The schooner Falcon was ready for sea. The last bale of general cargo had just been shipped, and a few hairy, unkempt seamen were busy putting on the hatches under the able profanity of the mate.
"All clear?" inquired the master, a short, ruddy-faced man of about thirty-five. "Cast off there!"
"Ain't you going to wait for the passengers, then?" inquired the mate.
"No, no," replied the skipper, whose features were working with excitement. "They won't come now, I'm sure they won't. We'll lose the tide if we don't look sharp."
He turned aside to give an order just as a buxom young woman, accompanied by a loutish boy, a band-box, and several other bundles, came hurrying on to the jetty.
"Well, here we are, Cap'n Evans," said the girl, springing lightly on to the deck. "I thought we should never get here; the cabman didn't seem to know the way; but I knew you wouldn't go without us,"
"Here you are," said the skipper, with attempted cheerfulness, as he gave the girl his right hand, while his left strayed vaguely in the direction of the boy's ear, which was coldly withheld from him. "Go down below, and the mate'll show you your cabin. Bill, this is Miss Cooper, a lady friend o' mine, and her brother."
The mate, acknowledging the introduction, led the way to the cabin, where they remained so long that by the time they came on deck again the schooner was off Limehouse, slipping along well under a light wind.
"How do you like the state-room?" inquired the skipper, who was at the wheel.
"Pretty fair," replied Miss Cooper. "It's a big name for it though, ain't it? Oh, what a large ship!"
She ran to the side to gaze at a big liner, and as far as Gravesend besieged the skipper and mate with questions concerning the various craft. At the mate's suggestion they had tea on deck, at which meal William Henry Cooper became a source of much discomfort to his host by his remarkable discoveries anent the fauna of lettuce. Despite his efforts, however, and the cloud under which Evans seemed to be labouring, the meal was voted a big success; and after it was over they sat laughing and chatting until the air got chilly, and the banks of the river were lost in the gathering darkness. At ten o'clock they retired for the night, leaving Evans and the mate on deck.
"Nice gal, that," said the mate, looking at the skipper, who was leaning moodily on the wheel.
"Ay, ay," replied he. "Bill," he continued, turning suddenly towards the mate. "I'm in a deuce of a mess. You've got a good square head on your shoulders. Now, what on earth am I to do? Of course you can see how the land lays?"
"Of course," said the mate, who was not going to lose his reputation by any display of ignorance. "Anyone could see it," he added.
"The question is what's to be done?" said the skipper.
"That's the question," said the mate guardedly.
"I feel that worried," said Evans, "that I've actually thought of getting into collision, or running the ship ashore. Fancy them two women meeting at Llandalock."
Such a sudden light broke in upon the square head of the mate, that he nearly whistled with the brightness of it.
"But you ain't engaged to this one?" he cried.
"We're to be married in August," said the skipper desperately. "That's my ring on her finger."
"But you're going to marry Mary Jones in September," expostulated the mate. "You can't marry both of 'em."
"That's what I say," replied Evans; "that's what I keep telling myself, but it don't seem to bring much comfort. I'm too soft-'earted where wimmen is concerned, Bill, an' that's the truth of it. D'reckly I get alongside of a nice gal my arm goes creeping round her before I know what it's doing."
"What on earth made you bring the girl on the ship?" inquired the mate. "The other one's sure to be on the quay to meet you as usual."
"I couldn't help it," groaned the skipper; "she would come; she can be very determined when she likes. She's awful gone on me, Bill."
"So's the other one apparently," said the mate.
"I can't think what it is the gals see in me," said the other mournfully. "Can you?"
"No, I'm blamed if I can," replied the mate frankly.
"I don't take no credit for it, Bill," said the skipper, "not a bit. My father was like it before me. The worry's killing me."
"Well, which are you going to have?" inquired the mate. "Which do you like the best?"
"I don't know, an' that's a fact," said the skipper. "They 've both got money coming to 'em; when I'm in Wales I like Mary Jones best, and when I'm in London it's Janey Cooper. It's dreadful to be like that, Bill."
"It is," said the mate drily. "I wouldn't be in your shoes when those two gals meet for a fortune. Then you'll have old Jones and her brothers to tackle, too. Seems to me things'll be a bit lively."
"I hev thought of being took sick, and staying in my bunk, Bill," suggested Evans anxiously.
"An' having the two of 'em to nurse you," retorted Bill. "Nice quiet time for an invalid."
Evans made a gesture of despair.
"How would it be," said the mate, after a long pause, and speaking very slowly; "how would it be if I took this one off your hands."
"You couldn't do it, Bill," said the skipper decidedly. "Not while she knew I was above ground." "Well, I can try," returned the mate shortly. "I've took rather a fancy to the girl. Is it a bargain?"
"It is," said the skipper, shaking hands upon it. "If you git me out of this hole, Bill, I'll remember it the longest day I live."
With these words he went below, and, after cautiously undoing W. H. Cooper, who had slept himself into a knot that a professional contortionist would have envied, tumbled in beside him and went to sleep.
His heart almost failed him when he encountered the radiant Jane at breakfast in the morning, but he concealed his feelings by a strong effort; and after the meal was finished, and the passengers had gone on deck, he laid hold of the mate, who was following, and drew him into the cabin.
"You haven't washed yourself this morning," he said, eyeing him closely. "How do you s'pose you are going to make an impression if you don't look smart?"
"Well, I look tidier than you do," growled the mate.
"Of course you do," said the wily Evans. "I'm going to give you all the chances I can. Now you go and shave yourself, and here--take it."
He passed the surprised mate a brilliant red silk tie, embellished with green spots.
"No, no," said the mate deprecatingly.
"Take it," repeated Evans; "if anything'll fetch her it'll be that tie; and here's a couple of collars for you; they're a new shape, quite the rage down Poplar way just now."
"It's robbing you," said the mate, "and it's no good either. I ain't got a decent suit of clothes to my back."
Evans looked up, and their eyes met; then, with a catch in his breath, he turned away, and after some hesitation went to his locker, and bringing out a new suit, bought for the edification of Miss Jones, handed it silently to the mate.
"I can't take all these things without giving you something for 'em," said the mate. "Here, wait a bit."
He dived into his cabin, and, after a hasty search, brought out some garments which he placed on the table before his commander.
"I wouldn't wear 'em, no, not to drown myself in," declared Evans after a brief glance; "they ain't even decent."
"So much the better," said the mate; "it'll be more of a contrast with me."
After a slight contest the skipper gave way, and the mate, after an elaborate toilette, went on deck and began to make himself agreeable, while his chief skulked below trying to muster up courage to put in an appearance.
"Where's the captain?" inquired Miss Cooper, after his absence had been so prolonged as to become noticeable.
"He's below, dressin', I b'leeve," replied the mate simply.
Miss Cooper, glancing at his attire, smiled softly to herself, and prepared for something startling, and she got it; for a more forlorn, sulky-looking object than the skipper, when he did appear, had never been seen on the deck of the Falcon, and his London betrothed glanced at him hot with shame and indignation.
"Whatever have you got those things on for?" she whispered.
"Work, my dear--work," replied the skipper.
"Well, mind you don't lose any of the pieces," said the dear suavely; "you mightn't be able to match that cloth."
"I'll look after that," said the skipper, reddening. "You must excuse me talkin' to you now. I'm busy."
Miss Cooper looked at him indignantly, and, biting her lip, turned away, and started a desperate flirtation with the mate, to punish him. Evans watched them with mingled feelings as he busied himself with various small jobs on the deck, his wrath being raised to boiling point by the behaviour of the cook, who, being a poor hand at disguising his feelings, came out of the galley several times to look at him.
From this incident a coolness sprang up between the skipper and the girl, which increased hourly. At times the skipper weakened, but the watchful mate was always on hand to prevent mischief. Owing to his fostering care Evans was generally busy, and always gruff; and Miss Cooper, who was used to the most assiduous attentions from him, knew not whether to be most bewildered or most indignant. Four times in one day did he remark in her hearing that a sailor's ship was his sweetheart, while his treatment of his small prospective brother in-law, when he expostulated with him on the state of his wardrobe, filled that hitherto pampered youth with amazement. At last, on the fourth night out, as the little schooner was passing the coast of Cornwall, the mate came up to him as he was steering, and patted him heavily on the back.
"It's all right, cap'n," said he. "You've lost the prettiest little girl in England."
"What?" said the skipper, in incredulous tones.
"Fact," replied the other. "Here's your ring back. I wouldn't let her wear it any longer."
"However did you do it?" inquired Evans, taking the ring in a dazed fashion.
"Oh, easy as possible," said the mate. "She liked me best, that's all."
"But what did you say to her?" persisted Evans.
The other reflected.
"I can't call to mind exactly," he said at length. "But, you may rely upon it, I said everything I could against you. But she never did care much for you. She told me so herself."
"I wish you joy of your bargain," said Evans solemnly, after a long pause.
"What do you mean?" demanded the mate sharply.
"A girl like that," said the skipper, with a lump in his throat, "who can carry on with two men at once ain't worth having. She's not my money, that's all."
The mate looked at him in honest bewilderment.
"Mark my words," continued the skipper loftily, "you'll live to regret it. A girl like that's got no ballast. She'll always be running after fresh neckties."
"You put it down to the necktie, do you?" sneered the mate wrathfully.
"That and the clothes, cert'nly," replied the skipper.
"Well, you're wrong," said the mate. "A lot you know about girls. It wasn't your old clothes, and it wasn't all your bad behaviour to her since she's been aboard. You may as well know first as last. She wouldn't have nothing to do with me at first, so I told her all about Mary Jones."
"You told her THAT?" cried the skipper fiercely.
"I did," replied the other. "She was pretty wild at first; but then the comic side of it struck her--you wearing them old clothes, and going about as you did. She used to watch you until she couldn't stand it any longer, and then go down in the cabin and laugh. Wonderful spirits that girl's got. Hush! Here she is!"
As he spoke the girl came on deck, and, seeing the two men talking together, remained at a short distance from them.
"It's all right, Jane," said the mate; "I've told him."
"Oh!" said Miss Cooper, with a little gasp.
"I can't bear deceit," said the mate; "and now it's off his mind, he's so happy he can't bear himself."
The latter part of this assertion seemed to be more warranted by facts than the former, but Evans made a choking noise, which he intended as a sign of unbearable joy, and, relinquishing the wheel to the mate, walked forward. The clear sky was thick with stars, and a mind at ease might have found enjoyment in the quiet beauty of the night, but the skipper was too interested in the behaviour of the young couple at the wheel to give it a thought. Immersed in each other, they forgot him entirely, and exchanged little playful slaps and pushes, which incensed him beyond description. Several times he was on the point of exercising his position as commander and ordering the mate below, but in the circumstances interference was impossible, and, with a low-voiced good- night, he went below. Here his gaze fell on William Henry, who was slumbering peacefully, and, with a hazy idea of the eternal fitness of things, he raised the youth in his arms, and, despite his sleepy protests, deposited him in the mate's bunk. Then, with head and heart both aching, he retired for the night.
There was a little embarrassment next day, but it soon passed off, and the three adult inmates of the cabin got on quite easy terms with each other. The most worried person aft was the boy, who had not been taken into their confidence, and whose face, when his sister sat with the mate's arm around her waist, presented to the skipper a perfect study in emotions.
"I feel quite curious to see this Miss Jones," said Miss Cooper amiably, as they sat at dinner.
"She'll be on the quay, waving her handkerchief to him," said the mate. "We'll be in to-morrow afternoon, and then you'll see her."
As it happened, the mate was a few hours out in his reckoning, for by the time the Falcon's bows were laid for the small harbour it was quite dark, and the little schooner glided in, guided by the two lights which marked the entrance. The quay, seen in the light of a few scattered lamps, looked dreary enough, and, except for two or three indistinct figures, appeared to be deserted. Beyond, the broken lights of the town stood out more clearly as the schooner crept slowly over the dark water towards her berth.
"Fine night, cap'n," said the watchman, as the schooner came gently alongside the quay.
The skipper grunted assent. He was peering anxiously at the quay.
"It's too late," said the mate. "You couldn't expect her this time o'night. It's ten o'clock."
"I'll go over in the morning," said Evans, who, now that things had been adjusted, was secretly disappointed that Miss Cooper had not witnessed the meeting. "If you're not going ashore, we might have a hand o' cards as soon's we're made fast."
The mate assenting, they went below, and were soon deep in the mysteries of three-hand cribbage. Evans, who was a good player, surpassed himself, and had just won the first game, the others being nowhere, when a head was thrust down the companion-way, and a voice like a strained foghorn called the captain by name.
"Ay, ay!" yelled Evans, laying down his hand.
"I'll come down, cap'n," said the voice, and the mate just had time to whisper "Old Jones" to Miss Cooper, when a man of mighty bulk filled up the doorway of the little cabin, and extended a huge paw to Evans and the mate. He then looked at the lady, and, breathing hard, waited.
"Young lady o' the mate's," said Evans breathlessly,--"Miss Cooper. Sit down, cap'n. Get the gin out, Bill."
"Not for me," said Captain Jones firmly, but with an obvious effort.
The surprise of Evans and the mate admitted of no concealment; but it passed unnoticed by their visitor, who, fidgeting in his seat, appeared to be labouring with some mysterious problem. After a long pause, during which all watched him anxiously, he reached over the table and shook hands with Evans again.
"Put it there, cap'n," said Evans, much affected by this token of esteem.
The old man rose and stood looking at him, with his hand on his shoulder; he then shook hands for the third time, and patted him encouragingly on the back.
"Is anything the matter?" demanded the skipper of the Falcon as he rose to his feet, alarmed by these manifestations of feeling." Is Mary--is she ill?"
"Worse than that," said the other--"worse'n that, my poor boy; she's married a lobster!"
The effect of this communication upon Evans was tremendous; but it may be doubted whether he was more surprised than Miss Cooper, who, utterly unversed in military terms, strove in vain to realize the possibility of such a mesalliance, as she gazed wildly at the speaker and squeaked with astonishment.
"When was it?" asked Evans at last, in a dull voice.
"Thursday fortnight, at ha' past eleven," said the old man. "He's a sergeant in the line. I would have written to you, but I thought it was best to come and break it to you gently. Cheer up, my boy; there's more than one Mary Jones in the world."
With this undeniable fact, Captain Jones waved a farewell to the party and went off, leaving them to digest his news. For some time they sat still, the mate and Miss Cooper exchanging whispers, until at length, the stillness becoming oppressive, they withdrew to their respective berths, leaving the skipper sitting at the table, gazing hard at a knot in the opposite locker.
For long after their departure he sat thus, amid a deep silence, broken only by an occasional giggle from the stateroom, or an idiotic sniggering from the direction of the mate's bunk, until, recalled to mundane affairs by the lamp burning itself out, he went, in befitting gloom, to bed.