But in fancy I sometimes complete the picture and see myself, in French staff officer's dress, boldly riding up to the head of the French infantry column and in the name of the, Duke of Ragusa commanding its general to halt. True, I did not know the password—which might have been awkward. But a staff officer can swagger through some small difficulties, as I had already proved twice that night. But for the stumble of a horse—who knows? The possibility seems to me scarcely more fantastic than the accident which actually saved Guarda.
Marmont's night attack on Guarda, though immediately and even absurdly unsuccessful, did, in fact, convince Trant that the hill was untenable, and he at once attempted to fall back upon Celorico across the river Mondego, where lay Lord Wellington's magazines and very considerable stores, for the moment quite unprotected.
Marmont had from four to six thousand horsemen and two brigades of infantry. The horse could with the utmost ease have headed Trant off and trotted into Celorico while the infantry fell on him, and but for the grossest blundering the militia as a fighting force should have been wiped out of existence. But blunders dogged Marmont throughout this campaign. Trant and Wilson marched their men (with one day's provisions only) out of Guarda and down the long slopes toward the river. Good order was kept for three or four miles, and the head of the column was actually crossing by a pretty deep ford when some forty dragoons (which Trant had begged from Bacellar to help him in his proposed coup upon Sabugal, and which had arrived from Celorico but the day before) came galloping down through the woods with a squadron of French cavalry in pursuit, and charging in panic through the rearguard flung everything into confusion. The day was a rainy one, and the militia, finding their powder wet, ran for the ford like sheep. The officers, however, kept their heads and got the men over, though with the loss of two hundred prisoners. Even so, Marmont might have crossed the river on their flank and galloped into Celorico ahead of them. As it was, he halted and allowed the rabble to save themselves in the town. While blaming his head I must do justice to his heart and add that, finding what poor creatures he had to deal with, he forbade his horsemen to cut down the fugitives, and not a single man was killed.
Foreseeing that Trant must sooner or later retreat upon Celorico—though ignorant, of course, of what was happening—I was actually crossing the river at the time by a ford some four miles above, not in the French staff officer's uniform which I had worn out of Sabugal, but in an old jacket lent me by my friend the shepherd. By the time I reached the town Wilson had swept in his rabble and was planting his outposts, intending to resist and, if this became impossible, to blow up the magazines before retiring. Trant and Bacellar with the bulk of the militia were continuing the retreat meanwhile towards Lamego.
I need only say here that Wilson's bold front served its purpose. Once, when the French drove in his outposts, he gave the order to fire the powder, and a part of the magazine was actually destroyed when Marmont (who above all things hated ridicule, and was severely taxing the respect of his beautiful army by these serio-comic excursions after a raw militia) withdrew his troops and retired in an abominable temper to Sabugal.
How do I know that Marmont's temper was abominable? By what follows.
On March 30th I had left my kinsman, Captain Alan McNeill, with his servant Jose at Tammanies. They were to keep an eye on the French movements while I rode south and reported to Lord Wellington at Badajoz. It was now April 16th, and in the meanwhile a great deal had happened; but of my kinsman's movements I had heard nothing. At first I felt sure he must be somewhere in the neighbourhood of Marmont's headquarters; but even in Sabugal itself no hint of him could I hear, and at length I concluded that having satisfied himself of the main lines of Marmont's campaign he had gone off to meet and receive fresh instructions from Wellington, now posting north to save the endangered magazines.
On the evening of the 16th General Wilson sent for me.
"Here is a nasty piece of news," said he. "Your namesake is a prisoner."
"In Sabugal; but it seems he was brought there from the main camp above Penamacor. Trant tells me that you are not only namesakes but kinsmen. Would you care to question the messenger?"
The messenger was brought in—a peasant from the Penamacor district. Out of his rambling tale one or two certainties emerged. McNeill—the celebrated McNeill—was a prisoner; he had been taken on the 14th somewhere in the pass above Penamacor, and conveyed to Sabugal to await the French marshal's return. His servant was dead—killed in trying to escape, or to help his master's escape. So much I sifted out of the mass of inaccuracies. For, as usual, the two McNeills had managed to get mixed up in the story, a good half of which spread itself into a highly coloured version of my own escape from Sabugal on the evening of the 13th; how I had been arrested by a French officer in a back shop in the heart of the town; how, as he overhauled my incriminating papers, I had leapt on him with a knife and stabbed him to the heart, while my servant did the same with his orderly; how, having possessed ourselves of their clothes and horses, we had ridden boldly through the gate and southward to join Lord Wellington; and a great deal more equally veracious. As I listened I began to understand how legends grow and demigods are made.
It was flattering; but without attempting to show how I managed to disengage the facts, I will here quote the plain account of them, sent to me long afterwards by Captain Alan himself:—
Captain Alan McNeill's Statement.
"You wish, for use in your Memoirs, an account of my capture in the month of April, 1811, and the death of my faithful servant, Jose. I imagine this does not include an account of all our movements from the time you left us at Tammames (though this, too, I shall be happy to send if desired), and so I come at once to the 14th, the actual date of the capture.
"The preceding night we had spent in the woods below the great French camp, and perhaps a mile above the mouth of the pass opening on Penamacor. All through the previous day there had been considerable stir in the camp, and I believed a general movement to be impending. I supposed Marmont himself to be either with the main army or behind in his headquarters at Sabugal, and within easy distance. It never occurred to me—nor could it have occurred to any reasonable man—to guess, upon no evidence, that a marshal of France had gone gallivanting with six thousand horse and two brigades of infantry in chase of a handful of undrilled militia.
"My impression was that his move, if he made one, would be a resolute descent through Penamacor and upon Castello Branco. As a matter of fact, although Victor Alten had abandoned that place to be held by Lecor and his two thousand five hundred militiamen, the French (constant to their policy of frittering away opportunities) merely sent down two detachments of cavalry to menace it, and I believe that my capture was the only success which befel them.
"Early on the 14th, and about an hour before these troops (dragoons for the most part) began to descend the pass, I had posted myself with Jose on one of the lower ridges and (as I imagined) well under cover of the dwarf oaks which grew thickly there. They did indeed screen us admirably from the squadrons I was watching, and they passed unsuspecting within fifty yards of us. Believing them to be but an advance guard, and that we should soon hear the tramp of the main army, I kept my shelter for another ten minutes, and was prepared to keep it for another hour, when Jose—whose eyes missed nothing—caught me by the arm and pointed high up the hillside behind us.
"'Scouts!' he whispered. 'They have seen us, sir!'
"I glanced up and saw a pair of horsemen about two gunshots away galloping down the uneven ridge towards us, with about a dozen in a cluster close behind. We leapt into saddle at once, made off through the oaks for perhaps a couple of hundred yards, and then wheeling sharply struck back across the hillside towards Sabugal. We were still in good cover, but the enemy had posted his men more thickly than we had guessed, and by-and-by I crossed a small clearing and rode straight into the arms of a dragoon. Providentially I came on him with a suddenness which flurried his aim, and though he fired his pistol at me point-blank he wounded neither me nor my horse. But hearing shouts behind him in answer to the shot, we wheeled almost right-about and set off straight down the hill.
"This new direction did not help us, however; for almost at once a bugle was sounded above, obviously as a warning to the dragoons at the foot of the pass, who halted and spread themselves along the lower slopes to cut us off. Our one chance now lay in abandoning our horses and crawling deep into the covert of the low oaks where cavalry would have much ado to follow. This we promptly did, and for twenty minutes we managed to elude them, so that my hopes began to grow. But unhappily a knot of officers on the ridge above had watched this manoeuvre through their telescopes, and now detached small parties of infantry down either side of the pass to beat the covers. Our hiding place quickly became too hot, and as we broke cover and dashed across another small clearing we were spied again by those on the ridge, who shouted to the soldiers and directed the chase by waving their caps. For another ten minutes we baffled them, and then crawling on hands and knees from a thicket where we could hear our enemies not a dozen yards away beating the bushes with the flat of their swords, we came face to face with a second party advancing straight upon us. I stood up straight and was on the point of making a last desperate run for it when I saw Jose sink on his face exhausted.
"'Do not shoot!' I called to the officer. 'We have hurt no man, monsieur.'—For it is, as you know, a fact that in our business I strongly disapprove of bloodshed, and in all our expeditions together Jose had never done physical injury to a living creature.
"But I was too late. The young officer fired, and though the ball entered my poor servant's skull and killed him on the instant, a hulking fellow beside him had the savagery to complete what was finished with a savage bayonet-thrust through the back.
"I stood still, fully expecting to be used no more humanely, but the officer lowered his pistol and curtly told me I was his prisoner. By this time the fellows had come up from beating the thicket behind and surrounded me. I therefore surrendered, and was marched up the hill to the camp with poor Jose's body at my heels borne by a couple of soldiers.
"In all the hurry and heat of this chase I had found time to wonder how our pursuers happened to be so well posted. For a good fortnight and more—in fact, since my escape across the ford at Huerta—I could remember nothing that we had done to give the French the slightest inkling that we were watching them or, indeed, were anywhere near. And yet the affair suggested no casual piece of scouting, but a deliberate plan to entrap somebody of whose neighbourhood they were aware.
"Nor was this perplexity at all unravelled by the general officer to whose tent they at once conveyed me—a little round white-headed man, Ducrot by name. He addressed me at once as Captain McNeill, and seemed vastly elated at my capture.
"'So we have you at last!' he said, regarding me with a jocular smile and a head cocked on one side, pretty much after the fashion of a thrush eyeing a worm. 'But, excuse me, after so much finesse it was a blunder—hein?'
"Now finesse is not a word which I should have claimed at any time for my methods,[A] and I cast about in my memory for the exploit to which he could be alluding.
[Footnote A: NOTE BY MANUEL MCNEILL.—Here the captain, in his hurry to pay me a compliment, does himself some injustice. Finesse, to be sure, was not generally characteristic of his methods, but he used it at times with amazing dexterity, as, for instance, the latter part of this very adventure will prove, if I can ever prevail on him to narrate it. On the whole I should say that he disapproved of finesse much as he disapproved of swearing, but had a natural aptitude for both.]
"'It is the mistake of clever men,' continued General Ducrot sagely, 'to undervalue their opponents; but surely after yesterday the commonest prudence might have warned you to put the greatest possible distance between yourself and Sabugal.'
"'Sabugal?' I echoed.
"'Oh, my dear sir, we know. It was amusing—eh!—the barber's shop? I assure you I laughed. It was time for you to be taken; for really, you know, you could never have bettered it, and it is not for an artist to wind up by repeating inferior successes.'
"For a moment I thought the man daft. What on earth (I asked myself) was this nonsense about Sabugal and a barber's shop? I had not been near Sabugal; as for the barber's shop it sounded to me like a piece out of the childish rigmarole about cutting a cabbage leaf to make an apple pie. Some fleeting suspicion I may have had that here was another affair in which you and I had again managed to get confused; but if so the suspicion occurred only to be dismissed. A fortnight before you had left me on your way south to Badajoz, and you will own that to connect you with something which apparently had happened yesterday in a barber's shop in Sabugal was to overstrain guessing. Having nothing to say, I held my tongue; and General Ducrot put on a more magisterial air. He resented this British phlegm in a prisoner with whom he had been graciously jocose and fell back on his national belief that we islanders, though occasionally funny, are so by force of eccentricity rather than by humour.
"'I do not propose to deal with you myself,' he announced. 'At one time and another, sir, you have done our cause an infinity of mischief, and I prefer that the Duke of Ragusa should decide your fate. I shall send you therefore to Sabugal to await his return.'
"This gave me my first intimation that Marmont was neither in Sabugal nor with his main army. That same afternoon they marched me off to the town and set me under guard in a house next door to his headquarters.
"Marmont returned from Celorico (if my memory serves me) on the afternoon of the 17th. I was taken before him at once. He treated me with the greatest apparent kindness, hoped I had suffered no ill-usage, and wound up by inviting me to dinner. A couple of hours later I was escorted to headquarters, where, on entering the room where he received his guests, I found him in conversation with a young staff officer who wore his arm in a sling.
"The marshal turned to me at once, and very gaily. 'I understand,' said he with a smile, 'that I have no need to introduce you to Captain de Brissac.'
"I looked from him to the young officer in some bewilderment, and saw in a moment that Captain de Brissac was certainly not less bewildered than I.
"'But Monsieur le Marechal—but this is not the man!'
"'Not the man?'
"'Most decidedly not. The man of whom I spoke was dark and not above middle height. He spoke Portuguese like a native, and belonged to a class altogether different. It would be impossible for this gentleman to disguise himself so.'
"For a moment Marmont seemed no less puzzled than we. Then he broke out laughing again.
"'Ah! of course; that will have been Captain McNeill's servant—the poor fellow who was killed,' he added more gravely. 'I am told, sir, that this servant shared and furthered most of your adventures?'
"'He did indeed, M. le Marechal,' said I; 'but excuse me if I am at a loss—'
"The Duke interrupted me by laughing again and laying a hand on my shoulder as an orderly announced dinner. 'Rest easy, my friend, we know of all your little tricks.' And at table he amused himself and more and more befogged me by a precise account of my haunts and movements. How I had kept a barber's shop in Sabugal under his very nose; what disguises I used (and you know that I never used a disguise in my life); how my servant had assisted M. de Brissac in a duel and afterwards escaped in his uniform—with much more, and all of it news to me. My astonished face merely excited his laughter; he set it down to my eccentricity. But after dinner, when M. de Brissac had taken his departure, Marmont crossed his handsome legs and came to business.
"'Sir,' said he, 'I am going to pay you a compliment. We have suffered heavily through your cleverness; and although Lord Wellington may choose to call you a scouting officer, you must be aware (and will forgive me for reminding you) that I might well be excused for calling you by an uglier name.'
"You may be sure I did not like this. You may also remember how at Huerta on the occasion of our first meeting the question of disguise came up between us, and how I assured you that to me, with my Scottish face and accent, a disguise would be worse than useless. Well, that was true enough so far as it went; but I fear that in my anxiety not to offend your feelings I spoke less than the whole truth, for I have always held that in our business as soon as a man resorts to disguise his work ceases to be legitimate scouting. It may be no less justifiable and even more useful, but it is no longer scouting. I admit the distinction to be a nice one;[A] and I have sometimes asked myself, when covering my uniform with my dark riding cloak, 'What, after all, is a disguise?' Nevertheless, I had always observed it, and standing before Marmont now in His Majesty's scarlet, which (as I might have told him) I had never discarded either to further a plan or to avoid a danger, I put some constraint on myself to listen in silence on the merest off-chance that my silence might help an affair with which the marshal assumed my perfect acquaintance, while I could only surmise that somehow you were mixed up in it, and therefore presumably it aimed at some advantage to our arms. I did keep silence, however, though without so much as a bow to signify that I assented.
[Footnote A: NOTE BY MANUEL MCNEILL.—I should think so indeed! To me the moral difference, say, between hiding in a truss of hay and hiding under a wig is not worth discussing outside a seminary.]
"'But you are a gentleman,' Marmont continued, 'and I propose to treat you as one. You will be sent in safe custody to France, and beyond this I propose to take no revenge on you—but upon one condition.'
"'The condition is you give me your parole that on your journey through Spain to France you not only make no effort to escape, but will not consent to be rescued should the attempt be made by any of the partidas in hope of reward.'
"I considered this for a moment. 'That is not a small thing to require, since Wellington may be reasonably expected to offer a round price for my recapture.'
"The marshal laughed not too pleasantly. 'Truly,' said he, 'I have heard that Scotsmen are hard bargainers. But considering that I could have you shot out of hand for a spy, I believed I was offering you generous terms.'
"Well, that was unfortunately true; so after a few seconds' pause I answered, 'Monsieur le Duc, by imposing these terms on me you at any rate pay me a handsome compliment. I accept it and give you my word.'
"Upon this parole, then, on the 19th I began my journey towards France and captivity, escorted only by M. Gerard, a young lieutenant of dragoons, and one trooper. The rest you know."
(Conclusion of Captain McNeill's Statement.)
As I have said, the bare news of my kinsman's capture and of poor Jose's death reached me at Celorico on the 16th, late in the evening. Knowing that Lord Wellington was by this time well on his way northward, and believing that for more than one reason the captain's fate would concern him deeply—feeling, moreover, some compunction at the toils I had all innocently helped to wind about an honest man—I at once sought and obtained leave from General Wilson to ride southward to meet the Commander-in-Chief with the tidings, and if necessary solicit his help in a rescue. The captain (on this point the messenger was precise) had been taken to Sabugal to await Marmont's return. I did not know that Marmont was actually at that moment on his way thither, but I thought him at least likely to be returning very soon. To be sure he might decide to shoot Captain Alan out of hand. My recent performances gave him a colourable excuse, unless the prisoner could disassociate himself from these and prove an alibi, which under the circumstances and without the help of Jose's evidence he could scarcely hope to do. I built, however, some faith on Marmont's known humanity, of which in his pursuit of the militia he had just given striking proof. The longer I weighed the chances the more certain I became that Marmont would treat him as an ordinary prisoner of war and send him up to France under escort.
Why, then (the reader may ask), did I lose time in seeking Lord Wellington instead of making my way at once to the north and doing my best to incite the partidas to attempt a rescue somewhere on the road north of Burgos, or even between Valladolid and Burgos? My answer is that such an affair would certainly turn on the question of money. The French held the road right away to the Pyrenees, not so strongly perhaps as to forbid hope, but strongly enough to make an attempt upon it risky in the extreme. The bands of Mendizabal, Mina, and Merino were kept busy by Generals Bonnet and Abbe; for a big convoy they might be counted on to exert themselves, but for a single prisoner they as certainly had no time to spare without the incitement of such a reward as only the Commander-in-Chief could offer.
Accordingly I made my way south to Castello Branco and reached it on the 18th, to find Lord Wellington arrived there and making ready to push on as soon as overtaken by the bulk of his troops. I had always supposed him to cherish a peculiar liking for my kinsman, but was fairly astonished by the emotion he showed.
"Rescued? Of course he must be rescued!" He broke off to use (I must confess) some very strong words upon Trant's design against Marmont and the tomfoolery, as he called it, which had taken me into Sabugal, and left a cloud of suspicion hanging over "the best scouting officer in my service; the only man of the lot, sir, who knows his business." Lord Wellington could, when he lost his temper, be singularly unjust. I strove to point out that my "tomfoolery" in Sabugal had as a matter of fact put a stop to the very scheme of General Trant's which he condemned. He cut me short by asking if I proposed to argue with him.
"Ride back, sir. Choose the particular blackguard who can effect your purpose, and inform him that on the day he rescues Captain McNeill I am his debtor for twelve thousand francs."
The speech was ungracious enough, but the price more than I had dared to hope for. Feeling pretty sure that in his lordship's temper a word of thanks would merely invite him to consign my several members to perdition, I bowed and left him. Twenty minutes later I was on the road and galloping north again.
Before starting from Celorico I had sent the peasant who brought news of Captain Alan's plight back to Sabugal with instructions to discover what more he could, and bring his report to Bellomonte on my northward road not later than the 20th. On the afternoon of the 19th when I rode into that place I could hear no news of him. But late in the evening he arrived with word that "the great McNeill" had been sent off under escort towards Salamanca. Of the strength of that escort he could tell me nothing, and had very wisely not stayed to inquire; he had picked up the news from camp gossip and brought it at once, rightly judging that time was more valuable to me just now than detailed information.
His news was doubly cheering; it assured me that my kinsman still lived, and also that by riding to secure Lord Wellington's help I had not missed my opportunity. Yet there was need to hurry, for I had not only to fetch a long circuit by difficult paths before striking the road to the Pyrenees,—I had to find the partidas, persuade them, and get them on to the road ahead of their quarry.
I need not describe my journey at length. I rode by Guarda, Almeida, Ledesma, keeping to the north of the main road, and travelling, not by day only, but through the better part of each night. Beyond the ford of Tordesillas, left for the while unguarded, I was in country where at any moment I might stumble on the guerilla bands, or at least get news of them. The chiefs most likely for my purpose were "the three M's"—the curate Merino, Mina and Mendizabal. Of these, the curate was about the biggest scoundrel in Spain. I learned on my way that having lately taken about a hundred prisoners near Aranda, he had hanged the lot, sixty to avenge three members of the local junta put to death by the French, and the rest in proportion of ten for every soldier of his lost in the action. From dealing with such a blackguard I prayed to be spared. And by all accounts Mina ran him close for brutal ferocity. I hoped, therefore, for Mendizabal, but at Sedano I heard that Bonnet, after foiling an attack by him on a convoy above Burgos, had beaten him into the Asturias, where his scattered bands were now shifting as best they could among the hills. Merino was in no better case, and my only hope rested on Mina, who after a series of really brilliant operations, helped out by some lucky escapes, had on the 7th with five thousand men planted himself in ambush behind Vittoria, cut up a Polish regiment, and mastered the same enormous convoy which had escaped the curate and Mendizabal at Burgos, releasing no less than four hundred Spanish prisoners and enriching himself to the tune of a million francs, not to speak of carriages, arms, stores, and a quantity of church plate.
This was no cheerful hearing, since so much in his pocket must needs lessen the attractiveness of my offer of twelve thousand francs. And, indeed, when I found him in his camp above the road a little to the east of Salvatierra his first answer was to bid me go to the devil. Although for months he had only supported his troops on English money conveyed through Sir Howard Douglas, this ignorant fellow snapped his dirty fingers at the mention of Wellington and, flushed with a casual triumph, had nothing but contempt for the allied troops who were saving his country while he and his like wasted themselves on futile raids. I can see him now as he sat smoking and dangling his legs on a rock in the midst of his unwashed staff officers.
"For an Englishman," he scoffed, "I won't say but twelve thousand francs is a high price to pay. Unfortunately, it is no price for my troops to earn. Here am I expecting at any moment a convoy which is due from the Valencia side, and Lord Wellington asks me to waste my men and miss my chance for the sake of a single redcoat. He must be a fool."
Said I, nettled, "For a Spaniard you have certainly acquired a rare suit of manners. But may I suggest that their rarity will scarcely prove worth the cost when your answer comes to Lord Wellington's ears."
He glared at me for a moment, during which no doubt he weighed the temptation of shooting me against the probable risk. Then his features relaxed into a grin, and withdrawing the chewed cigarette from his teeth he spat very deliberately on the ground. "The interview," he announced, "is ended."
I took my way down the hillside in no gay mood. I had travelled far; my nerves were raw with lack of sleep. I judged myself at least a day ahead of any convoy with which the captain could be travelling, even though it had moved with the minimum of delay. But where in the next two days was I to find the help which Mina had refused? To be sure I had caught up at Sedano a flying rumour that the curate Merino had eluded Bonnet, broken out of the Asturias, and was again menacing the road above Burgos. I had come across no sign of him on my way, yet could hit on no more hopeful course than to hark back along the road on the chance of striking the trail of a man who as likely as not was a hundred miles away.
It was about nine in the morning when Mina gave me his answer, and at three in the afternoon I was scanning the road towards Miranda de Ebro from a hill about a mile beyond Arinez (the same hill, in fact, where General Gazan's centre lay little more than a year afterwards on the morning of the battle of Vittoria). I had been scanning the road perhaps for ten minutes when my heart gave a jump and my hand, I am not ashamed to confess, shook on the small telescope. To the south-west, between me and Nanclares three horsemen were advancing at a walk, and the rider in the middle wore a scarlet jacket.
It took me some seconds to get my telescope steady enough for a second look, and with that I wheeled my horse, struck spur and posted back towards Salvatierra as fast as the brute would carry me through the afternoon heat.
I reached Mina's camp again at nightfall, and found the chief seated exactly as I had left him, still smoking and still dangling his legs. Were it not that he now wore a cloak against the night air I might have supposed him seated there all day without stirring, and the guard who led me to him promised with a grin that I was dangerously near one of those peculiar modes of death which his master passed his amiable leisure in inventing.
At the sight of me Mina's eyebrows went up and he chuckled, "Indeed," said he, "it has been a dull day, and I have been regretting that I let you off so easily this morning."
"This morning," I said, "I made you an offer of twelve thousand francs. You replied that you considered it too little for the services of your army. Perhaps it was; but you will admit it to be pretty fair pay for the services of a couple of men."
"Hullo!" He eyed me sharply. "What has happened?"
"That," I answered, "is my secret. Lend me a couple of men, say, for forty-eight hours. In return, on producing this paper, you receive twelve thousand francs; that is, as soon as Lord Wellington has assured himself on my report that you received the paper from me and did as I requested."
"Two men? This begins to look like business."
"It is business," said I curtly. "To your patriotism I should not have troubled to appeal a second time."
He warned me to keep a civil tongue in my head; but I knew my man, and within half-an-hour I rode out of his camp with two of his choicest ruffians, one beside me and one ahead to guide me through the darkness.
Now at Vittoria the road towards Irun and the frontier runs almost due north for some distance and then bends about in a rough arc towards the east. Another road runs almost due east from Vittoria to Pamplona. The first road would certainly be taken by my kinsman and his escort: Mina's camp lay above the second: but, a little way beyond, at Alsasua, a third road of about five leagues joins the two, and by this short cut I was certain of heading off our quarry.
There was no call to hurry. If, as I judged likely, the party meant to sleep the night at Vittoria, I had almost twenty-four hours in hand. So we rode warily, on the look-out for French vedettes, and reaching Beasain a little before two in the morning took up a comfortable position on the hillside above the junction of the roads.
At dawn we shifted into better shelter—a shepherd's hut, dilapidated and roofless—and eked out a long day with tobacco and a greasy pack of cards. A few bullock carts passed along the road below us, the most of them bound westward, and perhaps half-a-dozen peasants on mule-back. At about four in the afternoon a French patrol trotted by. As the evening drew on I began to feel anxious.
A little before sunset I sent off one of my ruffians—Alonso something-or-other (I forget his magnificent surname)—to scout along the road. He had been gone half-an-hour when his fellow, Juan Gallegos, flung down his cards in the dusk—the more readily perhaps because he held a weak hand—and pricked up his ears.
"Horses!" he whispered, and after a pause nodded confidently. "Three horses!"
We picked up our muskets and crept down towards the road. Halfway down we met Alonso ascending with the news. Yes, there were three horsemen on this side of Zumarraga and coming at a trot. One of them wore a red coat.
"Be careful, then, how you pick them off. The man in red must not be hurt; the money depends on that."
They nodded. Night was now falling fast, yet not so fast but that as the horsemen came up I could distinguish Captain Alan. He was riding on the left beside the young French officer, the orderly about six yards behind. As they came abreast of us Juan let fly, and the orderly's horse pitched forward at once and fell, flinging his man, who struck the road and lay either stunned or dead. At the noise of the report the other horses shied violently and separated, thus giving us our chance without danger to the prisoner. Alonso and I fired together, and rushed out upon the officer, who groaned in the act of wheeling upon us. One of the bullets had shattered his sword arm. Within the minute we had him prisoner, the captain not helping us at all.
"What is this?" he demanded in Spanish, peering at me out of the dusk and breaking off to quiet his frightened horse. "What is this, and who are you?"
"Well, it looks like a rescue," said I; "and I am your kinsman, Manus McNeill, and have been at some pains to effect it."
"You!" he peered at me. "I thank you," said he, "but you have done a bad evening's work. I am on parole, as a man so clever as you might have guessed by the size of my escort."
"We will talk of that later," I answered, and sent Juan and Alonso off to examine the fallen trooper. "Meanwhile the man here has fainted. Oblige me by helping him a little way up the hill, or by leading his horse while I carry him. The road here is not healthy."
Captain Alan followed in silence while I bore my burden up to the hut. Having tethered the horses outside, he entered and stood above me while I lit a lantern and examined the young officer's wound.
"Nothing serious," I announced, "a fracture of the forearm and maybe a splintered bone. I can fix this up in no time."
"You had better leave it to me and run," my kinsman answered. "This M. Gerard is an amiable young man and a friend of mine, and I charge myself to see him safe to Tolosa to-night. What are you doing?"
"Searching for his papers."
"I forbid it."
"Alain mhic Neill," said I, "you are not yet the head of our clan." And I broke the seal of a letter addressed to the Governor of Bayonne. "Ah! I thought as much," I added, having glanced over the missive. "It seems, my dear kinsman, that my knowledge of the Duke of Ragusa goes a bit deeper than yours. Listen to this: 'The prisoner I send you herewith is one Captain McNeill, a spy and a dangerous one, who has done infinite mischief to our arms. I have not executed him on the spot out of respect to something resembling an uniform which he wears. But I desire you to place him at once in irons and send him up to Paris, where he will doubtless suffer as he deserves' ..."
Captain Alan took the paper from me and perused it slowly, biting his upper lip the while. "This is very black treachery," said he.
"It acquits you at any rate."
"Of my parole?" He pondered for a moment; then, "I cannot see that it does," he said. "If the Duke of Ragusa chooses to break an implied bond with me it does not follow that I can break an explicit promise to him."
"No? Well, I should have thought it did."
At once my kinsman put on that stiff pedantic tone which had irritated me at Huerta. "I venture to think," said he, "that no McNeill would say so unless he had been corrupted by traffic with the Scarlet Woman."
"Scarlet grandmother!" I broke out. "You seem to forget that I have ridden a hundred leagues to effect this rescue, for which, by the way, Lord Wellington offers twelve thousand francs. I have promised them to the biggest scoundrel in Spain; but because he happens to be even a bigger scoundrel than the Duke of Ragusa must I break my bond with him and let you go to be shot for the sake of your silly punctilio?"
I spoke with heat, and bent over the groaning officer. My kinsman rubbed his chin. "What you say," he replied, "demands a somewhat complicated answer, or rather a series of answers. In the first place, I thank you sincerely for what you have done, and not the less sincerely because I am going to nullify it. I shall, perhaps, not cheat myself by believing that a clansman's spirit went some way to help your zeal"—here I might well have blushed in truth, for it had not helped my zeal a peseta. "I thank Lord Wellington, too, for the extravagant price he has set upon my services, and I beg you to convey my gratitude to him. As for being shot, I might answer that my parole extends only to the Pyrenees; but I consider myself to have extended it tacitly to my young friend here, who has treated me with all possible consideration on the journey; and I shall go to Bayonne."
He spoke quietly and in the most matter-of-fact voice. But I have often thought since of his words; and often when I call up the figure of Marmont in exile at Venice, where, as he strode gloomily along the Riva dei Schiavoni, the very street urchins pointed and cried after him, "There goes the man who betrayed Napoleon!" I call up and contrast with it the figure of this humble gentleman of Scotland in the lonely hut declining simply and without parade to buy his life at the expense of a scruple of conscience.
"But," he continued, "I fancy I may persuade M. Gerard at least to delay the delivery of that letter, in which case I see my way at least to a chance of escape. For the rest, these partidas have been promised twelve thousand francs for a service which they have duly rendered. My patrimony is not a rich one, but I can promise that this sum, whether I escape or not, shall be as duly paid. Hush!" he ended as I sprang to my feet, and Juan and Alonso appeared in the doorway supporting the trooper, who had only been stunned after all.
"We did not care to kill him," Juan explained blandly, "until we had the senor's orders."
"You did rightly," I answered, and glanced at my kinsman. His jaw was set. I pulled out a couple of gold pieces for each. "An advance on your earnings," said I. "My orders are that you leave the trooper here with me, ride back instantly to your chief, report that your work has been well done and successfully, and the money for which he holds an order shall be forwarded as soon as I return and report to Lord Wellington in Beira."
In the course of an eventful life John Penaluna did three very rash things.
To begin with, at seventeen, he ran away to sea.
He had asked his father's permission. But for fifty years the small estate had been going from bad to worse. John's grandfather in the piping days of agriculture had drunk the profits and mortgaged everything but the furniture. On his death, John's father (who had enlisted in a line regiment) came home with a broken knee-pan and a motherless boy, and turned market-gardener in a desperate attempt to rally the family fortunes. With capital he might have succeeded. But market-gardening required labour; and he could neither afford to hire it nor to spare the services of a growing lad who cost nothing but his keep. So John's request was not granted.
A week later, in the twilight of a May evening, John was digging potatoes on the slope above the harbour, when he heard—away up the first bend of the river—the crew of the Hannah Hands brigantine singing as they weighed anchor. He listened for a minute, stuck his visgy into the soil slipped on his coat, and trudged down to the ferry-slip.
Two years passed without word of him. Then on a blue and sunny day in October he emerged out of Atlantic fogs upon the Market Strand at Falmouth: a strapping fellow with a brown and somewhat heavy face, silver rings in his ears, and a suit of good sea-cloth on his back. He travelled by van to Truro, and thence by coach to St. Austell. It was Friday—market day; and in the market he found his father standing sentry, upright as his lame leg allowed, grasping a specimen apple-tree in either hand. John stepped up to him, took one of the apple-trees, and stood sentry beside him. Nothing was said—not a word until John found himself in the ramshackle market-cart, jogging homewards. His father held the reins.
"How's things at home?" John asked.
"Much as ever. Hester looks after me."
Hester was John's cousin, the only child of old Penaluna's only sister, and lately an orphan. John had never seen her.
"If I was you," said he, "I'd have a try with borrowed capital. You could raise a few hundreds easy. You'll never do anything as you'm going."
"If I was you," answered his father, "I'd keep my opinions till they was asked for."
And so John did, for three years; in the course of which it is to be supposed he forgot them. When the old man died he inherited everything; including the debts, of course. "He knows what I would have him do by Hester," said the will. It went on: "Also I will not be buried in consicrated ground, but at the foot of the dufflin apple-tree in the waste piece under King's Walk, and the plainer the better. In the swet of thy face shalt thou eat bread, amen. P.S.—John knows the tree."
But since by an oversight the will was not read until after the funeral, this wish could not be carried out. John resolved to attend to the other all the more scrupulously; and went straight from the lawyer to the kitchen, where Hester stood by the window scouring a copper pan.
"Look here," he said, "the old man hasn' left you nothing."
"No?" said Hester. "Well, I didn't expect anything." And she went on with her scouring.
"But he've a-left a pretty plain hint o' what he wants me to do."
He hesitated, searching the calm profile of her face. Hester's face was always calm, but her eyes sometimes terrified him. Everyone allowed she had wonderful eyes, though no two people agreed about their colour. As a matter of fact their colour was that of the sea, and varied with the sea. And all her life through they were searching, unceasingly searching, for she knew not what—something she never had found, never would find. At times, when talking with you, she would break off as though words were of no use to her, and her eyes had to seek your soul on their own account. And in those silences your soul had to render up the truth to her, though it could never be the truth she sought. When at length her gaze relaxed and she remembered and begged pardon (perhaps with a deprecatory laugh), you sighed; but whether on her account or yours it was impossible to say.
John looked at her awkwardly, and drummed with one foot on the limeash floor.
"He wanted you to marry me," he blurted out. "I—I reckon I've wanted that, too ... oh, yes, for a long time!"
She put both hands behind her—one of them still grasped the polishing-cloth—came over, and gazed long into his face.
"You mean it," she said at length. "You are a good man. I like you. I suppose I must."
She turned—still with her hands behind her—walked to the window, and stood pondering the harbour and the vessels at anchor and the rooks flying westward. John would have followed and kissed her, but divined that she wished nothing so little. So he backed towards the door, and said—
"There's nothing to wait for. 'Twouldn't do to be married from the same house, I expect. I was thinking—any time that's agreeable—if you was to lodge across the harbour for awhile, with the Mayows—Cherry Mayow's a friend of yours—we could put up the banns and all shipshape."
He found himself outside the door, mopping his forehead.
This was the second rash thing that John Penaluna did.
It was Midsummer Eve, and a Saturday, when Hester knocked at the Mayows' green door on the Town Quay. The Mayows' house hung over the tideway, and the Touch-me-not schooner, home that day from Florida with a cargo of pines, and warped alongside the quay, had her foreyard braced aslant to avoid knocking a hole in the Mayows' roof.
A Cheap Jack's caravan stood at the edge of the quay. The Cheap Jack was feasting inside on fried ham rasher among his clocks and mirrors and pewter ware; and though it wanted an hour of dusk, his assistant was already lighting the naphtha-lamps when Hester passed.
Steam issued from the Mayows' doorway, which had a board across it to keep the younger Mayows from straggling. A voice from the steam invited her to come in. She climbed over the board, groped along the dusky passage, pushed open a door and looked in on the kitchen, where, amid clouds of vapour, Mrs. Mayow and her daughter Cherry were washing the children. Each had a tub and a child in it; and three children, already washed, skipped around the floor stark naked, one with a long churchwarden pipe blowing bubbles which the other two pursued. In the far corner, behind a deal table, sat Mr. Mayow, and patiently tuned a fiddle—a quite hopeless task in that atmosphere.
"My gracious!" Mrs. Mayow exclaimed, rising from her knees; "if it isn't Hester already! Amelia, get out and dry yourself while I make a cup of tea."
Hester took a step forward, but paused at a sound of dismal bumping on the staircase leading up from the passage.
"That's Elizabeth Ann," said Mrs. Mayow composedly, "or Heber, or both. We shall know when they get to the bottom. My dear, you must be perishing for a cup of tea. Oh, it's Elizabeth Ann! Cherry, go and smack her, and tell her what I'll do if she falls downstairs again. It's all Matthew Henry's fault." Here she turned on the naked urchin with the churchwarden pipe. "If he'd only been home to his time—"
"I was listening to Zeke Penhaligon," said Matthew Henry (aged eight). "He's home to-day in the Touch-me-not."
"He's no good to King nor country," said Mrs. Mayow.
"He was telling me about a man that got swallowed by a whale—"
"Go away with your Jonahses!" sneered one of his sisters.
"It wasn't Jonah. This man's name was Jones—Captain Jones, from Dundee. A whale swallowed him; but, as it happened, the whale had swallowed a cask just before, and the cask stuck in its stomach. So whatever the whale swallowed after that went into the cask, and did the whale no good. But Captain Jones had plenty to eat till he cut his way out with a clasp-knife—"
"How could he?"
"That's all you know. Zeke says he did. A whale always turns that way up when he's dying. So Captain Jones cut his way into daylight, when, what does he see but a sail, not a mile away! He fell on his knees—"
"How could he, you silly? He'd have slipped."
But at this point Cherry swept the family off to bed. Mrs. Mayow, putting forth unexpected strength, carried the tubs out to the back-yard, and poured the soapy water into the harbour. Hester, having borrowed a touzer,[A] tucked up her sleeves and fell to tidying the kitchen. Mr. Mayow went on tuning his fiddle. It was against his principles to work on a Saturday night.
[Footnote A: Tout-serve, apron.]
"Your wife seems very strong," observed Hester, with a shade of reproach in her voice.
"Strong as a horse," he assented cheerfully. "I call it wonnerful after what she've a-gone through. 'Twouldn' surprise me, one o' these days, to hear she'd taken up a tub with the cheeld in it, and heaved cheeld and all over the quay-door. She's terrible absent in her mind."
Mrs. Mayow came panting back with a kettleful of water, which she set to boil; and, Cherry now reappearing with the report that all the children were safe abed, the three women sat around the fire awaiting their supper, and listening to the voice of the Cheap Jack without.
"We'll step out and have a look at him by-and-by," said Cherry.
"For my part," Mrs. Mayow murmured, with her eyes on the fire, "I never hear one of those fellers without wishing I had a million of money. There's so many little shiny pots and pans you could go on buying for ever and ever, just like Heaven!"
She sighed as she poured the boiling water into the teapot. On Saturday nights, when the children were packed off, a deep peace always fell upon Mrs. Mayow, and she sighed until bed-time, building castles in the air.
Their supper finished, the two girls left her to her musings and stepped out to see the fun. The naphtha-lamps flared in Hester's face, and for a minute red wheels danced before her eyes, the din of a gong battered on her ears, and vision and hearing were indistinguishably blurred. A plank, like a diving-board, had been run out on trestles in front of the caravan, and along this the assistant darted forwards and backwards on a level with the shoulders of the good-humoured crowd, his arms full of clocks, saucepans, china ornaments, mirrors, feather brushes, teapots, sham jewellery. Sometimes he made pretence to slip, recovered himself with a grin on the very point of scattering his precious armfuls; and always when he did this the crowd laughed uproariously. And all the while the Cheap Jack shouted or beat his gong. Hester thought at first there were half-a-dozen Cheap Jacks at least—he made such a noise, and the mirrors around his glittering platform flashed forth so many reflections of him. Trade was always brisk on Saturday night, and he might have kept the auction going until eleven had he been minded. But he had come to stay for a fortnight (much to the disgust of credit-giving tradesmen), and cultivated eccentricity as a part of his charm. In the thickest of the bidding he suddenly closed his sale.
"I've a weak chest," he roared. "Even to make your fortunes—which is my constant joy and endeavour, as you know—I mustn't expose it too much to the night air. Now I've a pianner here, but it's not for sale. And I've an assistant here—a bit worn, but he's not for sale neither. I got him for nothing, to start with—from the work'us" (comic protest here from the assistant, and roars of laughter from the crowd)—"and I taught him a lot o' things, and among 'em to play the pianner. So as 'tis Midsummer's Eve, and I see some very nice-lookin' young women a tip-tapping their feet for it, and Mr. Mayow no further away than next door, and able to play the fiddle to the life—what I say is, ladies and gentlemen, let's light up a fire and see if, with all their reading and writing, the young folks have forgot how to dance!"
In the hubbub that followed, Cherry caught Hester by the arm and whispered—-
"Why I clean forgot 'twas Midsummer Eve! We'll try our fortun's afterwards. Aw, no need to look puzzled—I'll show 'ee. Here, feyther, feyther!..." Cherry ran down the passage and returned, haling forth Mr. Mayow with his fiddle.
And then—as it seemed to Hester, in less than a minute—empty packing-cases came flying from half-a-dozen doors—from the cooper's, the grocer's, the ship-chandler's, the china-shop, the fruit-shop, the "ready-made outfitter's," and the Cheap Jack's caravan; were seized upon, broken up, the splinters piled in a heap, anointed with naphtha and ignited almost before Mr. Mayow had time to mount an empty barrel, tune his "A" string by the piano, and dash into the opening bars of the Furry Dance. And almost before she knew it, Hester's hands were caught, and she found herself one of the ring swaying and leaping round the blaze. Cherry held her left hand and an old waterman her right. The swing of the crowd carried her off her feet, and she had to leap with the best. By-and-by, as her feet fell into time with the measure, she really began to enjoy it all—the music, the rush of the cool night air against her temples, even the smell of naphtha and the heat of the flames on her face as the dancers paused now and again, dashed upon the fire as if to tread it out, and backed until the strain on their arms grew tense again; and, just as it grew unbearable, the circular leaping was renewed. Always in these pauses the same face confronted her across the fire: the face of a young man in a blue jersey and a peaked cap, a young man with crisp dark hair and dark eyes, gay and challenging. In her daze it seemed to Hester that, when they came face to face, he was always on the side of the bonfire nearest the water; and the moon rose above the farther hill as they danced, and swam over his shoulder, at each meeting higher and higher.
It was all new to her and strange. The music ceased abruptly, the dancers unclasped their hands and fell apart, laughing and panting. And then, while yet she leaned against the Mayows' door-post, the fiddle broke out again—broke into a polka tune; and there, in front of her stood the young man in the blue jersey and peaked cap.
He was speaking. She scarcely knew what she answered; but, even while she wondered, she had taken his arm submissively. And, next, his arm was about her and she was dancing. She had never danced before; but, after one or two broken paces, her will surrendered to his, her body and its movements answered him docilely. She felt that his eyes were fixed on her forehead, but dared not look up. She saw nothing of the crowd. Other dancers passed and re-passed like phantoms, neither jostling nor even touching—so well her partner steered. She grew giddy; her breath came short and fast. She would have begged for a rest, but the sense of his mastery weighed on her—held her dumb. Suddenly he laughed close to her ear, and his breath ruffled her hair.
"You dance fine," he said. "Shall us cross the fire?"
She did not understand. In her giddiness they seemed to be moving in a wide, empty space among many fires, nor had she an idea which was the real one. His arm tightened about her.
"Now!" he whispered. With a leap they whirled high and across the bonfire. Her feet had scarcely touched ground before they were off again to the music—or would have been; but, to her immense surprise, her partner had dropped on his knees before her and was clasping her about the ankles. She heard a shout. The fire had caught the edge of her skirt and her frock was burning.
It was over in a moment. His arms had stifled, extinguished the flame before she knew of her danger. Still kneeling, holding her fast, he looked up, and their eyes met. "Take me back," she murmured, swaying. He rose, took her arm, and she found herself in the Mayows' doorway with Cherry at her side. "Get away with you," said Cherry, "and leave her to me!" And the young man went.
Cherry fell to examining the damaged skirt. "It's clean ruined," she reported; "but I reckon that don't matter to a bride. John Penaluna'll not be grudging the outfit. I must say, though—you quiet ones!"
"What have I done?"
"Done? Well, that's good. Only danced across the bonfire with young Zeke Penhaligon. Why, mother can mind when that was every bit so good as a marriage before parson and clerk!—and not so long ago neither."
"You go upstairs backwards," said Cherry an hour later. "It don't matter our going together, only you mustn't speak a word for ever so. You undress in the dark, and turn each thing inside out as you take it off. Prayers? Yes, you can say your prayers if you like; but to yourself, mind. 'Twould be best to say 'em backwards, I reckon; but I never heard no instructions about prayers."
"Why, then you go to sleep and dream of your sweetheart."
"Oh! is that all?"
"Plenty enough, I should think! I dessay it don't mean much to you; but it means a lot to me, who han't got a sweetheart yet an' don't know if ever I shall have one."
So the two girls solemnly mounted the stairs backwards, undressed in the dark, and crept into bed. But Hester could not sleep. She lay for an hour quite silent, motionless lest she should awake Cherry, with eyes wide open, staring at a ray of moonlight on the ceiling, and from that to the dimity window-curtains and the blind which waved ever so gently in the night breeze. All the while she was thinking of the dance; and by-and-by she sighed.
"Bain't you asleep?" asked Cherry.
"Nor I. Can't sleep a wink. It's they children overhead: they 'm up to some devilment, I know, because Matthew Henry isn't snoring. He always snores when he's asleep, and it shakes the house. I'll ha' gone to see, only I was afeard to disturb 'ee. I'll war'n' they 'm up to some may-games on the roof."
"Let me come with you," said Hester.
They rose. Hester slipped on her dressing-gown, and Cherry an old macintosh, and they stole up the creaking stairs.
"Oh, you anointed limbs!" exclaimed Cherry, coming to a halt on the top.
The door of the children's garret stood ajar. On the landing outside a short ladder led up to a trapdoor in the eaves, and through the open trapway a broad ray of moonlight streamed upon the staircase.
"That's mother again! Now I know where Amelia got that cold in her head. I'll war'n' the door hasn't been locked since Tuesday!"
She climbed the ladder, with Hester at her heels. They emerged through the trap upon a flat roof, where on Mondays Mrs. Mayow spread her family "wash" to dry in the harbour breezes. Was that a part of the "wash" now hanging in a row along the parapet?
No; those dusky white objects were the younger members of the Mayow family leaning over the tideway, each with a stick and line—fishing for conger Matthew Henry explained, as Cherry took him by the ear; but Elizabeth Jane declared that, after four nights of it, she, for her part, limited her hopes to shannies.
Cherry swept them together, and filed them indoors through the trap in righteous wrath, taking her opportunity to box the ears of each. "Come'st along, Hester."
Hester was preparing to follow, when she heard a subdued laugh. It seemed to come from the far side of the parapet, and below her. She drew her dressing-gown close about her and leaned over.
She looked down upon a stout spar overhanging the tide, and thence along a vessel's deck, empty, glimmering in the moonlight; upon mysterious coils of rope; upon the dew-wet roof of a deck-house; upon a wheel twinkling with brass-work, and behind it a white-painted taffrail. Her eyes were travelling forward to the bowsprit again, when, close by the foremast, they were arrested, and she caught her breath sharply.
There, with his naked feet on the bulwarks and one hand against the house-wall, in the shadow of which he leaned out-board, stood a man. His other hand grasped a short stick; and with it he was reaching up to the window above him—her bedroom window. The window, she remembered, was open at the bottom—an inch or two, no more. The man slipped the end of his stick under the sash and prised it up quietly. Next he raised himself on tiptoe, and thrust the stick a foot or so through the opening; worked it slowly along the window-ledge, and hesitated; then pulled with a light jerk, as an angler strikes a fish. And Hester, holding her breath, saw the stick withdrawn, inch by inch; and at the end of it a garment—her petticoat!
"How dare you!"
The thief whipped himself about, jumped back upon deck, and stood smiling up at her, with the petticoat in his hand. It was the young sailor she had danced with.
"How dare you? Oh, I'd be ashamed!"
"Midsummer Eve!" said he, and laughed.
"Give it up at once!" She dared not speak loudly, but felt herself trembling with wrath.
"That's not likely." He unhitched it from the fish-hook he had spliced to the end of his stick. "And after the trouble I've taken!"
"I'll call your captain, and he'll make you give it up."
"The old man's sleeping ashore, and won't be down till nine in the morning. I'm alone here." He stepped to the fore-halliards. "Now I'll just hoist this up to the topmast head, and you'll see what a pretty flag it makes in the morning."
He turned his back and began to bend the petticoat on the halliards.
"No, no ... please ... it's cruel!"
He could hear that she was crying softly; hesitated, and faced round again.
"There now ... if it teases you so. There wasn' no harm meant. You shall have it back—wait a moment!"
He came forward and clambered out on the bowsprit, and from the bowsprit to the jib-boom beneath her. She was horribly afraid he would fall, and broke off her thanks to whisper him to be careful, at which he laughed. Standing there, and holding by the fore-topmast stay, he could just reach a hand up to the parapet, and was lifting it, but paused.
"No," said he, "I must have a kiss in exchange."
"Please don't talk like that. I thank you so much. Don't spoil your kindness."
"You've spoilt my joke. See, I can hoist myself on the stay here. Bend over as far as you can, I swear you shall have the petticoat at once, but I won't give it up without."
"I can't. I shall never think well of you again."
"Oh, yes, you will. Bend lower."
"Don't!" she murmured, but the moonlight, refracted from the water below, glimmered on her face as she leaned towards him.
"Lower! What queer eyes you've got. Do you know what it means to kiss over running water?" His lips whispered it close to her ear. And with that, as she bent, some treacherous pin gave way, and her loosely knotted hair fell in dark masses across his face. She heard him laugh as he kissed her in the tangled screen of it.
The next moment she had snatched the bundle and sprung to her feet and away. But as she passed by the trapdoor and hurriedly retwisted her hair before descending, she heard him there, beyond the parapet, laughing still.
Three weeks later she married John Penaluna. They spent their honeymoon at home, as sober folks did in those days. John could spare no time for holiday-making. He had entered on his duties as master of Hall, and set with vigour about improving his inheritance. His first step was to clear the long cliff-garden, which had been allowed to drop out of cultivation from the day when he had cast down his mattock there and run away to sea. It was a mere wilderness now. But he fell to work like a navvy.
He fought it single-handed. He had no money hire extra labour, and apparently had lost his old belief in borrowed capital, or perhaps had grown timid with home-keeping. A single labourer—his father's old hind—managed the cows and the small farmstead. Hester superintended the dairy and the housework, with one small servant-maid at her beck and call. And John tackled the gardens, hiring a boy or two in the fruit-picking season, or to carry water in times of drought. So they lived for two years tranquilly. As for happiness—well, happiness depends on what you expect. It was difficult to know how much John Penaluna (never a demonstrative man) had expected.
As far as folks could judge, John and Hester were happy enough. Day after day, from sunrise to sunset, he fought with Nature in his small wilderness, and slowly won—hewing, digging, terracing, cultivating, reclaiming plot after plot, and adding it to his conquests. The slope was sunny but waterless, and within a year Hester could see that his whole frame stooped with the constant rolling of barrels and carriage of buckets and waterpots up and down the weary incline. It seemed to her that the hill thirsted continually; that no sooner was its thirst slaked than the weeds and brambles took fresh strength and must be driven back with hook and hoe. A small wooden summer-house stood in the upper angle of the cliff-garden. John's father had set it there twenty years before, and given it glazed windows; for it looked down towards the harbour's mouth and the open sea beyond. Before his death the brambles grew close about it, and level with the roof, choking the path to it and the view from it. John had spent the best part of a fortnight in clearing the ground and opening up the view again. And here, on warm afternoons when her house work was over, Hester usually sat with her knitting. She could hear her husband at work on the terraces below; the sound of his pick and mattock mingled with the clank of windlasses or the tick-tack of shipwrights' mallets, as she knitted and watched the smoke of the little town across the water, the knots of idlers on the quay, the children, like emmets, tumbling in and out of the Mayows' doorway, the ships passing out to sea or entering the harbour and coming to their anchorage.
One afternoon in midsummer week John climbed to his wife's summer-house with a big cabbage-leaf in his hand, and within the cabbage-leaf a dozen strawberries. (John's strawberries were known by this time for the finest in the neighbourhood.) He held his offering in at the open window, and was saying he would step up to the house for a dish of cream; but stopped short.
"Hullo!" said he; for Hester was staring at him rigidly, as white as a ghost. "What's wrong, my dear?" He glanced about him, but saw nothing to account for her pallor—only the scorched hillside, alive with the noise of grasshoppers, the hot air quivering above the bramble-bushes, and beyond, a line of sunlight across the harbour's mouth, and a schooner with slack canvas crawling to anchor on the flood-tide.
"You—you came upon me sudden," she explained.
"Stupid of me!" thought John; and going to the house, fetched not only a dish of cream but the tea-caddy and a kettle, which they put to boil outside the summer-house over a fire of dried brambles. The tea revived Hester and set her tongue going. "'Tis quite a picnic!" said John, and told himself privately that it was the happiest hour they had spent together for many a month.
Two evenings later, on his return from St. Austell market, he happened to let himself in by the door of the walled garden just beneath the house, and came on a tall young man talking there in the dusk with his wife.
"Why, 'tis Zeke Penhaligon! How d'ee do, my lad? Now, 'tis queer, but only five minutes a-gone I was talkin' about 'ee with your skipper, Nummy Tangye, t'other side o' the ferry. He says you'm goin' up for your mate's certificate, and ought to get it. Very well he spoke of 'ee. Why don't Hester invite you inside? Come'st 'long in to supper, my son."
Zeke followed them in, and this was the first of many visits. John was one of those naturally friendly souls (there are many in the world) who never go forth to seek friends, and to whom few friends ever come, and these by accident. Zeke's talk set his tongue running on his own brief Wanderjahre. And Hester would sit and listen to the pair with heightened colour, which made John wonder why, as a rule, she shunned company—it did her so much good. So it grew to be a settled thing that whenever the Touch-me-not entered port a knife and fork awaited Zeke up at Hall, and the oftener he came the pleasanter was John's face.
Three years passed, and in the summer of the third year Captain Nummy Tangye, of the Touch-me-not, relinquished his command. Captain Tangye's baptismal name was Matthias, and Bideford, in Devon, his native town. But the Touch-me-not, which he had commanded for thirty-five years, happened to carry for figurehead a wooden Highlander holding a thistle close to his chest, and against his thigh a scroll with the motto, Noli Me Tangere, and this being, in popular belief, an effigy of the captain taken in the prime of life, Mr. Tangye cheerfully accepted the fiction with its implication of Scottish descent, and was known at home and in various out-of-the-way parts of the world as Nolim or Nummy. He even carried about a small volume of Burns in his pocket; not from any love of poetry, but to demonstrate, when required, that Scotsmen have their own notions of spelling.
Captain Tangye owned a preponderance of shares in the Touch-me-not, and had no difficulty in getting Zeke (who now held a master's certificate) appointed to succeed him. The old man hauled ashore to a cottage with a green door and a brass knocker and a garden high over the water-side. In this he spent the most of his time with a glittering brass telescope of uncommon length, and in the intervals of studying the weather and the shipping, watched John Penaluna at work across the harbour.
The Touch-me-not made two successful voyages under Zeke's command, and was home again and discharging beside the Town Quay, when, one summer's day, as John Penaluna leaned on his pitchfork beside a heap of weeds arranged for burning he glanced up and saw Captain Tangye hobbling painfully towards him across the slope. The old man had on his best blue cut-away coat, and paused now and then to wipe his brow.
"I take this as very friendly," said John.
Captain Tangye grunted. "P'rhaps 'tis, p'rhaps 'tisn'. Better wait a bit afore you say it."
"Stay and have a bit of dinner with me and the missus."
"Dashed if I do! 'Tis about her I came to tell 'ee."
"Yes?" John, being puzzled, smiled in a meaningless way.
"Zeke's home agen."
"Yes; he was up here two evenin's ago."
"He was here yesterday; he'll be here again to-day. He comes here too often. I've got a telescope, John Penaluna, and I sees what's goin' on. What's more, I guess what'll come of it. So I warn 'ee—as a friend, of course."
John stared down at the polished steel teeth of his pitchfork, glinting under the noonday sun.
"As a friend, of course," he echoed vaguely, still with the meaningless smile on his face.
"I b'lieve she means to be a good 'ooman; but she's listenin' to 'en. Now, I've got 'en a ship up to Runcorn. He shan't sail the Touch-me-not no more. 'Tis a catch for 'en—a nice barquentine, five hundred tons. If he decides to take the post (and I reckon he will) he starts to-morrow at latest. Between this an' then there's danger, and 'tis for you to settle how to act."
A long pause followed. The clock across the harbour struck noon, and this seemed to wake John Penaluna up. "Thank 'ee," he said. "I think I'll be going in to dinner. I'll—I'll consider of it. You've took me rather sudden."
"Well, so long! I mean it friendly, of course."
"Of course. Better take the lower path; 'tis shorter, an' not so many stones in it."
John stared after him as he picked his way down the hill; then fell to rearranging his heaps of dried rubbish in an aimless manner. He had forgotten the dinner-hour. Something buzzed in his ears. There was no wind on the slope, no sound in the air. The shipwrights had ceased their hammering, and the harbour at his feet lay still as a lake. They were memories, perhaps, that buzzed so swiftly past his ears—trivial recollections by the hundred, all so little, and yet now immensely significant.
It was Hester, standing at the top of the slope and calling him. He stuck his pitchfork in the ground, picked up his coat, and went slowly in to dinner.
Next day, by all usage, he should have travelled in to market: but he announced at breakfast that he was too busy, and would send Robert, the hind in his stead. He watched his wife's face as he said it. She certainly changed colour, and yet she did not seem disappointed. The look that sprang into those grey eyes of her was more like one of relief, or, if not of relief, of a sudden hope suddenly snatched at; but this was absurd, of course. It would not fit in with the situation at all.
At dinner he said: "You'll be up in the summer-house this afternoon? I shouldn't wonder if Zeke comes to say good-bye. Tangye says he've got the offer of a new berth, up to Runcorn."
"Yes, I know."
If she wished, or struggled, to say more he did not seem to observe it, but rose from his chair, stooped and kissed her on the forehead, and resolutely marched out to his garden. He worked that afternoon in a small patch which commanded a view of the ferry and also of the road leading up to Hall: and at half-past three, or a few minutes later, dropped his spade and strolled down to the edge of his property, a low cliff overhanging the ferry-slip.
Zeke, as he stepped out of the ferry-boat, looked with some confusion on his face. He wore his best suit, with a bunch of sweet-william in his button-hole.
"Come to bid us good-bye, I s'pose? We've heard of your luck. Here, scramble up this way if you can manage, and shake hands on your fortune."
Zeke obeyed. The climb seemed to fluster him; but the afternoon was a hot one, in spite of a light westerly breeze. The two men moved side by side across the garden-slope, and as they did so John caught sight of a twinkle of sunshine on Captain Tangye's brass telescope across the harbour.
They paused beside one of the heaps of rubbish. "This is a fine thing for you, Zeke."
"Ay, pretty fair."
"I s'pose we sha'n't be seein' much of you now. 'Tis like an end of old times. I reckoned we'd have a pipe together afore partin'." John pulled out a stumpy clay and filled it. "Got a match about you?"
Zeke passed him one, and he struck it on his boot. "There, now," he went on, "I meant to set a light to these here heaps of rubbish this afternoon, and now I've come out without my matches." He waited for the sulphur to finish bubbling, and then began to puff.
Zeke handed him half-a-dozen matches.
"I dunno how many 'twill take," said John. "S'pose we go round together and light up. 'Twont' take us a quarter of an hour, an' we can talk by the way."
Ten minutes later, Captain Tangye, across the harbour, shut his telescope with an angry snap. The smoke of five-and-twenty bonfires crawled up the hillside and completely hid John Penaluna's garden—hid the two figures standing there, hid the little summer-house at the top of the slope. It was enough to make a man swear, and Captain Tangye swore.
John Penaluna drew a long breath.
"Well, good-bye and bless 'ee, Zeke. Hester's up in the summer-house. I won't go up with 'ee; my back's too stiff. Go an' make your adoos to her; she's cleverer than I be, and maybe will tell 'ee what we've both got in our minds."
This was the third rash thing that John Penaluna did.
He watched Zeke up the hill, till the smoke hid him. Then he picked up his spade. "Shall I find her, when I step home this evening? Please God, yes."
And he did. She was there by the supper-table? waiting for him. Her eyes were red. John pretended to have dropped something, and went back for a moment to look for it. When he returned, neither spoke.
Years passed—many years. Their life ran on in its old groove.
John toiled from early morning to sunset, as before—and yet not quite as before. There was a difference, and Captain Tangye would, no doubt, have perceived it long before had not Death one day come on him in an east wind and closed his activities with a snap, much as he had so often closed his telescope.
For a year or two after Zeke's departure, John went on enlarging his garden-bounds, though more languidly. Then followed four or five years during which his conquests seemed to stand still. And then little by little, the brambles and wild growth rallied. Perhaps—who knows?—the assaulted wilderness had found its Joan of Arc. At any rate, it stood up to him at length, and pressed in upon him and drove him back. Year by year, on one excuse or another, an outpost, a foot or two, would be abandoned and left to be reclaimed by the weeds. They were the assailants now. And there came a time when they had him at bay, a beaten man, in a patch of not more than fifty square feet, the centre of his former domain. "Time, not Corydon," had conquered him.
He was working here one afternoon when a boy came up the lower path from the ferry, and put a telegram into his hands. He read it over, thought for a while, and turned to climb the old track towards the summer-house, but brambles choked it completely, and he had to fetch a circuit and strike the grass walk at the head of the slope.
He had not entered the summer-house for years, but he found Hester knitting there as usual; and put the telegram into her hands.
"Zeke is drowned." He paused and added—he could not help it—"You'll not need to be looking out to sea any more."
Hester made as if to answer him, but rose instead and laid a hand on his breast. It was a thin hand, and roughened with housework. With the other she pointed to where the view had lain seaward. He turned. There was no longer any view. The brambles hid it, and must have hidden it for many years.
"Then what have you been thinkin' of all these days?"
Her eyes filled; but she managed to say, "Of you, John."
"It's with you as with me. The weeds have us, every side, each in our corner." He looked at his hands, and with sudden resolution turned and left her.
"Where are you going?"
"To fetch a hook. I'll have that view open again before nightfall, or my name's not John Penaluna."
CAPTAIN DICK AND CAPTAIN JACKA
A REPORTED TALE OF TWO FRIGATES AND TWO LUGGERS
I dare say you've never heard tell of my wife's grandfather, Captain John Tackabird—or Cap'n Jacka, as he was always called. He was a remarkable man altogether, and he died of a seizure in the Waterloo year; an earnest Methody all his days, and towards the end a highly respected class-leader. To tell you the truth, he wasn't much to look at, being bald as a coot and blind of one eye, besides other defects. His mother let him run too soon, and that made his legs bandy. And then a bee stung him, and all his hair came off. And his eye he lost in a little job with the preventive men; but his lid drooped so, you'd hardly know 'twas missing. He'd a way, too, of talking to himself as he went along, so that folks reckoned him silly. It was queer how that maggot stuck in their heads; for in handling a privateer or a Guernsey cargo—sink the or run it straight—there wasn't his master in Polperro. The very children could tell 'ee.
I'm telling of the year 'five, when the most of the business in Polperro—free-trade and privateering—was managed (as the world knows) by Mr. Zephaniah Job. This Job he came from St. Ann's—by reason of his having shied some person's child out of a window in a fit of temper—and opened school at Polperro, where he taught rule-of-three and mensuration; also navigation, though he only knew about it on paper. By-and-by he became accountant to all the free-trade companies and agent for the Guernsey merchants; and at last blossomed out and opened a bank with 1l. and 2l. notes, and bigger ones which he drew on Christopher Smith, Esquire, Alderman of London.
Well, this Job was agent for a company of adventurers called the "Pride o' the West," and had ordered a new lugger to be built for them down at Mevagissey. She was called the Unity, 160 tons (that would be about fifty as they measure now), mounting sixteen carriage guns and carrying sixty men, nice and comfortable. She was lying on the ways, ready to launch, and Mr. Job proposed to Cap'n Jacka to sail over to Mevagissey and have a look at her.
Cap'n Jacka was pleased as Punch, of course. He'd quite made up his mind he was to command her, seeing that, first and last, in the old Pride lugger, he had cleared over 40 per cent, for this very Company. So they sailed over and took thorough stock of the new craft, and Jacka praised this and suggested that, and carried on quite as if he'd got captain's orders inside his hat—which was where he usually carried them. Mr. Job looked sidelong down his nose—he was a leggy old galliganter, with stiverish grey hair and a jawbone long enough to make Cap'n Jacka a new pair of shins—and said he, "What do'ee think of her?"
"Well," said Jacka, "any fool can see she'll run, and any fool can see she'll reach. I reckon she'll come about as fast as th' old Pride, and if she don't sit nigher the wind than the new revenue cutter it'll be your sailmaker's fault."
"That's a first-class report," said Mr. Job. "I was thinking of offering you the post of mate in her."
Cap'n Jacka felt poorly all of a sudden. "Aw," he asked, "who's to be skipper, then?"
"The Company was thinkin' of young Dick Hewitt."
"Aw," said Cap'n Jacka again, and shut his mouth tight. Young Dick Hewitt's father had shares in the Company and money to buy votes beside.
"What do'ee think?" asked Mr. Job, still slanting his eye down his nose.
"I'll go home an' take my wife's opinion," said Cap'n Jacka.
So when he got home he told it all to his funny little wife that he doted on like the apple of his one eye. She was a small, round body, with beady eyes that made her look like a doll on a pen-wiper; and she said, of course, that the Company was a parcel of rogues and fools together.
"Young Dick Hewitt is every bit so good a seaman as I be," said Cap'n Jacka.
"He's a boaster."
"So he is, but he's a smart seaman for all."
"I declare if the world was to come to an end you'd sit quiet an' never say a word."
"I dessay I should. I'd leave you to speak up for me."
"Baint'ee goin' to say nothin', then?"
"Iss; I'm goin' to lay it before the Lord."
So down 'pon their knees these old souls went upon the limeash, and asked for guidance, and Cap'n Jacka, after a while, stretched out his hand to the shelf for Wesley's Hymns. They always pitched a hymn together before going to bed. When he'd got the book in his hand he saw that 'twasn't Wesley at all, but another that he never studied from the day his wife gave it to him, because it was called the "Only Hymn Book,"[A] and he said the name was as good as a lie. Hows'ever, he opened it now, and came slap on the hymn:—
[Footnote A: Probably "Olney."]
Tho' troubles assail and dangers affright, If foes all should fail and foes all unite, Yet one thing assures us, whatever betide, I trust in all dangers the Lord will provide.
They sang it there and then to the tune of "O all that pass by," and the very next morning Cap'n Jacka walked down and told Mr. Job he was ready to go for mate under young Dick Hewitt.
More than once, the next week or two, he came near to repenting; for Cap'n Dick was very loud about his promotion, especially at the Three Pilchards; and when the Unity came round and was fitting—very slow, too, by reason of delay with her letters of marque—he ordered Cap'n Jacka back and forth like a stevedore's dog. "There was to be no 'nigh enough' on this lugger"—that was the sort of talk; and oil and rotten-stone for the very gun-swivels. But Jacka knew the fellow, and even admired the great figure and its loud ways. "He's a cap'n, anyhow," he told his wife; "'twon't be 'all fellows to football' while he's in command. And I've seen him handle the Good Intent, under Hockin."
Mrs. Tackabird said nothing. She was busy making sausages and setting down a stug of butter for her man's use on the voyage. But he knew she would be a disappointed woman if he didn't contrive in some honest way to turn the tables on the Company and their new pet. For days together he went about whistling "Tho' troubles assail ... "; and the very night before sailing, as they sat quiet, one each side of the hearth, he made the old woman jump by saying all of a sudden, "Coals o' fire!"
"What d'ee mean by that?" she asked.
"Nothin'. I was thinkin' to myself, and out it popped."
"Well, 'tis like a Providence! For, till you said that, I'd clean forgot the sifter for your cuddy fire. Mustn't waste cinders now that you're only a mate."
Being a woman, she couldn't forego that little dig; but she got up there and then and gave the old boy a kiss.
She wouldn't walk down to the quay, though, next day, to see him off, being certain (she said) to lose her temper at the sight of Cap'n Dick carrying on as big as bull's beef, not to mention the sneering shareholders and their wives. So Cap'n Jacka took his congees at his own door, and turned, half-way down the street, and waved a good-bye with the cinder-sifter. She used to say afterwards that this was Providence, too.
The Unity ran straight across until she made Ushant Light; and after cruising about for a couple of days, in moderate weather (it being the first week in April) Cap'n Dick laid her head east and began to nose up Channel, keeping an easy little distance off the French coast. You see, the Channel was full of our ships and neutrals in those days, which made fat work for the French privateers; but the Frenchies' own vessels kept close over on their coast; and even so, the best our boys could expect, nine times out of ten when they'd crossed over, was to run against a chasse-maree dodging between Cherbourg and St. Malo or Morlaix, with naval stores or munitions of war.
However, Cap'n Dick had very good luck. One morning, about three leagues N.W. of Roscoff, what should he see but a French privateering craft of about fifty tons (new measurement) with an English trader in tow—a London brig, with a cargo of all sorts, that had fallen behind her convoy and been snapped up in mid-channel. Cap'n Dick had the weather-gauge, as well as the legs of the French chasse-maree. She was about a league to leeward when the morning lifted and he first spied her. By seven o'clock he was close, and by eight had made himself master of her and the prize, with the loss of two men only and four wounded, the Frenchman being short-handed, by reason of the crew he'd put into the brig to work her into Morlaix.
This was first-rate business. To begin with, the brig (she was called the Martha Edwards, of London) would yield a tidy little sum for salvage. The wind being fair for Plymouth, Cap'n Dick sent her into that port—her own captain and crew working her, of course, and thirty Frenchmen on board in irons. And at Plymouth she arrived without any mishap.
Then came the chasse-maree. She was called the Bean Pheasant,[A] an old craft and powerful leaky; but she mounted sixteen guns, the same as the Unity, and ought to have made a better run from her; but first, she hadn't been able to make her mind to desert her prize pretty well within sight of port; and in the second place her men had a fair job to keep her pumps going. Cap'n Dick considered, and then turned to old Jacka.
[Footnote A: Probably Bienfaisant.]
"I'm thinking," said he, "I'll have to put you aboard with a prize crew to work her back to Polperro."
"The Lord will provide," said Jacka, though he had looked to see a little more of the fun.
So aboard he went with all his belongings, not forgetting his wife's sausages and the stug of butter and the cinder-sifter. Towards the end of the action about fifteen of the Johnnies had got out the brig's large boat and pulled her ashore, where, no doubt, they reached, safe and sound. So Jacka hadn't more than a dozen prisoners to look after, and prepared for a comfortable little homeward trip.
"I'll just cruise between this and Jersey," said Cap'n Dick; "and at the week-end, if there's nothing doing, we'll put back for home and re-ship you."
So they parted; and by half-past ten Cap'n Jacka had laid the Bean Pheasant's head north-and-by-west, and was reaching along nicely for home with a stiff breeze and nothing to do but keep the pumps going and attend to his eating and drinking between whiles.
The prize made a good deal of water, but was a weatherly craft for all that, and on this point of sailing shipped nothing but what she took in through her seams; the worst of the mischief being forward, where her stem had worked a bit loose with age and started the bends. Cap'n Jacka, however, thought less of the sea—that was working up into a nasty lop—than of the weather, which turned thick and hazy as the wind veered a little to west of south. But even this didn't trouble him much. He had sausages for breakfast and sausages for dinner, and, as evening drew on, and he knew he was well on the right side of the Channel, he knocked out his pipe and began to think of sausages for tea.
Just then one of the hands forward dropped pumping, and sang out that there was a big sail on the starboard bow. "I b'lieve 'tis a frigate, sir," he said, spying between his hands.
So it was. She had sprung on them out of the thick weather. But now Cap'n Jacka could see the white line on her and the ports quite plain, and not two miles away.
"What nation?" he bawled.
"I can't make out as she carries any flag. Losh me! if there bain't another!"
Sure as I'm telling you, another frigate there was, likewise standing down towards them under easy canvas, on the same starboard tack a mile astern, but well to windward of the first.
"Whatever they be," said Cap'n Jacka, "they're bound to head us off, and they're bound to hail us. I go get my tea," he said; "for, if they're Frenchmen, 'tis my last meal for months to come."
So he fetched out his frying-pan and plenty sausages and fried away for dear life—with butter too, which was ruinous waste. He shared round the sausages, two to each man, and kept the Bean Pheasant to her course until the leading frigate fired a shot across her bows, and ran up the red-white-and-blue; and then, knowing the worst, he rounded-to as meek as a lamb.
The long and short of it was that, inside the hour the dozen Frenchmen were free, and Cap'n Jacka and his men in their place, ironed hand and foot; and the Bean Pheasant working back to France again with a young gentleman of the French navy aboard in command of her.
But 'tis better be lucky born, they say, than a rich man's son. By this time it was blowing pretty well half a gale from sou'-sou'-west, and before midnight a proper gale. The Bean Pheasant being kept head to sea, took it smack-and-smack on the breast-bone, which was her leakiest spot; and soon, being down by the head, made shocking weather of it. 'Twas next door to impossible to work the pump forward. Towards one in the morning old Jacka was rolling about up to his waist as he sat, and trying to comfort himself by singing "Tho' troubles assail," when the young French gentleman came running with one of his Johnnies and knocked the irons off the English boys, and told them to be brisk and help work the pumps, or the lugger—that was already hove to—would go down under them.
"But where be you going?" he sings out—or French to that effect. For Jacka was moving aft towards the cuddy there.
Jacka fetched up his best smuggling French, and answered: "This here lugger is going down. Any fool can see that, as you're handling her. And I'm going down on a full stomach."
With that he reached an arm into the cuddy, where he'd stacked his provisions that evening on top of the frying-pan. But the labouring of the ship had knocked everything there of a heap, and instead of the frying-pan he caught hold of his wife's cinder-sifter.
At that moment the Frenchman ran up behind and caught him a kick. "Come out o' that, you old villain, and fall in at the after pump!" said he.
"Aw, very well," said Jack, turning at once—for the cinder-sifter had given him a bright idea; and he went right aft to his comrades. By this time the Frenchmen were busy getting the first gun overboard.
They were so long that Jacka's boys had the after-pump pretty well to themselves, and between spells one or two ran and fetched buckets, making out 'twas for extra baling; and all seemed to be working like niggers. But by-and-by they called out all together with one woeful voice, "The pump is chucked! The pump is chucked!"
At this all the Frenchmen came running, the young officer leading, and crying to know what was the matter.
"A heap of cinders got awash, sir," says Jacka. "The pump's clogged wi' em, and won't work."
"Then we're lost men!" says the officer; and he caught hold by the foremast, and leaned his face against it like a child.
This was Jacka's chance. "'Lost,' is it? Iss, I reckon you be lost!—and inside o' ten minutes, unless you hearken to rayson. Here you be, not twenty mile from the English coast, as I make it, and with a fair wind. Here you be, three times that distance and more from any port o' your own, the wind dead on her nose, and you ram-stamming the weak spot of her at a sea that's knocking the bows to Jericho. Now, Mossoo, you put her about, and run for Plymouth. She may do it. Pitch over a couple of guns forr'ad, and quit messing with a ship you don't understand, an' I'll warn she will do it."
The young Frenchy was plucky as ginger. "What! Take her into Plymouth, and be made prisoner. I'll sink first!" says he.
But you see, his crew weren't navy men to listen to him; and they had wives and families, and knew that Cap'n Jacka's was their only chance. In five minutes, for all the officer's stamping and morblewing they had the Bean Pheasant about and were running for the English coast.
Now I must go back and tell you what was happening to the Unity in all this while. About four in the afternoon Cap'n Dick, not liking the look of the weather at all, and knowing that, so long as it lasted, he might whistle for prizes, changed his mind and determined to run back to Polperro, so as to re-ship Cap'n Jacka and the prize crew almost as soon as they arrived. By five o'clock he was well on his way, the Unity skipping along quite as if she enjoyed it; and ran before the gale all that night.
Towards three in the morning the wind moderated, and by half-past four the gale had blown itself out. Just about then the look-out came to Cap'n Dick, who had turned in for a spell, and reported two ships' lights, one on each side of them. The chances against their being Frenchmen, out here in this part of the Channel, were about five to two; so Cap'n Dick cracked on; and at daybreak—about a quarter after five—found himself right slap between the very two frigates that had called Jacka to halt the evening before.
One was fetching along on the port tack, and the other on the weather side of him, just making ready to put about. They both ran up the white ensign at sight of him; but this meant nothing. And in a few minutes the frigate to starboard fired a shot across his bows and hoisted her French flag.
Cap'n Dick feigned to take the hint. He shortened sail and rounded at a nice distance under the lee of the enemy—both frigates now lying-to quite contentedly with their sails aback, and lowering their boats. But the first boat had hardly dropped a foot from the davits when he sung out, "Wurroo, lads!" and up again went the Unity's great lug-sail in a jiffy. The Frenchmen, like their sails, were all aback; and before they could fire a gun the Unity was pinching up to windward of them, with Cap'n Dick at the helm, and all the rest of the crew flat on their stomachs. Off she went under a rattling shower from the enemy's bow-chasers and musketry, and was out of range without a man hurt, and with no more damage than a hole or two in the mizzen-lug. The Frenchmen were a good ten minutes trimming sails and bracing their yards for the chase; and by that time Cap'n Dick had slanted up well on their weather bow. Before breakfast-time he was shaking his sides at the sight of seven hundred-odd Johnnies vainly spreading and trimming more canvas to catch up their lee-way (for at first the lazy dogs had barely unreefed courses after the gale, and still had their topgallant masts housed). Likely enough they had work on hand more important than chasing a small lugger all day; for at seven o'clock they gave up and stood away to the south-east, and left the Unity free to head back homeward on her old course.
'Twas a surprising feat, to slip out of grasp in this way, and past two broadsides, any gun of which could have sent him to the bottom; and Cap'n Dick wasn't one to miss boasting over it. Even during the chase he couldn't help carrying on in his usual loud and cheeky way, waving good-bye to the Mossoos, offering them a tow-rope, and the like; but now the deck wasn't big enough to hold his swagger, and in their joy of escaping a French prison, the men encouraged him, so that to hear them talk you'd have thought he was Admiral Nelson and Sir Sidney Smith rolled into one.
By nine o'clock they made out the Eddystone on their starboard bow; and a little after—-the morning being bright and clear, with a nice steady breeze—they saw a sail right ahead of them, making in for Plymouth Sound. And who should it be but the old Bean Pheasant, deep as a log! Cap'n Dick cracked along after her, and a picture she was as he drew up close! Six of her guns had gone; her men were baling in two gangs, and still she was down a bit by the head, and her stern yawing like a terrier's tail when his head's in a rabbit-hole. And there at the tiller stood Cap'n Jacka, his bald head shining like a statue of fun, and his one eye twinkling with blessed satisfaction as he cocked it every now and then for a glance over his right shoulder.