Read STORY TWO - CHAPTER 4 of Freaks on the Fells Three Months' Rustication , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on ReadCentral.com.

“Ho! tumble up there, tumble up!  All hands, ahoy! tumble up!  Look alive, lads; there’s work to do, my hearties!”

Such were the words, uttered in the most terrifically violent bass tones, that awoke me on the first morning after I went to sea.  Instantly all the men around me leaped out of their hammocks.  They were all half-dressed, and I noticed that the greater part of them completed their toilet in the short interval between quitting their hammocks and gaining the deck.  Jack and I had lain down in our clothes, so we were on deck almost as soon as the others.

Here the most unexpected sights assailed us.  It seemed to me as if a miraculous change had taken place on everybody and everything during the night.  The ship when she had set sail was as untidy and lumbered about the decks as a merchantman usually is on quitting port.  Now everything was clean, in its place, snugly fastened, and in order.  The sails appeared to have undergone some modification.  I fancied, too, that the masts raked aft a good deal more than they had done, and round the foot of them were ranged muskets, pistols, cutlasses, and boarding-pikes, where masses of cordage and handspikes had been before.  The hencoops had vanished, and in their place were rows of brass carronades, while in the centre of the deck an enormous swivel gun occupied the place, on which the long-boat had formerly rested.  Even the captain seemed to have changed.  His costume was somewhat Eastern in its character, and his whole aspect was much more ferocious than when I first saw him.

Vague and terrible suspicions crossed my mind as I viewed these wonderful transformations; but I had no time to indulge them, for the men had hastened with the promptitude of men-of-war’s men to their stations, leaving Jack and me alone in the middle of the deck.

“Hallo, boys!” shouted the captain, “no idlers allowed aboard this ship.  Here, stand by this gun, and lend a hand with the ropes when you’re told to.  Obey orders, ­that’s the only duty I’ve got to lay on you.”

We hastened to the gun pointed out, and while I was standing there waiting for orders, I looked over the side, and, for the first time, became aware of the cause of these proceedings.

About two miles to leeward of us, just off our larboard bow, I saw a large ship running under a press of canvas.  She was a huge clumsy-looking merchantman, and I heard our first mate say she was an East-Indiaman.

“Then why chase her?” thought I, “and why these warlike preparations?”

It struck me at the time, I remember, that the captain must have guessed my thoughts, for he glanced at me quickly, and then turning to the mate, with a sarcastic smile, said ­

“I thought you had better sight than you seem to have.  In my judgment that’s a Russian merchantman, and as we happen to be at war with Russia just now I’ll take the liberty of overhauling her.”

Instead of replying to this, the mate burst into a loud laugh in which, strangely enough, he was joined by the captain and all the men who were within hearing.  I felt uneasy at this, and expressed my feelings in a whisper to Jack, who shook his head and looked at me mysteriously, but said nothing.

I felt that, even though we were at war with Russia, we, as a discovery-ship, had no right whatever to interfere in the capacity of a war-ship, and I was about to remonstrate with the captain at all hazards, when my thoughts were suddenly changed by the order being given to fire a shot across the stranger’s bows.  The gun at which I was stationed was run out.

“Stand by!” cried the captain.

“Fire!”

In the excitement of the moment, and without knowing what I had to do, though deeply impressed with the feeling that something ought to be done when an order was given, I pulled violently at the rope which I had in my hand; the effect of which was to move the gun very slightly when it exploded.  The result was that the ball, instead of passing well ahead of the strange vessel, passed close to its bow, and carried away half of the bowsprit.

The captain turned on me a face absolutely blazing with wrath.  He seized a handspike, and I thought he was about to dash out my brains on the spot.  He hissed at me between his clinched teeth; then, suddenly bursting into a shout of fiendish laughter, he cried ­

“Well, well, after all there’s no harm done.  It’ll make them understand that we don’t mean to trifle with ’em.  Clear the boarding-pikes there.  Are the grappling-irons ready?”

“Ay, ay, sir.”

By this time the stranger had hove-to, and we were bearing down on her so rapidly that a few minutes more would bring us alongside.  Our men stood ready for action.  They were the worst-looking set of scoundrels I ever beheld.

“Ship ahoy!” shouted our captain as we drew near, “what ship’s that?”

A smart young officer leaped on the bulwarks, and cried, “Come alongside and I’ll tell you.  Show your colours.”

At the word our colours went up, as colours are usually hoisted, rolled up like a ball.  I watched with intense interest, for I felt that now at last I should know our true character.  The ball of what seemed to be dark-blue bunting reached the masthead and hung for one instant ­then its folds fell heavily, and were swept out by the breeze.  The flag was black, and in the centre were a white skull and crossbones!

I almost fainted at the sight.  I looked at Jack, who stood beside me.  He was as white as a sheet; but his lips were firmly compressed, and his brows knitted.

“Do we deserve what we have got?” he muttered in a deep, sad voice.

I did not reply; but my conscience answered, “We do ­at least I do.”

We were now hove-to about a pistol-shot to leeward of the ship, and our captain, leaping on the bulwark, cried, with a dreadful oath, “Send your gig alongside instantly with your captain and papers.  If you don’t look sharp I’ll blow you out of the water.”

He had scarcely finished speaking, when a loud shout rent the air, and the bulwarks of the strange vessel swarmed with soldiers.  At the same moment, twenty concealed ports flew open and twenty heavy guns were run out.

Our captain gave the word, “Fire!” as he leaped on the deck and rushed to the wheel.  The word must have been given at the same moment on board the chase, for both broadsides burst simultaneously from the vessels’ sides with a deafening crash that sounded ten times louder and more terrible than the loudest thunder I ever heard.  We were so near that the combined volumes of smoke completely blinded and almost suffocated me.  I fancied, for a moment, that our powder-magazine had blown up.

The thunder of the broadsides was followed by the most appalling shrieks I ever heard, and by the ceaseless rattle of musketry as the soldiers opened on us with deadly precision.  Through the smoke I saw men falling around me, and the decks were immediately covered with blood, while bullets and splinters of wood whistled round my head like hail.

I was stunned.  I felt like one in a horrid dream.  Gradually the smoke cleared away, and then I saw that our captain had put down the helm and our vessel was sheering off to leeward under full sail.  The rapidity with which everything was done quite took away my breath.  Before we were out of gun-shot the decks had been cleared, the dead thrown into the sea, the wounded carried below, and the decks washed with buckets of water.

Just then I thought of Jack, and looked round in haste.  He was not there!  I rushed below! he was not in his hammock.  In an agony of anxiety I went down into the horrible den of blood where our surgeon was attending to the wounded.  Here, amid groaning and dying men, I found my friend stretched in a cot with a blanket over him, his handsome face was very pale, and his eyes were closed when I approached.  Going down on my knees beside him, while my heart fluttered with an inexpressible feeling of dread, I whispered his name.

He opened his large eyes slowly, and a sweet sad smile lit up his face for one moment, as he took me by the hand.

“O Jack!  Jack, my friend ­my brother ­are you wounded?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied, in a faint voice; “I’m badly hurt, I fear.”

“Has the doctor dressed your wound?”

“He finished the ­the ­operation just before you came down.”

“Operation!” I whispered, while a feeling of deadly sickness came over me.  “Where ­what ­” I could not go further.

Poor Jack knew what I wished to ask.  He gently lifted part of the blanket, and I felt as if I had been stunned by an electric shock on observing that his right leg had been amputated above the knee.  For some moments I could not speak.  I could not move.  It was with difficulty that I could draw my labouring breath.  Suddenly I clasped my hands ­

“O Jack! my beloved! my ­” I gasped.  My throat was parched.  For one moment I thought I was dying.  Suddenly I started up, uttered a great agonising cry, and fell down on the deck.  Then a flood of tears sprang into my burning eyes, and I sobbed as if my heart would burst asunder.  I did not try to check this.  It was too precious a relief to my insupportable agony.  I crept close to my friend’s cot, took his hand gently, and, laying my cheek upon it, wept there as I never wept before.  Jack’s former advice now came back to me vividly, and his words of caution, “Honour thy father and thy mother,” burned deep into my throbbing brain, while my accusing conscience whispered unceasingly, “You brought him to this ­you brought him to this!” My sorrow was broken in upon rudely by the first mate.

“What are you doin’ here, you young blackguard?” he cried, seizing me by the collar, and dragging me to the foot of the ladder that led out of this bloody den.  “Skulking, eh! I’ll teach you to skulk; I’ll cure you o’ that, my lad! I’ll tan your skin for you,” and at each emphatic word he gave a blow with a rope’s end that raised a bar of livid flesh across my back.  “There,” he cried, giving me a final cut, and hurling me up the first few steps of the ladder, “on deck with you!”

I did not hesitate to comply.  I gained the deck with unusual rapidity, smarting with pain and burning with indignation.  But what I saw going on there made me almost forget my pain.  The great swivel gun amidships was being cleared for action, and our captain was giving orders beside it as coolly and quietly as if nothing unusual had occurred that day.

I was deeply impressed for a few minutes with this cool, calm indifference, which characterised the men as well as the captain; but when I had considered a little, I came to understand that they were used to battle and bloodshed, and that therefore it was quite natural.  After that I ceased to wonder at anything.  Indeed, the power to be astonished seemed to leave my breast altogether, and from that moment I regarded everything that happened on the pirate vessel as being quite what might be expected ­mere matter of course.

I now observed that we had not yet done with the supposed Russian.  We had merely run astern out of range of her guns, but not beyond the range of our large swivel.  In a few minutes it was ready.  The captain sighted the gun, and gave the word “Fire!”

The ship quivered with the shock, and so large was the ball that I could distinctly trace its flight.  It fell short a few yards.  “So, so,” muttered the captain.  “The next will do its work.”

He was right.  The next ball struck the rails that ran round the poop, carried away the binnacle, and raked the upper deck from stern to stem.  I could see it quite plainly with the glass.

“Hurrah!” shouted some of the crew.

“Silence, you babies,” growled the captain; “time enough to crow when our work’s done.”

The men who had cheered fell back abashed.  I noticed that they were chiefly the younger men of the crew, whose countenances were not yet utterly unhumanised by crime.

“Load.”

“Ready.”

“Fire!”

Again the huge iron mass sprang from the cannon’s mouth, and rushed along its deadly track.  It struck the top of a wave, and bounding up passed through the sails and cordage of the Russian, cutting one or two of the lighter spars, and also the main topsail halyards, which caused the yard to come rattling down, and rendered the sail useless.  Seeing this, the pirate captain ordered sail to be reduced in order to keep at a sufficient distance astern to render the guns of the chase useless.  Every shot from our gun now told with terrible effect.  We could see the splinters fly as every ball entered the ship’s stern, or swept her deck, or crashed through her rigging.  Presently she turned her broadside to us.

“She don’t mean to waste her ammunition, surely,” remarked the captain, with a sneer.

She did not mean to do so.  She evidently meant to turn the tables by bearing suddenly down on us, and, if possible, give us a broadside before we could get out of range.  The captain saw the intention instantly, and thwarted it.

“Up your helm!  Square the yards!  Look alive there!”

We fell off, and were soon running before the wind, with the swivel gun thundering over our stern, as it had formerly thundered over our bows.  The Russian fired a broadside, and lay-to.  Every ball fell short of us.  We also lay-to, and now the fire was kept up steadily.  The ship’s fate was sealed.  Those on board evidently thought so, for the colours which had hitherto been flying from the mast were presently lowered.  Upon this we ceased firing, and ranged up alongside.

“Oh! you’ve had enough, have you?” cried our captain.  “Perhaps you’ll condescend to let your captain and papers come aboard now.”

The Russian did not reply, but a boat was lowered.  It was evident they meant to obey.

“Here, you boy,” cried our captain, as he paced the deck, awaiting their arrival.  “Here’s a letter for you.”

“A letter, sir!” I exclaimed, stepping forward, and touching my cap.

“Ay, your father gave it to me just afore we set sail.  He told me not to give it to you until you’d seen a little rough work.  You’ve seen some now, I think,” (he accompanied this remark with a horrible leer), “so there’s the letter.  Go below and read it.  I’ll want you in half an hour for some still rougher work.”

There seemed to me something very unaccountable and mysterious in this.  I knew that the captain did not know my father.  I had not even told him that I had a father.  It seemed to me impossible that in the course of the short half-hour that intervened between the time of my engaging to serve in the Ring-tailed Smasher, and the time of my setting sail, my father could have found out where I had run to, have met and conversed with the captain, and have written a letter to me.  Yet it seemed that such was the case.  I recognised the handwriting.

“Whom did you get the letter from?  Did you see my father?”

“Come, youngster, don’t you go for to question me.  Go below d’rectly, an’ stop there till ye’r wanted.”

The captain seized the end of a rope as he spoke, so I retreated at once to the bedside of my poor friend Jack, only too glad to escape from the presence of the men whom I now abhorred with all my heart.

“Jack,” said I, eagerly, “here’s a letter from my father!”

He evinced no surprise, but, looking up solemnly, said, in a faint voice, “Read it.”

Breaking the seal, I read as follows: ­

“My Beloved Son, ­I forgive you.  You have sinned deeply in thus leaving me; but I know that you have repented.  I know that your own conscience has rebuked you more sternly than any earthly parent could do.  You cannot now recall the past ­you cannot undo what you have done; you must now continue your voyage, and, in order to relieve your oppressed heart, I give you my blessing.  I commend you, my dear boy, to Him who is the Saviour of sinners.

“Beware of the captain.  Obey him in all that is right, but do not serve him.  Again, I say, beware of him.  There are secrets concerning him that I cannot unfold.  I have just been to see Jack’s mother.  She sends her forgiveness and blessing to her son.  God bless you, boy. ­Your loving father,

“John Smith.”

My father understood human nature.  No reproaches that he could have heaped upon me would have cut half so deeply into my heart as did this kind, forgiving letter.  My heart was full.  Yet I felt a deep undercurrent of joy at knowing that my father loved me still.  I looked at Jack.  He seemed to be asleep, but he was not.  A single tear coursed over his pale cheek as he looked up and whispered ­

“We don’t deserve this, Bob.”

Before I could reply, the ship was shaken by a tremendous explosion, and immediately after I heard the most appalling shrieks and yells on deck, accompanied by the clashing of swords and the scuffling of men in deadly conflict.  I looked at Jack; he lay motionless, with his eyes closed.  For a moment I feared that he was dead.

“Bob Smith!  Hallo! tumble up there, you skulker!” shouted a voice down the hatchway.  At the same moment two wounded men were carried into the place, and the surgeon appeared with his horrible instruments glittering, cold and sharp, on a wooden tray.

Seizing my cutlass, and thrusting a brace of pistols in my belt, I rushed on deck.