W HILE the men were away with the boat, the children could not go to the shore to play. They had to amuse themselves on the ship as well as they could.
This was not hard for little Francis Billington to do, but his amusements never seemed to please the older people. If he started to cut his name on the railing of the ship, some one was sure to call, "Don't do that!"
If he tried to climb the ropes from the mast, somebody always dragged him down. Even when he sat down quietly to hold one of the babies, it was always, "Francis! See how you let his head hang down," or, "Just look at that baby's little feet! Francis, you must keep them covered." Then some one would come and say, "Let me take the baby. I am so afraid you will drop him."
Poor little Francis! He did not mean to be naughty, but he was a great trial to the Pilgrim mothers and fathers. When he was quiet for a few minutes, they felt sure he must be in some mischief—and they were usually right.
"Francis is not a bad boy," Elder Brewster used to say. "Just wait until his father begins to build his house, then Francis will be too busy to get into mischief. I believe there will not be a harder-working boy in the village than Francis."
"Then let us hurry and find a place to build," said Mistress Billington, "for I am almost worn out."
While his father and the other men were away digging up corn in the Indian village, mischief-loving Francis was wandering about the boat looking for amusement.
In his hands he held some of the pretty feathers of the wild duck. He thought what fun it would be to fill these quills with gunpowder and make some firecrackers. He called them squibs.
So he went down to the cabin where the powder was stored. There was no one in the room, but he soon found a keg which had been opened, and he began to fill his squibs. It was hard to make the powder go into the little quills; most of it went on the floor instead.
When the squibs were filled, he looked about and saw several old muskets hanging upon the wall. "How those women in the next room would jump if I should fire off one of those muskets!" thought the boy.
Muskets made in those days could not be fired by pulling a trigger. The powder must be lighted by a spark of fire. At that time no one had learned how to make matches, either. But Francis knew where to find a slow-burning fuse made of candlewick, and away he ran to get it.
Soon he returned, carrying the burning fuse right into the powder room.
Oh, Francis! Think of the powder upon floor. And think of that open keg half filled with the deadly powder. If one little spark should reach it, the ship and every one on it would be blown to pieces.
But Francis never stopped to think twice about anything. He climbed upon a box and took down an old musket, then looked to see if it were loaded. Yes, it was all ready to fire, and Francis knew how to do it.
I think the very sun must almost have had a chill when he peeped through the tiny window and saw the terrible danger.
Boom! roared the old musket. Then came a blinding flash, and boom! Bang! Snap! Crack! Bang! Oh, what a deafening din!
When the thick smoke had cleared a little, a very angry sailor found a very frightened boy in a corner of the cabin. Francis did not know how he came to be lying there in a heap. He only knew that his eyes were smarting and his hands were very sore.
Women with white faces and trembling hands tried to comfort their screaming children. Sailors hurried to and fro looking for leaks in the boat.
But, wonder of wonders, no great harm had been done. The squibs were gone; two or three of the loaded muskets had gone off; but the powder on the floor had flashed up and burned out without setting fire to the keg. "If that keg had exploded, we should have found no more of the 'Mayflower' than a few chips floating upon the water," said Miles Standish, when he heard of it. "I wonder that it escaped."
"It was the mercy of God alone," said the Pilgrims.