The Voyage of the Aurora, by Harry Collingwood.
INTRODUCES LUCY WALFORD.
Those who have ever had occasion to reside for any length of time in Gosport are sure to be more or less acquainted with the little village of Alverstoke; because it lies near at hand, and the road leading thereto forms one of the most pleasant walks in the neighbourhood.
But it may be that there are those, into whose hands this book will fall, who have never so much as heard the name of the place. For their benefit, then, it may be worth while to state that Alverstoke is pleasantly situated at a distance of about one mile from the above-mentioned town of Gosport, and within half a mile of the waters of the Solent.
It is a very unimportant little place at the present day: it was even more so in the year 17—, the year in which this veracious history opens. It was unimportant, that is to say, in a general sense; the public knew very little about it, and cared still less; but in a particular sense, and to the officers of His Majesty's Customs, it was a very important place indeed, inasmuch as the inhabitants, animated by a spirit of enterprise and a love of adventure not to be satisfied by such very ordinary and humdrum pursuits as those of fishing and market-gardening, had, almost to a man—to say nothing of the women and children—added thereto the illegal but lucrative and exciting occupation of smuggling; to the great loss and damage of the king's revenues.
The village consisted, at that time, of a single short, narrow street with a bend in the middle of it. Nearly one half of the north side of this street was occupied by the churchyard and church; the remaining portion, as well as the opposite side of the way, being composed of small low, two-story cottages with thatched roofs (and most of them having little projecting dormer-windows), a couple of public-houses, and a small grocery establishment.
This constituted the village proper; but a little aloof from it—being in it but not of it, as it were—there were in all perhaps half a dozen residences of a somewhat more pretentious kind. There was the rectory, for instance, on the opposite side of the road, eastward of the church, built in the very centre of its extensive garden, and snugly surrounded on all sides by high stone walls. Then there was Stoke House, near the rectory, standing well back from the road, embowered in trees, and with a carriage-drive running straight up through its beautiful rose-garden to the front door. Nearer the beach, and on the opposite side of the valley, was "Verbena Cottage," the abode of Lieutenant Bobus, in command of the coast-guard; and still nearer the beach, some ten or a dozen yards back from the road, enclosed within a neat paling, sheltered by lofty trees, with a lovely flower-garden in front and an extensive fruit and kitchen-garden in the rear, stood "Sea View," a small but well-built house, in which resided the relict and daughter of the late "Cap'n" Walford.
The late "Cap'n" Walford had been a wonderfully popular man in his day; and his memory was greatly esteemed and revered by the villagers. Manifesting, at an early age, a love of enterprise and excitement quite extraordinary even in an Alverstoke man, he had seized the first opportunity which offered to become the owner of a very fine fast-sailing lugger, in which, during his thirty years of devotion to maritime pursuits, he, by a rare combination of prudence and audacity, gradually acquired the reputation of being a most successful smuggler— and the snug little fortune of some ten thousand pounds. The latter and more desirable portion of his acquirements he carefully invested, as it dribbled in bit by bit, in house-property in the neighbourhood; so that, when this estimable man's career was cut short at the comparatively early age of sixty years, by an unlucky cannon-shot fired from a revenue cutter, his disconsolate relict found herself the possessor of a comfortable income amounting to some five hundred pounds per annum, together with "Sea View" and—last, but by no means least—a daughter, fourteen years of age. This melancholy event occurred four years before the date at which this history opens; Lucy Walford was therefore about eighteen years old when the first of that train of events happened which it is herein proposed to record.
Mrs Walford was wont to assert, just about this time, that Lucy was the very living picture of what she herself used to be when a girl. If this was indeed true, it was at once an evidence of that remarkable good taste which the late "cap'n" was said to have possessed, and of the extraordinary changes effected by the hand of Time, for no one could ever have suspected such a resemblance without Mrs Walford's assurance. The old lady was a sad and subdued personage, thin and angular of figure and face, with prominent cheek-bones, eye-brows, and chin, dark eyes, deeply sunk in their sockets, a broad forehead, ploughed with innumerable wrinkles, a long sharp aquiline nose, a large thin-lipped mouth, and a querulous temper.
Lucy, on the other hand, was of medium height, slight, graceful figure, abounding in delicate curves, with small hands and feet, an exquisite complexion, a face, the sweet piquant loveliness of which set all the youth of Alverstoke—and Gosport too, for that matter—by the ears, a wealth of long silky golden hair, which persisted in twisting itself into a most distracting conglomeration of wavy curls, and a temper which nothing—not even her mother's querulousness—could ruffle.
That Lucy should be fairly beset by suitors was only natural. There was not a single bold young smuggler of marriageable age in all the country round about who did not cherish in a greater or lesser degree the fond hope of one day making her his own, albeit most of them were—it is only just to say—dimly cognisant of the fact that she was much too good for the best of them. It was probably in consequence of this feeling that only one or two—the boldest of the bold of this dashing fraternity— had, so far, mustered up the courage to approach the young lady with a distinct proposal of marriage; and these, it is hardly necessary to say, had been firmly, but as pleasantly as possible, sent to the right-about. This class of lovers gave Lucy no trouble whatever; bold as they might be in the pursuit of their lawless avocation, they were diffident to the verge of absurdity in the presence of beauty, if associated with dignity and refinement; they were painfully conscious of their uncouth bearing and manners; and Lucy had little difficulty in keeping them at a proper distance.
But if these admirers gave her no trouble, there were others—notably two—who did; quite enough, in fact, to fully compensate for the ease with which she was able to manage all the rest. One of these was a certain Lieutenant Walford, a cousin of Lucy's; the other being Captain George Leicester, of the merchant schooner Industry.
Edward Walford was the only son of a half-brother of the late Captain Walford. He was an orphan, twenty-three years of age, and held a commission in his Majesty's—foot, then quartered in Gosport. He was fairly well educated, tall, passably good-looking, of engaging manners, but—those who knew him best said—treacherous, unscrupulous, and a gamester.
George Leicester, on the other hand, whilst perhaps quite as handsome as his rival, was simply a frank, honest, sturdy seaman, carrying his heart upon his sleeve; thoroughly master of his profession, but diffident and doubtful of himself in all other matters.
The trouble with these two was, that Walford could not be made to see that his presence was distasteful to Lucy; whilst Leicester was provokingly blind to the fact that the fair girl loved him with all her pure, simple little heart. She had not given her love to him unsought, it must be understood—far from it; George Leicester had been one of the earliest, as he was one of her most constant and devoted, admirers; he was unremitting in his attentions to her whenever he was in port; but the simple fellow was so doubtful as to his prospects of success that he had never given Lucy the chance, which she would so gladly have welcomed, to say "Yes" to the momentous question which was ever hovering upon his lips, but had never yet been able to get beyond them.
It was on a certain brilliant June afternoon that Lucy, as was her frequent custom, took a book in her hand and strolled down to the beach, where, making a little nest for herself in the shingle, she sat down to read or think, as the whim might take her.
The ardent rays of the sun, streaming down out of a cloudless sky, gleamed and flashed and sparkled upon the waters of the Solent, which, ruffled by a gentle westerly breeze, shone like a sheet of liquid gold. On the further side of the strait, the Isle of Wight upreared its green and wooded slopes in fair perspective; its northern shore, from Nettlestone Point to Egypt, bounding the view. On Lucy's right lay the entrance to Southampton Water, with the further shore, about Stone Point and the mouth of the Beaulieu River, indistinctly seen through the quivering golden haze; whilst on the left, across the water, Southsea Castle stood boldly forward upon its low projecting point, a watchful sentinel over the magnificent anchorage of Spithead. Inland from the castle lay the little straggling town of Southsea; and beyond it again, still higher up the estuary, appeared the spires and roofs of Portsmouth, its harbour crowded with a perfect forest of masts. Some half a dozen men-o'-war lay at anchor at Spithead; and the waters of the Solent were dotted with the sails of craft of all sizes, from the stately frigate to the humble but enterprising bumboat.
As Lucy sat there on the beach, basking in the sun, and far too idle to read, her listless gaze became fastened upon a trim, smart-looking little schooner which, under all the canvas she could possibly spread, was creeping slowly up from the westward before the light summer breeze. The glance of indifference with which the fair girl at first regarded the little craft, gradually changed to one of the greatest interest. Lucy, it must be remembered, was a sailor's daughter; nearly all her neighbours were interested almost solely in seafaring matters; the daily conversation of those by whom she was surrounded abounded in nautical technicalities; she had even made a trip upon one occasion in her father's lugger (the only occasion, by the bye, on which the hold of the said lugger was absolutely guiltless of contraband freight); and lastly, were not the walls of her home adorned with portraits of craft of various rigs passing Flushing or the Needles? All of which circumstances had combined to give Lucy a very fair knowledge of nautical matters and "a sailor's eye." She had not only learned the distinguishing characteristics of different rigs, but had also acquired the subtle power of recognising the individuality of different craft of the same rig whenever there happened to be anything to excite her interest in such craft. So now she first recognised the fact that the approaching vessel was a schooner, and, a little later on, when the schooner had drawn somewhat nearer, she became conscious that the schooner was well known to her. Drawing a small telescope from her pocket, she focussed it and pointed it at the vessel. Yes; there could be no doubt about it, it was the Industry; every little detail of canvas and rigging proclaimed the schooner's identity; and then, as though in order that there should be no possible room for doubt, and as though George Leicester had seen and recognised the charming girlish figure standing there on the beach (as possibly he had through his powerful marine glass), a white fluttering object gleamed out over the rail and, soaring aloft, streamed from the main-truck, a burgee with the name Industry worked upon it in red letters. At the sight of this Lucy rapidly closed her little telescope and returned it to her pocket with a bright flush and a conscious, happy little laugh.
"Dear George," she murmured; "how glad I am that he is back all safe; and how fervently I hope that he did not see me watching the schooner. I wonder whether he will walk over this evening."
She then, uncomfortably conscious of the possibility that "dear George" might at that very moment have her accurately focussed in the field of his glass, sauntered along the beach with as much of an air of total abstraction as she could conveniently assume on the spur of the moment, and finally, after watching the schooner pass safely into Portsmouth Harbour and there come to an anchor, returned home.
She found her mother suffering from a more than ordinarily severe attack of "the miserables," as that lady was wont to term her low spirits. It was one of Mrs Walford's peculiarities to be depressed in spirits in exact proportion to the brightness and exhilarating character of the weather—but Lucy was completely proof against it all just now; the sight she had so lately looked upon had sent a soft, dainty flush into her cheeks, a light into her eyes, and a song to her lips, which her mother's "miserables" were wholly powerless to drive away, and she went about the house filling it with the melody of her low, sweet voice.
Tea was over; Mrs Walford was made comfortable in her wide arm-chair, with a huge volume of sermons in her lap; and Lucy was trying to settle down with composure to the execution of some trifle in the way of needle-work, when the sharp click of the gate-latch was heard; there was a crunching of feet upon the gravel walk, the front door was unceremoniously opened, and Lieutenant Edward Walford walked in.
"How do, aunt? Lucy, fair coz, I hope I see you in a state of perfect salubrity?" was his nonchalant greeting.
Mrs Walford replied that "she was as well as could be expected,"—she did not say under what adverse circumstances—and Lucy requested him not to make himself ridiculous. It was too bad, she decided; here she had been looking forward to a delightful visit from George Leicester, probably a whole evening spent in his society, and now this pestilent cousin of hers must needs take it into his perverse head to walk over from Gosport—to be found later on by "dear George" making fierce love to her, the unfortunate Lucy;—which would be quite sufficient, she felt sure, to choke the said George off for at least another voyage. But that should never be, she was quite resolved; she could not prevent her cousin coming to the house, since her mother not only tolerated, but rather encouraged his visits; but she could, and she would, prevent his making love to her.
With this determination she sat down, and, resorting to the best means she could think of for keeping her cousin at arm's length, produced her writing-materials and proceeded to discharge a few of her epistolary debts.
Being thus unmistakably shown that his presence was unwelcome to the younger lady, he turned his attention to the elder one, talking to her about the war—the then all-important and most interesting topic of the moment—and giving her such scraps of news as had come to hand during the day, but it was perfectly evident from the uneasy glances he shot at his cousin and the nervous way in which he tugged at his long auburn moustache, that his occupation was not to his liking. At last, abandoning all further effort to accomplish the almost impossible task of amusing the old lady, he stepped to Lucy's side, and said in a low whisper—
"Will you come into the garden with me for a few minutes, Lucy? I have something of the utmost importance to say to you, something which will brook no delay, for my regiment is ordered off to the West Indies, and I may not have another opportunity to see you."
Lucy knew as well as possible what the "something" was which her cousin so anxiously desired to say to her; she was convinced that it was nothing less than a proposal of marriage; and her first impulse was to excuse herself. But that, she decided, would hardly be kind on the eve of his departure for foreign service; moreover, it might leave him in possession of a feeling that there was some hope for him, or possibly, after the many love-speeches he had made her, he might feel himself in some sort bound not to marry any one else until he had had a distinct refusal from her, and that must certainly be avoided; so she decided that she would grant him the desired interview, give him his dismissal as speedily and withal as kindly as possible, and get him out of the house without delay—it was still early in the evening, and who knew but that she might succeed in getting rid of her unwelcome suitor before the welcome one put in an appearance?
So, laying aside her pen, she motioned him to follow her into the large garden at the back of the house, where they would be perfectly secure from observation, and herself led the way.
She conducted her cousin to a little summer-house at the lower end of the garden, and, motioning him to a seat said—
"Now, Cousin Edward, what is this important communication which you have to make? Be as brief as possible, if you please, for I really cannot spare you much time."
"I will," he said. Then, pausing for a moment, and making an unsuccessful attempt to gain possession of her hand, he remarked—
"I think you must have already guessed what it is that I have to say to you, Lucy. You cannot be ignorant of the feeling with which I regard you; you must have discovered long ago that I love you, Lucy, deeply, passionately, tenderly, as a man loves only once in his lifetime. We have not known each other very long, it is true," he continued after a slight pause, during which he had vainly looked into her downcast face for some sign of encouragement, "but the time has been long enough for me to learn that all my hopes of future happiness depend on you; and I think it has also been long enough to enable you to judge whether you can entrust your happiness to me or not. I know I am by no means what I ought to be,"—here he made another pause, hoping for some word or sign of disclaimer, which, however, never came—"but I hope you will not judge me too harshly. I am an orphan, remember. Robbed at an early age of a mother's tender care and gentle training, I have been left pretty much to the mercy of strangers, who allowed me to grow up to manhood without an effort to check the development of those evil propensities which we all alike inherit from our first parents; and then, too, I have had the misfortune to be thrown—against my will, I honestly assure you—into evil companionship. But, in spite of all these disadvantages, I flatter myself that I am by no means a bad sort of fellow; and if you will only take me in hand, Lucy, I feel sure you could make a reformed character of me. And then, too, consider the society into which I could introduce you. Wearing his Majesty's uniform, as I do, I could—"
"Pray say no more, Edward, I beg," interrupted Lucy. "I am grieved to be obliged to disappoint you—though I do not think the disappointment will be very great—but what you ask is quite impossible. In the first place I must frankly say that I do not love you; and in the second I must with equal frankness say that, though I might love ever so much, I would never marry a man who needed that I should 'take him in hand' to make a reformed character of him. You are my cousin, and, as such, I shall always regard you with friendly interest; but I shall never be able to entertain for you any warmer feeling."
Walford, pale to the lips with surprise and chagrin, looked incredulously in the face of the fair girl by whose side he was seated. He was completely staggered. The idea of his being indifferent to his cousin had never for a single instant occurred to him. He had won for himself the reputation of being quite a "lady-killer;" and now this little country-bred girl had the impertinence to tell him coolly that she did not love him; nay, more—to hint pretty strongly that she regarded him with feelings not very far removed from contempt, because, forsooth, he had lived a somewhat fast life. Why, many of the girls he had met had positively admired him for his rakishness—he did not pause to consider what manner of girls these were, though, by the bye. It was monstrous, it was positively insulting. Then, in addition to the severe wound to his amour-propre, there was the disappointment of his hopes of pecuniary aggrandisement; Lucy's fortune, modest though it was, would have been of the utmost service to him. It was true, he knew, that she would not have a penny of her own until her mother died, but that, he was firmly convinced, would not be a very long-postponed event; the "old fool"—as he called Mrs Walford in his heart—would doubtless be in her grave long enough before he returned from foreign service— and, at all events, he was willing to risk that. But then Lucy had said she would not have him. Surely she could not mean it; she was only saying it to try him, or—stay—was it possible that she loved that sailor-fellow Leicester? He would find out.
"Are you quite sure, Lucy, that you will never be able to love me?" he asked, infusing a very successful affectation of passionate entreaty into the tones of his voice. "Perhaps I have spoken too quickly; I have taken you by surprise, I have allowed my impatience to outrun my judgment; perhaps if I had waited a little longer—"
"It would have been just the same; I could never have loved you," interrupted Lucy. "And now let us return to the house; this interview has lasted quite long enough. I am sincerely sorry if you are disappointed, Edward, but I could never give you any other answer, so please say no more about it."
"One word more," exclaimed Walford. "Tell me—I have a right to know— do you love any one else?"
"I really do not see that you have a right to know anything about my private affairs," answered Lucy with some hauteur, "but in order that you may fully understand the hopelessness of your own case, I will confess that—that there is—some one else."
"Ah!" ejaculated Walford between his set teeth, "I suspected as much. And I can form a pretty shrewd guess as to who it is, too. It is that sneaking rascal Leicester, is it not?"
"How dare you, sir, speak to me of my friends in that manner!" exclaimed Lucy, rising to her feet and stamping upon the ground in the excess of her indignation. "Go, sir, and never come near me again; I will never speak another word to you!"
"You won't, eh?" was the sneering retort. "All right. I will go; and I'll not come near you again. But I'll make you bitterly repent of your treatment of me yet, or my name is not Edward Walford."
And rising to his feet, he walked rapidly up the garden, through the house, and straight out at the front door, without so much as pausing to bid his aunt good-bye.
CAPTAIN LEICESTER HEARS BAD NEWS.
In the meantime, the Industry having come to an anchor in Portsmouth Harbour, Captain Leicester, waiting only to see the sails properly furled, jumped into the boat and hurried away to his owner's residence.
Here he was detained for more than an hour, the individual he was desirous of seeing happening to be absent, "but expected back immediately," according to the statement of the solitary clerk who occupied the little front room which did duty as an office.
The owner of the Industry having at length turned up, her captain was instructed to haul alongside the wharf forthwith, in readiness to begin discharging her cargo the first thing next morning. So George Leicester, greatly to his disappointment, had to return on board once more; and it was not until the clocks were striking seven that, the schooner having been duly hauled alongside the wharf and securely moored thereto, her commander felt himself at liberty to leave her and set out upon a pilgrimage to Alverstoke. But for the delay thus occasioned, the events herein recorded would probably never have occurred, those of them at least which chiefly concern Captain Leicester.
Let us take a good look at our hero as he stands for a moment in the golden evening light on the planks of the wooden structure which, supported by ricketty, worm-eaten piles, does duty as a wharf. Like a thorough seaman as he is, he is taking a last glance at the schooner before he leaves her, to see that everything is thoroughly "ship-shape and Bristol-fashion" on board her. She is a small and somewhat insignificant craft; but as George has sailed in her for the last four years of his life—two years as mate and two more as master—he has become attached to her, looking at her faults with a lenient eye, and striving to conceal them as much as possible from others. As he stands, with his hands lightly crossed behind him, his legs a trifle apart, and his eye wandering critically over the Industry's hull and rigging, we see him to be a man of about five feet eight inches in height, with a well-knit figure, regular features, dark hair and eyes, the former surmounted by a jaunty crimson worsted cap with a silk tassel on its drooping end, and tied into a queue behind with a bow of very broad black silk ribbon, short black whiskers on each side of his face, with a clean-shaven upper lip and chin. He is clad in a wide-skirted coat of fine blue cloth, trimmed with large gilt buttons, and worn open to show the kerseymere waistcoat beneath, the long flaps of which are confined by a broad belt. He wears a white silk kerchief round his throat, lace ruffles at his wrists (in honour of his projected visit to his lady-love), and his nether man is encased in knee-breeches, white stockings, and shoes with large silver buckles. There is a frank, pleasant look in the keen dark eyes, and an expression of firmness about the closed lips which makes most people feel, when they look at him, that they would much rather have him for a friend than for an enemy. Altogether, as far as physique is concerned, he certainly has the advantage of Lieutenant Walford. As to the comparative moral qualities of the two men, the reader will have abundant opportunity to judge for him—or her—self.
Unfortunately, however, for his own and Lucy Walford's peace of mind, George Leicester is not only unaware of this superiority on his own part, but he strongly suspects it to be all on the other side. He has made Walford's acquaintance, having met him, perhaps, some half a dozen times in all, at "Sea View," and, despite his simplicity, he has had no difficulty in recognising in the lieutenant a would-be rival. And this is just where his own modesty and self-depreciation have played him a scurvy trick. He has noted Walford's easy, nonchalant bearing, and his two or three flashy accomplishments; he has noticed, too, that the lieutenant is not altogether devoid of good looks, and has jumped—all too hastily, as we are aware—at the conclusion that, where a woman is concerned, a plain, straightforward, honest sailor can have no chance against a dashing soldier like the lieutenant. At the same time, he has by no means given up the chase, nor ever will, so he tells himself, as long as Lucy is free. Over and over again has he been upon the point of speaking out and learning his fate, and over and over again has he hesitated and closed his lips, deeming the occasion unpropitious, or fearing to learn that which will make the remainder of his life a blank to him.
But now he has resolved to delay no longer. He has been screwing up his courage to the sticking-place during the whole of the passage from Waterford to Gosport, and when he stepped from the rail of the Industry on to the wharf, he was on his way to Alverstoke to learn his fate.
Satisfied at last that everything was right on board the schooner, Leicester turned away and directed his steps up High Street, and thence out on to the Stoke Road. Alverstoke church-clock struck eight just as he came in sight of it; and the next moment he saw, far ahead of him, a man dart round the corner and come swinging along the road towards him at a tremendous pace. Distant as the man was, Captain Leicester had no difficulty in recognising in him his dreaded rival, Lieutenant Walford. He guessed at once that the lieutenant had been visiting at "Sea View;" but what struck him as strange was that Walford's appearance and bearing was that of a man in a towering passion. Almost immediately afterwards, however, he decided that he must have been mistaken in supposing this, for as Walford looked up and recognised him he stopped dead in the road for a moment, and then hurried towards the skipper with outstretched hand and a beaming face.
"My dear Leicester, how are you?" Walford exclaimed with effusion, as he grasped the seaman's hand and wrung it heartily. "How glad I am to see you. When did you arrive?"
"This afternoon only," was the answer. "Have you been to 'Sea View' lately? There is nothing wrong there, I hope?"
"Wrong, my dear fellow! No. Why do you ask?"
"Well, when you rounded the corner just now you were walking at such a terrific pace, and looked so much as though you were greatly upset about something, that I feared there had been an accident at 'Sea View,' and that—"
"That I was hurrying off for the nearest doctor, eh? Well, you may set your mind at rest, my dear boy; nothing is the matter. I have just left Mrs Walford's, and both she and Lucy are in excellent health, I am glad to say. It is deuced kind of you, though, to take such a warm interest in them, and I thank you for it with all my heart. You are a prime favourite there, I can tell you, my lad; I have been frightfully jealous of you for a long time, but now I shall never be so any more. Lucy—darling girl that she is—has had pity upon me at last, and has condescended to set all my fears at rest; so you may congratulate me if you like."
"Upon her having—accepted you as—as—her future husband?" gasped Leicester, white to the very lips.
"Exactly; I knew you would be glad to hear it, being an old friend of hers," was the reply. "But mum's the word for the present. Our regiment is ordered away to the West Indies at once, so Lucy wishes the engagement to be kept secret until I can return home to claim her. Well, I must be off; you are going to 'Sea View,' I suppose? Don't mention our conversation there, please; I should not like Lucy to know that I have already been prating of the engagement; if she feels inclined to tell you of it herself, of course that is another thing."
"All right, I'll not say a word about it, you may rest assured," answered Leicester, as he suffered his hand to be clasped in farewell; "in fact, I don't suppose I shall have an opportunity to mention it to them; I am not going to call there to-night, and I may not have time to call there at all, as I shall be very busy during the next few days. I—I am—thinking of giving up the Industry and going—somewhere— abroad, myself."
"Are you?" ejaculated Walford with great heartiness. "Well done; I am glad to hear you say so. A fellow with your pluck and sinews was never intended to potter about in a trumpery little coaster. Well, good-bye."
The two men separated; Walford to chuckle and exult over the complete success of his suddenly planned ruse, and Leicester, with all hope and brightness gone out of his face, to saunter despondently along the road and back to Gosport, by way of Haslar Common, avoiding "Sea View" altogether.
So Lucy was lost to him! Well, after all, it was no more than he had dreaded all along; he had been a fool, and worse than a fool, to suppose that he, a plain, unpolished seaman, could possibly have a chance of success when pitted against a fellow like Walford—curse him! No—no, not that, he did not mean that; why should he curse the man to whom Lucy had given her young, fresh love? Still it was very hard to bear—very hard; he hoped the fellow would treat her well; if not, let him look to himself. But why should not Walford treat her well? Who could do otherwise? Who was there in the whole wide world who could find it in his heart to be anything but kind and loving and tender to her? And yet—Psha! Who was he—George Leicester—that he should judge another man? True, he had heard some very queer stories about this same Lieutenant Walford, but doubtless they were all fabrications; Lucy was not the girl to love a man of whom such things could possibly be true. And as to his (Leicester's) own feelings of distrust and dislike, why they were after all only the natural outcome of his jealousy, and were certainly not to be relied upon as indicating faultiness of character in his successful rival. Still, argue as he would, he had his doubts, and he could not dispel them, and—well, it was a hard blow, coming so suddenly, too; it was difficult to bear it patiently even now, and he had a shrewd suspicion that it would be still more difficult to bear by-and-by, when he fully realised the extent of his loss.
But it was no use fretting over it; the question was, "What was now to be done?" He could not possibly live on the old humdrum life any longer. He must have excitement and activity, plenty of both, to keep his mind occupied, and to prevent his fretting over his disappointment. "Yes, that was a happy inspiration which had led him to tell Walford he intended giving up the Industry; that must be his first act. And after that? Well, after that he would look about him, and if he could pick up a tidy little vessel cheap; he would invest his savings in the purchase of her, sail in his own employ, and try to stifle all vain regrets by plunging into a more adventurous mode of existence."
So ran George Leicester's thoughts as he made his way back to the Industry.
Meanwhile, Lucy, having given one lover his conge waited with loving impatience but in vain, for the appearance of the other.
On the following day, the master of the Industry waited upon his owner, a Mr Winter, and requested his discharge. Mr Winter was both surprised and chagrined at the news that he was to lose so well-tried and faithful a servant as George; but, finding our hero inflexible in his resolution, he could, of course, do nothing but accede to his request, which he did at last with a very good grace.
"And now," said Mr Winter, when the accounts had all been gone through and squared up, "since you are quite determined to go your own wilful way, I suppose I must do what I can to help you. You will go to London, of course, to look out for this ship that you propose to purchase; and I will give you a letter to a Mr Roberts, a ship-broker and a friend of mine, who has an office in Great Saint Helen's. He is pretty sure to have or to know of something which will suit you; he is a thoroughly straightforward, honourable man, will do his best to suit you, and will charge you nothing; the seller is the man who will have to pay him his commission."
George duly thanked Mr Winter for his kindness, received the letter, and on the following morning crossed over to Portsmouth, and booked himself to London on the "Highflyer" coach.
The next day found our hero at an early hour in Leadenhall Street, seeking for the whereabouts of Great Saint Helen's. A clerk, going in that direction on his way to business, pointed out the place, and, turning into the narrow court, George soon found the office of which he was in search.
Mr Roberts was busy perusing a large pile of papers when his visitor was shown in, and he begged to be excused for a moment whilst he completed his task. This was soon done, whereupon Mr Roberts rang two distinct strokes upon a small hand-bell, and a clerk entered in response.
"Here, Wilson," said the ship-broker, handing over the pile of papers, "take these. You will find from the notes I have jotted down upon this sheet of paper what to do with them. Now, sir," turning to George, "what can I have the pleasure of doing for you?"
George briefly explained his business, and handed over Mr Winter's letter of introduction, which Mr Roberts rapidly glanced through. Then the little bell was struck once, and another and much more substantial-looking clerk made his appearance.
"Bring me List A, if you please," said Mr Roberts.
"List A," a large leather-bound volume, was brought in and laid upon the table before the ship-broker, who at once opened it, and began to run his fingers slowly down an index. Then he rapidly turned up an entry in the book itself, and read out—
"'Challenger—brig; 450 tons; softwood built, iron-fastened, sheathed with zinc; nine years old; well found in sails, ground-tackle, and all necessary stores, ready for sea. Price 1800 pounds.' How will that do? She is really a very decent vessel of her kind, and exceedingly cheap at the price."
"We might take a look at her," remarked George, "but her description does not sound very inviting."
Another reference to the index, another turning up of an entry, and—
"Well, what do you think of this? 'Lucy—brigantine; 520 tons; oak-built, coppered, and copper-fastened throughout; has only been to sea twice; excellent sea-boat, very fast and weatherly; fully found in every respect, and quite ready for sea. Price 2500 pounds.'"
"That sounds very much better," answered Leicester, who, to tell the truth, was almost as much taken with the name as anything else; "but I don't particularly admire the rig."
"Umph!" ejaculated Mr Roberts, pursing up his lips and referring to the index once more. "Um, um, Maid of the Mist—Lizzie—Highland Lass—Enterprise—ah! yes; perhaps this will do. 'Enterprise— brig; seven years old, oak-built, iron-fastened, 350 tons register, will carry 600 tons dead-weight; well found. Price 2200 pounds. Requires a few trifling repairs amounting to possibly 500 pounds.' How does that strike you?"
"Not very favourably," was the reply.
"Well, let's try again," remarked the ship-broker. "I know I can suit you."
Another reference to the index, then a sudden sharp closing of the book, with the muttered ejaculation, "The very thing! What a donkey I am not to have thought of her before."
Then a single stroke on the bell, followed by the reappearance of the substantial-looking clerk.
"Bring me in the inventory of the Aurora, if you please; that paper that was left here by Mr Sutton yesterday."
The document was brought in, and Mr Roberts at once handed it over to his client with the remark—
"There, my dear sir, just run your eye over that; if the Aurora won't suit you, nothing will. She is a capital little ship; I know her well. Her owner, poor fellow—who is captain of her also—had the misfortune to lose his wife last voyage—washed overboard somehow in a gale of wind—and it has so upset him that he has resolved to cut the sea altogether and everything connected with it. He is even willing to sell at a great sacrifice, so as to get rid of the ship as soon as possible. Great bargain, captain; most extraordinary bargain; never get another such a chance."
"That looks much more promising," said George, returning the paper. "Where is she, and when can I see her?"
"London Docks—see her in an hour—I'll take you down on board at once," was the reply.
And merely stopping to change his coat, and give some instructions to his clerks, Mr Roberts invited George to follow him; and, getting into the street, they hailed the first hackney-coach which passed, and in a few minutes were jolting along on their way to the London Docks.
Dismissing the coach at the dock gates, Mr Roberts inquired of the gate-keeper where the Aurora was to be found.
"Inside ship, fourth berth, north side," answered the man, pointing out the direction they were to take.
They soon found the vessel, and George, standing on the edge of the dock wall, saw before him a pretty little barque of some four hundred and odd tons, copper-bottomed, with a flush deck fore and aft, a fine set of spars, and such a shapely hull as set his eyes glistening. He walked away from her and knelt down so as to take a good look at her "run;" then went ahead of her to see what her bows were like; and finally, very much prepossessed in her favour already, went on board, accompanied by Mr Roberts.
Here they were received by the ship-keeper, who at once led the way into the cabin. This proved to be an exceedingly snug and comfortable apartment, not very large, yet roomy enough, and very tastefully fitted up. Abaft this they found the captain's cabin, a room some twelve feet long, and the entire width of the ship, well lighted—there being both a skylight and stern-ports—and fitted up in a style which gave unmistakable evidence of the refined taste of the former captain's poor drowned wife. From the cabin they proceeded to the forecastle, and from thence into the hold, George all the time peering about everywhere for signs of weakness or bad workmanship, without finding any. Having at length satisfied himself as to the soundness of the hull, he went aloft and gave to the spars and rigging a careful examination. Here, too, everything was perfectly satisfactory; and when he at length stepped down out of the rigging on to the deck, he nodded approvingly to Mr Roberts and said—
"All right; I'll take her."
"Glad to hear you say so, captain," was the cheery reply; "she is a capital little craft, and I'm sure you'll like her. Now—as it is nearly two o'clock—what say you, will you come and take dinner with me?"
Leicester acquiescing, they made the best of their way to the eating-house which Mr Roberts patronised, and, while discussing the meal, made arrangements for the completion of the purchase.
The meal ended, George wended his way back toward the dock, and, turning into Nightingale Lane, established himself in tolerably comfortable quarters in a boarding-house kept by a widow, whose husband had been what she called a "sea-captain."
On the following day Captain Leicester paid over the full amount of the purchase-money, receiving in return the ship's register properly endorsed; and that same evening he found himself the undisputed owner of the Aurora.
His next task was to secure a freight. This he had no difficulty in doing—in fact he had his choice of some half a dozen—and by noon he had accepted a charter for the conveyance of a general cargo to Kingston, Jamaica; to commence loading at once. Having completed the business, he hurried away to the shipping-office, and was fortunate enough to secure the services of a very promising-looking mate, who undertook to establish himself on board forthwith, so as to be on the spot in readiness to receive the cargo as it came down to the ship.
George now found himself comparatively at leisure, and he had at one time serious thoughts of running down to Gosport, were it only for a day, just to see Lucy once more, and bid her good-bye. Well would it have been for both of them had he done so. But on reconsidering the matter, he arrived at the conclusion that no good could possibly come of any such proceeding, whilst the sight of Lucy would only too certainly increase the pangs of regret he already so keenly felt at his failure to win her; so he eventually decided to remain where he was, and occupy himself in watching the stowage of the cargo.
A CAPTURE AND A RECAPTURE.
A fortnight from the day on which Captain Leicester signed the charter-party saw the last package passed into the Aurora's hold, and on the following day she sailed for Plymouth, there to join a fleet of merchant-ships which were to cross the Atlantic under convoy.
Thanks principally to the exertions of his chief mate, Mr Bowen, George was fortunate enough to pick up a very good crew, comprising a second mate—who acted also as boatswain—a carpenter, a steward, a black cook, two able-seamen, four ordinary ditto, and two well-grown lads, who had already been a voyage or two in a coaster. This constituted a complement of fourteen men, all told; just sufficient to handle the barque comfortably.
They sailed from the Thames with the wind at about west, and had a capital run as far as the South Foreland, the Aurora showing herself to be such a smart vessel under her canvas that her commander was delighted with her.
At this point, however, the wind, which still held from the westward, was dead against them, and it became a question whether they should anchor in the Downs to await a favourable change, or continue on and endeavour to beat a passage as far as Plymouth. Prudence dictated the adoption of the former course; it being well known that the Channel was just then swarming with French privateers—powerful luggers for the most part—the captains of which had an unpleasant habit of slipping out of harbour as the evening came on, and stretching across toward the English coast, on the lookout for our merchantmen, very often picking up a valuable prize and getting back into port the next morning. The weather, too, happened just then to be highly favourable for the operations of these gentry, the sky being overcast with frequent showers, and no moon.
On the other hand, however, time was of the utmost importance; George had only five days left him in which to reach Plymouth, if he was to avail himself of the protection of convoy; so, after discussing the question with Mr Bowen, and carefully weighing it in his own mind, he finally decided to keep the ship moving, and to trust to fortune and a good lookout.
The Aurora accordingly proceeded, stretching over as far as mid-channel, when she went about; and on drawing in with the land again Leicester had the satisfaction of seeing that she would handsomely weather Beachy Head, which she did, tacking close in under the land about breakfast-time on the day following her departure from London. At 2 p.m., being at the time rather nearer to the French than to the English coast, George tacked again, in order to close the English shore toward nightfall.
At 9 p.m., being abreast of Littlehampton, and about eight miles off the shore, the Aurora went about once more, and stood over towards France, close-hauled on the starboard tack.
The weather had cleared somewhat, the sun breaking through the clouds as the afternoon wore on, and flooding the whole western sky with splendour as he sank to rest. One by one, as the golden glory of the west faded into sober grey, the stars shone out, peeping shyly down upon the world from the softly dappled sky, and there was every prospect of its being a fine night in the Channel. George accordingly gave instructions for the ship to continue on the same tack until midnight, when she was to be hove about once more. Then, cautioning the second mate—who was in charge of the deck—to maintain a strict lookout and to call him in the event of a change of weather or the appearance of a suspicious-looking sail in their neighbourhood, he went below to snatch an hour or two of sleep, having had none so far from the moment of the vessel's sailing.
Flinging off his clothes, he threw himself into his swinging cot, and instantly sank into a sound and dreamless slumber; to be awakened again with a start, and almost instantly, as it seemed to him, by the flapping of the ship's canvas in the wind.
Starting up into a sitting posture, he heard the voice of the chief mate on deck giving the necessary orders for tacking ship.
"Hillo!" he thought, "what is the meaning of this? Nothing wrong, I hope. No, that cannot be, or they would surely have called me. Perhaps it is a change of wind; I hope it is. Well, being awake, I may as well slip on deck and satisfy myself as to the meaning of it."
He accordingly sprang out of his cot, and began to dress himself; the sounds on deck having meanwhile ceased, save for the monotonous tread overhead of the officer of the watch, and the occasional clank of the wheel-chains. The ship was heeling over to starboard, showing that she was on the port tack, and the rushing sound of the water along her sides seemed to indicate that she was moving pretty rapidly through it.
As he opened his state-room door to pass into the main cabin, a heavy step was heard descending the companion-ladder, and the next moment the second mate appeared at its foot, in the act of turning into his own state-room.
"Well, Mr Cross," said the skipper, "what is the news from the deck? You have tacked ship, it seems; is there a change of wind?"
"No, sir," answered Cross; "the wind still holds steady at about west, though it seems a little inclined to back half a point or so to the south'ard, and it's clouded over again and gone very dark. We tacked at midnight, sir, according to your orders."
"Midnight!" ejaculated George; "you surely do not mean to say it is midnight already, Cross?"
"About a quarter after it, sir," answered the second mate with a smile. "You've slept sound, sir, I expect; and time has travelled fast with you."
"I must have slept sound indeed," answered the skipper; "to me it seemed that I had hardly fallen asleep when I was awakened by the flapping of the canvas. Well, I'll not keep you from your bunk; I shall go on deck and take a look round before I turn in again. Good-night."
"Good-night, sir," was the reply; and the second mate opened the door of his berth and passed in, whilst George sprang lightly up the companion-ladder and stepped out on deck.
It was indeed, as the second mate had said, very dark; so much so that the skipper, having just left the cabin, where a lamp was dimly burning, was unable to see anything for a moment or two. Then, as his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, he caught first a glimpse of the man at the wheel, his form faintly illuminated by the binnacle light, then the figure of the mate, just turning near the taffrail to walk forward, and finally the dark, shadowy pile of canvas towering away aloft until it melted into the general obscurity.
"It has gone very dark again, Mr Bowen," remarked the skipper, as the mate, becoming aware of George's presence on deck, joined him.
"It is dark, sir," answered the mate, "almost too dark to be poking about here in the Channel without lights."
"It is rather risky, I admit," returned George; "still, I do not think it is so dangerous as showing our lights; that would simply be hanging out an invitation to those prowling French privateers to pounce down on us. How is her head?"—to the man at the wheel, George and the mate having by this time strolled aft together.
"No'th, half west, sir," was the reply.
"Come, that is not so bad," remarked George. "We shall fetch Plymouth yet in good time to join the convoy if all be—"
"A sail broad on the weather bow!" broke in the lookout forward, with startling abruptness.
Both George and the mate instantly directed their gaze in the direction indicated by the lookout; and presently a shapeless something like a blacker patch against the black background of the darkness loomed into view, about one point before the beam, showing by this rapid change in the respective positions of the two ships how near was the stranger.
"Why!" exclaimed Leicester, "he is coming right down for us; he will be into us. Port, port hard; up with your helm smartly, my lad," to the man at the wheel. "Ship ahoy! Port your helm; can you not see us?"
"Ay, ay; oh, yesh," was the response from the other vessel; and as it came floating down upon the wind the stranger took a broad sheer to port, showing herself to be a large lugger, and shot very neatly alongside the Aurora, the grappling-irons being cleverly hove into the barque's fore and main-rigging, as the two vessels touched.
At the same moment some five-and-twenty Frenchmen, armed with cutlass and pistol, scrambled alertly in over the Aurora's bulwarks, the leader singling out George, notwithstanding the darkness, and exclaiming, as he promptly presented a pistol at his head—
"Vat cheep dis is, eh?"
"The Aurora, of London," was the answer, "Tres bien! My cheep, the Belle Marie, est un corsaire Francais, un—vat you call—privateere, et vous etes mes prisonniers. It is ze fortune of war, messieurs; my turn to-night—yours to-morrow, perhaps—ha, ha! Now, my dear sares, as there not moosh time is, permettez moi," and he flung open the companion-doors, motioning significantly to George and the mate to go below.
Poor George glanced swiftly round the deck, only to see that it was in complete possession of the Frenchmen, one of whom was already at the wheel. So, turning to Mr Bowen, and murmuring, "There is no help for it, I suppose," he signed to the mate to lead the way, and then followed, dejectedly, the doors being smartly slammed-to after them, and the next moment they heard the sound of some heavy body being dragged up to and banged against the companion entrance, thus precluding the possibility of their stealing on deck again, and effecting a counter surprise.
The whole thing had been done so rapidly that it was not until he found the ship being once more hove about, with her head pointing toward the French coast, that Captain Leicester fully realised his situation. In less than ten minutes his ship had been taken from him, and himself confined in his own cabin, a prisoner. Had he not been on deck at the time of the occurrence, he would certainly have considered it an avoidable misfortune, to be accounted for only by the most gross carelessness; but as it was, he was fully able to understand that it was entirely due to the extreme darkness of the night, and the circumstance of the lugger and the barque stumbling over each other, as it were. But that made matters no better for him; he had lost his ship—his all—and now there loomed before him the immediate prospect of a dreary confinement—for many years perhaps—in a French prison. The thought goaded him almost to madness, and he sprang impatiently to his feet, and began to pace moodily to and fro over the narrow limits of the cabin floor.
Meanwhile the second mate—who had started out of his berth at the first shock of contact between the two vessels, and had made a rush for the deck, only to be confronted and driven back by a Frenchman with a drawn cutlass—was seated on the lockers alongside Mr Bowen, listening to that individual's gloomy recital of the details of the capture.
The low murmur of the two men's voices annoyed George in his then irritable frame of mind, and, to avoid it, he retired into his own state-room. The night being close and sultry, all the stern-ports were open, and as he entered the cabin the sound of a hail from to leeward came floating in through the ports. It was answered from the deck, and, kneeling upon the sofa-locker and thrusting his body well out of the port, the skipper became aware that the lugger was parting company, and that the hail he had heard was the voice of the French captain shouting his parting instructions to the officer he had left in charge of the prize. Looking away to leeward, in the direction from which the sounds had come, he was just able to distinguish the dark outline of the lugger, as she bore up and pursued her way once more to the eastward. After this a considerable amount of excited jabbering took place on deck, the word "Cherbourg" being so often repeated that George had no doubt it was to that port that the barque was to be taken; but in about half an hour all this died away, and perfect silence reigned on board once more.
From the moment that the lugger parted company a confused idea as to the possibility of retaking the barque had been gradually attaining definite shape in George's mind. It was rather a desperate attempt to make, it is true, with himself and the two mates shut up there in the cabin aft, while the crew were doubtless confined in the forecastle, and with no possibility of effecting a junction with them. Still, if Bowen and Cross were willing to run the risk of assisting him, it might be worth while to try it.
Thinking thus, he drew his head inside the stern-port, and made his way back into the main cabin, where he found the two mates, with their arms crossed upon their chests, and their heads bowed upon their breasts, asleep.
Giving them a gentle shake apiece, to arouse them, he sat down beside them and asked them bluntly if they felt disposed to run a little risk in an attempt to retake the barque, and so avoid a French prison.
"You may reckon on me for one, sir, if you've hit upon anything likely in the shape of a plan," heartily answered the chief mate; "and Cross here, I know, won't hold back either, unless I'm greatly mistaken in him."
"Never fear," said Cross; "if you give the word, sir, and the ship is to be retook, we'll have her. But how do you propose to do it?—it'll have to be a surprise, I s'pose?"
"Listen," said George. "What I propose is this. The stern-ports are all open; and I believe that, by assisting each other, we may manage to creep out through them on to the main-brace boom-iron, and thence make our way along the ship's side, outside the bulwarks, forward, when, by watching our opportunity, we may possibly manage to overpower the guard on the forecastle, throw off the hatch, and release our own lads, and then we must just make a fight for it. We may perhaps—we three—manage to take along with us a cutlass and a brace of pistols each; but the men must do the best they can with hand-spikes, belaying-pins, and, in short, anything they can lay their hands upon."
"A very promising plan indeed, sir," answered the chief mate. "The next question is, when are we to set about it?"
"The sooner the better," answered George; "so go at once, please, for your pistols; load them carefully; take a cutlass each from the rack; and then we will proceed to business."
In a very few minutes the trio were ready. Going softly into George's state-room, they paused for a minute or two to listen for any sounds which might furnish them with a clue to the condition of affairs on deck; but nothing was to be heard, save the occasional clank of the wheel-chains, and the low humming of a song by the helmsman.
"It is all curiously quiet on deck," whispered George to his two companions; "I can't quite make it out; it undoubtedly means one of two things, however—either they are keeping a very strict and careful watch, or none at all; we shall soon see which. Now, Cross, stand by to give me a hoist, if I seem to require it; I will go first, and as soon as I am fairly out of the way, Mr Bowen can follow."
Kicking off his boots and stockings, the skipper thereupon, without further ado, mounted the lockers, and passing his body cautiously out of the weathermost stern-port, held on by the edge of the port with one hand, whilst he reached out and felt for the brace-iron with the other. This he soon found, and grasping it firmly with his right hand, began to work himself cautiously towards it. The task he had set himself proved, however, to be much more difficult than he had expected; the rake of the ship's stern so greatly interfering with his freedom of motion that at first he feared he would be obliged to abandon the attempt altogether, as he foresaw that, the moment he released his hold upon the edge of the port, he must infallibly swing off backwards, and, unless he could manage to retain his grasp of the iron, drop overboard. So he slipped in through the port again, to explain this difficulty to the mates, and to caution them to be careful when it came to their turn, and then resumed his attempt.
Once more securing a firm grasp upon the brace-iron, he watched the roll of the ship, and, seizing the first favourable opportunity, boldly swung himself off into the air, where he hung suspended by one arm, with his feet almost touching the water. In another moment he had both hands upon the iron, and, giving himself a vigorous upward swing, he was soon able to throw his feet over the tautly-strained main-brace. To scramble up and place himself astride the brace-block was now an easy task, and, settling himself firmly there, he prepared to assist the chief mate, when he should make his appearance.
He had not long to wait. Hardly was he comfortably established in his comparatively safe position, when a hand appeared from behind the quarter-piece in search of the iron. George promptly seized and guided it to the object of its search, then firmly grasped the wrist with one hand, keeping the other ready to render further assistance.
"Look out, sir, I'm coming," he heard the chief mate mutter, and then, with a tremendous swing, Mr Bowen's body came into view. Quick as thought George leaned over and caught the disengaged hand, placed it too upon the iron, and then, rising to his feet and exerting his strength to the utmost, he proceeded to drag his chief mate up alongside himself.
"Now," he whispered, as soon as he had got him there, "I shall begin to work my way forward at once, so as to be out of your way; but you had better stay and lend Cross a hand. I shall wait for you both in the fore-chains."
So saying, he stepped off the brace-iron, planting his feet firmly on the broad beading which ran along the top edge of the sheer-strake, and leaning his body against the bulwarks, whilst he grasped the outer edge of the rail to steady himself, he speedily and easily reached the mizzen-chains.
Here, availing himself of the partial shelter and cover afforded by the lanyards and dead-eyes of the rigging, he cautiously raised his head above the level of the bulwarks, to survey the state of the deck inboard. The first object which met his view was the figure of the helmsman, rendered visible by the light of the binnacle-lamps as they beamed dimly out upon him and feebly lighted up his figure. He was leaning negligently against the wheel, with one arm thrown carelessly over it, and his eyes were vacantly fixed upon the cloudy heavens above him, with his thoughts evidently far away. Not another soul was visible, either forward or aft; but George thought he could make out the indistinct outline of something resembling a human figure seated on the bench to windward of the cabin companion. He continued so long his earnest gaze upon this object that he was quite startled to find his first and second mates beside him; and he came at last to the conclusion that, if it were indeed a human figure at all, it must be that of the prize-master—sound asleep.
Turning his glances from this object forward, he saw that the galley-door to windward was shut, whilst on the lee-side it was open, the reflection of a light inside shining pretty strongly upon the lee bulwarks and showing the shadows of men evidently in the act of eating and drinking.
"Do you see that?" whispered George to his two companions. "Nothing could possibly be more favourable to our plans. We will work our way forward as far as the main-rigging, when, I think, we may venture to slip over the bulwarks, and in on deck. Then we must creep very cautiously forward, find out the whereabouts of the watchman, or lookout, or whatever he is, and overpower him, if possible, without raising an alarm. That done, we will set free our own lads, and I have no fear whatever as to the result."
The three adventurers then moved noiselessly forward until they came to the main-rigging, when they slipped in on deck, and, crouching low in the deep shadow of the weather bulwarks, crept along until they were within a dozen feet of the fore-scuttle. Here they paused, and began to peer anxiously about for the man they expected to find on watch on the forecastle.
"There he is, just forward of the cat-head," whispered the second mate; and hastily snatching a heavy iron belaying-pin from the rail, he stole, crouching and noiseless as a cat, upon his unconscious enemy. Six seconds later a dull heavy blow was heard, followed by a faint groan, the dark object near the cat-head vanished, and Cross, returning to the skipper's side, whispered—
"He's all right; knocked the senses clean out of him, and then laid him quietly out on deck. I reckon he won't come to hisself again for the next half-hour. Now, what's the next move, cap'n?"
"The next thing," answered George, "is to open the fore-scuttle, and quietly get our own lads on deck. I am surprised that they have not attempted to steal up of their own accord before this."
On going to the forecastle hatch, however, they soon discovered the reason why the men were content to remain so quietly below, a large mooring hawser having been coiled down on the top of the hatch, thus effectually preventing the imprisoned men from raising it.
"We shall never be able to move this without giving the alarm," said George. "We must contrive somehow to shut those fellows up in the galley, and keep them there."
"That is easily done," whispered the chief mate. "'Cookey' has a lot of firewood stowed away in the eyes of the long-boat; we must get hold of a piece, cut half a dozen wedges from it, and one of us must then slide-to the door on the lee-side, and wedge it tight with three of the wedges, whilst another of us at the same time wedges up the door to windward."
He then glided away to the long-boat, and soon returned with a small piece of wood in his hand.
"Here we are," he whispered; "now we'll soon have them boxed up so tight that they won't get out until we open the doors for 'em."
Whilst speaking he had produced his knife from his pocket, and, notwithstanding the intense darkness, soon hacked out the half-dozen wedges, which, though very roughly shaped, were still good enough for the purpose.
"Now, sir," said he in a low tone to George, "you take these three, let Cross go with you and slide-to the lee-door with a slam, and then you slip in the wedges and jam them tight home, while I will do the same to wind'ard, as soon as I hear Cross close the lee-door."
George took the wedges, and, accompanied by Cross crept noiselessly up to the galley-door to leeward, Mr Bowen meanwhile making his way to the corresponding door on the weather side. There was a loud slam, a moment of silence, then a tremendous outcry, accompanied by the sound of heavy battering from inside the galley, and the three adventurers met again at the forecastle hatch.
"Now, then," cried George, "we haven't a moment to lose, so let us capsize the hawser bodily. Are you ready? Then, one—two—three, Heave!"
By exerting their whole strength to the utmost the heavy hawser was rolled off the hatch, and the hatch itself raised, just as two figures came rushing forward from the quarterdeck with loud and angry outcries.
"Tumble up, my lads!" shouted George down the scuttle; "tumble up smartly, and help us to retake the ship."
"Ay, ay, sir," was the eager answer from below, and then the skipper, drawing his cutlass and pistol, turned to meet the prize-master and the helmsman, who had both hurried forward to learn the meaning of the disturbance in the galley.
"Surrender, or you are a dead man!" exclaimed George, thrusting the muzzle of his pistol into the face of the as yet only half-awake prize-master.
"Oui, oui, m'sieu; oh, yais, I surrendaire," exclaimed the poor fellow, as he felt the firm pressure of the cold pistol-barrel against his forehead; and hastily unbuckling his cutlass, he thrust it into George's hand.
The chief mate, in the meantime, had incontinently felled the other man to the deck with a single blow from his fist, and had then left Cross to secure him with a rope's end. The barque's crew had meanwhile made their way on deck, and were now clustered about their officers, anxious to know what they were to do, whilst the Aurora, left to herself, had shot up into the wind's eye, and was now lying stationary, with all her square canvas aback, and the rest of her sails fluttering loudly in the wind.
"One hand to the wheel, and jam it hard up," commanded George; "the rest of you to your stations. Mr Bowen and Mr Cross, you will mount guard over the galley-doors, if you please, until we have got the ship round. Raise tacks and sheets, round with the main-yard, and flatten in forward. Well, there, with the main-braces. Now swing your fore-yard, board the fore and main-tacks, and haul over the head-sheets. Right your helm, my lad; give her a spoke or two, if you find she wants it, as she gathers way, and then keep her 'full and by.' Now, lads, never mind about coiling up just now; you can do that after we have attended to the prisoners; come forward and open the weather galley-door, and as the Frenchmen pass out, seize them and lash their hands and heels together."
These orders were promptly executed, the discomfited Frenchmen being permitted to pass out of the galley only one at a time. Cross's burly form, drawn cutlass and conspicuously displayed pistol, supported by the appearance of the barque's crew in his immediate background, proving an effectual deterrent to any attempt on the part of the privateersmen to make a rush for freedom, and in something like a couple of hours from the time of her capture, the Aurora, was once more in the undisputed possession of her rightful owner.
THE DEPARTURE OF THE CONVOY.
About daybreak the wind veered round and blew a fine, fresh, steady breeze from the northward, enabling the barque to lay her course with flowing sheets; and sunset found her safely anchored in Plymouth Sound, one of a fleet of nearly two hundred merchantmen, which had assembled there for the purpose of being convoyed across the Atlantic.
The convoy was to sail on the following day but one; the men-o'-war which constituted their escort were already in the Sound, along with several other ships of the royal navy; and as the cable smoked out through the Aurora's hawse-pipe that evening, when she dropped her anchor, George fondly hoped his troubles were at an end.
But he was mistaken.
As soon as the canvas was furled, Captain Leicester manned a boat, and, proceeding on board the admiral's ship reported the circumstance of the capture and recapture of his vessel, requesting at the same time to be relieved as soon as possible of the custody of his prisoners. This was speedily arranged. By the admiral's orders an armed boat's crew was at once despatched to the Aurora, the prisoners were released from their bonds, passed into the man-o'-war's boat, and in little more than an hour from their arrival in the Sound safely lodged on board a prison-hulk.
So far, so good. But George had yet to learn that there was one inconvenient result generally attendant upon a request to a man-o'-war for assistance. The boat, after conveying the Frenchmen to the prison-hulk, duly returned to the admiral's ship; but, instead of the crew at once passing out of her, they were ordered to remain where they were, the lieutenant in charge alone going on deck and holding a short conference with the captain, after which he re-entered the boat, and she proceeded once more alongside the Aurora.
George saw her coming, and wondered what could possibly be her errand. He was not left long in doubt.
"I am very sorry to trouble you," remarked the lieutenant, as he encountered George at the gangway, whither the latter had repaired to meet him, "but I must ask you to kindly muster your men."
George knew only too well then what this visit boded, but he was quite helpless; so, putting the best face he could upon the matter, he answered as cheerfully as he could, and directed that all hands should be summoned on deck.
"I hope, however," he remarked to the officer, "that you will not deprive me of any of my crew. I have shipped only just sufficient men to handle her, and I assure you that even with the fine weather we have had in our trip down Channel I have found that we have not a hand too many for the efficient management of the ship."
"Ah, yes," answered the lieutenant with a laugh; "all you merchant-skippers tell the same story; but we shall see—we shall see. They must be exceptionally good men, however, or you would never have succeeded in recovering possession of your ship. Ah! here they are, and a fine smart crew they look, too. Upon my word I must congratulate you, Mr—a—um—a, upon your good luck in securing so many fine fellows; why, they look capable of taking care of a ship twice your size. I really must relieve you of one or two of them; it would be nothing short of treason to his most gracious Majesty to allow you to keep them all, when the navy is in such urgent want of men."
The crew were by this time assembled on deck, and a very disconcerted and disgusted-looking set of men they were; they had submitted to weeks of voluntary imprisonment in crimps' houses for the sole purpose of escaping impressment into the navy, and now, when their voyage had actually begun, here was a man-o'-war's boat alongside, to force them into the service they regarded with so great an abhorrence. No wonder that they looked and felt disgusted.
The men were drawn up in line along the deck, in single file, and the lieutenant sauntered leisurely along the line, critically examining each man as he came to him, but without, as George had anticipated, ordering any of them into the boat alongside. At length he reached the last individual in the line, one of the lads, and Leicester was beginning to breathe freely once more, hoping that he was, after all, not to be robbed of any of his crew, when the officer returned to the head of the line, and, touching the second mate lightly on the chest with his finger, said—
"You were evidently born to become a man-o'-war's man, my fine fellow; get your traps together and pass them and yourself into the boat alongside as soon as you have received your wages."
"Excuse me," said George, "I really must ask you not to take that man; he is my second mate."
"Your second mate!" exclaimed the officer with well-feigned astonishment. "You surely do not mean to say you carry a second mate on board such a cock-boat as this?"
"Certainly I do," retorted George somewhat tartly; "why not, pray?"
"Simply, my good man, because such an individual is wholly unnecessary. You can take charge of one watch, yourself, you know, and your mate will of course command the other, so that you can have no possible use for a second mate. Why, a smart, active young fellow like you ought to be ashamed of such an act of laziness as the carrying of a second mate. Pay the man his wages, if you please, and let him pass into the boat."
"I owe him no wages," answered George; "on the contrary, he—and every other man of the crew, for that matter—has drawn a month's advance, and owes me three weeks' service yet before we shall be square. Who is to reimburse me for that loss?"
"I am sorry to say I am quite unable to answer that question," was the reply; "but, giving it—mind you, strictly as my private opinion—I am afraid you will have to suffer the loss. For my part I have never been able to understand why you masters of merchantmen will persist in so risky a policy as the payment of a month's wages in advance, when you can never tell what may occur to prevent the men from working out their time. But this is not business; I must bear a hand and finish my work, or I shall get severely rapped over the knuckles."
Then, turning once more to the men, he ordered the carpenter to get his things ready, and go into the boat.
"No," said George, by this time thoroughly exasperated, "that I will not permit. This man is the ship's carpenter, and I forbid you, sir, to impress him at your peril."
"You forbid, eh?" said the lieutenant, turning angrily upon George. "Take care what you are saying, my fine fellow, or I may perhaps find ways and means of impressing you before you sail."
Then, suddenly realising that he had allowed his temper to outrun his discretion, he added in a conciliatory tone—
"Well, since you say that this man is the carpenter, I will spare him; but you should have explained that fact to me at first; and as to impressing you, why, I daresay you know the old joke about impressing a ship-master, and will understand I was only jesting; you are a capital fellow, and have behaved very well over this business, so I will let you off as easily as I can. But of course I must do my duty and take another man or two from you; if I did not, some of the other ships would be sending on board you and leaving you really short-handed."
With that he picked out with unerring eye the two able-seamen, and then, turning to George with a great show of generous forbearance, announced that he would leave him all the rest, though he could hardly reconcile it to his conscience to go away with only three men out of so strong and smart a crew as that belonging to the Aurora.
Cross was by this time with his chest on deck; the other two impressed men soon followed, and the disconsolate trio passed down the ship's side in moody silence, unmoved alike by the commiserating looks of their late shipmates or the jocular and more than half-ironical congratulations of the man-o'-war's men in the boat upon their entry into so promising a service as that of the British navy.
On the departure of the boat, George held a short consultation with Mr Bowen, the result of which was a very wise determination to "grin and bear it," rather than risk fresh annoyance by an effort—which he very strongly suspected would be utterly useless—to obtain redress and the restitution of his men. This determination come to, the carpenter was summoned aft, and installed into the duties and the berth of the unfortunate Cross; George thus finding his crew reduced to three men, the officers included, and one lad in each watch, the cook and steward of course being "idlers," and their services in the working of the ship only to be demanded on occasions of exceptional urgency.
On the day but one following that of the impressment of the Aurora's men, a gun was fired at sunrise by the commodore, blue-peter was hoisted at the fore-royal-mastheads, and the fore-topsails were loosed on board the ships of the convoying squadron, and the still morning air immediately began to resound with the songs of seamen and the clanking of windlass-pawls, as the fleet of merchantmen constituting the convoy began to get under weigh. There was a considerable amount of emulation displayed among the merchant-skippers—those of them, at least, whose ships or crews had any pretensions to smartness, and in half an hour a good many of the craft were under weigh and standing out to sea with a light air of wind from the eastward. The old Tremendous, 74, led the van, closely followed by the Torpid, 50; while the frigates Andromeda and Vixen, each of 32 guns, assisted by the Dasher, Grampus, Throstle, and Mallard, 10-gun-brigs, cruised round and round the laggards, making signals, firing guns, and generally creating a great deal of fuss, noise, and excitement. The leading portion of the fleet was hove-to, hull-down, at sea, before the last craft in the convoy had succeeded in getting her anchor and making a start; but by noon the whole of the fleet was fairly in the Channel, when the Tremendous made the signal to fill, and away they all went, bowling along to the southward and westward, the dull sailers under every rag they could spread to the wind—now settled into a fine steady royal-breeze from east-south-east, while the smarter craft were compelled to show only such a spread of canvas as would enable the dullards to keep pace with them. The Tremendous and Torpid, under double-reefed topsails, led the way about two miles apart; the frigates were posted, one to windward and one to leeward of the merchant-fleet, and the brigs brought up the rear, it being their duty to whip-in the stragglers, urge on the slow-coaches, and keep a sharp lookout for prowling privateers.
The English coast was still faintly visible, like a light grey cloud, on the horizon astern, when a strange sail was sighted on the port beam, steering west, a course which brought her gradually nearer to the convoy. She was brig-rigged, and she continued to approach until she had reached a point some six miles from the fleet; when she suddenly hauled her wind, and, without showing any colours, stood away to the southward and eastward, close-hauled, under a heavy press of canvas. There had been a considerable amount of signalling going on between the various men-o'-war from the moment of her first appearance, and now there was still more; but it soon ceased; the last string of flags displayed by the Tremendous was acknowledged by the Andromeda, the weathermost frigate, and the excitement appeared to be at an end.
"I'm afraid that means trouble for some of us, unless the men-o'-war keep a good sharp lookout," observed Mr Bowen to George, jerking his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the rapidly receding brig, as the two men walked the deck together, criticising the appearance and sailing powers of the various craft in company.
"Ah, indeed?" remarked George. "I see you have come to the same conclusion as myself with regard to the stranger, which is that she is a French privateer."
"Just that, sir, and nothing else," was the reply. "She is French all over; no need for her to show her colours; her rig speaks her nationality plain enough for a blind man to read it. She's been on the watch for this fleet for the last week or more, you may depend on it, and now she has gone back to report the news to her consorts that the West India convoy has sailed. Mark my words, sir; we shall all have to keep a good sharp lookout, or a few of us will be snapped up yet, in spite of the men-o'-war, before we sight the next land."
"Well," said George, "we must take care that the Aurora is not one of the few, that is all. Luckily, we are not exactly the dullest sailer in the fleet; and we must manage to keep well in the body of it. It is the outsiders that will run the greatest risk."
For the next three or four days an unusual amount of vigilance was observable on board the men-o'-war, especially the frigates and gun-brigs, all of which kept well in the offing during the day, evidently on the lookout for prowling picaroons, and closing in again upon the convoy at night; but nothing was seen to keep alive suspicion; no ships of any description were encountered, save a couple of English frigates, each of which replied to the private signal and exchanged numbers with the Tremendous; and on the evening of the tenth day out the lofty, precipitous cliffs of the Azores were sighted and passed.
Another week sped away without the occurrence of any incident worthy of record; the wind continued fair and steady; and the convoy, though its rate of travelling was rather slow, made very good progress.
On the afternoon of the eighteenth day out from Plymouth, the fleet being at the time in latitude 32 degrees North, longitude 44 degrees 30 minutes West, or about half-way to Jamaica, the wind fell light; the sky, which had hitherto been clear, became overcast, heavy masses of dark, thunderous cloud slowly gathering in the south-western quarter and gradually spreading athwart the sky until the whole of the visible heavens were obscured. The barometer dropped slightly, indicating, in conjunction with the aspect of the sky, a probable change of wind and a consequent interruption to their hitherto highly satisfactory progress.
As evening fell, flashes of sheet-lightning were occasionally to be seen along the southern horizon; and Captain Leicester, anticipating a thunder-storm and a probable heavy downfall of rain, made preparations for the refilling of his water-casks.
But, though the atmosphere appeared to be heavily charged with electricity, the thunder held off, and when night closed down upon the convoy, the moon being then in her third quarter and rising late, it became as dark as a wolf's mouth.
Lights were of course displayed on board each ship; and the convoy having become somewhat scattered in consequence of the failure of the breeze, the effect was very singular and striking.
This being George's first voyage across the Atlantic, he was naturally a little anxious; and on the night in question he resolved to remain on deck until the weather should have assumed some more decided aspect. There was fortunately still a gentle breeze from about east-south-east fanning the convoy along at a speed of some two knots in the hour, just giving the ships steerage-way; and they were consequently able to keep out of each other's way, and thus avoid collision, always a great element of danger when a large number of craft happen to be sailing in company.
About two bells in the middle watch, George being seated at the time near the companion, smoking a meditative pipe, and thinking somewhat ruefully about Lucy Walford, the carpenter, who was in charge of the deck, approached him and said—
"Unless I am greatly mistaken, sir, here's a large craft without any lights creeping up on our larboard quarter."
"Indeed," said George, rousing himself and stepping aft to the taffrail with the carpenter; "whereabouts is she?"
The carpenter looked intently astern for a moment, then stretched out his arm, saying—
"There, sir—ah! now you can see her, she is just about to shut out the first of those four lights that you can see all close together. There! now she has shut it out."
"I see her!" said George. "Whatever does the fellow mean by being without lights on such a pitch-dark night as this; it would serve him right to report him to the commodore in the morning. He has a smart vessel under his feet, though; see how she is overhauling us. Why, it must surely be one of the gun-brigs, judging from her spread of canvas and her lofty spars. But what can she be doing here, in the very middle of the fleet, and without lights, too?"
The stranger was by this time little more than a couple of cables' lengths from the Aurora, drawing up to her fast, and apparently intending to pass her very closely. George glanced anxiously at his stern light, thinking it might possibly have gone out, but no, it was burning brightly and must be distinctly visible to those on board the other craft.
Gradually the dark, mysterious fabric drew closer and still closer up on the port quarter of the Aurora, not the faintest glimmer of light being visible from stem to stern, and not a sound of any kind to be heard on board her.
George began to feel a trifle nervous as he watched the silent, stealthy approach of the stranger; and fetching his speaking-trumpet from the beckets in the companion-way, where it always hung in company with the telescope, he stepped aft to the taffrail and hailed—
"Hillo!" was the response, in a tone of voice pitched so low that, though it was distinctly audible to those on board the Aurora, it would not penetrate the sluggish atmosphere to any great distance.