Charles O’Malley, The Irish Dragoon is a Webnovel created by Charles James Lever.
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“Come, Skipper, we’ve all been telling our stories; let us hear one of yours?”
“My yarn won’t come so well after your sky-sc.r.a.pers of love and courting and all that. But if you like to hear what happened to me once, I have no objection to tell you.
“I often think how little we know what’s going to happen to us any minute of our lives. To-day we have the breeze fair in our favor, we are going seven knots, studding-sails set, smooth water, and plenty of sea-room; to-morrow the wind freshens to half a gale, the sea gets up, a rocky coast is seen from the lee bow, and may be–to add to all–we spring a leak forward; but then, after all, bad as it looks, mayhap, we rub through even this, and with the next day, the prospect is as bright and cheering as ever. You’ll perhaps ask me what has all this moralizing to do with women and ships at sea? Nothing at all with them, except that I was a going to say, that when matters look worst, very often the best is in store for us, and we should never say strike when there is a timber together. Now for my story:–
“It’s about four years ago, I was strolling one evening down the side of the harbor at Cove, with my hands in my pocket, having nothing to do, nor no prospect of it, for my last ship had been wrecked off the Bermudas, and nearly all the crew lost; and somehow, when a man is in misfortune, the underwriters won’t have him at no price. Well, there I was, looking about me at the craft that lay on every side waiting for a fair wind to run down channel. All was active and busy; every one getting his vessel ship-shape and tidy,–tarring, painting, mending sails, stretching new bunting, and getting in sea-store; boats were plying on every side, signals flying, guns firing from the men-of-war, and everything was lively as might be,–all but me. There I was, like an old water-logged timber ship, never moving a spar, but looking for all the world as though I were a settling fast to go down stern foremost: may be as how I had no objection to that same; but that’s neither here nor there. Well, I sat down on the fluke of an anchor, and began a thinking if it wasn’t better to go before the mast than live on that way. Just before me, where I sat down, there was an old schooner that lay moored in the same place for as long as I could remember. She was there when I was a boy, and never looked a bit the fresher nor newer as long as I recollected; her old bluff bows, her high p.o.o.p, her round stern, her flush deck, all Dutch-like, I knew them well, and many a time I delighted to think what queer kind of a chap he was that first set her on the stocks, and pondered in what trade she ever could have been. All the sailors about the port used to call her Noah’s Ark, and swear she was the identical craft that he stowed away all the wild beasts in during the rainy season. Be that as it might, since I fell into misfortune, I got to feel a liking for the old schooner; she was like an old friend; she never changed to me, fair weather or foul; there she was, just the same as thirty years before, when all the world were forgetting and steering wide away from me. Every morning I used to go down to the harbor and have a look at her, just to see that all was right and nothing stirred; and if it blew very hard at night, I’d get up and go down to look how she weathered it, just as if I was at sea in her. Now and then I’d get some of the watermen to row me aboard of her, and leave me there for a few hours; when I used to be quite happy walking the deck, holding the old worm-eaten wheel, looking out ahead, and going down below, just as though I was in command of her. Day after day this habit grew on me, and at last my whole life was spent in watching her and looking after her,—there was something so much alike in our fortunes, that I always thought of her. Like myself, she had had her day of life and activity; we had both braved the storm and the breeze; her shattered bulwarks and worn cut.w.a.ter attested that she had, like myself, not escaped her calamities. We both had survived our dangers, to be neglected and forgotten, and to lie rotting on the stream of life till the crumbling hand of Time should break us up, timber by timber. Is it any wonder if I loved the old craft; nor if by any chance the idle boys would venture aboard of her to play and amuse themselves that I hallooed them away; or when a newly-arrived ship, not caring for the old boat, would run foul of her, and carry away some spar or piece of running rigging, I would suddenly call out to them to sheer off and not damage us? By degrees, they came all to notice this; and I found that they thought me out of my senses, and many a trick was played off upon old Noah, for that was the name the sailors gave me.
“Well, this evening, as I was saying, I sat upon the fluke of the anchor, waiting for a chance boat to put me aboard. It was past sunset, the tide was ebbing, and the old craft was surging to the fast current that ran by with a short, impatient jerk, as though she were well weary, and wished to be at rest; her loose stays creaked mournfully, and as she yawed over, the sea ran from many a breach in her worn sides, like blood trickling from a wound. ‘Ay, ay,’ thought I, ‘the hour is not far off; another stiff gale, and all that remains of you will be found high and dry upon the sh.o.r.e.’ My heart was very heavy as I thought of this; for in my loneliness, the old Ark–though that was not her name, as I’ll tell you presently–was all the companion I had. I’ve heard of a poor prisoner who, for many and many years, watched a spider that wove his web within his window, and never lost sight of him from morning till night; and somehow, I can believe it well.
The heart will cling to something, and if it has no living object to press to, it will find a lifeless one,–it can no more stand alone than the shrouds can without the mast. The evening wore on, as I was thinking thus; the moon shone out, but no boat came, and I was just determining to go home again for the night, when I saw two men standing on the steps of the wharf below me, and looking straight at the Ark. Now, I must tell you I always felt uneasy when any one came to look at her; for I began to fear that some shipowner or other would buy her to break up, though, except the copper fastenings, there was little of any value about her. Now, the moment I saw the two figures stop short, and point to her, I said to myself, ‘Ah, my old girl, so they won’t even let the blue water finish you, but they must set their carpenters and dockyard people to work upon you.’ This thought grieved me more and more. Had a stiff sou’-wester laid her over, I should have felt it more natural, for her sand was run out; but just as this pa.s.sed through my mind, I heard a voice from one of the persons, that I at once knew to be the port admiral’s:–
“‘Well, Dawkins,’ said he to the other, ‘if you think she’ll hold together, I’m sure I’ve no objection. I don’t like the job, I confess; but still the Admiralty must be obeyed.’
“‘Oh, my lord,’ said the other, ‘she’s the very thing; she’s a rakish-looking craft, and will do admirably. Any repair we want, a few days will effect; secrecy is the great thing.’
“‘Yes,’ said the admiral, after a pause, ‘as you observed, secrecy is the great thing.’
“‘Ho! ho!’ thought I, ‘there’s something in the wind, here;’ so I laid myself out upon the anchor-stock, to listen better, un.o.bserved.
“‘We must find a crew for her, give her a few carronades, make her as ship-shape as we can, and if the skipper–‘
“‘Ay, but there is the real difficulty,’ said the admiral, hastily; ‘where are we to find a fellow that will suit us? We can’t every day find a man willing to jeopardize himself in such a cause as this, even though the reward be a great one.’
“‘Very true, my lord; but I don’t think there is any necessity for our explaining to him the exact nature of the service.’
“‘Come, come, Dawkins, you can’t mean that you’ll lead a poor fellow into such a sc.r.a.pe blindfolded?’
“‘Why, my lord, you never think it requisite to give a plan of your cruise to your ship’s crew before clearing out of harbor.’
“‘This may be perfectly just, but I don’t like it,’ said the admiral.
“‘In that case, my lord, you are imparting the secrets of the Admiralty to a party who may betray the whole plot.’
“‘I wish, with all my soul, they’d given the order to any one else,’ said the admiral, with a sigh; and for a few moments neither spoke a word.
“‘Well, then, Dawkins, I believe there is nothing for it but what you say; meanwhile, let the repairs be got in hand, and see after a crew.’
“‘Oh, as to that,’ said the other, ‘there are plenty of scoundrels in the fleet here fit for nothing else. Any fellow who has been thrice up for punishment in six months, we’ll draft on board of her; the fellows who have only been once to the gangway, we’ll make the officers.’
“‘A pleasant ship’s company,’ thought I, ‘if the Devil would only take the command.
“‘And with a skipper proportionate to their merit,’ said Dawkins.
“‘Begad, I’ll wish the French joy of them,’ said the admiral.
“‘Ho, ho!’ thought I, ‘I’ve found you out at last; so this is a secret expedition. I see it all; they’re fitting her out as a fire-ship, and going to send her slap in among the French fleet at Brest. Well,’ thought I, ‘even that’s better; that, at least, is a glorious end, though the poor fellows have no chance of escape.’
“‘Now, then,’ said the admiral, ‘to-morrow you’ll look out for the fellow to take the command. He must be a smart seaman, a bold fellow, too, otherwise the ruffianly crew will be too much for him; he may bid high, we’ll come to his price.’
“‘So you may,’ thought I, ‘when you’re buying his life.’
“‘I hope sincerely,’ continued the admiral, ‘that we may light upon some one without wife or child; I never could forgive myself–‘
“‘Never fear, my lord,’ said the other; ‘my care shall be to pitch upon one whose loss no one would feel; some one without friend or home, who, setting his life for nought, cares less for the gain than the very recklessness of the adventure.’
“‘That’s me,’ said I, springing up from the anchor-stock, and springing between them; ‘I’m that man.’
“Had the very Devil himself appeared at the moment, I doubt if they would have been more scared. The admiral started a pace or two backwards, while Dawkins, the first surprise over, seized me by the collar, and hold me fast.
“‘Who are you, scoundrel, and what brings you here?’ said he, in a voice hoa.r.s.e with pa.s.sion.
“‘I’m old Noah,’ said I; for somehow, I had been called by no other name for so long, I never thought of my real one.
“‘Noah!’ said the admiral,–‘Noah! Well, but Noah, what were you doing here at this time of night?’
“‘I was a watching the Ark, my lord,’ said I, bowing, as I took off my hat.
“‘I’ve heard of this fellow before, my lord,’ said Dawkins; ‘he’s a poor lunatic that is always wandering about the harbor, and, I believe, has no harm in him.’
“‘Yes, but he has been listening, doubtless, to our conversation,’ said the admiral. ‘Eh, have you heard all we have been saying?’
“‘Every word of it, my lord.’
“At this the admiral and Dawkins looked steadfastly at each other for some minutes, but neither spoke; at last Dawkins said, ‘Well, Noah, I’ve been told you are a man to be depended on; may we rely upon your not repeating anything you overheard this evening,–at least, for a year to come?’
“‘You may,’ said I.
“‘But, Dawkins,’ said the admiral, in a half-whisper, ‘if the poor fellow be mad?’
“‘My lord,’ said I, boldly, ‘I am not mad. Misfortune and calamity I have had enough of to make me so; but, thank G.o.d, my brain has been tougher than my poor heart. I was once the part-owner and commander of a goodly craft, that swept the sea, if not with a broad pennon at her mast-head, with as light a spirit as ever lived beneath one. I was rich, I had a home and a child; I am now poor, houseless, childless, friendless, and an outcast. If in my solitary wretchedness I have loved to look upon that old bark, it is because its fortune seemed like my own. It had outlived all that needed or cared for it. For this reason have they thought me mad, though there are those, and not few either, who can well bear testimony if stain or reproach lie at my door, and if I can be reproached with aught save bad luck. I have heard by chance what you have said this night. I know that you are fitting out a secret expedition; I know its dangers, its inevitable dangers, and I here offer myself to lead it. I ask no reward; I look for no price. Alas, who is left to me for whom I could labor now? Give me but the opportunity to end my clays with honor on board the old craft, where my heart still clings; give me but that. Well, if you will not do so much, let me serve among the crew; put me before the mast. My lord, you’ll not refuse this.
It is an old man asks; one whose gray hairs have floated many a year ago before the breeze.’
“‘My poor fellow, you know not what you ask; this is no common case of danger.’
“‘I know it all, my lord; I have heard it all.’
“‘Dawkins, what is to be done here?’ inquired the admiral.
“‘I say, friend,’ inquired Dawkins, laying his hand upon my arm, ‘what is your real name? Are you he who commanded the “Dwarf” privateer in the Isle of France?’
“‘Then you are known to Lord Collingwood?’
“‘He knows me well, and can speak to my character.’
“‘What he says of himself is all true, my lord.’
“‘True,’ said I, ‘true! You did not doubt it, did you?’
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