I have always had a slight suspicion that the following narrative is not quite true. It was related to me by an old seaman who, among other incidents of a somewhat adventurous career, claimed to have received Napoleon's sword at the battle of Trafalgar, and a wound in the back at Waterloo. I prefer to tell it in my own way, his being so garnished with nautical terms and expletives as to be half unintelligible and somewhat horrifying. Our talk had been of love and courtship, and after making me a present of several tips, invented by himself, and considered invaluable by his friends, he related this story of the courtship of a chum of his as illustrating the great lengths to which young bloods were prepared to go in his days to attain their ends.
It was a fine clear day in June when Hezekiah Lewis, captain and part owner of the schooner Thames, bound from London to Aberdeen, anchored off the little out-of-the-way town of Orford in Suffolk. Among other antiquities, the town possessed Hezekiah's widowed mother, and when there was no very great hurry--the world went slower in those days--the dutiful son used to go ashore in the ship's boat, and after a filial tap at his mother's window, which often startled the old woman considerably, pass on his way to see a young lady to whom he had already proposed five times without effect.
The mate and crew of the schooner, seven all told, drew up in a little knot as the skipper, in his shore-going clothes, appeared on deck, and regarded him with an air of grinning, mysterious interest.
"Now you all know what you have got to do?" queried the skipper.
"Ay, ay," replied the crew, grinning still more deeply.
Hezekiah regarded them closely, and then ordering the boat to be lowered, scrambled over the side, and was pulled swiftly towards the shore.
A sharp scream, and a breathless "Lawk-a-mussy me!" as he tapped at his mother's window, assured him that the old lady was alive and well, and he continued on his way until he brought up at a small but pretty house in the next road.
"Morning, Mr. Rumbolt," said he heartily to a stout, red-faced man, who sat smoking in the doorway.
"Morning, cap'n, morning," said the red-faced man.
"Is the rheumatism any better?" inquired Hezekiah anxiously, as he grasped the other's huge hand.
"So, so," said the other. "But it ain't the rheumatism so much what troubles me," he resumed, lowering his voice, and looking round cautiously. "It's Kate."
"What?" said the skipper.
"You've heard of a man being henpecked?" continued Mr. Rumbolt, in tones of husky confidence.
The captain nodded.
"I'm CHICK-PECKED" murmured the other.
"What?" inquired the astonished mariner again.
"Chick-pecked," repeated Mr. Rumbolt firmly. "CHIK-PEKED. D'ye understand me?"
The captain said that he did, and stood silent awhile, with the air of a man who wants to say something, but is half afraid to. At last, with a desperate appearance of resolution, he bent down to the old man's ear.
"That's the deaf 'un," said Mr. Rumbolt promptly.
Hezekiah changed ears, speaking at first slowly and awkwardly, but becoming more fluent as he warmed with his subject; while the expression of his listener's face gradually changed from incredulous bewilderment to one of uncontrollable mirth. He became so uproarious that he was fain to push the captain away from him, and lean back in his chair and choke and laugh until he nearly lost his breath, at which crisis a remarkably pretty girl appeared from the back of the house, and patted him with hearty good will.
"That'll do, my dear," said the choking Mr. Rumbolt. "Here's Captain Lewis."
"I can see him," said his daughter calmly. "What's he standing on one leg for?"
The skipper, who really was standing in a somewhat constrained attitude, coloured violently, and planted both feet firmly on the ground.
"Being as I was passing close in, Miss Rumbolt," said he, "and coming ashore to see mother"--
To the captain's discomfort, manifestations of a further attack on the part of Mr. Rumbolt appeared, but were promptly quelled by the daughter.
"Mother?" she repeated encouragingly,
"I thought I'd come on and ask you just to pay a sort o' flying visit to the Thames." "Thank you, I'm comfortable enough where I am," said the girl.
"I've got a couple of monkeys and a bear aboard, which I 'm taking to a menagerie in Aberdeen," continued the captain, "and the thought struck me you might possibly like to see 'em." "Well, I don't know," said the damsel in a flutter. "Is it a big bear?"
"Have you ever seen an elephant?" inquired Hezekiah cautiously.
"Only in pictures," replied the girl.
"Well, it's as big as that, nearly," said he.
The temptation was irresistible, and Miss Rumbolt, telling her father that she should not be long, disappeared into the house in search of her hat and jacket, and ten minutes later the brawny rowers were gazing their fill into her deep blue eyes as she sat in the stern of the boat, and told Lewis to behave himself.
It was but a short pull out to the schooner, and Miss Rumbolt was soon on the deck, lavishing endearments on the monkey, and energetically prodding the bear with a handspike to make him growl. The noise of the offended animal as he strove to get through the bars of his cage was terrific, and the girl was in the full enjoyment of it, when she became aware of a louder noise still, and, turning round, saw the seamen at the windlass.
"Why, what are they doing?" she demanded, "getting up anchor?"
"Ahoy, there!" shouted Hezekiah sternly. "What are you doing with that windlass?"
As he spoke, the anchor peeped over the edge of the bows, and one of the seamen running past them took the helm.
"Now then," shouted the fellow, "stand by. Look lively there with them sails."
Obeying a light touch of the helm, the schooner's bow-sprit slowly swung round from the land, and the crew, hauling lustily on the ropes, began to hoist the sails.
"What the devil are you up to?" thundered the skipper. "Have you all gone mad? What does it all mean?"
"It means," said one of the seamen, whose fat, amiable face was marred by a fearful scowl, "that we've got a new skipper."
"Good heavens, a mutiny!" exclaimed the skipper, starting melodramatically against the cage, and starting hastily away again. "Where's the mate?"
"He's with us," said another seaman, brandishing his sheath knife, and scowling fearfully. "He's our new captain."
In confirmation of this the mate now appeared from below with an axe in his hand, and, approaching his captain, roughly ordered him below.
"I'll defend this lady with my life," cried Hezekiah, taking the handspike from Kate, and raising it above his head.
"Nobody'll hurt a hair of her beautiful head," said the mate, with a tender smile.
"Then I yield," said the skipper, drawing himself up, and delivering the handspike with the air of a defeated admiral tendering his sword.
"Good," said the mate briefly, as one of the men took it.
"What!" demanded Miss Rumbolt excitedly, "aren't you going to fight them? Here, give me the handspike."
Before the mate could interfere, the sailor, with thoughtless obedience, handed it over, and Miss Rumbolt at once tried to knock him over the head. Being thwarted in this design by the man taking flight, she lost her temper entirely, and bore down like a hurricane on the remaining members of the crew who were just approaching.
They scattered at once, and ran up the rigging like cats, and for a few moments the girl held the deck; then the mate crept up behind her, and with the air of a man whose job exactly suited him, clasped her tightly round the waist, while one of the seamen disarmed her.
"You must both go below till we've settled what to do with you," said the mate, reluctantly releasing her.
With a wistful glance at the handspike, the girl walked to the cabin, followed slowly by the skipper.
"This is a bad business," said the latter, shaking his head solemnly, as the indignant Miss Rumbolt seated herself.
"Don't talk to me, you coward!" said the girl energetically.
The skipper started.
"_I_ made three of 'em run," said Miss Rumbolt, "and you did nothing. You just stood still, and let them take the ship. I'm ashamed of you."
The skipper's defence was interrupted by a hoarse voice shouting to them to come on deck, where they found the mutinous crew gathered aft round the mate. The girl cast a look at the shore, which was now dim and indistinct, and turned somewhat pale as the serious nature of her position forced itself upon her.
"Lewis," said the mate.
"Well," growled the skipper.
"This ship's going in the lace and brandy trade, and if so be as you're sensible you can go with it as mate, d'ye hear?"
"An' s'pose I do; what about the lady?" inquired the captain.
"You and the lady'll have to get spliced," said the mate sternly. "Then there'll be no tales told. A Scotch marriage is as good as any, and we'll just lay off and put you ashore, and you can get tied up as right as ninepence."
"Marry a coward like that?" demanded Miss Rumbolt, with spirit; "not if I know it. Why, I'd sooner marry that old man at the helm."
"Old Bill's got three wives a'ready to my sartin knowledge," spoke up one of the sailors. "The lady's got to marry Cap'n Lewis, so don't let's have no fuss about it."
"I won't," said the lady, stamping violently.
The mutineers appeared to be in a dilemma, and, following the example of the mate, scratched their heads thoughtfully.
"We thought you liked him," said the mate, at last, feebly.
"You had no business to think," said Miss Rumbolt. "You are bad men, and you'll all be hung, every one of you; I shall come and see it." "The cap'n's welcome to her for me," murmured the helmsman in a husky whisper to the man next to him. "The vixen!"
"Very good," said the mate. "If you won't, you won't. This end of the ship'll belong to you after eight o'clock of a night. Lewis, you must go for'ard with the men."
"And what are you going to do with me after?" inquired the fair prisoner.
The seven men shrugged their shoulders helplessly, and Hezekiah, looking depressed, lit his pipe, and went and leaned over the side.
The day passed quietly. The orders were given by the mate, and Hezekiah lounged moodily about, a prisoner at large. At eight o'clock Miss Rumbolt was given the key of the state-room, and the men who were not in the watch went below.
The morning broke fine and clear with a light breeze, which, towards mid-day, dropped entirely, and the schooner lay rocking lazily on a sea of glassy smoothness. The sun beat fiercely down, bringing the fresh paint on the taffrail up in blisters, and sorely trying the tempers of the men who were doing odd jobs on deck.
The cabin, where the two victims of a mutinous crew had retired for coolness, got more and more stuffy, until at length even the scorching deck seemed preferable, and the girl, with a faint hope of finding a shady corner, went languidly up the companion-ladder.
For some time the skipper sat alone, pondering gloomily over the state of affairs as he smoked his short pipe. He was aroused at length from his apathy by the sound of the companion being noisily closed, while loud frightened cries and hurrying footsteps on deck announced that something extraordinary was happening. As he rose to his feet he was confronted by Kate Rumbolt, who, panting and excited, waved a big key before him.
"I've done it," she cried, her eyes sparkling.
"Done what?" shouted the mystified skipper.
"Let the bear loose," said the girl. "Ha, ha! you should have seen them run. You should have seen the fat sailor!"
"Let the--phew--let the-- Good heavens! here's a pretty kettle of fish!" he choked.
"Listen to them shouting," cried the exultant Kate, clapping her hands. "Just listen."
"Those shouts are from aloft," said Hezekiah sternly, "where you and I ought to be."
"I've closed the companion," said the girl reassuringly.
"Closed the companion!" repeated Hezekiah, as he drew his knife. "He can smash it like cardboard, if the fit takes him. Go in here."
He opened the door of his state-room.
"Shan't!" said Miss Rumbolt politely.
"Go in at once!" cried the skipper. "Quick with you."
"Sha--" began Miss Rumbolt again. Then she caught his eye, and went in like a lamb. "You come too," she said prettily.
"I've got to look after my ship and my men," said the skipper. "I suppose you thought the ship would steer itself, didn't you?"
"Mutineers deserve to be eaten," whimpered Miss Rumbolt piously, somewhat taken aback by the skipper's demeanour.
Hezekiah looked at her.
"They're not mutineers, Kate," he said quietly. "It was just a piece of mad folly of mine. They're as honest a set of old sea dogs as ever breathed, and I only hope they are all safe up aloft. I'm going to lock you in; but don't be frightened, it shan't hurt you."
He slammed the door on her protests, and locked it, and, slipping the key of the cage in his pocket, took a firm grip of his knife, and, running up the steps, gained the deck. Then his breath came more freely, for the mate, who was standing a little way up the fore rigging, after tempting the bear with his foot, had succeeded in dropping a noose over its head. The brute made a furious attempt to extricate itself, but the men hurried down with other lines, and in a short space of time the bear presented much the same appearance as the lion in Aesop's Fables, and was dragged and pushed, a heated and indignant mass of fur, back to its cage.
Having locked up one prisoner the skipper went below and released the other, who passed quickly from a somewhat hysterical condition to one of such haughty disdain that the captain was thoroughly cowed, and stood humbly aside to let her pass.
The fat seaman was standing in front of the cage as she reached it, and regarding the bear with much satisfaction until Kate sidled up to him, and begged him, as a personal favour, to go in the cage and undo it.
"Undo it! Why he'd kill me!" gasped the fat seaman, aghast at such simplicity.
"I don't think he would," said his tormenter, with a bewitching smile; "and I'll wear a lock of your hair all my life if you do. But you'd better give it to me before you go in."
"I ain't going in," said the fat sailor shortly.
"Not for me?" queried Kate archly,
"Not for fifty like you," replied the old man firmly. "He nearly had me when he was loose. I can't think how he got out."
"Why, I let him out," said Miss Rumbolt airily. "Just for a little run. How would you like to be shut up all day?"
The sailor was just going to tell her with more fluency than politeness when he was interrupted. "That'll do," said the skipper, who had come behind them. "Go for'ard, you. There's been enough of this fooling; the lady thought you had taken the ship. Thompson, I'll take the helm; there's a little wind coming. Stand by there."
He walked aft and relieved the steersman, awkwardly conscious that the men were becoming more and more interested in the situation, and also that Kate could hear some of their remarks. As he pondered over the subject, and tried to think of a way out of it, the cause of all the trouble came and stood by him.
"Did my father know of this?" she inquired.
"I don't know that he did exactly," said the skipper uneasily. "I just told him not to expect you back that night."
"And what did he say?" said she.
"Said he wouldn't sit up," said the skipper, grinning, despite himself.
Kate drew a breath the length of which boded no good to her parent, and looked over the side.
"I was afraid of that traveller chap from Ipswich," said Hezekiah, after a pause. "Your father told me he was hanging round you again, so I thought I--well, I was a blamed fool anyway."
"See how ridiculous you have made me look before all these men," said the girl angrily.
"They've been with me for years," said Hezekiah apologetically, "and the mate said it was a magnificent idea. He quite raved about it, he did. I wouldn't have done it with some crews, but we've had some dirty times together, and they've stood by me well. But of course that's nothing to do with you. It's been an adventure I'm very sorry for, very."
"A pretty safe adventure for YOU," said the girl scornfully. "YOU didn't risk much. Look here, I like brave men. If you go in the cage and undo that bear, I'll marry you. That's what _I_ call an adventure."
"Smith," called the skipper quietly, "come and take the helm a bit."
The seaman obeyed, and Lewis, accompanied by the girl, walked forward.
At the bear's cage he stopped, and, fumbling in his pocket for the key, steadily regarded the brute as it lay gnashing its teeth, and trying in vain to bite the ropes which bound it.
"You're afraid," said the girl tauntingly; "you're quite white."
The captain made no reply, but eyed her so steadily that her gaze fell. He drew the key from his pocket and inserted it in the huge lock, and was just turning it, when a soft arm was drawn through his, and a soft voice murmured sweetly in his ear, "Never mind about the old bear."
And he did not mind.
Return to the W. W. Jacobs library , or . . . Read the next short story; Angels' Visits