When London Burned by G. A. Henty
Chapter VIII. The Captain's Yarn
Mindful of the fact that this affair had added a new enemy to those he had acquired by the break-up of the Black Gang, Cyril thought it as well to go round and give notice to the two traders whose books he attended to in the evening, that unless they could arrange for him to do them in the daytime he must give up the work altogether. Both preferred the former alternative, for they recognised the advantage they had derived from his work, and that at a rate of pay for which they could not have obtained the services of any scrivener in the City.
It was three or four days before Nellie Dowsett made her appearance at the general table.
"I can't make out what ails the girl," her mother said, on the previous evening. "The fever speedily left her, as I told you, but she is weak and languid, and seems indisposed to talk."
"She will soon get over that, my dear," Captain Dave said. "Girls are not like men. I have seen them on board ship. One day they are laughing and fidgeting about like wild things, the next day they are poor, woebegone creatures. If she gets no better in a few days, I will see when my old friend, Jim Carroll, is starting in his brig for Yarmouth, and will run down with her myself--and of course with you, wife, if you will go--and stay there a few days while he is unloading and filling up again. The sea-air will set her up again, I warrant."
"Not at this time of year," Dame Dowsett said firmly. "With these bitter winds it is no time for a lass to go a-sailing; and they say that Yarmouth is a great deal colder than we are here, being exposed to the east winds."
"Well, well, Dame, then we will content ourselves with a run in the hoy down to Margate. If we choose well the wind and tide we can start from here in the morning and maybe reach there late in the evening, or, if not, the next morning to breakfast. Or if you think that too far we will stop at Sheerness, where we can get in two tides easily enough if the wind be fair."
"That would be better, David; but it were best to see how she goes on. It may be, as you say, that she will shortly gain her strength and spirits again."
It was evident, when Nellie entered the room at breakfast-time the next morning, that her mother's reports had not been exaggerated. She looked, indeed, as if recovering from a severe illness, and when she said good-morning to her father her voice trembled and her eyes filled with tears.
"Tut, tut, lass! This will never do. I shall soon hardly own you for my Nellie. We shall have to feed you up on capons and wine, child, or send you down to one of the baths for a course of strengthening waters."
She smiled faintly, and then turning, gave her hand to Cyril. As she did so, a slight flush of colour came into her cheeks.
"I am heartily glad to see you down again, Mistress Nellie," he said, "and wish you a fair and speedy recovery."
"I shall be better presently," she replied, with an effort. "Good-morning, John."
"Good-morning, Mistress Nellie. Right glad are we to see you down again, for it makes but a dull table without your merry laugh to give an edge to our appetites."
She sat down now, and the others, seeing that it was best to let her alone for a while, chatted gaily together.
"There is no talk in the City but of the war, Cyril," the Captain said presently. "They say that the Dutch make sure of eating us up, but they won't find it as easy a job as they fancy. The Duke of York is to command the Fleet. They say that Prince Rupert will be second. To my mind they ought to have entrusted the whole matter to him. He proved himself as brave a captain at sea as he was on land, and I will warrant he would lead his ships into action as gallantly as he rode at the head of his Cavaliers on many a stricken field. The ships are fitting out in all haste, and they are gathering men at every sea-port. I should say they will have no lack of hands, for there are many ships laid up, that at other times trade with Holland, and Dantzic, and Dunkirk, and many a bold young sailor who will be glad to try whether he can fight as stoutly against the Dutch under York and Rupert as his father did under Blake."
"For my part," Cyril said, "I cannot understand it; for it seems to me that the English and Dutch have been fighting for the last year. I have been too busy to read the Journal, and have not been in the way of hearing the talk of the coffeehouses and taverns; but, beyond that it is some dispute about the colonies, I know little of the matter."
"I am not greatly versed in it myself, lad. Nellie here reads the Journal, and goes abroad more than any of us, and should be able to tell us something about it. Now, girl, can't you do something to set us right in this matter, for I like not to be behind my neighbours, though I am such a stay-at-home, having, as I thank the Lord, much happiness here, and no occasion to go out to seek it."
"There was much discourse about it, father, the evening I went to Dame King's. There were several gentlemen there who had trade with the East, and one of them held shares in the English Company trading thither. After supper was over, they discoursed more fully on the matter than was altogether pleasing to some of us, who would much rather that, as we had hoped, we might have dancing or singing. I could see that Dame King herself was somewhat put out that her husband should have, without her knowing of his intention, brought in these gentlemen. Still, the matter of their conversation was new to us, and we became at last so mightily interested in it that we listened to the discourse without bemoaning ourselves that we had lost the amusement we looked for. I know I wished at the time that you had been there. I say not that I can repeat all that I heard, but as I had before read some of the matters spoken of in the Journal, I could follow what the gentlemen said more closely. Soon after the coming of the King to the throne the friendship between us and the Spaniards, that had been weakened during the mastership of Cromwell, was renewed, and they gave our ships many advantages at their ports, while, on the other hand, they took away the privileges the Dutch had enjoyed there, and thus our commerce with Spain increased, while that of the Dutch diminished."
"That is certainly true, Nellie," her father said. "We have three ships sailing through the Mediterranean now to one that sailed there ten years ago, and doubtless the Dutch must have suffered by the increase in our trade."
"Then he said that, as we had obtained the Island of Bombay in the East Indies and the City of Tangier in Africa as the dowry of the Queen, and had received the Island of Poleron for our East India Company by the treaty with Holland, our commerce everywhere increased, and raised their jealousy higher and higher. There was nothing in this of which complaint could be made by the Dutch Government, but nevertheless they gave encouragement to their East and West India Companies to raise trouble. Their East India Company refused to hand over the Island, and laid great limitations as to the places at which our merchants might trade in India. The other Company acted in the same manner, and lawlessly took possession of Cape Coast Castle, belonging to our English Company.
"The Duke of York, who was patron and governor of our African Company, sent Sir Robert Holmes with four frigates to Guinea to make reprisals. He captured a place from the Dutch and named it James's Fort, and then, proceeding to the river Gambia, he turned out the Dutch traders there and built a fort. A year ago, as the Dutch still held Cape Coast Castle, Sir Robert was sent out again with orders to take it by force, and on the way he overhauled a Dutch ship and found she carried a letter of secret instructions from the Dutch Government to the West India Company to take the English Fort at Cormantin. Seeing that the Hollanders, although professing friendship, were thus treacherously inclined, he judged himself justified in exceeding the commission he had received, and on his way south he touched at Cape Verde. There he first captured two Dutch ships and then attacked their forts on the Island of Gorse and captured them, together with a ship lying under their guns.
"In the fort he found a great quantity of goods ready to be shipped. He loaded his own vessels, and those that he had captured, with the merchandise, and carried it to Sierra Leone. Then he attacked the Dutch fort of St. George del Mena, the strongest on the coast, but failed there; but he soon afterwards captured Cape Coast Castle, though, as the gentlemen said, a mightily strong place. Then he sailed across to America, and, as you know, captured the Dutch Settlements of New Netherlands, and changed the name into that of New York. He did this not so much out of reprisal for the misconduct of the Dutch in Africa, but because the land was ours by right, having been discovered by the Cabots and taken possession of in the name of King Henry VII., and our title always maintained until the Dutch seized it thirty years ago.
"Then the Dutch sent orders to De Ruyter, who commanded the fleet which was in the Mediterranean, to sail away privately and to make reprisals on the Coast of Guinea and elsewhere. He first captured several of our trading forts, among them that of Cormantin, taking great quantities of goods belonging to our Company; he then sailed to Barbadoes, where he was beaten off by the forts. Then he captured twenty of our ships off Newfoundland, and so returned to Holland, altogether doing damage, as the House of Commons told His Majesty, to the extent of eight hundred thousand pounds. All this time the Dutch had been secretly preparing for war, which they declared in January, which has forced us to do the same, although we delayed a month in hopes that some accommodation might be arrived at. I think, father, that is all that he told us, though there were many details that I do not remember."
"And very well told, lass, truly. I wonder that your giddy head should have taken in so much matter. Of course, now you tell them over, I have heard these things before--the wrong that the Dutch did our Company by seizing their post at Cape Coast, and the reprisals that Sir Robert Holmes took upon them with our Company's ships--but they made no great mark on my memory, for I was just taking over my father's work when the first expedition took place. At any rate, none can say that we have gone into this war unjustly, seeing that the Dutch began it, altogether without cause, by first attacking our trading posts."
"It seems to me, Captain Dave," John Wilkes said, "that it has been mighty like the war that our English buccaneers waged against the Spaniards in the West Indies, while the two nations were at peace at home."
"It is curious," Cyril said, "that the trouble begun in Africa should have shifted to the other side of the Atlantic."
"Ay, lad; just as that first trouble was at last fought out in the English Channel, off the coast of France, so this is likely to be decided in well-nigh the same waters."
"The gentlemen, the other night, were all of opinion," Nellie said, "that the matter would never have come to such a head had it not been that De Witt, who is now the chief man in Holland, belongs to the French party there, and has been urged on by King Louis, for his own interest, to make war with us."
"That may well be, Nellie. In all our English wars France has ever had a part either openly or by intrigues. France never seems to be content with attending to her own business, but is ever meddling with her neighbours', and, if not fighting herself, trying to set them by the ears against each other. If I were a bit younger, and had not lost my left flipper, I would myself volunteer for the service. As for Master Cyril here, I know he is burning to lay aside the pen and take to the sword."
"That is so, Captain Dave. As you know, I only took up the pen to keep me until I was old enough to use a sword. I have been two years at it now, and I suppose it will be as much longer before I can think of entering the service of one of the Protestant princes; but as soon as I am fit to do so, I shall get an introduction and be off; but I would tenfold rather fight for my own country, and would gladly sail in the Fleet, though I went but as a ship's boy."
"That is the right spirit, Master Cyril," John Wilkes exclaimed. "I would go myself if the Captain could spare me and they would take such a battered old hulk."
"I couldn't spare you, John," Captain Dave said. "I have been mighty near making a mess of it, even with you as chief mate, and I might as well shut up shop altogether if you were to leave me. I should miss you, too, Cyril," he went on, stretching his arm across the table to shake hands with the lad. "You have proved a real friend and a true; but were there a chance of your going as an officer, I would not balk you, even if I could do so. It is but natural that a lad of spirit should speak and think as you do; besides, the war may not last for long, and when you come back, and the ships are paid off, you would soon wipe off the arrears of work, and get the books into ship-shape order. But, work or no work, that room of yours will always stand ready for you while I live, and there will always be a plate for you on this table."
"Thank you, Captain Dave. You always overrate my services, and forget that they are but the consequence of the kindness that you have shown to me. But I have no intention of going. It was but a passing thought. I have but one friend who could procure me a berth as a volunteer, and as it is to him I must look for an introduction to some foreign prince, I would not go to him twice for a favour, especially as I have no sort of claim on his kindness. To go as a cabin boy would be to go with men under my own condition, and although I do not shirk hard work and rough usage, I should not care for them in such fashion. Moreover, I am doing work which, even without your hospitality, would suffice to keep me comfortably, and if I went away, though but for a month, I might find that those for whom I work had engaged other assistance. Spending naught, I am laying by money for the time when I shall have to travel at my own expense and to provide myself necessaries, and, maybe, to keep myself for a while until I can procure employment. I have the prospect that, by the end of another two years, I shall have gathered a sufficient store for all my needs, and I should be wrong to throw myself out of employment merely to embark on an adventure, and so to make a break, perhaps a long one, in my plans."
"Don't you worry yourself on that score," Captain Dave said warmly, and then checked himself. "It will be time to talk about that when the time comes. But you are right, lad. I like a man who steadfastly holds on the way he has chosen, and will not turn to the right or left. There is not much that a man cannot achieve if he keeps his aim steadily in view. Why, Cyril, if you said you had made up your mind to be Lord Mayor of London, I would wager that you would some day be elected."
"I shall never set my eyes in that direction, nor do I think the thing I have set myself to do will ever be in my power--that is, to buy back my father's estate; but so long as I live I shall keep that in view."
"More unlikely things have happened, lad. You have got first to rise to be a General; then, what with your pay and your share in the sack of a city or two, and in other ways, you may come home with a purse full enough even for that. But it is time for us to be going down below. Matthew will think that we have forgotten him altogether."
Another fortnight passed. Nellie had, to a considerable extent, recovered from the shock that she had suffered, but her manner was still quiet and subdued, her sallies were less lively, and her father noticed, with some surprise, that she no longer took any great interest in the gossip he retailed of the gay doings of the Court.
"I can't think what has come over the girl," he said to his wife. "She seems well in health again, but she is changed a good deal, somehow. She is gentler and softer. I think she is all the better for it, but I miss her merry laugh and her way of ordering things about, as if her pleasure only were to be consulted."
"I think she is very much improved," Mrs. Dowsett said decidedly; "though I can no more account for it than you can. She never used to have any care about the household, and now she assists me in my work, and is in all respects dutiful and obedient, and is not for ever bent upon gadding about as she was before. I only hope it will continue so, for, in truth, I have often sighed over the thought that she would make but a poor wife for an honest citizen."
"Tut, tut, wife. It has never been as bad as that. Girls will be girls, and if they are a little vain of their good looks, that will soften down in time, when they get to have the charge of a household. You yourself, dame, were not so staid when I first wooed you, as you are now; and I think you had your own little share of vanity, as was natural enough in the prettiest girl in Plymouth."
When Nellie was in the room Cyril did his best to save her from being obliged to take part in the conversation, by inducing Captain Dave to tell him stories of some of his adventures at sea.
"You were saying, Captain Dave, that you had had several engagements with the Tunis Rovers," he said one evening. "Were they ever near taking you?"
"They did take me once, lad, and that without an engagement; but, fortunately, I was not very long a prisoner. It was not a pleasant time though, John, was it?"
"It was not, Captain Dave. I have been in sore danger of wreck several times, and in three big sea-fights; but never did I feel so out of heart as when I was lying, bound hand and foot, on the ballast in the hold of that corsair. No true sailor is afraid of being killed; but the thought that one might be all one's life a slave among the cruel heathen was enough to take the stiffness out of any man's courage."
"But how was it that you were taken without an engagement, Captain Dave? And how did you make your escape?"
"Well, lad, it was the carelessness of my first mate that did it; but as he paid for his fault with his life let us say naught against him. He was a handsome, merry young fellow, and had shipped as second mate, but my first had died of fever in the Levant, and of course he got the step, though all too young for the responsibility. We had met with some bad weather when south of Malta, and had had a heavy gale for three days, during which time we lost our main topmast, and badly strained the mizzen. The weather abated when we were off Pantellaria, which is a bare rock rising like a mountain peak out of the sea, and with only one place where a landing can be safely effected. As the gale had blown itself out, and it was likely we should have a spell of settled weather, I decided to anchor close in to the Island, and to repair damages.
"We were hard at work for two days. All hands had had a stiff time of it, and the second night, having fairly repaired damages, I thought to give the crew a bit of a rest, and, not dreaming of danger, ordered that half each watch might remain below. John Wilkes was acting as my second mate. Pettigrew took the first watch; John had the middle watch; and then the other came up again. I turned out once or twice, but everything was quiet--we had not seen a sail all day. There was a light breeze blowing, but no chance of its increasing, and as we were well sheltered in the only spot where the anchorage was good, I own that I did not impress upon Pettigrew the necessity for any particular vigilance. Anyhow, just as morning was breaking I was woke by a shout. I ran out on deck, but as I did so there was a rush of dark figures, and I was knocked down and bound before I knew what had happened. As soon as I could think it over, it was clear enough. The Moor had been coming into the anchorage, and, catching sight of us in the early light, had run alongside and boarded us.
"The watch, of course, must have been asleep. There was not a shot fired nor a drop of blood shed, for those on deck had been seized and bound before they could spring to their feet, and the crew had all been caught in their bunks. It was bitter enough. There was the vessel gone, and the cargo, and with them my savings of twenty years' hard work, and the prospect of slavery for life. The men were all brought aft and laid down side by side. Young Pettigrew was laid next to me.
"'I wish to heaven, captain,' he said, 'you had got a pistol and your hand free, and would blow out my brains for me. It is all my fault, and hanging at the yard-arm is what I deserve. I never thought there was the slightest risk--not a shadow of it--and feeling a bit dozy, sat down for five minutes' caulk. Seeing that, no doubt the men thought they might do the same; and this is what has come of it. I must have slept half an hour at least, for there was no sail in sight when I went off, and this Moor must have come round the point and made us out after that.'
"The corsair was lying alongside of us, her shrouds lashed to ours. There was a long jabbering among the Moors when they had taken off our hatches and seen that we were pretty well full up with cargo; then, after a bit, we were kicked, and they made signs for us to get on our feet and to cross over into their ship. The crew were sent down into the forward hold, and some men went down with them to tie them up securely. John Wilkes, Pettigrew, and myself were shoved down into a bit of a place below the stern cabin. Our legs were tied, as well as our arms. The trap was shut, and there we were in the dark. Of course I told Pettigrew that, though he had failed in his duty, and it had turned out badly, he wasn't to be blamed as if he had gone to sleep in sight of an enemy.
"'I had never given the Moors a thought myself,' I said, 'and it was not to be expected that you would. But no sailor, still less an officer, ought to sleep on his watch, even if his ship is anchored in a friendly harbour, and you are to blame that you gave way to drowsiness. Still, even if you hadn't, it might have come to the same thing in the long run, for the corsair is a large one, and might have taken us even if you had made her out as she rounded the point.'
"But, in spite of all I could say to cheer him, he took it to heart badly, and was groaning and muttering to himself when they left us in the dark, so I said to him,--
"'Look here, lad, the best way to retrieve the fault you have committed is to try and get us out of the scrape. Set your brains to work, and let us talk over what had best be done. There is no time to be lost, for with a fair wind they can run from here to Tunis in four-and-twenty hours, and once there one may give up all hope. There are all our crew on board this ship. The Moor carried twice as many men as we do, but we may reckon they will have put more than half of them on board our barque; they don't understand her sails as well as they do their own, and will therefore want a strong prize crew on board.'
"'I am ready to do anything, captain,' the young fellow said firmly. 'If you were to give me the word, I would get into their magazine if I could, and blow the ship into the air.'
"'Well, I don't know that I will give you that order, Pettigrew. To be a heathen's slave is bad, but, at any rate, I would rather try that life for a bit than strike my colours at once. Now let us think it over. In the first place we have to get rid of these ropes; then we have to work our way forward to the crew; and then to get on deck and fight for it. It is a stiff job, look at it which way one will, but at any rate it will be better to be doing something--even if we find at last that we can't get out of this dog-kennel--than to lie here doing nothing.'
"After some talk, we agreed that it was not likely the Moors would come down to us for a long time, for they might reckon that we could hold on without food or water easy enough until they got to Tunis; having agreed as to that point, we set to work to get our ropes loose. Wriggling wouldn't do it, though we tried until the cords cut into our flesh.
"At last Pettigrew said,--
"'What a fool I am! I have got my knife hanging from a lanyard round my neck. It is under my blouse, so they did not notice it when they turned my pockets out.'
"It was a long job to get at that knife. At last I found the string behind his neck, and, getting hold of it with my teeth, pulled till the knife came up to his throat. Then John got it in his teeth, and the first part of the job was done. The next was easy enough. John held the handle of the knife in his teeth and Pettigrew got hold of the blade in his, and between them they made a shift to open it; then, after a good deal of trouble, Pettigrew shifted himself till he managed to get the knife in his hands. I lay across him and worked myself backwards and forwards till the blade cut through the rope at my wrist; then, in two more minutes, we were free. Then we felt about, and found that the boarding between us and the main hold was old and shaky, and, with the aid of the knife and of our three shoulders, we made a shift at last to wrench one of the boards from its place.
"Pettigrew, who was slightest, crawled through, and we soon got another plank down. The hold was half full of cargo, which, no doubt, they had taken out of some ship or other. We made our way forward till we got to the bulkhead, which, like the one we had got through, was but a make-shift sort of affair, with room to put your fingers between the planks. So we hailed the men and told them how we had got free, and that if they didn't want to work all their lives as slaves they had best do the same. They were ready enough, you may be sure, and, finding a passage between the planks wider in one place than the rest, we passed the knife through to them, and told them how to set about cutting the rope. They were a deal quicker over it than we had been, for in our place there had been no height where we could stand upright, but they were able to do so. Two men, standing back to back and one holding the knife, made quick work of cutting the rope.
"We had plenty of strength now, and were not long in getting down a couple of planks. The first thing was to make a regular overhaul of the cargo--as well as we could do it, without shifting things and making a noise--to look for weapons or for anything that would come in handy for the fight. Not a thing could we find, but we came upon a lot of kegs that we knew, by their feel, were powder. If there had been arms and we could have got up, we should have done it at once, trusting to seize the ship before the other could come up to her help. But without arms it would be madness to try in broad daylight, and we agreed to wait till night, and to lie down again where we were before, putting the ropes round our legs again and our hands behind our backs, so that, if they did look in, everything should seem secure.
"'We shall have plenty of time,' one of the sailors said, 'for they have coiled a big hawser down on the hatch.'
"When we got back to our lazaret, we tried the hatch by which we had been shoved down, but the three of us couldn't move it any more than if it had been solid stone. We had a goodish talk over it, and it was clear that the hatchway of the main hold was our only chance of getting out; and we might find that a tough job.
"'If we can't do it in any other way,' Pettigrew said, 'I should say we had best bring enough bales and things to fill this place up to within a foot of the top; then on that we might put a keg of powder, bore a hole in it, and make a slow match that would blow the cabin overhead into splinters, while the bales underneath it would prevent the force of the explosion blowing her bottom out.'
"We agreed that, if the worst came to the worst, we would try this, and having settled that, went back to have a look at the main hatch. Feeling about round it, we found the points of the staple on which the hatchway bar worked above; they were not fastened with nuts as they would have been with us, but were simply turned over and clinched. We had no means of straightening them out, but we could cut through the woodwork round them. Setting to work at that, we took it by turns till we could see the light through the wood; then we left it to finish after dark. All this time we knew we were under sail by the rippling of the water along the sides. The men on board were evidently in high delight at their easy capture, and kicked up so much noise that there was no fear of their hearing any slight stir we made below.
"Very carefully we brought packages and bales under the hatchway, till we built up a sort of platform about four feet below it. We reckoned that, standing as thick as we could there, and all lifting together, we could make sure of hoisting the hatchway up, and could then spring out in a moment.
"Pettigrew still stuck to his plan, and talked us into carrying it out, both under the fore and aft hatches, pointing out that the two explosions would scare the crew out of their wits, that some would be killed, and many jump overboard in their fright. We came to see that the scheme was really a good one, so set all the crew to carry out the business, and they, working with stockinged feet, built up a platform under their hatch, as well as in our den aft. Then we made holes in two of the kegs of powder, and, shaking a little out, damped it, and rubbed it into two strips of cotton. Putting an end of a slow match into each of the holes, we laid the kegs in their places and waited.
"We made two other fuses, so that a man could go forward, and another aft, to fire them both together. Two of the men were told off for this job, and the rest of us gathered under the main hatch, for we had settled now that if we heard them making any move to open the hatches we would fire the powder at once, whatever hour it was. In order to be ready, we cut deeper into the woodwork round the staple till there was but the thickness of a card remaining, and we could tell by this how light it was above.
"It don't take long to tell you, but all this had taken us a good many hours; and so baked were we by the heat down below, and parched by thirst, that it was as much as I could do to persuade the men to wait until nightfall. At last we saw the light in the cut fade and darken. Again the men wanted to be at work, but I pointed out that if we waited till the crew had laid down on the deck, we might carry it through without losing a life, but if they were all awake, some of them would be sure to come at us with their weapons, and, unarmed as we were, might do us much harm. Still, though I succeeded in keeping the men quiet, I felt it was hard work to put a stopper on my own impatience.
"At last even John here spoke up for action.
"'I expect those who mean to sleep are off by this time,' he said. 'As to reckoning upon them all going off, there ain't no hope of it; they will sit and jabber all night. They have made a good haul, and have taken a stout ship with a full hold, and five-and-twenty stout slaves, and that without losing a man. There won't be any sleep for most of them. I reckon it is two bells now. I do think, Captain, we might as well begin, for human nature can't stand this heat and thirst much longer.'
"'All right, John,' I said. 'Now, lads, remember that when the first explosion comes--for we can't reckon on the two slow matches burning just the same time--we all heave together till we find the hatch lifts; then, when the second comes, we chuck it over and leap out. If you see a weapon, catch it up, but don't waste time looking about, but go at them with your fists. They will be scared pretty well out of their senses, and you will not be long before you all get hold of weapons of some sort. Now, Pettigrew, shove your blade up through the wood and cut round the staple. Now, Jack Brown, get out that tinder-box you said you had about you, and get a spark going.'
"Three or four clicks were heard as the sailor struck his flint against the steel lid of the tinder-box.
"'All right, yer honour,' he said, 'I have got the spark.'
"Then the two hands we had given the slow matches to, lit them at the tinder-box, and went fore and aft, while as many of the rest of us as could crowded under the hatch.
"'Are you ready, fore and aft?' I asked.
"The two men hailed in reply.
"'Light the matches, then, and come here.'
"I suppose it was not above a minute, but it seemed ten before there was a tremendous explosion aft. The ship shook from stem to stern. There was a moment's silence, and then came yells and screams mixed with the sound of timbers and wreckage falling on the deck.
"'Now lift,' I said. 'But not too high. That is enough--she is free. Wait for the other.'
"There was a rush of feet overhead as the Moors ran forward. Then came the other explosion.
"'Off with her, lads!' I shouted, and in a moment we flung the hatch off and leapt out with a cheer. There was no fighting to speak of. The officers had been killed by the first explosion under their cabin, and many of the men had either been blown overboard or lay crushed under the timber and wreckage.
"The second explosion had been even more destructive, for it happened just as the crew, in their terror, had rushed forward. Many of those unhurt had sprung overboard at once, and as we rushed up most of the others did the same. There was no difficulty about arms, for the deck was strewn with weapons. Few of us, however, stopped to pick one up, but, half mad with rage and thirst, rushed forward at the Moors. That finished them; and before we got to them the last had sprung overboard. There was a rush on the part of the men to the scuttle butt.
"'Take one drink, lads,' I shouted, 'and then to the buckets.'
"It took us a quarter of an hour's hard work to put out the flames, and it was lucky the powder had blown so much of the decks up that we were enabled to get at the fire without difficulty, and so extinguish it before it got any great hold.
"As soon as we had got it out I called a muster. There was only one missing;--it was Pettigrew, he being the first to leap out and rush aft. There had been but one shot fired by the Moors. One fellow, as he leapt on to the rail, drew his pistol from his belt and fired before he sprang overboard. In the excitement and confusion no one had noticed whether the shot took effect, for two or three men had stumbled and fallen over fragments of timber or bodies as we rushed aft. But now we searched, and soon came on the poor young fellow. The ball had struck him fair on the forehead, and he had fallen dead without a word or a cry.
"There was, however, no time to grieve. We had got to re-capture the barque, which had been but a cable's length away when we rushed on deck; while we had been fighting the fire she had sailed on, regardless of the shrieks and shouts of the wretches who had sprung overboard from us. But she was still near us; both vessels had been running before the wind, for I had sent John Wilkes to the tiller the moment that we got possession of the corsair, and the barque was but about a quarter of a mile ahead.
"The wind was light, and we were running along at four knots an hour. The Moors on board the Kate had, luckily, been too scared by the explosion to think of getting one of the guns aft and peppering us while we were engaged in putting out the fire; and indeed, they could not have done us much harm if they had, for the high fo'castle hid us from their view.
"As soon as we had found Pettigrew's body and laid it on the hatch we had thrown off, I went aft to John.
"'Are we gaining on her, John?'
"'No; she has drawn away a little. But this craft is not doing her best. I expect they wanted to keep close to the barque, and so kept her sheets in. If you square the sails, captain, we shall soon be upon her.'
"That was quickly done, and then the first thing was to see that the men were all armed. We could have got a gun forward, but I did not want to damage the Kate, and we could soon see that we were closing on her. We shoved a bag of musket-balls into each cannon, so as to sweep her decks as we came alongside, for we knew that her crew was a good deal stronger than we were. Still, no one had any doubt as to the result, and it was soon evident that the Moors had got such a scare from the fate of their comrades that they had no stomach for fighting.
"'They are lowering the boats,' John shouted.
"'All the better,' I said. 'They would fight like rats caught in a trap if we came up to them, and though we are men enough to capture her, we might lose half our number.'
"As soon as the boats reached the water they were all pulled up to the starboard side, and then the helm was put down, and the barque came round till she was broadside on to us.
"'Down with your helm, John Wilkes!' I shouted. 'Hard down, man!'
"John hesitated, for he had thought that I should have gone round to the other side of her and so have caught all the boats; but, in truth, I was so pleased at the thought of getting the craft back again that I was willing to let the poor villains go, since they were of a mind to do so without giving us trouble. We had punished them enough, and the shrieks and cries of those left behind to drown were ringing in my ears then. So we brought the corsair up quietly by the side of the Kate, lashed her there, and then, with a shout of triumph, sprang on board the old barky.
"Not a Moor was left on board. The boats were four or five hundred yards away, rowing at the top of their speed. The men would have run to the guns, but I shouted,--
"'Let them go, lads. We have punished them heavily enough; we have taken their ship, and sent half of them to Eternity. Let them take the tale back to Tunis how a British merchantman re-captured their ship. Now set to work to get some of the sail off both craft, and then, when we have got things snug, we will splice the main brace and have a meal.'
"There is no more to tell. We carried the rover into Gibraltar and sold her and her cargo there. It brought in a good round sum, and, except for the death of Pettigrew, we had no cause to regret the corsair having taken us by surprise that night off Pantellaria."
"That was an exciting business, indeed, Captain Dave," Cyril said, when the Captain brought his story to a conclusion. "If it had not been for your good fortune in finding those kegs of powder, and Pettigrew's idea of using them as he did, you and John might now, if you had been alive, have been working as slaves among the Moors."
"Yes, lad. And not the least lucky thing was that Pettigrew's knife and Jack Brown's tinder-box had escaped the notice of the Moors. Jack had it in an inside pocket sewn into his shirt so as to keep it dry. It was a lesson to me, and for the rest of the time I was at sea I always carried a knife, with a lanyard round my neck, and stowed away in an inside pocket of my shirt, together with a tinder-box. They are two as useful things as a sailor can have about him, for, if cast upon a desert shore after a wreck, a man with a knife and tinder-box may make shift to live, when, without them, he and his comrades might freeze to death."