"If I do stand up," said George, in a voice broken with rage, "it'll be a bad day for you, my lad."
"Ain't he modest?" said the cook. "Don't it do you good to 'ear 'im? He was just like that when they got him ashore and the crowd started patting him."
"Didn't like it?" queried the mate.
"Well, they overdid it a little, p'raps," admitted the cook; "one old chap wot couldn't get near patted 'is 'ead with 'is stick, but it was all meant in the way of kindness."
"I'm proud of you, George," said the skipper heartily.
"We all are," said the mate.
"I'll write for the medal for him," said the skipper. "Were there any witnesses, cook?"
"Heaps of 'em," said the other, "but I gave 'em 'is name and address. 'Schooner John Henry, of Limehouse, is 'is home,' I ses, 'and George Cooper 'is name.'"
"You talked a damned sight too much," said the hero, "you lean, lop-sided son of a tinker."
"There's 'is modesty ag'in," said the cook, with a knowing smile. "'E's busting with modesty, is George. You should ha' seen 'im when a chap took 'is fortygraph."
"Took his what?" said the skipper, becoming interested.
"His fortygraph," said the cook. "'E was a young chap what was taking views for a noose-paper. 'E took George drippin' wet just as 'e come out of the water, 'e took him arter 'e 'ad 'is face wiped, an' 'e took 'im when 'e was sitting up swearing at a man wot asked 'im whether 'e was very wet."
"An' you told 'im where I lived, and what I was," said George, turning on him and shaking his fist. "You did."
"I did," said the cook simply. "You'll live to thank me for it, George."
The other gave a dreadful howl, and rising from the deck walked forward and went below, giving a brother seaman who patted his shoulder as he passed a blow in the ribs, which nearly broke them. Those on deck exchanged glances.
"Well, I don't know," said the mate, shrugging his shoulders; "seems to me if I'd saved a fellow-critter's life I shouldn't mind hearing about it."
"That's what you think," said the skipper, drawing himself up a little. "If ever you do do anything of the kind perhaps you'll feel different about it."
"Well, I don't see how you should know any more than me," said the other.
The skipper cleared his throat.
"There have been one or two little things in my life which I'm not exactly ashamed of," he said modestly.
"That ain't much to boast of," said the mate, wilfully misunderstanding him.
"I mean," said the skipper sharply, "one or two things which some people might have been proud of. But I'm proud to say that there isn't a living soul knows of 'em."
"I can quite believe that," assented the mate, and walked off with an irritating smile.
The skipper was about to follow him, to complain of the needless ambiguity of his remarks, when he was arrested by a disturbance from the foc'sle. In response to the cordial invitation of the cook, the mate and one of the hands from the brig Endeavour, moored alongside, had come aboard and gone below to look at George. The manner in which they were received was a slur upon the hospitality of the John Henry; and they came up hurriedly, declaring that they never wanted to see him again as long as they lived, and shouting offensive remarks behind them as they got over the side of their own vessel.
The skipper walked slowly to the focs'le and put his head down.
"George," he shouted.
"Sir," said the hero gruffly.
"Come down into the cabin," said the other, turning away. "I want to have a little talk with you."
George rose, and, first uttering some terrible threats against the cook, who bore them with noble fortitude, went on deck and followed the skipper to the cabin.
At his superior's request he took a seat on the locker, awkwardly enough, but smiled faintly as the skipper produced a bottle and a couple of glasses.
"Your health, George," said the skipper, as he pushed a glass towards him and raised his own.
"My bes' respec's, sir," said George, allowing the liquor to roll slowly round his mouth before swallowing it. He sighed heavily, and, putting his empty glass on the table, allowed his huge head to roll on his chest.
"Saving life don't seem to agree with you, George," said the skipper. "I like modesty, but you seem to me to carry it a trifle too far."
"It ain't modesty, sir," said George; "it's that fortygraph. When I think o' that I go 'ot all over."
"I shouldn't let that worry me if I was you, George," said the other kindly. "Looks ain't everything."
"I didn't mean it that way," said George very sourly. "My looks is good enough for me. In fact, it is partly owing to my looks, so to speak, that I'm in a mess."
"A little more rum, George?" said the skipper, whose curiosity was roused. "I don't want to know your business, far from it. But in my position as cap'n, if any of my crew gets in a mess I consider it's my duty to lend them a hand out of it, if I can."
"The world 'ud be a better place if there was more like you," said George, waxing sentimental as he sniffed delicately at the fragrant beverage. "If that noosepaper, with them pictures, gets into a certain party's 'ands, I'm ruined."
"Not if I can help it, George," said the other with great firmness. "How do you mean ruined?"
The seaman set his glass down on the little table, and, leaning over, formed a word with his lips, and then drew back slowly and watched the effect.
"What?" said the skipper.
The other repeated the performance, but beyond seeing that some word of three syllables was indicated the skipper obtained no information.
"You can speak a little louder," he said somewhat crustily.
"Bigamy!" said George, breathing the word solemnly.
"You?" said the skipper.
George nodded. "And if my first only gets hold of that paper, and sees my phiz and reads my name, I'm done for. There's my reward for saving a fellow-critter's life. Seven years."
"I'm surprised at you, George," said the skipper sternly. "Such a good wife as you've got too."
"I ain't saying nothing agin number two," grumbled George. "It's number one that didn't suit. I left her eight years ago. She was a bad 'un. I took a v'y'ge to Australia furst, just to put her out o' my mind a bit, an' I never seed her since. Where am I if she sees all about me in the paper?"
"Is she what you'd call a vindictive woman?" inquired the other. "Nasty-tempered, I mean."
"Nasty-tempered," echoed the husband of two. "If that woman could only have me put in gaol she'd stand on 'er 'ead for joy."
"Well, I'll do what I can for you if the worst comes to the worst," said the skipper. "You'd better not say anything about this to anybody else."
"Not me," said George fervently, as he rose, "an' o' course you—"
"You can rely on me," said the skipper in his most stately fashion.
He thought of the seaman's confidence several times during the evening, and, being somewhat uncertain of the law as to bigamy, sought information from the master of the Endeavour as they sat in the tetter's cabin at a quiet game of cribbage. By virtue of several appearances in the law courts with regard to collisions and spoilt cargoes this gentleman had obtained a knowledge of law which made him a recognised authority from London Bridge to the Nore.
It was a delicate matter for the master of the John Henry to broach, and, with the laudable desire of keeping the hero's secret, he approached it by a most circuitous route. He began with a burglary, followed with an attempted murder, and finally got on the subject of bigamy, via the "Deceased Wife's Sister Bill."
"What sort o' bigamy?" inquired the master of the brig.
"Oh, two wives," said Captain Thomsett.
"Yes, yes," said the other, "but are there any mitigating circumstances in the case, so that you could throw yourself on the mercy o' the court, I mean?"
"My case!" said Thomsett, glaring. "It ain't for me."
"Oh, no, o' course not," said Captain Stubbs.
"What do you mean by 'o' course not'?" demanded the indignant master of the John Henry.
"Your deal," said Captain Stubbs, pushing the cards over to him.
"You haven't answered my question," said Captain Thomsett, regarding him offensively.
"There's some questions," said Stubbs slowly, "as is best left unanswered. When you've seen as much law as I have, my lad, you'll know that one of the first principles of English law is, that nobody is bound to commit themselves."
"Do you mean to say you think it is me?" bellowed Captain Thomsett.
"I mean to say nothing," said Captain Stubbs, putting his huge hands on the table. "But when a man comes into my cabin and begins to hum an' haw an' hint at things, and then begins to ask my advice about bigamy, I can't help thinking. This is a free country, and there's no law ag'in thinking. Make a clean breast of it, cap'n, an' I'll do what I can for you."
"You're a blanked fool," said Captain Thomsett wrathfully.
Captain Stubbs shook his head gently, and smiled with infinite patience. "P'raps so," he said modestly. "P'raps so; but there's one thing I can do, and that is, I can read people."
"You can read me, I s'pose?" said Thomsett sneeringly.
"Easy, my lad," said the other, still preserving, though by an obvious effort, his appearance of judicial calm. "I've seen your sort before. One in pertikler I call to mind. He's doing fourteen years now, pore chap. But you needn't be alarmed, cap'n. Your secret is safe enough with me."
Captain Thomsett got up and pranced up and down the cabin, but Captain Stubbs remained calm. He had seen that sort before. It was interesting to the student of human nature, and he regarded his visitor with an air of compassionate interest. Then Captain Thomsett resumed his seat, and, to preserve his own fair fame, betrayed that of George.
"I knew it was either you or somebody your kind 'art was interested in," said the discomfited Stubbs, as they resumed the interrupted game. "You can't help your face, cap'n. When you was thinking about that pore chap's danger it was working with emotion. It misled me, I own it, but it ain't often I meet such a feeling 'art as yours."
Captain Thomsett, his eyes glowing affectionately, gripped his friend's hand, and in the course of the game listened to an exposition of the law relating to bigamy of a most masterly and complicated nature, seasoned with anecdotes calculated to make the hardiest of men pause on the brink of matrimony and think seriously of their position.
"Suppose this woman comes aboard after pore George," said Thomsett. "What's the best thing to be done?"
"The first thing," said Captain Stubbs, "is to gain time. Put her off."
"Off the ship, d'ye mean?" inquired the other.
"No, no," said the jurist "Pretend he's ill and can't see anybody. By gum, I've got it."
He slapped the table with his open hand, and regarded the other triumphantly.
"Let him turn into his bunk and pretend to be dead," he continued, in a voice trembling with pride at his strategy. "It's pretty dark down your foc'sle, I know. Don't have no light down there, and tell him to keep quiet."
Captain Thomsett's eyes shone, but with a qualified admiration.
"Ain't it somewhat sudden?" he demurred.
Captain Stubbs regarded him with a look of supreme artfulness, and slowly closed one eye.
"He got a chill going in the water," he said quietly.
"Well, you're a masterpiece," said Thomsett ungrudgingly. "I will say this of you, you're a masterpiece. Mind this is all to be kept quite secret."
"Make your mind easy," said the eminent jurist. "If I told all I know there's a good many men in this river as 'ud be doing time at the present moment."
Captain Thomsett expressed his pleasure at this information, and, having tried in vain to obtain a few of their names, even going so far as to suggest some, looked at the clock, and, shaking hands, departed to his own ship. Captain Stubbs, left to himself, finished his pipe and retired to rest; and his mate, who had been lying in the adjoining bunk during the consultation, vainly trying to get to sleep, scratched his head, and tried to think of a little strategy himself. He had glimmerings of it before he fell asleep, but when he awoke next morning it flashed before him in all the fulness of its matured beauty.
He went on deck smiling, and, leaning his arms on the side, gazed contemplatively at George, who was sitting on the deck listening darkly to the cook as that worthy read aloud from a newspaper.
"Anything interesting, cook?" demanded the mate.
"About George, sir," said the cook, stopping in his reading. "There's pictures of 'im too."
He crossed to the side, and, handing the paper to the mate, listened smilingly to the little ejaculations of surprise and delight of that deceitful man as he gazed upon the likenesses. "Wonderful," he said emphatically. "Wonderful. I never saw such a good likeness in my life, George. That'll be copied in every newspaper in London, and here's the name in full too—'George Cooper, schooner John Henry, now lying off Limehouse.'"
He handed the paper back to the cook and turned away grinning as George, unable to control himself any longer, got up with an oath and went below to nurse his wrath in silence. A little later the mate of the brig, after a very confidential chat with his own crew, lit his pipe and, with a jaunty air, went ashore.
For the next hour or two George alternated between the foc'sle and the deck, from whence he cast harassed glances at the busy wharves ashore. The skipper, giving it as his own suggestion, acquainted him with the arrangements made in case of the worst, and George, though he seemed somewhat dubious about them, went below and put his bed in order.
"It's very unlikely she'll see that particular newspaper though," said the skipper encouragingly.
"People are sure to see what you don't want 'em to," growled George. "Somebody what knows us is sure to see it, an' show 'er."
"There's a lady stepping into a waterman's skiff now," said the skipper, glancing at the stairs. "That wouldn't be her, I s'pose?"
He turned to the seaman as he spoke, but the words had hardly left his lips before George was going below and undressing for his part.
"If anybody asks for me," he said, turning to the cook, who was regarding his feverish movements in much astonishment, "I'm dead."
"You're wot?" inquired the other.
"Dead," said George. "Dead. Died at ten o'clock this morning. D'ye understand, fat-head?"
"I can't say as 'ow I do," said the cook somewhat acrimoniously.
"Pass the word round that I'm dead," repeated George hurriedly. "Lay me out, cookie. I'll do as much for you one day."
Instead of complying the horrified cook rushed up on deck to tell the skipper that George's brain had gone; but, finding him in the midst of a hurried explanation to the men, stopped with greedy ears to listen. The skiff was making straight for the schooner, propelled by an elderly waterman in his shirt-sleeves, the sole passenger being a lady of ample proportions, who was watching the life of the river through a black veil.
In another minute the skiff bumped alongside, and the waterman standing in the boat passed the painter aboard. The skipper gazed at the fare and, shivering inwardly, hoped that George was a good actor.
"I want to see Mr. Cooper," said the lady grimly, as she clambered aboard, assisted by the waterman.
"I'm very sorry, but you can't see him, mum," said the skipper politely.
"Ho! carn't I?" said the lady, raising her voice a little. "You go an' tell him that his lawful wedded wife, what he deserted, is aboard."
"It 'ud be no good, mum," said the skipper, who felt the full dramatic force of the situation. "I'm afraid he wouldn't listen to you."
"Ho! I think I can persuade 'im a bit," said the lady, drawing in her lips. "Where is 'e?"
"Up aloft," said the skipper, removing his hat.
"Don't you give me none of your lies," said the lady, as she scanned both masts closely.
"He's dead," said the skipper solemnly.
His visitor threw up her arms and staggered back. The cook was nearest, and, throwing his arms round her waist, he caught her as she swayed. The mate, who was of a sympathetic nature, rushed below for whisky, as she sank back on the hatchway, taking the reluctant cook with her.
"Poor thing," said the skipper.
"Don't 'old 'er so tight, cook," said one of the men. "There's no necessity to squeeze 'er."
"Pat 'er 'ands," said another.
"Pat 'em yourself," said the cook brusquely, as he looked up and saw the delight of the crew of the Endeavour, who were leaning over their vessel's side regarding the proceedings with much interest.
"Don't leave go of me," said the newly-made widow, as she swallowed the whisky, and rose to her feet.
"Stand by her, cook," said the skipper authoritatively.
"Ay, ay, sir," said the cook.
They formed a procession below, the skipper and mate leading; the cook with his fair burden, choking her sobs with a handkerchief, and the crew following.
"What did he die of?" she asked in a whisper broken with sobs.
"Chill from the water," whispered the skipper in response.
"I can't see 'im," she whispered. "It's so dark here. Has anybody got a match? Oh! here's some."
Before anybody could interfere she took a box from a locker, and, striking one, bent over the motionless George, and gazed at his tightly-closed eyes and open mouth in silence.
"You'll set the bed alight," said the mate in a low voice, as the end of the match dropped off.
"It won't hurt 'im," whispered the widow tearfully.
The mate, who had distinctly seen the corpse shift a bit, thought differently.
"Nothing 'll 'urt 'im now" whispered the widow, sniffing as she struck another match. "Oh! if he could only sit up 'and speak to me."
For a moment the mate, who knew George's temper, thought it highly probable that he would, as the top of the second match fell between his shirt and his neck.
"Don't look any more," said the skipper anxiously; "you can't do him any good."
His visitor handed him the matches, and, for a short time, sobbed in silence.
"We've done all we could for him," said the skipper at length. "It 'ud be best for you to go home and lay down a bit."
"You're all very good, I'm sure," whispered the widow, turning away. "I'll send for him this evening."
They all started, especially the corpse.
"Eh?" said the skipper.
"He was a bad 'usband to me," she continued, still in the same sobbing whisper, "but I'll 'ave 'im put away decent."
"You'd better let us bury him," said the skipper. "We can do it cheaper than you can, perhaps?"
"No. I'll send for him this evening," said the lady. "Are they 'is clothes?"
"The last he ever wore," said the skipper pathetically, pointing to the heap of clothing. "There's his chest, pore chap, just as he left it."
The bereaved widow bent down, and, raising the lid, shook her head tearfully as she regarded the contents. Then she gathered up the clothes under her left arm, and, still sobbing, took his watch, his knife, and some small change from his chest, while the crew in dumb show inquired of the deceased, who was regarding her over the edge of the bunk, what was to be done.
"I suppose there was some money due to him?" she inquired, turning to the skipper.
"Matter of a few shillings," he stammered.
"I'll take them," she said, holding out her hand.
The skipper put his hand in his pocket and, in his turn, looked inquiringly at the late lamented for guidance; but George had closed his eyes again to the world, and, after a moment's hesitation, he slowly counted the money into her hand.
She dropped the coins into her pocket, and, with a parting glance at the motionless figure in the bunk, turned away. The procession made its way on deck again, but not in the same order, the cook carefully bringing up the rear.
"If there's any other little things," she said, pausing at the side to get a firmer grip of the clothes under her arm.
"You shall have them," said the skipper, who had been making mental arrangements to have George buried before her return.
Apparently much comforted by this assurance, she allowed herself to be lowered into the boat, which was waiting. The excitement of the crew of the brig, who had been watching her movements with eager interest, got beyond the bounds of all decency as they saw her being pulled ashore with the clothes in her lap.
"You can come up now," said the skipper, as he caught sight of George's face at the scuttle.
"Has she gone?" inquired the seaman anxiously.
The skipper nodded, and a wild cheer rose from the crew of the brig as George came on deck in his scanty garments, and from behind the others peered cautiously over the side.
"Where is she?" he demanded.
The skipper pointed to the boat.
"That?" said George, starting. "That? That ain't my wife."
"Not your wife?" said the skipper, staring. "Whose is she then?"
"How the devil should I know?" said George, throwing discipline to the winds in his agitation. "It ain't my wife."
"P'raps it's one you've forgotten," suggested the skipper in a low voice.
George looked at him and choked. "I've never seen her before," he replied, "s'elp me. Call her back. Stop her."
The mate rushed aft and began to haul in the ship's boat, but George caught him suddenly by the arm.
"Never mind," he said bitterly; "better let her go. She seems to know too much for me. Somebody's been talking to her."
It was the same thought that was troubling the skipper, and he looked searchingly from one to the other for an explanation. He fancied that he saw it when he met the eye of the mate of the brig, and he paused irresolutely as the skiff reached the stairs, and the woman, springing ashore, waved the clothes triumphantly in the direction of the schooner and disappeared.
There was bad blood between the captain and mate who comprised the officers and crew of the sailing-barge "Swallow"; and the outset of their voyage from London to Littleport was conducted in glum silence. As far as the Nore they had scarcely spoken, and what little did pass was mainly in the shape of threats and abuse. Evening, chill and overcast, was drawing in; distant craft disappeared somewhere between the waste of waters and the sky, and the side-lights of neighbouring vessels were beginning to shine over the water. The wind, with a little rain in it, was unfavourable to much progress, and the trough of the sea got deeper as the waves ran higher and splashed by the barge's side.
"Get the side-lights out, and quick, you," growled the skipper, who was at the helm.
The mate, a black-haired, fierce-eyed fellow of about twenty-five, set about the task with much deliberation.
"And look lively, you lump," continued the skipper.
"I don't want none of your lip," said the mate furiously; "so don't you give me none."
The skipper yawned, and stretching his mighty frame laughed disagreeably. "You'll take what I give you, my lad," said he, "whether it's lip or fist."
"Lay a finger on me and I'll knife you," said the mate. "I ain't afraid of you, for all your size."
He put out the side-lights, casting occasional looks of violent hatred at the skipper, who, being a man of tremendous physique and rough tongue, had goaded his subordinate almost to madness.
"If you've done skulking," he cried, as he knocked the ashes out of his pipe, "come and take the helm."
The mate came aft and relieved him; and he stood for a few seconds taking a look round before going below. He dropped his pipe, and stooped to recover it; and in that moment the mate, with a sudden impulse, snatched up a handspike and dealt him a crashing blow on the head. Half-blinded and stunned by the blow, the man fell on his knees, and shielding his face with his hands, strove to rise. Before he could do so the mate struck wildly at him again, and with a great cry he fell backwards and rolled heavily overboard. The mate, with a sob in his breath, gazed wildly astern, and waited for him to rise. He waited: minutes seemed to pass, and still the body of the skipper did not emerge from the depths. He reeled back in a stupor; then he gave a faint cry as his eye fell on the boat, which was dragging a yard or two astern, and a figure which clung desperately to the side of it Before he had quite realised what had happened, he saw the skipper haul himself on to the stern of the boat and then roll heavily into it.
Panic-stricken at the sight, he drew his knife to cut the boat adrift, but paused as he reflected that she and her freight would probably be picked up by some passing vessel. As the thought struck him he saw the dim form of the skipper come towards the bow of the boat and, seizing the rope, begin to haul in towards the barge.
"Stop!" shouted the mate hoarsely; "stop! or I'll cut you loose."
The skipper let the rope go, and the boat pulled up with a jerk.
"I'm independent of you," the skipper shouted, picking up one of the loose boards from the bottom of the boat and brandishing it. "If there's any sea on I can keep her head to it with this. Cut away."
"If I let you come aboard," said the mate, "will you swear to let bygones be bygones?"
"No!" thundered the other. "Whether I come aboard or not don't make much difference. It'll be about twenty years for you, you murdering hound, when I get ashore."
The mate made no reply, but sat silently steering, keeping, however, a wary eye on the boat towing behind. He turned sick and faint as he thought of the consequences of his action, and vainly cast about in his mind for some means of escape.
"Are you going to let me come aboard?" presently demanded the skipper, who was shivering in his wet clothes.
"You can come aboard on my terms," repeated the mate doggedly.
"I'll make no terms with you," cried the other. "I hand you over to the police directly I get ashore, you mutinous dog. I've got a good witness in my head."
After this there was silence—silence unbroken through the long hours of the night as they slowly passed. Then the dawn came. The side-lights showed fainter and fainter in the water; the light on the mast shed no rays on the deck, but twinkled uselessly behind its glass. Then the mate turned his gaze from the wet, cheerless deck and heaving seas to the figure in the boat dragging behind. The skipper, who returned his gaze with a fierce scowl, was holding his wet handkerchief to his temple. He removed it as the mate looked, and showed a ghastly wound. Still, neither of them spoke. The mate averted his gaze, and sickened with fear as he thought of his position; and in that instant the skipper clutched the painter, and, with a mighty heave, sent the boat leaping towards the stern of the barge, and sprang on deck. The mate rose to his feet; but the other pushed him fiercely aside, and picking up the handspike, which lay on the raised top of the cabin, went below. Half an hour later he came on deck with a fresh suit of clothes on, and his head roughly bandaged, and standing in front of the mate, favoured him with a baleful stare.
"Gimme that helm," he cried.
The mate relinquished it.
"You dog!" snarled the other, "to try and kill a man when he wasn't looking, and then keep him in his wet clothes in the boat all night. Make the most o' your time. It'll be many a day before you see the sea again."
The mate groaned in spirit, but made no reply.
"I've wrote everything down with the time it happened," continued the other in a voice of savage satisfaction; "an' I've locked that handspike up in my locker. It's got blood on it."
"That's enough about it," said the mate, turning at last and speaking thickly. "What I've done I must put up with."
He walked forward to end the discussion; but the skipper shouted out choice bits from time to time as they occurred to him, and sat steering and gibing, a gruesome picture of vengeance.
Suddenly he sprang to his feet with a sharp cry. "There's somebody in the water," he roared; "stand by to pick him up."
As he spoke he pointed with his left hand, and with his right steered for something which rose and fell lazily on the water a short distance from them.
The mate, following his outstretched arm, saw it too, and picking up a boat-hook stood ready, until they were soon close enough to distinguish the body of a man supported by a life-belt.
"Don't miss him," shouted the skipper.
The mate grasped the rigging with one hand, and leaning forward as far as possible stood with the hook poised. At first it seemed as though the object would escape them, but a touch of the helm in the nick of time just enabled the mate to reach. The hook caught in the jacket, and with great care he gradually shortened it, and drew the body close to the side.
"He's dead," said the skipper, as he fastened the helm and stood looking down into the wet face of the man. Then he stooped, and taking him by the collar of his coat dragged the streaming figure on to the deck.
"Take the helm," he said.
"Ay, ay," said the other; and the skipper disappeared below with his burden.
A moment later he came on deck again. "We'll take in sail and anchor. Sharp there!" he cried.
The mate went to his assistance. There was but little wind, and the task was soon accomplished, and both men, after a hasty glance round, ran below. The wet body of the sailor lay on a locker, and a pool of water was on the cabin floor.
The mate hastily swabbed up the water, and then lit the fire and put on the kettle; while the skipper stripped the sailor of his clothes, and flinging some blankets in front of the fire placed him upon them.
For a long time they toiled in silence, in the faint hope that life still remained in the apparently dead body.
"Poor devil!" said the skipper at length, and fell to rubbing again.
"I don't believe he's gone," said the mate, panting with his exertions. "He don't feel like a dead man."
Ten minutes later the figure stirred slightly, and the men talked in excited whispers as they worked. A faint sigh came from the lips of the sailor, and his eyes partly opened.
"It's all right, matey," said the skipper; "you lie still; we'll do the rest. Jem, get some coffee ready."
By the time it was prepared the partly drowned man was conscious that he was alive, and stared in a dazed fashion at the man who was using him so roughly. Conscious that his patient was improving rapidly, the latter lifted him in his arms and placed him in his own bunk, and proffered him some steaming hot coffee. He sipped a little, then lapsed into unconsciousness again. The two men looked at each other blankly.
"Some of 'em goes like that." said the skipper. "I've seen it afore. Just as you think they're pulling round they slip their cable."
"We must keep him warm," said the mate. "I don't see as we can do any more."
"We'll get under way again," said the other; and pausing to heap some more clothes over the sailor he went on deck, followed by the mate; and in a short time the Swallow was once more moving through the water. Then the skipper, leaving the mate at the helm, went below.
Half an hour passed.
"Go and see what you can make of him," said the skipper as he re-appeared and took the helm. "He keeps coming round a bit, and then just drifts back. Seems like as if he can't hook on to life. Don't seem to take no interest in it."
The mate obeyed in silence; and for the remainder of the day the two men relieved each other at the bedside of the sailor. Towards evening, as they were entering the river which runs up to Littleport, he made decided progress under the skipper's ministrations; and the latter thrust his huge head up the hatchway and grinned in excusable triumph at the mate as he imparted the news. Then he suddenly remembered himself, and the smile faded. The light, too, faded from the mate's face.
"'Bout that mutiny and attempted murder," said the skipper, and paused as though waiting for the mate to contradict or qualify the terms; but he made no reply.
"I give you in charge as soon as we get to port," continued the other. "Soon as the ship's berthed, you go below."
"Ay, ay," said the mate, but without looking at him.
"Nice thing it'll be for your wife," said the skipper sternly. "You'll get no mercy from me."
"I don't expect none," said the mate huskily, "What I've done I'll stand to."
The reply on the skipper's lips merged into a grunt, and he went below. The sailor was asleep, and breathing gently and regularly; and after regarding him for some time the watcher returned to the deck and busied himself with certain small duties preparatory to landing.
Slowly the light faded out of the sky, and the banks of the river grew indistinct; and one by one the lights of Littleport came into view as they rounded the last bend of the river, and saw the little town lying behind its veil of masts and rigging. The skipper came aft and took the helm from the mate, and looked at him out of the corner of his eye, as he stood silently waiting with his hands by his side.
"Take in sail," said the skipper shortly; and leaving the helm a bit, ran to assist him. Five minutes later the Swallow was alongside of the wharf, and then, everything made fast and snug, the two men turned and faced each other.
"Go below," said the skipper sternly. The mate walked off. "And take care of that chap. I'm going ashore. If anybody asks you about these scratches, I got 'em in a row down Wapping—D'ye hear?"
The mate heard, but there was a thickness in his throat which prevented him from replying promptly. By the time he had recovered his voice the other had disappeared over the edge of the wharf, and the sound of his retreating footsteps rang over the cobblestone quay. The mate in a bewildered fashion stood for a short time motionless; then he turned, and drawing a deep breath, went below.
THE GREY PARROT.
The Chief Engineer and the Third sat at tea on the s.s. Curlew in the East India Docks. The small and not over-clean steward having placed everything he could think of upon the table, and then added everything the Chief could think of, had assiduously poured out two cups of tea and withdrawn by request. The two men ate steadily, conversing between bites, and interrupted occasionally by a hoarse and sepulchral voice, the owner of which, being much exercised by the sight of the food, asked for it, prettily at first, and afterwards in a way which at least compelled attention.
"That's pretty good for a parrot," said the Third critically. "Seems to know what he's saying too. No, don't give it anything. It'll stop if you do."
"There's no pleasure to me in listening to coarse language," said the Chief with dignity.
He absently dipped a piece of bread and butter in the Third's tea, and losing it chased it round and round the bottom of the cap with his finger, the Third regarding the operation with an interest and emotion which he was at first unable to understand.
"You'd better pour yourself out another cup," he said thoughtfully as he caught the Third's eye.
"I'm going to," said the other dryly.
"The man I bought it off," said the Chief, giving the bird the sop, "said that it was a perfectly respectable parrot and wouldn't know a bad word if it heard it I hardly like to give it to my wife now."
"It's no good being too particular," said the Third, regarding him with an ill-concealed grin; "that's the worst of all you young married fellows. Seem to think your wife has got to be wrapped up in brown paper. Ten chances to one she'll be amused."
The Chief shrugged his shoulders disdainfully. "I bought the bird to be company for her," he said slowly; "she'll be very lonesome without me, Rogers."
"How do you know?" inquired the other.
"She said so," was the reply.
"When you've been married as long as I have," said the Third, who having been married some fifteen years felt that their usual positions were somewhat reversed, "you'll know that generally speaking they're glad to get rid of you."
"What for?" demanded the Chief in a voice that Othello might have envied.
"Well, you get in the way a bit," said Rogers with secret enjoyment; "you see you upset the arrangements. House-cleaning and all that sort of thing gets interrupted. They're glad to see you back at first, and then glad to see the back of you."
"There's wives and wives," said the bridegroom tenderly.
"And mine's a good one," said the Third, "registered A1 at Lloyd's, but she don't worry about me going away. Your wife's thirty years younger than you, isn't she?"
"Twenty-five," corrected the other shortly. "You see what I'm afraid of is, that she'll get too much attention."
"Well, women like that," remarked the Third.
"But I don't, damn it," cried the Chief hotly. "When I think of it I get hot all over. Boiling hot."
"That won't last," said the other reassuringly; "you won't care twopence this time next year."
"We're not all alike," growled the Chief; "some of us have got finer feelings than others have. I saw the chap next door looking at her as we passed him this morning."
"Lor'," said the Third.
"I don't want any of your damned impudence," said the Chief sharply. "He put his hat on straighter when he passed us. What do you think of that?"
"Can't say," replied the other with commendable gravity; "it might mean anything."
"If he has any of his nonsense while I'm away I'll break his neck," said the Chief passionately. "I shall know of it."
The other raised his eyebrows.
"I've asked the landlady to keep her eyes open a bit," said the Chief. "My wife was brought up in the country, and she's very young and simple, so that it is quite right and proper for her to have a motherly old body to look after her."
"Told your wife?" queried Rogers.
"No," said the other. "Fact is, I've got an idea about that parrot. I'm going to tell her it's a magic bird, and will tell me everything she does while I'm away. Anything the landlady tells me I shall tell her I got from the parrot. For one thing, I don't want her to go out after seven of an evening, and she's promised me she won't. If she does I shall know, and pretend that I know through the parrot What do you think of it?"
"Think of it?" said the Third, staring at him. "Think of it? Fancy a man telling a grown-up woman a yarn like that!"
"She believes in warnings and death-watches, and all that sort of thing," said the Chief, "so why shouldn't she?"
"Well, you'll know whether she believes in it or not when you come back," said Rogers, "and it'll be a great pity, because it's a beautiful talker."
"What do you mean?" said the other.
"I mean it'll get its little neck wrung," said the Third.
"Well, we'll see," said Gannett. "I shall know what to think if it does die."
"I shall never see that bird again," said Rogers, shaking his head as the Chief took up the cage and handed it to the steward, who was to accompany him home with it.
The couple left the ship and proceeded down the East India Dock Road side by side, the only incident being a hot argument between a constable and the engineer as to whether he could or could not be held responsible for the language in which the parrot saw fit to indulge when the steward happened to drop it.
The engineer took the cage at his door, and, not without some misgivings, took it upstairs into the parlour and set it on the table. Mrs. Gannett, a simple-looking woman, with sleepy brown eyes and a docile manner, clapped her hands with joy.
"Isn't it a beauty?" said Mr. Gannett, looking at it; "I bought it to be company for you while I'm away."
"You're too good to me, Jem," said his wife. She walked all round the cage admiring it, the parrot, which was of a highly suspicious and nervous disposition, having had boys at its last place, turning with her. After she had walked round him five times he got sick of it, and in a simple sailorly fashion said so.
"Oh, Jem," said his wife.
"It's a beautiful talker," said Gannett hastily, "and it's so clever that it picks up everything it hears, but it'll soon forget it."
"It looks as though it knows what you are saying," said his wife. "Just look at it, the artful thing."
The opportunity was too good to be missed, and in a few straightforward lies the engineer acquainted Mrs. Gannett of the miraculous powers with which he had chosen to endow it.
"But you don't believe it?" said his wife, staring at him open-mouthed.
"I do," said the engineer firmly.
"But how can it know what I'm doing when I'm away?" persisted Mrs. Gannett.
"Ah, that's its secret," said the engineer; "a good many people would like to know that, but nobody has found out yet. It's a magic bird, and when you've said that you've said all there is to say about it."
Mrs. Gannett, wrinkling her forehead, eyed the marvellous bird curiously.
"You'll find it's quite true," said Gannett; "when I come back that bird'll be able to tell me how you've been and all about you. Everything you've done during my absence."
"Good gracious!" said the astonished Mrs. Gannett.
"If you stay out after seven of an evening, or do anything else that I shouldn't like, that bird'll tell me," continued the engineer impressively. "It'll tell me who comes to see you, and in fact it will tell me everything you do while I'm away."
"Well, it won't have anything bad to tell of me," said Mrs. Gannett composedly, "unless it tells lies."
"It can't tell lies," said her husband confidently, "and now, if you go and put your bonnet on, we'll drop in at the theatre for half an hour."
It was a prophetic utterance, for he made such a fuss over the man next to his wife offering her his opera-glasses, that they left, at the urgent request of the management, in almost exactly that space of time.
"You'd better carry me about in a bandbox," said Mrs. Gannett wearily as the outraged engineer stalked home beside her. "What harm was the man doing?"
"You must have given him some encouragement," said Mr. Gannett fiercely—"made eyes at him or something. A man wouldn't offer to lend a lady his opera-glasses without."
Mrs. Gannett tossed her head—and that so decidedly, that a passing stranger turned his head and looked at her. Mr. Gannett accelerated his pace, and taking his wife's arm, led her swiftly home with a passion too great for words.
By the morning his anger had evaporated, but his misgivings remained. He left after breakfast for the Curlew, which was to sail in the afternoon, leaving behind him copious instructions, by following which his wife would be enabled to come down and see him off with the minimum exposure of her fatal charms.
Left to herself Mrs. Gannett dusted the room, until, coming to the parrot's cage, she put down the duster and eyed its eerie occupant curiously. She fancied that she saw an evil glitter in the creature's eye, and the knowing way in which it drew the film over it was as near an approach to a wink as a bird could get.
She was still looking at it when there was a knock at the door, and a bright little woman—rather smartly dressed—bustled into the room, and greeted her effusively.
"I just came to see you, my dear, because I thought a little outing would do me good," she said briskly; "and if you've no objection I'll come down to the docks with you to see the boat off."
Mrs. Gannett assented readily. It would ease the engineer's mind, she thought, if he saw her with a chaperon.
"Nice bird," said Mrs. Cluffins, mechanically bringing her parasol to the charge.
"Don't do that," said her friend hastily.
"Why not?" said the other.
"Language!" said Mrs. Gannett solemnly.
"Well, I must do something to it," said Mrs. Cluffins restlessly.
She held the parasol near the cage and suddenly opened it. It was a flaming scarlet, and for the moment the shock took the parrot's breath away.
"He don't mind that," said Mrs. Gannett.
The parrot, hopping to the farthest corner of the bottom of his cage, said something feebly. Finding that nothing dreadful happened, he repeated his remark somewhat more boldly, and, being convinced after all that the apparition was quite harmless and that he had displayed his craven spirit for nothing, hopped back on his perch and raved wickedly.
"If that was my bird," said Mrs. Cluffins, almost as scarlet as her parasol, "I should wring its neck."
"No, you wouldn't," said Mrs. Gannett solemnly. And having quieted the bird by throwing a cloth over its cage, she explained its properties.
"What!" said Mrs. Cluffins, unable to sit still in her chair. "You mean to tell me your husband said that!"
Mrs. Gannett nodded.
"He's awfully jealous of me," she said with a slight simper.
"I wish he was my husband," said Mrs. Cluffins in a thin, hard voice. "I wish C. would talk to me like that I wish somebody would try and persuade C. to talk to me like that."
"It shows he's fond of me," said Mrs. Gannett, looking down.
Mrs. Cluffins jumped up, and snatching the cover off the cage, endeavoured, but in vain, to get the parasol through the bars.
"And you believe that rubbish!" she said scathingly. "Boo, you wretch!"
"I don't believe it," said her friend, taking her gently away and covering the cage hastily just as the bird was recovering, "but I let him think I do."
"I call it an outrage," said Mrs. Cluffins, waving the parasol wildly. "I never heard of such a thing; I'd like to give Mr. Gannett a piece of my mind. Just about half an hour of it. He wouldn't be the same man afterwards—I'd parrot him."
Mrs. Gannett, soothing her agitated friend as well as she was able, led her gently to a chair and removed her bonnet, and finding that complete recovery was impossible while the parrot remained in the room, took that wonder-working bird outside.
By the time they had reached the docks and boarded the Curlew Mrs. Cluffins had quite recovered her spirits. She roamed about the steamer asking questions, which savoured more of idle curiosity than a genuine thirst for knowledge, and was at no pains to conceal her opinion of those who were unable to furnish her with satisfactory replies.
"I shall think of you every day, Jem," said Mrs. Gannett tenderly.
"I shall think of you every minute," said the engineer reproachfully.
He sighed gently and gazed in a scandalised fashion at Mrs. Cluffins, who was carrying on a desperate flirtation with one of the apprentices.
"She's very light-hearted," said his wife, following the direction of his eyes.
"She is," said Mr. Gannett curtly, as the unconscious Mrs. Cluffins shut her parasol and rapped the apprentice playfully with the handle. "She seems to be on very good terms with Jenkins, laughing and carrying on. I don't suppose she's ever seen him before."
"Poor young things," said Mrs. Cluffins solemnly, as she came up to them. "Don't you worry, Mr. Gannett; I'll look after her and keep her from moping."
"You're very kind," said the engineer slowly.
"We'll have a jolly time," said Mrs. Cluffins. "I often wish my husband was a seafaring man. A wife does have more freedom, doesn't she?"
"More what?" inquired Mr. Gannett huskily.
"More freedom," said Mrs. Cluffins gravely. "I always envy sailors' wives. They can do as they like. No husband to look after them for nine or ten months in the year."
Before the unhappy engineer could put his indignant thoughts into words there was a warning cry from the gangway, and with a hasty farewell he hurried below. The visitors went ashore, the gangway was shipped, and in response to the clang of the telegraph the Curlew drifted slowly away from the quay and headed for the swing-bridge slowly opening in front of her.
The two ladies hurried to the pier-head and watched the steamer down the river until a bend hid it from view. Then Mrs. Gannett, with a sensation of having lost something, due, so her friend assured her, to the want of a cup of tea, went slowly back to her lonely home.
In the period of grass-widowhood which ensued, Mrs. Cluffins's visits formed almost the sole relief to the bare monotony of existence. As a companion the parrot was an utter failure, its language being so irredeemably bad that it spent most of its time in the spare room with a cloth over its cage, wondering when the days were going to lengthen a bit. Mrs. Cluffins suggested selling it, but her friend repelled the suggestion with horror, and refused to entertain it at any price, even that of the publican at the corner, who, having heard of the bird's command of language, was bent upon buying it.
"I wonder what that beauty will have to tell your husband," said Mrs. Cluffins, as they sat together one day some three months after the Curlew's departure.
"I should hope that he has forgotten that nonsense," said Mrs. Gannett, reddening; "he never alludes to it in his letters."
"Sell it," said Mrs. Cluffins peremptorily. "It's no good to you, and Hobson would give anything for it almost."
Mrs. Gannett shook her head. "The house wouldn't hold my husband if I did," she remarked with a shiver.
"Oh, yes, it would," said Mrs. Cluffins; "you do as I tell you, and a much smaller house than this would hold him. I told C. to tell Hobson he should have it for five pounds."
"But he mustn't," said her friend in alarm.
"Leave yourself right in my hands," said Mrs. Cluffins, spreading out two small palms and regarding them complacently. "It'll be all right, I promise you."
She put her arm round her friend's waist and led her to the window, talking earnestly. In five minutes Mrs. Gannett was wavering, in ten she had given way, and in fifteen the energetic Mrs. Cluffins was en route for Hobson's, swinging the cage so violently in her excitement that the parrot was reduced to holding on to its perch with claws and bill. Mrs. Gannett watched the progress from the window, and with a queer look on her face sat down to think out the points of attack and defence in the approaching fray.
A week later a four-wheeler drove up to the door, and the engineer, darting upstairs three steps at a time, dropped an armful of parcels on the floor, and caught his wife in an embrace which would have done credit to a bear. Mrs. Gannett, for reasons of which lack of muscle was only one, responded less ardently.
"Ha, it's good to be home again," said Gannett, sinking into an easy-chair and pulling his wife on his knee. "And how have you been? Lonely?"
"I got used to it," said Mrs. Gannett softly.
The engineer coughed. "You had the parrot," he remarked.
"Yes, I had the magic parrot," said Mrs. Gannett.
"How's it getting on?" said her husband, looking round. "Where is it?"
"Part of it is on the mantelpiece," said Mrs. Gannett, trying to speak calmly, "part of it is in a bonnet-box upstairs, some of it's in my pocket, and here is the remainder."
She fumbled in her pocket and placed in his hand a cheap two-bladed clasp knife.
"On the mantelpiece!" repeated the engineer staring at the knife; "in a bonnet-box!" "Those blue vases," said his wife. Mr. Gannett put his hand to his head. If he had heard aright one parrot had changed into a pair of vases, a bonnet, and a knife. A magic bird with a vengeance.
"I sold it," said Mrs. Gannett suddenly.
The engineer's knee stiffened inhospitably, and his arm dropped from his wife's waist She rose quietly and took a chair opposite.
"Sold it!" said Mr. Gannett in awful tones. "Sold my parrot!"
"I didn't like it, Jem," said his wife. "I didn't want that bird watching me, and I did want the vases, and the bonnet, and the little present for you."
Mr. Gannett pitched the little present to the other end of the room.
"You see it mightn't have told the truth, Jem," continued Mrs. Gannett. "It might have told all sorts of lies about me, and made no end of mischief."
"It couldn't lie," shouted the engineer passionately, rising from his chair and pacing the room. "It's your guilty conscience that's made a coward of you. How dare you sell my parrot?"
"Because it wasn't truthful, Jem," said his wife, who was somewhat pale.
"If you were half as truthful you'd do," vociferated the engineer, standing over her. "You, you deceitful woman."
Mrs. Gannett fumbled in her pocket again, and producing a small handkerchief applied it delicately to her eyes.
"I—I got rid of it for your sake," she stammered. "It used to tell such lies about you. I couldn't bear to listen to it."
"About me!" said Mr. Gannett, sinking into his seat and staring at his wife with very natural amazement. "Tell lies about me! Nonsense! How could it?"
"I suppose it could tell me about you as easily as it could tell you about me?" said Mrs. Gannett. "There was more magic in that bird than you thought, Jem. It used to say shocking things about you. I couldn't bear it."
"Do you think you're talking to a child or a fool?" demanded the engineer.
Mrs. Gannett shook her head feebly. She still kept the handkerchief to her eyes, but allowed a portion to drop over her mouth.
"I should like to hear some of the stories it told about me—if you can remember them," said the engineer with bitter sarcasm.
"The first lie," said Mrs. Gannett in a feeble but ready voice, "was about the time you were at Genoa. The parrot said you were at some concert gardens at the upper end of the town."
One moist eye coming mildly from behind the handkerchief saw the engineer stiffen suddenly in his chair.
"I don't suppose there even is such a place," she continued.
"I—b'leve—there—is," said her husband jerkily. "I've heard—our chaps—talk of it."
"But you haven't been there?" said his wife anxiously.
"Never!" said the engineer with extraordinary vehemence.
"That wicked bird said that you got intoxicated there," said Mrs. Gannett in solemn accents, "that you smashed a little marble-topped table and knocked down two waiters, and that if it hadn't been for the captain of the Pursuit, who was in there and who got you away, you'd have been locked up. Wasn't it a wicked bird?"
"Horrible!" said the engineer huskily.
"I don't suppose there ever was a ship called the Pursuit," continued Mrs. Gannett.
"Doesn't sound like a ship's name," murmured Mr. Gannett.
"Well, then, a few days later it said the Curlew was at Naples."
"I never went ashore all the time we were at Naples," remarked the engineer casually.
"The parrot said you did," said Mrs. Gannett.
"I suppose you'll believe your own lawful husband before that damned bird?" shouted Gannett, starting up.
"Of course I didn't believe it, Jem," said his wife. "I'm trying to prove to you that the bird was not truthful, but you're so hard to persuade."
Mr. Gannett took a pipe from his pocket, and with a small knife dug with much severity and determination a hardened plug from the bowl, and blew noisily through the stem.
"There was a girl kept a fruit-stall just by the harbour," said Mrs. Gannett, "and on this evening, on the strength of having bought three-pennyworth of green figs, you put your arm round her waist and tried to kiss her, and her sweetheart, who was standing close by, tried to stab you. The parrot said that you were in such a state of terror that you jumped into the harbour and were nearly drowned."
Mr. Gannett having loaded his pipe lit it slowly and carefully, and with tidy precision got up and deposited the match in the fireplace.
"It used to frighten me so with its stories that I hardly knew what to do with myself," continued Mrs. Gannett "When you were at Suez—"
The engineer waved his hand imperiously.
"That's enough," he said stiffly.
"I'm sure I don't want to have to repeat what it told me about Suez," said his wife. "I thought you'd like to hear it, that's all."
"Not at all," said the engineer, puffing at his pipe. "Not at all."
"But you see why I got rid of the bird, don't you?" said Mrs. Gannett. "If it had told you untruths about me, you would have believed them, wouldn't you?"
Mr. Gannett took his pipe from his mouth and took his wife in his extended arms. "No, my dear," he said brokenly, "no more than you believe all this stuff about me."
"And I did quite right to sell it, didn't I, Jem?"
"Quite right," said Mr. Gannett with a great assumption of heartiness. "Best thing to do with it."
"You haven't heard the worst yet," said Mrs. Gannett. "When you were at Suez—"
Mr. Gannett consigned Suez to its only rival, and thumping the table with his clenched fist, forbade his wife to mention the word again, and desired her to prepare supper.
Not until he heard his wife moving about in the kitchen below did he relax the severity of his countenance. Then his expression changed to one of extreme anxiety, and he restlessly paced the room seeking for light. It came suddenly.
"Jenkins," he gasped, "Jenkins and Mrs. Cluffins, and I was going to tell Cluffins about him writing to his wife. I expect he knows the letter by heart."
"Tain't no use waiting any longer," said Harry Pilchard, looking over the side of the brig towards the Tower stairs. "'E's either waiting for the money or else 'e's a-spending of it. Who's coming ashore?"
"Give 'im another five minutes, Harry," said another seaman persuasively; "it 'ud be uncommon 'ard on 'im if 'e come aboard and then 'ad to go an' get another ship's crew to 'elp 'im celebrate it."
"'Ard on us too," said the cook honestly. "There he is!"
The other glanced up at a figure waving to them from the stairs. "'E wants the boat," he said, moving aft.
"No 'e don't, Steve," piped the boy. "'E's waving you not to. He's coming in the waterman's skiff."
"Ha! same old tale," said the seaman wisely. "Chap comes in for a bit o' money and begins to waste it directly. There's threepence gone; clean chucked away. Look at 'im. Just look at him!"
"'E's got the money all right," said the cook, "there's no doubt about that. Why, 'e looks 'arf as large again as 'e did this morning."
The crew bent over the side as the skiff approached, and the fare, who had been leaning back in the stern with a severely important air, rose slowly and felt in his trousers-pocket.
"There's sixpence for you, my lad," he said pompously. "Never mind about the change."
"All right, old slack-breeches," said the waterman with effusive good-fellowship: "up you get."
Three pairs of hands assisted the offended fare on board, and the boy hovering round him slapped his legs vigorously.
"Wot are you up to?" demanded Mr. Samuel Dodds, A.B., turning on him.
"Only dusting you down, Sam," said the boy humbly.
"You got the money all right, I s'pose, Sammy?" said Steve Martin.
Mr. Dodds nodded and slapped his breastpocket.
"Right as ninepence," he replied genially. "I've been with my lawyer all the arternoon, pretty near. 'E's a nice feller."
"'Ow much is it, Sam?" inquired Pilchard eagerly.
"One 'undred and seventy-three pun seventeen shillings an' ten pence," said the heir, noticing with much pleasure the effect of his announcement.
"Say it agin, Sam," said Pilchard in awed tones.
Mr. Dodds, with a happy laugh, obliged him. "If you'll all come down the foc'sle," he continued, "I've got a bundle o' cigars an' a drop o' something short in my pocket."
"Let's 'ave a look at the money, Sam," said Pilchard when the cigars were alight.
"Ah, let's 'ave a look at it," said Steve.
Mr. Dodds laughed again, and, producing a small canvas bag from his pocket, dusted the table with his big palm, and spread out a roll of banknotes and a little pile of gold and silver. It was an impressive sight, and the cook breathed so hard that one note fluttered off the table. Three men dived to recover it, while Sam, alive for the first time to the responsibilities of wealth, anxiously watched the remainder of his capital.
"There's something for you to buy sweets with, my lad," he said, restored to good-humour as the note was replaced.
He passed over a small coin, and regarded with tolerant good-humour the extravagant manifestation of joy on the part of the youth which followed. He capered joyously for a minute or two, and than taking it to the foot of the steps, where the light was better, bit it ecstatically.
"How much is it?" inquired the wondering Steve. "You do chuck your money about, Sam."
"On'y sixpence," said Sam, laughing. "I expect if it 'ad been a shillin' it 'ud ha' turned his brain."
"It ain't a sixpence," said the boy indignantly. "It's 'arf a suvrin'."
"'Arf a wot?" exclaimed Mr. Dodds with a sudden change of manner.
"'Arf a suvrin'," repeated the boy with nervous rapidity; "and thank-you very much, Sam, for your generosity. If everybody was like you we should all be the better for it The world 'ud be a different place to live in," concluded the youthful philosopher.
Mr. Dodd's face under these fulsome praises was a study in conflicting emotions. "Well, don't waste it," he said at length, and hastily gathering up the remainder stowed it in the bag.
"What are you going to do with it all, Sam?" inquired Harry.
"I ain't made up my mind yet," said Mr. Dodds deliberately. "I 'ave thought of 'ouse property."
"I don't mean that," said the other. "I mean, wot are you going to do with it now, to take care of it?"
"Why, keep it in my pocket," said Sam, staring.
"Well, if I was you," said Harry impressively, "I should ask the skipper to take care of it for me. You know wot you are when you're a bit on, Sam."
"Wot d' yer mean?" demanded Mr. Dodds hotly.
"I mean," said Harry hastily, "that you've got sich a generous nature that when you've 'ad a glass or two you're just as likely as not to give it away to somebody."
"I know what I'm about," said Mr. Dodds with conviction. "I'm not goin' to get on while I've got this about me. I'm just goin' round to the 'Bull's Head,' but I shan't drink anything to speak of myself. Anybody that likes to come t'ave anything at my expense is welcome."
A flattering murmur, which was music to Mr. Dodds' ear, arose from his shipmates as they went on deck and hauled the boat alongside. The boy was first in her, and pulling out his pocket-handkerchief ostentatiously wiped down a seat for Mr. Dodds.
"Understand," said that gentleman, with whom the affair of the half-sovereign still rankled, "your drink is shandygaff."
* * * * *
They returned to the brig at eleven o'clock, Mr. Dodds slumbering peacefully in the stern of the boat, propped up on either side by Steve and the boy.
His sleep was so profound that he declined to be aroused, and was hoisted over the side with infinite difficulty and no little risk by his shipmates.
"Look at 'im," said Harry, as they lowered him down the forecastle. "What 'ud ha' become of 'im if we hadn't been with 'im? Where would 'is money ha' been?"
"He'll lose it as sure as eggs is heggs," said Steve, regarding him intently. "Bear a hand to lift 'im in his bunk, Harry."
Harry complied, their task being rendered somewhat difficult by a slight return of consciousness in Mr. Dodds' lower limbs, which, spreading themselves out fan wise, defied all attempts to pack them in the bunk.
"Let 'em hang out then," said Harry savagely, wiping a little mud from his face. "Fancy that coming in for a fortin."
"'E won't 'ave it long," said the cook, shaking his head.
"Wot 'e wants is a shock," said Harry. "'Ow'd it be when he wakes up to tell 'im he's lost all 'is money?"
"Wot's the good o' telling 'im," demanded the cook, "when 'e's got it in his pocket?"
"Well, let's take it out," said Pilchard. "I'll hide it under my piller, and let him think he's 'ad his pocket picked."
"I won't 'ave nothing to do with it," said Steve peremptorily. "I don't believe in sich games."
"Wot do you think, cook?" inquired Harry.
"I don't see no 'arm in it," said the cook slowly; "the fright might do 'im good, p'raps."
"It might be the saving of 'im," said Harry. He leaned over the sleeping seaman, and, gently inserting his fingers in his breast-pocket, drew out the canvas bag. "There it is, chaps," he said gaily; "an' I'll give 'im sich a fright in the morning as he won't forget in a 'urry."
He retired to his bunk, and placing the bag under his pillow, was soon fast asleep. The other men followed his example, and Steve extinguishing the lamp, the forecastle surrendered itself to sleep.
At five o'clock they were awakened by the voice of Mr. Dodds. It was a broken, disconnected sort of voice at first, like to that of a man talking in his sleep; but as Mr. Dodds' head cleared his ideas cleared with it, and in strong, forcible language straight from the heart he consigned the eyes and limbs of some person or persons unknown to every variety of torment; after which, in a voice broken with emotion, he addressed himself in terms of heartbreaking sympathy.
"Shut up, Sam," said Harry in a sleepy voice. "Why can't you go to sleep?"
"Sleep be 'anged," said Mr. Dodds tearfully. "I've lorst all my money."
"You're dreamin'," said Harry lightly; "pinch yourself."
Mr. Dodds, who had a little breath left and a few words still comparatively fresh, bestowed them upon him.
"I tell you you haven't lorst it," said Harry. "Don't you remember giving it to that red-'aired woman with a baby?"
"Wot?" said the astounded Mr. Dodds.
"You give it to 'er an' told 'er to buy the baby a bun with it," continued the veracious Mr. Pilchard.
"Told 'er to buy the baby a bun with it?" repeated Mr. Dodds in a dazed voice. "Told 'er to—— Wot did you let me do it for? Wot was all you chaps standin' by an' doin' to let me go an' do it for?"
"We did arsk you not to," said Steve, joining in the conversation.
Mr. Dodds finding language utterly useless to express his burning thoughts, sat down and madly smashed at the table with his fists.
"Wot was you a-doin' to let me do it?" he demanded at length of the boy. "You ungrateful little toad. You can give me that 'arf-suvrin back, d'ye hear?"
"I can't," said the boy. "I followed your example, and give it to the red-'aired woman to buy the baby another bun with."
There was a buzzing noise in Mr. Dodds' head, and the bunks and their grinning occupants went round and round.
"'Ere, 'old up, Sam," said Pilchard, shaking him in alarm. "It's all right; don't be a fool. I've got the money."
Sam stared at him blankly.
"I've got the money," repeated the seaman.
Mr. Dodds' colour came back.
"How'd you get it?" he inquired.
"I took it out of your pocket last night just to give you a lesson," said Harry severely. "Don't you never be so silly agin, Sam."
"Gimme my money," said Mr. Dodds, glaring at him.
"You might ha' lorst it, you see, Sam," continued his benefactor; "if I could take it, anybody else could. Let this be a lesson to you."
"If you don't grimme my money——" began Sam violently.
"It's no good trying to do 'im a kindness," said Harry to the others as he turned to his bunk. "He can go an' lose it for all I care."
He put his hand in his bunk, and then with a sudden exclamation searched somewhat hastily amongst the bedding. Mr. Dodds, watching him with a scowl, saw him take every article separately out of his bunk, and then sink down appalled on the locker.
"You've took it, Sam—ain't—you?" he gasped.
"Look 'ere," said Mr. Dodds, with ominous quietness, "when you've done your little game."
"It's gone," said Harry in a scared voice; "somebody's taken it."
"Look 'ere, 'Arry, give 'im his money," said Steve impatiently; "a joke's a joke, but we don't want too much of it."
"I ain't got it," said Harry, trembling. "Sure as I stand 'ere it's gone. I took it out of your pocket, and put it under my piller. You saw me, didn't you, Steve?"
"Yes, and I told you not to," said Steve. "Let this be a warning to you not to try and teach lessons to people wot don't want 'em."
"I'm going to the police-station to give 'im in charge," said Mr. Dodds fiercely; "that's wot I'm goin' to do."
"For the Lord's sake don't do that, Sam," said Pilchard, clutching him by the coat.
"'Arry ain't made away with it, Sam," said Steve. "I saw somebody take it out of his bunk while he was asleep."
"Why didn't you stop him?" cried Harry, starting up.
"I didn't like to interfere," said Steve simply; "but I saw where he went to."
"Where?" demanded Mr. Dodds wildly. "Where?"
"He went straight up on deck," said Steve slowly, "walked aft, and then down into the cabin. The skipper woke up, and I heard 'im say something to him."
"Say something to 'im?" repeated the bewildered Dodds. "Wot was it?"
"Well, I 'ardly like to repeat it," said Steve, hesitating.
"Wot was it?" roared the overwrought Mr. Dodds.
"Well, I 'eard this chap say something," said Steve slowly, "and then I heard the skipper's voice. But I don't like to repeat wot 'e said, I reely don't."
"Wot was it?" roared Mr. Dodds, approaching him with clenched fist.
"Well, if you will have it," said Steve, with a little cough, "the old man said to me, 'Well done, Steve,' he ses, 'you're the only sensible man of the whole bilin' lot. Sam's a fool,' 'e ses, 'and 'Arrys worse, an' if it wasn't for men like you, Steve, life wouldn't be worth living.' The skipper's got it now, Sam, and 'e's goin' to give it to your wife to take care of as soon as we get home."
THE LOST SHIP.
On a fine spring morning in the early part of the present century, Tetby, a small port on the east coast, was keeping high holiday. Tradesmen left their shops, and labourers their work, and flocked down to join the maritime element collected on the quay.
In the usual way Tetby was a quiet, dull little place, clustering in a tiny heap of town on one side of the river, and perching in scattered red-tiled cottages on the cliffs of the other.
Now, however, people were grouped upon the stone quay, with its litter of fish-baskets and coils of rope, waiting expectantly, for to-day the largest ship ever built in Tetby, by Tetby hands, was to start upon her first voyage.
As they waited, discussing past Tetby ships, their builders, their voyages, and their fate, a small piece of white sail showed on the noble barque from her moorings up the river. The groups on the quay grew animated as more sail was set, and in a slow and stately fashion the new ship drew near. As the light breeze took her sails she came faster, sitting the water like a duck, her lofty masts tapering away to the sky as they broke through the white clouds of canvas. She passed within ten fathoms of the quay, and the men cheered and the women held their children up to wave farewell, for she was manned from captain to cabin boy by Tetby men, and bound for the distant southern seas.
Outside the harbour she altered her course somewhat and bent, like a thing of life, to the wind blowing outside. The crew sprang into the rigging and waved their caps, and kissed their grimy hands to receding Tetby. They were answered by rousing cheers from the shore, hoarse and masculine, to drown the lachrymose attempts of the women.
They watched her until their eyes were dim, and she was a mere white triangular speck on the horizon. Then, like a melting snowflake, she vanished into air, and the Tetby folk, some envying the bold mariners, and others thankful that their lives were cast upon the safe and pleasant shore, slowly dispersed to their homes.
Months passed, and the quiet routine of Tetby went on undisturbed. Other craft came into port and, discharging and loading in an easy, comfortable fashion, sailed again. The keel of another ship was being laid in the shipyard, and slowly the time came round when the return of Tetby's Pride, for so she was named, might be reasonably looked for.
It was feared that she might arrive in the night—the cold and cheerless night, when wife and child were abed, and even if roused to go down on to the quay would see no more of her than her side-lights staining the water, and her dark form stealing cautiously up the river. They would have her come by day. To see her first on that horizon, into which she had dipped and vanished. To see her come closer and closer, the good stout ship seasoned by southern seas and southern suns, with the crew crowding the sides to gaze at Tetby, and see how the children had grown.
But she came not. Day after day the watchers waited for her in vain. It was whispered at length that she was overdue, and later on, but only by those who had neither kith nor kin aboard of her, that she was missing.
Long after all hope had gone wives and mothers, after the manner of their kind, watched and waited on the cheerless quay. One by one they stayed away, and forgot the dead to attend to the living. Babes grew into sturdy, ruddy-faced boys and girls, boys and girls into young men and women, but no news of the missing ship, no word from the missing men. Slowly year succeeded year, and the lost ship became a legend. The man who had built her was old and grey, and time had smoothed away the sorrows of the bereaved.
It was on a dark, blustering September night that an old woman sat by her fire knitting. The fire was low, for it was more for the sake of company than warmth, and it formed an agreeable contrast to the wind which whistled round the house, bearing on its wings the sound of the waves as they came crashing ashore.
"God help those at sea to-night," said the old woman devoutly, as a stronger gust than usual shook the house.
She put her knitting in her lap and clasped her hands, and at that moment the cottage door opened. The lamp flared and smoked up the chimney with the draught, and then went out. As the old woman rose from her seat the door closed.
"Who's there?" she cried nervously.
Her eyes were dim and the darkness sudden, but she fancied she saw something standing by the door, and snatching a spill from the mantelpiece she thrust it into the fire, and relit the lamp.
A man stood on the threshold, a man of middle age, with white drawn face and scrubby beard. His clothes were in rags, his hair unkempt, and his light grey eyes sunken and tired.
The old woman looked at him, and waited for him to speak. When he did so he took a step towards her, and said—
With a great cry she threw herself upon his neck and strained him to her withered bosom, and kissed him. She could not believe her eyes, her senses, but clasped him convulsively, and bade him speak again, and wept, and thanked God, and laughed all in a breath.
Then she remembered herself, and led him tottering to the old Windsor chair, thrust him in it, and quivering with excitement took food and drink from the cupboard and placed them before him. He ate hungrily, the old woman watching him, and standing by his side to keep his glass filled with the home-brewed beer. At times he would have spoken, but she motioned him to silence and bade him eat, the tears coursing down her aged cheeks as she looked at his white famished face.
At length he laid down his knife and fork, and drinking off the ale, intimated that he had finished.
"My boy, my boy," said the old woman in a broken voice, "I thought you had gone down with Tetby's Pride long years ago."
He shook his head heavily.
"The captain and crew, and the good ship," asked his mother. "Where are they?"
"Captain—and—crew," said the son, in a strange hesitating fashion; "it is a long story—the ale has made me heavy. They are—"
He left off abruptly and closed his eyes.
"Where are they?" asked his mother. "What happened?"
He opened his eyes slowly.
"I—am—tired—dead tired. I have not—slept. I'll tell—you—morning."
He nodded again, and the old woman shook him gently.
"Go to bed then. Your old bed, Jem. It's as you left it, and it's made and the sheets aired. It's been ready for you ever since."
He rose to his feet, and stood swaying to and fro. His mother opened a door in the wall, and taking the lamp lighted him up the steep wooden staircase to the room he knew so well. Then he took her in his arms in a feeble hug, and kissing her on the forehead sat down wearily on the bed.
The old woman returned to her kitchen, and falling upon her knees remained for some time in a state of grateful, pious ecstasy. When she arose she thought of those other women, and, snatching a shawl from its peg behind the door, ran up the deserted street with her tidings.
In a very short time the town was astir. Like a breath of hope the whisper flew from house to house. Doors closed for the night were thrown open, and wondering children questioned their weeping mothers. Blurred images of husbands and fathers long since given over for dead stood out clear and distinct, smiling with bright faces upon their dear ones.
At the cottage door two or three people had already collected, and others were coming up the street in an unwonted bustle.
They found their way barred by an old woman,—a resolute old woman, her face still working with the great joy which had come into her old life, but who refused them admittance until her son had slept. Their thirst for news was uncontrollable, but with a swelling in her throat she realised that her share in Tetby's Pride was safe.
Women who had waited, and got patient at last after years of waiting, could not endure these additional few hours. Despair was endurable, but suspense! "Ah, God! Was their man alive? What did he look like? Had he aged much?"
"He was so fatigued he could scarce speak," said she. She had questioned him, but he was unable to reply. Give him but till the dawn, and they should know all.
So they waited, for to go home and sleep was impossible. Occasionally they moved a little way up the street, but never very far, and gathering in small knots excitedly discussed the great event It came to be understood that the rest of the crew had been cast away on an uninhabited island, it could be nothing else, and would doubtlessly soon be with them; all except one or two perhaps, who were old men when the ship sailed, and had probably died in the meantime. One said this in the hearing of an old woman whose husband, if alive, would be in extreme old age, but she smiled peacefully, albeit her lip trembled, and said she only expected to hear of him, that was all.
The suspense became almost unendurable. "Would this man never awake? Would it never be dawn?" The children were chilled with the wind, but their elders would scarcely have felt an Arctic frost With growing impatience they waited, glancing at times at two women who held themselves somewhat aloof from the others; two women who had married again, and whose second husbands waited, awkwardly enough, with them.
Slowly the weary windy night wore away, the old woman, deaf to their appeals, still keeping her door fast. The dawn was not yet, though the oft-consulted watches announced it near at hand. It was very close now, and the watchers collected by the door. It was undeniable that things were seen a little more distinctly. One could see better the grey, eager faces of his neighbours.
They knocked upon the door, and the old woman's eyes filled as she opened it and saw those faces. Unasked and unchid they invaded the cottage and crowded round the door.
"I will go up and fetch him," said the old woman.
If each could have heard the beating of the others' hearts, the noise would have been deafening, but as it was there was complete silence, except for some overwrought woman's sob.
The old woman opened the door leading to the room above, and with the slow, deliberate steps of age ascended the stairs, and those below heard her calling softly to her son.
Two or three minutes passed and she was heard descending the stairs again—alone. The smile, the pity, had left her face, and she seemed dazed and strange.
"I cannot wake him," she said piteously. "He sleeps so sound. He is fatigued. I have shaken him, but he still sleeps."
As she stopped, and looked appealingly round, the other old woman took her hand, and pressing it led her to a chair. Two of the men sprang quickly up the stairs. They were absent but a short while, and then they came down like men bewildered and distraught. No need to speak. A low wail of utter misery rose from the women, and was caught up and repeated by the crowd outside, for the only man who could have set their hearts at rest had escaped the perils of the deep, and died quietly in his bed.