Micah Clarke, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Chapter 4

Of the Strange Fish that we Caught at Spithead

One evening in the month of May 1685, about the end of the first week of the month, my friend Reuben Lockarby and I borrowed Ned Marley’s pleasure boat, and went a-fishing out of Langston Bay. At that time I was close on one-and-twenty years of age, while my companion was one year younger. A great intimacy had sprung up between us, founded on mutual esteem, for he being a little undergrown man was proud of my strength and stature, while my melancholy and somewhat heavy spirit took a pleasure in the energy and joviality which never deserted him, and in the wit which gleamed as bright and as innocent as summer lightning through all that he said. In person he was short and broad, round-faced, ruddy-cheeked, and in truth a little inclined to be fat, though he would never confess to more than a pleasing plumpness, which was held, he said, to be the acme of manly beauty amongst the ancients. The stern test of common danger and mutual hardship entitle me to say that no man could have desired a stauncher or more trusty comrade. As he was destined to be with me in the sequel, it was but fitting that he should have been at my side on that May evening which was the starting-point of our adventures.

We pulled out beyond the Warner Sands to a place half-way between them and the Nab, where we usually found bass in plenty. There we cast the heavy stone which served us as an anchor overboard, and proceeded to set our lines. The sun sinking slowly behind a fog-bank had slashed the whole western sky with scarlet streaks, against which the wooded slopes of the Isle of Wight stood out vaporous and purple. A fresh breeze was blowing from the south-east, flecking the long green waves with crests of foam, and filling our eyes and lips with the smack of the salt spray. Over near St. Helen’s Point a King’s ship was making her way down the channel, while a single large brig was tacking about a quarter of a mile or less from where we lay. So near were we that we could catch a glimpse of the figures upon her deck as she heeled over to the breeze, and could bear the creaking of her yards and the flapping of her weather-stained canvas as she prepared to go about.

‘Look ye, Micah,’ said my companion, looking up from his fishing-line. ‘That is a most weak-minded ship — a ship which will make no way in the world. See how she hangs in the wind, neither keeping on her course nor tacking. She is a trimmer of the seas — the Lord Halifax of the ocean.’

‘Why, there is something amiss with her,’ I replied, staring across with hand-shaded eyes. ‘She yaws about as though there were no one at the helm. Her main-yard goes aback! Now it is forward again! The folk on her deck seem to me to be either fighting or dancing. Up with the anchor, Reuben, and let us pull to her.’

‘Up with the anchor and let us get out of her way,’ he answered, still gazing at the stranger. ‘Why will you ever run that meddlesome head of yours into danger’s way? She flies Dutch colours, but who can say whence she really comes? A pretty thing if we were snapped up by a buccaneer and sold in the Plantations!’

‘A buccaneer in the Solent!’ cried I derisively. ‘We shall be seeing the black flag in Emsworth Creek next. But hark! What is that?’

The crack of a musket sounded from aboard the brig. Then came a moment’s silence and another musket shot rang out, followed by a chorus of shouts and cries. Simultaneously the yards swung round into position, the sails caught the breeze once more, and the vessel darted away on a course which would take her past Bembridge Point out to the English Channel. As she flew along her helm was put hard down, a puff of smoke shot out from her quarter, and a cannon ball came hopping and splashing over the waves, passing within a hundred yards of where we lay. With this farewell greeting she came up into the wind again and continued her course to the southward.

‘Heart o’ grace!’ ejaculated Reuben in loose lipped astonishment. ‘The murdering villains!’

‘I would to the Lord that King’s ship would snap them up!’ cried I savagely, for the attack was so unprovoked that it stirred my bile. ‘What could the rogues have meant? They are surely drunk or mad!’

‘Pull at the anchor, man, pull at the anchor!’ my companion shouted, springing up from the seat. ‘I understand it! Pull at the anchor!’

‘What then?’ I asked, helping him to haul the great stone up, hand over hand, until it came dripping over the side.

‘They were not firing at us, lad. They were aiming at some one in the water between us and them. Pull, Micah! Put your back into it! Some poor fellow may he drowning.’

‘Why, I declare!’ said I, looking over my shoulder as I rowed, ‘there is his head upon the crest of a wave. Easy, or we shall he over him! Two more strokes and be ready to seize him! Keep up, friend! There’s help at hand!’

‘Take help to those who need help’ said a voice out of the sea. ‘Zounds, man, keep a guard on your oar! I fear a pat from it very much more than I do the water.’

These words were delivered in so calm and self-possessed a tone that all concern for the swimmer was set at rest. Drawing in our oars we faced round to have a look at him. The drift of the boat had brought us so close that he could have grasped the gunwale had he been so minded.

‘Sapperment!’ he cried in a peevish voice; ‘to think of my brother Nonus serving me such a trick! What would our blessed mother have said could she have seen it? My whole kit gone, to say nothing of my venture in the voyage! And now I have kicked off a pair of new jack boots that cost sixteen rix-dollars at Vanseddar’s at Amsterdam. I can’t swim in jack-boots, nor can I walk without them.’

‘Won’t you come in out of the wet, sir?’ asked Reuben, who could scarce keep serious at the stranger’s appearance and address. A pair of long arms shot out of the water, and in a moment, with a lithe, snake-like motion, the man wound himself into the boat and coiled his great length upon the stern-sheets. Very lanky he was and very thin, with a craggy hard face, clean-shaven and sunburned, with a thousand little wrinkles intersecting it in every direction. He had lost his hat, and his short wiry hair, slightly flecked with grey, stood up in a bristle all over his head. It was hard to guess at his age, but he could scarce have been under his fiftieth year, though the ease with which he had boarded our boat proved that his strength and energy were unimpaired. Of all his characteristics, however, nothing attracted my attention so much as his eyes, which were almost covered by their drooping lids, and yet looked out through the thin slits which remained with marvellous brightness and keenness. A passing glance might give the idea that he was languid and half asleep, but a closer one would reveal those glittering, shifting lines of light, and warn the prudent man not to trust too much to his first impressions.

‘I could swim to Portsmouth,’ he remarked, rummaging in the pockets of his sodden jacket; ‘I could swim well-nigh anywhere. I once swam from Gran on the Danube to Buda, while a hundred thousand Janissaries danced with rage on the nether bank. I did, by the keys of St. Peter! Wessenburg’s Pandours would tell you whether Decimus Saxon could swim. Take my advice, young men, and always carry your tobacco in a water-tight metal box.’

As he spoke he drew a flat box from his pocket, and several wooden tubes, which he screwed together to form a long pipe. This he stuffed with tobacco, and having lit it by means of a flint and steel with a piece of touch-paper from the inside of his box, he curled his legs under him in Eastern fashion, and settled down to enjoy a smoke. There was something so peculiar about the whole incident, and so preposterous about the man’s appearance and actions, that we both broke into a roar of laughter, which lasted until for very exhaustion we were compelled to stop. He neither joined in our merriment nor expressed offence at it, but continued to suck away at his long wooden tube with a perfectly stolid and impassive face, save that the half-covered eyes glinted rapidly backwards and forwards from one to the other of us.

‘You will excuse our laughter, sir,’ I said at last; ‘my friend and I are unused to such adventures, and are merry at the happy ending of it. May we ask whom it is that we have picked up?’

‘Decimus Saxon is my name,’ the stranger answered; ‘I am the tenth child of a worthy father, as the Latin implies. There are but nine betwixt me and an inheritance. Who knows? Small-pox might do it, or the plague!’

‘We heard a shot aboard of the brig,’ said Reuben.

‘That was my brother Nonus shooting at me,’ the stranger observed, shaking his head sadly.

‘But there was a second shot.’

‘Ah, that was me shooting at my brother Nonus.’

‘Good lack!’ I cried. ‘I trust that thou hast done him no hurt.’

‘But a flesh wound, at the most,’ he answered. ‘I thought it best to come away, however, lest the affair grow into a quarrel. I am sure that it was he who trained the nine-pounder on me when I was in the water. It came near enough to part my hair. He was always a good shot with a falconet or a mortar-piece. He could not have been hurt, however, to get down from the poop to the main-deck in the time.’

There was a pause after this, while the stranger drew a long knife from his belt, and cleaned out his pipe with it. Reuben and I took up our oars, and having pulled up our tangled fishing-lines, which had been streaming behind the boat, we proceeded to pull in towards the land.

‘The question now is,’ said the stranger, ‘where we are to go to?’

‘We are going down Langston Bay,’ I answered.

‘Oh, we are, are we?’ he cried, in a mocking voice; ‘you are sure of it eh? You are certain we are not going to France? We have a mast and sail there, I see, and water in the beaker. All we want are a few fish, which I hear are plentiful in these waters, and we might make a push for Barfleur.’

‘We are going down Langston Bay,’ I repeated coldly.

‘You see might is right upon the waters,’ he explained, with a smile which broke his whole face up into crinkles. ‘I am an old soldier, a tough fighting man, and you are two raw lads. I have a knife, and you are unarmed. D’ye see the line of argument? The question now is, Where are we to go?’

I faced round upon him with the oar in my hand. ‘You boasted that you could swim to Portsmouth,’ said I, ‘and so you shall. Into the water with you, you sea-viper, or I’ll push you in as sure as my name is Micah Clarke.’

‘Throw your knife down, or I’ll drive the boat hook through you,’ cried Reuben, pushing it forward to within a few inches of the man’s throat.

‘Sink me, but this is most commendable!’ he said, sheathing his weapon, and laughing softly to himself. ‘I love to draw spirit out of the young fellows. I am the steel, d’ye see, which knocks the valour out of your flint. A notable simile, and one in every way worthy of that most witty of mankind, Samuel Butler. This,’ he continued, tapping a protuberance which I had remarked over his chest, ‘is not a natural deformity, but is a copy of that inestimable “Hudibras,” which combines the light touch of Horace with the broader mirth of Catullus. Heh! what think you of the criticism?’

‘Give up that knife,’ said I sternly.

‘Certainly,’ he replied, handing it over to me with a polite bow. ‘Is there any other reasonable matter in which I can oblige ye? I will give up anything to do ye pleasure-save only my good name and soldierly repute, or this same copy of “Hudibras,” which, together with a Latin treatise upon the usages of war, written by a Fleming and printed in Liege in the Lowlands, I do ever bear in my bosom.’

I sat down beside him with the knife in my hand. ‘You pull both oars,’ I said to Reuben; ‘I’ll keep guard over the fellow and see that he plays us no trick. I believe that you are right, and that he is nothing better than a pirate. He shall be given over to the justices when we get to Havant.’

I thought that our passenger’s coolness deserted him for a moment, and that a look of annoyance passed over his face.

‘Wait a bit!’ he said; ‘your name, I gather is Clarke, and your home is Havant. Are you a kinsman of Joseph Clarke, the old Roundhead of that town?’

‘He is my father,’ I answered.

‘Hark to that, now!’ he cried, with a throb of laughter; ‘I have a trick of falling on my feet. Look at this, lad! Look at this!’ He drew a packet of letters from his inside pocket, wrapped in a bit of tarred cloth, and opening it he picked one out and placed it upon my knee. ‘Read!’ said he, pointing at it with his long thin finger.

It was inscribed in large plain characters, ‘To Joseph Clarke, leather merchant of Havant, by the hand of Master Decimus Saxon, part-owner of the ship Providence, from Amsterdam to Portsmouth.’ At each side it was sealed with a massive red seal, and was additionally secured with a broad band of silk.

‘I have three-and-twenty of them to deliver in the neighbourhood,’ he remarked. ‘That shows what folk think of Decimus Saxon. Three-and-twenty lives and liberties are in my hands. Ah, lad, invoices and bills of lading are not done up in that fashion. It is not a cargo of Flemish skins that is coming for the old man. The skins have good English hearts in them; ay, and English swords in their fists to strike out for freedom and for conscience. I risk my life in carrying this letter to your father; and you, his son, threaten to hand me over to the justices! For shame! For shame! I blush for you!’

‘I don’t know what you are hinting at,’ I answered. ‘You must speak plainer if I am to understand you.’

‘Can we trust him?’ he asked, jerking his head in the direction of Reuben.

‘As myself.’

‘How very charming!’ said he, with something between a smile and a sneer. ‘David and Jonathan — or, to be more classical and less scriptural, Damon and Pythias — eh?’ These papers, then, are from the faithful abroad, the exiles in Holland, ye understand, who are thinking of making a move and of coming over to see King James in his own country with their swords strapped on their thighs. The letters are to those from whom they expect sympathy, and notify when and where they will make a landing. Now, my dear lad, you will perceive that instead of my being in your power, you are so completely in mine that it needs but a word from me to destroy your whole family. Decimus Saxon is staunch, though, and that word shall never be spoken.’

‘If all this he true,’ said I, ‘and if your mission is indeed as you have said, why did you even now propose to make for France?’

‘Aptly asked, and yet the answer is clear enough,’ he replied; ‘sweet and ingenuous as are your faces, I could not read upon them that ye would prove to be Whigs and friends of the good old cause. Ye might have taken me to where excisemen or others would have wanted to pry and peep, and so endangered my commission. Better a voyage to France in an open boat than that.’

‘I will take you to my father,’ said I, after a few moments’ thought. ‘You can deliver your letter and make good your story to him. If you are indeed a true man, you will meet with a warm welcome; but should you prove, as I shrewdly suspect, to be a rogue, you need expect no mercy.’

‘Bless the youngster! he speaks like the Lord High Chancellor of England! What is it the old man says?

“He could not ope
His mouth, but out there fell a trope.”

But it should be a threat, which is the ware in which you are fond of dealing.

“He could not let
A minute pass without a threat.”

How’s that, eh? Waller himself could not have capped the couplet neater.’

All this time Reuben had been swinging away at his oars, and we had made our way into Langston Bay, down the sheltered waters of which we were rapidly shooting. Sitting in the sheets, I turned over in my mind all that this waif had said. I had glanced over his shoulder at the addresses of some of the letters — Steadman of Basingstoke, Wintle of Alresford, Fortescue of Bognor, all well-known leaders of the Dissenters. If they were what he represented them to be, it was no exaggeration to say that he held the fortunes and fates of these men entirely in his hands. Government would be only too glad to have a valid reason for striking hard at the men whom they feared. On the whole it was well to tread carefully in the matter, so I restored our prisoner’s knife to him, and treated him with increased consideration. It was well-nigh dark when we beached the boat, and entirely so before we reached Havant, which was fortunate, as the bootless and hatless state of our dripping companion could not have failed to set tongues wagging, and perhaps to excite the inquiries of the authorities. As it was, we scarce met a soul before reaching my father’s door.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 21:33