Read CHAPTER XXVII - THE STORMY PETREL of Eric, free online book, by Frederic William Farrar, on ReadCentral.com.

“They hadna sailed a league, a league,
A league, but barely three,
When the lift grew dark, and the wind grew high,
And gurly grew the sea.”

SIR PATRICK SPENS.

“Hilloa!” exclaimed the skipper with a sudden start, next morning, as he saw Eric’s recumbent figure on the ratlin-stuff, “Who be this young varmint!”

“Oh, I brought him aboord last night,” said Davey; “he wanted to be cabun-buoy.”

“Precious like un he looks. Never mind, we’ve got him and we’ll use him.”

The vessel was under way when Eric woke, and collected his scattered thoughts to a remembrance of his new position. At first, as the Stormy Petrel dashed its way gallantly through the blue sea, he felt one absorbing sense of joy to have escaped from Roslyn. But before he had been three hours on board, his eyes were opened to the trying nature of his circumstances, which were, indeed, so trying that anything in the world seemed preferable to enduring them. He had not been three hours on board when he would have given everything in his power to be back again; but such regrets were useless, for the vessel was now fairly on her way for Corunna, where she was to lake in a cargo of cattle.

There were eight men belonging to the crew; and as the ship was only a little trading schooner, these were sailors of the lowest and meanest grade. They all seemed to take their cue from the captain, who was a drunken, blaspheming, and cruel vagabond.

This man from the first took a savage hatred to Eric, partly because he was annoyed with Davey for bringing him on board. The first words he addressed to him were

“I say, you young lubber, you must pay your footing.”

“I’ve got nothing to pay with. I brought no money with me.”

“Well, then, you shall give us your gran’ clothes. Them things isn’t fit for a cabin-boy.”

Eric saw no remedy, and making a virtue of necessity, exchanged his good cloth suit for a rough sailor’s shirt and trowsers, not over clean, which the captain gave him. His own clothes were at once appropriated by that functionary, who carried them into his cabin. But it was lucky for Eric that, seeing how matters were likely to go, he had succeeded in secreting his watch.

The day grew misty and comfortless, and towards evening the wind rose to a storm. Eric soon began to feel very sick, and, to make his case worse, could not endure either the taste, smell, or sight of such coarse food as was contemptuously flung to him.

“Where am I to sleep?” he asked, “I feel very sick.”

“Babby,” said one of the sailors, “what’s your name?”

“Williams.”

“Well, Bill, you’ll have to get over your sickness pretty soon, I can tell ye. Here,” he added, relenting a little, “Davey’s slung ye a hammock in the forecastle.”

He showed the way, but poor Eric in the dark, and amid the lurches of the vessel, could hardly steady himself down the companion-ladder, much less get into his hammock. The man saw his condition, and, sulkily enough, hove him into his place.

And there, in that swinging bed, where sleep seemed impossible, and out of which, he was often thrown, when the ship rolled and pitched through the dark, heaving, discolored waves, and with dirty men sleeping round him at night, until the atmosphere of the forecastle became like poison, hopelessly and helplessly sick, and half-starved, the boy lay for two days. The crew neglected him shamefully. It was nobody’s business to wait on him, and he could procure neither sufficient food, nor any water; they only brought him some grog to drink, which in his weakness and sickness was nauseous to him as medicine.

“I say, you young cub down there,” shouted the skipper to him from the hatchway, “come up and swab this deck.”

He got up, and after bruising himself severely, as he stumbled about to find the ladder, made an effort to obey the command. But he staggered from feebleness when he reached the deck, and had to grasp for some fresh support at every step.

“None of that ’ere slobbering and shamming, Bill. Why, d you, what d’ye think you’re here for, eh? You swab the deck, and in five minutes, or I’ll teach you, and be d d.”

Sick as death, Eric slowly obeyed, but did not get through his task without many blows and curses. He felt very ill he had no means of washing or cleaning himself; no brush, or comb, or soap, or clean linen; and even his sleep seemed unrefreshful when the waking brought no change in his condition. And then the whole life of the ship was odious to him. His sense of refinement was exquisitely keen, and now to be called Bill, and kicked and cuffed about by these gross-minded men, and to hear their rough, coarse, drunken talk, and sometimes endure their still, more intolerable familiarities, filled him with deeply-seated loathing.

His whole soul rebelled and revolted from them all, and, seeing his fastidious pride, not one of them showed him the least glimpse of open kindness, though he observed that one of them did seem to pity him in heart.

Things grew worse and worse. The perils which he had to endure at first, when ordered about the rigging, were what affected him least; he longed for death, and often contemplated flinging himself into those cold deep waves which he gazed on daily over the vessel’s side. Hope was the only thing which supported him. He had heard from one of the crew that the vessel would be back in not more than six weeks, and he made a deeply seated resolve to escape the very first day that they again anchored in an English harbor.

The homeward voyage was even more intolerable, for the cattle on board greatly increased the amount of necessary menial and disgusting work which fell to his snare, as well as made the atmosphere of the close little schooner twice as poisonous as before. And to add to his miseries, his relations with the crew got more and more unfavorable, and began to reach their climax.

One night the sailor who occupied the hammock next to his heard him winding up his watch. This he always did in the dark, as secretly and silently as he could, and never looked at it, except when no one could observe him; while, during the day, he kept both watch and chain concealed in his trousers.

Next morning the man made proposals to him to sell the watch, and tried by every species of threat and promise to extort it from him. But the watch had been his mother’s gift, and he was resolute never to part with it into such hands.

“Very well, you young shaver, I shall tell the skipper and he’ll soon get it out of you as your footing, depend on it.”

The fellow was as good as his word, and the skipper demanded the watch as pay for Eric’s feed, for he maintained that he’d done no work, and was perfectly useless. Eric, grown desperate, still refused, and the man struck him brutally on the face, and at the same time aimed a kick at him, which he vainly tried to avoid. It caught him on the knee-cap, and put it out, causing him the most excruciating agony.

He now could do no work whatever, not even swab the deck. It was only with difficulty that he could limp along, and every move caused him violent pain. He grew listless and dejected, and sat all day on the vessel’s side, eagerly straining his eyes to catch any sight of land, or gazing vacantly into the weary sameness of sea and sky.

Once, when it was rather gusty weather, all hands were wanted, and the skipper ordered him to furl a sail.

“I can’t,” said Eric, in an accent of despair, barely stirring, and not lifting his eyes to the man’s unfeeling face.

“Can’t, d you. Can’t. We’ll soon see whether you can or no! You do it, or I shall have to mend your leg for you;” and he showered down a storm of oaths.

Eric rose, and resolutely tried to mount the rigging, determined at least to give no ground he could help to their wilful cruelty. But the effort was vain, and with a sharp cry of suffering he dropped once more on deck.

“Cursed young brat! I suppose you think we’re going to bother ourselves with you, and yer impudence, and get victuals for nothing. It’s all sham. Here, Jim, tie him up.”

A stout sailor seized the unresisting boy, tied his hands together, and then drew them up above his head, and strung them to the rigging.

“Why didn’t ye strip him first, d you?” roared the skipper.

“He’s only got that blue shirt on, and that’s soon mended,” said the man, taking hold of the collar of the shirt on both sides, and tearing it open with a great rip.

Eric’s white back was bare, his hands tied up, his head hanging, and his injured leg slightly lifted from the ground. “And now for some rope-pie for the stubborn young lubber,” said the skipper, lifting a bit of rope as he spoke.

Eric, with a shudder, heard it whistle through the air, and the next instant it had descended on his back with a dull thump, rasping away a red line of flesh. Now Eric knew for the first time the awful reality of intense pain; he had determined to utter no sound, to give no sign; but when the horrible rope fell on him, griding across his back, and making his body literally creak under the blow, he quivered like an aspen-leaf in every limb, and could not suppress the harrowing murmur, “Oh God, help me, help me.”

Again the rope whistled in the air, again it grided across the boy’s naked back, and once more the crimson furrow bore witness to the violent laceration. A sharp shriek of inexpressible agony rang from his lips, so shrill, so heart-rending, that it sounded long in the memory of all who heard it. But the brute who administered the torture was untouched. Once more, and again, the rope rose and fell, and under its marks the blood first dribbled, and then streamed from the white and tender skin.

But Eric felt no more; that scream had been the last effort of nature; his head had dropped on his bosom, and though his limbs still seemed to creep at the unnatural infliction, he had fainted away.

“Stop, master, stop, if you don’t want to kill the boy outright,” said Roberts, one of the crew, stepping forward, while the hot flush of indignation burned through his tanned and weather-beaten cheek. The sailors called him “Softy Bob,” from that half-gentleness of disposition which had made him, alone of all the men, speak one kind or consoling word for the proud and lonely cabin-boy.

“Undo him then, and be ,” growled the skipper and rolled off to drink himself drunk.

“I doubt he’s well-nigh done for him already,” said Roberts, quickly untying Eric’s hands, round which the cords had been pulled so tight as to leave two blue rings round his wrists. “Poor fellow, poor fellow! it’s all over now,” he murmured soothingly, as the boy’s body fell motionless into his arms, which he hastily stretched to prevent him from tumbling on the deck.

But Eric heard not; and the man, touched with the deepest pity, carried him down tenderly into his hammock, and wrapped him up in a clean blanket, and sat by him till the swoon should be over.

It lasted very long, and the sailor began to fear that his words had been prophetic.

“How is the young varmint?” shouted the skipper, looking into the forecastle.

“You’ve killed him, I think.”

The only answer was a volley of oaths; but the fellow was sufficiently frightened to order Roberts to do all he could for his patient.

At last Eric woke with a moan. To think was too painful, but the raw state of his back, ulcerated with the cruelty he had undergone, reminded him too bitterly of his situation. Roberts did for him all that could be done, but for a week Eric lay in that dark and fetid place, in the languishing of absolute despair. Often and often the unbidden tears flowed from very weakness from his eyes, and in the sickness of his heart, and the torment of his wounded body, he thought that he should die.

But youth is very strong, and it wrestled with despair, and agony, and death, and, after a time, Eric could rise from his comfortless hammock. The news that land was in sight first roused him, and with the help of Roberts, he was carried on deck, thankful, with childlike gratitude, that God suffered him to breathe once more the pure air of heaven, and sit under the canopy of its gold-pervaded blue. The breeze and the sunlight refreshed him, as they might a broken flower; and, with eyes upraised, he poured from his heart a prayer of deep unspeakable thankfulness to a Father in Heaven.

Yes! at last he had remembered his Father’s home. There, in the dark berth, where every move caused irritation, and the unclean atmosphere brooded over his senses like lead; when his forehead burned, and his heart melted within him, and he had felt almost inclined to curse his life, or even to end it by crawling up and committing himself to the deep cold water which, he heard rippling on the vessel’s side; then, even then, in that valley of the shadow of death, a Voice had come to him a still small Voice at whose holy and healing utterance Eric had bowed his head, and listened to the messages of God, and learnt his will; and now, in humble resignation, in touching penitence with solemn self-devotion, he had cast himself at the feet of Jesus, and prayed to be helped, and guided, and forgiven. One little star of hope rose in the darkness of his solitude, and its rays grew brighter and brighter, till they were glorious now. Yes, for Jesus’ sake he was washed, he was cleansed, he was sanctified, he was justified; he would fear no evil, for God was with him and underneath were the everlasting arms.

And while he sat there, undisturbed at last, and unmolested by harsh word or savage blow, recovering health with every breath of the sea wind, the skipper came up to him, and muttered something half-like an apology.

The sight of him, and the sound of his voice, made Eric shudder again, but he listened meekly, and, with no flash of scorn or horror, put out his hand to the man to shake. There was something touching and noble in the gesture, and, thoroughly ashamed of himself for once, the fellow shook the proffered hand, and slunk away.

They entered the broad river at Southpool.

“I must leave the ship when we get to port, Roberts,” said Eric.

“I doubt whether you’ll let you,” answered Roberts, jerking his finger towards the skipper’s cabin.

“Why?”

“He’ll be afeard you might take the law on him.”

“He needn’t fear.”

Roberts only shook his head.

“Then I must run away somehow. Will you help me?”

“Yes, that I will.”

That very evening Eric escaped from the Stormy Petrel, unknown to all but Roberts. They were in the dock, and he dropped into the water in the evening, and swam to the pier, which was only a yard or two distant; but the effort almost exhausted his strength, for his knee was still painful, and he was very weak.

Wet and penniless, he knew not where to go, but spent the sleepless night under an arch. Early the next morning he went to a pawnbroker’s, and raised L2:10s. on his watch, with which money he walked straight to the railway station.

It was July, and the Roslyn summer holidays had commenced. As Eric dragged his slow way to the station, he suddenly saw Wildney on the other side of the street. His first impulse was to spring to meet him, as he would have done in old times. His whole heart yearned towards him. It was six weeks now since Eric had seen one loving face, and during all that time he had hardly heard one kindly word. And now he saw before him the boy whom he loved so fondly, with whom he had spent so many happy hours of school-boy friendship, with whom he had gone through so many schoolboy adventures, and who, he believed, loved him fondly still.

Forgetful for the moment of his condition, Eric moved across the street. Wildney was walking with his cousin, a beautiful girl, some four years older than himself, whom he was evidently patronising immensely. They were talking very merrily, and Eric overheard the word Roslyn. Like a lightning-flash the memory of the theft, the memory of his ruin came upon him; he looked down at his dress it was a coarse blue shirt, which Roberts had given him in place of his old one, and the back of it was stained and saturated with blood from his unhealed wounds; his trousers were dirty, tarred, and ragged, and his shoes, full of holes, barely covered his feet. He remembered too that for weeks he had not been able to wash, and that very morning, as he saw himself in a looking-glass at a shop-window, he had been deeply shocked at his own appearance. His face was white as a sheet, the fair hair matted and tangled, the eyes sunken and surrounded with a dark color, and dead and lustreless. No! he could not meet Wildney as a sick and ragged sailor-boy; perhaps even he might not be recognised if he did. He drew back, and hid himself till the merry-hearted pair had passed, and it was almost with a pang of jealousy that he saw how happy Wildney could be, while he was thus; but he cast aside the unworthy thought at once. “After all, how is poor Charlie to know what has happened to me?”