OF HOW GERVASE REACHED THE SHIPS

The coble was a poor sea boat and very heavy for its size. The piece of
timber that Gervase used was a wretched substitute for an oar, and while
the tide carried him rapidly down he could see that he made little
progress towards the ships. If he should drift past them it was
impossible that he could ever make his way against the current, and he
must be carried out to sea. Fortunately the night was clear, and the
wind blew in fitful airs, coming from the shore. Notwithstanding his
utmost exertion the boat hardly seemed to move, and when he looked round
it was already two hundred yards from the shore. He knew that he was
still far from being safe from pursuit. He could still easily be seen
from the shore in the broad moonlight, and once observed his pursuers
would have no difficulty in finding a boat in which they might easily
overtake him. He put his heart into every stroke, till the perspiration
began to run from his brows and his arms ached till he could almost have
cried out for the pain. But he was making his way, however slowly; he
could now see the vessels and the yards with the sails flapping idly
against the masts. Over the water came the sound of a bell, perhaps
calling up the watch, and for the first time he realized how near he was
to safety. But the boat seemed to him to go more slowly, and to have
grown more difficult to move. Then he looked down and saw that the water
was almost up to the thwarts. There was nothing for it but to abandon
the paddle and bale out the water, which proved a long and laborious
task. When he had accomplished little more than half the work, he saw
that a little more delay would bring him opposite to the ships and still
far from being within hail. Again he seized his paddle and strained
every nerve to make up the way he had lost. His mind was almost
distraught with fear; he worked like one possessed; nearer indeed, he
came, but Oh! how slowly. The boat would not move in this sea of lead;
his muscles were beginning to refuse to act, and to his eyes the sea had
grown red, like a sea of blood. His last hope was dying in his heart. To
be so near the end of his journey, to have passed through such perils,
and to have failed after all–the thought was maddening. Still he would
not give way, and he knitted his brows and set his teeth hard. Then as
he bent forward the paddle slipped from his hand, and went floating away
astern. With a despairing cry, weakened as he was, he fell down in the
bottom of the boat, and covered his face with his hands. It was all
over; he was beaten at last, and had failed as the others had failed
before him. For a minute or two he lay overcome by his despair; the
sense of hopeless failure swallowed up every other feeling. The thought
of present danger did not present itself to his mind; he had seen too
many brave men meet their death in these latter days not willingly to
adventure his own life lightly. His head reeled, his mouth was parched,
and his eyes throbbed with an intolerable pain. Then almost without
knowing what he did, he rose to his feet and tried to call out. At first
he could not articulate the words, but his voice died away in a feeble
murmur. How near he seemed! the spars stood out plainly against the sky,
and the lights were burning clear and bright. He thought once he could
hear the sound of the mariners calling as they lay out on the spars of
the brig that was riding nearest to him.

Again he called out–“Ship Ahoy!” and this time his voice came strong
and full, but though he stood and listened there was no response to his
shout. A third time he called out, and then to his inexpressible delight
he heard a hoarse voice coming over the water, “Ahoy! what boat is
that?”

Rising once more to his feet he called through his hands, “Help! Help!”
and sank exhausted in the bottom of the boat, incapable of making any
further effort. He waited anxiously but there came no further response,
and the little boat went drifting down with the tide. He began to fear
that they had not heard his second call. Then–hours after it seemed–he
heard the measured sweep of oars and the sound of voices coming nearer.
But for his life he could not raise himself above the gunwhale; his
strength had left him, and he was as feeble as a child.

But they had caught sight of the little craft where it tossed about in
the space of moonlit water, and in a minute or two the ship´s boat was
alongside. Gervase was trying without success to answer the questions
the mate of the brig was putting to him. Divining at a glance his
condition they lifted him into the boat, and one of the seamen with
kindly pity threw his rough jacket over him as they rowed to the brig.
He lay in the bottom of the boat utterly helpless and unable to move;
but his heart was full of inexpressible emotion, for he had accomplished
his work and saved the city.

He remembered rowing round the brig and seeing the words “Phoenix of
Coleraine” painted in large white letters on the stern, but he fainted
away as they lifted him over the side of the boat, and knew nothing more
till he found himself lying in the round-house of the brig.

“What piece of goods have ye got there, McKeller?” the master said,
standing by the shrouds, and looking over the bulwark as they lifted
Gervase aboard.

“As fine a lad as ever I saw in my life, but thin as a whipping-post–a
messenger I think, from Londonderry. Gently, my lads, easy with his
head. Six feet two of manhood, and I guess a rare good one with his
whinger if he had his senses about him.”

They carried him to the round-house, and laying him on the floor, poured
a dram of aqua-vitæ down his throat, but for a long time he showed no
sign of life. Then they noticed the letter where it was secured.

“You were right, McKeller,” said the master, as he handed the case
bottle to the mate, “the youngster comes from Londonderry, and he brings
the message with him. Mayhap ´twill stir up the Colonel at last, and I
trust it will, for the sake of Tom Robinson and my sister Marjorie. My
God! what that young fellow must have come through; and a gentleman too,
as I judge by the gewgaws on his finger.”

“Ay,” answered the mate drily, “and you have given him a pint of pure
spirits by way of welcome. You´ll hardly hear about Tom Robinson for a
while after that.”

“Never fear; these long-legged fellows stand a lot of moistening. I
wouldn´t for half my share in the good ship Phoenix have missed hearing
the lad´s hail this night; he never would have lived through a night in
the boat–but he´s beginning to come round.”




Gervase showed signs of returning consciousness. His first action was to
feel for the precious letter, and then he opened his eyes and looked
round him with a gaze of vacant inquiry. “Where am I?” he said.

“Why, just aboard the brig _Phoenix_, Andrew Douglas, Master, hailing
from Coleraine, and bound with the help of God, for the port of
Londonderry; and among your friends if you are what I take you to be.
Now don´t trouble your head but just take a drop more of this.” The
kindly shipmaster put the bottle to his lips and insisted on his
drinking.

“Ye´ll kill him,” said the mate; “ye think that everybody has the same
stomach for strong waters as yourself. It´s food he wants, I´ll warrant,
not drink.”

“And food he´ll have,” cried the master excitedly, “when I´ve brought
back the colour to his cheeks, and he´ll be on his legs in a twinkling.
Here, Jack, you skulking rogue, set out the best there is on board, and
make us a bowl of punch, for by —-, I´ll drink the health of the
bravest fellow I´ve clapt eyes on for a twelvemonth.”

“You would drink with less provocation than that,” said the mate,
lifting Gervase to his feet and helping him to a seat. “Now ye can tell
us the news from Londonderry, lad, if it´s true ye come from there.”

“I came thence to-day–yesterday,” said Gervase. “They can hold out no
longer. Where is Colonel Kirke? I must see him immediately.”

The master looked at his mate with a broad grin on his face. “Faith
ye´ll not see the Colonel to-night, nor early in the morning either. If
he´s not abed by this time and as drunk as a lord, he´s on the fair way
to it, and swearing like a dragoon with a broken head. He´s a terrible
man in his cups, is Kirke, and they keep it up rarely on board the
_Swallow_. I love the clink of a glass sometimes myself, but–hoot!
there´s no use talking. If you´re able, spin us your yarn while they´re
getting you something warm, for you must want a heap of filling out to
look like the man you were.”

Gervase told his story shortly as well as he was able, interrupted
repeatedly by exclamations of wonder and horror by the captain and the
mate, and when he had finished they sat staring at him open-mouthed.

“That is the tale as briefly as I can tell it,” said Gervase, “and you
will not wonder that I would put the letter in Kirke´s hands with all
the haste I can. Next Wednesday there will not be a scrap of food in the
city, and if you wait till then you may lift your anchors and go back to
where you came from. For God´s sake, tell me what you are waiting for?”

“Till Kirke has emptied his puncheons,” said the mate bitterly.

“Not a soul on board the fleet thought it was going so hard with you,
but you had better see Leake, who is a plain-spoken man with some
authority. I hear he is all for making up the river, and your story will
help him to move the scarlet-coated butcher who is but half-hearted in
the business.”

“Colonel Kirke I must see first,” said Gervase; “my message is to him,
and when he reads Walker´s letter he can hesitate no longer. All that is
wanted is the wind and the tide. There need be no fear of the guns, for
in Londonderry we have learned what they can do.”

The skipper had said nothing, but sat leaning his head on his horny
hand. Then he seemed to awaken from his fit of abstraction. “And poor
Tom is gone, you tell me? He was a younger man than myself by half a
score of years, and as likely a fellow as ever lived when I danced at
his wedding nine years syne. A putrid fever, you say. Odds, I would like
you could have told me how it is with Marjorie and the young ones.”

“He chanced to be of my regiment,” said Gervase, “and that is how I came
to know his end. But many a brave fellow has fallen into his last sleep
yonder, and all for want of a little manhood here.”

“For God´s sake tell me no more of your story,” said the master, “but
even fall to on the boiled beef, and don´t spare the liquor. For myself,
please Heaven, I´ll drink the taste of your yarn out of my mouth, though
belike it will take a hogshead at the least to do it.”

The master was as good as his word; while Gervase and the mate sat down
at the lower end of the table, he produced a great bottle from a locker,
and poured out a large measure of spirit, which he drank at a draught
without any dilution of water. He filled the glass a second time and
drank it without a word. It was clear that he was determined to drown
his grief, and as Gervase glanced at him from time to time in amazement,
he went on steadily until the bottle was nearly empty. The mate said
nothing, only shaking his head as though the sight was not a novel one
and remonstrance was out of the question. “He´ll maunder a bit
by-and-by,” he said in an undertone, “and then he´ll turn in; ´tis the
way of him–he´s a good Christian and a rare seaman, but liquorish.
We´ve all our faults and he was born with a thirst. Surely ye haven´t
finished? why, man, I thought ye were starved yonder, and ye haven´t
done more than nibble at the good meat!”

“Try the punch,” said the master, by this time some way in his cups,
with his face shining like a furnace; “try the grog, and never mind
McKeller; I have to do his drinking and my own as well, and ´tis
devilish hard work, let me tell you. No man can say that Andrew Douglas
ever shirked his duty.”

“When it came in the shape of rum puncheons,” said the mate. “Now ye´ll
just turn in, and I´ll see that the young gentleman is made
comfortable.”

The master was induced to retire with a good deal of difficulty, while
Gervase and the mate sat down to a long talk together, as the result of
which Gervase came to the conclusion that all his difficulties were not
yet over. Then he turned in and forgot all his troubles in a sound and
refreshing sleep.