THE BLUE PAVILIONS
THE CAPTAINS MAKE A FALSE START.
It was past midnight when Captain Runacles left his friend's pavilion and let himself through the little blue door to his own garden. The heavens were clear and starry, and he paused for a moment on the grass-plot, his hands clasped behind him, his head tilted back and his eyes fixed on the Great Bear that hung directly overhead.
"Poor Jack!" he muttered, shaking his head at the constellation, as if gently accusing Fate. His nature had been considerably softened by the little man's distress, and he had come away with a generous trouble in his heart.
"I shan't sleep a wink to-night," he decided; and went on inconsequently, "After all, a girl is less anxiety than a boy. People don't find it worth their while to kidnap a girl and flog her with a cat-o'-nine-tails. A turn of a die, and I'd have been in Jack's shoes to-night; while, as it is—"
As it was, however, he seemed hardly to enjoy his good fortune, for he added, still looking up:
"Plague seize it! I shan't sleep a wink—I know I shan't. What a magnificent show of stars! Let me see, how long is it before daybreak? One-two-three-five hours only. I won't go to bed at all— I'll have a turn at the telescope."
He stole into the house softly and climbed up the spiral staircase. A faint light shone out on the first landing from the half-open door of his workroom. He entered and turned up the lamp.
Its light revealed a scene of amazing disorder. The walls were covered with books and charts; the floor was littered with manuscripts, mathematical instruments, huge folios, piled higgledy-piggledy, carpenter's tools, retorts, bottles of chemicals. In one corner, beside a door leading to his bedroom, stood a turning-lathe three inches deep in sawdust and shavings; in another, a human skeleton hung against the wall, its feet concealed by the model of a pumping-engine. Hard by was nailed a rack containing a couple of antique swords, a walking-cane and a large telescope.
Captain Runacles took down this telescope and tucked it under his arm. Then, unhitching a dressing-gown of faded purple from a peg behind the door, he turned the lamp low again and stepped out upon the landing. Here he paused for a minute and listened. The house was still. From the floor below ascended the sound of breathing, regular and stertorous, which proved that Simeon was asleep.
He put his hand on the stair-rail and ascended to the next floor, passing his daughter's room on tiptoe. Above this, a flight of steps that was little more than a ladder led up into the obscurity of the attics. He climbed these steps, and, entering a lumber-room, where he had to duck his head to avoid striking the sloping roof, felt his way to a shuttered window, with the bolt of which he fumbled for a moment. When at length he drew the shutter open, a whiff of cold air streamed into the room and a parallelogram of purple sky was visible, studded with stars and crossed by the bars of a little balcony.
Captain Runacles stepped out upon this balcony. He had constructed it two years before, and it ran completely round the roof. Under his feet he heard the pigeons murmuring in their cote. Below were spread the dim grass-plots and flower-beds of the two gardens; and, far upon his right, the misty leagues of the North Sea. Full in front of him, over Harwich town, hung the dainty constellation of Cassiopeia's chair, and all around the vast army of heaven moved, silent and radiant. One seemed to hear its breathing up there, across the deep calm of the firmament.
He turned to the western horizon, to the spot where the Pleiades had just set for the summer months, and lifting his glass moved it slowly up towards Capella and the Kids, thence on to Perseus, and that most gorgeous tract of the Milky Way which lies thereby. Now, in the sword-handle of Perseus, as it is called, are set two clusters of gems, by trying to count which the Captain had, before now, amused himself for hours together. He was about to make another attempt, and in fact had reached fifty-six, when he felt a light touch on his elbow.
He faced quickly round. Behind him, on the balcony, stood his daughter.
"Don't be angry," she entreated in a whisper. "I heard you come up. I couldn't sleep until I saw you."
He looked at her sternly. Her feet were bare, and she wore but a dark cloak over her night-rail. In the years since we last saw her she had grown from an awkward girl into a lovely woman. Thick waves of dark hair, disarranged with much tossing on her pillow, fell upon her shoulders and straggled over the lace upon her bosom. The face they framed was pale in the starlight, but the lips were red, and the black eyes feverishly bright.
"Father," she went on, "I have something I must tell you."
Then, as he continued to regard her with displeasure, she broke off, and put the question that of all her trouble was uppermost.
"What has become of Tristram?"
"He has gone to make the campaign against the French. He was enlisted to-day. It was—unexpected," her father answered slowly, with his eyes fixed on hers.
"He went unwillingly," she said, speaking in a quick whisper; "he was dragged off—trepanned! Simeon told me about it, and besides, I know—"
"What do you know?"
"I know he never went willingly. Oh, father, listen"—with a swift and pretty impulse she stepped forward, and reaching up her clasped hands laid them on his shoulder—"Tristram—Tristram is very fond of me."
Captain Jemmy raised a hand to disengage her grasp from his shoulder, but let it fall again.
"He told me so this morning at sunrise," she went on rapidly. "You see, it was May morning, and I went out to gather the dew, and he was there, in the garden already, and he said—well, he said what I told you; and being so masterful—"
"I can't say I've observed that quality in the young man; but no doubt you've had better opportunities of judging."
"You shan't talk like that!" she broke out almost fiercely. It was curious that this girl, who until this moment had always trembled before her father, now began to dominate him by force of her passion.
"Oh, I mustn't, eh? Devil take the fellow! He tumbles out of one mess into another, and plays skittles with my peace of mind, and in return I'm not allowed a word!"
"Father, you will fetch him back?"
"Now, how the—"
"But you must."
"Because I love him dearly—there! I have nobody left but you, father." She knelt and caught his hand, exchanging audacity for entreaty in a second.
"Little maid," said her father, with a tenderness as sudden, "get up—your feet must be as cold as ice, on these slates. Go in, and go to bed."
"Let me stay a little. I can't sleep indoors. It was so happy this morning, and to-night the trouble is so heavy!"
Captain Jemmy vanished into the lumber-room for a moment, and reappeared, tugging an old mattress after him and bearing a tattered window-curtain under his left arm. He spread the mattress on the balcony, motioned his daughter to sit, and wrapped her feet warmly in his purple dressing-gown. Then, as she lay back, he spread the curtain over her, tucking it close round her young body. She thanked him with dim eyes.
"Sophia," he began, with much severity, "you say you have only your old father in the world, and I'm bound to say you seem to find it little enough. My dear, are you aware that you've just been disappointing my dearest hopes?"
"Don't say that!"
"I begin to think I mustn't say anything. I have brought you up carefully, instructing you in all polite learning, and even in some of the abstruser sciences. I have meant you, all along, to be the ornament of your sex, and now—the devil take it!—you prefer, after all, to be an ornament of the other! I intended you, by your accomplishments, to make that young man look foolish."
"And I assure you, father dear, he did look foolish this morning, and again this afternoon in the summer-house."
"Now, upon my soul, Sophia! I call your attention to the fact I've been suspecting ever since you began to speak, that you're at the bottom of all to-day's mischief. If that unfortunate youth hadn't been making love to you when he should have been attending to the bees, the chances are they would never have taken it into their heads to swarm upon that accursed arch, and consequently…"
There was nothing which Captain Runacles enjoyed so thoroughly as to discover the connection between effects and their causes. When such a chance offered, it was a common experience with him to be drawn into prolixity. But he was pained and surprised, nevertheless, after twenty minutes' discourse (in which he proved Sophia, and Sophia alone, to be responsible for the disasters of the day), to find that she had dropped asleep. He looked down for a minute or so upon her closed lids, then moved to the rail of the balcony and ejaculated under his breath:
"O woman—woman! Wise art thou as the dove, and about as harmless as the serpent!"
He considered the heavens for some moments, and added with some tartness but with a far-off look at the stars, as though aiming the remark at the late Mrs. Runacles:
"Her charm, at any rate, is not derived from her mother!"
He turned abruptly and considered her as she slept under the stars. Stooping after a minute or two, and lifting her very gently, he bore her into the house and down to her own room. As they descended the ladder from the attic, she stirred and opened her eyes drowsily:
"You will bring Tristram back?" she murmured, but so softly that he had to bend his head to catch the syllables.
Her eyes closed again before he could answer. He carried her to her bed and laid her upon it; then, after waiting a while to assure himself that she was fast asleep, retraced his steps softly to the little balcony.
He was pacing it, round and round, like a caged beast, when the stars grew faint and the silver ripple of the dayspring broke over the sea. For two hours and more he had been thinking hard, and he rested his elbows on the balcony and paused for a minute or two to watch the red ball of the sun as it heaved above the waters. To the north, beyond the roofs of Harwich, he saw the lights of the royal squadron still clear in the grey dawn. Next his gaze turned to the triumphal arch in the road below, which wore a peculiarly dissipated look at this hour. Then it strayed back to the garden below him and beyond the party hedge; and was suddenly arrested.
On a rustic seat, in the far corner, sat Captain Barker, trying to read in a book.
The little man, too, had obviously passed the night out of his bed. His clothes were dishevelled and his attitude was one of extreme dejection. He kept his head bowed over the book and was wholly unaware of the eyes that watched him from the opposite pavilion.
But his friend above on the balcony displayed the most nervous apprehension of being seen. He took his hand from the rail, as if fearful of making the slightest sound, and stole back through the window into the lumber-room. Once within the house, however, he behaved with the briskest determination. Descending first of all to his own room, he washed his face and towelled it till it glowed. Then, changing his coat and wig, he took up hat and cane, descended to the front-door, and crossing the grass-plot, let himself into Captain Barker's garden.
Captain Barker still sat and read in his book; and as he read the tears coursed down his wrinkled cheeks. For it was the first of the famous green volumes.
He looked up as his friend advanced; and Captain Jemmy was forced to regard the weathercock on the roof for a minute or so to make sure of the quarter in which the wind lay.
"It's due west," said Captain John, as he stared up; "and it's ebb-tide till nine o'clock. They'll sail early."
"H'm; I shouldn't wonder. You're early out of bed."
"Well, for the matter of that, so are you—eh?"
"I haven't been to bed."
"Nor have I."
"I've been thinking," said Captain Runacles.
"And I've been trying not to think."
"Well, but I've come to a conclusion. Go and get your hat, Jack."
"We've got to fetch Tristram back."
"By tossing our consciences over the hedge and going to see King William."
The little man shook his head.
"No, Jemmy. You mean it kindly, and God bless you! But I can't do it."
"Why not? If I can do it—"
"You'd repent it, Jemmy. You're letting your love for me carry you too far."
"What put it into your head that I'd do this for love of you?"
"For Tristram, then."
"Damn Tristram! That youngster strikes me as causing a fuss quite out of proportion to his intrinsic worth."
"My dear Jack, I have reasons for wishing Tristram back. You needn't ask what they are, because I shan't tell you; but they're at least as intelligible as all the reasons you can find in that volume." He caught it out of his friend's hand, and read: "June 12th.—T. to-day refused his biscuit and milk at six in the morning, but took it an hour later. Peevish all night; in part (I think) because not yet recovered of his weaning, and also because his teeth (second pair on lower jaw) are troubling him. Query: If the biscuit should be boiled in the milk, or milk merely poured over the biscuit—" Here he glanced up, and seeing the anguish on the hunchback's face, handed back the book.
"I beg your pardon, Jack. But get your hat and come along."
"You forget, Jemmy. We gave our word, you know."
Captain Runacles stared.
"Trouble has unhinged your wits, my friend. Did you seriously imagine I intended to disclose to his Majesty the proposal we heard last night?"
"My notion was that we should go and offer him our swords and our services in ransom for Tristram. He may rebuff us. On the other hand, there's a chance that he will not. You remember that he began, yesterday, by offering you this way of escape. You are to take me with you and beg for a renewal of that offer. Maybe he'll demur. You'll then point out that you have two men's service to tender him in lieu of one. I have smelt powder in my time, Jack, and I once had the luck to run De Ruyter's pet captain through the sword-arm and to carry his ship. It's the very devil that I never could master the fellow's Dutch name sufficiently to remember it; but his Majesty—who has a greater grasp of his mother tongue—may be able to recall it, and the recollection may turn the scale. Anyhow, we'll try."
"You can serve this William?"
"I can; for the matter stands thus: We go and say, 'Your Majesty has laid hands on a young man. Will it please your Majesty to take two old men in exchange?' We're a couple of old hulks, Jack; but we may serve, as well as a youngster, to be battered by the French."
"But suppose that this plot breaks out?—I mean that which the Earl hinted at."
"My friend, that proposal may be divided into two parts. The first is mutiny; the second is desertion to the French. How do you like them? Could you stand by and help either?"
"Why, no," answered Captain Barker, with a brightening face; "because, after all, one could always die first."
"To be sure. Make haste, then, and fetch your hat, or we shall be too late to save the boy."
Captain Runacles waited at the foot of the garden, while his friend hurried into the house and returned in something like glee.
"We are lucky. Narcissus tells me his Majesty is sleeping ashore at Thomas Langley's house in Church Street. It seems that his cabin was not put rightly in order aboard the Mary yacht, and he won't embark until he has broken his fast."
"Come along, then!" said Captain Jemmy, opening the gate. "We may catch him before he goes on board."
But scarcely had the pair set foot in the road outside when a voice commanded them to halt.
In front of them, barring the highway towards Harwich, stood a sergeant, with half a dozen soldiers at his back. They seemed to have sprung out of the hedge.
"Pardon, gentlemen; but you are walking towards Harwich."
"My orders are to forbid it."
"Who gave you that order?"
"What? The Earl of Marlborough?"
"So this is how he trusts our word!" muttered Captain Runacles. "But, excuse me," he added aloud, "our business is with his Majesty."
"I am truly sorry, gentlemen."
"You decline to let us pass?"
"I hope you will not insist."
"Well, but I have an idea. You can march us into Harwich as your prisoners. Take us into his Majesty's presence—that's all I ask, and I don't care how it's done. You shall have our parole if you please."
The sergeant shook his head. "It's against my orders."
"Then we must try to pass you."
"Suffer me to point out that we are seven to two."
"Thank you. But this is an affair of conscience."
"Confound it, sir!" broke in the little hunchback. "You are here, it seems, to frustrate our intentions; but I'm hanged if you shall criticise them too. Guard, sirs, if you please!"
And whipping out their swords, these indomitable old gentlemen fell with fury on their seven adversaries and engaged them.
The struggle, however, lasted but a minute. Six bayonets are not to be charged with a couple of small-swords; and just as Captain Barker was on the point of spitting himself like an over-hasty game chicken, the sergeant raised his side-arm and dealt him a cut over the head. Hat and wig broke the blow somewhat; but the little man dropped with a moan and lay quite still in the road.
Hearing the sound, Captain Jemmy turned, dropped his sword, and ran to lift his friend. The stroke had stunned him, and a trickle of blood ran from a slight scalp-wound and mingled with the dust.
"Jack, Jack!" sobbed his friend, kneeling and peering eagerly into his face. The hunchback opened his eyes a little and stared up vacantly.
As he did so the dull roar of heavy guns broke out in the direction of Harwich, shaking the earth under Captain Jemmy's feet. It was the town's parting salute to his Majesty King William the Third. And at the same moment the leading ship of the royal squadron swung out of harbour on the ebb-tide and, rounding the Guard Sandbank, stood majestically towards the open sea, her colours streaming and white canvas bellying over the blue waters.