Captain Pond, of the East and West Looe Volunteer Artillery (familiarly known as the Looe Die-hards), put his air-cushion to his lips and blew. This gave his face a very choleric and martial expression.
Nevertheless, above his suffused and distended cheeks his eyes preserved a pensive melancholy as they dwelt upon his Die-hards gathered in the rain below him on the long-shore, or Church-end, wall. At this date (November 3, 1809) the company numbered seventy, besides Captain Pond and his two subalterns; and of this force four were out in the boat just now, mooring the practice-mark–a barrel with a small red flag stuck on top; one, the bugler, had been sent up the hill to the nine-pounder battery, to watch and sound a call as soon as the target was ready; a sixth, Sergeant Fugler, lay at home in bed, with the senior lieutenant (who happened also to be the local doctor) in attendance. Captain Pond clapped a thumb over the orifice of his air-cushion, and heaved a sigh as he thought of Sergeant Fugler. The remaining sixty-four Die-hards, with their firelocks under their great-coats, and their collars turned up against the rain, lounged by the embrasures of the shore-wall, and gossiped dejectedly, or eyed in silence the blurred boat bobbing up and down in the grey blur of the sea.
“Such coarse weather I hardly remember to have met with for years,” said Uncle Israel Spettigew, a cheerful sexagenarian who ranked as efficient on the strength of his remarkable eyesight, which was keener than most boys’. “The sweep from over to Polperro was cleanin’ my chimbley this mornin’, and he told me in his humorous way that with all this rain ’tis so much as he can do to keep his face dirty–hee-hee!”
Nobody smiled. “If you let yourself give way to the enjoyment of little things like that,” observed a younger gunner gloomily, “one o’ these days you’ll find yourself in a better land like the snuff of a candle. ‘Tis a year since the Company’s been allowed to move in double time, and all because you can’t manage a step o’ thirty-six inches ‘ithout getting the palpitations.”
“Well-a-well, ’tis but for a brief while longer–a few fleeting weeks, an’ us Die-hards shall be as though we had never been. So why not be cheerful? For my part, I mind back in ‘seventy-nine, when the fleets o’ France an’ Spain assembled an’ come up agen’ us–sixty-six sail o’ the line, my sonnies, besides frigates an’ corvettes to the amount o’ twenty-five or thirty, all as plain as the nose on your face: an’ the alarm guns goin’, up to Plymouth, an’ the signals hoisted at Maker Tower–a bloody flag at the pole an’ two blue ‘uns at the outriggers. Four days they laid to, an’ I mind the first time I seed mun, from this very place as it might be where we’m standin’ at this moment, I said ‘Well, ’tis all over with East Looe this time!’ I said: ‘an’ when ’tis over, ’tis over, as Joan said by her weddin’.’ An’ then I spoke them verses by royal Solomon–Wisdom two, six to nine. ‘Let us fill oursel’s wi’ costly wine an’ ointments,’ I said: ‘an’ let no flower o’ the spring pass by us. Let us crown oursel’s wi’ rosebuds, afore they be withered: let none of us go without his due part of our voluptuousness’–“
“Why, you old adage, that’s what Solomon makes th’ ungodly say!” interrupted young Gunner Oke, who had recently been appointed parish clerk, and happened to know.
“As it happens,” Uncle Issy retorted, with sudden dignity–“as it happens, I was ungodly in them days. The time I’m talkin’ about was August ‘seventy-nine; an’ if I don’t mistake, your father an’ mother, John Oke, were courtin’ just then, an’ ‘most too shy to confide in each other about havin’ a parish clerk for a son.”