I’ve got a friend coming down with us this trip, George,” said the master of the Wave, as they sat on deck after tea watching the river. “One of our new members, Brother Hutchins.”
“From the Mission, I s’pose?” said the mate coldly.
“From the Mission,” confirmed the skipper. “You’ll like him, George; he’s been one o’ the greatest rascals that ever breathed.”
“Well, I don’t know what you mean,” said the mate, looking up indignantly.
“He’s ‘ad a most interestin’ life,” said the skipper; “he’s been in half the jails of England. To hear ‘im talk is as good as reading a book. And ‘e’s as merry as they make ’em.”
“Oh, and is ‘e goin’ to give us prayers afore breakfast like that fat-necked, white-faced old rascal what came down with us last summer and stole my boots?” demanded the mate.
“He never stole ’em, George,” said the skipper.
“If you’d ‘eard that man cry when I mentioned to ‘im your unjust suspicions, you’d never have forgiven yourself. He told ’em at the meetin’, an’ they had prayers for you.”
“You an’ your Mission are a pack o’ fools,” said the mate scornfully. “You’re always being done. A man comes to you an’ ses ‘e’s found grace, and you find ‘im a nice, easy, comfortable living. ‘E sports a bit of blue ribbon and a red nose at the same time. Don’t tell me. You ask me why I don’t join you, and I tell you it’s because I don’t want to lose my commonsense.”
“You’ll know better one o’ these days, George,” said the skipper, rising. “I earnestly hope you’ll ‘ave some great sorrow or affliction, something almost too great for you to bear. It’s the only thing that’ll save you.”
“I expect that fat chap what stole my boots would like to see it too,” said the mate.
“He would,” said the skipper solemnly. “He said so.”
The mate got up, fuming and knocking his pipe out with great violence against the side of the schooner, stamped up and down the deck two or three times, and then, despairing of regaining his accustomed calm on board, went ashore.
It was late when he returned. A light burnt in the cabin, and the skipper with his spectacles on was reading aloud from an old number of the Evangelical Magazine to a thin, white-faced man dressed in black.
“That’s my mate,” said the skipper, looking up from his book.
“Is he one of our band?” inquired the stranger.
The skipper shook his head despondently.
“Not yet,” said the stranger encouragingly.
“Seen too many of ’em,” said the mate bluntly. “The more I see of ’em, the less I like ’em. It makes me feel wicked to look at ’em.”
“Ah, that ain’t you speaking now, it’s the Evil One,” said Mr. Hutchins confidently.
“I s’pose you know ‘im pretty well,” said the mate simply.
“I lived with him thirty years,” said Mr. Hutchins solemnly, “then I got tired of him.”
“I should think he got a bit sick too,” said the mate. “Thirty days ‘ud ha’ been too long for me.”
He went to his berth, to give Mr. Hutchins time to frame a suitable reply, and returned with a full bottle of whisky and a tumbler, and having drawn the cork with a refreshing pop, mixed himself a stiff glass and lit his pipe. Mr. Hutchins with a deep groan gazed reproachfully at the skipper and shook his head at the bottle.
“You know I don’t like you to bring that filthy stuff in the cabin, George,” said the skipper.
“It’s not for me,” said the mate flippantly. “It’s for the Evil One. He ses the sight of his old pal ‘Utchins ‘as turned his stomach.”
He glanced at the stranger and saw to his astonishment that he appeared to be struggling with a strong desire to laugh. His lips tightened and his shifty little eyes watered, but he conquered himself in a moment, and rising to his feet delivered a striking address in favour of teetotalism. He condemned whisky as not only wicked, but unnecessary, declaring with a side glance at the mate that two acidulated drops dissolved in water were an excellent substitute.
The sight of the whisky appeared to madden him, and the skipper sat spell-bound at his eloquence, until at length, after apostrophising the bottle in a sentence which left him breathless, he snatched it up and dashed it to pieces on the floor.
For a moment the mate was struck dumb with fury, then with a roar he leaped up and rushed for the lecturer, but the table was between them, and before he could get over it the skipper sprang up and seizing him by the arm, pushed his friend into the state-room.
“Lea’ go,” foamed the mate. “Let me get at him.”
“George,” said the skipper, still striving with him, “I’m ashamed of you.”
“Ashamed be damned,” yelled the mate, struggling. “What did he chuck my whisky away for?”
“He’s a saint,” said the skipper, relaxing his hold as he heard Mr. Hutchins lock himself in. “He’s a saint, George. Seein’ ‘is beautiful words ‘ad no effect on you, he ‘ad recourse to strong measures.”
“Wait till I get hold of ‘im,” said the mate menacingly. “Only wait, I’ll saint ‘im.”
“Is he better, dear friend?” came the voice of Mr. Hutchins from beyond the door; “because I forgot the tumbler.”
“Come out,” roared the mate, “come out and upset it.”
Mr. Hutchins declined the invitation, but from behind the door pleaded tearfully with the mate to lead a better life, and even rebuked the skipper for allowing the bottle of sin to be produced in the cabin. The skipper took the rebuke humbly; and after requesting Mr. Hutchins to sleep in the state-room that night in order to frustrate the evident designs of the mate, went on deck for a final look round and then came below and turned in himself.
The crew of the schooner were early astir next morning getting under way, but Mr. Hutchins kept his bed, although the mate slipped down to the cabin several times and tapped at his door. When he did come up the mate was at the wheel and the men down below getting breakfast.
“Sleep well?” inquired Mr. Hutchins softly, as he took a seat on the hatches, a little distance from him.
“I’ll let you know when I haven’t got this wheel,” said the mate sourly.
“Do,” said Mr. Hutchins genially. “We shall see you at our meeting to-night?” he asked blandly.
The mate disdained to reply, but his wrath when at Mr. Hutchins’ request the cabin was invaded by the crew that evening, cannot be put into words.
For three nights they had what Mr. Hutchins described as love-feasts, and the mate as blamed bear-gardens. The crew were not particularly partial to hymns, considered as such, but hymns shouted out with the full force of their lungs while sharing the skipper’s hymn-book appealed to them strongly. Besides, it maddened the mate, and to know that they were defying their superior, and at the same time doing good to their own souls, was very sweet The boy, whose voice was just breaking, got off some surprising effects, and seemed to compass about five octaves without distress.
When they were exhausted with singing Mr. Hutchins would give them a short address, generally choosing as his subject a strong, violent-tempered man given to drink and coarse language. The speaker proved conclusively that a man who drank would do other things in secret, and he pictured this man going home and beating his wife because she reproached him for breaking open the children’s money-box to spend the savings on Irish whisky. At every point he made, he groaned, and the crew, as soon as they found they might groan too, did so with extraordinary gusto, the boy’s groans being weird beyond conception.
They reached Plymouth, where they had to put out a few cases of goods, just in time to save the mate’s reason, for the whole ship, owing to Mr. Hutchins’ zeal, was topsy-turvy. The ship’s cat sat up all one night cursing him and a blue ribbon he had tied round her neck, and even the battered old tea-pot came down to meals bedizened with bows of the same proselytising hue.
By the time they had got to their moorings it was too late to take the hatches off, and the crew sat gazing longingly at the lights ashore. Their delight when the visitor obtained permission for them to go ashore with him for a little stroll was unbounded, and they set off like schoolboys.
“They couldn’t be with a better man,” said the skipper, as the party moved off; “when I think of the good that man’s done in under four days it makes me ashamed of myself.”
“You’d better ship ‘im as mate,” said George. “There’d be a pair of you then.”
“There’s greater work for ‘im to do,” said the skipper solemnly.
He saw the mate’s face in the waning light, and moved off with a sigh. The mate, for his part, leaned against the side smoking, and as the skipper declined to talk on any subject but Mr. Hutchins, relapsed into a moody silence until the return of the crew some two hours later.
“Mr. Hutchins is coming on after, sir,” said the boy. “He told us to say he was paying a visit to a friend.”
“What’s the name of the pub?” asked the mate quietly.
“If you can’t speak without showing your nasty temper, George, you’d better hold your tongue,” said the skipper severely. “What’s your opinion about Mr. Hutchins, my lads!”
“A more open ‘arted man never breathed,” said Dan, the oldest of the crew, warmly.
“Best feller I ever met in my life,” said another.
“You hear that?” said the skipper.
“I hear,” said the mate.
“’E’s a Christian,” said the boy. “I never knew what a Christian was before I met ‘im. What do you think ‘e give us?”
“Give you?” said the skipper.
“A pound cash,” said the boy. “A golden sovring each. Tork about Christians! I wish I knew a few more of ’em.”
“Well I never!” exclaimed the gratified skipper.
“An’ the way ‘e did it was so nice,” said the oldest seaman. “’E ses, ‘That’s from me an’ the skipper,’ ‘e ses. ‘Thank the skipper for it as much as me,’ ‘e ses.”
“Well now, don’t waste it,” said the skipper. “I should bank it if I was you. It’ll make a nice little nest-egg.”
“I ‘ope it was come by honest, that’s all,” said the mate.
“O’ course it was,” cried the skipper. “You’ve got a ‘ard, cruel ‘art, George. P’raps if it ‘ad been a little softer you’d ‘ave ‘ad one too.”
“Blast ‘is sovrings,” said the surly mate. “I’d like to know where he got ’em from, an’ wot e’ means by saying it come from you as much as ‘im. I never knew you to give money away.”
“I s’pose,” said the skipper very softly, “he means that I put such-like thoughts into ‘is ‘art. Well, you’d better turn in, my lads. We start work at four.”
The hands went forward, and the skipper and mate descended to the cabin and prepared for sleep. The skipper set a lamp on the table ready for Mr. Hutchins when he should return, and after a short inward struggle bade the mate “good-night,” and in a couple of minutes was fast asleep.
At four o’clock the mate woke suddenly to find the skipper standing by his berth. The lamp still stood burning on the table, fighting feebly against the daylight which was pouring in through the skylight.
“Not turned up yet?” said the mate, with a glance at the visitor’s empty berth.
The skipper shook his head spiritlessly and pointed to the table. The mate following his finger, saw a small canvas bag, and by the side of it four-pence halfpenny in coppers and an unknown amount in brace buttons.
“There was twenty-three pounds freight money in that bag when we left London,” said the skipper, finding his voice at last.
“Well, what do you think’s become of it?” inquired the mate, taking up the lamp and blowing it out.
“I can’t think,” said the skipper, “my ‘ed’s all confused. Bro—Mr. Hutchins ain’t come back yet.”
“I s’pose he was late and didn’t like to disturb you,” said the mate without moving a muscle, “but I’ve no doubt ‘e’s all right. Don’t you worry about him.”
“It’s very strange where it’s gone, George,” faltered the skipper, “very strange.”
“Well, ‘Utchins is a generous sort o’ chap,” said the mate, “’e give the men five pounds for nothing, so perhaps he’ll give you something—when ‘e comes back.”
“Go an’ ask the crew to come down here,” said the skipper, sinking on a locker and gazing at the brazen collection before him.
The mate obeyed, and a few minutes afterwards returned with the men, who, swarming into the cabin, listened sympathetically as the skipper related his loss.
“It’s a mystery which nobody can understand, sir,” said old Dan when he had finished, “and it’s no use tryin’.”
“One o’ them things what won’t never be cleared up properly,” said the cook comfortably.
“Well, I don’t like to say it,” said the skipper, “but I must. The only man who could have taken it was Hutchins.”
“Wot, sir,” said Dan, “that blessed man! Why, I’d laugh at the idea.”
“He couldn’t do it,” said the boy, “not if he tried he couldn’t. He was too good.”
“He’s taken that twenty-three poun’,” said the skipper deliberately; “eighteen, we’ll call it, because I’m goin’ to have five of it back.”
“You’re labourin’ under a great mistake, sir,” said Dan ambiguously.
“Are you going to give me that money?” said the skipper loudly.
“Beggin’ your pardon, sir, no,” said the cook, speaking for the rest, as he put his foot on the companion-ladder. “Brother ‘Utchins gave us that money for singing them ‘ims so well. ‘E said so, and we ain’t ‘ad no call to think as it warn’t honestly come by. Nothing could ever make us think that, would it, mates?”
“Nothing,” said the others with exemplary firmness. “It couldn’t be done.”
They followed the cook up on deck, and leaning over the side, gazed in a yearning fashion toward the place where they had last seen their benefactor. Then with a sorrowful presentiment that they would never look upon his like again, they turned away and prepared for the labours of the day.