The Wild Geese
Copyright 1908, 1909
February 1909 Doubleday, Page and Company
ON BOARD THE ‘CORMORANT’ SLOOP
MIDWAY in that period of Ireland’s history during which, according to historians, the distressful country had none—to be more precise, on a spring morning early in the eighteenth century, and the reign of George the First, a sloop of about seventy tons’ burthen was beating up Dingle Bay, in the teeth of a stiff easterly breeze. The sun was two hours high, and the gray expanse of the bay was flecked with white horses hurrying seaward in haste to leap upon the Blasquets, or to disport themselves in the field of ocean. From the heaving deck of the vessel the mountains that shall not be removed were visible—on the northerly tack Brandon, on the southerly Carntual; the former sunlit, with patches of moss gleaming like emeralds on its breast, the latter dark and melancholy, clothed in the midst of tradition and fancy that in those days garbed so much of Ireland’s bog and hill.
The sloop had missed the tide, and, close hauled to the wind, rode deep in the ebb, making little way with each tack. The breeze hummed through the rigging. The man at the helm humped a shoulder to the sting of the spray, and the rest of the crew, seven or eight in number—tarry, pigtailed, outlandish sailor men—crouched under the windward rail. The skipper sat with a companion on a coil of rope on the dry side of the skylight, oblivious alike of the weather and his difficulties, his eyes fixed on his neighbour, in wondering, fatuous admiration.
“Never?” he murmured respectfully.
“Never,” his companion answered.
“My faith!” Captain Augustin
rejoined. He was a cross between a
Frenchman and an Irishman. For twenty
years he had carried wine to
“No,” said the Colonel. “Under no provocation, thank God!”
“But it’s drole,” Captain Augustin rejoined. “It would bother me sorely to know what you do.”
“What we all should do,” his passenger answered gently. “Our duty, Captain Augustin. Doing which, we have no more to fear, no more to question.”
“But west of
“A man may protect himself from violence,” the Colonel answered soberly, “and yet do his duty. What he may not do—is this: He may not go out to kill another in cold blood, for a point of honour, or for revenge, or to sustain what he has already done amiss! I hope I make myself clear, Captain Augustin?” he added courteously.
He asked because the skipper’s face of wonderment was not to be misread. And the skipper answered, “Quite clear!” meaning the reverse. Clear, indeed? Yonder were the hills and bogs of Kerry—lawless, impenetrable, abominable—a realm of Tories. On the sloop itself was scare a man whose hands were free from blood. He, Augustin, mild-mannered as any smuggler on the coast, had spent his life between fleeing and fighting, with his four carronades ever crammed to the muzzle, and his cargo ready to be jettisoned at sight of a cruiser. And this man talked as if he were in church!
Captain Augustin cast a wild eye at the
straining, shrieking rigging; the sloop was lurching heavily. But whether he would or no, his eye fluttered
back and rested, fascinated, on the Colonel’s face. Indeed, from the hour, ten days earlier,
which had seen him mount the side in the
But such a man as this he had never carried. A man who had seen outlandish service; but who neither swore, nor drank above measure, nor swaggered, nor threatened. Who would not dice, nor game—save for trifles. Who, on the contrary, talked of duty, had a peaceful word for all, openly condemned the duello, and was mild as milk and as gentle as an owl. Such a one seemed the fabled “phaynix,” or a bat with six wings, or any other prodigy which the fancy, Irish or foreign, could conceive.
Then, to double the marvel, the Colonel had a servant, a close-tongued fellow, William Bale by name, reputed an Englishman, who, if he was not like his master, was as unlike other folk. He was as quiet-spoken as the Colonel, as precise, and as peaceable. He had even been heard to talk of his duty. But while the Colonel was tall and spare, with a gentle eye and a long, kindly face, and was altogether of a pensive cast, Bale was short and stout, of a black pallor, and very forbidding. His mouth, when he opened it—which was seldom—dropped honey. But his brow scowled, his lip sneered, and his silence invited no confidence.
Such being the skipper’s passenger, and such his man, the wonder was that Captain Augustin’s astonishment had not long ago melted into contempt. But it had not. For one thing, a seaman had been hurt, and the Colonel had exhibited a skill in the treatment of wounds which would not have disgraced an experienced chirurgeon. Then in the bay the sloop had met with half a gale, and the passenger, in circumstances which the skipper knew to be more trying to landsmen than to himself, had maintained a serenity beyond applause. He had even, clinging to the same ring-bolt with the skipper, while the south-wester tore overhead and the gallant little vessel lay over wellnigh to her beam-ends, praised the conduct of the crew.
“This is the finest thing in the world,” he had shouted, amid the roar of things, “to see men doing their duty! I would have not missed this for a hundred crowns!”
“I’d give as much to be safe in
But Augustin had not forgotten the Colonel’s coolness. A landsman, for whom the trough of the wave had no terrors, was not a man to be despised.
Indeed, from that time the skipper had begun to find a charm in the Colonel’s gentleness and courtesy. He had fought against the feeling, but it had grown upon him. Something that was almost affection began to mingle with and augment his wonder. Hence the patience with which, with Kerry on the beam, he listened while the Colonel sang his siren song.
“He will be one of the people called Quakers,” the skipper thought, after a while. “I’ve heard of them, but never seen one.”
Unfortunately, as he arrived at his conclusion, a cry from the steersman roused him. He sprang to his feet. Alas! The sloop had run too far on the northerly tack, and simultaneously the wind had shifted a point to the southward. She had been allowed to run into a blight of the north shore and a line of foam cut her off to the eastward, leaving small room to tack. She might still clear the westerly rocks and run out to sea, but the skipper saw that this was doubtful, and with a seaman’s quickness he made up his mind.
“Keep her on!—keep her on!” he roared. “Child of the accursed! We must run into Skull haven! And if the men of Skull take so much as an iron bolt from us, and I misdoubt them, I’ll keel-haul you! I’ll not leave an inch of skin upon you!”
The man, cowering over the wheel, obeyed, and the little vessel ran up the narrowing water—on an even keel. The crew were already on their feet, they had loosened the sheet, and squared the boom; they stood by to lower the yard. All—the skipper with a grim face—stood looking forward, as the inlet narrowed, the green banks closed in, the rocks that fringed them approached. Silently and gracefully the sloop glided on, until a turn in the passage opened a small land-locked haven. At the head of the haven, barely a hundred yards above high-water mark, stood a ruined tower—the Tower of Skull—and below this a long house of stone with a thatched roof.
It was clear that the sloop’s movements had been watched from the shore, for although the melancholy waste of moor and mountain disclosed no other habitation, a score of half-naked, barefoot figures were gathered on the jetty; while others could be seen hurrying down the hillside. These cried to one another in an unknown tongue, with shrill voices, which vied with the screams of the gulls swinging overhead.