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- In Kedar's Tents - 4/47 -


'Alfred Pleydell--young fellow who resisted the Chartist rioters at Durham--died yesterday morning.' Frederick Conyngham had placed himself in front of Horner, who was still seated in the low chair by the fire. He found Horner's toe with his heel.

'Is that so?' he said gravely. 'Then I'm off.'

'What do you mean?' asked the journalist with a quick look--the man had the manner of a ferret.

'Nothing, only I'm off, that's all, old man. And I cannot ask you to stay this evening, you understand, because I have to pack.'

He turned slowly on Horner, who had recovered himself, but still had his hand over his face.

'Got any money, Geoff?' he asked.

'Yes, I have twenty pounds if you want it,' answered the other in a hoarse voice.

'I do want it--badly.'

The journalist had taken up his hat and stick. He moved slowly towards the door, and, there pausing, saw Horner pass the bank-notes to Conyngham.

'You had better go too,' said the Irishman. 'You two are going in the same direction, I know.'

Horner rose, and, half laughing, Conyngham pushed him towards the door.

'See him home, Blake,' he said. 'Horner has the blues to-night.'

CHAPTER III. LIKE SHIPS UPON THE SEA.

'No one can be more wise than destiny.'

'What are we waiting for? why, two more passengers--grand ladies as they tell me--and the captain has gone ashore to fetch them,' the first mate of the 'Granville' barque, of London, made answer to Frederick Conyngham, and he breathed on his fingers as he spoke, for the north-west wind was blowing across the plains of the Medoc, and the sun had just set behind the smoke of Bordeaux.

The 'Granville' was lying at anchor in the middle of the Garonne river, having safely discharged her deck cargo of empty claret casks and landed a certain number of passengers. There are few colder spots on the Continent than the sunny town of Bordeaux when the west wind blows from Atlantic wastes in winter time. A fine powder of snow scudded across the flat land, which presented a bleak brown face, patched here and there with white. There were two more passengers on board the 'Granville,' crouching in the cabin--two French gentlemen who had taken passage from London to Algeciras in Spain, on their way to Algiers.

Conyngham, with characteristic good-nature, had made himself so entirely at home on board the Mediterranean trader that his presence was equally welcomed in the forecastle and the captain's cabin. Even the first mate, his present interlocutor, a grim man given to muttered abuse of his calling and a pious pessimism in respect to human nature, gradually thawed under the influence of so cheerful an acceptance of heavy weather and a clumsy deck cargo.

'The ladies will be less trouble than the empty casks, at all events,' said Conyngham, 'because they will keep below.'

The sailor shook his head forebodingly and took an heroic pinch of snuff.

'One's as capable of carrying mischief as the other,' he muttered in the bigoted voice of a married teetotaller.

The ship was ready for sea, and this mariner's spirit was ever uneasy and restless till the anchor was on deck and the hawser stowed.

'There's a boat leaving the quay now,' he added. 'Seems she's lumbered up forr'ard wi' women's hamper.'

And indeed the black form of a skiff so laden could be seen approaching through the driving snow and gloom. The mate called to the steward to come on deck, and this bearded servitor of dames emerged from the galley with uprolled sleeves and a fine contempt for cold winds. A boy went forward with a coil of rope on his arm, for the tide was running hard and the Garonne is no ladies' pleasure stream. It is not an easy matter to board a ship in mid-current when tide and wind are at variance, and the fingers so cold that a rope slips through them like a log-line. The 'Granville,' having still on board her cargo of coals for Algeciras, lay low in the water with both her anchors out and the tide singing round her old- fashioned hempen hawsers.

'Now see ye throw a clear rope,' shouted the mate to the boy who had gone forward. The proximity of the land and the approach of women-- a bete noire no less dreaded--seemed to flurry the brined spirit of the Granville's' mate.

Perhaps the knowledge that the end of a rope, not judged clear, would inevitably be applied to his own person, shook the nerve of the boy on the forecastle--perhaps his hands were cold and his faculties benumbed. He cast a line which seemed to promise well at first. Two coils of it unfolded themselves gracefully against the grey sky, and then Confusion took the others for herself. A British oath from the deck of the ship went out to meet a fine French explosion of profanity from the boat, both forestalling the splash of the tangled rope into the water under the bows of the ship, and a full ten yards out of the reach of the man who stood, boathook in hand, ready to catch it. There were two ladies in the stern of the boat, muffled up to the eyes, and betokening by their attitude the hopeless despair and misery which seize the southern fair the moment they embark in so much as a ferry boat. The fore part of the heavy craft was piled up with trunks and other impedimenta of a feminine incongruity. A single boatman had rowed the boat from the shore, guiding it into mid-stream, and there describing a circle calculated to insure a gentle approach on the lee side. This man, having laid aside his oars, now stood, boathook in hand, awaiting the inevitable crash. The offending boy in the bows was making frantic efforts to haul in his misguided rope, but the possibility of making a second cast was unworthy of consideration. The mate muttered such a string of foreboding expletives as augured ill for the delinquent. The boatman was preparing to hold on and fend off at the same moment--a sudden gust of wind gave the boat a sharp buffet just as the man grappled the mizzen-chains--he overbalanced himself, fell, and recovered himself, but only to be jerked backwards into the water by the boathook, which struck him in the chest.

'A moi!' cried the man, and disappeared in the muddy water. He rose to the surface under the ship's quarter, and the mate, quick as lightning, dumped the whole coil of the slack of the main sheet on to the top of him. In a moment he was at the level of the rail, the mate and the steward hauling steadily on the rope, to which he clung with the tenacity and somewhat the attitude of a monkey. At the same instant a splash made the rescuers turn in time to see Conyngham, whose coat lay thrown on the deck behind them, rise to the surface ten yards astern of the 'Granville' and strike out towards the boat, now almost disappearing in the gloom of night.

The water, which had flowed through the sunniest of the sunny plains of France, was surprisingly warm, and Conyngham, soon recovering from the shock of his dive, settled into a quick side-stroke. The boat was close in front of him, and in the semi-darkness he could see one of the women rise from her seat and make her way forward, while her companion crouched lower and gave voice to her dismay in a series of wails and groans. The more intrepid lady was engaged in lifting one of the heavy oars, when Conyngham called out in French:

'Courage, mesdames! I will be with you in a moment.'

Both turned, and the pallor of their faces shone whitely through the gloom. Neither spoke, and in a few strokes Conyngham came alongside. He clutched the gunwale with his right hand, and drew himself breast high.

'If these ladies,' he said, 'will kindly go to the opposite side of the boat, I shall be able to climb in without danger of upsetting.'

'If mama inclines that way I think it will be sufficient,' answered the muffled form which had made its way forward. The voice was clear and low, remarkably self-possessed, and not without a suggestion that its possessor bore a grudge against some person present.

'Perhaps mademoiselle is right,' said Conyngham with becoming gravity, and the lady in the stern obeyed her daughter's suggestion, with the result anticipated. Indeed, the boat heeled over with so much goodwill that Conyngham was lifted right out of the water. He clambered on board and immediately began shivering, for the wind cut like a knife.

The younger lady made her way cautiously back to the seat which she had recently quitted, and began at once to speak very severely to her mother. This stout and emotional person was swaying backwards and forwards, and, in the intervals of wailing and groaning, called in Spanish upon several selected saints to assist her. At times, and apparently by way of a change, she appealed to yet higher powers to receive her soul.

'My mother,' said the young lady to Conyngham, who had already got the oars out, 'has the heart of a rabbit, but--yes--of a very young rabbit.'

'Madame may rest assured that there is no danger,' said Conyngham.

'Monsieur is an Englishman--'

'Yes, and a very cold one at the moment. If madame could restrain her religious enthusiasm so much as to sit still, we should make better progress.'

He spoke rather curtly, as if refusing to admit the advisability of manning the boat with a crew of black-letter saints. The manner in which the craft leapt forward under each stroke of the oars testified to the strength of his arms, and madame presently subsided into whispers of thankfulness, having reason, it would seem, to be


In Kedar's Tents - 4/47

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