AFTER the conversation died away, the two lads lay upon the cabin for perhaps an hour. Then, without saying a word, ’Frisco Kid went below and struck a light. Joe could hear him fumbling about, and a little later heard his own name called softly. On going into the cabin, he saw ’Frisco Kid sitting on the edge of the bunk, a sailor’s ditty-box on his knees, and in his hand a carefully folded page from a magazine.
“Does she look like this?” he asked, smoothing it out and turning it that the other might see.
It was a half-page illustration of two girls and a boy, grouped, evidently, in an old-fashioned roomy attic, and holding a council of some sort. The girl who was talking faced the onlooker, while the backs of the other two were turned.
“Who?” Joe queried, glancing in perplexity from the picture to ’Frisco Kid’s face.
The word seemed reluctant in coming to his lips, and he expressed himself with a certain shy reverence, as though it were something unspeakably sacred.
Joe was nonplussed for the moment. He could see no bearing between the two in point, and, anyway, girls were rather silly creatures to waste one’s time over. “He ’s actually blushing,” he thought, regarding the soft glow on the other’s cheeks. He felt an irresistible desire to laugh, and tried to smother it down.
“No, no; don’t!” ’Frisco Kid cried, snatching the paper away and putting it back in the ditty-box with shaking fingers. Then he added more slowly: “I thought—I—I kind o’ thought you would understand, and—and—”
His lips trembled and his eyes glistened with unwonted moistness as he turned hastily away.
The next instant Joe was by his side on the bunk, his arm around him. Prompted by some instinctive monitor, he had done it before he thought. A week before he could not have imagined himself in such an absurd situation—his arm around a boy; but now it seemed the most natural thing in the world. He did not comprehend, but he knew, whatever it was, that it was of deep importance to his companion.
“Go ahead and tell us,” he urged. “I ’ll understand.”
“No, you won’t. You can’t.”
“Yes, sure. Go ahead.”
’Frisco Kid choked and shook his head. “I don’t think I could, anyway. It ’s more the things I feel, and I don’t know how to put them in words.” Joe’s hand patted his shoulder reassuringly, and he went on: “Well, it ’s this way. You see, I don’t know much about the land, and people, and things, and I never had any brothers or sisters or playmates. All the time I did n’t know it, but I was lonely—sort of missed them down in here somewheres.” He placed a hand over his breast. “Did you ever feel downright hungry? Well, that ’s just the way I used to feel, only a different kind of hunger, and me not knowing what it was. But one day, oh, a long time back, I got a-hold of a magazine and saw a picture—that picture, with the two girls and the boy talking together. I thought it must be fine to be like them, and I got to thinking about the things they said and did, till it came to me all of a sudden like, and I knew it was just loneliness was the matter with me.
“But, more than anything else, I got to wondering about the girl who looks out of the picture right at you. I was thinking about her all the time, and by and by she became real to me. You see, it was making believe, and I knew it all the time, and then again I did n’t. Whenever I ’d think of the men, and the work, and the hard life, I ’d know it was make-believe; but when I ’d think of her, it was n’t. I don’t know; I can’t explain it.”
Joe remembered all his own adventures which he had imagined on land and sea, and nodded. He at least understood that much.
“Of course it was all foolishness, but to have a girl like that for a comrade or friend seemed more like heaven to me than anything else I knew of. As I said, it was a long while back, and I was only a little kid—that was when Red Nelson gave me my name, and I ’ve never been anything but ’Frisco Kid ever since. But the girl in the picture: I was always getting that picture out to look at her, and before long, if I was n’t square—why, I felt ashamed to look at her. Afterwards, when I was older, I came to look at it in another way. I thought, ‘Suppose, Kid, some day you were to meet a girl like that, what would she think of you? Could she like you? Could she be even the least bit of a friend to you?’ And then I ’d make up my mind to be better, to try and do something with myself so that she or any of her kind of people would not be ashamed to know me.
“That ’s why I learned to read. That ’s why I ran away. Nicky Perrata, a Greek boy, taught me my letters, and it was n’t till after I learned to read that I found out there was anything really wrong in bay-pirating. I ’d been used to it ever since I could remember, and almost all the people I knew made their living that way. But when I did find out, I ran away, thinking to quit it for good. I ’ll tell you about it sometime, and how I ’m back at it again.
“Of course she seemed a real girl when I was a youngster, and even now she sometimes seems that way, I ’ve thought so much about her. But while I ’m talking to you it all clears up and she comes to me in this light: she stands just for a plain idea, a better, cleaner life than this, and one I ’d like to live; and if I could live it, why, I ’d come to know that kind of girls, and their kind of people—your kind, that ’s what I mean. So I was wondering about your sister and you, and that ’s why—I don’t know; I guess I was just wondering. But I suppose you know lots of girls like that, don’t you?”
Joe nodded his head.
“Then tell me about them—something, anything,” he added as he noted the fleeting expression of doubt in the other’s eyes.
“Oh, that ’s easy,” Joe began valiantly. To a certain extent he did understand the lad’s hunger, and it seemed a simple enough task to at least partially satisfy him. “To begin with, they ’re like—hem!—why, they ’re like—girls, just girls.” He broke off with a miserable sense of failure.
’Frisco Kid waited patiently, his face a study in expectancy.
Joe struggled valiantly to marshal his forces. To his mind, in quick succession, came the girls with whom he had gone to school—the sisters of the boys he knew, and those who were his sister’s friends: slim girls and plump girls, tall girls and short girls, blue-eyed and brown-eyed, curly-haired, black-haired, golden-haired; in short, a procession of girls of all sorts and descriptions. But, to save himself, he could say nothing about them. Anyway, he ’d never been a “sissy,” and why should he be expected to know anything about them? “All girls are alike,” he concluded desperately. “They ’re just the same as the ones you know, Kid—sure they are.”
“But I don’t know any.”
Joe whistled. “And never did?”
“Yes, one. Carlotta Gispardi. But she could n’t speak English, and I could n’t speak Dago; and she died. I don’t care; though I never knew any, I seem to know as much about them as you do.”
“And I guess I know more about adventures all over the world than you do,” Joe retorted.
Both boys laughed. But a moment later, Joe fell into deep thought. It had come upon him quite swiftly that he had not been duly grateful for the good things of life he did possess. Already home, father, and mother had assumed a greater significance to him; but he now found himself placing a higher personal value upon his sister and his chums and friends. He had never appreciated them properly, he thought, but henceforth—well, there would be a different tale to tell.
The voice of French Pete hailing them put a finish to the conversation, for they both ran on deck.