By W. W. Jacobs
TO MY SISTER FLORENCE.
A SAFETY MATCH.
A RASH EXPERIMENT.
THE CABIN PASSENGER.
THE DISBURSEMENT SHEET.
RULE OF THREE.
TWO OF A TRADE.
THE GREY PARROT.
THE LOST SHIP.
"Wapping Old Stairs?" said the rough individual, shouldering the bran-new sea-chest, and starting off at a trot with it; "yus, I know the place, captin. Fust v'y'ge, sir?"
"Ay, ay, my hearty," replied the owner of the chest, a small, ill-looking lad of fourteen. "Not so fast with those timbers of yours. D'ye hear?"
"All right, sir," said the man, and, slackening his pace, twisted his head round to take stock of his companion.
"This ain't your fust v'y'ge, captin," he said admiringly; "don't tell me. I could twig that directly I see you. Ho, what's the use o' trying to come it over a poor 'ard-working man like that?"
"I don't think there's much about the sea I don't know," said the boy in a satisfied voice. "Starboard, starboard your hellum a bit."
The man obeying promptly, they went the remainder of the distance in this fashion, to the great inconvenience of people coming from the other direction.
"And a cheap 'arf-crown's worth, too, captin," said the man, as he put the chest down at the head of the stairs and thoughtfully sat on it pending payment.
"I want to go off to the Susan Jane," said the boy, turning to a waterman who was sitting in his boat, holding on to the side of the steps with his hand.
"All right," said the man, "give us a hold o' your box."
"Put it aboard," said the boy to the other man.
"A' right, captin," said the man, with a cheerful smile, "but I'll 'ave my 'arf-crown fust if you don't mind."
"But you said sixpence at the station," said the boy.
"Two an' sixpence, captin," said the man, still smiling, "but I'm a bit 'usky, an' p'raps you didn't hear the two—'arf a crown's the regler price. We ain't allowed to do it under."
"Well, I won't tell anybody," said the boy.
"Give the man 'is 'arf-crown," said the waterman, with sudden heat; "that's 'is price, and my fare's eigh-teen pence."
"All right," said the boy readily; "cheap, too. I didn't know the price, that's all. But I can't pay either of you till I get aboard. I've only got sixpence. I'll tell the captain to give you the rest."
"Tell 'oo?" demanded the light-porter, with some violence.
"The captain," said the boy.
"Look 'ere, you give me that 'arf-crown," said the other, "else I'll chuck your box overboard, an' you after it."
"Wait a minute, then," said the boy, darting away up the narrow alley which led to the stairs; "I'll go and get change."
"'E's goin' to change 'arf a suvren, or p'raps a suvren," said the waterman; "you'd better make it five bob, matey."
"Ah, an' you make yours more," said the light-porter cordially. "Well, I'm—— Well of all the——"
"Get off that box," said the big policeman who had come back with the boy. "Take your sixpence an' go. If I catch you down this way again——"
He finished the sentence by taking the fellow by the scruff of the neck and giving him a violent push as he passed him.
"Waterman's fare is threepence," he said to the boy, as the man in the boat, with an utterly expressionless face, took the chest from him, "I'll stay here till he has put you aboard."
The boy took his seat, and the waterman, breathing hard, pulled out towards the vessels in the tier. He looked at the boy and then at the figure on the steps, and, apparently suppressing a strong inclination to speak, spat violently over the side.
"Fine big chap, ain't he?" said the boy.
The waterman, affecting not to hear, looked over his shoulder, and pulled strongly with his left towards a small schooner, from the deck of which a couple of men were watching the small figure in the boat.
"That's the boy I was going to tell you about," said the skipper, "and remember this 'ere ship's a pirate."
"It's got a lot o' pirates aboard of it," said the mate fiercely, as he turned and regarded the crew, "a set o' lazy, loafing, idle, worthless——"
"It's for the boy's sake," interrupted the skipper.
"Where'd you pick him up?" inquired the other.
"He's the son of a friend o' mine what I've brought aboard to oblige," replied the skipper. "He's got a fancy for being a pirate, so just to oblige his father I told him we was a pirate. He wouldn't have come if I hadn't."
"I'll pirate him," said the mate, rubbing his hands.
"He's a dreadful 'andful, by all accounts," continued the other; "got his 'ed stuffed full o' these 'ere penny dreadfuls till they've turned his brain almost. He started by being an Indian, and goin' off on 'is own with two other kids. When 'e wanted to turn cannibal the other two objected, and gave 'im in charge. After that he did a bit o' burgling, and it cost 'is old man no end o' money to hush it up."
"Well, what did you want him for?" grumbled the mate.
"I'm goin' to knock the nonsense out of him," said the skipper softly, as the boat grazed the side. "Just step for'ard and let the hands know what's expected of 'em. When we get to sea it won't matter."
The mate moved off grumbling, as the small fare stood on the thwarts and scrambled up over the side. The waterman passed up the chest, and dropping the coppers into his pocket, pushed off again without a word.
"Well, you've got here all right, Ralph?" said the skipper. "What do you think of her?"
"She's a rakish-looking craft," said the boy, looking round the dingy old tub with much satisfaction; "but where's your arms?"
"Hush!" said the skipper, and laid his finger on his nose.
"Oh, all right," said the youth testily, "but you might tell me."
"You shall know all in good time," said the skipper patiently, turning to the crew, who came shuffling up, masking broad grins with dirty palms.
"Here's a new shipmate for you, my lads. He's small, but he's the right stuff."
The newcomer drew himself up, and regarded the crew with some dissatisfaction. For desperadoes they looked far too good-tempered and prone to levity.
"What's the matter with you, Jem Smithers?" inquired the skipper, scowling at a huge fair-haired man, who was laughing discordantly.
"I was thinkin' o' the last party I killed, sir," said Jem, with sudden gravity. "I allers laugh when I think 'ow he squealed."
"You laugh too much," said the other sternly, as he laid a hand on Ralph's shoulder. "Take a lesson from this fine feller; he don't laugh. He acts. Take 'im down below an' show him 'is bunk."
"Will you please to follow me, sir?" said Smithers, leading the way below. "I dessay you'll find it a bit stuffy, but that's owing to Bill Dobbs. A regler old sea-dog is Bill, always sleeps in 'is clothes and never washes."
"I don't think the worse of him for that," said Ralph, regarding the fermenting Dobbs kindly.
"You'd best keep a civil tongue in your 'ed, my lad," said Dobbs shortly.
"Never mind 'im," said Smithers cheerfully; "nobody takes any notice o' old Dobbs. You can 'it 'im if you like. I won't let him hurt you."
"I don't want to start by quarrelling," said Ralph seriously.
"You're afraid," said Jem tauntingly; "you'll never make one of us. 'It 'im; I won't let him hurt you."
Thus aroused, the boy, first directing Dobbs' attention to his stomach by a curious duck of the head, much admired as a feint in his neighbourhood, struck him in the face. The next moment the forecastle was in an uproar and Ralph prostrate on Dobbs' knees, frantically reminding Jem of his promise.
"All right, I won't let him 'urt you," said Jem consolingly.
"But he is hurting me," yelled the boy. "He's hurting me now."
"Well, wait till I get 'im ashore," said Jem, "his old woman won't know him when I've done with him."
The boy's reply to this was a torrent of shrill abuse, principally directed to Jem's facial shortcomings.
"Now don't get rude," said the seaman, grinning.
"Squint-eyes," cried Ralph fiercely.
"When you've done with that 'ere young gentleman, Dobbs," said Jem, with exquisite politeness, "I should like to 'ave 'im for a little bit to teach 'im manners."
"'E don't want to go," said Dobbs, grinning, as Ralph clung to him. "He knows who's kind to him."
"Wait till I get a chance at you," sobbed Ralph, as Jem took him away from Dobbs.
"Lord lumme," said Jem, regarding him in astonishment. "Why, he's actooaly cryin'. I've seen a good many pirates in my time, Bill, but this is a new sort."
"Leave the boy alone," said the cook, a fat, good-natured man. "Here, come 'ere, old man. They don't mean no 'arm."
Glad to escape, Ralph made his way over to the cook, grinding his teeth with shame as that worthy took him between his knees and mopped his eyes with something which he called a handkerchief.
"You'll be all right," he said kindly. "You'll be as good a pirate as any of us before you've finished."
"Wait till the first engagement, that's all," sobbed the boy. "If somebody don't get shot in the back it won't be my fault."
The two seamen looked at each other. "That's wot hurt my 'and then," said Dobbs slowly. "I thought it was a jack-knife."
He reached over, and unceremoniously grabbing the boy by the collar, pulled him towards him, and drew a small cheap revolver from his pocket. "Look at that, Jem."
"Take your fingers orf the blessed trigger and then I will," said the other, somewhat sourly.
"I'll pitch it overboard," said Dobbs.
"Don't be a fool, Bill," said Smithers, pocketing it, "that's worth a few pints o' anybody's money. Stand out o' the way, Bill, the Pirit King wants to go on deck."
Bill moved aside as the boy went to the ladder, and allowing him to get up four or five steps, did the rest for him with his shoulder. The boy reached the deck on all fours, and, regaining a more dignified position as soon as possible, went and leaned over the side, regarding with lofty contempt the busy drudges on wharf and river.
They sailed at midnight and brought up in the early dawn in Longreach, where a lighter loaded with barrels came alongside, and the boy smelt romance and mystery when he learnt that they contained powder. They took in ten tons, the lighter drifted away, the hatches were put on, and they started once more.
It was his first voyage, and he regarded with eager interest the craft passing up and down. He had made his peace with the seamen, and they regaled him with blood-curdling stories of their adventures, in the vain hope of horrifying him.
"'E's a beastly little rascal, that's wot 'e is," said the indignant Bill, who had surprised himself by his powers of narration; "fancy larfin' when I told 'im of pitchin' the baby to the sharks."
"'E's all right, Bill," said the cook softly. "Wait till you've got seven of 'em."
"What are you doing here, boy?" demanded the skipper, as Ralph, finding the seamen's yarns somewhat lacking in interest, strolled aft with his hands in his pockets.
"Nothing," said the boy, staring.
"Keep the other end o' the ship," said the skipper sharply, "an' go an' 'elp the cook with the taters."
Ralph hesitated, but a grin on the mate's face decided him.
"I didn't come here to peel potatoes," he said loftily.
"Oh, indeed," said the skipper politely; "an' wot might you 'ave come for, if it ain't being too inquisitive?"
"To fight the enemy," said Ralph shortly.
"Come 'ere," said the skipper.
The boy came slowly towards him.
"Now look 'ere," said the skipper, "I'm going to try and knock a little sense into that stupid 'ed o' yours. I've 'eard all about your silly little games ashore. Your father said he couldn't manage you, so I'm goin' to have a try, and you'll find I'm a very different sort o' man to deal with to wot 'e is. The idea o' thinking this ship was a pirate. Why, a boy your age ought to know there ain't such things nowadays."
"You told me you was," said the boy hotly, "else I wouldn't have come."
"That's just why I told you," said the skipper. "But I didn't think you'd be such a fool as to believe it. Pirates, indeed! Do we look like pirates?"
"You don't," said the boy with a sneer; "you look more like—"
"Like wot?" asked the skipper, edging closer to him. "Eh, like wot?"
"I forget the word," said Ralph, with strong good sense.
"Don't tell any lies now," said the skipper, flushing, as he heard a chuckle from the mate. "Go on, out with it. I'll give you just two minutes."
"I forget it," persisted Ralph.
"Dustman?" suggested the mate, coming to his assistance. "Coster, chimbley-sweep, mudlark, pickpocket, convict, washer-worn—"
"If you'll look after your dooty, George, instead o' interferin' in matters that don't concern you," said the skipper in a choking voice, "I shall be obliged. Now, then, you boy, what were you going to say I was like?"
"Like the mate," said Ralph slowly.
"Don't tell lies," said the skipper furiously; "you couldn't 'ave forgot that word."
"I didn't forget it," said Ralph, "but I didn't know how you'd like it."
The skipper looked at him dubiously, and pushing his cap from his brow scratched his head.
"And I didn't know how the mate 'ud like it, either," continued the boy.
He relieved the skipper from an awkward dilemma by walking off to the galley and starting on a bowl of potatoes. The master of the Susan Jane watched him blankly for some time and then looked round at the mate.
"You won't get much change out of 'im," said the latter, with a nod; "insultin' little devil."
The other made no reply, but as soon as the potatoes were finished set his young friend to clean brass work, and after that to tidy the cabin up and help the cook clean his pots and pans. Meantime the mate went below and overhauled his chest.
"This is where he gets all them ideas from," he said, coming aft with a big bundle of penny papers. "Look at the titles of 'em—'The Lion of the Pacific,' 'The One-armed Buccaneer,' 'Captain Kidd's Last Voyage.'"
He sat down on the cabin skylight and began turning them over, and, picking out certain gems of phraseology, read them aloud to the skipper. The latter listened at first with scorn and then with impatience.
"I can't make head or tail out of what you're reading, George," he said snappishly. "Who was Rudolph? Read straight ahead."
Thus urged, the mate, leaning forward so that his listener might hear better, read steadily through a serial in the first three numbers. The third instalment left Rudolph swimming in a race with three sharks and a boat-load of cannibals; and the joint efforts of both men failed to discover the other numbers.
"Just wot I should 'ave expected of 'im," said the skipper, as the mate returned from a fruitless search in the boy's chest. "I'll make him a bit more orderly on this ship. Go an' lock them other things up in your drawer, George. He's not to 'ave 'em again."
The schooner was getting into open water now, and began to feel it. In front of them was the blue sea, dotted with white sails and funnels belching smoke, speeding from England to worlds of romance and adventure. Something of the kind the cook said to Ralph, and urged him to get up and look for himself. He also, with the best intentions, discussed the restorative properties of fat pork from a medical point of view.
The next few days the boy divided between seasickness and work, the latter being the skipper's great remedy for piratical yearnings. Three or four times he received a mild drubbing, and, what was worse than the drubbing, had to give an answer in the affirmative to the skipper's inquiry as to whether he felt in a more wholesome frame of mind. On the fifth morning they stood in towards Fairhaven, and to his great joy he saw trees and houses again.
They stayed at Fairhaven just long enough to put out a small portion of their cargo, Ralph, stripped to his shirt and trousers, having to work in the hold with the rest, and proceeded to Lowport, a little place some thirty miles distant, to put out their powder.
It was evening before they arrived, and, the tide being out, anchored in the mouth of the river on which the town stands.
"Git in about four o'clock," said the skipper to the mate, as he looked over the side towards the little cluster of houses on the shore. "Do you feel better now I've knocked some o' that nonsense out o' you, boy?"
"Much better, sir," said Ralph respectfully.
"Be a good boy," said the skipper, pausing on the companion-ladder, "and you can stay with us if you like. Better turn in now, as you'll have to make yourself useful again in the morning working out the cargo."
He went below, leaving the boy on deck. The crew were in the forecastle smoking, with the exception of the cook, who was in the galley over a little private business of his own.
An hour later the cook went below to prepare for sleep. The other two men were already in bed, and he was about to get into his when he noticed that Ralph's bunk, which was under his own, was empty. He went up on deck and looked round, and, returning below, scratched his nose in thought.
"Where's the boy?" he demanded, taking Jem by the arm and shaking him.
"Eh?" said Jem, rousing. "Whose boy?"
"Our boy, Ralph," said the cook. "I can't see 'im nowhere. I 'ope 'e ain't gone overboard, pore little chap."
Jem refusing to discuss the matter, the cook awoke Dobbs. Dobbs swore at him peacefully, and resumed his slumbers. The cook went up again and prowled round the deck, looking in all sorts of unlikely places for the boy. He even climbed a little way into the rigging, and, finding no traces of him, was reluctantly forced to the conclusion that he had gone overboard.
"Pore little chap," he said solemnly, looking over the ship's side at the still water.
He walked slowly aft, shaking his head, and looking over the stern, brought up suddenly with a cry of dismay and rubbed his eyes. The ship's boat had also disappeared.
"Wot?" said the two seamen as he ran below and communicated the news. "Well, if it's gorn, it's gorn."
"Hadn't I better go an' tell the skipper?" said the cook.
"Let 'im find it out 'isself," said Jem, purring contentedly in the blankets. "It's 'is boat. Go' night."
"Time we 'ad a noo 'un too," said Dobbs, yawning. "Don't you worry your 'ed, cook, about what don't consarn you."
The cook took the advice, and, having made his few simple preparations for the night, blew out the lamp and sprang into his bunk. Then he uttered a sharp exclamation, and getting out again fumbled for the matches and relit the lamp. A minute later he awoke his exasperated friends for the third time.
"S'elp me, cook," began Jem fiercely.
"If you don't I will," said Dobbs, sitting up and trying to reach the cook with his clenched fist.
"It's a letter pinned to my pillow," said the cook in trembling tones, as he held it to the lamp.
"Well, we don't want to 'ear it," said Jem. "Shut up, d'ye hear?"
But there was that in the cook's manner which awed him.
"Dear cook," he read feverishly, "I have made an infernal machine with clockwork, and hid it in the hold near the gunpowder when we were at Fairhaven. I think it will go off between ten and eleven to-night, but I am not quite sure about the time. Don't tell those other beasts, but jump overboard and swim ashore. I have taken the boat I would have taken you too, but you told me you swam seven miles once, so you can eas—"
The reading came to an abrupt termination as his listeners sprang out of their bunks, and, bolting on dock, burst wildly into the cabin, and breathlessly reeled off the heads of the letter to its astonished occupants.
"Stuck a wot in the hold?" gasped the skipper.
"Infernal machine," said the mate; "one of them things wot you blow up the 'Ouses of Parliament with."
"Wot's the time now?" interrogated Jem anxiously.
"'Bout ha'-past ten," said the cook trembling. "Let's give 'em a hail ashore."
They leaned over the side, and sent a mighty shout across the water. Most of Lowport had gone to bed, but the windows in the inn were bright, and lights showed in the upper windows of two or three of the cottages.
Again they shouted in deafening chorus, casting fearful looks behind them, and in the silence a faint answering hail came from the shore. They shouted again like madmen, until listening intently they heard a boat's keel grate on the beach, and then the welcome click of oars in the rowlocks.
"Make haste," bawled Dobbs vociferously, as the boat came creeping out of the darkness. "W'y don't you make 'aste?"
"Wot's the row?" cried a voice from the boat.
"Gunpowder!" yelled the cook frantically; "there's ten tons of it aboard just going to explode. Hurry up."
The sound of the oars ceased and a startled murmur was heard from the boat; then an oar was pulled jerkily.
"They're putting back," said Jem suddenly. "I'm going to swim for it. Stand by to pick me up, mates," he shouted, and lowering himself with a splash into the water struck out strongly towards them.
Dobbs, a poor swimmer, after a moment's hesitation, followed his example.
"I can't swim a stroke," cried the cook, his teeth chattering.
The others, who were in the same predicament, leaned over the side, listening. The swimmers were invisible in the darkness, but their progress was easily followed by the noise they made. Jem was the first to be hauled on board, and a minute or two later the listeners on the schooner heard him assisting Dobbs. Then the sounds of strife, of thumps, and wicked words broke on their delighted ears.
"They're coming back for us," said the mate, taking a deep breath. "Well done, Jem."
The boat came towards them, impelled by powerful strokes, and was soon alongside. The three men tumbled in hurriedly, their fall being modified by the original crew, who were lying crouched up in the bottom of the boat. Jem and Dobbs gave way with hearty goodwill, and the doomed ship receded into the darkness. A little knot of people had gathered on the shore, and, receiving the tidings, became anxious for the safety of their town. It was felt that the windows, at least, were in imminent peril, and messengers were hastily sent round to have them opened.
Still the deserted Susan Jane made no sign. Twelve o'clock struck from the little church at the back of the town, and she was still intact.
"Something's gone wrong," said an old fisherman with a bad way of putting things. "Now's the time for somebody to go and tow her out to sea."
There was no response.
"To save Lowport," said the speaker feelingly.. "If I was only twenty years younger—"
"It's old men's work," said a voice.
The skipper, straining his eyes through the gloom in the direction of his craft, said nothing. He began to think that she had escaped after all.
Two o'clock struck, and the crowd began to disperse..Some of the bolder inhabitants who were fidgety about draughts closed their windows, and children who had been routed out of their beds to take a nocturnal walk inland were led slowly back. By three o'clock the danger was felt to be over, and day broke and revealed the forlorn Susan Jane still riding at anchor.
"I'm going aboard," said the skipper suddenly; "who's coming with me?"
Jem and the mate and the town policeman volunteered, and, borrowing the boat which had served them before, pulled swiftly out to their vessel, and, taking the hatches off with unusual gentleness, commenced their search. It was nervous work at first, but they became inured to it, and, moreover, a certain suspicion, slight at first, but increasing in intensity as the search proceeded, gave them some sense of security. Later still they began to eye each other shamefacedly.
"I don't believe there's anything there," said the policeman, sitting down and laughing boisterously; "that boy's been making a fool of you."
"That's about the size of it," groaned the mate. "We'll be the laughing-stock o' the town."
The skipper, who was standing with his back towards him, said nothing; but, peering about, stooped suddenly, and, with a sharp exclamation, picked up something from behind a damaged case.
"I've got it," he yelled suddenly; "stand clear!"
He scrambled hastily on deck, and, holding his find at arm's length, with his head averted, flung it far into the water. A loud cheer from a couple of boats which were watching greeted his action, and a distant response came from the shore.
"Was that a infernal machine?" whispered the bewildered Jem to the mate. "Why, it looked to me just like one o' them tins o' corned beef."
The mate shook his head at him and glanced at the constable, who was gazing longingly over the side. "Well, I've 'eard of people being killed by them sometimes," he said with a grin.
A SAFETY MATCH.
Mr. Boom, late of the mercantile marine, had the last word, but only by the cowardly expedient of getting out of earshot of his daughter first, and then hurling it at her with a voice trained to compete with hurricanes. Miss Boom avoided a complete defeat by leaning forward with her head on one side in the attitude of an eager but unsuccessful listener, a pose which she abandoned for one of innocent joy when her sire, having been deluded into twice repeating his remarks, was fain to relieve his overstrained muscles by a fit of violent coughing.
"I b'lieve she heard it all along," said Mr. Boom sourly, as he continued his way down the winding lane to the little harbour below. "The only way to live at peace with wimmen is to always be at sea; then they make a fuss of you when you come home—if you don't stay too long, that is."
He reached the quay, with its few tiny cottages, and brown nets spread about to dry in the sun, and walking up and down, grumbling, regarded with jaundiced eye a few small smacks which lay in the harbour, and two or three crusted amphibians lounging aimlessly about.
"Mornin', Mr. Boom," said a stalwart youth in sea-boots, appearing suddenly over the edge of the quay from his boat.
"Mornin', Dick," said Mr. Boom affably; "just goin' off?"
"'Bout an hour's time," said the other: "Miss Boom well, sir?"
"She's a' right," said Mr. Boom; "me an' her 've just had a few words. She picked up something off the floor what she said was a cake o' mud off my heel. Said she wouldn't have it," continued Mr. Boom, his voice rising. "My own floor too. Swep' it up off the floor with a dustpan and brush, and held it in front of me to look at."
Dick Tarrell gave a grunt which might mean anything—Mr. Boom took it for sympathy.
"I called her old maid," he said with gusto; "'you're a fidgety old maid,' I said. You should ha' seen her look. Do you know what I think, Dick?"
"Not exactly," said Tarrell cautiously.
"I b'leeve she's that savage that she'd take the first man that asked her," said the other triumphantly; "she's sitting up there at the door of the cottage, all by herself."
"With not a soul to speak to," said Mr. Boom pointedly.
The other kicked at a small crab which was passing, and returned it to its native element in sections.
"I'll walk up there with you if you're going that way," he said at length.
"No, I'm just having a look round," said Mr. Boom, "but there's nothing to hinder you going, Dick, if you've a mind to."
"There's no little thing you want, as I'm going there, I s'pose?" suggested Tarrell. "It's awkward when you go there and say, 'Good-morning,' and the girl says, 'Good-morning,' and then you don't say any more and she don't say any more. If there was anything you wanted that I could help her look for, it 'ud make talk easier."
"Well—go for my baccy pouch," said Mr. Boom, after a minute's thought, "it'll take you a long time to find that."
"Why?" inquired the other.
"'Cos I've got it here," said the unscrupulous Mr. Boom, producing it, and placidly filling his pipe.
"You might spend—ah—the best part of an hour looking for that."
He turned away with a nod, and Tarrell, after looking about him in a hesitating fashion to make sure that his movements were not attracting the attention his conscience told him they deserved, set off in the hang-dog fashion peculiar to nervous lovers up the road to the cottage. Kate Boom was sitting at the door as her father had described, and, in apparent unconsciousness of his approach, did not raise her eyes from her book. "Good-morning," said Tarrell, in a husky voice.
Miss Boom returned the salutation, and, marking the place in her book with her forefinger, looked over the hedge on the other side of the road to the sea beyond.
"Your father has left his pouch behind, and being as I was coming this way, asked me to call for it," faltered the young man.
Miss Boom turned her head, and, regarding him steadily, noted the rising colour and the shuffling feet.
"Did he say where he had left it?" she inquired.
"No," said the other.
"Well, my time's too valuable to waste looking for pouches," said Kate, bending down to her book again, "but if you like to go in and look for it, you may!"
She moved aside to let him pass, and sat listening with a slight smile as she heard him moving about the room.
"I can't find it," he said, after a pretended search.
"Better try the kitchen now then," said Miss Boom, without looking up, "and then the scullery. It might be in the woodshed or even down the garden. You haven't half looked."
She heard the kitchen door close behind him, and then, taking her book with her, went upstairs to her room. The conscientious Tarrell, having duly searched all the above-mentioned places, returned to the parlour and waited. He waited a quarter of an hour, and then going out by the front door, stood irresolute.
"I can't find it," he said at length, addressing himself to the bedroom window.
"No. I was coming down to tell you," said Miss Boom, glancing sedately at him from over the geraniums. "I remember seeing father take it out with him this morning."
Tarrell affected a clumsy surprise. "It doesn't matter," he said. "How nice your geraniums are."
"Yes, they're all right," said Miss Boom briefly.
"I can't think how you keep 'em so nice," said Tarrell.
"Well, don't try," said Miss Boom kindly. "You'd better go back and tell father about the pouch. Perhaps he's waiting for a smoke all this time."
"There's no hurry," said the young man; "perhaps he's found it."
"Well, I can't stop to talk," said the girl; "I'm busy reading."
With these heartless words she withdrew into the room, and the discomfited swain, only too conscious of the sorry figure he cut, went slowly back to the harbour, to be met by Mr. Boom with a wink of aggravating and portentous dimensions.
"You've took a long time," he said slyly. "There's nothing like a little scheming in these things."
"It didn't lead to much," said the discomfited Tarrell.
"Don't be in a hurry, my lad," said the elder man, after listening to his experiences. "I've been thinking over this little affair for some time now, an' I think I've got a plan."
"If it's anything about baccy pouches—" began the young man ungratefully.
"It ain't," interrupted Mr. Boom, "it's quite diff'rent Now, you'd best get aboard your craft and do your duty. There's more young men won girls' 'arts while doing of ther duty than—than—if they wasn't doing their duty. Do you understand me?"
It is inadvisable to quarrel with a prospective father-in-law, so that Tarrell said he did, and with a moody nod tumbled into his boat and put off to the smack. Mr. Boom having walked up and down a bit, and exchanged a few greetings, bent his steps in the direction of the "Jolly Sailor," and, ordering two mugs of ale, set them down on a small bench opposite his old friend Raggett.
"I see young Tarrell go off grumpy-like," said Raggett, drawing a mug towards him and gazing at the fast-receding boats.
"Ay, we'll have to do what we talked about," said Boom slowly. "It's opposition what that gal wants. She simply sits and mopes for the want of somebody to contradict her."
"Well, why don't you do it?" said Raggett. "That ain't much for a father to do surely."
"I hev," said the other slowly, "more than once. O' course, when I insist upon a thing, it's done; but a woman's a delikit creeter, Raggett, and the last row we had she got that ill that she couldn't get up to get my breakfast ready, no, nor my dinner either. It made us both ill, that did."
"Are you going to tell Tarrell?" inquired Raggett.
"No," said his friend. "Like as not he'd tell her just to curry favour with her. I'm going to tell him he's not to come to the house no more. That'll make her want him to come, if anything will. Now there's no use wasting time. You begin to-day."
"I don't know what to say," murmured Raggett, nodding to him as he raised the beer to his lips.
"Just go now and call in—you might take her a nosegay."
"I won't do nothing so damned silly," said Raggett shortly.
"Well, go without 'em," said Boom impatiently; "just go and get yourselves talked about, that's all—have everybody making game of both of you, talking about a good-looking young girl being sweet-hearted by an old chap with one foot in the grave and a face like a dried herring. That's what I want."
Mr. Raggett, who was just about to drink, put his mug down again and regarded his friend fixedly.
"Might, I ask who you're alloodin' to?" he inquired somewhat shortly.
Mr. Boom, brought up in mid-career, shuffled a little and laughed uneasily. "Them ain't my words, old chap," he said; "it was the way she was speaking of you the other day."
"Well, I won't have nothin' to do with it," said Raggett, rising.
"Well, nobody needn't know anything about it," said Boom, pulling him down to his seat again. "She won't tell, I'm sure—she wouldn't like the disgrace of it."
"Look here," said Raggett, getting up again.
"I mean from her point of view," said Mr. Boom querulously; "you're very 'asty, Raggett."
"Well, I don't care about it," said Raggett slowly; "it seemed all right when we was talking about it; but s'pose I have all my trouble for nothing, and she don't take Dick after all? What then?"
"Well, then there's no harm done," said his friend, "and it 'll be a bit o' sport for both of us. You go up and start, an' I'll have another pint of beer and a clean pipe waiting for you against you come back."
Sorely against his better sense Mr. Raggett rose and went off, grumbling. It was fatiguing work on a hot day, climbing the road up the cliff, but he took it quietly, and having gained the top, moved slowly towards the cottage.
"Morning, Mr. Raggett," said Kate cheerily, as he entered the cottage. "Dear, dear, the idea of an old man like you climbing about! It's wonderful."
"I'm sixty-seven," said Mr. Raggett viciously, "and I feel as young as ever I did."
"To be sure," said Kate soothingly; "and look as young as ever you did. Come in and sit down a bit."
Mr. Raggett with some trepidation complied, and sitting in a very upright position, wondered how he should begin. "I am just sixty-seven," he said slowly. "I'm not old and I'm not young, but I'm just old enough to begin to want somebody to look after me a bit."
"I shouldn't while I could get about if I were you," said the innocent Kate. "Why not wait until you're bed-ridden?"
"I don't mean that at all," said Mr. Raggett snappishly. "I mean I'm thinking of getting married."
"Good—gracious!" said Kate, open-mouthed.
"I may have one foot in the grave, and resemble a dried herring in the face," pursued Mr. Raggett with bitter sarcasm, "but—"
"You can't help that," said Kate gently.
"But I'm going to get married," said Raggett savagely.
"Well, don't get in a way about it," said the girl. "Of course, if you want to, and—and—you can find somebody else who wants to, there's no reason why you shouldn't! Have you told father about it?"
"I have," said Mr. Raggett, "and he has given his consent."
He put such meaning into this remark, and so much more in the contortion of visage which accompanied it, that the girl stood regarding him in blank astonishment.
"His consent?" she said in a strange voice.
Mr. Raggett nodded.
"I went to him first," he said, trying to speak confidently. "Now I've come to you—I want you to marry me!"
"Don't you be a silly old man, Mr. Raggett," said Kate, recovering her composure. "And as for my father, you go back and tell him I want to see him."
She drew aside and pointed to the door, and Mr. Raggett, thinking that he had done quite enough for one day, passed out and retraced his steps to the "Jolly Sailor." Mr. Boom met him half-way, and having received his message, spent the rest of the morning in fortifying himself for the reception which awaited him.
It would be difficult to say which of the two young people was the more astonished at this sudden change of affairs. Miss Boom, pretending to think that her parent's reason was affected, treated him accordingly, a state of affairs not without its drawbacks, as Mr. Boom found to his cost Tarrell, on the other hand, attributed it to greed, and being forbidden the house, spent all his time ashore on a stile nearly opposite, sullenly watching events.
For three weeks Mr. Raggett called daily, and after staying to tea, usually wound up the evening by formally proposing for Kate's hand. Both conspirators were surprised and disappointed at the quietness with which Miss Boom received these attacks; Mr. Raggett meeting with a politeness which was a source of much wonder to both of them.
His courting came to an end suddenly. He paused one evening with his hand on the door, and having proposed in the usual manner, was going out, when Miss Boom called him back.
"Sit down, Mr. Raggett," she said calmly. Mr. Raggett, wondering inwardly, resumed his seat.
"You have asked me a good many times to marry you," said Kate.
"I have," said Mr. Raggett, nodding.
"And I'm sure it's very kind of you," continued the girl, "and if I've hurt your feelings by refusing you, it is only because I have thought perhaps I was not good enough for you."
In the silence which followed this unexpected and undeserved tribute to Mr. Raggett's worth, the two old men eyed each other in silent consternation.
"Still, if you've made up your mind," continued the girl, "I don't know that it's for me to object. You're not much to look at, but you've got the loveliest chest of drawers and the best furniture all round in Mastleigh. And I suppose you've got a little money?"
Mr. Raggett shook his head, and in a broken voice was understood to say: "A very little."
"I don't want any fuss or anything of that kind," said Miss Boom calmly. "No bridesmaids or anything of that sort; it wouldn't be suitable at your age."
Mr. Raggett withdrew his pipe and holding it an inch or two from his mouth, listened like one in a dream.
"Just a few old friends, and a bit of cake," continued Miss Boom musingly. "And instead of spending a lot of money in foolish waste, we'll have three weeks in London."
Mr. Raggett made a gurgling noise in his throat, and suddenly, remembering himself, pretended to think that it was something wrong with his pipe, and removing it blew noisily through the mouthpiece.
"Perhaps," he said, in a trembling voice—"perhaps you'd better take a little longer to consider, my dear."
Kate shook her head. "I've quite made up my mind," she said, "quite. And now I want to marry you just as much as you want to marry me. Good-night, father; good-night—George."
Mr. Raggett started violently, and collapsed in his chair.
"Raggett," said Mr. Boom huskily.
"Don't talk to me," said the other, "I can't bear it."
Mr. Boom, respecting his friend's trouble, relapsed into silence again, and for a long time not a word was spoken.
"My 'ed's in a whirl," said Mr. Raggett at length.
"It 'ud be a wonder if it wasn't," said Mr. Boom sympathetically.
"To think," continued the other miserably, "how I've been let in for this. The plots an' the plans and the artfulness what's been goin' on round me, an' I've never seen it."
"What d'ye mean?" demanded Mr. Boom, with sudden violence.
"I know what I mean," said Mr. Raggett darkly.
"P'raps you'll tell me then," said the other.
"Who thought of it first?" demanded Mr. Raggett ferociously. "Who came to me and asked me to court his slip of a girl?"
"Don't you be a old fool," said Mr. Boom heatedly. "It's done now, and what's done can't be undone. I never thought to have a son-in-law seven or eight years older than what I am, and what's more, I don't want it."
"Said I wasn't much to look at, but she liked my chest o' drawers," repeated Raggett mechanically.
"Don't ask me where she gets her natur' from, cos I couldn't tell you," said the unhappy parent; "she don't get it from me."
Mr. Raggett allowed this reflection upon the late Mrs. Boom to pass unnoticed, and taking his hat from the table fixed it firmly upon his head, and gazing with scornful indignation upon his host, stepped slowly out of the door without going through the formality of bidding him good-night.
"George," said a voice from above him.
Mr. Raggett started, and glanced up at somebody leaning from the window.
"Come in to tea to-morrow early," said the voice pressingly; "good-night, dear."
Mr. Raggett turned and fled into the night, dimly conscious that a dark figure had detached itself from the stile opposite, and was walking beside him.
"That you, Dick?" he inquired nervously, after an oppressive silence.
"That's me," said Dick. "I heard her call you 'dear.'" Mr. Raggett, his face suffused with blushes, hung his head.
"Called you 'dear,'" repeated Dick; "I heard her say it. I'm going to pitch you in the harbour. I'll learn you to go courting a young girl. What are you stopping for?"
Mr. Raggett delicately intimated that he was stopping because he preferred, all things considered, to be alone. Finding the young man, however, bent upon accompanying him, he divulged the plot of which he had been the victim, and bitterly lamented his share in it.
"You don't want to marry her then?" said the astonished Dick.
"Course I don't," snarled Mr. Raggett; "I can't afford it. I'm too old; besides which, she'll turn my little place topsy-turvy. Look here, Dick, I done this all for you. Now, it's evident she only wants my furniture: if I give all the best of it to you, she'll take you instead."
"No, she won't," said Dick grimly; "I wouldn't have her now, not if she asked me on her bended knee."
"Why not?" said Raggett.
"I don't want to marry that sort o' girl," said the other scornfully; "it's cured me."
"What about me then?" said the unfortunate Raggett.
"Well, so far as I can see it serves you right for mixing in other people's business," said Dick shortly. "Well, good-night, and good luck to you."
To Mr. Raggett's sore disappointment he kept to his resolution, and being approached by Mr. Boom on his elderly friend's behalf, was rudely frank to him.
"I'm a free man again," he said blithely, "and I feel better than I've felt for ever so long. More manly."
"You ought to think of other people," said Mr. Boom severely; "think of poor old Raggett."
"Well, he's got a young wife out of it," said Dick. "I daresay he'll be happy enough. He wants somebody to help him spend his money."
In this happy frame of mind he resumed his ordinary life, and when he encountered his former idol, met her with a heartiness and unconcern which the lady regarded with secret disapproval. He was now so sure of himself that, despite a suspicion of ulterior design on the part of Mr. Boom, he even accepted an invitation to tea.
The presence of Mr. Raggett made it a slow and solemn function, Nobody with any feelings could eat with an appetite with that afflicted man at the table, and the meal passed almost in silence. Kate cleared the meal away, and the men sat at the open door with their pipes while she washed up in the kitchen.
"Me an' Raggett thought o' stepping down to the 'Sailor,'" said Mr. Boom, after a third application of his friend's elbow.
"I'll come with you," said Dick.
"Well, we've got a little business to talk about," said Boom confidentially; "but we sha'n't be long. If you wait here, Dick, we'll see you when we come back."
"All right," said Tarrell.
He watched the two old men down the road, and then, moving his chair back into the room, silently regarded the busy Kate.
"Make yourself useful," said she brightly; "shake the tablecloth."
Tarrell took it to the door, and having shaken it, folded it with much gravity, and handed it back.
"Not so bad for a beginner," said Kate, taking it and putting it in a drawer. She took some needlework from another drawer, and, sitting down, began busily stitching.
"Wedding-dress?" inquired Tarrell, with an assumption of great ease.
"No, tablecloth!" said the girl, with a laugh.
"You'll want to know a little more before you get married."
"Plenty o' time for me," said Tarrell; "I'm in no hurry."
The girl put her work down and looked up at him.
"That's right," she said staidly. "I suppose you were rather surprised to hear I was going to get married?"
"A little," said Tarrell; "there's been so many after old Raggett, I didn't think he'd ever be caught."
"Oh!" said Kate.
"I daresay he'll make a very good husband," said Tarrell patronisingly. "I think you'll make a nice couple. He's got a nice home."
"That's why I'm going to marry him," said Kate. "Do you think it's wrong to marry a man for that?"
"That's your business," said Tarrell coldly. "Speaking for myself, and not wishing to hurt your feelings, I shouldn't like to marry a girl like that."
"You mean you wouldn't like to marry me?" said Kate softly.
She leaned forward as she spoke, until her breath fanned his face.
"That's what I do mean," said Tarrell, with a suspicion of doggedness in his voice.
"Not even if I asked you on my bended knees?" said Kate. "Aren't you glad you're cured?"
"Yes," said Tarrell manfully.
"So am I," said the girl; "and now that you are happy, just go down to the 'Jolly Sailor,' and make poor old Raggett happy too."
"How?" asked Tarrell.
"Tell him that I have only been having a joke with him," said Kate, surveying him with a steady smile. "Tell him that I overheard him and father talking one night, and that I resolved to give them both a lesson. And tell them that I didn't think anybody could have been so stupid as they have been to believe in it."
She leaned back in her chair, and, regarding the dumbfounded Tarrell with a smile of wicked triumph, waited for him to speak. "Raggett, indeed!" she said disdainfully.
"I suppose," said Tarrell at length, speaking very slowly, "my being stupid was no surprise to you?"
"Not a bit," said the girl cheerfully.
"I'll ask you to tell Raggett yourself," said Tarrell, rising and moving towards the door. "I sha'n't see him. Good-night."
"Good-night," said she. "Where are you going, then?"
There was no reply.
"Where are you going?" she repeated. Then a suspicion of his purpose flashed across her. "You're not foolish enough to be going away?" she cried in dismay.
"Why not?" said Tarrell slowly.
"Because," said Kate, looking down—"oh, because—well, it's ridiculous. I'd sooner have you stay here and feel what a stupid you've been making of yourself. I want to remind you of it sometimes."
"I don't want reminding," said Tarrell, taking Raggett's chair; "I know it now."
A RASH EXPERIMENT.
The hands on the wharf had been working all Saturday night and well into the Sunday morning to finish the Foam, and now, at ten o'clock, with hatches down and freshly-scrubbed decks, the skipper and mate stood watching the tide as it rose slowly over the smooth Thames mud.
"What time's she coming?" inquired the skipper, turning a lazy eye up at the wharf.
"About ha'-past ten she said," replied the mate. "It's very good o' you to turn out and let her have your state-room."
"Don't say another word about that," said the skipper impressively. "I've met your wife once or twice, George, an' I must say that a nicer spoken woman, an' a more well-be'aved one, I've seldom seen."
"Same to you," said the mate; "your wife I mean."
"Any man," continued the skipper, "as would lay in a comfortable state-room, George, and leave a lady a-trying to turn and to dress and ondress herself in a poky little locker, ought to be ashamed of himself."
"You see, it's the luggage they bring," said the mate, slowly refilling his pipe. "What they want with it all I can't think. As soon as my old woman makes up her mind to come for a trip, tomorrow being Bank Holiday, an' she being in the mind for a outing, what does she do?' Goes down Commercial Road and buys a bonnet far beyond her station."
"They're all like it," said the skipper; "mine's just as bad. What does that boy want?"
The boy approached the edge of the jetty, and, peering down at them, answered for himself.
"Who's Captain Bunnett?" he demanded shrilly.
"That's me, my lad," said the skipper, looking up.
"I've got a letter for yer," said the boy, holding it out.
The skipper held out his hands and caught it; and, after reading the contents, felt his beard and looked at the mate.
"It never rains but it pours," he said figuratively.
"What's up?" inquired the other.
"'Ere's my old woman coming now," said the skipper. "Sent a note to say she's getting ready as fast as she can, an' I'm not to sail on any account till she comes."
"That's awkward," said the mate, who felt that he was expected to say something.
"It never struck me to tell her your wife was coming," said the skipper. "Where we're to put 'em both I don't know. I s'pose it's quite certain your wife'll come?"
"Certain," said the mate.
"No chance of 'er changing 'er mind?" suggested the skipper, looking away from him.
"Not now she's got that bonnet," replied the mate. "I s'pose there's no chance of your wife changing hers?"
The skipper shook his head. "There's one thing," he said hopefully, "they'll be nice company for each other. They'll have to 'ave the state-room between 'em. It's a good job my wife ain't as big as yours."
"We'll be able to play four 'anded wist sometimes," said the mate, as he followed the skipper below to see what further room could be made.
"Crowded, but jolly," said the other.
The two cabs drove up almost at the same moment while they were below, and Mrs. Bunnett's cabman had no sooner staggered on to the jetty with her luggage than Mrs. Fillson's arrived with hers.
The two ladies, who were entire strangers, stood regarding each other curiously as they looked down at the bare deck of the Foam.
"George!" cried Mrs. Fillson, who was a fine woman, raising her voice almost to a scream in the effort to make herself heard above the winch of a neighbouring steamer.
It was unfortunate perhaps that both officers of the schooner bore the same highly-respectable Christian name.
"George!" cried Mrs. Bunnett, glancing indignantly at the other lady.
"Ge-orge!" cried Mrs. Fillson, returning her looks with interest.
"Hussy," said Mrs. Bunnett under her breath, but not very much under.
There was no response.
"George!" cried both ladies together.
Still no response, and they made a louder effort
There was yet another George on board, in the forecastle, and, in response to pushes from curious friends below, he came up, and regarded the fair duettists open-mouthed.
"What d'yer want?" he said at length sheepishly.
"Will you tell Captain Bunnett that his wife, Mrs. Bunnett, is here?" said that lady, a thin little woman with bright black eyes.
"Yes, mum," said the seaman, and was hurrying off when Mrs. Fillson called him back.
"Will you tell Mr. Fillson that his wife, Mrs. Fillson, is up here?" she said politely.
"All right, mum," said the other, and went below to communicate the pleasing tidings. Both husbands came up on deck hastily, and a glance served to show them how their wives stood.
"How do you do, Cap'n Bunnett," said Mrs. Fill-son, with a fascinating smile.
"Good-morning, marm," said the skipper, trying to avoid his wife's eye; "that's my wife, Mrs. Bunnett."
"Good-morning, ma'am," said Mrs. Fillson, adjusting the new bonnet with the tips of her fingers.
"Good-morning to you," said Mrs. Bunnett in a cold voice, and patronising. "You have come to bring your husband some of his things, I suppose?"
"She's coming with us," said the skipper, in a hurry to have it over. "Wait half a moment, and I'll help you down."
He got up on to the side and helped them both to the deck, and, with a great attempt at cheery conversation, led the way below, where, in the midst of an impressive silence, he explained that the ladies would have to share the state-room between them.
"That's the only way out of it," said the mate, after waiting in vain for them to say something.
"It's a fairish size when you come to look at it," said the skipper, putting his head on one side to see whether the bunk looked larger that way.
"Pack three in there at a pinch," said the mate hardily.
Still the ladies said nothing, but there was a storm-signal hoisted in Mrs. Bunnett's cheek, which boded no good to her husband. There was room only for one trunk in the state-room, and by prompt generalship Mrs. Fillson got hers in first. Having seen it safe she went up on deck, for a look round.
"George," said Mrs. Bunnett fiercely, as soon as they were alone.
"Yes, my dear," said her husband.
"Pack that woman off home," said Mrs. Bunnett sharply.
"I couldn't do that," said the skipper firmly. "It's your own fault; you should have said you was coming."
"Oh, I know you didn't want me to come," said Mrs. Bunnett, the roses on her bonnet trembling. "The mate can think of a little pleasure for his wife, but I can stay at home and do your mending and keep the house clean. Oh, I know; don't tell me."
"Well, it's too late to alter it," said her husband. "I must get up above now; you'd better come too."
Mrs. Bunnett followed him on deck, and, getting as far from the mate's wife as possible, watched with a superior air of part ownership the movements of the seamen as they got under way. A favourable westerly breeze was blowing, and the canvas once set she stood by her husband as he pointed out the various objects of interest on the banks of the river.
They were still in the thick of the traffic at dinner-time, so that the skipper was able, to his secret relief, to send the mate below to do the honours of the table. He came up from it pale and scared, and, catching the skipper's eye, hunched his shoulders significantly.
"No words?" inquired the latter anxiously, in a half-whisper.
"Not exactly words," replied the mate. "What you might call snacks."
"I know," said the other with a groan.
"If you don't now," said the mate, "you will at tea-time. I'm not going to sit down there with them alone again. You needn't think it If you was to ask me what I've been eating I couldn't tell you."
He moved off a bit as his table companions came up on deck, and the master of the Foam deciding to take the bull by the horns, called both of them to him, and pointed out the beauties of the various passing craft. In the midst of his discourse his wife moved off, leaving the unhappy man conversing alone with Mrs. Fillson, her face containing an expression such as is seen in the prints of the very best of martyrs as she watched them.
At tea-time the men sat in misery; Mrs. Bunnett passed Mrs. Fillson her tea without looking at her, an example which Mrs. Fillson followed in handing her the cut bread and butter. When she took the plate back it was empty, and Mrs. Bunnett, convulsed with rage, was picking the slices out of her lap.
"Oh, I am sorry," said Mrs. Fillson.
"You're not, ma'am," said Mrs. Bunnett fiercely. "You did it a purpose."
"There, there!" said both men feebly.
"Of course my husband'll sit quite calm and see me insulted," said Mrs. Bunnett, rising angrily from her seat.
"And my husband'll sit still drinking tea while I'm given the lie," said Mrs. Fillson, bending an indignant look upon the mate.
"If you think I'm going to share the state-room with that woman, George, you're mistaken," said Mrs. Bunnett in a terrible voice. "I'd sooner sleep on a doorstep."
"And I'd sooner sleep on the scraper," said Mrs. Fillson, regarding her foe's scanty proportions.
"Very well, me an' the mate'll sleep there," said the skipper wearily. "You can have the mate's bunk and Mrs. Fillson can have the locker. You don't mind, George?"
"Oh, George don't mind," said Mrs. Bunnett mimickingly; "anything'll do for George. If you'd got the spirit of a man, you wouldn't let me be insulted like this."
"And if you'd got the spirit of a man," said Mrs. Fillson, turning on her husband, "you wouldn't let them talk to me like this. You never stick up for me."
She flounced up on deck where Mrs. Bunnett, after a vain attempt to finish her tea, shortly followed her. The two men continued their meal for some time in silence.
"We'll have to 'ave a quarrel just to oblige them, George," said the skipper at length, as he put down his cup. "Nothing else'll satisfy 'em."
"It couldn't be done," said the mate, reaching over and clapping him on the back.
"Just pretend, I mean," said the other.
"It couldn't be done proper," said the mate; "they'd see through it. We've sailed together five years now, an' never 'ad what I could call a really nasty word."
"Well, if you can think o' anything," said the skipper, "say so. This sort o' thing is worrying."
"See how we get on at breakfast," said the mate, as he lit his pipe. "If that's as bad as this, we'll have a bit of a row to please 'em."
Breakfast next morning was, if anything, worse, each lady directly inciting her lord to acts of open hostility. In this they were unsuccessful, but in the course of the morning the husbands arranged matters to their own satisfaction, and at the next meal the storm broke with violence.
"I don't wish to complain or hurt anybody's feelings," said the skipper, after a side-wink at the mate, "but if you could eat your wittles with a little less noise, George, I'd take it as a favour."
"Would you?" said the mate, as his wife stiffened suddenly in her seat. "Oh!"
Both belligerents, eyeing each other ferociously, tried hard to think of further insults.
"Like a pig," continued the skipper grumblingly.
The mate hesitated so long for a crushing rejoinder that his wife lost all patience and rose to her feet crimson with wrath.
"How dare you talk to my husband like that?" she demanded fiercely. "George, come up on deck this instant!"
"I don't mind what he says," said the mate, who had only just begun his dinner.
"You come away at once," said his wife, pushing his plate from him.
The mate got up with a sigh, and, meeting the look of horror-stricken commiseration in his captain's eye, returned it with one of impotent rage.
"Use a larger knife, cap'n," he said savagely. "You'll swallow that little 'un one of these days."
The skipper, with the weapon in question gripped in his fist, turned round and stared at him in petrified amazement, "If I wasn't the cap'n o' this ship, George," he said huskily, "an' bound to set a good example to the men, I'd whop you for them words."
"It's all for your good, Captain Bunnett," said Mrs. Fillson mincingly. "There was a poor old workhouse man I used to give a penny to sometimes, who would eat with his knife, and he choked himself with it."
"Ay, he did that, and he hadn't got a mouth half the size o' yours," said the mate warningly.
"Cap'n or no cap'n, crew or no crew," said the skipper in a suffocating voice, "I can't stand this. Come up on deck, George, and repeat them words."
Before the mate could accept the invitation, he was dragged back by his wife, while at the same time Mrs. Bunnett, with a frantic scream, threw her arms round her husband's neck, and dared him to move.
"You wait till I get you ashore, my lad," said the skipper threateningly.
"I'll have to bring the ship home after I've done with you," retorted the mate as he passed up on deck with his wife.
During the afternoon the couples exchanged not a word, though the two husbands exchanged glances of fiery import, and later on, their spouses being below, gradually drew near to each other. The mate, however, had been thinking, and as they came together met his foe with a pleasant smile.
"Bravo, old man," he said heartily.
"What d'yer mean?" demanded the skipper in gruff astonishment.
"I mean the way you pretended to row me," said the mate. "Splendid you did it. I tried to back you up, but lor! I wasn't in it with you."
"What, d'yer mean to say you didn't mean what you said?" inquired the other.
"Why, o' course," said the mate with an appearance of great surprise. "You didn't, did you?"
"No," said the skipper, swallowing something in his throat. "No, o' course not But you did it well, too, George. Uncommon well, you did."
"Not half so well as you did," said the mate. "Well, I s'pose we've got to keep it up now."
"I s'pose so," said the skipper; "but we mustn't keep it up on the same things, George. Swallerin' knives an' that sort o' thing, I mean."
"No, no," said the mate hastily.
"An' if you could get your missus to go home by train from Summercove, George, we might have a little peace and quietness," added the other.
"She'd never forgive me if I asked her," said the mate; "you'll have to order it, cap'n."
"I won't do that, George," said the skipper firmly. "I'd never treat a lady like that aboard my ship. I 'ope I know 'ow to behave myself if I do eat with my knife."
"Stow that," said the mate, reddening. "We'll wait an' see what turns up," he added hopefully.
For the next three days nothing fresh transpired, and the bickering between the couples, assumed on the part of the men and virulent on the part of their wives, went from bad to worse. It was evident that the ladies preferred it to any other amusement life on ship-board could offer, and, after a combined burst of hysterics on their part, in which the whole ship's company took a strong interest, the husbands met to discuss heroic remedies.
"It's getting worse and worse," said the skipper ruefully. "We'll be the laughing-stock o' the crew even afore they're done with us. There's another day afore we reach Summercove, there's five or six days there, an' at least five back again."
"There'll be murder afore then," said the mate, shaking his head.
"If we could only pack 'em both 'ome by train," continued the skipper.
"That's an expense," said the mate.
"It 'ud be worth it," said the other.
"An' they wouldn't do it," said the mate, "neither of 'em."
"I've seen women having rows afore," said the skipper, "but then they could get away from each other. It's being boxed up in this little craft as does the mischief."
"S'pose we pretend the ship's not seaworthy," said the mate.
"Then they'd stand by us," said the skipper, "closer than ever."
"I b'leeve they would," said the mate. "They'd go fast enough if we'd got a case o' small-pox or anything like that aboard, though."
The skipper grunted assent.
"It 'ud be worth trying," said the mate. "We've pretended to have a quarrel. Now just as we're going into port let one of the hands, the boy if you like, pretend he's sickening for small-pox."
"How's he going to do it?" inquired the skipper derisively.
"You leave it to me," replied the other. "I've got an idea how it's to be done."
Against his better judgment the skipper, after some demur, consented, and the following day, when the passengers were on deck gazing at the small port of Summercove as they slowly approached it, the cook came up excitedly and made a communication to the skipper.
"What?" cried the latter. "Nonsense."
"What's the matter?" demanded Mrs. Bunnett, turning round.
"Cook, here, has got it into his head that the boy's got the small-pox," said the skipper.
Both women gave a faint scream.
"Nonsense," said Mrs. Bunnett, with a pale face.
"Rubbish," said Mrs. Fillson, clasping her hands nervously.
"Very good, mum," said the cook calmly. "You know best, o' course, but I was on a barque once what got it aboard bad, and I think I ought to know it when I see it."
"Yes; and now you think everything's the smallpox," said Mrs. Bunnett uneasily.
"Very well, mum," said the cook, spreading out his hands. "Will you come down an' 'ave a look at 'im?"
"No," snapped Mrs. Bunnett, retreating a pace or two.
"Will you come down an' 'ave a look at 'im, sir," inquired the cook.
"You stay where you are, George," said Mrs. Bunnett shrilly, as her husband moved forward. "Go farther off, cook."
"And keep your tongue still when we get to port," said the mate. "Don't go blabbing it all over the place, mind, or we shan't get nobody to work us out."
"Ay, ay," said the cook, moving off. "I ain't afraid of it—I've given it to people, but I've never took it myself yet."
"I'm sure I wish I was off this dreadful ship," said Mrs. Fillson nervously. "Nothing but unpleasantness. How long before we get to Summercove, Cap'n Bunnett?"
"'Bout a hour an' a 'arf ought to do it," said the skipper.
Both ladies sighed anxiously, and, going as far aft as possible, gazed eagerly at the harbour as it opened out slowly before them.
"I shall go back by train," said Mrs. Bunnett. "It's a shame, having my holiday spoilt like this."
"It's one o' them things what can't be helped," said her husband piously.
"You'd better give me a little money," continued his wife. "I shall get lodgings in the town for a day or two, till I see how things are going."
"It 'ud be better for you to get straight back home," said the skipper.
"Nonsense," said his wife sharply. "Suppose you take it yourself, I should have to be here to see you were looked after. I'm sure Mrs. Fillson isn't going home."
Mrs. Fillson, holding out her hand to Mr. Fillson, said she was sure she wasn't.
"It 'ud be a load off our minds if you did go," said the mate, speaking for both.
"Well, we're not going for a day or two at any-rate," said Mrs. Bunnett, glancing almost amiably at Mrs. Fillson.
In face of this declaration, and in view of the persistent demands of the ladies, both men, with a very ill grace furnished them with some money.
"Don't say a word about it ashore, mind," said the mate, avoiding his chief's indignant gaze.
"But you must have a doctor," said Mrs. Bunnett.
"I know of a doctor here," said the mate; "that's all arranged for."
He moved away for a little private talk with the skipper, but that gentleman was not in a conversational mood, and a sombre silence fell upon all until they were snugly berthed at Summercove, and the ladies, preceded by their luggage on a trolly, went off to look for lodgings. They sent down an hour later to say that they had found them, and that they were very clean and comfortable, but a little more than they had intended to give. They implored their husbands not to run any unnecessary risks, and sent some disinfectant soap for them to wash with.
For three days they kept their lodgings and became fast friends, going, despite their anxiety, for various trips in the neighbourhood. Twice a day at least they sent down beef-tea and other delicacies for the invalid, which never got farther than the cabin, communication being kept up by a small boy who had strict injunctions not to go aboard. On the fourth day in the early morning they came down as close to the ship as they dared to bid farewell.
"Write if there's any change for the worse," cried Mrs. Bunnett.
"Or if you get it, George," cried Mrs. Fillson anxiously.
"It's all right, he's going on beautiful," said the mate.
The two wives appeared to be satisfied, and with a final adieu went off to the railway station, turning at every few yards to wave farewells until they were out of sight.
"If ever I have another woman aboard my ship, George," said the skipper, "I'll run into something. Who's the old gentleman?"
He nodded in the direction of an elderly man with white side-whiskers, who, with a black bag in his hand, was making straight for the schooner.
"Captain Bunnett?" he inquired sharply.
"That's me, sir," said the skipper.
"Your wife sent me," said the tall man briskly. "My name's Thompson—Dr. Thompson. She says you've got a case of small-pox on board which she wants me to see."
"We've got a doctor," said the skipper and mate together.
"So your wife said, but she wished me particularly to see the case," said Dr. Thompson. "It's also my duty as the medical officer of the port."
"You've done it, George, you've done it," moaned the panic-stricken skipper reproachfully.
"Well, anybody can make a mistake," whispered the mate' back; "an' he can't touch us, as it ain't small-pox. Let him come, and we'll lay it on to the cook. Say he made a mistake."
"That's the ticket," said the skipper, and turned to assist the doctor to the deck as the mate hurried below to persuade the indignant boy to strip and go to bed.
In the midst of a breathless silence the doctor examined the patient; then, to the surprise of all, he turned to the crew and examined them one after the other.
"How long has this boy been ill?" he demanded.
"About four days," said the puzzled skipper.
"You see what comes of trying to hush this kind of thing up," said the doctor sternly. "You keep the patient down here instead of having him taken away and the ship disinfected, and now all these other poor fellows have got it."
"What?" screamed the skipper, as the crew broke into profane expressions of astonishment and self-pity. "Got what?"
"Why, the small-pox," said the doctor. "Got it in its worst form too. Suppressed. There's not one of them got a mark on him. It's all inside."
"Well, I'm damned," said the skipper, as the crew groaned despairingly.
"What else did you expect?" inquired the doctor wrathfully. "Well, they can't be moved now; they must all go to bed, and you and the mate must nurse them."
"And s'pose we catch it?" said the mate feelingly.
"You must take your chance," said the doctor; then he relented a little. "I'll try to send a couple of nurses down this afternoon," he added. "In the meantime you must do what you can for them."
"Very good sir," said the skipper brokenly.
"All you can do at present," said the doctor, as he slowly mounted the steps, "is to sponge them all over with cold water. Do it every half-hour till the rash comes out."
"Very good," said the skipper again. "But you'll hurry up with the nurses, sir!"
He stood in a state of bewilderment until the doctor was out of sight, and then, with a heavy sigh, took his coat off and set to work.
He and the mate, after warning off the men who had come down to work, spent all the morning in sponging their crew, waiting with an impatience born of fatigue for the rash to come out. This impatience was shared by the crew, the state of mind of the cook after the fifth sponging calling for severe rebuke on the part of the skipper.
"I wish the nurses 'ud come, George," he said, as they sat on the deck panting after their exertions; "this is a pretty mess if you like."
"Seems like a judgment," said the mate wearily.
"Halloa, there," came a voice from the quay.
Both men turned and looked up at the speaker.
"Halloa," said the skipper dully.
"What's all this about small-pox?" demanded the new-comer abruptly.
The skipper waved his hand languidly towards the forecastle.
"Five of 'em down with it," he said quietly. "Are you another doctor, sir?"
Without troubling to reply, their visitor jumped on board and went nimbly below, followed by the other two.
"Stand out of the light," he said brusquely. "Now, my lads, let's have a look at you."
He examined them in a state of bewilderment, grunting strangely as the washed-out men submitted to his scrutiny.
"They've had the best of cold sponging," said the skipper, not without a little pride.
"Best of what?" demanded the other.
The skipper told him, drawing back indignantly as the doctor suddenly sat down and burst into a hoarse roar of laughter. The unfeeling noise grated harshly on the sensitive ears of the sick men, and Joe Burrows, raising himself in his bunk, made a feeble attempt to hit him.
"You've been sold," said the doctor, wiping his eyes.
"I don't take your meaning," said the skipper with dignity.
"Somebody's been having a joke with you," said the doctor. "Get up, you fools; you've got about as much small-pox as I have."
"Do you mean to tell me—" began the skipper.
"Somebody's been having a joke with you, I tell you," repeated the doctor, as the men, with sundry oaths, half of relief, half of dudgeon, got out of bed and began groping for their clothes. "Who is it, do you think?"
The skipper shook his head, and the mate, following his lead, in duty bound, shook his; but a little while after, as they sat by the wheel smoking and waiting for the men to return to work the cargo out, they were more confidential. The skipper removed his pipe from his mouth, and, having eyed the mate for some time in silence, jerked his thumb in the direction of the railway station. The mate, with a woe-begone nod, assented.
THE CABIN PASSENGER.
The captain of the Fearless came on to the wharf in a manner more suggestive of deer-stalking than that of a prosaic shipmaster returning to his craft. He dodged round an empty van, lurked behind an empty barrel, flitted from that to a post, and finally from the interior of a steam crane peeped melodramatically on to the deck of his craft.
To the ordinary observer there was no cause for alarm. The decks were a bit slippery but not dangerous except to a novice; the hatches were on, and in the lighted galley the cook might be discovered moving about in a manner indicative of quiet security and an untroubled conscience.
With a last glance behind him the skipper descended from the crane and stepped lightly aboard.
"Hist," said the cook, coming out quietly. "I've been watching for you to come."
"Damned fine idea of watching you've got," said the skipper irritably. "What is it?"
The cook jerked his thumb towards the cabin. "He's down there," he said in a hoarse whisper. "The mate said when you came aboard you was just to go and stand near the companion and whistle 'God Save the Queen' and he'll come up to you to see what's to be done."
"Whistle!" said the skipper, trying to moisten his parched lips with his tongue. "I couldn't whistle just now to save my life."
"The mate don't know what to do, and that was to be the signal," said the cook. "He's darn there with him givin' 'im drink and amoosin' 'im."
"Well, you go and whistle it," said the skipper.
The cook wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. "'Ow does it go?" he inquired anxiously. "I never could remember toons."
"Oh, go and tell Bill to do it!" said the skipper impatiently.
Summoned noiselessly by the cook, Bill came up from the forecastle, and on learning what was required of him pursed up his lips and started our noble anthem with a whistle of such richness and volume that the horrified skipper was almost deafened with it. It acted on the mate like a charm, and he came from below and closed Bill's mouth, none too gently, with a hand which shook with excitement. Then, as quietly as possible, he closed the companion and secured the fastenings.
"He's all right," he said to the skipper breathlessly. "He's a prisoner. He's 'ad four goes o' whisky, an' he seems inclined to sleep."
"Who let him go down the cabin?" demanded the skipper angrily. "It's a fine thing I can't leave the ship for an hour or so but what I come back and find people sitting all round my cabin."
"He let hisself darn," said the cook, who saw a slight opening advantageous to himself in connection with a dish smashed the day before, "an' I was that surprised, not to say alarmed, that I dropped the large dish and smashed it."
"What did he say?" inquired the skipper.
"The blue one, I mean," said the cook, who wanted that matter settled for good, "the one with the place at the end for the gravy to run into."
"What did he say?" vociferated the skipper.
"'E ses, 'Ullo,' he ses, 'you've done it now, old man,'" replied the truthful cook.
The skipper turned a furious face to the mate.
"When the cook come up and told me," said the mate, in answer, "I see at once what was up, so I went down and just talked to him clever like."
"I should like to know what you said," muttered the skipper.
"Well, if you think you can do better than I did you'd better go down and see him," retorted the mate hotly. "After all, it's you what 'e come to see. He's your visitor."
"No offence, Bob," said the skipper. "I didn't mean nothing."
"I don't know nothin' o' horse-racin'," continued the mate, with an insufferable air, "and I never 'ad no money troubles in my life, bein' always brought up proper at 'ome and warned of what would 'appen, but I know a sheriff's officer when I see 'im."
"What am I to do?" groaned the skipper, too depressed even to resent his subordinate's manner. "It's a judgment summons. It's ruin if he gets me."
"Well, so far as I can see, the only thing for you to do is to miss the ship this trip," said the mate, without looking at him. "I can take her out all right."
"I won't," said the skipper, interrupting fiercely.
"Very well, you'll be nabbed," said the mate.
"You've been wanting to handle this craft a long time," said the skipper fiercely. "You could ha' got rid of him if you'd wanted to. He's no business down my cabin."
"I tried everything I could think of," asseverated the mate.
"Well, he's come down on my ship without being asked," said the skipper fiercely, "and, damme, he can stay there. Cast off."
"But," said the mate, "s'pose—"
"Cast off," repeated the skipper. "He's come on my ship, and I'll give him a trip free."
"And where are you and the mate to sleep?" inquired the cook, who was a man of pessimistic turn of mind, and given to forebodings.
"In your bunks," said the skipper brutally. "Cast off there."
The men obeyed, grinning, and the schooner was soon threading her way in the darkness down the river, the skipper listening somewhat nervously for the first intimation of his captive's awakening.
He listened in vain that night, for the prisoner made no sign, but at six o'clock in the morning, when the Fearless, coming within sight of the Nore, began to dance like a cork upon the waters, the mate reported hollow groans from the cabin.
"Let him groan," said the skipper briefly, "as holler as he likes."
"Well, I'll just go down and see how he is," said the mate.
"You stay where you are," said the skipper sharply.
"Well, but you ain't going to starve the man?"
"Nothing to do with me," said the skipper ferociously; "if a man likes to come down and stay in my cabin, that's his business. I'm not supposed to know he's there; and if I like to lock my cabin up and sleep in a foc'sle what's got more fleas in it than ten other foc'sles put together, and what smells worse than ten foc'sles rolled into one, that's my business."
"Yes, but I don't want to berth for'ard too," grumbled the other. "He can't touch me. I can go and sleep in my berth."
"You'll do what I wish, my lad," said the skipper.
"I'm the mate," said the other darkly.
"And I'm the master," said the other; "if the master of a ship can stay down the foc'sle, I'm sure a tuppeny-ha'penny mate can."
"The men don't like it," objected the mate.
"Damn the men," said the skipper politely, "and as to starving the chap, there's a water-bottle full o' water in my state-room, to say nothing of a jug, and a bag o' biscuits under the table."
The mate walked off whistling, and the skipper, by no means so easy in his mind as he pretended to be, began to consider ways and means out of the difficulty which he foresaw must occur when they reached port.
"What sort o' looking chap is he?" he inquired of the cook.
"Big, strong-looking chap," was the reply.
"Look as though he'd make a fuss if I sent you and Bill down below to gag him when we get to the other end?" suggested the skipper.
The cook said that judging by appearances "fuss" would be no word for it.
"I can't understand him keeping so quiet," said the skipper; "that's what gets over me."
"He's biding 'is time, I expect," said the cook comfortingly. "He's a 'ard looking customer, 'sides which he's likely sea-sick."
The day passed slowly, and as night approached a sense of mystery and discomfort overhung the vessel. The man at the wheel got nervous, and flattered Bill into keeping him company by asking him to spin him a yarn. He had good reason for believing that he knew his comrade's stock of stories by heart, but in the sequel it transpired that there was one, of a prisoner turning into a cat and getting out of the porthole and running up helmsmen's backs, which he hadn't heard before. And he told Bill in the most effective language he could command that he never wanted to hear it again.
The night passed and day broke, and still the mysterious passenger made no sign. The crew got in the habit of listening at the companion and peeping through the skylight; but the door of the stateroom was closed, and the cabin itself as silent as the grave. The skipper went about with a troubled face, and that afternoon, unable to endure the suspense any longer, civilly asked the mate to go below and investigate.
"I'd rather not," said the mate, shrugging his shoulders.
"I'd sooner he served me and have done with it," said the skipper. "I get thinking all sorts of awful things."
"Well, why don't you go down yourself?" said the mate. "He'd serve you fast enough, I've no doubt."
"Well, it may be just his artfulness," said the skipper; "an' I don't want to humour him if he's all right. I'm askin' it as a favour, Bob."
"I'll go if the cook'll come," said the mate after a pause.
The cook hesitated.
"Go on, cook," said the skipper sharply; "don't keep the mate waiting, and, whatever you do, don't let him come up on deck."
The mate led the way to the companion, and, opening it quietly, led the way below, followed by the cook. There was a minute's awful suspense, and then a wild cry rang out below, and the couple came dashing madly up on deck again.
"What is it?" inquired the pallid skipper.
The mate, leaning for support against the wheel, opened his mouth, but no words came; the cook, his hands straight by his side and his eyes glassy, made a picture from which the crew drew back in awe.
"What's—the—matter?" said the skipper again.
Then the mate, regaining his composure by an effort, spoke.
"You needn't trouble to fasten the companion again," he said slowly.
The skipper's face changed from white to grey. "Why not?" he asked in a trembling voice.
"He's dead," was the solemn reply.
"Nonsense," said the other, with quivering lips. "He's shamming or else fainting. Did you try to bring him round?"
"I did not," said the mate. "I don't deceive you. I didn't stay down there to do no restoring, and I don't think you would either."
"Go down and see whether you can wake him, cook," said the skipper.
"Not me," said the cook with a mighty shudder.
Two of the hands went and peeped furtively down through the skylight. The empty cabin looked strangely quiet and drear, and the door of the stateroom stood ajar. There was nothing to satisfy their curiosity, but they came back looking as though they had seen a ghost.
"What's to be done?" said the skipper helplessly.
"Nothing can be done," said the mate. "He's beyond our aid."
"I wasn't thinking about him," said the skipper.
"Well, the best thing you can do when we get to Plymouth is to bolt," said the mate. "We'll hide it up as long as we can to give you a start It's a hanging matter."
The hapless master of the Fearless wiped his clammy brow. "I can't think he's dead," he said slowly. "Who'll come down with me to see?"
"You'd better leave it alone," said the mate kindly, "it ain't pleasant, and besides that we can all swear up to the present that you haven't touched him or been near him."
"Who'll come down with me?" repeated the skipper. "I believe it's a trick, and that he'll start up and serve me, but I feel I must go."
He caught Bill's eye, and that worthy seaman, after a short tussle with his nerves, shuffled after him. The skipper, brushing aside the mate, who sought to detain him, descended first, and entering the cabin stood hesitating, with Bill close behind him.
"Just open the door, Bill," he said slowly.
"Arter you, sir," said the well-bred Bill.
The skipper stepped slowly towards it and flung it suddenly open. Then he drew back with a sharp cry and looked nervously about him. The bed was empty.
"Where's he gone?" whispered the trembling Bill.
The other made no reply, but in a dazed fashion began to grope about the cabin. It was a small place and soon searched, and the two men sat down and eyed each other in blank amazement.
"Where is he?" said Bill at length.
The skipper shook his head helplessly, and was about to ascribe the mystery to supernatural agencies when the truth in all its naked simplicity flashed upon him and he spoke. "It's the mate," he said slowly, "the mate and the cook. I see it all now; there's never been anybody here. It was a little job on the mate's part to get the ship. If you want to hear a couple o' rascals sized up, Bill, come on deck."
And Bill, grinning in anticipation, went.
The day was fine, and the breeze so light that the old patched sails were taking the schooner along at a gentle three knots per hour. A sail or two shone like snow in the offing, and a gull hovered in the air astern. From the cabin to the galley, and from the galley to the untidy tangle in the bows, there was no sign of anybody to benefit by the conversation of the skipper and mate as they discussed a wicked and mutinous spirit which had become observable in the crew.
"It's sheer rank wickedness, that's what it is," said the skipper, a small elderly man, with grizzled beard and light blue eyes.
"Rank," agreed the mate, whose temperament was laconic.
"Why, when I was a boy you wouldn't believe what I had to eat," said the skipper; "not if I took my Bible oath on it, you wouldn't."
"They're dainty," said the mate.
"Dainty!" said the other indignantly. "What right have hungry sailormen to be dainty? Don't I give them enough to eat? Look! Look there!"
He drew back, choking, and pointed with his forefinger as Bill Smith, A.B., came on deck with a plate held at arm's length, and a nose disdainfully elevated. He affected not to see the skipper, and, walking in a mincing fashion to the side, raked the food from the plate into the sea with his fingers. He was followed by George Simpson, A.B., who in the same objectionable fashion wasted food which the skipper had intended should nourish his frame.
"I'll pay 'em for this!" murmured the skipper.
"There's some more," said the mate.
Two more men came on deck, grinning consciously, and disposed of their dinners. Then there was an interval—an interval in which everybody, fore and aft, appeared to be waiting for something; the something being at that precise moment standing at the foot of the foc'sle ladder, trying to screw its courage up.
"If the boy comes," said the skipper in a strained, unnatural voice, "I'll flay him alive."
"You'd better get your knife out then," said the mate.
The boy appeared on deck, very white about the gills, and looking piteously at the crew for support. He became conscious from their scowls that he had forgotten something, and remembering himself, stretched out his skinny arms to their full extent, and, crinkling his nose, walked with great trepidation to the side.
"Boy!" vociferated the skipper suddenly.
"Yessir," said the urchin hastily.
"Comm'ere," said the skipper sternly.
"Shove your dinner over first," said four low, menacing voices.
The boy hesitated, then walked slowly towards the skipper.
"What are you going to do with that dinner?" demanded the latter grimly.
"Eat it," said the youth modestly.
"What d'yer bring it on deck for, then?" inquired the other, bending his brows on him.
"I thought it would taste better on deck, sir," said the boy.
"Taste better!" growled the skipper ferociously. "Ain't it good?"
"Yessir," said the boy.
"Speak louder," said the skipper sternly. "Is it very good?"
"Beautiful," said the boy in a shrill falsetto.
"Did you ever taste better wittles than you get aboard this ship?" demanded the skipper, setting him a fine example in loud speaking.
"Never," yelled the boy, following it.
"Everything as it should be?" roared the skipper.
"Better than it should be," shrilled the craven.
"Sit down and eat it," commanded the other.
The boy sat on the cabin skylight, and, taking out his pocket-knife, began his meal with every appearance of enjoyment, the skipper, with his elbows on the side, and his legs crossed, regarding him serenely.
"I suppose," he said loudly, after watching the boy for some time, "I s'pose the men threw theirs overboard becos they hadn't been used to such good food?"
"Yessir," said the boy.
"Did they say so?" bawled the other.
The boy hesitated, and glanced nervously forward. "Yessir," he said at length, and shuddered as a low, ominous growl came from the crew. Despite his slowness, the meal came to an end at last, and, in obedience to orders, he rose, and taking his plate forward, looked entreatingly at the crew as he passed them.
"Come down below," said Bill; "we want to have a talk with you."
"Can't," said the boy. "I've got my work to do. I haven't got time to talk."
He stayed up on deck until evening, and then, the men's anger having evaporated somewhat, crept softly below, and climbed into his bunk. Simpson leaned over and made a clutch at him, but Bill pushed him aside.
"Leave him alone," said he quietly; "we'll take it out of him to-morrow."
For some time Tommy lay worrying over the fate in store for him, and then, yielding to fatigue, turned over and slept soundly until he was awakened some three hours later by the men's voices, and, looking out, saw that the lamp was alight and the crew at supper, listening quietly to Bill, who was speaking.
"I've a good mind to strike, that's what I've a good mind to do," he said savagely, as, after an attempt at the butter, he put it aside and ate dry biscuit.
"An' get six months," said old Ned. "That won't do, Bill."
"Are we to go a matter of six or seven days on dry biscuit and rotten taters?" demanded the other fiercely. "Why, it's slow sooicide."
"I wish one of you would commit sooicide," said Ned, looking wistfully round at the faces, "that 'ud frighten the old man, and bring him round a bit."
"Well, you're the eldest," said Bill pointedly.
"Drowning's a easy death too," said Simpson persuasively. "You can't have much enjoyment in life at your age, Ned?"
"And you might leave a letter behind to the skipper, saying as 'ow you was drove to it by bad food," said the cook, who was getting excited.
"Talk sense!" said the old man very shortly.
"Look here," said Bill suddenly. "I tell you what we can do: let one of us pretend to commit suicide, and write a letter as Slushy here ses, saying as 'ow we're gone overboard sooner than be starved to death. It 'ud scare the old man proper; and p'raps he'd let us start on the other meat without eating up this rotten stuff first."
"How's it to be done?" asked Simpson, staring.
"Go an' 'ide down the fore 'old," said Bill. "There's not much stuff down there. We'll take off the hatch when one of us is on watch to-night, and—whoever wants to—can go and hide down there till the old man's come to his senses. What do you think of it, mates?"
"It's all right as an idea," said Ned slowly, "but who's going?"
"Tommy," replied Bill simply.
"Blest if I ever thought of him," said Ned admiringly; "did you, cookie?"
"Never crossed my mind," said the cook.
"You see the best o' Tommy's going," said Bill, "is that the old man 'ud only give him a flogging if he found it out. We wouldn't split as to who put the hatch on over him. He can be there as comfortable as you please, do nothing, and sleep all day if he likes. O' course we don't know anything about it, we miss Tommy, and find the letter wrote on this table."