The Three Cutters/Chapter III

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Reader! Have you been to Saint Malo? If you have, you were glad enough to leave the hole; and if you have not, take my advice, and do not give yourself the trouble to go and see that or any other French port in the Channel. There is not one worth looking at. They have made one or two artificial ports, and they are no great things; there is no getting out or getting in. In fact, they have no harbours in the Channel, while we have the finest in the world; a peculiar dispensation of Providence, because it knew that we should want them, and France would not. In France, what are called ports are all alike,—nasty, narrow holes, only to be entered at certain times of tide and certain winds; made up of basins and backwaters, custom-houses, and cabarets; just fit for smugglers to run into, and nothing more; and, therefore they are used for very little else.

Now, in the dog-hole called Saint Malo there is some pretty land, although a great deficiency of marine scenery. But never mind that. Stay at home, and don’t go abroad to drink sour wine, because they call it Bordeaux, and eat villainous trash, so disguised by cooking that you cannot possibly tell which of the birds of the air, or beasts of the field, or fishes of the sea, you are cramming down your throat. “If all is right, there is no occasion for disguise,” is an old saying; so depend upon it that there is something wrong, and that you are eating offal, under a grand French name. They eat everything in France, and would serve you up the head of a monkey who has died of the smallpox, as singe à la petite vérole—that is, if you did not understand French; if you did, they would call it, tête d’amour à l’Ethiopique, and then you would be even more puzzled. As for their wine, there is no disguise in that; it’s half vinegar. No, no! Stay at home; you can live just as cheaply, if you choose; and then you will have good meat, good vegetables, good ale, good beer, and a good glass of grog; and, what is of more importance, you will be in good company. Live with your friends, and don’t make a fool of yourself.

I would not have condescended to have noticed this place, had it not been that I wish you to observe a vessel which is lying along the pier-wharf, with a plank from the shore to her gunwale. It is low water, and she is aground, and the plank dips down at such an angle that it is a work of danger to go either in or out of her. You observe that there is nothing very remarkable in her. She is a cutter, and a good sea-boat, and sails well before the wind. She is short for her breadth of beam, and is not armed. Smugglers do not arm now—the service is too dangerous; they effect their purpose by cunning, not by force. Nevertheless, it requires that smugglers should be good seamen, smart active fellows, and keen-witted, or they can do nothing. This vessel has not a large cargo in her, but it is valuable. She has some thousand yards of lace, a few hundred pounds of tea, a few bales of silk, and about forty ankers of brandy—just as much as they can land in one boat. All they ask is a heavy gale or a thick fog, and they trust to themselves for success.

There is nobody on board except a boy; the crew are all up at the cabaret, settling their little accounts of every description—for they smuggle both ways, and every man has his own private venture. There they are all, fifteen of them, and fine-looking fellows, too, sitting at that long table. They are very merry, but quite sober, as they are to sail to-night.

The captain of the vessel (whose name, by-the-bye, is the Happy-go-lucky,—the captain christened her himself) is that fine-looking young man, with dark whiskers meeting under his throat. His name is Jack Pickersgill. You perceive at once that he is much above a common sailor in appearance. His manners are good, he is remarkably handsome, very clean, and rather a dandy in his dress. Observe how very politely he takes off his hat to that Frenchman, with whom he had just settled accounts; he beats Johnny Crapeau at his own weapons. And then there is an air of command, a feeling of conscious superiority, about Jack; see how he treats the landlord, de haut en bas, at the same time that he is very civil. The fact is, that Jack is of a very good, old family, and received a very excellent education; but he was an orphan, his friends were poor, and could do but little for him: he went out to India as a cadet, ran away, and served in a schooner which smuggled opium into China, and then came home. He took a liking to the employment, and is now laying up a very pretty little sum: not that he intends to stop: no, as soon as he has enough to fit out a vessel for himself, he intends to start again for India, and with two cargoes of opium he will return, he trusts, with a handsome fortune, and re-assume his family name. Such are Jack’s intentions; and, as he eventually means to reappear as a gentleman, he preserves his gentlemanly habits: he neither drinks, nor chews, nor smokes. He keeps his hands clean, wears rings, and sports a gold snuff-box; notwithstanding which, Jack is one of the boldest and best of sailors, and the men know it. He is full of fun, and as keen as a razor. Jack has a very heavy venture this time—all the lace is his own speculation, and if he gets it in safe, he will clear some thousands of pounds. A certain fashionable shop in London has already agreed to take the whole off his hands.

That short, neatly-made young man is the second in command, and the companion of the captain. He is clever, and always has a remedy to propose when there is a difficulty, which is a great quality in a second in command. His name is Corbett. He is always merry—half-sailor, half-tradesman; knows the markets, runs up to London, and does business as well as a chapman—lives for the day and laughs at to-morrow.

That little punchy old man, with long grey hair and fat face, with a nose like a note of interrogation, is the next personage of importance. He ought to be called the sailing-master, for, although he goes on shore in France, off the English coast he never quits the vessel. When they leave her with the goods, he remains on board; he is always to be found off any part of the coast where he may be ordered; holding his position in defiance of gales, and tides, and fogs; as for the revenue-vessels, they all know him well enough, but they cannot touch a vessel in ballast, if she has no more men on board than allowed by her tonnage. He knows every creek, and hole, and corner of the coast; how the tide runs in—tide, half-tide, eddy, or current. That is his value. His name is Morrison.

You observe that Jack Pickersgill has two excellent supporters in Corbett and Morrison; his other men are good seamen, active, and obedient, which is all that he requires. I shall not particularly introduce them.

“Now you may call for another litre, my lads, and that, must be the last; the tide is flowing fast, and we shall be afloat in half an hour, and we have just the breeze we want. What d’ye think, Morrison, shall we have dirt?”

“I’ve been looking just now, and if it were any other month in the year I should say, yes; but there’s no trusting April, captain. Howsomever, if it does blow off, I’ll promise you a fog in three hours afterwards.”

“That will do as well. Corbett, have you settled with Duval?”

“Yes, after more noise and charivari than a panic in the Stock Exchange would make in England. He fought and squabbled for an hour, and I found that, without some abatement, I never should have settled the affair.”

“What did you let him off?”

“Seventeen sous,” replied Corbett, laughing.

“And that satisfied him?” inquired Pickersgill.

“Yes—it was all he could prove to be a surfaire: two of the knives were a little rusty. But he will always have something off; he could not be happy without it. I really think he would commit suicide if he had to pay a bill without a deduction.”

“Let him live,” replied Pickersgill. “Jeannette, a bottle of Volnay of 1811, and three glasses.”

Jeannette, who was the fille de cabaret, soon appeared with a bottle of wine, seldom called for, except by the captain of the Happy-go-lucky.

“You sail to-night?” said she, as she placed the bottle before him.

Pickersgill nodded his head.

“I had a strange dream,” said Jeannette; “I thought you were all taken by a revenue-cutter, and put in a cachot. I went to see you, and I did not know one of you again—you were all changed.”

“Very likely, Jeannette; you would not be the first who did not know their friends again when in misfortune. There was nothing strange in your dream.”

“Mais, mon Dieu! Je ne suis pas comme ça, moi.”

“No, that you are not, Jeannette; you are a good girl, and some of these fine days I’ll marry you,” said Corbett.

“Doit être bien beau ce jour là, par exemple,” replied Jeannette, laughing; “you have promised to marry me every time you have come in these last three years.”

“Well, that proves I keep to my promise, anyhow.”

“Yes; but you never go any further.”

“I can’t spare him, Jeannette, that is the real truth,” said the captain: “but wait a little,—in the meantime, here is a five-franc piece to add to your petite fortune.”

“Merci bien, monsieur le capitaine; bon voyage!” Jeannette held her finger up to Corbett, saying, with a smile, “méchant!” and then quitted the room.

“Come, Morrison, help us to empty this bottle, and then we will all go on board.”

“I wish that girl wouldn’t come here with her nonsensical dreams,” said Morrison, taking his seat; “I don’t like it. When she said that we should be taken by a revenue-cutter, I was looking at a blue and a white pigeon sitting on the wall opposite; and I said to myself, Now, if that be a warning, I will see: if the blue pigeon flies away first, I shall be in jail in a week; if the white, I shall be back here.”

“Well?” said Pickersgill, laughing.

“It wasn’t well,” answered Morrison, tossing off his wine, and putting the glass down with a deep sigh; “for the cursed blue pigeon flew away immediately.”

“Why, Morrison, you must have a chicken-heart to be frightened at a blue pigeon!” said Corbett, laughing and looking out of the window; “at all events, he has come back again, and there he is sitting by the white one.”

“It’s the first time that ever I was called chicken-hearted,” replied Morrison, in wrath.

“Nor do you deserve it, Morrison,” replied Pickersgill; “but Corbett is only joking.”

“Well, at all events, I’ll try my luck in the same way, and see whether I am to be in jail: I shall take the blue pigeon as my bad omen, as you did.”

The sailors and Captain Pickersgill all rose and went to the window, to ascertain Corbett’s fortune by this new species of augury. The blue pigeon flapped his wings, and then he sidled up to the white one; at last, the white pigeon flew off the wall and settled on the roof of the adjacent house. “Bravo, white pigeon!” said Corbett; “I shall be here again in a week.” The whole party, laughing, then resumed their seats; and Morrison’s countenance brightened up. As he took the glass of wine poured out by Pickersgill, he said, “Here’s your health, Corbett; it was all nonsense, after all—for, d’ye see, I can’t be put in jail, without you are. We all sail in the same boat, and when you leave me you take with you everything that can condemn the vessel—so here’s success to our trip.”

“We will all drink that toast, my lads, and then on board,” said the captain; “here’s success to our trip.”

The captain rose, as did the mates and men, drank the toast, turned down the drinking-vessels on the table, hastened to the wharf, and, in half an hour, the Happy-go-lucky was clear of the port of Saint Malo.