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The Pilot of Port Creek by Burnett Fallow

 

The sun, low in the west, was sinking behind a heavy cloudbank, which, to nautical eyes, portended fog at sea.

A mariner, far out in the Channel, in a small boat, was shading his eyes with his hand and gazing towards the south-western horizon.

The lad—he was not more than eighteen—was calculated to attract attention. He was of fine physique. His hair shone like burnished gold. His eyes were deep blue, clear, and bright. A marked firmness was about his mouth and chin; and when he seized the oars and rowed to counteract the boat's leeway caused by the tide, the grip of his hands was as that of a vice.

He was the pilot of Port Creek—no official title, but one given him by a lawless set of men amongst whom, for many years, his lot had been cast.

Astern, faint and indistinct, loomed the low-lying coast-line. One could only judge it to be a wild, inhospitable shore.

The sun disappeared, and the shades of night began to fall. Suddenly the clouds parted, and a ray of sunshine shot obliquely down towards the south-west.

The pilot immediately muttered: "That's well!"

The bright ray had struck the dark sails of a lugger, and in her he had recognised the craft he had come out to pilot to a fateful destination.

Smartly he ran up a small lugsail, and set his boat's head towards the stranger. She was black hulled, and with a rakish rig that gave her the appearance of being a fast sailer.

At the critical moment, when it appeared the lugger was about to cut him down, the pilot suddenly ported helm, and ran his boat under the lugger's side. Smartly he lowered his sail and fastened on the vessel with his boathook.

"Heave a rope!" called he. "I'm coming on board."

"And who are you?" asked a swarthy man, who had been watching from the lugger's bows.

"I bring a message to your captain."

"Catch, then!" and a coil of rope went curling through the air.

The pilot deftly caught it, and hitched the end to the bow of his boat.

"Carry it astern, and make fast!" ordered he, like one accustomed to command. "She'll tow till I want her."

The boat dropped astern, but the pilot nimbly boarded the lugger.

A powerful man in reefer jacket, sou'-wester, and sea-boots greeted him with—

"You seem pretty free with strangers, my lad."

The pilot held out a piece of paper. The captain took it and read—

"It is by our order and for the good of the cause that the bearer is authorised to act."

The signature was a rude hieroglyphic. The captain's manner immediately showed that he recognised it, and respected it.

"Am I to understand that you take command?"

The pilot bowed, and tendered a second paper. The captain read—

"Should the bearer fail to accomplish that which he has undertaken, it will be for the captain of the 'Swift' to see that he gives no further trouble."

A wicked gleam came into the captain's eyes.

"If you fail in that which you are instructed to do—and which I know nothing of at present—this is your death-warrant?"

"It is."

"Then see you fail not."

"Rely on it, I shall not fail!"

The words were spoken in such cold, deliberate tones that the captain—a man who boasted he knew not fear—shivered as though from the touch of an icy hand.

"What are your orders?" presently asked the captain, eyeing him keenly.

"To pilot the lugger to the head of Port Creek, where friends await her cargo. The old landings are played out; but who would suspect a lugger to effect a run in the creek after dark?"

"No human hand could steer that course!"

"Yet I am here."

"The thing is impossible!"

"The tide flows at midnight. My orders are to go in with the rising tide and bring you out on the ebb, that you may make a good offing before dawn."

"It cannot be done! I'll not have the risk——"

"You have your commands, I my orders," coldly interrupted the pilot.

"Then I'll execute mine to the letter!"

"And I—we shall see."

He bent low over the binnacle, afterwards glancing swiftly shoreward.

"Keep her away a couple of points. We'll come about presently and fetch the creek on the other tack, just after dark, and with the tide half made."

Long and intently the captain studied the boy's fearless face. Then he began to recall an almost forgotten memory.

"Boy," said he suddenly, "you remind me of some one I have known."

The pilot's gaze remained as steady as his own, but there was a slight expression of cynicism playing about his mouth.

"Ay!" continued the captain, seeming to speak his thoughts aloud. "The eyes are the same, just as they looked that night when I—— Bah!" recovering himself. "What a fool I am! This new venture unmans me."

The pilot did not seem to hear, but his eyes seemed to glow with a green sheen, as the gathering gloom obscured his face. A violent emotion was possessing him.

"Boy!" again cried the captain, "you interest me. How comes it that one so young holds so responsible a position in the cause?"

"By past services have I been judged."

"Come, tell me the story."

"As you will."

"You will find me a ready listener."

"Be it so; but not yet. Now set the course north-west. A single light here at the binnacle, and no other to show from anywhere on board. As soon as we are in the creek, see that the sails are smartly trimmed to my order. There'll be little time to spare."

The captain passed the word, and began to moodily pace the deck. He had never thought to question the genuineness of the two papers. There stood the pilot, his life forfeited by any failure tending to bring disaster upon the lugger; and it was a good guarantee.

Anon the captain glanced at the pale, set face of the pilot, on which the diffused light from the binnacle lantern feebly shone. For the second time that evening the captain shivered, and without being able to define the cause. He felt strangely ill at ease. Accustomed to daring ventures, the present seemed sheer recklessness. Who was this determined boy? Why did his presence bring back a fateful memory of the past?

The darkness deepened, and was further intensified by the cold, grey fog. The wind was light, but a steady up-Channel draught. The lugger was creeping in under mainsail and jib, her other sails being furled.

The pilot took over the helm, and ordered the man he relieved to go forward. At the same time the captain came and stood by the binnacle.

"What is our position?" shortly asked he.

"We are within the creek," replied the pilot. "Hark! Don't you hear the grinding of the shingle away over the port bow? As soon as the sound comes from windward we'll have her on the port tack, and thus we'll clear Boulder Ledge."

"It sounds fair sailing; but I liken it to going blindly into a trap," retorted the captain.

"Haul on the main-sheet! Steady, forward, with the jib!" And the pilot starboarded his helm.

Again the captain shivered. Who was this, who held death so lightly? His own gloomy forebodings came upon him with redoubled force. What manner of pilot was this, to whom night was as day?

"Boy!" he cried shortly, "why are you here?"

"You read my orders."

"Yes; but——"

Again the pilot caused an interruption by shifting helm.

"Who are you?" hoarsely cried the captain.

"Well, sixteen years ago to-night—steady, cap'n!" for the man had staggered as though from the effect of a mortal blow.

"Avast! Who and what are you?" The captain's voice was deep and menacing.

"The pilot of Port Creek. I have no other name—at least, it suits me to forget it."

"What was your father?"

"A mariner."

"His name?"

"Wait!" and the pilot luffed till the sails shook. A peculiar vibration passed throughout the lugger's timbers, and her way was gently arrested.

"We're aground! You have failed!" cried the captain, and drew a pistol from his belt.

"Wait!" And again the pilot spoke in cold, disdainful tones. One might have counted a hundred. It was terrible suspense. The captain's finger was toying with the trigger of his pistol. The pilot stood immovable, the disdainful smile deepening upon his lips. "Ease off the main-sheet!" cried he, as he turned his ear to windward. There came a stronger puff of wind, a bigger wave rolled up under the lugger's stern, she lifted, and immediately glided forward—free!

"You lost your reckoning, my lad!" cried the captain.

"A slight error of judgment. The tide has made somewhat less than I anticipated."

"What is our position?"

"We scraped on the Sandstone Ledge," grimly. "'Twas a close shave—for me!"

"And did you doubt——"

"No. But put up your pistol and I'll get on with my story—unless you'd rather not listen."

"No, no! Go on!"

The pilot stood steady at the helm, his eyes fixed on the binnacle, each movement of the compass-needle a sign for his ready hands to obey. Anon a concise order to shift a sail fell from his lips, for in spite of his interrupted conversation with the captain his every action showed a trained alertness.

Again he took up the thread of his story—

"'Twas my father's death made me—what I am." The pause was ominous. "He was one of us—a smuggler."

"Ah!"

"A run had been planned——"

"I——"

"My father was young and daring. To him was entrusted the most venturesome part of the night's work. But I am anticipating. He had a rival—a man who sought my mother. But she was true to my father."

"I remember——"

"Steady, cap'n! You may have known him—perchance he was once your friend?"

"No, no!" hoarsely. "He—I——"

A bright light suddenly flashed through the fog, and from right ahead.

"A signal?" cried the captain.

"From a friend," and the pilot ported helm. "'Tis a dangerous spot hereabouts, so nothing has been left to chance. We're now abreast of Green Point. Steady, lads, for the next tack!"

Shortly another light flashed right upon the lugger's bows. The pilot jammed over the helm to starboard. There was a slight shock, and something grated along the lugger's side.

"All clear now, cap'n; but 'twas a narrow go. We grazed Rudder Rock! The fool stationed there with the light flashed it a full minute too late!"

"Boy, you must have dealings with——"

"Steady, cap'n! Your nerves are unstrung. Perhaps the conclusion of my story 'll steady them. Well, the venture that was planned was no less than to take the goods in under Black Rock, and have them hauled up the face of the cliff. In the end 'twas safely done—to all but my father. He had been lowered down to fasten on the bales. Those who were out that night came back saying he had fallen from the cliff. They recovered his body the next day, and they found the piece of rope around the mangled corpse had been cut."

"Ay, by the rocks."

"No, no! A poor fellow who witnessed the act was shot by the hand that cut the rope; but he lived long enough to tell my mother the truth."

"Or a parcel of lies."

"Dying men don't lie, cap'n! I was born that same night. Years afterwards, when I was old enough to understand—when my mother was on her deathbed—she told me the story; and my last word to her was a promise to hunt down my father's murderer."

"And you have failed!" cried the captain.

"Let go the anchor!" cried the pilot. "See, cap'n, I'll bring her head up into the wind, and she'll ride with her sails set. Off with the hatches, my lads!"

A bright light flashed three times from left to right. The pilot took the lantern and waved responsive signals.

"All's well!" cried he. "Cap'n, you will see to the getting up of the goods."

Taken off his guard, the captain stepped to the hatchway, gave a few orders, and seemed to recollect something. But the binnacle light was out, and the pilot had disappeared! The captain caught at the rope by which his boat had been towing astern. It came in without resistance; it had been cut!

"We are betrayed!" cried the captain. "Hark! Friends or foes!" as a number of boats came quickly alongside.

"Surrender in the King's name!" was the response.


The desperate encounter that ensued is written in the history of those lawless times. Suffice it that the captain and his crew paid the full penalty of their many crimes.

The pilot, having fulfilled his vow, was no more seen upon that part of the coast. To have remained would have been to forfeit his life, for the betrayed smugglers had many friends.

But the old chronicles from which I have compiled this story go on to say that he secured a berth in the navy, and years afterwards trod the quarter-deck of a man-of-war.