Thereupon I did an incredibly foolish thing, which, as it proved, defeated all our plans and gave rise to unnumbered woes. I was already late for names-calling; but for this I cared little. Stimcoe had not the courage to flog me; the day had been a holiday, and of a sort to excuse indiscipline; and, anyway, one might as well suffer for a sheep as for a lamb. The St. Mawes packet would be lying alongside the Market Strand. The moon was up—a round, full moon—and directly over St. Mawes, so that her rays fell, as near as might be, in the line of the cutter’s course, which, with a steady breeze down the harbour, would be a straight one. From the edge of Market Strand I might be able to spy Captain Coffin’s boat as he boarded. Let me, without extenuating, be brief over my act of folly. Instead of making at once for Stimcoe’s, I bent my steps towards Market Strand. The St. Mawes packet lay there, and I stood on the edge of the quay, watching her preparations for casting off—the skipper clearing the gangway and politely helping aboard, between the warning notes of his whistle, belated marketers who came running with their bundles.
While I stood there, a man sauntered out and stood for a moment on the threshold of the Plume of Feathers. It was the man Aaron Glass, and, recognizing him, I (that had been standing directly under the light of the quay-lamp) drew back from the edge into the darkness. I had done better, perhaps, to stand where I was. How long he had been observing me—if, indeed, he had observed me—I could not tell. But, as I drew back, he advanced and strolled nonchalantly past me, at five yards distance, down to the quay-steps.
“All aboard for St. Mawes!” called the skipper, drawing in his plank.
“All but one, captain!” answered Glass, and, disdaining it, without removing his hands from his pockets, put a foot upon the bulwark and sprang lightly on to her deck.
CHAOS IN THE CAPTAIN’S LODGINGS.
I leave you to guess what were my feelings as foot by foot the packet’s quarter fell away wider of the quay. If, as the skipper thrust off, I had found presence of mind to jump for her, who knows what mischief might have been prevented? I could at least—whatever the consequences—have called a warning to Captain Coffin to give his enemy a wide-berth. But I was unnerved; the impulse came too late; and as the foresail filled and she picked up steerage way, I stood helpless under the lamp at the quay-head—stood and stared after her, alone with the sense of my incredible folly.
Somewhere out yonder Captain Coffin was waiting in his shore-boat. I listened, minute after minute, on the chance of hearing his hail. A heavy bank of cloud had overcast the moon, and the packet melted from sight in a blur of darkness. Worst of all—worse even than the sting of self-reproach—was the prospect of returning to Stimcoe’s and wearing through the night, while out there in the darkness the two men would meet, and all that followed their meeting must happen unseen by me.