We dropped our sail to avoid notice and rowed slowly past, but time and again found ourselves floating idly, as we gazed at that great spectacle and wondered what the upshot would be.
Then we were evidently sighted by some sharp look-out on one of the round towers, for presently a white sail came heading for us, and we hastily ran up our own and turned and sped out to sea, believing that they would not dare to follow us far. They chased us till the coast sank out of our sight, and could have caught us if they had kept on, but they doubtless feared a trap and so were satisfied to have got rid of us. When they gave it up we turned and ran south for Dieppe, and sighted the coast a little to the north of that small fishing port just before sunset.
Here Le Marchant was among friends, having visited the place many times in the way of business, and we were welcomed and made much of. We were anxious to get on, but the wind blew up so strongly from the south-west that we could have made no headway without ratching all the time to windward, and the sea was over high for our small boat. So we lay there three days, much against our will, though doubtless to the benefit of our bodies. And I have wondered at times, in thinking back over all these things, whether matters might not have worked out otherwise if the wind had been in a different quarter. Work out to their fully appointed end I knew they had to do, of course. But that three days’ delay at Dieppe brought us straight into the direst peril conceivable, and an hour either way—ay, or ten minutes for that matter—might have avoided it. But, as my grandfather used to say, and as I know he fervently believed, a man’s times and courses are ordered by a wisdom higher than his own, and the proper thing for him to do is to take things as they come, and make the best of them.
After three days the wind shifted to the north-west, and we said good-bye to our hosts and loosed for Cherbourg, well-provisioned and in the best of spirits, for Cherbourg was but round the corner from home.
We made a comfortable, though not very quick, passage, the wind falling slack and fitful at times, so that it was the evening of the next day before we slipped in under the eastern end of the great digue they were building for the protection of the shipping in the harbour. It was at that time but a few feet above water level, and its immense length gave it a very curious appearance, like a huge water-snake lying flat on the surface of the sea.
We pulled in under an island which held a fort, and keeping along that side of the roadstead, ran quietly ashore, drew our boat up, and went up into the town.
HOW WE WALKED INTO THE TIGER’S MOUTH
Cherbourg was at that time a town of mean-looking houses and narrow streets, ill-paved, ill-lighted, a rookery for blackbirds of every breed. It was a great centre for smuggling and privateering, the fleet brought many hangers-on, and the building of the great digue drew thither rough toilers who could find, or were fitted for, no other employment.