It was the mate’s affair all through. He began by leaving the end of a line dangling over the stern, and the propeller, though quite unaccustomed to that sort of work, wound it up until only a few fathoms remained. It then stopped, and the mischief was not discovered until the skipper had called the engineer everything that he and the mate and three men and a boy could think of. The skipper did the interpreting through the tube which afforded the sole means of communication between the wheel and the engine-room, and the indignant engineer did the listening.
The Gem was just off Limehouse at the time, and it was evident she was going to stay there. The skipper ran her ashore and made her fast to a roomy old schooner which was lying alongside a wharf. He was then able to give a little attention to the real offender, and the unfortunate mate, who had been the most inventive of them all, realised to the full the old saying of curses coming home to roost. They brought some strangers with them, too.
“I’m going ashore,” said the skipper at last. “We won’t get off till next tide now. When it’s low water you’ll have to get down and cut the line away. A new line too! I’m ashamed o’ you, Harry.”
“I’m not surprised,” said the engineer, who was a vindictive man.
“What do you mean by that?” demanded the mate fiercely.
“We don’t want any of your bad temper,” interposed the skipper severely. “NOR bad language. The men can go ashore, and the engineer too, provided he keeps steam up. But be ready for a start about five. You’ll have to mind the ship.”
He looked over the stern again, shook his head sadly, and, after a visit to the cabin, clambered over the schooner’s side and got ashore. The men, after looking at the propeller and shaking their heads, went ashore too, and the boy, after looking at the propeller and getting ready to shake his, caught the mate’s eye and omitted that part of the ceremony, from a sudden conviction that it was unhealthy.
Left alone, the mate, who was of a sensitive disposition, after a curt nod to Captain Jansell of the schooner Aquila, who had heard of the disaster, and was disposed to be sympathetically inquisitive, lit his pipe and began moodily to smoke.
When he next looked up the old man had disappeared, and a girl in a print dress and a large straw hat sat in a wicker chair reading. She was such a pretty girl that the mate forgot his troubles at once, and, after carefully putting his cap on straight, strolled casually up and down the deck.
To his mortification, the girl seemed unaware of his presence, and read steadily, occasionally looking up and chirping with a pair of ravishing lips at a blackbird, which hung in a wicker cage from the mainmast.
“That’s a nice bird,” said the mate, leaning against the side, and turning a look of great admiration upon it.
“Yes,” said the girl, raising a pair of dark blue eyes to the bold brown ones, and taking him in at a glance.
“Does it sing?” inquired the mate, with a show of great interest.
“It does sometimes, when we are alone,” was the reply.
“I should have thought the sea air would have affected its throat,” said the mate, reddening. “Are you often in the London river, miss? I don’t remember seeing your craft before.”
“Not often,” said the girl.
“You’ve got a fine schooner here,” said the mate, eyeing it critically. “For my part, I prefer a sailer to a steamer.”
“I should think you would,” said the girl.
“Why?” inquired the mate tenderly, pleased at this show of interest.
“No propeller,” said the girl quietly, and she left her seat and disappeared below, leaving the mate gasping painfully.
Left to himself, he became melancholy, as he realised that the great passion of his life had commenced, and would probably end within a few hours. The engineer came aboard to look at the fires, and, the steamer being now on the soft mud, good-naturedly went down and assisted him to free the propeller before going ashore again. Then he was alone once more, gazing ruefully at the bare deck of the Aquila.
It was past two o’clock in the afternoon before any signs of life other than the blackbird appeared there. Then the girl came on deck again, accompanied by a stout woman of middle age, and an appearance so affable that the mate commenced at once.
“Fine day,” he said pleasantly, as he brought up in front of them.
“Lovely weather,” said the mother, settling herself in her chair and putting down her work ready for a chat. “I hope the wind lasts; we start to-morrow morning’s tide. You’ll get off this afternoon, I s’pose.”
“About five o’clock,” said the mate.
“I should like to try a steamer for a change,” said the mother, and waxed garrulous on sailing craft generally, and her own in particular.
“There’s five of us down there, with my husband and the two boys,” said she, indicating the cabin with her thumb; “naturally it gets rather stuffy.”
The mate sighed. He was thinking that under some conditions there were worse things than stuffy cabins.
“And Nancy’s so discontented,” said the mother, looking at the girl who was reading quietly by her side. “She doesn’t like ships or sailors. She gets her head turned reading those penny novelettes.”
“You look after your own head,” said Nancy elegantly, without looking up.
“Girls in those novels don’t talk to their mothers like that,” said the elder woman severely.
“They have different sorts of mothers,” said Nancy, serenely turning over a page. “I hate little pokey ships and sailors smelling of tar. I never saw a sailor I liked yet.”
The mate’s face fell. “There’s sailors and sailors,” he suggested humbly.
“It’s no good talking to her,” said the mother, with a look of fat resignation on her face, “we can only let her go her own way; if you talked to her twenty-four hours right off it wouldn’t do her any good.”
“I’d like to try,” said the mate, plucking up spirit.
“Would you?” said the girl, for the first time raising her head and looking him full in the face. “Impudence!”
“Perhaps you haven’t seen many ships,” said the impressionable mate, his eyes devouring her face. “Would you like to come and have a look at our cabin?”
“No, thanks!” said the girl sharply. Then she smiled maliciously. “I daresay mother would, though; she’s fond of poking her nose into other people’s business.”
The mother regarded her irreverent offspring fixedly for a few moments. The mate interposed.
“I should be very pleased to show you over, ma’am,” he said politely.
The mother hesitated; then she rose, and accepting the mate’s assistance, clambered on to the side of the steamer, and, supported by his arms, sprang to the deck and followed him below.
“Very nice,” she said, nodding approvingly, as the mate did the honours. “Very nice.”
“It’s nice and roomy for a little craft like ours,” said the mate, as he drew a stone bottle from a locker and poured out a couple of glasses of stout. “Try a little beer, ma’am.”
“What you must think o’ that girl o’ mine I can’t think,” murmured the lady, taking a modest draught.
“The young,” said the mate, who had not quite reached his twenty-fifth year, “are often like that.”
“It spoils her,” said her mother. “She’s a good-looking girl, too, in her way.”
“I don’t see how she can help being that,” said the mate.
“Oh, get away with you,” said the lady pleasantly. “She’ll get fat like me as she gets older.”
“She couldn’t do better,” said the mate tenderly.
“Nonsense,” said the lady, smiling.
“You’re as like as two peas,” persisted the mate. “I made sure you were sisters when I saw you first.”
“You ain’t the first that’s thought that,” said the other, laughing softly; “not by a lot.”
“I like to see ladies about,” said the mate, who was trying desperately for a return invitation. “I wish you could always sit there. You quite brighten the cabin up.”
“You’re a flatterer,” said his visitor, as he replenished her glass, and showed so little signs of making a move that the mate, making a pretext of seeing the engineer, hurried up on deck to singe his wings once more.
“Still reading?” he said softly, as he came abreast of the girl. “All about love, I s’pose.”
“Have you left my mother down there all by herself?” inquired the girl abruptly.
“Just a minute,” said the mate, somewhat crestfallen. “I just came up to see the engineer.”
“Well, he isn’t here,” was the discouraging reply.
The mate waited a minute or two, the girl still reading quietly, and then walked back to the cabin. The sound of gentle regular breathing reached his ears, and, stepping softly, he saw to his joy that his visitor slept.
“She’s asleep,” said he, going back, “and she looks so comfortable I don’t think I’ll wake her.”
“I shouldn’t advise you to,” said the girl; “she always wakes up cross.”
“How strange we should run up against each other like this,” said the mate sentimentally; “it looks like Providence, doesn’t it?”
“Looks like carelessness,” said the girl.
“I don’t care,” replied the mate. “I’m glad I did let that line go overboard. Best day’s work I ever did. I shouldn’t have seen you if I hadn’t.”
“And I don’t suppose you’ll ever see me again,” said the girl comfortably, “so I don’t see what good you’ve done yourself.”
“I shall run down to Limehouse every time we’re in port, anyway,” said the mate; “it’ll be odd if I don’t see you sometimes. I daresay our craft’ll pass each other sometimes. Perhaps in the night,” he added gloomily.
“I shall sit up all night watching for you,” declared Miss Jansell untruthfully.
In this cheerful fashion the conversation proceeded, the girl, who was by no means insensible to his bright eager face and well-knit figure, dividing her time in the ratio of three parts to her book and one to him. Time passed all too soon for the mate, when they were interrupted by a series of hoarse unintelligible roars proceeding from the schooner’s cabin.
“That’s father,” said Miss Jansell, rising with a celerity which spoke well for the discipline maintained on the Aquila; “he wants me to mend his waistcoat for him.”
She put down her book and left, the mate watching her until she disappeared down the companion-way. Then he sat down and waited.
One by one the crew returned to the steamer, but the schooner’s deck showed no signs of life. Then the skipper came, and, having peered critically over his vessel’s side, gave orders to get under way.
“If she’d only come up,” said the miserable mate to himself, “I’d risk it, and ask whether I might write to her.”
This chance of imperilling a promising career did not occur, however; the steamer slowly edged away from the schooner, and, picking her way between a tier of lighters, steamed slowly into clearer water.
“Full speed ahead!” roared the skipper down the tube. The engineer responded, and the mate gazed in a melancholy fashion at the water as it rapidly widened between the two vessels. Then his face brightened up suddenly as the girl ran up on deck and waved her hand. Hardly able to believe his eyes, he waved his back. The girl gesticulated violently, now pointing to the steamer, and then to the schooner.
“By Jove, that girl’s taken a fancy to you,” said the skipper. “She wants you to go back.”
The mate sighed. “Seems like it,” he said modestly.
To his astonishment the girl was now joined by her men folk, who also waved hearty farewells, and, throwing their arms about, shouted incoherently.
“Blamed if they haven’t all took a fancy to you,” said the puzzled skipper; “the old man’s got the speaking-trumpet now. What does he say?”
“Something about life, I think,” said the mate.
“They’re more like jumping-jacks than anything else,” said the skipper. “Just look at ’em.”
The mate looked, and, as the distance increased, sprang on to the side, and, his eyes dim with emotion, waved tender farewells. If it had not been for the presence of the skipper–a tremendous stickler for decorum– he would have kissed his hand.
It was not until Gravesend was passed, and the side-lights of the shipping were trying to show in the gathering dusk, that he awoke from his tender apathy. It is probable that it would have lasted longer than that but for a sudden wail of anguish and terror which proceeded from the cabin and rang out on the still warm air.
“Sakes alive!” said the skipper, starting; “what’s that?”
Before the mate could reply, the companion was pushed back, and a middle-aged woman, labouring under strong excitement, appeared on deck.
“You villain!” she screamed excitably, rushing up to the mate. “Take me back; take me back!”
“What’s all this, Harry?” demanded the skipper sternly.
“He–he–he–asked me to go into the cab–cabin,” sobbed Mrs. Jansell, “and sent me to sleep, and too–too–took me away. My husband’ll kill me; I know he will. Take me back.”
“What do you want to be took back to be killed for?” interposed one of the men judicially.
“I might ha’ known what he meant when he said I brightened the cabin up,” said Mrs. Jansell; “and when he said he thought me and my daughter were sisters. He said he’d like me to sit there always, the wretch!”
“Did you say that?” inquired the skipper fiercely.
“Well, I did,” said the miserable mate; “but I didn’t mean her to take it that way. She went to sleep, and I forgot all about her.”
“What did you say such silly lies for, then?” demanded the skipper.
The mate hung his head.
“Old enough to be your mother too,” said the skipper severely. “Here’s a nice thing to happen aboard my ship, and afore the boy too!”
“Blast the boy!” said the goaded mate.
“Take me back,” wailed Mrs. Jansell; “you don’t know how jealous my husband is.”
“He won’t hurt you,” said the skipper kindly “he won’t be jealous of a woman your time o’ life; that is, not if he’s got any sense. You’ll have to go as far as Boston with us now. I’ve lost too much time already to go back.”
“You must take me back,” said Mrs. Jansell passionately.
“I’m not going back for anybody,” said the skipper. “But you can make your mind quite easy: you’re as safe aboard my ship as what you would be alone on a raft in the middle of the Atlantic; and as for the mate, he was only chaffing you. Wasn’t you, Harry?”
The mate made some reply, but neither Mrs. Jansell, the skipper, nor the men, who were all listening eagerly, caught it, and his unfortunate victim, accepting the inevitable, walked to the side of the ship and gazed disconsolately astern.
It was not until the following morning that the mate, who had received orders to mess for’ard, saw her, and ignoring the fact that everybody suspended work to listen, walked up and bade her good morning.
“Harry,” said the skipper warningly.
“All right,” said the mate shortly. “I want to speak to you very particularly,” he said nervously, and led his listener aft, followed by three of the crew who came to clean the brasswork, and who listened mutinously when they were ordered to defer unwonted industry to a more fitting time. The deck clear, the mate began, and in a long rambling statement, which Mrs. Jansell at first thought the ravings of lunacy, acquainted her with the real state of his feelings.
“I never did!” said she, when he had finished. “Never! Why, you hadn’t seen her before yesterday.”
“Of course I shall take you back by train,” said the mate, “and tell your husband how sorry I am.”
“I might have suspected something when you said all those nice things to me,” said the mollified lady. “Well, you must take your chance, like all the rest of them. She can only say ‘No,’ again. It’ll explain this affair better, that’s one thing; but I expect they’ll laugh at you.”
“I don’t care,” said the mate stoutly. “You’re on my side, ain’t you?”
Mrs. Jansell laughed, and the mate, having succeeded beyond his hopes in the establishment of amicable relations, went about his duties with a light heart.
By the time they reached Boston the morning was far advanced, and after the Gem was comfortably berthed he obtained permission of the skipper to accompany the fair passenger to London, beguiling the long railway journey by every means in his power. Despite his efforts, however, the journey began to pall upon his companion, and it was not until evening was well advanced that they found themselves in the narrow streets of Limehouse.
“We’ll see how the land lies first,” said he, as they approached the wharf and made their way cautiously on to the quay.
The Aquila was still alongside, and the mate’s heart thumped violently as he saw the cause of all the trouble sitting alone on the deck. She rose with a little start as her mother stepped carefully aboard, and, running to her, kissed her affectionately, and sat her down on the hatches.
“Poor mother,” she said caressingly. “What did you bring that lunatic back with you for?”
“He would come,” said Mrs. Jansell. “Hush! here comes your father.”
The master of the Aquila came on deck as she spoke, and walking slowly up to the group, stood sternly regarding them. Under his gaze the mate breathlessly reeled off his tale, noticing with somewhat mixed feelings the widening grin of his listener as he proceeded.
“Well, you’re a lively sort o’ man,” said the skipper as he finished. “In one day you tie up your own ship, run off with my wife, and lose us a tide. Are you always like that?”
“I want somebody to look after me, I s’pose,” said the mate, with a side glance at Nancy.
“Well, we’d put you up for the night,” said the skipper, with his arm round his wife’s shoulders; “but you’re such a chap. I’m afraid you’d burn the ship down, or something. What do you think, old girl?”
“I think we’ll try him this once,” said his wife. “And now I’ll go down and see about supper; I want it.”
The old couple went below, and the young one remained on deck. Nancy went and leaned against the side; and as she appeared to have quite forgotten his presence, the mate, after some hesitation, joined her.
“Hadn’t you better go down and get some supper?” she asked.
“I’d sooner stay here, if yon don’t mind,” said the mate. “I like watching the lights going up and down; I could stay here for hours.”
“I’ll leave you, then,” said the girl; “I’m hungry.”
She tripped lightly off with a smothered laugh, leaving the fairly- trapped man gazing indignantly at the lights which had lured him to destruction.
From below he heard the cheerful clatter of crockery, accompanied by a savoury incense, and talk and laughter. He imagined the girl making fun of his sentimental reasons for staying on deck; but, too proud to meet her ironical glances, stayed doggedly where he was, resolving to be off by the first train in the morning. He was roused from his gloom by a slight touch on his arm, and, turning sharply, saw the girl by his side.
“Supper’s quite ready,” said she soberly. “And if you want to admire the lights very much, come up and see them when I do–after supper.”