The Firm of Girdlestone

Chapter XXX.

At the “Cock and Cowslip.”

Arthur Conan Doyle

TOM DIMSDALE’S duties were far from light. Not only was he expected to supervise the clerks’ accounts and to treat with the wholesale dealers, but he was also supposed to spend a great part of his time in the docks, overlooking the loading of the outgoing ships and checking the cargo of the incoming ones. This latter portion of his work was welcome as taking him some hours a day from the close counting-house, and allowing him to get a sniff of the sea air—if, indeed, a sniff is to be had on the inland side of Woolwich. There was a pleasing life and bustle, too, in the broad, brown river, with its never-ending panorama of vessels of every size and shape which ebb and flow in the great artery of national life.

So interesting was this liquid highway to Tom’s practical mind, that he would often stand at the head of the wharf when his work was done and smoke a meditative pipe. It was a quiet spot, which had once been busy enough, but was now superseded by new quays and more convenient landing-places. All over it were scattered great rusty anchors, colossal iron chains, deserted melancholy boilers, and other debris which are found in such places, and which might seem to the fanciful to be the shells and skeletons of strange monsters washed up there by the tide. To whom do these things belong? Who has an interest in them? Of what use are they? It appeared to Tom sometimes as if the original owners and their heirs must have all died away, and left these grim relics behind them to any one who might have the charity to remove them.

From this coign of vantage a long reach of the river was visible, and Tom sitting there would watch the fleets of passing vessels, and let his imagination wander away to the broad oceans which they had traversed, and the fair lands under bluer skies and warmer suns from which they had sailed. Here is a tiny steam-tug panting and toiling in front of a majestic three-master with her great black hulk towering out of the water and her masts shooting up until the topmast rigging looks like the delicate web of some Titanic spider. She is from Canton, with tea, and coffee, and spices, and all good things from the land of small feet and almond eyes. Here, too, is a Messagerie boat, the French ensign drooping daintily over her stern, and her steam whistle screeching a warning to some obstinate lighters, crawling with their burden of coal to a grimy collier whose steam-winch is whizzing away like a corncrake of the deep. That floating palace is an Orient boat from Australia. See how, as the darkness falls, a long row of yellow eyes glimmer out from her sides as the light streams through her countless portholes. And there is the Rotterdam packet-boat coming slowly up, very glad to get back into safe waters again, for she has had a wildish time in the North Sea. A coasting brig has evidently had a wilder time still, for her main-topmast is cracked across, and her rigging is full of the little human mites who crawl about, and reef, and splice, and mend.

An old acquaintance of ours was out in that same gale, and is even now making his way into the shelter of the Albert docks. This was none other than the redoubtable Captain Hamilton Miggs, whose ship will persistently keep afloat, to the astonishment of the gallant captain himself, and of every one else who knows anything of her sea-going qualities. Again and again she had been on the point of foundering; and again and again some change in the weather or the steady pumping of the crew had prevented her from fulfilling her destiny. So surprised was the skipper at these repeated interpositions of Providence that he had quite made up his superstitious mind that the ship never would go down, and now devoted himself with a whole heart to his old occupation of drinking himself into delirium tremens and physicking himself out of it again.

The Black Eagle had a fair cargo aboard, and Miggs was proportionately jubilant. The drunken old sea-dog had taken a fancy to Tom’s frank face and honest eyes, and greeted him with effusion when he came aboard next morning.

“Knock me asunder, but you look rosy, man!” he cried. “It’s easy to see that you have not been lying off Fernando Po, or getting the land mist into your lungs in the Gaboon.”

“You look well yourself, captain,” said Tom.

“Tolerable, tolerable. Just a touch of the jumps at times.”

“We can begin getting our cargo out, I suppose? I have a list here to check it. Will you have the hatches off at once?”

“No work for me,” said Captain Hamilton Miggs with decision. “Here, Sandy—Sandy McPherson, start the cargo, will ye, and stir your great Scotch bones. I’ve done enough in bringing this sieve of a ship all the way from Africa, without working when I am in dock.”

McPherson was the first mate, a tall, yellow-bearded Aberdonian. “I’ll see t’it,” he said shortly. “You can gang ashore or where you wull.”

“The Cock and Cowslip,” said the captain, “I say, you—Master Dimsdale—when you’re done come up an’ have a glass o’ wine with me. I’m only a plain sailor man, but I’m damned if my heart ain’t in the right place. You too, McPherson—you’ll come up and show Mr. Dimsdale the way. Cock and Cowslip, corner o’ Sextant Court.” The two having accepted his invitation, the captain shuffled off across the gangway and on to terra firma.

All day Tom stood at the hatchway of the Black Eagle, checking the cargo as it was hoisted out of her, while McPherson and his motley assistants, dock labourers, seamen, and black Kroomen from the coast, worked and toiled in the depths below. The engine rattled and snorted, and the great chain clanked as it was lowered into the hold.

“Make fast there!” cries the mate.

“Aye, aye, sir!”

“All right?”

“All right, sir.”

“Hoist away!”

And clank, clank went the chain again, and whir-r-r the engine, and up would come a pair of oil casks, as though the crane were some giant forceps which was plucking out the great wooden teeth of the vessel. It seemed to Tom, as he stood looking down, note-book in hand, that some of the actual malarious air of the coast had been carried home in the hold, so foul and close were the smells evolved from it. Great cockchafers crawled about over the packages, and occasionally a rat would scamper over the barrels, such a rat as is only to be found in ships which hail from the tropics. On one occasion too, as a tusk of ivory was being hoisted out, there was a sudden cry of alarm among the workers, and a long, yellow snake crawled out of the cavity of the trunk and writhed away into the darkness. It is no uncommon thing to find the deadly creatures hibernating in the hollow of the tusks until the cold English air arouses them from their torpor, to the cost occasionally of some unhappy stevedore or labourer.

All day Tom stood amid grease and steam, bustle and blasphemy, checking off the cargo, and looking to its conveyance to the warehouses. At one o’clock there was a break of an hour for dinner, and then the work went on until six, when all hands struck and went off to their homes or to the public-house according to inclination. Tom and the mate, both fairly tired by their day’s work, prepared to accept the captain’s invitation, and to meet him up in his quarters. The mate dived down into his cabin, and soon reappeared with his face shining and his long hair combed into some sort of order.

“I’ve been performing my ablutions,” he said, rolling out the last word with great emphasis and pomposity, for, like many Scotchmen, he had the greatest possible reverence for a sonorous polysyllable. Indeed, in McPherson, this national foible was pushed to excess, for, however inappropriate the word, he never hesitated to drag it into his conversation if he thought it would aid in the general effect.

“The captain,” he continued, “has been far from salubrious this voyage. He’s aye complainin’ o’ his bodily infirmities.”

“Hypochondriacal, perhaps,” Tom remarked.

The Scotchman looked at his companion with a great accession of respect. “My certie!” he cried. “That’s the best I’ve heard since a word that Jimmy M’Gee, of the Corisco, said the voyage afore last. Would you kindly arteeculate it again.”

“Hypochondriacal,” said Tom laughing heartily.

“Hypo-chon-driacal,” the mate repeated slowly. “I shouldn’t think Jimmy M’Gee kens that, or he’d ha’ communicated it to me. I shall certainly utilize it, and am obleeged to you for namin’ it.”

“Don’t mention it,” said Tom. “I’ll let you have as many long words as you like, if you are a collector of them. But what is the matter with the captain?”

“It’s aye the drink,” the mate said gravely. “I can tak’ my modicum mysel’ and enjoy it, but that’s no the same as for a man to lock himself up in his cabin, and drink rum steady on from four bells in the mornin’ watch to eight bells in the evenin’. And then the cussin’, and prayin’, and swearin’ as he sets up is just awfu’. It’s what might weel be described as pandemoniacal.”

“Is he often like that, then?” Tom asked.

“Often! Why, he’s never anything else, sir. And yet he’s a good seaman too, and however fu’ he may be, he keeps some form o’ reckoning, and never vera far oot either. He’s an ambeequosity to me, sir, for if I took a tithe o’ the amount I’d be clean daft.”

“He must be dangerous when he is like that?” Tom remarked.

“He is that. He emptied a sax-shooter down the deck last bout he had, and nigh perforated the carpenter. Another time he scoots after the cook—chased him with a handspike in his hand right up the rigging to the cross-trees. If the cook hadn’t slid down the backstay of the mast, he’d ha’ been obeetuarised.”

Tom could not refrain from laughing at the last expression. “That’s a new word,” he said.

“Ha!” his companion cried with great satisfaction, “it is, is it? Then we are quits now on the hypochondriacal.” He was so pleased that he chuckled to himself for some minutes in the depths of his tawny beard. “Yes,” he continued at last, “he is dangerous to us at times, and he is dangerous to you. This is atween oorsels, as man to man, and is said withoot prejudice, but he do go on when he is in they fits aboot the firm, and aboot insurances, and rotten ships, and ither such things, which is all vera well when sequestrated amang gentlemen like oorsels, but sounds awfu’ bad when it fa’s on the ignorant tympanums of common seamen.”

“It’s scandalous,” Tom said gravely, “that he should spread such reports about his employer. Our ships are old, and some of them, in my opinion, hardly safe, but that’s a very different thing from implying, as you hint, that Mr. Girdlestone wishes them to go down.”

“We’ll no argue aboot that,” said the canny Scot. “Muster Girdlestone kens on which side his bread is buttered. He may wish ’em to sink or he may wish ’em to swim. That’s no for us to judge. You’ll hear him speak o’t to-night as like as not, for he’s aye on it when he’s half over. Here we are, sir. The corner edifice wi’ the red blinds in the window.”

During this conversation the two had been threading their way through the intricate and dirty lanes which lead up from the water side to the outskirts of Stepney. It was quite dark by the time that they reached a long thoroughfare, lined by numerous shops, with great gas flares outside them. Many of these belonged to dealers in marine stores, and the numerous suits of oil-skin, hung up for exhibition, swung to and fro in the uncertain light, like rows of attenuated pirates. At every corner was a great public-house with glittering windows, and a crowd of slatternly women and jersey-clad men elbowing each other at the door. At the largest and most imposing of these gin-palaces the mate and Dimsdale now pulled up.

“Come in this way,” said McPherson, who had evidently paid many a visit there before. Pushing open a swinging door, he made his way into the crowded bar, where the reek of bad spirits and the smell of squalid humanity seemed to Tom to be even more horrible than the effluvium of the grease-laden hold.

“Captain Miggs in?” asked McPherson of a rubicund, white-aproned personage behind the bar.

“Yes, sir. He’s in his room, sir, and expectin’ you. There’s a gent with him, sir, but he told me to send you up. This way, sir.”

They were pushing their way through the crowd to reach the door which led behind the bar, when Tom’s attention was arrested by the conversation of a very seedy-looking individual who was leaning with his elbows upon the zinc-covered counter.

“You take my tip,” he said to an elderly man beside him. “You stick to the beer. The sperits in here is clean poison, and it’s a sin and a shame as they should be let sell such stuff to Christian men. See here—see my sleeve!” He showed the threadbare cuff of his coat, which was corroded away in one part, as by a powerful acid. “I give ye my word I done that by wiping my lips wi’ it two or three times after drinkin’ at this bar. That was afore I found out that the whisky was solid vitriol. If thread and cotton can’t stand it, how’s the linin’ of a poor cove’s stomach, I’d like to know?”

“I wonder,” thought Tom to himself, “if one of these poor devils goes home and murders his wife, who ought to be hung for it? Is it he, or that smug-faced villain behind the bar, who, for the sake of the gain of a few greasy coppers, gives him the poison that maddens him?” He was still pondering over this knotty point when they were ushered into the captain’s room.

That worthy was leaning back in a rocking-chair with his feet perched upon the mantelpiece and a large glass of rum and water within reach of his great leathery hand. Opposite him, in a similar chair and with a similar glass, was no less an individual than our old acquaintance, Von Baumser. As a mercantile clerk in the London office of a Hamburg firm the German was thrown into contact with the shippers of the African fleet, and had contracted a special alliance with the bibulous Miggs, who was a social soul in his hours of relaxation.

“Come in, my hearties, come in!” he cried huskily. “Take a seat, Mr. Dimsdale. And you, Sandy, can’t you bring yourself to your berth without being asked? You should know your moorings by this time. This is my friend, Mr. Von Baumser from Eckermann’s office.”

“And dis, I think, is Mr. Dimsdale,” said the German, shaking hands with Tom. “I have heard my very goot vriend, Major Clutterbuck, speak of your name, sir.”

“Ah, the old major,” Tom answered. “Of course, I remember him well.”

“He is not so very old either,” said Von Baumser, in a somewhat surly voice. “He has been took by a very charming and entirely pleasant woman, and they are about to be married before three months, the one to the other. Let me tell you, sir, I, who have lived with him so long, dat I have met no man for whom I have greater respect than for the major, however much they give him pills at a club or other such snobberies.”

“Fill your glasses,” Miggs broke in, pushing over the bottle of rum. “There are weeds in that box—never paid duty, either the one or the other. By the Lord, Sandy, a couple of days ago we hardly hoped ever to be yarning here.”

“It was rather beyond our prognostication, sir,” said the mate, taking a pull at his rum.

“It was that! A nasty sea on, Mr. Dimsdale, sir, and the old ship so full o’ water that she could not rise to it. They were making a clean breach over us, and we lost nigh everything we could lose.”

“I suppose you’ll have her thoroughly repaired now?” Tom remarked.

Both the skipper and the mate laughed heartily at the observation. “That wouldn’t do, Sandy, would it?” said Miggs, shaking his head. “We couldn’t afford to have our screw cut down like that.”

“Cut down! You don’t mean to say you are paid in proportion to the rottenness of the ships?”

“There ain’t no use makin’ a secret of it among friends,” said Miggs. “That’s just how the land lies with us. A voyage or two back I spoke to Mr. Girdlestone, and I says to him, says I, ‘Give the ship an overhauling,’ says I. ‘Well and good,’ says he, ‘but it will mean so much off your wage,’ says he, ‘and the mate’s wage as well.’ I put it to him straight and strong, but he stuck at that. So Sandy and me, we put our heads together, and we ’greed it was better to take fifteen pound and the risk, than come down to twelve pound and safety.”

“It is scandalous!” cried Tom Dimsdale hotly. “I could not have believed it.”

“God bless ye! it’s done every day, and will be while there is insurance money to be gained,” said Miggs, blowing a blue cloud up to the ceiling. “It’s an easy thing to turn a few thousands a year while there are old ships to be bought, and offices which will insure them above their value. There was D’Arcy Campbell, of the Silvertown—what a trade that man did! He was smart—tarnation smart! Collisions was his line, and he worked ’em well. There warn’t a skipper out of Liverpool as could get run down as nat’ral as he could.”

“Get run down?”

“Aye. He’d go lolloping about in the Channel if there was any fog on, steering for the lights o’ any steamers or headin’ round for all the fog whistles if it was too thick to see. Sooner or later, as sure as fate, he’d get cut down to the water’s edge. Lor’, it was a fine game! Half a yard o’ print about his noble conduc’ in the newspapers, and maybe a leader about the British tar and unexpected emergencies. It once went the length o’ a subscription. Ha! ha!” Miggs laughed until he choked.

“And what became of this British star?” asked the German.

“He’s still about. He’s in the passenger trade now.”

“Potztausand!” Von Baumser ejaculated. “I would not go as a passenger with him for something.”

“There’s many a way that it’s done, sir,” the mate added, filling up his glass again, and passing the bottle to the captain. “There’s loadin’ a cranky vessel wi’ grain in bulk without usin’ partition boards. If you get a little water in, as you are bound to do with a ship o’ that kind, the grain will swell and swell until it bursts the seams open, and down ye go. Then there’s ignition o’ coal gas aboard o’ steamers. That’s a safe game, for nobody can deny it. And there are accidents to propellers. If the shaft o’ a propeller breaks in heavy weather it’s a bad look-out. I’ve known ships leave the docks with their propellers half sawn through all round. Lor’, there’s no end o’ the tricks o’ the trade.”

“I cannot believe, however,” said Tom stoutly, “that Mr. Girdlestone connives at such things.”

“He’s on the waitin’ lay,” the seaman answered. “He doesn’t send ’em down, but he just hangs on, and keeps his insurances up, and trusts in Providence. He’s had some good hauls that way, though not o’ late. There was the Belinda at Cape Palmas. That was five thousand, clear, if it was a penny. And the Sockatoo—that was a bad business! She was never heard of, nor her crew. Went down at sea, and left no trace.”

“The crew too!” Tom cried with horror. “But how about yourselves, if what you say is true?”

“We are paid for the risk,” said both the seamen, shrugging their shoulders.

“But there are Government inspectors?”

“Ha! ha! I dare say you’ve seen the way some o’ them do their work!” said Miggs.

Tom’s mind was filled with consternation at what he had heard. If the African merchant were capable of this, what might he not be capable of? Was his word to be depended on under any circumstances? And what sort of firm must this be, which turned so fair a side to the world and in which he had embarked his fortune? All these thoughts flashed through his mind as he listened to the gossip of the garrulous old sea dogs. A greater shock still, however, was in store for him.

Von Baumser had been listening to the conversation with an amused look upon his good-humoured face. “Ah!” said he, suddenly striking in, “I vill tell you something of your own firm which perhaps you do not know. Have you heard dat Mr. Ezra Girdlestone is about to be married?”

“To be married!”

“Oh yes; I have heard It dis morning at Eckermann’s office. I think it is the talk of the City.”

“Who’s the gal?” Miggs asked, with languid interest.

“I disremember her name,” Von Baumser answered. “It is a girl the major has met—the young lady who has lived in the same house, and is vat they call a warder.”

“Not—not his ward?” cried Tom, springing to his feet and turning as white as a sheet. “Not Miss Harston? You don’t tell me that he is going to marry Miss Harston?”

“Dat is the name. Miss Harston it is, sure enough.”

“It is a lie—an infamous lie!” Tom cried hotly.

“So it may be,” Von Baumser answered serenely. “I do but say vat I have heard, and heard more than once on good authority.”

“If it is true there is villainy in it,” cried Tom, with wild eyes, “the blackest villainy that ever was done upon earth. I’ll go—I’ll see him to-night. By heavens, I shall know the truth!” He rushed furiously downstairs and through the bar. There was a cab near the door. “Drive into London!” he cried; “69, Eccleston Square. I am on fire to be there!” The cabman sprang on the box, and they rattled away as fast as the horse would go.

This sudden exit caused, as may be imagined, considerable surprise in the parlour of the Cock and Cowslip.

“He’s a vera tumultuous young man,” the mate remarked. “He was off like a clipper in a hurricane.”

“I perceive,” said Von Baumser, “dat he has left his hat behind him. I do now remember dat I have heard his name spoken with dat of dis very young lady by my good vriend, the major.”

“Then he’s jealous belike,” said Hamilton Miggs, with a knowing shake of the head. “I’ve felt that way myself before now. I rounded on Billy Barlow, o’ the Flying Scud, over that very thing, twelve months ago come Christmas. But I don’t think it was the thing for this young chap to cut away and never say ‘With your leave,’ or ‘By your leave,’ or as much as ‘Good night, gentlemen all.’ It ain’t what you call straight up an’ down.”

“It’s transcendental,” said the mate severely; “that is what I call it.”

“Ah, my vriends,” the German put in, “when a man is in love you must make excuses for him. I am very sure dat he did mean no offence.”

In spite of this assurance Captain Hamilton Miggs continued to be very sore upon the point. It was only by dint of many replenishings of his glass and many arguments that his companions could restore him to his pristine good humour. Meanwhile, the truant was speeding through the night with a fixed determination in his heart that he should have before morning such an understanding, one way or the other, as would never again leave room for a doubt.

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