The long summer day had gone and twilight was just merging into night. A ray of light from the lantern at the end of the quay went trembling across the sea, and in the little harbour the dusky shapes of a few small craft lay motionless on the dark water.
The master of the schooner Harebell came slowly towards the harbour, accompanied by his mate. Both men had provided ashore for a voyage which included no intoxicants, and the dignity of the skipper, always a salient feature, had developed tremendously under the influence of brown stout. He stepped aboard his schooner importantly, and then, turning to the mate, who was about to follow, suddenly held up his hand for silence.
“What did I tell you?” he inquired severely as the mate got quietly aboard.
“About knocking down the two policemen?” guessed the mate, somewhat puzzled.
“No,” said the other shortly. “Listen.”
The mate listened. From the foc’sle came low gruff voices of men, broken by the silvery ring of women’s laughter.
“Well, I’m a Dutchman,” said the mate the air of one who felt he was expected to say something.
“After all I said to ’em,” said the skipper with weary dignity. “You ‘eard what I said to them Jack?”
“Nobody could ha’ swore louder,” testified the mate.
“An’ here they are,” said the skipper, “defying of me. After all I said to ’em. After all the threats I—I employed.”
“Employed,” repeated the mate with relish.
“They’ve been and gone and asked them females down the foc’sle again. You know what I said I’d do, Jack, if they did.”
“Said you’d eat ’em without salt,” quoted the other helpfully.
“I’ll do worse than that, Jack,” said the skipper after a moment’s discomfiture. “What’s to hinder us casting off quietly and taking them along with us?
“If you ask me,” said the mate, “I should think you couldn’t please the crew better.”
“Well, we’ll see,” said the other, nodding sagaciously, “don’t make no noise, Jack.”
He set an example of silence himself, and aided by the mate, cast off the warps which held his unconscious visitors to their native town, and the wind being off the shore the little schooner drifted silently away from the quay.
The skipper went to the wheel, and the noise of the mate hauling on the jib brought a rough head out of the foc’sle, the owner of which, after a cry to his mates below, sprang up on deck and looked round in bewilderment.
“Stand by, there!” cried the skipper as the others came rushing on deck. “Shake ’em out.”
“Beggin’ your pardin’, sir,” said one of them with more politeness in his tones than he had ever used before, “but—”
“Stand by!” said the skipper.
“Now then!” shouted the mate sharply, “lively there! Lively with it!”
The men looked at each other helplessly and went to their posts as a scream of dismay arose from the fair beings below who, having just begun to realise their position, were coming on deck to try and improve it.
“What!” roared the skipper in pretended astonishment, “what! Gells aboard after all I said? It can’t be; I must be dreaming!”
“Take us back!” wailed the damsels, ignoring the sarcasm; “take us back, captain.”
“No, I can’t go back,” said the skipper. “You see what comes o’ disobedience, my gells. Lively there on that mains’l, d’ye hear?”
“We won’t do it again,” cried the girls, as the schooner came to the mouth of the harbour and they smelt the dark sea beyond. “Take us back.”
“It can’t be done,” said the skipper cheerfully.
“It’s agin the lor, sir,” said Ephraim Biddle solemnly.
“What! Taking my own ship out?” said the skipper in affected surprise. “How was I to know they were there? I’m not going back; ’tain’t likely. As they’ve made their beds, so they must lay on ’em.”
“They ain’t got no beds,” said George Scott hastily. “It ain’t fair to punish the gals for us, sir.”
“Hold your tongue,” said the skipper sharply.
“It’s agin the lor, sir,” said Biddle again. “If so be they’re passengers, this ship ain’t licensed to carry passengers. If so be as they’re took out agin their will, it’s abduction—I see the other day a chap had seven years for abducting one gal, three sevens—three sevens is—three sevens is—well, it’s more years than you’d like to be in prison, sir.”
“Bosh,” said the skipper, “they’re stowaways, an’ I shall put ’em ashore at the first port we touch at—Plymouth.”
A heartrending series of screams from the stowaways rounded his sentence, screams which gave way to sustained sobbing, as the schooner, catching the wind, began to move through the water.
“You’d better get below, my gals,” said Biddle, who was the eldest member of the crew, consolingly.
“Why don’t you make him take us back?” said Jenny Evans, the biggest of the three girls, indignantly.
“’Cos we can’t, my dear,” said Biddle reluctantly; “it’s agin the lor. You don’t want to see us put into prison, do you?”
“I don’t mind,” said Miss Evans tearfully, “so long as we get back. George, take us back.”
“I can’t,” said Scott sullenly.
“Well, you can look for somebody else, then,” said Miss Evans with temper. “You won’t marry me. How much would you get if you did make the skipper put back?”
“Very likely six months,” said Biddle solemnly.
“Six months would soon pass away,” said Miss Evans briskly, as she wiped her eye.
“It would be a rest,” said Miss Williams coaxingly.
The men not seeing things in quite the same light, they announced their intention of having nothing more to do with them, and crowding together in the bows beneath two or three blankets, condoled tearfully with each other on their misfortunes. For some time the men stood by offering clumsy consolations, but, tired at last of repeated rebuffs and insults, went below and turned in, leaving the satisfied skipper at the wheel.
The night was clear and the wind light. As the effects of his libations wore off the skipper had some misgivings as to the wisdom of his action, but it was too late to return, and he resolved to carry on.
Looking at all the circumstances of the case, he thought it best to keep the wheel in his own hands for a time, and the dawn came in the early hours and found him still at his post.
Objects began to stand out clearly in the growing light, and three dispirited girls put their heads out from their blankets and sniffed disdainfully at the sharp morning air. Then after an animated discussion they arose, and casting their blankets aside, walked up to the skipper and eyed him thoughtfully.
“As easy as easy,” said Jenny Evans confidently, as she drew herself up to her full height, and looked down at the indignant man.
“Why, he isn’t any bigger than a boy,” said Miss Williams savagely.
“Pity we didn’t think of it before,” said Miss Davies. “I s’pose the crew won’t help him?”
“Not they,” said Miss Evans scornfully. “If they do, we’ll serve them the same.”
They went off, leaving the skipper a prey to gathering uneasiness, watching their movements with wrinkled brow. From the forecastle and the galley they produced two mops and a broom, and he caught his breath sharply as Miss Evans came on deck with a pot of white paint in one hand and a pot of tar in the other.
“Now, girls,” said Miss Evans.
“Put those things down,” said the skipper in a peremptory voice.
“Sha’n’t,” said Miss Evans bluntly. “You haven’t got enough on yours,” she said, turning to Miss Davies. “Don’t spoil the skipper for a ha’porth of tar.”
At this new version of an old saw they laughed joyously, and with mops dripping tar and paint on the deck, marched in military style up to the skipper, and halted in front of him, smiling wickedly.
Then the heart of the skipper waxed sore faint within him, and, with a wild yell, he summoned his trusty crew to his side.
The crew came on deck slowly, and casting furtive glances at the scene, pushed Ephraim Biddle to the front.
“Take those mops away from ’em,” said the skipper haughtily.
“Don’t you interfere,” said Miss Evans, looking at them over her shoulder.
“Else we’ll give you some,” said Miss Williams bloodthirstily.
“Take those mops away from ’em!” bawled the skipper, instinctively drawing back as Miss Evans made a pass at him.
“I don’t see as ‘ow we can interfere, sir,” said Biddle with deep respect.
“What!” said the astonished skipper.
“It would be agin the lor for us to interfere with people,” said Biddle, turning to his mates, “dead agin the lor.”
“Don’t you talk rubbish,” said the skipper anxiously. “Take ’em away from ’em. It’s my tar and my paint, and—”
“You shall have it,” said Miss Evans reassuringly.
“If we touched ’em,” said Biddle impressively, “it’d be an assault at lor. ‘Sides which, they’d probably muss us up with ’em. All we can do, sir, is to stand by and see fair play.”
“Fair play!” cried the skipper dancing with rage, and turning hastily to the mate, who had just come on the scene. “Take those things away from ’em, Jack.”
“Well, if it’s all the same to you,” said the mate, “I’d rather not be drawn into it.”
“But I’d rather you were,” said the skipper sharply. “Take ’em away.”
“How?” inquired the mate pertinently.
“I order you to take ’em away,” said the skipper. “How, is your affair.”
“I’m not goin’ to raise my hand against a woman for anybody,” said the mate with decision. “It’s no part of my work to get messed up with tar and paint from lady passengers.”
“It’s part of your work to obey me, though,” said the skipper, raising his voice; “all of you. There’s five of you, with the mate, and only three gells. What are you afraid of?”
“Are you going to take us back?” demanded Jenny Evans.
“Run away,” said the skipper with dignity. “Run away.”
“I shall ask you three times,” said Miss Evans sternly. “One—are you going back? Two—are you going back? Three———”
In the midst of a breathless silence she drew within striking distance, while her allies, taking up a position on either flank of the enemy, listened attentively to the instructions of their leader.
“Be careful he doesn’t catch hold of the mops,” said Miss Evans; “but if he does, the others are to hit him over the head with the handles. Never mind about hurting him.”
“Take this wheel a minnit, Jack,” said the skipper, pale but determined.
The mate came forward and took it unwillingly, and the skipper, trying hard to conceal his trepidation, walked towards Miss Evans and tried to quell her with his eye. The power of the human eye is notorious, and Miss Evans showed her sense of the danger she ran by making an energetic attempt to close the skipper’s with her mop, causing him to duck with amazing nimbleness. At the same moment another mop loaded with white paint was pushed into the back of his neck. He turned with a cry of rage, and then realising the odds against him flung his dignity to the winds and dodged with the agility of a schoolboy. Through the galley and round the masts he went with the avenging mops in mad pursuit, until breathless and exhausted he suddenly sprang on to the side and climbed frantically into the rigging.
“Coward!” said Miss Evans, shaking her weapon at him.
“Come down,” cried Miss Williams. “Come down like a man.”
“It’s no good wasting time over him,” said Miss Evans, after another vain appeal to the skipper’s manhood. “He’s escaped. Get some more stuff on your mops.”
The mate, who had been laughing boisterously, checked himself suddenly, and assumed a gravity of demeanour more in accordance with his position. The mops were dipped in solemn silence, and Miss Evans approaching regarded him significantly.
“Now, my dears,” said the mate, waving his hand with a deprecatory gesture, “don’t be silly.”
“Don’t be what?” inquired the sensitive Miss Evans, raising her mop.
“You know what I mean,” said the mate hastily. “I can’t help myself.”
“Well, we’re going to help you,” said Miss Evans. “Turn the ship round.”
“You obey orders, Jack,” cried the skipper from aloft.
“It’s all very well for you sitting up there in peace and comfort,” said the mate indignantly. “I’m not going to be tarred to please you. Come down and take charge of your ship.”
“Do your duty, Jack,” said the skipper, who was polishing his face with a handkerchief. “They won’t touch you. They daren’t. They’re afraid to.”
“You’re egging ’em on,” cried the mate wrathfully. “I won’t steer; come and take it yourself.”
He darted behind the wheel as Miss Evans, who was getting impatient, made a thrust at him, and then, springing out, gained the side and rushed up the rigging after his captain. Biddle, who was standing close by, gazed earnestly at them and took the wheel.
“You won’t hurt old Biddle, I know,” he said, trying to speak confidently.
“Of course not,” said Miss Evans emphatically.
“Tar don’t hurt,” explained Miss Williams.
“It’s good for you,” said the third lady positively. “One—two———”
“It’s no good,” said the mate as Ephraim came suddenly into the rigging; “you’ll have to give in.”
“I’m damned if I will,” said the infuriated skipper. Then an idea occurred to him, and puckering his face shrewdly he began to descend.
“All right,” he said shortly, as Miss Evans advanced to receive him. “I’ll go back.”
He took the wheel; the schooner came round before the wind, and the willing crew, letting the sheets go, hauled them in again on the port side.
“And now, my lads,” said the skipper with a benevolent smile, “just clear that mess up off the decks, and you may as well pitch them mops overboard. They’ll never be any good again.”
He spoke carelessly, albeit his voice trembled a little, but his heart sank within him as Miss Evans, with a horrible contortion of her pretty face, intended for a wink, waved them back.
“You stay where you are,” she said imperiously; “we’ll throw them overboard—when we’ve done with them. What did you say, captain?”
The skipper was about to repeat it with great readiness when Miss Evans raised her trusty mop. The words died away on his lips, and after a hopeless glance from his mate to the crew and from the crew to the rigging, he accepted his defeat, and in grim silence took them home again.