Moondyne/The Sailing of the Houguemont

Moondyne by John Boyle O'Reilly
The Sailing of the Houguemont

The last convict had been sent below. The barred doors in the railed hatchways were locked. The hundreds of cooped criminals mingled with each other freely for the first time in many years. The sentries had been posted at the hatches and passages on deck. The sailors had shaken out the sails. The capstan had been worked until every spare link of cable was up.

The Houguemont was ready for sea. She only awaited the coming of her commander.

Mr. Wyville walked to and fro on the poop deck, casting now and again a searching glance at the pier and the steep cliff road. At length his pace became less regular, and his usually imperturbable face betrayed impatience. It was two hours past the time when the captain had engaged to be on board.

As Mr. Wyville stood looking landward, with a darkened brow, the chief warder in command of the prison officers, rapidly approached him, with an excited air, and saluted in military fashion.

"Well, Mr. Gray," said Mr. Wyville, turning, "what is it?"

"One man missing, sir! not on board—he must have slipped overboard from the soldiers, and attempted to swim ashore."

"When did he come on board?"

"With the last chain, sir."

Then he must be in the water still. He would strike for the mainland, not for the island."

As he spoke, a soldier, who had run up the rigging, shouted that there was a hamper or basket floating a short distance astern of the ship.

Mr. Wyville asked one of the ship's officers for a glass, which he levelled at the floating basket. He saw that it moved obliquely towards the shore of the mainland, though a strong tide was setting in the contrary direction, towards the island. He lowered the glass with a saddened air.

"Poor fellow!" he murmured, shutting the glass, irresolutely. He knew that the absconder, finding the floating hamper, had placed it over his head in order to escape the eyes of the guards. As he laid down the telescope, a rifle shot rang from the maintop, and the water leaped in a jet of spray within a foot of the basket. Next instant, came two reports, the basket was knocked on its side, and all on the deck of the convict ship plainly saw a man swimming in the sea. One of the bullets had struck him, evidently, for he shouted and dashed about wildly.

All this had happened in a few seconds. The shots had followed each other as rapidly as file-firing. At the second shot, Mr. Wyville looked at the soldiers with a face aflame with indignation. As the third shot rang out, he shouted to the soldiers; but his voice was drowned in the report.

Next moment, he saw the levelled rifle of another soldier, and heard the officer directing his aim. Without a word, Mr. Wyville seized the long and heavy marine telescope, which he had laid on the rack, and, balancing himself on the poop for an instant, he hurled the glass like a missile from a catapult right into the group of soldiers on the top.

The missile struck lengthwise against the rifleman, and knocked him towards the mast, his weapon going off harmlessly in the air. Consternation seized the others, and the young officer began an indignant and loud demand as to who had dared assault his men.

"Come down, Sir," said Mr. Wyville, sternly, "and receive your orders before you act."

The subaltern came down, and joined Mr. Wyville on the poop, saluting him as he approached.

"I was not aware, sir," he said, "that I was to wait for orders in cases of mutiny or escape."

"This man could be overtaken," said Mr. Wyville. "Your guards allowed him to escape; and you have no right to kill him for escaping, if the law bad no right to kill him for his crime."

As he spoke, he brought the glass to bear on the unfortunate wretch in the water, to whom a boat was now sweeping with swift stroke.

"My God!" he said, putting down the glass, and turning from the officer; "the man is drowned!"

The struggling swimmer, spent with previous exertions, had been struck by a bullet in the shoulder; and though the wound was not mortal, it rapidly spent his remaining strength. Before the boat had reached him, the poor fellow had thrown up his arms and sunk. His body was found and taken to the ship.

During this scene, Captain Draper had come on deck, unobserved. He had passed quite close to Mr. Wyville as he spoke severely to the military officer. A few minutes later, when Mr. Wyville stood alone, the captain approached him.

"Am I supposed to command this ship, or to take orders also?" he asked, not offensively, but with his usual hybrid smile.

Mr. Wyville remained silent a moment, as if undecided. The recent shocking event had somewhat changed his plans.

"You command the ship, Sir," he said, slowly, and fixing his eyes on Captain Draper's face, "under me. So long as your duty is done, no interference will be possible. It may be well to understand now, however, that there is a higher authority than yours on board."

Captain Draper bowed; then turning to his chief officer who had heard the conversation, he gave orders for sailing.