Lost Island/Chapter 10

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CHAPTER X
CAPTAIN GRUMMITT GETS WET

The gateway to Sydney, by water, is said to be the most beautiful natural harbor in the world, and Dave leaned over the taffrail spellbound as the dawn dyed the sea a deep red. The rusty old tramp was only one of a hundred vessels that were threading their way into or out from Australia's chief port. Birdlike sailing craft, crowded with canvas to catch the least puff of wind, drifted along in leisurely fashion; weather-beaten steamers from all parts of the world chugged towards their goal, sometimes ten thousand miles away; and a cloud of sea-birds, among them great fellows whose wing-tips seemed to stretch full five feet apart, crowded round the stem of the Neptune.

"Well, my boy, what do you think of Sydney harbor?" said a voice at Dave's shoulder. It was Captain Phelps who spoke.

"It's great, sir," the Junior deck-hand replied.

"It is," said the skipper; "but don't you say that to a Melbourne man. They have no harbor to speak of at Melbourne, and the two places are powerfully jealous of one another. Sydney folk always start a conversation with a stranger by saying 'Have you seen our harbor?' and if it happens to be a Melbourne man they 're talking to, he says, 'Nature made your harbor—why don't you build a decent town on it?' All the same, there's many a time I 've been thankful enough, when running before a snorter, to creep into this refuge, and I dare say the time will come when you 'll do the same after you get command. How are you getting on with your studies, eh? You 've a lot to learn before you can hold a master's certificate, you know."

Dave had kept up his reading until his books were lost on the Kingfisher, and he received a congratulatory word when he explained to Captain Phelps how far he had progressed.

"That's the style. Stick to it, youngster," said the skipper, "and you 'll be pacing the bridge before long."

Tempest and Dave had renewed their wardrobe from the slop-chest, and still had enough money to draw in wages to give them time to look about when they got ashore. The first thing they did was to make inquiries about the boat they expected to find running to the South Sea Islands, and here they faced a disappointment. The company had only three vessels engaged in the trade, and they usually left at intervals of about six weeks. Two days before the Neptune arrived at Sydney one of the three had sailed, and so Dave and his companion found they would have to spend forty or fifty days ashore waiting for the next one, called the Manihiki, to depart. Long before then they would be reduced to their last penny.

"Well, what do you suggests Dave asked.

"It seems to me," Tempest replied, "that we shall be under the painful necessity of working, not being millionaires, but the problem is, at what? Some of the things I have seen men do ashore for a living would certainly not suit my constitution, and I wouldn't recommend them for you."

"We might sign on a coastal boat for a few weeks," Dave suggested.

"Yes, and just when we want to be in Sydney find ourselves in some out-of-the-way hole. You don't know these Australian trading coasters as I do, my son. They go when they want to and get back when they get back if they don't happen to pick up a chance cargo for somewhere else. I know what would be good sport, as I did it myself once, about five years ago."

"What is that?"

"A kangaroo shooting trip. I went into the bush with an old hand at the game, and we had a perfectly gorgeous time barring when a snake crept over me while I was sleeping. Nice little fellow he was, all the colors of the rainbow. I could see the colors perfectly, as the moon was shining, and I took particular notice of him because only the previous day I'd had his tribe described to me. The old kangaroo hunter had been saying there was n't a snake in the bush that he really minded except that sort, as once he had a partner who trod on one and tied himself into seventeen different kinds of knots before he died, all in the course of ten minutes."

"Did you get any kangaroos?"

"Lots of 'em, and wallabys and things. We skinned the beasts and hung the pelts on trees in a straight line so that we could find them all again. We were in the bush about two months, and came back with all the skins our pack horses could carry. I'd signed on as a sort of super-cargo for that trip, not being an expert shot, but I got a third of the proceeds, which amounted to seventy pounds, or about three hundred and fifty dollars in American money."

"Let's go kangaroo hunting," Dave urged, hugely delighted at the prospect of life in the bush. "I can't shoot, but I can cook finely."

Tempest grinned.

"Sorry to disappoint you," he said. "You tell me where we can put our hands on the price of horses and guns, and enough grub to last a couple of months, and then find a kangaroo hunter who is willing to take us along, and I 'll fix the trip up, sure enough."

"Is that all!" Dave said resignedly. "It does look as though we shall have to work. But, I say, why did n't you go with your old partner again?"

"Two reasons," Tempest replied. "First, I know that somewhere in the vast Australian bush that nice, colored little snake is still prowling around if he has n't had a cold or measles or something that stopped him from prowling evermore; and moreover, he has a few million cousins and sisters and aunts, and I would n't have one of them crawl over me in the moonlight again for all the kangaroo pelts in the country. I fancied I could feel the knots coming on—all the seventeen different kinds— while he was peeking at me through his nasty little eyes. No, siree, I like snakes—to keep away from me. The other reason why I didn't go back was because my old partner got it into his crazy head to go gold mining, as there was a 'rush' in Western Australia just then, and as he'd had some luck at it once he thought he would have another try. I never heard how he came out, though, because when I drew what I had coming I sold my horse and took a trip to Ceylon and back on an Orient boat as a passenger, just to see what it felt like to be really respectable again, Heigh-o, I landed back in this very port with exactly one enormous appetite, two white flannel suits, and three Australian pennies; and I had to take to cleaning trolley cars the same afternoon or sleep on a seat in the park."

"That's a good idea," Dave put in. "Could n't we do that for the next six weeks?"

"What? Sleep in the park?" Tempest said, aghast.

"No. Clean trolley cars."

"Not on your life," replied Tempest, pulling a wry face. "It's good, honest work, but I'd rather spend the day cleaning out the bilges of ships than cleaning cars. There does n't seem to be any romance about those things. Let's find accommodation for the present, and something will turn up."

They soon found a clean boarding house, not far from the harbor, and most of the next two days was spent in sight-seeing. In the city itself they found more than one opportunity of getting work, but they were not desperately hard up, and Tempest scorned the idea of cleaning out stables, while he positively refused to agree to Dave tackling the job of elevator boy in a hotel.

"How do you think you 'll learn sailoring by shooting up and down an elevator shaft all day?" he asked. "No, my son. Our business is the sea. From now on we 'll haunt the docks till our chance comes. I would rather be tarring the sides of a coal hulk than cleaning out stables."

Work that would meet their requirements, however, was not easy to get. Tempest, rather than go on loafing, started as a "lumper," as the men are called who load and unload ships. The vessel was laden with heavy planks of wood, each of which had to be carried off on the shoulder and deposited on a cart. The work was too hard for Dave to tackle. Tempest was in perfect physical trim, but only an experienced "lumper" can stand heavy beams of timber on his shoulder from morning till night. The pad he wore soon cut through into the flesh, and by noon he had to throw up the job.

"I 'll go back to that when I'm forced to, and not before," he told Dave, filling his pipe contentedly. "Sailoring is sailoring, and I don't mind anything that comes along to be done, even if the ship is trying to stand on its head in a gale, but I do bar turning myself into a perambulating steam winch."

It was not merely the sheer hard work that Bruce Tempest objected to. There is a traditional feeling among sailors that dock laboring is not their job. Tempest disappeared several evenings in succession, saying he was looking for work. In reality he was earning good money with strenuous labor on those occasions, for funds to keep them going, but it was his whim not to mention that fact to Dave. Although a good many years the lad's senior, he found Dave a congenial companion in many ways, and was looking forward to the trip with him in the South Seas.

They had been in Sydney a week, and Dave and Tempest were walking along the wharves when the boy happened to notice an extremely fat man attempting the somewhat perilous feat of walking across a very narrow gangway to a steam tug. The gangway consisted merely of a plank, which had never been intended for traffic. The wind was blowing in violent gusts, and the plank wobbled in alarming fashion when the fat man reached the middle of it. Suddenly either his foot slipped, the wobbling of the plank was too much for him, or a puff of wind upset his balance.

Waving his arms like a windmill, and emitting a hoarse cry of alarm, he toppled over, disappearing into the water.

The whole thing occurred in a few seconds, while Tempest was looking in another direction. With a shout, Dave leaped forward, and arrived at the side of the. dock just as the fat man bobbed up to the surface like a very animated cork. He splashed furiously and bellowed, but Dave could see at a glance that the man was not able to swim a stroke.

Without pausing a second, he jumped off the pier, landing within a few feet of the drowning man.

"Heave a line," he shouted to Tempest; "then I can manage him all right!"

Dave knew better than to let the heavy man in the water clutch him. He took a couple of strokes forward and grabbed the back of the fat man's coat with one hand, keeping himself afloat with the other, while Tempest bounded across the plank on to a tug. In less than half a minute the boy heard a shout from his friend and saw a rope shoot out. He grasped the end of it, and then, taking a firm hold of the fat man's arm, was drawn to the side of a dory.

"Jumping Cæsar!" spluttered the rescued man, when his paw had closed on the "gun'le." "Me, at my time of life, too! Now, young man, I 'll trouble you and your friend to heave on me a bit. I'm not so thin as I was. That's better. Phew!"

He sat on a seat in the dory and regarded his saturated figure with a quaint expression.

"Man and boy, I 've followed the sea all my life," he went on, "and that's the very first time I 've been overboard. Wait till I climb on board the "Mary Ellen", and I 'll fire every soul there is on her!"

Two or three faces had appeared over the rail of the tug, but the threat did not seem to create any dismay.

"You lubbers!" exclaimed the fat man, shaking his fist at the faces. "Are ye all fast asleep, or is it that ye don't care if your old skipper goes to Davy Jones's locker? I 'll have ye remember that besides being skipper I'm part owner of this packet, and I 'll fire every man Jack of ye for leaving it to a baby in long clothes to pull me out."

"We didn't hear nothing, Cap'n. We was all down below," said a voice.

"Well, youngster," said the corpulent skipper amiably, having apparently forgotten his wrath, "I 've got an account to settle with you and your friend. Cap'n Grummitt isn't hauled out of a dock every day of his life. What can I do for ye, eh? Come on boards me hearties, and wait till I change, else my wife will be nursing a pneumonia patient. Ye'd better slip them wet things off, too. There will be something on board for ye to wear till yours dry in the engine-room."

Tempest lit his pipe and smoked placidly while the two were changing.

"Now," said Captain Grummitt, emerging a few moments later in dry garments, "ye can't put thanks in the bank. What d 'ye mean by hanging around my ship, anyway?"

Good humor was now shining in his rubicund countenance.

"Looking for work," Dave said quietly.

"And I don't know that ye deserve it," commented the skipper, "having just done my wife out of her insurance money. Are ye both sailors?"

"Yes."

"Well, if ye fancy the notion of knocking about on an old tug where there's nothing to do, as far as I can make out, but eat and draw your pay, along with the laziest crew that ever drew breath, why don't ye come with me?"