Until he stood on the platform on Wednesday morning with his brother adventurers Mr. Chalk passed the time in a state of nervous excitement, which only tended to confirm his wife in her suspicions of his behaviour. Without any preliminaries he would burst out suddenly into snatches of sea-songs, the "Bay of Biscay" being an especial favourite, until Mrs. Chalk thought fit to observe that, "if the thunder did roar like that she should not be afraid of it." Ever sensitive to a fault, Mr. Chalk fell back upon "Tom Bowling," which he thought free from openings of that sort, until Mrs. Chalk, after commenting upon the inability of the late Mr. Bowling to hear the tempest's howling, indulged in idle speculations as to what he would have thought of Mr. Chalk's. Tredgold and Stobell bought papers on the station, but Mr. Chalk was in too exalted a mood for reading. The bustle and life as the train became due were admirably attuned to his feelings, and when it drew up and they embarked, to the clatter of milk-cans and the rumbling of trolleys, he was beaming with satisfaction.
"I feel that I can smell the sea already," he remarked.
Mr. Stobell put down his paper and sniffed; then he resumed it again and, meeting Mr. Tredgold's eye over the top of it, sniffed more loudly than before.
"Have you told Edward that you are going to sea?" inquired Mr. Chalk, leaning over to Tredgold.
"Certainly not," was the reply; "I don't want anybody to know till the last possible moment. You haven't given your wife any hint as to why you are going to Biddlecombe to-day, have you?"
Mr. Chalk shook his head. "I told her that you had got business there, and that I was going with you just for the outing," he said. "What she'll say when she finds out—"
His imagination failed him and, a prey to forebodings, he tried to divert his mind by looking out of window. His countenance cleared as they neared Biddlecombe, and, the line running for some distance by the side of the river, he amused himself by gazing at various small craft left high and dry by the tide.
A short walk from the station brought them to the mouth of the river which constitutes the harbour of Biddlecombe. For a small port there was a goodly array of shipping, and Mr. Chalk's pulse beat faster as his gaze wandered impartially from a stately barque in all the pride of fresh paint to dingy, sea-worn ketches and tiny yachts.
Uncertain how to commence operations, they walked thoughtfully up and down the quay. If any of the craft were for sale there was nothing to announce the fact, and the various suggestions which Mr. Chalk threw off from time to time as to the course they should pursue were hardly noticed.
"One o'clock," said Mr. Stobell, extracting a huge silver timepiece from his pocket, after a couple of wasted hours.
"Let's have something to eat before we do any more," said Mr. Tredgold. "After that we'll ferry over and look at the other side."
They made their way to the "King of Hanover," an old inn, perched on the side of the harbour, and, mounting the stairs, entered the coffee-room, where Mr. Stobell, after hesitating for some time between the rival claims of roast beef and grilled chops, solved the difficulty by ordering both.
The only other occupant of the room, a short, wiry man, with a close-shaven, hard-bitten face, sat smoking, with a glass of whisky before him, in a bay window at the end of the room, which looked out on the harbour. There was a maritime flavour about him which at once enlisted Mr. Chalk's sympathies and made him overlook the small, steely- grey eyes and large and somewhat brutal mouth.
"Fine day, gentlemen," said the stranger, nodding affably to Mr. Chalk as he raised his glass. Mr. Chalk assented, and began a somewhat minute discussion upon the weather, which lasted until the waiter appeared with the lunch.
"Bring me another drop o' whisky, George," said the stranger, as the latter was about to leave the room, "and a little stronger, d'ye hear? A man might drink this and still be in the Band of Hope."
"We thought it wouldn't do for you to get the chuck out of it after all these years, Cap'n Brisket," said George, calmly. "It's a whisky that's kept special for teetotalers like you."
Captain Brisket gave a hoarse laugh and winked at Mr. Stobell; that gentleman, merely pausing to empty his mouth and drink half a glass of beer, winked back.
"Been here before, sir?" inquired the captain.
Mr. Stobell, who was busy again, left the reply to Mr. Chalk.
"Several times," said the latter. "I'm very fond of the sea."
Captain Brisket nodded, and, taking up his glass, moved to the end of their table, with the air of a man disposed to conversation.
"There's not much doing in Biddlecombe nowadays," he remarked, shaking his head. "Trade ain't what it used to be; ships are more than half their time looking for freights. And even when they get them they're hardly worth having."
Mr. Chalk started and, leaning over, whispered to Mr. Tredgold.
"No harm in it," said the latter. "Better leave it to me. Shipping's dull, then?" he inquired, turning to Captain Brisket.
"Dull?" was the reply. "Dull ain't no name for it."
Mr. Tredgold played with a salt-spoon and frowned thoughtfully.
"We've been looking round for a ship this morning," he said, slowly.
"As passengers?" inquired the captain, staring.
"As owners," put in Mr. Chalk.
Captain Brisket, greatly interested, drew first his glass and then his chair a yard nearer. "Do you mean that you want to buy one?" he inquired.
"Well, we might if we could get one cheap," admitted Tredgold, cautiously. "We had some sort of an idea of a cruise to the South Pacific; pleasure, with perhaps a little trading mixed up with it. I suppose some of these old schooners can be picked up for the price of an old song?"
The captain, grating his chair along the floor, came nearer still; so near that Mr. Stobell instinctively put out his right elbow.
"You've met just the right man," said Captain Brisket, with a boisterous laugh. "I know a schooner, two hundred and forty tons, that is just the identical article you're looking for, good as new and sound as a bell. Are you going to sail her yourself?"
"No," said Mr. Stobell, without looking up, "he ain't."
"Got a master?" demanded Captain Brisket, with growing excitement. "Don't tell me you've got a master."
"Why not?" growled Mr. Stobell, who, having by this time arrived at the cheese, felt that he had more leisure for conversation.
"Because," shouted the other, hitting the table a thump with his fist that upset half his whisky—"because if you haven't Bill Brisket's your man."
The three gentlemen received this startling intelligence with such a lack of enthusiasm that Captain Brisket was fain to cover what in any other man might have been regarded as confusion by ringing the bell for George and inquiring with great sternness of manner why he had not brought him a full glass.
"We can't do things in five minutes," said Mr. Tredgold, after a long and somewhat trying pause. "First of all we've got to get a ship."
"The craft you want is over the other side of the harbour waiting for you," said the captain, confidently. "We'll ferry over now if you like, or, if you prefer to go by yourselves, do; Bill Brisket is not the man to stand in anyone's way, whether he gets anything out of it or not."
"Hold hard," said Mr. Stobell, putting up his hand.
Captain Brisket regarded him with a beaming smile; Mr. Stobell's two friends waited patiently.
"What ud a schooner like that fetch?" inquired Mr. Stobell.
"It all depends," said Brisket. "Of course, if I buy—"
Mr. Stobell held up his hand again. "All depends whether you buy it for us or sell it for the man it belongs to, I s'pose?" he said, slowly.
Captain Brisket jumped up, and to Mr. Chalk's horror smote the speaker heavily on the back. Mr. Stobell, clenching a fist the size of a leg of mutton, pushed his chair back and prepared to rise.
"You're a trump," said Captain Brisket, in tones of unmistakable respect, "that's what you are. Lord, if I'd got the head for business you have I should be a man of fortune by now."
Mr. Stobell, who had half risen, sat down again, and, for the first time since his last contract but one, a smile played lightly about the corners of his mouth. He took another drink and, shaking his head slightly as he put the glass down, smiled again with the air of a man who has been reproached for making a pun.
"Let me do it for you," said Captain Brisket, impressively. "I'll tell you where to go without being seen in the matter or letting old Todd know that I'm in it. Ask him a price and bate him down; when you've got his lowest, come to me and give me one pound in every ten I save you."
Mr. Tredgold looked at his friends. "If we do that," he said, turning to the captain, "it would be to your interest to buy the ship in any case. How are we to be sure she is seaworthy?"
"Ah, there you are!" said Brisket, with an expansive smile. "You let me buy for you and promise me the master's berth, provided you are satisfied with my credentials. Common sense'll tell you I wouldn't risk my own carcass in a rotten ship."
Mr. Stobell nodded approval and, Captain Brisket with unexpected delicacy withdrawing to the window and becoming interested in the harbour, conferred for some time with his friends. The captain's offer being accepted, subject to certain conditions, they settled their bill and made their way to the ferry.
"There's the schooner," said the captain, pointing, as they neared the opposite shore; "the Fair Emily, and the place she is lying at is called Todd's Wharf. Ask for Mr. Todd, or, better still, walk straight on to the wharf and have a look at her. The old man'll see you fast enough."
He sprang nimbly ashore as the boat's head touched the stairs, and after extending a hand to Mr. Chalk, which was coldly ignored, led the way up the steps to the quay.
"There's the wharf just along there," he said, pointing up the road. "I'll wait for you at the Jack Ashore here. Don't offer him too much to begin with."
"I thought of offering a hundred pounds," said Mr. Tredgold. "If the ship's sound we can't be very much out over that sum."
Captain Brisket stared at him. "No; don't do that," he said, recovering, and speaking with great gravity. "Offer him seventy. Good luck."
He watched them up the road and then, with a mysterious grin, turned into the Jack Ashore, and taking a seat in the bar waited patiently for their return.
Half an hour passed. The captain had smoked one pipe and was half through another. He glanced at the clock over the bar and fidgeted as an unpleasant idea that the bargain, despite Mr. Tredgold's ideas as to the value of schooners, might have been completed without his assistance occurred to him. He took a sip from his glass, and then his face softened as the faint sounds of a distant uproar broke upon his ear.
"What's that?" said a customer.
The landlord, who was glancing at the paper, put it down and listened. "Sounds like old Todd at it again," he said, coming round to the front of the bar.
The noise came closer. "It is old Todd," said another customer, and hastily finishing his beer moved with the others to the door. Captain Brisket, with a fine air of indifference, lounged after them, and peering over their shoulders obtained a good view of the approaching disturbance.
His three patrons, with a hopeless attempt to appear unconcerned, were coming down the road, while close behind a respectable-looking old gentleman with a long, white beard and a voice like a foghorn almost danced with excitement. They quickened their pace as they neared the inn, and Mr. Chalk, throwing appearances to the winds, almost dived through the group at the door. He was at once followed by Mr. Tredgold, but Mr. Stobell, black with wrath, paused in the doorway.
"FETCH'EM OUT," vociferated the old gentleman as the landlord barred the doorway with his arms. "Fetch that red-whiskered one out and I'll eat him."
"What's the matter, Mr. Todd?" inquired the landlord, with a glance at his friends. "What's he done?"
"Done?" repeated the excitable Mr. Todd.
"Done? They come walking on to my wharf as if the place—FETCH HIM OUT," he bawled, breaking off suddenly. "Fetch him out and I'll skin him alive."
Captain Brisket took Mr. Stobell by the cuff and after a slight altercation drew him inside.
"Tell that red-whiskered man to come outside," bawled Mr. Todd. "What's he afraid of?"
"What have you been doing to him?" inquired Captain Brisket, turning to the pallid Mr. Chalk.
"Nothing," was the reply.
"Is he coming out?" demanded the terrible voice, "or have I got to wait here all night? Why don't he come outside, and I'll break every bone in his body."
Mr. Stobell scratched his head in gloomy perplexity; then, as his gaze fell upon the smiling countenances of Mr. Todd's fellow-townsmen, his face cleared.
"He's an old man," he said, slowly, "but if any of you would like to step outside with me for five minutes, you've only got to say the word, you know."
Nobody manifesting any signs of accepting this offer, he turned away and took a seat by the side of the indignant Tredgold. Mr. Todd, after a final outburst, began to feel exhausted, and forsaking his prey with much reluctance allowed himself to be led away. Snatches of a strong and copious benediction, only partly mellowed by distance, fell upon the ears of the listeners.
"Did you offer him the seventy?" inquired Captain Brisket, turning to Mr. Tredgold.
"I did," said Mr. Chalk, plaintively.
"Ah," said the captain, regarding him thoughtfully; "perhaps you ought to ha' made it eighty. He's asking eight hundred for it, I understand."
Mr. Tredgold turned sharply. "Eight hundred?" he gasped.
The captain nodded. "And I'm not saying it's not worth it," he said, "but I might be able to get it for you for six. You'd better leave it to me now."
Mr. Tredgold at first said he would have nothing more to do with it, but under the softening influence of a pipe and a glass was induced to reconsider his decision. Captain Brisket, waving farewells from the quay as they embarked on the ferryboat later on in the afternoon, bore in his pocket the cards of all three gentlemen, together with a commission entrusting him with the preliminary negotiations for the purchase of the Fair Emily.