E’s a nero, that’s wot ‘e is, sir,” said the cook, as he emptied a boiler of dirty water overboard.
“A what?” said the skipper.
“A nero,” said the cook, speaking very slowly and distinctly. “A nero in real life, a chap wot, speaking for all for’ard, we’re proud to have aboard along with us.”
“I didn’t know he was much of a swimmer,” said the skipper, glancing curiously at a clumsily-built man of middle age, who sat on the hatch glancing despondently at the side.
“No more ‘e ain’t,” said the cook, “an’ that’s what makes ‘im more ‘eroish still in my own opinion.”
“Did he take his clothes off?” inquired the mate.
“Not a bit of it,” said the delighted cook; “not a pair of trowsis, nor even ‘is ‘at, which was sunk.”
“You’re a liar, cook,” said the hero, looking up for a moment.
“You didn’t take your trowsis off, George?” said the cook anxiously.
“I chucked my ‘at on the pavement,” growled George, without looking up.
“Well, anyway, you went over the Embankment after that pore girl like a Briton, didn’t you?” said the other.
There was no reply.
“Didn’t you?” said the cook appealingly.
“Did you expect me to go over like a Dutchman, or wot?” demanded George fiercely.
“That’s ‘is modesty,” said the cook, turning to the others with the air of a showman. “’E can’t bear us to talk about it Nearly drownded ‘e was. All but, and a barge came along and shoved a boat-hook right through the seat of his trowsis an’ saved ‘im. Stand up an’ show ’em your trowsis, George.”
“If I do stand up,” said George, in a voice broken with rage, “it’ll be a bad day for you, my lad.”
“Ain’t he modest?” said the cook. “Don’t it do you good to ‘ear ‘im? He was just like that when they got him ashore and the crowd started patting him.”
“Didn’t like it?” queried the mate.
“Well, they overdid it a little, p’raps,” admitted the cook; “one old chap wot couldn’t get near patted ‘is ‘ead with ‘is stick, but it was all meant in the way of kindness.”
“I’m proud of you, George,” said the skipper heartily.
“We all are,” said the mate.
“I’ll write for the medal for him,” said the skipper. “Were there any witnesses, cook?”
“Heaps of ’em,” said the other, “but I gave ’em ‘is name and address. ‘Schooner John Henry, of Limehouse, is ‘is home,’ I ses, ‘and George Cooper ‘is name.’”
“You talked a damned sight too much,” said the hero, “you lean, lop-sided son of a tinker.”
“There’s ‘is modesty ag’in,” said the cook, with a knowing smile. “’E’s busting with modesty, is George. You should ha’ seen ‘im when a chap took ‘is fortygraph.”
“Took his what?” said the skipper, becoming interested.
“His fortygraph,” said the cook. “’E was a young chap what was taking views for a noose-paper. ‘E took George drippin’ wet just as ‘e come out of the water, ‘e took him arter ‘e ‘ad ‘is face wiped, an’ ‘e took ‘im when ‘e was sitting up swearing at a man wot asked ‘im whether ‘e was very wet.”
“An’ you told ‘im where I lived, and what I was,” said George, turning on him and shaking his fist. “You did.”
“I did,” said the cook simply. “You’ll live to thank me for it, George.”
The other gave a dreadful howl, and rising from the deck walked forward and went below, giving a brother seaman who patted his shoulder as he passed a blow in the ribs, which nearly broke them. Those on deck exchanged glances.
“Well, I don’t know,” said the mate, shrugging his shoulders; “seems to me if I’d saved a fellow-critter’s life I shouldn’t mind hearing about it.”
“That’s what you think,” said the skipper, drawing himself up a little. “If ever you do do anything of the kind perhaps you’ll feel different about it.”
“Well, I don’t see how you should know any more than me,” said the other.
The skipper cleared his throat.
“There have been one or two little things in my life which I’m not exactly ashamed of,” he said modestly.
“That ain’t much to boast of,” said the mate, wilfully misunderstanding him.
“I mean,” said the skipper sharply, “one or two things which some people might have been proud of. But I’m proud to say that there isn’t a living soul knows of ’em.”
“I can quite believe that,” assented the mate, and walked off with an irritating smile.
The skipper was about to follow him, to complain of the needless ambiguity of his remarks, when he was arrested by a disturbance from the foc’sle. In response to the cordial invitation of the cook, the mate and one of the hands from the brig Endeavour, moored alongside, had come aboard and gone below to look at George. The manner in which they were received was a slur upon the hospitality of the John Henry; and they came up hurriedly, declaring that they never wanted to see him again as long as they lived, and shouting offensive remarks behind them as they got over the side of their own vessel.
The skipper walked slowly to the focs’le and put his head down.
“George,” he shouted.
“Sir,” said the hero gruffly.
“Come down into the cabin,” said the other, turning away. “I want to have a little talk with you.”
George rose, and, first uttering some terrible threats against the cook, who bore them with noble fortitude, went on deck and followed the skipper to the cabin.
At his superior’s request he took a seat on the locker, awkwardly enough, but smiled faintly as the skipper produced a bottle and a couple of glasses.
“Your health, George,” said the skipper, as he pushed a glass towards him and raised his own.
“My bes’ respec’s, sir,” said George, allowing the liquor to roll slowly round his mouth before swallowing it. He sighed heavily, and, putting his empty glass on the table, allowed his huge head to roll on his chest.
“Saving life don’t seem to agree with you, George,” said the skipper. “I like modesty, but you seem to me to carry it a trifle too far.”
“It ain’t modesty, sir,” said George; “it’s that fortygraph. When I think o’ that I go ‘ot all over.”
“I shouldn’t let that worry me if I was you, George,” said the other kindly. “Looks ain’t everything.”
“I didn’t mean it that way,” said George very sourly. “My looks is good enough for me. In fact, it is partly owing to my looks, so to speak, that I’m in a mess.”
“A little more rum, George?” said the skipper, whose curiosity was roused. “I don’t want to know your business, far from it. But in my position as cap’n, if any of my crew gets in a mess I consider it’s my duty to lend them a hand out of it, if I can.”
“The world ‘ud be a better place if there was more like you,” said George, waxing sentimental as he sniffed delicately at the fragrant beverage. “If that noosepaper, with them pictures, gets into a certain party’s ‘ands, I’m ruined.”
“Not if I can help it, George,” said the other with great firmness. “How do you mean ruined?”
The seaman set his glass down on the little table, and, leaning over, formed a word with his lips, and then drew back slowly and watched the effect.
“What?” said the skipper.
The other repeated the performance, but beyond seeing that some word of three syllables was indicated the skipper obtained no information.
“You can speak a little louder,” he said somewhat crustily.
“Bigamy!” said George, breathing the word solemnly.
“You?” said the skipper.
George nodded. “And if my first only gets hold of that paper, and sees my phiz and reads my name, I’m done for. There’s my reward for saving a fellow-critter’s life. Seven years.”
“I’m surprised at you, George,” said the skipper sternly. “Such a good wife as you’ve got too.”
“I ain’t saying nothing agin number two,” grumbled George. “It’s number one that didn’t suit. I left her eight years ago. She was a bad ‘un. I took a v’y’ge to Australia furst, just to put her out o’ my mind a bit, an’ I never seed her since. Where am I if she sees all about me in the paper?”
“Is she what you’d call a vindictive woman?” inquired the other. “Nasty-tempered, I mean.”
“Nasty-tempered,” echoed the husband of two. “If that woman could only have me put in gaol she’d stand on ‘er ‘ead for joy.”
“Well, I’ll do what I can for you if the worst comes to the worst,” said the skipper. “You’d better not say anything about this to anybody else.”
“Not me,” said George fervently, as he rose, “an’ o’ course you—”
“You can rely on me,” said the skipper in his most stately fashion.
He thought of the seaman’s confidence several times during the evening, and, being somewhat uncertain of the law as to bigamy, sought information from the master of the Endeavour as they sat in the tetter’s cabin at a quiet game of cribbage. By virtue of several appearances in the law courts with regard to collisions and spoilt cargoes this gentleman had obtained a knowledge of law which made him a recognised authority from London Bridge to the Nore.
It was a delicate matter for the master of the John Henry to broach, and, with the laudable desire of keeping the hero’s secret, he approached it by a most circuitous route. He began with a burglary, followed with an attempted murder, and finally got on the subject of bigamy, via the “Deceased Wife’s Sister Bill.”
“What sort o’ bigamy?” inquired the master of the brig.
“Oh, two wives,” said Captain Thomsett.
“Yes, yes,” said the other, “but are there any mitigating circumstances in the case, so that you could throw yourself on the mercy o’ the court, I mean?”
“My case!” said Thomsett, glaring. “It ain’t for me.”
“Oh, no, o’ course not,” said Captain Stubbs.
“What do you mean by ‘o’ course not’?” demanded the indignant master of the John Henry.
“Your deal,” said Captain Stubbs, pushing the cards over to him.
“You haven’t answered my question,” said Captain Thomsett, regarding him offensively.
“There’s some questions,” said Stubbs slowly, “as is best left unanswered. When you’ve seen as much law as I have, my lad, you’ll know that one of the first principles of English law is, that nobody is bound to commit themselves.”
“Do you mean to say you think it is me?” bellowed Captain Thomsett.
“I mean to say nothing,” said Captain Stubbs, putting his huge hands on the table. “But when a man comes into my cabin and begins to hum an’ haw an’ hint at things, and then begins to ask my advice about bigamy, I can’t help thinking. This is a free country, and there’s no law ag’in thinking. Make a clean breast of it, cap’n, an’ I’ll do what I can for you.”
“You’re a blanked fool,” said Captain Thomsett wrathfully.
Captain Stubbs shook his head gently, and smiled with infinite patience. “P’raps so,” he said modestly. “P’raps so; but there’s one thing I can do, and that is, I can read people.”
“You can read me, I s’pose?” said Thomsett sneeringly.
“Easy, my lad,” said the other, still preserving, though by an obvious effort, his appearance of judicial calm. “I’ve seen your sort before. One in pertikler I call to mind. He’s doing fourteen years now, pore chap. But you needn’t be alarmed, cap’n. Your secret is safe enough with me.”
Captain Thomsett got up and pranced up and down the cabin, but Captain Stubbs remained calm. He had seen that sort before. It was interesting to the student of human nature, and he regarded his visitor with an air of compassionate interest. Then Captain Thomsett resumed his seat, and, to preserve his own fair fame, betrayed that of George.
“I knew it was either you or somebody your kind ‘art was interested in,” said the discomfited Stubbs, as they resumed the interrupted game. “You can’t help your face, cap’n. When you was thinking about that pore chap’s danger it was working with emotion. It misled me, I own it, but it ain’t often I meet such a feeling ‘art as yours.”
Captain Thomsett, his eyes glowing affectionately, gripped his friend’s hand, and in the course of the game listened to an exposition of the law relating to bigamy of a most masterly and complicated nature, seasoned with anecdotes calculated to make the hardiest of men pause on the brink of matrimony and think seriously of their position.
“Suppose this woman comes aboard after pore George,” said Thomsett. “What’s the best thing to be done?”
“The first thing,” said Captain Stubbs, “is to gain time. Put her off.”
“Off the ship, d’ye mean?” inquired the other.
“No, no,” said the jurist “Pretend he’s ill and can’t see anybody. By gum, I’ve got it.”
He slapped the table with his open hand, and regarded the other triumphantly.
“Let him turn into his bunk and pretend to be dead,” he continued, in a voice trembling with pride at his strategy. “It’s pretty dark down your foc’sle, I know. Don’t have no light down there, and tell him to keep quiet.”
Captain Thomsett’s eyes shone, but with a qualified admiration.
“Ain’t it somewhat sudden?” he demurred.
Captain Stubbs regarded him with a look of supreme artfulness, and slowly closed one eye.
“He got a chill going in the water,” he said quietly.
“Well, you’re a masterpiece,” said Thomsett ungrudgingly. “I will say this of you, you’re a masterpiece. Mind this is all to be kept quite secret.”
“Make your mind easy,” said the eminent jurist. “If I told all I know there’s a good many men in this river as ‘ud be doing time at the present moment.”
Captain Thomsett expressed his pleasure at this information, and, having tried in vain to obtain a few of their names, even going so far as to suggest some, looked at the clock, and, shaking hands, departed to his own ship. Captain Stubbs, left to himself, finished his pipe and retired to rest; and his mate, who had been lying in the adjoining bunk during the consultation, vainly trying to get to sleep, scratched his head, and tried to think of a little strategy himself. He had glimmerings of it before he fell asleep, but when he awoke next morning it flashed before him in all the fulness of its matured beauty.
He went on deck smiling, and, leaning his arms on the side, gazed contemplatively at George, who was sitting on the deck listening darkly to the cook as that worthy read aloud from a newspaper.
“Anything interesting, cook?” demanded the mate.
“About George, sir,” said the cook, stopping in his reading. “There’s pictures of ‘im too.”
He crossed to the side, and, handing the paper to the mate, listened smilingly to the little ejaculations of surprise and delight of that deceitful man as he gazed upon the likenesses. “Wonderful,” he said emphatically. “Wonderful. I never saw such a good likeness in my life, George. That’ll be copied in every newspaper in London, and here’s the name in full too—’George Cooper, schooner John Henry, now lying off Limehouse.’”
He handed the paper back to the cook and turned away grinning as George, unable to control himself any longer, got up with an oath and went below to nurse his wrath in silence. A little later the mate of the brig, after a very confidential chat with his own crew, lit his pipe and, with a jaunty air, went ashore.
For the next hour or two George alternated between the foc’sle and the deck, from whence he cast harassed glances at the busy wharves ashore. The skipper, giving it as his own suggestion, acquainted him with the arrangements made in case of the worst, and George, though he seemed somewhat dubious about them, went below and put his bed in order.
“It’s very unlikely she’ll see that particular newspaper though,” said the skipper encouragingly.
“People are sure to see what you don’t want ’em to,” growled George. “Somebody what knows us is sure to see it, an’ show ‘er.”
“There’s a lady stepping into a waterman’s skiff now,” said the skipper, glancing at the stairs. “That wouldn’t be her, I s’pose?”
He turned to the seaman as he spoke, but the words had hardly left his lips before George was going below and undressing for his part.
“If anybody asks for me,” he said, turning to the cook, who was regarding his feverish movements in much astonishment, “I’m dead.”
“You’re wot?” inquired the other.
“Dead,” said George. “Dead. Died at ten o’clock this morning. D’ye understand, fat-head?”
“I can’t say as ‘ow I do,” said the cook somewhat acrimoniously.
“Pass the word round that I’m dead,” repeated George hurriedly. “Lay me out, cookie. I’ll do as much for you one day.”
Instead of complying the horrified cook rushed up on deck to tell the skipper that George’s brain had gone; but, finding him in the midst of a hurried explanation to the men, stopped with greedy ears to listen. The skiff was making straight for the schooner, propelled by an elderly waterman in his shirt-sleeves, the sole passenger being a lady of ample proportions, who was watching the life of the river through a black veil.
In another minute the skiff bumped alongside, and the waterman standing in the boat passed the painter aboard. The skipper gazed at the fare and, shivering inwardly, hoped that George was a good actor.
“I want to see Mr. Cooper,” said the lady grimly, as she clambered aboard, assisted by the waterman.
“I’m very sorry, but you can’t see him, mum,” said the skipper politely.
“Ho! carn’t I?” said the lady, raising her voice a little. “You go an’ tell him that his lawful wedded wife, what he deserted, is aboard.”
“It ‘ud be no good, mum,” said the skipper, who felt the full dramatic force of the situation. “I’m afraid he wouldn’t listen to you.”
“Ho! I think I can persuade ‘im a bit,” said the lady, drawing in her lips. “Where is ‘e?”
“Up aloft,” said the skipper, removing his hat.
“Don’t you give me none of your lies,” said the lady, as she scanned both masts closely.
“He’s dead,” said the skipper solemnly.
His visitor threw up her arms and staggered back. The cook was nearest, and, throwing his arms round her waist, he caught her as she swayed. The mate, who was of a sympathetic nature, rushed below for whisky, as she sank back on the hatchway, taking the reluctant cook with her.
“Poor thing,” said the skipper.
“Don’t ‘old ‘er so tight, cook,” said one of the men. “There’s no necessity to squeeze ‘er.”
“Pat ‘er ‘ands,” said another.
“Pat ’em yourself,” said the cook brusquely, as he looked up and saw the delight of the crew of the Endeavour, who were leaning over their vessel’s side regarding the proceedings with much interest.
“Don’t leave go of me,” said the newly-made widow, as she swallowed the whisky, and rose to her feet.
“Stand by her, cook,” said the skipper authoritatively.
“Ay, ay, sir,” said the cook.
They formed a procession below, the skipper and mate leading; the cook with his fair burden, choking her sobs with a handkerchief, and the crew following.
“What did he die of?” she asked in a whisper broken with sobs.
“Chill from the water,” whispered the skipper in response.
“I can’t see ‘im,” she whispered. “It’s so dark here. Has anybody got a match? Oh! here’s some.”
Before anybody could interfere she took a box from a locker, and, striking one, bent over the motionless George, and gazed at his tightly-closed eyes and open mouth in silence.
“You’ll set the bed alight,” said the mate in a low voice, as the end of the match dropped off.
“It won’t hurt ‘im,” whispered the widow tearfully.
The mate, who had distinctly seen the corpse shift a bit, thought differently.
“Nothing ‘ll ‘urt ‘im now” whispered the widow, sniffing as she struck another match. “Oh! if he could only sit up ‘and speak to me.”
For a moment the mate, who knew George’s temper, thought it highly probable that he would, as the top of the second match fell between his shirt and his neck.
“Don’t look any more,” said the skipper anxiously; “you can’t do him any good.”
His visitor handed him the matches, and, for a short time, sobbed in silence.
“We’ve done all we could for him,” said the skipper at length. “It ‘ud be best for you to go home and lay down a bit.”
“You’re all very good, I’m sure,” whispered the widow, turning away. “I’ll send for him this evening.”
They all started, especially the corpse.
“Eh?” said the skipper.
“He was a bad ‘usband to me,” she continued, still in the same sobbing whisper, “but I’ll ‘ave ‘im put away decent.”
“You’d better let us bury him,” said the skipper. “We can do it cheaper than you can, perhaps?”
“No. I’ll send for him this evening,” said the lady. “Are they ‘is clothes?”
“The last he ever wore,” said the skipper pathetically, pointing to the heap of clothing. “There’s his chest, pore chap, just as he left it.”
The bereaved widow bent down, and, raising the lid, shook her head tearfully as she regarded the contents. Then she gathered up the clothes under her left arm, and, still sobbing, took his watch, his knife, and some small change from his chest, while the crew in dumb show inquired of the deceased, who was regarding her over the edge of the bunk, what was to be done.
“I suppose there was some money due to him?” she inquired, turning to the skipper.
“Matter of a few shillings,” he stammered.
“I’ll take them,” she said, holding out her hand.
The skipper put his hand in his pocket and, in his turn, looked inquiringly at the late lamented for guidance; but George had closed his eyes again to the world, and, after a moment’s hesitation, he slowly counted the money into her hand.
She dropped the coins into her pocket, and, with a parting glance at the motionless figure in the bunk, turned away. The procession made its way on deck again, but not in the same order, the cook carefully bringing up the rear.
“If there’s any other little things,” she said, pausing at the side to get a firmer grip of the clothes under her arm.
“You shall have them,” said the skipper, who had been making mental arrangements to have George buried before her return.
Apparently much comforted by this assurance, she allowed herself to be lowered into the boat, which was waiting. The excitement of the crew of the brig, who had been watching her movements with eager interest, got beyond the bounds of all decency as they saw her being pulled ashore with the clothes in her lap.
“You can come up now,” said the skipper, as he caught sight of George’s face at the scuttle.
“Has she gone?” inquired the seaman anxiously.
The skipper nodded, and a wild cheer rose from the crew of the brig as George came on deck in his scanty garments, and from behind the others peered cautiously over the side.
“Where is she?” he demanded.
The skipper pointed to the boat.
“That?” said George, starting. “That? That ain’t my wife.”
“Not your wife?” said the skipper, staring. “Whose is she then?”
“How the devil should I know?” said George, throwing discipline to the winds in his agitation. “It ain’t my wife.”
“P’raps it’s one you’ve forgotten,” suggested the skipper in a low voice.
George looked at him and choked. “I’ve never seen her before,” he replied, “s’elp me. Call her back. Stop her.”
The mate rushed aft and began to haul in the ship’s boat, but George caught him suddenly by the arm.
“Never mind,” he said bitterly; “better let her go. She seems to know too much for me. Somebody’s been talking to her.”
It was the same thought that was troubling the skipper, and he looked searchingly from one to the other for an explanation. He fancied that he saw it when he met the eye of the mate of the brig, and he paused irresolutely as the skiff reached the stairs, and the woman, springing ashore, waved the clothes triumphantly in the direction of the schooner and disappeared.