W.W. Jacobs.

At Sunwich Port, Part 3. Contents: Chapters 11-15 online

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after an indignant glance at that gentleman he lowered his gaze and
remained silent.

"It is rather odd that my father should take you into his confidence,"
said Miss Nugent, turning to the boarding-master.

"Just wot I thought, miss," said the complaisant Mr. Smith; "but I s'pose
there was nobody else, and he wanted 'is message to go for fear you
should get worrying the police about 'im or something. He wants it kep'
quiet, and 'is last words to me as 'e left me was, 'If this affair gets
known I shall never come back. Tell 'em to keep it quiet.'"

"I don't think anybody will want to go bragging about it," said Jack
Nugent, rising, "unless it is Sam Wilks. Come along, Kate."

Miss Nugent followed him obediently, only pausing at the door to give a
last glance of mingled surprise and reproach at Mr. Wilks. Then they
were outside and the door closed behind them.

"Well, that's all right," said Mr. Smith, easily.

"All right!" vociferated the steward. "Wot did you put it all on to me
for? Why didn't you tell 'em your part in it?"

"Wouldn't ha' done any good," said Mr. Smith; "wouldn't ha' done you any
good. Besides, I did just wot the cap'n told me."

"When's he coming back?" inquired the steward.

Mr. Smith shook his head. "Couldn't say," he returned. "He couldn't say
'imself. Between you an' me, I expect 'e's gone up to have a reg'lar
fair spree."

"Why did you tell me last night he was up-stairs?" inquired the other.

"Cap'n's orders," repeated Mr. Smith, with relish. "Ask 'im, not me. As
a matter o' fact, he spent the night at my place and went off this
morning."

"An' wot about the five pounds?" inquired Mr. Wilks, spitefully. "You
ain't earned it."

"I know I ain't," said Mr. Smith, mournfully. "That's wot's worrying me.
It's like a gnawing pain in my side. D'you think it's conscience biting
of me? I never felt it before. Or d'ye think it's sorrow to think that
I've done the whole job too cheap You think it out and let me know later
on. So long."

He waved his hand cheerily to the steward and departed. Mr. Wilks threw
himself into a chair and, ignoring the cold and the general air of
desolation of his best room, gave way to a fit of melancholy which would
have made Mr. Edward Silk green with envy.




CHAPTER XIII

Days passed, but no word came from the missing captain, and only the
determined opposition of Kate Nugent kept her aunt from advertising in
the "Agony" columns of the London Press. Miss Nugent was quite as
desirous of secrecy in the affair as her father, and it was a source of
great annoyance to her when, in some mysterious manner, it leaked out.
In a very short time the news was common property, and Mr. Wilks,
appearing to his neighbours in an entirely new character, was besieged
for information.

His own friends were the most tiresome, their open admiration of his
lawlessness and their readiness to trace other mysterious disappearances
to his agency being particularly galling to a man whose respectability
formed his most cherished possession. Other people regarded the affair
as a joke, and he sat gazing round-eyed one evening at the Two Schooners
at the insensible figures of three men who had each had a modest
half-pint at his expense. It was a pretty conceit and well played, but
the steward, owing to the frenzied efforts of one of the sleeper whom he
had awakened with a quart pot, did not stay to admire it. He finished
up the evening at the Chequers, and after getting wet through on the way
home fell asleep in his wet clothes before the dying fire.

[Illustration: "He finished up the evening at the Chequers."]

He awoke with a bad cold and pains in the limbs. A headache was not
unexpected, but the other symptoms were. With trembling hands he managed
to light a fire and prepare a breakfast, which he left untouched. This
last symptom was the most alarming of all, and going to the door he
bribed a small boy with a penny to go for Dr. Murchison, and sat cowering
over the fire until he came.

"Well, you've got a bad cold," said the doctor, after examining him."
You'd better get to bed for the present. You'll be safe there."

"Is it dangerous?" faltered the steward.

"And keep yourself warm," said the doctor, who was not in the habit of
taking his patients into his confidence. "I'll send round some
medicine."

"I should like Miss Nugent to know I'm bad," said Mr. Wilks, in a weak
voice.

"She knows that," replied Murchison. "She was telling me about you the
other day."

He put his hand up to his neat black moustache to hide a smile, and met
the steward's indignant gaze without flinching.

"I mean ill," said the latter, sharply.

"Oh, yes," said the other. "Well, you get to bed now. Good morning."

He took up his hat and stick and departed. Mr. Wilks sat for a little
while over the fire, and then, rising, hobbled slowly upstairs to bed and
forgot his troubles in sleep.

He slept until the afternoon, and then, raising himself in bed, listened
to the sounds of stealthy sweeping in the room below. Chairs were being
moved about, and the tinkle of ornaments on the mantelpiece announced
that dusting operations were in progress. He lay down again with a
satisfied smile; it was like a tale in a story-book: the faithful old
servant and his master's daughter. He closed his eyes as he heard her
coming upstairs.

"Ah, pore dear," said a voice.

Mr. Wilks opened his eyes sharply and beheld the meagre figure of Mrs.
Silk. In one hand she held a medicine-bottle and a glass and in the
other paper and firewood.

[Illustration: "The meagre figure of Mrs. Silk."]

"I only 'eard of it half an hour ago," she said, reproachfully. "I saw
the doctor's boy, and I left my work and came over at once. Why didn't
you let me know?"

Mr. Wilks muttered that he didn't know, and lay crossly regarding his
attentive neighbour as she knelt down and daintily lit the fire. This
task finished, she proceeded to make the room tidy, and then set about
making beef-tea in a little saucepan.

"You lay still and get well," she remarked, with tender playfulness.
"That's all you've got to do. Me and Teddy'll look after you."

"I couldn't think of troubling you," said the steward, earnestly.

"It's no trouble," was the reply. "You don't think I'd leave you here
alone helpless, do you?"

"I was going to send for old Mrs. Jackson if I didn't get well to-day,"
said Mr. Wilks.

Mrs. Silk shook her head at him, and, after punching up his pillow, took
an easy chair by the fire and sat there musing. Mr. Edward Silk came in
to tea, and, after remarking that Mr. Wilks was very flushed and had got
a nasty look about the eyes and a cough which he didn't like, fell to
discoursing on death-beds.

"Good nursing is the principal thing," said his mother. "I nursed my
pore dear 'usband all through his last illness. He couldn't bear me to
be out of the room. I nursed my mother right up to the last, and your
pore Aunt Jane went off in my arms."

Mr. Wilks raised himself on his elbow and his eyes shone feverishly in
the lamplight. "I think I'll get a 'ospital nurse to-morrow," he said,
decidedly.

"Nonsense," said Mrs. Silk. "It's no trouble to me at all. I like
nursing; always did."

Mr. Wilks lay back again and, closing his eyes, determined to ask the
doctor to provide a duly qualified nurse on the morrow. To his
disappointment, however, the doctor failed to come, and although he felt
much better Mrs. Silk sternly negatived a desire on his part to get up.

"Not till the doctor's been," she said, firmly. "I couldn't think of
it."

"I don't believe there's anything the matter with me now," he declared.

"'Ow odd - 'ow very odd that you should say that!" said Mrs. Silk,
clasping her hands.

"Odd!" repeated the steward, somewhat crustily. "How do you mean - odd?"

"They was the very last words my Uncle Benjamin ever uttered in this
life," said Mrs. Silk, with dramatic impressiveness.

The steward was silent, then, with the ominous precedent of Uncle
Benjamin before him, he began to talk until scores of words stood between
himself and a similar ending.

"Teddy asked to be remembered to you as 'e went off this morning," said
Mrs. Silk, pausing in her labours at the grate.

"I'm much obliged," muttered the invalid.

"He didn't 'ave time to come in," pursued the widow. "You can 'ardly
believe what a lot 'e thinks of you, Mr. Wilks. The last words he said
to me was, 'Let me know at once if there's any change.'"

Mr. Wilks distinctly felt a cold, clammy sensation down his spine and
little quivering thrills ran up and down his legs. He glared indignantly
at the back of the industrious Mrs. Silk.

"Teddy's very fond of you," continued the unconscious woman. "I s'pose
it's not 'aving a father, but he seems to me to think more of you than
any-body else in the wide, wide world. I get quite jealous sometimes.
Only the other day I said to 'im, joking like, 'Well, you'd better go and
live with 'im if you're so fond of 'im,' I said."

"Ha, ha!" laughed Mr. Wilks, uneasily.

"You'll never guess what 'e said then," said Mrs. Silk dropping her
dustpan and brush and gazing at the hearth.

"Said 'e couldn't leave you, I s'pose," guessed the steward, gruffly.

"Well, now," exclaimed Mrs. Silk, clapping her hands, "if you 'aven't
nearly guessed it. Well, there! I never did! I wouldn't 'ave told you
for anything if you 'adn't said that. The exact words what 'e did say
was, 'Not without you, mother.'"

Mr. Wilks closed his eyes with a snap and his heart turned to water. He
held his breath and ran-sacked his brain in vain for a reply which should
ignore the inner meaning of the fatal words. Something careless and
jocular he wanted, combined with a voice which should be perfectly under
control. Failing these things, he kept his eyes closed, and, very
wide-awake indeed, feigned sleep. He slept straight away from eleven
o'clock in the morning until Edward Silk came in at seven o'clock in the
evening.

"I feel like a new man," he said, rubbing his eyes and yawning.

"I don't see no change in your appearance," said the comforting youth.

"'E's much better," declared his mother. "That's what comes o' good
nursing; some nurses would 'ave woke 'im up to take food, but I just let
'im sleep on. People don't feel hunger while they're asleep."

She busied herself over the preparation of a basin of arrowroot, and the
steward, despite his distaste for this dish, devoured it in a twinkling.
Beef-tea and a glass of milk in addition failed to take more than the
edge off his appetite.

"We shall pull 'im through," said Mrs. Silk, smiling, as she put down the
empty glass. "In a fortnight he'll be on 'is feet."

It is a matter of history that Mr. Wilks was on his feet at five o'clock
the next morning, and not only on his feet but dressed and ready for a
journey after such a breakfast as he had not made for many a day. The
discourtesy involved in the disregard of the doctor's instructions did
not trouble him, and he smirked with some satisfaction as he noiselessly
closed his door behind him and looked at the drawn blinds opposite. The
stars were paling as he quitted the alley and made his way to the railway
station. A note on his tumbled pillow, after thanking Mrs. Silk for her
care of him, informed her that he was quite well and had gone to London
in search of the missing captain.

Hardy, who had heard from Edward Silk of the steward's indisposition and
had been intending to pay him a visit, learnt of his departure later on
in the morning, and, being ignorant of the particulars, discoursed
somewhat eloquently to his partner on the old man's devotion.

"H'm, may be," said Swann, taking off his glasses and looking at him.
"But you don't think Captain Nugent is in London, do you?"

"Why not?" inquired Hardy, somewhat startled. "If what Wilks told you is
true, Nathan Smith knows," said the other. "I'll ask him."

"You don't expect to get the truth out of him, do you?" inquired Hardy,
superciliously.

"I do," said his partner, serenely; "and when I've got it I shall go and
tell them at Equator Lodge. It will be doing those two poor ladies a
service to let them know what has really happened to the captain."

"I'll walk round to Nathan Smith's with you," said Hardy. "I should like
to hear what the fellow has to say."

"No, I'll go alone," said his partner; "Smith's a very shy man - painfully
shy. I've run across him once or twice before. He's almost as bashful
and retiring as you are."

Hardy grunted. "If the captain isn't in London, where is he?" he
inquired.

The other shook his head. "I've got an idea," he replied, "but I want to
make sure. Kybird and Smith are old friends, as Nugent might have known,
only he was always too high and mighty to take any interest in his
inferiors. There's something for you to go on."

He bent over his desk again and worked steadily until one o'clock - his
hour for lunching. Then he put on his hat and coat, and after a
comfortable meal sallied out in search of Mr. Smith.

[Illustration: "In search of Mr. Smith."]

The boarding-house, an old and dilapidated building, was in a bystreet
convenient to the harbour. The front door stood open, and a couple of
seamen lounging on the broken steps made way for him civilly as he
entered and rapped on the bare boards with his stick. Mr. Smith,
clattering down the stairs in response, had some difficulty in concealing
his surprise at the visit, but entered genially into a conversation about
the weather, a subject in which he was much interested. When the
ship-broker began to discuss the object of his visit he led him to a
small sitting-room at the back of the house and repeated the information
he had given to Mr. Wilks.

"That's all there is to tell," he concluded, artlessly; "the cap'n was
that ashamed of hisself, he's laying low for a bit. We all make mistakes
sometimes; I do myself."

"I am much obliged to you," said Mr. Swann, gratefully.

"You're quite welcome, sir," said the boarding-master.

"And now," said the visitor, musingly - "now for the police."

"Police!" repeated Mr. Smith, almost hastily. "What for?"

"Why, to find the captain," said Mr. Swann, in a surprised voice.

Mr. Smith shook his head. "You'll offend the cap'n bitter if you go to
the police about 'im, sir," he declared. "His last words to me was,
'Smith, 'ave this kept quiet.'"

"It'll be a little job for the police," urged the shipbroker. "They
don't have much to do down here; they'll be as pleased as possible."

"They'll worry your life out of you, sir," said the other. "You don't
know what they are."

"I like a little excitement," returned Mr. Swann. "I don't suppose
they'll trouble me much, but they'll turn your place topsy-turvy, I
expect. Still, that can't be helped. You know what fools the police
are; they'll think you've murdered the captain and hidden his body under
the boards. They'll have all the floors up. Ha, ha, ha!"

"'Aving floors up don't seem to me to be so amusing as wot it does to
you," remarked Mr. Smith, coldly.

"They may find all sorts of treasure for you," continued his visitor.
"It's a very old house, Smith, and there may be bags of guineas hidden
away under the flooring. You may be able to retire."

"You're a gentleman as is fond of his joke, Mr. Swann," returned the
boarding-master, lugubriously. "I wish I'd got that 'appy way of looking
at things you 'ave."

"I'm not joking, Smith," said the other, quietly.

Mr. Smith pondered and, stealing a side-glance at him, stood scraping his
foot along the floor.

"There ain't nothing much to tell," he grumbled, "and, mind, the worst
favour you could do to the cap'n would be to put it about how he was
done. He's gone for a little trip instead of 'is son, that's all."

"Little trip!" repeated the other; "you call a whaling cruise a little
trip?"

"No, no, sir," said Mr. Smith, in a shocked voice, "I ain't so bad as
that; I've got some 'art, I hope. He's just gone for a little trip with
'is old pal Hardy on the _Conqueror_. Kybird's idea it was."

"Don't you know it's punishable?" demanded the shipbroker, recovering.

Mr. Smith shook his head and became serious. "The cap'n fell into 'is
own trap," he said, slowly. "There's no lor for 'im! He'd only get
laughed at. The idea of trying to get me to put little Amelia Kybird's
young man away. Why, I was 'er god-father."

Mr. Swann stared at him, and then with a friendly "good morning"
departed. Half-way along the passage he stopped, and retracing his steps
produced his cigar-case and offered the astonished boarding-master a
cigar.

"I s'pose," said that gentleman as he watched the other's retreating
figure and dubiously smelt the cigar; "I s'pose it's all right; but he's
a larky sort, and I 'ave heard of 'em exploding. I'll give it to Kybird,
in case."

[Illustration: "I 'ave heard of 'em exploding."]

To Mr. Smith's great surprise his visitor sat down suddenly and began to
laugh. Tears of honest mirth suffused his eyes and dimmed his glasses.
Mr. Smith, regarding him with an air of kindly interest, began to laugh
to keep him company.




CHAPTER XIV

Captain Nugent awoke the morning after his attempt to crimp his son with
a bad headache. Not an ordinary headache, to disappear with a little
cold water and fresh air; but a splitting, racking affair, which made him
feel all head and dulness. Weights pressed upon his eye-lids and the
back of his head seemed glued to his pillow.

He groaned faintly and, raising himself upon his elbow, opened his eyes
and sat up with a sharp exclamation. His bed was higher from the floor
than usual and, moreover, the floor was different. In the dim light he
distinctly saw a ship's forecastle, untidy bunks with frouzy bedclothes,
and shiny oil-skins hanging from the bulkhead.

For a few moments he stared about in mystification; he was certainly ill,
and no doubt the forecastle was an hallucination. It was a strange
symptom, and the odd part of it was that everything was so distinct.
Even the smell. He stared harder, in the hope that his surroundings
would give place to the usual ones, and, leaning a little bit more on his
elbow, nearly rolled out of the bunk. Resolved to probe this mystery to
the bottom he lowered himself to the floor and felt distinctly the motion
of a ship at sea.

There was no doubt about it. He staggered to the door and, holding by
the side, looked on to the deck. The steamer was rolling in a fresh sea
and a sweet strong wind blew refreshingly into his face. Funnels,
bridge, and masts swung with a rhythmical motion; loose gear rattled, and
every now and then a distant tinkle sounded faintly from the steward's
pantry.

He stood bewildered, trying to piece together the events of the preceding
night, and to try and understand by what miracle he was back on board his
old ship the _Conqueror_. There was no doubt as to her identity. He
knew every inch of her, and any further confirmation that might be
required was fully supplied by the appearance of the long, lean figure of
Captain Hardy on the bridge.

Captain Nugent took his breath sharply and began to realize the
situation. He stepped to the side and looked over; the harbour was only
a little way astern, and Sunwich itself, looking cold and cheerless
beyond the dirty, tumbling seas, little more than a mile distant.

At the sight his spirits revived, and with a hoarse cry he ran shouting
towards the bridge. Captain Hardy turned sharply at the noise, and
recognizing the intruder stood peering down at him in undisguised
amazement.

[Illustration: "He stepped to the side and looked over."]

"Put back," cried Nugent, waving up at him. "Put back."

"What on earth are you doing on my ship?" inquired the astonished Hardy.

"Put me ashore," cried Nugent, imperiously; "don't waste time talking.
D'ye hear? Put me ashore."

The amazement died out of Hardy's face and gave way to an expression of
anger. For a time he regarded the red and threatening visage of Captain
Nugent in silence, then he turned to the second officer.

"This man is not one of the crew, Mr. Prowle?" he said, in a puzzled
voice.

"No, sir," said Mr. Prowle.

"How did he get aboard here?"

Captain Nugent answered the question himself. "I was crimped by you and
your drunken bullies," he said, sternly.

"How did this man get aboard here? repeated Captain Hardy, ignoring him.

"He must have concealed 'imself somewhere, sir," said the mate; "this is
the first I've seen of him."

"A stowaway?" said the captain, bending his brows. "He must have got
some of the crew to hide him aboard. You'd better make a clean breast of
it, my lad. Who are your confederates?"

Captain Nugent shook with fury. The second mate had turned away, with
his hand over his mouth and a suspicious hunching of his shoulders, while
the steward, who had been standing by, beat a hasty retreat and collapsed
behind the chart-room.

"If you don't put me ashore," said Nugent, restraining his passion by a
strong effort, "I'll take proceedings against you for crimping me, the
moment I reach port. Get a boat out and put me aboard that smack."

He pointed as he spoke to a smack which was just on their beam, making
slowly for the harbour.

"When you've done issuing orders," said the captain, in an indifferent
voice, "perhaps you'll explain what you are doing aboard my crag."

Captain Nugent gazed at the stern of the fast-receding smack; Sunwich was
getting dim in the distance and there was no other sail near. He began
to realize that he was in for a long voyage.

"I awoke this morning and found myself in a bunk in vow fo'c's'le," he
said, regarding Hardy steadily. "However I got there is probably best
known to yourself. I hold you responsible for the affair."

"Look here my lad," said Captain Hardy, in patronizing tones, "I don't
know how you got aboard my ship and I don't care. I am willing to
believe that it was not intentional on your part, but either the outcome
of a drunken freak or else a means of escaping from some scrape you have
got into ashore. That being so, I shall take a merciful view of it, and
if you behave yourself and make yourself useful you will not hear
anything more of it. He has something the look of a seafaring man, Mr.
Prowle. See what you can make of him."

"Come along with me, my lad," said the grinning Mr. Prowle, tapping him
on the shoulder.

The captain turned with a snarl, and, clenching his huge, horny fist, let
drive full in the other's face and knocked him off his feet.

"Take that man for'ard," cried Captain Hardy, sharply. "Take him
for'ard."

Half-a-dozen willing men sprang forward. Captain Nugent's views
concerning sailormen were well known in Sunwich, and two of the men
present had served under him. He went forward, the centre of an
attentive and rotating circle, and, sadly out of breath, was bestowed in
the forecastle and urged to listen to reason.

For the remainder of the morning he made no sign. The land was almost
out of sight, and he sat down quietly to consider his course of action
for the next few weeks. Dinner-time found him still engrossed in
thought, and the way in which he received an intimation from a
good-natured seaman that his dinner was getting cold showed that his
spirits were still unquelled.

By the time afternoon came he was faint with hunger, and, having
determined upon his course of action, he sent a fairly polite message to
Captain Hardy and asked for an interview.

The captain, who was resting from his labours in the chart-room, received
him with the same air of cold severity which had so endeared Captain
Nugent himself to his subordinates.

"You have come to explain your extraordinary behaviour of this morning, I
suppose?" he said, curtly.

"I have come to secure a berth aft," said Captain Nugent. "I will pay a
small deposit now, and you will, of course, have the balance as soon as
we get back. This is without prejudice to any action I may bring against
you later on."

"Oh, indeed," said the other, raising his eyebrows. "We don't take
passengers."

"I am here against my will," said Captain Nu-gent, "and I demand the
treatment due to my position."

"If I had treated you properly," said Captain Hardy, "I should have put
you in irons for knocking down my second officer. I know nothing about
you or your position. You're a stowaway, and you must do the best you
can in the circumstances."

"Are you going to give me a cabin?" demanded the other, menacingly.


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Online LibraryW.W. JacobsAt Sunwich Port, Part 3. Contents: Chapters 11-15 → online text (page 2 of 3)