And Desmond went into the inn.
Chapter 6: In which the reader becomes acquainted with William Bulger and other sailor men; and our hero as a squire of dames acquits himself with credit.
One warm October afternoon, some ten days after the night of his visit to the Four Alls, Desmond was walking along the tow path of the Thames, somewhat north of Kingston. As he came to the spot where the river bends round towards Teddington, he met a man plodding along with a rope over his shoulder, hauling a laden hoy.
"Can you tell me the way to the Waterman's Rest?" asked Desmond.
"Ay, that can I," replied the man without stopping. "'Tis about a quarter mile behind me, right on waterside. And the best beer this side o' Greenwich."
Thanking him, Desmond walked on. He had not gone many yards farther before there fell upon his ear, from some point ahead, the sound of several rough voices raised in chorus, trolling a tune that seemed familiar to him. As he came nearer to the singers, he distinguished the words of the song, and remembered the occasion on which he had heard them before: the evening of Clive's banquet at Market Drayton—the open window of the Four Alls, the voice of Marmaduke Diggle.
"Sir William Norris, Masulipatam"—these were the first words he caught; and immediately afterwards the voices broke into the second verse:
"Says Governor Pitt, Fort George, Madras, 'I know what you are: an ass, an ass, An ass, an ass, an ASS, an ASS,' Signed 'Governor Pitt, Fort George, Madras.'"
And at the conclusion there was a clatter of metal upon wood, and then one voice, loud and rotund, struck up the first verse once more—"Says Billy Norris, Masulipatam"—The singer was in the middle of the stave when Desmond, rounding a privet hedge, came upon the scene. A patch of greensward, sloping up from a slipway on the riverside; a low, cozy-looking inn of red brick covered with a crimson creeper; in front of it a long deal table, and seated at the table a group of some eight or ten seamen, each with a pewter tankard before him. To the left, and somewhat in the rear of the long table, was a smaller one, at which two seamen, by their garb a cut above the others, sat opposite each other, intent on some game.
Desmond's attention was drawn towards the larger table. Rough as was the common seaman of George the Second's time, the group here collected would have been hard to match for villainous looks. One had half his teeth knocked out, another a broken nose; all bore scars and other marks of battery.
Among them, however, there was one man marked out by his general appearance and facial expression as superior to the rest. In dress he was no different from his mates; he wore the loose blouse, the pantaloons, the turned-up cloth hat of the period. But he towered above them in height; he had a very large head, with a very small squab nose, merry eyes, and a fringe of jet-black hair round cheeks and chin.
When he removed his hat presently he revealed a shiny pink skull, rising from short, wiry hair as black as his whiskers. Alone of the group, he wore no love locks or greased pigtail. In his right hand, when Desmond first caught sight of him, he held a tankard, waving it to and fro in time with his song. He had lost his left hand and forearm, which were replaced by an iron hook projecting from a wooden socket, just visible in his loose sleeve.
He was halfway through the second stanza when he noticed Desmond standing at the angle of the hedge a few yards away. He fixed his merry eyes on the boy, and, beating time with his hook, went on with the song in stentorian tones:
"An ass, an ass, an Ass, an ASS, Signed 'Governor Pitt, Fort George, Madras.'"
The others took up the chorus, and finally brought their tankards down upon the deal with a resounding whack.
"Ahoy, Mother Wiggs, more beer!" shouted the big man.
Desmond went forward.
"Is this the Waterman's Rest?"
"Ay, ay, young gen'leman, and a blamed restful place it is, too, fit for watermen what en't naught but landlubbers, speaking by the book, but not fit for the likes of us jack tars. Eh, mateys?"
His companions grunted acquiescence.
"I have a message for Mr. Toley; is he here?"
"Ay, that he is. That's him at the table yonder.
"Mr. Toley, sir, a young gen'leman to see you."
Desmond advanced to the smaller table. The two men looked up from their game of dominoes. One was a tall, lean fellow, with lined and sunken cheeks covered with iron-gray stubble, a very sharp nose, and colorless eyes; the expression of his features was melancholy in the extreme. The other was a shorter man, snub-nosed, big-mouthed; one eye was blue, the other green, and they looked in contrary directions. His hat was tilted forward, resting on two bony prominences above his eyebrows.
"Well?" said Mr. Toley, the man of melancholy countenance.
"I have a message from Captain Barker," said Desmond. "I am to say that he expects you and the men at Custom House Quay next Wednesday morning, high tide at five o'clock."
Mr. Toley lifted the tankard at his left hand, drained it, smacked his lips, then said in a hollow voice:
"Bulger, Custom House Quay, Wednesday morning, five o'clock."
A grunt of satisfaction and relief rolled round the company, and in response to repeated cries for more beer a stout woman in a mob cap and dirty apron came from the inn with a huge copper can, from which she proceeded to fill the empty tankards.
"Is the press still hot, sir?" asked Mr. Toley.
"Yes. Four men, I was told, were hauled out of the Good Intent yesterday."
"And four bad bargains for the king," put in the second man, whose cross glances caused Desmond no little discomfort.
At this moment Joshua Wiggs, the innkeeper, came up, carrying three fowling pieces.
"There be plenty o' ducks today, mister," he said.
"Then we'll try our luck," said Mr. Toley, rising.
"Thank 'ee, my lad," he added to Desmond. "You'll take a sup with the men afore you go?
"Bulger, see to the gentleman."
"Ay, ay, sir.
"Come aboard, matey."
He made a place for Desmond at his side on the bench, and called to Mother Wiggs to bring a mug for the gentleman. Meanwhile, Mr. Toley and his companion had each taken a fowling piece and gone away with the landlord. Bulger winked at his companions, and when the sportsmen were out of earshot he broke into a guffaw.
"Rare sport they'll have! I wouldn't be in Mr. Toley's shoes for something. What's a cock-eyed man want with a gun in his hand, eh, mateys?"
Desmond felt somewhat out of his element in his present company; but having reasons of his own for making himself pleasant, he said, by way of opening a conversation:
"You seem pleased at the idea of going to sea again, Mr. Bulger."
"Well, we are and we en't, eh, mateys? The Waterman's Rest en't exactly the kind of place to spend shore leave; it en't a patch on Wapping or Rotherhithe. And to tell 'ee true, we're dead sick of it. But there's reasons; there mostly is; and the whys and wherefores, therefores and becauses, I dessay you know, young gen'lman, acomin' from Captain Barker."
"The press gang?"
"Ay, the press is hot in these days. Cap'n sent us here to be out o' the way, and the orficers to look arter us. Not but what 'tis safer for them too; for if Mr. Sunman showed his cock-eyes anywhere near the Pool, he'd be nabbed by the bailiffs, sure as he's second mate o' the Good Intent. Goin' to sea's bad enough, but the Waterman's Rest and holdin' on the slack here's worse, eh, mateys?"
"Ay, you're right there, Bulger."
"But why don't you like going to sea?" asked Desmond.
"Why? You're a landlubber, sir—meanin' no offense—or you wouldn't axe sich a foolish question. At sea 'tis all rope's end and salt pork, with Irish horse for a tit-bit."
"Ay. That's our name for it. 'Cos why? Explain to the gen'lman, mateys."
With a laugh the men began to chant— "Salt horse, salt horse, what brought you here? You've carried turf for many a year. From Dublin quay to Mallyack You've carried turf upon your back."
"That's the why and wherefore of it," added Bulger. "Cooks call it salt beef, same as French mounseers don't like the sound of taters an' calls 'em pummy detair; but we calls it Irish horse, which we know the flavor. Accordingly, notwithstandin' an' for that reason, if you axe the advice of an old salt, never you go to sea, matey."
"That's unfortunate," said Desmond, with a smile, "because I expect to sail next Wednesday morning, high tide at five o'clock."
"Binks and barnacles! Be you a-goin' to sail with us?"
"I hope so."
"Billy come up! You've got business out East, then?"
"Not yet, but I hope to have. I'm going out as supercargo."
"Oh! As supercargo!"
Bulger winked at his companions, and a hoarse titter went the round of the table.
"Well," continued Bulger, "the supercargo do have a better time of it than us poor chaps. And what do Cap'n Barker say to you as supercargo, which you are very young, sir?"
"I don't know Captain Barker."
"Oho! But I thought as how you brought a message from the captain?"
"Yes, but it came through Mr. Diggle."
"Ah! Mr. Diggle?"
"A friend of mine—a friend of the captain. He has arranged everything."
"I believe you, matey. He's arranged everything. Supercargo! Well, to be sure! Never a supercargo as I ever knowed but wanted a man to look arter him, fetch and carry for him, so to say. How would I do, if I might make so bold?"
"Thanks," said Desmond, smiling as he surveyed the man's huge form. "But I think Captain Barker might object to that. You'd be of more use on deck, in spite of—"
He paused, but his glance at the iron hook had not escaped Bulger's observant eye.
"Spite of the curlin' tongs, you'd say. Bless you, spit it out; I en't tender in my feelin's."
"Besides," added Desmond, "I shall probably make use of the boy who has been attending to me at the Goat and Compasses—a clever little black boy of Mr. Diggle's."
"Black boys be hanged! I never knowed a Sambo as was any use on board ship. They howls when they're sick, and they're allers sick, and never larns to tell a marlinspike from a belayin' pin."
"But Scipio isn't one of that sort. He's never sick, Mr. Diggle says; they've been several voyages together, and Scipio knows a ship from stem to stern."
"Scipio, which his name is? Uncommon name, that."
There was a new tone in Bulger's voice, and he gave Desmond a keen and, as it seemed, a troubled look.
"Yes, it is strange," replied the boy, vaguely aware of the change of manner. "But Mr. Diggle has ways of his own."
"This Mr. Diggle, now; I may be wrong, but I should say—yes, he's short, with bow legs and a wart on his cheek?"
"No, no; you must be thinking of some one else. He is tall, rather a well-looking man; he hasn't a wart, but there is a scar on his brow, something like yours."
"Ah, I know they sort; a fightin' sort o' feller, with a voice like—which I say, like a nine pounder?"
"Well, not exactly; he speaks rather quietly; he is well educated, too, to judge by the Latin he quotes."
"Sure now, a scholard. Myself, I never had no book larnin' to speak of; never got no further than pothooks an' hangers!"
He laughed as he lifted his hook. But he seemed to be disinclined for further conversation. He buried his face in his tankard, and when he had taken a long pull, set the vessel on the table and stared at it with a preoccupied air. He seemed to have forgotten the presence of Desmond. The other men were talking among themselves, and Desmond, having by this time finished his mug of beer, rose to go on his way.
"Goodby, Mr. Bulger," he said; "we shall meet again next Wednesday."
"Ay, ay, sir," returned the man.
He looked long after the boy as he walked away.
"Supercargo!" he muttered. "Diggle! I may be wrong, but—"
Desmond had come through Southwark and across Clapham and Wimbledon Common, thus approaching the Waterman's Rest from the direction of Kingston. Accustomed as he was to long tramps, he felt no fatigue, and with a boy's natural curiosity he decided to return to the city by a different route, following the river bank. He had not walked far before he came to the ferry at Twickenham. The view on the other side of the river attracted him: meadows dotted with cows and sheep, a verdant hill with pleasant villas here and there; and, seeing the ferryman resting on his oars, he accosted him.
"Can I get to London if I cross here?" he asked.
"Sure you can, sir. Up the hill past Mr. Walpole his house; then you comes to Isleworth and Brentford, and a straight road through Hammersmith village—a fine walk, sir, and only a penny for the ferryman."
Desmond paid his penny and crossed. He sauntered along up Strawberry Hill, taking a good look at the snug little house upon which Mr. Horace Walpole was spending much money and pains. Wandering on, and preferring bylanes to the high road, he lost his bearings, and at length, fearing that he was going in the wrong direction, he stopped at a wayside cottage to inquire the way.
He was farther out than he knew. The woman who came to the door in answer to his knock said that, having come so far, he had better proceed in the same direction until he reached Hounslow, and then strike into the London road and keep to it.
Desmond was nothing loath. He had heard of Hounslow and those notorious "Diana's foresters," Plunket and James Maclean—highwaymen who a few years before had been the terror of night travelers across the lonely Heath. There was a fascination about the scene of their exploits. So he trudged on, feeling now a little tired, and hoping to get a lift in some farmer's cart that might be going towards London.
More than once as he walked his thoughts recurred to the scene at the Waterman's Rest. They were a rough, villainous-looking set, these members of the crew of the Good Intent! Of course, as supercargo he would not come into close contact with them; and Mr. Diggle had warned him that he would find seafaring men somewhat different from the country folk among whom all his life hitherto had been passed.
Diggle's frankness had pleased him. They had left the Four Alls early on the morning after that strange incident at the squire's. Desmond had told his friend what had happened, and Diggle, apparently surprised to learn of Grinsell's villainy, had declared that the sooner they were out of his company the better. They had come by easy stages to London, and were now lodging at a small inn near the Tower: not a very savory neighborhood, Diggle admitted, but convenient. Diggle had soon obtained for Desmond a berth on board the Good Intent bound for the East Indies, and from what he let drop, the boy understood that he was to sail as supercargo.
He had not yet seen the vessel; she was painting, and would shortly be coming up to the Pool. Nor had he seen Captain Barker, who was very much occupied, said Diggle, and had a great deal of trouble in keeping his crew out of the clutches of the press gang. Some of the best of them had been sent to the Waterman's Rest in charge of the chief and second mates. It was at Diggle's suggestion that he had been deputed to convey the captain's message to the men.
It was drawing towards evening when Desmond reached Hounslow Heath; a wide, bare expanse of scrubby land intersected by a muddy road. A light mist lay over the ground, and he was thankful that the road to London was perfectly direct, so that there was no further risk of his losing his way. The solitude and the dismal appearance of the country, together with its ill repute, made him quicken his pace, though he had no fear of molestation; having nothing to lose, he would be but poor prey for a highwayman, and he trusted to his cudgel to protect him from the attentions of any single footpad or tramp.
Striding along in the gathering dusk, he came suddenly upon a curious scene. A heavy traveling carriage was drawn half across the road, its forewheels perilously near the ditch. Near by was a lady, standing with arms stiff and hands clenched, stamping her foot as she addressed, in no measured terms, two men who were rolling over one another in a desperate tussle a few yards away on the heath. As Desmond drew nearer he perceived that a second and younger lady stood at the horses' heads, grasping the bridles firmly with both hands.
His footsteps were unheard on the heavy road, and the elder lady's back being towards him, he came up to her unawares. She started with a little cry when she saw a stranger move towards her out of the gloom. But perceiving at a second glance that he was only a boy, with nothing villainous about his appearance, she turned to him impulsively and, taking him by the sleeve, said:
"There! You see them! The wretches! They are drunk and pay no heed to me! Can you part them? I do not wish to be benighted on this heath. The wretch uppermost is the coachman."
"I might part them, perhaps," said Desmond dubiously. "Of course I will try, ma'am."
"Sure I wouldn't trust 'em, mamma," called the younger lady from the horses' heads. "The man is too drunk to drive."
"I fear 'tis so. 'Tis not our own man, sir. As we returned today from a visit to Taplow our coachman was trampled by a horse at Slough, and my husband stayed with him—an old and trusty servant—till he could consult a surgeon. We found a substitute at the inn to drive us home. But the wretch brought a bottle; he drank with the footman all along the road; and now, as you see, they are at each other's throats in their drunken fury. Sure we shall never get home in time for the rout we are bid to."
"Shall I drive you to London, ma'am?" said Desmond, "'Twere best to leave the men to settle their differences."
"But can you drive?"
"Oh, yes," replied Desmond, with a smile. "I am used to horses."
"Then I beg you to oblige us. Yes, let the wretches fight themselves sober.
"Phyllis, this gentleman will drive us; come."
The girl—a fair, rosy cheeked, merry-eyed damsel of fifteen or thereabouts—left the horses' heads and entered the carriage with her mother. Desmond made a rapid examination of the harness to see that all was right; then he mounted the box and drove off. The noise of the rumbling wheels penetrated the besotted intelligence of the struggling men; they scrambled to their feet, looked wildly about them, and set off in pursuit. But they had no command of their limbs; they staggered clumsily this way and that, and finally found their level in the slimy ditch that flanked the road.
Desmond whipped up the horses in the highest spirits. He had hoped for a lift in a farmer's cart; fortune had favored him in giving him four roadsters to drive himself. And no boy, certainly not one of his romantic impulses, but would feel elated at the idea of helping ladies in distress, and on a spot known far and wide as the scene of perilous adventure.
The carriage was heavy; the road, though level, was thick with autumn mud; and the horses made no great speed. Desmond, indeed, durst not urge them too much, for the mist was thickening, making the air even darker than the hour warranted; and as the roadway had neither hedge nor wall to define it, but was bounded on each side by a ditch, it behooved him to go warily.
He had just come to a particularly heavy part of the road where the horses were compelled to walk, when he heard the thud of hoofs some distance behind him. The sound made him vaguely uneasy. It ceased for a moment or two; then he heard it again, and realized that the horse was coming at full gallop. Instinctively he whipped up the horses. The ladies had also heard the sound; and, putting her head out of the window, the elder implored him to drive faster.
Could the two besotted knaves have put the horseman on his track, he wondered. They must believe that the carriage had been run away with, and in their tipsy rage they would seize any means of overtaking him that offered. The horseman might be an inoffensive traveler; on the other hand, he might not. It was best to leave nothing to chance. With a cheery word, to give the ladies confidence, he lashed at the horses and forced the carriage on at a pace that put its clumsy springs to a severe test.
Fortunately the road was straight, and the horses instinctively kept to the middle of the track. But fast as they were now going, Desmond felt that if the horseman was indeed pursuing he would soon be overtaken. He must be prepared for the worst. Gripping the reins hard with his left hand, he dropped the whip for a moment and felt in the box below the seat in the hope of finding a pistol; but it was empty.
He whistled under his breath at the discovery: if the pursuer was a "gentleman of the road" his predicament was indeed awkward. The carriage was rumbling and rattling so noisily that he had long since lost the sound of the horse's hoofs behind. He could not pause to learn if the pursuit had ceased; his only course was to drive on. Surely he would soon reach the edge of the heath; there would be houses; every few yards must bring him nearer to the possibility of obtaining help. Thus thinking, he clenched his teeth and lashed the reeking flanks of the horses, which plunged along now at a mad gallop.
Suddenly, above the noise of their hoofs and the rattling of the coach he heard an angry shout. A scream came from the ladies. Heeding neither, Desmond quickly reversed his whip, holding it halfway down the long handle, with the heavy iron-tipped stock outward. The horseman came galloping up on the right side, shouted to Desmond to stop, and without waiting drew level with the box and fired point blank.
But the rapid movement of his horse and the swaying of the carriage forbade him to take careful aim. Desmond felt the wind of the bullet as it whizzed past him. Next moment he leaned slightly sidewise, and, never loosening his hold on the reins with his left hand, he brought the weighty butt of his whip with a rapid cut, half sidewise, half downwards, upon the horseman's head. The man with a cry swerved on the saddle; almost before Desmond could recover his balance he was amazed to see the horse dash suddenly to the right, spring across the ditch, and gallop at full speed across the heath.
But he had no time at the moment to speculate on this very easy victory. The horses, alarmed by the pistol shot, were plunging madly, dragging the vehicle perilously near to the ditch on the left hand. Then Desmond's familiarity with animals, gained at so much cost to himself on his brother's farm, bore good fruit. He spoke to the horses soothingly, managed them with infinite tact, and coaxed them into submission. Then he let them have their heads, and they galloped on at speed, pausing only when they reached the turnpike going into Brentford. They were then in a bath of foam; their flanks heaving like to burst.
Learning from the turnpike man that he could obtain a change of horses at the "Bull" inn, Desmond drove there, and was soon upon his way again.
While the change was being made, he obtained from the lady the address in Soho Square where she was staying. The new horses were fresh; the carriage rattled through Gunnersbury, past the turnpike at Hammersmith and through Kensington, and soon after nine o'clock Desmond had the satisfaction of pulling up at the door of Sheriff Soames' mansion in Soho Square.
The door was already open, the rattle of wheels having brought lackeys with lighted torches to welcome the belated travelers. Torches flamed in the cressets on both sides of the entrance. The hall was filled with servants and members of the household, and in the bustle that ensued when the ladies in their brocades and hoops had entered the house, Desmond saw an opportunity of slipping away. He felt that it was perhaps a little ungracious to go without a word to the ladies; but he was tired; he was unaccustomed to town society, and the service he had been able to render seemed to him so slight that he was modestly eager to efface himself. Leaving the carriage in the hands of one of the lackeys, with a few words of explanation, he hastened on towards Holborn and the city.
Chapter 7: In which Colonel Clive suffers an unrecorded defeat; and our hero finds food for reflection.
It was four o'clock, and Tuesday afternoon—the day before the Good Intent was to sail from the Pool. Desmond was kicking his heels in his inn, longing for the morrow. Even now he had not seen the vessel on which he was to set forth in quest of his fortune. She lay in the Pool, but Diggle had found innumerable reasons why Desmond should not visit her until he embarked for good and all. She was loading her cargo; he would be in the way. Captain Barker was in a bad temper; better not see him in his tantrums. The press gangs were active; they thought nothing of boarding a vessel and seizing on any active young fellow who looked a likely subject for his Majesty's navy. Such were the reasons alleged.
And so Desmond had to swallow his impatience and fill in his time as best he might; reading the newspapers, going to see Mr. Garrick and Mistress Kitty Clive at Drury Lane, spending an odd evening at Ranelagh Gardens.
On this Tuesday afternoon he had nothing to do. Diggle was out; Desmond had read the newspapers and glanced at the last number of the World; he had written to his mother—the third letter since his arrival in London; he could not settle to anything. He resolved to go for a walk as far as St. Paul's, perhaps, and take a last look at the busy streets he was not likely to see again for many a day.
Forth then he issued. The streets were muddy; a mist was creeping up from the river, promising to thicken into a London fog, and the link boys were already preparing their tow and looking for a rich harvest of coppers ere the night was old. Desmond picked his way through the quagmires of John Street, crossed Crutched Friars, and went up Mark Lane into Fenchurch Street, intending to go by Leadenhall Street and Cornhill into Cheapside.
He had just reached the lower end of Billiter Street, the narrow thoroughfare leading into Leadenhall, when he saw Diggle's tall figure running amain towards him, with another man close behind, apparently in hot pursuit. Diggle caught sight of Desmond at the same moment, and his eyes gleamed as with relief. He quickened his pace.
"Hold this fellow behind me," he panted as he passed, and before Desmond could put a question he was gone.
There was no time for deliberation. Desmond had but just perceived that the pursuer was in the garb of a gentleman and had a broad patch of plaster stretched across his left temple, when the moment for action arrived. Stooping low, he suddenly caught at the man's knees. Down he came heavily, mouthing hearty abuse, and man and boy were on the ground together.
Desmond was up first. He now saw that a second figure was hurrying on from the other end of the street. He was not sure what Diggle demanded of him; whether it was sufficient to have tripped up the pursuer, or whether he must hold him still in play. But by this time the man was also on his feet; his hat was off, his silk breeches and brown coat with lace ruffles were all bemired. Puffing and blowing, uttering many a round oath such as came freely to the lips of the Englishman of King George the Second's time, he shouted to his friend behind to come on, and, disregarding Desmond, made to continue his pursuit.
Desmond could but grapple with him.
"Let go, villain!" cried the man, striving to free himself.
Desmond clung on; there was a brief struggle, but he was no match in size or strength for his opponent, who was thick-set and of considerable girth. He fell backwards, overborne by the man's weight. His head struck on the road; dazed by the blow he loosened his clutch, and lay for a moment in semi-consciousness while the man sprang away.
But he was not so far gone as not to hear a loud shout behind him and near at hand, followed by the tramp of feet.
"Avast there!" The voice was familiar: surely it was Bulger's. "Fair play! Fourteen stone against seven en't odds. Show a leg, mateys."
The big sailor with a dozen of his mates stood full in the path of the irate gentleman, who, seeing himself beset, drew his rapier and prepared to fight his way through. A moment later he was joined by his companion, who had also drawn his rapier. Together the gentlemen stood facing the sailors.
"This is check, Merriman," said the last comer, as the seamen, flourishing their hangers menacingly, pressed forward past the prostrate body of Desmond. "The fellow has escaped you; best withdraw at discretion."
"Come on," shouted Bulger, waving his hook. "Bill Bulger en't the man to sheer off from a couple of landlubbers."
As with his mates in line he steadily advanced, the two gentlemen, their lips set, their eyes fixed on the assailants, their rapiers pointed, backed slowly up the street. The noise had brought clerks and merchants to the doors; someone sprang a rattle; there were cries for the watchmen; but no one actively interfered.
Meanwhile Desmond had regained his senses, and, still feeling somewhat dizzy, had sat down upon a doorstep, wondering not a little at the pursuit and flight of Diggle and the opportune arrival of the sailors. Everything had happened very rapidly; scarcely two minutes had elapsed since the first onset.
He was still resting when there was a sudden change in the quality of the shouts up street. Hitherto they had been boisterous rallying cries; now they were unmistakably hearty British cheers, expressing nothing but approval and admiration. And they came not merely from the throats of the sailors, but from the now considerable crowd that filled the street. A few moments afterwards he saw the throng part, and through it Bulger marching at the head of his mates, singing lustily. They came opposite to the step on which he sat, and Bulger caught sight of him.
"Blest if it en't our supercargo!" he cried, stopping short.
A shout of laughter broke from the sailors. One of them struck up a song.
"Oho! we says goodby, But never pipes our eye, Tho' we leaves Sue, Poll, and Kitty all behind us; And if we drops our bones Down along o' Davy Jones, Why, they'll come and axe the mermaids for to find us."
"And what took ye, Mister Supercargo, to try a fall with the fourteen stoner?"
"Oh, I was helping a friend."
"Ay, an' a friend was helpin' him, an' here's a dozen of us a-helpin' of one supercargo."
"And I'm much obliged to you, Mr. Bulger. But what were you cheering for?"
"Cheerin'! Why, you wouldn't guess. 'Twas General Clive, matey."
"Ay, General Clive, him what chased the mounseers out o' Fort St. George with a marlinspike. I didn't know him at fust, comin' up behind t'other chap; but when I seed that purple coat with the gold lace and the face of him above it I knowed him. In course there was no more fight for us then; 'twas hip-hip hurray and up with our hangers. Clive, he smiled and touched his hat. 'Bulger,' says he, 'you en't much fatter—'"
"Does he know you, then?"
"Know me! In course he does. Wasn't I bo'sun's mate on board the Indiaman as took him east twelve year ago or more? That was afore I got this here button hook o' mine. Ay, I remember him well, a-trampin' up an' down deck with his hands in his pockets an' his mouth set tight an' his chin on his stock, never speakin' to a soul, in the doldrums if ever a lad was. Why, we all thought there was no more spirit in him than in the old wooden figurehead—leastways, all but me.
"'I may be wrong,' says I to old Tinsley the bo'sun, 'I may be wrong,' says I, 'but I be main sure that young sad down-in-the-mouth have got a blazin' fire somewhere in his innards.'
"Ay, and time showed it. There was a lot of cadets aboard as poked fun at the quiet chap an' talked him over, a-winkin' their eyes. From talkin' it got to doin'. One day, goin' to his bunk, he found it all topsyversy, hair powder on his pillow, dubbin in his shavin' cup, salt pork wropt up in his dressin' gown. Well, I seed him as he comed on deck, an' his face were a sight to remember, pale as death, but his eyes a-blazin' like live coals in the galley fire. Up he steps to the cadet as was ringleader; how he knowed it I can't tell you, but he was sure of it, same as I always am.
"'Sir,' says he, quiet as a lamb, 'I want a word with you.'
"'Dear me!' says the cadet, 'have Mr. Clive found his voice at last?'
"'Yes, sir,' says Clive, 'he has, an' something else.'
"Cook happened to be passin' with a tray; a lady what was squeamish had been having her vittles on deck. Mr. Clive cotched up a basin o' pea soup what was too greasy for madam, and in a twink he sets it upside down on the cadet's head. Ay, 'twas a pretty pictur', the greasy yellow stuff runnin' down over his powdered hair an' lace collar an' fine blue coat. My eye! there was a rare old shindy, the cadet cursin' and splutterin', the others laughin' fit to bust 'emselves. The cadet out with his fists, but there, 'twas no manner o' use. Mr. Clive bowled him over like a ninepin till he lay along deck all pea soup an' gore. There was no more baitin' o' Mr. Clive that voyage.
"'Bo'sun,' says I, 'what did I tell you? I may be wrong, but that young Mr. Bob Clive'll be a handful for the factors in Fort St. George.'"
While this narrative had been in progress, Desmond was walking with Bulger and his mates back towards the river.
"How was it you happened to be hereabouts so early?" asked Desmond. "I didn't expect to see you till tomorrow."
"You wouldn't axe if you wasn't a landlubber, meanin' no offense," he said. "'Tis last night ashore. We sailor men has had enough o' Waterman's Rests an' such like. To tell you the truth, we gave Mr. Toley the slip, and now we be goin' to have a night at the Crown an' Anchor."
"What about the press gang?"
"We takes our chance. They won't press me, sartin sure, 'cos o' my tenterhook here, and I'll keep my weather eye open, trust me for that."
Here they parted company. Desmond watched the jolly crew as they turned into the Minories, and heard their rollicking chorus:
"Ho! when the cargo's shipped, An the anchor's neatly tripped, An' the gals are weepin' bucketfuls o' sorrer, Why, there's the decks to swab, An' we en't a-goin' to sob, S'pose the sharks do make a meal of us tomorrer."
At the Goat and Compasses Diggle was awaiting him.
"Ha! my friend, you did it as prettily as a man could wish. Solitudo aliquid adjuvat, as Tully somewhere hath it, not foreseeing my case, when solitude would have been my undoing. I thank thee."
"Was the fellow attacking you?" asked Desmond.
"That to be sure was his intention. I was in truth in the very article of peril; I was blown; my breath was near gone, when at the critical moment up comes a gallant youth—subvenisti homini jam perdito—and with dexterous hand stays the enemy in his course."
"But what was it all about? Do you know the man?"
"Ods my life! 'twas a complete stranger, a man, I should guess, of hasty passions and tetchy temper. By the merest accident, at a somewhat crowded part, I unluckily elbowed the man into the kennel, and though I apologized in the handsomest way, he must take offense and seek to cut off my life, to extinguish me in primo aevo, as Naso would say. But Atropos was forestalled, my thread of life still falls uncut from Clotho's shuttle; still, still, my boy, I bear on the torch of life unextinguished."
Desmond felt that all this fine phrasing, this copious draft from classical sources, was intended to quench the ardor of his curiosity. Diggle's explanation was very lame; the fury depicted on the pursuer's face could scarcely be due to a mere accidental jostling in the street. And Diggle was certainly not the man to take to his heels on slight occasion. But, after all, Diggle's quarrels were his own concern. That his past life included secrets Desmond had long suspected, but he was not the first man of birth and education who had fallen into misfortune, and at all events he had always treated Desmond with kindness. So the boy put the matter from his thoughts.
The incident, however, left a sting of vexation behind it. In agreeing to accompany Diggle to the East, Desmond had harbored a vague hope of falling in with Clive and taking service, in however humble a capacity, with him. It vexed him sorely to think that Clive, whose memory for faces, as his recognition of Bulger after twelve years had shown, was very good, might recognize him, should they meet, as the boy who had played a part in what was almost a street brawl. Still, it could not be helped. Desmond comforted himself with the hope that Clive had taken no particular note of him, and, if they should ever encounter, would probably meet him as a stranger.
Chapter 8: In which several weeks are supposed to elapse; and our hero is discovered in the Doldrums.
The Good Intent lay becalmed in the doldrums. There was not wind enough to puff out a candle flame. The sails hung limp and idle from the masts, yet the vessel rolled as in a storm, heaving on a tremendous swell so violently that it would seem her masts must be shaken out of her. The air was sweltering, the sky the color of burnished copper, out of which the sun beat remorselessly in almost perpendicular beams. Pitch ran from every seam of the decks, great blisters like bubbles rose upon the woodwork; the decks were no sooner swabbed than—presto!—it was as though they had not known the touch of water for an age.
For three weeks she had lain thus. Sometimes the hot day would be succeeded by a night of terrible storm, thunder crashing around, the whole vault above lacerated by lightning, and rain pouring as it were out of the fissures in sheets. But in a day all traces of the storm would disappear, and if, meanwhile, a sudden breath of wind had carried the vessel a few knots on her southward course, the hopes thus raised would prove illusory, and once more she would lie on a sea of molten lead, or, still worse, would be rocked on a long swell that had all the discomforts of a gale without its compensating excitement.
The tempers of officers and crew had gone from bad to worse. The officers snapped and snarled at one another, and treated the men with even more than the customary brutality of the merchant marine of those days. The crew, lounging about half naked on the decks, seeking what shelter they could get from the pitiless sun, with little to do and no spirit to do anything, quarreled among themselves, growling at the unnecessary tasks set them merely to keep them from flying at each other's throats.
The Good Intent was a fine three-masted vessel of nearly four hundred tons, large for those days, though the new East Indiamen approached five hundred tons. When her keel was laid for the Honorable East India Company some twenty years earlier, she had been looked on as one of the finest merchant vessels afloat; but the buffeting of wind and wave in a score of voyages to the eastern seas, and the more insidious and equally destructive attacks of worms and dry rot, had told upon her timbers. She had been sold off and purchased by Captain Barker, who was one of the class known as "interlopers," men who made trading voyages to the East Indies on their own account, running the risk of their vessels being seized and themselves penalized for infringing the Company's monopoly. She was now filled with a miscellaneous cargo: wine in chests, beer and cider in bottles, hats, worsted stockings, wigs, small shot, lead, iron, knives, glass, hubblebubbles, cochineal, sword blades, toys, coarse cloth, woolen goods—anything that would find a market among the European merchants, the native princes, or the trading classes of India. There was also a large consignment of muskets and ammunition. When Desmond asked the second mate where they were going, the reply was that if he asked no questions he would be told no lies.
On this sultry afternoon a group of seamen, clad in nothing but shirt and breeches, were lolling, lying crouching on the deck forward, circled around Bulger. Seated on an upturned tub, he was busily engaged in baiting a hook. Tired of the "Irish horse" and salt pork that formed the staple of the sailors' food, he was taking advantage of the calm to fish for bonitos, a large fish over two feet long, the deadly enemy of the beautiful flying fish that every now and then fell panting upon the deck in their mad flight from marine foes. The bait was made to resemble the flying fish itself, the hook being hidden by white rag stuffing, with feathers pricked in to counterfeit spiked fins.
As the big seaman deftly worked with iron hook and right hand, he spun yarns for the delectation of his mates. They chewed tobacco, listened, laughed, sneered, as their temper inclined them. Only one of the group gave him rapt and undivided attention—a slim youth, with hollow sunburnt cheeks, long bleached hair, and large gleaming eyes. His neck and arms were bare, and the color of boiled lobsters; but, unlike the rest, he had no tattoo marks pricked into his skin. His breeches were tatters, his striped shirt covered with party-colored darns.
"Ay, as I was saying," said Bulger, "'twas in these latitudes, on my last voyage but three. I was in a Bristol ship a-carryin' of slaves from Guinea to the plantations. Storms!—I never seed such storms nowhere; and contrariwise, calms enough to make a Quaker sick. In course the water was short, an' scurvy come aboard, an' 'twas a hammock an' round shot for one or the other of us every livin' day. As reg'lar as the mornin' watch the sharks came for their breakfast; we could see 'em comin' from all p'ints o' the compass; an' sure as seven bells struck there they was, ten deep, with jaws wide open, like Parmiter's there when there's a go of grog to be sarved out. We was all like the livin' skellington at Bartlemy Fair, and our teeth droppin' out that fast, they pattered like hailstones on the deck."
"How did you stick 'em in again?" interrupted Parmiter, anxious to get even with Bulger for the allusion to his gaping jaw. He was a thick set, ugly fellow, his face seamed with scars, his mouth twisted, his ears dragged at the lobes by heavy brass rings.
"With glue made out of albacores we caught, to be sure. Well, as I was saying, we was so weak there wasn't a man aboard could reach the maintop, an' the man at the wheel had two men to hold him up. Things was so, thus, an' in such case, when, about eight hells one arternoon, the lookout at the masthead—"
"Thought you couldn't climb? How'd he get there?" said the same skeptic.
"Give me time, Parmiter, and you'll know all about the hows an' whys, notwithstandin's and sobeits. He'd been there for a week, for why? 'cos he couldn't get down. We passed him up a quarter pint o' water and a biscuit or two every day by a halyard.
"Well, as I was sayin', all at once the lookout calls out, 'Land ho!'—leastways he croaked it, 'cos what with weakness and little water our throats was as dry as last year's biscuit.
"'Where away?' croaks first mate, which I remember his name was Tonking.
"And there, sure enough, we seed a small island, which it might be a quarter-mile long. Now, mind you, we hadn't made a knot for three weeks. How did that island come there so sudden like? In course, it must ha' come up from the bottom o' the sea. And as we was a-lookin' at it we saw it grow, mateys—long spits o' land shootin' out this side, that side, and t'other side—and the whole concarn begins to move towards us, comin' on, hand over hand, slow, dead slow, but sure and steady. Our jaws were just a-droppin' arter our teeth when fust mate busts out in a laugh; by thunder, I remember that there laugh today! 'twas like—well, I don't know what 'twas like, if not the scrapin' of a handsaw; an' says he, 'By Neptune, 'tis a darned monstrous squid!'
"And, sure enough, that was what it was, a squid as big round as the Isle o' Wight, with arms that ud reach from Wapping Stairs to Bugsby Marshes, and just that curly shape. An' what was more, 'twas steerin' straight for us. Ay, mateys, 'twas a horrible moment!"
The seamen, even Parmiter the scoffer, were listening open mouthed, when a hoarse voice broke the spell, cutting short Bulger's story and dispersing the group.
"Here you, Burke, you, up aloft and pay the topmost with grease. I'll have no lazy lubbers aboard my ship, I tell you. I've got no use for nobody too good for his berth. No Jimmy Duffs for me! Show a leg, or, by heavens, I'll show you a rope's end and make my mark—mind that, my lad!"
Captain Barker turned to the man at his side.
"'Twas an ill turn you did me and the ship's company, Mr. Diggle, bringing this useless lubber aboard."
"It does appear so, captain," said Diggle sorrowfully. "But 'tis his first voyage, sir: discipline—a little discipline!"
Meanwhile Desmond, without a word, had moved away to obey orders. He had long since found the uselessness of protest. Diggle had taken him on board the Good Intent an hour before sailing. He left him to himself until the vessel was well out in the mouth of the Thames, and then came with a rueful countenance and explained that, after all his endeavors, the owners had absolutely refused to accept so youthful a fellow as supercargo. Desmond felt his cheeks go pale.
"What am I to be, then?" he asked quietly.
"Well, my dear boy, Captain Barker is rather short of apprentices, and he has no objection to taking you in place of one if you will make yourself useful. He is a first-rate seaman. You will imbibe a vast deal of useful knowledge and gain a free passage, and when we reach the Indies I shall be able, I doubt not, by means of my connections, to assist you in the first steps of what, I trust, will prove a successful career."
"Then, who is supercargo?"
"Unluckily that greatness has been thrust upon me. Unluckily, I say; for the office is not one that befits a former fellow of King's College at Cambridge. Yet there is an element of good luck in it, too; for, as you know, my fortunes were at a desperately low ebb, and the emoluments of this office, while not great, will stand me in good stead when we reach our destination, and enable me to set you, my dear boy—to borrow from the vernacular—on your legs."
"You have deceived me, then!"
"Nay, nay, you do bear me hard, young man. To be disappointed is not the same thing as to be deceived. True, you are not, as I hoped, supercargo, but the conditions are not otherwise altered. You wished to go to India—well, Zephyr's jocund breezes, as Catullus hath it, will waft you thither: we are flying to the bright cities of the East. No fragile bark is this, carving a dubious course through the main, as Seneca, I think, puts it. No, 'tis an excellent vessel, with an excellent captain, who will steer a certain course, who fears not the African blast nor the grisly Hyades nor the fury of Notus—"
Desmond did not await the end of Diggle's peroration. It was then too late to repine. The vessel was already rounding the Foreland, and though he was more than half convinced that he had been decoyed on board on false pretenses, he could not divine any motive on Diggle's part, and hoped that his voyage would be not much less pleasant than he had anticipated.
But even before the Good Intent made the Channel he was woefully undeceived. His first interview with the captain opened his eyes. Captain Barker was a small, thin, sandy man, with a large upper lip that met the lower in a straight line, a lean nose, and eyes perpetually bloodshot. His manner was that of a bully of the most brutal kind. He browbeat his officers, cuffed and kicked his men, in his best days a martinet, in his worst a madman. The only good point about him was that he never used the cat, which, as Bulger said, was a mercy.
"Humph!" he said when Desmond was presented to him. "You're him, are you? Well, let me tell you this, my lad: the ship's boy on board this 'ere ship have got to do what he's bid, and no mistake about it. If he don't, I'll make him. Now, you go for'ard into the galley and scrape the slush off the cook's pans; quick's the word."
From that day Desmond led a dog's life. He found that as ship's boy he was at the beck and call of the whole company. The officers, with the exception of Mr. Toley, the melancholy first mate, took their cue from the captain; and Mr. Toley, as a matter of policy, never took his part openly. The men resented his superior manners and the fact that he was socially above them. The majority of the seamen were even more ruffianly than the specimens he had seen at the Waterman's Rest—the scum of Wapping and Rotherhithe. His only real friend on board was Bulger, who helped him to master the many details of a sailor's work, and often protected him against the ill treatment of his mates; and, in spite of his one arm, Bulger was a power to be reckoned with.
At the best of times the life of a sailor was hard, and Desmond found it at first almost intolerable. Irregular sleep on an uncomfortable hammock, wedged in with the other members of the crew, bad food, and over exertion told upon his frame. From the moment when all hands were piped to lash hammocks to the moment when the signal was given for turning in, it was one long round of thankless drudgery. But he proved himself to be very quick and nimble. Before long, no one could lash his hammock with the seven turns in a shorter time than he. After learning the work on the mainsails and trysails he was sent to practise the more acrobatic duties in the tops, and when two months had passed, no one excelled him in quickness aloft.
If his work had been confined to the ordinary seaman's duties he would have been fairly content, for there is always a certain pleasure in accomplishment, and the consciousness of growing skill and power was some compensation for the hardships he had to undergo. But he had to do dirty work for the cook, clean out the styes of the captain's pigs, swab the lower deck, sometimes descend on errands for one or other to the nauseous hold.
Perhaps the badness of the food was the worst evil to a boy accustomed to plain but good country fare. The burgoo or oatmeal gruel served at breakfast made him sick; he knew how it had been made in the cook's dirty pans. The "Irish horse" and salt pork for dinner soon became distasteful; it was not in the best condition when brought aboard, and before long it became putrid. The strong cheese for supper was even more horrible. He lived for the most part on the tough sea biscuit of mixed wheat and pea flour, and on the occasional duffs of flour boiled with fat, which did duty as pudding. For drink he had nothing but small beer; the water in the wooden casks was full of green, grassy, slimy things. But the fresh sea air seemed to be a food itself; and though Desmond became lean and hollow cheeked, his muscles developed and hardened. Little deserving Captain Barker's ill-tempered abuse, he became handy in many ways on board, and proved to be the possessor of a remarkably keen pair of eyes.
When, in obedience to the captain's orders, he was greasing the mast, his attention was caught by three or four specks on the horizon.
"Sail ho!" he called to the officer of the watch.
"Where away?" was the reply.
"On the larboard quarter, sir; three or four sail, I think."
The officer at once mounted the shrouds and took a long look at the specks Desmond pointed out, while the crew below crowded to the bulwarks and eagerly strained their eyes in the same direction.
"What do you make of 'em, Mr. Sunman?" asked the captain.
"Three or four sail, sir, sure enough. They are hull down; there's not a doubt but they're bringing the wind with 'em."
"Hurray!" shouted the men, overjoyed at the prospect of moving at last.
In a couple of hours the strangers had become distinctly visible, and the first faint puffs of the approaching breeze caused the sails to flap lazily against the yards. Then the canvas filled out, and at last, after nearly a fortnight's delay, the Good Intent began to slip through the water at three or four knots.
The wind freshened during the night, and next morning the Good Intent was bowling along under single-reefed topsails. The ships sighted the night before had disappeared, to the evident relief of Captain Barker. Whether they were Company's vessels or privateers he had no wish to come to close quarters with them.
After breakfast, when the watch on deck were busy about the rigging or the guns, or the hundred and one details of a sailor's work, the rest of the crew had the interval till dinner pretty much to themselves. Some slept, some reeled out yarns to their messmates, others mended their clothes.
It happened one day that Desmond, sitting in the forecastle among the men of his mess, was occupied in darning a pair of breeches for Parmiter. It was the one thing he could not do satisfactorily; and one of the men, after quizzically observing his well meant but ludicrous attempts, at last caught up the garment and held it aloft, calling his mates' attention to it with a shout of laughter.
Parmiter chanced to be coming along at the moment. Hearing the laugh, and seeing the pitiable object of it, he flew into a rage, sprang at Desmond, and knocked him down.
"What do you mean, you clumsy young lubber, you," he cried, "by treating my smalls like that? I'll brain you, sure as my name's Parmiter!"
Desmond had already suffered not a little at Parmiter's hands. His endurance was at an end. Springing up with flaming cheeks he leaped towards the bully, and putting in practice the methods he had learned in many a hard-fought mill at Mr. Burslem's school, he began to punish the offender. His muscles were in good condition; Parmiter was too much addicted to grog to make a steady pugilist; and though he was naturally much the stronger man, he was totally unable to cope with his agile antagonist.
A few rounds settled the matter; Parmiter had to confess that he had had enough, and Desmond, flinging his breeches to him, sat down tingling among his mates, who greeted the close of the fight with spontaneous and unrestrained applause.
Next day Parmiter was in the foretop splicing the forestay. Desmond was walking along the deck when suddenly he felt his arm clutched from behind, and he was pulled aside so violently by Bulger's hook that he stumbled and fell at full length. At the same moment something struck the deck with a heavy thud.
"By thunder! 'twas a narrow shave," said Bulger. "See that, matey?"
Looking in the direction Bulger pointed, he saw that the foretopsail sheet block had fallen on deck, within an inch of where he would have been but for the intervention of Bulger's hook. Glancing aloft, he saw Parmiter grinning down at him.
"Hitch that block to a halyard, youngster," said the man.
Desmond was on the point of refusing; the man, he thought, might at least have apologized: but reflecting that a refusal would entail a complaint to the captain, and a subsequent flogging, he bit his lips, fastened the block, and went on his way.
"'Tis my belief 'twas no accident," said Bulger afterwards. "I may be wrong, but Parmiter bears a grudge against you. And he and that there Mr. Diggle is too thick by half. I never could make out why Diggle diddled you about that supercargo business; he don't mean you no kindness, you may be sure; and when you see two villains like him and Parmiter puttin' their heads together, look out for squalls, that's what I say."
Desmond was inclined to laugh; the idea seemed preposterous.
"Why are you so suspicious of Mr. Diggle?" he said. "He has not kept his promise, that's true, and I am sorry enough I ever listened to him. But that doesn't prove him to be an out-and-out villain. I've noticed that you keep out of his way. Do you know anything of him? Speak out plainly, man."
"Well, I'll tell you what I knows about him."
He settled himself against the mast, gave a final polish to his hook with holystone, and using the hook every now and then to punctuate his narrative, began.
"Let me see, 'twas a matter o' three years ago. I was bo'sun on the Swallow, a spanker she was, chartered by the Company, London to Calcutta. There was none of the doldrums that trip, dodged 'em fair an' square; a topsail breeze to the Cape, and then the fust of the monsoon to the Hugli. We lay maybe a couple of months at Calcutta, when what should I do but take aboard a full dose of the cramp, just as the Swallow was in a manner of speakin' on the wing. Not but what it sarved me right, for what business had I at my time of life to be wastin' shore leave by poppin' at little dicky birds in the dirty slimy jheels, as they call 'em, round about Calcutta!
"Well, I was put ashore, as was on'y natural, and 'twas a marvel I pulled through—for it en't many as take the cramp in Bengal and live to tell it. The Company, I'll say that for 'em, was very kind; I had the best o' nussin' and vittles; but when I found my legs again there I was, as one might say, high and dry, for there was no Company's ship ready to sail. So I got leave to sign on a country ship, bound for Canton; and we dropped down the Hugli with enough opium on board to buy up the lord mayor and a baker's dozen of aldermen.
"Nearly half a mile astern was three small country ships, such as might creep round the coast to Chittagong, dodgin' the pirates o' the Sandarbands if they was lucky, and gettin' their weazands slit if they wasn't. They drew less water than us, and was generally handier in the river, which is uncommon full of shoals and sandbanks; but for all that I remember they was still maybe half a mile astern when we dropped anchor—anchors, I should say—for the night, some way below Diamond Harbor. But to us white men the way o' these Moors is always a bag o' mystery, and as seamen they en't anyway of much account. Well, it might be about seven bells, and my watch below, when I was woke by a most tremenjous bangin' and hullabaloo. We tumbles up mighty sharp, and well we did, for there was one of these country fellows board and board with us, and another foulin' our hawser. Their grapnels came whizzin' aboard; but the first lot couldn't take a hold nohow, and she dropped downstream. That gave us a chance to be ready for the other. She got a grip of us and held on like a shark what grabs you by the legs. But pistols and pikes had been sarved out, and when they came bundlin' over into the foc'sle, we bundled 'em back into the Hugli, and you may be sure they wasn't exactly seaworthy when they got there. They was a mixed lot; that we soon found out by their manner o' swearin' as they slipped by the board, for although there was Moors among 'em, most of 'em was Frenchies or Dutchmen, and considerin' they wasn't Englishmen they made a good fight of it. But over they went, until only a few was left; and we was just about to finish 'em off, when another country ship dropped alongside, and before we knew where we was a score of yellin' ruffians was into the waist and rushin' us in the stern sheets, as you might say. We had to fight then, by thunder! we did.
"The odds was against us now, and we was catchin' it from two sides. But our blood was up, and we knew what to expect if they beat us. 'Twas the Hugli for every man Jack of us, and no mistake. There was no orders, every man for himself, with just enough room and no more to see the mounseers in front of him. Some of us—I was one of 'em—fixed the flints of the pirates for'ard, while the rest faced round and kept the others off. Then we went at 'em, and as they couldn't all get at us at the same time, owing to the deck being narrow, the odds was not so bad arter all. 'Twas now hand to hand, fist to fist, one for you and one for me; you found a Frenchman and stuck to him till you finished him off, or he finished you, as the case might be, in a manner of speakin'. Well, I found one lanky chap—he was number four that night—and all in ten minutes, as it were, I jabbed a pike at him, and missed, for it was hard to keep footin' on the wet deck, though the wet was not Hugli water; thick as it is, this was thicker—and he fired a pistol at me by way of thank you. I saw his figurehead in the flash, and I shan't forget it either, for he left me this to remember him by, though I didn't know it at the time."
Here Bulger held up the iron hook that did duty for his left forearm. Then glancing cautiously around, he added in a whisper:
"'Twas Diggle—or I'm a Dutchman. That was my fust meetin' with him. Of course, I'm in a way helpless now, being on the ship's books, and he in a manner of speakin' an orficer; but one of these days there'll be a reckonin', or my name en't Bulger."
The boatswain brought down his fist with a resounding whack on the scuttle butt, threatening to stave in the top of the barrel.
"And how did the fight end?" asked Desmond.
"We drove 'em back bit by bit, and fairly wore 'em down. They weren't all sailormen, or we couldn't have done it, for they had the numbers; but an Englishman on his own ship is worth any two furriners—aye, half a dozen some do say, though I wouldn't go so far as that myself—and at the last some of them turned tail and bolted back. The ship's boy, what was in the shrouds, saw 'em on the run and set up a screech: 'Hooray! hooray!' That was all we wanted. We hoorayed too; and went at 'em in such a slap-bang go-to-glory way that in a brace of shakes there wasn't a Frenchman, a Dutchman, nor a Moor on board. They cut the grapnels and floated clear, and next mornin' we saw 'em on their beam ends on a sandbank a mile down the river. That's how I fust come across Mr. Diggle; I may be wrong, but I says it again: look out for squalls."
For some days the wind held fair, and the ship being now in the main track of the trades, all promised well for a quick run to the Cape. But suddenly there was a change; a squall struck the vessel from the southwest. Captain Barker, catching sight of Desmond and a seaman near at hand, shouted:
"Furl the top-gallant sail, you two. Now show a leg, or, by thunder, the masts will go by the board."
Springing up the shrouds on the weather side, Desmond was quickest aloft. He crawled out on the yard, the wind threatening every moment to tear him from his dizzy, rocking perch, and began with desperate energy to furl the straining canvas. It was hard work, and but for the development of his muscles during the past few months, and a naturally cool head, the task would have been beyond his powers. But setting his teeth and exerting his utmost strength, he accomplished his share of it as quickly as the able seaman on the lee yard.
The sail was half furled when all at once the mast swung through a huge arc; the canvas came with tremendous force against the cross trees, and Desmond, flung violently outwards, found himself swinging in midair, clinging desperately to the leech of the sail. With a convulsive movement he grasped at a loose gasket above him, and catching a grip, wound it twice or thrice round his arm. The strain was intense; the gasket was thin and cut deeply into the flesh; he knew that should it give way nothing could save him. So he hung, the wind howling around him, the yards rattling, the boisterous sea below heaving as if to clutch him and drag him to destruction.
A few seconds passed, every one of which seemed an eternity. Then through the noise he heard shouts on deck. The vessel suddenly swung over, and Desmond's body inclined towards instead of from the mast. Shooting out his arm he caught at the yard, seized it, and held on, though it seemed that his arm must be wrenched from the socket. In a few moments he succeeded in clambering on to the yard, where he clung, endeavoring to regain his breath and his senses.
Then he completed his job, and with a sense of unutterable relief slid down to the deck. A strange sight met his eyes. Bulger and Parmiter were lying side by side; there was blood on the deck; and Captain Barker stood over them with a marlinspike, his eyes blazing, his face distorted with passion. In consternation Desmond slipped out of the way, and asked the first man he met for an explanation.
It appeared that Parmiter, who was at the wheel when the squall struck the ship, had put her in stays before the sail was furled, with the result that she heeled over and Desmond had narrowly escaped being flung into the sea. Seeing the boy's plight, Bulger had sprung forward, and, knocking Parmiter from the wheel, had put the vessel on the other tack, thus giving Desmond the one chance of escape which, fortunately, he had been able to seize. The captain had been incensed to a blind fury, first with Parmiter for acting without orders and then with Bulger for interfering with the man at the wheel. In a paroxysm of madness he attacked both men with a spike; the ship was left without a helmsman, and nothing but the promptitude of the melancholy mate, who had rushed forward and taken the abandoned wheel himself, had saved the vessel from the imminent risk of carrying away her masts.
Later in the day, when the squall and the captain's rage had subsided, the incident was talked over by a knot of seamen in the forecastle.
"You may say what you like," said one, "but I hold to it that Parmiter meant to knock young Burke into the sea. For why else did he put the ship in stays? He en't a fool, en't Parmiter."
"Ay," said another, "and arter that there business with the block, eh? One and one make two; that's twice the youngster has nigh gone to Davy Jones through Parmiter, and it en't in reason that sich-like things should allers happen to the same party."
"But what's the reason?" asked a third. "What call has Parmiter to have such a desperate spite against Burke? He got a lickin', in course, but what's a lickin' to a Englishman? Rot it all, the youngster en't a bad matey. He've led a dog's life, that he have, and I've never heard a grumble, nary one; have you?"
"True," said the first. "And I tell you what it is. I believe Bulger's in the right of it, and 'tis all along o' that there Diggle, hang him! He's too perlite by half, with his smile and his fine lingo and all. And what's he keep his hand wropt up in that there velvet mitten thing for? I'd like to know that. There's summat mortal queer about Diggle, mark my words, and we'll find it out if we live long enough."
"Wasn't it Diggle brought Burke aboard?"
"Course it was; that's what proves it, don't you see? He stuffs him up as he's to be supercargo; call that number one. He brings him aboard and makes him ship boy; that's number two. He looks us all up and down with those rat's eyes of his, and thinks we're a pretty ugly lot, and Parmiter the ugliest, how's that for number three? Then he makes hissel sweet to Parmiter; I've seed him more'n once; that's number four. Then there's that there block: five; and today's hanky panky: six; and it wants one more to make seven, and that's the perfect number, I've heard tell, 'cos o' the Seven Champions o' Christendom."
"I guess you've reasoned that out mighty well," drawled the melancholy voice of Mr. Toley, who had come up unseen and heard the last speech. "Well, I'll give you number seven."
"Thunder and blazes, sir, he en't bin and gone and done it already?"
"No, he en't. Number seven is, be kind o' tender with young Burke. Count them words. He's had enough kicks. That's all."
And the melancholy man went away as silently as he had come.
Chapter 9: In which the Good Intent makes a running fight: Mr. Toley makes a suggestion.
Making good sailing, the Good Intent reached Saldanhas Bay, where she put in for a few necessary repairs, then safely rounded the Cape, and after a short stay at Johanna, one of the Comoro Islands, taking in fresh provisions there, set sail for the Malabar coast. The wind blew steadily from the southwest, and she ran merrily before it.
During this part of the voyage Desmond found his position somewhat improved. His pluck had won the rough admiration of the men; Captain Barker was not so constantly chevying him; and Mr. Toley showed a more active interest in him, teaching him the use of the sextant and quadrant, how to take the altitude of the sun, and many other matters important in navigation.
It was the third week of April, and the monsoon having begun, Captain Barker expected before long to sight the Indian coast. One morning, about two bells, the lookout reported a small vessel on the larboard bow, laboring heavily. The captain took a long look at it through his perspective glass, and made out that it was a two-masted grab; the mainmast was gone.
"Odds bobs," he said to Mr. Toley, "'tis strange to meet a grab so far out at sea. We'll run down to it."
"What is a grab?" asked Desmond of Bulger, when the news had circulated through the ship's company.
"Why, that's a grab, sure enough. I en't a good hand at pictur' paintin'; we're runnin' square for the critter, and then you'll see for yourself. This I'll say, that you don't see 'em anywheres in partickler but off the Malabar coast."
Desmond was soon able to take stock of the vessel. It was broad in proportion to its length, narrowing from the middle to the end, and having a projecting prow like the old-fashioned galleys of which he had seen pictures. The prow was covered with a deck, level with the main deck of the vessel, but with a bulkhead between this and the forecastle.
"En't she pitchin'!" remarked Bulger, standing by Desmond's side. "You couldn't expect nothing else of a craft built that shape. Look at the water pourin' off her; why, I may be wrong, but I'll lay my best breeches she's a-founderin'."
As usual, Bulger was right. When the grab was overhauled, the men on board, dark-skinned Marathas with very scanty clothing, made signs that they were in distress.
"Throw her into the wind," shouted the captain.
Mr. Toley at the wheel put the helm down, the longboat was lowered, and with some difficulty, owing to the heavy sea, the thirty men on the grab were taken off. As they came aboard the Good Intent, Diggle, who was leaning over the bulwarks, suddenly straightened himself, smiled, and moved towards the taffrail. One of the newcomers, a fine muscular fellow, seeing Diggle approaching, stood for a moment in surprise, then salaamed. The Englishman said something in the stranger's tongue, and grasped his hand with the familiarity of old friendship.
"You know the man, Mr. Diggle?" said the captain.
"Yes, truly. The Gentoos and I are in a sense comrades in arms. His name is Hybati; he's a Maratha."
"What's he jabbering about?"
The man was talking rapidly and earnestly.
"He says, captain," returned Diggle, with a smile, "that he hopes you will send and fetch the crew's rice on board. They won't eat our food—afraid of losing caste."
"I'll be hang if I launch the longboat again. The grab won't live another five minutes in this sea, and I wouldn't risk two of my crew against a hundred of these dirty Moors."
"They'll starve otherwise, captain."
"Well, let 'em starve. I won't have any nonsense aboard my ship. Beggars mustn't be choosers, and if the heathen can't eat good honest English vittles they don't deserve to eat at all."
Diggle smiled and explained to Hybati that his provisions must be left to their fate. Even as he spoke a heavy sea struck the vessel athwart, and, amid cries from the Marathas she keeled over and sank.
When the strangers had dried themselves, Diggle inquired of Hybati how he came to be in his present predicament. The Maratha explained that he had been in command of Angria's fortress of Suwarndrug, which was so strong that he had believed it able to withstand any attacks. But one day a number of vessels of the East India Company's fleet had appeared between the mainland and the island on which the fortress was situated, and had begun a bombardment which soon reduced the parapets to ruins. The chief damage had been done by an English ship. Hybati and his men had made the best defense they could, but the gunners were shot down by musket fire from the round tops of the enemy, and when a shell set fire to a thatched house within the fort, the garrison were too much alarmed to attempt to extinguish the flames; the blaze spread, a powder magazine blew up, and the inhabitants, with the greater part of the soldiers, fled to the shore, and tried to make their escape in eight large boats. Hybati had kept up the fight for some time longer, hoping to receive succor; but under cover of the fire of the ships the English commodore landed half his seamen, who rushed up to the gate, and cutting down the sally port with their axes forced their way in.
Seeing that the game was up, Hybati fled with thirty of his men, and was lucky in pushing off in the grab, unobserved by the enemy. The winds, however, proving contrary, the vessel had been blown northward along the coast and then driven far out to sea. With the breaking of the monsoon a violent squall had dismasted the grab and shattered her bulkhead; she was continually shipping water, and, as the sahib saw, was at the point of sinking when the English ship came up.
Such was the Maratha's story, as by and by it became common property on board the Good Intent. Of all the crew Desmond was perhaps the most interested. To the others there was nothing novel in the sight of the Indians; but to him they stood for romance, the embodiment of all the tales he had heard and all the dreams he had dreamed of this wonderful country in the East. He was now assured that he was actually within reach of his desired haven; and he hoped shortly to see an end of the disappointments and hardships, the toils and distresses, of the past seven months.
He was eager to learn more of these Marathas, and their fortress, and the circumstances of the recent fight. Bulger was willing to tell all he knew; but his information was not very exact, and Desmond did not hear the full story till long after.
The Malabar coast had long been the haunt of Maratha pirates, who interfered greatly with the native trade between India and Arabia and Persia. In defense of the interests of his Mohammedan subjects the Mogul emperor at length, in the early part of the eighteenth century, fitted out a fleet, under the command of an admiral known as the Sidi. But there happened to be among the Marathas at that time a warrior of great daring and resource, one Kunaji Angria. This man first defeated the Sidi, then, in the insolence of victory, revolted against his own sovereign, and set up as an independent ruler.
By means of a well-equipped fleet of grabs and gallivats he made himself master of place after place along the coast, including the Maratha fortress at Suwarndrug and the Portuguese fort of Gheria. His successors, who adopted in turn the dynastic name of Angria, followed up Kunaji's conquest, until by the year 1750 the ruling Angria was in possession of a strip of territory on the mainland a hundred and eighty miles long and about forty broad, together with many small adjacent islands.
For the defense of this little piratical state Angria's Marathas constructed a number of forts, choosing admirable positions and displaying no small measure of engineering skill. From these strongholds they made depredations by sea and land, not only upon their native neighbors, but also upon the European traders, English, Dutch, and Portuguese; swooping down on unprotected merchant vessels and even presuming to attack warships. Several expeditions had been directed against them, but always in vain; and when in 1754 the chief of that date, Tulaji Angria, known to Europeans as the Pirate, burnt two large Dutch vessels of fifty and thirty-six guns respectively, and captured a smaller one of eighteen guns, he boasted in his elation that he would soon be master of the Indian seas.
But a term was about to be put to his insolence and his depredations. On March twenty-second, 1755, Commodore William James, commander of the East India Company's marine force, set sail from Bombay in the Protector of forty-four guns, with the Swallow of sixteen guns, and two bomb vessels. With the assistance of a Maratha fleet he had attacked the island fortress of Suwarndrug, and captured it, as Hybati had related. A few days afterwards another of the Pirate's fortresses, the island of Bancoote, six miles north of Suwarndrug, surrendered. The Maratha rajah, Ramaji Punt, delighted with these successes against fortified places which had for nearly fifty years been deemed impregnable, offered the English commodore an immense sum of money to proceed against others of Angria's forts; but the monsoon approaching, the commodore was recalled to Bombay.
The spot at which the Good Intent had fallen in with the sinking grab was about eighty miles from the Indian coast, and Captain Barker expected to sight land next day. No one was more delighted at the prospect than Desmond. Leaving out of account the miseries of the long voyage, he felt that now he was within reach of the goal of his hopes. The future was all uncertain; he was no longer inclined to trust his fortunes to Diggle, for though he could not believe that the man had deliberately practised against his life, he had with good reason lost confidence in him, and what he had learned from Bulger threw a new light on his past career.
One thing puzzled him. If the Pirate was such a terror to unprotected ships, and strong enough to attack several armed vessels at once, why was Captain Barker running into the very jaws of the enemy? In her palmy days as an East Indiaman the Good Intent had carried a dozen nine-pounders on her upper deck and six on the quarterdeck; and Bulger had said that under a stout captain she had once beaten off near Surat half a dozen three-masted grabs and a score of gallivats from the pirate stronghold at Gheria. But now she had only half a dozen guns all told, and even had she possessed the full armament there were not men enough to work them, for her complement of forty men was only half what it had been when she sailed under the Company's flag.
Desmond confided his puzzlement to Bulger. The seaman laughed.
"Why, bless 'ee, we en't a-goin' to run into no danger. Trust Cap'n Barker for that. You en't supercargo, to be sure; but who do you think them guns and round shots in the hold be for? Why, the Pirate himself. And he'll pay a good price for 'em, too."
"Do you mean to say that English merchants supply Angria with weapons to fight against their own countrymen?"
"Well, blest if you en't a innocent. In course they do. The guns en't always fust-class metal, to be sure; but what's the odds? The interlopers ha' got to live."
"I don't call that right. It's not patriotic."
"Patriotic—a right way of thinking of one's own country. An Englishman isn't worth the name who helps England's enemies."
Bulger looked at him in amazement. The idea of patriotism was evidently new to him.
"I'll have to put that there notion in my pipe and smoke it," he said. "I'd fight any mounseer, or Dutchman, or Portuguee as soon as look at him, 'tis on'y natural; but if a mounseer likes to give me twopence for a thing that's worth a penny—why, I'll say thank 'ee and axe him—leastways if there's any matey by as knows the lingo—to buy another."
Shortly after dawn next morning the lookout reported four vessels to windward. From their appearance Captain Barker at once concluded that two were Company's ships, with an escort of a couple of grabs. As he was still scanning them he was joined by Diggle, with whom he entered into conversation.
"They're making for Bombay, I reckon," said the captain.
"I take it we don't wish to come to close quarters with them, Barker?"
"By thunder, no! But if we hold our present course we're bound to pass within hailing distance. Better put 'em off the scent."
He altered the vessel's course a point or two with the object of passing to windward of the strangers, as if steering for the Portuguese port of Goa.
"They are running up their colors," remarked Diggle, half an hour later.
"British, as I thought. We'll hoist Portuguese."
A minute or two later a puff of smoke was observed to sally from the larger of the two grabs, followed in a few seconds by the boom of a gun.
"A call to us to heave to," said Bulger, in answer to Desmond's inquiry. "The unbelievin' critters thinks that Portuguee rag is all my eye."
But the Good Intent was by this time to windward of the vessels, and Captain Barker, standing on the quarterdeck, paid no heed to the signal. After a short interval another puff came from the deck of the grab, and a round shot plunged into the sea a cable's length from the Good Intent's bows, the grab at the same time hauling her wind and preparing to alter her course in pursuit. This movement was at once copied by the other three vessels, but being at least half a mile ahead of the grab that had fired, they were a long distance astern when the chase—for chase it was to be—began.
Captain Barker watched the grab with the eyes of a lynx. The Good Intent had run out of range while the grab was being put about; but the captain knew very well that the pursuer could sail much closer to the wind than his own vessel, and that his only chance was to beat off the leading boat before the others had time to come up.
It required very little at any time to put Captain Barker into a rage, and his demeanor was watched now with different feelings by different members of the crew. Diggle alone appeared unconcerned; he was smiling as he lolled against the mast.
"They'll fire at me, will they?" growled the captain with a curse. "And chase me, will they? By jimmy, they shall sink me before I surrender!"
"Degeneres animos timor arguit," quoted Diggle, smiling.
"Argue it? I'll be hanged if I argue it! They're not king's ships to take it on 'emselves to stop me on the high seas! If the Company wants to prevent me from honest trading in these waters let 'em go to law, and be hanged to 'em! Talk of arguing! Lawyer's work. Humph!"
"You mistake, Barker. The Roman fellow whose words slipped out of my mouth almost unawares said nothing of arguing. 'Fear is the mark of only base minds': so it runs in English, captain; which is as much as to say that Captain Ben Barker is not the man to haul down his colors in a hurry."
"You're right there. Another shot! That's their argument: well, Ben Barker can talk that way as well as another."
He called up the boatswain. Shortly afterwards the order was piped, "Up all hammocks!" The men quickly stowed their bedding, secured it with lashings, and carried it to the appointed places on the quarterdeck, poop, or forecastle. Meanwhile the boatswain and his mates secured the yards; the ship's carpenter brought up shot plugs for repairing any breeches made under the waterline; and the gunners looked to the cannon and prepared charges for them and the small arms.
Bulger was in charge of the twelve-pounder aft, and Mr. Toley had tolled off Desmond to assist him. They stood side by side watching the progress of the grab, which gained steadily in spite of the plunging due to its curious build. Presently another shot came from her; it shattered the belfry on the forecastle of the Good Intent, and splashed into the sea a hundred yards ahead.
"They make good practice, for sartin," remarked Bulger. "I may be wrong, but I'll lay my life there be old man-o'-war's men aboard. I mind me when I was with Captain Golightly on the Minotaur—"
But Bulger's yarn was intercepted. At that moment the boatswain piped, "All hands to quarters!" In a surprisingly short time all timber was cleared away, the galley fire was extinguished, the yards slung, the deck strewn with wet sand, and sails, booms, and boats liberally drenched with water. The gun captains, each with his crew, cast loose the lashings of their weapons and struck open the ports. The tompions was taken out; the sponge, rammer, crows and handspikes placed in readiness, and all awaited eagerly the word for the action to begin.
"'Tis about time we opened our mouths at 'em," said Bulger. "The next bolus they send us as like as not will bring the spars a-rattlin' about our ears. To be sure it goes against my stummick to fire on old messmates; but it en't in Englishmen to hold their noses and swallow pills o' that there size. We'll load up all ready, mateys."
He stripped to the waist, and tied a handkerchief over his ears. Desmond and the men followed his example. Then one of them sponged the bore, another inserted the cartridge, containing three pounds of powder, by means of a long ladle, a third shoved in a wad of rope yarn. This having been driven home by the rammer, the round shot was inserted, and covered like the cartridge with a wad. Then Bulger took his priming iron, an instrument like a long thin corkscrew, and thrust it into the touch hole to clear the vent and make an incision in the cartridge. Removing the priming iron, he replaced it by the priming tube—a thin tapering tube with very narrow bore. Into this he poured a quantity of fine mealed powder; then he laid a train of the same powder in the little groove cut in the gun from the touch hole towards the breech. With the end of his powder horn he slightly bruised the train, and the gun only awaited a spark from the match.
Everything was done very quickly, and Desmond watched the seamen with admiration. He himself had charge of the linstock, about which was wound several matches, consisting of lengths of twisted cotton wick steeped in lye. They had already been lighted, for they burnt so slowly that they would last for several hours.
"Now, we're shipshape," said Bulger. "Mind you, Burke, don't come to far for'ard with your linstock. I don't want the train fired with no sparks afore I'm ready. And 'ware o' the breech; she'll kick like a jumping jackass when the shot flies out of her, an'll knock your teeth out afore you can say Jack Robinson—