Ernest Hornung.

Denis Dent: A Novel



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CHAPTER I
THE SECOND OFFICER

"Land ahead!"

The North Foreland had been made advisedly snug for the night. In the middle watch she was under her three lower topsails and fore topmast staysail only. Not that it blew very hard, but the night was dark and hazy, with a heavy swell. And it was the last night of the voyage.

At eight bells there had been a cast of the deep-sea lead, with the significant result that the skipper had been the first to turn in; gradually the excited passengers had followed his example, instead of staying on deck to see the Otway light. The second mate had said there would be no Otway that night, and what the second said was good enough for most. The saloon skylight had become a clean-edged glimmer in the middle of the poop, the binnacle a fallen moon; not a port-hole twinkled on the rushing ink; and the surviving topsails, without visible stitch or stick aloft or alow, hovered over the ship like gigantic bats.

Four persons remained upon the poop: the middy of the watch, tantalized by muffled guffaws from the midshipmen's berth in the after-house; the man at the wheel, in eclipse above the belt, with the binnacle light upon one weather-beaten hand; and on the weather side, the second mate in reluctant conversation with a big cigar that glowed at intervals into a bearded and spectacled face, the smooth brown one of the young officer sharing the momentary illumination.

"It's all very well," said the senior man, in low persistent tones, "but if we don't have it out now, when are we to? You know what it will be like to-morrow: we shall land first thing, and you'll be the busiest man on board. As for the rules of the ship, if an owner can't use his discretion he might as well travel by some other line."

The young fellow was smiling pleasantly as the other puffed again.

"Very good, Mr. Merridew! I don't object if the captain doesn't; and of course I must tell you anything you want to know."

"Anything! My good young man, if I am to consider this matter for a moment (which I don't promise) I must at least know everything that you can tell me about yourself first; for what," continued Mr. Merridew, taking the cigar from his teeth, "what do you suppose I know about you at this moment? Absolutely nothing except that you seem to be a first-class sailor, as they tell me you are, and a very nice fellow, as I have found you for myself – aboardship; but of your shore-going record, of your position in life at home, and of your people and their position, to speak quite plainly, I know nothing at all."

Mr. Merridew delivered himself with a certain dispassionate unction, as one who could do the judicial to a turn, and enjoy it. Yet his tone was kindly, and the periods free from wilful offense.

"You may make your mind easy about my people. I have none," said the sailor, bitterly. A fatherly hand found his shoulder on the word.

"My dear fellow! I am so sorry."

"You mean relieved."

"I mean what I say," said Mr.

Merridew, removing his hand.

It was the young man's turn to apologize, which he did with much frankness and more feeling.

"The truth is, sir, my parents have been dead for years; and yet they are nearly everything to me still – they were all the world until this voyage! My mother was Irish; her name would not be new to you, but it will keep. It may not be necessary for you to know it, or anything more about me, and in any case it can't alter me. But I am half-Irish through my mother – though you wouldn't think it."

"I would think it," remarked Mr. Merridew, blowing at his cigar as at a forge, until the red light found him looking wise through his spectacles, but the officer with one eye on his sails and no perceptible emotion in the other.

"My first name," he went on, "is as Irish as you like; it's Denis; and you may say that I've been living up to it for once!"

"Denis!" repeated Mr. Merridew, with interest. "Well, I know that name, anyhow; one of our partners – Captain Devenish's father – he's Denis Devenish, you know."

"Indeed," said Denis Dent, and there was a strange light in his spare eye. "Well, so much for my mother; my father was a Yorkshire dalesman, as his father and his father's father were before him. I am the first of them to leave the land."

"May I ask why?"

"It isn't our land any more. My father gave up everything to take my mother abroad, when her life was despaired of in England, and when her people – her own people – I can't trust myself to speak of them!"

And the young fellow turned abruptly aside, while Mr. Merridew puffed and peered at a massive though clean-cut face, whose only Irish feature was a pair of bright brown eyes, bold and resolute, yet quick to laughter, if quicker still to fire.

The south-easter sang through the unseen rigging; the ship rushed a fathom through the unseen sea. The second had a look at the compass, and came climbing back to windward with his hands in his pea-jacket pockets.

"And yet," said Mr. Merridew, flourishing his cigar, "and yet – you want to marry my daughter!"

"If she will have me, sir," said the sailor, with an uncertainty on that point in becoming contrast to his certainty of himself.

"But whether I will or not."

"I never said that, Mr. Merridew. I should be very sorry to take up such a position, I can assure you, sir."

"You would be sorry, but you would do it," retorted Mr. Merridew with acumen. "You would do as your father evidently did before you."

"I hoped we had finished with my parents, sir."

"But they left you nothing, if I understand aright," rejoined Merridew, changing his ground and his tone with some dexterity. "And you would marry my daughter on the pay of a junior officer in the merchant service."

"I never said that either. I have my captain's certificate, sir, as it is."

The new tone was the tone to take. Mr. Merridew went so far as to give his daughter her name.

"And Nan," said he, "might have ten thousand pounds for her marriage portion. I don't say she would, but for all you know she might have more. Her husband ought to bring at least as much into settlement, even as a self-respecting man, don't you think? And yet you would make her a merchant skipper's wife!"

The young man winced, as though for a flash he saw himself wholly in the wrong. Then his face hardened – all but the Irish eyes – and it was the face of a man who would justify himself with his life's blood. Impulse, initiative, temerity, were in the eyes, indomitable endurance in their solid setting.

"You take it for granted that I will never be anything more!" he exclaimed. "But, sir, once a sailor isn't always one. I've got on well at sea. I'd get on well on land – anywhere – at anything! You may smile. I feel it in me. Mr. Merridew, it may seem what you please, but I'm pretty young even for what I am now. Surely, surely, you would give me time – if she would?"

It was the Irishman speaking, the Irish blood spurting out in words, and Mr. Merridew distrusted the bulk of that race; but his cigar glowed again upon a mouth and jaw that came of harder stock, and for the moment his mind was illuminated too.

Here was this Denis Dent, not one young man, it struck him, but two young men in one, each with a very name of his own. Dents from the Dales, Denis from old Ireland! Mr. Merridew smiled through his spectacles, pleased with his conceit, not altogether disposed to regard it as such, but incontinently interested in a personality to which he had been so clever as to supply the key. The heart of the discoverer warmed toward his own. There was an attractiveness in Denis, a solid worth in Dent. Denis might win the girl. Dent would deserve her. And Denis Dent might have carried her own father with him, had he been the only young man in the case, or even on the poop of the North Foreland as she drove through the haze on the last night of her voyage.

But as the pair stood eye to eye, the pregnant pause between them was interrupted by a loud and startling laugh, and a tall figure loomed through the first gray tinge of approaching dawn. It was that of a young man in a tasseled dressing-gown, with an ornate meerschaum pipe pendent between the bushy black whiskers of the day.

"Well, if that doesn't take first prize for cheek!" cried he, and lurched toward them in his slippers as one who had never found his sea-legs.

"We are having a private conversation, Ralph," said Mr. Merridew in mild rebuke.

"A private conversation that you could hear on the forecastle-head!" jeered Ralph Devenish, who was full of liquor without being drunk. "I suppose he's so proud of it he wants the whole ship to know!"

And the meerschaum pointed jerkily at Denis, who stood the heaving deck as a circus rider stands a horse, his hands still deep in his pea-jacket pockets.

"Captain Devenish," said he, "it's against the rules to speak to the officer of the watch, but you shall speak civilly if you speak at all. Otherwise I advise you to take yourself off the poop before you're put off."

"By God!" snarled Devenish, "but you shall pay for that! Before one owner to another owner's son, on the last night of the voyage! It's your last in the Line, Mr. Officer of the Watch! And you dare to lay a hand on me! Come on. You dare. I know your blustering breed, you damned Jack-in-buttons!"

"And I know yours – you Devenishes! I know you too well to soil my hands on any one of you!"

The concentrated bitterness of this retort had an opposite effect on either hearer; one it stupefied, the other it flooded with a sudden light; but Devenish was the first to find his tongue, and for the moment there was none more foul before the mast. The deplorable torrent was only stemmed by the startling apparition of a square little man in a still more awful, because a more articulate and more righteous, rage.

"I'll teach you to break the rules of my ship! I'll teach you to curse my officers, drunk or sober! Out of my sight, sir, or I'll have you in irons before you're a minute older!"

"Come, come, Captain Coles," said Mr. Merridew, with dignity; "there has been more provocation than you imagine; and this, you must remember, is Captain Devenish."

"I don't care a dump if it's Devenish Merridew and Company lumped into one!" roared the little skipper. "You can have your way ashore, but I mean to have mine at sea; and as for your iron coffin of a ship, I'll be thankful to come off her alive, let alone sailing in her again. No two compasses alike, thirty-six hours since we got the sun, the darkest night of the voyage, and Australia anywhere! Yet this is the night you choose, you owners, to bully and browbeat my officers of the watch!"

But it was no longer the darkest night of the voyage, or even night at all. The group stood visible and divisible in a cold gray haze. The lower topsails were no longer detached from the ship; there was a misty mast to each; and the ship was running dry-decked through the high smooth seas.

It was at this moment that the haze lifted like breath from a mirror; and a subtle new sound was just beginning to insinuate itself upon the ear when the look-out man drowned it with his roar from the forecastle head.

CHAPTER II
SAUVE QUI PEUT

Land was indeed ahead, and in the most appalling shape known to seafaring man: at the last moment, the haze had lifted on a line of jagged cliffs, already parallel with the foreyard, albeit by the muffled thud of the breakers, not quite so near as it looked.

The North Foreland was blessed with a commander who was at his best in an emergency. Little Coles had turned in when he should have stayed on deck, and was no more prepared for shipwreck than if such disasters were unknown; but he rose to the occasion like a lark. His sharp voice cracked like a whip from the break of the poop, and all hands, piped from the forecastle, the petty officers' quarters, and the midshipmen's berth, came running as though the words drew blood.

The spanker was set, with the mizzen and maintopmast staysail, and the helm put down to bring her round; but there was no racing of the cliffs to port. She stumbled a little in her stride; the fresh sails flapped; but there was no getting her on the other tack, though the upper mizzen topsail was pressed into the job.

The skipper waited a minute with compressed lips and fiery eye; then a crackle of musketry from his weatherbeaten throat, and both anchors were let go.

The port anchor had fifty fathoms of cable, the starboard anchor sixty fathoms of chain; in anticipation of their holding, the sails were clewed up, and a man sent into the chains with the lead, for she was drifting inshore every moment. But the lead danced on smooth rock, where the anchors trailed as readily as over ice; the captain had them both up again, but that took longer than letting them go, and meanwhile half the hands were aloft shaking out sail once more.

Coles was showing his resource at every point, and by this time had his ship actually head to wind; in another minute she might have stood away upon the port tack. But at this juncture time was wasted in an attempt to sheet home the topsails, which failing, the buntlines of the mainsail were let go, the port main tack got on board, and the sheet hauled aft. The men were still upon the rope when the North Foreland struck and spilt them like the winners in a tug-of-war.

It was the horrible striking of an iron ship: a terrific crash under the mizzen-chains, and there she quivered like a rat in a terrier's teeth. And the devilish seas that had run with her, hunted with her, how they fell on her now, and swept and trampled her from the moment she was down!

The scene on deck, if it wanted the infinite horror of pitch darkness, was only a degree less dreadful in a pearly dawn that left no doubt about the situation. Every hatchway spouted crude humanity, shouting, shoving, screaming, scolding, covering a chattering nakedness as it gained the deck, and there struck silent at a glance. For nothing was hid, nothing extenuated, for a single moment, to a single eye. There was no learning the worst by humane degrees. It was patent at once to the wildest and the calmest gaze. The sanguine soul was no more help to the stunned community than the born pessimist; there was no chance for the imagination either way.

They could see, every one of them, the towering cliffs – blind sides of houses without an inch of pavement – the rollers running up to them unbroken, for the better sport of leaping sky-high at the impact. They could see her settling, see her bumping, see the top-hamper falling about the deck. There was enough to feel and to hear. The eyes might have been spared a little. Some shut them more than once, as when an upper spar came down like an arrow, transfixing a sailor with incredible neatness, and actually sticking upright through man and deck; but few escaped the sight of blood, and none the dying scream. A worse sight was in store. A steward with the stock of life-belts from the lazaretto touched the captain's arm. And, checked in some hoarse tirade, the valiant Coles stood first aghast and then abject in the sight of passengers and crew – beaten man and broken reed.

The better part of valour was the only part he lacked. Not a boat in davits; the whole fleet docked, inboard, on skids! And exactly six life-belts to go round a ship's company of over a hundred souls!

The second mate was clearing away the port life-boat with five of the hands, one blaspheming, another in tears, more than one vowing with reason that they would all be drowned, and the young officer himself in a consuming agony of his own. At the break of the poop, almost all this time, stood a slender figure in a pink wrapper, between a bearded man in spectacles and a man with bushy whiskers in incongruous silk and tassels. Dent wondered why he did not lend a hand; no, on second thoughts he knew, and cursed the fellow in his heart. He did not mean to leave her side. He meant to have the rescuing of her. Trust a Devenish to play his own game! Denis was too busy to look twice at the trio, but he seemed to see them all the time, and the vision galled him to insensate effort.

"Take your time, take your time," cried the chief officer, all red hook-nose and ginger moustache, an oilskin bonnet fastened under his chin. "The old man's done his part. He'll go down in her. The rest hangs on you and me."

The chief met the responsibility with his own tap of cold profanity, not unaccompanied by shrewd cuff and calculated kick, as he superintended the clearing of the other life-boat. As for the skipper, it seemed that he had recovered his mettle to meet fresh trouble further aft; they could hear him firing oaths and threatening lead; but when Denis looked he could not get his eyes past the two men at the break of the poop, for at that moment they were lashing one of the six life-belts about a forlorn little figure in pink.

The port life-boat was ready first, and the third mate busy marshaling the women and children in a helpless, eager, hesitating, exasperating throng; but Miss Merridew was still detained by her friends on the poop. The gripes had been cut, and Denis himself had sent the last chock flying with a savage kick. He and his crew of five were in the act of hooking the tackles to the thwarts. The chief mate was shouting a timely word of advice.

"When you get her launched, and filled, and stand away in her – "

But Denis did not hear what he was to do then, for at that instant a green sea lifted the port life-boat clean over the side with all six men.

Denis's next thought was that the water was warmer than he should have supposed, and his next but one that somebody was bent on braining him; he was hit about the head, not once but repeatedly; but as soon as he could see he knew the reason, for a dim glimmer was all there was to see. The boat was riding bottom upward. He had come up under her. It was the thwart that had been belabouring him. He caught hold of it, pulled as at a horizontal bar, came up like a cork, and easily wormed half his person between thwart and bilge.

In this position Denis regained breath, immersed to the waist, but with no lack of air, and a bilge-cork handy for fresh supplies, until the real danger occurred to him. The capsized life-boat rode the rollers like a cradle, but at any moment she might shatter herself against the cliffs. It was hardly the work of one for Denis to dive from underneath her at the thought. The cliffs, however, were still far enough away; of the wreck he could see nothing for the swell; but it was now broad daylight.

He went under the boat again, and in about five minutes she righted herself for no apparent reason. Denis was nearly stunned in the process, nor was the advantage otherwise unmixed. The boat had come up full, and Denis had now to bale for his life.

So she floated upon the cliffs, until the big seas began to break, when she instantly capsized again. This time he succeeded in scaling the keel, only to be dislodged as his perverse ship righted herself once more. But the tenacity of the Dents was now uppermost in Denis, if indeed he had any other quality left, and he was back in the boat when she eventually struck upon the cliff. The shock hurled him overboard for the last time, yet was so much less terrific than he had anticipated, that he sought and found the reason as he swam clear. A minute ago the boat had been within a few fathoms of the full face of the cliffs; at the last instant a mouth had opened, and all she had done was to cannon off the perpendicular wall of a strait so narrow as to be practically invisible from without.

It was comprehensible enough. The tide was setting through this tiny channel. The derelict life-boat was not alone; packages bobbed between the towering walls; a table came riding by on its top, three legs still standing, as Denis trod water. And on the table he partly floated and partly swam into a bay which stood to the channel as a flagon to its neck.

It was semicircular in shape, surrounded by cliffs as lofty and precipitous as those without, but mercifully provided with a sandy beach at the upper end. The castaway breathed a hoarse thanksgiving at the saving sight. His smarting eyes had risen involuntarily, and as they rested on the heights, the sun lit up some heath and bracken that overhung the edge a few feet like a table-cloth: thence downward it was sheer for one or two hundred to the beach below. At the base a couple of caves opened romantically upon the yellow sand, but there was no sun for them yet, or for the dancing waves that bore Denis and his table finally to the land.

There in an instant he was staggering and stumbling under the abnormal weight of his dripping and exhausted body. A few yards he reeled, then fell prone upon the warm sand, digging in his fingers to the knuckles, thinking of no mortal but himself, thanking his God for preserving him as though he had made the voyage alone. Indeed the long voyage on the ship was temporarily blotted out of mind by the little one in the boat.



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