The boys of St. Fintan’s College discuss the coming of a new master. They resolve to give him a lively time of it. When, however, ‘Old Snuffy,’ as the boys respectfully call the Rev. President, introduces Kilgallon, something in the new master’s personality interests and attracts them. They call him ‘The Little Captain’ and are soon listening to his stories of Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell, and taking a breathless interest in ‘The Wandering Hawk,’—the name given to a noted Fenian organiser, one John Dunleavy, alias Warren, on whose head is the price of £500. A strolling tin whistler comes to the College and is seen in secret conference with the Little Captain. Several of the boys make an expedition to the island of Inishglasogue. Their boat founders. Young Clery disappears. The Little Captain comes on the scene and he and Dwyer (who tells the story) enter a water cave in search of him. The cave leads into the interior of Inishglasogue where in a cleft which they name the Eagle’s Nest they find young Clery wounded after a victorious fight with a sea eagle. One day, as he sits in his classroom, a police force enters and arrests the Little Captain as a Fenian organiser. He effects a daring escape, and the County Inspector astonishes the President and students of St. Fintan’s by announcing that the Little Captain is the Wandering Hawk. A few nights later the Hawk comes secretly to the College and asks Clery and Dwyer to convey a message to the Tin Whistler. They duly convey the message, but the tin whistler is captured by a force of police as he leaves the College. Clery and Dwyer decide that they must now themselves carry the message to the Hawk’s friends who are to meet at night in the Priest’s Cave on Cruagh Mountain. With the co-operation of their friend Sweeney, they succeed in escaping through the dormitory window and bring the message to the Priest’s Cave, where they take the Fenian oath and are admitted to the deliberations of a Fenian circle. The Hawk’s message is to the effect that a boat with six men is to meet him off Inishglasogue at midnight. Clery and Dwyer undertake to steer the six Fenians to the appointed place, which is at the entrance to the Eagle’s Nest.
IN WHICH WE FIGHT THE BRITISH NAVY
The northern slope of Cruagh falls steeply to Inverbeg Bay. We descended it in Indian file. A scout went first. Our friend the centre followed, with young Clery and me behind him. The four others then. The men knew the mountain well and progress was amazingly quick. They went at a swinging trot and had a way of springing from rock to rock—a sort of elastic stride rather than a jump—which seemed the ideal of easy, sinewy going. Fortunately, young Clery and I, though less used to the mountain, were as lithe and active as cats, and, with a little help now and then from the men next us, we were always able to keep our places. No word was spoken. Occasionally a bramble cracked, a pebble rolled, or a bird stirred; once or twice my foot went plosh into a boggy place, and once young Clery tripped. After a little while the deep breathing of the men could be heard with singular distinctness in the still night. It was so dark that it was only by their breathing, and by the occasional sound of crackling twig or crunching pebble, that one could be sure that one’s comrades were in front and behind.
Presently we became aware of a certain greyness beneath us. It was Inverbeg Bay. A distant light twinkled, and a sobbing sound came up to us. A briny savour was in the nostril. More lights blinked, very far away. A white line became visible. The sob increased and defined itself as the sough of surf breaking on stones. We found ourselves descending to a shingly beach.
We stumbled against something large and black.
‘The boats,’ said a voice.
Two boats and a curragh were drawn up on the beach. Near them nets were spread. It was one of the lonely little inlets where the cottier-fishermen of the mountain beach their boats. Everyone on Cruagh tills a little land, keeps a few cattle, cuts a little turf, and does a little fishing. They are a hardy amphibious race, the folk of Cruagh and Clochaunrua and Inverbeg and Killconnla. They toil alike on the barren mountain and on the inhospitable sea; and neither yields them more than a scanty harvest. Dispossessed yet steadfast, they might well stand as a symbol of dispossessed Ireland.
‘Launch Murty Doyle’s,’ said the centre.
‘All right, Ned.’
The boat was half lifted, half slid into the sea.
‘In with ye,’ said the centre.
Young Clery and I sprang in and took our seats in the stern. Four men were already handling the oars. The centre went forward. One man stood up near the stern with a boathook in his hand.
‘Will I push off, Ned?’ he asked.
‘Aye, do, Bat,’ replied the centre.
Bat pushed off. The men bent strenuously to the oars. The salt spray wet our faces. Out on the Bay there was a sort of grey luminousness. There seemed to be a moon somewhere, but we could not see her. She must have risen, but the sky was thick with clouds.
Bat of the boathook sat down beside us.
‘Do you know the rocks here, Sir?’ he said to young Clery.
‘Yes,’ said Clery, who had taken the rudder. ‘We often landed here … Tell the man in the bow to look out for the Dog’s Tooth,’ he added in a minute.
‘Look out for the Dog’s Tooth, Ned Connolly,’ sang out Bat.
‘Here ’tis, begob,’ said Ned Connolly almost immediately. ‘’Tis right ahead of us.’
Clery steered to the left. The Dog’s Tooth was an ugly pinnacle of rock which stood just out of the water. Clery and I had come to grief on it once.
‘Now it’s clear going to Inishglasogue,’ said Clery.
‘Will we make it by twelve o’clock, Captain?’ asked Patsy O’Toole’s son, who was one of the rowers.
‘Nigh hand, I’m thinking’,’ replied Ned Connolly.
There was a long spell of silent and steady pulling. I found myself thinking that I knew now why Patsy O’Toole had been so decent in the matter of the seizure of his boat by the pirates. He too was a friend of the Hawk’s.
The roar of the breakers on the Glassing Rocks came to our ears. Even at night some of the guillemots and puffins were stirring. White shapes drifted near us.
Inishglasogue stood up jagged before us. Clery was steering straight to our little cove, the cove where the pirates had made their memorable landing.
‘You know the Bay better than them that’s spent their lives on it, Sir,’ said Bat approvingly.
‘I have been a pirate, you see,’ said Clery; a reply which was so enigmatical to Bat that he lapsed into silence.
We were entering our little cove. Every man was tense with expectation. Clery and I shared the subdued excitement. We knew that something was going to happen.
What happened was sufficiently startling. Without warning a revolver shot rang out.
‘That was a bullet past my ear,’ said Bat. Something had in fact whizzed between him and me.
‘Is it into a thrap we’re bein’ brought?’ exclaimed one of the oarsmen, half standing up.
‘Sit down, Tom,’ said Ned Connolly’s voice steadily. ‘Sit still, I bid ye.’
My heart had leaped into my mouth. It was not that I was afraid. But it seemed that there had been some ghastly mistake, and that Clery and I were in fact steering the boat and her crew into a death-trap. Who had fired? And where was the Wandering Hawk?
‘Heave to, or we fire again,’ said a voice. It was a curt, metallic voice. It was an English voice.
‘Man-o’-war’s men,’ whispered Bat. We heard the swift regular plash of oars. It was the first time I had ever heard the clean, rapid, almost noiseless stroke of man-o’-war’s men. Once heard or seen, it can never be mistaken. Our men had paused instinctively, hesitant.
‘Pull,’ said young Clery quietly. The men obeyed him. Our boat shot forward towards shore. Clery was steering for the concealed passage to the Eagle’s Nest. If we could make it undetected we were safe, at least for the time. Otherwise we must either surrender or be shot down like ninepins. We had no arms among us, and, judging from the direction of the shot and the voice, the naval boat must be between us and the mouth of the little bay. Flight was as impossible as fight. The secret cave was our only hope. All this flashed through my mind, as it had flashed through young Clery’s. To the men the situation must have been more obscure, because they could not possibly guess Clery’s purpose, not knowing of the hidden passage. Yet they obeyed. It was part of their trust in the Wandering Hawk that they trusted us, his pupils.
The darkness favoured us. Except by the sound of our oars the man-o’-war’s men could not follow our exact whereabouts. Another pistol shot rang out, but it had gone wide. Yet another, which passed over young Clery’s head. Then the moon unveiled herself.
She mounted solemnly and gloriously from behind a cloud-bank. By her light, glancing astern, we saw the naval boat, a long, lean, graceful shape racing across the little harbour in our wake. Its occupants saw us too. Shots rapped in quick succession. One plashed in the water beside us. One struck Bat of the boathook in the left shoulder. It was so bright now that they would see us entering our secret refuge and could ferret us out. But to reach it was still our only chance. In blind trust the men rowed on. The enemy gained on us.
An officer stood up in the bow of the naval boat. I saw the glint of gold on his uniform.
‘You are all dead mean,’ he said.
‘On the contrary,’ replied another voice, a voice that made every nerve in my body quiver with emotion. It was the voice of the Little Captain. The Wandering Hawk was true to his tryst.
A boat had shot out from the shadow of the shore. As it passed us a revolver gleamed and barked. The naval officer dropped.
The Little Captain sat in the stern of his boat. I saw smoke curling from his revolver. Two men of his crew rowed steadily. Two others crouched in the shelter of the gunwale with rifles in their hands. The boat swept between us and our pursuers. The Little Captain glanced back. He saw, apparently without surprise (though the thing ought to have amazed him), young Clery and me in the stern.
‘The Eagle’s Next, Phil,’ he called. ‘There are guns in the Cave.’
We dashed for the secret entrance, while the Little Captain covered our escape. He skilfully manoeuvred his boat into the shadow. The enemy was necessarily in the broad moonlight.
‘Duck,’ commanded young Clery. We all ducked and the boat glided smoothly under the arched entrance of the water cave. As we passed into the silence and shadow, I heard shot after shot out in the moonlight. The Little Captain and the man-o’-war’s men were hard at it.
Up the silent aisle we glided, and beached on the little strand that young Clery and I knew so well. A lamp was burning on a shelf of rock, and by its light we saw scores of rifles piled on the sand. Open ammunition cases stood near them. Each man sprang out and armed himself.
‘Back now,’ said Ned Connolly. ‘The Hawk’ll want us.’
We loaded our rifles as we threaded the quiet aisle again. Clery and I had both used rook-rifles; several of the men had used shot-guns. We were therefore not absolute tyros. I loaded for Clery while he steered. Ned Connolly loaded for the rowers. Bat, despite his wound, loaded for himself.
‘We’ll give them hell,’ he said meditatively.
It would appear that the Little Captain was already giving them hell. As we emerged from the cave into the moonlight, one might have thought that a naval battle was in progress. Shot after shot came from the shadow of the rocks on our left, and the naval boat, hopelessly exposed, was replying vigorously but ineffectively. Our appearance on the scene gave us the odds.
‘Blaze at them, boys,’ said Ned Connolly.
We blazed. I shot as coolly as if I had been firing at a row of Maggies at a fair. I saw men go down with as much satisfaction as I should have seen a Maggie topple. It was as interesting as, and not more exciting than, shooting Maggies. I felt a sort of artistic pleasure in doing my work well.
The firing from the naval boat ceased. The unwounded men took to their oars.
‘Give chase,’ rang out the voice of the Little Captain.
With a cheer we followed them, the men who were not rowing firing. A few more shots got home. When we had reached the mouth of the creek the Little Captain recalled us.
‘There’s probably a gunboat in the Bay,’ he said. And then, with his humorous smile, ‘Well, boys, the Irish Republic has won her first naval victory.’
We gave three cheers.
‘To Cruagh now with the guns,’ said the Hawk.
Back to the water cave and to the little sandy beach. The guns were quickly loaded into the boats. Two of our men in addition to Bat had received slight wounds,—one in the temple and one in the arm. Young Clery and I were unscathed.
‘I see,’ said the Little Captain with pretended severity, as we rowed out of the hidden water way, ‘that two St. Fintan’s boys have been playing truant.’
Ned Connolly told him our part in the affair. Young Clery and I supplemented him by describing the arrest of the tin whistler. The Little Captain listened in silence. His hand stole down in the darkness and gripped each of ours. We felt richly rewarded. We should have felt rewarded by the mere consciousness of having served him, even without that acknowledgment. Our business henceforth was to serve, to spend ourselves, to dare and suffer gaily. We were friends of the Hawk’s.
The moon had again hidden herself and the sea was dark.
‘Gunboat or no gunboat,’ said the Little Captain, ‘we’ve got to dash for Cruagh.’
And the men lay to their oars. The Little Captain talked to young Clery and me as we crossed the dark Bay. He talked about school, about the lads, about our work, about our games. He laughed at Clery’s description of his successor and seemed struck by the beauty of his name of ‘Collared Head.’ He advised us about the team for our next match, and mentioned that we ought to look up a passage of Guizot with regard to the extravagance of the Ancient Régime in France. He told us a little of his life since he had left us, but very little. He had been in Dublin as a cattledrover, and in England as a stoker on a ship. He had brought the guns from England to Wicklow, and from Wicklow had distributed them to various places, taking charge of our particular supply himself. He was much concerned about the fate of the tin whistler, and was moved by our account of the valiant fight he had made.
‘Is he really what he seems,’ I asked, ‘or was it a disguise?’
‘He is a medical student,’ said the Little Captain. ‘He knows Greek better than anyone in Ireland. And he’s the bravest man I ever knew.’
We were more than half-way across the Bay when the moon revealed herself again. Almost immediately a shot ricochetted in the water astern of us, and was followed by a deep boom. There was a gunboat in the Bay and it had opened fire on us.