"It's putting away the things that is so bad," said Mrs. Cox, shaking her head; "that clock won't last him out, I know; he'll come back and take some of the other things. Every spring I have to go through his pockets for the tickets and get the things out again, and I mustn't say a word for fear of hurting his feelings. If I do he goes off again."
"If I were you," said Mrs. Berry, emphatically, "I'd get behind with the rent or something and have the brokers in. He'd look rather astonished if he came home and saw a broker's man sitting in a chair—"
"He'd look more astonished if he saw him sitting in a flower-pot," suggested the caustic Mr. Piper.
"I couldn't do that," said Mrs. Cox. "I couldn't stand the disgrace, even though I knew I could pay him out. As it is, Cox is always setting his family above mine."
Mrs. Berry, without ceasing to stare Mr. Piper out of countenance, shook her head, and, folding her arms, again stated her opinion that Mr. Cox wanted a shock, and expressed a great yearning to be the humble means of giving him one.
"If you can't have the brokers in, get somebody to pretend to be one," she said, sharply; "that would prevent him pawning any more things, at any rate. Why wouldn't he do?" she added, nodding at her uncle.
Anxiety on Mrs. Cox's face was exaggerated on that of Mr. Piper.
"Let uncle pretend to be a broker's man in for the rent," continued the excitable lady, rapidly. "When Mr. Cox turns up after his spree, tell him what his doings have brought you to, and say you'll have to go to the workhouse."
"I look like a broker's man, don't I?" said Mr. Piper, in a voice more than tinged with sarcasm.
"Yes," said his niece, "that's what put it into my head."
"It's very kind of you, dear, and very kind of Mr. Piper," said Mrs. Cox, "but I couldn't think of it, I really couldn't."
"Uncle would be delighted," said Mrs. Berry, with a wilful blinking of plain facts. "He's got nothing better to do; it's a nice house and good food, and he could sit at the open window and sniff at the sea all day long."
Mr. Piper sniffed even as she spoke, but not at the sea.
"And I'll come for him the day after to-morrow," said Mrs. Berry.
It was the old story of the stronger will: Mrs. Cox after a feeble stand gave way altogether, and Mr. Piper's objections were demolished before he had given them full utterance. Mrs. Berry went off alone after dinner, secretly glad to have got rid of Mr. Piper, who was making a self-invited stay at her house of indefinite duration; and Mr. Piper, in his new role of broker's man, essayed the part with as much help as a clay pipe and a pint of beer could afford him.
That day and the following he spent amid the faded grandeurs of the drawing-room, gazing longingly at the wide expanse of beach and the tumbling sea beyond. The house was almost uncanily quiet, an occasional tinkle of metal or crash of china from the basement giving the only indication of the industrious Mrs. Cox; but on the day after the quiet of the house was broken by the return of its master, whose annoyance, when he found the drawing-room clock stolen and a man in possession, was alarming in its vehemence. He lectured his wife severely on her mismanagement, and after some hesitation announced his intention of going through her books. Mrs. Cox gave them to him, and, armed with pen and ink and four square inches of pink blotting-paper, he performed feats of balancing which made him a very Blondin of finance.
"I shall have to get something to do," he said, gloomily, laying down his pen.
"Yes, dear," said his wife.
Mr. Cox leaned back in his chair and, wiping his pen on the blotting-paper, gazed in a speculative fashion round the room. "Have you any money?" he inquired.
For reply his wife rummaged in her pocket and after a lengthy search produced a bunch of keys, a thimble, a needle-case, two pocket-handkerchiefs, and a halfpenny. She put this last on the table, and Mr. Cox, whose temper had been mounting steadily, threw it to the other end of the room.
"I can't help it," said Mrs. Cox, wiping her eyes. "I'm sure I've done all I could to keep a home together. I can't even raise money on anything."
Mr. Cox, who had been glancing round the room again, looked up sharply.
"Why not?" he inquired.
"The broker's man," said Mrs. Cox, nervously; "he's made an inventory of everything, and he holds us responsible."
Mr. Cox leaned back in his chair. "This is a pretty state of things," he blurted, wildly. "Here have I been walking my legs off looking for work, any work so long as it's honest labour, and I come back to find a broker's man sitting in my own house and drinking up my beer."
He rose and walked up and down the room, and Mrs. Cox, whose nerves were hardly equal to the occasion, slipped on her bonnet and announced her intention of trying to obtain a few necessaries on credit. Her husband waited in indignant silence until he heard the front door close behind her, and then stole softly upstairs to have a look at the fell destroyer of his domestic happiness.
Mr. Piper, who was already very tired of his imprisonment, looked up curiously as he heard the door pushed open, and discovered an elderly gentleman with an appearance of great stateliness staring at him. In the ordinary way he was one of the meekest of men, but the insolence of this stare was outrageous. Mr. Piper, opening his mild blue eyes wide, stared back. Whereupon Mr. Cox, fumbling in his vest pocket, found a pair of folders, and putting them astride his nose, gazed at the pseudo-broker's man with crushing effect.
"What do you want here?" he asked, at length. "Are you the father of one of the servants?"
"I'm the father of all the servants in the house," said Mr. Piper, sweetly.
"Don't answer me, sir," said Mr. Cox, with much pomposity; "you're an eyesore to an honest man, a vulture, a harpy."
Mr. Piper pondered.
"How do you know what's an eyesore to an honest man?" he asked, at length.
Mr. Cox smiled scornfully.
"Where is your warrant or order, or whatever you call it?" he demanded.
"I've shown it to Mrs. Cox," said Mr. Piper.
"Show it to me," said the other.
"I've complied with the law by showing it once," said Mr. Piper, bluffing, "and I'm not going to show it again."
Mr. Cox stared at him disdainfully, beginning at his little sleek grey head and travelling slowly downwards to his untidy boots and then back again. He repeated this several times, until Mr. Piper, unable to bear it patiently, began to eye him in the same fashion.
"What are you looking at, vulture?" demanded the incensed Mr. Cox.
"Three spots o' grease on a dirty weskit," replied Mr. Piper, readily, "a pair o' bow legs in a pair o' somebody else's trousers, and a shabby coat wore under the right arm, with carrying off"—he paused a moment as though to make sure—"with carrying off of a drawing-room clock."
He regretted this retort almost before he had finished it, and rose to his feet with a faint cry of alarm as the heated Mr. Cox first locked the door and put the key in his pocket and then threw up the window.
"Vulture!" he cried, in a terrible voice.
"Yes, sir," said the trembling Mr. Piper.
Mr. Cox waved his hand towards the window.
"Fly," he said, briefly.
Mr. Piper tried to form his white lips into a smile, and his knees trembled beneath him.
"Did you hear what I said?" demanded Mr. Cox. "What are you waiting for? If you don't fly out of the window I'll throw you out."
"Don't touch me," screamed Mr. Piper, retreating behind a table, "it's all a mistake. All a joke. I'm not a broker's man. Ha! ha!"
"Eh?" said the other; "not a broker's man? What are you, then?"
In eager, trembling tones Mr. Piper told him, and, gathering confidence as he proceeded, related the conversation which had led up to his imposture. Mr. Cox listened in a dazed fashion, and as he concluded threw himself into a chair, and gave way to a terrible outburst of grief.
"The way I've worked for that woman," he said, brokenly, "to think it should come to this! The deceit of the thing; the wickedness of it My heart is broken; I shall never be the same man again—never!"
Mr. Piper made a sympathetic noise.
"It's been very unpleasant for me," he said, "but my niece is so masterful."
"I don't blame you," said Mr. Cox, kindly; "shake hands."
They shook hands solemnly, and Mr. Piper, muttering something about a draught, closed the window.
"You might have been killed in trying to jump out of that window," said Mr. Cox; "fancy the feelings of those two deceitful women then."
"Fancy my feelings!" said Mr. Piper, with a shudder. "Playing with fire, that's what I call it. My niece is coming this afternoon; it would serve her right if you gave her a fright by telling her you had killed me. Perhaps it would be a lesson to her not to be so officious."
"It would serve 'em both right," agreed Mr. Cox; "only Mrs. Berry might send for the police."
"I never thought of that," said Mr. Piper, fondling his chin.
"I might frighten my wife," mused the amiable Mr. Cox; "it would be a lesson to her not to be deceitful again. And, by Jove, I'll get some money from her to escape with; I know she's got some, and if she hasn't she will have in a day or two. There's a little pub at Newstead, eight miles from here, where we could be as happy as fighting cocks with a fiver or two. And while we're there enjoying ourselves my wife'll be half out of her mind trying to account for your disappearance to Mrs. Berry."
"It sounds all right," said Mr. Piper, cautiously, "but she won't believe you. You don't look wild enough to have killed anybody."
"I'll look wild enough when the time comes," said the other, nodding. "You get on to the White Horse at Newstead and wait for me. I'll let you out at the back way. Come along."
"But you said it was eight miles," said Mr. Piper.
"Eight miles easy walking," rejoined Mr. Cox. "Or there's a train at three o'clock. There's a sign-post at the corner there, and if you don't hurry I shall be able to catch you up. Good-bye."
He patted the hesitating Mr. Piper on the back, and letting him out through the garden, indicated the road. Then he returned to the drawing-room, and carefully rumpling his hair, tore his collar from the stud, overturned a couple of chairs and a small table, and sat down to wait as patiently as he could for the return of his wife.
He waited about twenty minutes, and then he heard a key turn in the door below and his wife's footsteps slowly mounting the stairs. By the time she reached the drawing-room his tableau was complete, and she fell back with a faint shriek at the frenzied figure which met her eyes.
"Hush," said the tragedian, putting his finger to his lips.
"Henry, what is it?" cried Mrs. Cox. "What is the matter?"
"The broker's man," said her husband, in a thrilling whisper. "We had words—he struck me. In a fit of fury I—I—choked him."
"Much?" inquired the bewildered woman.
"Much?" repeated Mr. Cox, frantically. "I've killed him and hidden the body. Now I must escape and fly the country."
The bewilderment on Mrs. Cox's face increased; she was trying to reconcile her husband's statement with a vision of a trim little figure which she had seen ten minutes before with its head tilted backwards studying the sign-post, and which she was now quite certain was Mr. Piper.
"Are you sure he's dead?" she inquired.
"Dead as a door nail," replied Mr. Cox, promptly. "I'd no idea he was such a delicate little man. What am I to do? Every moment adds to my danger. I must fly. How much money have you got?"
The question explained everything. Mrs. Cox closed her lips with a snap and shook her head.
"Don't play the fool," said her husband, wildly; "my neck's in danger."
"I haven't got anything," asseverated Mrs. Cox. "It's no good looking like that, Henry, I can't make money."
Mr. Cox's reply was interrupted by a loud knock at the hall door, which he was pleased to associate with the police. It gave him a fine opportunity for melodrama, in the midst of which his wife, rightly guessing that Mrs. Berry had returned according to arrangement, went to the door to admit her. The visitor was only busy two minutes on the door-mat, but in that time Mrs. Cox was able in low whispers to apprise her of the state of affairs.
"That's my uncle all over," said Mrs. Berry, fiercely; "that's just the mean trick I should have expected of him. You leave 'em to me, my dear."
She followed her friend into the drawing-room, and having shaken hands with Mr. Cox, drew her handkerchief from her pocket and applied it to her eyes.
"She's told me all about it," she said, nodding at Mrs. Cox, "and it's worse than you think, much worse. It isn't a broker's man—it's my poor uncle, Joseph Piper."
"Your uncle!" repeated Mr. Cox, reeling back; "the broker's man your uncle?"
Mrs. Berry sniffed. "It was a little joke on our part," she admitted, sinking into a chair and holding her handkerchief to her face. "Poor uncle; but I dare say he's happier where he is."
With its head tilted back, studyin Mr. Cox wiped his brow, and then, leaning his elbow on the mantelpiece, stared at her in well-simulated amazement.
"See what your joking has led to," he said, at last. "I have got to be a wanderer over the face of the earth, all on account of your jokes."
"It was an accident," murmured Mrs. Berry, "and nobody knows he was here, and I'm sure, poor dear, he hadn't got much to live for."
"It's very kind of you to look at it in that way, Susan, I'm sure," said Mrs. Cox.
"I was never one to make mischief," said Mrs. Berry. "It's no good crying over spilt milk. If uncle's killed he's killed, and there's an end of it But I don't think it's quite safe for Mr. Cox to stay here."
"Just what I say," said that gentleman, eagerly; "but I've got no money."
"You get away," said Mrs. Berry, with a warning glance at her friend, and nodding to emphasise her words; "leave us some address to write to, and we must try and scrape twenty or thirty pounds to send you."
"Thirty?" said Mr. Cox, hardly able to believe his ears.
Mrs. Berry nodded. "You'll have to make that do to go on with," she said, pondering. "'And as soon as yoa get it you had better get as far away as possible before poor uncl'e is discovered. Where are we to send the money?"
Mr. Cox affected to consider.
"The White Horse, Newstead," he said at length, in a whisper; "better write it down."
Mrs. Berry obeyed; and this business being completed, Mr. Cox, after trying in vain to obtain a shilling or two cash in hand, bade them a pathetic farewell and went off down the path, for some reason best known to himself, on tiptoe.
For the first two days Messrs. Cox and Piper waited with exemplary patience for the remittance, the demands of the landlord, a man of coarse fibre, being met in the meantime by the latter gentleman from his own slender resources. They were both reasonable men, and knew from experience the difficulty of raising money at short notice; but on the fourth day, their funds being nearly exhausted, an urgent telegram was dispatched to Mrs. Cox.
Mr. Cox was alone when the reply came, and Mr. Piper, returning to the inn-parlour, was amazed and distressed at his friend's appearance.
Twice he had to address him before he seemed to be aware of his presence, and then Mr. Cox, breathing hard and staring at him strangely, handed him the message.
"Eh?" said Mr. Piper, in amaze, as he read slowly: "'No—need—send—money—Uncle—Joseph—has—come—back.—Berry,' What does it mean? Is she mad?"
Mr. Cox shook his head, and taking the paper from him, held it at arm's length and regarded it at an angle.
"How can you be there when you're supposed to be dead?" he said, at length.
"How can I be there when I'm here?" rejoined Mr. Piper, no less reasonably.
Both gentlemen lapsed into a wondering silence, devoted to the attempted solution of their own riddles. Finally Mr. Cox, seized with a bright idea that the telegram had got altered in transmission, went off to the post-office and dispatched another, which went straight to the heart of things:
A reply was brought to the inn-parlour an hour later on. Mr. Cox opened it, gave one glance at it, and then with a suffocating cry handed it to the other. Mr. Piper took it gingerly, and his eyebrows almost disappeared as he read:
His first strong impression was that it was a case for the Psychical Research Society, but this romantic view faded in favour of a simple solution, propounded by Mr. Cox with much crisp-ness, that Mrs. Berry was leaving the realms of fact for those of romance. His actual words were shorter, but the meaning is the same.
"I'll go home and ask to see you," he said, fiercely; "that'll bring things to a head, I should think."
"And she'll say I've gone back to London, perhaps," said Mr. Piper, gifted with sudden clearness of vision. "You can't show her up unless you take me with you, and that'll show us up. That's her artfulness; that's Susan all over."
"She's a wicked, untruthful woman," gasped Mr. Cox.
"I never did like Susan," said Mr. Piper, with acerbity, "never."
Mr. Cox said he could easily understand it, and then, as a forlorn hope, sat down and wrote a long letter to his wife, in which, after dwelling at great length on the lamentable circumstances surrounding the sudden demise of Mr. Piper, he bade her thank Mrs. Berry for her well-meant efforts to ease his mind, and asked for the immediate dispatch of the money promised.
A reply came the following evening from Mrs. Berry herself. It was a long letter, and not only long, but badly written and crossed. It began with the weather, asked after Mr. Cox's health, and referred to the writer's; described with much minuteness a strange headache which had attacked Mrs. Cox, together with a long list of the remedies prescribed and the effects of each, and wound up in an out-of-the-way corner, in a vein of cheery optimism which reduced both readers to the verge of madness.
"Dear Uncle Joseph has quite recovered, and, in spite of a little nervousness—he was always rather timid—at meeting you again, has consented to go to the White Horse to satisfy you that he is alive. I dare say he will be with you as soon as this letter—perhaps help you to read it."
Mr. Cox laid the letter down with extreme care, and, coughing gently, glanced in a sheepish fashion at the goggle-eyed Mr. Piper.
For some time neither of them spoke. Mr. Cox was the first to break the silence and—when he had finished—Mr. Piper said "Hush."
"Besides, it does no good," he added.
"It does me good," said Mr. Cox, recommencing.
Mr. Piper held up his hand with a startled gesture for silence. The words died away on his friend's lips as a familiar voice was heard in the passage, and the next moment Mrs. Berry entered the room and stood regarding them.
"I ran down by the same train to make sure you came, uncle," she remarked. "How long have you been here?"
Mr. Piper moistened his lips and gazed wildly at Mr. Cox for guidance.
"'Bout—'bout five minutes," he stammered.
"We were so glad dear uncle wasn't hurt much," continued Mrs. Berry, smiling, and shaking her head at Mr. Cox; "but the idea of your burying him in the geranium-bed; we haven't got him clean yet."
Mr. Piper, giving utterance to uncouth noises, quitted the room hastily, but Mr. Cox sat still and stared at her dumbly.
"Weren't you surprised to see him?" inquired his tormentor.
"Not after your letter," said Mr. Cox, finding his voice at last, and speaking with an attempt at chilly dignity. "Nothing could surprise me much after that."
Mrs. Berry smiled again.
"Ah, I've got another little surprise for you," she said, briskly. "Mrs. Cox was so upset at the idea of being alone while you were a wanderer over the face of the earth, that she and I have gone into partnership. We have had a proper deed drawn up, so that now there are two of us to look after things. Eh? What did you say?"
"I was just thinking," said Mr. Cox.
It was getting late in the afternoon as Master Jones, in a somewhat famished condition, strolled up Aldgate, with a keen eye on the gutter, in search of anything that would serve him for his tea. Too late, he wished that he had saved some of the stale bread and damaged fruit which had constituted his dinner.
Aldgate proving barren, he turned up into the quieter Minories, skilfully dodging the mechanical cuff of the constable at the corner as he passed, and watching with some interest the efforts of a stray mongrel to get itself adopted. Its victim had sworn at it, cut at it with his stick, and even made little runs at it—all to no purpose. Finally, being a soft-hearted man, he was weak enough to pat the cowering schemer on the head, and, being frantically licked by the homeless one, took it up in his arms and walked off with it.
Billy Jones watched the proceedings with interest, not untempered by envy. If he had only been a dog! The dog passed in the man's arms, and, with a whine of ecstasy, insisted upon licking his ear. They went on their way, the dog wondering between licks what sort of table the man kept, and the man speculating idly as to a descent which appeared to have included, among other things, an ant-eater.
"'E's all right," said the orphan, wistfully; "no coppers to chivvy 'im about, and as much grub as he wants. Wish I'd been a dog."
He tied up his breeches with a piece of string which was lying on the pavement, and, his hands being now free, placed them in a couple of rents which served as pockets, and began to whistle. He was not a proud boy, and was quite willing to take a lesson even from the humblest. Surely he was as useful as a dog!
The thought struck him just as a stout, kindly-looking seaman passed with a couple of shipmates. It was a good-natured face, and the figure was that of a man who lived well. A moment's hesitation, and Master Jones, with a courage born of despair, ran after him and tugged him by the sleeve.
"Halloa!" said Mr. Samuel Brown, looking round. "What do you want?"
"Want you, father," said Master Jones.
The jolly seaman's face broke into a smile. So also did the faces of the jolly seaman's friends.
"I'm not your father, matey," he said, good-naturedly.
"Yes, you are," said the desperate Billy; "you know you are."
"You've made a mistake, my lad," said Mr. Brown, still smiling. "Here, run away."
He felt in his trouser pocket and produced a penny. It was a gift, not a bribe, but it had by no means the effect its donor intended. Master Jones, now quite certain that he had made a wise choice of a father, trotted along a yard or two in the rear.
"Look here, my lad," exclaimed Mr. Brown, goaded into action by intercepting a smile with which Mr. Charles Legge had favoured Mr. Harry Green, "you run off home."
"Where do you live now?" inquired Billy, anxiously.
Mr. Green, disdaining concealment, slapped Mr. Legge on the back, and, laughing uproariously, regarded Master Jones with much kindness.
"You mustn't follow me," said Sam, severely; "d'ye hear?"
"All right, father," said the boy, dutifully.
"And don't call me father," vociferated Mr. Brown.
"Why not?" inquired the youth, artlessly.
Mr. Legge stopped suddenly, and, putting his hand on Mr. Green's shoulder, gaspingly expressed his inability to go any farther. Mr. Green, patting his back, said he knew how he felt, because he felt the same, and, turning to Sam, told him he'd be the death of him if he wasn't more careful.
"If you don't run away," said Mr. Brown, harshly, as he turned to the boy, "I shall give you a hiding."
"Where am I to run to?" whimpered Master Jones, dodging off and on.
"Run 'ome," said Sam.
"That's where I'm going," said Master Jones, following.
"Better try and give 'im the slip, Sam," said Mr. Legge, in a confidential whisper; "though it seems an unnatural thing to do."
"Unnatural? What d'ye mean?" demanded his unfortunate friend. "Wot d'ye mean by unnatural?"
"Oh, if you're going to talk like that, Sam," said Mr. Legge, shortly, "it's no good giving you advice. As you've made your bed, you must lay on it."
"How long is it since you saw 'im last, matey?" inquired Mr. Green.
"I dunno; not very long," replied the boy, cautiously.
"Has he altered at all since you see 'im last?" inquired the counsel for the defence, motioning the fermenting Mr. Brown to keep still.
"No," said Billy, firmly; "not a bit."
"Wot's your name?"
"Billy," was the reply.
Mr. Green's face cleared, and he turned to his friends with a smile of joyous triumph. Sam's face reflected his own, but Charlie Legge's was still overcast.
"It ain't likely," he said impressively; "it ain't likely as Sam would go and get married twice in the same name, is it? Put it to yourself, 'Arry—would you?
"Look 'ere," exclaimed the infuriated Mr. Brown, "don't you interfere in my business. You're a crocodile, that's wot you are. As for you, you little varmint, you run off, d'ye hear?"
He moved on swiftly, accompanied by the other two, and set an example of looking straight ahead of him, which was, however, lost upon his friends.
"'E's still following of you, Sam," said the crocodile, in by no means disappointed tones.
"Sticking like a leech," confirmed Mr. Green. "'E's a pretty little chap, rather."
"Takes arter 'is mother," said the vengeful Mr. Legge.
The unfortunate Sam said nothing, but strode a haunted man down Nightingale Lane into Wapping High Street, and so to the ketch Nancy Bell, which was lying at Shrimpett's Wharf. He stepped on board without a word, and only when he turned to descend the forecastle ladder did his gaze rest for a moment on the small, forlorn piece of humanity standing on the wharf.
"Halloa, boy, what do you want?" cried the skipper, catching sight of him.
"Want my father, sir—Sam," replied the youth, who had kept his ears open.
The skipper got up from his seat and eyed him curiously; Messrs. Legge and Green, drawing near, explained the situation. Now the skipper was a worldly man; and Samuel Brown, A.B., when at home, played a brass instrument in the Salvation Army band. He regarded the boy kindly and spoke to him fair.
"Don't run away," he said, anxiously.
"I'm not going to, sir," said Master Jones, charmed with his manner, and he watched breathlessly as the skipper stepped forward, and, peering down the forecastle, called loudly for Sam.
"Yes, sir," said a worried voice.
"Your boy's asking after you," said the skipper, grinning madly.
"He's not my boy, sir," replied Mr. Brown, through his clenched teeth.
"Well, you'd better come up and see him," said the other. "Are you sure he isn't, Sam?"
Mr. Brown made no reply, but coming on deck met Master Jones's smile of greeting with an icy stare, and started convulsively as the skipper beckoned him aboard.
"He's been rather neglected, Sam," said the skipper, shaking his head.
"Wot's it got to do with me?" said Sam, violently. "I tell you I've never seen 'im afore this arternoon."
"You hear what your father says," said the skipper—("Hold your tongue, Sam.) Where's your mother, boy?"
"Dead, sir," whined Master Jones. "I've on'y got 'im now."
The skipper was a kind-hearted man, and he looked pityingly at the forlorn little figure by his side. And Sam was the good man of the ship and a leading light at Dimport.
"How would you like to come to sea with your father?" he inquired.
The grin of delight with which Master Jones received this proposal was sufficient reply.
"I wouldn't do it for everybody," pursued the skipper, glancing severely at the mate, who was behaving foolishly, "but I don't mind obliging you, Sam. He can come."
"Obliging?" repeated Mr. Brown, hardly able to get the words out. "Obliging me? I don't want to be obliged."
"There, there," interrupted the skipper. "I don't want any thanks. Take him forrard and give him something to eat—he looks half-starved, poor little chap."
He turned away and went down to the cabin, while the cook, whom Mr. Brown had publicly rebuked for his sins the day before, led the boy to the galley and gave him a good meal. After that was done Charlie washed him, and Harry going ashore, begged a much-worn suit of boy's clothes from a foreman of his acquaintance. He also brought back a message from the foreman to Mr. Brown to the effect that he was surprised at him.
The conversation that evening after Master Jones was asleep turned upon bigamy, but Mr. Brown snored through it all, though Mr. Legge's remark that the revelations of that afternoon had thrown a light upon many little things in his behaviour which had hitherto baffled him came perilously near to awaking him.
At six in the morning they got under way, the boy going nearly frantic with delight as sail after sail was set, and the ketch, with a stiff breeze, rapidly left London behind her. Mr. Brown studiously ignored him, but the other men pampered him to his heart's content, and even the cabin was good enough to manifest a little concern in his welfare, the skipper calling Mr. Brown up no fewer than five times that day to complain about his son's behaviour.
"I can't have somersaults on this 'ere ship, Sam," he remarked, shaking his head; "it ain't the place for 'em."
"I wonder at you teaching 'im such things," said the mate, in grave disapprobation.
"Me?" said the hapless Sam, trembling with passion.
"He must 'ave seen you do it," said the mate, letting his eye rove casually over Sam's ample proportions. "You must ha' been leading a double life altogether, Sam."
"That's nothing to do with us," interrupted the skipper, impatiently. "I don't mind Sam turning cart-wheels all day if it amuses him, but they mustn't do it here, that's all. It's no good standing there sulking, Sam; I can't have it."
He turned away, and Mr. Brown, unable to decide whether he was mad or drunk, or both, walked back, and, squeezing himself up in the bows, looked miserably over the sea. Behind him the men disported themselves with Master Jones, and once, looking over his shoulder, he actually saw the skipper giving him a lesson in steering.
By the following afternoon he was in such a state of collapse that, when they put in at the small port of Withersea to discharge a portion of their cargo, he obtained permission to stay below in his bunk. Work proceeded without him, and at nine o'clock in the evening they sailed again, and it was not until they were a couple of miles on their way to Dimport that Mr. Legge rushed aft with the announcement that he was missing.
"Don't talk nonsense," said the skipper, as he came up from below in response to a hail from the mate.
"It's a fact, sir," said Mr. Legge, shaking his head.
"What's to be done with the boy?" demanded the mate, blankly.
"Sam's a unsteady, unreliable, tricky old man," exclaimed the skipper, hotly; "the idea of going and leaving a boy on our hands like that. I'm surprised at him. I'm disappointed in Sam—deserting!"
"I expect 'e's larfing like anything, sir," remarked Mr. Legge.
"Get forrard," said the skipper, sharply; "get forrard at once, d'ye hear?"
"But what's to be done with the boy?—that's what I want to know," said the mate.
"What d'ye think's to be done with him?" bawled the skipper. "We can't chuck him overboard, can we?"
"I mean when we get to Dimport?" growled the mate.
"Well, the men'll talk," said the skipper, calming down a little, "and perhaps Sam's wife'll come and take him. If not, I suppose he'll have to go to the workhouse. Anyway, it's got nothing to do with me. I wash my hands of it altogether."
He went below again, leaving the mate at the wheel. A murmur of voices came from the forecastle, where the crew were discussing the behaviour of their late colleague. The bereaved Master Jones, whose face was streaky with the tears of disappointment, looked on from his bunk.
"What are you going to do, Billy?" inquired the cook.
"I dunno," said the boy, miserably.
He sat up in his bunk in a brown study, ever and anon turning his sharp little eyes from one to another of the men. Then, with a final sniff to the memory of his departed parent, he composed himself to sleep.
With the buoyancy of childhood he had forgotten his trouble by the morning, and ran idly about the ship as before, until in the afternoon they came in sight of Dimport. Mr. Legge, who had a considerable respect for the brain hidden in that small head, pointed it out to him, and with some curiosity waited for his remarks.
"I can see it," said Master Jones, briefly.
"That's where Sam lives," said his friend, pointedly.
"Yes," said the boy, nodding, "all of you live there, don't you?"
It was an innocent enough remark in all conscience, but there was that in Master Jones's eye which caused Mr. Legge to move away hastily and glance at him in some disquietude from the other side of the deck. The boy, unconscious of the interest excited by his movements, walked restlessly up and down.
"Boy's worried," said the skipper, aside, to the mate; "cheer up, sonny."
Billy looked up and smiled, and the cloud which had sat on his brow when he thought of the coldblooded desertion of Mr. Brown gave way to an expression of serene content.
"Well, what's he going to do?" inquired the mate, in a low voice.
"That needn't worry us," said the skipper.
"Let things take their course; that's my motto."
He took the wheel from Harry; the little town came closer; the houses separated and disclosed roads, and the boy discovered to his disappointment that the church stood on ground of its own, and not on the roof of a large red house as he had supposed. He ran forward as they got closer, and, perching up in the bows until they were fast to the quay, looked round searchingly for any signs of Sam.
The skipper locked up the cabin, and then calling on one of the shore hands to keep an eye on the forecastle, left it open for the convenience of the small passenger. Harry, Charlie, and the cook stepped ashore. The skipper and mate followed, and the latter, looking back from some distance, called his attention to the desolate little figure sitting on the hatch.
"I s'pose he'll be all right," said the skipper, uneasily; "there's food and a bed down the fo'c's'le. You might just look round to-night and see he's safe. I expect we'll have to take him back to London with us."
They turned up a small road in the direction of home and walked on in silence, until the mate, glancing behind at an acquaintance who had just passed, uttered a sharp exclamation. The skipper turned, and a small figure which had just shot round the corner stopped in mid-career and eyed them warily. The men exchanged uneasy glances.
"Father," cried a small voice.
"He—he's adopted you now," said the skipper, huskily.
"Or you," said the mate. "I never took much notice of him."
He looked round again. Master Jones was following briskly, about ten yards in the rear, and twenty yards behind him came the crew, who, having seen him quit the ship, had followed with the evident intention of being in at the death.
"Father," cried the boy again, "wait for me."
One or two passers-by stared in astonishment, and the mate began to be uneasy as to the company he was keeping.
"Let's separate," he growled, "and see who he's calling after."
The skipper caught him by the arm. "Shout out to him to go back," he cried.
"It's you he's after, I tell you," said the mate. "Who do you want, Billy?"
"I want my father," cried the youth, and, to prevent any mistake, indicated the raging skipper with his finger.
"Who do you want?" bellowed the latter, in a frightful voice.
"Want you, father," chirrupped Master Jones.
Wrath and dismay struggled for supremacy in the skipper's face, and he paused to decide whether it would be better to wipe Master Jones off the face of the earth or to pursue his way in all the strength of conscious innocence. He chose the latter course, and, a shade more erect than usual, walked on until he came in sight of his house and his wife, who was standing at the door.
"You come along o' me, Jem, and explain," he whispered to the mate. Then he turned about and hailed the crew. The crew, flattered at being offered front seats in the affair, came forward eagerly.
"What's the matter?" inquired Mrs. Hunt, eyeing the crowd in amazement as it grouped itself in anticipation.
"Nothing," said her husband, off-handedly.
"Who's that boy?" cried the innocent woman.
"It's a poor little mad boy," began the skipper; "he came aboard—"
"I'm not mad, father," interrupted Master Jones.
"A poor little mad boy," continued the skipper, hastily, "who came aboard in London and said poor old Sam Brown was his father."
"No—you, father," cried the boy, shrilly.
"He calls everybody his father," said the skipper, with a smile of anguish; "that's the form his madness takes. He called Jem here his father."
"No, he didn't," said the mate, bluntly.
"And then he thought Charlie was his father."
"No, sir," said Mr. Legge, with respectful firmness.
"Well, he said Sam Brown was," said the skipper.
"Yes, that's right, sir," said the crew. "Where is Sam?" inquired Mrs. Hunt, looking round expectantly.
"He deserted the ship at Withersea," said her husband.
"I see," said Mrs. Hunt, with a bitter smile, "and these men have all come up prepared to swear that the boy said Sam was his father. Haven't you?"
"Yes, mum," chorused the crew, delighted at being understood so easily.
Mrs. Hunt looked across the road to the fields stretching beyond. Then she suddenly brought her gaze back, and, looking full at her husband, uttered just two words—
"Ask the mate," cried the frantic skipper.
"Yes, I know what the mate'll say," said Mrs. Hunt. "I've no need to ask him."
"Charlie and Harry were with Sam when the boy came up to them," protested the skipper.
"I've no doubt," said his wife. "Oh, Joe! Joe! Joe!"
There was an uncomfortable silence, during which the crew, standing for the most part on one leg in sympathy with their chief's embarrassment, nudged each other to say something to clear the character of a man whom all esteemed.
"You ungrateful little devil," burst out Mr. Legge, at length; "arter the kind way the skipper treated you, too."
"Did he treat him kindly?" inquired the captain's wife, in conversational tones.
"Like a fa—like a uncle, mum," said the thoughtless Mr. Legge. "Gave 'im a passage on the ship and fairly spoilt 'im. We was all surprised at the fuss 'e made of 'im; wasn't we, Harry?"
He turned to his friend, but on Mr. Green's face there was an expression of such utter scorn and contempt that his own fell. He glanced at the skipper, and was almost frightened at his appearance.
The situation was ended by Mrs. Hunt entering the house and closing the door with an ominous bang. The men slunk off, headed by Mr. Legge; and the mate, after a few murmured words of encouragement to the skipper, also departed. Captain Hunt looked first at the small cause of his trouble, who had drawn off to some distance, and then at the house. Then, with a determined gesture, he turned the handle of the door and walked in. His wife, who was sitting in an armchair, with her eyes on the floor, remained motionless.
"Look here, Polly—," he began.
"Don't talk to me," was the reply. "I wonder you can look me in the face."
The skipper ground his teeth, and strove to maintain an air of judicial calm.
"If you'll only be reasonable—," he remarked, severely.
"I thought there was something secret going on," said Mrs. Hunt. "I've often looked at you when you've been sitting in that chair, with a worried look on your face, and wondered what it was. But I never thought it was so bad as this. I'll do you the credit to say that I never thought of such a thing as this.... What did you say?... What?"
"I said 'damn!'" said the skipper, explosively.
"Yes, I've no doubt," said his wife, fiercely. "You think you're going to carry it off with a high hand and bluster; but you won't bluster me, my man. I'm not one of your meek and mild women who'll put up with anything. I'm not one of your—"
"I tell you," said the skipper, "that the boy calls everybody his father. I dare say he's claimed another by this time."
Even as he spoke the handle turned, and the door opening a few inches disclosed the anxious face of Master Jones. Mrs. Hunt, catching the skipper's eye, pointed to it in an ecstasy of silent wrath. There was a breathless pause, broken at last by the boy.
"Mother!" he said, softly.
Mrs. Hunt stiffened in her chair and her arms fell by her side as she gazed in speechless amazement. Master Jones, opening the door a little wider, gently insinuated his small figure into the room. The skipper gave one glance at his wife and then, turning hastily away, put his hand over his mouth, and, with protruding eyes, gazed out of the window.
"Mother, can I come in?" said the boy.
"Oh, Polly!" sighed the skipper. Mrs. Hunt strove to regain the utterance of which astonishment had deprived her.
"I... what... Joe... don't be a fool!"
"Yes, I've no doubt," said the skipper, theatrically. "Oh, Polly! Polly! Polly!"
He put his hand over his mouth again and laughed silently, until his wife, coming behind him, took him by the shoulders and shook him violently.
"This," said the skipper, choking; "this is what—you've been worried about—— This is the secret what's—"
He broke off suddenly as his wife thrust him by main force into a chair, and standing over him with a fiery face dared him to say another word. Then she turned to the boy.
"What do you mean by calling me 'mother'?" she demanded. "I'm not your mother."
"Yes, you are," said Master Jones.
Mrs. Hunt eyed him in bewilderment, and then, roused to a sense of her position by a renewed gurgling from the skipper's chair, set to work to try and thump that misguided man into a more serious frame of mind. Failing in this, she sat down, and, after a futile struggle, began to laugh herself, and that so heartily that Master Jones, smiling sympathetically, closed the door and came boldly into the room.
The statement, generally believed, that Captain Hunt and his wife adopted him, is incorrect, the skipper accounting for his continued presence in the house by the simple explanation that he had adopted them. An explanation which Mr. Samuel Brown, for one, finds quite easy of acceptance.
It wanted a few nights to Christmas, a festival for which the small market town of Torchcster was making extensive preparations. The narrow streets which had been thronged with people were now almost deserted; the cheap-jack from London, with the remnant of breath left him after his evening's exertions, was making feeble attempts to blow out his naphtha lamp, and the last shops open were rapidly closing for the night.
In the comfortable coffee-room of the old Boar's Head, half a dozen guests, principally commercial travellers, sat talking by the light of the fire. The talk had drifted from trade to politics, from politics to religion, and so by easy stages to the supernatural. Three ghost stories, never known to fail before, had fallen flat; there was too much noise outside, too much light within. The fourth story was told by an old hand with more success; the streets were quiet, and he had turned the gas out. In the flickering light of the fire, as it shone on the glasses and danced with shadows on the walls, the story proved so enthralling that George, the waiter, whose presence had been forgotten, created a very disagreeable sensation by suddenly starting up from a dark corner and gliding silently from the room. "That's what I call a good story," said one of the men, sipping his hot whisky. "Of course it's an old idea that spirits like to get into the company of human beings. A man told me once that he travelled down the Great Western with a ghost and hadn't the slightest suspicion of it until the inspector came for tickets. My friend said the way that ghost tried to keep up appearances by feeling for it in all its pockets and looking on the floor was quite touching. Ultimately it gave it up and with a faint groan vanished through the ventilator."
"That'll do, Hirst," said another man.
"It's not a subject for jesting," said a little old gentleman who had been an attentive listener. "I've never seen an apparition myself, but I know people who have, and I consider that they form a very interesting link between us and the afterlife. There's a ghost story connected with this house, you know."
"Never heard of it," said another speaker, "and I've been here some years now."
"It dates back a long time now," said the old gentleman. "You've heard about Jerry Bundler, George?"
"Well, I've just 'eard odds and ends, sir," said the old waiter, "but I never put much count to 'em. There was one chap 'ere what said 'e saw it, and the gov'ner sacked 'im prompt."
"My father was a native of this town," said the old gentleman, "and knew the story well. He was a truthful man and a steady churchgoer, but I've heard him declare that once in his life he saw the appearance of Jerry Bundler in this house.".
"And who was this Bundler?" inquired a voice.
"A London thief, pickpocket, highwayman—anything he could turn his dishonest hand to," replied the old gentleman; "and he was run to earth in this house one Christmas week some eighty years ago. He took his last supper in this very room, and after he had gone up to bed a couple of Bow Street runners, who had followed him from London but lost the scent a bit, went upstairs with the landlord and tried the door. It was stout oak, and fast, so one went into the yard, and by means of a short ladder got onto the window-sill, while the other stayed outside the door. Those below in the yard saw the man crouching on the sill, and then there was a sudden smash of glass, and with a cry he fell in a heap on the stones at their feet. Then in the moonlight they saw the white face of the pickpocket peeping over the sill, and while some stayed in the yard, others ran into the house and helped the other man to break the door in. It was difficult to obtain an entrance even then, for it was barred with heavy furniture, but they got in at last, and the first thing that met their eyes was the body of Jerry dangling from the top of the bed by his own handkerchief."
"Which bedroom was it?" asked two or three voices together.
The narrator shook his head. "That I can't tell you; but the story goes that Jerry still haunts this house, and my father used to declare positively that the last time he slept here the ghost of Jerry Bundler lowered itself from the top of his bed and tried to strangle him."
"That'll do," said an uneasy voice. "I wish you'd thought to ask your father which bedroom it was."
"What for?" inquired the old gentleman.
"Well, I should take care not to sleep in it, that's all," said the voice, shortly.
"There's nothing to fear," said the other. "I don't believe for a moment that ghosts could really-hurt one. In fact my father used to confess that it was only the unpleasantness of the thing that upset him, and that for all practical purposes Jerry's fingers might have been made of cottonwool for all the harm they could do."
"That's all very fine," said the last speaker again; "a ghost story is a ghost story, sir; but when a gentleman tells a tale of a ghost in the house in which one is going to sleep, I call it most ungentlemanly!"
"Pooh! nonsense!" said the old gentleman, rising; "ghosts can't hurt you. For my own part, I should rather like to see one. Good night, gentlemen."
"Good night," said the others. "And I only hope Jerry'll pay you a visit," added the nervous man as the door closed.
"Bring some more whisky, George," said a stout commercial; "I want keeping up when the talk turns this way."
"Shall I light the gas, Mr. Malcolm?" said George.
"No; the fire's very comfortable," said the traveller. "Now, gentlemen, any of you know any more?"
"I think we've had enough," said another man; "we shall be thinking we see spirits next, and we're not all like the old gentleman who's just gone."
"Old humbug!" said Hirst. "I should like to put him to the test. Suppose I dress up as Jerry Bundler and go and give him a chance of displaying his courage?"
"Bravo!" said Malcolm, huskily, drowning one or two faint "Noes." "Just for the joke, gentlemen."
"No, no! Drop it, Hirst," said another man.
"Only for the joke," said Hirst, somewhat eagerly. "I've got some things upstairs in which I am going to play in the Rivals—knee-breeches, buckles, and all that sort of thing. It's a rare chance. If you'll wait a bit I'll give you a full-dress rehearsal, entitled, 'Jerry Bundler; or, The Nocturnal Strangler.'"
"You won't frighten us," said the commercial, with a husky laugh.
"I don't know that," said Hirst, sharply; "it's a question of acting, that's all. I'm pretty good, ain't I, Somers?"
"Oh, you're all right—for an amateur," said his friend, with a laugh.
"I'll bet you a level sov. you don't frighten me," said the stout traveller.
"Done!" said Hirst. "I'll take the bet to frighten you first and the old gentleman afterwards. These gentlemen shall be the judges."
"You won't frighten us, sir," said another man, "because we're prepared for you; but you'd better leave the old man alone. It's dangerous play."
"Well, I'll try you first," said Hirst, springing up. "No gas, mind."
He ran lightly upstairs to his room, leaving the others, most of whom had been drinking somewhat freely, to wrangle about his proceedings. It ended in two of them going to bed.
"He's crazy on acting," said Somers, lighting his pipe. "Thinks he's the equal of anybody almost. It doesn't matter with us, but I won't let him go to the old man. And he won't mind so long as he gets an opportunity of acting to us."
"Well, I hope he'll hurry up," said Malcolm, yawning; "it's after twelve now."
Nearly half an hour passed. Malcolm drew his watch from his pocket and was busy winding it, when George, the waiter, who had been sent on an errand to the bar, burst suddenly into the room and rushed towards them.
"'E's comin', gentlemen," he said breathlessly.
"Why, you're frightened, George," said the stout commercial, with a chuckle.
"It was the suddenness of it," said George, sheepishly; "and besides, I didn't look for seein' 'im in the bar. There's only a glimmer of light there, and 'e was sitting on the floor behind the bar. I nearly trod on 'im."
"Oh, you'll never make a man, George," said Malcolm.
"Well, it took me unawares," said the waiter. "Not that I'd have gone to the bar by myself if I'd known 'e was there, and I don't believe you would either, sir."
"Nonsense!" said Malcolm. "I'll go and fetch him in."
"You don't know what it's like, sir," said George, catching him by the sleeve. "It ain't fit to look at by yourself, it ain't, indeed. It's got the—What's that?"
They all started at the sound of a smothered cry from the staircase and the sound of somebody running hurriedly along the passage. Before anybody could speak, the door flew open and a figure bursting into the room flung itself gasping and shivering upon them.
"What is it? What's the matter?" demanded Malcolm. "Why, it's Mr. Hirst." He shook him roughly and then held some spirit to his lips. Hirst drank it greedily and with a sharp intake of his breath gripped him by the arm.
"Light the gas, George," said Malcolm.
The waiter obeyed hastily. Hirst, a ludicrous but pitiable figure in knee-breeches and coat, a large wig all awry and his face a mess of grease paint, clung to him, trembling.
"Now, what's the matter?" asked Malcolm.
"I've seen it," said Hirst, with a hysterical sob. "O Lord, I'll never play the fool again, never!"
"Seen what?" said the others.
"Him—it—the ghost—anything!" said Hirst, wildly.
"Rot!" said Malcolm, uneasily.
"I was coming down the stairs," said Hirst. "Just capering down—as I thought—it ought to do. I felt a tap—"
He broke off suddenly and peered nervously through the open door into the passage.
"I thought I saw it again," he whispered.
"Look—at the foot of the stairs. Can you see anything?"
"No, there's nothing there," said Malcolm, whose own voice shook a little. "Go on. You felt a tap on your shoulder—"
"I turned round and saw it—a little wicked head and a white dead face. Pah!"
"That's what I saw in the bar," said George. "'Orrid it was—devilish!"
Hirst shuddered, and, still retaining his nervous grip of Malcolm's sleeve, dropped into a chair.
"Well, it's a most unaccountable thing," said the dumbfounded Malcolm, turning round to the others. "It's the last time I come to this house."
"I leave to-morrow," said George. "I wouldn't go down to that bar again by myself, no, not for fifty pounds!"
"It's talking about the thing that's caused it, I expect," said one of the men; "we've all been talking about this and having it in our minds. Practically we've been forming a spiritualistic circle without knowing it."
"Hang the old gentleman!" said Malcolm, heartily. "Upon my soul, I'm half afraid to go to bed. It's odd they should both think they saw something."
"I saw it as plain as I see you, sir," said George, solemnly. "P'raps if you keep your eyes turned up the passage you'll see it for yourself."
They followed the direction of his finger, but saw nothing, although one of them fancied that a head peeped round the corner of the wall.
"Who'll come down to the bar?" said Malcolm, looking round.
"You can go, if you like," said one of the others, with a faint laugh; "we'll wait here for you."
The stout traveller walked towards the door and took a few steps up the passage. Then he stopped. All was quite silent, and he walked slowly to the end and looked down fearfully towards the glass partition which shut off the bar. Three times he made as though to go to it; then he turned back, and, glancing over his shoulder, came hurriedly back to the room.
"Did you see it, sir?" whispered George.
"Don't know," said Malcolm, shortly. "I fancied I saw something, but it might have been fancy. I'm in the mood to see anything just now. How are you feeling now, sir?"
"Oh, I feel a bit better now," said Hirst, somewhat brusquely, as all eyes were turned upon him.
"I dare say you think I'm easily scared, but you didn't see it."
"Not at all," said Malcolm, smiling faintly despite himself.
"I'm going to bed," said Hirst, noticing the smile and resenting it. "Will you share my room with me, Somers?"
"I will with pleasure," said his friend, "provided you don't mind sleeping with the gas on full all night."
He rose from his seat, and bidding the company a friendly good-night, left the room with his crestfallen friend. The others saw them to the foot of the stairs, and having heard their door close, returned to the coffee-room.
"Well, I suppose the bet's off?" said the stout commercial, poking the fire and then standing with his legs apart on the hearthrug; "though, as far as I can see, I won it. I never saw a man so scared in all my life. Sort of poetic justice about it, isn't there?"
"Never mind about poetry or justice," said one of his listeners; "who's going to sleep with me?"
"I will," said Malcolm, affably.
"And I suppose we share a room together, Mr. Leek?" said the third man, turning to the fourth.
"No, thank you," said the other, briskly; "I don't believe in ghosts. If anything comes into my room I shall shoot it."
"That won't hurt a spirit, Leek," said Malcolm, decisively.
"Well the noise'll be like company to me," said Leek, "and it'll wake the house too. But if you're nervous, sir," he added, with a grin, to the man who had suggested sharing his room, "George'll be only too pleased to sleep on the door-mat inside your room, I know."
"That I will, sir," said George, fervently; "and if you gentlemen would only come down with me to the bar to put the gas out, I could never be sufficiently grateful."
They went out in a body, with the exception of Leek, peering carefully before them as they went George turned the light out in the bar and they returned unmolested to the coffee-room, and, avoiding the sardonic smile of Leek, prepared to separate for the night.
"Give me the candle while you put the gas out, George," said the traveller.
The waiter handed it to him and extinguished the gas, and at the same moment all distinctly heard a step in the passage outside. It stopped at the door, and as they watched with bated breath, the door creaked and slowly opened. Malcolm fell back open-mouthed, as a white, leering face, with sunken eyeballs and close-cropped bullet head, appeared at the opening.
For a few seconds the creature stood regarding them, blinking in a strange fashion at the candle. Then, with a sidling movement, it came a little way into the room and stood there as if bewildered.
Not a man spoke or moved, but all watched with a horrible fascination as the creature removed its dirty neckcloth and its head rolled on its shoulder. For a minute it paused, and then, holding the rag before it, moved towards Malcolm.
The candle went out suddenly with a flash and a bang. There was a smell of powder, and something writhing in the darkness on the floor. A faint, choking cough, and then silence. Malcolm was the first to speak. "Matches," he said, in a strange voice. George struck one. Then he leapt at the gas and a burner flamed from the match. Malcolm touched the thing on the floor with his foot and found it soft. He looked at his companions. They mouthed inquiries at him, but he shook his head. He lit the candle, and, kneeling down, examined the silent thing on the floor. Then he rose swiftly, and dipping his handkerchief in the water-jug, bent down again and grimly wiped the white face. Then he sprang back with a cry of incredulous horror, pointing at it. Leek's pistol fell to the floor and he shut out the sight with his hands, but the others, crowding forward, gazed spell-bound at the dead face of Hirst.
Before a word was spoken the door opened and Somers hastily entered the room. His eyes fell on the floor. "Good God!" he cried. "You didn't—"
"I told him not to," he said, in a suffocating voice. "I told him not to. I told him—"
He leaned against the wall, deathly sick, put his arms out feebly, and fell fainting into the traveller's arms.
"Of course, there is a deal of bullying done at sea at times," said the night-watchman, thoughtfully. 'The men call it bullying an' the officers call it discipline, but it's the same thing under another name. Still, it's fair in a way. It gets passed on from one to another. Everybody aboard a'most has got somebody to bully, except, perhaps, the boy; he 'as the worst of it, unless he can manage to get the ship's cat by itself occasionally.
"I don't think sailor-men mind being bullied. I never 'eard of its putting one off 'is feed yet, and that's the main thing, arter all's said and done.
"Fust officers are often worse than skippers. In the fust place, they know they ain't skippers, an' that alone is enough to put 'em in a bad temper, especially if they've 'ad their certifikit a good many years and can't get a vacancy.
"I remember, a good many years ago now, I was lying at Calcutta one time in the Peewit, as fine a barque as you'd wish to see, an' we 'ad a fust mate there as was a disgrace to 'is sects. A nasty, bullying, violent man, who used to call the hands names as they didn't know the meanings of and what was no use looking in the dictionary for.
"There was one chap aboard, Bill Cousins, as he used to make a partikler mark of. Bill 'ad the misfortin to 'ave red 'air, and the way the mate used to throw that in 'is face was disgraceful. Fortunately for us all, the skipper was a very decent sort of man, so that the mate was only at 'is worst when he wasn't by.
"We was sitting in the fo'c's'le at tea one arter-noon, when Bill Cousins came down, an' we see at once 'e'd 'ad a turn with the mate. He sat all by hisself for some time simmering, an' then he broke out. 'One o' these days I'll swing for 'im; mark my words.'
"'Don't be a fool, Bill,' ses Joe Smith.
"'If I could on'y mark 'im,' ses Bill, catching his breath. 'Just mark 'im fair an' square. If I could on'y 'ave 'im alone for ten minutes, with nobody standing by to see fair play. But, o' course, if I 'it 'im it's mutiny.'
"'You couldn't do it if it wasn't, Bill,' ses Joe Smith again.
"'He walks about the town as though the place belongs to 'im,' said Ted Hill. 'Most of us is satisfied to shove the niggers out o' the way, but he ups fist and 'its 'em if they comes within a yard of 'im.'
"'Why don't they 'it 'im back?' ses Bill. 'I would if I was them.'
"Joe Smith grunted. 'Well, why don't you?' he asked.
"''Cos I ain't a nigger,' ses Bill.
"'Well, but you might be,' ses Joe, very softly. 'Black your face an' 'ands an' legs, and dress up in them cotton things, and go ashore and get in 'is way.'
"'If you will, I will, Bill,' ses a chap called Bob Pullin.
"Well, they talked it over and over, and at last Joe, who seemed to take a great interest in it, went ashore and got the duds for 'em. They was a tight fit for Bill, Hindoos not being as wide as they might be, but Joe said if 'e didn't bend about he'd be all right, and Pullin, who was a smaller man, said his was fust class.
"After they were dressed, the next question was wot to use to colour them with; coal was too scratchy, an' ink Bill didn't like. Then Ted Hill burnt a cork and started on Bill's nose with it afore it was cool, an' Bill didn't like that.
"'Look 'ere,' ses the carpenter, 'nothin' seems to please you, Bill—it's my opinion you're backing out of it.'
"'You're a liar,' ses Bill.
"'Well, I've got some stuff in a can as might be boiled-down Hindoo for all you could tell to the difference,' ses the carpenter; 'and if you'll keep that ugly mouth of yours shut, I'll paint you myself.'
"Well, Bill was a bit flattered, the carpenter being a very superior sort of a man, and quite an artist in 'is way, an' Bill sat down an' let 'im do 'im with some stuff out of a can that made 'im look like a Hindoo what 'ad been polished. Then Bob Pullin was done too, an' when they'd got their turbins on, the change in their appearance was wonderful.
"'Feels a bit stiff,' ses Bill, working 'is mouth.
"'That'll wear off,' ses the carpenter; 'it wouldn't be you if you didn't 'ave a grumble, Bill.'
"'And mind and don't spare 'im, Bill,' ses Joe. 'There's two of you, an' if you only do wot's expected of you, the mate ought to 'ave a easy time abed this v'y'ge.'
"'Let the mate start fust,' ses Ted Hill. 'He's sure to start on you if you only get in 'is way. Lord, I'd like to see his face when you start on 'im.
"Well, the two of 'em went ashore arter dark with the best wishes o' all on board, an' the rest of us sat down in the fo'c's'le spekerlating as to what sort o' time the mate was goin' to 'ave. He went ashore all right, because Ted Hill see 'im go, an' he noticed with partikler pleasure as 'ow he was dressed very careful.
"It must ha' been near eleven o'clock. I was sitting with Smith on the port side o' the galley, when we heard a 'ubbub approaching the ship. It was the mate just coming aboard. He was without 'is 'at; 'is necktie was twisted round 'is ear, and 'is shirt and 'is collar was all torn to shreds. The second and third officers ran up to him to see what was the matter, and while he was telling them, up comes the skipper.
"'You don't mean to tell me, Mr. Fingall,' ses the skipper, in surprise, 'that you've been knocked about like that by them mild and meek Hindoos?'
"'Hindoos, sir?' roared the mate. 'Certainly not, sir. I've been assaulted like this by five German sailor-men. And I licked 'em all.'
"'I'm glad to hear that,' ses the skipper; and the second and third pats the mate on the back, just like you pat a dog you don't know.
"'Big fellows they was,' ses he, 'an' they give me some trouble. Look at my eye!'
"The second officer struck a match and looked at it, and it cert'n'y was a beauty.
"'I hope you reported this at the police station?' ses the skipper.
"'No, sir,' ses the mate, holding up 'is 'ead. 'I don't want no p'lice to protect me. Five's a large number, but I drove 'em off, and I don't think they'll meddle with any British fust officers again.'
"'You'd better turn in,' ses the second, leading him off by the arm.
"The mate limped off with him, and as soon as the coast was clear we put our 'eads together and tried to make out how it was that Bill Cousins and Bob 'ad changed themselves into five German sailor-men.
"'It's the mate's pride,' ses the carpenter. 'He didn't like being knocked about by Hindoos.'
"We thought it was that, but we had to wait nearly another hour afore the two came aboard, to make sure. There was a difference in the way they came aboard, too, from that of the mate. They didn't make no noise, and the fust thing we knew of their coming aboard was seeing a bare, black foot waving feebly at the top of the fo'c's'le ladder feelin' for the step.
"That was Bob. He came down without a word, and then we see 'e was holding another black foot and guiding it to where it should go. That was Bill, an' of all the 'orrid, limp-looking blacks that you ever see, Bill was the worst when he got below. He just sat on a locker all of a heap and held 'is 'ead, which was swollen up, in 'is hands. Bob went and sat beside 'im, and there they sat, for all the world like two wax figgers instead o' human beings.
"'Well, you done it, Bill,' ses Joe, after waiting a long time for them to speak. 'Tell us all about it.'
"'Nothin' to tell,' ses Bill, very surly. 'We knocked 'im about.'
"'And he knocked us about,' ses Bob, with a groan. 'I'm sore all over, and as for my feet—'
"'Wot's the matter with them?' ses Joe.
"'Trod on,' ses Bob, very short. 'If my bare feet was trod on once they was a dozen times. I've never 'ad such a doing in all my life. He fought like a devil. I thought he'd ha' murdered Bill.'
"'I wish 'e 'ad,' ses Bill, with a groan; 'my face is bruised and cut about cruel. I can't bear to touch it.'
"'Do you mean to say the two of you couldn't settle 'im?' ses Joe, staring.
"'I mean to say we got a hiding,' ses Bill. 'We got close to him fust start off and got our feet trod on. Arter that it was like fighting a windmill, with sledge-hammers for sails.'
"He gave a groan and turned over in his bunk, and when we asked him some more about it, he swore at us. They both seemed quite done up, and at last they dropped off to sleep just as they was, without even stopping to wash the black off or to undress themselves.
"I was awoke rather early in the morning by the sounds of somebody talking to themselves, and a little splashing of water. It seemed to go on a long while, and at last I leaned out of my bunk and see Bill bending over a bucket and washing himself and using bad langwidge.
"'Wot's the matter, Bill?' ses Joe, yawning and sitting up in bed.
"'My skin's that tender, I can hardly touch it,' ses Bill, bending down and rinsing 'is face. 'Is it all orf?'
"'Orf?' ses Joe; 'no, o' course it ain't. Why don't you use some soap?'
"'Soap,' answers Bill, mad-like; 'why, I've used more soap than I've used for six months in the ordinary way.'
"That's no good,' ses Joe; 'give yourself a good wash.'
"Bill put down the soap then very careful, and went over to 'im and told him all the dreadful things he'd do to him when he got strong agin, and then Bob Pullin got out of his bunk an' 'ad a try on his face. Him an' Bill kept washing and then taking each other to the light and trying to believe it was coming off until they got sick of it, and then Bill, 'e up with his foot and capsized the bucket, and walked up and down the fo'c's'le raving.
"'Well, the carpenter put it on,' ses a voice, 'make 'im take it orf.'
"You wouldn't believe the job we 'ad to wake that man up. He wasn't fairly woke till he was hauled out of 'is bunk an' set down opposite them two pore black fellers an' told to make 'em white again.
"'I don't believe as there's anything will touch it,' he says, at last. 'I forgot all about that.'
"'Do you mean to say,' bawls Bill, 'that we've got to be black all the rest of our life?'
"'Cert'nly not,' ses the carpenter, indignantly, 'it'll wear off in time; shaving every morning 'll 'elp it, I should say.'
"'I'll get my razor now,' ses Bill, in a awful voice; 'don't let 'im go, Bob. I'll 'ack 'is head orf.'
"He actually went off an' got his razor, but, o' course, we jumped out o' our bunks and got between 'em and told him plainly that it was not to be, and then we set 'em down and tried everything we could think of, from butter and linseed oil to cold tea-leaves used as a poultice, and all it did was to make 'em shinier an' shinier.
"'It's no good, I tell you,' ses the carpenter, 'it's the most lasting black I know. If I told you how much that stuff is a can, you wouldn't believe me.'
"'Well, you're in it,' ses Bill, his voice all of a tremble; 'you done it so as we could knock the mate about. Whatever's done to us'll be done to you too.'
"'I don't think turps'll touch it,' ses the carpenter, getting up, 'but we'll 'ave a try.'
"He went and fetched the can and poured some out on a bit o' rag and told Bill to dab his face with it. Bill give a dab, and the next moment he rushed over with a scream and buried his head in a shirt what Simmons was wearing at the time and began to wipe his face with it. Then he left the flustered Simmons an' shoved another chap away from the bucket and buried his face in it and kicked and carried on like a madman. Then 'e jumped into his bunk again and buried 'is face in the clothes and rocked hisself and moaned as if he was dying.
"'Don't you use it, Bob,' he ses, at last
"''Tain't likely,' ses Bob. 'It's a good thing you tried it fust, Bill.'
"''Ave they tried holy-stone?' ses a voice from a bunk.
"'No, they ain't,' ses Bob, snappishly, 'and, what's more, they ain't goin' to.'
"Both o' their tempers was so bad that we let the subject drop while we was at breakfast. The orkard persition of affairs could no longer be disregarded. Fust one chap threw out a 'int and then another, gradually getting a little stronger and stronger, until Bill turned round in a uncomfortable way and requested of us to leave off talking with our mouths full and speak up like Englishmen wot we meant.
"'You see, it's this way, Bill,' ses Joe, soft-like. 'As soon as the mate sees you there'll be trouble for all of us.'
"'For all of us,' repeats Bill, nodding.
"'Whereas,' ses Joe, looking round for support, 'if we gets up a little collection for you and you should find it convenient to desart.'
"''Ear, 'ear,' ses a lot o' voices. 'Bravo, Joe.'
"'Oh, desart is it?' ses Bill; 'an' where are we goin' to desart to?'
"'Well, that we leave to you,' ses Joe; 'there's many a ship short-'anded as would be glad to pick up sich a couple of prime sailor-men as you an' Bob.'
"'Ah, an' wot about our black faces?' ses Bill, still in the same sneering, ungrateful sort o' voice.
"'That can be got over,' ses Joe.
"'Ow?' ses Bill and Bob together.
"'Ship as nigger cooks,' ses Joe, slapping his knee and looking round triumphant.
"It's no good trying to do some people a kindness. Joe was perfectly sincere, and nobody could say but wot it wasn't a good idea, but o' course Mr. Bill Cousins must consider hisself insulted, and I can only suppose that the trouble he'd gone through 'ad affected his brain. Likewise Bob Pullin's. Anyway, that's the only excuse I can make for 'em. To cut a long story short, nobody 'ad any more breakfast, and no time to do anything until them two men was scrouged up in a corner an' 'eld there unable to move.
"'I'd never 'ave done 'em,' ses the carpenter, arter it was all over, 'if I'd know they was goin' to carry on like this. They wanted to be done.'
"The mate'll half murder 'em,' ses Ted Hill.
"'He'll 'ave 'em sent to gaol, that's wot he'll do,' ses Smith. 'It's a serious matter to go ashore and commit assault and battery on the mate.'
"'You're all in it,' ses the voice o' Bill from the floor. 'I'm going to make a clean breast of it. Joe Smith put us up to it, the carpenter blacked us, and the others encouraged us.'
"'Joe got the clothes for us,' ses Bob. 'I know the place he got 'em from, too.'
"The ingratitude o' these two men was sich that at first we decided to have no more to do with them, but better feelings prevailed, and we held a sort o' meeting to consider what was best to be done. An' everything that was suggested one o' them two voices from the floor found fault with and wouldn't 'ave, and at last we 'ad to go up on deck with nothing decided upon, except to swear 'ard and fast as we knew nothing about it.
"The only advice we can give you,' ses Joe, looking back at 'em, 'is to stay down 'ere as long as you can.'
"A'most the fust person we see on deck was the mate, an' a pretty sight he was. He'd got a bandage round 'is left eye, and a black ring round the other. His nose was swelled and his lip cut, but the other officers were making sich a fuss over 'im, that I think he rather gloried in it than otherwise.
"'Where's them other two 'ands?' he ses, by and by, glaring out of 'is black eye.
"'Down below, sir, I b'lieve,' ses the carpenter, all of a tremble.
"'Go an' send 'em up,' ses the mate to Smith.
"'Yessir,' ses Joe, without moving.
"'Well, go on then,' roars the mate.
"'They ain't over and above well, sir, this morning,' ses Joe.
"'Send 'em up, confound you,' ses the mate, limping towards 'im.
"Well, Joe give 'is shoulders a 'elpless sort o' shrug and walked forward and bawled down the fo'c's'le.
"'They're coming, sir,' he ses, walking bade to the mate just as the skipper came out of 'is cabin.
"We all went on with our work as 'ard as we knew 'ow. The skipper was talking to the mate about 'is injuries, and saying unkind things about Germans, when he give a sort of a shout and staggered back staring. We just looked round, and there was them two blackamoors coming slowly towards us.
"'Good heavens, Mr. Fingall,' ses the old man. 'What's this?'
"I never see sich a look on any man's face as I saw on the mate's then. Three times 'e opened 'is mouth to speak, and shut it agin without saying anything. The veins on 'is forehead swelled up tremendous and 'is cheeks was all blown out purple.
"That's Bill Cousins's hair,' ses the skipper to himself. 'It's Bill Cousins's hair. It's Bill Cous—'
"Bob walked up to him, with Bill lagging a little way behind, and then he stops just in front of 'im and fetches up a sort o' little smile.
"'Don't you make those faces at me, sir?' roars the skipper. 'What do you mean by it? What have you been doing to yourselves?'
"'Nothin', sir,' ses Bill, 'umbly; 'it was done to us.'
"The carpenter, who was just going to cooper up a cask which 'ad started a bit, shook like a leaf, and gave Bill a look that would ha' melted a stone.
"'Who did it?' ses the skipper.
"'We've been the wictims of a cruel outrage, sir,' ses Bill, doing all 'e could to avoid the mate's eye, which wouldn't be avoided.
"'So I should think,' ses the skipper. 'You've been knocked about, too.'
"'Yessir,' ses Bill, very respectful; 'me and Bob was ashore last night, sir, just for a quiet look round, when we was set on to by five furriners.'
"'What?' ses the skipper; and I won't repeat what the mate said.
"'We fought 'em as long as we could, sir,' ses Bill, 'then we was both knocked senseless, and when we came to ourselves we was messed up like this 'ere.'
"What sort o' men were they?' asked the skipper, getting excited.
"'Sailor-men, sir,' ses Bob, putting in his spoke. 'Dutchies or Germans, or something o' that sort.'
"'Was there one tall man, with a fair beard,' ses the skipper, getting more and more excited.
"'Yessir,' ses Bill, in a surprised sort o' voice.
"'Same gang,' ses the skipper. 'Same gang as knocked Mr. Fingall about, you may depend upon it. Mr. Fingall, it's a mercy for you you didn't get your face blacked too.'
"I thought the mate would ha' burst. I can't understand how any man could swell as he swelled without bursting.
"'I don't believe a word of it,' he ses, at last.
"'Why not?' ses the skipper, sharply.
"'Well, I don't,' ses the mate, his voice trembling with passion. 'I 'ave my reasons.'
"'I s'pose you don't think these two poor fellows went and blacked themselves for fun, do you?' ses the skipper.
"The mate couldn't answer.
"'And then went and knocked themselves about for more fun?' ses the skipper, very sarcastic.
"The mate didn't answer. He looked round helpless like, and see the third officer swopping glances with the second, and all the men looking sly and amused, and I think if ever a man saw 'e was done 'e did at that moment.
"He turned away and went below, and the skipper arter reading us all a little lecture on getting into fights without reason, sent the two chaps below agin and told 'em to turn in and rest. He was so good to 'em all the way 'ome, and took sich a interest in seeing 'em change from black to brown and from light brown to spotted lemon, that the mate daren't do nothing to them, but gave us their share of what he owed them, as well as an extra dose of our own."