He had left it too late. He knew he had left it too late.
Pausing on a sandbar just clear of the surging waters, Jack kicked off his shoes and caught them up, but the next wave drenched him to his knees, its retreat sucking the sand out from beneath his feet as he struggled on.
He had thought he would be able to make it round the headland with time to spare; from the deck of the Surprise it had not looked so very far. The beach had proved deceptive in its featureless uniformity, however, and its yielding surface was unforgiving to limbs unaccustomed to such effort. By the time he was halfway to the point, the breakers were racing up the tidal flats, outpacing him. His stockings and breeches were doomed, and likely his good cambric shirt as well.
Onwards, onwards. The tide was notoriously rapid in these parts, but if he could wade round the promontory before he was waist-deep, he could still gain the safety of the far cove, towards which he had seen Stephen wandering at low water. Tying his shoes together with a lanyard and slinging them round his neck, he dug his toes more deeply into the sand and laboured on through the thigh-deep water. The craggy headland was looming closer, the waves pummelling it and echoing from the cliffs above. For a moment he considered abandoning his attempts to wade and taking to the open sea instead, but his practised eye soon picked out a route up and over the rocks, safer than the crashing surf. Grasping the first handhold, he hauled himself up, his feet scrabbling on the seaweed-covered boulders.
By the time he dropped wearily onto the shingle of the next cove, his breeches were salt-stained and filthy, and his soles scraped sore by a thousand barnacles. Stephen was there, however, a small figure at the far end of the little bay, pottering amongst the rock pools just as Jack had expected, and seemingly quite unaware that he had been trapped by the tide.
“Stephen!” cried Jack, tugging his shoes from around his neck and waving them as he hurried across. “Stephen! Over here!”
Stephen glanced round. “Jack? Do not thunder so, for all love. Hush now, and step quietly this way. Quietly, soul, or the reverberation of your sixteen stone will put the fear of God into my latest specimen.”
Jack wiped his feet in the dry sand above high-water mark and rubbed them clean, before putting his shoes back on and tiptoeing over to the mass of rocks at which Stephen was peering.
“It ain’t another kelp or bladderwrack, I hope,” he said. “Killick is already threatening to throw your last batch overboard.”
“Look down there, in the deepest part of the tide-pool,” said Stephen. “It’s an Octopus vulgaris, the common octopus.”
“Ah.” Jack scrubbed at the grit still clinging to the damp patches between his fingers. “A particularly fine specimen, I take it?”
Stephen’s lead-soled boots crunched on the mussel beds as he edged closer to the pool. “No, I should say it’s rather on the meagre side. A juvenile, perhaps, or an adult stunted by its diet of Portsmouth filth. Hand me my measuring stick, would you now, Jack?”
His canvas collecting-bag was lying nearby; Jack rummaged in it and passed him a piece of battening marked off at intervals by the Surprise’s carpenter. The octopus, a dumpy, mottled, hairless creature that reminded Jack irresistibly of his own infant daughters, was curled up at rest on the floor of its pool, but on perceiving Stephen’s shadow it shot into the farthest crevice, bundling its arms close to its body and leaving behind it a peevish, spreading cloud of ink.
“A common octopus, did you say?” asked Jack, gazing around at the cliff-bound cove to which the dwarfish little beast had consigned him for the next twelve hours.
Stephen crouched down until he was almost nose-to-brine with the pool, his breath forming tiny concentric ripples on the water’s surface. “Do not let the name mislead you, Jack. Octopus vulgaris is much less frequently to be found on this coast than Eledone cirrhosa, its curly-armed rival. Its name is not to be taken literally, or perhaps in the circumstances I should say ‘littorally’.”
Jack turned the word over in his mind; he had the highest respect for his friend’s philosophical abilities but knew him to be sadly prone to confusion in the English tongue. “I believe I have generally heard it pronounced ‘literally’,” he said.
“No doubt you have. In any case, this is the farthest north I have observed Octopus vulgaris’s range to extend. Unlike you, my dear, it takes no great delight in frigid waters.”
Jack bent low and dipped his forefinger in the rock pool. Bathed by a day’s broken sunshine, its water was warmer than the breakers in the cove, but not by more than a few degrees. Dusk was beginning to fall, along with a light drizzle, and he could feel his breeches clinging to him in a manner less than pleasant.
“Chilly or not, the creature seems disinclined to be caught,” he said. “Stephen, have you your boat-cloak about you somewhere? Killick assured me he left it out on your cot, in the hope that you might re-embark somewhat less sodden than yesterday.”
“Certainly I have my cloak,” said Stephen, gesturing vaguely with his ruler, without looking up.
Jack eyed the empty beach, the advancing tide now only a dozen feet from its cliff base. “And would it be in this particular cove, at all?”
Stephen straightened up, frowning. “Surely you...” he began, and then took a sudden step back as a wave-crest somewhat in advance of its fellows overreached the rock ledge on which he was standing and splashed him to the knees. “Oh, the sea is risen! I had not perceived it moving at all, at all. Perhaps now would be the time for you to bring your boat round, Jack. I have a few dried seed specimens from up in the dunes that would suffer sadly from a drenching.”
Jack offered him a hand up onto the narrow strip of sand beyond the waves. “I am sorry to have to tell you that there is no boat to bring round. Mowett and Pullings took the launch and both cutters to the watering site as soon as they had dropped me off, and Chips was still putting the last touches to the jollyboat repairs. Had I left it any later, I should not have been able to wade round the headland myself. No, I am afraid our only recourse is to wait for the tide to fall again.”
“Oh,” said Stephen, staring blankly at the brown swirl of the waves, thick with silt. “How long might that take, do you suppose?”
“Until dawn tomorrow, so the scholars of the Admiralty tell us,” said Jack, with the patience of half a lifetime’s repetition. He had long since given up expecting Stephen to attain even a child’s understanding of anything nautical or indeed lunar.
As he stooped to pick up Stephen’s bag, his eye was caught by a flash of blue nearby: it was the promised boat-cloak, flung haphazardly across the rocks at the back of the beach, not far from a dark gap in the cliff face. Stepping around the rock-pool outcrop, he saw that the gap extended back some distance, forming a natural cave that would provide shelter from the rain.
“Come now, Stephen,” he said, taking him by the elbow and guiding him into the cleft. “Your octopus is beyond the reach of all but a spring tide; it will still be there in the morning. What a fellow you are, though, to have left your cloak out in the wet.” He flapped the broadcloth vigorously, shaking the drizzle from its surface, and then squatted down and spread it around his shoulders, holding an arm out for Stephen to share the enveloping warmth. “Twelve hours will pass soon enough, and we shan’t freeze at this time of year. How I wish I had thought to pack some supper, though!”
“Is it hungry you are?” asked Stephen, tucking the lower edge of the cloak comfortably under his haunches. “I have some cold meat somewhere in my—ah, no, that is my hermit crab, still in high dudgeon, I find. Yet I could have sworn I had—ah, here it is.” He rummaged in another pocket and pulled out a handful of ship’s biscuits and some slices of beef, which he divided according to their usual custom, one share for himself and two for Jack. Leaning forward, he set the hermit crab on a ledge of rock halfway up the cave wall and offered it a shred of meat, which it met with the stony indifference of long persecution. “I wonder if my octopus would accept a piece of beef? I have never observed cephalopoda to take anything but live prey, however.”
Swallowing the last of his own meal, Jack huddled closer to Stephen and closed his eyes, smiling to himself at the idea of an octopus large enough to tackle a whole beef-bullock. Why, it would need arms at least eight feet long! Eight arms of eight feet each, wrapped around a thousand pounds of angry steer-flesh, with at least a couple of those arms required for anchorage. For a while he toyed idly with the mathematics of the engagement, but the rising of the tide had signalled the start of his watch below, and before long his mind abandoned its calculations and sank into that blessed, abyssal slumber familiar to any sailor who knows himself to be warm, well fed, and exempt from summons (save in the direst of emergencies) for the next several hours.
The night darkened, and for some hours Jack did indeed sleep soundly, though after a while his dreams turned erratic and uneasy. Judging by the slant of the moon-cast shadows, it was past midnight when he startled suddenly into wakefulness, with an ill-defined impression that something was amiss. Staring into the gloom of the cave, he could perceive nothing but the dim phosphorescence of the walls and, far overhead, the dark patch that marked a colony of tiny, jostling bats. Stephen was still wheezing peacefully beneath his cloak, his breathing matched to the rhythmic crash and drag of waves on the shingle outside. There was no other sound but the sleepy chatter of gulls high up on the cliffs.
Straining his ears, Jack thought he could just make out a faint slithering noise coming from the direction of the shoreline, accompanied by the soft slap and gurgle of water. He held his breath, waiting, and the noise came again, a little closer this time. He unfolded his portion of the cloak and rose silently to his feet, a sea-smoothed cobble clutched tightly in his hand. Might it be a lost sheep browsing across the dunes, perhaps, or cattle straying from the hamlet nearby? But the beach had been empty when he arrived, and the cliffs were too treacherous even for goats to descend.
Stephen stirred, missing the warmth of his companion. “Jack?” he whispered. “What is amiss?”
Jack opened his mouth to offer some soothing reply, but then the shadows at the cave entrance wavered and shifted, and he gripped Stephen’s shoulder hard with his other hand. “Was you expecting company?” he hissed.
Stephen was on his feet in an instant, tensed to fight or flee. “I was not,” he said, stooping for a stone of his own. “Go left, Jack.”
They slid into the shadows on either side of the cave, their cobblestones poised, waiting for the approaching footsteps, for whatever wrecker or pressgang or intelligence agent had had the temerity to approach a captain not a mile from his own ship.
No footsteps came. Instead, the wet, slithering noise drew closer: a glutinous noise, not unlike the glug of long-rotted pork joints sliding out from a spoiled barrel.
Jack had just time to whisper “What in God’s name...?” before he was yanked off his feet by something that had grabbed him around the ankle. He landed full-length on the shingle, winded, struggling to free his leg from whatever had wrapped itself around it. He tried to pull the thing away, but his hands lost their purchase on its slimy coating. It was a tentacle, by God; a writhing, twisting tentacle, thicker than his own thigh and lined with suckers. Another one began to snake round his shoulders, plucking at his shirt, and above them he could just make out a monstrous body, looming over him with its beak wide open. He hefted another cobblestone and raised it high, aiming between the creature’s huge, wet, unblinking eyes.
“Jack, no!” cried Stephen. “Do not hurt it!”
Jack stared wildly across the cave at Stephen, who had been caught around the waist by a great coil of tentacle but who was gesticulating at him nonetheless.
“Help unwind me, Jack, and I shall fetch its offspring! Do you hear that, my dear? We shall not hurt you!”
The huge beast seemed to hesitate, and then little by little it loosened its coils just enough to allow Jack to crawl across to Stephen and pull him free of its embrace. Straightening himself, Stephen nodded once at Jack and slipped out of the cave. Jack sank back onto the shingle, gasping, the tentacles tightening once more around his limbs.
It seemed an immensity of time before Stephen returned, his small fishing-net clutched in one hand.
“Here, acushla, here is your child, quite unharmed,” he cried, dipping into the net and holding up its wriggling contents to the monster. “We meant no harm, only to admire him for the pretty thing he is.”
The mother octopus—for so she must be, Jack thought, there being no other creature half as fearsome as a vengeful mother—uncurled one immense arm and took the little specimen from Stephen’s hands as delicately as any woman cradling her newborn. Then she loosened her grip on Jack, allowing him to scramble away.
“My...my apologies, madam,” he stammered. “At your service, too, I’m sure.” And he bowed as deeply as he could, pulling Stephen into a similar crouch beside him, as penitent as a brace of midshipmen due a beating. Holding his breath, he waited for the response. There was a damp, clammy, scuffling sound, drawn out for a minute or so, and when at last he raised his head again, mother and child were nothing but a distant silhouette against the moonlit sky beyond the cave, melting swiftly into the night.
Clicking his tongue and retrieving his abandoned cloak, Stephen squatted down again on his dry patch of shingle. “How I wish I had sketched the infant when first I discovered it,” he said. “Do not stand there gaping, Jack, but come and sit down here. You may have half the cloak again—half, I said, not three-quarters.”
Scratching his head, Jack did as he was bid, and Stephen wrapped the cloth neatly around both of them, tucking the corners in.
“Sleep now, joy,” he said. “You need not keep watch. The creature has what it desired; I do not think it will approach us again.”
In this, at least, he was correct. Once Jack’s hammering heart had finally calmed enough for him to relax into sleep, he slumbered on until first light, awaking to a pale, watery dawn and an expanse of shore wide enough for them to pass dry-footed around the headland. Stephen was up already and busy packing his shells and plant specimens into his collecting-bag, a light breeze ruffling his unkempt hair.
“Look, the tide has gone out, Jack!” he called, as if there had been some doubt of this. “If we make haste and signal for the jollyboat, we may yet be in time for breakfast. There is not a moment to be lost!”
Smiling to himself, Jack folded the boat-cloak and tied it round his shoulders, out of reach of sand and spray. He followed Stephen across the little cove, squinting in the sunlight.
“I am glad to find you took no harm from the night’s adventure,” he said.
“What adventure?” asked Stephen, craning his neck to peer up at some distant gannets as he went. “Oh, the smattering of bat guano that landed so close? It would have done little enough harm, save for a stain, perhaps.”
“Bat guano? No, no, I mean the creature, the great creature, the ten-foot-high octopus! God’s my life, Stephen, I would not usually rate myself a coward, but I confess my heart fairly sank when faced with a beast that size.”
“A ten-foot octopus! What a strange dream, to be sure, and what an imagination you have—or perhaps it was an ill-digested piece of beef, taking its revenge. Come, let us hurry. I think I can already spy the dear Surprise at anchor, her pennants flying.”
Jack had paused, open-mouthed, but he collected himself and hurried after Stephen, heading southeast to pass around the exposed headland. A nightmare—of course! That would make far more sense than a monster unknown to science and a thousand generations of fishermen. Jack kicked at the wavelets as he walked on, almost laughing aloud. A ten-foot octopus, how absurd!
“Perhaps there may be sausages and eggs for breakfast,” he called after Stephen. “I believe I smell them frying.”
Stephen smiled over his shoulder. “I dare say you do. A fertile imagination, as I said.” As he turned back towards the headland, however, the breeze caught at his shirt-hem, billowing the loose cotton and exposing the sun-browned skin of his back; and there, just for an instant, Jack thought he saw what looked like a row of sucker-marks, stretched across Stephen’s narrow torso.
“Stephen?” he cried. “Stephen, wait!”
Halting for a moment, he stared back at the cove from which they had just come. It was as empty as they had left it, its tide-washed sands untouched but for their two sets of footprints leading away from the cave.
“Stephen?” he called.
Stephen did not pause, but merely tugged his shirt down and strode on towards the ship. Bemused, Jack shook his head and turned to follow him. And as he ran to catch up with his friend, the tip of a vast, sucker-covered arm uncoiled itself from the distant depths and waved farewell to them both.