Captain Wilson, hot with the combined effects of exercise and wrath, continued the pursuit, but the pause to say sweet nothings to the second in command was fatal to his success. He had often before had occasion to comment ruefully upon the pace of the quarry, and especially at such times when he felt that he had strung his courage almost up to speaking point. To-day he was just in time to see her vanish into the front garden of a small house, upon the door of which she knocked with expressive vigor. She disappeared into the house just as he reached the gate.
"Damn the mate!" he said irritably—"and the boy," he added, anxious to be strictly impartial.
He walked on aimlessly at a slow pace until the houses ended and the road became a lane shaded with tall trees and flanked by hawthorn hedges. Along this he walked a little way, and then, nervously fingering a note in his jacket pocket, retraced his steps.
"I'll see her and speak to her anyway," he muttered. "Here goes."
He walked slowly back to the house, and, with his heart thumping, and a choking sensation in his throat, walked up to the door and gave a little whisper of a knock upon it. It was so faint that, after waiting a considerable time, he concluded that it had not been heard, and raised the knocker again. Then the door opened suddenly, and the knocker, half detained in his grasp, slipped from his fingers and fell with a crash that made him tremble at his hardihood. An elderly woman with white hair opened the door. She repressed a start and looked at him inquiringly.
"Cap'n Jackson in?" inquired the skipper, his nerves thoroughly upset by the knocker.
"Who?" said the other.
"Cap'n Jackson," repeated the skipper, reddening.
"There is no such man here," said the old woman. "Are you sure it is Captain Jackson you want?" she added.
"I'm—I'm not sure," said Wilson truthfully.
The old woman looked at him eagerly. "Will you come in?" she said slowly, and, without giving him time to refuse, led the way into the small front room. The skipper followed her with the conscience of a fox invited into a poultry yard, and bringing up in the doorway, gazed uncomfortably at the girl who had risen at his entrance.
"This gentleman is inquiring for a Captain Jackson," said the old woman, turning to the girl. "I thought he—he doesn't seem quite sure whether it is Captain Jackson he wants—he may bring news," she concluded incoherently.
"It's not likely, mother," said the girl, regarding the adventurous mariner by no means favorably. "There is no Captain Jackson here, sir."
"Have you been looking for him long?" inquired the mother.
"Years and years," said the other, forgetting himself.
The old woman sighed sympathetically. "Won't you sit down?" she said.
"Thank you," said the skipper, and took the edge of the sofa.
"You're not quite certain of the name?" suggested the girl coldly.
"It—it sounded like Jackson," murmured the intruder in a small, modest voice. "It might have been Blackson, or Dackson, or even Snackson—I won't swear to it."
The old woman put her hand to her brow. "I thought perhaps you might have brought me some news of my poor husband," she said at length. "I lost him some years ago, and when you came here inquiring for a seafaring man I thought you might somehow have brought news."
"You must see, mother, that this gentleman is looking for somebody else," said the girl; "you are hindering him from finding Captain Jackson."
"If he's been looking for him for years," said the old woman, bridling mildly, "a few minutes will not make much difference."
"Certainly not," said Wilson, in a voice which he tried in vain to make stronger. "When you say lost, ma'am, you mean missing?"
"Five years," said the old woman, shaking her head and folding her hands in her lap. "How long do you say you've been looking for Captain Jackson?"
"Seven," said the skipper with a calmness which surprised himself.
"And you haven't given up hope, I suppose?"
"Not while life lasts," said the other, studying the carpet.
"That's the way I feel," said the old woman energetically. "What a surprise it'll be when you meet him!"
"For both of them," said the girl.
"It's five years last May—the 20th of May," said the old woman, "since I last saw my poor husband. He—"
"It can't be of any interest to this gentleman, mother," interposed the girl.
"I'm very much interested, ma'am," said the skipper defiantly; "besides, when I'm looking for poor Jackson, who knows I mightn't run up against the other."
"Ah! who knows but what you might," said the old woman. "There's one gentleman looking for him now—Mr. Glover, my daughter's husband that is to be."
There was a long pause, then the skipper, by dint of combining his entire stock of Christianity and politeness, found speech. "I hope he finds him," he said slowly.
"All that a man can do he's doing," said the old lady. "He's a commercial traveller by trade, and he gets about a great deal in the way of business."
"Have you tried advertising?" inquired the skipper, striving manfully to keep his interest up to its former pitch.
The other shook her head and looked uneasily at her daughter.
"It wouldn't be any good," she said in a low voice—"it wouldn't be any good."
"Well, I don't want to pry into your business in any way," said Wilson, "but I go into a good many ports in the course of the year, and if you think it would be any use my looking about I'll be pleased and proud to do so, if you'll give me some idea of who to look for."
The old lady fidgeted with all the manner of one half desiring and half fearing to divulge a secret.
"You see we lost him in rather peculiar circumstances," she said, glancing uneasily at her daughter again. "He—"
"I don't want to know anything about that, you know, ma'am," interposed the skipper gently.
"It would be no good advertising for my father," said the girl in her clear voice, "because he can neither read nor write. He is a very passionate, hasty man, and five years ago he struck a man down and thought he had killed him. We have seen nothing and heard nothing of him since."
"He must have been a strong man," commented the skipper.
"He had something in his hand," said the girl, bending low over her work. "But he didn't hurt him really. The man was at work two days after, and he bears him no ill-will at all."
"He might be anywhere," said the skipper, meditating.
"He would be sure to be where there are ships," said the old lady; "I'm certain of it. You see he was captain of a ship himself a good many years, and for one thing he couldn't live away from the water, and for another it's the only way he has of getting a living, poor man—unless he's gone to sea again, which isn't likely."
"Coasting trade, I suppose?" said the skipper, glancing at two or three small craft which were floating in oil round the walls.
The old lady nodded. "Those were his ships," she said, following his glance; "but the painters never could get the clouds to please him. I shouldn't think there was a man in all England harder to please with clouds than he was."
"What sort of looking man is he?" inquired Wilson.
"I'll get you a portrait," said the old lady, and she rose and left the room.
The girl from her seat in the window by the geraniums stitched on steadily. The skipper, anxious to appear at his ease, coughed gently three times, and was on the very verge of a remark—about the weather—when she turned her head and became absorbed in something outside. The skipper fell to regarding the clouds again with even more disfavor than the missing captain himself could have shown.
"That was taken just before he disappeared," said the old lady, entering the room again and handing him a photograph. "You can keep that."
The skipper took it and gazed intently at the likeness of a sturdy full-bearded man of about sixty. Then he placed it carefully in his breast-pocket and rose to his feet.
"And if I should happen to drop across him," he said slowly, "what might his name be?"
"Gething," said the old lady, "Captain Gething. If you should see him, and would tell him that he has nothing to fear, and that his wife and his daughter Annis are dying to see him, you will have done what I can never, never properly thank you for."
"I'll do my best," said the other warmly. "Good-afternoon."
He shook hands with the old woman, and then, standing with his hands by his side, looked doubtfully at Annis.
"Good-afternoon," she said cheerfully.
Mrs. Gething showed him to the door.
"Any time you are at Gravesend, captain, we shall be pleased to see you and hear how you get on," she said as she let him out.
The captain thanked her, pausing at the gate to glance covertly at the window; but the girl was bending over her work again, and he walked away rapidly.
Until he had reached his ship and was sitting down to his belated dinner he had almost forgotten, in the joyful excitement of having something to do for Miss Gething, the fact that she was engaged to another man. As he remembered this he pushed his plate from him, and, leaning his head on his hand, gave way to a fit of deep melancholy. He took the photograph from his pocket, and, gazing at it intently, tried to discover a likeness between the father and daughter. There was not sufficient to warrant him in bestowing a chaste salute upon it.
"What do you think o' that?" he inquired, handing it over to the mate, who had been watching him curiously.
"Any friend o' yours?" inquired the mate, cautiously.
"No," said the other.
"Well, I don't think much of him," said the mate. "Where d'you get it?"
"It was given to me," said the skipper. "He's missing, and I've got to find him if I can. You might as well keep your eyes open too."
"Where are you going to look for him?" asked the mate.
"Everywhere," said the other. "I'm told that he's likely to be in a seaport town, and if you'll be on the look-out I'll take it as a favor."
"I'll do that, o' course," said the mate. "What's he been doing?"
"Nothing that I know of," said the skipper; "but he's been missing some five years, and I promised I'd do my best to find him."
"Friends are anxious, I s'pose?" said the mate.
"Yes," said the other.
"I always find," continued the mate, "that women are more anxious in these sort o' cases than men."
"More tender-hearted," said the skipper.
"It ain't a bad sort o' face, now I come to look at it," said the baffled mate, regarding it closely. "Seems to me I've seen somebody very much like it—a girl, I think—but I can't say where."
"Bearded lady at a fair, I should think," said the skipper bluffly.
Conversation was interrupted by the appearance of Henry, who, seeing the photograph in the mate's hand, at once began putting the butter away. A glance told him that the mate was holding it upside down, and conscience told him that this was for his benefit. He therefore rigidly averted his gaze while clearing the table, and in a small mental ledger, which he kept with scrupulous care for items such as these, made a debit entry in the mate's account.
"Boy," said the skipper suddenly.
"Sir," said Henry.
"You're a fairly sharp youngster, I think," said the skipper. "Take hold o' that photo there."
Henry's face suffused with a great joy. He looked derisively at the mate and took the photograph from him, listening intently to much the same instructions as had been previously given to the mate. "And you can take it for'ard," concluded the skipper, "and let the men see it."
"The men?" said Henry in astonishment.
"Yes, the men; don't I speak plain?" retorted the skipper.
"Very plain, sir," said the boy; "but they'll only make a muddle of it, sir. Fancy fat Sam and the cook and Dick!"
"Do as you're told!" said the other irascibly.
"O' course, sir," said Henry, "but they'll only worry me with a lot o' questions as to who 'e is an' wot you want 'im for."
"You take it for'ard," said the skipper, "and tell them there's a couple of sovereigns for the first man that finds him."
The youth took the photograph, and after another careful scrutiny, with the object of getting a start in the race for wealth, took it forward. Fat Sam, it seemed, had seen the very man only two days before at Poplar; the cook knew his features as well as he knew those of his own mother, while Dick had known him for years as an old and respected inhabitant of Plymouth. Henry went back to the skipper, and, having furnished him with this information, meekly suggested that they should drag Gravesend first.
It was midnight when they got the anchor up and dropped silently down the river. Gravesend was silent, and the dotted lines of street lamps shone over a sleeping town as the Seamew crept softly by.
A big steamer in front whistled warningly for the pilot's boat, and slowing up as the small craft shot out from the shore to meet it, caused a timely diversion to the skipper's melancholy by lying across his bows. By the time he had fully recovered from the outrage and had drunk a cup of coffee, which had been prepared in the galley, Gravesend had disappeared round the bend, and his voluntary search had commenced.