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- The Treasure of the Incas - 6/63 -
"I feel grave, Bertie. I have just said good-bye to Hilda; and though I kept up my spirits and made the best of this expedition of ours, I cannot but feel how improbable it is that we shall meet again--that is to say, in our present relations; for if I fail I certainly shall not return home for some years; it would be only fair to her that I should not do so. I know that she would keep on as long as there was any hope, but I should not care to think that she was wasting her life. I was an ass to believe it could ever be otherwise, and I feel that the best thing for us both would have been for me to go away as soon as I found that I was getting fond of her."
"Well, of course I cannot understand it, Harry, and it seems to me that one girl is very like another; she may be a bit prettier than the average, but I suppose that comes to all the same thing in another twenty years. I can understand a man getting awfully fond of his ship, especially when she is a clipper. However, some day I may feel different; besides, how could you tell that her father would turn out such a crusty old beggar?"
"I suppose I did not think about it one way or the other, Bertie," Harry said quietly. "However, the mischief is done, and even if there was no chance whatever of making money I should go now for my own sake as well as hers. Well, it is of no use talking more about it; we will go out now and buy the rifles. I shan't get them new, one can pick up guns just as good at half the price, and as I know something about rifles I am not likely to be taken in. Of course I have got my pistols and only have a brace to buy for you. You will have time on the voyage to practise with them; if you did not do that you would be as likely to shoot me as a hostile Indian."
"Oh, that is bosh!" the boy said; "still, I certainly should like to be a good shot."
After getting the rifles and pistols, Harry went into the city and ordered six dozen of wine and three dozen of brandy to be sent on board out of bond; he also ordered a bag of twenty pounds of raw coffee, a chest of tea, and a couple of dozen bottles of pickles and sauces, to be sent down to the docks on the day before the _Para_ sailed. Another suit of seafaring clothes and a stock of underclothing was ordered for Bertie. Harry spent the intervening time before the vessel sailed in looking up his friends and saying good-bye to them, and drove down to the docks at the appointed time, his brother having joined the ship on the previous day.
The _Para_ was a barque-rigged ship of some eight hundred tons. At present she did not show to advantage, her deck being littered with stores of all kinds that had come on board late. The deck planks where they could be seen were almost black, the sails had been partly loosed from the gaskets, and to an eye accustomed to the neatness and order of a man-of-war her appearance was by no means favourable; but her sides shone with fresh paint, and, looking at her lines from the wharf, Harry thought she would be both fast and a good sea-boat. She was not heavily laden, and stood boldly up in the water. Nodding to Bertie, who was working hard among the men, he went up on to the poop, from which Captain Peters was shouting orders.
"Glad to see you, sir," the captain said; "she looks rather in a litter at present, doesn't she? We shall get her all ataunto before we get down to the Nore. These confounded people won't send their stores on board till the last moment. If I were an owner I should tell all shippers that no goods would be received within five or six hours of the ship's time for sailing; that would give us a fair chance, instead of starting all in a muddle, just at the time, too, when more than any other one wants to have the decks free for making short tacks down these narrow reaches. I believe half the wrecks on the sands at the mouth of the river are due to the confusion in which the ships start. How can a crew be lively in getting the yards over when they have to go about decks lumbered up like this, and half of them are only just recovering from their bout of drink the day before?"
Up to the last moment everyone on board was hard at work, and when the order was given to throw off the hawsers the deck was already comparatively clear. Half an hour later the vessel passed out through the dock gates, with two boats towing ahead so as to take her well out into the river; the rest of the crew were employed in letting the sails drop. As soon as she gathered way the men in the boats were called in, the boats themselves being towed behind in case they might again be required.
The passage from the Pool to the mouth of the river was in those days the most dangerous portion of the voyage. There were no tugs to seize the ships and carry them down to the open water, while the channels below the Nore were badly buoyed and lighted, and it was no uncommon thing for twenty vessels to get upon the sands in the course of a single tide.
The wind was light, and being northerly helped them well on their way, and it was only in one or two reaches that the _Para_ was unable to lay her course. She overtook many craft that had been far ahead of her, and answered the helm quickly.
"She is both fast and handy, I see," Harry Prendergast, who had been watching her movements with interest, remarked.
"Yes; there are not many craft out of London can show her their heels when the wind is free. She does not look quite so well into the wind as I should wish; still, I think she is as good as most of them."
"I suppose you will get down to Gravesend before the tide turns?"
"Yes, we shall anchor there. The wind is not strong enough for us to stem the tide, which runs like a sluice there. Once past the Nore one can do better, but there is no fighting the tide here unless one has a steady breeze aft. I never feel really comfortable till we are fairly round the South Foreland; after that it is plain sailing enough. Though there are a few shoals in the Channel, one can give them a wide berth; fogs are the things we have to fear there."
"Yes. I have never been down the river, having always joined my ships either at Portsmouth or Plymouth, so I know very little about it; but I know from men who have been on board vessels commissioned at Chatham or Sheerness that they are thankful indeed when they once get round the Good wins and head west."
"Well, Mr. Prendergast, I am against these new-fangled steamboats--I suppose every true sailor is; but when the _Marjory_ began to run between London and Gravesend eighteen years ago--in '15 I think it was--folks did say that it would not be long before sailing craft would be driven off the sea. I did not believe that then, and I don't believe it now; but I do say that I hope before long there will be a lot of small steamers on the Thames, to tow vessels down till they are off the North Foreland. It would be a blessing and a comfort to us master mariners. Once there we have the choice of going outside the Goodwins, or taking a short cut inside if the wind is aft. Why, sir, it would add years to our lives and shorten voyages by weeks. There we are, now, sometimes lying off the Nore, five hundred sail, waiting for the wind to shift out of the east, and when we do get under weigh we have always to keep the lead going. One never knows when one may bump upon the sands. Some masters will grope their way along in the dark, but for my part I always anchor. There are few enough buoys and beacons in daytime, but I consider that it is tempting Providence to try and go down in a dark night. The owners are sensible men and they know that it is not worth while running risks just to save a day or two when you have got a four months' voyage before you. Once past Dover I am ready to hold on with anyone, but between the Nore and the North Foreland I pick my way as carefully as a woman going across a muddy street."
"You are quite right, Captain; I thoroughly agree with you. More ships get ashore going down to the mouth of the Thames than in any other part of the world; and, as you say, if all sailing ships might be taken down by a steamer, it would be the making of the port of London."
"Your brother is a smart young chap, Mr. Prendergast. I was watching him yesterday, and he is working away now as if he liked work. He has the makings of a first-rate sailor. I hold that a man will never become a first-class seaman unless he likes work for its own sake. There are three sorts of hands. There is the fellow who shirks his work whenever he has a chance; there is the man who does his work, but who does it because he has to do it, and always looks glad when a job is over; and there is the lad who jumps to his work, chucks himself right into it, and puts his last ounce of strength on a rope. That is the fellow who will make a good officer, and who, if needs be, can set an example to the men when they have to go aloft to reef a sail in a stiff gale. So, as I understand, Mr. Prendergast, he is going to leave the sea for a bit. It seems a pity too."
"He will be none the worse for it, Captain. A year or so knocking about among the mountains of Peru will do more good to him than an equal time on board ship. It will sharpen him up, and give him habits of reliance and confidence. He will be all the better for it afterwards, even putting aside the advantage it will be to him to pick up Spanish."
"Yes, it may do him good," the captain agreed, "if it does not take away his liking for the sea."
"I don't think it will do that. If the first voyage or two don't sicken a lad, I think it is pretty certain he is cut out for the sea. Of course it is a very hard life at first, especially if the officers are a rough lot, but when a boy gets to know his duty things go more easily with him; he is accustomed to the surroundings, and takes to the food, which you know is not always of the best, with a good appetite. Bertie has had three years of it now, and when he has come home I have never heard a grumble from him; and he is not likely to meet with such luxuries while we are knocking about as to make him turn up his nose at salt junk."
The tide was already turning when they reached Gravesend. As soon as the anchor was down the steward came up to say that dinner was ready.
"I am not at all sorry," Harry said as he went below with the captain. "I ate a good breakfast before I started at half-past six, and I went below and had a biscuit and bottle of beer at eleven, but I feel as hungry as a hunter now. There is nothing like a sea appetite. I have been nearly two years on shore, and I never enjoyed a meal as I do at sea."
The crew had been busy ever since they left the dock, and the deck had now been scrubbed and made tidy, and presented a very different appearance from that which met Harry's eye as he came on board.
Johnson, the first mate, also dined with the skipper. He was a tall, powerfully-built man. He was singularly taciturn, and took no share in the conversation unless directly asked. He seemed, however, to be able to appreciate a joke, but never laughed audibly, contenting himself with drawing his lips apart and showing his teeth.
The wind was light and baffling, so that they did not round the South Foreland until the seventh day after leaving dock. After that it was favourable and steady, and they ran without any change until they approached the line; then there was a fortnight of calm. At last they got the wind again, and made a rapid run until within five hundred miles of Cape Horn. The captain was in high glee.
"We have done capitally so far, Mr. Prendergast. I don't think I ever made so rapid a run. If she goes on like this we shall reach Callao within three months of starting."
"I don't think the weather will continue like this," the mate said.
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