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- The Splendid Spur - 23/44 -


I caught up the pen, dipp'd it, and began to write--

"I am John Marvel, a servant of King Charles; and this night am escap'd out of Bristol Castle. If you be--"

Thus far I had written without glancing up, in fear to read the disappointment of my hopes. But now the pen was caught suddenly from my fingers, the paper torn in shreds, and there was Master Pottery shaking us both by the hand, nodding and becking, and smiling the while all over his big red face.

But he ceas'd at last: and opening another of his lockers, drew forth a horn lantern, a mallet, and a chisel. Not a word was spoken as he lit the lantern and pass'd out of the cabin, Delia and I following at his heels.

Just outside, at the foot of the steps, he stoop'd, pull'd up a trap in the flooring, and disclos'd another ladder stretching, as it seem'd, down into the bowels of the ship. This we descended carefully; and found ourselves in the hold, pinching our noses 'twixt finger and thumb.

For indeed the smell here was searching to a very painful degree: for the room was narrow, and every inch of it contested by two puissant essences, the one of raw wood, the other of bilge water. With wool the place was pil'd: but also I notic'd, not far from the ladder, several casks set on their ends; and to these the captain led us.

They were about a dozen in all, stacked close together: and Master Pottery, rolling two apart from the rest, dragg'd them to another trap and tugg'd out the bungs. A stream of fresh water gush'd from each and splash'd down the trap into the bilge below. Then, having drained them, he stay'd in their heads with a few blows of his mallet.

His plan for us was clear. And in a very few minutes Delia and I were crouching on the timbers, each with a cask inverted over us, our noses at the bungholes and our ears listening to Master Pottery's footsteps as they climb'd heavily back to deck. The rest of the casks were stack'd close round us, so that even had the gloom allow'd, we could see nothing at all.

"Jack!"

"Delia!"

"Dost feel heroical at all?"

"Not one whit. There's a trickle of water running down my back, to begin with."

"And my nose it itches; and oh, what a hateful smell! Say something to me, Jack."

"My dear," said I, "there is one thing I've been longing these weeks to say: but this seems an odd place for it."

"What is't?"

I purs'd up my lips to the bunghole, and---

"I love you," said I.

There was silence for a moment: and then, within Delia's cask, the sound of muffled laughter.

"Delia," I urg'd, "I mean it, upon my oath. Wilt marry me, sweetheart?"

"Must get out of this cask first. Oh, Jack, what a dear goose thou art!" And the laughter began again.

I was going to answer, when I heard a loud shouting overhead. 'Twas the sound of someone hailing the ship, and thought I, "the troopers are on us!"

They were, in truth. Soon I heard the noise of feet above and a string of voices speaking one after another, louder and louder. And next Master Pottery began to answer up and drown'd all speech but his own. When he ceas'd, there was silence for some minutes: after which we heard a party descend to the cabin, and the trampling of their feet on the boards above us. They remain'd there some while discussing: and then came footsteps down the second ladder, and a twinkle of light reach'd me through the bunghole of my cask.

"Quick!" said a husky voice; "overhaul the cargo here!"

I heard some half dozen troopers bustling about the hold and tugging out the bales of wool.

"Hi!" call'd Master Pottery: "an' when you've done rummaging my ship, put everything back as you found it."

"Poke about with your swords," commanded the husky voice. "What's in those barrels yonder?"

"Water, sergeant," answers a trooper, rolling out a couple.

"Nothing behind them?"

"No; they're right against the side."

"Drop 'em then. Plague on this business! 'Tis my notion they're a mile a-way, and Cap'n Stubbs no better than a fool to send us back here. He's grudging promotion, that's what he is! Hurry, there-- hurry!"

Ten minutes later, the searchers were gone; and we in our casks drawing long breaths of thankfulness and strong odors. And so we crouch'd till, about midnight, Captain Billy brought us down a supper of ship's biscuit: which we crept forth to eat, being sorely cramp'd.

He could not hear our thanks: but guess'd them.

"Now say not a word! To-morrow we sail for Plymouth Sound: thence for Brittany. Hist! We be all King's men aboard the _Godsend_, tho' hearing nought I says little. Yet I have my reasoning heresies, holding the Lord's Anointed to be an anointed rogue, but nevertheless to be serv'd: just as aboard the _Godsend_ I be Cap'n Billy an' you plain Jack, be your virtues what they may. An' the conclusion is--damn all mutineers an' rebels! Tho', to be sure, the words be a bit lusty for a young gentlewoman's ears."

We went back to our casks with lighter hearts. Howbeit 'twas near five in the morning, I dare say, before my narrow bedchamber allow'd me to drop asleep.

I woke to spy through my bunghole the faint light of day struggling down the hatches. Above, I heard a clanking noise, and the voices of the men hiccoughing a dismal chant. They were lifting anchor. I crawl'd forth and woke Delia, who was yet sleeping: and together we ate the breakfast that lay ready set for us on the head of a barrel.

Presently the sailors broke off their song, and we heard their feet shuffling to and fro on deck.

"Sure," cried Delia, "we are moving!"

And surely we were, as could be told by the alter'd sound of the water beneath us, and the many creakings that the _Godsend_ began to keep. Once more I tasted freedom again, and the joy of living, and could have sung for the mirth that lifted my heart. "Let us but gain open sea," said I, "and I'll have tit-for-tat with these rebels!"

But alas! before we had left Avon mouth twenty minutes, 'twas another tale. For I lay on my side in that dark hold and long'd to die: and Delia sat up beside me, her hands in her lap, and her great eyes fix'd most dolefully. And when Captain Billy came down with news that we were safe and free to go on deck, we turn'd our faces from him, and said we thank'd him kindly, but had no longer any wish that way--too wretched, even, to remember his deafness.

Let me avoid, then, some miserable hours, and come to the evening, when, faint with fasting and nausea, we struggled up to the deck for air, and look'd about us.

'Twas grey--grey everywhere: the sky lead-colored, with deeper shades toward the east, where a bank of cloud blotted the coast line: the thick rain descending straight, with hardly wind enough to set the sails flapping; the sea spread like a plate of lead, save only where, to leeward, a streak of curded white crawled away from under the _Godsend's_ keel.

On deck, a few sailors mov'd about, red eyed and heavy. They show'd no surprise to see us, but nodded very friendly, with a smile for our strange complexions. Here again, as ever, did adversity mock her own image.

But what more took our attention was to see a row of men stretch'd on the starboard side, like corpses, their heads in the scuppers, their legs pointed inboard, and very orderly arranged. They were a dozen and two in all, and over them bent Captain Billy with a mop in his hand, and a bucket by his side: who beckon'd that we should approach.

"Array'd in order o' merit," said he, pointing with his mop like a showman to the line of figures before him.

We drew near.

"This here is Matt. Soames, master o' this vessel--an' he's dead."

"Dead?"

"Dead-drunk, that is. O the gifted man! Come up!" He thrust the mop in the fellow's heavy face. "There now! Did he move, did he wink? 'No,' says you. O an accomplished drunkard!"

He paus'd a moment; then stirr'd up No. 2, who open'd one eye lazily, and shut it again in slumber.

"You saw? Open'd one eye, hey? That's Benjamin Halliday. The next is a black man, as you see: a man of dismal color, and hath other drawbacks natural to such. Can the Aethiop shift his skin? No, but he'll open both eyes. See there--a perfect Christian, in so far as drink can make him."


The Splendid Spur - 23/44

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