THE head of the firm had hardly recovered his mental serenity after the painful duty of explaining her financial position to the Widow Hudson, when his quick ear caught the sound of a heavy footstep in the counting-house. A gruff voice was audible at the same time, which demanded in rather more energetic language than was usually employed in that orderly establishment, whether the principal was to be seen or not. The answer was evidently in the affirmative, for the lumbering tread came rapidly nearer, and a powerful double knock announced that the visitor was at the other side of the door.
“Come in,” cried Mr. Girdlestone, laying down his pen.
This invitation was so far complied with that the handle turned, and the door revolved slowly upon its hinges. Nothing more substantial than a strong smell of spirituous liquors, however, entered the apartment.
“Come in,” the merchant repeated impatiently.
At this second mandate a great tangled mass of black hair was slowly protruded round the angle of the door. Then a copper-coloured forehead appeared, with a couple of very shaggy eyebrows and eventually a pair of eyes, which protruded from their sockets and looked yellow and unhealthy. These took a long look, first at the senior partner and then at his surroundings, after which, as if reassured by the inspection, the remainder of the face appeared—a flat nose, a large mouth with a lower lip which hung down and exposed a line of tobacco-stained teeth, and finally a thick black beard which bristled straight out from the chin, and bore abundant traces of an egg having formed part of its owner’s morning meal. The head having appeared, the body soon followed it, though all in the same anaconda-like style of progression, until the individual stood revealed. He was a stoutly-built sea-faring man, dressed in a pea jacket and blue trousers and holding his tarpaulin hat in his hand. With a rough scrape and a most unpleasant leer he advanced towards the merchant, a tattoed and hairy hand outstretched in sign of greeting.
“Why, captain,” said the head of the firm, rising and grasping the other’s hand with effusion, “I am glad to see you back safe and well.”
“Glad to see ye, sir—glad to see ye.”
His voice was thick and husky, and there was an indecision about his gait as though he had been drinking heavily. “I came in sort o’ cautious,” he continued, “’cause I didn’t know who might be about. When you and me speaks together we likes to speak alone, you bet.”
The merchant raised his bushy eyebrows a little, as though he did not relish the idea of mutual confidences suggested by his companion’s remark. “Hadn’t you better take a seat?” he said.
The other took a cane-bottomed chair and carried it into the extreme corner of the office. Then having looked steadily at the wall behind him, and rapped it with his knuckles, he sat down, still throwing an occasional apprehensive glance over his shoulder. “I’ve got a touch of the jumps,” he remarked apologetically to his employer. “I likes to know as there ain’t no one behind me.”
“You should give up this shocking habit of drinking,” Mr. Girdlestone said seriously. “It is a waste of the best gifts with which Providence has endowed us. You are the worse for it both in this world and in the next.”
Captain Hamilton Miggs did not seem to be at all impressed by this very sensible piece of advice. On the contrary, he chuckled boisterously to himself, and, slapping his thigh, expressed his opinion that his employer was a “rum ’un”—a conviction which he repeated to himself several times with various symptoms of admiration.
“Well, well,” Girdlestone said, after a short pause, “boys will be boys, and sailors, I suppose, will be sailors. After eight months of anxiety and toil, ending in success, captain—I am proud to be able to say the words—some little licence must be allowed. I do not judge others by the same hard and fast lines by which I regulate my own conduct.”
This admirable sentiment also failed to elicit any response from the obdurate Miggs, except the same manifestations of mirth and the same audible aside as to the peculiarities of his master’s character.
“I must congratulate you on your cargo, and wish you the same luck for your next voyage,” the merchant continued.
“Ivory, an’ gold dust, an’ skins, an’ resin, an’ cochineal, an’ gums, an’ ebony, an’ rice, an’ tobacco, an’ fruits, an’ nuts in bulk. If there’s a better cargo about, I’d like to see it,” the sailor said defiantly.
“An excellent cargo, captain; very good indeed. Three of your men died, I believe?”
“Ay, three of the lubbers went under. Two o’ fever and one o’ snake-bite. It licks me what sailors are comin’ to in these days. When I was afore the mast we’d ha’ been ashamed to die o’ a trifle like that. Look at me. I’ve been down wi’ coast fever sixteen times, and I’ve had yellow jack an’ dysentery, an’ I’ve been bit by the black cobra in the Andamans. I’ve had cholera, too. It broke out in a brig when I was in the Sandwich Island trade, and I was shipmates wi’ seven dead out o’ a crew o’ ten. But I ain’t none the worse for it—no, nor never will be. But I say, gov’nor, hain’t you got a drop of something about the office?”
The senior partner rose, and taking a bottle from the cupboard filled out a stiff glass of rum. The sailor drank it off eagerly, and laid down the empty tumbler with a sigh of satisfaction.
“Say, now,” he said, with an unpleasant confidential leer, “weren’t you surprised to see us come back—eh? Straight now, between man and man?”
“The old ship hangs together well, and has lots of work in her yet,” the merchant answered.
“Lots of work! God’s truth, I thought she was gone in the bay! We’d a dirty night with a gale from the west-sou’-west, an’ had been goin’ by dead reckonin’ for three days, so we weren’t over and above sure o’ ourselves. She wasn’t much of a sea-going craft when we left England, but the sun had fried all the pitch out o’ her seams, and you might ha’ put your finger through some of them. Two days an’ a night we were at the pumps, for she leaked like a sieve. We lost the fore topsail, blown clean out o’ the ringbolts. I never thought to see Lunnon again.”
“If she could weather a gale like that she could make another voyage.”
“She could start on another,” the sailor said gloomily, “but as like as not she’d never see the end o’t.”
“Come, come, you’re not quite yourself this morning, Miggs. We value you as a dashing, fearless fellow—let me fill your glass again—who doesn’t fear a little risk where there’s something to be gained. You’ll lose your good name if you go on like that.”
“She’s in a terrible bad way,” the captain insisted. “You’ll have to do something before she can go.”
“What shall we have to do?”
“Dry dock her and give her a thorough overhaul. She might sink before she got out o’ the Channel if she went as she is just now.”
“Very well,” the merchant said coldly. “If you insist on it, it must be done. But, of course, it would make a great difference in your salary.”
“You are at present getting fifteen pounds a month, and five per cent. commission. These are exceptional terms in consideration of any risk that you may run. We shall dry dock the Black Eagle, and your salary is now ten pounds a month and two and a half commission.”
“Belay, there, belay!” the sailor shouted. His coppery face was a shade darker than usual, and his bilious eyes had a venomous gleam in them. “Don’t you beat me down, curse you!” he hissed, advancing to the table and leaning his hands upon it while he pushed his angry face forward until it was within a foot of that of the merchant. “Don’t you try that game on, mate, for I am a free-born British seaman, and I am under the thumb of no man.”
“You’re drunk,” said the senior partner. “Sit down!”
“You’d reduce my screw, would ye?” roared Captain Hamilton Miggs, working himself into a fury. “Me that has worked for ye, and slaved for ye, and risked my life for ye. You try it on, guv’nor; just you try it on! Suppose I let out that little story o’ the painting out o’ the marks—where would the firm of Girdlestone be then! I guess you’d rather double my wage than have that yarn goin’ about.”
“What do you mean?”
“What do I mean? You don’t know what I mean, do you? Of course not. It wasn’t you as set us on to go at night and paint out the Government Plimsoll marks and then paint ’em in again higher up, so as to be able to overload. That wasn’t you, was it?”
“Do you mean to assert that it was?”
“In course I do,” thundered the angry seaman.
The senior partner struck the gong which stood upon the table. “Gilray,” he said quietly, “go out and bring in a policeman.”
Captain Hamilton Miggs seemed to be somewhat startled by this sudden move of his antagonist. “Steady your helm, governor,” he said. “What are ye up to now?”
“I’m going to give you in charge.”
“For intimidation and using threatening language, and endeavouring to extort money under false pretences.”
“There’s no witnesses,” the sailor said in a half-cringing, half-defiant manner.
“Oh yes, there are,” Ezra Girdlestone remarked, coming into the room. He had been standing between the two doors which led to the counting-house, and had overheard the latter portion of the conversation. “Don’t let me interrupt you. You were saying that you would blacken my father’s character unless he increased your salary.”
“I didn’t mean no harm,” said Captain Hamilton Miggs, glancing nervously from the one to the other. He had been fairly well known to the law in his younger days, and had no desire to renew the acquaintance.
“Who painted out those Plimsoll marks?” asked the merchant.
“It was me.”
“Did any one suggest it to you?”
“Shall I send in the policeman, sir?” asked Gilray, opening the door.
“Ask him to wait for a moment,” Girdlestone answered.
“And now, captain, to return to the original point, shall we dry dock the Black Eagle and reduce the salary, or do you see your way to going back in her on the same terms?”
“I’ll go back and be damned to it!” said the captain recklessly, plunging his hands into the pockets of his pea jacket and plumping back into his chair.
“That’s right,” his grim employer remarked approvingly.
“But swearing is a most sinful practice. Send the policeman away, Ezra.”
The young man went out with an amused smile, and the two were left together again.
“You’ll not be able to pass the Government inspector unless you do something to her,” the seaman said after a long pause, during which he brooded over his wrongs.
“Of course we shall do something. The firm is not mean, though it avoids unnecessary expense. We’ll put a coat of paint on her, and some pitch, and do up the rigging. She’s a stout old craft, and with one of the smartest sailors afloat in command of her—for we always give you credit for being that—she’ll run many a voyage yet.”
“I’m paid for the risk, guv’nor, as you said just now,” the sailor remarked. “But don’t it seem kind o’ hard on them as isn’t—on the mates an’ the hands?”
“There is always a risk, my dear captain. There is nothing in the world without risk. You remember what is said about those who go down to the sea in ships. They see the wonders of the deep, and in return they incur some little danger. My house in Eccleston Square might be shaken down by an earthquake, or a gale might blow in the walls, but I’m not always brooding over the chance of it. There’s no use your taking it for granted that some misfortune will happen to the Black Eagle.”
The sailor was silenced, but not convinced by his employer’s logic. “Well, well,” he said sulkily, “I am going, so there’s an end of it, and there’s no good in having any more palaver about it. You have your object in running rotten ships, and you make it worth my while to take my chances in them. I’m suited, and you’re suited, so there’s no more to be said.”
“That’s right. Have some more rum?”
“No, not a spot.”
“Because I likes to keep my head pretty clear when I’m a-talkin’ to you, Muster Girdlestone. Out o’ your office I’ll drink to further orders, but I won’t do business and muddle myself at the same time. When d’ye want me to start?”
“When she’s unloaded and loaded up again. Three weeks or a month yet. I expect that Spender will have come in with the Maid of Athens by that time.”
“Unless some accident happens on the way,” said Captain Hamilton Miggs, with his old leer. “He was at Sierra Leone when we came up the coast. I couldn’t put in there, for the swabs have got a warrant out ag’in me for putting a charge o’ shot into a nigger.”
“That was a wicked action—very wrong, indeed,” the merchant said gravely. “You must consider the interests of the firm, Miggs. We can’t afford to have a good port blocked against our ships in this fashion. Did they serve this writ on you?”
“Another nigger brought it aboard.”
“Did you read it?”
“No; I threw it overboard.”
“And what became of the negro?”
“Well,” said Miggs with a grin, “when I threw the writ overboard he happened to be a-holdin’ on to it. So, ye see, he went over, too. Then I up anchor and scooted.”
“There are sharks about there?”
“Really, Miggs,” the merchant said, “you must restrain your sinful passions. You have broken the fifth commandment, and closed the trade of Freetown to the Black Eagle.”
“It never was worth a rap,” the sailor answered. “I wouldn’t give a cuss for any of the British settlements. Give me real niggers, chaps as knows nothing of law or civilizing, or any rot of the sort. I can pull along with them.
“I have often wondered how you managed it,” Girdlestone said curiously. “You succeed in picking up a cargo where the steadiest and best men can’t get as much as a bag of nuts. How do you work it?”
“There’s many would like to know that,” Miggs answered, with an expressive wink.
“It is a secret, then?”
“Well, it ain’t a secret to you, ’cause you ain’t a skipper, and it don’t matter if you knows it or not. I don’t want to have ’em all at the same game.”
“How is it, then?”
“I’ll tell ye,” said Miggs. He seemed to have recovered his serenity by this time, and his eyes twinkled as he spoke of his own exploits. “I gets drunk with them. That’s how I does it.”
“Yes, that’s how it’s worked. Lord love ye, when these fust-class certificated, second-cousin-to-an-earl merchant skippers comes out they move about among the chiefs and talks down to them as if they was tin Methuselahs on wheels. The Almighty’s great coat wouldn’t make a waistcoat for some o’ these blokes. Now when I gets among ’em I has ’em all into the cabin, though they’re black an’ naked, an’ the smell ain’t over an’ above pleasant. Then I out with the rum and it’s ‘help yourself an’ pass the bottle.’ Pretty soon, d’ye see, their tongues get loosened, and as I lie low an’ keep dark I gets a pretty good idea o’ what’s in the market. Then when I knows what’s to be got, it’s queer if I don’t manage to get it. Besides, they like a little notice, just as Christians does, and they remembers me because I treat them well.”
“An excellent plan, Miggs—a capital plan!” said the senior partner. “You are an invaluable servant.”
“Well,” the captain said, rising from his chair, “I’m getting a great deal too dry with all this palaver. I don’t mind gettin’ drunk with nigger chiefs, but I’m darned if I’ll——” He paused, but the grim smile on his companion’s face showed that he appreciated the compliment.
“I say,” he continued, giving his employer a confidential nudge with his elbow, “suppose we’d gone down in the bay this last time, you’d ha’ been a bit out in your reckoning—eh, what?”
“Well, we were over-insured on our outward passage. An accident then might ha’ put thousands in your pocket, I know. Coming back, though, the cargo was worth more than the insurance, I reckon. You’d ha’ been out o’ pocket if we’d foundered. It would ha’ been a case o’ the engineer hoisted on his own Peter, as Shakspere says.”
“We take our chance of these things,” the merchant said with dignity.
“Well, good morning, guv’nor,” Captain Hamilton Miggs said brusquely. “When you wants me you can lay your hands on me at the old crib, the Cock and Cowslip, Rotherhithe.”
As he passed out through the office, Ezra rejoined his father.
“He’s a curious chap,” he remarked, jerking his head in the direction which Miggs had taken. “I heard him bellowing like a bull, so I thought I had best listen to what he had to say. He’s a useful servant, though.”
“The fellow’s half a savage himself,” his father said. “He’s in his element among them. That’s why he gets on so well with them.”
“He doesn’t seem much the worse for the climate, either.”
“His body does not, but his soul, Ezra, his soul? However, to return to business. I wish you to see the underwriters and pay the premium of the Black Eagle. If you see your way to it, increase the policy; but do it carefully, Ezra, and with tact. She will start about the time of the equinoctial gales. If anything should happen to her, it would be as well that the firm should have a margin on the right side.”