'Where's Captain Roux?' asked Pepper.'Where's the master?'Get away, boy!' said the man unexpectedly. He might almost have been some old prophet warning of flood or pestilence: Get away! But he simply meant that Pepper was standing on a tangle of rope, stopping him working. 'Shift yourself, lad.'
Pepper stepped back. He ran his eyes over his father's ship. Clearly La Berenice had been moored for days. So why had his father not appeared at home? Where had he gone instead?
'Hotel,' said the man of few words.
'Find him there.'
But Pepper was content to have solved the mystery. His father had docked, but preferred not to return home until after his son's fatal fourteenth birthday. Did not want to be'in at the death', so to speak.
'Get away!' said the man of few words.
Again it sounded prophetic. But it was not. The cordwainer had just glanced up at the masthead and seen a carpenter fumble his grasp on a big oak pulley. It fell now, hurtling down to land exactly where Pepper had been standing, sinking its iron hook into the rope fibres with a noise like torn gristle. The cordwainer swore, stared down at the pulley and swore again, looked up at the carpenter and swore a third time.
Pepper apologized. (The accident had clearly been meant for him, and he was sorry it had given the man such a fright. ) The cordwainer, shamed by the calm of the boy, swallowed his own fright. He pointed away along the quayside to the coaster moored at the other end of the quay. It was no smarter than the Berenice. In fact it looked in a far worse state of repair, rusty and forlorn. 'Roux's been transferred. That's his next ship. Would've sailed today but he's waiting, seemingly. For something. Family troubles. Funeral. Something. Then he'll be off.'
'Ah,' said Pepper. Well, at least his father planned to be around for the funeral; that was something, Pepper supposed. He turned the big oak pulley over with the toe of his boot. Perhaps he would go up to the hotel, after all, and apologize for being not yet dead.
He found the captain in his shirtsleeves in the back-room bar. Gilbert Roux was so drunk that he could only open his eyes using finger and thumb.'Who you?' he bleared.
'It's Paul,' said his son, picking up his father's uniform cap from under the table. 'Your son.'
'Gone, hazzee? At laasht. Wenza fyooneral?' said Captain Roux, his cheek smearing spilled ale around the tabletop. Then he let his eyes close again.
'Not today,' replied Pepper and, after hovering helplessly for a minute or two, tugged his father's jacket off the back of the chair. The bartender was wiping glasses in the front bar as Pepper left.'You're Roux's boy, aren't you?' he asked.
'No. Not me.'
Then Pepper walked back down the hill to the harbour. The jacket was far too big for him, but the cap almost fitted. (Hat sizes don't vary much with age, only destiny. ) So he wore the cap and carried the jacket over his arm when he climbed the gangplank of the coaster l'Ombrage.
A new ship. A new crew. How would they ever know?
'Roux,' he said. 'Captain Roux,' and out of the jacket pocket produced the papers to prove it.
The sailor at the head of the gangplank looked him up and down: this skinny, freckled boy, ears bent outwards by the rim of a merchant navy cap.
'Set sail,' Pepper said. 'Now. Right away.' Looking over his shoulder towards the hotel on the hill, he only just refrained from saying, Please. Please hurry!
There was a pause while the man looked around for a second opinion. Then he shouted something towards the bridge, and a head emerged, and a hand too, and someone blew the ship's whistle long and hard.
Pepper drew in his head. The muscles in his calves went rigid, ready to run. The screech of the whistle was so loud it pained his brain, and it did not stop. They must be summoning the harbour master! Or the mayor! Or his mother! Saint Constance, or the angel-with-the-fiery-two-edged-sword! The noise of running feet made him spin round.
Excerpted from The Death-Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean. Copyright © 2010 by Geraldine McCaughrean. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Children's Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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