Then young Torode sang "Jean Grain d'orge," in a fine big voice, and Carette sang "Nico v'nait m' faire l'amour," in a very sweet one, and I was sorely troubled that I had never learned to sing.
Then to dancing again, and it was only then, as I leaned against the door-post watching Carette go round and round with young Torode, in a way that I could not help but feel was smoother and neater than when my arm was round her, that a chance word between two girls sitting near me startled me into the knowledge that I had been guilty of another foolishness, and had overlooked another most important matter that night. You see, I had been in a flutter ever since I reached home, and one cannot think of everything.
"Oh, Father Guille has promised him his horse, and so—" said the girl, between giggles and whispers, and it hit me like a stone to think how stupid I had been. And after a moment's thought I slipped away and ran quickly down the lane to La Vauroque, calling myself all manner of names through my teeth, and thumped lustily on George Hamon's door.
He was in bed and fast asleep, and it took much thumping before I heard a sleepy growl in the upper room, and at last the window rattled open and Uncle George's towsled head came out with a rough—
"Eh b'en, below there? What's afire? Can't you let a man—"
"It's me, Uncle George—Phil Carre. I'm sorry—"
"Phil!... Bon dou! Phil come back alive!" in a tone of very great surprise. And then very sternly—
"Tiens donc, you down there! You're not a ghost, are you?"
"Not a bit of a ghost, Uncle George. I got home this evening. I'm up at Jeanne Falla's party at Beaumanoir, and I've only just remembered that I haven't got a horse for to-morrow."
"Aw, then—a horse for to-morrow! Yes—of course!" and he began to gurgle inside, though bits of it would come out—"A horse! Of course you want a horse! And who—?"
"Can you let me have Black Boy—if you've got him yet?"
"I'll come down, mon gars. Wait you one minute;" and very soon the door opened, and he dragged me in, gripping my hand as if it were a rudder in a gale, so that it ached for an hour after.
"And you're all safe and sound, mon gars?—"
"As safe and sound as Sercq, Uncle George. Can you let me have Black Boy?"
"Pergui! But it's a happy woman your mother will be this night. She never would give you up, Phil. It's just wonderful—"
"'Tis, sure! Can you spare me Black Boy?"
"Aw now, my dear, but I'm sorry! You see, I'd no idea of you coming, and the young Torode came along this very afternoon and begged me to lend him Black Boy, and I promised, not knowing—But there's Gray Robin. You can have him. He's a bit heavy, maybe, but he's safe as a cart, and Black Boy's got more than a bit of the devil in him still. Will you be crossing the Coupee?"
"I suppose so."
"Well, take my advice, and get down and lead over. It's more than a bit crumbly in places. I've made young Torode promise not to ride Black Boy across."
"All right! When can I have Gray Robin?"
"Now if you like."
"I'll be back at four. May I have some of your roses, Uncle George?"
"All of them, if you like, mon gars. Bon dou, but I'm glad to see you home again!"
"I'd like a few to trim Robin up with."
"I'll see to it. It's good to see you back, Phil. Your mother didn't say much, but she was sore at heart, I know, though she did put a bold face on it."
"I know.... You won't mind my running away now, Uncle George? You see—"
"Aw, I know! Gallop away back, my boy. And—say, Phil, mon gars,—don't let that young cub from Herm get ahead of you. He's been making fine play while you've been away." And I waved my hand and sped back to the merrymaking.
HOW WE RODE GRAY ROBIN
It was close upon the dawn before Jeanne Falla's party broke up, and as I jogged soberly down the lane from La Vauroque on Gray Robin, I met the jovial ones all streaming homewards.
A moment before, the quiet gray lane, with its fern-covered banks and hedges of roses and honeysuckle all asleep and drenched with dew, was all in keeping with my spirits, which were gray also, partly with the weariness of such unaccustomed merriment, and still more at thought of my various stupidities.
They all gathered round me and broke out into fresh laughter.
"Ma fe, Phil, but you're going to make a day of it! We wondered where you'd got to."
"Bon dou donc, you're in your pontificals, mon gars!"
"Is it a bank of roses you're riding, then?" and Gray Robin hotched uncomfortably though still half asleep.
"The early bird gets the nicest worm. Keep ahead of the Frenchman, Phil, and good luck to you!"
"Good luck to you all!" and their laughing voices died away along the lanes, and I woke up Gray Robin and went on to Beaumanoir.
I hitched the bridle over the gatepost, and lighted my pipe, and strolled to and fro with my hands deep in the pockets of my grandfather's best blue pilot-cloth jacket, for there was a chill in the air as though the night must die outright before the new day came.
Now, sunrise is small novelty to a sailorman. But there is a mighty difference between watching it across the welter of tumbling waves from the sloppy deck of a ship, and watching it from the top of the knoll outside Beaumanoir, with Carette fast asleep behind the white curtains of the gray stone house there.
Little matter that it might be hours before she came—since Jeanne Falla knew that rest was as necessary to a girl as food, if she was to keep her health and good looks. I could wait all day for Carette if needs be, and Gray Robin was already fast asleep on three legs, with the fourth crooked comfortably beneath him.
I can live that morning over again, though the years have passed.
... All the west was dark and dim. The sea was the colour of lead. Brecqhou was a long black shadow. Herm and Jethou were darker spots on the dimness beyond, and Guernsey was not to be seen. The sky up above me was thin and vague. But away in the east over France, behind long banks of soft dark cloud, it was thinner and rarer still, and seemed to throb with a little pulse of life. And behind the white curtains in the gray stone house, Carette lay sleeping.
... At midnight the girls had melted lead in an iron spoon, and dropped it into buckets of water, amid bubbles of laughter, to see what the occupations of their future husbands would be. They fished out the results with eager faces, and twisted them to suit their hopes. Carette's piece came out a something which Jeanne Falla at once pronounced an anchor, but which young Torode said was a sword, and made it so by a skilful touch of the finger.
... The air had been very still, as though asleep like all things else except the sea. And the sea still lay like lead out there, but I began to catch the gleam of white teeth along the sides of Brecqhou, and down below in Havre Gosselin I could hear the long waves growling among the rocks. And now there came a stir in the air like the waking breaths of a sleeper. The shadows behind Herm and Jethou thickened and darkened. The little throb of life behind the banks of cloud in the east quickened and grew. The sky there looked thin and bright and empty, as if it had been swept bare and cleansed for that which was to come. Up above me soft little gray clouds showed suddenly, all touched with pink on their eastern sides, while the sky behind them warmed with a faint dun glow. A cock in the Beaumanoir yard woke suddenly and crowed, and the challenge was answered from La Vauroque. Jeanne Falla's pigs grunted sleepily at the disturbance. The pigeons rumbled in their cote, and the birds began to twitter in the trees about the house. And behind the white curtains there, Carette lay sleeping.
... I had asked her, the first chance that offered, after I got back from seeing George Hamon. We were spinning round in a double quickstep which tried even Uncle Nico's seasoned arm.
"Carette," I whispered into the little pink shell of an ear, so near my lips that it was hard to keep from kissing it, "will you ride with me to-morrow?" and my heart went faster than my feet and set me tumbling over them. For Midsummer Day is Riding Day in Sercq, and he who asks a maid to share his horse that day is understood to desire her company on a longer journey still, and her consent to the one is generally taken to mean that she agrees to the other as well. So my little question held a mighty meaning, and no wonder my heart went quicker than my feet and set me stumbling over them as I waited for her answer.
"Not to-morrow, Phil," she whispered, and my heart stood still. Then it went on its way like a wave out of the west, when she murmured, "It's to-day we ride, not to-morrow," meaning that we had danced the night out.
"Then you will, Carette? You will?"
"You're late in the day, you know," she said, teasing still, as maids will when they know a man's heart is under their feet.
"But I only got home this evening—"
"Monsieur Torode asked me hours ago."
"But you haven't promised him, Carette?" and I felt as though all my life depended on her answer.
"I said I'd see. But—"
"Then you'll come with me, Carette," and I felt like kissing her there before them all.
"I'll tell you what I'll do, Phil. I'll go with one of you and come back with the other."
"You should not have left it so late, you see."
And with that I had to be content, though it was not at all to my mind, since I had looked for more.
... The eastern sky was filled to overflowing with pure thin light. The edges of the long dark banks of cloud that lay in front of it were rimmed with crimson fire. And from every quarter where the shadows lay gray clouds streamed up to greet the sun. They crept up the heavens, slow and gray and heavy, but as they climbed they lightened. They changed from gray to white. Their fronts were touched with the crimson fire. They spread wide wings and set me thinking of angels worshipping, and all the waiting clouds below threw out long streamers towards the day, like soft white arms in prayer. And behind the white curtains there, Carette lay sleeping.
... Gray Robin fell suddenly off one leg on to the other in his sleep, and woke with a discontented snuffle. Down in Havre Gosselin the seagulls were calling, "Miawk, miawk, miawk, miawk, miawk,—mink, mink, mink, mink,—kawk, kawk, kawk, kawk,—keo, keo, keo, keo, keo."
... The sky up above was thin and blue. The soft white clouds were like a mackerel's back, and every scale was rimmed with red gold. The east was all a-throb. The long bands of cloud were silver above and glowing gold below. The sun rose in a silence that seemed to me wonderful. If all the world had broken out into the song that filled my heart it would have seemed but right. Every cloud in all the sky seemed to bow in homage before him.
I had seen many and many a sunrise, but never before one like this. For there, behind the curtains, Carette lay sleeping. And I was waiting for her. And it was Riding Day, and she was going to ride with me on Gray Robin.
And gay beyond his wont or knowledge was Gray Robin that day, though I think myself he had his own suspicions of it even in his dreams. For when he got fully awake, and took to looking at himself, and found out by degrees how very fine he was, he felt shy and awkward, and shook himself so vigorously that bits of his finery fell off. For, you see, Uncle George, knowing what was right and proper under the circumstances, and throwing himself into the matter because it was for me, had brought all his skill into play. He had fished out a length of old net from his stores, and turned it to great account. He had draped it in folds over Gray Robin's broad flanks, and brought it round his chest, and wherever the threads would hold a stem he had stuck in red and white and yellow roses, and had tied bunches of them at his ears and along his bridle, so that the steady old horse looked like an ancient charger in his armour.
And as I watched him examining into all these things I could see his wonder grow, and he asked himself what, in the name of Hay, his friends and acquaintances would think of it all when they saw him, and he snuffled with disgust.
It was close upon six o'clock when Gray Robin pricked up his ears at sound of hoofs in the lane between the high hedges, and young Torode rode up on Black Boy. He drew rein sharply at sight of me, and a curse jerked out of him. And at sight of Gray Robin in his gay trappings, Black Boy danced on his hind legs and pretended to be frightened out of his wits.
Torode brought him to reason with a violent hand, and flung himself off with a black face.
"How then, Carre?" he broke out. "Mademoiselle promised to ride with me to-day."
"And with me also. So she said she would ride half the day with each of us."
"But, nom-de-dieu, what is the good of that? There is no sense in it."
"It is her wish."
He flogged a gorse bush angrily with a switch he had cut for Black Boy's benefit, and looked more than half inclined to fling himself back on to his horse and ride away, which would have been quite to my taste. Black Boy watched him viciously, with white gleams in his eyes, and winced at sound of the switch.
But before Torode had made up his mind, Jeanne Falla's sharp voice called from the gate, "Now then, you two, the coffee's getting cold. Come in and eat while you have the chance."
Coffee never tastes so good as just after morning watch, and I turned in at once, while young Torode proceeded to make sure that Black Boy should not make off while he was inside.
Aunt Jeanne's brown old face creased up into something like a very large wink as we went up the path, and she said softly, "First pig in trough gets first bite. You'll enjoy a cup of coffee at all events, mon gars. Seems to me there are two Black Boys out there, n'es c' pas?"
And if such coffee as Jeanne Falla made, with milk warm from the cow, could have been curdled by sour looks, young Torode had surely not found his cup to his liking.
His ill-humour was not simply ill-concealed, it was barely kept within bounds, and was, to say the least of it, but poor return for Aunt Jeanne's double hospitality. But Aunt Jeanne, far from resenting it, seemed actually to enjoy the sight, and as a matter of fact, I believe she was hoping eagerly that Carette would come down in time to partake of it also.
She chatted gaily about her party, and plumed herself on its success.
"We did it all our own two selves, the little one and I. Nothing like washing your own shirt, if you want it well done," brimmed she.
"It couldn't have been better, Aunt Jeanne. And as for the gache—it was simply delicious."
"Crais b'en! If there's one thing I can do, it's make gache. And it's not all finished yet," and she went to the press and brought out a cake like a cartwheel, and cut it into spokes.
"There are not many things you can't do, it seems to me, Aunt Jeanne," I said. "That cider was uncommonly good too."
"Ma fe, when you've learned to make cider for the Guernsey men you can make it for most folks, I trow.... It's a tired man you'll be to-night, Phil, mon gars. We were just turning in, the little one and I, when we heard a horse snuffle outside, and nothing would satisfy her but she must up and peep out of the window, and she said, 'Why, there's Phil Carre standing on the knoll. Mon Gyu, what does he want there at this time of day?' And I said, 'Come away into bed, child, and don't catch your death of cold. You're half asleep and dreaming. There's no one out there.' 'Yes, there is,' said she, 'and it's Phil Carre. I know his shape.' But I was sleepy, and I said, 'Well, he'll keep till morning anyway, and if you don't get some sleep you'll look like a boiled owl, and there'll be no riding for you, miss, Phil Carre or no Phil Carre.'" All of which was gall and wormwood to young Torode, as Jeanne Falla quite well knew and intended.
And presently Carette came down, looking like a half-opened rose after a stormy night, and with just as much energy in her as might be expected in a girl who had danced miles of quicksteps but a few hours before, and at a pace which Uncle Nico's arm had not forgotten yet.
There was to me something almost sacred in the look of her with the maiden sleep still in her eyes, which set her apart from us and above us, and I could have sat and looked at her for a long time, and required no more.
She was all in white again, and Aunt Jeanne, when she had given her coffee and a slice of gache, and had coaxed her to eat, slipped out into the garden, and came back presently with an apronful of red roses, all wet with dew, and proceeded to pin them round her hat, and on her shoulder, and at her breast, and in her waistband.
"V'la!" said the dear old soul, standing off and eyeing her handiwork with her head on one side, like a robin. "There's not another in the Island will come within a mile of you, ma garche!" and it was easy to see the love that lay deep in the sharp old eyes.
We had hardly spoken a word since Carette came down, beyond wishing her good-day, and she herself seemed in no humour for talk. And for myself, I know I felt very common clay beside her, and I would, as I have said, been well content simply to sit and watch her.
Aunt Jeanne continued to talk of the party, a subject that would not fail her for many a week to come, for those sharp eyes of hers saw more than most people's, and she never forgot what they told her.
It was only when Carette had finished her pretence of eating, and it was time to be starting, that young Torode asked politely, "With whom do you ride first, mademoiselle,—since we are two?"
And Carette said sweetly, "Since Phil was here first I will ride first with him, monsieur, and afterwards with you."
"Do you cross the Coupee?" asked Aunt Jeanne anxiously.
"But, of course!" said Torode. "That is where the fun comes in."
"Bon Gyu, but that kind of fun does not please me! Some of you will find yourselves at the bottom some day, and that will end the riding in Sercq."
"It's safe enough if you have a firm hand—that is, if you know how to ride at all,"—a shot aimed at me, but which failed to wound.
"I don't like it," said Aunt Jeanne again, with a foreboding shake of the head and a meaning look at me.
"Well, we won't be the first to cross," I said, to satisfy her. "We'll see how the others get on, and no harm shall come to Carette, I promise you."
Gray Robin was dozing again, but I woke him up with a poke, and climbed up on to his broad back with as little damage to his rose-armour as I could manage, and Aunt Jeanne carried out a chair, so that Carette could get up behind me without disarranging herself.
And a happy man was I when the soft arms clasped me firmly round the waist, although I knew well enough that it was the correct thing for them to do, and that there was nothing more in it than a strong desire on the rear rider's part not to fall off. But for that troublesome young Torode, and all that was implied in the fact that Carette's arms would be round him on the homeward journey, I would have been the happiest man in Sercq that day. As it was, it was in my mind to make the most of my half of it.
Young Torode sprang on Black Boy with a leap that put our more cautious methods very much, into the shade, and also stirred up all Black Boy's never-too-well-concealed evil temper. A horse of spirit ever objects to the double burden of man and man's master, and, through thigh and heel and hand, he can tell in the most wonderful fashion if the devil's aboard as well.
We left them settling their little differences and jogged away down the lane, and the last we saw of Aunt Jeanne she was leaning over the gate, looking hopefully at the fight before her. But presently we heard the quick beat of hoofs behind, and they went past us with a rush—Black Boy's chin drawn tight to his chest, which was splashed with white foam flecks, his neck like a bow, and the wicked white of his port eye glaring back at us like a danger signal.
"Monsieur Torode has got his hands full, I think," I said.
"And Monsieur Black Boy carries more than he likes."
"I'm glad you're not on board there, Carette."
"I think I am too—just now," she laughed quietly.
We took the north road at La Vauroque, where we came on George Hamon, gazing gloomily after Black Boy and his rider, who were flying along the road to Colinette, and judging from his face there was a curse on his lips as he turned to us, which was very unusual with him. He brightened, however, when he saw us.
"B'en! That's all right," he said very heartily. "Gray Robin is a proud horse this day, ma'm'zelle, with the prettiest maid in the Island on his back—and the best man," he added meaningly. "I'm just hoping that crazy Frenchman will bring my Black Boy back all safe and sound. He's got more than a bit of the devil in him at times—the horse, I mean. The other, too, maybe. And he's more used to harness than the saddle. However—luck to you!"
He waved his hand, and we jogged on past the Cemetery, and so by La Rondellerie and La Moinerie, where the holy Maglorius once lived—as you may see by the ruins of his house and the cells of his disciples—to Belfontaine, where my mother came out with full eyes to give us greeting.
And to prevent any mistake which might put Carette to confusion, I did my clumsy best to make a joke of the matter.
"Your stupid was nearly too late, mother, and so Carette rides out with me and back with Monsieur Torode."
"Under the circumstances it was good of Carette to give you a share, mon gars."
"Oh, I'm grateful. One's sheaf is never quite as one would have it, and one takes the good that comes."
"How glad you must have been to see him back, Mrs. Carre!" said Carette. "You never gave him up, I know."
"No, I never gave him up," said my mother quietly.
"I think he ought to have stopped with you all day to-day," said Carette. "I feel as if I were stealing him."
"Only borrowing," smiled my mother. "It is good to be young, and the young have their rights as well as the old. Good luck to you and a fine ride!" and I shook up Gray Robin, and we went on.
"Be very careful if you cross the Coupee, Phil," she called after us. "There was a fall there the other day, your grandfather was saying, and the path has not been mended yet."
I waved my hand, and we went on. From a distant field, where they were busy with their hay, my grandfather and Krok saw us passing along the road, and straightened up and shaded their eyes with their hands, and then waved us heaps of good luck, and we jogged on along the road to the Eperquerie.
HOW YOUNG TORODE TOOK THE DEVIL OUT OF BLACK BOY
It was a day of days—a perfect Midsummer Day. The sky was blue without a cloud, the blaze of the gorse was dimming, but the ferns and foxgloves swung in the breeze, the hedgerows laughed with wild roses and honeysuckle, and the air was full of life and sweetness and the songs of larks and the homely humming of bees. And here was I come back from the Florida swamps and all the perils of the seas, jogging quietly along on that moving nosegay Gray Robin, with the arms of the fairest maid in all Sercq round my waist, and the brim of her hat tickling my neck, and her face so close to my shoulder that it was hard work not to turn and kiss it.
My mind was, set to make the most of my good fortune, but the thought of young Torode, and of Carette riding back with him, kept coming upon me like an east wind on a sunny day, and I found myself more tongue-tied than ever I had been with her before, even of late years.
Did she care for this man? Had his good looks, which I could not deny, cast dust in her eyes? Could she be blind to his black humours, which, to me, were more visible even than his good looks?
From what Aunt Jeanne had said, he was by way of being very well off. And perhaps the results of the Miss Maugers' teachings would incline a girl to consider such things. I thought they probably would. I know they made me feel shy and awkward before her, though I told myself furiously that all that was only a matter of outside polish, and that inside I was as worthy of her as any, and loved her as none other could. But the outside she could see, and the inside she could not, and I could not yet tell her, though I could not but think she must know.
And then, what had I to offer her in place of Torode's solid advantages? Just myself, and all my heart, and two strong arms. They were good things, and no one in the world could love her as I did. But, to a girl brought up as she had been of late, would they be enough? And would these things satisfy her father, who had always been much of a mystery to us all, and who might have his own views as to her future, as the education he had given her seemed to indicate?
I had plenty to think about as we jogged along on Gray Robin, and Carette was thoughtful too.
Now and again, indeed, the clinging arms would give me a convulsive hug which set my blood jumping, but that was only when Gray Robin stumbled, and it meant nothing more than a fear of falling overboard on her part, and I could not build on it.
We chatted, by snatches, of the party and of things that had happened in my absence. But of the sweet whispers and little confidences which should set all riders on Riding Day above all the rest of the world, there were none between us, and at times we fell to silence and a touch of constraint.
On Eperquerie Common I got down, and led Gray Robin cautiously over the long green slopes among the cushions of gorse and the waist-high ferns, and down the rocky way to the knoll above the landing-place. And as we sat on the soft turf among the empty shells, looking out over the long line of weather-bitten headlands and tumbled rocks, with the blue sea creaming at their feet, I suppose I must have heaved a sigh, for Carette laughed and said—
"Ma fe, but you are lively to-day, Phil."
"I'm sorry," I said. "I was thinking of the old times when we used to scramble about here as merry as the rock pipits. They were very happy days, Carette."
"Yes," she nodded, "they were happy days. But we've grown since then."
"One can't help growing, but I don't know that it makes one any happier."
"Tell me all you did out there," she said, and I lay in the sunshine and told her of our shipwreck, and of the Florida swamps, and of the great city of London through which I had come on my way home. And then, somehow, our talk was of the terrible doings in France, not so very many years before, of which she had never heard much and I only of late. It was probably the blue line of coast on the horizon which set us to that, and perhaps something of a desire on my part to show her that, if she had been learning things at the Miss Maugers, I also had been learning in the greater world outside.
It was very different from the talk that usually passes between riders on Riding Day. For every horse that day is supposed to carry three, though one of them nestles so close between the others that only bits of him may be seen at times in their eyes and faces.
But it was all no use. With young Torode in my mind, and Jean Le Marchant's probable intentions respecting Carette, and Carette's own wonderful growth which seemed to put us on different levels, and the smallness of my own prospects,—I could not bring myself to venture any loverly talk, though my heart was full of loving thoughts and growing intention.
I had been telling her of the doings in Paris, and in Nantes and elsewhere, and she had been dreadfully interested in it all, when suddenly she jumped up with a sharp—
"Phil, you are horrid to-day. I believe you have been telling me all these things just because Monsieur Torode is a Frenchman."
"Torode?—Pardie, I had forgotten Torode for the moment! He is too young to have had any hand in those doings, anyway."
"All the same he is a Frenchman, and it was Frenchmen who did them."
"And you think I was hitting at him behind his back! It is not behind his back I will hit him if needs be and the time comes. But I had no thought of him, Carette. These are things I heard but lately, and I thought they might be of interest to you. Did you ever know me strike a foul blow, Carette?" I asked hotly.
"No, never! I was wrong, Phil. Let us ride again and forget the heads tumbling into the baskets and those horrid women knitting and singing."
So we climbed the rocky way, and then I got Gray Robin alongside a rock, and we mounted without much loss and went our way down the lanes in somewhat better case. For I was still somewhat warm at her thinking so ill of me, and she, perceiving it, did her best to make me forget it all.
And now we began to meet other merry riders, and their outspoken, but mistaken, congratulations testified plainly to the Island feeling in favour of Island maids mating with Island men, and perhaps made Carette regret her Solomon-like decision of the night before. It made me feel somewhat foolish also, at thought of what they would say when they saw her riding back with young Torode.
A cleverer man would, no doubt, have turned it all to account, but I could not. All I could do was to carry it off as coolly as possible to save Carette annoyance, and to affect a lightness and joviality which were really not in me.
And some of these meetings were full of surprise for Carette, but mostly they only confirmed her expectations. For girls have sharp eyes in such matters and generally know how things are going, and I have no doubt she and Aunt Jeanne talked them over together. And there was not much went on in Sercq without Aunt Jeanne knowing all about it.
And so it would be—
"Who is this, then? Elie Guerin and—ma fe—Judith Drillot! Now that's odd, for I always thought—"
"Perhaps they're Only pretending," I murmured, and Carette kicked her little heels into Gray Robin's ribs so hard that she nearly fell off at his astonished jump.
"B'jou, Judi! B'jou, Elie! Good luck to you!" she cried, as they drew rein alongside, their faces radiant with smiles both for themselves and for us.
"Now, mon Gyu, but I am glad to see you again, Phil Carre, and to see you two together!" said Elie, with the overflowing heartiness of a fully-satisfied man.
"Oh, we're only just taking a ride to see how other folks are getting on," I said. "Carette exchanges me for Monsieur Torode later on. You see I only got home last night and he had asked her already."
"Mon Gyu!" gasped Judi, and we waved our hands and rode on, leaving them gaping.
Then it would be—
"Mon Gyu! That's all right! Here are Charles Hamon and Nancy Godfray come together at last. And high time too! They've been beating about the bush till we're all tired of watching them. B'jou, Nancy! B'jou, Charles! All joy to you!"
There were many such meetings, for we could see the riders' heads bobbing in every lane. And twice we met young Torode, galloping at speed, and showing to great advantage on Black Boy, whose ruffled black coat was streaked with sweat and splashed with foam, and who was evidently not enjoying himself at all.
"I'm getting the devil out of him so that he'll be all quiet for the afternoon," cried Torode, as he sped past us one time. And Gray Robin tried to look after his mate, and jogged comfortably along thanking his stars that if he did feel somewhat of a fool, he had decent quiet folk on his back, and was not as badly off as some he knew that day.
So we came along the horse tracks down by Pointe Robert and crossed the head of the Harbour Road, past Derrible, and heard the sea growling at the bottom of the Creux, and then over Hog's Back into Dixcart Valley, and so, about noon, into the road over the Common which led to the Coupee.
Most of our friends were already there,—some on this side waiting to cross, the more venturesome sitting in the heather and bracken on the farther side, with jokes and laughter and ironical invitations to the laggards to take their courage in their hands and come over.
There was quite a mob in the roadway on the Common, the girls sitting on their horses, most of the men on foot.
"How is the path?" I asked, as I got down for a look.
"I've seen it better and I've seen it worse," said Charles Vaudin. "But, all the same, you know,—on horseback—" and he shook his head doubtfully.
"When it's only your own feet you have to look after it's right enough," said Elie Guerin. "But when it's a horse's and they're four feet apart it's a different kind of game. I'm going to lead over, let those others say what they will. Will you walk, Judi, or will you ride? I can lead the old boy all right."
"I can trust you, mon gars," said the girl, and kept her seat while Elie led the horse slowly and cautiously over the narrow way, with possible death in every foot of it. And all the rest watched anxiously.
The path was at this time about four feet wide in most places, crumbly and weather-worn here and there, but safe enough for ordinary foot traffic. But even so—without a rail on either side, with the blue sea foaming and chafing among the rocks three hundred feet below, and horribly visible on both sides at once—the twisted path when you were on it felt no more than a swinging thread.
It was not every head that could stand it, and small blame to those that could not.
Here and there, in the three hundred feet stretch, great rock pinnacles stood out from the precipitous depths and overshadowed the path, and encouraged the wayfarer by offering him posts of vantage to be attained one by one. But they were far apart, and at best it was an awesome place even on foot, while with a horse the dangers were as plain as the path itself.
Still it was a point of honour to cross the Coupee on Riding Day, and some even compassed it cautiously without dismounting, and took much credit to themselves, though others might call it by other names.
Some of the girls preferred to take no risks, and got down and walked wisely and safely, amid the laughter and good-humoured banter of the elect, across the gulf. Most, however, showed their confidence in their swains, and at the same time trebled their anxieties, by keeping their seats and allowing their horses to be led across.
Young Torode came galloping across the Common while Gray Robin and Carette and I were still waiting our turn. He reined in Black Boy with a firm hand, and the ruffled black sides worked like bellows, and the angry black head jerked restively, and the quick-glancing eyes looked troubled and vicious.
Torode laughed derisively as Elie Guerin set out with cautious step to lead his old horse over, with Judith Drillot clutching the saddle firmly and wearing a face that showed plainly that it was only a stern sense of duty to Elie that kept her up aloft.
"Ma foi!" laughed Torode. "He would do it better in a boat. It's well seen that Monsieur Guerin was not born to the saddle. Has no one ridden across yet?"
"But yes,—Helier Godfray rode over all right. All the same—" said one, with a shrug and shake of the head.
"It's as easy as any other road if you've got a steady head and a firm hand," said Torode.
"Will you ride, Carette, or walk?" I asked. "I shall lead Gray Robin."
She looked down into my eyes for one moment, and I looked up into hers. She did not like the Coupee, I knew, but she would not put me to shame.
"I will ride," she said.
"You're never going to lead across, Carre?" cried Torode. "And with a horse like a Dutch galliot! Man alive! let me take him over for you!—Shall I?" and he bustled forward, looking eagerly up at Carette.
"Stand back!" I said brusquely. "You'll have quite enough to do to take yourself across, I should say," and we were off.
"I'll bring you back on Black Boy," cried Torode consolingly to Carette.
Gray Robin's mild eyes glanced apprehensively into the depths as we went slowly over, and his ears and nostrils twitched to and fro at the growl of the surf down below on either side. I held him firmly by the head and soothed him with encouraging words. The old horse snuffled between gratitude and disgust, and Carette clung tightly up above, and vowed that she would not cross on Black Boy whatever Torode might say.
She was devoutly thankful, I could see, when Gray Robin stepped safely onto the spreading bulk of Little Sercq. I lifted her down, and loosed the old horse's bit and set him free for a crop among the sweet short grasses of the hillside, while we sat down with the rest to watch the others come over.
Caution was the order of the day. Most of the girls kept their seats and braved the passage in token of confidence in their convoys. Some risked all but accident by meekly footing it, and accepted the ironical congratulations on the other side as best they might.
Young Torode had waited his turn with impatience. He and Black Boy were on such terms that the latter would have made a bolt for home if the grasp on his bridle had relaxed for one moment. Again and again his restlessness had suffered angry check which served only to increase it. Neither horse nor rider was in any state for so critical a passage as the one before them. There was no community of feeling between them, except of dislike, and the backbone of a common enterprise is mutual trust and good feeling.
To do him that much justice, Torode must have known that under the circumstances he was taking unusual risk. But he had confidence in his own skill and mastery, and no power on earth would have deterred him from the attempt.
He leaped on Black Boy, turned him from the gulf and rode him up the Common. Then he turned again and came down at a hand gallop, and reaped his reward in the startled cries and anxious eyes of the onlookers. The safe sitters in the heather on the farther side sprang up to watch, and held their breath.
"The fool!" slipped through more clenched teeth than mine.
The stones from Black Boy's heels went rattling down into the depths on either side. The first pinnacles were gained in safety. Just beyond them the path twisted to the right. Black Boy's stride had carried him too near the left-hand pillar. An angry jerk of the reins emphasised his mistake. He resented it, as he had resented much in his treatment that morning already. His head came round furiously, his heels slipped in the crumbling gravel, he kicked out wildly for safer holding, and in a moment he was over.
At the first feel of insecurity behind, Torode slipped deftly out of the saddle. He still held the reins and endeavoured to drag the poor beast up. But Black Boy's heels were kicking frantically, now on thin air, now for a second against an impossible slope of rock which offered no foothold. For a moment he hung by his forelegs curved in rigid agony, his nostrils wide and red, his eyes full of frantic appeal, his ears flat to his head, his poor face pitiful in its desperation. Torode shouted to him, dragged at the reins—released them just in time.
Those who saw it never forgot that last look on Black Boy's face, never lost the rending horror of his scream as his forelegs gave and he sank out of sight, never forgot the hideous sound of his fall as he rolled down the cliff to the rocks below.
The girls hid their faces and sank sobbing into the heather. The men cursed Torode volubly, and regretted that he had not gone with Black Boy.
And it was none but black looks that greeted him when, after standing a moment, he came on across the Coupee and joined the rest.
"It is a misfortune," he said brusquely, as he came among us.
"It is sheer murder and brutality," said Charles Vaudin roughly.
"Guyabble! It's you that ought to be down there, not yon poor brute," said Guerin.
"Tuts then! A horse! I'll make him good to Hamon."
"And, unless I'm mistaken, you promised him not to ride the Coupee," I said angrily, for I knew how George Hamon would feel about Black Boy.
"Diable! I believe I did, but I forgot all about it in seeing you others crawling across. Will you lend me your horse to ride back, Carre? Mademoiselle rides home with me."
"Mademoiselle does not, and I won't lend you a hair of him."
"That was the understanding. Mademoiselle promised."
"Well, she will break her promise,—with better reason than you had. I shall see her safely home."
"Right, Phil! Stick to that!" said the others; and Torode looking round felt himself in a very small minority, and turned sulkily and walked back across the Coupee.
The pleasure of the day was broken. Black Boy's face and scream and fall were with us still, and presently we all went cautiously back across the narrow way. And no girl rode, but each one shuddered as she passed the spot where the loose edge of the cliff was scored with two deep grooves; and we others, looking down, saw a tumbled black mass lying in the white surf among the rocks.
HOW I FELT THE GOLDEN SPUR
George Hamon was sorely put out at the loss of his horse and by so cruel a death. In his anger he laid on young Torode a punishment hard to bear.
For when the young man offered to pay for Black Boy, Uncle George gave him the sharpest edge of his tongue in rough Norman French, and turned him out of his house, and would take nothing from him.
"You pledged me your word and you broke it," said he, "and you think to redeem it with money. Get out of this and never speak to me again! We are honest men in Sercq, and you—you French scum, you don't know what honour means." And Torode was forced to go with the unpayable debt about his neck, and the certain knowledge that all Sercq thought with his angry creditor and ill of himself. And to such a man that was bitterness itself.
During the ten days that followed Riding Day, my mind was very busy settling, as it supposed, the future,—mine and Carette's. For, whether she desired me in hers or not, I had no doubts whatever as to what I wanted myself. My only doubts were as to the possibilities of winning such a prize.
The effect of the Miss Maugers' teaching on Carette herself had been to lift her above her old companions, and indeed above her apparent station in life, though on that point my ideas had no solid standing ground. For, as I have said, the Le Marchants of Brecqhou were more or less of mysteries to us all, and there had been such upsettings just across the water there, such upraisings and downcastings, that a man's present state was no indication of what he might have been. The surer sign was in the man himself, and much pondering of the matter led me to think that Jean Le Marchant might well be something more than simply the successful smuggler he seemed, and that Carette's dainty lady ways might well be the result of natural growth and not simply of the Miss Maugers' polishing.
I would not have had it otherwise. I wanted the very best for her; and if she were by birth a lady, let the lady in her out to the full. Far better that the best that was in her should out and shine than be battened under hatches and kept out of sight. Better for herself, if it was her nature; and better for the rest of us who could look up and admire. For myself, I would sooner look up than down, and none knew as I did—unless it were Jeanne Falla—how sweet and generous a nature lay behind the graces that set her above us. For none had known her as I had, during all those years of the camaraderie of the coast.
But, while I wished her every good, I could not close my eyes to several things, since they pressed me hard. That, for instance, we were no longer boy and girl together. And that, whereas Carette used to look up to me, now the looking up was very much the other way. What her feelings might be towards me, as I say, I could not be sure; for, little as I knew of girls, I had picked up enough scraps of knowledge to be quite sure in my own mind that they were strangely unaccountable creatures, and that you could not judge either them or a good many other things entirely by outside appearances. And again, it was borne in upon me very strongly, and as never before, that, where two start fairly level, if one goes ahead, the other must exert himself or be left behind. Carette was going ahead in marvellous fashion. I felt myself in danger of being left behind, and that set my brain to very active working.
I had a better education, in the truest sense of the word, than most of my fellows, thanks to my mother and grandfather and Krok and M. Rousselot, the schoolmaster. That gave me the use of my brains. I had in addition a good sound body, and I had travelled and seen something of the world. Of worldly possessions I had just the small savings of my pay and nothing more, and common-sense told me that if I wanted to win Carette Le Marchant I must be up and doing, and must turn myself to more profitable account.
I do not think there was in me any mercenary motive in this matter. I am quite sure that in so thinking of things I attributed none to Carette. It seemed to me that if a man wanted a wife he ought to be able to keep her, and I considered the girl who married a man of precarious livelihood—as I saw some of them do—very much of a fool. I have since come to know, however, that that is only one way of looking at it, and that to some women the wholehearted love of a true man counts for very much more than anything else he can bring her.
For money, simply as money, I had no craving whatever. For the wife it might help me to, and the security and comfort it might bring to her, I desired it ardently, and my thoughts were much exercised as to how to arrive at it in sufficiency. I found myself at one of the great cross-roads of life, where, I suppose, most men find themselves at one time or another. I knew that much—to me, perhaps, everything—must depend on how I chose now, and I spent much time wandering in lonely places, and lying among the gorse cushions or in the short grass of the headlands, thinking of Carette and trying to see my way to her.
There were open to us all, in those days, four ways of life—more, maybe, if one had gone seeking them, but these four right to our hands.
I could ship again in the trading line,—and some time, a very long way ahead, I might come to the command of a ship, if I escaped the perils of the sea till that time came. But I could not see Carette very clearly in that line of life.
I could join a King's ship, and go fight the Frenchmen and all the others who were sometimes on our side and sometimes against us. But I could not see Carette at all in that line of life.
I could settle down to the quiet farmer-fisherman life on Sercq, as my grandfather had done with great contentment. But I was not my grandfather, and he was one in a thousand, and he had never had to win Carette.
And, lastly,—I could join my fellows in the smuggling or privateering lines, in which some of them, especially the Guernsey men, were waxing mightily fat and prosperous.
For reasons which I did not then understand, but which I do now, since I learned about my father, my mother's face was set dead against the free-trading. And so I came to great consideration of the privateering business and was drawn to it more and more. The risks were greater, perhaps, even than on the King's ships, since the privateer hunts alone and may fall easy prey to larger force. But the returns were also very much greater, and the life more reasonable, for on the King's ships the discipline was said to be little short of tyranny at times, and hardly to be endured by free men.
When, as the result of long turning over of the matter in my own mind, I had decided that the way to Carette lay through the privateering, I sought confirmation of my idea in several likely quarters before broaching it at home.
"Ah then, Phil, my boy! Come in and sit down and I'll give you a cup of my cider," was Aunt Jeanne's greeting, when I dropped in at Beaumanoir a few days after the party, not without hope of getting a sight of Carette herself and discussing my new ideas before her.
"No, she's not here," Aunt Jeanne laughed softly, at my quick look round. "She's away back to Brecqhou. Two of them came home hurt from their last trip, and she's gone to take care of them. And now, tell me what you are going to do about it, mon gars?" she asked briskly, when I had taken a drink of the cider.
"About what then, Aunt Jeanne?"
"Tuts, boy! Am I going blind? What are an old woman's eyes for if not to watch the goings-on of the young ones? You want our Carette. Of course you do. And you've taken her for granted ever since you were so high. Now here's a word of wisdom for you, mon gars. No girl likes to be taken for granted after she's, say, fourteen,—unless, ma fe, she's as ugly as sin. If she's a beauty, as our Carette is, she knows it, and she's not going to drop into any man's mouth like a ripe fig. Mon Gyu, no!"—with a crisp nod.
"It's true, every word of it," I said, knowing quite well that those clever old brown eyes of hers could bore holes in me and read me like a book. "Just you tell me what to do, Aunt Jeanne, and I'll do it as sure as I sit here."
"As sure as you sit there you never will, unless you jump right up and win her, my boy. That young Torode is no fool, though he is hot-headed enough and as full of conceit as he can hold. And, pergui, he knows what he wants."
Aunt Jeanne's only answer to that was a shrug. She was, as I think I have said, a very shrewd person. I have since had reason to believe that she could, if she had chosen, have relieved my mind very considerably, but at the moment she thought it was the spur I needed, and she was not going to lessen the effect of what she had said. On the contrary, she applied it again and twisted it round and round.
"He's good-looking, you see. That is—in the girls' eyes. Men see differently. And he's rich, or he will be, though, for me, I would not care what money a man had if the devil had his claw in it, mon Gyu, no! But there you are, mon gars. There is he with all that, and here are you with nothing but just your honest face and your good heart and your two strong arms. And what I want to know is—what are you going to do about it?"
"What would you do if you were me, Aunt Jeanne?"
"Ah, now we talk sense. What would I do? Ma fe, I would put myself in the way of making something, so that I'd feel confidence in asking her."
"That's just it. I can't ask her till I'm in some position to do so. I've been thinking all round it—."
"I could go trading again—."
"And get drowned, maybe, before you've made enough to pay for a decent funeral," snorted Aunt Jeanne contemptuously.
"I could go on a King's ship"
"And get bullied to death for nothing a day."
"The free-trading my mother won't hear of."
"Why, I don't know—."
"Never mind why. She has her reasons without doubt."
"So there's nothing for it but the privateering."
"B'en! Why couldn't you say so without boxing the compass, mon gars? Privateering is the biggest chance nowadays. Of course, the risks—."
"That's nothing if it brings me to Carette, Aunt Jeanne—."
"I wish you'd tell me something."
"What, then?" she asked warily.
"I get a bit afraid sometimes that Carette is not intended for a plain common Sercqman. Has M. Le Marchant views—"
"Shouldn't be a bit surprised, mon gars. I know I would have if she were mine. But, all the same, it is Carette herself will have the final say in the matter, and meanwhile—well, the more she learns the better. Isn't it so?"
"Surely. The more one learns the better, unless—"
"Well, unless it makes one look down on one's friends."
"Do you look down on your mother? And do you look down on me? Yet I'll be bound you think you know a sight more than both of us put together."
"No, I don't. But—"
"And yet you've had more learning than ever came our way."
"Of a kind. But—"
"Exactly, mon gars! And that other is the learning that doesn't come from books. And all your learning and Carette's will only prepare you for these other things. With all your learning you are only babies yet. The harder tasks are all before you."
"And you think I may hope for Carette, Aunt Jeanne?"
"If you win her. But you'll have to stir yourself, mon gars."
"I've sometimes wondered—" I began doubtfully, and stopped, not knowing how she might take my questioning.
"Well, what have you wondered?" and she peered at me with her head on one side like a robin's.
"Well—you see—she is so different from the others over there on Brecqhou."
"Roses grow among thorns."
"Yes, I know—"
"Very well!... All the same, you are right, mon gars. She is different—and with reason. Her mother was well-born. She was daughter to old Godefroi of St. Heliers, the shipowner. Jean was sailing one of his ships. It was not a good match nor a suitable one. The old man turned them out, and Jean came here with her and his boys and settled on Brecqhou. It is as well you should know, for it may come into the account. Jean would make her into a lady like her mother. For me, I would like to see her an honest man's wife—that is, if he's able to keep her."
"I'm for the privateering," I said, jumping up as briskly as if I'd only to walk aboard.
"I'll wish you luck and pray for it, my boy."
"That should help. Good-bye, Aunt Jeanne!"
My mind was quite made up, but, all the same, I went to George Hamon to ask his advice and help in the matter, as I always had done in all kinds of matters, and never failed to get them. I found him strolling among his cabbages with his pipe in his mouth.
"Uncle George, I want your advice," I began, and he smiled knowingly.
"Aw! I know you, mon gars. You've made up your mind about something and you want me to help you get over your mother and grandfather. Isn't that about it? And what is it now?"
"I want to be up and doing and making something—"
"And privateering seems the best thing going. I want to try that. What do you say?"
"Some have done mightily well at it—"
"You see," I said eagerly, "there is only that or the free-trading, or the West Indies again, or a King's ship—"
He nodded understandingly.
"And none of them hold any very big chances—except the free-trading. And there—"
"I know! Your mother won't hear of it. She has her reasons, my boy, and you can leave it at that ... She won't like the privateering either, you know, Phil," he said doubtfully, as though he did not care over much for the job he was being dragged into.
"I'm afraid she won't, Uncle George. That's why—"
"That's why you come to me," he smiled.
"That's it. You see, I've got to be up and doing, because—"
"I know," he nodded. "Well, come along, and let's get it over," and we went across the fields to Belfontaine.
My mother met us at the door, and it was borne in upon me suddenly that as a girl she must have been very good-looking. There was more colour than usual in her face, and the quiet eyes shone brightly. I thought she guessed we had come on some business opposed to her peace of mind, but I have since known that there were deeper reasons.
"You are welcome, George Hamon," she said. "What mischief are you and Phil plotting now?"
"Aw, then! It's a bad character you give me, Rachel."
"I know he goes to you for advice, and he might do worse. He's been restless since he came home. What is it?"
"Young blood must have its chance, you know. And change of pasture is good for young calves, as Jeanne Falla says."
"Hasn't he had change enough?"
"Where is Philip?"
"Down vraicking with Krok in Saignie. A big drift came in this morning, and we want all we can get for the fields."
"Give them a hand, Phil, and then bring your grandfather along. And I'll talk to your mother."
My grandfather and Krok had got most of the seaweed drawn up onto the stones above tide-level, and as soon as we had secured the rest they came up to the house with me, wet and hungry. I had told my grandfather simply that George Hamon was there, but said nothing about our business. He greeted him warmly.
"George, my boy, you should come in oftener."
"Ay, ay! If I came as often as I wanted you'd be for turning me out,"—with a nod to Krok, who replied with a cheerful smile, and went to the fire.
"You know better. Your welcome always waits you. What's in the wind now?"
"Phil wants to go privateering," said my mother. "And George has come to help him."
"Ah, I expected it would come to that," said my grandfather quietly. "It's a risky business, after all, Phil,"—to me, sitting on the green-bed and feeling rather sheepish.
"I know, grandfather. But there are risks in everything, and—"
"And, to put it plainly, he wants Carette Le Marchant, and he's not the only one, and that seems the quickest way to her," said George Hamon.
My mother's quiet brown eyes gave a little snap, and he caught it.
"When a lad's heart is set on a girl there is nothing he won't do for her. I've known a man wait twenty years for a woman—"
She made a quick little gesture with her hand, but he went on stoutly—
"Oh yes, and never give up hoping all that time, though, mon Gyu, it was little he got for his—"
"And you think it right he should go?" interrupted my mother hastily. And, taken up as I was with my own concerns, I understood of a sudden that there was that between my mother and George Hamon which I had never dreamed of.
"I think he will never settle till he has been. And it's lawful business, and profitable, and your objection to the free-trading doesn't touch it. There is some discipline on a privateer, though it's not as bad as on a King's ship. My advice is—let him go."
"It's only natural, after all," said my grandfather, with a thoughtful nod. "Who's the best man to go with, George?"
"Torode of Herm makes most at it, they say. But—"
"A rough lot, I'm told, and he has to keep a tight hand on them. But I know nothing except from hearsay. I've never come across him yet."
"Jean Le Marchant could tell you more about him than anyone else round here," said Uncle George, looking musingly at me. "They have dealings together in trading matters, I believe. Then, they say, John Ozanne is fitting out a schooner in Peter Port. He's a good man, but how he'll shape at privateering I don't know."
"Who's going to command her?" I asked.
"John himself, I'm told."
"Then I'll go across and see Jean Le Marchant," I said.
At which prompt discounting of John Ozanne, Uncle George laughed out loud.
"Well, I don't suppose it can do any harm, if it doesn't do much good. He's at home, I believe. Someone got hurt on their last run, I heard—"
"Yes, Aunt Jeanne told me,—two of them."
"Maybe you'll not find them in any too good a humour, but you know how to take care of yourself."
"I'll take care of myself all right."
"Will you stop and have supper with us, George?" asked my grandfather.
"Yes, I will. It's a treat to sup in company;" and my mother busied herself over the pots at the fire.
I had often wondered why Uncle George had never married. He was such a good fellow, honest as the day, and always ready to help anybody in any way. And yet, ever since his mother died, and that must have been ten years ago at least, he had lived all alone in his house at La Vauroque, though he had prospered in various ways, and was reputed well to do. He lived very simply—made his own coffee of morning, and for the rest depended on an old neighbour woman, who came in each day and cooked his meals and kept the house clean. Yes, I had often wondered why, and not until this night did I begin to understand.
Long afterwards, when he was telling me of other matters, it did not greatly surprise me to learn that he had waited all these years in hopes of my mother coming round to him at last. And the wall of division that stood between them and stirred him to bitterness at times—not against her, but against what he counted her foolish obstinacy—was the fact that long ago my father had gone down to the sea and never come back, as many and many an Island man had done since ever time began. But she had her own rigid notions of right and wrong, narrow perhaps, but of her very self, and she would not marry him, though his affection never wavered, even when he felt her foolishness the most.
It was strange, perhaps, that I should jump to sudden understanding of the matter when all my thoughts just then were of my own concerns. But love, I think, if somewhat selfish, is a mighty quickener of the understanding, and even though all one's thoughts are upon one object, a fellow-feeling opens one's eyes to the signs elsewhere.
We talked much of the matter of my going, that night over the supper-table, or my grandfather and George Hamon did, while my mother and Krok and I listened. And wonderful stories Uncle George told of the profits some folks had made in the privateering—tens of thousands of pounds to the owners in a single fortunate cruise, and hundreds to every seaman.
But my mother warmed to the matter not at all. She sat gazing silently into the fire, and thought, maybe, of those who lost, and of those whose shares came only to the last cold plunge into the tumbling graveyard of the sea. While as for me, in my own mind I saw visions of stirring deeds, and wealth and fame, and Carette seemed nearer to me than ever she had been since she went to Peter Port.
HOW I WENT TO SEE TORODE OF HERM
The next morning found me running in under La Givaude for the landing-place on Brecqhou, where my boat could lie safely in spite of the rising tide.
I was in the best of spirits, for low spirits come of having nothing to do, or not knowing what to do or how to do it. My next step was settled, lead where it might. I was going privateering, and now I was going to see Carette, and I intended to let her know that I was going and why, so that there should be no mistake about it while I was away.
I scrambled gaily up to the path that leads into the Island, and everything was shining bright, like the inside of an ormer shell—the sea as blue as the sky, except close under the headlands, where it was clear, soft green; the waves farther out flashed in the sunlight and showed their white teeth wherever they met the rocks; and the rocks were yellow and brown and black, and all fringed with tawny seaweed, and here beside me the golden-rod flamed yellow and orange, and the dark green bracken swung lazily in the breeze.
And then, of a sudden, a shot rang out, and a bullet flew past my head, and cut my whistling short.
"What fool's that?" I shouted at the smoke that floated out from behind a lump of rock in front, and a young man got up lazily from behind it, and stood looking at me as he rammed home another charge.
"You'll be hurting someone if you don't take care," I said.
"I do when I care to. That was only a hint. Who are you, and what do you want here?"
"I'm Phil Carre, of Belfontaine. I want to see Monsieur Le Marchant—and Ma'm'zelle Carette."
"Oh, you do, do you? And what do you want with them?"
"I'll tell them when I see them. Do you always wish your friends good-morning with a musket on Brecqhou?"
"Our friends don't come till they're asked."
"Then you don't have many visitors, I should say."
"All we want," was the curt reply.
He was a tall, well-built fellow, some years older than myself, good-looking, as all the Le Marchants were, defiant of face and careless in manner. He looked, in fact, as though it would not have troubled him in the least if his bullet had gone through my head.
He had finished loading his gun, and stood blocking the way, with no intention of letting me pass. And how long we might have stood there I do not know, when I saw another head bobbing along among the golden-rod, and another of the brothers came up and stood beside him.
"What is it, then, Martin? Who is he?" he asked, staring at me.
"Says he's Phil Carre, of Belfontaine, but—"
And the other dark face broke into a smile. "Tiens, I remember. You came across once before—"
"Yes. You had the measles."
"And what brings you this time, Phil Carre?"
"I want to speak with Monsieur Le Marchant."
"And to see Carette, I think you said, Monsieur Phil Carre," said the other.
"Come along, then," said Helier, the new-comer. "There is no harm in Phil Carre. You have not by any chance gone into the preventive service, Monsieur Carre?" he laughed.
"Not quite. I'm off to the privateering. It's that I want to speak to your father about."
"How then?" he asked with interest, as we walked along towards the great wooden house in the hollow. "How does it concern him?"
"Torode of Herm is the cleverest privateer round here, they say. I thought to try with him, and your father knows more about him than anyone else."
"Ah! Torode of Herm! Yes, he is a clever man is Torode. But he won't take you, mon gars. He picks his own, and there is not an Island man among them."
The first thing I saw when I entered the house was Carette, busy at one of the bunks in the dimness at the far end of the room. She looked round, and then straightened up in surprise.
"Why, Phil? What are you doing here? One moment"—and I saw that she was tying a bandage round the arm of the man in the bunk. His eyes caught the light from the windows and gleamed savagely at me under his rumpled black hair. A similar face looked out from an adjoining bunk. When she had finished she came quickly across to me.
"Measles again?" I said, remembering my former visit.
"Yes, measles," she said, with the colour in her face and questions in her eyes.
"I came to see your father, and if I was in luck, yourself also, Carette."
"He is sleeping," she said, with a glance towards a side room. "He was anxious about these two, and he would take the night watch. They are feverish, you see."
"I will wait."
"He won't be long. He never takes much sleep. What do you want to—" and then some sudden thought sent a flush of colour into her face and a quick enquiry into her eyes, and she stopped short and stood looking at me.
"It's this, Carette—" and then the door of the side room opened quietly and Jean Le Marchant came out, looking at us with much surprise.
He was very little changed since I had seen him last. It was the same keen, handsome face, with its long white moustache and cold dark eyes, somewhat tired at the moment with their night duties.
"And this is—?" he asked suavely, as I bowed.
"It is Phil Carre, of Belfontaine, father," said Carette quickly. "He has come to see you."
"Very kind of Monsieur Carre. It is not after my health you came to enquire, monsieur?"
"No, sir. It is this. I have decided to go privateering, and I want to go with the best man. I am told Torode of Herm is the best, and that you can tell me more about him than anyone else."
"Ah—Torode! Yes, he is a very clever man is Torode—a clever man, and very successful. And privateering is undoubtedly the game nowadays. Honest free-trading isn't in it compared with the privateering, though even that isn't what it was, they say. Like everything else, it is overdone, and many mouths make scant faring. And so you want to go out with Torode?" he asked musingly.
"That is my idea. You see, monsieur, I have spent nearly four years in the trading to the Indies, and I am about as well off as when I started—except in experience. Now I want to make something—all I can, and as quickly as I can. And," I said, plunging headlong at my chief object in coming, "my reasons stand there," and I pointed to Carette, who jumped at the suddenness of it, and coloured finely, and bit her lip, and sped away on some household duty which she had not thought of till that moment.
Monsieur Le Marchant smiled, and the two young men laughed out.
"Ma foi!" said the old man. "You are frank, mon gars."
"It is best so. I wanted you to know, and I wanted Carette to know, though I think she has known it always. I have never thought of any but Carette, and as soon as I am able I will ask her to marry me."
"Whether I have other views for her or not?" said her father.
"No other could possibly love Carette as I do,"—at which he smiled briefly and the others grinned. "I have only one wish in life, and that is to care for her and make her happy."
"That is for the future, so we need not talk about it now. If you make a fortune at the privateering—who knows?"
"And what can you tell me of Torode, monsieur? Is he the best man to go out with?"
"He has been more successful than most, without doubt," and the keen cold eyes rested musingly on me, while he seemed to be turning deep thoughts in his mind. "Yes. Why not try him? And after your first voyage come across again, and we will talk it over. Martin,"—to the man who had given me good-morning with his musket,—"you are too long away from your post. Allez!"
"There was nothing in sight till Monsieur Carre came round the corner," said Martin, and went off to his look-out.
"These preventive men, with their constant new regulations, are an annoyance," said the old man quietly. "Some of them will be getting hurt one of these days. It is a pity the Government can't leave honest traders alone. They worry you also on Sercq, I suppose?"
"I hear of them. But we have nothing to do with the trading at Belfontaine, so they don't trouble us."
"Ah no, I remember. Well, come across again after your first voyage and tell us how you get on, Monsieur Carre."
Helier sauntered back with me towards the landing-place. Carette had disappeared. I wondered if my plain speaking had offended her, but I was glad she had heard.
I pulled out of the little bay and ran up my lug and sped straight across to Herm. Every rock was known to me, even though it showed only in a ring of widening circles or a flattening of the dancing waves into a straining coil, for we had been in the habit of fishing and vraicking here regularly until Torode took possession. And many was the time I had hung over the side of the rocking boat and sought in the depths for the tops of the great rock-pillars which once held up the bridge that joined Brecqhou to Herm and Jethou. But now the fishing and vraicking were stopped, for Torode liked visitors as little as did Jean Le Marchant.
And as I went I thought of Carette and how she looked when I spoke about her to her father. And one minute I thought I had seen in her a brief look which was not entirely discontent, and the next minute I was in doubt. Perhaps it was a gleam of anger and annoyance. I could not tell, for the chief thing I had seen in her face was undoubtedly a vast confusion at the publicity of my declaration. In my mind also was the contradiction of Helier Le Marchant's assertion that Torode would take no Island man into his crew, and his fathers advice to go and try him. I was inclined to think that Helier would prove right, for, even with my four years' experience of men and things, I saw that Monsieur Le Marchant was beyond my understanding.
My boat swirled into the narrow way between Herm and Jethou, where the water came up lunging and thrusting like great black jelly-fish. I dropped my sail and took the oars, and stood with my face to the bows and pulled cautiously among the traps and snares that lay thick on every side and still more dangerously out of sight. So I crept round the south of Herm and drew into the little roadstead on the west.
And the first thing I saw, and saw no other for a while, was the handsomest ship I had ever set eyes on. A long low black schooner, with a narrow beading of white at deck level, and masts that tapered off into fishing-rods. She was pierced for six guns a-side, and a great tarpaulin cover on the forecastle and another astern hinted at something heavier there. Her lines and finish were so graceful that I felt sure she was French built, for English builders ever consider strength before beauty. A very fast boat, I judged, but how she would behave in dirty weather I was not so sure. Anyway, a craft to make a sailor's heart hungry to see her loosed and free of the seas. She sat the water like a gull, so lightly that one half expected a sudden unfolding of wings and a soaring flight into the blue.
I was still gazing with all my eyes, and drifting slowly in, when a sharp hail brought me round facing a man who leaned with his arms on a wall of rock and looked over and down at me.
"Hello!" I replied, and saw that it was young Torode himself.
From my position I could see little except the rising ground in the middle of the island, but I got the impression, chiefly no doubt from what I had heard, and from the thin curls of smoke that rose in a line behind him, that there was quite a number of houses there. In fact the place had all the look of a fortified post.
"Tiens! It is Monsieur Carre, is it not? And what may Monsieur Carre want here?" His tone was somewhat masterful, if not insolent. I felt an inclination to resent it, but bethought me in time that such could be no help to my plans, and that, moreover, nothing was to be gained by concealment.
"I came to see your father. Is he to be seen?"
"So? What about?"
"I want to join his ship there for the privateering. She's a beauty."
"Oh-ho! Tired of honest trading?"
"I didn't know privateering had become dishonest."
"Bit different from what you've been accustomed to, isn't it?"
"Bit more profitable anyway, so they say. Are you open for any hands?"
But Torode had turned and was in conversation with someone inside the rampart. I heard my own name mentioned, and presently he disappeared and his place was taken by an older man whom I knew instinctively for the great Torode himself.
A massive black head, and a grim dark face with a week's growth of bristling black hair about it, and a dark moustache,—a strong lowering face, and a pair of keen black eyes that bored holes in one; that was Torode of Herm as I first set eyes on him.
He stared at me so long and fixedly, as if he had never seen anything like me before, that at last, out of sheer discomfort, I had to speak.
"Monsieur Torode?" I asked, and after another staring pause, he said gruffly—
"B'en! I am Torode. What is it you want?"
"A berth on your ship there."
"And why? Who are you, then?"
"Your son knows me. My name is Carre,—Phil Carre. I come from Sercq."
"Does your father live there?"
"He's dead these twenty years. I live with my mother and my grandfather."
He seemed to be turning this over in his mind, and presently he asked—
"And they want you to go privateering?"
"I don't say they want me to. It's I want to go. They are willing—at all events they don't object."
"And why do you go against their wishes?"
"Well, it's this way, Monsieur Torode. I've been four voyages to the West and there's no great things in it. I want to be doing something more for myself."
"Why don't you try the free-trading?"
"Ah, there! We have never taken to the free-trading, but I don't know why."
"No, it's not that. There's more risk privateering."
"My folks don't like it. That's all I know."
"But they'll let you go privateering?"
"Yes," I said, with a shrug at my own lack of understanding on that point. "Privateering's honest business after all."
"And free-trading isn't! You'll never make a privateer, mon gars. You're too much in leading-strings."
"I don't know," I said, somewhat ruffled. "I have seen some service. We fought a Frenchman in the West Indies, and I've been twice wrecked."
"So! Well, we're full up, and business is bad or we wouldn't be lying here."
"And you won't give me a trial?"
"And that's the last word?"
"That's the last word."
"Then I'll wish you good-day, monsieur. I must try elsewhere," and I dropped into my seat and pulled away down the little roadstead.
Monsieur Torode was still leaning over the wall, and watching me fixedly, when I turned the corner of the outer ridge of rocks and crept away through the mazy channels towards Peter Port. When I got farther out, and could get an occasional glimpse of the rampart, he was still leaning on it and was still staring out at me just as I had left him.
HOW I WENT OUT WITH JOHN OZANNE
There was no difficulty in finding John Ozanne. I made out his burly figure and red-whiskered face on the harbour wall before I had passed Castle Cornet, and heard his big voice good-humouredly roaring to the men at work in the rigging of a large schooner that lay alongside.
He greeted me with great goodwill.
"Why, surely, Phil," he said very heartily, in reply to my request. "It's not your grandfather's boy I would be refusing, and it's a small boat that won't take in one more. What does the old man say to your going?"
"He's willing, or I wouldn't be here."
"That's all right, then. What do you think of her?"
We were standing on the harbour wall, looking down on the schooner on which the riggers were busy renewing her standing gear.
"A good staunch boat, I should say. What can you get out of her?"
"Ten easy with these new spars, and she can come up as close as any boat I've ever seen—except maybe yon black snake of Torode's,"—with a jerk of the head towards Herm. "Seen her?"
"Yes, I've seen her. How's she in bad weather?"
"Wet, I should say. We can stand a heap more than she can."
"When do you expect to get off?"
"Inside a week. Come along and have a drink. It's dry work watching these fellows."
So we went along to the cafe just behind us, and it was while we were sitting there, sipping our cider, and I was telling him of my last voyage and after-journeyings, that a man came in and slapped down on the table in front of us a printed bill which, as it turned out afterwards, concerned us both more nearly than we knew.
"Ah!" said John Ozanne, "I'd heard of that. If we happen across him we'll pick up that five thousand pounds or we'll know the reason why."
It was a notice sent out by one John Julius Angerstein, of Lloyds in the City of London, on behalf of the merchants and shipowners there, offering a reward of five thousand pounds for the capture, or proof of the destruction, of a French privateer which had for some time past been making great play with British shipping in the Channel and Bay of Biscay. She was described as a schooner of one hundred and fifty tons or thereabouts, black hull with red streak, carrying an unusually large crew and unusually heavy metal. She flew a white flag with a red hand on it, her red figure-head was said to represent the same device, and she was known by the name of La Main Rouge.
John Ozanne folded the bill methodically and stowed it safely away in his pocket-book.
"It'd be a fortune if we caught him full," he said thoughtfully. "They say he takes no prizes. Just helps himself to what he wants like a highwayman, and then sheers off and looks out for another. Rare pickings he must have had among some of those fat East Indiamen. Here's to our falling in with him!" and we clicked our mugs on that right hopefully.
"What weight do we carry?" I asked, in view of the Frenchman's heavy guns, our own not being yet mounted.
"Four eighteens a-side, and one twenty-four forward and one aft. There'll be some chips flying if we meet him, but we'll do our best to close his fist and stop his grabbing. You're wanting to get back? Come over day after to-morrow and give me a hand. I'll be glad of your help;" and I dropped into my boat and pulled out into the wind, and ran up my lug for home.
"So you saw Torode himself, Phil? And what is he like?" asked my grandfather, as I told them the day's doings.
"Big, black, grim-looking fellow. Just what you'd expect. On the whole I'm not sorry I'm going with John Ozanne. He seems pleased to have me too, and that's something."
"I'd much sooner think of you with him," said my mother. "I know nothing of Monsieur Torode, but nobody seems to like him."
George Hamon said much the same thing, and spoke highly of John Ozanne as a cautious seaman, which I well knew him to be.
Jeanne Falla laughed heartily when I told her of my visit to Brecqhou, which I did very fully.
"Mon Gyu, Phil, mon gars, but you're getting on! And you told her to her face before them all that you wanted to marry her? It's as odd a style of wooing as ever I heard."
"Well, you see, I wanted there to be no mistake about it, Aunt Jeanne. If I don't see Carette again before I leave, she will know how the land lies at all events. If she takes to young Torode while I'm away it's because she likes him best."
"And she,—Carette,—what did she say to it?"
"She didn't say anything."
"Tuts! How did she look, boy? A girl tells more with her face and her eyes than with her tongue, even when they say opposite things."
"I'm not sure how she took it, Aunt Jeanne. How would you have taken it, now?"
"Ma fe! It would depend," she laughed, her old face creasing up with merriment. "If it was Monsieur Right I wouldn't have minded maybe, though I might be a bit taken aback at the newest way in courting."
"Well, I thought she looked something like that. And then, afterwards, I wasn't sure she wasn't angry about it. I don't know. I've had so little to do with girls, you see."
"And you'd not know much more, however much you'd had. You're only a boy still, mon gars."
"Well, I'm going to do a man's work, and it's for Carette I'm going to do it. Put in a good word for me while I'm away, won't you now, Aunt Jeanne? Carette is more to me than anything else in the world."
"Ay, well! We'll see. And you saw Torode himself?"
And I told her all I had to tell about Torode, and John Ozanne, whom she had known as a boy.
"He was always good-hearted was John, but a bit slow and easy-going," said she. "But we'll hope for the best."
"Will Carette be across in the next day or two?"
"I doubt it. Those two who got hurt will need her. If you don't see her you shall leave me a kiss for her," she chirped.
"I'll give you a dozen now," I cried, jumping up, and giving her the full tale right heartily.
"Ma fe, yes! You are getting on, mon gars," she said, as she set the black sun-bonnet straight again. "You tackle Carette that way next time you see her, and—"
"Mon Gyu, I wouldn't dare to!" And Aunt Jeanne still found me subject for laughter.
HOW WE CAME ACROSS MAIN ROUGE
I was sorely tempted to run across to Brecqhou for one more sight of Carette before I left home, but decided at last to leave matters as they were. Beyond the pleasure of seeing her I could hope to gain little, for she was not the one to show her heart before others, and too rash an endeavour might provoke her to that which was not really in her.
As things were I could cherish the hopes that were in me to the fullest, and one makes better weather with hope than with doubt. Carette knew now all that I could tell her, and Aunt Jeanne would be a tower of strength to me in my absence. I could leave the leaven to work. And I think that if I had not given my mother that last day she would have felt it sorely, and with reason.
The deepest that was in us never found very full vent at Belfontaine, and that, I think, was due very largely to the quiet and kindly, but somewhat rigid, Quakerism of my grandfather. We felt and knew without babbling into words.
So all that day my mother hovered about me with a quiet face and hungry eyes, but never one word that might have darkened my going. She had braced her heart to it, as the women of those days had to do, and as all women of all times must whose men go down to the sea in ships.
And I do not think there was any resentment in her mind at my feeling for Carette. For she spoke of her many times and always in the nicest way, seeing perhaps the pleasure it gave me. She was a very wise and thoughtful woman, though not so much given to the expression of her wisdom as was Jeanne Falla, and I think she understood that this too was inevitable, and so she had quietly brought her mind to it. But after all, all this is but saying that her tower of quiet strength was built on hidden foundations of faith and hope, and her mother-love needed no telling.
Next day my grandfather and Krok made holiday, in order to carry me over to Peter Port and see the Swallow for themselves, and my mother's fervent "God keep you, Phil!" and all the other prayers that I felt in her arms round my neck, were with me still as we ran past Brecqhou, and I stood with an arm round the mast looking eagerly for possible, but unlikely, sight of Carette.
We were too low down to see the house, which lay in a hollow. The white waves were ripping like comets along the fringe of ragged rocks under the great granite cliffs, and our boat reeled and plunged under the strong west wind, and sent the foam flying in sheets as we tacked against the cross seas.
We were running a short slant past Moie Batarde, before taking a long one for the Grands Bouillons, when a flutter of white among the wild black rocks of the point by the Creux a Vaches caught my eye, and surely it was Carette herself, though whether she had known of our passage, or was in the habit of frequenting that place, I could not tell. I took it to myself, however, and waved a hearty greeting, and the last sight I had of her, and could not possibly have had a better, was her hand waving farewells in a way that held much comfort for me for many a day to come. I had told my grandfather about Torode's fine schooner, and had enlarged so upon it that he had a wish to see her for himself, and so we were making for the passage between Herm and Jethou, which I had travelled two days before. He knew the way and the traps and pitfalls better even than I did, and ran us in up the wind with a steady hand till the roadstead opened before us. But it was empty. Torode was off after plunder, and we turned and ran for Peter Port. We found John Ozanne as busy as a big bumble-bee, but he made time to greet my grandfather very jovially, and showed him all over his little ship with much pride. He was in high spirits and anxious to be off, especially since he had heard of Torode's going.
"He's about as clever as men are made," he said, "and when he goes he goes on business, so it's time for us to be on the move too. We'll make a man of your boy, Philip."
"A privateer!" said my grandfather with a smile.
"Ay, well! I can believe it's not all to your liking, but it's natural after all."
"I'm not complaining."
"I never heard you. But you'd have been better pleased if he hadn't wanted so much."
"Maybe," said my grandfather with his quiet smile. "But, as Jeanne Falla says, 'Young calves'—"
"I know, I know," laughed John Ozanne. "She's a famous wise woman is Jeanne Falla, and many a licking she gave me when I was a boy for stealing her apples round there at Cobo."
When my grandfather waved his hand, as they ran out past Castle Cornet, the last link broke between Sercq and myself for many a day. Before I saw any of them again—except the distant sight of the Island lying like a great blue whale nuzzling its young, as we passed up Little Russel next morning—many things had happened for the changing of many lives. I had seen much, suffered much, and learned much, and it is of these things I have to tell you.
We cast off next day, amid the cheers and wavings of a great crowd. Half Peter Port stood on the walls of the old harbour. Some had friends and relatives on board, and their shoutings were akin to lusty, veiled prayers for their safe return. Some had eggs in our basket, and in wishing us good speed were not without an eye to the future, and maybe were already counting their possible chickens. We gave them cheer for cheer, and more again for the St. Sampson people. Then, with all our new swing making a gallant show, we swept past Grand Braye, and Ancresse, and turned our nose to the north-west.
We were all in the best of spirits. The Swallow was well found and well armed, and showed a livelier pair of heels than I had looked for, and that, in an Ishmaelitish craft, was a consideration and a comfort. She was roomy too, and would make better times of bad weather, I thought, than would Torode's beautiful black snake. We were sixty men all told, and every man of us keen for the business we were on, and with sufficient confidence in John Ozanne to make a willing crew, though among us there were not lacking good-humoured jokes anent his well-known easy-going, happy-go-lucky proclivities. These, however, would make for comfort on board, and for the rest, he was a good seaman and might be expected to do his utmost to justify the choice of his fellow-townsmen, and he was said to have a considerable stake in the matter himself.
We had four mates, all tried Peter Port men, and our only fears were as to possible lack of the enemy's merchant ships in quantity and quality sufficient for our requirements. On the second day out, a slight haze on the sky-line shortening our view, the sound of firing came down to us on the wind, and John Ozanne promptly turned the Swallow's beak in that direction.
We edged up closer and closer, and when the haze lifted, came on a hot little fight in progress between a big ship and a small one, and crowded the rigging and bulwarks to make it out.
"Little chap's a Britisher, I'll wager you," said old Martin Cohu, the bo's'un.
"A privateer then, and t'other a merchantman."
"Unless it's t'other way on. Anyway the old man will make 'em out soon;" and we anxiously eyed John Ozanne working away with his big brass-bound telescope, as we slanted up towards the two ships, first on one tack then on the other.
The larger vessel's rigging we could see was badly mauled, the smaller ship dodged round and round her, and off and on, plugging her as fast as the guns could be loaded and fired.
"That's no merchantman," said old Martin. "A French Navy ship—a corvette—about fifteen guns a-side maybe, and t'other's an English gun brig; making rare game of her she is too. Minds me of a dog and a bull."
"Maybe the old man'll take a hand just for practice."
And John Ozanne was quite willing. We were ordered to quarters, and ran in, with our colours up, prepared to take our share. But the commander of the brig had his own ideas on that matter, strong ones too, and he intimated them in the most unmistakable way by a shot across our bows, as a hint to us to mind our own business and leave him to his.
A hoarse laugh and a ringing cheer went up from the Swallow at this truly bull-dog spirit, and we drew off and lay-to to watch the result.
The Frenchman was fully three times the size of his plucky little antagonist, but the Englishman as usual had the advantage in seamanship. He had managed to cripple his enemy early in the fight, and now had it all his own way. We watched till the Frenchman's colours came down, then gave the victors another hearty cheer, and went on our way to seek fighting of our own.
For three days we never sighted a sail. We had turned south towards the Bay, and were beginning to doubt our luck, when, on the fourth day, a stiff westerly gale forced us to bare poles. During the night it waxed stronger still, and the little Swallow proved herself well. Next morning a long line of great ships went gallantly past us over the roaring seas, shepherded by two stately frigates,—an East Indian convoy homeward bound. Late that day, the fifth of our cruising, we raised the topmasts of a large ship and made for her hopefully.
"A merchantman," said Martin Cohu disgustedly, "and English or I'm a Dutchman. One of the convoy lagged behind. No pickings for us this time, my lads."
But there was more there than he expected.
There was always the chance of her having been captured by the French, in which case her recapture would bring some little grist to our mill, and so we crowded sail for her. And, as we drew nearer, it was evident, from the talk among John Ozanne and his mates, that they could see more through their glasses than we could with our eyes.
"Guyabble!" cried old Martin at last. "There's another ship hitched on to her far side. I can see her masts. Now, what's this? A privateer as like as no, and we'll have our bite yet, maybe."
And before long we could all make out the thin masts of a smaller vessel between the flapping canvas of the larger. John Ozanne ordered us to quarters, and got ready for a fight. He gave us a hearty word or two, since every man likes to know what's in the wind.
"There's a schooner behind yonder Indiaman, my lads, and it's as likely as not she's been captured. If so we'll do our best to get her back, for old England's sake, and our own, and just to spite the Frenchman. If the schooner should prove the Red Hand, and that's as like as not, for he's the pluckiest man they have, you know what it means. It'll be hard fighting and no quarter. But he's worth taking. The London merchants have put a price on him, and there'll be that, and himself, and a share in the Indiaman besides, and we'll go back to Peter Port with our pockets lined."
We gave him a cheer and hungered for the fray.
John Ozanne took us round in a wide sweep to open the ships, and every eye and glass was glued to them. As we rounded the Indiaman's great gilded stern, about a mile away, it did not need John Ozanne's emphatic—"It's him!" to tell us we were in for a tough fight, and that three prizes lay for our taking. We gave John another cheer, tightened our belts, and perhaps—I can speak for one at all events—wondered grimly how it would be with some of us a couple of hours later.
The Frenchman cast off at once and came to meet us, the Red Hand flying at his masthead, the red lump at his bows, the red streak clearly visible just below the open gun-ports.
"Do your duty, lads," said John Ozanne. "There'll be tough work for us. He carries heavy metal. We'll close with him at all odds, and then the British bull-dog must see to it."
We gave him another cheer, and then a cloud of white smoke burst from the Frenchman's fore deck, and our topmast and all its hamper came down with a crash, and our deck rumbled with bitter curses.
"—— him!" said Martin Cohu. "That's not fair play. Dismantling shot or I'm a Dutchman! It's only devils and Yankees use shot like that. —— me, if we don't hang him if we catch him."
John Ozanne tried him with our long gun forward, but the shot fell short. In point of metal the Frenchman beat us, and our best hope was to close with him as quickly as possible.
But he knew that quite as well as we. He was well up to his business, and chose his own distance. His next shot swept along our deck, smashing half a dozen men most horribly, and tied itself round the foot of the mainmast, wounding it badly. And then I saw for the first time that most hideous missile which the Americans had introduced, but which other nations declined to use, as barbarous and uncivilised. It was a great iron ring round which were looped iron bars between two and three feet long. The bars played freely like keys on a ring, and splayed out in their flight, and did the most dreadful execution. Intended originally, I believe, for use only against hostile spars and rigging, this rascally freebooter put them to any and every service, and with his powerful armament and merciless ferocity they went far towards explaining his success.
For myself, and I saw the same in all my shipmates, the first sense of dismayed impotence in the face of those most damnable whirling flails very soon gave place to black fury. For the moment one thing only did I desire, and that was to be within arm's reach of the Frenchman, cutlass in hand. Had he been three times our number I doubt if one of them would have escaped if we had reached him. My heart felt like to burst with its boiling rage, and all one could do was to wait patiently at one's post, and it was the hardest thing I had ever had to do yet.