There was a sudden uproar on deck, and angry shouts, accompanied by an incessant barking; the master of the brig Arethusa stopped with his knife midway to his mouth, and exchanging glances with the mate, put it down and rose to his feet.
“They’re chevying that poor animal again,” he said hotly. “It’s scandalous.”
“Rupert can take care of himself,” said the mate calmly, continuing his meal. “I expect, if the truth’s known, it’s him ‘s been doin’ the chevying.”
“You’re as bad as the rest of ’em,” said the skipper angrily, as a large brown retriever came bounding into the cabin. “Poor old Rupe! what have they been doin’ to you?”
The dog, with a satisfied air, sat down panting by his chair, listening quietly to the subdued hubbub which sounded from the companion.
“Well, what is it?” roared the skipper, patting his favourite’s head.
“It’s that blasted dawg, sir,” cried an angry voice from above. “Go down and show ‘im your leg, Joe.”
“An’ ‘ave another lump took out of it, I s’pose,” said another voice sourly. “Not me.”
“I don’t want to look at no legs while I’m at dinner,” cried the skipper. “O’ course the dog ‘ll bite you if you’ve been teasing him.”
“There’s nobody been teasing ‘im,” said the angry voice again. “That’s the second one ‘e’s bit, and now Joe’s goin’ to have ‘im killed—ain’t you, Joe?”
Joe’s reply was not audible, although the infuriated skipper was straining his ears to catch it.
“Who’s going to have the dog killed?” he demanded, going up on deck, while Rupert, who evidently thought he had an interest in the proceedings, followed unobtrusively behind.
“I am, sir,” said Joe Bates, who was sitting on the hatch while the cook bathed an ugly wound in his leg. “A dog’s only allowed one bite, and he’s ‘ad two this week.”
“He bit me on Monday,” said the seaman who had spoken before. “Now he’s done for hisself.”
“Hold your tongue!” said the skipper angrily. “You think you know a lot about the law, Sam Clark; let me tell you a dog’s entitled to have as many bites as ever he likes, so as he don’t bite the same person twice.”
“That ain’t the way I’ve ‘eard it put afore,” said Clark, somewhat taken back.
“He’s the cutest dog breathing,” said the skipper fondly, “and he knows all about it. He won’t bite either of you again.”
“And wot about them as ‘asn’t been bit yet, sir?” inquired the cook.
“Don’t halloo before you’re hurt,” advised the skipper. “If you don’t tease him he won’t bite you.”
He went down to his dinner, followed by the sagacious Rupert, leaving the hands to go forward again, and to mutinously discuss a situation which was fast becoming unbearable.
“It can’t go on no longer, Joe,” said Clark firmly; “this settles it.”
“Where is the stuff?” inquired the cook in a whisper.
“In my chest,” said Clark softly. “I bought it the night he bit me.”
“It’s a risky thing to do,” said Bates.
“’Ow risky?” asked Sam scornfully. “The dog eats the stuff and dies. Who’s going to say what he died of? As for suspicions, let the old man suspect as much as he likes. It ain’t proof.”
The stronger mind had its way, as usual, and the next day the skipper, coming quietly on deck, was just in time to see Joe Bates throw down a fine fat bloater in front of the now amiable Rupert. He covered the distance between himself and the dog in three bounds, and seizing it by the neck, tore the fish from its eager jaws and held it aloft.
“I just caught ‘im in the act!” he cried, as the mate came on deck. “What did you give that to my dog for?” he inquired of the conscience-stricken Bates.
“I wanted to make friends with him,” stammered the other.
“It’s poisoned, you rascal, and you know it,” said the skipper vehemently.
“Wish I may die, sir,” began Joe.
“That’ll do,” said the skipper harshly. “You’ve tried to poison my dog.”
“I ain’t,” said Joe firmly.
“You ain’t been trying to kill ‘im with a poisoned bloater?” demanded the skipper.
“Certainly not, sir,” said Joe. “I wouldn’t do such a thing. I couldn’t if I tried.”
“Very good then,” said the skipper; “if it’s all right you eat it, and I’ll beg your pardon.”
“I ain’t goin’ to eat after a dog,” said Joe, shuffling.
“The dog’s as clean as you are,” said the skipper. “I’d sooner eat after him than you.”
“Well, you eat it then, sir,” said Bates desperately. “If it’s poisoned you’ll die, and I’ll be ‘ung for it. I can’t say no fairer than that, can I?”
There was a slight murmur from the men, who stood by watching the skipper with an air of unholy expectancy.
“Well, the boy shall eat it then,” said the skipper. “Eat that bloater, boy, and I’ll give you sixpence.”
The boy came forward slowly, and looking from the men to the skipper, and from the skipper back to the men, began to whimper.
“If you think it’s poisoned,” interrupted the mate, “you oughtn’t to make the boy eat it. I don’t like boys, but you must draw the line somewhere.”
“It’s poisoned,” said the skipper, shaking it at Bates, “and they know it. Well, I’ll keep it till we get to port, and then I’ll have it analysed. And it’ll be a sorry day for you, Bates, when I hear it’s poisoned. A month’s hard labour is what you’ll get.”
He turned away and went below with as much dignity as could be expected of a man carrying a mangled herring, and placing it on a clean plate, solemnly locked it up in his state-room.
For two days the crew heard no more about it, though the skipper’s eyes gleamed dangerously each time that they fell upon the shrinking Bates. The weather was almost tropical, with not an air stirring, and the Arethusa, bearing its dread secret still locked in its state-room, rose and fell upon a sea of glassy smoothness without making any progress worth recording.
“I wish you’d keep that thing in your berth, George,” said the skipper, as they sat at tea the second evening; “it puts me in a passion every time I look at it.”
“I couldn’t think of it, cap’n,” replied the mate firmly; “it makes me angry enough as it is. Every time I think of ’em trying to poison that poor dumb creature I sort o’ choke. I try to forget it.”
The skipper, eyeing him furtively, helped himself to another cup of tea.
“You haven’t got a tin box with a lid to it, I s’pose?” he remarked somewhat shamefacedly.
The mate shook his head. “I looked for one this morning,” he said. “There ain’t so much as a bottle aboard we could shove it into, and it wants shoving into something—bad, it does.”
“I don’t like to be beat,” said the skipper, shaking his head. “All them grinning monkeys for’ard ‘ud think it a rare good joke. I’d throw it overboard if it wasn’t for that. We can’t keep it this weather.”
“Well, look ‘ere; ‘ere’s a way out of it,” said the mate. “Call Joe down, and make him keep it in the foc’sle and take care of it. That’ll punish ’em all too.”
“Why, you idiot, he’d lose it!” rapped out the other impatiently.
“O’ course he would,” said the mate; “but that’s the most digernified way out of it for you. You can call ‘im all sorts o’ things, and abuse ‘im for the rest of his life. They’ll prove themselves guilty by chucking it away, won’t they?”
It really seemed the only thing to be done. The skipper finished his tea in silence, and then going on deck called the crew aft and apprised them of his intentions, threatening them with all sorts of pains and penalties if the treasure about to be confided to their keeping should be lost The cook was sent below for it, and, at the skipper’s bidding, handed it to the grinning Joe.
“And mind,” said the skipper as he turned away, “I leave it in your keepin’, and if it’s missing I shall understand that you’ve made away with it, and I shall take it as a sign of guilt, and act according.”
The end came sooner even than he expected. They were at breakfast next morning when Joe, looking somewhat pale, came down to the cabin, followed by Clark, bearing before him an empty plate.
“Well?” said the skipper fiercely.
“It’s about the ‘erring, sir,” said Joe, twisting his cap between his hands.
“Well?” roared the skipper again.
“It’s gone, sir,” said Joe, in bereaved accents.
“You mean you’ve thrown it away, you infernal rascal!” bellowed the skipper.
“No, sir,” said Joe.
“Ah! I s’pose it walked up on deck and jumped overboard,” said the mate.
“No, sir,” said Joe softly. “The dog ate it, sir.”
The skipper swung round in his seat and regarded him open-mouthed.
“The—dog—ate—it?” he repeated.
“Yes, sir; Clark saw ‘im do it—didn’t you, Clark?”
“I did,” said Clark promptly. He had made his position doubly sure by throwing it overboard himself.
“It comes to the same thing, sir,” said Joe sanctimoniously; “my innercence is proved just the same. You’ll find the dog won’t take no ‘urt through it, sir. You watch ‘im.”
The skipper breathed hard, but made no reply.
“If you don’t believe me, sir, p’raps you’d like to see the plate where ‘e licked it?” said Joe. “Give me the plate, Sam.”
He turned to take it, but in place of handing it to him that useful witness dropped it and made hurriedly for the companion-ladder, and by strenuous efforts reached the deck before Joe, although that veracious gentleman, assisted from below by strong and willing arms, made a good second.