THE BLUE PAVILIONS
THE GALLEYS AND THE FRIGATE.
The Merry Maid had left the Texel by the narrow gut called De Witt's Diep, with her convoy following in line and in admirable order. The breeze was fair for England. A full round moon rose over the sandbanks behind them as Captain Barker sent the pilots ashore and stood easily out to sea, for the most of his merchant-ships were sluggish sailers, and not a few overladen. So clear was the night that, as he paced the quarter-deck with the dew falling steadily around him, he could not only count their thirty-six lanterns, but even discern their piled canvas glimmering as they stole like ghosts in his wake.
That night he left his watch for an hour only, when shortly before dawn Captain Runacles came to relieve him, threatening mutiny unless he retired to snatch a little slumber. But the sun was scarce up before the little man reappeared. The pride of his old profession was working like yeast within him. His breast swelled and his chin lifted as he found the convoy still sailing in close order, obeying his signals smoothly and intelligently as a trained pack obeys its huntsman. He was delighted with the frigate and her crew, who were English to a man. To be sure there was a fair sprinkling of Dutchmen among the soldiers; but his heart had begun to warm somewhat towards that nation. As he shambled to and fro, jerking out from time to time some necessary orders, he saw that he had the respect of all these fellows, even while they smiled at him. They felt that this distorted little framework held a man. He divined this with the quick sensibility that marks all deformed people. His green eyes kindled. In the pride of his soul he had almost forgotten Tristram.
The sight of the English coast, dim and purple beneath the declining sun, brought it back to him with a pang. After all, Tristram was still lost, and his journey to Holland had been a failure therefore. With a sudden contempt for all that a moment before he had been enjoying, he turned to his friend and asked him to take charge for a while.
Nothing more was said, but Captain Runacles guessed what drove the little man below like a wounded beast, and began to pace the deck gloomily.
"He'll never take it up again," he muttered. "It's all very well, and he thinks he's getting comfort out of it. But it won't do."
He paused for a moment, contemplated the distant coast and resumed his tread, repeating: "It won't do, Jack; it won't do a bit, my boy."
Captain Barker sat in his cabin alone, staring at a knot of wood on the table before him. There were traces of tears on his cheeks.
Somebody tapped at the door.
"What is it?"
"The devil," answered Captain Runacles' voice, coolly. "Six galleys to the south, between us and the Thames!"
Captain Barker sprang up and hurried up on deck.
"So those are the craft I've heard so much about," he remarked, taking down the glass through which he had been eyeing them for a couple of minutes.
"What do you propose, Jack?"
"Propose? Why, propose to do what I'm here for—to save the convoy."
"That's very pretty. But do you know how fast those sharks can move?"
"No, I don't. But I know they can outpace us. Nevertheless, I'll save the convoy."
"There's only one way."
"And that is—"
"By losing the frigate."
Captain Runacles looked at him for a second, and then placed a hand on his shoulder. This simple gesture expressed all his heart. Captain Barker turned briskly.
"Signal the convoy," he shouted, "to make all sail and run for the Thames!"
M. de la Pailletine was in some respects a weak man. He was impatient. Up to this moment his behaviour in an extremely galling position had been perfect. He had been content to bide his time and had furthered every order issued by his rival with the cheerfullest alacrity.
But when the man at the masthead announced the advance of the merchant fleet, he allowed himself to be tempted and turned to Captain Salt who stood beside him.
"You will follow them, of course?"
"Of course I shall do nothing of the sort. On the contrary, I intend to steer to the south, out of their sight."
"You will fling away this splendid prize?"
"Let me remind you, monsieur, that we are bound for Harwich."
"But this is folly, Captain Salt! Harwich will remain where it is, and we can ravage it at any time. Never again may we have so fine an opportunity of capturing thirty-six merchantmen and a British frigate almost without a blow."
"Excuse me, M. de la Pailletine, but I do not allow my orders to be criticised."
"Then listen to me, sir," retorted the Commodore, his face red with fury, as he drew from his coat the orders which the King had addressed to him. "You see this paper? Very well; I destroy it." He tore it into shreds, and let the pieces flutter over the galley's side.
"Are you aware of what that action means?" Captain Salt was white to the lips.
"I am, sir."
"It is treason."
"You think so, perhaps. But a Frenchman should best know what is due to the King of France. Nevertheless, I shall summon the captains to confirm my action. Will you attend them in my cabin?"
"Thank you; no, sir. I am quite sure that they will support you. It remains to see what his Majesty will say when I report your contempt of his orders."
"That is for the future to decide. Meanwhile be good enough to recollect that I command the squadron from this moment. Should you choose to volunteer, well and good. If not, my cabin is at your disposal as soon as the captains have left it."
He bowed and turned away to summon the captains.
They came in haste, and were, of course, unanimous; though it is difficult to say how far they were influenced by sound argument and how far by pique and a desire to thwart the Englishman. While they sat, Captain Salt remained on deck cursing quietly and examining the approaching enemy with no pleasant stare.
Orders were issued to all the six galleys to attack the fleet. Four were told off against the merchantmen and commanded to make all speed to get between them and the Thames; while L'Heureuse herself and La Merveille (commanded by the Chevalier de Sainte-Croix) were to attack and take possession of the frigate.
Immediately they began to make all possible haste with sails and oars. Captain Salt withdrew to the cabin in dudgeon and M. de la Pailletine took his place. From their benches below the slaves heard his voice shouting out orders right and left, and at once they had to catch up their oars and row. The English fleet when first spied was coming right across their course, and still held on its way when it perceived the Frenchman's intent. In pursuance of this intent the four galleys made off with all speed to place themselves between the merchantmen and the coast, while the Commodore and the Chevalier de Sainte-Croix bore down on the frigate, straight as an arrow.
And now began a hard time for Tristram and his companions below. They tugged and sweated, and presently L'Heureuse began to leap through the water. Above the swish of the long sweeps rose a tumult of oaths, imprecations, outcries, sobs, as the overseers plied their whips, not caring where they struck. Overhead they heard the guns running out, the rolling of shot and trampling of feet, the shouts and replies of officers and men. They could see nothing of the frigate for which they were bound, but from the confusion and hurry expected every moment to feel the shock as the galley's beak drove into her.
Then for a second or two all the noise ceased.
The reason was this. For some little while the frigate held on her course for the mouth of the Thames. Not a sail more did she carry than when she first came in sight. It almost seemed as if her captain had not seen the enemy sweeping to destroy him. For thirty-five minutes she held quietly on beside her convoy. And then the helm was shifted, and she came down straight into the Frenchman's teeth.
It was a gallant stroke, and a subtle—so subtle that M. de la Pailletine mistook its meaning and gave a great shout of joy. He fancied he saw the English delivered into his hand. But his rejoicing was premature.
To begin with, he perceived the next moment that the frigate, by hastening the attack, had caught his galley alone. Into this trap he had been led partly by the excellence of his crew. Not only was his the fleetest vessel of the six, but he had always been jealous to choose the strongest forçats to man it. Moreover, M. de Sainte-Croix had been slow in starting, and by this time La Merveille was a league or more behind her consort.
Still the Commodore was in no way disturbed. He admitted to his lieutenant beside him that the frigate was showing desperate gallantry; but he never doubted for a moment that his galley alone, with two hundred fighting-men aboard, would be more than a match for her.
Down came the Merry Maid, closer and closer, her red-crossed flag fluttering bravely at the peak; and on rushed the galley, until the two were within cannon-shot. M. de la Pailletine gave the order, and sent a shot to meet her from one of the four guns in the prow. As the thunder of it died away and the smoke cleared, he waited for the Englishman's reply. There was none. The frigate held on her course, silent as death.
The two English captains stood on the quarterdeck, side by side, the tall man and the dwarf. Beyond issuing an order or two, neither had spoken a word for twenty minutes. Once Captain Barker glanced over his shoulder to see how the merchantmen were faring, and calculated that within half an hour their enemies would intercept them. Then he looked down on his men, who stood ready by the guns, motionless, with lips set, repressing the fury of battle; and beyond them to the galley as she came, churning the sea, her oars rising and falling like the strong wings of a bird.
"My God!" he said softly, "if only Tristram were here to see!"
When the frigate failed to answer his salute, M. de la Pailletine jumped to a fresh conclusion.
"Mordieu!" he cried, "here is another English captain who, like our friend Salt, is weary of carrying his Sovereign's colours. He doesn't mean to strike a blow. A minute and we shall see his flag hauled down."
But the minute passed, and another, and yet a third, and the English flag still flew.
By this time they were within musket-shot. One by one the four guns had spoken from the galley's prow and still there was no answer. On the brink of the tragedy there was silence for an instant. Then a few of the French musketeers seemed to find this intolerable and fired without receiving the order. Followed a silence again, and still the Merry Maid came on as if to impale herself on the galley's beak.
And then, suddenly, when in five minutes the vessels must have collided, round flew the frigate's wheel. For a minute and a half she fetched up as if awaking to the consequences of her folly; shuddered and shook against the wind; and, as her sails filled again, fetched away on the westerly tack for her life.
For a full two minutes the French were taken aback.
"Fools, fools!" shouted M. de la Pailletine, beside himself with joy.
The order flew for the slaves on the larboard benches to hold water for a minute and the galley's head came round. Nothing gives more spirit than a flying enemy. From mouth to mouth ran the whisper that the English were showing their heels; and in a moment these poor devils, who owed all their misery to France, were pulling like madmen. Jeers rose from the deck.
"If Monsieur the Englishman does not strike within two minutes, down he goes to the bottom."
"The idiot, to expose his stern!"
"On the whole, it is just as well that La Merveille is so far behind. We shall have all the glory to ourselves—eh, my children?"
On board the frigate Captain Barker said four words only:
"Take the wheel, Jemmy."
Captain Runacles stepped to it and the steersman gave place.
In truth the hunchback, though this was his first acquaintance with a galley, knew well enough that she would strike for the frigate's stern as the weakest point. This was precisely what he wished her to do.
Captain Runacles stood with his hand on the wheel and waited, glancing back over his shoulder.
Captain Barker stood by the taffrail with one eye upon the galley and his face turned in profile to his friend. His right hand was lifted.
The Commodore had made all his dispositions. The galley was to plunge her beak straight into the Merry Maid's stern, and its crew, after one discharge of cannon to clear the frigate's poop, were to board at once. The men stood ready with their hatchets and cutlasses and set up a wild yell as they drove straight for her. From below the slaves echoed it with a melancholy wail.
On they tore. As they yelled again, L'Heureuse's beak was but thirty yards from her prey. A few more leaps and it would strike.
The little man looked back in their faces and smiled.
He dropped his hand. Quick as lightning Captain Jerry spun the wheel round. The stern swung sharply off, her sea-way gauged to a nicety.
The next moment the galley flew past. Her beak, missing the stern, rushed on, tearing great splinters out of the Merry Maid's flank. Her starboard oars snapped like matchwood, hurling the slaves backwards on their benches and killing a dozen on the spot. Then she brought up, helplessly disabled, right under the frigate's side.
And then at length the English cheer rang forth. In an instant the grappling-irons were out and the frigate held her foe, clasped, strained close against her ribs, close under her depressed guns.
And at length, too, with a blinding flash and a roar, those English guns spoke. A minute had done it all. Sixty seconds before the gallant vessel had lain apparently at the Frenchman's mercy. Now the Frenchman was fastened inextricably, while the crowd upon deck stood as much exposed as if the galley were a raft.
Down swept the grape-shot, tearing ghastly passages through them. They were near enough to be scorched by the flame of it. Down and across it rent them, as they crouched and fought with each other to get away and hide. There was no hiding. Before the breath of it they went down in rows, strewing the deck horribly, mangled, riddled, blown in miserable pieces.
In a trice, too, the English masts and rigging were swarming with musketeers and sailors who poured hand-grenades among them like hail, scattering wounds and death. The Frenchmen no longer thought of attacking. Such was the panic among officers as well as common men that they were incapable even of resistance. Scores who were neither killed nor wounded lay flat on their faces, counterfeiting death and hoping to find safety.
This carnage lasted, perhaps, for less than five minutes. L'Heureuse's consort was still near upon a league behind, and the other four galleys were still busily chasing the merchantmen.
Captain Barker looked and was well content. But he had much work still before him, and to do it properly he must husband his ammunition.
He gave the order to board. Forty or fifty men dropped over the Merry Maid's side, cutlass in mouth, and rushed along the galley's deck, hewing down all who ventured to oppose them and sparing only the slaves, who made no resistance. At last, and merely by the weight of numbers, they were driven back. But this did the Frenchmen no good. Instantly the frigate opened fire again and murdered them by scores.
It was in this extremity that M. de la Pailletine cast his eyes around and found himself forced to do what Captain Barker from the first had meant him to do. The four galleys that had started after the convoy were by this time sweeping along on the full tide of success. In another five minutes the pathway to the Thames would be blocked and all the merchant vessels at their mercy.
M. de la Pailletine hoisted the flag of distress. He called them to his help.
A wild hurrah broke out from the crew of the frigate. The order meant their destruction: for how could the Merry Maid contend against six galleys? Yet they cheered, for they had guessed what their captain had in his mind. And the little man's greenish eyes sparkled as he heard.
"Good boys!" he said briefly, turning to his friend. "The convoy is saved, my lad: and O! but Jemmy, you did it prettily!"
V.—The Galley (in the hold).
Let us go back for a minute or two to Tristram.
The oar at which he tugged was one of the starboard tier; and when L'Heureuse missed her stroke, as we have told, it went like a sugar-stick, flinging him and his companions back across the bench. Farther than this they could not fly, because the stout chains which fastened them were but ten feet long. Tristram, indeed, was hurled scarcely so far as the rest, for his seat was the inmost from the gangway, and right against the galley's side; so that he got the shortest swing of the oar.
They scrambled up just as the fire of grape-shot opened. And then Tristram made an appalling discovery.
The hole through which their oar was worked had been split wider by the crash; and now, looking out, he saw that it lay just opposite the mouth of an English cannon. In this position they had been brought up by the frigate's grappling-irons.
It took him but an instant to see also that the cannon, as it stared him in the face, was loaded.
The two vessels, moreover, lay so close that by reaching up with his hand he could have laid his hand on its muzzle.
It was a horrible moment. There were four Frenchmen and a Turk ranged along the bench beside him. He looked into their faces. They were ashen grey to the lips. No one could move to get out of the way: the chains prevented that. The Huguenot was praying wildly. Only the Turk preserved his composure, and even he had turned pale under his bronze skin.
Somebody cried: "Lie flat!"
In a second every one of Tristram's companions had flung himself flat on the bench. Tristram glanced again at the gun. Even at that moment he had enough presence of mind to note that it was pointed downwards, and at such an angle that those who lay flat must infallibly receive all its contents. He noted this even while it seemed that every one of his faculties was frozen up. He felt that he could move neither hand nor foot; and somehow he knew that since, because of the chain, he could not leave the bench, he must sit upright. And so he stiffened his back, laid his hands on his lap, and waited with his eyes on the gun.
Through the port-hole he could see the English gunner. He saw the fuse in his hand. He counted the seconds; wondered, even, how the fellow could be so deliberate. He heard the explosions all around, and speculated. Would the next be his turn? Or the next? Would it be painful? What was the next world like? And would his body be badly mangled?
The gunner had the match ready, when the lad's lips moved and a cry broke from them—a cry which astonished him as he uttered it, for he had no notion that his brain was busy with such matters.
"O! my Father, have pity on my poor soul! I have loved all men and one woman. Give comfort to her, and have mercy on my poor soul!"
As the last word dropped from his lips, a great calm fell upon him and his eyes rested quietly on the gunner's hand as the man set the lighted match to the touch-hole of the gun.
It was night when Tristram opened his eyes again. A pale ray of moonlight slanted across his face. His head was pillowed on something soft and warm. He lay for awhile and stared at the moonlight; and by degrees he made out that it was pouring through a rent in the galley's side. Then he turned his head and lifted himself a little to see what it was on which his head rested. It was the dead body of one of the three overseers, who had been killed almost by the first shot fired by the frigate.
He pulled himself up and crept towards the bench; then put a hand down to his feet. The ring was there, but no chain. Next he felt along the bench with a wish—quite stupid—to get back to his seat. His comrades were still lying on their faces. He imagined for a moment that their foolish fears still held them there and he laughed feebly. He was weak, but felt no pain from any wound, nor suspected that he was hurt.
Then he began to eye the fellows roguishly, taking a malicious pleasure in the continuance of their terror. He tittered again and suddenly found himself out of patience with them.
"Come, get up—get up! The danger's all over long ago."
He received no answer and put out his hand towards the nearest. It was the Turk—a fellow who had been a janizary, and had the reputation of not knowing what fear was.
"Hullo, Ysouf! Get up, for shame—get up, man! And you—that we called so brave!"
Ysouf lay still. Tristram bent forward and took his hand.
The hand came away from the body. It was icy cold.
Still holding it, Tristram leant back and stared; and as he stared a pettish anger took him. He tossed the hand back on the body. And now for the first time he began to hear; and as this lost sense crept back to him he knew that the place was full of moaning, and that somewhere close feet were trampling to and fro. The noise caused him agony, and he put his two hands to his ears.
He was sitting in this posture when he felt something warm and moist trickle down his body, which was naked to the waist. He took a hand from his ear and put it to his breast. It was all wet, but in the darkness nothing could be distinguished. Suspecting, however, that it must be blood from some wound, and following the smear with his fingers, he found that his shoulder, near the clavicle was pierced right through. There was no pain.
Then he began to feel himself all over, and found another gash in the left leg, below the knee. He searched no more, feeling that it was useless, as he was bound to die in a little while. The men before him and behind him were dead. Of eighteen men on the three benches he—who had been blown the full length of the coursier—was the only one left; and all owing to the explosion of one cannon only. But such was the manner of grape-shot: after the cartouche of powder, a long tin box of musket-balls rammed in; and as the box breaks, destruction right and left.
As he sat, waiting listlessly for death, the sense of pain came suddenly upon Tristram; and then he swooned away.
As soon as the galleys saw M. de la Pailletine's signal and turned reluctantly back from their chase, the capture of the Merry Maid became but a question of time. La Merveille was the first to come up, and, striking fairly at her stern, riddled her windows with a gust of artillery and prepared to board: a feat that was thrice prevented by Captain Runacles and a couple of dozen marines, English and Dutch. Then followed Captain Denoyre with the Sanspareil, who approached from the starboard side and lost both his masts as he did so. In fact, the execution done upon his galley was only second to that suffered by L'Heureuse. But as Le Paon followed from the same quarter, with the Nymphe and the Belle Julie heading down as fast as oars could take them, Captain Barker cast a look back and touched his old friend's arm.
The first of the merchantmen was entering the Thames.
"Better get back to the fo'c's'le, Jemmy, and entrench yourself."
Captain Runacles nodded. "And you?" he asked.
"Oh, I'm going down to the cabin—first of all." Captain Runacles nodded again. They looked straight into each other's eyes, shook hands, and parted.
It was obvious that the men of the Merry Maid could no longer keep the deck. She was hemmed in on every side and it only remained to board her.
Twenty-five grenadiers from each galley were ordered upon this service. Those of La Merveille were the first to start and they swarmed over the stern without opposition. But no sooner were they crowded upon the frigate's deck than a volley of musketry mowed them down. Captain Runacles and his heroes then ran back and entrenched themselves in the forecastle; and to advance to close the hatchway was certain death. Nor were they forced to surrender until long after the English flag was hauled down: and, indeed, were only silenced when M. de la Pailletine hit on the happy idea of setting fifty men to work with axes to lay open the frigate's deck. A score and a half of men were lost over this piece of work. However, the forecastle was carried at last by means of it; and the prisoners were brought on deck—among them Captain Runacles, with his right hand disabled.
"Are you the gallant captain of this frigate?" asked M. de la Pailletine, doffing his hat; for as yet he had received no sword in token of the Merry Maid's surrender.
"No, sir," Captain Runacles answered; "I have the honour to be his lieutenant."
"He is killed, perhaps?"
"I fancy not."
"Then where is he?"
"Excuse me, monsieur, it strikes me he has yet to be taken."
"But the ship is ours!"
"Well, monsieur, you have hauled down our colours and I can't deny it. But as for the frigate, I doubt if you can call it yours just yet."
"What do you mean, sir?"
"Why, simply that you have not yet taken Captain Barker; and excuse me if, knowing Captain Barker better than you can possibly do, I warn you that that part of the ship which he sees fit to occupy at this moment will probably be dangerous for some time to come."
As if to corroborate his words, at this moment the hush which had fallen upon the frigate's deck was broken by the report of a firearm, and two French grenadiers rushed upon deck from below and came forward hurriedly, one with a hand clapped to a wound in his shoulder.
"That," said Captain Runacles, "is probably Captain Barker. There is a shutter to his cabin door."
"But this is trivial," exclaimed the French Commodore, frowning.
"If Monsieur will excuse me, it is scarcely so trivial as it looks. Captain Barker is within ten paces of the powder-magazine. Moreover, between him and the powder-magazine there is a door."
M. de la Pailletine jumped in his shoes. He rushed aft to the companion leading to the captain's cabin and called on him to surrender.
"Go away!" answered a very ill-tempered voice from below.
"But, sir, consider. Your ship is in our hands—"
"Then come and take it."
"—Your gallant officers have surrendered. You have behaved like a hero and there is not one of your enemies but honours you. Monsieur, it is magnificent—but come out!"
"Monsieur, even this noble obstinacy extorts my veneration; but permit me to inquire: How can you help it?"
"Very simply, sir. Time is of no concern to me. I have plenty of victuals and ammunition down here; and if any man comes to take my sword I shall kill him."
"You cannot kill five or six hundred men."
"No; when I am bored, I shall fire the powder-magazine."
There was no answer but the sound of a man blowing his nose violently and the ring of a ramrod as it was thrust home. It was absurd that one man should hold a ship against hundreds. Nevertheless, it was so, and the Commodore did not see his way out of it.
"Permit me, sir," said Captain Runacles, stepping forward, "to add my assurance, if such be needed, that Captain Barker is a man of his word."
The Commodore essayed gentler tactics.
"Listen, monsieur!" he called down.
"I have the pleasure to announce to you that you shall meet only with such treatment as your bravery deserves. Dismiss all apprehension of imprisonment—"
At this point he skipped backwards with such violence as to knock a couple of sailors sprawling. A bullet had embedded itself in the timbers at his feet.
He determined to use summary measures, and ordered twelve grenadiers, with fixed bayonets, to advance to the cabin door, break it open, and overpower the Englishman.
The twelve men advanced as they were bidden. The sergeant was half-way down the ladder, with his detachment at his heels, when the report of a musket was heard and down he dropped with a ball in his leg. The grenadiers hesitated. Another shot followed. It was pretty clear that the besieged man had plenty of firearms loaded and ready. They scrambled up the steps again. "It was all very well," they said; "but as they could only advance in single file, exposing their legs before they could use their arms, the Englishman from behind his barricade could shoot them down like sheep."
M. de la Pailletine stamped and swore, upbraiding them for their cowardice. He was about to order them down again when a diversion occurred.
A door slammed below, a wheezing cough was heard, and Captain Barker's head appeared at the top of the ladder.
"Which of you is the French captain?"
M. de la Pailletine lifted his hat.
He stepped up on deck and the French officers drew back in sheer amazement. They looked at this man who had defied them for pretty near an hour. They had expected to see a giant. Instead they saw a tiny man, hump-backed, wry-necked, pale of face, with a twisted smile, and glaring green eyes, that surveyed them with a malicious twinkle. His wig was off, and his bandaged scalp, as well as his face, was smeared black with powder; and it appeared that he could not even walk like other men, for he moved across the deck with a gait that was something between a trot and a shamble and indescribably ludicrous.
Yet all this abated his dignity no whit. He trotted straight up to M. de la Pailletine (whose astonishment mastered his manners for the moment, so that he stared and drew back), and working his jaw, as a man who has to swallow a bitter pill which sticks in his mouth, he held out his sword without ceremony.
"Here you are," he said: "I've done with it; can't waste words."
"Sir," the Commodore answered, bowing, "believe me, I receive it with little gratification. The victory is ours, no doubt; but the honour of it you have wrested from us. Sir, I am a Frenchman; but I am a sailor, too; and my heart swells over such a feat as yours. Suffer me, then, to remind you that your present captivity is but the fortune of war, against which you have struggled heroically; that your self-sacrifice has saved your fleet; and that, as France knows how to appreciate gallantry in her adversaries, your bondage shall be merely nominal."
"H'mph," said the little man, "fine talk, sir, fine talk! As for the ships, I saw the last of 'em slip into the Thames ten minutes since, from my cabin window. Sorry to keep you parleying so long, but couldn't come out before."
He blew his nose violently, cocked his head on one side, and added— ". . . though, to be sure, sir, your words are devilish kind— devilish kind, 'pon my soul!"
M. de la Pailletine, with a pleasant smile, held out his sword to him.
"Take it back, monsieur—take back a weapon no man better deserves to wear. Forget that you are my prisoner: and, if I may beg it, remember rather that you are my friend."
The face of the little hunchback flushed crimson. He hesitated, took back the sword clumsily, hesitated again, then swiftly held out his hand to M. de la Pailletine, with a smile as beautiful as his body was deformed.
"Sir, you have beaten me. I fought your men for awhile, but I can't stand up against this."
There was one man, however, who soon had reason to repent that the little man had been given his sword again.
Dark had fallen when M. de la Pailletine conducted him courteously over the frigate's side and across the deck of L'Heureuse towards his own cabin. Flinging the door open, he bowed, motioning Captain Barker to precede him.
As the hunchback entered, a figure rose from beside the table under the swinging-lamp. It was Roderick Salt, who had been sitting there and sulking since the engagement began.
Captain Barker jumped back a foot and stared.
Captain Salt had been expecting the Commodore, and was waiting to pay him a dozen satirical compliments on the issue of the engagement. Triumph shone in his eyes. It went out like a candle-flame before a puff of wind.
In a flash the hunchback was running on him with drawn sword. M. de la Pailletine, in a trice, interposing, knocked the blade up and out of his hand. But he rushed on, and, dealing the traitor a sound blow on the face with his fist, began to kick and cuff and pummel him without mercy.
"Take him off—take him off!" gasped Captain Salt, but offered not the least resistance.
The Commodore, amused and secretly pleased, caught the little man in his arms and dragged him away by main force.
"Messieurs," he said, slipping between them, and still panting with the effort, "circumstances compel me to leave you together for a while. But before I go, I must exact a parole from both of you that you will keep the peace towards each other."
"But, monsieur," Captain Barker exclaimed, "I want to kill him!"
"Doubtless; but if, sir, you have that consideration for me which you professed by shaking hands with me just now, you will refrain. Captain Salt will tell you, sir, that we have a small affair to discuss together as soon as we reach France again. When that discussion is over, no doubt he will be at your service."
The pair gave their promise reluctantly, and, as the Commodore left the cabin, sat down, facing each other across the table—Captain Salt with his back to the shattered stern-windows, which, a week or two before Tristram had touched up with fresh paint and simple enthusiasm.
They knew nothing of this. Yet the first question asked by Captain Barker, after he had glared at his enemy in silence for twenty minutes, was:
"Where is Tristram?"
"Ay; your son. You have seen him and have been with him."
"I do not know. I lost him."
"Two months since. We were travelling south together—"
"What right had you—"
"Excuse me, I was about to put a similar question. To begin with, you do not deny, I suppose, that the lad is my son?" He paused a second or two, and listened; for a sudden shout had gone up from the galley's deck above them. He continued, "Secondly, the boy is heir to considerable estates; thirdly, he has been so for many years; fourthly, I am legally an administrator of those estates; fifthly, you knew that I was alive—what the devil is that noise?"
"Never mind the noise. Proceed with your remarks."
"I have simply to say that you, Captain Barker, together with your friend Runacles, have for years been playing off a fraud on the law, and that I am going to exact my rights to the last farthing."
"Really, you must excuse me; but do you—a traitor, on board a French ship—imagine that you possess any rights in England?"
There was certainly a loud trampling of feet on the galley's deck at this moment. But Captain Barker knew that the French would make haste to clear their dead at once and get into motion with their prize, for the merchantmen must, before this, have given the alarm, and the coast was continually patrolled by British cruisers.
"You have a very imperfect knowledge of my position, Captain Barker; and it naturally leads you to jump to very wrong conclusions. To begin with, you imagine me a traitor."
"To whom? To King William, I suppose?"
"Well, as William is the king whose law seems most likely to interfere with your present threats, I will instance King William."
"You are mistaken. Until you came into sight this squadron was advancing on Harwich under my command. You understand? Well, before it started I had sent word to William of its intention. In other words, from first to last I designed the whole expedition in his interests. Had we gone on, by this time half a dozen British frigates would have been upon us."
"My God! And they are here!"
As Captain Barker yelled it out, a broad flame illumined the cabin, and the crash of broken glass and rending timbers mingled with a roar that shook the seas for miles.
And in the light of this thunderous broadside Captain Salt rose slowly, lifted his arms, swayed and dropped forward, striking the table with his brow; then slid down upon the floor, stone-dead.
VIII.—The Galley (in the hold).
From his second swoon Tristram awoke to find the light of a lantern flashing in his face.
The Merry Maid's flag had scarcely been hauled down before night fell; and almost with its falling, while the men of the other galleys were helping to clear L'Heureuse's decks, they perceived lights twinkling off the mouth of the Thames.
At once concluding that these were the lights of English men-of-war sent to pursue them, they used the utmost dispatch. Their first concern was to throw the dead overboard and stow the wounded in the hold. But so closely they were pressed by the fear of losing their prize and being made prisoners, that it is to be feared as many of the living were thrown over for dead as of those who were dead in reality.
This, at any rate, came near to being Tristram's fate. For when the keeper came to unchain the killed and wounded of his seat he was still without consciousness lying among the corpses, bathed in their blood and his own.
"A clean sweep of this bench," said the keeper.
He and his fellows, therefore, without further examination, did but unchain the slaves and then fling them over. It was sufficient that the body neither spoke nor cried.
Tristram's comrades, it is true, were in no doubtful plight. The hand of death had impressed them beyond chance of mistake. They were thrown over limb by limb.
Tristram's was the only body that remained entire, and to all appearance he too was dead. Now, he had been chained by the left leg, in which (as we have said) he was severely wounded. The keeper, not knowing that the chain had been blown away, grasped this leg in his hand, felt for the ring and tried to wrench it open.
Fortunately he tugged so lustily and inflicted so sharp a pang in the wounded limb that Tristram opened his eyes and sobbed with the anguish of it. The fellow let go his grasp.
Then, suddenly perceiving what their intention had been, the poor youth screamed out at the top of his voice:
"Please do not throw me over. I'm not dead yet!"
Upon this they carried him to a small chamber in the hold and tossed him down among a heap of groaning wounded, upon a cable made up into a rouleau, perhaps the hardest bed on which a sick man can lie. About him were stretched indiscriminately petty officers, sailors, soldiers, and slaves. The air could reach this den only through a scuttle about two feet square, and the heat and stench were therefore something intolerable. A surgeon was at work among the sufferers. Reaching Tristram at length, he stopped the bleeding of his wounds with a little spirits of wine. He had no bandages; nor did he come again to see if his patient were dead or alive.
But, indeed, our hero was past caring for this, and when he regained consciousness after a third swoon it was to find himself in other hands.
For the pursuing English, aided by the wind (which had shifted a little farther to the northward), had swept down upon the galleys and taken them, with their prize, and were now towing them triumphantly into Sheerness.
At ten o'clock next morning, after a prodigious breakfast at Sheerness, Captain Barker and Captain Runacles (whose wounded arm was slung in a silk kerchief) strolled down to the waterside to have a look at the strange vessels they had so obstinately defied. They explored with especial care the unfortunate L'Heureuse, visiting first the Commodore's cabin, upon the boards of which the blood of Roderick Salt was hardly dry. It cannot be said that they felt much sorrow for his fate; for to pity a traitor was a height to which the faith of this pair of imperfect Christians did not soar. But they uttered no word of exultation, and quickly resumed their examination of the deck and hold, discussing this or that rent, debating over every splinter, proving that such and such a groove was ploughed by a ball from such and such an angle, and so on.
From the deck they descended to the long chamber where now row upon row of battered and deserted benches told of a tragedy more pitiful than any that can befall men who are free to stand up and fight for their lives.
"Merciful Heaven!" exclaimed the little hunchback, standing with his arms folded and gloomily conjuring up the scene of yesterday; "Jemmy, we must have mown the poor brutes down like swathes of meadow grass. See here—"
He bent to examine a bench along which a broadening groove ran from end to end, telling a frightful tale.
But Captain Runacles did not answer. He was standing by a battered hole in the galley's starboard side and looking down at the floor. A sunbeam fell through the hole and slanted along the planks of the flooring. His eyes were following this sunbeam, and his face was like a ghost's.
"Jemmy; come and look—here's a whole benchful accounted for at one swoop." Still Jemmy did not reply. The sunbeam drifting between the benches before him fell on a little patch of earth—a patch collected by one of the slaves whose comrades, humouring his whim, had brought him a handful or two in their pockets whenever they returned from shore. Upon this patch of earth were sunk the prints of a pair of feet, far apart; and between these footprints glimmered two lines of green, with two other lines uniting them.
They were two lines of pepper-cress, unharmed and fresh as if they grew in some sheltered garden, open only to the sun and rain. And as Captain Jemmy looked, the two green lines resolved themselves into two words; thus bracketed:
"Jemmy—Jemmy, confound you! Do you hear?"
"Yes, yes." Captain Runacles turned suddenly and took his friend by the arm. "Yes—I see—very curious. Now let's go."
"You're in a great hurry."
"Yes, I want to go up and have a look at the wounded in hospital."
"Why, what's taken you? We haven't looked at the beak yet; and that's the most important of all."
"Very well, come along, and examine it while I run up to the hospital. Come"—he took the little man's arm—"I won't be gone ten minutes."
"Now, why on earth you've taken this fancy—" began Captain Barker as he regained the deck. And then he put his hands behind him and stared; for Captain Jemmy was already hurrying away for his life.
It was fifteen minutes before he returned, and the little man was hanging over the bows with half his body over the bulwarks and his head twisted to get a better view of the formidable beak.
"Oh, you're back. I say, just lean over here—"
"Jack!" Captain Runacles caught him by the coat-tails, and tore him back. "Now listen; you're not to speak; you're not to ask questions; you're not to open your mouth. You've just to come—that's all."
He took the little man and hurried him ashore. He was breathless; but he ran Captain Barker over the gang-plank like a charging bull.
"One moment, Jemmy—Jemmy! Damme I will ask—!"
"Ask away, then—and wait for the answer!"
And so it happened that Tristram, stretched in the hospital at Sheerness, with his head to the wall, and thirty wounded men on either side of him, heard in his painless dose a sharp cry, and then a voice that seemed to call him across miles of empty space.
"O! my dear God! Tristram—my son, my son!"
He opened his eyes feebly, smiled, and whispering one word—"Dad!"— sank back into a dreamless slumber.