The Blockade Runners/VIII
Miss Jenny, sitting at the poop of the Dolphin, was anxiously waiting the Captain's return; when the latter went up to her she could not utter a word, but her eyes questioned James Playfair more eagerly than her lips could have done. The latter, with Crockston's help, informed the young girl of the facts relating to her father's imprisonment. He said that he had carefully broached the subject of the prisoners of war to Beauregard, but, as the General did not seem disposed at all in their favour, he had thought it better to say no more about it, but think the matter over again.
"Since Mr. Halliburtt is not free in the town, his escape will be more difficult; but I will finish my task, and I promise you, Miss Jenny, that the Dolphin shall not leave Charleston without having your father on board."
"Thank you, Mr. James; I thank you with my whole heart."
At these words James Playfair felt a thrill of joy through his whole being.
He approached the young girl with moist eyes and quivering lips; perhaps he was going to make an avowal of the sentiments he could no longer repress, when Crockston interfered:
"This is no time for grieving," said he; "we must go to work, and consider what to do."
"Have you any plan, Crockston?" asked the young girl.
"I always have a plan," replied the American: "it is my peculiarity."
"But a good one?" said James Playfair.
"Excellent! and all the ministers in Washington could not devise a better; it is almost as good as if Mr. Halliburtt was already on board."
Crockston spoke with such perfect assurance, at the same time with such simplicity, that it must have been the most incredulous person who could doubt his words.
"We are listening, Crockston," said James Playfair.
"Good! You, Captain, will go to General Beauregard, and ask a favour of him which he will not refuse you."
"And what is that?"
"You will tell him that you have on board a tiresome subject, a scamp who has been very troublesome during the voyage, and excited the crew to revolt. You will ask of him permission to shut him up in the citadel; at the same time, on the condition that he shall return to the ship on her departure, in order to be taken back to England, to be delivered over to the justice of his country."
"Good!" said James Playfair, half smiling, "I will do all that, and Beauregard will grant my request very willingly."
"I am perfectly sure of it," replied the American.
"But," resumed Playfair, "one thing is wanting."
"What is that?"
"He is before you, Captain."
"What, the rebellious subject?"
"Is myself; don't trouble yourself about that."
"Oh! you brave, generous heart," cried Jenny, pressing the American's rough hands between her small white palms.
"Go, Crockston," said James Playfair; "I understand you, my friend; and I only regret one thing—that is, that I cannot take your place."
"Everyone his part," replied Crockston; "if you put yourself in my place you would be very much embarrassed, which I shall not be; you will have enough to do later on to get out of the harbour under the fire of the Feds and Rebs, which, for my part, I should manage very badly."
"Well, Crockston, go on."
"Once in the citadel—I know it—I shall see what to do, and rest assured I shall do my best; in the meanwhile, you will be getting your cargo on board."
"Oh, business is now a very unimportant detail," said the Captain.
"Not at all! And what would your Uncle Vincent say to that? We must join sentiment with work; it will prevent suspicion; but do it quickly. Can you be ready in six days?"
"Well, let the Dolphin be ready to start on the 22nd."
"She shall be ready."
"On the evening of the 22nd of January, you understand, send a gig with your best men to White Point, at the end of the town; wait there till nine o'clock, and then you will see Mr. Halliburtt and your servant."
"But how will you manage to effect Mr. Halliburtt's deliverance, and also escape yourself?"
"That's my look-out."
"Dear Crockston, you are going to risk your life then, to save my father!"
"Don't be uneasy, Miss Jenny, I shall risk absolutely nothing, you may believe me."
"Well," asked James Playfair, "when must I have you locked up?"
"To-day—you understand—I demoralise your crew; there is no time to be lost."
"Would you like any money? It may be of use to you in the citadel."
"Money to buy the gaoler! Oh, no, it would be a poor bargain; when one goes there the gaoler keeps the money and the prisoner! No, I have surer means than that; however, a few dollars may be useful; one must be able to drink, if needs be."
"And intoxicate the gaoler."
"No, an intoxicated gaoler would spoil everything. No, I tell you I have an idea; let me work it out."
"Here, my good fellow, are ten dollars."
"It is too much, but I will return what is over."
"Well, then, are you ready?"
"Quite ready to be a downright rogue."
"Let us go to work, then."
"Crockston," said the young girl, in a faltering voice, "you are the best man on earth."
"I know it," replied the American, laughing good-humouredly. "By the by, Captain, an important item."
"What is that?"
"If the General proposes to hang your rebel—you know that military men like sharp work—"
"Well, you will say that you must think about it."
"I promise you I will."
The same day, to the great astonishment of the crew, who were not in the secret, Crockston, with his feet and hands in irons, was taken on shore by a dozen sailors, and half an hour after, by Captain James Playfair's request, he was led through the streets of the town, and, in spite of his resistance, was imprisoned in the citadel.
During this and the following days the unloading of the Dolphin was rapidly accomplished; the steam cranes lifted out the European cargo to make room for the native goods. The people of Charleston, who were present at this interesting work, helped the sailors, whom they held in great respect, but the Captain did not leave the brave fellows much time for receiving compliments; he was constantly behind them, and urged them on with a feverish activity, the reason of which the sailors could not suspect.
Three days later, on the 18th of January, the first bales of cotton began to be packed in the hold: although James Playfair troubled himself no more about it, the firm of Playfair and Co. were making an excellent bargain, having obtained the cotton which encumbered the Charleston wharves at very far less than its value.
In the meantime no news had been heard of Crockston. Jenny, without saying anything about it, was a prey to incessant fears; her pale face spoke for her, and James Playfair endeavoured his utmost to ease her mind.
"I have all confidence in Crockston," said he; "he is a devoted servant, as you must know better than I do, Miss Jenny. You must make yourself quite at ease; believe me, in three days you will be folded in your father's arms."
"Ah! Mr. James," cried the young girl, "how can I ever repay you for such devotion? How shall we ever be able to thank you?"
"I will tell you when we are in English seas," replied the young Captain.
Jenny raised her tearful face to him for a moment, then her eyelids drooped, and she went back to her cabin.
James Playfair hoped that the young girl would know nothing of her father's terrible situation until he was in safety, but she was apprised of the truth by the involuntary indiscretion of a sailor.
The reply from the Richmond cabinet had arrived by a courier who had been able to pass the line of outposts; the reply contained Jonathan Halliburtt's death-warrant. The news of the approaching execution was not long in spreading through the town, and it was brought on board by one of the sailors of the Dolphin; the man told the Captain, without thinking that Miss Halliburtt was within hearing; the young girl uttered a piercing cry, and fell unconscious on the deck. James Playfair carried her to her cabin, but the most assiduous care was necessary to restore her to life.
When she opened her eyes again, she saw the young Captain, who, with a finger on his lips, enjoined absolute silence. With difficulty she repressed the outburst of her grief, and James Playfair, leaning towards her, said gently:
"Jenny, in two hours your father will be in safety near you, or I shall have perished in endeavouring to save him!"
Then he left the cabin, saying to himself, "And now he must be carried off at any price, since I must pay for his liberty with my own life and those of my crew."
The hour for action had arrived, the loading of the cotton cargo had been finished since morning; in two hours the ship would be ready to start.
James Playfair had left the North Commercial Wharf and gone into the roadstead, so that he was ready to make use of the tide, which would be high at nine o'clock in the evening.
It was seven o'clock when James left the young girl, and began to make preparations for departure. Until the present time the secret had been strictly kept between himself, Crockston, and Jenny; but now he thought it wise to inform Mr. Mathew of the situation of affairs, and he did so immediately.
"Very well, sir," replied Mr. Mathew, without making the least remark, "and nine o'clock is the time?"
"Nine o'clock, and have the fires lit immediately, and the steam got up."
"It shall be done, Captain."
"The Dolphin may remain at anchor; we will cut our moorings and sheer off, without losing a moment."
"Have a lantern placed at the mainmast-head; the night is dark, and will be foggy; we must not risk losing our way in returning. You had better have the bell for starting rung at nine o'clock."
"Your orders shall be punctually attended to, Captain."
"And now, Mr. Mathew, have a shore-boat manned with six of our best men. I am going to set out directly for White Point. I leave Miss Jenny in your charge, and may God protect us!"
"May God protect us!" repeated the first officer.
Then he immediately gave the necessary orders for the fires to be lighted, and the shore-boat provided with men. In a few minutes the boat was ready, and James Playfair, after bidding Jenny good-bye, stepped into it, whilst at the same time he saw volumes of black smoke issuing from the chimneys of the ship, and losing itself in the fog.
The darkness was profound; the wind had fallen, and in the perfect silence the waters seemed to slumber in the immense harbour, whilst a few uncertain lights glimmered through the mist. James Playfair had taken his place at the rudder, and with a steady hand he guided his boat towards White Point. It was a distance of about two miles; during the day James had taken his bearings perfectly, so that he was able to make direct for Charleston Point.
Eight o'clock struck from the church of St. Philip when the shore-boat ran aground at White Point.
There was an hour to wait before the exact time fixed by Crockston; the quay was deserted, with the exception of the sentinel pacing to and fro on the south and east batteries. James Playfair grew impatient, and the minutes seemed hours to him.
At half-past eight he heard the sound of approaching steps; he left his men with their oars clear and ready to start, and went himself to see who it was; but he had not gone ten feet when he met a band of coastguards, in all about twenty men. James drew his revolver from his waist, deciding to make use of it, if needs be; but what could he do against these soldiers, who were coming on to the quay?
The leader came up to him, and, seeing the boat, asked:
"Whose craft is that?"
"It is a gig belonging to the Dolphin," replied the young man.
"And who are you?"
"Captain James Playfair."
"I thought you had already started, and were now in the Charleston channels."
"I am ready to start. I ought even now to be on my way but—"
"But—" persisted the coastguard.
A bright idea shot through James's mind, and he answered:
"One of my sailors is locked up in the citadel, and, to tell the truth, I had almost forgotten him; fortunately I thought of him in time, and I have sent my men to bring him."
"Ah! that troublesome fellow; you wish to take him back to England?"
"He might as well be hung here as there," said the coast-guard, laughing at his joke.
"So I think," said James Playfair, "but it is better to have the thing done in the regular way."
"Not much chance of that, Captain, when you have to face the Morris Island batteries."
"Don't alarm yourself. I got in and I'll get out again."
"Prosperous voyage to you!"
With this the men went off, and the shore was left silent.
At this moment nine o'clock struck; it was the appointed moment. James felt his heart beat violently; a whistle was heard; he replied to it, then he waited, listening, with his hand up to enjoin perfect silence on the sailors. A man appeared enveloped in a large cloak, and looking from one side to another. James ran up to him.
"I am he," replied the man with the cloak.
"God be praised!" cried James Playfair. "Embark without losing a minute. Where is Crockston?"
"Crockston!" exclaimed Mr. Halliburtt, amazed. "What do you mean?"
"The man who has saved you and brought you here was your servant Crockston."
"The man who came with me was the gaoler from the citadel," replied Mr. Halliburtt.
"The gaoler!" cried James Playfair.
Evidently he knew nothing about it, and a thousand fears crowded in his mind.
"Quite right, the gaoler," cried a well-known voice. "The gaoler is sleeping like a top in my cell."
"Crockston! you! Can it be you?" exclaimed Mr. Halliburtt.
"No time to talk now, master; we will explain everything to you afterwards. It is a question of life or death. Get in quick!"
The three men took their places in the boat.
"Push off!" cried the captain.
Immediately the six oars dipped into the water; the boat darted like a fish through the waters of Charleston Harbour.