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Under Drake's Flag
A Tale of the Spanish Main
By G. A. Henty, Gordon Brown
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The Wreck on the Devon Coast
It was a stormy morning in the month of May, 1572, and the fishermen of the little village of Westport, situate about five miles from Plymouth, clustered in the public-house of the place, and discussed, not the storm, for that was a common topic, but the fact that Master Francis Drake, whose ships lay now at Plymouth, was visiting the Squire of Treadwood, had passed through the village over night, and might go through it again to-day. There was not one of the hardy fishermen there but would gladly have joined Drake's expedition; for marvellous tales had been told of the great booty which he and other well-known captains had already obtained from the Dons on the Spanish Main. The number, however, who could go was limited, and even of these the seafaring men were but a small proportion; for in those days, although a certain number of sailors were required to trim the sails and navigate the ship, the strength of the company were the fighting men, who were soldiers by trade, and fought on board ship as if on land. Captain Drake was accompanied by many men of good Devon blood, for that county was then ahead of all England in its enterprise and its seamanship, and no captain of name or repute ever had any difficulty in getting together a band of adventurers from the sturdy population of her shores.
"I went over myself last week," said a finely-built young sailor, "and I prayed the captain on my knees to take me on board; but he said the tale had been full long ago, and that so many were the applicants that Master Drake and himself had sworn a great oath that they would take none beyond those already engaged."
"Aye! I would have gone myself," said a grizzly, weather-beaten old sailor, "if they would have had me. There was Will Trelawney, who went on such another expedition as this, and came back with more bags of Spanish dollars than he could carry. Truly they are a gold mine, these Western seas; but even better than getting gold is the thrashing of those haughty Spaniards, who seem to look upon themselves as gods, and on all others as fit only to clean their worships' boots."
"They cannot fight neither, can they?" asked a young sailor.
"They can fight, boy, and have fought as well as we could; but somehow they cannot stand against us in those seas. Whether it is that the curse of the poor natives whom they kill, enslave, and ill-treat in every way rises against them, and takes away their courage and their nerve, but certain is it that when our little craft lay alongside their big galleons, fight as they will, the battle is as good as over. Nothing less than four to one, at the very least, has any chance against our buccaneers."
"They ill-treat those that fall into their hands, do they not?"
"Ay do they!" said the old sailor. "They tear off their flesh with hot pincers, wrench out their nails, and play all sorts of devil's games, and then at last they burn what is left of them in the market-places. I have heard tell of fearsome tales, lad; but the Spaniards outwit themselves. Were our men to have fair treatment as prisoners of war, it may be that the Spaniards would often be able to hold their own against us; but the knowledge that if we are taken this horrible fate is certain to be ours, makes our men fight with a desperate fury, and never to give in as long as one is left. This it is that accounts for the wonderful victories which we have gained there. He would be a coward, indeed, who would not fight with thumb-screws and a bonfire behind him."
"It is said that the queen and her ministers favor, though not openly, these adventures."
"She cannot do it openly," said the old man, "for here in Europe we are at peace with Spain—worse luck."
"How is it, then, that if we are at peace here we can be at war in the Indian Seas?"
"That is more than I can tell thee, lad. I guess the queen's writ runs not so far as that, and while her majesty's commands must be obeyed, and the Spanish flag suffered to pass unchallenged on these seas, on the Spanish Main there are none to keep the peace, and the Don and the Englishman go at each other's throats as a thing of nature."
"The storm is rising, methinks. It is not often I have heard the wind howl more loudly. It is well that the adventurers have not yet started, it would be bad for any craft caught in the Channel to-day."
As he spoke he looked from the casement. Several people were seen hurrying toward the beach.
"Something is the matter, lads; maybe a ship is driving on the rocks even now."
Seizing their hats and cloaks, the party sallied out and hurried down to the shore. There they saw a large ship driving in before the wind into the bay. She was making every effort that seamanship could suggest to beat clear of the head, but the sailors saw at once that her case was hopeless.
"She will go on the Black Shoal, to a certainty," the old sailor said, "and then, may God have mercy on their souls."
"Can we do nothing to help them?" a woman standing near asked.
"No, no," the sailor said; "we could not launch a boat in the teeth of this tremendous sea. All we can do is to look out and throw a line to any who may be washed ashore on a spar when she goes to pieces."
Presently a group of men, whose dress belonged to the upper class, moved down through the street to the beach.
"Aye! there is Mr. Trevelyan," said the sailor, "and the gentleman beside him is Captain Drake himself."
The group moved on to where the fishermen were standing.
"Is there no hope," they asked, "of helping the ship?"
The seamen shook their heads.
"You will see for yourself, Master Drake, that no boat could live in such a sea as this."
"It could not put out from here," the captain said; "but if they could lower one from the ship, it might live until it got into the breakers."
"Aye, aye," said a sailor; "but there is no lowering a boat from a ship which has begun to beat on the Black Shoal."
"Another minute and she will strike," the old sailor said.
All gazed intently at the ship. The whole population of the village were now on the shore, and were eager to render any assistance, if it were possible. In another minute or two a general cry announced that the ship had struck. Rising high on a wave she came down with a force which caused her mainmast at once to go over the side, another lift on the next sea and then high and fast she was jammed on the rocks of the Black Shoal. The distance from shore was but small, not more than three hundred yards, and the shouts of the sailors on board could be heard in the storm.
"Why does not one of them jump over with a rope?" Captain Drake said, impatiently. "Are the men all cowards, or can none of them swim? It would be easy to swim from that ship to the shore, while it is next to impossible for any one to make his way out through these breakers. Is there no one who can reach her from here?" he said, looking round.
"No one among us, your honor," the old sailor said; "few here can keep themselves up in the water in a calm sea, but if man or boy could swim through that surf, it is the lad who is just coming down from behind us. The 'Otter,' as we call him, for he seems to be able to live in water as well as on land."
The lad of whom they were speaking was a bright-faced boy of some fifteen years of age. He was squarely built, and his dress differed a little from that of the fisher lads standing on the beach.
"Who is he?" asked Captain Drake.
"He is the son of the schoolmaster here, a learned man, and they do say one who was once wealthy. The lad himself would fain go to sea, but his father keeps him here. It is a pity, for he is a bold boy, and would make a fine sailor."
The "Otter," as he had been called, had now come down to the beach, and, with his hands shading his eyes from the spray, sheets of which the wind carried along with blinding force, he gazed at the ship and the sea with a steady intentness.
"I think I can get out to her," he said, to the fishermen.
"It is madness, boy," Captain Drake said. "There are few men, indeed, so far as I know, in these climes—I talk not of the heathens of the Western Islands—who could swim through a breaking sea like yonder."
"I think I can do it," the boy said, quietly. "I have been out in as heavy seas before, and if one does but choose one's time, and humor them a bit, the waves are not much to be feared after all. Get me the light line," he said to the sailors, "and I will be off at once." So saying he carelessly threw off his clothes. The fishermen brought a light line; one end they fastened round his shoulders, and with a cheerful good-by he ran down to the water's edge. The sea was breaking with tremendous violence, and the chance of the lad's getting out through the breakers appeared slight indeed. He watched, however, quietly for three or four minutes, when a wave larger than usual broke on the beach. Following it out he stood knee-deep till the next great wave advanced, then with a plunge he dived in beneath it. It seemed an age before he was again seen, and Captain Drake expressed his fear that his head must have been dashed against a rock beneath the water. But the men said, "He dives like a duck, sir, and has often frightened us by the time he keeps under water. You will see he will come up beyond the second line of waves."
It seemed an age to the watchers before a black spot appeared suddenly beyond the foaming line of breakers. There was a general shout of "There he is!" But they had scarce time to note the position of the swimmer when he again disappeared. Again and again he came up, each time rapidly decreasing the distance between himself and the shipwrecked vessel, and keeping his head above the waves for a few seconds only at each appearance.
The people in the vessel were watching the progress of the lad with attention and interest even greater than was manifested by those on shore, and as he approached the ship, which already showed signs of breaking up, a line was thrown to him. He caught it, but instead of holding on and being lifted to the ship, he fastened the light rope which he had brought out to it, and made signs to them to haul.
"Fasten a thicker rope to it," he shouted, "and they will haul it in from the shore." It would have been no easy matter to get on board the ship; so, having done his work, the lad turned to make his way back to the shore. A thick rope was fastened at once by those of the crew who still remained on the deck of the vessel to the lighter one, and those on shore began to pull it rapidly in, but ere the knotted joint reached the shore a cry from all gathered on the beach showed that the brave attempt of the "Otter" had been useless. A tremendous sea had struck the ship, and in a moment it broke up, and a number of floating fragments alone showed where a fine vessel had a few minutes before floated on the sea.
The lad paused in his course toward the shore, and, looking round, endeavored to face the driving wind and spray in hopes that he might see among the fragments of the wreck some one to whom his assistance might be of use. For a time he could see no signs of a human being among the floating masses of wreck, and indeed he was obliged to use great caution in keeping away from these, as a blow from any of the larger spars might have been fatal. Presently close to him he heard a short muffled bark, and looking round saw a large dog with a child in its mouth. The animal, which was of the mastiff breed, appeared already exhausted. The "Otter" looked hastily round, and seeing a piece of wreck of suitable size he seized it, and with some difficulty succeeded in bringing it close to the dog. Fortunately the spar was a portion of one of the yards, and still had a quantity of rope connected to it. He now took hold of the child's clothes, the dog readily yielding up the treasure he had carried, seeing that the new-comer was likely to afford better assistance than himself. In a few moments the child was fastened to the spar, and the "Otter" began steadily to push it toward the shore, the dog swimming alongside, evidently much relieved at getting rid of his burden. When he neared the line of breakers the lad waved his hand as a sign to them to prepare to rush forward and lend a hand when the spar approached. He then paddled forward quietly, and keeping just outside the line of the breakers waved to those on shore to throw, if possible, a rope. Several attempts were made to hurl a stone, fastened to the end of a light line, within his reach.
After many failures he at last caught the line. This he fastened to the spar, and signalled to those on shore to pull it in, then side by side with the dog he followed. Looking round behind him he watched a great breaker rolling in, and, as before, dived as it passed over his head, and rode forward on the swell toward the shore. Then there was a desperate struggle: at one moment his feet touched the ground, at another he was hauled back and tossed into the whirling sea; sometimes almost losing his consciousness, but ever keeping his head cool and striving steadily to make progress. Several times he was dashed against the beach with great force, and it was his knowledge that the only safe way of approaching shore through a heavy surf is to keep sideways to the waves, and allow them to roll one over and over, that he escaped death—for had he advanced straight toward the shore the force of the waves would have rolled him heels-overhead, and would almost certainly have broken his neck.
At last, just as consciousness was leaving him, and he thought that he could struggle no more, a hand grasped his arm. The fishermen, joining hand in hand, had gone down into the surf, and after many ineffectual efforts had at last seized him as a retiring wave was carrying him out again for the fifth time. With the consciousness of rescue all feeling left him, and it was some minutes before he recovered his senses. His first question was for the safety of the child on the spar, and he was glad to hear that it had come to shore without hurt. The dog, too, had been rolled up the beach, and seized before taken off again, but had broken one of its legs.
The "Otter" was soon on his feet again, and saying, "I must make my way home, they will be alarmed about me," was about to turn away when a group of gentlemen standing near advanced.
"You are a fine lad," one of them said to him. "A fine lad, and an honor to the south of Devonshire. My name is Francis Drake, and if there be aught that I can do for you, now or hereafter, I shall be glad indeed to do my utmost for so gallant a youth as yourself."
"Oh, sir!" the boy exclaimed, his cheek flushing with excitement. "If you are Master Francis Drake, will you let me join your ship for the voyage to the Indies?"
"Ah! my boy," the gentleman said, "you have asked the only thing, perhaps, which I should feel obliged to refuse you. Already we have more than our number, and to avoid the importunity of the many who wish to go, or of my powerful friends who desired to place sons or relations in my charge, I have been obliged to swear that I would take no other sailor in addition to those already shipped. You are, however, young," he said, as he marked the change in the boy's face, "and I promise you that if I come back, and again sail on an expedition like that on which I now start, that you shall be one of my crew. What is your name, lad? I hear them call you Otter, and truly the beast is no better swimmer than you are."
"My name, sir, is Ned Hearne; my father is the schoolmaster here."
"Will he consent, think you, to your taking to a seafaring life?"
"Methinks he will, sir, he knows that my heart is set upon it, for he hath often said if I loved my lessons with one-tenth of the love I bear for the sea, I should make a good scholar and be a credit to him."
"I will not forget you, lad. Trust me, and when you hear of my return, fail not to send a reminder, and to claim a place in my next adventure."
Ned Hearne, delighted at the assurance, ran off at full speed to the cottage where his father resided at the end of the village. The domine, who was an old man, wore the huge tortoise-shell rimmed spectacles of the time.
"Wet again," he said, as his son burst into the room in which he was sitting studying a Greek tome. "Truly thou earnest the name of which thou art so proud, Otter, hardly. What tempted thee to go into the water on a day like this?"
Ned briefly explained what had taken place. The story was no unusual one, for this was the third time that he had swum out to vessels on the rocks between Westport and Plymouth. Then he related to his father how Captain Francis Drake had spoken to him and praised him, and how he had promised that, on his next trip to the West Indies, he would take him with him.
Excerpted from Under Drake's Flag by G. A. Henty, Gordon Brown. Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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