It was a momentous occasion. The two skippers sat in the private bar of the "Old Ship," in High Street, Wapping, solemnly sipping cold gin and smoking cigars, whose sole merit consisted in the fact that they had been smuggled. It is well known all along the waterside that this greatly improves their flavour.
"Draw all right?" queried Captain Berrow?-a short, fat man of few ideas, who was the exulting owner of a bundle of them.
"Beautiful," replied Captain Tucker, who had just made an excursion into the interior of his with the small blade of his penknife. "Why don't you keep smokes like these, landlord?"
"He can't," chuckled Captain Berrow fatuously. "They're not to be 'ad-- money couldn't buy 'em."
The landlord grunted. "Why don't you settle about that race o' yours an' ha' done with it," he cried, as he wiped down his counter. "Seems to me, Cap'n Tucker's hanging fire."
"I'm ready when he is," said Tucker, somewhat shortly.
"It's taking your money," said Berrow slowly; "the Thistle can't hold a candle to the Good Intent, and you know it. Many a time that little schooner o' mine has kept up with a steamer."
"Wher'd you ha' been if the tow rope had parted, though?" said the master of the Thistle, with a wink at the landlord.
At this remark Captain Berrow took fire, and, with his temper rapidly rising to fever heat, wrathfully repelled the scurvy insinuation in language which compelled the respectful attention of all the other customers and the hasty intervention of the landlord.
"Put up the stakes," he cried impatiently. "Put up the stakes, and don't have so much jaw about it."
"Here's mine," said Berrow, sturdily handing over a greasy fiver. "Now, Cap'n Tucker, cover that."
"Come on," said the landlord encouragingly; "don't let him take the wind out of your sails like that."
Tucker handed over five sovereigns.
"High water's at 12.13," said the landlord, pocketing the stakes. "You understand the conditions?-each of you does the best he can for hisself after eleven, an' the one what gets to Poole first has the ten quid. Understand?"
Both gamblers breathed hard, and, fully realising the desperate nature of the enterprise upon which they had embarked, ordered some more gin. A rivalry of long standing as to the merits of their respective schooners had led to them calling in the landlord to arbitrate, and this was the result. Berrow, vaguely feeling that it would be advisable to keep on good terms with the stakeholder, offered him one of the famous cigars. The stakeholder, anxious to keep on good terms with his stomach, declined it.
"You've both got your moorings up, I s'pose?" he inquired.
"Got 'em up this evening," replied Tucker. "We're just made fast one on each side of the Dolphin now."
"The wind's light, but it's from the right quarter," said Captain Berrow, "an' I only hope as 'ow the best ship'll win. I'd like to win myself, but, if not, I can only say as there's no man breathing I'd sooner have lick me than Cap'n Tucker. He's as smart a seaman as ever comes into the London river, an' he's got a schooner angels would be proud of."
"Glasses o' gin round," said Tucker promptly. "Cap'n Berrow, here's your very good health, an' a fair field an' no favour."
With these praiseworthy sentiments the master of the Thistle finished his liquor, and, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, nodded farewell to the twain and departed. Once in the High Street he walked slowly, as one in deep thought, then, with a sudden resolution, turned up Nightingale Lane, and made for a small, unsavoury thoroughfare leading out of Ratcliff Highway. A quarter of an hour later he emerged into that famous thoroughfare again, smiling incoherently, and, retracing his steps to the waterside, jumped into a boat, and was pulled off to his ship.
"Comes off to-night, Joe," said he, as he descended to the cabin, "an' it's arf a quid to you if the old gal wins."
"What's the bet?" inquired the mate, looking up from his task of shredding tobacco.
"Five quid," replied the skipper.
"Well, we ought to do it," said the mate slowly; "'t wont be my fault if we don't."
"Mine neither," said the skipper. "As a matter o' fact, Joe, I reckon I've about made sure of it. All's fair in love and war and racing, Joe."
"Ay, ay," said the mate, more slowly than before, as he revolved this addition to the proverb.
"I just nipped round and saw a chap I used to know named Dibbs," said the skipper. "Keeps a boarding-house for sailors. Wonderful sharp little chap he is. Needles ain't nothing to him. There's heaps of needles, but only one Dibbs. He's going to make old Berrow's chaps as drunk as lords."
"Does he know 'em?" inquired the mate.
"He knows where to find 'em," said the other. "I told him they'd either be in the 'Duke's Head' or the 'Town o' Berwick.' But he'd find 'em wherever they was. Ah, even if they was in a coffee pallis, I b'leeve that man 'ud find 'em."
"They're steady chaps," objected the mate, but in a weak fashion, being somewhat staggered by this tribute to Mr. Dibbs' remarkable powers.
"My lad," said the skipper, "it's Dibbs' business to mix sailors' liquors so's they don't know whether they're standing on their heads or their heels. He's the most wonderful mixer in Christendom; takes a reg'lar pride in it. Many a sailorman has got up a ship's side, thinking it was stairs, and gone off half acrost the world instead of going to bed, through him."
"We'll have a easy job of it, then," said the mate. "I b'leeve we could ha' managed it without that, though. 'Tain't quite what you'd call sport, is it?"
"There's nothing like making sure of a thing," said the skipper placidly. "What time's our chaps coming aboard?"
"Ten thirty, the latest," replied the mate. "Old Sam's with 'em, so they'll be all right."
"I'll turn in for a couple of hours," said the skipper, going towards his berth. "Lord! I'd give something to see old Berrow's face as his chaps come up the side."
"P'raps they won't git as far as that," remarked the mate.
"Oh, yes they will," said the skipper. "Dibbs is going to see to that. I don't want any chance of the race being scratched. Turn me out in a couple of hours."
He closed the door behind him, and the mate, having stuffed his clay with the coarse tobacco, took some pink note-paper with scalloped edges from his drawer, and, placing the paper at his right side, and squaring his shoulders, began some private correspondence.
For some time he smoked and wrote in silence, until the increasing darkness warned him to finish his task. He signed the note, and, having put a few marks of a tender nature below his signature, sealed it ready for the post, and sat with half-closed eyes, finishing his pipe. Then his head nodded, and, placing his arms on the table, he too slept.
It seemed but a minute since he had closed his eyes when he was awakened by the entrance of the skipper, who came blundering into the darkness from his stateroom, vociferating loudly and nervously.
"Ay, ay!" said Joe, starting up.
"Where's the lights?" said the skipper. "What's the time? I dreamt I'd overslept myself. What's the time?"
"Plenty o' time," said the mate vaguely, as he stifled a yawn.
"Ha'-past ten," said the skipper, as he struck a match, "You've been asleep," he added severely.
"I ain't," said the mate stoutly, as he followed the other on deck. "I've been thinking. I think better in the dark."
"It's about time our chaps was aboard," said the skipper, as he looked round the deserted deck. "I hope they won't be late."
"Sam's with 'em," said the mate confidently, as he went on to the side; "there ain't no festivities going on aboard the Good Intent, neither."
"There will be," said his worthy skipper, with a grin, as he looked across the intervening brig at the rival craft; "there will be."
He walked round the deck to see that everything was snug and ship-shape, and got back to the mate just as a howl of surprising weirdness was heard proceeding from the neighbouring stairs.
"I'm s'prised at Berrow allowing his men to make that noise," said the skipper waggishly. "Our chaps are there too, I think. I can hear Sam's voice."
"So can I," said the mate, with emphasis.
"Seems to be talking rather loud," said the master of the Thistle, knitting his brows.
"Sounds as though he's trying to sing," said the mate, as, after some delay, a heavily-laden boat put off from the stairs and made slowly for them. "No, he ain't; he's screaming."
There was no longer any doubt about it. The respectable and greatly- trusted Sam was letting off a series of wild howls which would have done credit to a penny-gaff Zulu, and was evidently very much out of temper about something.
"Ahoy, Thistle! Ahoy!" bellowed the waterman, as he neared the schooner. "Chuck us a rope?-quick!"
The mate threw him one, and the boat came alongside. It was then seen that another waterman, using impatient and deplorable language, was forcibly holding Sam down in the boat.
"What's he done? What's the row?" demanded the mate.
"Done?" said the waterman, in disgust. "Done? He's 'ad a small lemon, an' it's got into his silly old head. He's making all this fuss 'cos he wanted to set the pub on fire, an' they wouldn't let him. Man ashore told us they belonged to the Good Intent, but I know they're your men."
"Sam!" roared the skipper, with a sinking heart, as his glance fell on the recumbent figures in the boat; "come aboard at once, you drunken disgrace! D'ye hear?"
"I can't leave him," said Sam, whimpering.
"Leave who?" growled the skipper.
"Him," said Sam, placing his arms round the waterman's neck. "Him an' me's like brothers."
"Get up, you old loonatic!" snarled the waterman, extricating himself with difficulty, and forcing the other towards the side. "Now, up you go!"
Aided by the shoulders of the waterman and the hands of his superior officers, Sam went up, and then the waterman turned his attention to the remainder of his fares, who were snoring contentedly in the bottom of the boat.
"Now, then!" he cried; "look alive with you! D'ye hear? Wake up! Wake up! Kick 'em, Bill!"
"I can't kick no 'arder," grumbled the other waterman.
"What the devil's the matter with 'em?" stormed the master of the Thistle, "Chuck a pail of water over 'em, Joe!"
Joe obeyed with gusto; and, as he never had much of a head for details, bestowed most of it upon the watermen. Through the row which ensued the Thistle's crew snored peacefully, and at last were handed up over the sides like sacks of potatoes, and the indignant watermen pulled back to the stairs.
"Here's a nice crew to win a race with!" wailed the skipper, almost crying with rage. "Chuck the water over 'em, Joe! Chuck the water over 'em !"
Joe obeyed willingly, until at length, to the skipper's great relief, one man stirred, and, sitting up on the deck, sleepily expressed his firm conviction that it was raining. For a moment they both had hopes of him, but as Joe went to the side for another bucketful, he evidently came to the conclusion that he had been dreaming, and, lying down again, resumed his nap. As he did so the first stroke of Big Ben came booming down the river.
"Eleven o'clock!" shouted the excited skipper.
It was too true. Before Big Ben had finished, the neighbouring church clocks commenced striking with feverish haste, and hurrying feet and hoarse cries were heard proceeding from the deck of the GOOD INTENT.
"Loose the sails!" yelled the furious Tucker. "Loose the sails! Damme, we'll get under way by ourselves!"
He ran forward, and, assisted by the mate, hoisted the jibs, and then, running back, cast off from the brig, and began to hoist the mainsail. As they disengaged themselves from the tier, there was just sufficient sail for them to advance against the tide; while in front of them the Good Intent, shaking out sail after sail, stood boldly down the river.
* * * * *
"This was the way of it," said Sam, as he stood before the grim Tucker at six o'clock the next morning, surrounded by his mates. "He came into the 'Town o' Berwick,' where we was, as nice a spoken little chap as ever you'd wish to see. He said he'd been a-looking at the GOOD INTENT, and he thought it was the prettiest little craft 'e ever seed, and the exact image of one his dear brother, which was a missionary, 'ad, and he'd like to stand a drink to every man of her crew. Of course, we all said we was the crew direckly, an' all I can remember after that is two coppers an' a little boy trying to giv' me the frog's march, an' somebody chucking pails o' water over me. It's crool 'ard losing a race, what we didn't know nothink about, in this way; but it warn't our fault?-it warn't, indeed. It's my belief that the little man was a missionary of some sort hisself, and wanted to convert us, an' that was his way of starting on the job. It's all very well for the mate to have highstirriks; but it's quite true, every word of it, an' if you go an' ask at the pub they'll tell you the same."