Captain Polson sat in his comfortable parlour smiling benignly upon his daughter and sister. His ship, after an absence of eighteen months, was once more berthed in the small harbour of Barborough, and the captain was sitting in that state of good-natured affability which invariably characterised his first appearance after a long absence.
"No news this end, I suppose," he inquired, after a lengthy recital of most extraordinarily uninteresting adventures.
"Not much," said his sister Jane, looking nervously at her niece. "Young Metcalfe has gone into partnership with his father."
"I don't want to hear about those sharks," said the captain, waxing red. "Tell me about honest men."
"Joe Lewis has had a month's imprisonment for stealing fowls," said Miss Polson meekly. "Mrs. Purton has had twins--dear little fellows they are, fat as butter!--she has named one of them Polson, after you. The greedy one."
"Any deaths?" inquired the captain snappishly, as he eyed the innocent lady suspiciously.
"Poor old Jasper Wheeler has gone," said his sister; "he was very resigned. He borrowed enough money to get a big doctor from London, and when he heard that there was no hope for him he said he was just longing to go, and he was sorry he couldn't take all his dear ones with him. Mary Hewson is married to Jack Draper, and young Metcalfe's banns go up for the third time next Sunday."
"I hope he gets a Tartar," said the vindictive captain. "Who's the girl? Some silly little fool, I know. She ought to be warned!"
"I don't believe in interfering in marriages," said his daughter Chrissie, shaking her head sagely.
"Oh!" said the captain, staring, "YOU don't! Now you've put your hair up and taken to wearing long frocks, I suppose you're beginning to think of it."
"Yes; auntie wants to tell you something!" said his daughter, rising and crossing the room.
"No, I don't!" said Miss Polson hastily.
"You'd better do it," said Chrissie, giving her a little push, "there's a dear; I'll go upstairs and lock myself in my room."
The face of the captain, whilst this conversation was passing, was a study in suppressed emotions. He was a firm advocate for importing the manners of the quarter-deck into private life, the only drawback being that he had to leave behind him the language usual in that locality. To this omission he usually ascribed his failures.
"Sit down, Chrissie," he commanded; "sit down, Jane. Now, miss, what's all this about?"
"I don't like to tell you," said Chrissie, folding her hands in her lap. "I know you'll be cross. You're so unreasonable."
The captain stared--frightfully.
"I'm going to be married," said Chrissie suddenly,--"there! To Jack Metcalfe--there! So you'll have to learn to love him. He's going to try and love you for my sake." To his sister's dismay the captain got up, and brandishing his fists walked violently to and fro. By these simple but unusual means decorum was preserved.
"If you were only a boy," said the captain, when he had regained his seat, "I should know what to do with you."
"If I were a boy," said Chrissie, who, having braced herself up for the fray, meant to go through with it, "I shouldn't want to marry Jack. Don't be silly, father!"
"Jane," said the captain, in a voice which made the lady addressed start in her chair, "what do you mean by it?"
"It isn't my fault," said Miss Polson feebly. "I told her how it would be. And it was so gradual; he admired my geraniums at first, and, of course, I was deceived. There are so many people admire my geraniums; whether it is because the window has a south aspect"--
"Oh!" said the captain rudely, "that'll do, Jane. If he wasn't a lawyer, I'd go round and break his neck. Chrissie is only nineteen, and she'll come for a year's cruise with me. Perhaps the sea air'll strengthen her head. We'll see who's master in this family."
"I'm sure I don't want to be master," said his daughter, taking a weapon of fine cambric out of her pocket, and getting ready for action. "I can't help liking people. Auntie likes him too, don't you, auntie?"
"Yes," said Miss Polson bravely.
"Very good," said the autocrat promptly, "I'll take you both for a cruise."
"You're making me very un--unhappy," said Chrissie, burying her face in her handkerchief.
"You'll be more unhappy before I've done with you," said the captain grimly. "And while I think of it, I'll step round and stop those banns." His daughter caught him by the arm as he was passing, and laid her face on his sleeve. "You'll make me look so foolish," she wailed.
"That'll make it easier for you to come to sea with me," said her father. "Don't cry all over my sleeve. I'm going to see a parson. Run upstairs and play with your dolls, and if you're a good girl, I'll bring you in some sweets." He put on his hat, and closing the front door with a bang, went off to the new rector to knock two years off the age which his daughter kept for purposes of matrimony. The rector, grieved at such duplicity in one so young, met him more than half way, and he came out from him smiling placidly, until his attention was attracted by a young man on the other side of the road, who was regarding him with manifest awkwardness.
"Good evening, Captain Polson," he said, crossing the road.
"Oh," said the captain, stopping, "I wanted to speak to you. I suppose you wanted to marry my daughter while I was out of the way, to save trouble. Just the manly thing I should have expected of you. I've stopped the banns, and I'm going to take her for a voyage with me. You'll have to look elsewhere, my lad."
"The ill feeling is all on your side, captain," said Metcalfe, reddening.
"Ill feeling!" snorted the captain. "You put me in the witness-box, and made me a laughing-stock in the place with your silly attempts at jokes, lost me five hundred pounds, and then try and marry my daughter while I'm at sea. Ill feeling be hanged!"
"That was business," said the other.
"It was," said the captain, "and this is business too. Mine. I'll look after it, I'll promise you. I think I know who'll look silly this time. I'd sooner see my girl in heaven than married to a rascal of a lawyer."
"You'd want good glasses," retorted Metcalfe, who was becoming ruffled.
"I don't want to bandy words with you," said the captain with dignity, after a long pause, devoted to thinking of something worth bandying. "You think you're a clever fellow, but I know a cleverer. You're quite welcome to marry my daughter--if you can."
He turned on his heel, and refusing to listen to any further remarks, went on his way rejoicing. Arrived home, he lit his pipe, and throwing himself into an armchair, related his exploits. Chrissie had recourse to her handkerchief again, more for effect than use, but Miss Polson, who was a tender soul, took hers out and wept unrestrainedly. At first the captain took it well enough. It was a tribute to his power, but when they took to sobbing one against the other, his temper rose, and he sternly commanded silence.
"I shall be like--this--every day at sea," sobbed Chrissie vindictively, "only worse; making us all ridiculous."
"Stop that noise directly!" vociferated the captain.
"We c-c-can't," sobbed Miss Polson.
"And we d-don't want to," said Chrissie. "It's all we can do, and we're going to do it. You'd better g-go out and stop something else. You can't stop us."
The captain took the advice and went, and in the billiard-room of the "George" heard some news which set him thinking, and which brought him back somewhat earlier than he had at first intended. A small group at his gate broke up into its elements at his approach, and the captain, following his sister and daughter into the room, sat down and eyed them severely.
"So you're going to run off to London to get married, are you, miss?" he said ferociously. "Well, we'll see. You don't go out of my sight until we sail, and if I catch that pettifogging lawyer round at my gate again, I'll break every bone in his body, mind that."
For the next three days the captain kept his daughter under observation, and never allowed her to stir abroad except in his company. The evening of the third day, to his own great surprise, he spent at a Dorcas. The company was not congenial, several of the ladies putting their work away, and glaring frigidly at the intruder; and though they could see clearly that he was suffering greatly, made no attempt to put him at his ease. He was very thoughtful all the way home, and the next day took a partner into the concern, in the shape of his boatswain.
"You understand, Tucker," he concluded, as the hapless seaman stood in a cringing attitude before Chrissie, "that you never let my daughter out of your sight. When she goes out you go with her."
"Yessir," said Tucker; "and suppose she tells me to go home, what am I to do then?"
"You're a fool," said the captain sharply. "It doesn't matter what she says or does; unless you are in the same room, you are never to be more than three yards from her."
"Make it four, cap'n," said the boatswain, in a broken voice.
"Three," said the captain; "and mind, she's artful. All girls are, and she'll try and give you the slip. I've had information given me as to what's going on. Whatever happens, you are not to leave her."
"I wish you'd get somebody else, sir," said Tucker, very respectfully. "There's a lot of chaps aboard that'd like the job."
"You're the only man I can trust," said the captain shortly. "When I give you orders I know they'll be obeyed; it's your watch now."
He went out humming. Chrissie took up a book and sat down, utterly ignoring the woebegone figure which stood the regulation three yards from her, twisting its cap in its hands.
"I hope, miss," said the boatswain, after standing patiently for three- quarters of an hour, "as 'ow you won't think I sought arter this 'ere little job."
"No," said Chrissie, without looking up.
"I'm just obeying orders," continued the boatswain. "I always git let in for these 'ere little jobs, somehow. The monkeys I've had to look arter aboard ship would frighten you. There never was a monkey on the Monarch but what I was in charge of. That's what a man gets through being trustworthy."
"Just so," said Chrissie, putting down her book. "Well, I'm going into the kitchen now; come along, nursie."
"'Ere, I say, miss!" remonstrated Tucker, flushing.
"I don't know how Susan will like you going in her kitchen," said Chrissie thoughtfully; "however, that's your business."
The unfortunate seaman followed his fair charge into the kitchen, and, leaning against the door-post, doubled up like a limp rag before the terrible glance of its mistress.
"Ho!" said Susan, who took the state of affairs as an insult to the sex in general; "and what might you be wanting?"
"Cap'n's orders," murmured Tucker feebly.
"I'm captain here," said Susan, confronting him with her bare arms akimbo.
"And credit it does you," said the boatswain, looking round admiringly.
"Is it your wish, Miss Chrissie, that this image comes and stalks into my kitchen as if the place belongs to him?" demanded the irate Susan.
"I didn't mean to come in in that way," said the astonished Tucker. "I can't help being big."
"I don't want him here," said her mistress; "what do you think I want him for?"
"You hear that?" said Susan, pointing to the door; "now go. I don't want people to say that you come into this kitchen after me."
"I'm here by the cap'n's orders," said Tucker faintly. "I don't want to be here--far from it. As for people saying that I come here after you, them as knows me would laugh at the idea."
"If I had my way," said Susan, in a hard rasping voice, "I'd box your ears for you. That's what I'd do to you, and you can go and tell the cap'n I said so. Spy!"
This was the first verse of the first watch, and there were many verses. To add to his discomfort he was confined to the house, as his charge manifested no desire to go outside, and as neither she nor her aunt cared about the trouble of bringing him to a fit and proper state of subjection, the task became a labour of love for the energetic Susan. In spite of everything, however, he stuck to his guns, and the indignant Chrissie, who was in almost hourly communication with Metcalfe through the medium of her faithful handmaiden, was rapidly becoming desperate.
On the fourth day, time getting short, Chrissie went on a new tack with her keeper, and Susan, sorely against her will, had to follow suit. Chrissie smiled at him, Susan called him Mr. Tucker, and Miss Polson gave him a glass of her best wine. From the position of an outcast, he jumped in one bound to that of confidential adviser. Miss Polson told him many items of family interest, and later on in the afternoon actually consulted him as to a bad cold which Chrissie had developed.
He prescribed half-a-pint of linseed oil hot, but Miss Polson favoured chlorodyne. The conversation then turned on the deadly qualities of that drug when taken in excess, of the fatal sleep in which it lulled its victims. So disastrous were the incidents cited, that half an hour later, when, her aunt and Susan being out, Chrissie took a small bottle of chlorodyne from the mantel-piece, the boatswain implored her to try his nastier but safer remedy instead.
"Nonsense!" said Chrissie, "I'm only going to take twenty drops--one-- two--three--"
The drug suddenly poured out in a little stream.
"I should think that's about it," said Chrissie, holding the tumbler up to the light.
"It's about five hundred!" said the horrified Tucker. "Don't take that, miss, whatever you do; let me measure it for you."
The girl waved him away, and, before he could interfere, drank off the contents of the glass and resumed her seat. The boatswain watched her uneasily, and taking up the phial carefully read through the directions. After that he was not at all surprised to see the book fall from his charge's hand on to the floor, and her eyes close.
"I knowed it," said Tucker, in a profuse perspiration, "I knowed it. Them blamed gals are all alike. Always knows what's best. Miss Polson! Miss Polson!"
He shook her roughly, but to no purpose, and then running to the door, shouted eagerly for Susan. No reply forthcoming he ran to the window, but there was nobody in sight, and he came back and stood in front of the girl, wringing his huge hands helplessly. It was a great question for a poor sailor-man. If he went for the doctor he deserted his post; if he didn't go his charge might die. He made one more attempt to awaken her, and, seizing a flower-glass, splashed her freely with cold water. She did not even wince.
"It's no use fooling with it," murmured Tucker; "I must get the doctor, that's all."
He quitted the room, and, dashing hastily downstairs, had already opened the hall door when a thought struck him, and he came back again. Chrissie was still asleep in the chair, and, with a smile at the clever way in which he had solved a difficulty, he stooped down, and, raising her in his strong arms, bore her from the room and downstairs. Then a hitch occurred. The triumphant progress was marred by the behaviour of the hall door, which, despite his efforts, refused to be opened, and, encumbered by his fair burden, he could not for some time ascertain the reason. Then, full of shame that so much deceit could exist in so fair and frail a habitation, he discovered that Miss Polson's foot was pressing firmly against it. Her eyes were still closed and her head heavy, but the fact remained that one foot was acting in a manner that was full of intelligence and guile, and when he took it away from the door the other one took its place. By a sudden manoeuvre the wily Tucker turned his back on the door, and opened it, and, at the same moment, a hand came to life again and dealt him a stinging slap on the face.
"Idiot!" said the indignant Chrissie, slipping from his arms and confronting him. "How dare you take such a liberty?"
The astonished boatswain felt his face, and regarded her open-mouthed.
"Don't you ever dare to speak to me again," said the offended maiden, drawing herself up with irreproachable dignity. "I am disgusted with your conduct. Most unbearable!"
"I was carrying you off to the doctor," said the boatswain." How was I to know you was only shamming?"
"SHAMMING?" said Chrissie, in tones of incredulous horror. "I was asleep. I often go to sleep in the afternoon."
The boatswain made no reply, except to grin with great intelligence as he followed his charge upstairs again. He grinned at intervals until the return of Susan and Miss Polson, who, trying to look unconcerned, came in later on, both apparently suffering from temper, Susan especially. Amid the sympathetic interruptions of these listeners Chrissie recounted her experiences, while the boatswain, despite his better sense, felt like the greatest scoundrel unhung, a feeling which was fostered by the remarks of Susan and the chilling regards of Miss Poison.
"I shall inform the captain," said Miss Polson, bridling. "It's my duty."
"Oh, I shall tell him," said Chrissie. "I shall tell him the moment he comes in at the door."
"So shall I," said Susan; "the idea of taking such liberties!"
Having fired this broadside, the trio watched the enemy narrowly and anxiously.
"If I've done anything wrong, ladies," said the unhappy boatswain, "I am sorry for it. I can't say anything fairer than that, and I'll tell the cap'n myself exactly how I came to do it when he comes in."
"Pah! tell-tale!" said Susan.
"Of course, if you are here to fetch and carry," said Miss Polson, with withering emphasis.
"The idea of a grown man telling tales," said Chrissie scornfully. "Baby!"
"Why, just now you were all going to tell him yourselves," said the bewildered boatswain.
The two elder women rose and regarded him with looks of pitying disdain. Miss Polson's glance said "Fool!' plainly; Susan, a simple child of nature, given to expressing her mind freely, said "Blockhead!" with conviction.
"I see 'ow it is," said the boatswain, after ruminating deeply. "Well, I won't split, ladies. I can see now you was all in it, and it was a little job to get me out of the house."
"What a head he has got," said the irritated Susan; "isn't it wonderful how he thinks of it all! Nobody would think he was so clever to look at him."
"Still waters run deep," said the boatswain, who was beginning to have a high opinion of himself.
"And pride goes before a fall," said Chrissie; "remember that, Mr. Tucker."
Mr. Tucker grinned, but, remembering the fable of the pitcher and the well, pressed his superior officer that evening to relieve him from his duties. He stated that the strain was slowly undermining a constitution which was not so strong as appearances would warrant, and that his knowledge of female nature was lamentably deficient on many important points. "You're doing very well," said the captain, who had no intention of attending any more Dorcases, "very well indeed; I am proud of you."
"It isn't a man's work," objected the boatswain. "Besides, if anything happens you'll blame me for it."
"Nothing can happen," declared the captain confidently. "We shall make a start in about four days now. You're the only man I can trust with such a difficult job, Tucker, and I shan't forget you,"
"Very good," said the other dejectedly. "I obey orders, then."
The next day passed quietly, the members of the household making a great fuss of Tucker, and thereby filling him with forebodings of the worst possible nature. On the day after, when the captain, having business at a neighbouring town, left him in sole charge, his uneasiness could not be concealed.
"I'm going for a walk," said Chrissie, as he sat by himself, working out dangerous moves and the best means of checking them; "would you care to come with me, Tucker?"
"I wish you wouldn't put it that way, miss," said the boatswain, as he reached for his hat.
"I want exercise," said Chrissie; "I've been cooped up long enough."
She set off at a good pace up the High Street, attended by her faithful follower, and passing through the small suburbs, struck out into the country beyond. After four miles the boatswain, who was no walker, reminded her that they had got to go back.
"Plenty of time," said Chrissie, "we have got the day before us. Isn't it glorious? Do you see that milestone, Tucker? I'll race you to it; come along."
She was off on the instant, with the boatswain, who suspected treachery, after her.
"You CAN run," she panted, thoughtfully, as she came in second; "we'll have another one presently. You don't know how good it is for you, Tucker."
The boatswain grinned sourly and looked at her from the corner of his eye. The next three miles passed like a horrible nightmare; his charge making a race for every milestone, in which the labouring boatswain, despite his want of practice, came in the winner. The fourth ended disastrously, Chrissie limping the last ten yards, and seating herself with a very woebegone face on the stone itself.
"You did very well, miss," said the boatswain, who thought he could afford to be generous. "You needn't be offended about it."
"It's my ankle," said Chrissie with a little whimper. "Oh! I twisted it right round."
The boatswain stood regarding her in silent consternation
"It's no use looking like that," said Chrissie sharply, "you great clumsy thing. If you hadn't have run so hard it wouldn't have happened. It's all your fault."
"If you don't mind leaning on me a bit," said Tucker, "we might get along."
Chrissie took his arm petulantly, and they started on their return journey, at the rate of about four hours a mile, with little cries and gasps at every other yard.
"It's no use," said Chrissie as she relinquished his arm, and, limping to the side of the road, sat down. The boatswain pricked up his ears hopefully at the sound of approaching wheels.
"What's the matter with the young lady?" inquired a groom who was driving a little trap, as he pulled up and regarded with interest a grimace of extraordinary intensity on the young lady's face.
"Broke her ankle, I think," said the boatswain glibly. "Which way are you going?"
"Well, I'm going to Barborough," said the groom; "but my guvnor's rather pertickler."
"I'll make it all right with you," said the boatswain.
The groom hesitated a minute, and then made way for Chrissie as the boatswain assisted her to get up beside him; then Tucker, with a grin of satisfaction at getting a seat once more, clambered up behind, and they started.
"Have a rug, mate," said the groom, handing the reins to Chrissie and passing it over; "put it round your knees and tuck the ends under you."
"Ay, ay, mate," said the boatswain as he obeyed the instructions.
"Are you sure you are quite comfortable?" said the groom affectionately.
"Quite," said the other.
The groom said no more, but in a quiet business-like fashion placed his hands on the seaman's broad back, and shot him out into the road. Then he snatched up the reins and drove off at a gallop.
Without the faintest hope of winning, Mr. Tucker, who realised clearly, appearances notwithstanding, that he had fallen into a trap, rose after a hurried rest and started on his fifth race that morning. The prize was only a second-rate groom with plated buttons, who was waving cheery farewells to him with a dingy top hat; but the boatswain would have sooner had it than a silver tea-service.
He ran as he had never ran before in his life, but all to no purpose, the trap stopping calmly a little further on to take up another passenger, in whose favour the groom retired to the back seat; then, with a final wave of the hand to him, they took a road to the left and drove rapidly out of sight. The boatswain's watch was over.