Salute to Adventurers by John Buchan - HTML preview

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12. A Word At The Harbour-Side


The next Sunday I was fool enough to go to church, for Doctor Blair was announced to preach the sermon. Now I knew very well what treatment I should get, and that it takes a stout fellow to front a conspiracy of scorn. But I had got new courage from my travels, so I put on my best suit of murrey-coloured cloth, my stockings of cherry silk, the gold buckles which had been my father's, my silk-embroidered waistcoat, freshly-ironed ruffles, and a new hat which had cost forty shillings in London town. I wore my own hair, for I never saw the sense of a wig save for a bald man, but I had it deftly tied. I would have cut a great figure had there not been my bronzed and rugged face to give the lie to my finery.

It was a day of blistering heat. The river lay still as a lagoon, and the dusty red roads of the town blazed like a furnace. Before I had got to the church door I was in a great sweat, and stopped in the porch to fan myself. Inside 'twas cool enough, with a pleasant smell from the cedar pews, but there was such a press of a congregation that many were left standing. I had a good place just below the choir, where I saw the Governor's carved chair, with the Governor's self before it on his kneeling-cushion making pretence to pray. Round the choir rail and below the pulpit clustered many young exquisites, for this was a sovereign place from which to show off their finery. I could not get a sight of Elspeth.

Doctor Blair preached us a fine sermon from the text, "My people shall dwell in a pleasant habitation, and in sure dwellings, and in quiet resting-places!" But his hearers were much disturbed by the continual chatter of the fools about the choir rail. Before he had got to the Prayer of Chrysostom the exquisites were whispering like pigeons in a dovecot, exchanging snuff-boxes, and ogling the women. So intolerable it grew that the Doctor paused in his discourse and sternly rebuked them, speaking of the laughter of fools which is as the crackling of thorns under a pot. This silenced them for a little, but the noise broke out during the last prayer, and with the final word of the Benediction my gentlemen thrust their way through the congregation, that they might be the first at the church door. I have never seen so unseemly a sight, and for a moment I thought that Governor Nicholson would call the halberdiers and set them in the pillory. He refrained, though his face was dark with wrath, and I judged that there would be some hard words said before the matter was finished.

I must tell you that during the last week I had been coming more into favour with the prosperous families of the colony. Some one may have spoken well of me, perhaps the Doctor, or they may have seen the justice of my way of trading. Anyhow, I had a civil greeting from several of the planters, and a bow from their dames. But no sooner was I in the porch than I saw that trouble was afoot with the young bloods. They were drawn up on both sides the path, bent on quizzing me. I sternly resolved to keep my temper, but I foresaw that it would not be easy.

 "Behold the shopman in his Sunday best," said one.

 "I thought that Sawney wore bare knees on his dirty hills," said another.

 One pointed to my buckles. "Pinchbeck out of the store," he says.

 "Ho, ho, such finery!" cried another. "See how he struts like a gamecock."

 "There's much ado when beggars ride," said a third, quoting the proverb.

It was all so pitifully childish that it failed to provoke me. I marched down the path with a smile on my face, which succeeded in angering them. One young fool, a Norton from Malreward, would have hustled me, but I saw Mr. Grey hold him back. "No brawling here, Austin," said my rival.

They were not all so discreet. One of the Kents of Gracedieu tried to trip me by thrusting his cane between my legs. But! was ready for him, and, pulling up quick and bracing my knees, I snapped the thing short, so that he was left to dangle the ivory top.

 Then he did a wild thing. He flung the remnant at my face, so that the ragged end scratched my cheek. When I turned wrathfully I found a circle of grinning faces.

It is queer how a wound, however slight, breaks a man's temper and upsets his calm resolves, I think that then and there I would have been involved in a mellay, had not a voice spoke behind me.

 "Mr. Garvald," it said, "will you give me the favour of your arm? We dine to-day with his Excellency."

 I turned to find Elspeth, and close behind her Doctor Blair and Governor Nicholson.

All my heat left me, and I had not another thought for my tormentors. In that torrid noon she looked as cool and fragrant as a flower. Her clothes were simple compared with the planters' dames, but of a far more dainty fashion. She wore, I remember, a gown of pale sprigged muslin, with a blue kerchief about her shoulders and blue ribbons in her wide hat. As her hand lay lightly on my arm I did not think of my triumph, being wholly taken up with the admiration of her grace. The walk was all too short, for the Governor's lodging was but a stone's-throw distant. When we parted at the door I hoped to find some of my mockers still lingering, for in that hour I think I could have flung any three of them into the river.

None were left, however, and as I walked homewards I reflected very seriously that the baiting of Andrew Garvald could not endure for long. Pretty soon I must read these young gentry a lesson, little though I wanted to embroil myself in quarrels. I called them "young" in scorn, but few of them, I fancy, were younger than myself.

 Next day, as it happened, I had business with Mercer at the water-side, and as I returned along the harbour front I fell in with the Receiver of Customs, who was generally called the Captain of the Castle, from his station at Point Comfort. He was an elderly fellow who had once been a Puritan, and still cherished a trace of the Puritan modes of speech. I had often had dealings with him, and had found him honest, though a thought truculent in manner. He had a passion against all smugglers and buccaneers, and, in days to come, was to do good service in ridding Accomac of these scourges. He feared God, and did not greatly fear much else.

He was sitting on the low wall smoking a pipe, and had by him a very singular gentleman. Never have I set eyes on a more decorous merchant. He was habited neatly and soberly in black, with a fine white cravat and starched shirt-bands. He wore a plain bob-wig below a huge flat-brimmed hat, and big blue spectacles shaded his eyes. His mouth was as precise as a lawyer's, and altogether he was a very whimsical, dry fellow to find at a Virginian port.

The Receiver called me to him and asked after a matter which we had spoken of before. Then he made me known to his companion, who was a Mr. Fairweather, a merchant out of Boston.

 "The Lord hath given thee a pleasant dwelling, friend," said the stranger, snuffling a little through his nose.

 From his speech I knew that Mr. Fairweather was of the sect of the Quakers, a peaceable race that Virginia had long ill-treated.

"The land is none so bad," said the Receiver, "but the people are a perverse generation. Their hearts are set on vanity, and puffed up with pride. I could wish, Mr. Fairweather, that my lines had fallen among your folk in the north, where, I am told, true religion yet flourisheth. Here we have nothing but the cold harangues of the Commissary, who seeketh after the knowledge that perisheth rather than the wisdom which is eternal life."

"Patience, friend," said the stranger. "Thee is not alone in thy crosses. The Lord hath many people up Boston way, but they are sore beset by the tribulations of Zion. On land there is war and rumour of war, and on the sea the ships of the godly are snatched by every manner of ocean thief. Likewise we have dissension among ourselves, and a constant strife with the froward human heart. Still is Jerusalem troubled, and there is no peace within her bulwarks."

"Do the pirates afflict you much in the north?" asked the Receiver with keen interest. The stranger turned his large spectacles upon him, and then looked blandly at me. Suddenly I had a notion that I had seen that turn of the neck and poise of the head before.

 "Woe is me," he cried in a stricken voice. "The French have two fair vessels of mine since March, and a third is missing. Some say it ran for a Virginian port, and I am here to seek it. Heard thee ever, friend, of a strange ship in the James or the Potomac?"

 "There be many strange ships," said the Receiver, "for this dominion is the goal for all the wandering merchantmen of the earth. What was the name of yours?"

 "A square-rigged schooner out of Bristol, painted green, with a white figurehead of a winged heathen god."

 "And the name?"

 "The name is a strange one. It is called The Horn of Diarmaid, but I seek to prevail on the captain to change it to The Horn of Mercy."

 "No such name is known to me," and the Receiver shook his head. "But I will remember it, and send you news."

I hope I did not betray my surprise, but for all that it was staggering. Of all disguises and of all companies this was the most comic and the most hazardous. I stared across the river till I had mastered my countenance, and when I looked again at the two they were soberly discussing the harbour dues of Boston.

Presently the Receiver's sloop arrived to carry him to Point Comfort. He nodded to me, and took an affectionate farewell of the Boston man. I heard some good mouth-filling texts exchanged between them.

Then, when we were alone, the Quaker turned to me. "Man, Andrew," he said, "it was a good thing that I had a Bible upbringing. I can manage the part fine, but I flounder among the 'thees' and 'thous.' I would be the better of a drink to wash my mouth of the accursed pronouns. Will you be alone to-night about the darkening? Then I'll call in to see you, for I've much to tell you."

 * * * * *

 That evening about nine the Quaker slipped into my room.

 "How about that tobacco-shed?" he asked. "Is it well guarded?"

"Faulkner and one of the men sleep above it, and there are a couple of fierce dogs chained at the door. Unless they know the stranger, he will be apt to lose the seat of his breeches."

The Quaker nodded, well pleased. "That is well, for I heard word in the town that tonight you might have a visitor or two." Then he walked to a stand of arms on the wall and took down a small sword, which he handled lovingly. "A fair weapon, Andrew," said he. "My new sect forbids me to wear a blade, but I think I'll keep this handy beside me in the chimney corner."

Then he gave me the news. Lawrence had been far inland with the Monacans, and had brought back disquieting tales. The whole nation of the Cherokees along the line of the mountains was unquiet. Old family feuds had been patched up, and there was a coming and going of messengers from Chickamauga to the Potomac.

 "Well, we're ready for them," I said, and I told him the full story of our preparations.

"Ay, but that is not all. I would not give much for what the Cherokees and the Tuscaroras could do. There might be some blood shed and a good few blazing rooftrees in the back country, but no Indian raid would stand against our lads. But I have a notion--maybe it's only a notion, though Lawrence is half inclined to it himself--that there's more in this business than a raid from the hills. There's something stirring in the West, away in the parts that no White man has ever travelled. From what I learn there's a bigger brain than an Indian's behind it."

 "The French?" I asked.

"Maybe, but maybe not. What's to hinder a blackguard like Cosh, with ten times Cosh's mind, from getting into the Indian councils, and turning the whole West loose on the Tidewater??

 "Have you any proof?" I asked, much alarmed.

 "Little at present. But one thing I know. There's a man among the tribes that speaks English."

 "Great God, what a villain!" I cried, "But how do you know?"

 "Just this way. The Monacans put an arrow through the neck of a young brave, and they found this in his belt."

He laid before me a bit of a printed Bible leaf. About half was blank paper, for it came at the end of the Book of Revelation. On the blank part some signs had been made in rude ink which I could not understand.

 "But this is no proof," I said. "It's only a relic from some plundered settlement. Can you read those marks?"

 "I cannot, nor could the Monacans. But look at the printed part."

 I looked again, and saw that some one had very carefully underlined certain words. These made a sentence, and read, "John, servant of the prophecy, is at hand." "The underlining may have been done long ago," I hazarded.

 "No, the ink is not a month old," he said, and I could do nothing but gape.

 "Well what's your plan?" I said at last.

"None, but I would give my right hand to know what is behind the hills. That's our weakness, Andrew. We have to wait here, and since we do not know the full peril, we cannot fully prepare. There may be mischief afoot which would rouse every sleepy planter out of bed, and turn the Tidewater into an armed camp. But we know nothing. If we had only a scout--".

 "What about Shalah?" I asked.

 "Can you spare him?" he replied; and I knew I could not.

"I see nothing for it," I said, "but to wait till we are ready, and then to make a reconnaissance, trusting to be in time. This is the first week of July. In another fortnight every man on our list will be armed, and every line of communication laid. Then is our chance to make a bid for news."

He nodded, and at that moment came the growling of dogs from the sheds. Instantly his face lost its heavy preoccupation, and under his Quaker's mask became the mischievous countenance of a boy. "That's your friends," he said. "Now for a merry meeting."

In the sultry weather I had left open window and door, and every sound came clear from the outside. I heard the scuffling of feet, and some confused talk, and presently there stumbled into my house half a dozen wild-looking figures. They blinked in the lamplight, and one begged to know if "Mr. Garbled" were at home. All had decked themselves for this play in what they fancied was the dress of pirates--scarlet sashes, and napkins or turbans round their heads, big boots, and masks over their eyes. I did not recognize a face, but I was pretty clear that Mr. Grey was not of the number, and I was glad, for the matter between him and me was too serious for this tomfoolery. All had been drinking, and one at least was very drunk. He stumbled across the floor, and all but fell on Ringan in his chair.

 "Hullo, old Square-Toes," he hiccupped; "what the devil are you?"

 "Friend, thee is shaky on thy legs," said Ringan, in a mild voice, "It were well for thee to be in bed."

"Bed," cried the roysterer; "no bed for me this night! Where is that damnable Scots packman?"

 I rose very quietly, and lit another lamp. Then I shut the window, and closed the shutters. "Here I am," I said, "very much at your service, gentlemen."

 One or two of the sober ones looked a little embarrassed, but the leader, who I guessed was the youth from Gracedieu, was brave enough.

"The gentlemen of Virginia," he said loudly, "being resolved that the man Garvald is an offence to the dominion, have summoned the Free Companions to give him a lesson. If he will sign a bond to leave the country within a month, we are instructed to be merciful. If not, we have here tar and feathers and sundry other adornments, and to-morrow's morn will behold a pretty sight. Choose, you Scots swine." In the excess of his zeal, he smashed with the handle of his sword a clock I had but lately got from Glasgow.

 Ringan signed to me to keep my temper. He pretended to be in a great taking.

 "I am a man of peace," he cried, "but I cannot endure to see my friend outraged. Prithee, good folk, go away. See, I will give thee a guinea each to leave us alone."

This had the desired effect of angering them. "Curse your money," one cried. "You damned traders think that you can buy a gentleman. Take that for your insult." And he aimed a blow with the flat of his sword, which Ringan easily parried.

 "I had thought thee a pirate," said the mild Quaker, "but thee tells me thee is a gentleman."

 "Hold your peace, Square-Toes," cried the leader, "and let's get to business."

 "But if ye be gentlefolk," pleaded Ringan, "ye will grant a fair field. I am no fighter, but I will stand by my friend."

 I, who had said nothing, now broke in. "It is a warm evening for sword-play, but if it is your humour, so be it."

 This seemed to them hugely comic. "La!" cried one. "Sawney with a sword!" And he plucked forth his own blade, and bent it on the floor.

Ringan smiled gently, "Thee must grant me the first favour," he said, "for I am the challenger, if that be the right word of the carnally minded." And standing up, he picked up the blade from beside him, and bowed to the leader from Gracedieu.

Nothing loath he engaged, and the others stood back expecting a high fiasco. They saw it. Ringan's sword played like lightning round the wretched youth, it twitched the blade from his grasp, and forced him back with a very white face to the door. In less than a minute, it seemed, he was there, and as he yielded so did the door, and he disappeared into the night. He did not return, so I knew that Ringan must have spoke a word to Faulkner.

 "Now for the next bloody-minded pirate," cried Ringan, and the next with a very wry face stood up. One of the others would have joined in, but, crying, "For shame, a fair field," I beat down his sword.

The next took about the same time to reach the door, and disappeared into the darkness, and the third about half as long. Of the remaining three, one sulkily declined to draw, and the other two were over drunk for anything. They sat on the floor and sang a loose song.

"It seems, friends," said the Quaker, "that ye be more ready with words than with deeds. I pray thee"--this to the sober one--"take off these garments of sin. We be peaceful traders, and cannot abide the thought of pirates."

He took them off, sash, breeches, jerkin, turban, and all, and stood up in his shirt. The other two I stripped myself, and so drunk were they that they entered into the spirit of the thing, and themselves tore at the buttons. Then with Ringan's sword behind them, the three marched out of doors.

There we found their companions stripped and sullen, with Faulkner and the men to guard them. We made up neat parcels of their clothes, and I extorted their names, all except one who was too far gone in drink.

"To-morrow, gentlemen," I said, "I will send back your belongings, together with the tar and feathers, which you may find useful some other day. The night is mild, and a gentle trot will keep you from taking chills. I should recommend hurry, for in five minutes the dogs will be loosed. A pleasant journey to you."

They moved off, and then halted and apparently were for returning. But they thought better of it, and presently they were all six of them racing and stumbling down the hill in their shifts.

The Quaker stretched his legs and lit a pipe. "Was it not a scurvy trick of fate," he observed to the ceiling, "that these poor lads should come here for a night's fooling, and find the best sword in the Five Seas?"