St. Ives (Stevenson and Quiller-Couch)/Chapter 34
"But what be us to do with the balloon, sir?" the coxswain demanded.
Had it been my affair I believe I should have obeyed a ridiculous impulse and begged them to keep it for their trouble; so weary was I of the machine. Byfield, however, directed them to slit a seam of the oiled silk and cut away the car, which was by this time wholly submerged and not to be lifted. At once the Lunardi collapsed and became manageable; and having roped it to a ring-bolt astern, the crew fell to their oars.
My teeth were chattering. These operations of salvage had taken time, and it took us a further unconscionable time to cover the distance between us and the brig as she lay hove-to, her maintopsail aback and her head-sails drawing.
"Feels like towing a whale, sir," the oarsman behind me panted.
I whipped round. The voice—yes, and the face—were the voice and face of the seaman who sat and steered us; the voice English, of a sort; the face of no pattern that I recognised for English. The fellows were as like as two peas, as like as the two drovers, Sim and Candlish, had been: you might put them both at forty; grizzled men, pursed about the eyes with seafaring. And now that I came to look, the three rowers forward, though mere lads, repeated their elders' features and build; the gaunt frame, the long, serious face, the swarthy complexion and meditative eye—in short, Don Quixote of la Mancha at various stages of growth. Men and lads, I remarked, wore silver earrings.
I was speculating on this likeness when we shipped oars and fell alongside the brig's ladder. At the head of it my hand was taken, and I was helped on deck with ceremony by a tall man in loose blue jacket and duck trousers: an old man, bent and frail; by his air of dignity the master of the vessel, and by his features as clearly the patriarch of the family. He lifted his cap and addressed us with a fine but (as I now recall it) somewhat tired courtesy.
"An awkward adventure, gentlemen."
We thanked him in proper form.
"I am pleased to have been of service. The pilot-cutter yonder could hardly have fetched you in less than twenty minutes. I have signalled her alongside, and she will convey you back to Falmouth; none the worse, I hope, for your wetting."
"A convenience," said I, "of which my friends will gladly avail themselves. For my part I do not propose to return."
He paused, weighing my words; obviously puzzled, but politely anxious to understand. His eyes were grey and honest, even childishly honest, but dulled about the rim of the iris and a trifle vacant, as though the world with its train of affairs had passed beyond his active concern. I keep my own eyes about me when I travel and have surprised just such a look, before now, behind the spectacles of very old men who sit by the roadside and break stones for a living.
"I fear, sir, that I do not take you precisely."
"Why," said I, "if I may guess, this is one of the famous Falmouth packets?"
"As to that, sir, you are right and yet wrong. She was a packet, and (if I may say it) a famous one." His gaze travelled aloft, and, descending, rested on mine with a sort of gentle resignation. "But the old pennon is down, as you see. At present she sails on a private adventure and under private commission."
"You may call it that."
"The adventure hits my humour even more nicely. Accept me. Captain——"
"Accept me. Captain Colenso, for your passenger; I will not say comrade-in-arms—naval warfare being so far beyond my knowledge, which it would, perhaps, be more descriptive to call ignorance. But I can pay," I thrust a hand nervously into my breast pocket, and blessed Flora for her waterproof bag.
"Excuse me. Captain, if I speak with my friend here in private for a moment."
I drew Byfield aside, "Your notes? The salt water——"
"You see," said he, "I am a martyr to acidity of the stomach."
"Man! do I invite the confidence of your stomach?"
"Consequently I never make an ascension unaccompanied by a small bottle of Epsom salts, tightly corked."
"And you threw away the salts and substituted the notes? That was clever of you, Byfield."
I lifted my voice. "And Mr. Dalmahoy, I presume, returns to his sorrowing folk?"
The extravagant cheerfully corrected me. "They will not sorrow; but I shall return to them. Of their grudged pension I have eighteen pence in my pocket. But I propose to travel with Sheepshanks, and raise the wind by showing his tricks. He shall toss the caber from Land's End to Forthside, cheered by the plaudits of the intervening taverns and furthered by their bounty."
"A progress which we must try to expedite, if only out of regard for Mrs. Sheepshanks." I turned to Captain Coleiiso again. "Well, sir, will you accept me for your passenger?"
"I doubt that you are joking, sir."
"And I swear to you that I am not."
He hesitated; tottered to the companion, and called down, "Susannah! Susannah! a moment on deck, if you please. One of these gentlemen wishes to ship as passenger."
A dark-browed woman of middle age thrust her head above the ladder and eyed me. Even so might a ruminating cow gaze over her hedge upon some posting wayfarer. "What's he dressed in?" she demanded abruptly.
"Madam, it was intended for a ball suit."
"You will do no dancing here, young man."
"My dear lady, I accept that and every condition you may impose. Whatever the discipline of the ship——"
She cut me short.
"Have you told him, father?"
"Why, no. You see, sir, I ought to tell you that this is not an ordinary voyage."
"Nor for that matter is mine."
"You will be exposed to risks."
"In a privateer that goes without saying."
"The risk of capture."
"Naturally; though a brave captain will not dwell on it." And I bowed.
"But I do dwell on it," he answered earnestly, a red spot showing on either cheek. "I must tell you, sir, that we are very likely indeed to fall into an enemy's hands."
"Say certain," chimed in Susannah.
"Yes, I will say we are certain. I cannot in conscience do less." He sought his daughter's eyes. She nodded.
"O, damn your conscience!" thought I, my stomach rising in contempt for this noble-looking, but extremely faint-hearted, privateersman. "Come," I said, rallying him, "we fall in with a Frenchman, or—let us suppose—an American; that is our object, eh?"
"Yes, with an American. That is our object, to be sure!"
"Then I warrant we give a good account of ourselves. Tut, tut, man—an ex-packet captain!"
I pulled up in sheer wonder at the lunacy of our dispute and the side he was forcing me to take. Here was I haranguing a grey-headed veteran on his own quarter-deck and exhorting him to valour! In a flash I saw myself befooled, tricked into playing the patronising amateur, complacently posturing for the derision of gods and men. And Captain Colenso, who aimed but to be rid of me, was laughing in his sleeve, no doubt. In a minute even Sheepshanks would catch the jest. Now, I do mortally hate to be laughed at; it may be disciplinary for most men, but it turns me obstinate.
Captain Colenso, at any rate, dissembled his mirth to perfection The look which he shifted from me to Susannah and back was eloquent of senile indecision.
"I cannot explain to you, sir. The consequences—I might mitigate them for you—still you must risk them." He broke off and appealed to me, I would rather you did not insist, I would, indeed! I must beg you, sir, not to press it."
"But I do press it," I answered, stubborn as a mule. "I tell you that I am ready to accept all risks. But if you want me to return with my friends in the cutter, you must summon your crew to pitch me down the ladder. And there's the end on't."
"Dear, dear! Tell me at least, sir, that you are an unmarried man."
"Up to now I have that misfortune. I aimed a bow at Mistress Susannah; but that lady had turned her broad shoulders and it missed fire. Which reminds me," I continued, "to ask for the favour of pen, ink and paper. I wish to send a letter ashore to the mail."
She invited me to follow her; and I descended to the main cabin, a spick-and-span apartment, where we surprised two passably good-looking damsels at their house-work, the one polishing a mahogany swing-table, the other a brass door-handle. They picked up their cloths, dropped me a curtsey apiece, and disappeared at a word from Susannah, who bade me be seated at the swing-table and set writing materials before me. The room was lit by a broad stern window, and lined along two of its sides with mahogany doors leading, as I supposed, to sleeping cabins; the panels—not to speak of the brass handles and finger-plates—shining so that a man might have seen his face in them to shave by, "But why all these women on board a privateer?" thought I, as I tried a quill on my thumb-nail and embarked upon my first love-letter.
"This line with my devotion to tell you that the balloon has descended safely, and your Anne finds himself on board——"
"By the way. Miss Susannah, what is the name of this ship?"
"She is called the Lady Nepean, and I am a married woman and the mother of six."
"I felicitate you, madam." I bowed, and resumed my writing:
the Lady Nepean packet, outward bound from Falmouth to——"
"Excuse me, but where the dickens are we bound for?"
"For the coast of Massachusetts, I believe."
She nodded. "Young man, if you'll take my advice, you'll go back."
"Madam," I answered, on a sudden impulse, "I am an escaped French prisoner." And with that, having tossed my cap over the mills (as they say) I leaned back in the settee, and we regarded each other. "—Escaped!" I continued, still with my eyes on hers, "with a trifle of money, but minus my heart. I write this to the fair daughter of Britain who has it in her keeping. And now what have you to say?"
"Ah, well!" she mused, "the Lord's ways be past finding out. It may be the easier for you!"
Apparently it was the habit of this ship's company to speak in enigmas. I caught up my pen again:
". . . the coast of Massachusetts, in the United States of America, whence I hope to make my way in good time to France. Though you have news, dearest, I fear none can reach me for a while. Yet and though you have no more to write than 'I love you, Anne,' write it and commit it to Mr. Robbie, who will forward it to Mr. Romaine, who in turn may find a means to get it smuggled through to Paris, Rue du Fouarre 16. It should be consigned to the Widow Jupille, "to be called for by the corporal who praised her vin blanc." She will remember; and in truth a man who had the courage to praise it deserves remembrance as singular among the levies of France. Should a youth of the name of Rowley present himself before you, you may trust his fidelity absolutely, his sagacity not at all. And so (since the boat waits to take this) I kiss the name of Flora, and subscribe myself—until I come to claim her, and afterwards to eternity—her prisoner Anne
I had, in fact, a second reason for abbreviating this letter and sealing it in a hurry. The movements of the brig, though slight, were perceptible, and in the close air of the main cabin my head already began to swim. I hastened on deck in time to shake hands with my companions and confide the letter to Byfield with instructions for posting it. "And if your share in our adventures should come into public question," said I, "you must apply to a Major Chevenix, now quartered in Edinburgh Castle, who has a fair inkling of the facts, and as a man of honour will not decline to assist you. You have Dalmahoy, too, to back your assertion that you knew me only as Mr. Ducie." Upon Dalmahoy I pressed a note for his and Mr. Sheepshanks's travelling expenses. "My dear fellow," he protested, "I couldn't dream—if you are sure it won't inconvenience . . . merely as a loan . . . and deuced handsome of you, I will say." He kept the cutter waiting while he drew up an I. O. U. in which I figured as Bursar and Almoner (honoris causá) to the Senatus Academicus of Cramond-on-Almond. Mr. Sheepshanks meanwhile shook hand with me impressively. "It has been a memorable experience, sir. I shall have much to tell my wife on my return."
It occurred to me as probable that the lady would have even more to say to him. He stepped into the cutter and, as they pushed off, was hilariously bonneted by Mr. Dalmahoy, by way of parting salute. "Starboard after braces!" Captain Colenso called to his crew. The yards were trimmed and the Lady Nepean slowly gathered way, while I stood by the bulwarks gazing after my friends and attempting to persuade myself that the fresh air was doing me good.
Captain Colenso perceived my uneasiness and advised me to seek my berth and lie down; and on my replying with haggard defiance, took my arm gently, as if I had been a wilful child, and led me below. I passed beyond one of the mahogany doors leading from the main cabin; and in that seclusion I ask you to leave me face to face with the next forty-eight hours. It was a dreadful time.
"Now at the end of it did gaiety wait on a partially recovered appetite. The ladies of the ship nursed me, tickled my palate with the lightest of sea diet. The men strowed seats for me on deck and touched their caps with respectful sympathy. One and all were indefatigably kind, but taciturn to a degree beyond belief. A fog of mystery hung and deepened about them and the Lady Nepean, and I crept about the deck in a continuous evil dream, entangling myself in impossible theories. To begin with, there were eight women on board: a number not to be reconciled with serious privateering; all daughters or sons' wives or granddaughters of Captain Colenso. Of the men—twenty-three in all—those who were not called Colenso were called Pengelly; the most of them convicted landsmen by their bilious countenances and unhandy movements; men fresh from the plough-tail, by their gait, yet with no ruddy impress of field-work and the open air.
Twice every day, and thrice on Sundays, this extraordinary company gathered bare-headed to the poop for a religious service which it would be colourless to call frantic. It began decorously enough with a quavering exposition of some portion of Holy Writ by Captain Colasso. But by-and-bye (and especially at the evening office) his listeners kindled and opened on him with a skirmishing fire of "Amens." Then, worked by degrees to an ecstasy, they broke into cries of thanksgiving and mutual encouragement; they jostled for the rostrum (a long nine-pounder swivel); and then speaker after speaker declaimed his soul's experiences until his voice cracked, while the others sobbed, exhorted, even leaped in the air. "Stronger, brother!!! 'Tis working, 'tis working!!! O deliverance!!! streams of redemption!" For ten minutes or a quarter of an hour maybe, the ship was a Babel, a Bedlam. And then the tumult would die down as suddenly as it had arisen, and, dismissed by the old man, the crew, with faces once more inscrutable but twitching with spent emotion, scattered to their usual tasks.
Five minutes after these singular outbreaks it was difficult to believe in them. Captain Colenso paced the quarter-deck once more with his customary shuffle, his hands beneath his coat-tails, his eyes conning the ship with their usual air of mild abstraction. Now and again he paused to instruct one of his incapables in the trimming of a brace, or to correct the tie of a knot. He never scolded; seldom lifted his voice. By his manner of speech and the ease of his authority he and his family might have belonged to separate ranks of life. Yet I seemed to detect method in their obedience. The veriest fumbler went about his work with a concentrated gravity of bearing as if he fulfilled a remoter purpose, and understood it while he tied his knots into grannies and generally mismanaged the job in hand.
Towards the middle of our second week, we fell in with a storm—a rotatory affair, and soon over by reason that we struck the outer fringe of it—but to a landsman sufficiently daunting while it lasted. Late in the afternoon I thrust my head up for a look around. We were weltering along in horrible forty-foot seas, over which our bulwarks tilted at times until from the companion hatchway, I stared plumb into the grey sliding chasms, and felt like a fly on the wall. The Lady Nepean hurled her old timbers along under close-reefed main topsail and a rag of a foresail only. The captain had housed top-gallant masts and lashed his guns inboard; yet she rolled so that you would not have trusted a cat on her storm-washed decks. They were desolate but for the captain and helmsman on the poop; the helmsman, a mere lad—the one, in fact, who had pulled the bow-oar to our rescue—lashed and gripping the spokes pluckily, but with a white face which told that, though his eyes were strained on the binnacle, his mind ran on the infernal seas astern. Over him, in sea-boots and oilskins, towered Captain Colenso—rejuvenated, transfigured; his body swaying easily to every lurch and plunge of the brig, his face entirely composed and cheerful, his saltrimmed eyes contracted a little, but alert and even boyishly bright. An heroical figure of a man!
My heart warmed to Captain Colenso; and next morning, as we bowled forward again with a temperate breeze on our beam, I took occasion to compliment him on the Lady Nepean's behaviour.
"Ay," said he, abstractedly; "the old girl made pretty good weather of it!"
"I suppose we were never in what you would call real danger?"
He faced me with sudden earnestness. "Mr. Ducie, I have served the Lord all my days and He will not sink the ship that carries my honour." Giving me no time to puzzle over this, he changed his tone. "You'll scarcely believe it, but in her young days she had a very fair turn of speed."
"Her business surely demands it still," said I. Only an arrant landsman could have reconciled the lumbering old craft with any idea of privateering; but this was my only theory, and I clung to it.
"We shall not need to test her"
"You rely on your guns then?" I had observed the care lavished on these. They were of brass, and shone like the door-plates in the main cabin.
"Why as to that," he answered evasively, "I've had to before now. The last voyage I commanded her—it was just after the war broke out with America—we fell in with a schooner off the Banks; we were outward bound for Halifax. She carried twelve nine-pounder carronades and two long nines, besides a big fellow on a traverse; and we had the guns you see—eight nine-pounders and one chaser of the same calibre—post-office guns, we call them. But we beat her off after two hours of it."
"And saved the mails?"
He rose abruptly (we had seated ourselves on a couple of hen-coops under the break of the poop). "You will excuse me. I have an order to give"; and he hurried up the steps to the quarter-deck.
It must have been ten days after this that he stopped me in one of my eternal listless promenades and invited me to sit beside him again.
"I wish to take your opinion, Mr. Ducie. You have not, I believe, found salvation? You are not one of us, as I may say?"
"Meaning by 'us'?"
"I and mine, sir, are unworthy followers of the Word as preached by John Wesley."
"Why no, that is not my religion."
"But you are a gentleman?" I bowed. "And on a point of honour—do you think, sir, that as a servant of the King one should obey his earthly master even to doing what conscience forbids?"
"That might depend——"
"But on a point of honour, sir? Suppose that you had pledged your private word, in a just, nay, a generous bargain, and were commanded to break it. Is there anything could override that?"
I thought of my poor old French colonel and his broken parole; and was silent. "Can you not tell me the circumstances?" suggested, at length.
He had been watching me eagerly. But he shook his head now, sighed and drew a small Bible from his pocket. "I am not a gentleman, sir, I laid it before the Lord: but," he continued naïvely, "I wanted to learn how a gentleman would look at it." He searched for a text, turning the pages with long, nervous fingers; but desisted with another sigh, and a moment later was summoned away to solve some difficulty with the ship's reckoning.
My respect for the Captain had been steadily growing. He was so amiable too, so untiringly courteous; he bore his sorrow—whatever the cause might be—with so gentle a resignation, that I caught myself pitying even while I cursed him and his crew for their inhuman reticence.
But my respect vanished pretty quickly next day. We were seated at dinner in the main cabin, the captain at the head of the table, and, as usual, crumbling his biscuit in a sort of waking trance—when Mr. Reuben Colenso, his eldest son, and acting mate, put his solemn face in at the door with news of a sail about four miles distant on the lee bow. I followed the captain on deck. The stranger, a schooner, had been lying-to when first described in the hazy weather; but was standing now to intercept us. At two miles distance—it being then about two o'clock—I saw that she hoisted British colours.
"But that flag was never sewn in England," Captain Colenso observed, studying her through his glass. His cheeks, usually of that pallid ivory colour proper to old age, were flushed with a faint carmine, and I observed a suppressed excitement in all his crew. For my part, I expected no better than to play target in the coming engagement; but it surprised me that he served out no cutlasses, ordered up no powder from the hold, or, in short, took no single step to clear the Lady Nepean for action or put his men in lighting trim. The most of them were gathered about the fore-hatch to the total neglect of their guns, which they had been cleaning assiduously all the morning. On we stood without shifting our course by a point, and were within range when the schooner ran up the Stars-and-Stripes and plumped a round shot ahead of us by way of hint.
I stared at Captain Colenso. Could he mean to surrender without one blow? He had exchanged his glass for a speaking-trumpet, and waited, fumbling with it, his face twitching painfully. A cold dishonouring suspicion gripped me. The man was here to betray his flag. I glanced aloft; the British ensign flew at the peak. And as I turned my head I felt rather than saw the flash, heard the shattering din as the puzzled American luffed up and let fly across our bows with a raking broadside. Doubtless she, too, took note of our defiant ensign and leaped at the nearest guess, that we meant to run her aboard.
Now, whether my glance awoke Captain Colenso, or this was left to the all but simultaneous voice of the guns, I know not. But as their smoke rolled between us I saw him drop his trumpet and run with a crazed face to the taffrail, where the hallyards led. The traitor had forgotten to haul down his flag!
It was too late. While he fumbled with the hallyards, a storm of musketry burst and swept the quarter-deck. He flung up both hands, spun round upon his heel, and pitched backwards at the helmsman's feet, and the loosened ensign dropped slowly and fell across him, as if to cover his shame.
Instantly the firing ceased. I stood there between compassion and disgust, willing yet loathing to touch the pitiful corpse, when a woman—Susannah—ran screaming by me and fell on her knees beside it! I saw a trickle of blood ooze beneath the scarlet folds of the flag. It crawled along the plank, hesitated at a seam, and grew there to an oddly-shaped pool. I watched it. In shape I thought it remarkably like the map of Ireland. And I became aware that some one was speaking to me, and looked up to find a lean and lantern-jawed American come aboard and standing at my shoulder.
"Are you anywise hard of hearing, stranger? Or must I repeat to you that this licks cockfighting."
"I, at any rate, am not disputing it, sir."
"The Lady Nepean, too! Is that the Cap'n yonder? I thought as much. Dead, hey? Well, he'd better stay dead, though I'd have enjoyed the inside o' five minutes' talk just to find out what he did it for."
"Why, brought the Lady Nepean into these waters, and Commodore Rodgers no further away thanIsland, by all accounts. He must have had a nerve. And what post might you be holding on this all-fired packet? Darn me, but you have females enough on board!" For indeed there were three poor creatures kneeling now and crooning over the dead captain. The men had surrendered—they had no arms to fling down—and were collected in the waist, under guard of a cordon of Yankees. One lay senseless on deck and two or three were bleeding from splinter wounds; for the enemy, her freeboard being lower by a foot or two than the wall sides of the Lady Nepean had done little execution on deck, whatever the wounds in our hull might be.
"I beg your pardon. Captain——"
"Seccombe, sir, is my name. Alpheus Q. Seccombe, of the Manhattan, schooner."
"Well, then, Captain Seccombe, I am a passenger on board this ship and know neither her business here nor why she has behaved in a fashion that makes me blush for her flag—which, by the way, I have every reason to abominate."
"O, come now! You're trying it on. It's a yard-arm matter and I don't blame you, to be sure. Cap'n sank the mails?"
"There were none to sink, I believe."
He conned me curiously.
"You don't look like a Britisher, either."
"I trust not. I am the Viscount Anne de Kéroual de St. Yves, escaped from a British war-prison."
"Lucky for you if you prove it. We'll get to the bottom of this." He faced about and called, "Who's the first officer of this brig?"
Reuben Colenso was allowed to step forward. Blood from a scalp-wound had run and caked on his right cheek, but he stepped squarely enough.
"Bring him below," Captain Seccombe commanded. "And you, Mr. What's-your-name, lead the way. It's one or the other of us will get the hang of this affair."
He seated himself at the head of the table in the main cabin, and spat ceremoniously on the floor.
"Now, sir, you are, or were, first officer of this brig?"
The prisoner, standing between his two guards, gripped his stocking-cap nervously. "Will you please to tell me, sir, if my father is killed?"
"Seth, my lad, I want room." One of the guards, a strapping youngster, stepped and flung open a pane of the stern window. Captain Seccombe spat out of it with nonchalant dexterity before answering:
"I guess he is. Brig's name?"
"The Lady Napean."
"Now, see here. Mister First Officer Colenso, junior, it's a shortish trip between this and the yard-arm, and it may save yon some superfluous lying if I tell you that in August last year, the Lady Nepean, packet. Captain Colenso, outward bound for Halifax, met the Hitchcock, privateer, off the Great Bank of Newfoundland, and beat her off after two hours' fighting. You were on board of her?"
"I tended the stern gun."
"Very good! The next day, being still off the Banks, she fell in with Commodore Rodgers, of the United States frigate President, and surrendered to him right away."
"We sank the mails."
"You did, my man. Notwithstanding which, that lion-hearted hero treated you with the forbearance of a true-born son of freedom." Captain Seccombe's voice took an oratorical roll. "He saw that you were bleeding from your fray. He fed you at his hospitable board; he would not suffer you to be denuded of the least trifle. Nay, what did he promise?—but to send your father and his crew and passengers back to England in their own ship, on their swearing upon their sacred honour that she should return to Boston harbour with an equal number of American prisoners from England. Your father swore to that upon the Old and New Testaments, severally and conjointly; and the Lady Nepean sailed home for all the world like a Iamb from the wolf's jaws, with a single American officer inside of her. And how did your dog-damned government receive this noble confidence? In a way, sir, that would have brought a blush to the cheek of a low-down attorney's clerk. They repudiated. Under shelter of a notification that no exchange of prisoners on the high seas would count as valid, this perjured tyrant and his myrmidons went back on their captain's oath, and kept the brig; and the American officer came home empty-handed. Your father was told to resume his duties, immortal souls being cheap in a country where they press seamen's bodies. And now, Mister First Officer Colenso, perhaps you'll explain how he had the impudence to come within two hundred miles of a coast where his name smelt worse than vermin."
"He was coming back, sir."
"Back to Boston, sir. You see, Cap'n, father wasn't a rich man, but he had saved a trifle. He didn't go back to the service, though told that he might. It preyed on his mind. We was all very fond of father, being all one family, as you might say, though some of us had wives and families, and some were over to Redruth to the mines."
"Stick to the point."
"But this is the point, Cap'n. He was coming back, you see. The Lady Nepean wasn't fit for much after the handling she'd had. She was going for twelve hundred pounds. The Post Office didn't look for more. We got her for eleven hundred with the guns, and the repairs may have cost a hundred and fifty; but you'll find the account books in the cupboard there. Father had a matter of five hundred laid by and a little over."
Captain Seccombe removed his legs from the cabin-table, tilted his chair forward, and half rose in his seat.
"You bought her?"
"That's what I'm telling you, sir; though father'd have put it much clearer. You see, he laid it before the Lord; and then he laid it before all of us. It preyed on his mind. My sister Susannah stood up and she said, 'I reckon I'm the most respectably married of all of you, having a farm of my own; but we can sell up, and all the world's a home to them that fears the Lord. We can't stock up with American prisoners, but we can go ourselves instead; and, judging by the prisoners I've a-seen brought in. Commodore Rodgers'll be glad to take us. What he does to us is the Lord's affair.' That's what she said, sir. Of course we kept it quiet; we put it about that the Lady Nepean was for Canada, and the whole family going out for emigrants. This here gentleman we picked up outside Falmouth; perhaps he've told you."
Captain Seccombe stared at me, and I at Captain Seccombe. Reuben Colenso stood wringing his cap.
At length the American found breath enough to whistle, "I'll have to put back to Boston about this, though it's money out of pocket. This here's a matter for Commodore Bainbridge. Take a seat, Mr. Colenso."
"I was going to ask," said the prisoner, simply, "if before you put me in irons, I might go on deck and look at father. It'll be only a moment, sir."
"Yes, sir, you may. And if you can get the ladies to excuse me, I will follow in a few minutes. I wish to pay him my respects. It's my opinion," he added pensively, as the prisoner left the cabin, "it's my opinion that the man's story is genu-wine."
He repeated the word, five minutes later, as we stood on the quarter-deck beside the body. "A genu-wine man, sir, unless I am mistaken."
Well, the question is one for casuists. In my travels I have learnt this, that men are greater than governments; wiser sometimes, honester always. Heaven deliver me from any such problem as killed this old packet-captain! Between loyalty to his king and loyalty to his conscience, he had to choose, and it is likely enough that he erred. But I believe that he fought it out, and found on his country's side a limit of shame to which he could not stoop. A man so placed, perhaps, may even betray his country to her honour. In this hope at least the flag which he had hauled down covered his body still as we committed it to the sea, its service or disservice done.
Two days later we anchored in the great harbour at Boston, where Captain Seccombe went with his story and his prisoners to Commodore Bainbridge, who kept them, pending news of Commodore Rodgers. They were sent, few weeks later, to Newport, Rhode Island, to be interrogated by that commander; and, to the honour of the Republic, were released on a liberal parole; but whether when the war ended they returned to England or took oath as American citizens, I have not learnt. I was luckier. The Commodore allowed Captain Seccombe to detain me while the French consul made inquiry into my story; and during the two months which the consul thought fit to take over it, I was a guest in the captain's house. And here, I made my bow to Miss Amelia Seccombe, an accomplished young lady, "who," said her doting father, "has acquired a considerable proficiency in French and will be glad to swop ideas with you in that language." Miss Seccombe and I did not hold our communications in French; and, observing her disposition to substitute the warmer language of the glances, I took the bull by the horns, told her my secret and rhapsodised on Flora. Consequently no Nausicaa figures in this Odyssey of mine. Nay, the excellent girl flung herself into my cause, and bombarded her father and the consular office, with such effect that on February 2, 1814, I waved farewell to her from the deck of the barque Shawmut, bound from Boston to Bordeaux.