"What, Sam—you don't mean that, really?" exclaimed Jane Pengelly, not expecting such a hurried sending of me off to sea. "Surely not so soon, my man, eh?" She was almost breathless with grief and surprise.
"Aye, but I do mean it," persisted he. "The shep's a loadin' now, I tell you, and she oughter start on her v'yage in a fortnight's time at th' outside; and if you reckon as how we'll take a week to reach Cardiff, we'll ha' no time to lose, for, if the wind changes arter we rounds the Longships, we'll ha' all our work cut out to beat up the Bristol Channel, in time to see the lad comf'ably off!"
"My, Sam! couldn't you take the train across country to Cardiff, when you'd all ha' more time for getting ready, and I could see to mending all the poor dearie's things before he goes for—it'll be the last sight I'll ever see of his blessed face?"
Jane Pengelly said this timidly, wiping her eyes carefully, with each corner of her apron in turn; for, she well knew her brother's horror of the railway, and all conveyances—indeed, he disliked any mode of land travelling, save on foot, or "on Shank's mare," as he called it, which was the plan he invariably adopted for reaching such places which he could not get to by water.
"Why, Jane, my woman," Sam indignantly rejoined; "your brains must all be a wool-gathering! Catch me and the lad agoing by that longshore schreechin', smokin', ramshacklin' fire engine, when we can ha' a boat's sound plank under our foot, and sail over the sea in a nat'ral sort o' way, such as we're born to! You're the last person to think as how Sam Pengelly 'd desart his colours and bringing-up, for to go over to such an outlandish way o' fetching the port for which he's bound! No, Jane— I ain't angry, but I feels hurt a bit on the h'insinivation—but there, let it be. We'll go round to Cardiff in the schooner, as is as smart a little craft for a passage boat as ere a one could wish to clap eyes on, though I says it as shouldn't, and we'll start, laddie, this arternoon, as soon as the tide sets down Channel; so, you'd better see after your traps, and stow your chest when dinner's over—and then, we'll get under weigh, and clear outwards!"
Little dinner, however, was eaten that day at the cottage, notwithstanding the fact that Jane Pengelly, as a reward for my industry in making up and remoulding her asparagus bed, had concocted a favourite Cornish dish for our repast, y'clept a "Mevagissey pie"—a savoury compound consisting of alternate slices of mutton and layers of apples and onions cut into pieces, and symmetrically arranged, the whole being subsequently covered with a crust, pie-fashion, and then baked in the oven until well browned; when, although the admixture seems somewhat queer to those unused to a Cornish cuisine, the result is not by any means to be despised; rather is it uncommonly jolly!
Generally, this dish would have been considered a tour de force on the table, and not much left of it after our united knife and fork play when operations had once begun; but now, albeit Sam Pengelly made a feeble pretence of having a tremendous appetite, failing most ridiculously in the attempt, while his sister heaped up my plate, we were all too much perturbed in our minds to do justice to the banquet. So it was that the Mevagissey pie, toothsome as it was, went almost untasted away, Jane removing the remains presently to the larder—that was, as she said, but I could not help noticing that she did not return afterwards to clear away the dinner things and make matters tidy in the kitchen, as was her regular custom when we had finished meals.
I soon found out the reason of this, when, on going up shortly afterwards to my little room, I discovered the soft-hearted creature bending over the sea-chest which I had been presented with—in addition to her son Teddy's clothes and other property—"having a good cry," as she said in excuse for the weakness.
From some cause or other, she had taken to me from the moment her brother Sam first brought me to the cottage, placing me in the vacant spot in her heart left by Teddy's early death, and I am sure my own mother, if she had lived, could not have loved me more.
Of course I reciprocated her affection—how could I help it, when she and her brother were the only beings in the world who had ever exhibited any tenderness towards me?
Strangely enough, however, she would never allow me to call her "mother" or "Mistress Pengelly," as I wanted to—thinking "Jane" too familiar, especially when applied by a youngster like myself to a middle-aged woman.
No, she would not hear of my addressing her otherwise than by her Christian name.
"If you calls me Missis anything, dearie, mind if I don't speak to you always as 'Master Leigh'—that distant as how you won't know me," she said; so, as she always said what she meant, I did as she wished, and she continued to style me her "dearie," that being the affectionate pet name she had for me, in the same way as her brother Sam had dubbed me his "cockbird," when he first introduced himself to me on the Hoe, a mode of address which he still persisted in.
I may add, by the way, to make an end of these explanations, that Jane Pengelly had married her first cousin on the father's side, as the matter was once elaborately made plain to me; consequently, she was not compelled, as most ladies are, to "change her name" when she wedded Teddy's sire, and still retained after marriage her ancestral patronymic—which was sometimes sported with such unction by her brother, when laying down the law and giving a decided opinion.
Partings are sad things, and the sooner they are over the better. So Sam thought too, no doubt, for he presently hailed us both to come down- stairs, as time was up, and a man besides waiting with a hand-truck to trundle my chest down to the quay in the Cattwater, off which Sam's little schooner was lying.
Thereupon, Jane giving me a final hug, my chest was bundled below in a brace of shakes, and Sam and I, accompanied by the man wheeling the truck, were on our way down the Stoke Road towards Plymouth—a lingering glance which I cast behind, in order to give a farewell wave of the hand to my second mother, imprinting on my memory every detail of the little cottage, with its clematis-covered porch, and the bright scarlet geraniums and fuchsias in full bloom in front, and Jane Pengelly's tearful face standing out amidst the flowers, crying out a last loving "good-bye!"
We reached the schooner in good time so as to fetch out of the Sound before the tide ebbed, and, after clearing the breakwater, as the wind was to the northward of east, Sam made a short board on the port tack towards the Eddystone, in order to catch the western stream—which begins to run down Channel an hour after the flood, when about six miles out or so from the land, the current inshore setting up eastwards towards the Start and being against us if we tried to stem it by proceeding at once on our true course.
When we had got into the stream, however, and thus had the advantage of having the tideway with us, Sam let the schooner's head fall off; and so, wearing her round, he shaped a straight course for the Lizard, almost in the line of a crow's flight, bringing the wind nearly right aft to us now on the starboard tack as we ran before it. We passed abreast of the goggle-eyed lighthouse on the point which marks the landfall for most mariners when returning to the English Channel after a foreign voyage, close on to midnight—not a bad run from Plymouth Sound, which we had left at four o'clock in the afternoon.
It was a beautiful bright moonlight night, the sea being lighted up like a burnished mirror, and the clear orb making the distant background of the Cornish coast come out in relief, far away on our western bow. The wind being still fair for us, keeping to the east-nor'-east, Sam brought it more abeam, bearing up so that he might pass between the Wolf Rock and the Land's End, striking across the bight made by Mount's Bay in order to save the way we would have lost if he had taken the inshore track, like most coasters—and, indeed, as he would have been obliged to do if it had been foggy or rough, which, fortunately for us, it wasn't.
By sunrise next morning we had fetched within a couple of miles of the Longships; when, bracing round the schooner's topsail yard and sailing close-hauled, with the wind nearly on our bow, we ran for Lundy Island in the British Channel.
I never saw any little craft behave better than the schooner did now, sailing on a bowline being her best point of speed, as is the case with most fore and aft rigged vessels. She almost "ate into the wind's eye;" and, although the distance was over a hundred miles from the Longships, she was up to Lundy by nightfall, on this, the second day after leaving home.
From this point, however, we had to beat up all the way to Cardiff, as the easterly wind was blowing straight down the Bristol Channel, and consequently dead in our teeth, as soon as we began to bear up. It was a case of tack and tack about—first a long leg over to the Mumbles on the starboard tack, followed by a corresponding reach towards Dunkery Beacon on the port hand; backwards and forwards, see-saw, turn and turn about, until, finally, we rounded Penarth Heads, arriving at our destination on the afternoon of our fourth day from Plymouth.
We got to Cardiff none too early, either.
The Esmeralda having completed loading in her cargo sooner than the owners had expected, had cast-off from the jetty and was now lying in the stream off the harbour. She was quite ready to start on her voyage, and seemed longing to be on the move, for her topsails were hanging loose and the courses were in the brails, so that they could be let fall and sheeted home at a moment's notice.
We could see this for ourselves, as we rounded close under the vessel's stern when running into the harbour; and further particulars of the ship's readiness to set sail we learnt at the agent's ashore, with whom Sam Pengelly had been in communication for some time, unknown to me, with reference to having me articled as a first-class apprentice in one of their best ships. The good-hearted fellow, too, without my knowledge, although I learnt this later on, had entered into an agreement to pay a good round sum as a premium for me in order that I might have accommodation aft and mess with the officers.
Sam enlightened me about some of these particulars, mentioning the arrangements he had made for my comfort, while we were making our trip round to the Bristol Channel in the schooner, our departure from the cottage having been too hurried for me to gain any information on the point, save the great fact of my being about to go to sea at last. The reason for the delay in this, Sam now explained to me, was on account of the absence of the Esmeralda on a long round voyage to the China seas and back, my worthy old friend having picked that vessel out from amongst the many that had put into Plymouth since I had been with him, and which he had overhauled for the special purpose in view, because of her staunch sailing qualities and the clipper-like cut of her lines, besides his personal knowledge that she was "commanded by a skipper as knew how to handle a shep," as he said, "so as a b'y might expect to larn somethin' under him," and he had therefore set his heart on my going in her.
We had not now been long at the agent's, from the windows of whose small office we could see the barque riding at her moorings, before this identical gentleman came bustling in as if in a most desperate hurry.
"Why, here he is!" ejaculated Sam aside to me as he entered, saying to the other as he took off his cap with one hand and shoved out his other fist in greeting, "Sarvent, sir, Cap'en Billings; how d'ye find yourself since we last met in Plymouth Sound?"
"Oh, is that you, Pengelly?" responded the skipper of the Esmeralda cordially, accepting Sam's proffered hand and shaking it heartily, "I was just thinking of you and your boy—have you brought him with you?"
"Aye, there's the b'y," replied Sam, pushing me forward affectionately, "and a right good straight up and down youngster you'll find him, Cap'en Billings, with all the makings of a sailor in him, I tell you, sure's my name's Sam Pengelly!"
"Well, I'll take your word for that," laughed the other.
He seemed to me at first sight a genial good-tempered man—with rough reddish hair and beard, and a pair of merry twinkling blue eyes; but I could also see, from a quick sharp look he threw over me, reckoning me up from top to toe, that he'd all his wits about him and was used to command.
He looked like one of those sort of fellows that wouldn't be trifled with when roused.
"I'm glad to see you, Leigh, and have you with me," he said to me, affably—although he didn't offer to shake hands, some distance lying between the position of a skipper and an apprentice. "You're lucky to be just in time, though, for we're all ready to sail as soon as the tide serves for us to cross the outer bar and be off. Got all the papers ready, Mr Tompkins?"
"Yes, captain," replied the agent. "Here they are; Leigh and Mr Pengelly have just signed them."
"All right then. If you'll come along with me over to the Marine Superintendent's office," said Captain Billings, to us two, "we'll have the signatures witnessed to these indenture articles; and then the thing'll be all settled, and the boy can come aboard at once."
"Heave ahead, my hearty," replied Sam. "We're both ready and willing;" and thereupon we all adjourned to the presence of the responsible official of the port entrusted with the supervision of all matters connected with the mercantile marine, in whose presence I was formally bound apprentice to the captain of the Esmeralda.
These preliminaries duly arranged, Sam Pengelly had some further dealings of a private nature with the captain and agent, in which the chinking of gold coin had apparently a good deal to do; and then he and I, at the skipper's invitation, taking our seats in a boat that was lying by the side of the jetty started off for the Esmeralda, whither Sam had previously directed one of the schooner's men to have my sea- chest removed while we went on to the agent's.
Really, I could not explain the mingled feelings of hope, joy, pride, and satisfaction, that had filled my breast at the thought that I was really going to sea, and having the darling wish of my heart at last gratified—my contentment much increased by my overhearing a whispered comment of my new captain to Sam Pengelly, that I "wasn't a pigeon-toed landsman, thank goodness!" He said he could see that from the manner in which I put my feet on the side cleats, as I got out of the boat and swung myself up to the gangway.
"Now at length," thought I, speaking of myself in Sam's fashion, as if I were some other person—"Martin Leigh you are going afloat at last!"
And, although I was only an humble reefer in the merchant service, whose spick-and-span uniform of blue serge and gold-banded cap had never yet smelt salt water to christen them, I felt as proud on first stepping "on board the Esmeralda" as Nelson must have done, when standing on the quarter-deck of the Victory and seeing her close with the Spanish fleet immediately after his famous signal was displayed—"England expects every man this day to do his duty!"
She was a fine-looking barque—as Sam had explained to me beforehand, when first telling me the news of his having secured a berth for me aboard her—with a good forecastle and clean run of deck aft to the poop, saving a small deck-house amidships, on a line with the cook's caboose, where were the separate cabins devoted to the use of the boatswain and carpenter.
Captain Billings showed us over her, pointing out the special arrangements for the comfort of his officers; and then, much to my surprise, and to that of Sam as well, for that matter, although he had stipulated for good treatment on my behalf, the skipper said that I could have an empty bunk to myself, alongside of the boatswain's quarters.
It was almost too good to be true!
"Why, laddie, you'll be a blessed sight better off than if you were a middy aboard a man o' war!" said Sam, exultantly; but, whilst he was engaged showing me how to put my chest and stow my things, so as to be easily within reach and yet out of the way, in order not to encroach on the limited space at my command, our attention was drawn away from the consideration of such personal matters by the loud hail of Captain Billings ringing through the ship fore and aft—
"All hands, make sail!"
The pilot had come off from shore in the same boat with us; and, as the only thing the Esmeralda had been awaiting was the water to rise sufficiently for her to cross the bar, Cardiff being a tidal harbour, now that it was approaching the flood, it was time to make ready for a start. We were going to make a move "while the day was yet young," so to speak, for it was only about five o'clock yet in the afternoon.
On hearing the skipper's cry, Sam and I at once made our way aft up the ladder on to the poop, where Captain Billings was standing, shouting out his orders, according to the directions of the pilot standing beside him—that gentleman, while in charge, being commanding officer, having the precedence of a captain even on board his own ship!
I was all eagerness to assist, and anxious to enter on my duties; but the skipper motioned me aside, saying that he'd put me into a watch and give me regular work to do as soon as we had got fairly to sea, for he "didn't want any idlers hanging round them to encumber the men." So, acting on the principle that "a nod was as good as a wink to a blind horse," I sheered over to the other side of the deck. Here, Sam Pengelly was standing by the taffrail, and from this coign of vantage we both watched with much interest the operation of getting the ship under weigh.
The vessel's topsails, as I have mentioned before, were already cast loose from the gaskets and her courses hung in the brails, while she was lying in the stream, heading almost due south and facing the entrance of the harbour, into which the tide was still running and, consequently, keeping her cable as taut as a fiddle-string; but now, on the captain's command causing the hands to man the topsail halliards and run up the yards to the mast-head, the ponderous folds of canvas expanded with the wind, which was still to the nor'-east and blowing from aft, and the ship, in spite of the incoming tide, surged up to her anchor, bringing it right under her fore foot, thus slackening the strain on the cable.
Another party of the crew, meanwhile, under the superintendence of the boatswain, had manned the windlass, bringing in the cable slack with a "slip-slap" and "click-clack" of the pall, as the winch went round, the moment the skipper's warning cry, "Hands up anchor," was heard from aft.
"Hove short, sir," then sang out the boatswain.
"Up with it, then, men," returned the skipper; and in another minute, for we were only in some six-fathom water, the anchor-stock showed itself above the surface and was run up to the cathead.
Now, free from the ground, the bows of the vessel began to rise and fall as she curtsied politely to the stream, which was just on the turn, preparing to bid adieu to Cardiff harbour; so, Captain Billings himself jumped from where he had been standing, by the pilot's side, to the wheel, making the spokes rapidly fly round until the helm was hard up, putting the ship before the wind and steering towards the mouth of the harbour ahead.
"Sheet home!" was the next order; and, with a "yo-heave-ho," the clews of the topsails were hauled out to the end of the yards, while the clewgarnet blocks rattled as the main sheet was brought aft; then, the yards were braced round a bit to the starboard and the vessel headed out into the Channel, with the wind on her quarter, on the port tack.
"Hoist away the jib!" shouted out Captain Billings, on this much being achieved; when the Esmeralda began to gather way, the bubbles now floating past astern as she commenced to move through the water—at first slowly, and then with more speed, as the sails, already set, filled and drew.
"Look smart there, men, and run away with those halliards," echoed the mate, repeating the captain's order anent the jib; and the Esmeralda, being now well under control of her helm, a picked hand came aft to take Captain Billings' place at the wheel, of which he had retained charge until now, while another man was put in the main chains with the lead, heaving it at intervals and chanting out the soundings in a monotonous sing-song drawl of "By the mark, four," and so on, until we reached six- fathom water, and then "The deep nine!"
All this time we had been heading over to the Somersetshire shore; but when we were a couple of miles or so out from Cardiff, the pilot told the skipper that it was time to come about, as we had got into the proper fairway of the Channel and our course now should be west instead of south.
Captain Billings didn't need a second hint as to what he should do.
"Hands 'bout ship!" he roared out the instant the pilot had spoken, the mate and boatswain repeating as before the order after him in turn, and the man at the wheel putting down the helm instanter.
"Helm's a lee!" shouted the skipper, the head sheets being let go as he spoke, and the jib flattened on the vessel going into stays.
"Raise tacks and sheets!" and the fore-tack and main sheets were cast- off, while the weather main brace was hauled taut.
"Mainsail haul!" was the next order; when, on the heavy yard swinging round, the Esmeralda came up to the wind slowly, as if casting a long, lingering farewell look at the Welsh coast, in deep regret at leaving it.
The head yards were then braced round, the fore-tack boarded, and the mainsheet hauled aft; after which the spanker was set, and the men sent aloft to loosen the topgallant sails, the yards of which had been crossed while we were still at anchor, so as to be ready when wanted. The ship then filled away again on the port tack, starting off with renewed speed, in a due west direction now, down the Bristol Channel, with the wind, which was on her beam, blowing at the rate of about an eight-knot breeze.
"We've made a good start, Pengelly," said Captain Billings, coming up to where we were still standing, rubbing his hands cheerfully together and seemingly much at ease now that we were well under way. "It isn't often one gets a nor'-east wind at this time of year, hereabouts, and when we do chance upon it, why, there's no use in wasting it."
"Sartinly not, Cap'en Billings," responded Sam; "them's jest my sentiments! I suppose as you'll be a'most out of the Channel by mornin', if the wind holds?"
"Aye, we ought to be off Ilfracombe soon after sunrise, the pilot says. Will you like to go ashore when we drop him there, eh?"
"That'll do nicely, Cap'en," replied Sam. "I only jest wanted for to see the last of the b'y, and I s'pected as how you'd land your pilot thereabout or at Bideford, where I told the man in charge o' my schooner to call in for me; but it don't matter much where I get ashore."
"All right then," said Captain Billings; "so, now, as the ship's going on at a spanking rate, with no danger ahead and in charge of the pilot, suppose you and the lad come down to the cabin along with me and have a bit of something to eat, for it's getting late? I dare say the steward'll find us some grub somewhere, though it's rather early in the voyage for regular meals."
So saying, the skipper dived down the poop ladder, we two after him, when we found a well-spread table below, the sight of which pleased Sam as much as the appearance of my bunk—although, mind you, only on account of his interest in me, as there wasn't a bit of the gourmand about him.
"See, my laddie," said he, nudging me, and speaking in a whisper. "The cap'en ain't a going to starve you!"
When we got on deck again, after a hearty meal, the sun had set and the evening was closing in; but, it was bright and clear overhead and the twinkling Nash lights, two white and one red, by Saint Donat's Castle, were well away to windward on the starboard hand.
Although there was no necessity whatever for my keeping up, I was too much excited to turn in, even for the purpose of seeing how snug my new quarters were; so, Sam keeping me company, in order to have as much of me as he could—for the time was now approaching for our parting—he and I paced the poop all night, talking of all sorts of things, and planning out a wonderful future when I should be captain of a ship of my own.
Early in the morning watch, the wind lulled down to a gentle breeze, as it frequently does in summer before sunrise. This checked the ship's rate of speed through the water considerably, so staying our progress that, instead of our arriving off Ilfracombe close on to daylight, as Captain Billings had sanguinely reckoned, it was long past eight bells and the hour of breakfast, to which we were both again invited into the cabin, before we neared the headland marking the bay sufficiently for us to heave to and signal for the pilot's boat to come off and fetch him.
We were not long detained, however.
Hardly had the Esmeralda's main-topsail been backed, ere a smart little cutter came sailing out towards us, with the familiar "P" and her number displayed on her spanker; so Sam hastened to bid his last farewell to me, making ready to accompany the pilot ashore.
"Good-bye, my cockbird," said he, wringing my hand with a grip that made it wince again, a tremble the while in his voice and something suspiciously like a tear in his eye. "Keep honest, and do your duty, and never forget your father, laddie, nor old Sam Pengelly, who'll be right glad to see you again when you return from this v'yage!"
"Good-bye, and God reward you, Sam, for all your kindness to me," I returned, almost breaking down, and having to exercise all my self- command in order not to make an exhibition of myself before my new shipmates. "I'll be certain to come and see you and Jane the moment I touch English ground again."
"All right, my hearty, fare thee well," said he, stepping into the boat of the pilot after that worthy, while the Esmeralda's sails were let fill again on the vessel resuming her course down the Bristol Channel; but, as I bent over the taffrail, and waved my hand to Sam for the last time, I could hear his parting hail in the distance, sounding as loud almost as if he were alongside.
"Good-bye, my laddie, and good luck to the Esmeralda on her v'yage. Cap'en Billings, remember the b'y!"
"Aye, aye, my hearty, so I will," shouted out the skipper, cordially. "Good luck to you, Pengelly!" and then the pilot made in for the land, and the ship's yards were squared. The royals were soon afterwards sent aloft, the wind having sprung up again steadily, still from the nor'- east, as the tide began to make, and we ran now before it, almost sailing free, so as to pass to the southwards of Lundy Island and weather Hartland Point, on our way out into the open sea.
Captain Billings, seeing the wind so favourable, instead of hugging the land, determined to make all the westing he could at this the very outset of our voyage, in order to avoid the cross currents hanging about the chops of the Channel, and off the Scilly Isles—which frequently, when aided by the contrary winds they engender, drive a ship on to the French coast, and into the Bay of Biscay, thus entailing a lot of beating up to the northwards again to gain a proper westerly course.
Under these circumstances, therefore, my skipper, who I could see thus early "had his head," as they say, "screwed on straight," taking his point of departure from Lundy, and so bidding farewell to the land which he didn't intend approaching again for the next few weeks if he could help it, kept a straight course by the compass due west for twenty-four hours, by the end of which time, and this was about noon on our second day out, we had cleared the Scilly Islands, passing some twenty leagues to the northward of the Bishop's Rock. We were now well in with the Atlantic Ocean, and pursued the same direction, right before the wind, until we reached the meridian of 12 degrees 15 minutes West, when we hauled round more to the southwards, shaping a course to take us well to the westward of Madeira.
Before this, however—that is, on our first day out, shortly after we had cleared Lundy Island, and when Sam and the pilot and his cutter were out of sight, and the ship clear of "strangers"—Captain Billings called a muster of all hands aft, when he divided the crew into two watches, officered respectively by the first and second mates.
The "complement," as they say in the Royal Navy, of the Esmeralda, I may as well state here, consisted of the skipper, Captain Billings; the two mates, one occupying the proud position of "chief of the staff," and the other being merely an executive officer of little superior grade to one of the foremast hands; a boatswain, carpenter, sail-maker, cook, steward, and eighteen regular crew—the vessel, on account of her being barque-rigged, not requiring such a number of men in proportion to her tonnage as would have been necessary if she had been fitted as a ship, with yards and squaresails on the mizen-mast.
When apportioning out the hands to their several officers, Captain Billings assigned me to the starboard watch, under charge of the second mate, telling the boatswain at the same time to "keep an eye upon me," so as to have me thoroughly initiated into the practical part of my profession.
I had not observed this latter individual previously, he having been employed forwards while I had been mostly on the poop ever since I had come on board the ship; now, however, that the skipper thus specially entrusted me to his care, I looked across the deck, when I noticed that his face seemed strangely familiar to me, although I could not exactly say how and where I had seen him before, although I puzzled my head in vain to guess who he was.
But, my quandary did not last very long; for, on Captain Billings dismissing the men after the full-dress parade he had held on the quarter-deck, the boatswain came up to me with a genial grin on his hairy face.
"Hullo, Master Leigh," said he, "Who'd a' thought of us two meeting ag'in like this?"
AN OLD ACQUAINTANCE.
"What!" I exclaimed, in much amazement. "Is it really you, Jorrocks? I can hardly believe my eyes!"
"Aye, aye, it's me sure enough," replied my old ally of the Saucy Sall, shaking hands with great heartiness, as if he were really glad to see me again under such altered circumstances. "It's me sure enough, Master Leigh—that is, unless I've got some double of a twin brother, as like me as two peas, a-sailing round in these latitudes!"
There could be no question of his identity after I had once heard the tones of his well-remembered voice; but the beard which he had allowed to grow since I had last seen him had so completely altered the expression of his face, or rather indeed its entire appearance, that there was some excuse for my not recognising him at the moment.
Jorrocks, however, he was without doubt; and, I need hardly say that I was quite as much pleased at this unexpected meeting as he seemed to be—albeit the sight of him, when I realised the fact that it was really himself and heard his cheery familiar accents, brought back in an instant to my mind the scene on board the coal brig that eventful day when the Saucy Sall's surly skipper discovered that Tom and I had stolen a march on him, and treated us each to a dose of his sovereign specific for stowaways!
"How is it, though, Jorrocks, that you've abandoned the brig?" I asked him presently, when we had got over our mutual surprise at thus meeting in such an unlooked-for fashion. "I thought you were a fixture there, and didn't know you were a regular sailor—I mean one accustomed to sea- going ships like this?"
I said this with much dignity, being greatly impressed with the responsibility of my new position; and I'm sure I must have spoken as if I were a post captain at least, addressing some subordinate officer!
Jorrocks, however, took my patronage in good part, although I could detect a faint cock of his eye, denoting sly amusement at my ridiculous assumption of superiority. This he now proceeded to "take down a peg" in his roundabout way.
"Why, bless you, Master Leigh, I sailed as able seaman in a China clipper afore you were born, and when I were that high!" he replied, laughing, putting his hand about a foot above the deck to illustrate his approximate stature at the period referred to, and representing himself to be at that time certainly a very diminutive son of Neptune.
"You must have been very young, then," said I, a little bit nettled at his remark—thinking it a slur on my nautical experience, so bran-new as that was!
But Jorrocks went on as coolly as if I had not cast a doubt on the veracity of his statement concerning his early commencement of sailor life.
"Aye, aye," he answered, quite collectedly, "I grant I were young, but then you must rec'lect, my lad, I got the flavour o' the sea early in a lighthouse tower, where I was born and brought up, my father having the lantern to mind; and, since then, I've v'y'ged a'most to every part you could mention, and shipped in a'most every kind of craft, from an East Indyman down to a Yarmouth hoy. Bless you! I only took to the coasting line two or three years ago, when you and I first ran foul of each other; and the reason for my doing that was in cons'quence of my getting spliced, and the missus wanting me to take a 'longshore berth. Howsomedevers, I couldn't stand it long, being once used to a decent fo'c's'le in a proper sort of vessel v'y'ging o'er the seas in true shipshape fashion; and so, I parted company with the brig and came aboard the Esmeralda eighteen months ago come next July—a long spell for a sailor to stick to one ship without changing, but then Cap'en Billings 's a good sort, and he made me boatswain o' the craft last v'y'ge but one, so I hopes to remain with him longer still."
"You like him, then?" I said, tentatively, looking him straight in the face.
"Oh, aye—first-class," replied Jorrocks to my implied question, with much seriousness, "He's not only a good skipper—as good as they make 'em, treating the hands as if they were men, and not dogs—but he's a prime seaman, and knows what's what in a gale, better nor most I've ever sailed with. Howsomedevers, he'll stand no nonsense; and when he puts his foot down, you may as well give up, as you might sooner soft-sawder a trenail into a two-inch plank as get over him and shirk your duty! The old man, easy-going when you take him right, is as stiff as a porkypine when you runs foul of his hawse; so, you'd better not try on any o' them pranks o' yours you told me you and your messmate played off on your old schoolmaster, for Cap'en Billings has cut his eye teeth, my hearty."
"Why, I wouldn't dream of such a thing," I exclaimed, indignantly, "what Tom and I did to Dr Hellyer was quite different, and served him right for his cruelty."
"Aye, aye, that may be accordin' to your notion," said Jorrocks, sententiously; "but that schoolmaster were the skipper of his own ship, the same as Cap'en Billings is here aboard this here craft, and it ain't right to trifle with them as is set in authority over us!"
I can't tell what I might have replied to this appropriate little sermon that Jorrocks delivered about the mischievous and dangerous trick that Tom and I conspired together to commit, and which I have often subsequently reflected might have led to the most disastrous consequences, and perhaps injured the Doctor for life; but, at that moment, Captain Billings, seeing my old friend and I chatting together, came over to leeward, where we were standing.
"Hullo, boatswain!" he shouted out, "making friends with the youngster, eh?"
"Why, bless you, Cap'en Billings," answered Jorrocks, touching his cap, "he and I are old shipmates."
"Indeed! I had no idea of his having been at sea before," said the skipper, apparently very much astonished at this news.
"Oh, aye, sir, he has," returned my old friend, glad to be able to put in a good word for me, as he thought, after the little lecture he had just given me. "He was on board a coal brig with me two years ago, a coasting craft that plied up along shore to Noocastle and back; and you'll find him no green hand, Cap', but a smart able chap, one that'll get out to the weather earing when there's a call to reef topsails sooner than many a full-grown seaman, for he knows his way up the rigging."
"I'm very glad to hear that," said the skipper, turning to me, with an affable smile that lighted up his twinkling blue eyes. "When Sam Pengelly told me you were a capable lad, of course, I naturally took his opinion to proceed more from personal bias than practical comment on your seamanship; but, now that I learn from Jorrocks here, on more independent testimony, that you're no novice on board ship and have already mastered the rough rudiments of your profession in the best way possible—that of having been before the mast as a regular hand—why, you'll be able to get on all the faster, and be able to command the deck by-and-by on your own hook. How are you up in navigation, eh?"
"I can take the sun, sir," said I, modestly, not wishing to blow my own trumpet.
"Yes, sir, I can work out a reckoning, I believe," I answered.
"Ha, humph, pretty good! I'll try you by-and-by, Leigh," said Captain Billings, turning aside for the moment to order the port watch to give one extra pull to the weather braces—"mind and bring out your sextant when you see me on deck at eight bells. I suppose you've got one in your chest, eh?"
"Oh yes, sir, Sam Pengelly gave me one," I replied, and the skipper then went into the cabin while Jorrocks and I resumed our interrupted conversation.
My old friend took advantage of the opportunity to put me up to a good many wrinkles concerning my fellow-shipmates.
The mate, Mr Macdougall, who was a tall, hatchet-faced Scotsman, with high cheek-bones and a very prominent nose—Jorrocks told me, in confidence—was a tight-handed, close-fisted, cross-tempered man, ever fond of displaying his authority and working the hands to death, under the plea of preventing their idling or "hazing," as he called it.
"I advise you not to get into a row with him, Mister Leigh, if so as you can help it; 'cause, once a chap falls foul of him in any way, he neversomedevers by no chance forgets or forgives it, nohow."
"I shan't give him the chance," I answered to this, with a laugh. "I suppose he doesn't think himself greater than the captain!"
"Ah, you just wait a bit 'fore you decide that p'int. The first mate aboard a marchint ship is a sight more powerful than a judge on the bench, as you'll find out! The skipper allers tells him what he wishes, and the mate sees to its being done, an' it depends what sorter fellow he is, and not on the cap'en, as to how matters go on when a vessel's at sea; for, it's in his power for to make things pleasant like and all plain sailing, or else to cause the crew for to smell brimstone afore their time, I tell you! That Macdougall, now, though you laugh in that light-hearted way, ain't to be trifled with, Mister Leigh, I warn you; and if you go for to raise his dander ag'in you, why, you won't find it worth grinning at, that's sartin, for he's as nasty as he's spiteful, and every man Jack of us hates him like pizen, and wishes he were out of the ship. The skipper, I knows, wouldn't have him aboard if he could have his own way, but he's some connection of the owners, and he can't help himself."
"All right, Jorrocks, I'll try and steer clear of him," I said, trying to look grave, for I saw the old sailor was in earnest, and only speaking for my good. "I will endeavour to do my duty, and then he won't have any occasion to find fault with me."
"Ah, but you'll have to do more than that; for, like most of them uppish chaps, if you don't truckle under to him and purtend as how he's the Lord Mayor, he's safe to be down on you."
"I'm not going to crawl under any man's feet, first mate or no first mate!" I said, proudly. "Why, I'm a first-class apprentice, and the captain has rated me as third officer in the ship's books."
"Now, Mister Leigh, don't you go on for being bumptious, now, my lad!" replied Jorrocks, laughing heartily at my drawing myself up on my dignity. "A third officer or 'third mate,' as we calls him, has a dog's berth aboard a ship if he doesn't lend his hand to anything and button to the first mate! You needn't go for to really humble yourself afore that Macdougall; I only meant you to purtend like as how you thinks him a regular top-sawyer, and then you'll sail along without a chance of a squall—Mr Ohlsen, the second mate, in charge o' your watch, is an easy-going chap, and you'll get on well enough with him."
"All right," I said in response, as if agreeing with his advice; but I formed my own resolution as to how I would treat the Scotsman should he try to bully me unjustly.
He would find no cringe in me, I vowed!
The rest of my shipmates, Jorrocks then went on to tell me, were a very jolly set of fellows, forming as good a crew as he'd ever sailed with— fit for anything, and all able seamen "of the proper sort."
Haxell, the carpenter, he said, was a quiet, steady-going, solemn sort of man, with no nonsense about him, who kept himself to himself; while Sails, the sail-maker, whom I have omitted mentioning in his proper place as one of the officers ranking after the boatswain, was a cheery chap, who could sing a good song on Saturday night in the fo'c's'le; but, the life of the crew, Jorrocks said, was Pat Doolan, the cook, an Irishman, as his name would imply. He was always ready to crack a joke and "carry on" when there was any skylarking about, besides willing to lend a hand at any time on a pinch. Jorrocks told me "to mind and be good friends with Pat," if it were only for the sake of the pannikin of hot coffee which it was in his power to dispense in the early morning when turning out on watch in the cold.
"Ah, you were not born yesterday, Jorrocks!" I said, when he imparted this valuable bit of information to me, as one of the state secrets of the fo'c's'le.
"No, Mister Leigh," he answered, with a meaning wink; "I've not been to sea, twenty year more or less, for nothing, I tell you."
The steward—to complete the list of those on board—was a flabby half- and-half sort of Welshman, hailing from Cardiff but brought up in London; and, as he was a close ally of the first mate, I need hardly say he was no favourite either of my friend Jorrocks, or with the crew generally—all the hands thinking that he skimped the provisions when serving them out, in deference to Mr Macdougall's prejudices in the way of stinginess!
The Esmeralda, therefore, carried twenty-seven souls in all of living freight, including the skipper and my valuable self, besides her thousand tons of coal or so of cargo; we on board representing a little world within ourselves, with our interests identical so long as the voyage lasted.
While Jorrocks and I were talking in the waist of the ship to leeward, I observed the first mate, Mr Macdougall—who had the forenoon watch, and was in charge of the vessel for the time—approach close to the break of the poop, and stop in his walk up and down the deck once or twice, as if he were on the point of hailing us to know what we were palavering about; but something seemed to change his intention, so he refrained from calling out, as I expected, although he glowered down on Jorrocks and I, with a frown on his freckly sandy-haired face, "as if he could eat us both up without salt," as the boatswain said, on my pointing out the mate's proximity.
I believe Mr Macdougall took a dislike to me from the first; and the skipper's apparent favour did not subsequently tend to make him appreciate me any the better, I could see later on.
That very day, shortly before noon, when Captain Billings came out of his cabin with his sextant, and found me all ready for him with mine, in obedience to his order, I heard Mr Macdougall utter a covert sneer behind the skipper's back respecting me.
"Hoot, mon," he said aside to Ohlsen, the second mate—"Old son of a gun" as the men used to call him, making a sort of pun on his name—"the old man's setting up as dominie to teach that bairn how to tak' a sight, you ken; did you ever see the like? These be braw times when gentlefolk come to sea for schoolin', and ship cap'ens have to tak' to teachin' 'em!"
Ohlsen didn't reply to this save by a grunt, which might have meant anything, but I was certain Macdougall was trying to turn me into ridicule.
Captain Billings, however, did not overhear the remark; and proceeded to test my accuracy with the sextant, making me take the angle of the sun and that of the distant land on the port bow. He was delighted when, afterwards, I had worked out my calculations, based on the sight taken of the sun's altitude, and, deducting the difference of the ship's mean time from that observed, found out that our true position on the chart was very nearly 50 degrees 55 minutes 20 seconds North and 4 degrees 50 minutes 55 seconds West, or about ten miles to the south-west of Hartland Point on the Devonshire coast. It was all a labour of love, however, for the land was still within reach, and we had not long taken our "point of departure;" while soundings could still be had, if we wished, in thirty fathom water; so, there was no necessity for our taking an observation so early in the voyage. The skipper only did it to test my knowledge, and he was perfectly satisfied with the result apparently.
"Why, Macdougall," he said to the Scotsman, who was waiting by with an air of ill-concealed triumph on his face, hoping to hear of my failure to work out the reckoning, "he's a better navigator than you are!"
This, you may be certain, did not please the mate, who muttered something of it's "all being done by guess work."
But the skipper wouldn't have this at any price.
"No, no, Macdougall," he replied, quickly, "it's all fair and square calculation, such as I couldn't have managed at his age;" then, turning to me, he added, kindly, "you stick to it, my lad, and you'll beat us all with the sextant before we get to Callao!"
The captain desired me, also, to work out the ship's reckoning each day and to keep a log, the same as the first mate had to do, which that individual resented as a sort of check exercised upon him, and hated me accordingly. As I afterwards found out, he was an extremely bad navigator, and ignorant of all the newest methods, such as Sumner's, for shortening calculation, consequently, he was afraid of his errors being discovered too easily if his log should be compared every day with mine.
Unaware of all these kindly feelings towards me, Captain Billings filled up the measure of Mr Macdougall's wrath by inviting me to come into the cabin to dine with him that day at six bells, instead of waiting until the termination of Ohlsen's watch, and go in with him to the "second table," as it was termed, after the skipper and first mate had finished their repast—such being the etiquette in merchant ships.
Macdougall almost boiled over with anger when he heard the skipper ask me. His freckled face looked just like a turkey's egg—boiled!
"Vara weel, vara weel, Cap'en Billings," said he, with a mock deference that little disguised his rage: "but I'd ha'e you to know that I didn't ship aboard here to mess wi' 'prentice lads."
The skipper fired up in an instant, a light darting from his blue eyes which one would not have thought their liquid depths capable of.
"And I would have you to know, Mr Macdougall," he retorted, quickly, uttering every word, however, with distinct emphasis, "that I'm captain of my own ship, and shall ask whom I please to my table. Steward," he added, calling out to that worthy, who was just sauntering by into the cabin from the cook's galley with a covered dish in his hands, "lay a plate and knife and fork for Mr Leigh; and bear in mind that he dines with me every day when his duties allow!"
"Aye, aye, sir," replied Owen Williams, proceeding on into his pantry with his dish, and I followed the skipper into the cabin shortly afterwards.
This was undoubtedly a blow to the mate, as I thought, sniggering over the little episode at the time; but, Mr Macdougall did not forget the fact of my having been the occasion of his getting a "dressing down" from the skipper, and he debited it carefully in his account against me, determining to pay me out for it on the first convenient opportunity—a resolution that was carried out quite soon enough for me, as you will presently learn!
IN THE HORSE LATITUDES.
At noon on our second day out, running right before the north-east by east wind all the while and making but little southing, with our royals and studding-sails set, and everything that could draw—the Esmeralda averaging nearly ten knots an hour every time we hove the log from the time of our clearing the Bristol Channel—we had reached the meridian of 12 degrees 15 minutes west; for Captain Billings wisely took advantage of such a favourable breeze, as I've remarked before, to get well to windward of the French coast, knowing well that we might shortly meet with westerly winds of a variable nature that would probably put us quite as far to the eastward as we should want—in the event of our making too much westing.
However, having now gained such a good offing, we hauled our wind, and steered a west-sou'-west course, as previously mentioned, towards Madeira.
Up to this time we had not started a brace, or loosed a sheet, the wind being fair from aft while we were steering to the west, and now well abeam, on our bearing up to the southward on the port tack; but, we had hardly made a couple of days' sail in our new direction, running down to the parallel of 45 degrees north, which we crossed in 15 degrees west, before the wind began to come in light puffs. Shortly afterwards, it shifted round to the westward, backing occasionally to the east and south-east and causing us plenty of work in the way of tacking, first to starboard, and then to port again—the skipper striving all the while to keep all the westing he had made, and preserve a diagonal course for the Line; although the set of the Gulf Stream, in towards the coast of Portugal, gave us a lot of leeway to add to our dead reckoning.
What with the baffling breezes and occasional calms, it took us another four days to get to the southwards of the Azores, passing them much further to the eastwards than Captain Billings had calculated on; but then a fresh wind sprang up from the north-west, bidding fair to last, which took us down to the thirty-fifth parallel in fine style, the Esmeralda covering over three hundred miles between the morning of one day and noon the next.
All hands now began hoping we were going to make a quick run of it after all, in spite of the tedious delays of the last few days; but it was a very fallacious hope, as we quickly found out.
The favourable north-wester lasted another twelve hours, driving us down our latitudes on the starboard tack, the ship sailing pretty free, with the wind nearly abeam and all her canvas set that could draw, racing through the water like a crack cutter at a regatta; when, on the evening of our eleventh day out, by which time we had nearly reached the parallel of Madeira, although forty miles or so to the westward of the island, the breeze failed us all of a sudden, just close on to midnight, a dead calm setting in, accompanied by a heavy rolling swell.
"Ah," said Jorrocks, who was sharing the first watch with me—Mr Ohlsen, the second mate, being ill and excused from duty—"we're now in the Hoss Latitudes, Mister Leigh, and may know what we've got to expect!"
"Horse Latitudes?" I repeated after him, inquiringly, thinking he was having a little joke at my expense, and taking advantage of my ignorance.
"Aye, I ain't trying to bamboozle you, my lad! They calls them so, 'cause, in the old days, the West India traders that carried out hosses to the Windward Islands had frequently to throw 'em overboard during the shifts of wind and changes they had when they got hereabouts; for the weather can't be depended on for an hour at a time, it being calm, just as now, one minute, and the next a gale springing up strong enough to blow the masts out o' your ship 'fore you can let the sheets fly."
"Oh!" I exclaimed; "and, do you think there's any likelihood of a hurricane now?"
"Can't say," replied Jorrocks, sententiously. "We'd better give the skipper a hail; he left orders to be called if the wind dropped, or in case of any change."
"All right," said I, turning to leave the poop. "I will go down and rouse him at once, and I may as well knock up Mr Macdougall at the same time to relieve the deck, for it's past eight bells."
"Aye, aye, do so, sir," responded the boatswain; so I hastened below to perform my mission, leaving him in charge until I returned.
Captain Billings answered my call almost the instant I rapped at his door, coming from his cabin fully dressed, having turned in to his bunk "all standing," as if prepared for the summons; but the first mate was a heavy sleeper, and it took me more than ten minutes to rouse him, so that when I had gained the deck again the port watch had come on duty, the "starbowlines" having gone to their bunks as soon as relieved by the fresh hands. Jorrocks, however, I noticed, remained still on the poop; and, knowing that he would not thus inconvenience himself by going without his proper "caulk," like the rest, unless there was some urgent reason—for he dearly loved his sleep when duty did not interfere with the indulgence—I stayed behind, too, the more especially as I remembered what he had said about there being the chance of a "blow."
In the short time I had been away, a change was apparent, even to my unaccustomed eyes, unused as they were as yet to many nautical phenomena.
The stillness of the atmosphere I had noticed when I quitted the deck to summon the skipper, had been succeeded by a series of light puzzling puffs of air; while, although the night was clear, with a few stars shining overhead, fleecy fragments of cloud were whirling about in eddies, some settling in heavy masses on the water and banking themselves round the horizon.
But, the sea itself showed much the greatest sign of coming disturbance. The waves, no longer following each other in long heaving rollers, were curving upwards and jostling each other—like so many fiery coursers, suddenly thrown back on their haunches, by reason of being reined in when in the full burst of their mad career, and now champing their bits with angry impatience!
There was, likewise, an alteration in the aspect of the ship.
Captain Billings had already reduced his canvas, the topgallant sails having been taken in and the courses clewed up; and now, pretty nearly stripped of all her "drapery," like a gladiator entering the arena, the Esmeralda appeared awaiting the issue of whatever decision the elements might arrive at—ready to take her part in the conflict should strife ensue between the opposing forces of the wind and waves; or, in the event of a contest being avoided through the disinclination of the storm fiend to "come to the scratch," equally prepared to spread her wings again and proceed on her voyage.
"It's just a toss up now, whether we'll have it or not," whispered Jorrocks to me as we stood side by side together on the poop, watching the skipper, whose eyes were as intently riveted on the dog-vane at the main truck above.
Just at this moment, Mr Macdougall came lazily sauntering up the poop ladder. He did not see that Captain Billings was on deck; and, eyeing the change in the ship's appearance, exclaimed, angrily, with that Scottish burr of his, which was always more pronounced when he was excited—
"Hoot, mon, wha' the dickens hae ye takken the sails off her—who ordered ye, I'd like ta ken?"
He was addressing Jorrocks; but the skipper, who was annoyed by his late arrival to relieve the watch, answered him sharply—
"I gave the order, Mr Macdougall, which you should have been up in time to have seen carried out; and, if you're a seaman and will just give a glance round, you'll soon see the reason why!"
The first mate made no reply to this save to follow out the captain's suggestion of looking over the side; and what he saw there did not appear to give him any excuse for controverting the skipper's words; for, the clouds had now spread over the horizon—except to the southward, where it was still clear, and from which a short sharp gust of wind came every now and then, filling out the loose folds of the courses, and then, as it died away, letting them flap against the masts with a heavy dull sound as of distant thunder, an occasional streak of pale lightning darting across the sky to the north-west, where the heavens were most obscured, as if to bear out the illusion.
"We're in for it now, for certain," said Captain Billings presently, noticing a faint stir in the air above amidst the whizzing clouds, the upper strata of which were going in a contrary direction to that in which the vane pointed, which was still to the south-east. "Boatswain, rouse out the watch below!"
Jorrocks thereupon immediately went forward towards the fo'c's'le, knocking with a marlinspike three times on the deck, and shouting out the well-known hail that every sailor knows but too well.
"Tumble up there! All hands shorten sail!"
The men, who had hardly shifted their clothes and turned in, after being relieved by the port watch at eight bells, came tumbling up on deck hurriedly, and the skipper at once ordered the topsail and foresail to be reefed, spanker to be brailed up, and the main course furled; while the vessel was kept with her head to the southward, that is, as well as the cross sea and the fitful gusts of wind would allow, under her jib, fore and main-topsails and forecourse.
Presently there was an ominous hum in the surrounding atmosphere, when the waves calmed down as if by magic; and then, a large rent disclosed itself in the sombre curtain of cloud to the north-west, the heavy masses of vapour that had been previously piling themselves along the horizon there and spreading up to the zenith falling back again and scurrying away in a retrograde direction, like skirmishers on a battle- field driven-in on to their supports by a rush of cavalry trying to cut them off.
"Here it comes!" shouted out Captain Billings, ordering the hands at the same time to "stand by" the braces and topsail halliards; and, almost ere the crew could get to their respective posts, the clouds had disappeared, with what seemed a supernatural celerity from the heavens, letting the clear blue sky be seen again and the bright twinkling stars peep down to see what all the fuss was about, all being calm and easy up there!
Thanks to the skipper's precautions, the outburst of the gale did not take the Esmeralda aback, as would most probably have been the case if the first mate had been in charge of the deck, when we should have most likely lost our spars, if the vessel had not foundered, as frequently happens when a ship is caught unprepared; as it was, she only winced slightly, with a shiver through her frame, as the wind struck her on the quarter, the masts and yards creaking and the topsails expanding with a sound like that of an explosion as they were blown out to their fullest extent, almost jumping from the bolt-ropes, and then her hull lay over to leeward while she began to push through the water, driven along before the blast at racehorse speed.
"Ease off those starboard braces there, and haul in to leeward?" cried out Captain Billings, directing the man at the wheel by a wave of his hand to put the helm down slightly, so as to bring her head more up to the wind; but this was more than the steersman could do unaided, the vessel—carrying out the analogy I recently used—resembling a vicious charger that had taken the bit between his teeth—so, Mr Macdougall at once sprang to help the steersman, when the two together managed, by exerting all their united strength, to jam the spokes round so that the ship's head was brought over to the south-west, bearing off then with the wind before the beam.
The north-west gale was then blowing with tremendous force and increasing to the power of a hurricane each instant as it whistled through the cordage, wailing and shrieking like the lost souls in Dante's "Inferno." The momentarily quiet sea, too, had got up again, and was now covered with huge broken waves—raised aloft in pyramids one moment, and the next scooped out into yawning valleys, into which the vessel plunged, with a shock that made her timbers vibrate with the sledge-hammer thud of the bows meeting the billows full butt, the concussion causing columns of spray to be thrown up that came in over the cathead, drenching the fo'c's'le and pouring in a cascade into the waist, whence the broken water, washing aft along the deck, forming a lake on the lee-side, where the scuppers were level with the sea, from the ship's heeling over.
We were still carrying too much sail; and this the skipper was as quick as any one to perceive, although he was anxious to pursue his course as long as he could, and make as much capital as he could out of the north- wester in his way to the Line.
"Hands shorten sail!" accordingly was the repeated cry; and, knowing what was wanted, the crew were soon racing up the shrouds to close-reef the topsails, although the force of the wind nearly pinned them to the rigging like spread eagles, and they had hard difficulty in gaining the yards, and working out along the foot-ropes, especially on those to windward.
The topsail halliards had of course been let go before this, and the loose sails were filled out like balloons, so that it took some time to get in the bunt and tie the reef points; but it was at last done, and we returned to the deck—I being especially triumphant at having out-paced one of the smartest topmen in the ship, in gaining the weather earing of the foretop sail before him, and completing my task so quickly as to get down on deck before some of the rest had yet left the yard.
Captain Billings, I was pleased to see, noticed my activity, giving me an approving smile, which more than counterbalanced the scowl that Macdougall greeted my reappearance with below; but all such thoughts were soon banished by the skipper's fresh order to go aloft and take in the topsail we had only just close-reefed, the vessel being buried too much by the head.
Away up the rattlins we all climbed again; while those below, on the halliards being started by the run, began hauling on the clewlines and buntlines, bagging up the sail so that we could hand it easier. It was stiffer work furling it than the reefing had been; but, at length this, too, was accomplished, albeit I nearly narrowly got knocked off the yard-arm by the flapping back of the folds of canvas in my face as the wind caught the leech sideways. We then returned once more to the more substantial platform of the deck, glad enough to get down safe again.
"Let go the jib halliards!" was the next command, some of the hands starting forwards to man the down haul; but the moment the halliards were cast loose, the accommodating sail saved us any further trouble in the way of stowing it, by blowing clean away to leeward with a report as if a small cannon had been fired off on the fo'c's'le—floating out against the dark background of the sky like a child's kite whose string has parted and let it go to grief, tumbling down from its soaring height, and disappearing in the dim distance to leeward, where the clouds had already vanished.
The ship was now only under her close-reefed main-topsail and reefed foresail, all the rest of her canvas having been taken off her by degrees; still, she laboured so greatly, and got such a list to leeward—with the topmasts bent like fishing rods under the strain, while the weather shrouds were as taut as fiddle-strings, and those on the port side hung limp and loose through the stretching of the rigging—that the skipper saw she would not stand driving any more. The only thing now to be done, he thought, was to lay her to, so that, as he could not get her any further on her forward journey, she should not, at all events, lose the progress she had already made save by leeway drift, which of course was unavoidable.
"Ease down the helm!" he cried to the two men, who were now necessary at the wheel, while the fore-tack was boarded, the lee braces hauled aft, and the mainyard braced in, when the ship was brought up to the wind, bowing and scraping, and taking in tons of water over the fo'c's'le, in this operation, that washed everybody off their legs in the waist, bundling them away to leeward in a bunch.
For a time the Esmeralda now behaved very well, the mizen trysail being set to steady her, although, being hove to on the starboard tack, she drifted sideways, before the fierce north-west gale, making as much leeway towards the south and east as if she had been running free; but, presently, there was a loud crack heard forwards, and Haxell, the carpenter, came up to the skipper on the poop, looking even more serious than usual as he crawled aft under shelter of the bulwarks.
"The foremast is sprung, sir," said he in a melancholy tone of voice, as if he were announcing the fact of his just going to be hanged.
"Is it serious?" asked Captain Billings.
"Aye, aye, sir, it's all that," replied Haxell. "There's a big flaw close under the slings of the foreyard. It won't stand the pressure of that foresail ag'in it much longer, Cap'; and it'll be safe to carry away presently."
"Then we must relieve it before that happens," said the skipper, giving orders for us to furl the foresail and hoist the fore-topmast staysail in its place, for that would serve to keep control of the helm, he thought. The ship required some headsail, and this would not try the damaged mast so severely as the foresail had done, with its wide extent of canvas.
By the time all these different manoeuvres had been essayed and effected it was broad daylight. It was a fine morning, too, although the wind was still blowing a hurricane and the sea was fearfully high and choppy, for there wasn't a cloud to be seen in the heavens, while the sun was shining down with almost tropical heat; but, in spite of its looking so bright, we hadn't done with the nor'-wester yet.
Towards mid-day, when we found from observation that we were in latitude 27 degrees North and longitude 18 degrees West—nearly abreast of the island of Palma in the Canaries, and a terrible distance to the eastward of our position on the previous day, thus showing all the leeway we had lost—the wind increased so much in strength that it blew now with even greater force than at its first onset the evening before on the breaking out of the gale.
This was not all, either.
The heavy waves that dashed against the ship as she headed them, broke upon her bows with such fury that it seemed every moment as if they would beat in the timbers; while, every now and then, some billow mightier than its fellows would force her head away, making her fall off, and then, the succeeding sea would take her broadside on, hurling tons of broken water on her decks that would have soon filled her had not the hatches been battened down, which precaution had been taken when we first reduced sail.
The situation became serious on this being repeated several times during the afternoon, for there was great danger of the vessel being any moment thrown on her beam ends, when there would certainly be a clean sweep made of everything on board and the Esmeralda be speedily converted into a floating wreck!
Captain Billings accordingly called a council of his officers, I standing by and listening to what Mr Macdougall and Jorrocks advised should be done in the emergency. These both, however, came to the same opinion as the skipper, that scudding would be the best course to pursue under the circumstances—although, like him, they were well aware that the difficulty which faced us all consisted, not so much in running before the wind, as in managing to get the vessel's head round so as to do it without broaching or letting her to.
Still, the manoeuvre had to be tried as a last resource.
"I don't see that anything else can be done," said Captain Billings, with a more anxious look on his face than I had ever noticed there before. "I only hope we'll manage it successfully; for, if we once get broadside on in the trough of this sea, she'll never rise out of it, with the heavy cargo she carries, and so it will be a case of Davy Jones' locker for the lot of us!"
"A LITTLE UNPLEASANTNESS."
"Say, Cap', we'll have to strip her first," suggested Jorrocks, when it was thus decided to carry out the contemplated measure for the relief of the ship—"if we don't do that, we'll have every stick taken out of her as soon as we try to wear her!"
"Oh, aye, boatswain, I haven't forgotten that, you may be sure," said the skipper; and the hands were then once more sent aloft to furl the main-topsail, while the mizzen trysail was hauled down and the braces manned, so as to help the vessel round with the yards the moment the helm was put up.
It was a ticklish job, though. The utmost care was necessary in order that the manoeuvre might be successfully accomplished.
Should one of the heavy rollers strike her after she had once yielded to the influence of the rudder and while coming round with the wind, before she had fully paid off—thus presenting her stern to the attack of her stubborn assailants even as she now faced them, like a stag at bay or a cat fronting a bull-dog—why, the gale would undoubtedly catch her broadside on. In such a case, the Esmeralda would be exposed at her weakest point to the full force of the wind and sea, in the same way as the deer or cat turning tail to its pursuer—with what result we on board could readily anticipate, even without the skipper's warning words!
As Jorrocks expressed it, in the event of such a catastrophe happening, "It was all Lombard Street to a China orange we'd lose the number of our mess and sarve as food for fishes!"
Everything, therefore, depended on our seizing the right moment for putting the helm up and bringing her head round, the critical period being that between the onslaught of one of the rollers and the advent of the next; when, if the vessel answered her helm smartly, rising out of the trough of the sea ere the following wave had time to reach her, she would be away scudding in front of the gale safely, before many minutes would be past and the present peril might then be a thing to look back upon with feelings of thankfulness and satisfaction.
Captain Billings explained this to Jorrocks, while all the remaining canvas was being stripped off the vessel, with the exception of the fore-topmast staysail, which was still retained in order to assist in forcing her head round when all was ready for trying the hazardous experiment.
"You know what I want, Boatswain," he said, sending Jorrocks forwards to watch for a favourable opening between the following waves and turn the ship—"the moment you see our chance, give the word; and then, Heaven help us to get round in time and not broach-to!"
"Aye, aye, sir, I knows what you want," answered Jorrocks, who then proceeded to crawl as carefully towards the fore-chains, as the carpenter had come aft—bending down beneath the protection of the weather-bulwarks as he crept along the waist, and holding on by a stray rope's-end here and there to preserve his balance—although he did this as much to prevent exposing his body as leverage for the wind to force the vessel over to leeward before the proper time, as to shield himself from its boisterous buffeting.
Arrived at the point he had selected, Jorrocks drew himself up gingerly into the fore-rigging, his hat blowing from off his head and his hair streaming out before the wind the instant he abandoned the shelter of the bulwarks. However, he had not long to remain in that exposed position.
He had waited to stand up until he heard the blow of one of the heavy billows as it careered before the gale, coming against the bows in due rotation, and the instant he heard this he raised himself erect at once, receiving part of the deluge that broke over the cathead in a fountain of spray on his exposed head and hairy face, the impromptu shower bath making him appear like a dripping merman fresh from the briny deep.
Jorrocks, however, did not mind the cold bath. He had much more serious matter on hand to take notice of it, beyond giving himself a shake like a retriever fresh from a dip.
Looking over the side to windward, as quickly as he dashed the water from his eyes, he noticed that the following wave succeeding the one which had just delivered its attack, was quite two cable lengths off—a more than usually long interval between the waves as yet.
It seemed like an interposition of Providence in our favour, I thought, noticing the lull from my station on the poop almost as soon as Jorrocks perceived it in the bows, and I feared he would have missed the opportunity.
But the boatswain was too good a seaman for that. The very instant the reflection crossed my mind that he would be too late, for the whole thing happened in the "wink of an eye," he raised his right hand high in the air, standing up to his full height on the bulwarks, while holding on to the ratlines of the foreshrouds—thus allowing his body to act as a sort of additional headsail to aid the fore-topmast staysail, which, as I've said before, was the only rag the ship had on her, in forcing her bows round.
Captain Billings was watching Jorrocks even more intently than I; and, without a second's delay, the moment the latter gave the signal that the critical point for action had arrived, he roared out in a voice of thunder, "Hard up with the helm, hard up, my men, for your lives!"
Mr Macdougall and the two seamen who were standing on either side of the wheel, clutching hold of the spokes and holding on to them with all their might, shifted it round almost as quickly as the skipper's order was given. But they had to put all their strength into the task to overcome the resistance of the dead weight of the hull, aided as that was by the mountain of water pressing it back upon them and thus resisting their efforts to shift the helm over to port.
For a brief space of time, hardly an instant though it seemed an eternity, the ship appeared somewhat sluggish to respond to the movement of the rudder, hanging in stays and settling down into the great valley of water that loomed on our lee; but the next moment a glad cry of relief burst from all as she answered her helm, a wavering motion of her bows denoting this being then perceptible.
"Now, men, look alive," cried the skipper. "Cast-off those lee braces here; haul round to windward sharp, and square the yards!"
These orders were executed as rapidly as they were given, the hands being ready at the braces, and only waiting for the word of command to ease the yards round. When these were squared, however, the fore- topmast staysail fluttered and filled with a jerk that made the foremast crack and tremble, the vibration shaking the ship to her centre and penetrating even as far as to the deck beneath our feet as we stood awaiting the issue of the operation—the very planks "creeping" with the concussion caused by this and the bows meeting the send of the sea.
But the power of the little staysail forward, and the effect of the exposed surface of the boatswain's body in the rigging, both catching the wind at the same time, settled the matter.
Without making any further opposition to our wishes, the Esmeralda payed off handsomely; and, rising up on the crest of an enormous green roller, that had swept up to overwhelm her, but which now passed harmlessly under her keel instead, she surged through the water, gathering way every moment as she showed her heels to the gale, careering over the stormy billows before the blast like a mad thing, as if rejoicing in her freedom after so long being forced to lay to— although the fore-topmast staysail, which had done such good work in getting her head round, parted company as soon as the yards were braced round, blowing away to atoms, and floating off in the distance in the same kite-like fashion in which the jib had previously disappeared.
The loss, however, seemed to affect the ship's speed but little, for she scudded off under bare poles at as great a rate as if she had all her canvas set, and was running before a ten-knot breeze.
"Thank Heaven!" I heard Captain Billings exclaim in a low voice, taking off his cap reverently, as soon as we were safely round before the wind; and I could see his lips move as if in silent prayer. In this, I confess, I joined with all my heart; for, if ever in my life I experienced the feeling of religious emotion which causes us to express our gratitude for rescue from peril, I had that feeling then!
The Esmeralda, though, was not out of all danger yet.
There was still the fear of her being pooped by the following waves, which now raced after, in anger at her having escaped their clutches; so, to lessen this possibility, the skipper had the reefed main-topsail set again, and the mizzen trysail once more hoisted, so that the ship might get through the water faster than the pursuing rollers. The strain on the masts was tremendous; but, fortunately, everything held, and under the impetus of this additional sail power she doubled her speed, bidding defiance to the harpies of the ocean that had so nearly worsted her in the combat.
It was just four bells in the afternoon watch when we got her head round before the wind, although it was not until nearly midnight that the hurricane blew itself out, the wind then dropping almost as suddenly as it had sprung up twenty-four hours before.
During all this time, only one of the watches had a short spell below, and neither the skipper, Jorrocks, nor I, had ever left the deck after the gale had begun—the only exception being Mr Macdougall, who had turned in for a caulk when we were lying-to. Had it not been, however, for the praiseworthy exertions of Pat Doolan, the Irish cook, I do not believe we should have been able to hold out so long.
The willing fellow, despite the series of liquid avalanches that were constantly flooding the ship as she took in the green seas over her bows, managed in some wonderful way or other to keep his galley fire alight, supplying us with a grateful cup of hot coffee at intervals through the harassing night; and, late in the afternoon, when we were all utterly exhausted, he served out to each of us, much to our surprise, a pannikin apiece of the most delicious pea-soup I ever tasted—"It was enough," as one of the men said on receiving the welcome refreshment, "to have put life in a post!"
This was while our struggle with the elements yet lasted; but as soon as that was over, and when all fear of peril was dispelled by the lulling of the gale, the inevitable reaction after such protracted exertions without any recuperative rest became painfully apparent, and I was not at all sorry when Captain Billings told the hands belonging to the port watch that they might go below.
"And I fancy, Mister Leigh," said Jorrocks to me, "we can go down and turn in too; for we ain't a going to have another such a blow in a hurry again for a month of Sundays!"
Nor did it look like it either, the stars twinkling away in a cloudless sky, and the night being perfectly bright and clear, although there was no moon, while the rollers were rolling less angrily, as if the ocean were hushing itself down into repose at last.
There was nothing, therefore, to keep me on deck any longer; so, following the example of my old friend Jorrocks, I speedily sought my bunk, and, turning in, did not wake again until nearly noon on the following day—the good-natured skipper having given orders to Mr Macdougall not to disturb me when the starboard watch was relieved in the early morning, saying that I had earned my rest fairly by rolling two days' duty into one, which, indeed, I believe I had!
I was up on deck again, however, in time to "tak' the soon," as the Scottish mate termed it in his north-country accent, for I was anxious to see how far the gale had driven the vessel off her proper course.
It was our thirteenth day out, counting from the time we "took our departure," as navigators say, from Lundy Island; and both the skipper and I made it out, after working the reckoning, that we were as far down as the twenty-fifth parallel, although a good deal to the eastward of what our true position should be—the leeway we had made while lying-to, and our subsequent scudding for nearly twelve hours before the north- wester, having taken us much too close in towards the African continent, thus causing us to lose all that westing we had secured on our first start from the Bristol Channel, and which we had afterwards so carefully preserved, even amidst the baffling winds of the middle latitudes.
Still, this mortifying conclusion had a redeeming feature.
If we were too far to the eastwards, we were as assuredly beyond the region specially designated by Jorrocks as the "Horse Latitudes," where the calms of Cancer hold sway; for, now, setting all plain sail before a steady breeze from off the land, we soon managed to run into the regular north-east Trades, picking them up in the next degree or two we ran down to the southward.
From this point, keeping on the starboard tack again, with the wind well on our beam, we ran for the Line; but before crossing the equator, Mr Macdougall and I, between whom relations had been somewhat strained almost from our first introduction, came to an open rupture, the "little unpleasantness" happening in this wise.
Mr Ohlsen, the second mate—"Old son of a gun," as the crew called him, from his taciturn manner of going about his work—was still on the sick list; and Captain Billings, who had expressed himself much pleased with my behaviour since I was on board, especially during the storm, had assigned the performance of this gentleman's duties to me.
At this Mr Macdougall was extremely indignant, remonstrating with the skipper for putting so young a lad as myself in such an important post as that of second mate.
"What are your reasons for objecting to him?" asked Captain Billings.
"Why, the loon's but a bairn," said Mr Macdougall, at a nonplus for some objection to my promotion.
"If he's young," answered the skipper, "he's got a man's courage and a seaman's aptitude, which is more than I can say for some aboard here!"
"Hoot, mon, d'ye mean to eenseenuate?"
"I insinuate nothing," interrupted Captain Billings, hotly. "If the cap fits you, why, you can wear it! Leigh is a strong, sturdy fellow, worth any two hands on a yard; and, as for navigating, he can work out a reckoning better than—than myself!"
"That mebbe, that mebbe, I dinna gang for to denee that stat'ment, Cap'en," said the Scotsman, sneeringly, implying that I or anybody else might easily eclipse the skipper's powers of calculation; "but I hae my doots, mon, I hae my doots."
"You can 'hay' your grandmother if you like," retorted Captain Billings, decisively; "still, it's my order that Leigh acts as second mate until Mr Ohlsen is able to return to duty. I'm captain of this ship, Mr Macdougall, please remember!"
This was the invariable expression the skipper always made use of when he had made up his mind to anything, so the mate knew that there was no use in his trying to argue the point any further, and he left the poop, where the altercation had taken place, in a towering rage. This his freckles plainly showed, his equanimity not being restored by the ill- concealed titters of the men standing by, for they had overheard most of what had been said, and repeated the substance of the conversation to me afterwards.
I was, it is true, only sixteen at the time; but, being a sturdy, broad- shouldered chap, I looked all two years older; and I really do not think the skipper complimented me too strongly when he said I was worth a couple of hands on a yard, for, during my experience in the coal brig under Jorrocks' tuition, I had acquired considerable proficiency and dexterity in most of a seaman's functions, which aptitude I had further improved while sailing in Sam Pengelly's schooner between the various ports between Plymouth and the Land's End for two years nearly at a stretch afterwards.
My nautical education, too, as I have already mentioned, had not been neglected all the time I had been waiting to get on board a sea-going ship, for since I had joined the Esmeralda I had not lost a single opportunity for developing my book learning by practical examples in seamanship, Captain Billings encouraging me to persevere whenever he saw me inclined to laziness, and giving me all the advantage of his own training and experience; so that, by this time, I believe I was almost as competent to take charge of the ship on an emergency and navigate her to her destination, as if I had passed the Trinity House examination and received a first mate's certificate like Mr Macdougall, whom in the mathematical part of navigation I could beat easily.
Of course, I was not up in sailor lore as to atmospheric changes and those signs and tokens which it takes a long apprenticeship to the sea thoroughly to learn; but in the ordinary work of the ship I was second to none, the men, with whom I was a prime favourite, thanks to Jorrocks, acknowledging that I could reef, hand, and steer, with any of them.
Mr Macdougall was jealous of me—that was the reason of his animosity; so he took advantage of every chance he had to discount the captain's favour by making me in the wrong, to prove his assertion as to my incompetence to take charge of a watch.
One day I had taken an observation at noon as usual, the skipper of late leaving that operation entirely to me, for he knew Mr Macdougall would be certain to get a sight too, if only in order to have a wrangle with me as to the right position of the ship. Having made out the reckoning with a stop watch, I was busily engaged marking out our place on the chart on top of the cabin sky-light, as it was a fine day, with a pair of callipers and parallel rulers, when the Scottish mate came up to me.
"And whaur d'ye find us the noo?" said he, insinuatingly, to me.
"We're in 1 degree 35 minutes north, and 28 degrees west; and I think ought to alter our course a trifle more to the southward to avoid the Saint Paul islets, which we must be heading for direct, steering south- west as we are now."
"Whaur d'ye mean, bairn? There's no land near us, I ween, save the Rocas, and that is far awa' to the westwar'."
"I tell you," said I, positively, with perhaps a good deal of bumptiousness, "we're heading on straight for those rocks there marked on the chart!"
"Why, ye're mad—a stork staring loon!" retorted Mr Macdougall, in the most irritating way; "ye'd better gang awa' to schule again."
"I think you had," I answered; "I have forgotten more than you ever learned!"
Now this was very rude and impertinent for me to remark to a man so much older than myself, and my superior officer; but I did not reflect at the moment what I said to my tormentor, for he used to nag at me every day about the very same point—my taking the sun and working out the reckoning. It was a very sore subject with him ever since the skipper praised me at his expense on our first day out.
At all events, rude or not, my reply had the desired effect of exasperating Mr Macdougall to the last pitch of endurance, for he was very easily excited.
"Gin you say that ag'in, ye onmannerly loon," said he, foaming with passion, his pale complexion becoming paler, which made the freckles stand out prominently, "I'll knock ye doon."
"Will you?" I cried, "you just try it, that's all!"
He did; and down I went on the deck, as flat as a pancake, from a well- directed blow of his brawny fist!
I was not beaten, however.
Jumping up, I faced him again, only to undergo a repetition of the flooring process; when, seeing that I with my boy's strength was no match for him as yet, and losing my temper quite as much as he had done, I seized a large snatch-block which was lying by on the deck close to my hand, hurling it at his head with all my force.
The mate started back in terror, for the missile only missed him by half an inch, and if it had struck him would most certainly have killed him on the spot, although I did not think of that when I pitched it at him; and, just at that moment, I heard Captain Billings' voice behind us.
"Hullo, steady there—belay that!" exclaimed Captain Billings, half-way up the poop ladder, which he was ascending hastily, two steps at a time, "Mr—Mr Macdougall—Martin Leigh! What's this disgraceful row about?"
I had quickly picked up a handspike when I saw that I had missed my aim with the snatch-block, while my antagonist—who, to do him justice, had plenty of pluck, and had only been startled for the moment by the heavy missile hurtling through the air close to his projecting nose—was advancing to attack me again with his fists clenched, a savage look the while on his face, as if he meant to settle me this time; but, on this interruption from the skipper, we both relinquished our hostile attitudes, Mr Macdougall slinking towards the binnacle, as if innocently engaged in studying the bearings of the compass there, and I dropping the handspike incontinently.
There was a ringing tone of command in the skipper's voice which meant that he intended to be obeyed; but mixed with this, beyond a slight suspicion of surprise at the unexpected scene which met his gaze, there was a good deal of subdued irritation, which really was not to be wondered at.
He had been having an afternoon nap in his cabin, which was situated immediately below the deck where the mate and I had been rehearsing the little drama I have just detailed; and the noise we had made with "the movements of the piece," to speak theatrically, having very unceremoniously disturbed his slumbers before the period he generally allowed himself for his "forty winks" had expired, his temper was not sweetened thereby beforehand, only just needing the unseemly fracas which he noticed on coming on the poop to send it up to fever-heat.
I had never seen Captain Billings so angry since I had been on board the Esmeralda; his blue eyes fairly flashed forth fire!
He took no notice of me at first, advancing towards the chief mate.
"Mr Macdougall," said he, sharply, "I call upon you for an explanation of this—this—discreditable affair!"
"Yon dratted loon, Capting, sought me life!" replied the other, glibly. "He hove a snatch-block at me, and takkin' the pairt of my ain defeence I was gangin' to poonish him a wee when ye came on deck."
"And did you give him no occasion for behaving so insubordinately, sir?" asked the skipper, looking Mr Macdougall straight in the face with a piercing glance, as if defying him to answer him untruthfully.
But the mate was too old a hand at "spinning a yarn," as sailors term dealing in fictitious statements. He could utter a falsehood without winking once!
"Nae, sir," said he, as cool as a cucumber, making no reference to the fact of his having twice knocked me down before I retaliated on him, "I did naething to the loon, naething at a'! I only joost reprovit him a wee for his bad language and inseelance, ye ken, an' he oops wi' yon block an' heaves at me puir head. It's joost a marcy o' Proveedence he did nae knockit me brains oot!"
Fortunately for the Scotsman, his good or bad angel was in the ascendant at this moment, substantiating this incomplete account he gave as to what had happened. As luck would have it, too, Captain Billings had only got up the poop ladder in time to take heed of the latter part of the fray, and thus the evidence of his own eyesight corroborated apparently the mate's assertion, that I had made a most unjustifiable assault on him.
Greatly incensed, therefore, he now turned on me.
"I saw the assault myself, Mr Macdougall; so I don't merely take your word alone for it. What have you got to say, Leigh, in excuse for your outrageous behaviour? It's—it's scandalous; I could thrash you myself!"
My pride, however, was roused by the fact of his having accepted the mate's explanation without asking me for any explanation first, and so condemning me unheard; consequently, without taking into consideration the thought that it was only proper that Captain Billings should support the authority of his chief officer unhesitatingly, I answered him rather pertly, only feeling my own wrong, and not considering what was the skipper's obvious duty.
"If you believe Mr Macdougall," I replied, in a rude, off-hand way, "there's nothing for me to say."
"You ungrateful young hound!" cried out the skipper, who, if angry before, was now as mad as a hatter at my impudence. "That's the thanks I get, is it, for favouring you and promoting you out of your station! Listen; consider yourself disrated from this instant—do you hear?"
"Yes, I hear, Captain Billings," said I, in a sullen voice.
"Then, heed sharply, my lad," he retorted. "Get off this deck and go forward. Your place, henceforth, sir, will be in the fo'c's'le, along with the other hands; and the sooner you lug that chest of yours out of the spare bunk I gave you amidships, the better!"
This was a terrible downfall; but, of course, there was no use my arguing against the skipper's decision, the master of a merchant ship being lord paramount on board his own vessel, and having the power to make and unmake his officers, like a nautical Warwick, the whilom creator of kings!