“Item, of the Cognac 25 degrees above proof, according to sample in the little green flask, 144 ankers at 4 gallons per anker, at 5s. 6d. per gallon, the said ankers to be ready slung for horse-carriage.”
“Now may the mischief fly away with these English!” cried my father, to whom my mother was reading the letter aloud. “It costs a man a working day, with their gallons and sixpences, to find out of how much they mean to rob him at the end of it.”
“Item, 2 ankers of colouring stuff at 4 gallons per anker, price as usual. The place to be as before, under Rope Hauen, east side of Blackhead, unless warned: and a straight run. Come close in, any wind but easterly, and can load up horses alongside. March 24th or 25th will be best, night tides suiting, and no moon. Horses will be there: two fenced lights, pilchard-store and beach, showing S 1/4 E to E S E. Get them in line. Same pay for freighting, and crew 17l. per man, being a straight run,”
“And little enough,” was my father’s comment.
“Item, 15 little wooden dolls, jointed at the knees and elbows, the same as tante Yvonne used to sell for two sols at Saint Pol de Leon–.”
“‘Fifteen little wooden dolls’! ‘Fifteen little woo–‘.” My father dropped into his chair, and sat speechless, opening and shutting his mouth like a fish.
“It is here in black and white,” said my mother. I found the letter, years after, in her kist. It was written, as were all the letters we received from this Cornish venturer, in a woman’s hand, small and delicate, with upstrokes like spider’s thread; written in French, too, quite easy and careless. My mother held it close to the window. “‘Fifteen little wooden dolls,'” she repeated, “‘jointed at the knees and elbows.'”
“Well, I’ve gone to sea with all sorts, from Admiral Brueys upwards; but fifteen little wooden dolls–jointed–at–the–knees!”
“I know the sort,” I put in from the hearth, where my mother had set me to watch the bouillon. “You can get as many as you like in the very next street, and at two sols apiece. I will look to that part of the cargo.”
“You, for example? . . .”
“Yes, I; since you promised to take me on the very next voyage after I was twelve.”
“But that’s impossible. This is a straight run, as they call it, and not a mere matter of sinking the crop.”
“And next time,” I muttered bitterly, “we shall be at war with England again, and then it will be the danger of privateers–always one excuse or another!”
My mother sighed as she looked out of window towards the Isle de Batz. I had been coaxing her half the morning, and she had promised me to say nothing.
Well, the result was that I went. My father’s lugger carried twelve hands–I counted myself, of course; and indeed my father did the same when it came to charging for the crew. Still, twelve was not an out-of-the-way number, since in these chasse-marees one must lower and rehoist the big sails at every fresh tack. As it happened, however, we had a fair wind right across from Roscoff, and made a good landfall of the Dodman at four in the afternoon, just twenty hours after starting. This was a trifle too early for us; so we dowsed sail, to escape notice, and waited for nightfall. As soon as it grew dark, we lowered the two tub-boats we carried–one on davits and the other inboard–and loaded them up and started to pull for shore, leaving two men behind on the lugger. My father steered the first boat, and I the other, keeping close in his wake–and a proud night that was for me! We had three good miles between us and shore; but the boats were mere shells and pulled light even with the tubs in them. So the men took it easy. I reckon that it was well past midnight before we saw the two lights which the letter had promised.