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There were few people in Hedingham more pleased to see the two lads on their return than John Lirriper, to whom they paid a visit on the first day they went out.
"I am glad to see you back, young masters; though, to say the truth, you are not looking nigh so strong and well as you did when I last parted from you."
"We shall soon be all right again, John. We have had rather a rough time of it over there in Sluys."
"Ah, so I have heard tell, Master Geoffrey. Your father read out from the pulpit a letter the earl had received from Captain Francis telling about the fighting, and it mentioned that you were both alive and well and had done good service; but it was only a short letter sent off in haste the day after he and the others had got out of the town. I was right glad when I heard it, I can tell you, for there had been nought talked of here but the siege; and though your lady mother has not said much to me, I always held myself ready to slip round the corner or into a house when I saw her come down the street, for I knew well enough what was in her mind. She was just saying to herself, `John Lirriper, if it hadn't been for you my two boys would not be in peril now. If aught comes to them, it will be your doing.' And though it was not my fault, as far as I could see, for Captain Francis took you off my hands, as it were, and I had no more to say in the matter than a child, still, there it was, and right glad was I when I heard that the siege was over and you were both alive.
"I had a bad time of it, I can tell you, when I first got back, young sirs, for your mother rated me finely; and though your father said it was not my fault in any way, she would not listen to him, but said she had given you into my charge, and that I had no right to hand you over to any others save with your father's permission -- not if it were to the earl himself, -- and for a long time after she would make as if she didn't see me if she met me in the street. When my wife was ill about that time she sent down broths and simples to her, but she sent them by one of the maids, and never came herself save when she knew I was away in my boat.
"However, the day after the reading of that letter she came in and said she was sorry she had treated me hardly, and that she had known at heart all along that it was not altogether my fault, and asked my pardon as nice as if I had been the earl. Of course I said there was nothing to ask pardon for, and indeed that I thought it was only natural she should have blamed me, for that I had often blamed myself, though not seeing how I could have done otherwise. However, I was right glad when the matter was made up, for it is not pleasant for a man when the parson's wife sets herself against him."
"It was certainly hard upon you, John," Geoffrey said; "but I am sure our mother does not in any way blame you now. You see, we brought home letters from Captain Vere, or rather Sir Francis, for he has been knighted now, and he was good enough to speak very kindly of what we were able to do in the siege. Mother did not say much, but I am sure that at heart she is very grateful, for the earl himself came down to the Rectory and spoke warmly about us, and said that he should always be our fast friend, because we had given his cousin some help when he was roughly pressed by the Spaniards. I hope we shall have another sail with you in a short time, for we are not going back to the Netherlands at present, as things are likely to be quiet there now. Although he did not say so, I think Sir Francis thought that we were over young for such rough work, and would be more useful in a year's time; for, you see, in these sieges even pages have to take their share in the fighting, and when it comes to push of pike with the Spaniards more strength and vigour are needed than we possess at present. So we are to continue our practice at arms at the castle, and to take part in the drilling of the companies the earl is raising in case the Spaniards carry out their threat of invading England."
Mrs. Vickars offered no objection whatever the first time Geoffrey asked permission to go down to Bricklesey with John Lirriper.
"I have no objection, Geoffrey; and, indeed, now that you have chosen your own lives and are pages to Sir Francis Vere, it seems to me that in matters of this kind you can judge for yourself. Now that you have taken to soldiering and have borne your part in a great siege, and have even yourselves fought with the Spaniards, I deem it that you have got beyond my wing, and must now act in all small matters as it pleases you; and that since you have already run great danger of your lives, and may do so again ere long, it would be folly of me to try to keep you at my apron strings and to treat you as if you were still children."
So the two lads often accompanied John Lirriper to Bricklesey, and twice sailed up the river to London and back in Joe Chambers' smack, these jaunts furnishing a pleasant change to their work of practising with pike and sword with the men-at-arms at the castle, or learning the words of command and the work of officers in drilling the newly raised corps. One day John Lirriper told them that his nephew was this time going to sail up the Medway to Rochester, and would be glad to take them with him if they liked it; for they were by this time prime favourites with the master of the Susan. Although their mother had told them that they were at liberty to go as they pleased, they nevertheless always made a point of asking permission before they went away.
"If the wind is fair we shall not be long away on this trip, mother. Two days will take us up to Rochester; we shall be a day loading there, and shall therefore be back on Saturday if the wind serves, and may even be sooner if the weather is fine and we sail with the night tides, as likely enough we shall, for the moon is nearly full, and there will be plenty of light to keep our course free of the sands."
The permission was readily given. Mrs. Vickars had come to see that it was useless to worry over small matters, and therefore nodded cheerfully, and said she would give orders at once for a couple of chickens to be killed and other provision prepared for their voyage.
"I do not doubt you are going to have a rougher voyage than usual this time, young masters," John Lirriper said when the boat was approaching Bricklesey. "The sky looks wild, and I think there is going to be a break in the weather. However, the Susan is a stout boat, and my nephew a careful navigator."
"I should like a rough voyage for a change, John," Geoffrey said. "We have always had still water and light winds on our trips, and I should like a good blow."
"Well, I think you will have one; though may be it will only come on thick and wet. Still I think there is wind in those clouds, and that if it does come it will be from the southeast, in which case you will have a sharp buffeting. But you will make good passage enough down to the Nore once you are fairly round the Whittaker."
"Glad to see you, young masters," Joe Chambers said, as the boat came alongside his craft. "You often grumbled at the light winds, but unless I am mistaken we shall be carrying double reefs this journey. What do you think, Uncle John?"
"I have been saying the same, lad; still there is no saying. You will know more about it in a few hours' time."
It was evening when the boys went on board the Susan, and as soon as supper was over they lay down, as she was to start at daybreak the next morning. As soon as they were roused by the creaking of the blocks and the sound of trampling of feet overhead they went up on deck. Day had just broken; the sky was overspread by dark clouds.
"There is not much wind after all," Geoffrey said as he looked round.
"No, it has fallen light during the last two hours," the skipper replied, "but I expect we shall have plenty before long. However, we could do with a little more now."
Tide was half out when they started. Joe Chambers had said the night before that he intended to drop down to the edge of the sands and there anchor, and to make across them past the Whittaker Beacon into the channel as soon as there was sufficient water to enable him to do so. The wind was light, sometimes scarcely sufficient to belly out the sails and give the boat steerage way, at others coming in short puffs which heeled her over and made her spring forward merrily.
Before long the wind fell lighter and lighter, and at last Joe Chambers ordered the oars to be got out.
"We must get down to the edge of the Buxey," he said, "before the tide turns, or we shall have it against us, and with this wind we should never be able to stem it, but should be swept up the Crouch. At present it is helping us, and with a couple of hours' rowing we may save it to the Buxey."
The boys helped at the sweeps, and for two hours the creaking of the oars and the dull flapping of the sail alone broke the silence of the calm; and the lads were by no means sorry when the skipper gave the order for the anchor to be dropped.
"I should like to have got about half a mile further," he said; "but I can see by the landmarks that we are making no way now. The tide is beginning to suck in."
"How long will it be before we have water enough to cross the Spit?" Lionel asked as they laid in the oars.
"Well nigh four hours, Master Lionel. Then, even if it keeps a stark calm like this, we shall be able to get across the sands and a mile or two up the channel before we meet the tide. There we must anchor again till the first strength is past, and then if the wind springs up we can work along at the edge of the sands against it. There is no tide close in to the sands after the first two hours. But I still think this is going to turn into wind presently; and if it does it will be sharp and heavy, I warrant. It's either that or rain."
The sky grew darker and darker until the water looked almost black under a leaden canopy.
"I wish we were back into Bricklesey," Joe Chambers said. "I have been well nigh fifteen years going backwards and forwards here, and I do not know that ever I saw an awkwarder look about the sky. It reminds me of what I have heard men who have sailed to the Indies say they have seen there before a hurricane breaks. If it was not that we saw the clouds flying fast overhead when we started, I should have said it was a thick sea fog that had rolled in upon us. Ah, there is the first drop. I don't care how hard it comes down so that there is not wind at the tail of it. A squall of wind before rain is soon over; but when it follows rain you will soon have your sails close reefed. You had best go below or you will be wet through in a minute."
The great drops were pattering down on the deck and causing splashes as of ink on the surface of the oily looking water. Another half minute it was pouring with such a mighty roar on the deck that the boys below needed to shout to make each other heard. It lasted but five minutes, and then stopped as suddenly as it began. The lads at once returned to the deck.
"So it is all over, Master Chambers."
"Well the first part is over, but that is only a sort of a beginning. Look at that light under the clouds away to the south of east. That is where it is coming from, unless I am mistaken. Turn to and get the mainsail down, lads," for although after dropping anchor the head sails had been lowered, the main and mizzen were still on her.
The men set to work, and the boys helped to stow the sail and fasten it with the tiers. Suddenly there was a sharp puff of wind. It lasted a few seconds only, then Joe Chambers pointed towards the spot whence a hazy light seemed to come.
"Here it comes," he said. "Do you see that line of white water? That is a squall and no mistake. I am glad we are not under sail."
There was a sharp, hissing sound as the line of white water approached them, and then the squall struck them with such force and fury that the lads instinctively grasped at the shrouds. The mizzen had brought the craft in a moment head to wind, and Joe Chambers and the two sailors at once lowered it and stowed it away.
"Only put a couple of tiers on," the skipper shouted. "We may have to upsail again if this goes on."
The sea got up with great rapidity, and a few minutes after the squall had struck them the Susan was beginning to pitch heavily. The wind increased in force, and seemed to scream rather than whistle in the rigging.
"The sea is getting up fast!" Geoffrey shouted in the skipper's ear as he took his place close to him.
"It won't be very heavy yet," Joe Chambers replied; "the sands break its force. But the tide has turned now, and as it makes over the sand there will be a tremendous sea here in no time; that is if this wind holds, and it seems to me that it is going to be an unusual gale altogether."
"How long will it be before we can cross the Spit?"
"We are nor going to cross today, that's certain," the skipper said. "There will be a sea over those sands that would knock the life out of the strongest craft that ever floated. No, I shall wait here for another hour or two if I can, and then slip my cable and run for the Crouch. It is a narrow channel, and I never care about going into it after dark until there is water enough for a craft of our draught over the sands. It ain't night now, but it is well nigh as dark. There is no making out the bearings of the land, and we have got to trust to the perches the fishermen put up at the bends of the channel. However, we have got to try it. Our anchors would never hold here when the sea gets over the sands, and if they did they would pull her head under water.
In half an hour a sea had got up that seemed to the boys tremendous. Dark as it was they could see in various directions tracts of white water where the waves broke wildly over the sands. The second anchor had been let go some time before. The two cables were as taut as iron bars, and the boat was pulling her bow under every sea. Joe Chambers dropped a lead line overboard and watched it closely.
"We are dragging our anchors," he said. "There is nothing for it but to run."
He went to the bow, fastened two logs of wood by long lines to the cables outside the bow, so that he could find and recover the anchors on his return, then a very small jib was hoisted, and as it filled two blows with an axe severed the cables inboard. The logs attached to them were thrown over, and the skipper ran aft and put up the helm as the boat's head payed off before the wind. As she did so a wave struck her and threw tons of water on board, filling her deck nearly up to the rails. It was well Joe had shouted to the boys to hold on, for had they not done so they would have been swept overboard.
Another wave struck them before they were fairly round, smashing in the bulwark and sweeping everything before it, and the boys both thought that the Susan was sinking under their feet. However she recovered herself. The water poured our through the broken bulwark, and the boat rose again on the waves as they swept one after another down upon her stern. The channel was well marked now, for the sands on either side were covered with breaking water. Joe Chambers shouted to the sailors to close reef the mizzen and hoist it, so that he might have the boat better under control. The wind was not directly astern but somewhat on the quarter; and small as was the amount of sail shown, the boat lay over till her lee rail was at times under water; the following waves yawing her about so much that it needed the most careful steering to prevent her from broaching to.
"It seems to me as the wind is northering!" one of the men shouted.
The skipper nodded and slackened out the sheet a bit as the wind came more astern. He kept his eyes fixed ahead of him, and the men kept gazing through the gloom.
"There is the perch," one of them shouted presently, "just on her weather bow!"
The skipper nodded and held on the same course until abreast of the perch, which was only a forked stick. The men came aft and hauled in the mizzen sheer. Chambers put up the helm. The mizzen came across with a jerk, and the sheet was again allowed to run out. The jib came over with a report like the shot of a cannon, and at the same moment split into streamers.
"Hoist the foresail!" the skipper shouted, and the men sprang forward and seized the halliards; but at this moment the wind seemed to blow with a double fury, and the moment the sail was set it too split into ribbons.
"Get up another jib!" Joe Chambers shouted, and one of the men sprang below. In half a minute he reappeared with another sail.
"Up with it quick, Bill. We are drifting bodily down on the sand."
Bill hurried forward. The other hand had hauled in the traveller, to which the bolt rope of the jib was still attached, and hauling on this had got the block down and in readiness for fastening on the new jib. The sheets were hooked on, and then while one hand ran the sail out with the out haul to the bowsprit end, the other hoisted with the halliards. By this time the boat was close to the broken water. As the sail filled her head payed off towards it. The wind lay her right over, and before she could gather way there was a tremendous crash. The Susan had struck on the sands. The next wave lifted her, but as it passed on she came down with a crash that seemed to shake her in pieces. Joe Chambers relaxed his grasp of the now useless tiller.
"It is all over," he said to the boys. "Nothing can save her now. If she had been her own length farther off the sands she would have gathered way in time. As it is another ten minutes and she will be in splinters."
She was now lying over until her masthead was but a few feet above water. The seas were striking her with tremendous force, pouring a deluge of water over her.
"There is but one chance for you," he went on. "The wind is dead on the shore, and Foulness lies scarce three miles to leeward."
He went into the cabin and fetched out a small axe fastened in the companion where it was within reach of the helmsman. Two blows cut the shrouds of the mizzen, a few vigorous strokes were given to the foot of the mast, and, as the boat lifted and crashed down again on the sand, it broke off a few inches above the deck.
"Now, lads, I will lash you loosely to this. You can both swim, and with what aid it will give you may well reach the shore. There are scarce three feet of water here, and except where one or two deeps pass across it there is no more anywhere between this and the land. It will not be rough very far. Now, be off at once; the boat will go to pieces before many minutes. I and the two men will take to the mainmast, but I want to see you off first."
Without hesitation the boys pushed off with the mast. As they did so a cataract of water poured over the smack upon them, knocking them for a moment under the surface with its force.
For the next few minutes it was a wild struggle for life. They found at once that they were powerless to swim in the broken water, which, as it rushed across the sand, impelled alike by the rising tide behind it and the force of the wind, hurried them along at a rapid pace, breaking in short steep waves. They could only cling to the mast and snatch a breath of air from time to time as it rolled over and over. Had they not been able to swim they would very speedily have been drowned; but, accustomed as they were to diving, they kept their presence of mind, holding their breath when under water and breathing whenever they were above it with their faces to the land. It was only so that they could breathe, for the air was thick with spray, which was swept along with such force by the wind that it would have drowned the best swimmer who tried to face it as speedily as if he had been under water.
After what seemed to them an age the waves became somewhat less violent, though still breaking in a mass of foam. Geoffrey loosed his hold of the spar and tried to get to his feet. He was knocked down several times before he succeeded, but when he did so found that the water was little more than two feet deep, although the waves rose to his shoulders. The soft mud under his feet rendered it extremely difficult to stand, and the rope which attached him to the spar, which was driving before him, added to the difficulty. He could not overtake the mast, and threw himself down again and swam to it.
"Get up, Lionel!" he shouted; "we can stand here." But Lionel was too exhausted to be capable of making the effort. With the greatest difficulty Geoffrey raised him to his feet and supported him with his back to the wind.
"Get your breath again!" he shouted. "We are over the worse now and shall soon be in calmer water. Get your feet well out in front of you, if you can, and dig your heels into the mud, then you will act as a buttress to me and help me to keep my feet."
It was two or three minutes before Lionel was able to speak. Even during this short time they had been carried some distance forward, for the ground on which they stood seemed to be moving, and the force of the waves carried them constantly forward.
"Feel better, old fellow?" Geoffrey asked, as he felt Lionel making an effort to resist the pressure of the water.
"Yes, I am better now," Lionel said.
"Well, we will go on as we are as long as we can; let us just try to keep our feet and give way to the sea as it rakes us along. The quicker we go the sooner we shall be in shallower water; but the tide is rising fast, and unless we go on it will speedily be as bad here as it was where we started."
As soon as Lionel had sufficiently recovered they again took to the spar; but now, instead of clasping it with their arms and legs, they lay with their chest upon it, and used their efforts only to keep it going before the wind and ride. Once they came to a point where the sand was but a few inches under water. Here they stood up for some minutes, and then again proceeded on foot until the water deepened to their waists.
Their progress was now much more easy, for the high bank had broken the run of the surf. The water beyond it was much smoother, and they were able to swim, pushing the spar before them.
"We are in deep water," Geoffrey said presently, dropping his feet. "It is out of my depth. Chambers said there was a deep channel across the sands nor far from the island; so in that case the shore cannot be far away."
In another quarter of an hour the water was again waist deep. Geoffrey stood up.
"I think I see a dark line ahead, Lionel; we shall soon be there."
Another ten minutes and the water was not above their knees. They could see the low shore now at a distance of but a few hundred yards ahead, and untying the ropes under their arms they let the spar drift on, and waded forward until they reached the land. There was a long mud bank yet to cross, and exhausted as they were it took them a long time to do this; but at last they came to a sandy bank rising sharply some ten feet above the flat. They threw themselves down on this and lay for half an hour without a word being spoken.
"Now, Lionel," Geoffrey said at last, raising himself to a sitting position, "we must make an effort to get on and find a shelter. There are people living in the island. I have heard that they are a wild set, making their living by the wrecks on these sands and by smuggling goods without paying dues to the queen. Still, they will nor refuse us shelter and food, and assuredly there is nothing on us to tempt them to plunder us."
He rose to his feet and helped Lionel up. Once on the top of the bank a level country stretched before them. The wind aided their footsteps, sweeping along with such tremendous force that at times they had difficulty in keeping their feet. As they went on they came upon patches of cultivated land, with hedgerows and deep ditches. Half a mile further they perceived a house. On approaching it they saw that it was a low structure of some size with several out buildings. They made their way to it and knocked at the door. They knocked twice before it was opened, then some bolts were withdrawn. The door was opened a few inches. A man looked out, and seeing two lads opened it widely.
"Well, who are you, and what do you want?" he asked roughly.
"We have been wrecked in a storm on the sands. We were sailing from Bricklesey for Sheerness when the storm caught us."
The man looked at them closely. Their pale faces and evidently exhausted condition vouched for the truth of their story.
"The house is full," he said gruffly, "and I cannot take in strangers. You will find some dry hay in that out house, and I will bring you some food there. When you have eaten and drunk you had best journey on."
So saying he shut the door in their faces.
"This is strange treatment," Geoffrey said. "I should not have thought a man would have refused shelter to a dog such a day as this. What do you say, Lionel, shall we go on?"
"I don't think I can go any further until I have rested, Geoffrey," Lionel replied faintly. "Let us lie down in shelter if it is only for half an hour. After that, if the man brings us some food as he says, we can go on again."
They went into the shed the man had pointed out. It was half full of hay.
"Let us take our things off and wring them, Lionel, and give ourselves a roll in the hay to dry ourselves. We shall soon get warm after that."
They stripped, wrung the water from their clothes, rolled themselves in the hay until they felt a glow of returning warmth, and then put on their clothes again. Scarcely had they done so when the man came in with a large tankard and two hunks of bread.
"Here," he said, "drink this and then be off. We want no strangers hanging round here."
At any other time the boys would have refused hospitality so cheerlessly offered, but they were too weak to resist the temptation. The tankard contained hot spiced ale, and a sensation of warmth and comfort stole over them as soon as they had drunk its contents and eaten a few mouthfuls of bread. The man stood by them while they ate.
"Are you the only ones saved from the wreck?" he asked.
"I trust that we are not," Geoffrey replied. "The master of the boat tied us to a mast as soon as she struck, and he and the two men with him were going to try to get to shore in the same way."
As soon as they had finished they stood up and handed the tankard to the man.
"I am sorry I must turn you out," he said, as if somewhat ashamed of his want of courtesy. "Any other day it would be different, but today I cannot take anyone in."
"I thank you for what you have given us," Geoffrey said. "Can you tell us which is the way to the ferry?"
"Follow the road and it will take you there. About a couple of miles. You cannot mistake the way."
Feeling greatly strengthened and refreshed the lads again started.
"This is a curious affair," Geoffrey said, "and I cannot make out why they should not let us in. However, it does not matter much. I feel warm all over now, in spite of my wet clothes."
"So do I," Lionel agreed. "Perhaps there were smugglers inside, or some fugitives from justice hiding there. Anyhow, I am thankful for that warm ale; it seems to have given me new life altogether."
They had walked a quarter of a mile, when they saw four horsemen coming on the road. They were closely wrapped up in cloaks, and as they passed, with their heads bent down to meet the force of the gale and their broad brimmed hats pulled low down over their eyes, the boys did nor get even a glimpse of their features.
"I wonder who they can be," Geoffrey said, looking after them. "They are very well mounted, and look like persons of some degree. What on earth can they be doing in such a wretched place as this? They must be going to that house we left, for I noticed the road stopped there."
"It is curious, Geoffrey, but it is no business of ours."
"I don't know that, Lionel. You know there are all sorts of rumours about of Papist plots, and conspirators could hardly choose a more out of the way spot than this to hold their meetings. I should not be at all surprised if there is some mischief on foot."
Half a mile further three men on foot met them, and these, like the others, were closely wrapped up to the eyes.
"They have ridden here," Geoffrey said after they had passed. "They have all high riding boots on; they must have left their horses on the other side of the ferry. See, there is a village a short distance ahead. We will go in there and dry our clothes, and have a substantial meal if we can get it. Then we will talk this business over."
The village consisted of a dozen houses only, but among them was a small public house. Several men were sitting by the fire with pots of ale before them.
"We have been wrecked on the coast, landlord, and have barely escaped with our lives. We want to dry our clothes and to have what food you can give us."
"I have plenty of eggs," the landlord said, "and my wife will fry them for you; but we have no meat in the house. Fish and eggs are the chief food here. You are lucky in getting ashore, for it is a terrible gale. It is years since we have had one like it. As to drying your clothes, that can be managed easy enough. You can go up into my room and take them off, and I will lend you a couple of blankets to wrap yourselves in, and you can sit by the fire here until your things are dry."
A hearty meal of fried eggs and another drink of hot ale completed the restoration of the boys. Their clothes were speedily dried, for the landlady had just finished baking her week's batch of bread, and half an hour in the oven completely dried the clothes. They were ready almost as soon as the meal was finished. Many questions were asked them as to the wreck, and the point at which they had been cast ashore.
"It was but a short distance from a house at the end of this road," Geoffrey said. "We went there for shelter, but they would not take us in, though they gave us some bread and hot ale."
Exclamations of indignation were heard among the men sitting round.
"Ralph Hawker has the name of being a surly man," one said, "but I should not have thought that he would have turned a shipwrecked man from his door on such a day as this. They say he is a Papist, though whether he be or not I cannot say; but he has strange ways, and there is many a stranger passes the ferry and asks for his house. However, that is no affair of mine, though I hold there is no good in secret ways."
"That is so," another said; "but it goes beyond all reason for a man to refuse shelter to those the sea has cast ashore on such a day as this."
As soon as they had finished their meal and again dressed themselves, the lads paid their reckoning and went out. Scarcely had they done so when two horsemen rode up, and, drawing rein, inquired if they were going right for the house of one Ralph Hawker.
"It lies about a mile on," Geoffrey said. "You cannot miss the way; the road ends there."
As he spoke a gust of wind of extra fury blew off one of the riders' hats. It was stopped by the wall of a house a few yards away. Geoffrey caught it and handed it to the horseman. With a word of thanks he pressed it firmly on his head, and the two men rode on.
"Did you notice that?" Geoffrey asked his brother. "He has a shaven spot on the top of his head. The man is a Papist priest in disguise. There is something afoot, Lionel. I vote that we try and get to the bottom of it."
"I am ready if you think so, Geoffrey. But it is a hazardous business, you know; for we are unarmed, and there are, we know, seven or eight of them at any rate.
"We must risk that," Geoffrey said; "besides, we can run if we cannot fight. Let us have a try whatever comes of it."
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