The Blockade Runners/IV
It was not long before the whole crew knew Miss Halliburtt's story, which Crockston was no longer hindered from telling. By the Captain's orders he was released from the capstan, and the cat-o'-nine-tails returned to its Place.
"A pretty animal," said Crockston, "especially when it shows its velvety paws."
As soon as he was free, he went down to the sailors' berths, found a small portmanteau, and carried it to Miss Jenny; the young girl was now able to resume her feminine attire, but she remained in her cabin, and did not again appear on deck.
As for Crockston, it was well and duly agreed that, as he was no more a sailor than a horse-guard, he should be exempt from all duty on board.
In the meanwhile the Dolphin, with her twin screws cutting the waves, sped rapidly across the Atlantic, and there was nothing now to do but keep a strict look-out. The day following the discovery of Miss Jenny's identity, James Playfair paced the deck at the poop with a rapid step; he had made no attempt to see the young girl and resume the conversation of the day before.
Whilst he was walking to and fro, Crockston passed him several times, looking at him askant with a satisfied grin. He evidently wanted to speak to the Captain, and at last his persistent manner attracted the attention of the latter, who said to him, somewhat impatiently:
"How now, what do you want? You are turning round me like a swimmer round a buoy: when are you going to leave off?"
"Excuse me, Captain," answered Crockston, winking, "I wanted to speak to you."
"Oh, it is nothing very much. I only wanted to tell you frankly that you are a good fellow at bottom."
"Why at bottom?"
"At bottom and surface also."
"I don't want your compliments."
"I am not complimenting you. I shall wait to do that when you have gone to the end."
"To what end?"
"To the end of your task."
"Ah! I have a task to fulfil?"
"Decidedly, you have taken the young girl and myself on board; good! You have given up your cabin to Miss Halliburtt; good! You released me from the cat-o'-nine-tails; nothing could be better. You are going to take us straight to Charleston; that's delightful, but it is not all."
"How not all?" cried James Playfair, amazed at Crockston's boldness.
"No, certainly not," replied the latter, with a knowing look, "the father is prisoner there."
"Well, what about that?"
"Well, the father must be rescued."
"Rescue Miss Halliburtt's father?"
"Most certainly, and it is worth risking something for such a noble man and courageous citizen as he."
"Master Crockston," said James Playfair, frowning, "I am not in the humour for your jokes, so have a care what you say."
"You misunderstand me, Captain," said the American. "I am not joking in the least, but speaking quite seriously. What I have proposed may at first seem very absurd to you; when you have thought it over, you will see that you cannot do otherwise."
"What, do you mean that I must deliver Mr. Halliburtt?"
"Just so. You can demand his release of General Beauregard, who will not refuse you."
"But if he does refuse me?"
"In that case," replied Crockston, in a deliberate tone, "we must use stronger measures, and carry off the prisoner by force."
"So," cried James Playfair, who was beginning to get angry, "so, not content with passing through the Federal fleets and forcing the blockade of Charleston, I must run out to sea again from under the cannon of the forts, and this to deliver a gentleman I know nothing of, one of those Abolitionists whom I detest, one of those journalists who shed ink instead of their blood!"
"Oh, it is but a cannon-shot more or less!" added Crockston.
"Master Crockston," said James Playfair, "mind what I say: if ever you mention this affair again to me, I will send you to the hold for the rest of the passage, to teach you manners."
Thus saying, the Captain dismissed the American, who went off murmuring, "Ah, well, I am not altogether displeased with this conversation: at any rate, the affair is broached; it will do, it will do!"
James Playfair had hardly meant it when he said an Abolitionist whom I detest; he did not in the least side with the Federals, but he did not wish to admit that the question of slavery was the predominant reason for the civil war of the United States, in spite of President Lincoln's formal declaration. Did he, then, think that the Southern States, eight out of thirty-six, were right in separating when they had been voluntarily united? Not so; he detested the Northerners, and that was all; he detested them as brothers separated from the common family—true Englishmen—who had thought it right to do what he, James Playfair, disapproved of with regard to the United States: these were the political opinions of the Captain of the Dolphin. But, more than this, the American war interfered with him personally, and he had a grudge against those who had caused this war; one can understand, then, how he would receive a proposition to deliver an Abolitionist, thus bringing down on him the Confederates, with whom he pretended to do business.
However, Crockston's insinuation did not fail to disturb him; he cast the thought from him, but it returned unceasingly to his mind, and when Miss Jenny came on deck the next day for a few minutes, he dared not look her in the face.
And really it was a great pity, for this young girl, with the fair hair and sweet, intelligent face, deserved to be looked at by a young man of thirty. But James felt embarrassed in her presence; he felt that this charming creature who had been educated in the school of misfortune possessed a strong and generous soul; he understood that his silence towards her inferred a refusal to acquiesce in her dearest wishes; besides, Miss Jenny never looked out for James Playfair, neither did she avoid him. Thus for the first few days they spoke little or not at all to each other. Miss Halliburtt scarcely ever left her cabin, and it is certain she would never have addressed herself to the Captain of the Dolphin if it had not been for Crockston's strategy, which brought both parties together.
The worthy American was a faithful servant of the Halliburtt family; he had been brought up in his master's house, and his devotion knew no bounds. His good sense equalled his courage and energy, and, as has been seen, he had a way of looking things straight in the face. He was very seldom discouraged, and could generally find a way out of the most intricate dangers with a wonderful skill.
This honest fellow had taken it into his head to deliver Mr. Halliburtt, to employ the Captain's ship, and the Captain himself for this purpose, and to return with him to England. Such was his intention, so long as the young girl had no other object than to rejoin her father and share his captivity. It was this Crockston tried to make the Captain understand, as we have seen, but the enemy had not yet surrendered; on the contrary.
"Now," said he, "it is absolutely necessary that Miss Jenny and the Captain come to an understanding; if they are going to be sulky like this all the passage we shall get nothing done. They must speak, discuss; let them dispute even, so long as they talk, and I'll be hanged if during their conversation James Playfair does not propose himself what he refused me to-day."
But when Crockston saw that the young girl and the young man avoided each other, he began to be perplexed.
"We must look sharp," said he to himself, and the morning of the fourth day he entered Miss Halliburtt's cabin, rubbing his hands with an air of perfect satisfaction.
"Good news!" cried he, "good news! You will never guess what the Captain has proposed to me. A very noble young man he is. Now try."
"Ah!" replied Jenny, whose heart beat violently, "has he proposed to—"
"To deliver Mr. Halliburtt, to carry him off from the Confederates, and bring him to England."
"Is it true?" cried Jenny.
"It is as I say, miss. What a good-hearted man this James Playfair is! These English are either all good or all bad. Ah! he may reckon on my gratitude, and I am ready to cut myself in pieces if it would please him."
Jenny's joy was profound on hearing Crockston's words. Deliver her father! She had never dared to think of such a plan, and the Captain of the Dolphin was going to risk his ship and crew!
"That's what he is," added Crockston; "and this, Miss Jenny, is well worth an acknowledgment from you."
"More than an acknowledgment," cried the young girl; "a lasting friendship!"
And immediately she left the cabin to find James Playfair, and express to him the sentiments which flowed from her heart.
"Getting on by degrees," muttered the American.
James Playfair was pacing to and fro on the poop, and, as may be thought, he was very much surprised, not to say amazed, to see the young girl come up to him, her eyes moist with grateful tears, and, holding out her hand to him, saying:
"Thank you, sir, thank you for your kindness, which I should never have dared to expect from a stranger."
"Miss," replied the Captain, as if he understood nothing of what she was talking, and could not understand, "I do not know—"
"Nevertheless, sir, you are going to brave many dangers, perhaps compromise your interests for me, and you have done so much already in offering me on board an hospitality to which I have no right whatever—"
"Pardon me, Miss Jenny," interrupted James Playfair, "but I protest again I do not understand your words. I have acted towards you as any well-bred man would towards a lady, and my conduct deserves neither so many thanks nor so much gratitude."
"Mr. Playfair," said Jenny, "it is useless to pretend any longer; Crockston has told me all!"
"Ah!" said the Captain, "Crockston has told you all; then I understand less than ever the reason for your leaving your cabin, and saying these words which—"
Whilst speaking the Captain felt very much embarrassed; he remembered the rough way in which he had received the American's overtures, but Jenny, fortunately for him, did not give him time for further explanation; she interrupted him, holding out her hand and saying:
"Mr. James, I had no other object in coming on board your ship except to go to Charleston, and there, however cruel the slave-holders may be, they will not refuse to let a poor girl share her father's prison; that was all. I had never thought of a return as possible; but, since you are so generous as to wish for my father's deliverance, since you will attempt everything to save him, be assured you have my deepest gratitude."
James did not know what to do or what part to assume; he bit his lip; he dared not take the hand offered him; he saw perfectly that Crockston had compromised him, so that escape was impossible. At the same time he had no thoughts of delivering Mr. Halliburtt, and getting complicated in a disagreeable business: but how dash to the ground the hope which had arisen in this poor girl's heart? How refuse the hand which she held out to him with a feeling of such profound friendship? How change to tears of grief the tears of gratitude which filled her eyes?
So the young man tried to reply evasively, in a manner which would ensure his liberty of action for the future.
"Miss Jenny," said he, "rest assured I will do everything in my power for—"
And he took the little hand in both of his, but with the gentle pressure he felt his heart melt and his head grow confused: words to express his thoughts failed him. He stammered out some incoherent words:
"Miss—Miss Jenny—for you—"
Crockston, who was watching him, rubbed his hands, grinning and repeating to himself:
"It will come! it will come! it has come!"
How James Playfair would have managed to extricate himself from his embarrassing position no one knows, but fortunately for him, if not for the Dolphin, the man on watch was heard crying:
"Ahoy, officer of the watch!"
"What now?" asked Mr. Mathew.
"A sail to windward!"
James Playfair, leaving the young girl, immediately sprang to the shrouds of the mainmast.