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The Crew of the Water Wagtail

The Crew of the Water Wagtail

Author:R. M. Ballantyne


It is well that mankind cannot pry into the secrets of futurity. At all events, it is certain that if the crew of the _Water Wagtail_ had known what was in store for them when they set sail from Bristol, one fine spring morning at the beginning of the sixteenth century, most of them would have remained at home--...
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  It is well that mankind cannot pry into the secrets of futurity.

  At all events, it is certain that if the crew of the _Water Wagtail_ hadknown what was in store for them when they set sail from Bristol, onefine spring morning at the beginning of the sixteenth century, most ofthem would have remained at home--though it is not improbable that, evenwith full knowledge of coming events, some of the romantic among them,and a few of the reckless, might have decided to go on.

  Undoubtedly Paul Burns would have scorned to draw back, for he was a"hero of romance;" an enthusiast of the deepest dye, with an inquiringmind, a sanguine disposition, and a fervent belief in all things greatand good and grand. He was also a six-footer in his socks, a horse inconstitution, a Hercules in frame, with a hook nose and a hawk eye and astrong jaw--and all the rest of it. Paul had a good brain, too, and waswell educated--as education went in those days. Yes, there can belittle doubt that even though Paul Burns had been able to see into thefuture, he would have deliberately chosen to go on that voyage.

  So would Oliver Trench, for Oliver worshipped Paul! He loved him as ifhe had been an elder brother. He admired him, afar off, as a rarespecimen of human perfection. He looked up to him, physically as wellas mentally, for Oliver was at that time little more than a boy ofmedium size, but bold as a bull-dog and active as a weasel. Yes, we aresafe to say that a revelation of the disasters, dangers, sufferings,etcetera, in store, would not have deterred Oliver Trench. He wouldhave gone on that voyage simply because Paul Burns went. That wasreason enough for him. The devotion of Ruth to Naomi was mild comparedwith that of Oliver to Paul--if words are a test of feelings--for Ruth'sbeautiful language could not compare with the forcible expressions withwhich Oliver assured his friend that he would stick to him, neck ornothing, through thick and thin, to the latest hour of life!

  As for the rest of the crew--Big Swinton, Little Stubbs, George Blazer,Squill, and the like--it was well, as we have said, that they could notsee into the future.

  There were forty of them, all told, including the cook and thecabin-boy. We do not include Paul Burns or Oliver Trench, because theformer was naturalist to the expedition--a sort of semi-scientificfreelance; and the latter, besides being the master's, or skipper's,son, was a free-and-easy lance, so to speak, whose duties were toonumerous to mention, and too indefinite to understand. Most of the menwere what is expressed by the phrase "no better than they should be."Some of them, indeed, were even worse than that. The wars of the periodhad rendered it difficult to obtain good seamen at that particular time,so that merchant skippers had to content themselves with whatever theycould get. The crew of the _Water Wagtail_ was unusually bad,including, as it did, several burglars and a few pickpockets, besidesloafers and idlers; so that, before leaving Bristol, a friend of theskipper, whose imagination was lively, styled it a crew of fortythieves.

  The coast of Norway was the destination of the _Water Wagtail_. Shenever reached the coast of--but we must not anticipate. What her objectwas in reference to Norway we cannot tell. Ancient records are silenton the point.

  The object of Paul Burns was to gather general information. At thatperiod the world was not rich in general information. To discover, todare, to do--if need were, to die--was the intention of our big hero.To be similarly circumstanced in a small way was our little hero'sambition.

  "Goin' to blow," remarked Skipper Trench, on the evening of the day onwhich he sailed, as he paced the deck with his hands in his pockets,and, as his son Oliver said, his "weather-eye" open.

  It seemed as though the weather, having overheard the prophecy, waseager to fulfil it, for a squall could be seen bearing down on the shipeven while the words were being uttered.

  "Close reef to-o-o-p-s'ls!" roared Master Trench, with the energy of aman who means what he says.

  We are not sure of the precise nautical terms used, but the result was asudden and extensive reduction of canvas; and not a moment too soon, forthe operation had scarcely been completed when the squall struck theship, almost capsized her, and sent her careering over the billows "likea thing of life."

  This was the first of a succession of squalls, or gales, which blew the_Water Wagtail_ far out upon the Atlantic Ocean, stove in her bulwarks,carried away her bowsprit and foretopmast, damaged her skylights,strained her rudder, and cleared her decks of loose hamper.

  After many days the weather moderated a little and cleared up, enablingMaster Trench to repair damages and shape his course for Norway. Butthe easterly gales returned with increased violence, undid all therepairs, carried away the compass, and compelled these ancient marinersto run westward under bare poles--little better than a wreck for windsand waves to play with.

  In these adverse circumstances the skipper did what too many men are aptto do in their day of sorrow--he sought comfort in the bottle.

  Love of strong drink was Master Trench's weakest point. It was one ofthe few points on which he and his friend Burns disagreed.

  "Now, my dear man," said Paul, seating himself one evening at the cabintable and laying his hand impressively on his friend's arm, "do let melock up this bottle. You can't navigate the ship, you know, when you'vegot so much of that stuff under your belt."

  "O yes, I can," said the skipper, with an imbecile smile, for his friendhad a winning way with him that conciliated even while he rebuked."Don't you fear, Paul, I--I'm all right!"

  The half-offended idiotic expression of the man's face was intenselyludicrous, but Paul could not see the ludicrous at that time. He onlysaw his usually sedate, manly, generous friend reduced to a state ofimbecility.

  "Come, now, Master Trench," he said persuasively, taking hold of thecase-bottle, "let me put it away."

  "N-no, I won't" said the captain sharply, for he was short of temper.

  The persuasive look on Paul's face suddenly vanished. He rose, graspedthe bottle firmly, went to the open hatch, and sent it whizzing up intothe air with such force that it went far over the stern of the ship anddropped into the sea, to the unutterable amazement of the man at thehelm, who observed the bottle's unaccountable flight with an expressionof visage all his own.

  There is no accounting for the rapid transitions of thought and feelingin drunken men. The skipper sprang up, clenched his right hand, andgazed in fierce astonishment at his friend, who advanced towards himwith a benignant smile, quite regardless of consequences. Even in theact of striking, the captain restrained his arm and opened his hand.Paul met it with a friendly grasp, while the faces of both men expandedin smiling goodwill.

  "Y-you're a trump, P-Paul," said the captain. "I--I--won't drinka-another d'op!"

  And Master Trench kept his word. From that day forth, tillcircumstances rendered drinking impossible, he drank nothing strongerthan water.

  Soon after this event the weather improved, damages were again repaired,and the skipper--in whom there was much of the spirit of the oldvikings--once more laid his course for Norway, resolving to steer, asthe said vikings were wont to do, by the stars. But a spirit of mutinywas abroad in the forecastle by that time. If hard work, hard fare, andhard fortune are trying even to good men and true, what must they be tobad men and false?

  "Here's how it lays, men," said Big Swinton, in a subdued voice, to aknot of friends around him. "Blowin' hard as it has bin ever since weleft England, it stands to reason that we must have pretty nigh gotacross the western sea to that noo land discovered by that man wi' thequeer name--I can't remember rightly--"

  "Columbus, you mean," cried George Blazer. "Why, my father sailed withColumbus on his first voyage."

  "No, it wasn't Columbus," returned Swinton, in a sharp tone, "an' youneedn't speak as if we was all deaf, Blazer. It was John Cabot I wasthinkin' of, who, with his son Sebastian, discovered land a long way tothe nor'ard o' Columbus's track. They called it Newfoundland. Well, asI was sayin', we must be a long way nearer to that land than to Norway,an' it will be far easier to reach it. Moreover, the Cabots said thatthe natives there are friendly and peaceable, so it's my opinion that weshould carry on as we go till we reach Newfoundland, an' see whether wecan't lead a jollier life there than we did in Old England."

  "But it's _my_ opinion," suggested Little Stubbs, "that the skipper'sopinion on that point will have to be found out first, Swinton, for it'sof more importance than yours. You ain't skipper _yet_, you know."

  "That's so, Stubbs," said Squill, with a nod.

  "Let your tongues lie still," retorted Swinton, in an undertoned growl."Of course I know I'm not skipper yet, but if you men have the courageof rabbits I'll be skipper before another sun rises--or whoever youchoose to appoint."

  A sudden silence ensued for a few moments, for, although there had beenmutinous whisperings before, no one had, up to that time, ventured tomake a distinct proposal that action should be taken.

  "What! steal the ship?" exclaimed a huge black-bearded fellow namedGrummidge. "Nay--I'll have no hand in that."

  "Of course not; we have no intention to _steal_ the ship," retortedSwinton, before any one else had time to express an opinion; "we are allupright honourable men here. We only mean to take the _loan_ of her.After all we have suffered we are entitled surely to a pleasure-trip,and when that's over we can return the ship to the owners--if sodisposed. You'll join us in that, Grummidge, won't you? And we'll makeyou skipper--or first mate, if you're too modest to take command." Thissally was received with a subdued laugh, and with marks of such decidedapproval, that Grummidge was carried with the current--at all events, heheld his tongue after that.

  An earnest undertoned discussion followed, and it was finally arrangedthat Big Swinton should sound Master Trench about the propriety ofrunning to Newfoundland instead of returning on their track to Norway.The seaman was not slow to act. That afternoon, while at the helm, hemade the suggestion to the skipper, but met with a sharp rebuke and anorder to attend to his duty.

  No word did Big Swinton reply, but that very night he entered the cabinwith a dozen men and seized the skipper, his son, and Paul Burns, whilethey slept. Of course, being greatly outnumbered, they were overcomeand bound. The two officers of the vessel were also seized by anotherparty on deck, and all the five were imprisoned in the hold.

  Next morning they were brought on deck, and made to stand in a rowbefore Big Swinton, who had, in the meantime, been appointed by themutineers to the command of the ship.

  "Now, Master Trench," said Swinton, "we are no pirates. We have nodesire to kill you, so that whether you are killed or not will depend onyourself. If you agree to navigate this ship to Newfoundland--good; ifnot we will heave you overboard."

  "Heave away then," growled the skipper, his nature being such that themore he was defied the more defiant he became.

  "Well, Master Trench, you shall have your way. Get the plank ready,boys," said Swinton, turning to the men. "Now stand aside and let thefirst mate choose."

  The same question being put to the two mates, they returned similaranswers, and were ordered to prepare to walk the plank.

  "You don't understand navigation, I fancy, Master Burns," said Swintonto Paul, "but as you can set broken bones, and things of that sort, wewill spare you if you agree to serve us."

  "Thank you," replied Paul, with quiet urbanity. "I prefer to accompanyMaster Trench, if you have no objection."

  There was a slight laugh at the coolness of this reply, which enragedthe new skipper.

  "Say you so?" he exclaimed, jumping up. "Come, then, shove out theplank, lads, and bring them on one at a time."

  "Stop!" cried little Oliver, at this point. "You've forgot _me_."

  "No, my little man, I haven't," returned Swinton, with a cynical smile."You shall accompany your amiable father; but first I'll give you a fairchance," he added, in a bantering tone: "will _you_ navigate the ship?"

  "Yes, I will," answered Oliver promptly.

  "Indeed!" exclaimed the new skipper, taken aback by the boy's boldness,and at a loss for a reply.

  "Yes, indeed," retorted Oliver, "only put me in command, with an auger,and I'll navigate the ship to the bottom of the sea, with you and allyour cowardly crew on board of her!"

  "Well said, little master," cried Grummidge, while a general laugh ofapproval went round.

  Seeing that there was a symptom of better feeling among some of the men,Master Trench was about to make an appeal to them, when--

  "Land ho!" was shouted by the look-out in stentorian tones.