GORDON DOUGLAS had a grievance; so also had Millicent Gilbraithe. And the grievance they held in common was no ordinary one.
Eight years before, by a remarkable coincidence, both Gordon—christened Mickey by the Fleet—and Millicent— yclept Midge by the Station—had entered the world simultaneously. Mickey at first had thought it rather wonderful, and it bad caused him many hours of troubled meditation. Eventually he found a solution in the first column of the Times newspaper. It was quite by accident that he had happed upon the column headed births; his spelling was somewhat erratic, but mother had helped to elucidate the inscrutable. So it was quite an ordinary thing for lots of people to be born on the same day, and Mickey sighed a sigh of relief. For he had no desire to be out of the ordinary; what was good enough for other people Satisfactorily suited him. He wanted neither more—nor less. And therein lay his grievance.
Midge's attitude was one of sympathetic acquiescence. She was the most loyal subject in Mickey's kingdom, and Mickey had many, be it understood. Not for nothing was his father the captain of the flagship. They knew him well on board the Contentious, as they knew him on every man-o'-war on the station. In spite of his eight short years of life, Mickey had established a record in recklessness that would be difficult to excel. There still exists in the archives of Mintique Dockyard a letter from the secretary of a certain humane society in which that official regrets his committee's inability to bestow the medal for saving life upon Private William Jagger, owing to the fact that "the Society has already awarded at different times four bronze medals and three parchment certificates to various persons for saving from drowning Master Gordon Douglas."
All the greater hero was Mickey for these exploits, as Midge would tell you. His scrapes were phenomenal in their frequency. His comments on his escapes had the charm of piquancy, and his attitude to the world in general was one of insatiable curiosity. The fleet rode at anchor in the bay. Two long white dazzling lines they were, sitting stately on the sunlit waters. To-day they had more than usual interest for the two children who, regardless of all admonition, warning, and oft-repeated prayers, sat swinging their legs over the sheer face of a little cliff that fell straight as a plumb-line to the water fifty feet below.
"What's the flags for?" asked Midge, extending a chubby finger to the gaily dressed ships, decorated from bow to stern with lines of fluttering bunting.
"Father says it's King's birthday," said Mickey importantly.
"Is he on the ship?"
"You're silly," said Mickey frankly. "How can he be on his ship when he's on his throne in Windsor Castle—hey?"
The solution of this problem did not occur to Midge.
"They put flags on the ship every year," continued the youthful authority, "and they shoot their guns off—when it's the King's birthday."
"Why?" asked Midge, somewhat overpowered by the knowledge of her friend.
"Why?—oh, 'cos he's the King and—and—'cos they like him very much. My birthday's to-morrow, too."
"So's mine. Will they put up flags for me and you?" asked the girl eagerly.
This gave Mickey pause. As a matter of fact the possibility of an official recognition of his natal day had occurred to him during the morning, and he had determined to question his father on the subject that very day. In his own mind he had little doubt that even if it was an unusual proceeding, a point could be stretched in his favour.
"I think so," he replied confidently; "they'll put flags Up for me—but not for you, because you're a girl, and your father's only a soldier."
(Mickey had a profound contempt for all services outside the navy, a contempt which rather unjustly embraced the Royal Marine Light Infantry, of which gallant corps Major Gilbraithe was by no means an unimportant number.)
"But," added Mickey generously, "my flags will do for you as well."
And so it was settled. And after the Royal salute had been fired, a proceeding which filled Midge with considerable apprehension, the two descended the winding path that led to the little tropical town that serves as the headquarters of the Mauritius squadron.
That night, before the Creole nurse piloted him to bed, Mickey put a leading question to his father.
The flag-captain laughed, long and heartily, and Mickey's mother, ever the most sympathetic friend Mickey had, had hard work to stop herself joining in the mirth.
"Some day, Mickey," said his father, wiping the tears of merriment from his eyes, "you shall have a salute, I promise you. You shall have a big gold band round your arm and your own flag, and guns shall be fired for you—but not yet."
So Mickey went to sleep under the swaying punkahs with a grieved feeling, and awoke on his birthday morn with a heart full of resentment toward a disobliging world. Nor did the mechanical submarine that went by clockwork, which the captain of the Disconsolate had sent for from Paris, appease him, nor the model of the Victory donated by the Master-at-Arms of the Hydrangea, nor the telescope from the marine sergeant of the Impossible, nor the book of mother's, nor yet the musical box of father's—none of these things, in fact, lifted the cloud from his soul.
Soon after breakfast he went out to talk the matter over with Midge.
Midge, he regretted to find, had almost forgotten the honour that he had half promised her. She was displaying a foolish and unnatural exultation at the possession of an abnormal thing in dolls. A great kid-bodied monstrosity with a perpetual and wearisome expression of pained surprise on its highly coloured waxen face.
"There ain't going to be no flags," blurted Mickey ruefully.
"What flags?" asked Midge undiplomatically.
"Why, my flags!" cried the indignant Mickey, "the flags for my birthday—our birthday," he corrected cunningly. "Haven't you got some flags we can put up?"
"Where can we put them up?" she demanded.
This was a poser, for flagstaffs in Mintique were few, and jealously watched.
"You get 'em," said Mickey, after a pause, "I'll find some place to put 'em."
Midge thought awhile and then said—"We haven't got any at home, but I know where there are lots."
"Where?" demanded the eager Mickey.
The girl shaded her eyes from the hot sun, and looked upward to where, perched on an eyrie, the little white hut of the port signal-man looked forward to the rim of the horizon, and backward to the great range that walled the mysterious hinterland from the strip of land which H.M. Commissioners had chosen as a suitable site for the naval station.
"Peter," she said slowly, "Peter will give us flags."
Peter, retired Yeoman of Signals, kept house on the Peak. His duty it was, by day, to report the incoming vessels, visible to him an hour before the fleet below; to transmit directions for anchorage, to ask pertinent questions through the medium of his big black-armed semaphore, and, not least of all, to keep watch for the sign—the little blue-black cloud that sprung from out of the ocean's edge—that foretold the coming of the typhoon, which the sailors of these seas so dreaded. Sometimes, but not very frequently— indeed, it had only happened once during the last fifteen years—instead of the black cloud came a long strip of red haze. Higher and higher it mounted to the skies, changing from rose to red, from red to purple, and so to a deep violet, and then—black—black—black. A chaos of howling winds, winds that snatched at roof and wall, that lifted with giant clutches the stout limes, and made desolate in an hour the cultivation of a score of years.
Woe to the ship riding between the long jagged arms of rock that stretched out from the horns of the bay, when the "devil-wind" came.
Peter had seen one such storm, and hoped never to see another.
He was getting an old man now; his application for relief from his post was already before the Admiralty, and his successor had already sailed from England.
And Peter was glad. Rubicund of visage and unpleasantly stout was Peter. The summer, early as it was, was unusually trying for him; his breathing had grown more and more laborious, the slightest movement had come to be an almost painful exertion.
Even as the children below had commenced their hot and dusty climb, Peter, returning from a scrutiny of the horizon to the little inner room which served as sleeping quarters, had noticed a lace of his shoe that bad become untied.
Now, an untied shoe-lace is a very ordinary object, and one not calculated to intrude on daydreams of Devonshire, of shady lanes, of white, green-topped cliffs, and of friends of other days; but somehow, in a vague way, old Peter noticed the untidiness of his shoe, and stopped to tie it tight....
Midge and Mickey reached the signal-house, but there was no response to Mickey's yell or Midge's timid knock.
"I wonder where he is?" asked the astonished Mickey.
Such an event as Peter being absent from his post had not been for one moment anticipated. Peter was as much a part of the signal-house as the big white flagstaff, or the uncanny semaphore with its grim black arms—as the very hill itself.
"Perhap's he's in the garden," suggested Midge.
The little patch of garden, that lay in a hollow behind the house, produced no Peter, however.
"Shout!" said Midge, and Mickey gave a howl which scared the gulls on a ledge of rock a hundred feet below; but still Peter was not forthcoming.
"Perhaps he's asleep" was Mickey's suggestion, as he cautiously pushed open the door of the outer room.
There was no sign of Peter here. The floor was as white as milk; the brass telescope hanging on brackets over the window shone like silver, a little clock ticked loudly from the ledge of a sloping desk that ran the length of one wall. On the other side of the room, a nest of pigeon-holes labelled in alphabetical order was filled with rolls of parti-coloured bunting. Here and there a stray toggle hung down ready to hand; for these were the coveted flags.
Mickey eyed them favourably, and, greatly daring, pulled one half out.
"That's G for Gordon," he said admiringly. Midge looked on in fearful admiration.
"Hadn't we better see if Peter's in the other room?" she asked in a whisper.
Mickey, somewhat loth to relinquish the means of celebration, nodded his reluctant assent. Midge knocked at the door of the inner room.
"Mr. Peter," she called; another and louder "Mr. Peter!"
There was no response, and Midge, turning the handle gently, essayed to open the door. The door gave a little, but there was evidently a bundle of some weight lying against the other side which rendered ingress impossible.
The children looked at one another, and then Mickey, strolling nonchalantly toward the flag locker, twisted yet another flag half way from its abiding place.
"D's for Douglas," he said absently.
"Do you think Peter will mind?" asked the nervous Midge.
"Not if we don't keep them long," replied the tempter in knickerbockers, tapping off the letters with a grimy forefinger. "J, K, L, M—M's for Midge."
"Millicent," corrected the girl.
In her anxiety to assert her claim to something superior to a nickname, she overlooked the questionable nature of the proceedings.
"Same thing," said the unscrupulous Mickey, unfolding a square blue flag with a white St. Andrew's Cross. "They're not much to look at, are they?" he added.
G and D were not even flags, but triangular pennants; the first with a yellow base and a blue apex, and the second a plain blue ground, in the middle of which was a round white spot.
"There's another G for Gilbraithe; what a stunning idea!"
Mickey was growing ecstatic in his delight.
"Surely old Peter won't mind our taking 'em," said he.
They were out again in the sunlight now, and conscience, awakened by fear of detection, directed another half-hearted search for the missing signalman. He was nowhere in sight, and Mickey, with feverish haste, began to loosen the signal-whips, which hung without motion from the flagstaff.
Had he looked seaward, the gauzy, blood-like mist that hung on the horizon might have excited his curiosity.
"Me first," he demanded, snatching up two of the flags. "I'll keep 'em up a minute, and then I'll hoist yours."
On board the flagship, Captain Gordon was giving a few instructions to the Commander before returning to the shore. Under the awning of the quarter-deck the officer on duty paced slowly to and fro, stopping now and then to mop a very red face with his handkerchief. That evening the fleet were leaving for manoeuvres, and below the men were washing the grime of coal dust from their faces, or stowing away the stores and ammunition that had been arriving since daybreak.
"Hot?" queried the Captain, pausing on his way to the gangway.
"Yes, sir," replied the officer of the watch. "It's about the hottest day I remember, even in these latitudes; feels like a storm, don't you think, sir?"
The Captain nodded.
"The glass is going down very little, but one never gets much warning; at any rate there's no signal from the Peak."
He turned to go, when a cry from the officer on duty arrested him.
"Signal from the hill, sir."
Half a dozen paces brought them to the signalling-bridge.
"What is it?" asked the skipper of the petty officer, who, with a telescope glued to his eye, was watching the little specks that fluttered from the staff on the hill.
"They're only hoisted half-mast, sir, and old Peter seems to be in a hurry; he's hauling 'em down before we've answered!—G D," he continued.
The Captain turned sharply.
"G D?" he asked. "Isn't that—?"
The signalman consulted his book.
"Yes, sir—'Prepare for a hurricane.' He's making another signal, M G—what's that?"
But the Captain had read the message, "Stand off—put to sea at once."
"A devil-wind," he said quietly. "Make a signal to the fleet—K W," hastily turning the leaves of the code; and the two flags that instructed all and sundry to "weigh, cut or slip, wait for nothing—get an offing," received the acknowledgment of the other men-o'-war with an alacrity which indicated a common knowledge of the danger menacing.
It seemed hours, although it was not many minutes before one by one the great ships swung their bows round to the rapidly darkening east. The last ship had scarcely drawn clear of the bay before the first blast of the storm smote her. For a moment a deafening rush of wind—then an ominous silence. Another tremendous gust which carried away awning and boat-cover, and then the men-of-war were in the thick of the typhoon.
None too soon had they got away; huge seas washed their decks, a furious hurricane of wind kept them almost at a standstill. In vain raced the threshing screws. Now in the air, now shaking the shuddering ships with the violence of their half-submerged revolutions. It seemed almost as if the fleet would be driven back on the coast.
Hour followed hour, and no abatement of the storm was noticeable, and not until the afternoon had all but passed did the last fringe of inky cloud race out of sight beyond the Mintique Range, and the young moon look down upon a mountainous sea.
It was at daybreak next morning when the fleet dropped anchor in the bay. The havoc wrought on land was plainly visible. Everywhere roofless houses and uprooted trees met the eye, great masses of wreckage strewed the shore. Indeed, the only place which seemed to have escaped the fury of the hurricane was the signal-house on the hill, in the first room of which two tired, frightened children lay asleep on the floor, blissfully unconscious that behind the door of the next room lay a dead man, holding in stiffened fingers a broken bootlace.