The captain of the Fearless came on to the wharf in a manner more suggestive of deer-stalking than that of a prosaic shipmaster returning to his craft. He dodged round an empty van, lurked behind an empty barrel, flitted from that to a post, and finally from the interior of a steam crane peeped melodramatically on to the deck of his craft.
To the ordinary observer there was no cause for alarm. The decks were a bit slippery but not dangerous except to a novice; the hatches were on, and in the lighted galley the cook might be discovered moving about in a manner indicative of quiet security and an untroubled conscience.
With a last glance behind him the skipper descended from the crane and stepped lightly aboard.
“Hist,” said the cook, coming out quietly. “I’ve been watching for you to come.”
“Damned fine idea of watching you’ve got,” said the skipper irritably. “What is it?”
The cook jerked his thumb towards the cabin. “He’s down there,” he said in a hoarse whisper. “The mate said when you came aboard you was just to go and stand near the companion and whistle ‘God Save the Queen’ and he’ll come up to you to see what’s to be done.”
“Whistle!” said the skipper, trying to moisten his parched lips with his tongue. “I couldn’t whistle just now to save my life.”
“The mate don’t know what to do, and that was to be the signal,” said the cook. “He’s darn there with him givin’ ‘im drink and amoosin’ ‘im.”
“Well, you go and whistle it,” said the skipper.
The cook wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “’Ow does it go?” he inquired anxiously. “I never could remember toons.”
“Oh, go and tell Bill to do it!” said the skipper impatiently.
Summoned noiselessly by the cook, Bill came up from the forecastle, and on learning what was required of him pursed up his lips and started our noble anthem with a whistle of such richness and volume that the horrified skipper was almost deafened with it. It acted on the mate like a charm, and he came from below and closed Bill’s mouth, none too gently, with a hand which shook with excitement. Then, as quietly as possible, he closed the companion and secured the fastenings.
“He’s all right,” he said to the skipper breathlessly. “He’s a prisoner. He’s ‘ad four goes o’ whisky, an’ he seems inclined to sleep.”
“Who let him go down the cabin?” demanded the skipper angrily. “It’s a fine thing I can’t leave the ship for an hour or so but what I come back and find people sitting all round my cabin.”
“He let hisself darn,” said the cook, who saw a slight opening advantageous to himself in connection with a dish smashed the day before, “an’ I was that surprised, not to say alarmed, that I dropped the large dish and smashed it.”
“What did he say?” inquired the skipper.
“The blue one, I mean,” said the cook, who wanted that matter settled for good, “the one with the place at the end for the gravy to run into.”
“What did he say?” vociferated the skipper.
“’E ses, ‘Ullo,’ he ses, ‘you’ve done it now, old man,’” replied the truthful cook.
The skipper turned a furious face to the mate.
“When the cook come up and told me,” said the mate, in answer, “I see at once what was up, so I went down and just talked to him clever like.”
“I should like to know what you said,” muttered the skipper.
“Well, if you think you can do better than I did you’d better go down and see him,” retorted the mate hotly. “After all, it’s you what ‘e come to see. He’s your visitor.”
“No offence, Bob,” said the skipper. “I didn’t mean nothing.”
“I don’t know nothin’ o’ horse-racin’,” continued the mate, with an insufferable air, “and I never ‘ad no money troubles in my life, bein’ always brought up proper at ‘ome and warned of what would ‘appen, but I know a sheriff’s officer when I see ‘im.”
“What am I to do?” groaned the skipper, too depressed even to resent his subordinate’s manner. “It’s a judgment summons. It’s ruin if he gets me.”
“Well, so far as I can see, the only thing for you to do is to miss the ship this trip,” said the mate, without looking at him. “I can take her out all right.”
“I won’t,” said the skipper, interrupting fiercely.
“Very well, you’ll be nabbed,” said the mate.
“You’ve been wanting to handle this craft a long time,” said the skipper fiercely. “You could ha’ got rid of him if you’d wanted to. He’s no business down my cabin.”
“I tried everything I could think of,” asseverated the mate.
“Well, he’s come down on my ship without being asked,” said the skipper fiercely, “and, damme, he can stay there. Cast off.”
“But,” said the mate, “s’pose—”
“Cast off,” repeated the skipper. “He’s come on my ship, and I’ll give him a trip free.”
“And where are you and the mate to sleep?” inquired the cook, who was a man of pessimistic turn of mind, and given to forebodings.
“In your bunks,” said the skipper brutally. “Cast off there.”
The men obeyed, grinning, and the schooner was soon threading her way in the darkness down the river, the skipper listening somewhat nervously for the first intimation of his captive’s awakening.
He listened in vain that night, for the prisoner made no sign, but at six o’clock in the morning, when the Fearless, coming within sight of the Nore, began to dance like a cork upon the waters, the mate reported hollow groans from the cabin.
“Let him groan,” said the skipper briefly, “as holler as he likes.”
“Well, I’ll just go down and see how he is,” said the mate.
“You stay where you are,” said the skipper sharply.
“Well, but you ain’t going to starve the man?”
“Nothing to do with me,” said the skipper ferociously; “if a man likes to come down and stay in my cabin, that’s his business. I’m not supposed to know he’s there; and if I like to lock my cabin up and sleep in a foc’sle what’s got more fleas in it than ten other foc’sles put together, and what smells worse than ten foc’sles rolled into one, that’s my business.”
“Yes, but I don’t want to berth for’ard too,” grumbled the other. “He can’t touch me. I can go and sleep in my berth.”
“You’ll do what I wish, my lad,” said the skipper.
“I’m the mate,” said the other darkly.
“And I’m the master,” said the other; “if the master of a ship can stay down the foc’sle, I’m sure a tuppeny-ha’penny mate can.”
“The men don’t like it,” objected the mate.
“Damn the men,” said the skipper politely, “and as to starving the chap, there’s a water-bottle full o’ water in my state-room, to say nothing of a jug, and a bag o’ biscuits under the table.”
The mate walked off whistling, and the skipper, by no means so easy in his mind as he pretended to be, began to consider ways and means out of the difficulty which he foresaw must occur when they reached port.
“What sort o’ looking chap is he?” he inquired of the cook.
“Big, strong-looking chap,” was the reply.
“Look as though he’d make a fuss if I sent you and Bill down below to gag him when we get to the other end?” suggested the skipper.
The cook said that judging by appearances “fuss” would be no word for it.
“I can’t understand him keeping so quiet,” said the skipper; “that’s what gets over me.”
“He’s biding ‘is time, I expect,” said the cook comfortingly. “He’s a ‘ard looking customer, ‘sides which he’s likely sea-sick.”
The day passed slowly, and as night approached a sense of mystery and discomfort overhung the vessel. The man at the wheel got nervous, and flattered Bill into keeping him company by asking him to spin him a yarn. He had good reason for believing that he knew his comrade’s stock of stories by heart, but in the sequel it transpired that there was one, of a prisoner turning into a cat and getting out of the porthole and running up helmsmen’s backs, which he hadn’t heard before. And he told Bill in the most effective language he could command that he never wanted to hear it again.
The night passed and day broke, and still the mysterious passenger made no sign. The crew got in the habit of listening at the companion and peeping through the skylight; but the door of the stateroom was closed, and the cabin itself as silent as the grave. The skipper went about with a troubled face, and that afternoon, unable to endure the suspense any longer, civilly asked the mate to go below and investigate.
“I’d rather not,” said the mate, shrugging his shoulders.
“I’d sooner he served me and have done with it,” said the skipper. “I get thinking all sorts of awful things.”
“Well, why don’t you go down yourself?” said the mate. “He’d serve you fast enough, I’ve no doubt.”
“Well, it may be just his artfulness,” said the skipper; “an’ I don’t want to humour him if he’s all right. I’m askin’ it as a favour, Bob.”
“I’ll go if the cook’ll come,” said the mate after a pause.
The cook hesitated.
“Go on, cook,” said the skipper sharply; “don’t keep the mate waiting, and, whatever you do, don’t let him come up on deck.”
The mate led the way to the companion, and, opening it quietly, led the way below, followed by the cook. There was a minute’s awful suspense, and then a wild cry rang out below, and the couple came dashing madly up on deck again.
“What is it?” inquired the pallid skipper.
The mate, leaning for support against the wheel, opened his mouth, but no words came; the cook, his hands straight by his side and his eyes glassy, made a picture from which the crew drew back in awe.
“What’s—the—matter?” said the skipper again.
Then the mate, regaining his composure by an effort, spoke.
“You needn’t trouble to fasten the companion again,” he said slowly.
The skipper’s face changed from white to grey. “Why not?” he asked in a trembling voice.
“He’s dead,” was the solemn reply.
“Nonsense,” said the other, with quivering lips. “He’s shamming or else fainting. Did you try to bring him round?”
“I did not,” said the mate. “I don’t deceive you. I didn’t stay down there to do no restoring, and I don’t think you would either.”
“Go down and see whether you can wake him, cook,” said the skipper.
“Not me,” said the cook with a mighty shudder.
Two of the hands went and peeped furtively down through the skylight. The empty cabin looked strangely quiet and drear, and the door of the stateroom stood ajar. There was nothing to satisfy their curiosity, but they came back looking as though they had seen a ghost.
“What’s to be done?” said the skipper helplessly.
“Nothing can be done,” said the mate. “He’s beyond our aid.”
“I wasn’t thinking about him,” said the skipper.
“Well, the best thing you can do when we get to Plymouth is to bolt,” said the mate. “We’ll hide it up as long as we can to give you a start It’s a hanging matter.”
The hapless master of the Fearless wiped his clammy brow. “I can’t think he’s dead,” he said slowly. “Who’ll come down with me to see?”
“You’d better leave it alone,” said the mate kindly, “it ain’t pleasant, and besides that we can all swear up to the present that you haven’t touched him or been near him.”
“Who’ll come down with me?” repeated the skipper. “I believe it’s a trick, and that he’ll start up and serve me, but I feel I must go.”
He caught Bill’s eye, and that worthy seaman, after a short tussle with his nerves, shuffled after him. The skipper, brushing aside the mate, who sought to detain him, descended first, and entering the cabin stood hesitating, with Bill close behind him.
“Just open the door, Bill,” he said slowly.
“Arter you, sir,” said the well-bred Bill.
The skipper stepped slowly towards it and flung it suddenly open. Then he drew back with a sharp cry and looked nervously about him. The bed was empty.
“Where’s he gone?” whispered the trembling Bill.
The other made no reply, but in a dazed fashion began to grope about the cabin. It was a small place and soon searched, and the two men sat down and eyed each other in blank amazement.
“Where is he?” said Bill at length.
The skipper shook his head helplessly, and was about to ascribe the mystery to supernatural agencies when the truth in all its naked simplicity flashed upon him and he spoke. “It’s the mate,” he said slowly, “the mate and the cook. I see it all now; there’s never been anybody here. It was a little job on the mate’s part to get the ship. If you want to hear a couple o’ rascals sized up, Bill, come on deck.”
And Bill, grinning in anticipation, went.