There was bad blood between the captain and mate who comprised the officers and crew of the sailing-barge “Swallow”; and the outset of their voyage from London to Littleport was conducted in glum silence. As far as the Nore they had scarcely spoken, and what little did pass was mainly in the shape of threats and abuse. Evening, chill and overcast, was drawing in; distant craft disappeared somewhere between the waste of waters and the sky, and the side-lights of neighbouring vessels were beginning to shine over the water. The wind, with a little rain in it, was unfavourable to much progress, and the trough of the sea got deeper as the waves ran higher and splashed by the barge’s side.
“Get the side-lights out, and quick, you,” growled the skipper, who was at the helm.
The mate, a black-haired, fierce-eyed fellow of about twenty-five, set about the task with much deliberation.
“And look lively, you lump,” continued the skipper.
“I don’t want none of your lip,” said the mate furiously; “so don’t you give me none.”
The skipper yawned, and stretching his mighty frame laughed disagreeably. “You’ll take what I give you, my lad,” said he, “whether it’s lip or fist.”
“Lay a finger on me and I’ll knife you,” said the mate. “I ain’t afraid of you, for all your size.”
He put out the side-lights, casting occasional looks of violent hatred at the skipper, who, being a man of tremendous physique and rough tongue, had goaded his subordinate almost to madness.
“If you’ve done skulking,” he cried, as he knocked the ashes out of his pipe, “come and take the helm.”
The mate came aft and relieved him; and he stood for a few seconds taking a look round before going below. He dropped his pipe, and stooped to recover it; and in that moment the mate, with a sudden impulse, snatched up a handspike and dealt him a crashing blow on the head. Half-blinded and stunned by the blow, the man fell on his knees, and shielding his face with his hands, strove to rise. Before he could do so the mate struck wildly at him again, and with a great cry he fell backwards and rolled heavily overboard. The mate, with a sob in his breath, gazed wildly astern, and waited for him to rise. He waited: minutes seemed to pass, and still the body of the skipper did not emerge from the depths. He reeled back in a stupor; then he gave a faint cry as his eye fell on the boat, which was dragging a yard or two astern, and a figure which clung desperately to the side of it Before he had quite realised what had happened, he saw the skipper haul himself on to the stern of the boat and then roll heavily into it.
Panic-stricken at the sight, he drew his knife to cut the boat adrift, but paused as he reflected that she and her freight would probably be picked up by some passing vessel. As the thought struck him he saw the dim form of the skipper come towards the bow of the boat and, seizing the rope, begin to haul in towards the barge.
“Stop!” shouted the mate hoarsely; “stop! or I’ll cut you loose.”
The skipper let the rope go, and the boat pulled up with a jerk.
“I’m independent of you,” the skipper shouted, picking up one of the loose boards from the bottom of the boat and brandishing it. “If there’s any sea on I can keep her head to it with this. Cut away.”
“If I let you come aboard,” said the mate, “will you swear to let bygones be bygones?”
“No!” thundered the other. “Whether I come aboard or not don’t make much difference. It’ll be about twenty years for you, you murdering hound, when I get ashore.”
The mate made no reply, but sat silently steering, keeping, however, a wary eye on the boat towing behind. He turned sick and faint as he thought of the consequences of his action, and vainly cast about in his mind for some means of escape.
“Are you going to let me come aboard?” presently demanded the skipper, who was shivering in his wet clothes.
“You can come aboard on my terms,” repeated the mate doggedly.
“I’ll make no terms with you,” cried the other. “I hand you over to the police directly I get ashore, you mutinous dog. I’ve got a good witness in my head.”
After this there was silence—silence unbroken through the long hours of the night as they slowly passed. Then the dawn came. The side-lights showed fainter and fainter in the water; the light on the mast shed no rays on the deck, but twinkled uselessly behind its glass. Then the mate turned his gaze from the wet, cheerless deck and heaving seas to the figure in the boat dragging behind. The skipper, who returned his gaze with a fierce scowl, was holding his wet handkerchief to his temple. He removed it as the mate looked, and showed a ghastly wound. Still, neither of them spoke. The mate averted his gaze, and sickened with fear as he thought of his position; and in that instant the skipper clutched the painter, and, with a mighty heave, sent the boat leaping towards the stern of the barge, and sprang on deck. The mate rose to his feet; but the other pushed him fiercely aside, and picking up the handspike, which lay on the raised top of the cabin, went below. Half an hour later he came on deck with a fresh suit of clothes on, and his head roughly bandaged, and standing in front of the mate, favoured him with a baleful stare.
“Gimme that helm,” he cried.
The mate relinquished it.
“You dog!” snarled the other, “to try and kill a man when he wasn’t looking, and then keep him in his wet clothes in the boat all night. Make the most o’ your time. It’ll be many a day before you see the sea again.”
The mate groaned in spirit, but made no reply.
“I’ve wrote everything down with the time it happened,” continued the other in a voice of savage satisfaction; “an’ I’ve locked that handspike up in my locker. It’s got blood on it.”
“That’s enough about it,” said the mate, turning at last and speaking thickly. “What I’ve done I must put up with.”
He walked forward to end the discussion; but the skipper shouted out choice bits from time to time as they occurred to him, and sat steering and gibing, a gruesome picture of vengeance.
Suddenly he sprang to his feet with a sharp cry. “There’s somebody in the water,” he roared; “stand by to pick him up.”
As he spoke he pointed with his left hand, and with his right steered for something which rose and fell lazily on the water a short distance from them.
The mate, following his outstretched arm, saw it too, and picking up a boat-hook stood ready, until they were soon close enough to distinguish the body of a man supported by a life-belt.
“Don’t miss him,” shouted the skipper.
The mate grasped the rigging with one hand, and leaning forward as far as possible stood with the hook poised. At first it seemed as though the object would escape them, but a touch of the helm in the nick of time just enabled the mate to reach. The hook caught in the jacket, and with great care he gradually shortened it, and drew the body close to the side.
“He’s dead,” said the skipper, as he fastened the helm and stood looking down into the wet face of the man. Then he stooped, and taking him by the collar of his coat dragged the streaming figure on to the deck.
“Take the helm,” he said.
“Ay, ay,” said the other; and the skipper disappeared below with his burden.
A moment later he came on deck again. “We’ll take in sail and anchor. Sharp there!” he cried.
The mate went to his assistance. There was but little wind, and the task was soon accomplished, and both men, after a hasty glance round, ran below. The wet body of the sailor lay on a locker, and a pool of water was on the cabin floor.
The mate hastily swabbed up the water, and then lit the fire and put on the kettle; while the skipper stripped the sailor of his clothes, and flinging some blankets in front of the fire placed him upon them.
For a long time they toiled in silence, in the faint hope that life still remained in the apparently dead body.
“Poor devil!” said the skipper at length, and fell to rubbing again.
“I don’t believe he’s gone,” said the mate, panting with his exertions. “He don’t feel like a dead man.”
Ten minutes later the figure stirred slightly, and the men talked in excited whispers as they worked. A faint sigh came from the lips of the sailor, and his eyes partly opened.
“It’s all right, matey,” said the skipper; “you lie still; we’ll do the rest. Jem, get some coffee ready.”
By the time it was prepared the partly drowned man was conscious that he was alive, and stared in a dazed fashion at the man who was using him so roughly. Conscious that his patient was improving rapidly, the latter lifted him in his arms and placed him in his own bunk, and proffered him some steaming hot coffee. He sipped a little, then lapsed into unconsciousness again. The two men looked at each other blankly.
“Some of ’em goes like that.” said the skipper. “I’ve seen it afore. Just as you think they’re pulling round they slip their cable.”
“We must keep him warm,” said the mate. “I don’t see as we can do any more.”
“We’ll get under way again,” said the other; and pausing to heap some more clothes over the sailor he went on deck, followed by the mate; and in a short time the Swallow was once more moving through the water. Then the skipper, leaving the mate at the helm, went below.
Half an hour passed.
“Go and see what you can make of him,” said the skipper as he re-appeared and took the helm. “He keeps coming round a bit, and then just drifts back. Seems like as if he can’t hook on to life. Don’t seem to take no interest in it.”
The mate obeyed in silence; and for the remainder of the day the two men relieved each other at the bedside of the sailor. Towards evening, as they were entering the river which runs up to Littleport, he made decided progress under the skipper’s ministrations; and the latter thrust his huge head up the hatchway and grinned in excusable triumph at the mate as he imparted the news. Then he suddenly remembered himself, and the smile faded. The light, too, faded from the mate’s face.
“’Bout that mutiny and attempted murder,” said the skipper, and paused as though waiting for the mate to contradict or qualify the terms; but he made no reply.
“I give you in charge as soon as we get to port,” continued the other. “Soon as the ship’s berthed, you go below.”
“Ay, ay,” said the mate, but without looking at him.
“Nice thing it’ll be for your wife,” said the skipper sternly. “You’ll get no mercy from me.”
“I don’t expect none,” said the mate huskily, “What I’ve done I’ll stand to.”
The reply on the skipper’s lips merged into a grunt, and he went below. The sailor was asleep, and breathing gently and regularly; and after regarding him for some time the watcher returned to the deck and busied himself with certain small duties preparatory to landing.
Slowly the light faded out of the sky, and the banks of the river grew indistinct; and one by one the lights of Littleport came into view as they rounded the last bend of the river, and saw the little town lying behind its veil of masts and rigging. The skipper came aft and took the helm from the mate, and looked at him out of the corner of his eye, as he stood silently waiting with his hands by his side.
“Take in sail,” said the skipper shortly; and leaving the helm a bit, ran to assist him. Five minutes later the Swallow was alongside of the wharf, and then, everything made fast and snug, the two men turned and faced each other.
“Go below,” said the skipper sternly. The mate walked off. “And take care of that chap. I’m going ashore. If anybody asks you about these scratches, I got ’em in a row down Wapping—D’ye hear?”
The mate heard, but there was a thickness in his throat which prevented him from replying promptly. By the time he had recovered his voice the other had disappeared over the edge of the wharf, and the sound of his retreating footsteps rang over the cobblestone quay. The mate in a bewildered fashion stood for a short time motionless; then he turned, and drawing a deep breath, went below.