THE GENTLEMAN A ROMANCE OF THE SEA
BY ALFRED OLLIVANT
AUTHOR OF "BOB, SON OF BATTLE" AND "REDBOAT CAPTAIN"
TO THE NAVY
BOOK I THE LITTLE TREMENDOUS
I THE DEATH OF BLACK DIAMOND
Chap. I. THE MAN ON THE GREY
II. THE GALLOPING GENT
III. THE GUNNER OF THE SLOOP
IV. OLD DING-DONG
V. REUBEN BONIFACE'S STORY
VI. THE LUGGER KITE
VII. THE MAN IN THE LUGGER
VIII. THE SCENT-BOTTLE
II MAGNIFICENT ARRY
IX. THE TWO PRIVATEERS
X. THE MAIN-DECK
XI. COMMODORE MOUCHE
XIII. AFTER THE FIGHT
III UNDER THE CLIFF
XIV. SUNDAY EVENING
XV. THE VOICE FROM THE POWDER-MAGAZINE
XVI. MAGNIFICENT ARRY GOES ALOFT
XVII. THE GRAVE OF THE LITTLE TREMENDOUS
XVIII. OLD DING-DONG'S REVENGE
XIX. OLD DING-DONG HOMEWARD-BOUND
I THE GAP GANG
XX. THE LAST OF A BRITISH SEAMAN.
XXI. KIT STARTS ON HIS MISSION
XXII. FAT GEORGE & CO
XXIII. THE CLIMB
XXIV. THE CLIMB
II THE MAN ON THE CLIFF
XXV. THE GENTLEMAN BOWS
XXVI. THE DEAD WOMAN
XXVII. THE HOLLOW IN THE COOMBE
XXVIII. ON THE TOP OF THE WORLD
III ABERCROMBY'S BLACK COCK
XXIX. THE FLAG OF HIS COUNTRY
XXX. AN OLD SONG
XXXI. THE MAN WITH THE SWORD
XXXII. THE BROKEN SQUARE
XXXIII. FIGHTING FITZ
XXXIV. THE FACE ON THE WALL
IV THE GARRISON
XXXV. THE SOLDIER'S MOTHER
XXXVI. THE FIGHTING MAN
XXXVII. THE SAINT
XXXVIII. THE SIMPLETON
XXXIX. THE FLAP OF A FLAG.
V THE BOARDING OF THE PRIVATEER
XL. THE SWIM IN THE DARK
XLI. PIGGY, THE PRIVATEERSMAN
XLII. THE MAN IN THE BOAT
XLIII. A BLACK BORDERER TO THE RESCUE
BOOK III FORT FLINT
XLIV. THE ENGLISHMAN
XLV. THE PARSON AT HOME
XLVI. THE PARSON'S STORY
XLVII. THE DESPATCH-BAG
XLVIII. THE DOXIE'S DAUGHTER
II THE SALLY
XLIX. MAKING READY
L. IN THE DRAIN
LI. VOICES OF THE LOST
LII. HARE AND HOUND
LIII. OLD TOADIE
LIV. THE PARSON'S AGONY
LV. PRETTY POLLY-KISS-ME-QUICK
LVI. THE RACE FOR THE COTTAGE
III THE SHADOW OF THE WOMAN
LVII. THE PARLEY
LVIII. THE PLANK CAPONIER
LIX. MISS BLOSSOM
LX. THE TWO PRAYERS
LXI. KNAPP'S RETURN
LXII. THE PARSON MUSES
IV THE GENTLEMAN'S LAST CARD
LXIII. NELSON'S TOPSAILS
LXIV. RUMBLINGS OF THUNDER
LXV. THE DOINGS IN THE CREEK
LXVII. THE ACE OF TRUMPS
V THE FORLORN HOPE
LXVIII. THE BLESSING
LXIX. THE PARSON'S SORTIE
LXX. THE LAST OF OLD FAITHFUL
LXXI. ON THE SHINGLE-BANK
LXXII. THE RACE FOR THE LUGGER
LXXIII. NOBLESSE OBLIGE
BOOK IV NELSON
I H.M.S. MEDUSA
LXXIV. NATURE, THE COMFORTER
LXXV. ON THE DECK OF THE MEDUSA
LXXVI. IN THE CABIN OF THE MEDUSA
LXXVII. THE MEDUSA GOES ABOUT
LXXVIII. NELSON'S HEART
LXXIX. IN THE CABIN AGAIN
LXXX. THE MEDUSA DIPS HER ENSIGN
II KNAPP'S STORY
LXXXI. THE RETURN
LXXXII. BACK TO THE DOOR
LXXXIII. PIPER PRAYS
LXXXIV. IN THE COTTAGE
III THE WISH AT EVENING
LXXXV. THE SANCTUARY
LXXXVII. HIS CAUSE
LXXXVIII. THE ADVENTURER
LXXXIX. THE LAST POST
The introductory poem appeared originally in the Pall Mall Magazine, and is re-published by permission of the Editor.
The Sea! the Sea! Our own home-land, the Sea! 'Tis, as it always was, and still, please God, will be, When we are gone, Our own, Possessing it for Thee, Ours, ours, and ours alone, The Anglo-Saxon Sea.
The stripped, moon-shining, naked-bosomed Sea.
No jerry-building here; No scenes that once were dear Beneath man's tawdry touch to disappear; Always the same, the Sea, Th' unstable-steadfast Sea. 'Tis, as it always was, and still, please God, will be, When we are gone, Our own, Vice-regents under Thee, Ours, ours, and ours alone, The Anglo-Saxon Sea.
The mighty-furrowed, moody-minded Sea.
New suns and moons arise; Perish old dynasties; For ever rise and die the centuries; Only remains the Sea, Our right of way, the Sea. 'Tis, as it always was, and still, phase God, will be, When we are gone, Our own, Our heritage from Thee, Ours, ours, and ours alone, The Anglo-Saxon Sea.
Our good, grey, faithful, Saxon-loving Sea._
"Succeed, and you command the Irish Expedition," said the squat fellow.
"My Emperor!" replied the tall cavalry-man, saluted, and clanked away in the gloom.
* * * * *
A sweet evening, very fresh, the tide crashing at the foot of the cliff.
In the twilight, above Boulogne, a man was standing, hands behind him.
The moon lay on the water, making a broad white road that led from his feet across the flowing darkness West.
The dusk was falling. About him the earth grew dark; above him all was purity and pale stars.
Only the tumble of the tide, white-lipped on the beach beneath, stirred the silence; while one little dodging ship, black in the wake of the moon, told of some dare-devil British sloop, bluffing the batteries upon the cliff.
The rustle of the water beneath, its crashing rhythm and hiss as of breath intaken swiftly, soothed him. He fell into a waking dream.
It seemed to his wide eyes that the sea rose, heavenward as a wall; its foot set in foam, its summit on a level with his face. Against it a silver ladder leaned. He had but to mount that ladder to pluck the island-jewel, the desire of his heart these many years.
He reached a hand into the night as though to realise his wish; and even as he did so, the sloop barked.
A mortar hard by boomed; the sea splashed; the sloop scudded seaward, laughing; and the dreamer awoke.
Behind him, hutted on the cliffs, lay the Army of England: [Footnote: The Army of England was Napoleon's name for the Army of Invasion.] such a sword, now two years a-tempering, as even he, the Great Swordsman, had never wielded.
Beneath him in the dimming basin huddled 3000 gun-vessels, waiting their call.
Before him, across the moon-white waste, under the North star, lay that stubborn little land of Bibles and evening bells, of smoky cities, and hedge-rows fragrant with dog-rose and honeysuckle, of apple-cheeked children, greedy fighting-men, and still-eyed women who became the mothers of indomitable seamen—that storm-beaten land which for so long now, turn he where he would, had risen before him, Angel of the Flaming Sword, and waved him back.
Between him and it ran a narrow lane of sea, the moon-road white across it: so narrow he could almost leap it; so broad that now after years of trying he was baffled still.
Could his Admirals only stop the Westward end of that narrow lane for six hours, that he and his two-hundred-thousand might take the moon-road unmolested, he was Master of the World.
But—they could not.
In his hand, fiercely crumpled, lay the despatch that told him Villeneuve was back in Vigo, shepherded home again.
And by whom?
That little one-eyed one-armed seaman, who for ten years now had stood between him and his destiny.
One man, the man of Aboukir Bay. [Footnote: On August 1, 1798, Nelson destroyed the French fleet in Aboukir Bay at the Battle of the Nile.]
THE LITTLE TREMENDOUS
THE DEATH OF BLACK DIAMOND
THE MAN ON THE GREY
The man on the grey was in a hurry.
The stab of his backward heels; the shake and swirl of his bridle-hand; the flog of his arm in time with the horse's stride, told their own tale.
A huge fellow, his face was red and round as a November sun. Hat and wig were gone; and his once white neck-cloth was soaked with blood.
He came over the crest of the Downs at a lurching gallop; down the ragged rut-worn lane, the dusty convolvuluses glimmering up at him in the dusk; past the squat-spired Church in the high Churchyard among the sycamores; down the rough and twisted Highstreet of Newhaven in the chill of that August evening, as no man had ever come before.
A bevy of smoke-dimmed men in the bar of the Bridge, discussing in awed whispers last night's affair of the Revenue cutter off Darby's Hole, hushed suddenly at the clatter and rushed out as he stormed past. He paid no heed. Those staring eyes saw nothing but the brown street sliding under him, a pair of sweating ears, a flapping mane, and before him a tumble of old roofs; while beyond in the harbour, the spars of a sloop of war pricked the evening.
Clear of the little town huddling on the hillside, he drove along the bank of the slow green river, flogging still.
One thing was clear: the grey was dead-beat.
He was roaring like a furnace, and straight as a rail from tail to muzzle. Black and white with sweat, he jerked along at a terrible toppling stagger. Only those vice-like legs and hands plucking, plucking, kept body and soul together.
Where the river widened, and the sea gleamed misty across the harbour-mouth, as though he knew his mission was fulfilled, up went his head, and he fell in thundering ruin.
Where he fell he lay, lank-necked.
The tail twitched once; the body trembled; the great heart broke.
THE GALLOPING GENT
A boat had just put off from the bank, a tall lad steering. The great red horseman, strangely active for so huge a man, flung himself clear of his horse, snatched a pistol from a holster, and came floundering down the cobbled river-bank, his coat-tails floating.
"Put back, sir!" he bellowed in husky fury. "Put back, my God! or I'll fire."
He was standing, the water to his tops, with heaving shoulders.
"Don't shout; don't shoot; and don't swear," replied a voice, pure as a lady's. "And perhaps I'll oblige."
The boy edged the boat into the bank. The huge fellow, in too great a hurry to wait, floundered out, clutched her by the stern, and scrambled in.
"My God, sir!" he panted, thrusting a dripping face into the boy's. "D'you know who you're a-talking to?—I'm a ridin-officer on Government business."
"And d'you know who you're a-talkin to?" replied the boy, cold as the other was hot. "I'm a King's officer on King's business. Remove your face, please. Sit down. And don't shake so, or you'll spill us.—I'm a midshipman going aboard my ship."
"Then you're just in time for warm work, Mr. Milkshipman," panted the other.
He bumped down on the thwart opposite the waterman, and thrust at the oars.
"Row, man, row!" he urged. "The Gallopin Gent's got through."
The colour of apple-blossom, coming and going in the lad's cheek, died away, and left him pale.
He was a splendid stripling, sun in his hair, sun in his eyes; with something of the lank grace of the fawn about him.
The face was fine almost to haggardness; with long chin, delicate nose, and eager eyes, very shy.
The boy had broken through the chrysalis of childhood, and not yet emerged into the fighting male. There was no down on his chin; the radiance of his cheek was yet undimmed. The soul, rosy behind its clouds, still tinged them with dawn-lights.
He was a Boy, sparkling Boy; Boy at the age when he is Woman, and Woman at her best, the playfellow, the tease, the inspiration; free of limb, as yet untrammelled of mind; with passionate hatreds and heroic adorations.
He was steering now, his eyes on the battered topsails in the mists before him; and in those eyes a glitter of swords. Had his mother or Gwen been there, they could have told from that frosty calm, those jealous-drooping lids, that Master Boy meant mischief.
And so it was.
This fat fellow with the heaving shoulders on the thwart before him, this chap with the crease across his bald neck, and the black sweat trickling from his hair, had insulted him.
As woman, he was bent upon revenge; as man, he would go warily, striking only to strike home.
"That was a fine horse you flogged to death," he began tranquilly, trailing his fingers in the dead green waters.
"Yes, sir," panted the other, thrusting at the oars. "I don't spare spur when I'm ridin agin the French. I'm a man, and an Englishman—not a pink-faced, girl-eyed booby togged out in a cocked hat and a tin dagger, calling meself a King's officer."
"I guessed that you were not one of us," replied the boy delicately. "Your manners are too distinguished. But tell me a little more about your ride. You seemed in rather a hurry. I take it you were riding for a drink."
The great man swung round. His whole life seemed to have stopped short, and now hung behind his eyes—an appalling shadow.
For one swift moment the boy thought he would be struck.
Then the big man spoke; and his voice was measured and very still.
"If you think I burst the gamest eart that ever beat in an orse's ide for a drink, why then, sir," with crushing simplicity, "you think wrong."
He resumed his rowing, and continued with the same surprising dignity.
"I bred that orse; I broke that orse; I loved that orse."
The tide of the boy's being set back with a shock.
"O!" he cried. "O ... I didn't mean ... I really...."
"That's all right, sir," came the other's smothered voice. "I know you didn't."
He swallowed, and his face grew rigid. Then a light broke all about it.
"But there!" with husky pride. "He won't bear me no grudge—will you, old man?" with a hoarse burst of tenderness, flinging his arm towards the bank, where the dead horse's girths glimmered still in the dusk. "He know'd I wouldn't have asked it of him, only I had to. That's my old orse! that's my Robin!—Never asked no questions. Just took and died and did his duty without the talkin. Maybe some of us might learn a bit from him."
Taking a great bandana from his pocket, he blew his nose like the report of a pistol.
"A'ter all," he said, with touching solemnity, "he died for his country, did my Robin—same as Abercromby at Alexandrya."
Behind them on the hill a clock struck eight.
The riding-officer held up his hand.
"Ark!" he cried. "It was going seven in Ditchling as I pelted down the Beacon. Gallop! gallop! gallop! There's ne'er another orse in England could ha done it, with big Jerry Ram bumpin on his back all the way; danged if there be!"
He thumped his knee.
"King George ought to know on it! He died for him. Fair lay down to it, belly all along the ground. Might ha know'd he was on the King's business, and the Gentleman with two minutes' start streakin away for Birling Gap like a bullet from the bow."
"Aw, he'll be out again than?" drawled the waterman, sleepy and Sussex.
"Out again!" shouted Big Jerry, and clapping the handkerchief to his ear, thrust it beneath the other's eye of mildew. "What's that?—blood, ain't it?—whose?—mine.—How?—The Gentleman."
"You'll ha met him than, I expagt?" cooed the waterman in his cautious way.
"He met me more like," replied Big Jerry with the grim humour of the whole-hearted man, who gives hard knocks and takes them all in good part.
"Not but what we was expectin him, you'll understand."
"You knaw'd he was comin than surely?" came the waterman's slow musical voice.
"Know'd it!" roared the other. "O course we know'd it. Why's the Kite been layin in Cuckmere Haven since night afore last?—why was the Gap Gang strung out all the way from Furrel Beacon to Beachy Head all day yesterday?—Why was Black Diamond mouchin round in Lewes this morning?—Why?—why?—why?"
"Why?" asked the boy, breathless.
"Because the Gallopin Gent was comin down with despatches for Boney, and they were keepin the road for him. That's why," screamed the big man, bumping up and down in his excitement.
"Only question was which way. Ye see it's most in general all ways at once with him. Up and down, day and night, all over Sussex, these weeks past. No stoppin him; no coppin him; no nothin him. Always the same chap—gentleman, mighty gay, bit o red riband in his button-hole, and blood chestnut with a white blaze between his knees. Always the same tale—gave em the go-by somehow. No sayin where or when—only just when you're least expectin him, then you can make sure of him. And when you are ready for him, seems he's readier for you."
He mopped his forehead, the laughing puckers gathering about his eyes.
"Look at us this evenin. There we was ridin easy up the Beacon, me and the orse-patrol—lookin for him. Just as we tops the brow who pops over the wall like a swallow but the Gentleman himself on his chestnut?"
He threw back his head and chuckled.
"There!—I can't ardly elp laughin. The cheek o the chap!"
"Did he run?" asked the boy, all eyes.
"Run!" snorted the riding-officer. "No run about im.... Rode at us like a rigiment of cavalry, swinging his sword, and laughin fit to bust himself.... Half the boys bolted—and I don't know as I blame them: they swear he's old Nick. Dick Halkett, old Job, and me, we stood it.... Bang he rides at old Job and bowls him over a buster; runs young Dick through the body; slops me over the pate a good un; and steals away down the hill, waving his hand and crying—'Adoo! adoo! adoo! remember me!'—as if we was likely to forget him!"
The big man mopped his bloody ear with a quizzical grin.
"I know'd it was no good follerin. Nothing foaled o mortal mare can collar that chestnut, once she's away. So I bangs my hat down, catches the old orse by the ead, and rams him down the hill for Newhaven."
He began to push at the oars again.
"For there's two roads to Birling Gap, my lad: one by land, and one by sea. We've missed him by land. Now we'll see what the Jack-tars can do."
The boy said nothing. His eyes were on his ship, dim above him in the mist.
She was in rags and tatters: so much he could see, and little else. Yet to him she seemed to glow in the dusk. He saw her through blurred eyes in a cloud of glory, and his heart thrilled to her.
She was his ship; that ship of which he had dreamed ever since he could dream, this boy born to the sea.
And was he not proud of her?
Shivering like a lover, he brought up alongside; and as he did so he thrust out a hand to feel the wooden ribs which covered that heart of valour.
For was she not the little Tremendous, of whom the heroic tales were told!
THE GUNNER OF THE SLOOP
Swiftly and silently the Tremendous spread her wings in the dusk.
The riding-officer was going over the side.
"Good luck, sir!" he said. "Make a cop; and Pitt'll thank you on his knees."
For all answer the block-of-granite little man by the wheel turned his back.
"Cut the cable!" he barked. "Set studdin-sails alow and aloft! Inboard side-lights! Boniface, take a party of small-arm men forrad, and keep a sharp look-out!"
Before the riding-officer had dropped into the dinghy, the Tremendous began to slap the water, shaking out ragged topsails as she slid out of the harbour, a misty rain shrouding her.
"There's a row-boat coming up astern, sir," ventured the boy—"rowing like mad."
"I have ears, sir, and I'm usin em," snapped the other, and stumped forward, leaning heavily on a stick, thick and surly as himself.
They were the first words he had spoken to the lad, this block-of-granite little man, across whose knees his father had died at St. Vincent; and the boy did not find them encouraging.
"Send im victoriush, Appee and gloriush, Long to reign o er—i—ush, Goshave——
"Uncle George!" bawled a bibulous voice. "Row, ye devil, row!—or I'll split y'up, and chuck y'overboard."
A boat pelted up under the counter of the sloop. The singer rose suddenly, clutched at a man-rope, and came swinging up the side.
The light of the binnacle-lamp fell upon him.
He was a tall fellow, with bushy black whiskers, a long tallowy nose that in some old-time battle had been broken, and eyes with a wild wet gleam in them. Now he sheered up against the bulwark, waving riotously.
"Three cheers for the lirrel Tremendous! Ooray! ray! ray!—We're alf our ship's company short. There's only old Ding-dong left on the quar'er-deck. I'm drunk as David's sow. And we're off to cur out the Grand Armee. Ooray! ray! ray!" and he fell hiccoughing away into foolish laughter.
"Hadn't you better go below?" said a pure treble at his side. "You're beastly drunk."
The man pulled himself together, and stared through the gloom.
"Lumme!" he whispered. "A tottie!—a tottie for Lushy!... Lemme cuddle ye, darlin, do."
"I'm a midshipman," said the boy briefly. "Shut up; and behave yourself."
The man tried to stand up, and swept off his hat.
"Ow de do, sir? Ow de do? By all means ow de do? Lemme introjuice you all round. I'm Mr. Lanyon, commonly called Lushy, because? one? me failins: Gunner aboard this packet by rights, and Actin Fust Lieutenant by the grace o God—there bein no one else to act, see? This ere," he continued, smacking the bulwark, "is His—Majesty's—ship—Tremendous, well known and respected between the Lizard and the Nore. Not lookin her sauciest just now, I grant you: shrouds tore to tatters, mizzen spliced, bowsprit splintered, plugged fore and aft, and alf her weather bulwark carried away. But that's ex tempore, as the sayin is. We only put in at dawn to refit, and land wounded."
"Where's she been?" asked the boy.
"Been!" cried the other with rollicking laughter. "That's a good un. Ere's a kid ain't eard where we been. Been!" the sudden thunder in his voice. "Why, in Boulong Arbour among Boney's craft. H'in and h'out, under Nap's nose. Stormed the Arbour Battery; set the gun-vessels afire; and came out under their guns, colours at the truck, and the bosun's boy in the mizzenchains singin—
O it's a snug little island, A right little tight little island."
He clutched the boy's shoulder, and thrust flaming eyes into his.
"Old man's got a game leg since Camperdown. Fust Lieutenant led the landin party—Mr. Wrot. Dessay you've heard tell of him. Dry Wrot, they called him. Tubby little bloke, all belly and big voice. Fine chap to fight, though, be God—only so thirsty, same as me. He took it in the tummy, crawlin through the embrasure—hand-grenade, I fancies. I was next man on the ladder." He was marching up and down, his hands swinging, seeming to smoulder almost in the gloom.
"Pretty work in the battery, be God, as ever I see!—One time we was bungin round-shot at each other across the casement, like marbles. Give the Mossoos their due they fought like eroes; but not like h'us, sir! not like h'us!"
He strode up and down, breathing flame.
"Ah, you should ha seen us. I were in me glory. A bloody massacree, that's what it were. Bloody massacree. Enough to make a blessed saint weep for joy. Pommesoul it were."
He turned in his stride, and the lamp showed the tears dribbling down his face.
"And when we'd mushed up the blanky caboodlum: spiked the guns; sent the gunners to glory; and blow'd up the battery, who led the boys out?"
He stopped dead.
"Old Lush!—Lushy, the Gunner, Gorblessim!" swelling his chest, and patting it. "And why?—because there wasn't a quarter-deck officer, not so much as a middy or mate, left to do it."
He resumed his strut with fighting hands.
"That's our sort aboard the Tremendous, sir. We're the halleloojah lads to fight. And what we are, old Ding-dong made us."
"Who's old Ding-dong?" asked the boy, breathlessly.
The Gunner shot a finger at the block-of-granite figure forward.
"That's the man as won the battle o the Nile," he whispered with husky magnificence. "And ere's the man that elped him."
He bowed with wide hands. Drunk as he was there was yet a dilapidated splendour about the fellow as about an historic ruin. The boy felt it through his disgust.
"I thought Nelson did a bit," he said.
"Nelson did much; I did more; e did most," with a wave forward. "Why!" shouting now. "Who was it led the line inside the shoal—creepin it, leadsman in the chains, soundin all the way?—We Thunderers, the Goliath treadin mighty jealous on our heels. And who commanded the Thunderer?—Old Ding-dong. And what did he get for it?"
He smacked a hand down on the boy's shoulder.
"Broke him, sir!—broke him back to a sloop o war!—old Ding-dong, the damdest, darndest, don't-care-a-cursest old sea-dog as ever set his teeth in a French line o battle ship, and wouldn't let go, though they fired double-shotted broadsides down his throat."
"But why did they break him?" gasped the boy. "It doesn't sound like Nelson."
The other smacked his long nose with a finger mysteriously.
"I don't know what you mean," said the boy, short and sharp.
"Ah, and just as well you don't," replied the other loftily. "Some day, Sonny, you'll know all there is to know and a leetle bit more—same as me. Plenty time first though. If you've done suckin it's more'n you look."
He began to march again.
"Yes, sir: he'd ha hoisted his broad pendant afore this, would old Ding-dong, pit-boy and powder-monkey and all, only for that. And as I'd ha gone h'up with him as he went h'up, so I goes down with him when he goes down. I know'd old Ding-dong. He was the man for me. Talk o fightin!—Dicky Keats, Ned Berry, the Honourayble Blackwood: good men all and gluttons at it!—but for the real old style stuff, ammer-and-tongs, fight to a finish, takin punishment and givin it, there ain't a seaman afloat as'll touch our old man."
He spat over the side.
"Yes, sir, when he went, I went along, and never regretted it—never. We've seen more sport aboard this blame little packet than the rest of the Fleet together. Clear'd the Channel, be God, we ave!—prowlin up and down, snow and blow, fog and shine, like a rampin champin lion. Why, sir, we've fought a first-rate from Portland Bill to Dead Man's Bay—this blame little boat you could sail in a babby's bath! Took her too! and towed her into Falmouth Roads, all standin, like a kid leadin its mother by the and. Talk o Cochrane and the Speedy!—Gor blime!—what's he alongside us?"
He steadied suddenly.
"Ush! ere comes the old man."
The boy could hear the stump of a stick on the deck.
"What's he wearin?" whispered the other, peering. "You can most always tell the lay he's on by that. Pea-jacket means boat-work, cuttins out, fire-ships, landin parties, and the like. If it's old blue frock and yaller waistcoat, then it's lay em aboard and say your prayers. And if it's cocked hat and chewin a quid, then it's elp you God: for your time's come."
"You're a disgrace to the Service, Mr. Lanyon," came a curt voice.
"And you're a credit to it, sir," was the hearty retort.
"And just sposin I won't," answered the drunkard—"only sposin, mind!—just for the sake of argyment, d'ye see?—what then?"
The drunkard folded his arms.
"And might I make so bold, Commander Ardin," he began elaborately, "to ask who'll fight your guns, your Actin Fust in irons; and besides yourself ne'er another officer on the quar'er-deck—only this ere squab."
"I'll fight em myself if needs be. Go below, d'ye hear?"
The Gunner stumbled away, roaring laughter.
"Sail the blurry ship; fight the blurry ship; sink the blurry ship; and go to ell in the blurry ship. That's old Ding-dong."
"They call you Kit?"
The boy started.
His name, his pet name that he had not heard for days, on the lips of this block-of-granite little man, who had only spoken so far to snub him.
"Mother does, sir—and Gwen."
There was silence; only the water talking beneath the ship's bows, as she took the open sea and began to swing to it.
"Your father was my friend," continued the voice, less harsh now. "I was a pit-boy; he was a gentleman: we was friends."
The voice was gruff again.
"Ran away to sea same night—he from the Hall; me from the pit-mouth. Met under the old oak on the green.
"'Ready, Bill?' says he.
"'Right, sir,' says I.
"'Then forge ahead.'
"And forge ahead it was, and never parted, till the Lord saw good to come atween us for the time bein at St. Vincent."
The voice in the darkness ceased and began again.
"Quiberon Bay was our first. Fifty-nine that were. I was powder-monkey on the Royal George; he was Hawke's orderly midshipman. St. Vincent our last. And a God's plenty in between. One time Dutchmen; one time Dons; and most all the time the French. Yes, sir," with quiet gusto, "reck'n we saw all the best that was goin in our time, and not a bad time neether—for them as like it, that's to say: seamen and such."
He was silent for a time, chewing his memories.
And what memories they were!—Had he not sailed under Boscawen in the fifties, when that old sea-dog stood between England and Invasion? Had he not lived to see Napoleon's Eagles brooding over the cliffs of France, intent on the same enterprise?—And between the two, what men, what deeds?—Hawke smashing Conflans in a hurricane; Rodney, gloriously alone, fighting his ship against a fleet; Duncan hammering the Dutch; Sam Hood, Jack Jervis, Nelson, Cuddie Collingwood; and all that grim array of big-beaked, bloody-fisted fighting men who for fifty years had held the narrow seas against all comers.
"D'you remember your father?"
The old man brooded over the boy. In a dumb and misty way he was puzzling out one of life's mysteries—this long stripling with the eyes sprung somehow from that other long stripling with the eyes, whom he had followed from the pit-mouth fifty years since.
"I just remember him coming into the nursery with mother and a candle the night before he sailed the last time, sir, to join Lord Howe."
"Ah," mused the old man, "that'd be a week afoor the First o June; and nigh three years afoor he died."
He paused again, rummaging in his memory.
"He was Post-Captain at St. Vincent; I was his First—aboord the old Terrible, 74.... You'll ha heard all about that tale. [Footnote: Sir John Jervis crushed the Spanish fleet off Cape St. Vincent in 1797. In this action the Spanish fleet was in two divisions. In order to prevent a junction between them Nelson drew out of the British line and single-handed attacked the Spanish weather-division, including the Spanish flag-ship and five other sail of the line. See Mahan's "Life of Nelson."]
"'Plucky chap, Nelson,' says the Captain, as he tumbles to the little man's game. 'Wear ship, and a'ter him.' So we hauls out? the line, us and the Culloden—Tom Troubridge—and pushes up, all sail set, to help him.
"By then we got alongside, the Captain—Nelson's ship she were—was a sheer hulk. As we pass her, your father leans over the rail.
"'Well done, Captain,' says he, liftin his hat.
"Nelson blinks his one eye up—I can see him now.
"'That you, Kit?' he pipes through his nose that way of is'n. 'You've got it all your own way now. I'm a wreck. Good luck, Terrible.'
"So on we goes bang atween two Spanish Fust-rates—hundud and twenty guns apiece. Had em all to ourselves, and asked no better.
"'Just your style, Bill,' says the Captain. He was pacing up and down the lee of the poop with me. 'Pretty work, ain't it?'
"'Too pretty to last, sir,' says I; as our fore-mast went by the board.
"Just then up runs the carpenter's mate all of a sweat.
"'Well, Michael,' says the Captain, 'what is it to-day?'
"'Goin down with a run, sir,' pants old Chips. 'Twenty foot? water in her well.'
"The Captain turns to me.
"'Where's the nearest land, Willum?' says he, with that twinkle of is'n. Always called me Willum, when he meant mischief, did the Captain.
"'Why, sir,' says I, 'the bottom, I reck'n.'
"'Wrong again,' says he. 'That's the nearest land to me,' and he points at the Santy Maria, Don Somebody Somethin's Flag-ship. 'Hard a-starboard, if you please, Mr. Hardin,' says he. 'I'm a-goin to land.'
"So I luffs up alongside, and fell aboard Er Oliness—like a mighty great mountain above us she was, all poop, and galleries, and Armada fittins.
"When our bow scraped her quarter,
"'Anybody for the shore!' pipes the Captain; and he jumps into her main-chain....
"Ah, but you should ha heard the men cheer!"
The old man paused, breathing deep.
"Ten minutes a'terwards he was dying acrost my knees on the spar-deck of the Don.
"'Has she struck, Bill?' he whispers, coughing....
"'The three decker's struck, sir,' says I, 'and the four-decker's strikin.'
"He shuts his eyes.
"'Then I can depart in peace,' he sighs. 'Tell Marjory I done my duty.'
"And he up and died."
There was a cough in the darkness.
"So I calls a cutter away, and rowed aboord the San Josef, the men blubberin like a pack o babbies, to break it to Nelson. Like twins, them two, Nelson and your father: that like, ye see!
"Well, there was the Commodore on the Don's quarter-deck, Berry beside him, the Spanish Captain afoor him, and behind him a British Jack-Tar tuckin the Spaniards' swords under his arm like so many umberellas.
"I breaks it to him short and straight.
"'Captain Caryll's compliments, sir,' says I. 'And he's dead.'
"Nelson claps his hands to his face as though I'd struck him. Then he falls on my neck afoor em all—Dons too.
"'O Ding-dong!' says he. 'I loved him.'—Just like that. 'I loved him....'
"Yes, that was Nelson all through: one alf woman, t'other alf hero.
"Then he pulls himself together.
"'But there!' he says. 'He lived like an English gentleman; and he died like a British seaman. May I go that way when my time comes.' And he sweeps off his cocked hat as though it might ha been to the King, and—
"'God bless Kit Caryll,' says he."
The old man blew his nose in the darkness.
"Yes, sir," he continued, "that was your father and my friend," and then suddenly gruff—
"D'you mean takin a'ter him?"
"I mean to try, sir," said the boy huskily.
In the darkness a hand gripped his.
REUBEN BONIFACE'S STORY
Clear of the harbour, the boy's hat blew overboard.
He tasted his lips, and found them salt.
Never at sea before, yet somehow it was all strangely familiar, and strangely dear.
The feel of the ship, alive beneath his feet; the lift, the plunge, the swaying rhythm of the bows; the roll of the masts against a patch of stars—there was music in them all; a music that stirred his heart; the music of inherited Memory.
The sea was in his blood; and his blood began to sing to it. Old voices from the Past, that Past which is still the Present, woke within him. Old memories, borne down the ages upon the dark river of race life, haunted him dimly. Old and terrible experiences—murders and mutinies; distresses on rafts; thirsts and screaming madnesses; naked men howling on hen-coops under waste skies, sea-birds wailing desolately overhead; great ships, man-forsaken, God-forgotten, wallowing blindly amid green mountains that flowed and foamed upon them—shadows in shoals, they rose, glimmered, and were gone in the twilight waters of returning consciousness.
Sea-wolves in beaked ships from the Baltic; pirate-adventurers who had sailed and sacked under the Conqueror; pioneers of new-found lands: blood of his blood, and brain of his brain, they lived again, roused from centuries of sleep by the stir and whiff and secret business of the dark waters.
The mystery of it thrilled the boy: the blind night, the moving waters, the wind in his hair, the crash of spray upon the deck—old friends all, he recognised them as such, and found them beautifully familiar.
He was flowing down the River of Eternal Life and one with it. He was: he had been: he always would be. There was no Death, no Time. Life was One and Everlasting.
His nostrils wide, renewing old impressions, he walked forward, proud and self-composed.
True son of the sea, yet he knew himself her master. She was his woman, to be loved and lorded over. He found himself brooding over her dark beauty with the stern pride of possession. Manhood was rushing in on him: its passions, its power, its splendid cruelties. He began to tingle to them.
They had not met, it seemed, to know each other, these two world-old friends, for half a generation. Now once more they came together, heart to heart, man to woman, loving faithfully as ever.
The wind freshened. The sloop began to feel the sea and swing to it. She was a dark and secret ship: not a light save for the glare of the binnacle-lamp; the only sound the creak of a block, the mutter of canvas, and the chatter of waters.
It was a dirty night, a wet mist blowing landward. There was no moon; only here and there a star pierced the cloud-drift.
The boy groped his way forward.
In the bows a dark lantern on the deck shone on a group of sea-boots.
"Pretty night for our work, sir," came a cheery voice. "Might ha been made for us."
"Where are we?" asked the boy.
"Yon's Seaford Head, sir," as a great white dimness thrust out of the mist towards them. "We're layin along close inshore. See that glimmer forrad on the port-bow?—Ah, it's gone again! That's the Seven Sisters. And between the last o them and Beachy Head lays Birling Gap. And somewhere there or thereabouts, we'll make our cop, if a cop it's to be."
"Who is it we're after?"
"Lugger _Kite, sir—Black Diamond's craft....
"Funny thing fortune, sir," the man continued after a pause. "Never know how it's going to take you till you're took. Little thing sims to sway it. At one day's time there warn't a smarter seaman afloat than Bert Diamond. Might ha rose to the quarter-deck—just the sort; got a way with him and that. Only one fault, sir—the sailor's failin."
"Too lovin by fur....
"It's generally always his one fault capsizes a man," the seaman continued. "And so it were with poor old Bert—he warn't Black at that time o day, yo'll understand."
"What's the rights o that yarn, Reube?" grumbled a deep voice.
"I ca'ant rightly tall ye because I don't justly knaw, Abe. They said this here Mr. Lucy—Love-me Lucy they called him in the ward-room—got messin about a'ter Diamond's gal. But anyways there it were. Diamond struck him—struck his officer."
"Why, sir; flogged round the Fleet."
A man spat noisily on the deck.
"Maybe you've never seen a man flogged round the Fleet?"
"Then heaven help you never may, sir. I'd liefer fight a gun in the waist through farty Fleet-actions, than see one man go through that—wouldn't you, Abe?"
"Ay, that I would," grumbled the deep voice.
"Ah; and so'd we all," came a windy chorus.
There was a stamping of feet: then the story-teller went on,
"I stood by the gang-way when he came up the side, a blanket across his shoulders.
"'Ullo, Reube,' says he....
"That were all.... I said nawthing.... I saw his face....
"When he came out o the sick-bay three months a'terwards, with his kit to go ashore—he was dismissed the Service, yo'll understand, sir—I was on deck.... He limped across, and shook hands with me out o them all.... We'd been like brothers, him and me.... Then he went down the side and never a word.... Just as his head was on a level with the deck, he stops. Good-bye all,' says he, with a laugh I never heard him laugh before. 'The British Navy ain't eard the last o Black Diamond.'... And nor we had, by thunder."
The Tremendous thrashed into a swell. A spout of foam flung up, and crashed down on the deck. When the last hiss of it had died away, Boniface took up his tale.
"That was 99—after Acre. I was away nigh on six years, middlin busy too. We'd the lot atop on us one time or t'other—French, Roossians, Dons, Dutch, Swedes, Danes, and all; and Nap to thank for em....
"Last Spring I come home to find Black Diamond cock o the Gap Gang, and better fear'd nor Boney's self in East Sussex. That'd be a day or two after they'd done Mr. Lucy."
"What was that?"
"Why, sir, Mr. Lucy, he was Coast-guard Officer of this district. One day his grey cob cantered into Lewes alone—no Mr. Lucy. Two night a'terwards a keeper chap found his body in Abbot's Wood....
"They'd crucified him to a tree, and flogged him to the bone; then stuck an ace o diamonds on to his back, and on it
Returned with thanks."
"And that warn't all," grumbled the deep voice.
"That it warn't," came the windy chorus. "Never is with them."
"But who'd done it?" cried the boy.
"Gap Gang, sir."
"Who are they?"
"Why, sir, Birling Gap Gang it should be by rights. That's where they mostly lay rough when they're this side. And it suits them to-rights—that lonely, you see: just naked hills, cliffs, badgers, foxes, and the like.—And such a crew! God help the man or maid crosses their hawse. Fear neither God nor Devil."
"Only Black Diamond," grumbled the deep voice. "Meek as milk with him."
There was a grim chuckle all round.
"Are they smugglers?" asked the boy.
"Call emselves smugglers," replied Reuben. "But they ain't the gentlemen proper. For it's mighty little smuggling they do. Maybe run a cargo every now and then to keep in with the folk on the hill—East-dean and Friston way. But they're after bigger game, I allow."
"Despatch-running for Little Boney, sir."
The boy waited. There was more to come, he felt; and he was right.
In a minute Diamond's old ship-mate resumed his tale.
"Last July, I was on furlough at Alfriston. One evening I went for a bit of a stroll on the hill. Up there, under the sky, top o Snap Hill, was a look-out chap with a telescope. I knaw'd his back, and the high way with his head at first onset. It was Black Diamond.
"'Hullo, Bert,' says I, coming up behind.
"Round he jumps, terrible dark.
"I'd hardly ha know'd him—toff'd out quite the officer, bits of epaulettes, waxed moustachers, pistol and all. I'd never ha beleft it!
"'That Reube?' says he, at last, starin properly.
"'That's me, sir,' says I.
"His face cleared; and he shoved his pistol back.
"'Excuse me, Reube,' says he. 'Every man that wears that uniform is unfriends with me, with one exception—and that's yourself,' and he took my hand.
"'It's nice to look into a pair of eyes can look back at you,' he goes on, very quiet, pumping my hand. 'How are you, old mate?—We're quite strangers.'
"'I'm tidy middlin, thank-you, sir,' says I: must keep on a-sirrin him somehow. 'How's things going with you?'
"'Why,' says he, with that terrible great laugh of his, 'like God Almighty—slow but sure.'
"'Nice crowd you've got together by all accounts, sir,' says I.
"'All picked men,' says he, mighty grim. 'But drop your voice if you're going to talk about the darlings: I've a dozen of em in the goss handy by. There's not a man sails aboard the Kite but swings in chains, if he's copp'd. Makes em wonderful nippy at a pinch,' says he, with that little smile o his. 'You wouldn't believe.'
"' Yes,' I says. 'Reg'lar man o war style aboard the Kite, they do say. Trice em up, and flog em, if everything ain't just so.'
"'That's so,' says he. 'Duchess could eat her dinner off my deck—has, too.'
"'Only wonder is they stick it,' says I.
"'Ah,' he says, 'they're my men, not my mates, see?—This ain't a free-tradin show. We ain't partners, I pay em.'
"I looked him straight in the face.
"'And who pays you, old pal?' says I—'if you'll excuse the question.'
"'The Emperor,' says he, calm as you please. 'Nice feller, too.'
"I stared a bit.
"'Knaw him then?' says I.
"'Supp'd with him night afore last,' says he, matter-of-fact like; and I knaw'd he warn't lying—'Me and the Emperor and another gentleman.' He began to laugh. 'Rare sport he was too, the gentleman! Hear him sauce the Emperor!' Then he takes a sweeping look through his glass. 'Ye see we've a little bit o business forrard, me and him and the Emperor.'
"Well, sir, I was gettin my monkey up, as you may allow. Here'd I been tow-rowin up and down the high seas at tenpence a day these six years past, doin my little bit to spoil Boney's game; and here was this chap—dismissed with ignominy, mind!—toff'd out like a dandy Admiral, flashin his French rings and sham Emperors in my face.
"Still I aren't no mug. So cardingly,
"'What's it all about, Bert?' says I, confidential-like.
"He didn't answer: kep on all the while a-squintin through the glass towards the Forest.
"'You a blockade-man, [Footnote: The blockade-men were coast-guards.] Reube?' says he at last.
"'No,' says I, 'I'm a liberty-man from the Tremendous.'
"'Ah,' says he, queer and quiet. 'I'm glad to hear that, Reube. Mighty glad you're not a blockade-man.'
"'Why for?' says I, innocent-like.
"'Why,' says he, ''tain't healthy for blockade-chaps in these parts just now.... You heard o poor Mr. Lucy?'
"'Yes, surely,' I says, pretty spiteful—'dirty business and all.'
"He dropped the glass.
"'What's that?' says he, short-like.
"So cardingly I told him all about it.
"'That's my friend Fat George,' says he between his teeth.
"'I suppose it's news to you,' I sneers.
"He looks me in the eyes properly.
"'This is the first I've heard of it,' says he. 'Struth it is! No,' he says, 'I gave him what he gave me, no more, and no less—five hundred, crossed; while I lay among the blue-bells and counted em out for him, same as he done for me. And when it was over—"And now," I says, "to show you I'm a Christian, I'll leave the boys to put you out of your pain; and that's more than ever you done for me." And I strolled away. They must ha been up to their larks a'ter I left—mucky gaol-birds!' he says. 'Funny thing they can't be'ave like gentlemen.'
"'Well,' I says, 'as to Mr. Lucy, he play'd it down a dog's trick on you; and you got back on him. And man to man,' I says, 'no parsons bein by, I don't say no to that. But if it comes to selling your country for money—'
"He swings round all black and white and lightning.
"'Money!' he snarls. 'Steady, Reube.'
"'What then?' says I.
"'Ah,' says he, drawing his breath like a cat swearin. 'As I just told you, I'm a Christian; and I don't forget.'
"Talk o bitter!
"'Well,' I says, 'if it's revenge you're a'ter, sims to me you've had a belly-ful.'
"'Ah, I ain't begun yet,' says he, breathing slow. 'That's my little private account. There's the system to settle yet.'
"'What!' says I, coming closer. 'So you're going to fix up the British Navy next?'
"'Goin to try,' says he, rollin out that tarrible great laugh of his—'God helpin me.'
"That was a bit too much.
"'Well, I'm a sailor myself,' says I, 'and an Englishman. So, mind yourself!' And I goes for him blind.
"He never budge: just blew his whistle; and a dozen of em sprang out o nowhere.
"'Unclasp his little arms,' says Diamond. 'He thinks I'm his lady-bird.'
"Just then a whistle sounded rithe away acrost the Weald. Another nearer took it up, and another—like partridges callin on a summer's evening.
"'Here he comes,' says Diamond, glass to his eye. 'Reube,' says he, 'there's things good kids such as you are best not seein. Boys, take him to the top o Deepdene, and give him a tilt down. Gently does it,' says he. 'He's an honester man nor any o you.'
"So cardingly they march me away.
"But I hadn't gone above a dozen steps, when I heard him comin a'ter me.
"'Reube,' says he, kind o shy-like, 'I suppose you won't shake with an old ship-mate?'
"'No,' says I, 'I don't shake with no —— traitors.'
"He drops his hand.
"'Ah, well,' says he, 'think the best you can o me. You're much the man I'd ha been, if God had been gooder to me. Good-bye, Reube,' says he. 'All the luck.'
"And somehow he seemed a bit o choky; and somehow I felt the same myself.
"So cardingly they march me away to the top o the coombe, where it's steep as a ship's side, and gave me a shove.
"Down I sprawls, rolly-bowly, anyhow all among the jumping hares, and brought up in the shadows at the bottom.
"And as I was feeling to see if my head still set on my shoulders, a chap on horse-back comes cantering up the shoulder of the coombe above me, black against the light....
"That was the first o this here Gentleman all the talk's on...."
The mist was blowing by in huge white puffs like the breath of a giant.
"That was the beginning," continued Reuben. "It warn't the end though not by no means. Many's the time since then them words of his about the blockade-chaps, and his queer way o sayin em's come back to me."
"Why?" asked the boy.
"Why, sir?—why, indeed?—Two days later a patrol was found at the foot o the Devil's Chimney, heads bashed in. Blow'd over o course!—Week a'terwards petty officer found drowned in dew-pond top o Warren Hill. Accident o course!—Next day common seaman hung in his own braces Jevington Holt. Suicide o course! And so it's been going on ever since—blockade-men murdered; blockade-men missin; blockade-men washed ashore—until last night."
"Ain't you heard, sir?" aghast. "Last night—eleven o'clock—full moon—clear as crystal—Diamond laid the Kite aboard the Revenue cutter off Darby's Hole."
"Ah, well indeed, sir!—No one'll ever knaw the rights o that yarn. Only one chap o the crew o the Curlew left alive to tell the tale—poor Alf Huggett here alongside o me. Stove in a water-butt and hid in it—didn't you, Alf?"
There was a waiting silence.
"It's broke him up surely, sir," whispered Reuben. "And I don't wonder. Saw enough through that bung-hole to keep him thinking for the rest of his life."
"Fat George!" shivered a thin voice. "Fat George!"
"Ah!" came the windy chorus. "Him and old Toadie!"
"Anyways there it be!" continued Reuben. "At noon to-day the Curlew drifted up against Seaford jetty, yards hung with her own crew, like carcasses in a butcher's shop."
"Brutes!" gasped the boy. "But what's the meaning of it all?"
Reuben shrugged till his oil-skins crackled.
"No sayin, sir. Summat's up; summat big. Diamond wanted the coast cleared; and he's cleared it—by thunder he has! Swep it up bald as the back o my hand."
The mist blew away faint and thin. Through it the bowed crest-line of a cliff loomed up to larboard.
"There's the last o the Seven Sisters!" said Reuben. "Birling Gap's just here along." He moved among his men. "Stations, boys. It's here or hereabouts...."
"Hush!" whispered Kit.
THE LUGGER KITE
"D'you hear anything, sir?"
The boy made no reply, listening, listening.
Had he made a mistake?—was it only the swish of waters under the keel? ... No!
"There! there, in front!"
This time there was no mistaking it—the noise of a boat's bow smashing into seas.
Reuben brought his fist down with a thump.
"To the tick!"
Just then the cloud-drift parted. Through tatters of mist the moon shone down.
Bowling out on the top of the tide came a lugger, the foam at her foot.
She was black in the moon, and barely a cable's length away.
"That her?" asked the gruff voice of the old Commander.
"That's the Kite, sir," answered Reuben. "Know her luff anywheres. Foots it like a witch, and handles like a lady. A boy could sail her; and she'll carry farty at a pinch."
The old Commander watched her across the glimmering waters.
"Means havin it," he said with a grunt half of admiration, half of satisfaction.
"Ah, that's Diamond, sir!" answered the other. "God A'mighty couldn't stop him once he's set."
The old Commander measured the lessening distance between him and his prey.
"I shall keep as I go," he said deliberately. "Reck'n he'll do the same. We oughter meet. But if he should scrape through, why let him have it nice and hearty as he goes under my bows."
"Ay, ay, sir."
He stumped aft; while the men rammed down their sou-westers.
"I'll lay I bag Fat George in the belly," said one, spitting leisurely, as he fingered his musket.
"I'll lay you don't then," retorted another.
"I'll lay you couldn't miss it," chipped in a wag.
There was a rumble of laughter, quickly hushed.
The boy among them sniggered, to vindicate his courage.
How brave they were! and what beasts! They made him sick, and filled him with admiration. He should like to be like that—to feel nothing; to see nothing; to loll up against the side and spit about, and make bad jokes, a minute before he took the life of a brother man. That was fine: that was manhood. One day, please God, he would be the same.
He peeped at the lugger. She was holding on, hard-driven, a long-boat with high-cocked nose tearing astern.
The big ship was bearing down on her like a hawk on a sparrow. It was bullying but O! was it not glorious? The old thrill, the thrill of thrills, incomparable, made him tremble. He was manhunting once more.
"He'll carry the sticks out of her," muttered one of the men. "Crackin along all sail—capsize or no."
"He may crack along," said another. "He's done. Black Diamond's done."
The sea flopped in the moon. Here and there a gathering swell hissed into foam. The Tremendous scarcely felt it; but the lugger lay over on her side, seams dripping, and thrashed furiously along.
Her crew, squatting along the weather gunwale, turned bowed and shining backs to the sloop.
Only the man at the tiller had seen her; and he made no sign.
The moon was on his face, black and white and bearded; and his eyes on the sloop.
"Calm chap!" whispered one.
"Plucky meat," replied another. "Guts like a lion on him."
"Which is Black Diamond?" asked the boy.
"Him at the tiller, sir—moon on his face. He's seen us. 'Tothers ain't—not yet."
The Tremendous crashed into a sea. The aftmost man on the lugger's gunwale turned.
He saw the Avenger towering over him, dark wings spread, snow-drifts spurting before her.
An awful horror convulsed his face.
"King's ship!" came a ghastly-screaming treble. "Put back, Diamond!"
The man at the tiller never stirred. One lightning arm flashed forward.
"Down, George!" came a voice of thunder. "I'm going through."
There was a flash in the moon; the smothered crack of a pistol; and a furious tumble of men aft.
"Gor! they're knifin him!"
"Their own skipper!"
"That's the Gap Gang!" rose in a groaning chorus from the bows of the sloop.
Splash followed splash.
The crew of the lugger were jumping for the long-boat.
The moon shone down mildly on savage waters, and a tumult of men.
All about the boat was a fury of fighting. Some were in it, some in the water. Those within were slashing at the hands of those scrambling in.
Every man was for himself, and every man against his neighbour. They fought like beasts, beasts who could blaspheme.
Sin seen naked! Sin and its consequences!
Death-screams; bellowed blasphemies; howls for mercy rose as from the pit.
"No room!—It's me, Joe!—Too many aboard!—Knife the ——!—I'm done!—Elp us up!—Don't, George!"
Out of the torment of howls, oaths, prayers, came again the ghastly-screaming treble.
"Cut the painter!"
A boy, the last on the lugger, afraid before to trust the water, jumped now.
"Don't leave Jacky!" spluttered the thin boy's voice, tearful and terrified; as the little shaven head bobbed up by the boat.
"Ands off!" screamed the treble. "We're sinkin a'ready. What, you little ——! then ave it! ave it! ave it!"
A shrill squeal and then again that ghastly-screaming treble—
"Row, ye ——, row!"
Silence; tumbling waters; and the moon, sick with horror, darkened suddenly.
THE MAN IN THE LUGGER
The lugger came bowling on, one man in her stern.
"Diamond's bested em!" rose in a roar from the Tremendous.
And so it seemed.
The Kite was making straight for the sloop, plunging giddily, as though wounded.
"All hands aloft!" roared old Ding-dong. "Back tops'ls!"
There was a scamper of feet along the deck; and up the shrouds a scurry of dark figures. Above was ordered bustle; from the deck a sounding voice ruled all, as God rules the world.
"Canst use a pistol, lad?"
The words, swift as hail, smote Kit's ear.
"I don't know, sir," babbled the boy, sick with excitement.
A minute back Hell had yawned, and he had peeped in. He was still aghast.
"Then find oot!" fierce as a sword. "Joomp into t'mizzen-chains, and pick off yon chap at the helm, as he cooms under ma counter."
He thrust a pistol into the boy's hands.
How limp the lad felt beside this masterful old man!
In another moment he was standing in the chains, the dark and giddy waters swirling beneath him. The blood thumped in his temples.
Was it to be his St. Vincent? his chance?
The lugger came tearing up. He could hear the swish of the waters, white at her foot; he could see the wet sail, the bucketing bows, the fore-deck awash. She would pass bang beneath his feet. He could see no man at the helm—only the jumping bowsprit, the thrashing foot, and that huge lug-sail, bellying over the water.
Suddenly his mind flamed. In the white glare of it he saw the thing to do, and had done it, before cold reason could check him.
The boat and giddy waters rose up to meet him. He fell as on to a mattress, full of wind. It was the lug-sail he had struck. Down it he sprawled to the deck, there to find himself upon his hands and knees, something soft beneath him.
One man was in the boat; and that man was staring him in the face.
There was no mistaking him. He was black, with diamond eyes. The moon was on his face; and about his lips a queer snarling smile.
Kit expected him to pounce; yet he did not, lolling back in the stern-sheets, very much at his ease. The tiller under his arm wobbled, and he wobbled with it. In spite of those staring eyes of his, there was a dreadful unsteadiness about the man. Was he wounded?—was he drunk?
Somehow the boy was not very much afraid. It was all too dream-like. He heard his heart thundering far-away on the remotest shores of being. He heard his own voice speaking, and was surprised at it—how steady it was, and how small!
It was saying,
"I'm a King's officer. That's a King's ship. There are about a thousand men on board. It's all no go. D'you give in?"
The man grinned sardonically. Then his head fell forward. He lurched horribly. The tiller slipped from under his arm. The lugger fell away, and lay on the water like a wounded bird.
Then Kit understood.
Black Diamond was dead.
The boy's mind relaxed like a burst bladder.
He began to laugh.
Where was he?
Alone on the deep with a dead man.
Well, well. It was not for the first time surely. A ghost, long-laid, walked again. A sudden lightning had flashed upon his past. In it he had seen and remembered. Something of a forgotten self floated to the surface. In turmoil, his Eternal Mind had thrown up on the sea of Time a memory from its imperishable hoard.
Slowly he recollected himself, and looked about him.
He was kneeling on something soft, and his hands were warm and slimy. He looked down, and jerked back with a scream.
He was kneeling on a dead man, and his hands were crimson.
A gust caught the lugger: she staggered forward with a flap and swing of her boom. Her master, her mate, was dead; and the spirit had gone out of her.
No time for the horrors! he must be doing.
In a moment he was at work with his dirk. The great lug came down with a rattle.
Forward under the boom, he cut the sheet of the jib. It fluttered furiously, streaming lee-ward. Then he stumbled aft.
The murdered helmsman still lolled in drunken stupor, smiling inscrutably.
Astern the sloop lay with tall clothed masts, swaying, a phantom on the troubled waters.
A boat had put off from her, and was bucking towards him.
"Lugger ahoy!" came a windy voice across the water. "Is that you, sir?—all well?"
"I'm all right," cried the boy, and was ashamed to find his voice cracked with emotion.
The boat bumped alongside. Reuben Boniface's face popped up over the side.
"Plucky thing, sir!" he cried, bobbing with the boat; then seeing the man at the tiller—"Ah, Bert! a fair cop."
"He's dead," said the boy with a sob.
"Dead!" cried the other, thrusting forward. "By thunder! so he is. Boys, Black Diamond's dead!" He took the dead man by the hand. "Poor old mate!" he continued in hushed voice. "Fancy that now. Diamond dead!"
Another head bobbed up.
"Did you kill him, sir?" asked an awed voice.
"No, I didn't. I think it was this man. He killed Black Diamond; and Black Diamond killed him back."
His heart was swollen almost to bursting.
A row of heads now bobbed all along the side, staring at the dead man. It awed them, this lay-figure with the dreadful stillness brooding about it, rocking with the rock of the sea. They spoke of it with lowered voices reverently.
"Funny thing—him so quiet. Don't seem nat'ral like."
"Warn't like that ten minutes since."
"That Black Diamond!—and can't lift his own hand now!"
"Ah, makes a change, Death, don't it?"
"One thing sure," ended a philosopher. "Like it or not—sooner or later—in this world we all gets our desarts."
So these solemn children, big of the sea, brooded over the Great Mystery. Here they were in the dark, the night blind about them, the old sea roaming round; and here was It. Dimly they tried to apprehend It. Somehow It made them feel strangely small, and somehow strangely great.
Reuben was still pumping the dead man's hand up and down, the tears coursing down his face.
"Poor old mate!" he kept saying. "He'd not ha been the same if things had been different—would you, old mate?—I wish I'd ha shook hands with you now, I do."
A shuddering voice spoke from the boat. It was the broken blockade-man.
"Ow much is he dead?" he asked.
"Why, dead as dirt," replied a matter-of-fact fellow, chewing his pig-tail phlegmatically.
"Sure he ain't learying?" came the voice of the man with the shivers.
"You fear'd on him still, Alf?" asked one curiously.
"Fear'd on him?—No, I ain't fear'd on him!" came a ghastly titter. "Got no cause, ave I?"
"He won't urt you," replied the other, soothingly. "He's dead all right—ain't you, Diamond?—You can tweak his nose, see?—and then go ome, and tell the gals what you done. Tweak Black Diamond by the conk!"
"You let him be!" growled Reuben. "Time was you'd ha crawled to him. Now any snotty little toad can make game on him."
Kit looked up at the rising voices.
A fellow had seized Diamond by the nose, plucking back his head.
The dead man's mouth gaped. Into the cavern of it shone the moon.
"One moment!" cried the boy; and hating himself, he thrust a finger and thumb into the opening, and plucked out the thing which gleamed within.
It was a cut-glass scent-bottle.
They came under the counter of the sloop, the boat towing the lugger, and Black Diamond dead, the moon upon him.
A face, tallowy-nosed and black-whiskered, was leaning over the side.
"Say! was there a tall chap on a blood chestnut aboard?" asked a slushy voice. "Andshomish feller—might be own brother to me. If so, pass him up the side, there's a good biy. There's L1,000 on his head."
Kit went up the side, his heart beating high.
"Anything?" asked the old Commander shortly.
He surrendered his treasure-trove.
"What! this all?" sniffed the old man, fingering the scent-bottle contemptuously—"gal's fal-lal."
He stumped below.
The boy's heart was white-hot with indignation.
This then was his thanks!
Somebody tickled him under the arms.
"You're in the old man's good books, Sonny," said a hilarious voice. "Wha d'you think he said when you plumped overboard?"
"I don't know. What?"
"'Nelson might ha done that,' says the old man—Bible-truth, he did." And he shook out loose coils of laughter.
The compliment was so staggering that it humbled the boy.
A minute since he could have stabbed that old man with the stiff knee. Now he could have kissed him.
"No! did he really?" he gasped.
The Gunner clutched the boy with one arm, and tilting his chin, looked down at the uplifted face.
"There is a look o the little man about the kid," he said—"kind o gal-like look—all eyes, and spirit, and long chin. Funny thing!—I've always noticed the best biys to fight are them as got most gal about em."
The purser's steward tripped up.
"Mr. Caryll, sir, Commander Harding desires to see you in his cabin."
"Told you, Sonny," crowed the Gunner. "It's to give you a certificate for valour, and a drop o brandy on a lump o sugar."
A purser's glim lit the cabin, bare save for a solitary print upon the bulk-head.
Facing it stood the old Commander, broad as a wall, his hands behind him, and the scent-bottle, unstoppered now, in one of them.
Kit recognised the face on the wall at once. It was Nelson's.
"That you, Mr. Caryll?"
"Can ye read French?"
"A little, sir."
"Then what ye make o this?"
He thrust a hand behind him, never turning.
Kit took from it a tiny roll of tissue paper, and unfolded it.
"Shall I begin, sir?... It's headed Merton, [Footnote: Merton was at this time the seat of Lady Hamilton.] 17th, 2 a.m., and goes on—" he translated, stumbling—
Everything is going beautifully. There is only one man for England to-day; and for him there is only one woman. She is the absolute master of her N., and he of Barham and the Board. The Victory is due to-morrow. She expects him here on Monday, and will do all. The original plan holds good. He will be off Beachy Head Thursday. The Medusa, 44.
Keep the frigate cruising. I am off to Dover at dawn to square up there. Diamond calls for me at the old rendezvous on Wednesday, and puts me on board the frigate that I may be in at the death as our friends this side say.
The boy lifted dark eyes.
"It looks like a—"
The other cut him short.
"In our Service, sir, the Captain speaks when he's the mind; the First Lieutenant all the time; and the midshipmen—never."
He snapped fierce jaws.
"What date, d'ye say?"
"Seventeenth, sir.... That's to-day, ain't it?"
The old man grunted.
"Started this morning—sharp work."
"He was riding a thorough-bred ... sir."
"What's a furrow-bred?... plough-oss?"
"Plough-horse!" sparkling scorn. "It's the best sort of horse going."
"What if it be?—I'm a sea-man myself—not a postboy.... How d'ye know he was ridin a what-d'ye-call-it?"
"He always does."
"The man they call the Gentleman—the Galloping Gentleman."
"Who told you?"
"I picked it up, listening to the riding-officer."
The old man cocked an eye over his shoulder at the boy.
"I keep on a-listinin for that sir," he said. "Reck'n I'm hard o hearin."
He resumed his study of the face on the bulk-head. A long while he gazed: then smacked one fist into the other.
"That gal!" he muttered. "I always know'd how it'd be," and turned at last.
Taking the paper from the boy, he packed it into the scent-bottle.
"When I've laid this here in Nelson's hands," he said deliberately, "I'll be ready to say what your father said aboord the Don."
A curious smile made kindly wrinkles about his eyes: it was half mischievous, half wistful: the smile of a child about to gratify an innocent spite, long cherished.
Then he shoved the bottle into his breast-pocket, and looked up. The light fell on his face; and for the first time Kit saw his Captain fairly.
Square shoulders; square face; square chin; a square brow, strangely white above the terra-cotta-coloured lower face; and blue eyes that looked squarely into yours. All square, body and soul. A true man, and a born fighter, the blue and white riband for St. Vincent at his breast.
"When you joomped aboord the lugger, was you scared?" he asked curtly.
The boy looked him in the eyes.
The old man's hand lay for a moment on his shoulder.
"So'd I ha been," he said, and went out, nodding.
On deck the dawn glimmered faintly.
On their lee, high in the heaven, a glowing smother hung in the dark over a snaky brood, darting red tongues hither and thither.
"What's that?" growled old Ding-dong.
"The chaps as got away in the long-boat, sir. Set a light to the gorse on Beachy Head. Signal. An old game o their'n."
The old man swung about.
As he looked, a blue light spurted seaward, and another answered it.
"Thought so," he muttered. "Burning flares."
Then he turned again.
"Bout ship!" he barked. "Make your course for Newhaven. Send a look-out man aloft. And clear for action."
THE TWO PRIVATEERS
A roll of thunder woke Kit.
Starting up on his elbows he looked about him.
Where was he?
Yesterday he had waked in the blue room at the White Cellar, the sparrows chirping under the eaves, the smiling chamber-maid at the door saying, "Half-past seven, sir," and the rumble of the Lewes coach in the yard beneath.
It was an altogether different rumble that he heard now. He had never heard it before; yet how well he knew it.
It was the roll of the drum, beating to quarters.
Across the sea a bugle answered it.
The boy thrust his head out of the port.
All about him lay a shining floor of sea, gently undulating and six cable lengths away, bearing down upon the sloop, a black ship flying the tricolour.
Across the bulk-head a sudden roaring voice boomed out an order.
There was the scuffle and scamper of naked feet; the noise of tackle running, shot trundling along the deck, and the roll of guns.
Then all was silence but for the thumping of his heart, and the slop of the water about her sides as the little Tremendous footed it into her last fight.
Kit rushed on deck.
The sloop, stripped to her topsails, was stirring the water faintly.
Only one man was on deck—old Ding-dong, conning the ship himself bareheaded.
He was in a worn frock-coat, and faded yellow kerseymere waistcoat, stained with soup and tar; and the hands on the wheel wore grimy kid gloves.
There was such a dinginess about the old man's garments, and such a dignity about his face, that Kit almost laughed to see him.
Last night the old Commander might have been a Channel pilot, in his rough sea-jacket and sea-boots. Today he was a King's officer, fighting a King's ship; and no mistaking it.
There was a change in his face too: something subtle, almost spiritual, that the boy could feel although he could not define it. In fact the explanation was very simple. Old Ding-dong was going into action, and had brushed his hair first as was his invariable custom.
"Morn, Mr. Caryll," said the old man, never taking his eyes off his topsails. "I was just going to send for you. You'll be my orderly midshipman. We're in for a little bit o business. See them two?" He jerked his head across the water.
Then Kit saw for the first time that two black monsters were sliding down upon them over the shining waters, side by side. The nearer was close on the larboard bow of the sloop; the other, on the same tack, lay on her consort's far quarter. Their bows hardly rippled the water as they stole forward. They seemed to flow with the flowing sea rather than sail. Phantom-ships, they might have been creatures of the night, surprised by day.
The boy could see nobody aboard. Save for the flapping of the tricolours, and the occasional creak of a spar, they were still as death. The silence and terror of their coming sickened the lad.
The voice of the old Commander, gruff and everyday at his elbow, reassured him.
"Privateers," he growled—"old friends both. This'n's the Cock-ot. Happen you've heard tell of her. That'n's the Cock-it. Sister-ships. And 'ot and 'it they'll be afoor long if I can make em so."
He spun the wheel discreetly.
"At dawn I found em atween me and Newhaven. So I went about; I wasn't on the fightin lay—half my ship's company short, and this here in my pocket for Nelson." He tapped his breast.
"Thought I'd run for Dover. I was hardly off on that tack when I found her"—with a backward jerk of his head—"athwart-hawse me."
Kit turned and saw a third ship, very tall, a league in their wake.
"Forty-four gun frigate," continued the old Commander. "Must ha given somebody the slip. But what she's doin here along o them two pints beats me."
"They must have been waiting to escort the lugger," ventured the boy.
"Happen so," said the other phlegmatically. "Well, they've got her now—the husk, that is: I've kep the kernel," tapping his breast-pocket once again. "I didn't want all three a-top o me at the first onset, so I cut the lugger adrift, and set her bowling, helm lashd. As I reckoned, the frigate stopped to pick her up. She won't be alongside for three hours yet.... As to them two, we've been dodging about all morning, but I reck'n we're about there now—just about. So-o-o!"
There was a roar and a huge splash beneath the stern of the Tremendous. A cold avalanche sluiced the boy. He staggered blindly back, something crashing on the deck about him.
"O!" he cried, and opened his eyes faintly, expecting to find himself smothered with blood.
It was water, not blood, that was dripping from him.
The boy looked up in fear.
Old Ding-dong drenched too, the water trickling down his nose, still nursed his ship tender as a mother.
There was not the ghost of a smile on his face, no curl of contempt about his mouth.
Kit thanked him inwardly. After all the rough old fellow was a gentleman.
"Trying the distance with a bow-chaser," said the old man imperturbably. "I'd have a lick back, only I can't spare no men for the deck carronades. All below with Lanyon."
The tip of his tongue shot out, and made the journey of his lips, cat-like. From behind that grim and weathered visage peeped the child, arch, mischievous, infinitely cunning.
"Master Mouche, he reckons I'm going to cross his bows and rake him," he whispered. "He reckons I'll keep my course to sarve his consort the same. He reckons to come up under my starn and rake me fore and aft, while his consort wears ship and pounds me with her broadside. That's his little game. 'Tain't mine though, ye know, Mr. Caryll—'tain't mine." He rolled a blue eye on the boy; and in that eye, twinkling cunning, bubbled the delight of a child about to play a practical joke on an elder.
So unexpected was the effect, and so tickling—this grim old veteran revealing in himself the Eternal Child who hides behind us all—that the Frenchmen at their guns, hearing in the silence the sudden ripple of a boy's laughter, whispered among themselves that the Englishman had a woman aboard.
The breeze was very light and fast falling away. Old Ding-dong kept one eye on his topsails, and one on his foe, sliding towards him across the water.
"Like the Shadow o Death a'most, ain't she?" said the old man in hushed voice—"so still-like and stealy." He dropped a kind eye on the boy's face. "Makes ye think first time, don't it?—I mind Quiberon. Guts feel fainty like."
He renewed his watch. The twinkle had left his eyes. He had withdrawn deep down into himself. Somewhere in the centre of that square body sat his mind, alert, cat-like, about to pounce.
The shadow of the Cocotte fell across the sea nearly to their feet. The wind breathed on the waters, dulling them. The languid topsails swelled faintly.
The old man spun the wheel. The Tremendous swung towards her enemy.
Delicately across the glittering floor the two ships drew towards each other, wary as panthers about to fight.
There was dead silence, alow and aloft. Only the tricolour at the enemy's fore flapped insolently; and the red-cross flag, at the mizzen gaff of the sloop, licked out a long tongue and taunted back.
"That's Mouche at the wheel," grunted the old Commander—"her skipper. A fine fighter, but treecherous like em all.... Funny thing no one on deck only him. Swarmin with men too, I'll lay."
The French skipper too was at the wheel: a dapper little personage, black-a-vised, with fierce moustachios and eye-tufts.
He wore a huge tricorne, and vast tawdry epaulettes.
"How do you, sair?" he called, all bows and smiles and teeth, as the two ships came within biscuit-toss. "Vair please to meet you once more."
"Queer lingo, ain't it?" muttered old Ding-dong. "All spit and gargle. Comes from eatin all them frogs, I reck'n. Stick in their throats or summat."
He raised his voice.
"Same to you and many on em," he growled. "I ain't seen that dirty phiz o your'n in the Channel since our little bit of a tiff off the Casquets last May. I yeard tell you was in the West Indies conwalescin a'ter an attack o de Tremendous!" He chuckled at his joke.
The Frenchman shrugged and smiled.
"So I wass, sair, a while back. And now here—on express pisness; the Emperor's pisness."
"What's up?" asked the Englishman bluffly. "Tired o waitin to wop Nelson? Goin to embark the Armee o England straight off?"
"Not yet," replied the other, showing his teeth. "All in goot time, my Captain. This first—this pit of pisness I do for my Emperor."
"Seems to me that Emperor o your'n must be put to the push if he's druv to gettin a mucky little pirit like you to do his business," grumbled the other.
The Frenchman waved the insult aside with utmost good humour.
"He send for me across the seas. 'I need my leetle Albairt,' he says. 'Come queegly.' So I spread my wings and come. And La Coquette she slip out from Rochefort. And La Guerriere"-with a backward jerk—"from Brest. Like swallows in April we flock to the rendezvous—to meet the Queen of Hearts, is it not?"
He bowed low, hand to his bosom.
"And now you've come, sure I ope you'll stay," rumbled the grim old seaman. "The trouble with you's always been your despart hurry to get away."
"This time we stay," replied the Frenchman with a smirk—"all three, for ever, if need be."
"We'll do our best to make you at ome, sir," grunted the Englishman; and turning to Kit—
"Slip below and tell Mr. Lanyon to begin to talk when we're locked fast—and not afoor."
Kit scampered below.
The main-deck was clear as a room before a ball: bulkheads up; hammocks slung. But for the sand on it, you might have danced there.
How big and sweet and clean it looked!—like the loft at home, where he and Gwen and the black cat's kittens played on wet days.
But there was something other than the black cat's kittens to think about now.
The sunshine poured in through the ports on the sleek guns crouching ready. On the breech of one somebody had scrawled in chalk—
God is Love. Hear me preach it:
on others obscene mottoes, texts, and lines from patriotic songs.
About each gun clustered her crew, naked to the waist, black handkerchieves bound about their foreheads. All had solemn puckers about the brows; some were silent, some ghastly-joking in whispers, and one, face averted, was obviously praying.
Up and down the sanded deck between the guns, picking his teeth, strutted a tall and faded splendour.
His cocked hat was a-rake; his kid gloves white as his skipper's were dingy; his whiskers, purple with dye newly applied, puffed out on cheeks touched with rouge.
Could this dilapidated dandy, so alert, so nonchalant, be the drunkard of last night?—
Yes. That tallowy nose, those eyes with the wild gleam in them, could not be mistaken. It was Lushy Lanyon.
Somehow he had scraped up a First Lieutenant's uniform: bright blue coat with long tails; white waist-coat, knee breeches, and stockings; black hat cockaded, worn athwart-ships; and sword slung from a shoulder belt. And the wonder was that it fitted and became him.
The boy gave his message.
The Gunner bowed ceremoniously.
"Be so good as to give Commander Ardin my compliments, and say I don't pull a lanyard till I can see through her ports."
The other's formal politeness stirred the boy almost to laughter; yet somehow the faded splendour of the man touched him too.
It was as when a great light seeks to shine through smoked glass. Last night he had seen only the sodden body; now he beheld the soul, shining dimly, it is true, but shining still through its sullied habitation. The call to action had set it burning. It illuminated the blurred face, notable still. In his youth the man must have been extraordinarily handsome. Even now he was a noble ruin.
"Ah, you may stare, Mr. Caryll," said the Gunner, reading the other's thoughts. "It was Lushy Lanyon last night; this morning it's Me!"
He swelled his chest, and stalked down the deck between his guns, shooting his cuffs.
"Yes, sir. A fight's meat and drink to me. It pulls me together, and makes me remember who I am." He threw back his head—"Magnificent Arry, the man that's played more avock with earts in his day than any other seaman afloat.... It's the whiskers done it," he added simply.
The two men in him were at war: the high and mighty fighting-man and the confidential toper. Each came bobbing out in turns.
"And if you should want to see a main-deck fought as a main-deck should be fought, why, sir, be good enough to take a seat."
He kicked a powder-monkey off his box, and offered it with a bow.
"Can't," said Kit, turning. "No time. See you again later."
The other stooped and peered out of a port.
"Doobious, I should say," he replied, picking his teeth. "Vairy doobious. Ah! ——"
A great black shadow stole across the port. Its effect on the Gunner was miraculous. He shot up like a flame. He was dark; he was terrible; there was something of the majesty of Satan about the man. Some huge sea of life seemed to lift him above himself, and land him among the giants.
"Stand by the starboard battery!" he roared.
Kit ran up the ladder out of that bellowing Inferno.
The Tremendous and her enemy lay side by side with locked spars; the Coquette becalmed beyond.
Then Kit understood the ruse of that wary old fighter, his Commander. Old Ding-dong had placed the Cocotte as a bulwark between him and her consort. As he had foreseen, the wind, falling away this hour past, had dropped to nothing now. The Coquette could not bring a gun into action.
Four hundred yards away, she might have been as many miles for all the assistance she could render her sister-ship.
As the boy came up, the old Commander was leaning against the wheel, bending towards his knee, and breathing hard.
There was a dark and peevish look about his face; and a trickle of red was running down his white knee-breeches.
"Tell ye 'taint etiquette to have men in your tops only in general actions and duels atween ships of the line," he was saying in slow and painful voice, very querulous. "In all my fifty years' experience o sea fightin, I never see sich a thing afoor, never! Dirty trick I call it."
The little Frenchman across the narrow lane of water dividing the ships, chattered excuses, all sympathy and shrugged shoulders.
"Ah, I so grieve. Pain! pain! terrible, n'est-ce-pas?—But what would you, my Captain?—It is no fault of mine. The Emperor's orders. 'I trust you, my Commodore,' says he. 'Coute que coute.'
"Emperor! about as much a h'Emperor as you are Commodore! And you're welcome to tell him so with my compliments," snorted the old man.
He threw his eye aloft.
"Mr. Caryll, take a party o small-arm men aloft, and clear them sneakin blay-guards out of her tops. Else they'll be boardin by the yards."
The boy rushed away.
Beneath his feet the deck staggered and shook. On the lower-deck of the Tremendous hell had broken loose, in flame and smoke and horrible bellowings. The little ship was racked. In her agony she quivered from truck to keel.
Suddenly the spars of the Cocotte above him began to crackle and blaze. Plip-plop-plank! the bullets smacked all about him. He was under fire and he didn't like it. He wanted to dodge under the bulwark and lie there; but he daren't. So he ran breathlessly, skipping as a bullet spanked the deck at his feet.
They were in the enemy's main-top, swarms of them, tiny figures, crowding along the spars, grinning at him, he thought.
How on earth with a handful of men, climbing up the rigging under a pelting fire, he would ever clear that lot out!...
Even as he wondered the enemy's main-mast seemed to become alive. It swayed; it shook; it almost danced; the taut shrouds sagged.
At first the boy thought that horror had turned his brain, and he was going mad. He stopped dead and gazed.
Yes, it was coming down, coming towards him, towering, tremendous, like a falling spire.
It came in jerks, tearing its way with a snapping of stays and crashing of spars. Figures, like black birds, seemed to detach themselves, and flop through the air. They were men, thrown clear, and falling with floating coat-tails as they revolved.
One fell with an appalling bump on the deck of the sloop hard by the wheel, a man in a red coat, bear-skinn'd and gaitered. He did not stir, kneeling, his hands before him, head bowed, in attitude of adoration. A sudden pool of scarlet seemed to spurt out of the deck and island him.
Kit, his work accomplished for him, ran back to the wheel.
"Reck'n that's the chap as got me," said old Ding-dong, nodding at the dead man with a certain grim friendliness. "A red-coat, d'ye see?—Now what's the meanin o that?—I never yeard tell of a privateer carrying regulars afoor."
The old man was leaning against the wheel. His brow was puckered; and there was a tense, breathless air about his face. It came to the boy with a shock of surprise that a man hard-hit makes just the same sort of face as a man who has got one on the funny bone at cricket.
"Are you hurt?" he asked anxiously.
"Nay, I'm none hurt, but I am hit. They've took fifty years doin it, but they've done it at last. It was yon chap with the bashed skull. Haul him alongside o me, wilta? I'll set on him—ease my old stumps!"
He lowered himself.
"I'll larn him shoot me," he said, arranging himself comfortably on his corpse.
Kit giggled. Somehow this old man with the twinkle in his eye made him feel at home among these screaming horrors.
"Lucky shot o Lanyon's," continued old Ding-dong. "There's a lot o luck in fightin; and good job for us too. Luck's the favour o God. He always favours us. We're straight, ye see."
He peered through the eddying smoke-drift.
"That there top-hamper o their'n makes a tidy bridge atween ships. Now if they was to tumble to that, reckon they'd boord—and we'd be about done."
Kit looked round.
The enemy's main-top had fallen across the deck of the sloop.
The lightning that is genius flashed in the boy's mind.
In a second he was across the self-fashioned drawbridge between the two ships and on to the deck of the Frenchman. It was deserted save for the dead men, red-coats all, flung from the falling top, and sprawling broadcast everywhere. Even Mouche had disappeared.
Beneath him on the lower deck was the same bellowing Inferno as on the Tremendous. He felt the privateer stagger and rend to a broadside of the sloop, as though her bowels were being torn out. He rushed to a hatchway belching smoke. In the pit below he could see dim figures flitting about, and could hear the howls of those in torment. Deafened, blinded, dizzied, he slammed the hatch upon them, clamping it down. Swiftly he passed from hatchway to hatchway, making all fast.
With dancing heart, he ran back to the bridge.
As he did so a whimpering voice stayed him.
"O mon enfant!"
The French skipper was lying abaft the binnacle, a yard across his lower body.
There was no make-believe about him now, no mockery. He was naked man, stripped of his tinsel, and laid bare to the soul by the inexorable Master, Pain. Across his chin, as though to mock him, lay his false moustachios.