Chapter XXXIX. Running the Gauntlet

Though Carne had made light, in his impatient mood, of the power of the blockading fleet, he felt in his heart a sincere respect for its vigilance and activity. La Liberte (as the unhappy Cheeseman's schooner was called within gunshot of France) was glad enough to drop that pretentious name, and become again the peaceful London Trader, when she found herself beyond the reach of French batteries. The practice of her captain, the lively Charron, was to give a wide berth to any British cruiser appearing singly; but whenever more than one hove in sight, to run into the midst of them and dip his flag. From the speed of his schooner he could always, in a light wind, show a clean pair of heels to any single heavy ship, and he had not yet come across any cutter, brig of war, or light corvette that could collar the Liberte in any sort of weather. Renaud Charron was a brave young Frenchman, as fair a specimen as could be found, of a truly engaging but not overpowering type, kindly, warm-hearted, full of enterprise, lax of morals (unless honour--their veneer--was touched), loving excitement, and capable of anything, except skulking, or sulking, or running away slowly.

"None of your risky tricks to-night!" said Carne, as he stood on the schooner's deck, in the dusk of the February evening, himself in a dark mood growing darker--for his English blood supplied the elements of gloom, and he felt a dull pleasure in goading a Frenchman, after being trampled on by one of French position. "You will just make straight, as the tide and shoals allow, for our usual landing-place, set me ashore, and follow me to the old quarters. I have orders to give you, which can be given only there."

"My commanding officer shall be obeyed," the Frenchman answered, with a light salute and smile, for he was not endowed with the power of hating, or he might have indulged that bad power towards Carne; "but I fear that he has not found things to his liking."

"What concern is that of yours? Your duty is to carry out my orders, to the utmost of your ability, and offer opinion when asked for."

The light-hearted Frenchman shrugged his shoulders. "My commanding officer is right," he said; "but the sea is getting up, and there will be wind, unless I mistake the arising of the moon. My commanding officer had better retire, until his commands are needed. He has been known to feel the effects of high tossing, in spite of his unequalled constitution. Is it not so, my commander? I ask with deference, and anxiety."

Carne, who liked to have the joke on his side only, swore at the moon and the wind, in clear English, which was shorter and more efficacious than French. He longed to say, "Try to keep me out of rough water," but his pride, and the fear of suggesting the opposite to this sailor who loved a joke, kept him silent, and he withdrew to his little cuddy, chewing a biscuit, to feed, if it must be so, the approaching malady.

"We shall have some game, and a fine game too," said Renaud Charron to himself, as he ordered more sail to be made. "Milord gives himself such mighty airs! We will take him to the cross-run off the Middle Bank, and offer him a basin through the key-hole. To make sea-sick an Englishman--for, after all, what other is he?-- will be a fine piece of revenge for fair France."

Widow Shanks had remarked with tender sorrow--more perhaps because she admired the young man, and was herself a hearty soul, than from any loss of profit in victualling him--that "he was one of they folk as seems to go about their business, and do their jobs, and keep their skins as full as other people, without putting nort inside of them." She knew one of that kind before, and he was shot by the Coast-guard, and when they postmartyred him, an eel twenty foot long was found inside him, doubled up for all the world like a love-knot. Squire Carne was of too high a family for that; but she would give a week's rent to know what was inside him.

There was no little justice in these remarks, as is pretty sure to be the case with all good-natured criticism. The best cook that ever was roasted cannot get out of a pot more than was put in it; and the weight of a cask, as a general rule, diminishes if the tap is turned, without any redress at the bung-hole. Carne ran off his contents too fast, before he had arranged for fresh receipts; and all who have felt what comes of that will be able to feel for him in the result.

But a further decrease was in store for him now. As the moon arose, the wind got higher, and chopped round to one point north of west, raising a perkish head-sea, and grinning with white teeth against any flapping of sails. The schooner was put upon the starboard tack as near to the wind as she would lie, bearing so for the French coast more than the English, and making for the Vergoyers, instead of the Varne, as intended. This carried them into wider water, and a long roll from the southwest crossing the pointed squabble of the strong new wind.

"General," cried Charron, now as merry as a grig, and skipping to the door of Carne's close little cabin, about an hour before midnight, "it would afford us pleasure if you would kindly come on deck and give us the benefit of your advice. I fear that you are a little confined down here, and in need of more solid sustenance. My General, arise; there is much briskness upon deck, and the waves are dancing beautifully in the full moon. Two sail are in sight, one upon the weather bow, and the other on the weather quarter. Ah, how superior your sea-words are to ours! If I were born an Englishman, you need not seek far for a successor to Nelson, when he gets shot, as he is sure to be before very long."

"Get out!" muttered Carne, whose troubles were faintly illuminated by a sputtering wick. "Get out, you scoundrel, as you love plain English. Go direct to the devil--only let me die in peace."

"All language is excusable in those affected with the malady of the sea," replied the Frenchman, dancing a little to encourage his friend. "Behold, if you would get up and do this, you would be as happy inside as I am. But stay--I know what will ease you in an instant, and enable you to order us right and left. The indefatigable Sherray put a fine piece of fat pork in store before we sailed; I have just had it cooked, for I was almost starving. It floats in brown liquor of the richest order, such as no Englishman can refuse. Take a sip of pure rum, and you will enjoy it surely. Say, my brave General, will you come and join me? It will cure any little disquietude down here."

With a pleasant smile Charron laid his hand on the part of his commander which he supposed to be blameable. Carne made an effort to get up and kick him, but fell back with everything whirling around, and all human standards inverted. Then the kindly Frenchman tucked him up, for his face was blue and the chill of exhaustion striking into him. "I wish you could eat a little bit," said Charron, gently; but Carne gave a push with his elbow." Well, you'll be worse before you are better, as the old women say in your country. But what am I to do about the two British ships--for they are sure to be British--now in sight?" But Carne turned his back, and his black boots dangled from the rim of his bunk as if there was nothing in them.

"This is going a little too far," cried Charron; "I must have some orders, my commander. You understand that two English ships are manifestly bearing down upon us--"

"Let them come and send us to the bottom--the sooner the better," his commander groaned, and then raised his limp knuckles with a final effort to stop his poor ears forever.

"But I am not ready to go to the bottom, nor all the other people of our fourteen hands"--the Frenchman spoke now to himself alone-- "neither will I even go to prison. I will do as they do at Springhaven, and doubtless at every other place in England. I will have my dish of pork, which is now just crackling--I am capable of smelling it even here--and I will give some to Sam Polwhele, and we will put heads together over it. To outsail friend Englishman is a great delight, and to out-gun him would be still greater; but if we cannot accomplish those, there will be some pleasure of outwitting him."

Renaud Charron was never disposed to make the worst of anything. When he went upon deck again, to look out while his supper was waiting, he found no change, except that the wind was freshening and the sea increasing, and the strangers whose company he did not covet seemed waiting for no invitation. With a light wind he would have had little fear of giving them the go-by, or on a dark night he might have contrived to slip between or away from them. But everything was against him now. The wind was so strong, blowing nearly half a gale, and threatening to blow a whole one, that he durst not carry much canvas, and the full moon, approaching the meridian now, spread the white sea with a broad flood of light. He could see that both enemies had descried him, and were acting in concert to cut him off. The ship on his weather bow was a frigate, riding the waves in gallant style, with the wind upon her beam, and travelling two feet for every one the close-hauled schooner could accomplish. If the latter continued her present course, in another half-league she would be under the port-holes of the frigate.

The other enemy, though further off, was far more difficult to escape. This was a gun-brig, not so very much bigger than La Liberte herself--for gun-brigs in those days were very small craft-- and for that very reason more dangerous. She bore about two points east of north from the greatly persecuted Charron, and was holding on steadily under easy sail, neither gaining much upon the chase nor losing.

"Carry on as we are for about ten minutes," said Charron to his mate, Sam Polwhele; "that will give us period to eat our pork. Come, then, my good friend, let us do it."

Polwhele--as he was called to make believe that he and other hands were Cornishmen, whereas they were Yankees of the sharpest order, owing no allegiance and unhappily no good-will to their grandmother-- this man, whose true name was Perkins, gave the needful orders, and followed down. Charron could talk, like many Frenchmen, quite as fast with his mouth full as empty, and he had a man to talk to who did not require anything to be said twice to him.

"No fear of me!" was all he said. "You keep out of sight, because of your twang. I'll teach them a little good English--better than ever came out of Cornwall. The best of all English is not to say too much."

The captain and his mate enjoyed their supper, while Carne in the distance bore the pangs of a malady called bulimus, that is to say, a giant's ravening for victuals, without a babe's power of receiving them. For he was turning the corner of his sickness now, but prostrate and cold as a fallen stalactite.

"Aha! We have done well. We have warmed our wits up. One glass of what you call the grog; and then we will play a pleasant game with those Englishmen!" Carne heard him say it, and in his heart hoped that the English would pitch him overboard.

It was high time for those two to finish their supper. The schooner had no wheel, but steered--as light craft did then, and long afterwards--with a bulky ash tiller, having iron eyes for lashing it in heavy weather. Three strong men stood by it now, obedient, yet muttering to one another, for another cable's length would bring them into danger of being run down by the frigate.

"All clear for stays!" cried Polwhele, under orders from Charron. "Down helm! Helm's alee! Steady so. Let draw! Easy! easy! There she fills!" And after a few more rapid orders the handy little craft was dashing away, with the wind abaft the beam, and her head about two points north of east. "Uncommon quick in stays!" cried Polwhele, who had taken to the helm, and now stood there. "Wonder what Britishers will think of that?"

The British ship soon let him know her opinion, by a roar and a long streak of smoke blown toward him, as she put up her helm to consider the case. It was below the dignity of a fine frigate to run after little smuggling craft, such as she voted this to be, and a large ship had been sighted from her tops down channel, which might afford her nobler sport. She contented herself with a harmless shot, and leaving the gun-brig to pursue the chase, bore away for more important business.

"Nonplussed the big 'un; shall have trouble with the little 'un," said Master Polwhele to his captain. "She don't draw half a fathom more than we do. No good running inside the shoals. And with this wind, she has the foot of us."

"Bear straight for her, and let her board us," Charron answered, pleasantly. "Down with all French hands into the forepart of the hold, and stow the spare foresail over them. Show our last bills of lading, and ask them to trade. You know all about Cheeseman; double his prices. If we make any cash, we'll divide it. Say we are out of our course, through supplying a cruiser that wanted our goods for nothing. I shall keep out of sight on account of my twang, as you politely call it. The rest I may safely leave to your invention. But if you can get any ready rhino, Sam Polwhele is not the man to neglect it."

"Bully for you!" cried the Yankee, looking at him with more admiration than he expected ever to entertain for a Frenchman. "There's five ton of cheeses that have been seven voyages, and a hundred firkins of Irish butter, and five-and-thirty cases of Russian tongues, as old as old Nick, and ne'er a sign of weevil! Lor' no, never a tail of weevil! Skipper, you deserve to go to heaven out of West Street. But how about him, down yonder?"

"Captain Carne? Leave him to me to arrange. I shall be ready, if they intrude. Announce that you have a sick gentleman on board, a passenger afflicted with a foreign illness, and having a foreign physician. Mon Dieu! It is good. Every Englishman believes that anything foreign will kill him with a vault. Arrange you the trading, and I will be the doctor--a German; I can do the German."

"And I can do the trading," the American replied, without any rash self-confidence; "any fool can sell good stuff; but it requireth a good man to sell bad goods."

The gun-brig bore down on them at a great pace, feeling happy certitude that she had got a prize--not a very big one, but still worth catching. She saw that the frigate had fired a shot, and believed that it was done to call her own attention to a matter below that of the frigate. On she came, heeling to the lively wind, very beautiful in the moonlight, tossing the dark sea in white showers, and with all her taut canvas arched and gleaming, hovered with the shades of one another.

"Heave to, or we sink you!" cried a mighty voice through a speaking trumpet, as she luffed a little, bringing her port broadside to bear; and the schooner, which had hoisted British colours, obeyed the command immediately. In a very few seconds a boat was manned, and dancing on the hillocks of the sea; and soon, with some danger and much care, the visitors stood upon the London Trader's deck, and Sam Polwhele came to meet them.

"We have no wish to put you to any trouble," said the officer in command, very quietly, "if you can show that you are what you profess to be. You sail under British colours; and the name on your stern is London Trader. We will soon dismiss you, if you prove that. But appearances are strongly against you. What has brought you here? And why did you run the risk of being fired at, instead of submitting to his Majesty's ship Minerva?"

"Because she haven't got any ready money, skipper, and we don't like three months' bills," said the tall Bostonian, looking loftily at the British officer. "Such things is nothing but piracy, and we had better be shot at than lose such goods as we carry fresh shipped, and in prime condition. Come and see them, all with Cheeseman's brand, the celebrated Cheeseman of Springhaven--name guarantees the quality. But one thing, mind you--no use to hanker after them unless you come provided with the ready."

"We don't want your goods; we want you," answered Scudamore, now first luff of the brig of war Delia, and staring a little with his mild blue eyes at this man's effrontery. "That is to say, our duty is to know all about you. Produce your papers. Prove where you cleared from last, and what you are doing here, some thirty miles south of your course, if you are a genuine British trader."

"Papers all in order, sir. First-chop wafers, as they puts on now, to save sealing-wax. Charter-party, and all the rest. Last bills of lading from Gravesend, but you mustn't judge our goods by that. Bulk of them from St. Mary Axe, where Cheeseman hath freighted from these thirty years. If ever you have been at Springhaven, Captain, you'd jump at anything with Cheeseman's brand. But have you brought that little bag of guineas with you?"

"Once more, we want none of your goods. You might praise them as much as you liked, if time permitted. Show me to the cabin, and produce your papers. After that we shall see what is in the hold."

"Supercargo very ill in best cabin. Plague, or black fever, the German doctor says. None of our hands will go near him but myself. But you won't be like that, will you?"

Less for his own sake than his mother's--who had none but him to help her--Scudamore dreaded especially that class of disease which is now called "zymotic." His father, an eminent physician, had observed and had written a short work to establish that certain families and types of constitution lie almost at the mercy of such contagion, and find no mercy from it. And among those families was his own. "Fly, my boy, fly," he had often said to Blyth, "if you ever come near such subjects."

"Captain, I will fetch them," continued Mr. Polwhele, looking grave at his hesitation. "By good rights they ought to be smoked, I dare say, though I don't hold much with such stuff myself. And the doctor keeps doing a heap of herbs hot. You can see him, if you just come down these few steps. Perhaps you wouldn't mind looking into the hold, to find something to suit your judgment--quality combined with low figures there--while I go into the infected den, as the cleverest of my chaps calls it. Why, it makes me laugh! I've been in and out, with this stand-up coat on, fifty times, and you can't smell a flue of it, though wonderful strong down there."

Scudamore shuddered, and drew back a little, and then stole a glance round the corner. He saw a thick smoke, and a figure prostrate, and another tied up in a long white robe, waving a pan of burning stuff in one hand and a bottle in the other, and plainly conjuring Polwhele to keep off. Then the latter returned, quite complacently.

"Can't find all of them," he said, presenting a pile of papers big enough to taint Sahara. "That doctor goes on as bad as opening a coffin. Says he understands it, and I don't. The old figure-head! What does he know about it?"

"Much more than you do, perhaps," replied Blyth, standing up for the profession, as he was bound to do. "Perhaps we had better look at these on deck, if you will bring up your lantern."

"But, Captain, you will have a look at our hold, and make us a bid-- we need not take it, any more than you need to double it--for as prime a lot of cheese, and sides of bacon--"

"If your papers are correct, it will not be my duty to meddle with your cargo. But what are you doing the wrong side of our fleet?"

"Why, that was a bad job. There's no fair trade now, no sort of dealing on the square nohow. We run all this risk of being caught by Crappos on purpose to supply British ship Gorgeous, soweastern station; and blow me tight if I couldn't swear she had been supplied chock-full by a Crappo! Only took ten cheeses and fifteen sides of bacon, though she never knew nought of our black fever case! But, Captain, sit down here, and overhaul our flimsies. Not like rags, you know; don't hold plague much."

The young lieutenant compelled himself to discharge his duty of inspection behind a combing, where the wind was broken; but even so he took good care to keep on the weather side of the documents; and the dates perhaps flew away to leeward. "They seem all right," he said, "but one thing will save any further trouble to both of us. You belong to Springhaven. I know most people there. Have you any Springhaven hands on board?"

"I should think so. Send Tugwell aft; pass the word for Dan Tugwell. Captain, there's a family of that name there--settled as long as we have been at Mevagissey. Ah, that sort of thing is a credit to the place, and the people too, in my opinion."

Dan Tugwell came slowly, and with a heavy step, looking quite unlike the spruce young fisherman whom Scudamore had noticed as first and smartest in the rescue of the stranded Blonde. But he could not doubt that this was Dan, the Dan of happier times and thoughts; in whom, without using his mind about it, he had felt some likeness to himself. It was not in his power to glance sharply, because his eyes were kindly open to all the little incidents of mankind, but he managed to let Dan know that duty compelled him to be particular. Dan Tugwell touched the slouched hat upon his head, and stood waiting to know what he was wanted for.

"Daniel," said Scudamore, who could not speak condescendingly to any one, even from the official point of view, because he felt that every honest man was his equal, "are you here of your own accord, as one of the crew of this schooner?"

Dan Tugwell had a hazy sense of being put upon an untrue balance. Not by this kind gentleman's words, but through his own proceedings. In his honest mind he longed to say: "I fear I have been bamboozled. I have cast my lot in with these fellows through passion, and in hasty ignorance. How I should like to go with you, and fight the French, instead of getting mixed up with a lot of things I can't make out!"

But his equally honest heart said to him: "You have been well treated. You are well paid. You shipped of your own accord. You have no right to peach, even if you had anything to peach of; and all you have seen is some queer trading. None but a sneak would turn against his shipmates and his ship, when overhauled by the Royal Navy."

Betwixt the two voices, Dan said nothing, but looked at the lieutenant with that gaze which the receiver takes to mean doubt of his meaning, while the doubt more often is--what to do with it.

"Are you here of your own accord? Do you belong to this schooner of your own accord? Are you one of this crew, of your own free- will?"

Scudamore rang the changes on his simple question, as he had often been obliged to do in the Grammar-school at Stonnington, with the slow-witted boys, who could not, or would not, know the top from the bottom of a sign-post. "Do you eat with your eyes?" he had asked them sometimes; and they had put their thumbs into their mouths to enquire.

"S'pose I am," said Dan at last, assuming stupidity, to cover hesitation; "yes, sir, I come aboard of my own free-will."

"Very well. Then I am glad to find you comfortable. I shall see your father next week, perhaps. Shall I give him any message for you?"

"No, sir! For God's sake, don't let him know a word about where you have seen me. I came away all of a heap, and I don't want one of them to bother about me."

"As you wish, Dan. I shall not say a word about you, until you return with your earnings. But if you found the fishing business dull, surely you might have come to us, Dan. Any volunteers here for His Majesty's service?" Scudamore raised his voice, with the usual question. "Good pay, good victuals, fine promotion, and prize-money, with the glory of fighting for their native country, and provision for life if disabled!"

Not a man came forward, though one man longed to do so; but his sense of honour, whether true or false, forbade him. Dan Tugwell went heavily back to his work, trying to be certain that it was his duty. But sad doubts arose as he watched the brave boat, lifting over the waves in the moonlight, with loyal arms tugging towards a loyal British ship; and he felt that he had thrown away his last chance.