The Black Wolf's Breed/Chapter 20
FROM THE PATH OF DUTY
IT was about ten of the clock when I reached Dieppe. Soon thereafter I was well aboard le Dauphin, Serigny himself meeting me at the vessel's side.
"Hullo, Placide," he cried. "All goeth well, and the passing night gives promise to us of a brighter day."
Later, in his own cabin, he told me of a brief meeting he had with Louis.
"For the time we are safe. The King is restless about the safety of the province, and he trusts Bienville as a soldier. The Spanish intrigue keeps our enemies so busy they have not time to disturb us. The King has no man who can take Bienville's place. Well, it's all happily over, and I am as delighted as a child to be at sea again. We would sail at once, now that you are come, were it not for de la Mora; he, with his wife and another lady, are to bear us company. The Chevalier is a thorough soldier, and I welcome him, but like not the presence of the ladies. We may have rough work betimes."
I knew my face grew pale, and thanked the half-light for concealment, or he must have noted. Who that "other lady" was, possessed for me no interest, and I never asked.
De la Mora. This was terrible, and so unforeseen. Full well I knew I could not spend five long weeks in daily contact with Agnes and give no betraying sign. I must needs have time to think, and that right speedily.
"When do they come, sire?"
"Any moment; they left—or should have done so—the same time as yourself. His orders were the same."
Rapidly as a man could think, so thought I.
"How long will you wait for them?"
"Until dawn, no longer. Then we sail."
A glimmer of hope—de la Mora might be delayed. Without any clearly defined purpose I went on and carefully gave Serigny every detail of information which could be valuable touching the expected trouble in the colonies. Of this my hands should, in any event, be clean. I even handed him the King's new commission directed to Bienville, whereof I was so proud to be the bearer. Whilst ridding my mind of these matters, I could not have said what course I meditated. A boat grating against the vessel's side set me all a tremble, but it was only a letter of instructions. Making some poor excuse to Serigny for the moment, I entered the yawl as it left the ship to go ashore. A well-known voice hailed us ere we made the land.
"Ahoy there, the boat," and through the shadows I made out the form of him I dreaded most to see.
"Boatman, can you put three of us aboard yonder vessel?"
"Aye, sir, it is from her I have just come."
"Is thy craft a fit one to carry ladies?"
This dashed down the hope he had left his wife behind.
"Aye, sir, it is a safe craft, but not a fine ladies' barge. We can go with care and run into no danger. The wind is low."
I jumped ashore and would have slipped by without speaking had he not recognized me.
"By my soul, de Mouret, it is you; and we are to be companions on the voyage. Bravo."
He approached me frankly, with outstretched hand and hearty greeting. I would fain have avoided touching his honest palm, but there was no way for it.
"I see you are surprised. Yes? I was suddenly ordered to sail in le Dauphin, and report to your good Governor, Bienville. A most sturdy soldier from all report. Heaven send us a sharp campaign, I am weary of these puny quarrels. We will have brave days in the colonies."
This open-hearted way about him struck a new terror to my heart; I could face his sword but not his confidence. His cheeks glowed with martial enthusiasm and I almost caught again the hot lust of battle.
"And Agnes, with her little sister, is at the inn. Yes," he continued, noting me step back a pace in protest, "it is a rude life enough for tender women, but they come of stock that fears no danger, and it's better there than at the Court of Louis."
I hardly heard the man. To meet his wife day after day, to associate on terms of cordial intimacy with this honourable gentleman, to enjoy his confidence, my heart filled the while with guilt too strong to conquer—the thing was torture not to be endured.
"Come with me to the inn; let us get the ladies and their luggage aboard. Agnes will be glad to meet you; she says she has great curiosity to see what you are like."
I excused myself most lamely upon the plea of some duty to be performed.
"Ah well, on board then; she will have abundant time, aye, abundant time."
From a dark place near the inn door, I watched their departure. Poor weakling that I was, I could not deny myself. The Chevalier, with Agnes and another lady, took their way toward the waiting boat, a flickering lanthorn being borne in their front. His words, "Agnes will be glad to meet with you; she has great curiosity to see what you are like," recurred again and again.
So she had deceived him, and he knew nothing of our meetings? Ah, well do these women manage, and we are ever dupes. And I, who all my life had detested small deceptions, found myself heartily applauding this—was it not for my sake. This secret was ours—mine and hers; the bond which we two held in common apart from all the world. A sweet reflection. The little weaknesses of women are very precious to their object, and if the deluded one knows it not, why where's the harm? Small comfort came to me, however, for all the while conscience, like a burning nettle in the side, gave the lie to each excuse.
All that night I paced about, and up and down. At length came gray dawn, but not decision. An early fisherman disposed his net upon the beach. I watched him long in silence, then abruptly asked, so fiercely that he dropped his work:
"Old man, do you know of any other vessel sailing soon for the American Colonies in the South?"
"Aye, sir, there's a brig fitting out at Boulogne-sur-Mer for the Spanish seas, to sail in a week or thereabout. But, sir," the old fellow looked cautiously about to assure himself that no one else could hear, "they say un-Christian things of that brigand crew. She bodes no good."
"Aye, sir, or a privateer, which, they say, is the milder term."
My resolution was formed.
"Await me here; I will pay your gains for the day if you will but do me a slight service."
"Aye, aye, sir," he responded, touching his surf-stained cap.
I returned briefly from the inn bearing a note for M. de Serigny. Therein I explained that a most important matter had transpired to detain me until another vessel sailed, some few days at most. I would tell him of it more at length when I joined him at Biloxi.
I gave it, with a broad gold piece, to the old fellow, and directed that he give it to Serigny. There I remained until I saw the man clamber up Le Dauphin's side, when I left at once, fearing further communication from de Serigny.
Entering Boulogne at daybreak, the undulating valley of the Liane claimed not one appreciative glance. The ancient city trembled in its slumber at my feet. Already it became restless with the promise of another day which clad its gables in flame and burned the rough old towers with the shining gold of God. A little beyond, the waters glimmered in the sun's first rays, and writhing seaward tossed themselves in anger against the dim white cliffs of our hereditary foes.
As a picture laid away in memory this all comes back to me pure and fresh, but on that morning I gave it no heed. From the heights I passed along through quiet streets into the lower town, thence to the beach, where I was soon inquiring among the sailors for the privateer. These women looked askance at me, and regarded my unfamiliar uniform with suspicion, but after great difficulty one of their number was induced to carry me alongside an ominous looking craft lying in the harbour—a black-hulled brig of probably six hundred and fifty tons burden. Of the sentinel on deck I asked:
"Is here," and at the word a dark, wiry man, who had evidently been watching my approach, appeared at the companion way.
"A word with you, sir, if you are the captain of this craft. I am told you are refitting for a trip to west Florida. What your errand is I care not; I want to go with you."
"We do not take passengers," he answered positively.
"Then take me as a marine, a seaman, what you will. I am a soldier, familiar with the handspike as with the sword, though knowing little of winds or currents."
Captain Levasseur eyed me closely, asked many questions concerning my life and service, to which I replied, truthfully in part. He seemed satisfied.
"Well, we do need a few more stout fellows who can handle a cutlass; when could you come aboard?"
"At once; I have no baggage but the weapons at my side."
"Good. Your name?"
"Gaspard Cambronne," I answered at random.
The freebooter laughed.
"We care nothing for your name so you will fight. We sail the day after to-morrow one week." And surveying my well knit frame, for I was a sturdy youth, "If you know any more stout young fellows like yourself we can give them a berth apiece."
So I scrambled aboard without more ado, and became at once a member of the "Seamew's" crew. I hardly knew at first why I gave a false name. But the character of the vessel was doubtful, its destination uncertain, and knowing not what mission she was on I shirked to give my real name and station. The chance was desperate, yet not one whit more desperate than I.
The Seamew sailed more than three weeks behind Le Dauphin, armed with letters of marque from the King commissioning her to prey upon Spanish commerce in southern seas, and especially to take part in any expedition against Havana or Pensacola.
Our voyage wore on drearily enough to me, almost without incident. After four weeks of sky and sea we rounded the southernmost cape of Florida and turned into the Mexican Gulf. I grew more and more impatient and full of dread. Le Dauphin had twenty-three days the start of our faster vessel, and Biloxi was probably at that moment in a fever of warlike preparation. It was just possible, too, that the Spaniards had not yet been informed of the war, and nothing had been so far done by them.
Cruising by Pensacola harbor, just outside the Isle de Santa Rosa, a pine-grown stretch of narrow sand which for twenty-five leagues protects that coast, Levasseur called me to him.
"Do you know, my lad, what vessels those are at anchor in the harbour?"
Two of them I recognized as I would my own tent, two French men-of-war which Bienville had long been expecting from France. The rest were Spaniards, full-rigged, four ships, and six gunboats. Levasseur put the Seamew boldly about and entered the harbor. He signaled the Frenchmen, lowered a boat, and sent his lieutenant aboard the flagship with credentials and a letter signifying his readiness to engage in any enterprise.
From Admiral Champmeslin, in command of the squadron, he learned that Bienville and Serigny, combined with the Choctaws, had invested Pensacola by land, and on the morrow a simultaneous attack by land and sea would be made. The Spanish forces consisted of four ships, six gunboats, a strong fort on Santa Rosa Island, and the works at Pensacola, the strength of whose garrison was unknown.
That night on board the Seamew was spent in busy preparation and in rest. I alone was unemployed, my awkwardness with ropes and spars forbade it. I sat moodily upon a gun at the port, and fixing my eyes on shore vainly endeavored to make out what the French and Choctaws were doing there. To the left were the meager camp fires of the Indians; further up the hills a more generous blazing line marked the French position.
Gradually a low wavering sound separated itself from the other noises of the night, coming faint but clear upon the light land breeze, the first quivering notes of a Choctaw war chant. How familiar it was. Was I mistaken? I listened more intently. No. It was in very truth the voice of Tuskahoma, my old friend on many marches.
I cared nothing for the Seamew or her crew, and determined to seek my old friends to fight out the day with them.
What little thought I gave it justified the deed. My position as an officer of the King would palliate deserting the ship which had brought me over.