The Pilot of
Port Creek by
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
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
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
"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
"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
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?"
"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
"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
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."
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
"The pilot of Port Creek. I have no other name—at least, it suits me to
"What was your father?"
"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
"What is our position?"
"We scraped on the Sandstone Ledge," grimly. "'Twas a close shave—for
"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
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."
"A run had been planned——"
"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."
"Steady, cap'n! You may have known him—perchance he was once your
"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
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.