It was a still fair evening in late summer in the parish of Wapping. The hands had long since left, and the night watchman having abandoned his trust in favour of a neighbouring bar, the wharf was deserted.
An elderly seaman came to the gate and paused irresolute, then, seeing all was quiet, stole cautiously on to the jetty, and stood for some time gazing curiously down on to the deck of the billy-boy PSYCHE lying alongside.
With the exception of the mate, who, since the lamented disappearance of its late master and owner, was acting as captain, the deck was as deserted as the wharf. He was smoking an evening pipe in all the pride of a first command, his eye roving fondly from the blunt bows and untidy deck of his craft to her clumsy stern, when a slight cough from the man above attracted his attention.
"How do, George?" said the man on the jetty, somewhat sheepishly, as the other looked up.
The mate opened his mouth, and his pipe fell from it and smashed to pieces unnoticed.
"Got much stuff in her this trip?" continued the man, with an obvious attempt to appear at ease.
"The mate, still looking up, backed slowly to the other side of the deck, but made no reply.
"What's the matter, man?" said the other testily. "You don't seem overpleased to see me."
He leaned over as he spoke, and, laying hold of the rigging, descended to the deck, while the mate took his breath in short, exhilarating gasps.
"Here I am, George," said the intruder, "turned up like a bad penny, an' glad to see your handsome face again, I can tell you."
In response to this flattering remark George gurgled.
"Why," said the other, with an uneasy laugh, "did you think I was dead, George? Ha, ha! Feel that!"
He fetched the horrified man a thump in the back, which stopped even his gurgles.
"That feel like a dead man?" asked the smiter, raising his hand again. "Feel"--
The mate moved back hastily. "That'll do," said he fiercely; "ghost or no ghost, don't you hit me like that again."
"A' right, George," said the other, as he meditatively felt the stiff grey whiskers which framed his red face. "What's the news?"
"The news," said George, who was of slow habits and speech, "is that you was found last Tuesday week off St. Katherine's Stairs, you was sat on a Friday week at the Town o' Ramsgate public-house, and buried on Monday afternoon at Lowestoft."
"Buried?" gasped the other, "sat on? You've been drinking, George."
"An' a pretty penny your funeral cost, I can tell you," continued the mate. "There's a headstone being made now--'Lived lamented and died respected,' I think it is, with 'Not lost, but gone before,' at the bottom."
"Lived respected and died lamented, you mean," growled the old man; "well, a nice muddle you have made of it between you. Things always go wrong when I'm not here to look after them."
"You ain't dead, then?" said the mate, taking no notice of this unreasonable remark, "Where've you been all this long time?"
"No more than you're master o' this 'ere ship," replied Mr. Harbolt grimly. "I--I've been a bit queer in the stomach, an' I took a little drink to correct it. Foolish like, I took the wrong drink, and it must have got into my head."
"That's the worst of not being used to it," said the mate, without moving a muscle.
The skipper eyed him solemnly, but the mate stood firm.
"Arter that," continued the skipper, still watching him suspiciously, "I remember no more distinctly until this morning, when I found myself sitting on a step down Poplar way and shiverin', with the morning newspaper and a crowd round me."
"Morning newspaper!" repeated the mystified mate. "What was that for?"
"Decency. I was wrapped up in it," replied the skipper. "Where I came from or how I got there I don't know more than Adam. I s'pose I must have been ill; I seem to remember taking something out of a bottle pretty often. Some old gentleman in the crowd took me into a shop and bought me these clothes, an' here I am. My own clo'es and thirty pounds o' freight money I had in my pocket is all gone."
"Well, I'm hearty glad to see you back," said the mate. "It's quite a home-coming for you, too. Your missis is down aft."
"My missis? What the devil's she aboard for?" growled the skipper, successfully controlling his natural gratification at the news.
"She's been with us these last two trips," replied the mate. "She's had business to settle in London, and she's been going through your lockers to clear up, like."
"My lockers!" groaned the skipper. "Good heavens! there's things in them lockers I wouldn't have her see for the world; women are so fussy an' so fond o' making something out o' nothing. There's a pore female touched a bit in the upper storey, what's been writing love letters to me, George."
"Three pore females," said the precise mate; "the missis has got all the letters tied up with blue ribbon. Very far gone they was, too, poor creeters."
"George," said the skipper in a broken voice, "I'm a ruined man. I'll never hear the end o' this. I guess I'll go an' sleep for'ard this voyage, and lie low. Be keerful you don't let on I'm aboard, an' after she's home I'll take the ship again, and let the thing leak out gradual. Come to life bit by bit, so to speak. It wouldn't do to scare her, George, an' in the meantime I'll try an' think o' some explanation to tell her. You might be thinking too."
"I'll do what I can," said the mate.
"Crack me up to the old girl all you can; tell her I used to write to all sorts o' people when I got a drop of drink in me; say how thoughtful I always was of her. You might tell her about that gold locket I bought for her an' got robbed of."
"Gold locket?" said the mate in tones of great surprise. "What gold locket? Fust I've heard of it."
"Any gold locket," said the skipper irritably; "anything you can think of; you needn't be pertikler. Arter that you can drop little hints about people being buried in mistake for others, so as to prepare her a bit--I don't want to scare her."
"Leave it to me," said the mate.
"I'll go an' turn in now, I'm dead tired," said the skipper. "I s'pose Joe and the boy's asleep?"
George nodded, and meditatively watched the other as he pushed back the fore-scuttle and drew it after him as he descended. Then a thought struck the mate, and he ran hastily forward and threw his weight on the scuttle just in time to frustrate the efforts of Joe and the boy, who were coming on deck to tell him a new ghost story. The confusion below was frightful, the skipper's cry of "It's only me, Joe," not possessing the soothing effect which he intended. They calmed down at length, after their visitor had convinced them that he really was flesh and blood and fists, and the boy's attention being directed to a small rug in the corner of the foc's'le, the skipper took his bunk and was soon fast asleep.
He slept so soundly that the noise of the vessel getting under way failed to rouse him, and she was well out in the open river when he awoke, and after cautiously protruding his head through the scuttle, ventured on deck. For some time he stood eagerly sniffing the cool, sweet air, and then, after a look round, gingerly approached the mate, who was at the helm.
"Give me a hold on her," said he.
"You had better get below again, if you don't want the missis to see you," said the mate. "She's gettin' up--nasty temper she's in too."
The skipper went forward grumbling. "Send down a good breakfast, George," said he.
To his great discomfort the mate suddenly gave a low whistle, and regarded him with a look of blank dismay.
"Good gracious!" he cried, "I forgot all about it. Here's a pretty kettle of fish--well, well."
"Forgot about what?" asked the skipper uneasily.
"The crew take their meals in the cabin now," replied the mate, "'cos the missis says it's more cheerful for 'em, and she's l'arning 'em to eat their wittles properly."
The skipper looked at him aghast. "You'll have to smuggle me up some grub," he said at length. "I'm not going to starve for nobody."
"Easier said than done," said the mate. "The missis has got eyes like needles; still, I'll do the best I can for you. Look out! Here she comes."
The skipper fled hastily, and, safe down below, explained to the crew how they were to secrete portions of their breakfast for his benefit. The amount of explanation required for so simple a matter was remarkable, the crew manifesting a denseness which irritated him almost beyond endurance. They promised, however, to do the best they could for him, and returned in triumph after a hearty meal, and presented their enraged commander with a few greasy crumbs and the tail of a bloater.
For the next two days the wind was against them, and they made but little progress. Mrs. Harbolt spent most of her time on deck, thereby confining her husband to his evil-smelling quarters below. Matters were not improved for him by his treatment of the crew, who, resenting his rough treatment of them, were doing their best to starve him into civility. Most of the time he kept in his bunk--or rather Jemmy's bunk-- a prey to despondency and hunger of an acute type, venturing on deck only at night to prowl uneasily about and bemoan his condition.
On the third night Mrs. Harbolt was later in retiring than usual, and it was nearly midnight before the skipper, who had been indignantly waiting for her to go, was able to get on deck and hold counsel with the mate.
"I've done what I could for you," said the latter, fishing a crust from his pocket, which Harbolt took thankfully. "I've told her all the yarns I could think of about people turning up after they was buried and the like."
"What'd she say?" queried the skipper eagerly, between his bites.
"Told me not to talk like that," said the mate; "said it showed a want o' trust in Providence to hint at such things. Then I told her what you asked me about the locket, only I made it a bracelet worth ten pounds."
"That pleased her?" suggested the other hopefully.
The mate shook his head. "She said I was a born fool to believe you'd been robbed of it," he replied. "She said what you'd done was to give it to one o' them pore females. She's been going on frightful about it all the afternoon--won't talk o' nothing else."
"I don't know what's to be done," groaned the skipper despondently. "I shall be dead afore we get to port this wind holds. Go down and get me something to eat George; I'm starving."
"Everything's locked up, as I told you afore," said the mate.
"As the master of this ship," said the skipper, drawing himself up, "I order you to go down and get me something to eat. You can tell the missus it's for you if she says anything."
"I'm hanged if I will," said the mate sturdily. "Why don't you go down and have it out with her like a man? She can't eat you."
"I'm not going to," said the other shortly. "I'm a determined man, and when I say a thing I mean it. It's going to be broken to her gradual, as I said; I don't want her to be scared, poor thing."
"I know who'd be scared the most," murmured the mate.
The skipper looked at him fiercely, and then sat down wearily on the hatches with his hands between his knees, rising, after a time, to get the dipper and drink copiously from the water-cask. Then, replacing it with a sigh, he bade the mate a surly good-night and went below.
To his dismay he found when he awoke in the morning that what little wind there was had dropped in the night, and the billy-boy was just rising and falling lazily on the water in a fashion most objectionable to an empty stomach. It was the last straw, and he made things so uncomfortable below that the crew were glad to escape on deck, where they squatted down in the bows, and proceeded to review a situation which was rapidly becoming unbearable.
"I've 'ad enough of it, Joe," grumbled the boy. "I'm sore all over with sleeping on the floor, and the old man's temper gets wuss and wuss. I'm going to be ill."
"Whaffor?" queried Joe dully.
"You tell the missus I'm down below ill. Say you think I'm dying," responded the infant Machiavelli, "then you'll see somethink if you keep your eyes open."
He went below again, not without a little nervousness, and, clambering into Joe's bunk, rolled over on his back and gave a deep groan.
"What's the matter with YOU!" growled the skipper, who was lying in the other bunk staving off the pangs of hunger with a pipe.
"I'm very ill--dying," said Jemmy, with another groan.
"You'd better stay in bed and have your breakfast brought down here, then," said the skipper kindly.
"I don't want no breakfast," said Jem faintly.
"That's no reason why you shouldn't have it sent down, you unfeeling little brute," said the skipper indignantly. "You tell Joe to bring you down a great plate o' cold meat and pickles, and some coffee; that's what you want."
"All right, sir," said Jemmy. "I hope they won't let the missus come down here, in case it's something catching. I wouldn't like her to be took bad."
"Eh?" said the skipper, in alarm. "Certainly not. Here, you go up and die on deck. Hurry up with you."
"I can't; I'm too weak," said Jemmy.
"You get up on deck at once; d'ye hear me?" hissed the skipper, in alarm.
"I c-c-c-can't help it," sobbed Jemmy, who was enjoying the situation amazingly. "I b'lieve it's sleeping on the hard floor's snapped something inside me."
"If you don't go I'll take you," said the skipper, and he was about to rise to put his threat into execution when a shadow fell across the opening, and a voice, which thrilled him to the core, said softly, "Jemmy!"
"Yes 'm?" said Jemmy languidly, as the skipper flattened himself in his bunk and drew the clothes over him.
"How do you feel?" inquired Mrs. Harbolt.
"Bad all over," said Jemmy. "Oh, don't come down, mum--please don't."
"Rubbish!" said Mrs. Harbolt tartly, as she came slowly and carefully down backwards. "What a dark hole this is, Jemmy. No wonder you're ill. Put your tongue out."
"I can't see properly here," murmured the lady, "but it looks very large. S'pose you go in the other bunk, Jemmy. It's a good bit higher than this, and you'd get more air and be more comfortable altogether."
"Joe wouldn't like it, mum," said the boy anxiously. The last glimpse he had had of the skipper's face did not make him yearn to share his bed with him.
"Stuff an' nonsense!" said Mrs. Harbolt hotly. "Who's Joe, I'd like to know? Out you come."
"I can't move, mum," said Jemmy firmly.
"Nonsense!" said the lady. "I'll just put it straight for you first, then in it you go."
"No, don't, mum," shouted Jemmy, now thoroughly alarmed at the success of his plot. "There, there's a gentleman in that bunk. A gentleman we brought from London for a change of sea air."
"My goodness gracious!" ejaculated the surprised Mrs. Harbolt. "I never did. Why, what's he had to eat?"
"He--he--didn't want nothing to eat," said Jemmy, with a woeful disregard for facts.
"What's the matter with him?" inquired Mrs. Harbolt, eyeing the bunk curiously. "What's his name? Who is he?"
"He's been lost a long time," said Jemmy, "and he's forgotten who he is-- he's a oldish man with a red face an' a little white whisker all round it--a very nice-looking man, I mean," he interposed hurriedly. "I don't think he's quite right in his head, 'cos he says he ought to have been buried instead of someone else. Oh!"
The last word was almost a scream, for Mrs. Harbolt, staggering back, pinched him convulsively.
"Jemmy!" she gasped, in a trembling voice, as she suddenly remembered certain mysterious hints thrown out by the mate. "Who is it?"
"The CAPTAIN!" said Jemmy, and, breaking from her clasp, slipped from his bed and darted hastily on deck, just as the pallid face of his commander broke through the blankets and beamed anxiously on his wife.
* * * * * * * *
Five minutes later, as the crew gathered aft were curiously eyeing the foc's'le, Mrs. Harbolt and the skipper came on deck. To the great astonishment of the mate, the eyes of the redoubtable woman were slightly wet, and, regardless of the presence of the men, she clung fondly to her husband as they walked slowly to the cabin. Ere they went below, however, she called the grinning Jemmy to her, and, to his private grief and public shame, tucked his head under her arm and kissed him fondly.