It was a calm, clear evening in late summer as the Elizabeth Ann, of Pembray, scorning the expensive aid of a tug, threaded her way down the London river under canvas. The crew were busy forward, and the master and part-owner–a fussy little man, deeply imbued with a sense of his own importance and cleverness–was at the wheel chatting with the mate. While waiting for a portion of his cargo, he had passed the previous week pleasantly enough with some relatives in Exeter, and was now in a masterful fashion receiving a report from the mate.
“There’s one other thing,” said the mate. “I dessay you’ve noticed how sober old Dick is to-night.”
“I kept him short o’ purpose,” said the skipper, with a satisfied air.
“Tain’t that,” said the mate. “You’ll be pleased to hear that ‘im an’ Sam has been talked over by the other two, and that all your crew now, ‘cept the cook, who’s still Roman Catholic, has j’ined the Salvation Army.”
“Salvation Army!” repeated the skipper in dazed tones. “I don’t want none o’ your gammon, Bob.”
“It’s quite right,” said the other. “You can take it from me. How it was done I don’t know, but what I do know is, none of ’em has touched licker for five days. They’ve all got red jerseys, an’ I hear as old Dick preaches a hexcellent sermon. He’s red-hot on it, and t’others follow ‘im like sheep.”
“The drink’s got to his brain,” said the skipper sagely, after due reflection. “Well, I don’t mind, so long as they behave theirselves.”
He kept silence until Woolwich was passed, and they were running along with all sails set, and then, his curiosity being somewhat excited, he called old Dick to him, with the amiable intention of a little banter.
“What’s this I hear about you j’ining the Salvation Army?” he asked.
“It’s quite true, sir,” said Dick. “I feel so happy, you can’t think–we all do.”
“Glory!” said one of the other men, with enthusiastic corroboration.
“Seems like the measles,” said the skipper facetiously. “Four of you down with it at one time!”
“It IS like the measles, sir,” said the old man impressively, “an’ I only hope as you’ll catch it yourself, bad.”
“Hallelujah!” bawled the other man suddenly. “He’ll catch it.”
“Hold that noise, you, Joe!” shouted the skipper sternly. “How dare you make that noise aboard ship?”
“He’s excited, sir,” said Dick. “It’s love for you in ‘is ‘eart as does it.”
“Let him keep his love to hisself,” said the skipper churlishly.
“Ah! that’s just what we can’t do,” said Dick in high-pitched tones, which the skipper rightly concluded to be his preaching voice. “We can’t do it–an’ why can’t we do it? Becos we feel good, an’ we want you to feel good too. We want to share it with you. Oh, dear friend–”
“That’s enough,” said the master of the Elizabeth Ann, sharply. “Don’t you go ‘dear friending’ me. Go for’ard! Go for’ard at once!”
With a melancholy shake of his head the old man complied, and the startled skipper turned to the mate, who was at the wheel, and expressed his firm intention of at once stopping such behaviour on his ship.
“You can’t do it,” said the mate firmly.
“Can’t do it?” queried the skipper.
“Not a bit of it,” said the other. “They’ve all got it bad, an’ the more you get at ’em the wuss they’ll be. Mark my words, best let ’em alone.”
“I’ll hold my hand a bit and watch ’em,” was the reply; “but I’ve always been cap’n on my own ship, and I always will.”
For the next twenty-four hours he retained his sovereignty undisputed, but on Sunday morning, after breakfast, when he was at the wheel, and the crew below, the mate, who had been forward, came aft with a strange grin struggling for development at the corners of his mouth.
“What’s the matter?” inquired the skipper, regarding him with some disfavour.
“They’re all down below with their red jerseys on,” replied the mate, still struggling, “and they’re holding a sort o’ consultation about the lost lamb, an’ the best way o’ reaching ‘is ‘ard ‘eart.”
“Lost lamb!” repeated the skipper unconcernedly, but carefully avoiding the other’s eye.
“You’re the lost lamb,” said the mate, who always went straight to the point.
“I won’t have it,” said the skipper excitably. “How dare they go on in this way? Go and send ’em up directly,”
The mate, whistling cheerily, complied, and the four men, neatly attired in scarlet, came on deck.
“Now, what’s all this nonsense about?” demanded the incensed man. “What do you want?”
“We want your pore sinful soul,” said Dick with ecstasy.
“Ay, an’ we’ll have it,” said Joe, with deep conviction.
“So we will,” said the other two, closing their eyes and smiling rapturously; “so we will.”
The skipper, alarmed, despite himself, at their confidence, turned a startled face to the mate.
“If you could see it now,” continued Dick impressively, “you’d be frightened at it. If you could–”
“Get to your own end of the ship,” spluttered the indignant skipper. “Get, before I kick you there!”
“Better let Sam have a try,” said one of the other men, calmly ignoring the fury of the master; “his efforts have been wonderfully blessed. Come here, Sam.”
“There’s a time for everything” said Sam cautiously. “Let’s go for’ard and do what we can for him among ourselves.”
They moved off reluctantly, Dick throwing such affectionate glances at the skipper over his shoulders that he nearly choked with rage.
“I won’t have it!” he said fiercely; “I’ll knock it out of ’em.”
“You can’t,” said the mate. “You can’t knock sailor men about nowadays. The only thing you can do is to get rid of ’em.”
“I don’t want to do that,” was the growling reply. “They’ve been with me a long time, and they’re all good men. Why don’t they have a go at you, I wonder?”
“ME?” said the mate, in indignant surprise. “Why, I’m a Seventh Day Baptist! They don’t want to waste their time over me. I’m all right.”
“You’re a pretty Seventh Day Baptist, you are!” replied the skipper. “Fust I’ve heard of it.”
“You don’t understand about such things,” said the mate.
“It must be a very easy religion,” continued the skipper.
“I don’t make a show of it, if that’s what you mean,” rejoined the other warmly. “I’m one o’ them as believe in ‘iding my light under a bushel.”
“A pint pot’ud do easy,” sneered the skipper. “It’s more in your line, too.”
“Anyway, the men reckernise it,” said the mate loftily. “They don’t go an’ sit in their red jerseys an’ hold mothers’ meetings over me.”
“I’ll knock their blessed heads off!” growled the skipper. “I’ll learn ’em to insult me!”
“It’s all for your own good,” said the other. “They mean it kindly. Well, I wish ’em luck.”
With these hardy words he retired, leaving a seething volcano to pace the deck, and think over ways and means of once more reducing his crew to what he considered a fit and proper state of obedience and respect.
The climax was reached at tea-time, when an anonymous hand was thrust beneath the skylight, and a full-bodied tract fluttered wildly down and upset his tea.
“That’s the last straw!” he roared, fishing out the tract and throwing it on the floor. “I’ll read them chaps a lesson they won’t forget in a hurry, and put a little money in my pocket at the same time. I’ve got a little plan in my ‘ed as come to me quite sudden this afternoon. Come on deck, Bob.”
Bob obeyed, grinning, and the skipper, taking the wheel from Sam, sent him for the others.
“Did you ever know me break my word, Dick?” he inquired abruptly, as they shuffled up.
“Never,” said Dick.
“Cap’n Bowers’ word is better than another man’s oath,” asseverated Joe.
“Well,” said Captain Bowers, with a wink at the mate, “I’m going to give you chaps a little self-denial week all to yourselves. If you all live on biscuit and water till we get to port, and don’t touch nothing else, I’ll jine you and become a Salvationist.”
“Biscuit and water,” said Dick doubtfully, scratching a beard strong enough to scratch back.
“It wouldn’t be right to play with our constitooshuns in that way, sir,” objected Joe, shaking his head.
“There you are,” said Bowers, turning to the mate with a wave of his hand. “They’re precious anxious about me so long as it’s confined to jawing, and dropping tracts into my tea, but when it comes to a little hardship on their part, see how they back out of it.”
“We ain’t backing out of it,” said Dick cautiously; “but s’pose we do, how are we to be certain as you’ll jine us?”
“You ‘ve got my word for it,” said the other, “an’ the mate an’ cook witness it.”
“O’ course, you jine the Army for good, sir,” said Dick, still doubtfully.
“Then it’s a bargain, sir,” said Dick, beaming; “ain’t it, chaps?”
“Ay, ay,” said the others, but not beaming quite so much. “Oh, what a joyful day this is!” said the old man. “A Salvation crew an’ a Salvation cap’n! We’ll have the cook next, bad as he is.”
“You’ll have biskit an’ water,” said the cook icily, as they moved off, “an’ nothing else, I’ll take care.”
“They must be uncommon fond o’ me,” said the skipper meditatively.
“Uncommon fond o’ having their own way,” growled the mate. “Nice thing you’ve let yourself in for.”
“I know what I ‘m about,” was the confident reply.
“You ain’t going to let them idiots fast for a week an’ then break your word?” said the mate in surprise.
“Certainly not,” said the other wrathfully; “I’d sooner jine three armies than do that, and you know it.”
“They’ll keep to the grub, don’t you fear,” said the mate. “I can’t understand how you are going to manage it.”
“That’s where the brains come in,” retorted the skipper, somewhat arrogantly.
“Fust time I’ve heard of ’em,” murmured the mate softly; “but I s’pose you’ve been using pint pots too.”
The skipper glared at him scornfully, but, being unprovided with a retort, forbore to reply, and going below again mixed himself a stiff glass of grog, and drank success to his scheme.
Three days passed, and the men stood firm, and, realising that they were slowly undermining the skipper’s convictions, made no effort to carry him by direct assault. The mate made no attempt to conceal his opinion of his superior’s peril, and in gloomy terms strove to put the full horror of his position before him.
“What your missis’ll say the first time she sees you prancing up an’ down the road tapping a tambourine, I can’t think,” said he.
“I shan’t have no tambourine,” said Captain Bowers cheerfully.
“It’ll also be your painful dooty to stand outside your father-in-law’s pub and try and persuade customers not to go in,” continued Bob. “Nice thing that for a quiet family!”
The skipper smiled knowingly, and, rolling a cigar in his mouth, leaned back in his seat and cocked his eye at the skylight.
“Don’t you worry, my lad,” said he; “don’t you worry. I’m in this job, an’ I’m coming out on top. When men forget what’s due to their betters, and preach to ’em, they’ve got to be taught what’s what. If the wind keeps fair we ought to be home by Sunday night or Monday morning.”
The other nodded.
“Now, you keep your eyes open,” said the skipper; and, going to his state-room, he returned with three bottles of rum and a corkscrew, all of which, with an air of great mystery, he placed on the table, and then smiled at the mate. The mate smiled too.
“What’s this?” inquired the skipper, drawing the cork, and holding a bottle under the other’s nose.
“It smells like rum,” said the mate, glancing round, possibly for a glass.
“It’s for the men,” said the skipper, “but you may take a drop.”
The mate, taking down a glass, helped himself liberally, and, having made sure of it, sympathetically, but politely, expressed his firm opinion that the men would not touch it under any conditions whatever.
“You don’t quite understand how firm they are,” said he; you think it’s just a new fad with ’em, but it ain’t.”
“They’ll drink it,” said the skipper, taking up two of the bottles. “Bring the other on deck for me.”
The mate complied, wonderingly, and, laden with prime old Jamaica, ascended the steps.
“What’s this?” inquired the skipper, crossing over to Dick, and holding out a bottle.
“Pison, sir,” said Dick promptly.
“Have a drop,” said the skipper jovially.
“Not for twenty pounds,” said the old man, with a look of horror.
“Not for two million pounds,” said Sam, with financial precision.
“Will anybody have a drop?” asked the owner, waving the bottle to and fro.
As he spoke a grimy paw shot out from behind him, and, before he quite realised the situation, the cook had accepted the invitation, and was hurriedly making the most of it.
“Not you,” growled the skipper, snatching the bottle from him; “I didn’t mean you. Well, my lads, if you won’t have it neat you shall have it watered.”
Before anybody could guess his intention he walked to the water-cask, and, removing the cover, poured in the rum. In the midst of a profound silence he emptied the three bottles, and then, with a triumphant smile, turned and confronted his astonished crew.
“What’s in that cask, Dick?” he asked quietly.
“Rum and water,” groaned Dick; “but that ain’t fair play, sir. We’ve kep’ to our part o’ the agreement, sir, an’ you ought to ha’ kep’ to yours.”
“So I have,” was the quick reply; “so I have, an’ I still keep to it. Don’t you see this, my lads; when you start playing antics with me you’re playing a fool’s game, an’ you’re bound to come a cropper. Some men would ha’ waited longer afore they spiled their game, but I think you’ve suffered enough. Now there’s a lump of beef and some taters on, an’ you’d better go and make a good square meal, an’ next time you want to alter the religion of people as knows better than you do, think twice.”
“We don’t want no beef, sir; biskit’ll do for us,” said Dick firmly.
“All right, please yourselves,” said the skipper; “but mind, no hanky- panky, no coming for drink when my back’s turned; this cask’ll be watched; but if you do alter your mind about the beef you can tell the cook to get it for you any time you like.”
He threw the bottles overboard, and, ignoring the groaning and head- shaking of the men, walked away, listening with avidity to the respectful tributes to his genius tendered by the mate and cook– flattery so delicate and so genuine withal that he opened another bottle.
“There’s just one thing,” said the mate presently; “won’t the rum affect the cooking a good deal?”
“I never thought o’ that,” admitted the skipper; “still, we musn’t expect to have everything our own way.”
“No, no,” said the mate blankly, admiring the other’s choice of pronouns.
Up to Friday afternoon the skipper went about with a smile of kindly satisfaction on his face; but in the evening it weakened somewhat, and by Saturday morning it had vanished altogether, and was replaced by an expression of blank amazement and anxiety, for the crew shunned the water cask as though it were poison, without appearing to suffer the slightest inconvenience. A visible air of proprietorship appeared on their faces whenever they looked at the skipper, and the now frightened man inveighed fiercely to the mate against the improper methods of conversion patronised by some religious bodies, and the aggravating obstinacy of some of their followers.
“It’s wonderful what enthusiasm’ll do for a man,” said Bob reflectively; “I knew a man once–”
“I don’t want none o’ your lies,” interposed the other rudely.
“An’ I don’t want your blamed rum and water, if it comes to that,” said the mate, firing up. “When a man’s tea is made with rum, an’ his beef is biled in it, he begins to wonder whether he’s shipped with a seaman or a–a–”
“A what?” shouted the skipper. “Say it!”
“I can’t think o’ nothing foolish enough,” was the frank reply. “It’s all right for you, becos it’s the last licker as you’ll be allowed to taste, but it’s rough on me and the cook.”
“Damn you an’ the cook,” said the skipper, and went on deck to see whether the men’s tongues were hanging out.
By Sunday morning he was frantic; the men were hale and well enough, though, perhaps, a trifle thin, and he began to believe with the cook that the age of miracles had not yet passed.
It was a broiling hot day, and, to add to his discomfort, the mate, who was consumed by a raging thirst, lay panting in the shade of the mainsail, exchanging condolences of a most offensive nature with the cook every time he looked his way.
All the morning he grumbled incessantly, until at length, warned by an offensive smell of rum that dinner was on the table, he got up and went below.
At the foot of the ladder he paused abruptly, for the skipper was leaning back in his seat, gazing in a fascinated manner at some object on the table.
“What’s the matter?” inquired the mate in alarm.
The other, who did not appear to hear the question, made no answer, but continued to stare in a most extraordinary fashion at a bottle which graced the centre of the table.
“What is it?” inquired the mate, not venturing to trust his eyes. “WATER? Where did it come from?”
“Cook!” roared the skipper, turning a bloodshot eye on that worthy, as his pallid face showed behind the mate, “what’s this? If you say it’s water I’ll kill you.”
“I don’t know what it is, sir,” said the cook cautiously; “but Dick sent it to you with his best respects, and I was to say as there’s plenty more where that came from. He’s a nasty, under’anded, deceitful old man, is Dick, sir, an’ it seems he laid in a stock o’ water in bottles an’ the like afore you doctored the cask, an’ the men have had it locked up in their chests ever since.”
“Dick’s a very clever old man,” remarked the mate, pouring himself out a glass, and drinking it with infinite relish, “ain’t he, cap’n? It’ll be a privilege to jine anything that man’s connected with, won’t it?”
He paused for a reply, but none came, for the cap’n, with dim eyes, was staring blankly into a future so lonely and uncongenial that he had lost the power of speech–even of that which, at other crises, had never failed to afford him relief. The mate gazed at him curiously for a moment, and then, imitating the example of the cook, quitted the cabin.
Low Water by W W Jacobs