Matilda stood at the open door of a house attached to a wharf situated in that dreary district which bears the high-sounding name of "St. Katharine's."
Work was over for the day. A couple of unhorsed vans were pushed up the gangway by the side of the house, and the big gate was closed. The untidy office which occupied the ground-floor was deserted, except for a grey-bearded "housemaid" of sixty, who was sweeping it through with a broom, and indulging in a few sailorly oaths at the choking qualities of the dust he was raising.
The sound of advancing footsteps stopped at the gate, a small flap-door let in it flew open, and Matilda Bunker's open countenance took a pinkish hue, as a small man in jersey and blue coat, with a hard round hat exceeding high in the crown, stepped inside.
"Good evening, Mrs. Bunker, ma'am," said he, coming slowly up to her.
"Good evening, captain," said the lady, who was Mrs. only by virtue of her age and presence.
"Fresh breeze," said the man in the high round hat. "If this lasts we'll be in Ipswich in no time."
Mrs. Bunker assented.
"Beautiful the river is at present," continued the captain. "Everything growing splendid."
"In the river?" asked the mystified Mrs. Bunker.
"On the banks," said the captain; "the trees, by Sheppey, and all round there. Now, why don't you say the word, and come? There's a cabin like a new pin ready for you to sit in--for cleanness, I mean--and every accommodation you could require. Sleep like a humming-top you will, if you come."
"Humming-top?" queried Mrs. Bunker archly.
"Any top," said the captain. "Come, make up your mind. We shan't sail afore nine."
"It don't look right," said the lady, who was sorely tempted. "But the missus says I may go if I like, so I'll just go and get my box ready. I'll be down on the jetty at nine."
"Ay, ay," said the skipper, smiling, "me and Bill'll just have a snooze till then. So long."
"So long," said Matilda.
"So long," repeated the amorous skipper, and turning round to bestow another ardent glance upon the fair one at the door, crashed into the waggon.
The neighbouring clocks were just striking nine in a sort of yelping chorus to the heavy boom of Big Ben, which came floating down the river, as Mrs. Bunker and the night watchman, staggering under a load of luggage, slowly made their way on to the jetty. The barge, for such was the craft in question, was almost level with the planks, while the figures of two men darted to and fro in all the bustle of getting under way.
"Bill," said the watchman, addressing the mate, "bear a hand with this box, and be careful, it's got the wedding clothes inside."
The watchman was so particularly pleased with this little joke that in place of giving the box to Bill he put it down and sat on it, shaking convulsively with his hand over his mouth, while the blushing Matilda and the discomfited captain strove in vain to appear unconcerned.
The packages were rather a tight squeeze for the cabin, but they managed to get them in, and the skipper, with a threatening look at his mate, who was exchanging glances of exquisite humour with the watchman, gave his hand to Mrs. Bunker and helped her aboard.
"Welcome on the Sir Edmund Lyons, Mrs. Bunker," said he. "Bill, kick that dawg back."
"Stop!" said Mrs. Bunker hastily, "that's my chapperong."
"Your what?" said the skipper. "It's a dawg, Mrs. Bunker, an' I won't have no dawgs aboard my craft."
"Bill," said Mrs. Bunker, "fetch my box up again."
"Leastways," the captain hastened to add, "unless it's any friend of yours, Mrs. Bunker."
"It's chaperoning me," said Matilda; "it wouldn't be proper for a lady to go a v'y'ge with two men without somebody to look after her."
"That's right, Sam," said the watchman sententiously. "You ought to know that at your age."
"Why, we're looking after her," said the simple-minded captain. "Me an' Bill."
"Take care Bill don't cut you out," said the watchman in a hoarse whisper, distinctly audible to all. "He's younger nor what you are, Sam, an' the wimmen are just crazy arter young men. 'Sides which, he's a finer man altogether. An' you've had ONE wife a'ready, Sam."
"Cast off!" said the skipper impatiently. "Cast off! Stand by there, Bill!"
"Ay, ay!" said Bill, seizing a boat-hook, and the lines fell into the water with a splash as the barge was pushed out into the tide.
Mrs. Bunker experienced the usual trouble of landsmen aboard ship, and felt herself terribly in the way as the skipper divided his attentions between the tiller and helping Bill with the sail. Meantime the barge had bothered most of the traffic by laying across the river, and when the sail was hoisted had got under the lee of a huge warehouse and scarcely moved.
"We'll feel the breeze directly," said Captain Codd. "Then you'll see what she can do."
As he spoke, the barge began to slip through the water as a light breeze took her huge sail and carried her into the stream, where she fell into line with other craft who were just making a start.
At a pleasant pace, with wind and tide, the Sir Edmund Lyons proceeded on its way, her skipper cocking his eye aloft and along her decks to point out various beauties to his passenger which she might otherwise have overlooked. A comfortable supper was spread on the deck, and Mrs. Bunker began to think regretfully of the pleasure she had missed in taking up barge-sailing so late in life.
Greenwich, with its white-fronted hospital and background of trees, was passed. The air got sensibly cooler, and to Mrs. Bunker it seemed that the water was not only getting darker, but also lumpy, and she asked two or three times whether there was any danger.
The skipper laughed gaily, and diving down into the cabin fetched up a shawl, which he placed carefully round his fair companion's shoulders. His right hand grasped the tiller, his left stole softly and carefully round her waist.
"How enjoyable!" said Mrs. Bunker, referring to the evening.
"Glad you like it," said the skipper, who wasn't. "Oh, how pleasant to go sailing down the river of life like this, everything quiet and peaceful, just driftin'"--
"Ahoy!" yelled the mate suddenly from the bows. "Who's steering? Starbud your hellum."
The skipper started guiltily, and put his helm to starboard as another barge came up suddenly from the opposite direction and almost grazed them. There were two men on board, and the skipper blushed for their fluency as reflecting upon the order in general.
It was some little time before they could settle down again after this, but ultimately they got back in their old position, and the infatuated Codd was just about to wax sentimental again, when he felt something behind him. He turned with a start as a portly retriever inserted his head under his left arm, and slowly but vigorously forced himself between them; then he sat on his haunches and panted, while the disconcerted Codd strove to realise the humour of the position.
"I think I shall go to bed now," said Mrs. Bunker, after the position had lasted long enough to be unendurable. "If anything happens, a collision or anything, don't be afraid to let me know."
The skipper promised, and, shaking hands, bade his passenger good-night. She descended, somewhat clumsily, it is true, into the little cabin, and the skipper, sitting by the helm, which he lazily manoeuvred as required, smoked his short clay and fell into a lover's reverie.
So he sat and smoked until the barge, which had, by the help of the breeze, been making its way against the tide, began to realise that that good friend had almost dropped, and at the same time bethought itself of a small anchor which hung over the bows ready for emergencies such as these.
"We must bring up, Bill," said the skipper.
"Ay, ay!" said Bill, sleepily raising himself from the hatchway. "Over she goes."
With no more ceremony than this he dropped the anchor; the sail, with two strong men hauling on to it, creaked and rustled its way close to the mast, and the Sir Edmund Lyons was ready for sleep.
"I can do with a nap," said Bill. "I'm dog-tired."
"So am I," said the other. "It'll be a tight fit down for'ard, but we couldn't ask a lady to sleep there."
Bill gave a non-committal grunt, and as the captain, after the manner of his kind, took a last look round before retiring, placed his hands on the hatch and lowered himself down. The next moment he came up with a wild yell, and, sitting on the deck, rolled up his trousers and fondled his leg.
"What's the matter?" inquired the skipper.
"That blessed dog's down there, that's all," said the injured Bill. "He's evidently mistook it for his kennel, and I don't wonder at it. I thought he'd been wonderful quiet."
"We must talk him over," said the skipper, advancing to the hatchway. "Poor dog! Poor old chap! Come along, then! Come along!" He patted his leg and whistled, and the dog, which wanted to get to sleep again, growled like a small thunderstorm.
"Come on, old fellow!" said the skipper enticingly. "Come along, come on, then!"
The dog came at last, and then the skipper, instead of staying to pat him, raced Bill up the ropes, while the brute, in execrable taste, paced up and down the deck daring them to come down. Coming to the conclusion, at last, that they were settled for the night, he returned to the forecastle and, after a warning bark or two, turned in again. Both men, after waiting a few minutes, cautiously regained the deck.
"You call him up again," said Bill, seizing a boat-hook, and holding it at the charge.
"Certainly not," said the other. "I won't have no blood spilt aboard my ship."
"Who's going to spill blood?" asked the Jesuitical Bill; "but if he likes to run hisself on to the boat-hook "--
"Put it down," said the skipper sternly, and Bill sullenly obeyed.
"We'll have to snooze on deck," said Codd.
"And mind we don't snore," said the sarcastic Bill, "'cos the dog mightn't like it."
Without noticing this remark the captain stretched himself on the hatches, and Bill, after a few more grumbles, followed his example, and both men were soon asleep.
Day was breaking when they awoke and stretched their stiffened limbs, for the air was fresh, with a suspicion of moisture in it. Two or three small craft were, like them selves, riding at anchor, their decks wet and deserted; others were getting under way to take advantage of the tide, which had just turned.
"Up with the anchor," said the skipper, seizing a handspike and thrusting it into the windlass.
As the rusty chain came in, an ominous growling came from below, and Bill snatched his handspike out and raised it aloft. The skipper gazed meditatively at the shore, and the dog, as it came bounding up, gazed meditatively at the handspike. Then it yawned, an easy, unconcerned yawn, and commenced to pace the deck, and coming to the conclusion that the men were only engaged in necessary work, regarded their efforts with a lenient eye, and barked encouragingly as they hoisted the sail.
It was a beautiful morning. The miniature river waves broke against the blunt bows of the barge, and passed by her sides rippling musically. Over the flat Essex marshes a white mist was slowly dispersing before the rays of the sun, and the trees on the Kentish hills were black and drenched with moisture.
A little later smoke issued from the tiny cowl over the fo'c'sle and rolled in a little pungent cloud to the Kentish shore. Then a delicious odour of frying steak rose from below, and fell like healing balm upon the susceptible nostrils of the skipper as he stood at the helm.
"Is Mrs. Bunker getting up?" inquired the mate, as he emerged from the fo'c'sle and walked aft.
"I believe so," said the skipper. "There's movements below."
"'Cos the steak's ready and waiting," said the mate. "I've put it on a dish in front of the fire."
"Ay, ay!" said the skipper.
The mate lit his pipe and sat down on the hatchway, slowly smoking. He removed it a couple of minutes later, to stare in bewilderment at the unwonted behaviour of the dog, which came up to the captain and affectionately licked his hands.
"He's took quite a fancy to me," said the delighted man.
"Love me love my dog," quoted Bill waggishly, as he strolled forward again.
The skipper was fondly punching the dog, which was now on its back with its four legs in the air, when he heard a terrible cry from the fo'c'sle, and the mate came rushing wildly on deck.
"Where's that -------- dog?" he cried.
"Don't you talk like that aboard my ship. Where's your manners?" cried the skipper hotly.
"---- the manners!" said the mate, with tears in his eyes. "Where's that dog's manners? He's eaten all that steak."
Before the other could reply, the scuttle over the cabin was drawn, and the radiant face of Mrs. Bunker appeared at the opening.
"I can smell breakfast," she said archly.
"No wonder, with that dog so close," said Bill grimly. Mrs. Bunker looked at the captain for an explanation.
"He's ate it," said that gentleman briefly. "A pound and a 'arf o' the best rump steak in Wapping."
"Never mind," said Mrs. Bunker sweetly, "cook some more. I can wait."
"Cook some more," said the skipper to the mate, who still lingered.
"I'll cook some bloaters. That's all we've got now," replied the mate sulkily.
"It's a lovely morning," said Mrs. Bunker, as the mate retired, "the air is so fresh. I expect that's what has made Rover so hungry. He isn't a greedy dog. Not at all."
"Very likely," said Codd, as the dog rose, and, after sniffing the air, gently wagged his tail and trotted forward. "Where' she off to now?"
"He can smell the bloaters, I expect," said Mrs. Bunker, laughing. "It's wonderful what intelligence he's got. Come here, Rover!"
"Bill!" cried the skipper warningly, as the dog continued on his way. "Look out! He's coming!"
"Call him off!" yelled the mate anxiously. "Call him off!"
Mrs. Bunker ran up, and, seizing her chaperon by the collar, hauled him away.
"It's the sea air," said she apologetically; "and he's been on short commons lately, because he's not been well. Keep still, Rover!"
"Keep still, Rover!" said the skipper, with an air of command.
Under this joint control the dog sat down, his tongue lolling out, and his eyes fixed on the fo'c'sle until the breakfast was spread. The appearance of the mate with a dish of steaming fish excited him again, and being chidden by his mistress, he sat down sulkily in the skipper's plate, until pushed off by its indignant owner.
"Soft roe, Bill?" inquired the skipper courteously, after he had served his passenger.
"That's not my plate," said the mate pointedly, as the skipper helped him.
"Oh! I wasn't noticing," said the other, reddening.
"I was, though," said the mate rudely. "I thought you'd do that. I was waiting for it. I'm not going to eat after animals, if you are."
The skipper coughed, and, after effecting the desired exchange, proceeded with his breakfast in sombre silence.
The barge was slipping at an easy pace through the water, the sun was bright, and the air cool, and everything pleasant and comfortable, until the chaperon, who had been repeatedly pushed away, broke through the charmed circle which surrounded the food and seized a fish. In the confusion which ensued he fell foul of the tea-kettle, and, dropping his prey, bit the skipper frantically, until driven off by his mistress.
"Naughty boy!" said she, giving him a few slight cuffs. "Has he hurt you? I must get a bandage for you."
"A little," said Codd, looking at his hand, which was bleeding profusely. "There's a little linen in the locker down below, if you wouldn't mind tearing it up for me."
Mrs. Bunker, giving the dog a final slap, went below, and the two men looked at each other and then at the dog, which was standing at the stern, barking insultingly at a passing steamer.
"It's about time she came over," said the mate, throwing a glance at the sail, then at the skipper, then at the dog.
"So it is," said the skipper, through his set teeth.
As he spoke he pushed the long tiller hastily from port to starboard, and the dog finished his bark in the water; the huge sail reeled for a moment, then swung violently over to the other side, and the barge was on a fresh tack, with the dog twenty yards astern. He was wise in his generation, and after one look at the barge, made for the distant shore.
"Murderers!" screamed a voice; "murderers! you've killed my dog."
"It was an accident; I didn't see him," stammered the skipper.
"Don't tell me," stormed the lady; "I saw it all through the skylight."
"We had to shift the helm to get out of the way of a schooner," said Codd.
"Where's the schooner?" demanded Mrs. Bunker; "where is it?"
The captain looked at the mate. "Where's the schooner?" said he.
"I b'leeve," said the mate, losing his head entirely at this question, "I b'leeve we must have run her down. I don't see her nowhere about."
Mrs. Bunker stamped her foot, and, with a terrible glance at the men, descended to the cabin. From this coign of vantage she obstinately refused to budge, and sat in angry seclusion until the vessel reached Ipswich late in the evening. Then she appeared on deck, dressed for walking, and, utterly ignoring the woebegone Codd, stepped ashore, and, obtaining a cab for her boxes, drove silently away.
An hour afterwards the mate went to his home, leaving the captain sitting on the lonely deck striving to realise the bitter fact that, so far as the end he had in view was concerned, he had seen the last of Mrs. Bunker and the small but happy home in which he had hoped to install her.