a line-of-battle ship came into the inn. They had not been there long, when the shiny look of my new clothes, and the way I kept handling my dirk, unable to help looking down at it, attracted the attention of one of them.
"That's a sucking Nelson," he exclaimed, "I'll bet a sixpence!"
"Hillo, youngster! to what ship do you belong?" asked another, looking hard at me.
"To the Serpent cutter," I answered, not quite liking the tone in which he spoke.
"And so you are a cutter's midshipman, are you?" he asked. "And how is it you are not on board, I should like to know?"
I told him that the cutter was away, and that I was waiting for her return.
"Then I presume that you haven't been to sea at all yet?" observed the first who had spoken, in a bland tone, winking at his shipmates, with the intention of trotting me out.
I answered simply that I had not. Larry, I must observe, all the time was sitting silent, and pretending not to take any notice of them, so that they did not suspect we belonged to each other.
"Poor boy, I pity you," observed the young gentleman, gravely, and turning up his eyes. "I'd advise you seriously to go back to your mamma. You've no idea of all the difficult things you'll have to learn; of which, how to hand, reef, and steer isn't the hundredth part."
"In the first place, I have not a mamma to go to," I replied, in an indignant tone; for I did not like his mentioning her, even. "And perhaps I know more about a ship than you think of."
"You! what should you know about a ship, I should like to know?" exclaimed the midshipman, contemptuously.
"Why, I know how to gammon a bowsprit," I replied, looking at him very hard. "I can work a Turk's-head, make a lizard, or mouse a stay—can't I, Larry?" I asked, turning to the old sailor. "And as for steering, I've steered round Kilkee Bay scores of times, before you knew how to handle an oar, I'll be bound—haven't I, Larry?"
The old man, thus appealed to, looked up and spoke. "Faith, you may well say that same, Master Neil; and proud am I to have taught you. And I'll just tell you, young gentlemen, I'll lay a gold guinea that Master D'Arcy here would get the rigging over the mastheads of a ship, and fit her for sea, while either of you were looking at them, and thinking how you were to sway up the topmasts. No offence, you know; but as for gammoning—I don't think any one would beat you there."
Several of the midshipmen muttered murmurs of applause at what Larry and I had said, and in a very short time we were all excellent friends, and as intimate as if we were shipmates together. They at once respected him, for they could not help recognising him as a true sailor; and they also saw that, young and inexperienced as I appeared, I was not quite as green as they had at first supposed. And we all parted excellent friends.
We had been waiting some time at the "Star and Garter," and there were no signs of the Serpent, and from the information Larry gained from those who were likely to know, he was led to believe that several days more might elapse before her return; so he proposed that we should look out for lodgings, as more economical, and altogether pleasanter. I willingly agreed to his plan, so out we set in search of them. We saw several which did not suit us. At last we went to Southsea, which we agreed would be more airy and pleasant; and seeing a bill up at a very neat little house, we knocked at the door, and were admitted. There was a nice sitting-room and bed-room, and a small room which Larry said would do for him. The landlady, who was a pleasant-looking, buxom dame, asked only fifteen shillings a week, including doing for us; so we agreed to take it. By some chance we did not inquire her name.
"Good-bye, Missis," said Larry. "I'll send the young gentleman's traps here in half an hour, and leave him mean time as security. I suppose you'll have no objection to stay, Master D'Arcy?" he added, turning to me.
I had none, of course, and so it was arranged. While Larry was gone, the good lady took me into the sitting-room, and begging me to make myself at home, was very inquisitive to know all about me. I had no reason for not gratifying her, so I told her how my mother and then my father had died and left me an orphan, and how I had come all the way from Kerry to Portsmouth, and how I belonged to a cutter which I had not yet seen, and how I intended one day to become a Nelson or a Collingwood. Of my resolution the kind lady much approved.
"Ah, my good, dear man, if he had lived, would have become a captain also; but he went to sea and died, and I never from that day to this heard any more of him," said she, wiping the corner of her eye with her apron, more from old habit than because there were any tears to dry up, for she certainly was not crying. "Those things on the mantel-piece there were some he brought me home years and years ago, when he was a gay young sailor; and I've kept them ever since, for his sake, though I've been hard pushed at times to find bread to put into my mouth, young gentleman."
The things she spoke of were such as are to be found in the sitting-rooms of most sailors' wives. There were elephants' teeth, with figures of men and women carved on them, very cleverly copied from very coarse prints; and there were shells of many shapes, and lumps of corals, and bits of seaweed, with the small model of a ship, very much battered, and her yards scandalised, as if to mourn for her builder's loss. She was placed on a stand covered with small shells, and at either end were bunches of shell flowers, doubtlessly very tasteful according to the widow's idea. The room was hung round with coloured prints, which even then I did not think very well executed. One was a sailor returning from a voyage, with bags of gold at his back and sticking out of his pockets. I wondered whether I should come back in that way; but as I did not know the value of money, there was nothing very exciting in it to me. There were two under which was written "The lover's meeting." In both cases the lady was dressed extravagantly fine, with a bonnet and very broad ribbons; and the lover had on the widest trousers I ever saw. Another represented a lady watching for her lover, whose ship was seen in the distance; and one more I remember was a seaman cast upon the shore, with a female bending over him; while there were several pictures of ships, some of which were on the tops of waves running truly mountains high, and curling over in a very terrific way indeed. I had time to inspect all these things while my landlady was getting my bed-room ready. I had not dined; and when Larry, who was rather longer than I had expected, returned, I found that he had purchased all sorts of necessary provisions, and that they only wanted cooking for me to eat them. While he laid the cloth, the landlady performed the office of cook; and in a little time a very nice dinner of veal cutlets, ham, and fried potatoes made its appearance. When Larry had nothing to do but to look about him, I observed him fix his eyes in a strange sort of way on the model of the ship, and then at the shells and the other things in the room. At last he turned to the landlady.
"Please, marm," said he, "where did you get all them things from?"
"Oh, sir," answered the landlady, "they were given to me by my poor dear man, who has been dead and gone this many a long year."
"May I be bold to ask, and no offence, what is your name, marm?" said Larry.
"My husband was an Irishman, like you, and my name is Harrigan," answered the landlady, who held at the moment a jug of beer, from which she was going to pour me out a tumblerful.
"Faith, you may well say that he was like me, marm, for, curious enough, that's my name too," answered Larry.
"Your name!" exclaimed the landlady, standing still and looking doubtfully at him.
"Yes, my name—it is, indeed," said Larry. "And may I ask what is your Christian name, marm?"
"Jane is my name, and yours is Lawrence!" shrieked Mrs Harrigan, letting fall the jug of beer, which was smashed to pieces, and rushing towards him.
"By the pipers, you're right now; but if you're yourself—my own Jane Harrigan, whom I thought dead and buried, or married long ago to another man, it's the happiest day of my life that I've seen for a long time," cried Larry, throwing his arms round her and giving her a hug which I thought would have squeezed all the breath out of her body.
I looked up at the pictures on the wall, and fancied he was imitating one of the persons there represented; though, to be sure, my friends were rather aged lovers.
"And I thought you were lost at sea long, long ago," cried Mrs Harrigan, now sobbing in earnest.
"Faith, so I was, Jane, and it's a long time I've been being found again," said Larry; "and how we've both come to life again is more than I can tell."
"Oh, I never forgot you, and wouldn't listen to what any other man had to say to me," said Mrs Harrigan.
"Nor I, faith, what the girls said to me," returned Larry. "But for the matter of that, my timber toe wasn't much to their liking."
"I see, Larry, you've lost your leg since I lost you, and it was that puzzled me, or I should have known you at once—that I should," observed Mrs Harrigan, giving him an affectionate kiss on his rough cheek.
They did not mind me at all, and went on talking away as if I was not in the room, which was very amusing.
Larry afterwards confessed to me that he should not have recognised his wife, for when he went to sea and left her for the last time, she was a slim, pretty young woman; and though she was certainly not uncomely, no one could accuse her of not having flesh enough. Larry, as many another sailor has done, had married at the end of a very short courtship, his wife, then a nursery-maid in an officer's family at Portsmouth; and a few weeks afterwards he had been pressed and sent out to the East Indies. While there, he had been drafted into another ship, and the ship in which he had left home had been lost with all hands. Of this event his wife became acquainted, and having come from an inland county, and not knowing how to gain further information about him, she had returned to her parents in the country. They died, and she went again into service.
Meantime, Larry, having lost his leg, came home, and notwithstanding all his inquiries, he could gain no tidings of her. At last he came to the conclusion that she must have married again, probably another sailor, and gone away with him—no uncommon occurrence in those days; so he philosophically determined to think no more about her, but to return to the land of his birth to end his days.
She had gone through the usual vicissitudes of an unprotected female, and at last returned to Portsmouth with a family in whose service she acted as curse. Here, having saved up a little money, she determined to settle as a lodging-house keeper, and she had taken the house in which we found her.
This event, caused me very great satisfaction, for it had occurred to me that Larry would find himself very forlorn going back to Ireland without me to look after, and no one to care about; and now, instead, he would have a good wife, and a comfortable house to live in. She also would be the gainer, for he had saved some money when in our service; and as he was a sober, temperate man, he would be able to assist her very much in her business. On my own account also I was very glad, because I should now have many opportunities of seeing him whenever I returned to Portsmouth.
Several days passed away after this, during which time I must say no one could have taken better care of me than did good Mrs Harrigan; and I felt convinced that my old friend would likewise be well looked after during my absence.
LIEUTENANT O'FLAHERTY—MY SHIP AND SHIPMATES—THE PILOT'S BOAT—RESULTS OF DRUNKENNESS—MY FIRST COMMAND.
One day, on going with Larry, according to custom, to the "Star and Garter" to learn tidings of the cutter, I saw a fine sailorlike-looking man, with an intelligent and good-humoured expression of countenance, talking to the landlady.
"There's the young gentleman himself," she exclaimed, pointing at me.
"What, my lad, are you indeed my nephew?" said the officer, kindly, putting out his hand and pressing mine warmly. "Faith, I needn't ask that, though; you are the very picture of your poor mother. Well, Neil, the sooner you get on board and begin learning your duty, the better."
I answered that I was perfectly ready, for I at once took a great fancy to him, and thought I should be very happy in the cutter.
He now observed Larry for the first time.
"What! old shipmate," he exclaimed, shaking him warmly by the hand, "are you the trustworthy person Dr Driscoll told me he would send to look after the youngster? I'm delighted to see you again, and wish I could give you a berth on board my craft, but I'm afraid the service won't permit that. You must, however, come and take a cruise with us, and talk over old times."
"Faith, your honour, I'm not much fit for duty, I own, with my timber toe, afloat, and I've just found a snug berth on shore, which I intend to keep till Master D'Arcy settles down in the halls of his fathers, and wants my services; but I'll gladly take a cruise with your honour, and just see how he practises all I've taught him. You'll find him in a few days, I'll warrant, as smart a seaman as many who've been two or three years afloat."
To make a long story short, while Larry remained on shore with his new-found wife, I went on board the cutter; and the following day we ran out of harbour, round by Saint Helen's, and stood down Channel in search of a smuggling craft, of whose movements the Commander had received notice.
I found my uncle, on further acquaintance, to be what his looks betokened him, a thoroughly honest, hearty sailor. His first officer was a very old mate who had long given up all hopes of promotion in the service. He was married; and his wife and family lived near Portsmouth. His name was John Hanks. There was a second master and a clerk in charge; so that, for a cutter, we made up an unusually large mess. We had no surgeon, as we could always run into harbour if any of us required doctoring.
My uncle, who was a poor man, had taken the command of the cutter for the sake of his wife and family; and when I came to know my sweet young aunt, I felt, with her smiles to welcome him when he got home, Lieutenant O'Flaherty was a happier man far than many who roll in their easy carriages about the streets of smoky London.
Mrs O'Flaherty, with the two children she then had, lived in a pretty little cottage near Ryde, where he was able every now and then to go and see her. Of course he was never wanting in an excuse, when duty would allow him, to be off Ryde; and on one of these occasions he first introduced me to his wife. I loved her at once, for she was a thoroughly genuine, graceful woman, young and pretty, with a kind, warm heart, and a sweet expression of countenance, which her character did not belie. My little cousins and I also became great friends, and I confess that I felt I would much rather stay with her than have to go to sea and knock about in all weathers in the cutter; but duty sent us both on board again, and it was a long time before I had another opportunity of paying a visit to Daisy Cottage.
But I have been going ahead of my narrative.
We were standing down Channel in the Serpent. Our cruising ground was chiefly from Saint Helen's to the Start; but we were liable to be sent elsewhere, or might go wherever our Commander had notice there was a chance of catching a smuggler.
We had been out some days, keeping a sharp look-out off Portland Point for a noted fellow, Myers by name, the owner of a fast lugger, the Kitty, who was expected to try and run a cargo of tubs in that neighbourhood.
The smugglers played us all sorts of tricks, and I must own we were more than once taken in by them. On one occasion, while it was blowing very fresh, a cutter hailed us and told us that she had just passed over a number of tubs, pointing out the direction where we should find them. While we were engaged in picking them up, she made sail for the shore; and we afterwards learned, to our mortification, that she had run a very large cargo of contraband goods.
Thanks to Larry's instructions, as I was very handy in a boat, and understood the duties of a midshipman tolerably well, I was, to my great delight, soon placed in charge of one of the gigs.
A few days after the occurrence I have described, when we were about mid Channel, we observed a vessel whose appearance was suspicious. It had just gone two bells, in the forenoon watch. It was blowing pretty fresh from the south-west, and there was a lop of a sea, but not enough to endanger a boat. We made sail towards the stranger, and as we neared her we perceived that she was veering about, apparently under no control.
"Her main-boom has gone," observed Hanks, "and there doesn't seem to be a soul on deck; her crew have been knocked or washed overboard, I suspect."
"I am afraid so," said the Commander. "She looks to me like a pilot-boat. She was probably struck by a squall, with only a couple of hands left in her."
"Lubberly work somehow, at all events," remarked Hanks.
In another ten minutes we were close to the pilot-boat, and the cutter being hove-to, a boat was lowered, and Hanks and I were ordered to go in her and see what was the matter. When we gained the deck, we found that the boom had knocked away part of the bulwarks and companion-hatch, and committed other damage. The first thing we did was to lower down the mainsail and to secure the boom, which task, after some difficulty, we accomplished. We next set about searching the vessel, thinking that no one was on board. The main hatch was on, but there was a little cabin aft, with a small stove in it, and six berths, in which the crew lived. There was a table in the cabin, and on it were a couple of tumblers, a thick-necked, square-sided glass bottle, on its side, a broken pipe, and wet marks, and ashes of tobacco, as if people had very lately been drinking there.
"What's wrong here?" said Hanks. "It could not have been long ago since some one was on board."
Our eyes soon began to get accustomed to the sombre light of the cabin, which was darkened by the mainsail hanging over it. I happened to stoop down, and my eyes glanced under the table, where we had not before looked.
"Hillo," I exclaimed, "why here are a man's legs."
"There seems to be two brace of them," said Hanks, laughing. "Come out, my hearties, and give an account of yourselves."
Saying this, he began to drag towards the companion-ladder one of the men; I following his example with regard to the other.
"Why, Jim, we ain't got in yet; so let us alone, will ye," grunted out one, as he turned on his side, without opening his eyes.
The other was too drunk to speak; indeed, had we not loosened his neckcloth, I believe he would have died of apoplexy, for he was already getting black in the face. We placed them near the companion-ladder, where they could obtain some air; and then, getting off the main hatch, we proceeded to search the vessel. In the hold were several casks of French brandy, immensely strong spirit, intended to be diluted before being sold. From one of these the crew had evidently been helping themselves, and not being accustomed to so potent a liquid, fancying it of the ordinary strength, it had overcome their senses before they were aware of what was happening to them. We found, also, Dutch drops, several bales of tobacco, and sundry other things, amply sufficient to condemn the craft as a smuggler, but which also proved that it was an unusual venture, and that the people were not adepts in the contraband trade. We searched the vessel throughout, but no one else was discovered.
"Who, then, could Jim be?" we asked ourselves.
The drunken men were still too fast locked in a state of stupor to answer. When nothing more could be done, Hanks sent me back to the cutter, to report proceedings, hoping to be ordered to take the prize in himself.
When I had made my report, "Very well," said the Commander, "I wish to try what amount of discretion you possess, Neil; so you shall take the prize up to Portsmouth, and deliver her and the people over to the proper authorities. Take Thole and four hands with you. Look out that the prisoners do not escape, and I dare say you will do well. I shall be up at Portsmouth in a day or so, to take you off. Now get on board, and assume your command as fast as you like. Send Mr Hanks on board again."
A change of things was soon put up in a bundle, and I and it bundled on board the prize.
"And so you are to go, youngster, are you?" remarked Hanks, as I got on board. "It's all my ill luck, for I thought to go myself; but good-bye, youngster, and a pleasant trip to you."
Saying this, he stepped into the boat alongside, and returned to the cutter, leaving me in possession of my new-fledged honours. The pilot-boat belonged to some place on the Dorsetshire coast, and had drifted up off Saint Alban's Head, where we found her. The Needles were just in sight ahead, or rather the end of the Isle of Wight, off which they extend, so it seemed an easy matter to run in; but I suspect, without Thole I should have made some slight mistake or other, which might have laid my charge on the rocks. Thole showed me the proper marks, and by keeping the two lighthouses on Hurst Point in one, we ran in between the Needles and the shoal of the shingles. I felt very grand, as I walked the deck with my spy-glass under my arm, and watched the chalk-white cliffs of Alum Bay rising high above us on the right, and the curiously-coloured strata of sand at the eastern end of it, the wood-covered heights of Freshwater, and the little town of Yarmouth; on the left, the old castle of Hurst, and the long extent of the forest shores of Hampshire, with the picturesque town of Lymington rising among the green trees and green fields. I had, I confess, a feeling—grand as I had to appear—that I knew less than anybody else on board about affairs nautical; but modesty is the frequent companion of merit, and though I was very little, I might have been remarkably good.
By this time one of the prisoners began to come to himself, and his astonishment was only equalled by his alarm when, on sitting up and rubbing his eyes, he found himself surrounded by strange faces, and discovered that the craft was running up the Solent Channel. My uniform at once told him the truth.
"Where's Jim?" he asked, on seeing only his drunken companion near him.
"Jim—I don't know who you mean," answered Thole. "If it was any one you left on deck, master, why, all I can say is, he wasn't there when we boarded you."
On hearing this announcement, he started to his feet, instantly throwing off all appearance of drunkenness, except that his eye was haggard and his cheek discoloured. He was a man of about fifty, of a stout build and a weather-beaten, bronzed face, rather full and good-humoured, certainly not giving one the notion that he was an habitual drunkard. His hair was somewhat long, and dishevelled and grizzled, from exposure to the atmosphere.
"What! Jim not on board?" he exclaimed, rushing on deck. "Where is my boy—what has happened to him?"
He stood for a few seconds leaning against the companion-hatch, while his eye scanned the condition of the vessel, and he seemed instinctively to comprehend what had happened.
"Where is Jim?" he repeated, in a hollow voice.
"I don't know, master," answered one of our men, whom he seemed to address. "We only found you two below. If there was another of you, he must have been washed overboard while you lay drunk in the cabin."
"Drunk!" he ejaculated; "then, my son, I've murdered you." As he uttered these words he sprang to the side, and would have thrown himself overboard, had not Thole, who just then came on deck, caught him by the legs and dragged him forcibly back. The unhappy man struggled violently in his endeavour to perpetrate his intention. "Jim, Jim, my son! you gone—gone for ever; how can I go home and face your mother, my boy?" he cried, his bosom heaving with the passion raging within. Then he turned frantically to us, swearing oaths too frightful to repeat. "You've been murdering him, some of you, you bloody-handed king's officers. I know you of old. It's little you care for the life of a fellow-creature. Where is he, I say? I left him on deck sound and well, as fine a lad as ever stepped. How could he have gone overboard? He hadn't touched a drop; he was as sober as any one of you; but I know how it was, you chased him and he wouldn't give in—he stood at the helm like a man; so you, you cowardly hounds, shot him down as if he were a brute. There's his blood on the deck—the brave lad's blood, and you dabbling your feet in it—you, his murderers,—and laughing at me, his father."
Thus the unhappy man went raving on, conjuring up, in his excited imagination, scenes the most dreadful. Of course we heeded not his raving abuse, for we pitied him most sincerely. There was now no doubt that, while the father and his smuggling companion were drunk below, the son had been knocked overboard. In vain had the voice of the poor lad implored aid from those whose brutal intoxication prevented them even from hearing his death-shriek ere he sunk for ever. It was with the greatest difficulty we could hold the wretched man as we dragged him below and lashed him into one of the standing bed-places. He there still continued raving as before, now calling on his son to come to him, and then accusing us of his murder. His cries and groans at last awoke the other man out of his drunken trance, but it was some time before he could comprehend what had happened. He was not a father, and when at length he came to his senses, he, with brutal indifference abused his companion for disturbing him. As I stood over the skylight which had been got off to give air to the little stifling cabin, I heard him growl out, "Jim's gone, has he? his own fault then, not to keep a better look-out. It's he, then, who's brought us into this scrape; and I don't see why you should make such a jaw for what can't be helped. There now, old man, just belay all that, and let me finish my snooze. We can't hang for it, you know; there, there, now,"—and he actually turned on his side and went off to sleep again. At length the father of the drowned lad wore himself out and fell off, it seemed, into a sort of stupor.
"I never knew no good come of smuggling," observed Thole, rather sententiously. "What they makes they spends as fast as they gets, and no one's the better for it."
Nobody had a better right than had he to know this, for he had been somewhat addicted to the practice in his youth, and had in consequence been sent on board a man-of-war. The flood and fair wind carried us right into Portsmouth Harbour, where I dropped my anchor and pulled on shore to report my arrival to the custom-house authorities. I was in one respect sorry that my cruise was over, because I was obliged to descend from my rank as commander to that of midshipman; but as I hoped some day to regain it, I did not grieve much about it, especially as I expected to be soon able to set off and pay Larry a visit. The two smugglers were sent to prison; one afterwards entered on board of a man-of-war; the unhappy father died raving mad in the hospital, calling himself the murderer of his son.
Thus ended what I may consider my first cruise.
MYERS THE SMUGGLER—I LEARN TO PLAY THE FIDDLE—SMELL GUNPOWDER—ACTION WITH A LUGGER—LEFT IN THE LURCH.
The cutter soon after came in, and after seeing my men safe on board her, I got leave for a day to pay a visit to Larry. On ringing, I heard him stumping downstairs to open the door. When he saw me, he could scarcely contain his delight; and forgetting etiquette and all rules and precedents, he seized me in his arms as if I had been a baby, and almost squeezed the breath out of my body. Though I had not been away six weeks, he vowed that I had grown wonderfully, and looked like a man already. Mrs Harrigan was equally complimentary, and I could not help feeling myself a person of mighty importance. I was very glad to find that my old friend was perfectly contented with his wife, and that he made himself very useful to her, so that there was every prospect of their being comfortable together. The house was full of lodgers; but there was a little room which they insisted on my occupying. They themselves lived in a back parlour, where I spent the evening with them. I slept at their house, and the next morning returned on board the cutter. We were ordered to keep an especial look-out for Myers, whose lugger was reported to have run more cargoes than any free-trader among the vast numbers engaged in the illicit traffic. She belonged to Beere, a small town on the Dorsetshire coast, in West Bay. It is a pretty, quiet little place, and consists of one long, broad street, built in the centre of a valley reaching close down to the water's edge, with white cliffs on either side of it. The lugger was often seen off there; but we could not then touch her, as she was never found with anything in her to enable us to prove that she was engaged in smuggling. Myers, whenever on these occasions we paid him a visit, was always the politest of men; and a stranger might suppose that he had a vast regard for all king's officers, and for us especially; and yet in reality no man hated us more cordially, or would more readily have worked us harm.
Cruising after smugglers is not the noblest work, perhaps, in which one can be engaged; but it is necessary, not altogether unprofitable, and at times highly exciting. In the war time, the smugglers had large armed vessels, which set the king's cruisers at defiance, and seldom failed to show fight. When I was in the Serpent, they were frequently armed; but their business was to run, and they never fired unless in hopes of knocking away the spars of a pursuer, or, at the last extremity, to defend themselves.
I should be very ungrateful to old Hanks if I omitted to mention his kindness to me, and the pains he took to give me instruction in my profession. Among other accomplishments, he taught me one of which he was not himself a little proud.
"D'Arcy," said he one day to me, "I've a regard for you, and I'll put you in the way, my lad, of gaining your bread, should other trades fail."
"What is it, Hanks?" I asked. "I am glad to learn anything you will teach me."
"It is to perform on the violin, my boy," he answered. "I learned the art for the reason I mention. I have never yet been called upon to gain a livelihood by it; but I do not know how soon I may be, if things don't mend with me."
"Is it to learn the fiddle you mean?" said I. "Faith, with all my heart, Hanks; and the sooner I begin then, the better."
Hanks was delighted at gaining so willing a scholar, though I suspect our shipmates would rather have had us both securely moored at the bottom of Fiddler's Race, off Yarmouth. Whenever duty permitted us, our fiddles were never idle. My performance was not very scientific, certainly; but I learned to play, after some months' scraping, many a merry tune, such as would make the men kick up their heels irresistibly when they heard it.
"There, D'Arcy," said my kind instructor, at the end of the tune; "now, my boy, whatever happens, and wherever you go, provided you can save your arms and your fiddle, you'll be a welcome guest, and will never want a morsel to put in your mouth."
I found his words true; and on parting, he gave me one of his two fiddles, which he valued as much as any piece of property he possessed.—But I am forestalling events. We had been cruising about for several days in search of Myers, when one morning at daybreak, we found ourselves in the midst of a dense fog. It was literally so thick that one could not see from one end of the cutter to the other. Just the sort of weather, indeed, when, without unusual care, vessels are apt to run into each other. There was about wind sufficient to send us gliding through the water at the rate of three to four knots an hour; but the sea was perfectly smooth,—kept down, it seemed, by the very weight of the fog. One hand was stationed forward on the look-out, and two others on either quarter, to guard against our being run into, or our running into something else. The wind was about west, and our whereabouts was as nearly as could be half-way between Portland Bill and Berry Head. We were all on deck in our thick Flushing coats, for the fog in its effects was nearly like a shower-bath in regard to wetting us, and it hung in large drops like heavy dew on many a tarpaulin hat, bushy whisker, and shaggy jacket; while the sails were stiff and wet as if it had been raining hard all night. It was not a pleasant morning, but it might certainly have been very much worse in a hundred ways. We ran on for a couple of hours, with our main-boom over the larboard quarter, the tack triced up, and the peak-halyards eased off, for we had no reason to hurry. It was just about striking five-bells in the morning-watch, when, as I happened to cast my eyes ahead, I thought I saw a dark object looming through the mist. The look-out saw her at the same moment. "A sail on the starboard bow," he sung out in a low voice—for revenue men learn to be cautious. On hearing this, the Commander stepped forward, and I followed him. We could just distinguish through the mist the three sails of a long, low lugger, standing close-hauled to the northward.
"By Jupiter, there's the Kitty at last!" exclaimed my uncle, rubbing his hands. "We'll have her this time, however."
There could be little doubt that if she was the Kitty, her people would be keeping too bright a look-out not to have seen us; but probably they fancied we had not observed them, for they did not alter their course, which would have carried them clear across our bows. For another minute we stood on as before, thus rapidly drawing nearer the stranger. During this time, our guns were cast loose, loaded and primed, ready to fire, in case she should prove to be the smuggler, and refuse to heave-to.
"Let the mainsail jibe over; down with the tack; hoist the foresail," sung out the Commander in a brisk tone. "Be smart, my lads; set the gaff-topsail. Stand by, to haul in the mainsheet."
These orders were issued just as the lugger was about to cross our bows; but our helm being put down, prevented her from accomplishing this purpose; and a shot, sent skimming along the sea ahead of her, showed her that we were wide awake. All hands who had time to turn their heads in her direction, were peering at her through the fog; and the general opinion was that she was no other than the long-sought-for Kitty. To the shot she paid not the slightest attention, hoping to forereach us, probably, and to get away in the fog. The chances were much in her favour, unless we could wing her, for some little time to come; but after that, we should get her into the bay, and then we might jam her down into the bight, and catch her.
"Give her another shot across her fore-foot, Mr Waddilove," cried the Commander. "If she does not pay attention to that, fire right into her, and we will try to knock away some of her spars."
"Ay, ay, sir," answered the gunner, right willingly, as he hurried to perform his duty.
She did not seem to regard the second shot with more respect than the first. There was now no doubt that she was a smuggler, and that she knew her to be a royal cruiser, but whether the Kitty or not still remained to be discovered. We accordingly, without ceremony, set to work in earnest to make her a target for our shot; but though we believed that we hulled her several times, we could not manage to knock away any of her rigging or spars. Fast as we fancied the Serpent, the chase, whatever she was, could, we soon found, show as fleet a pair of heels; and this made us doubly anxious to wing her, lest, by the fog coming down thicker, she might disappear altogether. Not a sound was heard from her except the sharp pat as our shot at intervals struck her; nor did she offer other than the passive resistance of refusing to heave-to. At last, so faint was her outline as she glided onwards on our starboard bow, that I could scarcely help fancying that we were attacking a mere unsubstantial phantom. It was only from the large size she appeared to be, that one could judge of her nearness to us. For some minutes we ran on without a syllable being uttered, except the necessary words of command for loading and firing the guns.
"Now let me see if I can hit the fellow," exclaimed Hanks, growing impatient at our want of success; and stooping down and taking a steady look along the gun, he fired. A fearful shriek was the answer sent back from the lugger's deck. She was standing on as before, her rigging untouched, and her hull apparently unharmed. That sound must have been the death-cry of some of her crew. An almost solemn silence followed, and then, as if slumbering hitherto, the fury of the smugglers burst forth, and a shower of shot from great guns and musketry came flying about us. It was evident that she was prepared to resist to the last. We now found that we had been under-rating her strength. Our two other guns were run over to the starboard side, the small-arms were got up on deck and loaded, and cutlasses were buckled on, and all hands not required to work the guns began blazing away with the muskets.
"How do you like the smell of gunpowder, my boy?" asked Hanks, as he was driving down his ramrod.
"As for the smell, I can't say that I have any objection to it," I replied, laughing; "and for the shot, they don't seem likely to do us much harm."
"Don't be too sure of that till the guns of the enemy are silenced," he replied.
Scarcely had he spoken, when I heard a deep groan; and oh, how my heart turned sick within me, as I saw a poor fellow writhing in agony on the deck. A round-shot had torn away his chest and ribs. He gave a few convulsive struggles, and all was over. It was the first time I had ever seen death in any form, or even blood spilt, and for the moment I felt so faint that I thought I should have fallen; but Hanks roused me by calling for a loaded musket, and in a few moments those dreadful sensations went off, never again to return. Two of his messmates drew the dead body out of the way, and then returned to their gun without apparently taking further notice of the matter. Our Commander was all life and ardour, urging on the men to activity, while he kept a watchful eye on our opponent, to take advantage of any accident which might happen to her, or to follow any change in her course. It is difficult to describe the scene our decks presented. Though our guns were light, the men, from habit, had stripped themselves to the waist, and each one had bound a silk handkerchief round his loins and another round his head; their figures, even at a little distance, being obscured by the thick fog and smoke from their guns and the small-arms. All the guns were over on the starboard side, and those not required to work them or tend to the sails were either loading or taking aim over the bulwarks at our phantom foe. I did not dare to look at the dead body which lay near me, and was praying that no one else might be hit, when I heard a sharp tap, and old Thole, who was standing with his musket at his shoulder by my side, fell to the deck. I stooped down, shuddering, for I expected to see such another ghastly spectacle as the other poor wretch had presented; but he looked as calm as possible, as if nothing was the matter with him, and I began to wonder why he had fallen. He had not even uttered a cry or groan.
"What is the matter, Thole; are you hit?" I asked.
Hanks heard me speak, and seeing Thole on the deck, he knelt down by his side and took his hand.
"There's no use, my lad, in talking to the poor fellow, for he'll never speak another word," he said, in a calm tone, as if nothing strange or awful had occurred; and rising quickly, he seized a musket and recommenced firing away at the lugger with renewed earnestness.
"Come, my lads, fire away; we must put a stopper on this work as soon as possible," he exclaimed.
"Hurrah! see, we've shot away his mizen-halyards."
I did not see it, for I could make nothing out through the fog but a dark mass moving along on our beam. The order had been given to keep the helm up and to stand by the mainsheet, in expectation of the lugger's running off the wind, when, quick almost as thought, the mizen-halyards were spliced, and the sail was again hoisted up.
"Never mind, my lads; try and wing him again," cried my uncle.
The men answered with a cheer, and several of our shot told. Unhappily, two more of our people were wounded, though not badly; and as yet we were no nearer victory than we had been at the commencement of the fight. I heard my uncle tell Hanks that he had some hopes that the smugglers were not aware how deep we were running into the bay.
"I'm afraid, sir, those fellows are far too wide awake not to know exactly where they are," answered Hanks.
"I rather am inclined to think that they have some dodge or other they intend to practise if they can; and if we don't soon manage to stop them, they will be wishing us good morning without our leave."
For an instant after he spoke there was a cessation of firing, and then came a whole broadside of great guns and small-arms concentrated in one focus, crashing among our rigging. Several of the shot told—the head of the mainsail was riddled, and down came our peak, the halyards shot away in two places. The smugglers were not long in discovering our disaster and the advantage they had gained, and a loud derisive cheer showed us the triumph they felt. Without the loss of a moment, hands were sent aloft to reeve fresh halyards; but before the peak could be got up, the lugger had shot ahead of us, and was rapidly edging up to windward. Every exertion was made again to set the mainsail; but as we were swaying up the peak, another iron shower came rattling among us. One of the hands aloft was hit, and would have fallen on deck, had not another caught him and helped him down the rigging. It was the last broadside the smuggler fired, and the next instant we saw him shoot by our bows, and before we could get a gun over to bear on him, he disappeared in the fog to the northward. Once well to windward he would have a decided advantage over us on a long stretch. Luffing as close to the wind as we could, we stood on for a few minutes in the hope of again seeing him; and then we tacked, on the chance, should he also have tacked, as he probably would do, of overhauling him on the other board. We now more earnestly than ever wished the fog to clear away to give us a wider view; but yet minute after minute passed away, and still it would pertinaciously hang down over us like a thick canopy, shutting out the surrounding world. My uncle and Hanks, who both had seen much of gun-shot wounds, did their best to doctor the poor fellows who had been hit; the bodies of the two men who were killed, were placed side by side abaft the mast, and covered up with a union jack; and we then piped to breakfast. I had not recovered my appetite, which the scenes I had witnessed during the morning had taken away. Hanks rallied me on my sensibility. "Why, my boy, you should get over all those sort of feelings at a leap, or you'll never be fit for the service. I remember once upon a time having some of the queer sensations you talk of; but now, whatever happens, I never let it interfere with my meals, provided I can get the food to make them of." Instigated by his example and remarks, I took a little tea, and then a slice of beef and bread; and I confess that in a few minutes I began to experience my usual midshipman-like state of perfect health, with perhaps a little weight about the region of the heart, as if some calamity had happened to me, but that very soon wore off. We were speedily on deck again, looking out for the chase; while in the meantime the carpenter and most of the crew were busily employed in repairing damages. The sun as he rose higher in the sky, was every instant gaining power, and in almost an hour after we lost sight of the smuggler, he victoriously darted through the mass of vapour which in thick wreaths rolled away before it, our hitherto confined horizon every instant increasing, while the bright beams of the luminary struck down on our blood-stained deck. No vessel, however, appeared in the direction we expected; but as Hanks was glancing round the horizon, his eye fell on a sail, hull down to the eastward. "There she is," he exclaimed; "I should know her among a hundred other craft. D'Arcy, run below and tell the Commander that to my belief the Kitty is in sight down to leeward."
My uncle had gone to take his breakfast. I descended to the cabin. I found him sitting with his face resting on his hands on the table. He did not notice my entrance. I heard him groan deeply.
"I hope, sir, you are not ill or wounded," said I; for I thought he must be hurt.
"No, lad, no," he answered; "but it's a sad thing to have so many of one's men killed and hurt by a rascally smuggler. But we must try and catch the fellow, and then get the doctor's aid as fast as we can for those to whom it may yet be of use. But what do you come for?"
I made my report. In an instant he shook off the feeling which was oppressing him, and springing on deck, he ordered the helm to be kept up and the mainsheet eased off till we were standing after the supposed smuggler. This was our best point of sailing, and probably the lugger's worst; at all events that rig of vessel has generally the greatest advantage on a wind. Our square-sail, square-topsail, and every sail the cutter could carry was now set, to overtake the chase; and the breeze freshening as the day advanced, we bowled away at a famous rate.
"Do you think, Hanks, we have a chance of catching her?" I asked, as the old mate and I were intently watching her.
"As to catching her, depends upon circumstances. If we get the strength of the breeze before her, and she doesn't hide away in another fog; but she has a long start, and we are out of luck this time, to my mind. However, why is it, D'Arcy, you are so anxious to have another brush with the chap? I thought you had had sufficient taste of his quality."
"To punish him for killing poor Thole there," answered I, for I felt very bitter against the smugglers for the harm they had done.
"I thought so," answered Hanks. "It's the way with most people. Before a blow is struck, they are all peaceable enough; but the moment blood is drawn, they are all as blood-thirsty as a savage."
"I hope you don't think me a blood-thirsty savage," said I.
"I wouldn't trust you, D'Arcy, my boy," he replied. "When the blood boils, all the ferocity of the heart bubbles up to the top, and we feel more like wild beasts than men."
"Are we gaining on the chase, Mr Hanks, think you?" sung out my uncle at this moment.
"A little, sir; but the sky has got so much clearer thereaway in the last half-hour, that perhaps she only appears nearer," was the answer; and then Hanks went aft, to walk the quarter-deck with his Commander.
There is off Portland Bill a race, or overfall of water, caused by a shallow and rocky bottom, where the sea at times breaks so violently that vessels have been known to be swamped, and to go down amid the turmoil, with scarcely a possibility of any of the hapless crew escaping. During south-westerly gales, and with an ebb tide, the race runs the highest; but sometimes, even in moderate weather, without any apparent cause, there is a strange chopping and leaping of the sea, which makes it dangerous for a small vessel to pass through. The faint outline of the well-known headland was now seen on our larboard bow, and it was pretty evident that the lugger was getting her starboard tacks aboard, to haul off round the outside of the race, if not to stand away towards the French coast. We, accordingly, had to alter our course after her; but I suspected that there was no very great chance of our being able to overtake her. Still we stood on, our main hope being that another cruiser might fall in with her, and turn her again towards us. After the fog had disappeared, the sky overhead became beautifully clear; but, as the day drew on, clouds began to gather, and by the time I went down to dinner they were coming up pretty thick from the south-west and south, rather an unusual circumstance after the sort of morning we had had. While we were discussing our meal, the cutter heeled over, and nearly sent our scanty dinner-service away to leeward.
"Hillo, what's the matter now?" I asked.
"Matter! why the breeze is freshening, to be sure," said old Growl, our acting master. "Look out for your plates, and when you go on deck it will be time enough to learn all about it."
Old Growl was in many respects not dissimilar to Hanks. He was of the same age, if not older; as fond of spirits, if not fonder; and as addicted, indeed I think more so, to grumbling. He was not a gentleman by birth, education, or manners; but he was kind of heart, and I liked him very well. I think I remarked that all the officers were very old for their standing. Growl's hair was white, and so was Scriven's, the clerk in charge. I was young enough to be the son of any of them, in fact, and was treated almost as such. Fortunately, my uncle did his best to throw responsibility on my shoulders, so that, in spite of the pains they took to spoil me, I gradually learned to think and act for myself. Dinner was over, for the best of reasons—that we had eaten up all our boiled beef and potatoes, and the greater portion of our last cheese, and I was thinking how much pleasanter it was to be sitting there quietly, and nibbling biscuit and sipping my glass of grog, than standing up to be shot at, as I had to do all the morning, when Hanks, whose watch it had been on deck, came below. His eye immediately fell on my tumbler of grog, which was, I own, stiffer than usual; and without saying a word, he emptied half the contents into another, and drinking them off, filled my glass with water. I dared not remonstrate, for I had been transgressing his orders in taking more than the quantity he allowed me.
"Neil, my child," he used to say, "drink is a bad thing; and it grows upon a fellow. If you were to take your full allowance now, by the time you grow up you would be a drunkard, so for your sake I shall swallow your grog; besides, you know, what is bad for a little chap like you, is good for an old worn-out follow like me, who wants something to keep his soul alive in his body."
I did not exactly understand his reasoning; but as, notwithstanding his peculiarities, I was fond of my old messmate, I was well content to yield him up part of my allowance, for the sake of keeping him alive.
"Well, Hanks, are we gaining on the chase?" I asked.
"No, boy; but our ill-luck has gained upon us," he replied. "The wind has taken it into its head to veer round to the south-west, and given the rascally lugger an advantage she doesn't deserve. Boy, bring me dinner."
The boy who acted as steward brought him in his portion of beef, which had been saved, and I followed Growl, whose watch it was on deck. The sea had got up considerably, and the cutter was heeling over to the rapidly increasing breeze. An exclamation from Growl made me look anxiously ahead for the lugger.
"Where is she?" he asked of the quartermaster, who had charge of the deck.
"Just slipped into that bank of clouds gathering in the southward, sir," was the answer.
"Can any of you see her," he inquired of the people on deck.
"No, sir, no; not a sign of her," said several voices.
"Then we shan't see her again this cruise," he exclaimed.
No more we did. We followed her, notwithstanding, for some hours, when darkness approaching and the wind increasing, we were obliged to bear up and run into Weymouth, where we anchored at a late hour in the night. The next day we buried our two shipmates, and a surgeon came off to attend to the wounded ones, whom he took on shore with him. A gale got up, which lasted three days, during which time we remained at anchor, ready, as soon as it should moderate, to put to sea again in quest of Myers. The engagement with the smuggler made a good deal of noise, we heard. Some said that we ought to have taken her; others, that our Commander was not a man to leave undone what could have been done. However, as no one had any doubt that Myers was in command of the lugger, a large reward was offered to whoever would give information that might lead to his apprehension, and a still larger to the person who should place him, bound, in the hands of justice. One evening, after dark, a small boat came alongside, with a single man in her. I was on deck.
"Is Lieutenant O'Flaherty on board?" asked the man.
I told him he was.
"Then," said the stranger, springing on board, "take this note to him, young gentleman, and say the bearer waits to see him."
The stranger was of a strongly-built, stout figure, and had the appearance of a rough seafaring man. I took a paper he handed me into the cabin. My uncle read it attentively two or three times over, as if puzzled to comprehend its meaning.
"I must see the rascal, and hear what he has to say," he muttered. "But I never like to trust a traitor. Show the man below, D'Arcy."
I did as I was ordered. The man bowed as he entered, and then I saw him take a chair and seat himself, without being asked to do so. I longed to hear what he had to say, so I lingered in the cabin, as if waiting for orders. The stranger looked at me hard.
"What I have to say is for your ear, Lieutenant; so I can't speak with another present, though he is but a little one," he remarked, in a tone I thought remarkably impudent.
"Neil, go on deck," said my uncle.
In about half an hour the stranger appeared on deck, and without saying a word, jumped into his boat and pulled away. I observed that he did not pull directly for the shore, but that he steered for a considerable distance to the northward before attempting to land, thus not allowing any one who might meet him to suspect that he had visited us. The mysterious stranger afforded considerable matter for surmise among all on board, the general opinion being that he had brought off some important information, which might lead to the capture of Myers or of some of his smuggling confederates.
EXPEDITION ON SHORE—THE INFORMER'S FATE—THE SMUGGLERS CAVE—JACK STRETCHER—THE SMUGGLER'S REVENGE—OUR DREADFUL POSITION.
The Serpent was again in West Bay, just near enough to Portland Bill to be distinguished by any one looking out for her; and she was standing with a light breeze from the north-east, as if bound across Channel. We stood on till dusk, and then tacked and worked back into the bay, till we got close in with the Dorsetshire coast. The cutter was now hove-to, and the boats were lowered and manned, all hands being well-armed.
"Mr Hanks," said my uncle, as he came on deck, "you will take charge of the ship, and keep her as near as possible to where she now is: I expect to be absent about an hour."
Hanks gave the usual "Ay, ay, sir," and then continued the duty he was about in superintending the lowering the boats. I seized the opportunity, while he was waiting for the final preparations, to go up and speak to my uncle.
"May I go, sir?" I asked. "If there is anything to be done, I should like to see it."
"We shall only find hard knocks and little glory," he replied. "However, a midshipman should see everything. Can you spare Mr D'Arcy, Mr Hanks?"
"Oh yes, sir, if you please," said Hanks, laughing.
I had at first felt very grand at the way my uncle spoke of me; but there was something in Hanks' tone of voice which considerably lowered my pride. However, I gained my object, and jumping into the first gig with my Commander, the order was given to shove off, and away we pulled towards the shore.
There was no moon, but the sky was clear, and the stars overhead shone brightly forth into the calm, silent water beneath them. I never saw the water smoother; and the little wind there was came off the shore, gently sighing as it passed over the dry grass and low bushes which fringed the edge of the cliffs above our heads. Not a word was spoken, and our oars were muffled, as we pulled along shore, a considerable distance to the westward of where we left the cutter. There were three boats, so we all knew it was possible some considerable opposition might be expected.
After we had pulled about three or four miles, our Commander ordered two of the boats to remain off shore, the crews resting on their oars, till they should see a blue light burned; they were then to give way as fast as they could, and support us if necessary. We then pulled slowly in, our people being told to make as little noise as possible on beaching the boat.
"Neil," said my uncle, "we have a chance of catching that accomplished rascal, Myers, through the means of another rascal, who has offered to betray him, and who is to meet us off that point yonder, and to conduct us where Myers and his gang are to be found. If we come to blows at any time, just keep behind me, boy, and don't be after getting yourself killed or hurt, or I'll never take you to see any more fun, remember that."
It was clear, by this remark, that my uncle had not forgotten the old country; and I promised to obey his directions.
In a few minutes the bow of the boat touched the shore, and we, by aid of a boat-hook, jumped on the sand. Ordering two of the men to accompany him, and giving directions to the others to keep silence, and on no account to quit the boat, our commander advanced towards the foot of the cliff. We went on some little way without meeting anybody.
"It is very extraordinary," he observed, in a low voice. "I cannot have mistaken the spot or the hour. It was just here the man Langdon appointed to meet me." We halted for some minutes and listened attentively, but not a sound was to be heard except the low, soft, and musical lap of the tide as it glided by the shingly beach. Above us was the lofty cliff beetling over our heads, its dark outline well-defined against the brilliant sky.
"Something, I'm afraid, is wrong," remarked my uncle; "or can the fellow have been imposing on me?"
Having waited for some time in vain, we again advanced. We had not gone many paces when a figure was seen leaning against the cliffs. The person, apparently, from his not moving at our approach, was fast asleep.
"That must be the fellow Langdon," said my uncle. "Why, what can he be about?" On this he whistled twice, very softly, but there was no answer. We then hurried up to the spot where the figure was observed. It was no optical illusion; there certainly was a person, but he took no notice of our presence. Our two men then went up to him, thinking to awake him; but as they took him by the arms he slipped from their grasp, and fell to the ground. An exclamation of horror made us hurry up to them. It was a corpse we saw. A dark spot on the forehead, from which a stream of blood, rapidly coagulating, oozed forth. His singed hair, and the black marks on one side of his face, showed how the deed had been done. It was evident that he had been shot by a pistol placed close to his head.
"He hasn't been dead above a quarter of an hour," observed Stretcher, one of the men, feeling his heart. "He is still warm, sir."
"Then his murderers cannot be far off," said my uncle. "I'll land our people, and we will hunt them down. The poor wretch could scarcely expect any other fate were he discovered."
"What—do you know the man, sir?" I asked. "Yes, he is the informer, Langdon; the very man who was to have conducted us to Myers' retreat," was the answer.
"Here, sir, is a bit of card tied round the man's neck, and close to him was this pistol and handkerchief," said Tomkins, who had placed the body on the sands, bringing him the articles.
"Very well; do you take charge of those things, Tomkins, and on no account lose them. D'Arcy, do you go back with Sims to the boat; burn a blue light close down to the water, shade it by the boat's side so that it may not be seen from the cliffs above; and then, as soon as the boats come in, order two hands to remain in each, and bring the rest up here."
"Ay, ay, sir," I replied with alacrity, for I was always proud of having any orders given me by my uncle; and away I and Sims hurried towards the boat. We had not got many paces before a shout from Jack Stretcher made us turn back, and at the same moment several men came leaping down by a narrow path in the side of the cliff.
"Run in—they are smugglers—run in!" cried Sims, setting the example, and shouting to our people in the boat. It was the wisest thing he could do to get help, for the man was no coward; but before I had time to think whether or not I could run down to my uncle, I found myself knocked down by one of the foremost of the new comers, with a not very complimentary remark to midshipmen in general, and to me in particular. What became of Sims I could not tell, for the blow on my head made me feel inclined to keep my eyes shut. When, after a moment or so, I attempted to rise, I found myself seized by a couple of men. My arms were lashed behind me in a very uncomfortable way, and which reminded me of the necessity of not tumbling down, if I was anxious to preserve the regular outline of my nose; while a handkerchief was secured tightly over my eyes. Directly afterwards I heard a scuffle, and my uncle's voice among that of many others; blows were struck, and two or three pistols were fired; and then there appeared more scuffling, and all was quiet except the suppressed murmur of apparently many voices as I was dragged forward by the people who held me. We went along the seashore for some way, and then up the cliffs; and next we descended, and I was led along what seemed a narrow path by the careful way in which my conductors stepped. We went over certainly more than a mile of ground, and then we halted till other parties came up, and I was led down a gentle declivity on a soft, sandy soil; but I no longer felt the light cool wind blowing on my cheek, from which I conjectured we were leaving the open air.
Scarcely a word had been spoken to me the whole of this time by any one of the party. I once ventured to ask my conductors where they were going to take me; but the answer I got in a low growl—"Hold your tongue, you young whelp!" and the click of a pistol lock—made me unwilling to enter on another question. I was more seriously alarmed about my uncle. For myself I feared nothing, as I did not think that the smugglers would hurt a young boy like me; but from the manner of their proceeding, and the few words they let fall of concentrated hate and anger, I was afraid that, supposing they were the crew of the Kitty, they might wreck their vengeance on his head and murder him. I had become deeply attached to him. I felt miserable at the thought of his danger, and I earnestly, though silently, prayed for his preservation. After we had gone a little way, I was almost convinced, from the damp, stagnant feel of the atmosphere, that we were in a cavern or a large vault of some sort or other. I was confirmed in this opinion by hearing a voice before me say, "Stoop down your head or you will hit the rock."
I thought he addressed me, so I bent down as if I were passing under a very low archway, when my conductors laughed, and one observed to the other, "The youngster thinks himself a giant; howsomever, he won't ever be much bigger than he now is, will he, Jim?"
"No; he's nibbled his last biscuit," growled out his companion. "Come, heave ahead, master."
On hearing these last observations I had stopped, scarcely able to make my feet move on; for I thought the villains were going to treat me as they had treated the poor wretch we had just found, for I had no doubt they were his murderers. They again urged me forward, and I presently found myself in a place surrounded by a number of people—at least so I judged by the suppressed hum of voices which I heard.
"Cast off the handkerchiefs from the prisoners' eyes," said a voice in an authoritative tone.
I felt a fellow fumbling at the handkerchief round my head; but pretending, I suspect, that he could not undo it, he forced it down over my face, to the considerable damage of my nose, and then, giving his knuckles a turn with the dexterity of a Thug, very nearly throttled me. When I had somewhat recovered, and the stars had done flying about before my eyes, I perceived that I was in a large cave, standing at the foot of a rude table, at the further end of which sat a powerfully-built, bold-looking man, dressed in a nautical costume, while a number of other men, mostly seamen, sat on either side of him.
I looked anxiously round for my uncle, and my mind was much relieved to see him standing, unhurt apparently, a few paces from me. However, my satisfaction was much mitigated when, being able to distinguish objects more clearly, I perceived that there were two men standing on either side of him, with pistols in their hands; and it instantly occurred to me that they were there to act the part of executioners, and to blow his brains out, at the command of the ruffian I saw sitting as judge in this lawless court. We recognised each other at the same moment; and if I could judge by the expression of his countenance, he had more compassion for me than fear for himself. He made no attempt to speak to me, but instantly resumed his former undaunted attitude, with his arms folded on his bosom, and his eye resting on the leader of the smugglers.
But there was another object which was, indeed, well calculated to fill me with horror. It was the corpse of the murdered man, stretched out on some rough planks, resting on four casks placed on end; the face uncovered and bloody; the eyes staring wide open, for no one had taken the trouble to close them; and the features distorted by the wound or, perhaps, by fear of the fate which he saw prepared for him when his murderers appeared. The corpse was close to me, and I could not keep my eyes from it, dreadful as it was. It seemed to possess a terrible fascination; and every time I turned my eyes away, it attracted them back again; so that, wild and remarkable as was the whole scene, that horrible object is to this day the most prominent to my mental vision, and all the rest is but an indistinct background to the picture.
I found that Jack Stretcher was close to me, on my left side, also in custody of two smugglers. The cave itself was a complete storehouse of goods of every description. There were arms—swords, pistols, and muskets; and bales of silks, boxes of laces and ribbons, and casks of spirits: indeed, everything with a high duty on it was here collected, ready to be sent up to London or through the country, to the highly respectable shops which dealt in such things. I had not time, however, to make many observations, when the fierce ruffian at the head of the table commenced the proceedings by inquiring who we were and what was our object in coming on shore that night.
"You know perfectly well who we are, and with regard to our object on shore, you certainly are not qualified to question me," answered my uncle, with a firm voice.
"Then I must answer for you," replied the smuggler. "You came, instigated by a wretch whose body lies there, under the hopes of taking me and my men in our nest. He has received his reward. The very moment he was thinking he had got us secure, a pistol bullet went through his head. What do you think you deserve?"
My uncle did not answer.
"Speak, and answer me!" exclaimed the ruffian, levelling a pistol at him.
I tried to spring forward to throw myself before him, but the smugglers held me back, though the action, instead of making them angry, seemed to gain we more respect from them, as they held me less rudely than before, and no longer amused themselves by twisting the handkerchief, Thug fashion, round my gullet.
My uncle looked calmly at the smuggler and answered, "I came on shore in pursuit of my lawful duty, to apprehend you, or any others, breaking the revenue laws. Further than that, I have no feeling of ill-will against you, or any of those connected with you."
"Very fine talking, Mr Lieutenant; but that won't do here. You came to injure us; there's no doubt about that, from what you own yourself; and you must take the consequences."
"You will suffer for it, if you injure me or any of my people!" exclaimed my uncle, indignantly.
"We don't want to hurt any of your people; but you and that young cub of an officer must be prepared to die this very night. Your man there we don't intend to hurt; and he may, if he likes, join us, which he probably will be glad enough to do; if not, we carry him away over the water, far enough from this."
"No, that I won't, you cold-hearted scoundrels, you!" exclaimed Jack Stretcher, vehemently. "My Commander there, I tell you, is a truer and braver man than any one of you; and you to think of murdering him because he is doing his duty, and that young innocent boy, his nephew—a mere baby to any of you,—it just shows what a white-livered crew you smugglers are; but, howsomdever, if you'll let them go without harm, you may make a shot fast to my feet and heave me over the cliffs outside here, or do what you like with me; you can but kill me, and I don't fear you—so heave ahead, my hearties."
This address of Jack Stretcher created some considerable sensation among the smugglers; but their chief seemed immovable. What surprised me most was, that they were not in the slightest degree enraged at the abuse showered so liberally on their heads; but, on the contrary, they infinitely admired him for his fearlessness and fidelity to his superior.
"What you say, my man, can't be done; those two die, for conspiring with a traitor to betray us. We shall keep you shut up for some time, and then carry you over to America, perhaps, or some distant part; but we shan't take your life; so now you know what you have to expect. Take those two off, and heave them over High-Peak Cliff. Be sharp about it, now."
Before my uncle could speak a word or attempt to free himself, he was dragged back and pinioned, and I was treated in the same way; our eyes were tightly bandaged, as before; and we were forced out of the cavern by a large body of the smugglers.
"Never fear, sir," shouted Stretcher. "They'll hang for it yet, and I shall live to see you revenged."
Extraordinary as it may appear, I had no particular dread of the fate which was awaiting me. Perhaps it was a presentiment that I should escape. I cannot now explain the cause of the feeling; indeed, at the time, I could not probably have done so. I thought much more of my brave uncle being thus brought to an untimely end, and of the grief of my sweet young aunt at Ryde, when she should hear of his barbarous murder. The atrocity of the deed was increased by the cold-blooded manner in which the wretches proceeded, by dragging us to their pretended court, and then condemning us, with scarcely even the mockery of a trial. Indeed the affair seemed so unusual, that I could hardly believe in the reality. My most absorbing feeling was bitter indignation, and a burning desire to break from my guards, and to rescue my uncle. However, as I wriggled about helplessly in their grasp, I must own that I was very like an unhappy cockchafer stuck through with a pin by a cruel schoolboy, without the remotest chance of escaping. My uncle was dragged away first, and I followed him closely, as I judged by the voices of the villains who had him in charge. What became of Stretcher I could not learn, though I supposed that he was detained in the cavern. Even now, I could scarcely have believed that the smugglers were going really to put their threat into execution, had it not been for their acknowledgment of the murder they had committed, and the perfect confidence with which they exhibited their cavern, and the smuggled goods it contained; for, though taken blindfold to the place, we could, of course, have little difficulty in finding it again; and they must have been well aware that, if we escaped, we should do our best to discover them and bring them to justice. They appeared to me to be dragging us for a very long distance. We went up and down hill, and along the seashore, and then we again mounted, it seemed, to the top of the cliffs, and went over several miles of ground. I thought we should never get to High-Peak Cliff. I cannot say that I was in any hurry to get there, which is not surprising, considering the pleasant prospect which I had before me. At length we ascended a considerable height, it seemed; and I concluded, from what I heard some of the smugglers remark, that we had reached the place of the intended murder. I shuddered as I felt that I was standing at the edge of the precipice from which I was in a few minutes to be hurled; a cold perspiration burst out over me, and I felt an awful horror, such as I had never before experienced. I was aware that any instant, without a moment's preparation, a shove might send me rolling over and over down to the rocks below, where I must instantly be dashed to pieces, as I judged that I was standing close to the very edge of the precipice; and I even fancied that I could hear the sound of the water breaking on the sands, many hundred feet beneath, borne upward on the calm night air. Still, there I stood, as yet unharmed, and I found the delay was caused by some of the party, whose voices I could hear at a little distance, holding a consultation in a whisper. I was hoping that they, more merciful than their leader, were proposing not to execute his directions, when I was undeceived by their return. One of them then addressed us.
"We give you and the youngster, Lieutenant, three minutes more to prepare for death," said the villain, in a diabolically cold tone; "after that, we intend to hang you over the cliff by your hands, and when you can't gripe on any longer, you may let go. Just understand, now, we do this in mercy to you, that you may not say we sent you out of the world without warning. Youngster, you hear what is said, so just make ready, for you haven't many moments of life in you."
To appeal to the mercy of the wretches was, I knew, hopeless; so I did my best to prepare for the fate awaiting me.
"The time's up," said a voice, and I found myself urged back a few paces, and my feet lifted over the edge of the cliff. It is impossible to describe my sensations of horror at this moment. I was then lowered down, every instant expecting to be let drop, till I found my hands clutching the grass, and my nails digging into the uncertain soil which fringed it. I judged that my uncle had been treated in the same way, from what the smugglers said. They then left us, satisfied that we could not release ourselves. Bad as they were, perhaps they did not wish to witness our death, though I could hear their mocking laughter as they quitted the spot. I was light, and I held on for dear life.
"Uncle, are you there?" I exclaimed.
"Yes, Neil, I am," he answered; "but I am afraid of using any exertion to lift myself up, lest the earth should give way. You are light, though; so try to drag yourself slowly up by your arms, then get your elbows on the turf, and tear the bandage from your eyes, and come to my assistance."
"Oh, I cannot, uncle, I cannot!" I cried, in an agony of fear; for I found it impossible to move without almost a certainty of missing my hold altogether. Again I tried all I could to lift myself up, but it would not do. I shouted at the top of my voice. Every instant my strength was failing me.
"I must let go, uncle, indeed I must," I exclaimed. "Good-bye, uncle."
"So must I, my boy," he answered. "Good-bye, if we do not succeed; but make a final effort, and spring up. So now—"
I tried to spring up, and so did he, I conclude. Alas! the earth crumbled beneath his hands; a deep groan escaped his bosom—not for himself, but for his wife and children, and all he held dear in the world. He could hold on no longer. I also failed in my attempt to spring up. Down I went; but what was my surprise, instead of being dashed to pieces, to find that I had reached a bottom of some sort, rather splashy certainly, only a few feet below where I had been hanging. An exclamation at the same moment from my uncle reached my ears. I tore off the bandage from my eyes, and looking round, I saw him but a short distance from me, and discovered that we were at the bottom of a chalk-pit, with all our limbs safe and sound, instead of being both of us mangled corpses at the foot of High-Peak Cliff. Our position was not dignified; and certainly, though it was much less romantic and full of horror than it would have been had the catastrophe we expected really occurred, and had we figured in the newspapers as the subjects of a dreadful accident, it was, I must own, far more agreeable to my feelings.
"Uncle," I sung out, "are you hurt?"
"No, Neil, my boy; but rather wet, from a puddle I've fallen into," he answered. "So those confounded rascals have been playing us a trick all the time. However, it's better thus than we expected, and it proves that they are not as bad as we thought them."
"So I was thinking," I replied, moving up to him. "But, I say, uncle, how are we to get out of this?"
He was sitting down on a ledge of the chalk rock, endeavouring to recover from the shock which his nervous system had received.