A small but strong lamp was burning in the fo'c'sle of the schooner Greyhound, by the light of which a middle-aged seaman of sedate appearance sat crocheting an antimacassar. Two other men were snoring with deep content in their bunks, while a small, bright-eyed boy sat up in his, reading adventurous fiction.
"Here comes old Dan," said the man with the anti-macassar warningly, as a pair of sea boots appeared at the top of the companion-ladder; "better not let him see you with that paper, Billee."
The boy thrust it beneath his blankets, and, lying down, closed his eyes as the new comer stepped on to the floor.
"All asleep?" inquired the latter.
The other man nodded, and Dan, without any further parley, crossed over to the sleepers and shook them roughly.
"Eh! wha's matter?" inquired the sleepers plaintively.
"Git up," said Dan impressively, "I want to speak to you. Something important."
With sundry growls the men complied, and, thrusting their legs out of their bunks, rolled on to the locker, and sat crossly waiting for information.
"I want to do a pore chap a good turn," said Dan, watching them narrowly out of his little black eyes, "an' I want you to help me; an' the boy too. It's never too young to do good to your fellow-creatures, Billy."
"I know it ain't," said Billy, taking this as permission to join the group; "I helped a drunken man home once when I was only ten years old, an' when I was only--"
The speaker stopped, not because he had come to the end of his remarks, but because one of the seamen had passed his arm around his neck and was choking him.
"Go on," said the man calmly; "I've got him. Spit it out, Dan, and none of your sermonising."
"Well, it's like this, Joe," said the old man; "here's a pore chap, a young sojer from the depot here, an' he's cut an' run. He's been in hiding in a cottage up the road two days, and he wants to git to London, and git honest work and employment, not shooting, an' stabbing, an' bayoneting--"
"Stow it," said Joe impatiently.
"He daren't go to the railway station, and he dursen't go outside in his uniform," continued Dan. "My 'art bled for the pore young feller, an' I've promised to give 'im a little trip to London with us. The people he's staying with won't have him no longer. They've only got one bed, and directly he sees any sojers coming he goes an' gits into it, whether he's got his boots on or not."
"Have you told the skipper?" inquired Joe sardonically.
"I won't deceive you, Joe, I 'ave not," replied the old man. "He'll have to stay down here of a daytime, an' only come on deck of a night when it's our watch. I told 'im what a lot of good-'arted chaps you was, and how--"
"How much is he going to give you?" inquired Joe impatiently.
"It's only fit and proper he should pay a little for the passage," said Dan.
"How MUCH?" demanded Joe, banging the little triangular table with his fist, and thereby causing the man with the antimacassar to drop a couple of stitches.
"Twenty-five shillings," said old Dan reluctantly; "an' I'll spend the odd five shillings on you chaps when we git to Limehouse."
"I don't want your money," said Joe; "there's a empty bunk he can have; and mind, you take all the responsibility--I won't have nothing to do with it."
"Thanks, Joe," said the old man, with a sigh of relief; "he's a nice young chap, you're sure to take to him. I'll go and give him the tip to come aboard at once."
He ran up on deck again and whistled softly, and a figure, which had been hiding behind a pile of empties, came out, and, after looking cautiously around, dropped noiselessly on to the schooner's deck, and followed its protector below.
"Good evening, mates," said the linesman, gazing curiously and anxiously round him as he deposited a bundle on the table, and laid his swagger cane beside it.
"What's your height?" inquired Joe abruptly. "Seven foot?"
"No, only six foot four," said the new arrival, modestly. "I'm not proud of it. It's much easier for a small man to slip off than a big one."
"It licks me," said Joe thoughtfully, "what they want 'em back for--I should think they'd be glad to git rid o' such"--he paused a moment while politeness struggled with feeling, and added, "skunks."
"P'raps I've a reason for being a skunk, p'raps I haven't," retorted Private Smith, as his face fell.
"This'll be your bunk," interposed Dan hastily; "put your things in there, and when you are in yourself you'll be as comfortable as a oyster in its shell."
The visitor complied, and, first extracting from the bundle some tins of meat and a bottle of whiskey, which he placed upon the table, nervously requested the honour of the present company to supper. With the exception of Joe, who churlishly climbed back into his bunk, the men complied, all agreeing that boys of Billy's age should be reared on strong teetotal principles.
Supper over, Private Smith and his protectors retired to their couches, where the former lay in much anxiety until two in the morning, when they got under way.
"It's all right, my lad," said Dan, after the watch had been set, as he came and stood by the deserter's bunk; "I 've saved you--I've saved you for twenty-five shillings."
"I wish it was more," said Private Smith politely.
The old man sighed--and waited.
"I'm quite cleaned out, though," continued the deserter, "except fi'pence ha'penny. I shall have to risk going home in my uniform as it is."
"Ah, you'll get there all right," said Dan cheerfully; "and when you get home no doubt you 've got friends, and if it seems to you as you 'd like to give a little more to them as assisted you in the hour of need, you won't be ungrateful, my lad, I know. You ain't the sort."
With these words old Dan, patting him affectionately, retired, and the soldier lay trying to sleep in his narrow quarters until he was aroused by a grip on his arm.
"If you want a mouthful of fresh air you 'd better come on deck now," said the voice of Joe; "it's my watch. You can get all the sleep you want in the daytime."
Glad to escape from such stuffy quarters, Private Smith clambered out of his bunk and followed the other on deck. It was a fine clear night, and the schooner was going along under a light breeze; the seaman took the wheel, and, turning to his companion, abruptly inquired what he meant by deserting and worrying them with six foot four of underdone lobster.
"It's all through my girl," said Private Smith meekly; "first she jilted me, and made me join the army; now she's chucked the other fellow, and wrote to me to go back."
"An' now I s'pose the other chap'll take your place in the army," said Joe. "Why, a gal like that could fill a regiment, if she liked. Pah! They'll nab you too, in that uniform, and you'll get six months, and have to finish your time as well."
"It's more than likely," said the soldier gloomily. "I've got to tramp to Manchester in these clothes, as far as I can see."
"What did you give old Dan all your money for?" inquired Joe.
"I was only thinking of getting away at first," said Smith, "and I had to take what was offered."
"Well, I'll do what I can for you," said the seaman. "If you're in love, you ain't responsible for your actions. I remember the first time I got the chuck. I went into a public-house bar, and smashed all the glass and bottles I could get at. I felt as though I must do something. If you were only shorter, I'd lend you some clothes."
"You're a brick," said the soldier gratefully.
"I haven't got any money I could lend you either," said Joe. "I never do have any, somehow. But clothes you must have."
He fell into deep thought, and cocked his eye aloft as though contemplating a cutting-out expedition on the sails, while the soldier, sitting on the side of the ship, waited hopefully for a miracle.
"You'd better get below again," said Joe presently.
"There seems to be somebody moving below; and if the skipper sees you, you're done. He's a regular Tartar, and he's got a brother what's a sergeant-major in the army. He'd give you up d'rectly if he spotted you."
"I'm off," said Smith; and with long, cat-like strides he disappeared swiftly below.
For two days all went well, and Dan was beginning to congratulate himself upon his little venture, when his peace of mind was rudely disturbed. The crew were down below, having their tea, when Billy, who had been to the galley for hot water, came down, white and scared.
"Look here," he said nervously, "I've not had anything to do with this chap being aboard, have I?"
"What's the matter?" inquired Dan quickly.
"It's all found out," said Billy.
"WHAT!" cried the crew simultaneously.
"Leastways, it will be," said the youth, correcting himself. "You'd better chuck him overboard while you've got time. I heard the cap'n tell the mate as he was coming down in the fo'c'sle to-morrow morning to look round. He's going to have it painted."
"This," said Dan, in the midst of a painful pause, "this is what comes of helping a fellow-creature. What's to be done?"
"Tell the skipper the fo'c'sle don't want painting," suggested Billy.
The agonised old seaman, carefully putting down his saucer of tea, cuffed his head spitefully.
"It's a smooth sea," said he, looking at the perturbed countenance of Private Smith, "'an there's a lot of shipping about. If I was a deserter, sooner than be caught, I would slip overboard to-night with a lifebelt and take my chance."
"I wouldn't," said Mr. Smith, with much decision.
"You wouldn't? Not if you was quite near another ship?" cooed Dan.
"Not if I was near fifty blooming ships, all trying to see which could pick me up first," replied Mr. Smith, with some heat.
"Then we shall have to leave you to your fate," said Dan solemnly. "If a man's unreasonable, his best friends can do nothing for him."
"Chuck all his clothes overboard, anyway," said Billy.
"That's a good idea o' the boy's. You leave his ears alone," said Joe, stopping the ready hand of the exasperated Dan. "He's got more sense than any of us. Can you think of anything else, Billy? What shall we do then?"
The eyes of all were turned upon their youthful deliverer, those of Mr. Smith being painfully prominent. It was a proud moment for Billy, and he sat silent for some time, with a look of ineffable wisdom and thought upon his face. At length he spoke.
"Let somebody else have a turn," he said generously.
The voice of the antimacassar worker broke the silence.
"Paint him all over with stripes of different-coloured paint, and let him pretend he's mad, and didn't know how he got here," he said, with an uncontrollable ring of pride at the idea, which was very coldly received, Private Smith being noticeably hard on it.
"I know," said Billy shrilly, clapping his hands. "I've got it, I 've got it. After he's chucked his clothes overboard to-night, let him go overboard too, with a line."
"And tow him the rest o' the way, and chuck biscuits to him, I suppose," snarled Dan.
"No," said the youthful genius scornfully; "pretend he's been upset from a boat, and has been swimming about, and we heard him cry out for help and rescued him."
"It's about the best way out of it," said Joe, after some deliberation; "it's warm weather, and you won't take no harm, mate. Do it in my watch, and I'll pull you out directly."
"Wouldn't it do if you just chucked a bucket of water over me and SAID you'd pulled me out," suggested the victim. "The other thing seems a downright LIE."
"No," said Billy authoritatively, "you've got to look half-drowned, and swallow a lot of water, and your eyes be all bloodshot."
Everybody being eager for the adventure, except Private Smith, the arrangements were at once concluded, and the approach of night impatiently awaited. It was just before midnight when Smith, who had forgotten for the time his troubles in sleep, was shaken into wakefulness.
"Cold water, sir?" said Billy gleefully.
In no mood for frivolity, Private Smith rose and followed the youth on deck. The air struck him as chill as he stood there; but, for all that, it was with a sense of relief that he saw Her Majesty's uniform go over the side and sink into the dark water.
"He don't look much with his padding off, does he?" said Billy, who had been eyeing him critically.
"You go below," said Dan sharply.
"Garn," said Billy indignantly; "I want to see the fun as well as you do. I thought of it."
"Fun?" said the old man severely. "Fun? To see a feller creature suffering, and perhaps drowned--"
"I don't think I had better go," said the victim; "it seems rather underhand."
"Yes, you will," said Joe. "Wind this line round an' round your arm, and just swim about gently till I pull you in."
Sorely against his inclination Private Smith took hold of the line, and, hanging over the side of the schooner, felt the temperature with his foot, and, slowly and tenderly, with many little gasps, committed his body to the deep. Joe paid out the line and waited, letting out more line, when the man in the water, who was getting anxious, started to come in hand over hand.
"That'll do," said Dan at length.
"I think it will," said Joe, and, putting his hand to his mouth, gave a mighty shout. It was answered almost directly by startled roars from the cabin, and the skipper and mate came rushing hastily upon deck, to see the crew, in their sleeping gear, forming an excited group round Joe, and peering eagerly over the side.
"What's the matter?" demanded the skipper.
"Somebody in the water, sir," said Joe, relinquishing the wheel to one of the other seamen, and hauling in the line. "I heard a cry from the water and threw a line, and, by gum, I've hooked it!"
He hauled in, lustily aided by the skipper, until the long white body of Private Smith, blanched with the cold, came bumping against the schooner's side.
"It's a mermaid," said the mate, who was inclined to be superstitious, as he peered doubtfully down at it. "Let it go, Joe."
"Haul it in, boys," said the skipper impatiently; and two of the men clambered over the side and, stooping down, raised it from the water.
In the midst of a puddle, which he brought with him, Private Smith was laid on the deck, and, waving his arms about, fought wildly for his breath.
"Fetch one of them empties," said the skipper quickly, as he pointed to some barrels ranged along the side.
The men rolled one over, and then aided the skipper in placing the long fair form of their visitor across it, and to trundle it lustily up and down the deck, his legs forming convenient handles for the energetic operators.
"He's coming round," said the mate, checking them; "he's speaking. How do you feel, my poor fellow?"
He put his ear down, but the action was unnecessary. Private Smith felt bad, and, in the plainest English he could think of at the moment, said so distinctly.
"He's swearing," said the mate. "He ought to be ashamed of himself."
"Yes," said the skipper austerely; "and him so near death too. How did you get in the water?"
"Went for a--swim," panted Smith surlily.
"SWIM?" echoed the skipper. "Why, we're ten miles from land!"
"His mind's wandering, pore feller," interrupted Joe hurriedly. "What boat did you fall out of, matey?"
"A row-boat," said Smith, trying to roll out of reach of the skipper, who was down on his knees flaying him alive with a roller-towel. "I had to undress in the water to keep afloat. I've lost all my clothes."
"Pore feller," said Dan.
"A gold watch and chain, my purse, and three of the nicest fellers that ever breathed," continued Smith, who was now entering into the spirit of the thing.
"Poor chaps," said the skipper solemnly. "Any of 'em leave any family?"
"Four," said Smith sadly.
"Children?" queried the mate.
"Families," said Smith.
"Look here," said the mate, but the watchful Joe interrupted him.
"His mind's wandering," said he hastily. "He can't count, pore chap. We 'd better git him to bed."
"Ah, do," said the skipper, and, assisted by his friends, the rescued man was half led, half carried below and put between the blankets, where he lay luxuriously sipping a glass of brandy and water, sent from the cabin.
"How'd I do it?" he inquired, with a satisfied air.
"There was no need to tell all them lies about it," said Dan sharply; "instead of one little lie you told half-a-dozen. I don't want nothing more to do with you. You start afresh now, like a new-born babe."
"All right," said Smith shortly; and, being very much fatigued with his exertions, and much refreshed by the brandy, fell into a deep and peaceful sleep.
The morning was well advanced when he awoke, and the fo'c'sle empty except for the faithful Joe, who was standing by his side, with a heap of clothing under his arm.
"Try these on," said he, as Smith stared at him half awake; "they'll be better than nothing, at any rate."
The soldier leaped from his bunk and gratefully proceeded to dress himself, Joe eyeing him critically as the trousers climbed up his long legs, and the sleeves of the jacket did their best to conceal his elbows.
"What do I look like?" he inquired anxiously, as he finished.
"Six foot an' a half o' misery," piped the shrill voice of Billy promptly, as he thrust his head in at the fo'c'sle. "You can't go to church in those clothes."
"Well, they'll do for the ship, but you can't go ashore in 'em," said Joe, as he edged towards the ladder, and suddenly sprang up a step or two to let fly at the boy, "The old man wants to see you; be careful what you say to him."
With a very unsuccessful attempt to appear unconscious of the figure he cut, Smith went up on deck for the interview.
"We can't do anything until we get to London," said the skipper, as he made copious notes of Smith's adventures. "As soon as we get there, I'll lend you the money to telegraph to your friends to tell 'em you're safe and to send you some clothes, and of course you'll have free board and lodging till it comes, and I'll write out an account of it for the newspapers."
"You're very good," said Smith blankly.
"And I don't know what you are," said the skipper, interrogatively; "but you ought to go in for swimming as a profession--six hours' swimming about like that is wonderful."
"You don't know what you can do till you have to," said Smith modestly, as he backed slowly away; "but I never want to see the water again as long as I live."
The two remaining days of their passage passed all too quickly for the men, who were casting about for some way out of the difficulty which they foresaw would arise when they reached London.
"If you'd only got decent clothes," said Joe, as they passed Gravesend, "you could go off and send a telegram, and not come back; but you couldn't go five yards in them things without having a crowd after you."
"I shall have to be taken I s'pose," said Smith moodily.
"An' poor old Dan'll get six months hard for helping you off," said Joe sympathetically, as a bright idea occurred to him.
"Rubbish!" said Dan uneasily. "He can stick to his tale of being upset; anyway, the skipper saw him pulled out of the water. He's too honest a chap to get an old man into trouble for trying to help him."
"He must have a new rig out, Dan," said Joe softly. "You an' me'll go an' buy 'em. I'll do the choosing, and you'll do the paying. Why, it'll be a reg'lar treat for you to lay out a little money, Dan. We'll have quite an evening's shopping, everything of the best."
The infuriated Dan gasped for breath, and looked helplessly at the grinning crew.
"I'll see him--overboard first," he said furiously.
"Please yourself," said Joe shortly, "If he's caught you'll get six months. As it is, you've got a chance of doing a nice, kind little Christian act, becos, o' course, that twenty-five bob you got out of him won't anything like pay for his toggery."
Almost beside himself with indignation, the old man moved off, and said not another word until they were made fast to the wharf at Limehouse. He did not even break silence when Joe, taking him affectionately by the arm, led him aft to the skipper.
"Me an' Dan, sir," said Joe very respectfully, "would like to go ashore for a little shopping. Dan has very kindly offered to lend that pore chap the money for some clothes, and he wants me to go with him to help carry them."
"Ay, ay," said the skipper, with a benevolent smile at the aged philanthropist. "You'd better go at once, afore the shops shut."
"We'll run, sir," said Joe, and taking Dan by the arm, dragged him into the street at a trot.
Nearly a couple of hours passed before they returned, and no child watched with greater eagerness the opening of a birthday present than Smith watched the undoing of the numerous parcels with which they were laden.
"He's a reg'lar fairy godmother, ain't he?" said Joe, as Smith joyously dressed himself in a very presentable tweed suit, serviceable boots, and a bowler hat. "We had a dreadful job to get a suit big enough, an' the only one we could get was rather more money than we wanted to give, wasn't it, Dan?"
The fairy godmother strove manfully with his feelings.
"You'll do now," said Joe. "I ain't got much, but what I have you're welcome to." He put his hand into his pocket and pulled out some loose coin. "What have you got, mates?"
With decent good will the other men turned out their pockets, and, adding to the store, heartily pressed it upon the reluctant Smith, who, after shaking hands gratefully, followed Joe on deck.
"You've got enough to pay your fare," said the latter; "an' I've told the skipper you are going ashore to send off telegrams. If you send the money back to Dan, I'll never forgive you."
"I won't, then," said Smith firmly; "but I'll send theirs back to the other chaps. Good-bye."
Joe shook him by the hand again, and bade him go while the coast was clear, advice which Smith hastened to follow, though he turned and looked back to wave his hand to the crew, who had come up on deck silently to see him off; all but the philanthropist, who was down below with a stump of lead-pencil and a piece of paper doing sums.