A man had come tumbling out of the hotel bar and was pelting down the steep harbour road, heaving a bag on to his shoulder, shielding his eyes against the brightness. His ship would be setting sail without him, unless he was aboard before the whistle stopped blowing. Pepper watched him, transfixed, certain it was his father. But Gilbert Roux was still so deeply drunk in the back room of the hotel that the Last Trumpet would not have woken him.
The sailor at the head of the gangplank stepped aside with a half-hearted salute to Pepper.'Welcome aboard, Captain,' he said. Well, people see what they expect. Don't they?
Or do they see what they choose?
* * *
The panic in Pepper's chest grew worse when he reached deck. What kind of fool was he to attempt this? Now he would have to steer the ship out of port - rig the masts - plot a course - all those things a sea captain does! How would he ever slot the broad-beamed coaster between the narrow jaws of the harbour mouth? He would buckle its rusty bow, hole its shabby hull, sink l'Ombrage and cause a shipping hazard for years to come! Absurd ever to think he could pull it off.
But when he reached the bridge, the First Officer was already at the helm and too busy manoeuvring the ship to notice him. So Pepper carried on to the prow. The ship moved at walking pace towards the green and red poles marking the harbour entrance.
So it passed very close to some boys eel-fishing from the end of the mole. Seeing Pepper, one pointed his bamboo cane. An eel dangled from the woollen bait: a repulsive, puny creature still trying to wriggle out of its fate. 'It's you, right?' said the boy. 'It is, isn't it? Pepper Roux?'
'Not me,' said Pepper, turning away, setting his face at the horizon.'Not me.'
Little by little, the sounds from the shore faded: breaking waves, the carpenters stripping La Berenice, the church bells... their noise could not leap the space between shore and ship. Did Death have a longer stride? Would it chase Pepper out to sea? Or could he truly outrun it, throw it off his scent? He had read somewhere that bloodhounds can't follow a scent across water. He moved to the stern and watched the ship's wake plait itself into a lit fuse. A flock of seagulls swooped and quarrelled and complained overhead: strident, thwarted angels shrieking orange hymns at him. Birds-of-ill-omen. The Hour must be nigh. He watched the sun rise towards midday - a burning glass trained on a boy of fourteen who has outstayed his welcome.
What would it be, then? A giant wave? The legendary Kraken rising, with mile-long tentacles, to drag the ship below? A maelstrom? A sandbar? A reef ?
Pepper raised his face flat on to the sky and screamed back at the gulls:
'Not me! NOT ME! NOT ME!'
Then a hard hand fell on his shoulder.
Pepper turned guiltily. '...I'm sorry!' - but it was not his father. Nor the harbour master, nor even the Angel of Death. A tall man in rope-soled shoes and sweaty deck clothes looked him in the face, studying each feature as if he was drawing up an inventory. The scar in the corner of the man's cheek twitched. There were flakes of bread crust on his lips, and he licked them clean. If a butcher had been carving the two of them, he would have found twice as much meat on Duchesse, the captain's steward, as on the captain.
'Sun's over the yard-arm, sir. All's made ready,' said the steward, and led the way to the captain's cabin. He gave the door handle a quick wipe with his neckerchief then opened it and stood aside.'Everything to hand, sir. Everything above board.'
Pepper sat on the bunk, hugging his knees close to his chest without realizing. A chronometer on the wall pointed out the time by chiming the half hour. A chrome speaking-tube bent his reflection out of shape. There was a smell like the inside of the wine vat at home.
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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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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