Jim Davis/Chapter V
THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE "SNAIL"
It was during the wintry days that Mrs Cottier decided to remove us from the school at Newton Abbot. She had arranged with the Rector at Strete for us to have lessons at the Rectory every morning with young Ned Evans, the Rector's son; so when the winter holidays ended we were spared the long, cold drive and that awful "going back" to the school we hated so.
Winter drew to an end and the snow melted. March came in like a lion, bringing so much rain that the brook was flooded. We saw no more of the night-riders after that day in the snow, but we noticed little things now and then among the country people which made us sure that they were not far off. Once, when we were driving home in the evening after a day at Dartmouth, owls called along the road from just behind the hedge, whenever the road curved. Hugh and I remembered the pheasants that day in the wood, and we nudged each other in the darkness, wondering whether Mr Gorsuch was one of the owls. After that night we used to practise the call of the owls and the pheasants, but we were only clever at the owl's cry: the pheasant's call really needs a man's voice, it is too deep a note for any boy to imitate well; but we could cry like the owls after some little practice, and we were very vain when we made an owl in the wood reply to us. Once, at the end of February, we gave the owl's cry outside the "Adventure Inn," where the road dips from Strete to the sands, and a man ran out to the door and looked up and down, and whistled a strange little tune, or scrap of a tune, evidently expecting an answer; but that frightened us; we made him no answer, and presently he went in muttering. He was puzzled, no doubt, for he came out again a minute later and again whistled his tune, though very quietly. We learned the scrap of tune and practised it together whenever we were sure that no one was near us.
As for the two men taken by the troops, they were let off. The innkeeper at South Poole swore that both men had been in his inn all the night of the storm playing the "ring-quoits" game with the other guests and as his oath was supported by half-a-dozen witnesses, the case for the King fell through; the night-riders never scrupled to commit perjury. Later on I learned a good deal about how the night-riders managed things.
During that rainy March, while the brook was in flood all over the valley, Hugh and I had a splendid time sailing toy boats, made out of boxes and pieces of plank. We had one big ship made out of a long wooden box which had once held flowers along a window-sill. We had painted ports upon her sides, and we had rigged her with a single square sail. With a strong southwesterly wind blowing up the valley, she would sail for nearly a mile whenever the floods were out, and though she often ran aground, we could always get her off, as the water was so shallow.
Now, one day (I suppose it was about the middle of the month) we went to sail this ship (we used to call her the Snail) from our side of the flood, right across the river-course, to the old slate quarry on the opposite side. The distance was, perhaps, three hundred yards. We chose this site because in this place there was a sort of ridge causeway leading to a bridge, so that we could follow our ship across the flood without getting our feet wet. In the old days the quarry carts had crossed the brook by this cause-way, but the quarry was long worked out, and the road and bridge were now in a bad state, but still good enough for us, and well above water.
We launched the Snail from a green, shelving bank, and shoved her off with the long sticks we carried. The wind caught her sail and drove her forward in fine style; she made a great ripple as she went. Once she caught in a drowned bush; but the current swung her clear, and she cut across the course of the brook like a Falmouth Packet. Hugh and I ran along the causeway, and over the bridge, to catch her on the other side. We had our eyes on her as we ran, for we feared that she might catch, or capsize; and we were so intent upon our ship that we noticed nothing else. Now when we came to the end of the causeway, and turned to the right, along the shale and rubble tipped there from the quarry, we saw a man coming down the slope to the water, evidently bent on catching the Snail when she arrived. We could not see his face very clearly, for he wore a grey slouch-hat, and the brambles were so high just there that sometimes they hid him from us. He seemed, somehow, a familiar figure; and the thought flashed through me that it might be Mr Gorsuch.
"Come on, Hugh," I cried, "or she'll capsize on the shale. The water's very shallow, so close up to this side."
We began to run as well as we could, over the broken stones.
"It's no good," said Hugh. "She'll be there before we are."
We broke through a brake of brambles to a green space sloping to the flood. There was the Snail, drawn up, high and dry, on to the grass, and there was the man, sitting by her on a stone, solemnly cutting up enough tobacco for a pipe.
"Good morning, Mr Gorsuch," I said.
"Why, it's young sweethearter," he answered. "Why haven't you got your nurses with you?" He filled his pipe and lighted it, watching us with a sort of quizzical interest, but making no attempt to shake hands. He made me feel that he was glad to see us; but that nothing would make him show it. "What d'ye call this thing?" he asked, pointing with his toe to the Snail.
"That's our ship," said Hugh.
"Is it?" he asked contemptuously. "I thought it was your mother's pudding-box, with some of baby's bedclothes on it. That's what I thought it was."
He seemed to take a pleasure in seeing Hugh's face fall. Hugh always took a rough word to heart, and he could never bear to hear his mother mentioned by a stranger.
"It's a good enough ship for us," he answered hotly.
"How d'ye know it is?" said the man. "You know nothing at all about it. What do you know of ships, or what's good for you? Hey? You don't know nothing of the kind."
This rather silenced Hugh; we were both a little abashed, and so we stood sheepishly for a moment looking on the ground.
At last I took Hugh by the arm. "Let's take her somewhere else," I said softly. I bent down and picked up the ship and turned to go.
The man watched us with a sort of amused contempt. "Where are you going now?" he asked.
"Down the stream," I called back.
"Drop it," he said. "Come back here."
I called softly to Hugh to run. "Shan't!" I cried as we started off together, at our best speed.
"Won't you?" he called. "Then I'll make you." He was after us in a brace of shakes, and had us both by the collar in less than a dozen yards. "What little tempers we have got," he said grinning. "Regular little spitfires, both of you. Now back you come till we have had a talk."
I noticed then that he was much better dressed than formerly. His clothes were of the very finest sea-cloth, and well cut. The buttons on his scarlet waistcoat were new George guineas; and the buttons on his coat were of silver, very beautifully chased. His shoes had big silver buckles on them, and there was a silver buckle to the flap of his grey slouch hat. The tattoo marks on his left hand were covered over by broad silver rings, of the sort the Spanish onion-boys used to sell in Dartmouth, after the end of the war. He looked extremely handsome in his fine clothes. I wondered how I could ever have been afraid of him.
"Yes," he said with a grin, when he saw me eyeing him, "my ship came home all right. I was able to refit for a full due. So now we'll see what gifts the Queen sent."
We wondered what he meant by this sentence; but we were not kept long in doubt. He led us through the briars to the ruins of the shed where the quarry overseer had formerly had his office.
"Come in here," he said, shoving us in front of him, "and see what the Queen'll give you. Shut your eyes. That's the style. Now open."
When we opened our eyes we could hardly keep from shouting with pleasure. There, on the ground, kept upright by a couple of bricks was a three-foot model of a revenue cutter, under all her sail except the big square foresail, which was neatly folded upon her yard. She was perfect aloft, even to her pennant; and on deck she was perfect too, with beautiful little model guns, all brass, on their carriages, pointing through the port-holes.
"Oh!" we exclaimed. "Oh! Is she really for us, for our very own?"
"Why, yes," he said. "At least she's for you, Mr What's-your-name. Jim, I think you call yourself. Yes, Jim. Well, she's for you, Jim. I got something else the Queen sent for Mr Preacher-feller." He bent in one corner of the ruin, and pulled out what seemed to be a stout but broken box. "This is for you, Mr Preacher-feller," he said to Hugh.
We saw that it was a model of a port of a ship's deck and side. The side was cut for a gun-port, which opened and shut by means of laniards; and, pointing through the opened port was a model brass nine-pounder on its carriage, with all its roping correctly rigged, and its sponges and rammers hooked up above it ready for use. It was a beautiful piece of work (indeed, both models were), for the gun was quite eighteen inches long. "There you are," said Marah Gorsuch. "That lot's for you, Mr Preacher-feller. Them things is what the Queen sent."
We were so much delighted by these beautiful presents that it was some minutes before we could find words with which to thank him. We could not believe that such things were really for us. He was much pleased to find that his gifts gave so much pleasure; he kept up a continual grin while we examined the toys inch by inch.
"Like 'em, hey?" he said.
"Yes; I should just think we do," we answered. We shook him by the hand, almost unable to speak from pleasure.
"And now let's come down and sail her," I said.
"Hold on there," said Marah Gorsuch. "Don't be too quick. You ain't going to sail that cutter till you know how. You've got a lot to learn first, so that must wait. It's to be Master Preacher-feller's turn this morning. Yours'll come by-and-by. What you got to do, first go off, is to sink that old hulk you were playing with. We'll sink her at anchor with Preacher-feller's cannon."
He told Hugh to pick up his toy, and to come along down to the water's edge. When he came near to the water, Marah took the old Snail and tied a piece of string to her bows by way of a cable. Then he thrust her well out into the flood, tied a piece of shale (as an anchor) to the other end of the string, and flung it out ahead of her, so that she rode at anchor trimly a few yards from the bank. "Now," he said, "we'll exercise great guns. Here (he produced a powder-horn) is the magazine; here (he produced a bag of bullets) is the shot-locker. Here's a bag of wads. Now, my sons, down to business. Cast loose your housings, take out tompions. Now bear a hand, my lads; we'll give your old galleon a broadside."
We watched him as he prepared the gun for firing, eagerly lending a hand whenever we saw what he wanted. "First of all," he said, "you must sponge your gun. There's the sponge. Shove it down the muzzle and give it a screw round. There! Now tap your sponge against the muzzle to knock the dust off. There! Now the powder." He took his powder-horn and filled a little funnel (like the funnels once used by chemists for filling bottles of cough-mixture) with the powder. This he poured down the muzzle of the gun. "Now a wad," he said, taking up a screw of twisted paper. "Ram it home on to the powder with the rammer. That's the way. Now for the shot. We'll put in a dozen bullets, and then top with a couple more wads. There! Now she's loaded. Those bullets will go for fifty yards with that much powder ahind 'em. Now, all we have to do is to prime her." He filled the touch-hole with powder, and poured a few grains along the base or breech of the gun. "There!" he said. "Only one thing more. That is aim. Here, Mr Preacher-feller, Hugh, whatever your name is. You're captain of the gun; you must aim her. Take a squint along the gun till you get the notch on the muzzle against the target; then raise your gun's breech till the notch is a little below your target. Those wooden quoins under the gun will keep it raised if you pull them out a little."
Hugh lay down flat on the grass and moved the gun carefully till he was sure the aim was correct. "Let's have a match," he said, "to see which is the best shot."
"All right," said Marah. "We will. You have first shot. Are you ready? All ready? Very well then. Here's the linstock that you're to fire with." He took up a long stick which had a slow match twisted round it. He lit the slow match by a pocket flint and steel after moving his powder away from him. "Now then," he cried, "are you ready? Stand clear of the breech. Starboard battery. Fire!"
Hugh dropped the lighted match on to the priming. The gun banged loudly, leaped back and up, and fell over on one side in spite of its roping as the smoke spurted. At the same instant there was a lashing noise, like rain, upon the water as the bullets skimmed along upon the surface. One white splinter flew from the Snail's stern where a single bullet struck; the rest flew wide astern of her.
"Let your piece cool a moment," said Marah, "then we will sponge and load again, and then Jim'll try. You were too much to the right, Mr Hugh. Your shots fell astern."
After a minute or two we cleaned the gun thoroughly and reloaded.
"Now," said Marah, "remember one thing. If you was in a ship, fighting that other ship, you wouldn't want just to blaze away at her broadside. No. You'd want to hit her so as your shot would rake all along her decks from the bow aft, or from the stern forrard. You wait a second, Master Jim, till the wind gives her bows a skew towards you, or till her stern swings round more. There she goes. Are you ready? Now, as she comes round; allow for it. Fire!"
Very hurriedly I made my aim, and still more hurriedly did I give fire. Again came the bang and flash; again the gun clattered over; but, to my joy, a smacking crack showed that the shot went home. The shock made the old Snail roll. A piece of her bow was knocked off. Two or three bullets ripped through her sail. One bored a groove along her, and the rest went over her.
"Good," said. Marah. "A few more like that and she's all our own. Now it's my shot. I'll try to knock her rudder away. Wait till she swings. There she comes! There she comes! Over a little. Up a little. Now. Fire." He darted his linstock down upon the priming. The gun roared and upset; the bullets banged out the Snail's stern, and she filled slowly, and sank to the level of the water, her mast standing erect out of the flood, and her whole fabric swaying a little as the water moved her up and down.
After that we fired at the mast till we had knocked it away, and then we placed our toys in the sheltered fireplace of the ruin and came away, happy to the bone, talking nineteen to the dozen.