E. W. (Ernest William) Hornung.

Denis Dent; a novel online

. (page 1 of 17)
Online LibraryE. W. (Ernest William) HornungDenis Dent; a novel → online text (page 1 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by Beginners Projects, Steven desJardins, and the
Online Distributed Proofreading Team at
(This file was produced from images generously made
available by The Internet Archive/American Libraries.)


[Illustration: "NAN" (Copyright, 1903, by Frank Leslie Publishing


A Novel


_Author of "The Amateur Cracksman,"
"Raffles," "No Hero," etc._


_With a Frontispiece by_


_Copyright, 1903_,

_Copyright, 1903_,

_All Rights Reserved_

This edition published in January, 1904.

To P. M. MARTINEAU, Esq., J. P.


The little picture of the past attempted in this tale
owes more than one touch to your kindness. I only wish
that the whole were nearer the mark aimed at, and so
worthier to bear your name upon this page.

Yours very sincerely,

Reform Club,
October 27th, 1903.






"Land ahead!"

The _North Foreland_ had been made advisedly snug for the night. In the
middle watch she was under her three lower topsails and fore topmast
staysail only. Not that it blew very hard, but the night was dark and
hazy, with a heavy swell. And it was the last night of the voyage.

At eight bells there had been a cast of the deep-sea lead, with the
significant result that the skipper had been the first to turn in;
gradually the excited passengers had followed his example, instead of
staying on deck to see the Otway light. The second mate had said there
would be no Otway that night, and what the second said was good enough
for most. The saloon skylight had become a clean-edged glimmer in the
middle of the poop, the binnacle a fallen moon; not a port-hole twinkled
on the rushing ink; and the surviving topsails, without visible stitch
or stick aloft or alow, hovered over the ship like gigantic bats.

Four persons remained upon the poop: the middy of the watch, tantalized
by muffled guffaws from the midshipmen's berth in the after-house; the
man at the wheel, in eclipse above the belt, with the binnacle light
upon one weather-beaten hand; and on the weather side, the second mate
in reluctant conversation with a big cigar that glowed at intervals into
a bearded and spectacled face, the smooth brown one of the young officer
sharing the momentary illumination.

"It's all very well," said the senior man, in low persistent tones, "but
if we don't have it out now, when are we to? You know what it will be
like to-morrow: we shall land first thing, and you'll be the busiest man
on board. As for the rules of the ship, if an owner can't use his
discretion he might as well travel by some other line."

The young fellow was smiling pleasantly as the other puffed again.

"Very good, Mr. Merridew! I don't object if the captain doesn't; and of
course I must tell you anything you want to know."

"Anything! My good young man, if I am to consider this matter for a
moment (which I don't promise) I must at least know everything that you
can tell me about yourself first; for what," continued Mr. Merridew,
taking the cigar from his teeth, "what do you suppose I know about you
at this moment? Absolutely nothing except that you seem to be a
first-class sailor, as they tell me you are, and a very nice fellow, as
I have found you for myself - aboardship; but of your shore-going record,
of your position in life at home, and of your people and their position,
to speak quite plainly, I know nothing at all."

Mr. Merridew delivered himself with a certain dispassionate unction, as
one who could do the judicial to a turn, and enjoy it. Yet his tone was
kindly, and the periods free from wilful offense.

"You may make your mind easy about my people. I have none," said the
sailor, bitterly. A fatherly hand found his shoulder on the word.

"My dear fellow! I am so sorry."

"You mean relieved."

"I mean what I say," said Mr. Merridew, removing his hand.

It was the young man's turn to apologize, which he did with much
frankness and more feeling.

"The truth is, sir, my parents have been dead for years; and yet they
are nearly everything to me still - they were all the world until this
voyage! My mother was Irish; her name would not be new to you, but it
will keep. It may not be necessary for you to know it, or anything more
about me, and in any case it can't alter me. But I am half-Irish through
my mother - though you wouldn't think it."

"I would think it," remarked Mr. Merridew, blowing at his cigar as at a
forge, until the red light found him looking wise through his
spectacles, but the officer with one eye on his sails and no perceptible
emotion in the other.

"My first name," he went on, "is as Irish as you like; it's Denis; and
you may say that I've been living up to it for once!"

"Denis!" repeated Mr. Merridew, with interest. "Well, I know that name,
anyhow; one of our partners - Captain Devenish's father - he's Denis
Devenish, you know."

"Indeed," said Denis Dent, and there was a strange light in his spare
eye. "Well, so much for my mother; my father was a Yorkshire dalesman,
as his father and his father's father were before him. I am the first of
them to leave the land."

"May I ask why?"

"It isn't our land any more. My father gave up everything to take my
mother abroad, when her life was despaired of in England, and when her
people - her own people - I can't trust myself to speak of them!"

And the young fellow turned abruptly aside, while Mr. Merridew puffed
and peered at a massive though clean-cut face, whose only Irish feature
was a pair of bright brown eyes, bold and resolute, yet quick to
laughter, if quicker still to fire.

The south-easter sang through the unseen rigging; the ship rushed a
fathom through the unseen sea. The second had a look at the compass,
and came climbing back to windward with his hands in his pea-jacket

"And yet," said Mr. Merridew, flourishing his cigar, "and yet - you want
to marry my daughter!"

"If she will have me, sir," said the sailor, with an uncertainty on that
point in becoming contrast to his certainty of himself.

"But whether _I_ will or not."

"I never said that, Mr. Merridew. I should be very sorry to take up such
a position, I can assure you, sir."

"You would be sorry, but you would do it," retorted Mr. Merridew with
acumen. "You would do as your father evidently did before you."

"I hoped we had finished with my parents, sir."

"But they left you nothing, if I understand aright," rejoined Merridew,
changing his ground and his tone with some dexterity. "And you would
marry my daughter on the pay of a junior officer in the merchant

"I never said that either. I have my captain's certificate, sir, as it

The new tone was the tone to take. Mr. Merridew went so far as to give
his daughter her name.

"And Nan," said he, "might have ten thousand pounds for her marriage
portion. I don't say she would, but for all you know she might have
more. Her husband ought to bring at least as much into settlement, even
as a self-respecting man, don't you think? And yet you would make her a
merchant skipper's wife!"

The young man winced, as though for a flash he saw himself wholly in the
wrong. Then his face hardened - all but the Irish eyes - and it was the
face of a man who would justify himself with his life's blood. Impulse,
initiative, temerity, were in the eyes, indomitable endurance in their
solid setting.

"You take it for granted that I will never be anything more!" he
exclaimed. "But, sir, once a sailor isn't always one. I've got on well
at sea. I'd get on well on land - anywhere - at anything! You may smile. I
feel it in me. Mr. Merridew, it may seem what you please, but I'm pretty
young even for what I am now. Surely, surely, you would give me time - if
she would?"

It was the Irishman speaking, the Irish blood spurting out in words, and
Mr. Merridew distrusted the bulk of that race; but his cigar glowed
again upon a mouth and jaw that came of harder stock, and for the moment
his mind was illuminated too.

Here was this Denis Dent, not one young man, it struck him, but two
young men in one, each with a very name of his own. Dents from the
Dales, Denis from old Ireland! Mr. Merridew smiled through his
spectacles, pleased with his conceit, not altogether disposed to regard
it as such, but incontinently interested in a personality to which he
had been so clever as to supply the key. The heart of the discoverer
warmed toward his own. There was an attractiveness in Denis, a solid
worth in Dent. Denis might win the girl. Dent would deserve her. And
Denis Dent might have carried her own father with him, had he been the
only young man in the case, or even on the poop of the _North Foreland_
as she drove through the haze on the last night of her voyage.

But as the pair stood eye to eye, the pregnant pause between them was
interrupted by a loud and startling laugh, and a tall figure loomed
through the first gray tinge of approaching dawn. It was that of a young
man in a tasseled dressing-gown, with an ornate meerschaum pipe pendent
between the bushy black whiskers of the day.

"Well, if that doesn't take first prize for cheek!" cried he, and
lurched toward them in his slippers as one who had never found his

"We are having a private conversation, Ralph," said Mr. Merridew in mild

"A private conversation that you could hear on the forecastle-head!"
jeered Ralph Devenish, who was full of liquor without being drunk. "I
suppose he's so proud of it he wants the whole ship to know!"

And the meerschaum pointed jerkily at Denis, who stood the heaving deck
as a circus rider stands a horse, his hands still deep in his pea-jacket

"Captain Devenish," said he, "it's against the rules to speak to the
officer of the watch, but you shall speak civilly if you speak at all.
Otherwise I advise you to take yourself off the poop before you're put

"By God!" snarled Devenish, "but you shall pay for that! Before one
owner to another owner's son, on the last night of the voyage! It's your
last in the Line, Mr. Officer of the Watch! And you dare to lay a hand
on me! Come on. You dare. I know your blustering breed, you damned

"And I know yours - you Devenishes! I know you too well to soil my hands
on any one of you!"

The concentrated bitterness of this retort had an opposite effect on
either hearer; one it stupefied, the other it flooded with a sudden
light; but Devenish was the first to find his tongue, and for the moment
there was none more foul before the mast. The deplorable torrent was
only stemmed by the startling apparition of a square little man in a
still more awful, because a more articulate and more righteous, rage.

"I'll teach you to break the rules of my ship! I'll teach you to curse
my officers, drunk or sober! Out of my sight, sir, or I'll have you in
irons before you're a minute older!"

"Come, come, Captain Coles," said Mr. Merridew, with dignity; "there has
been more provocation than you imagine; and this, you must remember, is
Captain Devenish."

"I don't care a dump if it's Devenish Merridew and Company lumped into
one!" roared the little skipper. "You can have your way ashore, but I
mean to have mine at sea; and as for your iron coffin of a ship, I'll be
thankful to come off her alive, let alone sailing in her again. No two
compasses alike, thirty-six hours since we got the sun, the darkest
night of the voyage, and Australia anywhere! Yet this is the night you
choose, you owners, to bully and browbeat my officers of the watch!"

But it was no longer the darkest night of the voyage, or even night at
all. The group stood visible and divisible in a cold gray haze. The
lower topsails were no longer detached from the ship; there was a misty
mast to each; and the ship was running dry-decked through the high
smooth seas.

It was at this moment that the haze lifted like breath from a mirror;
and a subtle new sound was just beginning to insinuate itself upon the
ear when the look-out man drowned it with his roar from the forecastle



Land was indeed ahead, and in the most appalling shape known to
seafaring man: at the last moment, the haze had lifted on a line of
jagged cliffs, already parallel with the foreyard, albeit by the muffled
thud of the breakers, not quite so near as it looked.

The _North Foreland_ was blessed with a commander who was at his best in
an emergency. Little Coles had turned in when he should have stayed on
deck, and was no more prepared for shipwreck than if such disasters were
unknown; but he rose to the occasion like a lark. His sharp voice
cracked like a whip from the break of the poop, and all hands, piped
from the forecastle, the petty officers' quarters, and the midshipmen's
berth, came running as though the words drew blood.

The spanker was set, with the mizzen and maintopmast staysail, and the
helm put down to bring her round; but there was no racing of the cliffs
to port. She stumbled a little in her stride; the fresh sails flapped;
but there was no getting her on the other tack, though the upper mizzen
topsail was pressed into the job.

The skipper waited a minute with compressed lips and fiery eye; then a
crackle of musketry from his weatherbeaten throat, and both anchors were
let go.

The port anchor had fifty fathoms of cable, the starboard anchor sixty
fathoms of chain; in anticipation of their holding, the sails were
clewed up, and a man sent into the chains with the lead, for she was
drifting inshore every moment. But the lead danced on smooth rock, where
the anchors trailed as readily as over ice; the captain had them both up
again, but that took longer than letting them go, and meanwhile half the
hands were aloft shaking out sail once more.

Coles was showing his resource at every point, and by this time had his
ship actually head to wind; in another minute she might have stood away
upon the port tack. But at this juncture time was wasted in an attempt
to sheet home the topsails, which failing, the buntlines of the mainsail
were let go, the port main tack got on board, and the sheet hauled aft.
The men were still upon the rope when the _North Foreland_ struck and
spilt them like the winners in a tug-of-war.

It was the horrible striking of an iron ship: a terrific crash under the
mizzen-chains, and there she quivered like a rat in a terrier's teeth.
And the devilish seas that had run with her, hunted with her, how they
fell on her now, and swept and trampled her from the moment she was

The scene on deck, if it wanted the infinite horror of pitch darkness,
was only a degree less dreadful in a pearly dawn that left no doubt
about the situation. Every hatchway spouted crude humanity, shouting,
shoving, screaming, scolding, covering a chattering nakedness as it
gained the deck, and there struck silent at a glance. For nothing was
hid, nothing extenuated, for a single moment, to a single eye. There was
no learning the worst by humane degrees. It was patent at once to the
wildest and the calmest gaze. The sanguine soul was no more help to the
stunned community than the born pessimist; there was no chance for the
imagination either way.

They could see, every one of them, the towering cliffs - blind sides of
houses without an inch of pavement - the rollers running up to them
unbroken, for the better sport of leaping sky-high at the impact. They
could see her settling, see her bumping, see the top-hamper falling
about the deck. There was enough to feel and to hear. The eyes might
have been spared a little. Some shut them more than once, as when an
upper spar came down like an arrow, transfixing a sailor with incredible
neatness, and actually sticking upright through man and deck; but few
escaped the sight of blood, and none the dying scream. A worse sight was
in store. A steward with the stock of life-belts from the lazaretto
touched the captain's arm. And, checked in some hoarse tirade, the
valiant Coles stood first aghast and then abject in the sight of
passengers and crew - beaten man and broken reed.

The better part of valour was the only part he lacked. Not a boat in
davits; the whole fleet docked, inboard, on skids! And exactly six
life-belts to go round a ship's company of over a hundred souls!

The second mate was clearing away the port life-boat with five of the
hands, one blaspheming, another in tears, more than one vowing with
reason that they would all be drowned, and the young officer himself in
a consuming agony of his own. At the break of the poop, almost all this
time, stood a slender figure in a pink wrapper, between a bearded man in
spectacles and a man with bushy whiskers in incongruous silk and
tassels. Dent wondered why he did not lend a hand; no, on second
thoughts he knew, and cursed the fellow in his heart. He did not mean to
leave her side. He meant to have the rescuing of her. Trust a Devenish
to play his own game! Denis was too busy to look twice at the trio, but
he seemed to see them all the time, and the vision galled him to
insensate effort.

"Take your time, take your time," cried the chief officer, all red
hook-nose and ginger moustache, an oilskin bonnet fastened under his
chin. "The old man's done his part. He'll go down in her. The rest hangs
on you and me."

The chief met the responsibility with his own tap of cold profanity,
not unaccompanied by shrewd cuff and calculated kick, as he
superintended the clearing of the other life-boat. As for the skipper,
it seemed that he had recovered his mettle to meet fresh trouble further
aft; they could hear him firing oaths and threatening lead; but when
Denis looked he could not get his eyes past the two men at the break of
the poop, for at that moment they were lashing one of the six life-belts
about a forlorn little figure in pink.

The port life-boat was ready first, and the third mate busy marshaling
the women and children in a helpless, eager, hesitating, exasperating
throng; but Miss Merridew was still detained by her friends on the poop.
The gripes had been cut, and Denis himself had sent the last chock
flying with a savage kick. He and his crew of five were in the act of
hooking the tackles to the thwarts. The chief mate was shouting a timely
word of advice.

"When you get her launched, and filled, and stand away in her - - "

But Denis did not hear what he was to do then, for at that instant a
green sea lifted the port life-boat clean over the side with all six

Denis's next thought was that the water was warmer than he should have
supposed, and his next but one that somebody was bent on braining him;
he was hit about the head, not once but repeatedly; but as soon as he
could see he knew the reason, for a dim glimmer was all there was to
see. The boat was riding bottom upward. He had come up under her. It
was the thwart that had been belabouring him. He caught hold of it,
pulled as at a horizontal bar, came up like a cork, and easily wormed
half his person between thwart and bilge.

In this position Denis regained breath, immersed to the waist, but with
no lack of air, and a bilge-cork handy for fresh supplies, until the
real danger occurred to him. The capsized life-boat rode the rollers
like a cradle, but at any moment she might shatter herself against the
cliffs. It was hardly the work of one for Denis to dive from underneath
her at the thought. The cliffs, however, were still far enough away; of
the wreck he could see nothing for the swell; but it was now broad

He went under the boat again, and in about five minutes she righted
herself for no apparent reason. Denis was nearly stunned in the process,
nor was the advantage otherwise unmixed. The boat had come up full, and
Denis had now to bale for his life.

So she floated upon the cliffs, until the big seas began to break, when
she instantly capsized again. This time he succeeded in scaling the
keel, only to be dislodged as his perverse ship righted herself once
more. But the tenacity of the Dents was now uppermost in Denis, if
indeed he had any other quality left, and he was back in the boat when
she eventually struck upon the cliff. The shock hurled him overboard for
the last time, yet was so much less terrific than he had anticipated,
that he sought and found the reason as he swam clear. A minute ago the
boat had been within a few fathoms of the full face of the cliffs; at
the last instant a mouth had opened, and all she had done was to cannon
off the perpendicular wall of a strait so narrow as to be practically
invisible from without.

It was comprehensible enough. The tide was setting through this tiny
channel. The derelict life-boat was not alone; packages bobbed between
the towering walls; a table came riding by on its top, three legs still
standing, as Denis trod water. And on the table he partly floated and
partly swam into a bay which stood to the channel as a flagon to its

It was semicircular in shape, surrounded by cliffs as lofty and
precipitous as those without, but mercifully provided with a sandy beach
at the upper end. The castaway breathed a hoarse thanksgiving at the
saving sight. His smarting eyes had risen involuntarily, and as they
rested on the heights, the sun lit up some heath and bracken that
overhung the edge a few feet like a table-cloth: thence downward it was
sheer for one or two hundred to the beach below. At the base a couple of
caves opened romantically upon the yellow sand, but there was no sun for
them yet, or for the dancing waves that bore Denis and his table finally
to the land.

There in an instant he was staggering and stumbling under the abnormal
weight of his dripping and exhausted body. A few yards he reeled, then
fell prone upon the warm sand, digging in his fingers to the knuckles,
thinking of no mortal but himself, thanking his God for preserving him
as though he had made the voyage alone. Indeed the long voyage on the
ship was temporarily blotted out of mind by the little one in the boat.

And he a lover! And his love as good as drowned before his eyes! - for
not a vestige of the ship had he seen since the original mishap to the
port life-boat. It was a terrible reflection to Denis for the rest of
his days - but at the time he did not think of her - did not even picture
a certain shade of pink and ask himself what it meant and must mean to
him till his dying day. He just lay and held on to the warm sand, foot
and finger, because the earth heaved under him as the sea had done for
thirteen weeks, and his vitality was very low.

Consciousness might have left him altogether; he always wanted to think
so, for then he could have forgiven himself; but he was never satisfied

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryE. W. (Ernest William) HornungDenis Dent; a novel → online text (page 1 of 17)