Martin Hyde, the Duke's Messenger (7)

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It has come to the attention of the Editor that what people want from the h2g2 Post is more serial fiction. In that spirit, we bring you this novel in serial form, with illustrations, as it originally appeared in the 1909 annual issue of Chatterbox, a very elevating young people's magazine. This is what they were reading instead of Harry Potter, so enjoy.

Martin Hyde, the Duke's Messenger (7)

By John Masefield.

Land Rats and Water Rats

The stranger raised his hand

I will say no more about our passage except that we were three days at sea. Then, when I woke one morning, I found that we were fast moored to a gay little wharf, paved with clean white cobbles, on the north side of the canal. Strange, outlandish figures, in immense blue baggy trousers, clattered past in wooden shoes. A few Dutch galliots lay moored ahead of us, with long scarlet pennons on their mastheads. On the other side of the canal was a huge East Indiaman, with her lower yards cockbilled, loading all three hatches at once. It was a beautiful morning. The sun was so bright that all the scene had thrice its natural beauty. The clean neat trimness of the town, the water slapping past in the canal, the ships with their flags, the Sunday trim of the schooner, all filled me with delight, lit up, as they were, by the April sun. I looked about me at my ease, for the deck was deserted. Even the never-sleeping mate was resting, now that we were in port. While I looked, a man sidled along the wharf from a warehouse towards me. He looked at the schooner in a way which convinced me that he was not a sailor. Then, sheltering behind a bollard, he lighted his pipe.

He was a short, active, wiry man, with a sharp, thin face, disfigured by a green patch over his right eye. He looked to me to have a horsey look, as though were a groom or coachman. After lighting his pipe, he advanced to a point abreast of the schooner's gang-way, from which he could look down upon her, as she lay with her deck a foot or two below the level of the wharf.

'Chips aboard?' he asked, meaning, 'Is the carpenter on board?'

'Yes,' I said. 'Will you come aboard?'

He did not answer, but looked about the ship, as though making notes of everything. Presently he turned to me.

'You're new,' he said. 'Are you Mr. Jermyn's boy?' I told him that I was.

'How is Mr. Jermyn keeping?' he asked. 'Is that cough of his better?' This made me feel that probably the man knew Mr. Jermyn. 'Yes,' I said. 'He's got no cough, now.' 'He'd a bad one last time he was here,' the man answered. For a while he kept silent. He seemed to me to be puzzling out the relative heights of our masts. Suddenly he turned to me, with a very natural air. 'How's Mr. Scott's business going?' he asked. 'You know, eh? You know what I mean?' I was taken off my guard. I'm afraid I hesitated, though I knew that the man's sharp eyes noted every little change on my face. Then, in the most natural way, the man reassured me. 'You know,' he said. 'What demand for oranges in London?' I was thankful that he had not meant the other business. I said with a good deal too much of eagerness that there was, I believed, a big demand for oranges. 'Yes,' he said, 'I suppose so many young boys makes a brisk demand.' I was uneasy at the man's manner. He seemed to be pumping me, but he had such a natural easy way, under the pale mask of his face, that I could not be sure if he were in the secret or not. I was on my guard now, ready for any question, as I thought, but eager for an excuse to get away from this man before I betrayed any trust. 'Nice ship,' he said easily. 'Did you join her in Spain?' 'No,' I answered. 'In London.' 'In London?' he said. 'I thought you'd something of a Spanish look.' 'No,' I said. 'I'm English. Did you want the carpenter, sir?'

'Yes,' he answered. 'I do. But no hurry. No hurry, lad.' Here he pulled out a watch, which he wound up, staring vacantly about the decks as he did so. 'Tell me, boy,' he said gently. 'Is Lane come over with you?' To tell the truth, it flashed across my mind, when he pulled out his watch, that he was making me unready for a difficult question. I was not a very bright boy; but I had this sudden prompting or instinct, which set me on my guard. No one is more difficult to pump than a boy who is ready for his questioner, so I stared at him. 'Lane?' I said, 'Lane? Do you mean the bo'sun?'

'No,' he said. 'The Colonel. You know? Eh?'

'No.' I said. 'I don't know.'

'Oh well,' he answered. 'It's all one. I suppose he's not come over.' At this moment the mate came on deck with the carpenter, carrying a model ship which they had been making together in their spare time. They nodded to the stranger, who gave them a curt 'How do?' as though they had parted from him only the night before. The mate growled at me for wasting time on deck when I should be at work. He sent me down to my usual job of getting the cabin ready for the breakfast of the gentlemen. As I passed down the hatchway, I heard the carpenter say to the stranger, 'Well. So what's the news with Jack?' It flashed into my mind that this man might be his friend, the 'Longshore Jack' who was to keep an eye upon me as well as upon Mr. Jermyn. It gave me a most horrid qualm to think this. The man was so sly, so calm, so guarded, that the thought of him being on the look-out for me, to sell me to the Dutch captains, almost scared me out of my wits. The mate brought him to the cabin as I was laying the table. 'This is the cabin,' he was saying, 'where the gentlemen messes. That's our stern-chaser, the gun there.'

'Oh,' said the stranger, looking about him like one who has never seen a ship before. 'But where do they sleep? Do they sleep on the sofa (he meant the lockers), there?'

'Why, no,' said the mate. 'They sleep in the little cabins yonder. But we musn't stay down here now. I'm not supposed to use this cabin. I mustn't let the captain see me.' So they went on deck again, leaving me alone. When the gentlemen came in to breakfast, I had to go on deck for the dishes. As I passed to the galley, I noticed the stranger talking to the carpenter by the main-rigging. They gave me a meaning look, which I did not at all relish. Then, as I stood in the galley, while the cook dished up, I noticed that the stranger raised his hand to a tall, lanky, ill-favoured man who was loafing about on the wharf, carrying a large black package. This man came right up to the edge of the wharf, directly he saw the stranger's signal. It made me uneasy somehow. I was in a thoroughly anxious mood, longing to confide in some one, even in the crusty cook, yet fearing to open my mouth to any one, even to Mr. Jermyn, to whom I dared not speak with the captain present in the room. Well, I had my work to do, so I kept my thoughts to myself. I took the dishes down below to the cabin, where, after removing the covers, I waited on the gentlemen.

'Martin,' said Mr. Jermyn. 'This skylight over our heads makes rather a draught. We can't have it open in the morning for breakfast.

'Did you open it?' the captain asked. 'What made you open it?'

'Please, sir, I didn't open it.'

'Then shut it,' said the captain. 'Go on deck. The catch is fast outside.'

I ran very nimbly on deck to shut the skylight, but the catch was very stiff; it took me some few moments to undo. I noticed, as I worked at it, that the deck was empty, except for the lanky man with the package, who was now forward, apparently undoing his package on the forehatch. I thought that he was a sort of pedlar or bumboatman, come to sell onions, soft bread, or cheap jewellery to the sailors. The carpenter's head showed for an instant at the galley-door, He was looking forward at the pedlar. The hands were all down below in the forecastle, eating their breakfast. The other stranger seemed to have gone. I could not see him about the deck. At last the skylight came down with a clatter, leaving me free to go below again. As I went down the hatchway, into the 'tweendecks gloom, I saw a figure apparently at work among the ship's stores lashed to the deck there. I could not see who it was; it was too dark for that but the thing seemed strange to me. I guessed that it might be my enemy the boatswain, so I passed aft to the cabin on the other side.

Soon after that, it might be ten minutes after, while the gentlemen were talking lazily about going ashore, we heard loud shouts on deck.

'What's that?' said the captain, starting up from his chair.

'Sounds like fire,' said Mr. Jermyn.

'Fire forward,' said the captain, turning very white. 'There's five tons of powder forward.'

'What?' cried the Duke.

At that instant we heard the boatswain roaring to the men to come on deck. 'Aft for the hose there, Bill,' we heard. Feet rushed aft along the deck, helter-skelter. Some one shoved the skylight open with a violent heave. Looking up, we saw the carpenter's head. He looked as scared as a man can be.

'On deck,' he cried. 'We're all in a blaze forward. The lamp in the bo'sun's locker. Quick.'

'Just over the powder,' the captain said, rushing out.

'Quick, sir,' said Jermyn to the Duke. 'We may blow up at any moment.'

'No,' said the Duke, rising leisurely. 'Not with these stars. Impossible.'

All the same, the two men followed the captain in pretty quick time. Mr. Jermyn rushed the Duke out by the arm. I was rushing out, too, when I saw the Duke's hat lying on the lockers. I darted at it, for I knew that he would want it, with the result that my heel slipped on a copper nail-head, which had been worn down even with the deck till it was smooth as glass. Down I came, bang, with a jolt which shook me almost sick. I rose up, stupid with the shock, so wretched with the present pain that the fire seemed a little matter to me. Indeed, I did not understand the risk. I did not know how a fire so far forward could affect the cabin.

A couple of minutes must have passed before I picked up the hat from where it lay. As I hurried through the 'tweendecks some slight noise or movement made me turn my head. Looking to my right. I saw the horsey man, the stranger, rummaging quickly in the lockers of the Duke's cabin, As I looked, I saw him snatch up something like a pocketbook or pocket case, with a hasty 'Ah' of approval. At the same moment, he saw me watching him.

'Where's Mr. Scott?' he cried, darting out on me. 'We may all blow up in another moment.'

'He's on deck,' I said. 'Hasn't he gone on deck?'

'On deck?' said the man. 'Then on deck with you, too.' He pushed me up the hatch before him. 'Quick,' he cried. 'Quick. There's Mr. Scott forward. Get him on to the wharf.

He gave me a hasty shove forward, to where the whole company was working in a cloud of smoke, passing buckets from hand to hand. A crowd of Dutchmen had gathered on the wharf. Everybody was shouting. The scene was confused like a bad dream. I caught sight of the pedlar man at the gangway as the stranger thrust me forward. In the twinkling of an eye the stranger passed something to him with the quick thrust known as the thieves' pass. I saw it, for all my confusion. I knew in an instant that he had stolen something. The pedlar person was an accomplice. As likely as not the fire was a diversion. I rushed at the gangway. The pedlar was moving quickly away with his hands in his pockets. It all happened in a moment. As I rushed at the gangway, with some wild notion of stopping the pedlar, the horsey man caught me by the collar.

'What,' he said, in a loud voice. 'Trying to desert, are you? You come forward where the danger is.' He ran me forward. He was as strong as a bull.

'Mr. Jermyn,' I cried. 'Mr. Jermyn. This man's a thief.'

The man twisted my collar on to my throat till I choked. 'Quiet, you,' he hissed.

Then Mr. Jermyn dropped his bucket to attend to me.

'A thief,' I gasped. 'A thief.' Mr. Jermyn sprang aft, with his eyes on the man's eyes. The stranger flung me into Mr. Jermyn's way, with all the sweep of his arm. As I went staggering into the fore-bitts (for Mr. Jermyn dodged me) the man took a quick side step up the rail to the wharf. I steadied myself. Mr. Jermyn, failing to catch the man before he was off the ship, rushed below to see what was lost. The crowd of workers seemed to dissolve suddenly. The men surged all about me, swearing. The fire was out. Remember, all this happened in thirty seconds, from the passing of the stolen goods to the stranger's letting go my throat. The very instant that I found my feet against the bitts, I jumped off the ship on to the wharf. There was the stranger running down the wharf to the right, full tilt. There was the lanky pedlar slouching quickly away as though he were going on an errand, with his black box full of groceries.

'That's the man, Mr. Scott,' I cried. 'He's got it.'

The captain (who, I believe, was a naval officer in the Duke's secret) was up on the wharf in an instant. I followed him, though the carpenter clutched at me as I scrambled up. I kicked out behind like a donkey. I didn't kick him, but some one thrust the carpenter aside in the hurry so that I was free. In another seconds I was past the captain, running after the pedlar, who started to run at a good speed, dropping his box with a clatter. Half a dozen joined in the pursuit. The captain had his sword out. They raised such a noise behind me that I thought the whole crew was at my heels. The pedlar kept glancing behind; he knew very little about running. He doubled from street to street, like a man at his wits' ends. I could see that he was blown. When he entered into that conspiracy, he had counted on the horsey man diverting suspicion from him. Suddenly, after twisting round a corner, he darted through a swing door into a stone-paved court, surrounded by brick walls. I was at his heels at the moment or I should have lost him there. I darted through the swing door after him. I went full sprawl over his body on the other side. He had, quite used up, collapsed there.

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