"And that be hanged for a silly yarn. The boatmen here in Westport have been telling this lie to the summer visitors for years. The sort that gets taken out for a row at a shilling a head--and asks foolish questions--must be told something to pass the time away. D'ye know anything more silly than being pulled in a boat along a beach? . . . It's like drinking weak lemonade when you aren't thirsty. I don't know why they do it! They don't even get sick."
A forgotten glass of beer stood at his elbow; the locality was a small respectable smoking-room of a small respectable hotel, and a taste for forming chance acquaintances accounts for my sitting up late with him. His great, flat, furrowed cheeks were shaven; a thick, square wisp of white hairs hung from his chin; its waggling gave additional point to his deep utterance; and his general contempt for mankind with its activities and moralities was expressed in the rakish set of his big soft hat of black felt with a large rim, which he kept always on his head.
His appearance was that of an old adventurer, retired after many unholy experiences in the darkest parts of the earth; but I had every reason to believe that he had never been outside England. From a casual remark somebody dropped I gathered that in his early days he must have been somehow connected with shipping--with ships in docks. Of individuality he had plenty. And it was this which attracted my attention at first. But he was not easy to classify, and before the end of the week I gave him up with the vague definition, "an imposing old ruffian."
One rainy afternoon, oppressed by infinite boredom, I went into the smoking-room. He was sitting there in absolute immobility, which was really fakir-like and impressive. I began to wonder what could be the associations of that sort of man, his "milieu," his private connections, his views, his morality, his friends, and even his wife--when to my surprise he opened a conversation in a deep, muttering voice.
I must say that since he had learned from somebody that I was a writer of stories he had been acknowledging my existence by means of some vague growls in the morning.
He was essentially a taciturn man. There was an effect of rudeness in his fragmentary sentences. It was some time before I discovered that what he would be at was the process by which stories--stories for periodicals--were produced.
What could one say to a fellow like that? But I was bored to death; the weather continued impossible; and I resolved to be amiable.
"And so you make these tales up on your own. How do they ever come into your head?" he rumbled.
I explained that one generally got a hint for a tale.
"What sort of hint?"
"Well, for instance," I said, "I got myself rowed out to the rocks the other day. My boatman told me of the wreck on these rocks nearly twenty years ago. That could be used as a hint for a mainly descriptive bit of story with some such title as 'In the Channel,' for instance."
It was then that he flew out at the boatmen and the summer visitors who listen to their tales. Without moving a muscle of his face he emitted a powerful "Rot," from somewhere out of the depths of his chest, and went on in his hoarse, fragmentary mumble. "Stare at the silly rocks--nod their silly heads [the visitors, I presume]. What do they think a man is--blown-out paper bag or what?--go off pop like that when he's hit--Damn silly yarn--Hint indeed! . . . A lie?"
You must imagine this statuesque ruffian enhaloed in the black rim of his hat, letting all this out as an old dog growls sometimes, with his head up and staring-away eyes.
"Indeed!" I exclaimed. "Well, but even if untrue it IS a hint, enabling me to see these rocks, this gale they speak of, the heavy seas, etc., etc., in relation to mankind. The struggle against natural forces and the effect of the issue on at least one, say, exalted--"
He interrupted me by an aggressive -
"Would truth be any good to you?"
"I shouldn't like to say," I answered, cautiously. "It's said that truth is stranger than fiction."
"Who says that?" he mouthed.
"Oh! Nobody in particular."
I turned to the window; for the contemptuous beggar was oppressive to look at, with his immovable arm on the table. I suppose my unceremonious manner provoked him to a comparatively long speech.
"Did you ever see such a silly lot of rocks? Like plums in a slice of cold pudding."
I was looking at them--an acre or more of black dots scattered on the steel-grey shades of the level sea, under the uniform gossamer grey mist with a formless brighter patch in one place--the veiled whiteness of the cliff coming through, like a diffused, mysterious radiance. It was a delicate and wonderful picture, something expressive, suggestive, and desolate, a symphony in grey and black- -a Whistler. But the next thing said by the voice behind me made me turn round. It growled out contempt for all associated notions of roaring seas with concise energy, then went on -
"I--no such foolishness--looking at the rocks out there--more likely call to mind an office--I used to look in sometimes at one time--office in London--one of them small streets behind Cannon Street Station. . . "
He was very deliberate; not jerky, only fragmentary; at times profane.
"That's a rather remote connection," I observed, approaching him.
"Connection? To Hades with your connections. It was an accident."
"Still," I said, "an accident has its backward and forward connections, which, if they could be set forth--"
Without moving he seemed to lend an attentive ear.
"Aye! Set forth. That's perhaps what you could do. Couldn't you now? There's no sea life in this connection. But you can put it in out of your head--if you like."
"Yes. I could, if necessary," I said. "Sometimes it pays to put in a lot out of one's head, and sometimes it doesn't. I mean that the story isn't worth it. Everything's in that."
It amused me to talk to him like this. He reflected audibly that he guessed story-writers were out after money like the rest of the world which had to live by its wits: and that it was extraordinary how far people who were out after money would go. . . Some of them.
Then he made a sally against sea life. Silly sort of life, he called it. No opportunities, no experience, no variety, nothing. Some fine men came out of it--he admitted--but no more chance in the world if put to it than fly. Kids. So Captain Harry Dunbar. Good sailor. Great name as a skipper. Big man; short side- whiskers going grey, fine face, loud voice. A good fellow, but no more up to people's tricks than a baby.
"That's the captain of the Sagamore you're talking about," I said, confidently.
After a low, scornful "Of course" he seemed now to hold on the wall with his fixed stare the vision of that city office, "at the back of Cannon Street Station," while he growled and mouthed a fragmentary description, jerking his chin up now and then, as if angry.
It was, according to his account, a modest place of business, not shady in any sense, but out of the way, in a small street now rebuilt from end to end. "Seven doors from the Cheshire Cat public house under the railway bridge. I used to take my lunch there when my business called me to the city. Cloete would come in to have his chop and make the girl laugh. No need to talk much, either, for that. Nothing but the way he would twinkle his spectacles on you and give a twitch of his thick mouth was enough to start you off before he began one of his little tales. Funny fellow, Cloete. C-l-o-e-t-e--Cloete."
"What was he--a Dutchman?" I asked, not seeing in the least what all this had to do with the Westport boatmen and the Westport summer visitors and this extraordinary old fellow's irritable view of them as liars and fools. "Devil knows," he grunted, his eyes on the wall as if not to miss a single movement of a cinematograph picture. "Spoke nothing but English, anyway. First I saw him-- comes off a ship in dock from the States--passenger. Asks me for a small hotel near by. Wanted to be quiet and have a look round for a few days. I took him to a place--friend of mine. . . Next time-- in the City--Hallo! You're very obliging--have a drink. Talks plenty about himself. Been years in the States. All sorts of business all over the place. With some patent medicine people, too. Travels. Writes advertisements and all that. Tells me funny stories. Tall, loose-limbed fellow. Black hair up on end, like a brush; long face, long legs, long arms, twinkle in his specs, jocular way of speaking--in a low voice. . . See that?"
I nodded, but he was not looking at me.
"Never laughed so much in my life. The beggar--would make you laugh telling you how he skinned his own father. He was up to that, too. A man who's been in the patent-medicine trade will be up to anything from pitch-and-toss to wilful murder. And that's a bit of hard truth for you. Don't mind what they do--think they can carry off anything and talk themselves out of anything--all the world's a fool to them. Business man, too, Cloete. Came over with a few hundred pounds. Looking for something to do--in a quiet way. Nothing like the old country, after all, says he. . . And so we part--I with more drinks in me than I was used to. After a time, perhaps six months or so, I run up against him again in Mr. George Dunbar's office. Yes, THAT office. It wasn't often that I . . . However, there was a bit of his cargo in a ship in dock that I wanted to ask Mr. George about. In comes Cloete out of the room at the back with some papers in his hand. Partner. You understand?"
"Aha!" I said. "The few hundred pounds."
"And that tongue of his," he growled. "Don't forget that tongue. Some of his tales must have opened George Dunbar's eyes a bit as to what business means."
"A plausible fellow," I suggested.
"H'm! You must have it in your own way--of course. Well. Partner. George Dunbar puts his top-hat on and tells me to wait a moment. . . George always looked as though he were making a few thousands a year--a city swell. . . Come along, old man! And he and Captain Harry go out together--some business with a solicitor round the corner. Captain Harry, when he was in England, used to turn up in his brother's office regularly about twelve. Sat in a corner like a good boy, reading the paper and smoking his pipe. So they go out. . . Model brothers, says Cloete--two love-birds--I am looking after the tinned-fruit side of this cozy little show. . . Gives me that sort of talk. Then by-and-by: What sort of old thing is that Sagamore? Finest ship out--eh? I dare say all ships are fine to you. You live by them. I tell you what; I would just as soon put my money into an old stocking. Sooner!"
He drew a breath, and I noticed his hand, lying loosely on the table, close slowly into a fist. In that immovable man it was startling, ominous, like the famed nod of the Commander.
"So, already at that time--note--already," he growled.
"But hold on," I interrupted. "The Sagamore belonged to Mundy and Rogers, I've been told."
He snorted contemptuously. "Damn boatmen--know no better. Flew the firm's HOUSE-FLAG. That's another thing. Favour. It was like this: When old man Dunbar died, Captain Harry was already in command with the firm. George chucked the bank he was clerking in- -to go on his own with what there was to share after the old chap. George was a smart man. Started warehousing; then two or three things at a time: wood-pulp, preserved-fruit trade, and so on. And Captain Harry let him have his share to work with. . . I am provided for in my ship, he says. . . But by-and-by Mundy and Rogers begin to sell out to foreigners all their ships--go into steam right away. Captain Harry gets very upset--lose command, part with the ship he was fond of--very wretched. Just then, so it happened, the brothers came in for some money--an old woman died or something. Quite a tidy bit. Then young George says: There's enough between us two to buy the Sagamore with. . . But you'll need more money for your business, cries Captain Harry--and the other laughs at him: My business is going on all right. Why, I can go out and make a handful of sovereigns while you are trying to get your pipe to draw, old man. . . Mundy and Rogers very friendly about it: Certainly, Captain. And we will manage her for you, if you like, as if she were still our own. . . Why, with a connection like that it was good investment to buy that ship. Good! Aye, at the time."
The turning of his head slightly toward me at this point was like a sign of strong feeling in any other man.
"You'll mind that this was long before Cloete came into it at all," he muttered, warningly.
"Yes. I will mind," I said. "We generally say: some years passed. That's soon done."
He eyed me for a while silently in an unseeing way, as if engrossed in the thought of the years so easily dealt with; his own years, too, they were, the years before and the years (not so many) after Cloete came upon the scene. When he began to speak again, I discerned his intention to point out to me, in his obscure and graphic manner, the influence on George Dunbar of long association with Cloete's easy moral standards, unscrupulously persuasive gift of humour (funny fellow), and adventurously reckless disposition. He desired me anxiously to elaborate this view, and I assured him it was quite within my powers. He wished me also to understand that George's business had its ups and downs (the other brother was meantime sailing to and fro serenely); that he got into low water at times, which worried him rather, because he had married a young wife with expensive tastes. He was having a pretty anxious time of it generally; and just then Cloete ran up in the city somewhere against a man working a patent medicine (the fellow's old trade) with some success, but which, with capital, capital to the tune of thousands to be spent with both hands on advertising, could be turned into a great thing--infinitely better--paying than a gold- mine. Cloete became excited at the possibilities of that sort of business, in which he was an expert. I understood that George's partner was all on fire from the contact with this unique opportunity.
"So he goes in every day into George's room about eleven, and sings that tune till George gnashes his teeth with rage. Do shut up. What's the good? No money. Hardly any to go on with, let alone pouring thousands into advertising. Never dare propose to his brother Harry to sell the ship. Couldn't think of it. Worry him to death. It would be like the end of the world coming. And certainly not for a business of that kind! . . . Do you think it would be a swindle? asks Cloete, twitching his mouth. . . George owns up: No-would be no better than a squeamish ass if he thought that, after all these years in business.
"Cloete looks at him hard--Never thought of SELLING the ship. Expected the blamed old thing wouldn't fetch half her insured value by this time. Then George flies out at him. What's the meaning, then, of these silly jeers at ship-owning for the last three weeks? Had enough of them, anyhow.
"Angry at having his mouth made to water, see. Cloete don't get excited. . . I am no squeamish ass, either, says he, very slowly. 'Tisn't selling your old Sagamore wants. The blamed thing wants tomahawking (seems the name Sagamore means an Indian chief or something. The figure-head was a half-naked savage with a feather over one ear and a hatchet in his belt). Tomahawking, says he.
"What do you mean? asks George. . . Wrecking--it could be managed with perfect safety, goes on Cloete--your brother would then put in his share of insurance money. Needn't tell him exactly what for. He thinks you're the smartest business man that ever lived. Make his fortune, too. . . George grips the desk with both hands in his rage. . . You think my brother's a man to cast away his ship on purpose. I wouldn't even dare think of such a thing in the same room with him--the finest fellow that ever lived. . . Don't make such noise; they'll hear you outside, says Cloete; and he tells him that his brother is the salted pattern of all virtues, but all that's necessary is to induce him to stay ashore for a voyage--for a holiday--take a rest--why not? . . . In fact, I have in view somebody up to that sort of game--Cloete whispers.
"George nearly chokes. . . So you think I am of that sort--you think ME capable--What do you take me for? . . . He almost loses his head, while Cloete keeps cool, only gets white about the gills. . . I take you for a man who will be most cursedly hard up before long. . . He goes to the door and sends away the clerks--there were only two--to take their lunch hour. Comes back . . . What are you indignant about? Do I want you to rob the widow and orphan? Why, man! Lloyd's a corporation, it hasn't got a body to starve. There's forty or more of them perhaps who underwrote the lines on that silly ship of yours. Not one human being would go hungry or cold for it. They take every risk into consideration. Everything I tell you. . . That sort of talk. H'm! George too upset to speak--only gurgles and waves his arms; so sudden, you see. The other, warming his back at the fire, goes on. Wood-pulp business next door to a failure. Tinned-fruit trade nearly played out. . . You're frightened, he says; but the law is only meant to frighten fools away. . . And he shows how safe casting away that ship would be. Premiums paid for so many, many years. No shadow of suspicion could arise. And, dash it all! a ship must meet her end some day. . .
"I am not frightened. I am indignant," says George Dunbar.
"Cloete boiling with rage inside. Chance of a lifetime--his chance! And he says kindly: Your wife'll be much more indignant when you ask her to get out of that pretty house of yours and pile in into a two-pair back--with kids perhaps, too. . .
"George had no children. Married a couple of years; looked forward to a kid or two very much. Feels more upset than ever. Talks about an honest man for father, and so on. Cloete grins: You be quick before they come, and they'll have a rich man for father, and no one the worse for it. That's the beauty of the thing.
"George nearly cries. I believe he did cry at odd times. This went on for weeks. He couldn't quarrel with Cloete. Couldn't pay off his few hundreds; and besides, he was used to have him about. Weak fellow, George. Cloete generous, too. . . Don't think of my little pile, says he. Of course it's gone when we have to shut up. But I don't care, he says. . . And then there was George's new wife. When Cloete dines there, the beggar puts on a dress suit; little woman liked it; . . . Mr. Cloete, my husband's partner; such a clever man, man of the world, so amusing! . . . When he dines there and they are alone: Oh, Mr. Cloete, I wish George would do something to improve our prospects. Our position is really so mediocre. . . And Cloete smiles, but isn't surprised, because he had put all these notions himself into her empty head. . . What your husband wants is enterprise, a little audacity. You can encourage him best, Mrs. Dunbar. . . She was a silly, extravagant little fool. Had made George take a house in Norwood. Live up to a lot of people better off than themselves. I saw her once; silk dress, pretty boots, all feathers and scent, pink face. More like the Promenade at the Alhambra than a decent home, it looked to me. But some women do get a devil of a hold on a man."
"Yes, some do," I assented. "Even when the man is the husband."
"My missis," he addressed me unexpectedly, in a solemn, surprisingly hollow tone, "could wind me round her little finger. I didn't find it out till she was gone. Aye. But she was a woman of sense, while that piece of goods ought to have been walking the streets, and that's all I can say. . . You must make her up out of your head. You will know the sort."
"Leave all that to me," I said.
"H'm!" he grunted, doubtfully, then going back to his scornful tone: "A month or so afterwards the Sagamore arrives home. All very jolly at first. . . Hallo, George boy! Hallo, Harry, old man! . . . But by and by Captain Harry thinks his clever brother is not looking very well. And George begins to look worse. He can't get rid of Cloete's notion. It has stuck in his head. . . There's nothing wrong--quite well. . . Captain Harry still anxious. Business going all right, eh? Quite right. Lots of business. Good business. . . Of course Captain Harry believes that easily. Starts chaffing his brother in his jolly way about rolling in money. George's shirt sticks to his back with perspiration, and he feels quite angry with the captain. . . The fool, he says to himself. Rolling in money, indeed! And then he thinks suddenly: Why not? . . . Because Cloete's notion has got hold of his mind.
"But next day he weakens and says to Cloete . . . Perhaps it would be best to sell. Couldn't you talk to my brother? and Cloete explains to him over again for the twentieth time why selling wouldn't do, anyhow. No! The Sagamore must be tomahawked--as he would call it; to spare George's feelings, maybe. But every time he says the word, George shudders. . . I've got a man at hand competent for the job who will do the trick for five hundred, and only too pleased at the chance, says Cloete. . . George shuts his eyes tight at that sort of talk--but at the same time he thinks: Humbug! There can be no such man. And yet if there was such a man it would be safe enough--perhaps.
"And Cloete always funny about it. He couldn't talk about anything without it seeming there was a great joke in it somewhere. . . Now, says he, I know you are a moral citizen, George. Morality is mostly funk, and I think you're the funkiest man I ever came across in my travels. Why, you are afraid to speak to your brother. Afraid to open your mouth to him with a fortune for us all in sight. . . George flares up at this: no, he ain't afraid; he will speak; bangs fist on the desk. And Cloete pats him on the back. . . We'll be made men presently, he says.
"But the first time George attempts to speak to Captain Harry his heart slides down into his boots. Captain Harry only laughs at the notion of staying ashore. He wants no holiday, not he. But Jane thinks of remaining in England this trip. Go about a bit and see some of her people. Jane was the Captain's wife; round-faced, pleasant lady. George gives up that time; but Cloete won't let him rest. So he tries again; and the Captain frowns. He frowns because he's puzzled. He can't make it out. He has no notion of living away from his Sagamore. . .
"Ah!" I cried. "Now I understand."
"No, you don't," he growled, his black, contemptuous stare turning on me crushingly.
"I beg your pardon," I murmured.
"H'm! Very well, then. Captain Harry looks very stern, and George crumples all up inside. . . He sees through me, he thinks. . . Of course it could not be; but George, by that time, was scared at his own shadow. He is shirking it with Cloete, too. Gives his partner to understand that his brother has half a mind to try a spell on shore, and so on. Cloete waits, gnawing his fingers; so anxious. Cloete really had found a man for the job. Believe it or not, he had found him inside the very boarding-house he lodged in-- somewhere about Tottenham Court Road. He had noticed down-stairs a fellow--a boarder and not a boarder--hanging about the dark--part of the passage mostly; sort of 'man of the house,' a slinking chap. Black eyes. White face. The woman of the house--a widow lady, she called herself--very full of Mr. Stafford; Mr. Stafford this and Mr. Stafford that. . . Anyhow, Cloete one evening takes him out to have a drink. Cloete mostly passed away his evenings in saloon bars. No drunkard, though, Cloete; for company; liked to talk to all sorts there; just habit; American fashion.
"So Cloete takes that chap out more than once. Not very good company, though. Little to say for himself. Sits quiet and drinks what's given to him, eyes always half closed, speaks sort of demure. . . I've had misfortunes, he says. The truth was they had kicked him out of a big steam-ship company for disgraceful conduct; nothing to affect his certificate, you understand; and he had gone down quite easily. Liked it, I expect. Anything's better than work. Lived on the widow lady who kept that boarding-house."
"That's almost incredible," I ventured to interrupt. "A man with a master's certificate, do you mean?"
"I do; I've known them 'bus cads," he growled, contemptuously. "Yes. Swing on the tail-board by the strap and yell, 'tuppence all the way.' Through drink. But this Stafford was of another kind. Hell's full of such Staffords; Cloete would make fun of him, and then there would be a nasty gleam in the fellow's half-shut eye. But Cloete was generally kind to him. Cloete was a fellow that would be kind to a mangy dog. Anyhow, he used to stand drinks to that object, and now and then gave him half a crown--because the widow lady kept Mr. Stafford short of pocket-money. They had rows almost every day down in the basement. . .
It was the fellow being a sailor that put into Cloete's mind the first notion of doing away with the Sagamore. He studies him a bit, thinks there's enough devil in him yet to be tempted, and one evening he says to him . . . I suppose you wouldn't mind going to sea again, for a spell? . . . The other never raises his eyes; says it's scarcely worth one's while for the miserable salary one gets. . . Well, but what do you say to captain's wages for a time, and a couple of hundred extra if you are compelled to come home without the ship. Accidents will happen, says Cloete. . . Oh! sure to, says that Stafford; and goes on taking sips of his drink as if he had no interest in the matter.
"Cloete presses him a bit; but the other observes, impudent and languid like: You see, there's no future in a thing like that--is there? . . Oh! no, says Cloete. Certainly not. I don't mean this to have any future--as far as you are concerned. It's a 'once for all' transaction. Well, what do you estimate your future at? he asks. . . The fellow more listless than ever--nearly asleep.--I believe the skunk was really too lazy to care. Small cheating at cards, wheedling or bullying his living out of some woman or other, was more his style. Cloete swears at him in whispers something awful. All this in the saloon bar of the Horse Shoe, Tottenham Court Road. Finally they agree, over the second sixpennyworth of Scotch hot, on five hundred pounds as the price of tomahawking the Sagamore. And Cloete waits to see what George can do.
"A week or two goes by. The other fellow loafs about the house as if there had been nothing, and Cloete begins to doubt whether he really means ever to tackle that job. But one day he stops Cloete at the door, with his downcast eyes: What about that employment you wished to give me? he asks. . . You see, he had played some more than usual dirty trick on the woman and expected awful ructions presently; and to be fired out for sure. Cloete very pleased. George had been prevaricating to him such a lot that he really thought the thing was as well as settled. And he says: Yes. It's time I introduced you to my friend. Just get your hat and we will go now. . .
"The two come into the office, and George at his desk sits up in a sudden panic--staring. Sees a tallish fellow, sort of nasty- handsome face, heavy eyes, half shut; short drab overcoat, shabby bowler hat, very careful--like in his movements. And he thinks to himself, Is that how such a man looks! No, the thing's impossible. . . Cloete does the introduction, and the fellow turns round to look behind him at the chair before he sits down. . . A thoroughly competent man, Cloete goes on . . . The man says nothing, sits perfectly quiet. And George can't speak, throat too dry. Then he makes an effort: H'm! H'm! Oh yes--unfortunately--sorry to disappoint--my brother--made other arrangements--going himself.
"The fellow gets up, never raising his eyes off the ground, like a modest girl, and goes out softly, right out of the office without a sound. Cloete sticks his chin in his hand and bites all his fingers at once. George's heart slows down and he speaks to Cloete. . . This can't be done. How can it be? Directly the ship is lost Harry would see through it. You know he is a man to go to the underwriters himself with his suspicions. And he would break his heart over me. How can I play that on him? There's only two of us in the world belonging to each other. . .
"Cloete lets out a horrid cuss-word, jumps up, bolts away into his room, and George hears him there banging things around. After a while he goes to the door and says in a trembling voice: You ask me for an impossibility. . . Cloete inside ready to fly out like a tiger and rend him; but he opens the door a little way and says softly: Talking of hearts, yours is no bigger than a mouse's, let me tell you. . . But George doesn't care--load off the heart, anyhow. And just then Captain Harry comes in. . . Hallo, George boy. I am little late. What about a chop at the Cheshire, now? . . . Right you are, old man. . . And off they go to lunch together. Cloete has nothing to eat that day.
"George feels a new man for a time; but all of a sudden that fellow Stafford begins to hang about the street, in sight of the house door. The first time George sees him he thinks he made a mistake. But no; next time he has to go out, there is the very fellow skulking on the other side of the road. It makes George nervous; but he must go out on business, and when the fellow cuts across the road-way he dodges him. He dodges him once, twice, three times; but at last he gets nabbed in his very doorway. . . What do you want? he says, trying to look fierce.
"It seems that ructions had come in the basement of that boarding- house, and the widow lady had turned on him (being jealous mad), to the extent of talking of the police. THAT Mr. Stafford couldn't stand; so he cleared out like a scared stag, and there he was, chucked into the streets, so to speak. Cloete looked so savage as he went to and fro that he hadn't the spunk to tackle him; but George seemed a softer kind to his eye. He would have been glad of half a quid, anything. . . I've had misfortunes, he says softly, in his demure way, which frightens George more than a row would have done. . . Consider the severity of my disappointment, he says. . .
"George, instead of telling him to go to the devil, loses his head. . . I don't know you. What do you want? he cries, and bolts up- stairs to Cloete. . . . Look what's come of it, he gasps; now we are at the mercy of that horrid fellow. . . Cloete tries to show him that the fellow can do nothing; but George thinks that some sort of scandal may be forced on, anyhow. Says that he can't live with that horror haunting him. Cloete would laugh if he weren't too weary of it all. Then a thought strikes him and he changes his tune. . . Well, perhaps! I will go down-stairs and send him away to begin with. . . He comes back. . . He's gone. But perhaps you are right. The fellow's hard up, and that's what makes people desperate. The best thing would be to get him out of the country for a time. Look here, the poor devil is really in want of employment. I won't ask you much this time: only to hold your tongue; and I shall try to get your brother to take him as chief officer. At this George lays his arms and his head on his desk, so that Cloete feels sorry for him. But altogether Cloete feels more cheerful because he has shaken the ghost a bit into that Stafford. That very afternoon he buys him a suit of blue clothes, and tells him that he will have to turn to and work for his living now. Go to sea as mate of the Sagamore. The skunk wasn't very willing, but what with having nothing to eat and no place to sleep in, and the woman having frightened him with the talk of some prosecution or other, he had no choice, properly speaking. Cloete takes care of him for a couple of days. . . Our arrangement still stands, says he. Here's the ship bound for Port Elizabeth; not a safe anchorage at all. Should she by chance part from her anchors in a north-east gale and get lost on the beach, as many of them do, why, it's five hundred in your pocket--and a quick return home. You are up to the job, ain't you?
"Our Mr. Stafford takes it all in with downcast eyes. . . I am a competent seaman, he says, with his sly, modest air. A ship's chief mate has no doubt many opportunities to manipulate the chains and anchors to some purpose. . . At this Cloete thumps him on the back: You'll do, my noble sailor. Go in and win. . .
"Next thing George knows, his brother tells him that he had occasion to oblige his partner. And glad of it, too. Likes the partner no end. Took a friend of his as mate. Man had his troubles, been ashore a year nursing a dying wife, it seems. Down on his luck. . . George protests earnestly that he knows nothing of the person. Saw him once. Not very attractive to look at. . . And Captain Harry says in his hearty way, That's so, but must give the poor devil a chance. . .
"So Mr. Stafford joins in dock. And it seems that he did manage to monkey with one of the cables--keeping his mind on Port Elizabeth. The riggers had all the cable ranged on deck to clean lockers. The new mate watches them go ashore--dinner hour--and sends the ship- keeper out of the ship to fetch him a bottle of beer. Then he goes to work whittling away the forelock of the forty-five-fathom shackle-pin, gives it a tap or two with a hammer just to make it loose, and of course that cable wasn't safe any more. Riggers come back--you know what riggers are: come day, go day, and God send Sunday. Down goes the chain into the locker without their foreman looking at the shackles at all. What does he care? He ain't going in the ship. And two days later the ship goes to sea. . . "
At this point I was incautious enough to breathe out another "I see," which gave offence again, and brought on me a rude "No, you don't"--as before. But in the pause he remembered the glass of beer at his elbow. He drank half of it, wiped his mustaches, and remarked grimly -
"Don't you think that there will be any sea life in this, because there ain't. If you're going to put in any out of your own head, now's your chance. I suppose you know what ten days of bad weather in the Channel are like? I don't. Anyway, ten whole days go by. One Monday Cloete comes to the office a little late--hears a woman's voice in George's room and looks in. Newspapers on the desk, on the floor; Captain Harry's wife sitting with red eyes and a bag on the chair near her. . . Look at this, says George, in great excitement, showing him a paper. Cloete's heart gives a jump. Ha! Wreck in Westport Bay. The Sagamore gone ashore early hours of Sunday, and so the newspaper men had time to put in some of their work. Columns of it. Lifeboat out twice. Captain and crew remain by the ship. Tugs summoned to assist. If the weather improves, this well-known fine ship may yet be saved. . . You know the way these chaps put it. . . Mrs. Harry there on her way to catch a train from Cannon Street. Got an hour to wait.
"Cloete takes George aside and whispers: Ship saved yet! Oh, damn! That must never be; you hear? But George looks at him dazed, and Mrs. Harry keeps on sobbing quietly: . . . I ought to have been with him. But I am going to him. . . We are all going together, cries Cloete, all of a sudden. He rushes out, sends the woman a cup of hot bovril from the shop across the road, buys a rug for her, thinks of everything; and in the train tucks her in and keeps on talking, thirteen to the dozen, all the way, to keep her spirits up, as it were; but really because he can't hold his peace for very joy. Here's the thing done all at once, and nothing to pay. Done. Actually done. His head swims now and again when he thinks of it. What enormous luck! It almost frightens him. He would like to yell and sing. Meantime George Dunbar sits in his corner, looking so deadly miserable that at last poor Mrs. Harry tries to comfort him, and so cheers herself up at the same time by talking about how her Harry is a prudent man; not likely to risk his crew's life or his own unnecessarily--and so on.
"First thing they hear at Westport station is that the life-boat has been out to the ship again, and has brought off the second officer, who had hurt himself, and a few sailors. Captain and the rest of the crew, about fifteen in all, are still on board. Tugs expected to arrive every moment.
"They take Mrs. Harry to the inn, nearly opposite the rocks; she bolts straight up-stairs to look out of the window, and she lets out a great cry when she sees the wreck. She won't rest till she gets on board to her Harry. Cloete soothes her all he can. . . All right; you try to eat a mouthful, and we will go to make inquiries.
"He draws George out of the room: Look here, she can't go on board, but I shall. I'll see to it that he doesn't stop in the ship too long. Let's go and find the coxswain of the life-boat. . . George follows him, shivering from time to time. The waves are washing over the old pier; not much wind, a wild, gloomy sky over the bay. In the whole world only one tug away off, heading to the seas, tossed in and out of sight every minute as regular as clockwork.
"They meet the coxswain and he tells them: Yes! He's going out again. No, they ain't in danger on board--not yet. But the ship's chance is very poor. Still, if the wind doesn't pipe up again and the sea goes down something might be tried. After some talk he agrees to take Cloete on board; supposed to be with an urgent message from the owners to the captain.
"Whenever Cloete looks at the sky he feels comforted; it looks so threatening. George Dunbar follows him about with a white face and saying nothing. Cloete takes him to have a drink or two, and by and by he begins to pick up. . . That's better, says Cloete; dash me if it wasn't like walking about with a dead man before. You ought to be throwing up your cap, man. I feel as if I wanted to stand in the street and cheer. Your brother is safe, the ship is lost, and we are made men.
"Are you certain she's lost? asks George. It would be an awful blow after all the agonies I have gone through in my mind, since you first spoke to me, if she were to be got off--and--and--all this temptation to begin over again. . . For we had nothing to do with this; had we?
"Of course not, says Cloete. Wasn't your brother himself in charge? It's providential. . . Oh! cries George, shocked. . . Well, say it's the devil, says Cloete, cheerfully. I don't mind! You had nothing to do with it any more than a baby unborn, you great softy, you. . . Cloete has got so that he almost loved George Dunbar. Well. Yes. That was so. I don't mean he respected him. He was just fond of his partner.
"They go back, you may say fairly skipping, to the hotel, and find the wife of the captain at the open window, with her eyes on the ship as if she wanted to fly across the bay over there. . . Now then, Mrs. Dunbar, cries Cloete, you can't go, but I am going. Any messages? Don't be shy. I'll deliver every word faithfully. And if you would like to give me a kiss for him, I'll deliver that too, dash me if I don't.
"He makes Mrs. Harry laugh with his patter. . . Oh, dear Mr. Cloete, you are a calm, reasonable man. Make him behave sensibly. He's a bit obstinate, you know, and he's so fond of the ship, too. Tell him I am here--looking on. . . Trust me, Mrs. Dunbar. Only shut that window, that's a good girl. You will be sure to catch cold if you don't, and the Captain won't be pleased coming off the wreck to find you coughing and sneezing so that you can't tell him how happy you are. And now if you can get me a bit of tape to fasten my glasses on good to my ears, I will be going. . .
"How he gets on board I don't know. All wet and shaken and excited and out of breath, he does get on board. Ship lying over, smothered in sprays, but not moving very much; just enough to jag one's nerve a bit. He finds them all crowded on the deck-house forward, in their shiny oilskins, with faces like sick men. Captain Harry can't believe his eyes. What! Mr. Cloete! What are you doing here, in God's name? . . . Your wife's ashore there, looking on, gasps out Cloete; and after they had talked a bit, Captain Harry thinks it's uncommonly plucky and kind of his brother's partner to come off to him like this. Man glad to have somebody to talk to. . . It's a bad business, Mr. Cloete, he says. And Cloete rejoices to hear that. Captain Harry thinks he had done his best, but the cable had parted when he tried to anchor her. It was a great trial to lose the ship. Well, he would have to face it. He fetches a deep sigh now and then. Cloete almost sorry he had come on board, because to be on that wreck keeps his chest in a tight band all the time. They crouch out of the wind under the port boat, a little apart from the men. The life-boat had gone away after putting Cloete on board, but was coming back next high water to take off the crew if no attempt at getting the ship afloat could be made. Dusk was falling; winter's day; black sky; wind rising. Captain Harry felt melancholy. God's will be done. If she must be left on the rocks--why, she must. A man should take what God sends him standing up. . . Suddenly his voice breaks, and he squeezes Cloete's arm: It seems as if I couldn't leave her, he whispers. Cloete looks round at the men like a lot of huddled sheep and thinks to himself: They won't stay. . . Suddenly the ship lifts a little and sets down with a thump. Tide rising. Everybody beginning to look out for the life-boat. Some of the men made her out far away and also two more tugs. But the gale has come on again, and everybody knows that no tug will ever dare come near the ship.
"That's the end, Captain Harry says, very low. . . . Cloete thinks he never felt so cold in all his life. . . And I feel as if I didn't care to live on just now, mutters Captain Harry . . . Your wife's ashore, looking on, says Cloete . . . Yes. Yes. It must be awful for her to look at the poor old ship lying here done for. Why, that's our home.
"Cloete thinks that as long as the Sagamore's done for he doesn't care, and only wishes himself somewhere else. The slightest movement of the ship cuts his breath like a blow. And he feels excited by the danger, too. The captain takes him aside. . . The life-boat can't come near us for more than an hour. Look here, Cloete, since you are here, and such a plucky one--do something for me. . . He tells him then that down in his cabin aft in a certain drawer there is a bundle of important papers and some sixty sovereigns in a small canvas bag. Asks Cloete to go and get these things out. He hasn't been below since the ship struck, and it seems to him that if he were to take his eyes off her she would fall to pieces. And then the men--a scared lot by this time--if he were to leave them by themselves they would attempt to launch one of the ship's boats in a panic at some heavier thump--and then some of them bound to get drowned. . . There are two or three boxes of matches about my shelves in my cabin if you want a light, says Captain Harry. Only wipe your wet hands before you begin to feel for them. . .
"Cloete doesn't like the job, but doesn't like to show funk, either--and he goes. Lots of water on the main-deck, and he splashes along; it was getting dark, too. All at once, by the mainmast, somebody catches him by the arm. Stafford. He wasn't thinking of Stafford at all. Captain Harry had said something as to the mate not being quite satisfactory, but it wasn't much. Cloete doesn't recognise him in his oilskins at first. He sees a white face with big eyes peering at him. . . Are you pleased, Mr. Cloete . . . ?
"Cloete is moved to laugh at the whine, and shakes him off. But the fellow scrambles on after him on the poop and follows him down into the cabin of that wrecked ship. And there they are, the two of them; can hardly see each other. . . You don't mean to make me believe you have had anything to do with this, says Cloete. . .
"They both shiver, nearly out of their wits with the excitement of being on board that ship. She thumps and lurches, and they stagger together, feeling sick. Cloete again bursts out laughing at that wretched creature Stafford pretending to have been up to something so desperate. . . Is that how you think you can treat me now? yells the other man all of a sudden. . .
"A sea strikes the stern, the ship trembles and groans all round them, there's the noise of the seas about and overhead, confusing Cloete, and he hears the other screaming as if crazy. . . Ah, you don't believe me! Go and look at the port chain. Parted? Eh? Go and see if it's parted. Go and find the broken link. You can't. There's no broken link. That means a thousand pounds for me. No less. A thousand the day after we get ashore--prompt. I won't wait till she breaks up, Mr. Cloete. To the underwriters I go if I've to walk to London on my bare feet. Port cable! Look at her port cable, I will say to them. I doctored it--for the owners-- tempted by a low rascal called Cloete.
"Cloete does not understand what it means exactly. All he sees is that the fellow means to make mischief. He sees trouble ahead. . . Do you think you can scare me? he asks,--you poor miserable skunk. . . And Stafford faces him out--both holding on to the cabin table: No, damn you, you are only a dirty vagabond; but I can scare the other, the chap in the black coat. . .
"Meaning George Dunbar. Cloete's brain reels at the thought. He doesn't imagine the fellow can do any real harm, but he knows what George is; give the show away; upset the whole business he had set his heart on. He says nothing; he hears the other, what with the funk and strain and excitement, panting like a dog--and then a snarl. . . A thousand down, twenty-four hours after we get ashore; day after to-morrow. That's my last word, Mr. Cloete. . . A thousand pounds, day after to-morrow, says Cloete. Oh yes. And to-day take this, you dirty cur. . . He hits straight from the shoulder in sheer rage, nothing else. Stafford goes away spinning along the bulk-head. Seeing this, Cloete steps out and lands him another one somewhere about the jaw. The fellow staggers backward right into the captain's cabin through the open door. Cloete, following him up, hears him fall down heavily and roll to leeward, then slams the door to and turns the key. . . There! says he to himself, that will stop you from making trouble."
"By Jove!" I murmured.
The old fellow departed from his impressive immobility to turn his rakishly hatted head and look at me with his old, black, lack- lustre eyes.
"He did leave him there," he uttered, weightily, returning to the contemplation of the wall. "Cloete didn't mean to allow anybody, let alone a thing like Stafford, to stand in the way of his great notion of making George and himself, and Captain Harry, too, for that matter, rich men. And he didn't think much of consequences. These patent-medicine chaps don't care what they say or what they do. They think the world's bound to swallow any story they like to tell. . . He stands listening for a bit. And it gives him quite a turn to hear a thump at the door and a sort of muffled raving screech inside the captain's room. He thinks he hears his own name, too, through the awful crash as the old Sagamore rises and falls to a sea. That noise and that awful shock make him clear out of the cabin. He collects his senses on the poop. But his heart sinks a little at the black wildness of the night. Chances that he will get drowned himself before long. Puts his head down the companion. Through the wind and breaking seas he can hear the noise of Stafford's beating against the door and cursing. He listens and says to himself: No. Can't trust him now. . .
"When he gets back to the top of the deck-house he says to Captain Harry, who asks him if he got the things, that he is very sorry. There was something wrong with the door. Couldn't open it. And to tell you the truth, says he, I didn't like to stop any longer in that cabin. There are noises there as if the ship were going to pieces. . . Captain Harry thinks: Nervous; can't be anything wrong with the door. But he says: Thanks--never mind, never mind. . . All hands looking out now for the life-boat. Everybody thinking of himself rather. Cloete asks himself, will they miss him? But the fact is that Mr. Stafford had made such poor show at sea that after the ship struck nobody ever paid any attention to him. Nobody cared what he did or where he was. Pitch dark, too--no counting of heads. The light of the tug with the lifeboat in tow is seen making for the ship, and Captain Harry asks: Are we all there? . . . Somebody answers: All here, sir. . . Stand by to leave the ship, then, says Captain Harry; and two of you help the gentleman over first. . . Aye, aye, sir. . . Cloete was moved to ask Captain Harry to let him stay till last, but the life-boat drops on a grapnel abreast the fore-rigging, two chaps lay hold of him, watch their chance, and drop him into her, all safe.
"He's nearly exhausted; not used to that sort of thing, you see. He sits in the stern-sheets with his eyes shut. Don't want to look at the white water boiling all around. The men drop into the boat one after another. Then he hears Captain Harry's voice shouting in the wind to the coxswain, to hold on a moment, and some other words he can't catch, and the coxswain yelling back: Don't be long, sir. . . What is it? Cloete asks feeling faint. . . Something about the ship's papers, says the coxswain, very anxious. It's no time to be fooling about alongside, you understand. They haul the boat off a little and wait. The water flies over her in sheets. Cloete's senses almost leave him. He thinks of nothing. He's numb all over, till there's a shout: Here he is! . . . They see a figure in the fore-rigging waiting--they slack away on the grapnel-line and get him in the boat quite easy. There is a little shouting--it's all mixed up with the noise of the sea. Cloete fancies that Stafford's voice is talking away quite close to his ear. There's a lull in the wind, and Stafford's voice seems to be speaking very fast to the coxswain; he tells him that of course he was near his skipper, was all the time near him, till the old man said at the last moment that he must go and get the ship's papers from aft; would insist on going himself; told him, Stafford, to get into the life-boat. . . He had meant to wait for his skipper, only there came this smooth of the seas, and he thought he would take his chance at once.
"Cloete opens his eyes. Yes. There's Stafford sitting close by him in that crowded life-boat. The coxswain stoops over Cloete and cries: Did you hear what the mate said, sir? . . . Cloete's face feels as if it were set in plaster, lips and all. Yes, I did, he forces himself to answer. The coxswain waits a moment, then says: I don't like it. . . And he turns to the mate, telling him it was a pity he did not try to run along the deck and hurry up the captain when the lull came. Stafford answers at once that he did think of it, only he was afraid of missing him on the deck in the dark. For, says he, the captain might have got over at once, thinking I was already in the life-boat, and you would have hauled off perhaps, leaving me behind. . . True enough, says the coxswain. A minute or so passes. This won't do, mutters the coxswain. Suddenly Stafford speaks up in a sort of hollow voice: I was by when he told Mr. Cloete here that he didn't know how he would ever have the courage to leave the old ship; didn't he, now? . . . And Cloete feels his arm being gripped quietly in the dark. . . Didn't he now? We were standing together just before you went over, Mr. Cloete? . . .
"Just then the coxswain cries out: I'm going on board to see. . . Cloete tears his arm away: I am going with you. . .
"When they get aboard, the coxswain tells Cloete to go aft along one side of the ship and he would go along the other so as not to miss the captain. . . And feel about with your hands, too, says he; he might have fallen and be lying insensible somewhere on the deck. . . When Cloete gets at last to the cabin companion on the poop the coxswain is already there, peering down and sniffing. I detect a smell of smoke down there, says he. And he yells: Are you there, sir? . . . This is not a case for shouting, says Cloete, feeling his heart go stony, as it were. . . Down they go. Pitch dark; the inclination so sharp that the coxswain, groping his way into the captain's room, slips and goes tumbling down. Cloete hears him cry out as though he had hurt himself, and asks what's the matter. And the coxswain answers quietly that he had fallen on the captain, lying there insensible. Cloete without a word begins to grope all over the shelves for a box of matches, finds one, and strikes a light. He sees the coxswain in his cork jacket kneeling over Captain Harry. . . Blood, says the coxswain, looking up, and the match goes out. . .
"Wait a bit, says Cloete; I'll make paper spills. . . He had felt the back of books on the shelves. And so he stands lighting one spill from another while the coxswain turns poor Captain Harry over. Dead, he says. Shot through the heart. Here's the revolver. . . He hands it up to Cloete, who looks at it before putting it in his pocket, and sees a plate on the butt with H. Dunbar on it. . . His own, he mutters. . . Whose else revolver did you expect to find? snaps the coxswain. And look, he took off his long oilskin in the cabin before he went in. But what's this lot of burnt paper? What could he want to burn the ship's papers for? . . .
Cloete sees all, the little drawers drawn out, and asks the coxswain to look well into them. . . There's nothing, says the man. Cleaned out. Seems to have pulled out all he could lay his hands on and set fire to the lot. Mad--that's what it is--went mad. And now he's dead. You'll have to break it to his wife. . .
"I feel as if I were going mad myself, says Cloete, suddenly, and the coxswain begs him for God's sake to pull himself together, and drags him away from the cabin. They had to leave the body, and as it was they were just in time before a furious squall came on. Cloete is dragged into the life-boat and the coxswain tumbles in. Haul away on the grapnel, he shouts; the captain has shot himself. . .
"Cloete was like a dead man--didn't care for anything. He let that Stafford pinch his arm twice without making a sign. Most of Westport was on the old pier to see the men out of the life-boat, and at first there was a sort of confused cheery uproar when she came alongside; but after the coxswain has shouted something the voices die out, and everybody is very quiet. As soon as Cloete has set foot on something firm he becomes himself again. The coxswain shakes hands with him: Poor woman, poor woman, I'd rather you had the job than I. . .
"Where's the mate?" asks Cloete. He's the last man who spoke to the master. . . Somebody ran along--the crew were being taken to the Mission Hall, where there was a fire and shake-downs ready for them--somebody ran along the pier and caught up with Stafford. . . Here! The owner's agent wants you. . . Cloete tucks the fellow's arm under his own and walks away with him to the left, where the fishing-harbour is. . . I suppose I haven't misunderstood you. You wish me to look after you a bit, says he. The other hangs on him rather limp, but gives a nasty little laugh: You had better, he mumbles; but mind, no tricks; no tricks, Mr. Cloete; we are on land now.
"There's a police office within fifty yards from here, says Cloete. He turns into a little public house, pushes Stafford along the passage. The landlord runs out of the bar. . . This is the mate of the ship on the rocks, Cloete explains; I wish you would take care of him a bit to-night. . . What's the matter with him? asks the man. Stafford leans against the wall in the passage, looking ghastly. And Cloete says it's nothing--done up, of course. . . I will be responsible for the expense; I am the owner's agent. I'll be round in an hour or two to see him.
And Cloete gets back to the hotel. The news had travelled there already, and the first thing he sees is George outside the door as white as a sheet waiting for him. Cloete just gives him a nod and they go in. Mrs. Harry stands at the head of the stairs, and, when she sees only these two coming up, flings her arms above her head and runs into her room. Nobody had dared tell her, but not seeing her husband was enough. Cloete hears an awful shriek. . . Go to her, he says to George.
"While he's alone in the private parlour Cloete drinks a glass of brandy and thinks it all out. Then George comes in. . . The landlady's with her, he says. And he begins to walk up and down the room, flinging his arms about and talking, disconnected like, his face set hard as Cloete has never seen it before. . . What must be, must be. Dead--only brother. Well, dead--his troubles over. But we are living, he says to Cloete; and I suppose, says he, glaring at him with hot, dry eyes, that you won't forget to wire in the morning to your friend that we are coming in for certain. . .
"Meaning the patent-medicine fellow. . . Death is death and business is business, George goes on; and look--my hands are clean, he says, showing them to Cloete. Cloete thinks: He's going crazy. He catches hold of him by the shoulders and begins to shake him: Damn you--if you had had the sense to know what to say to your brother, if you had had the spunk to speak to him at all, you moral creature you, he would be alive now, he shouts.
"At this George stares, then bursts out weeping with a great bellow. He throws himself on the couch, buries his face in a cushion, and howls like a kid. . . That's better, thinks Cloete, and he leaves him, telling the landlord that he must go out, as he has some little business to attend to that night. The landlord's wife, weeping herself, catches him on the stairs: Oh, sir, that poor lady will go out of her mind. . .
"Cloete shakes her off, thinking to himself: Oh no! She won't. She will get over it. Nobody will go mad about this affair unless I do. It isn't sorrow that makes people go mad, but worry.
"There Cloete was wrong. What affected Mrs. Harry was that her husband should take his own life, with her, as it were, looking on. She brooded over it so that in less than a year they had to put her into a Home. She was very, very quiet; just gentle melancholy. She lived for quite a long time.
"Well, Cloete splashes along in the wind and rain. Nobody in the streets--all the excitement over. The publican runs out to meet him in the passage and says to him: Not this way. He isn't in his room. We couldn't get him to go to bed nohow. He's in the little parlour there. We've lighted him a fire. . . You have been giving him drinks too, says Cloete; I never said I would be responsible for drinks. How many? . . . Two, says the other. It's all right. I don't mind doing that much for a shipwrecked sailor. . . Cloete smiles his funny smile: Eh? Come. He paid for them. . . The publican just blinks. . . Gave you gold, didn't he? Speak up! . . . What of that! cries the man. What are you after, anyway? He had the right change for his sovereign.
"Just so, says Cloete. He walks into the parlour, and there he sees our Stafford; hair all up on end, landlord's shirt and pants on, bare feet in slippers, sitting by the fire. When he sees Cloete he casts his eyes down.
"You didn't mean us ever to meet again, Mr. Cloete, Stafford says, demurely. . . That fellow, when he had the drink he wanted--he wasn't a drunkard--would put on this sort of sly, modest air. . . But since the captain committed suicide, he says, I have been sitting here thinking it out. All sorts of things happen. Conspiracy to lose the ship--attempted murder--and this suicide. For if it was not suicide, Mr. Cloete, then I know of a victim of the most cruel, cold-blooded attempt at murder; somebody who has suffered a thousand deaths. And that makes the thousand pounds of which we spoke once a quite insignificant sum. Look how very convenient this suicide is. . .
"He looks up at Cloete then, who smiles at him and comes quite close to the table.
"You killed Harry Dunbar, he whispers. . . The fellow glares at him and shows his teeth: Of course I did! I had been in that cabin for an hour and a half like a rat in a trap. . . Shut up and left to drown in that wreck. Let flesh and blood judge. Of course I shot him! I thought it was you, you murdering scoundrel, come back to settle me. He opens the door flying and tumbles right down upon me; I had a revolver in my hand, and I shot him. I was crazy. Men have gone crazy for less.
"Cloete looks at him without flinching. Aha! That's your story, is it? . . . And he shakes the table a little in his passion as he speaks. . . Now listen to mine. What's this conspiracy? Who's going to prove it? You were there to rob. You were rifling his cabin; he came upon you unawares with your hands in the drawer; and you shot him with his own revolver. You killed to steal--to steal! His brother and the clerks in the office know that he took sixty pounds with him to sea. Sixty pounds in gold in a canvas bag. He told me where they were. The coxswain of the life-boat can swear to it that the drawers were all empty. And you are such a fool that before you're half an hour ashore you change a sovereign to pay for a drink. Listen to me. If you don't turn up day after to- morrow at George Dunbar's solicitors, to make the proper deposition as to the loss of the ship, I shall set the police on your track. Day after to-morrow. . .
"And then what do you think? That Stafford begins to tear his hair. Just so. Tugs at it with both hands without saying anything. Cloete gives a push to the table which nearly sends the fellow off his chair, tumbling inside the fender; so that he has got to catch hold of it to save himself. . .
"You know the sort of man I am, Cloete says, fiercely. I've got to a point that I don't care what happens to me. I would shoot you now for tuppence.
"At this the cur dodges under the table. Then Cloete goes out, and as he turns in the street--you know, little fishermen's cottages, all dark; raining in torrents, too--the other opens the window of the parlour and speaks in a sort of crying voice -
"You low Yankee fiend--I'll pay you off some day.
"Cloete passes by with a damn bitter laugh, because he thinks that the fellow in a way has paid him off already, if he only knew it."
My impressive ruffian drank what remained of his beer, while his black, sunken eyes looked at me over the rim.
"I don't quite understand this," I said. "In what way?"
He unbent a little and explained without too much scorn that Captain Harry being dead, his half of the insurance money went to his wife, and her trustees of course bought consols with it. Enough to keep her comfortable. George Dunbar's half, as Cloete feared from the first, did not prove sufficient to launch the medicine well; other moneyed men stepped in, and these two had to go out of that business, pretty nearly shorn of everything.
"I am curious," I said, "to learn what the motive force of this tragic affair was--I mean the patent medicine. Do you know?"
He named it, and I whistled respectfully. Nothing less than Parker's Lively Lumbago Pills. Enormous property! You know it; all the world knows it. Every second man, at least, on this globe of ours has tried it.
"Why!" I cried, "they missed an immense fortune."
"Yes," he mumbled, "by the price of a revolver-shot."
He told me also that eventually Cloete returned to the States, passenger in a cargo-boat from Albert Dock. The night before he sailed he met him wandering about the quays, and took him home for a drink. "Funny chap, Cloete. We sat all night drinking grogs, till it was time for him to go on board."
It was then that Cloete, unembittered but weary, told him this story, with that utterly unconscious frankness of a patent-medicine man stranger to all moral standards. Cloete concluded by remarking that he, had "had enough of the old country." George Dunbar had turned on him, too, in the end. Cloete was clearly somewhat disillusioned.
As to Stafford, he died, professed loafer, in some East End hospital or other, and on his last day clamoured "for a parson," because his conscience worried him for killing an innocent man. "Wanted somebody to tell him it was all right," growled my old ruffian, contemptuously. "He told the parson that I knew this Cloete who had tried to murder him, and so the parson (he worked among the dock labourers) once spoke to me about it. That skunk of a fellow finding himself trapped yelled for mercy. . . Promised to be good and so on. . . Then he went crazy . . . screamed and threw himself about, beat his head against the bulkheads . . . you can guess all that--eh? . . . till he was exhausted. Gave up. Threw himself down, shut his eyes, and wanted to pray. So he says. Tried to think of some prayer for a quick death--he was that terrified. Thought that if he had a knife or something he would cut his throat, and be done with it. Then he thinks: No! Would try to cut away the wood about the lock. . . He had no knife in his pocket. . . he was weeping and calling on God to send him a tool of some kind when suddenly he thinks: Axe! In most ships there is a spare emergency axe kept in the master's room in some locker or other. . . Up he jumps. . . Pitch dark. "Pulls at the drawers to find matches and, groping for them, the first thing he comes upon-- Captain Harry's revolver. Loaded too. He goes perfectly quiet all over. Can shoot the lock to pieces. See? Saved! God's providence! There are boxes of matches too. Thinks he: I may just as well see what I am about.
"Strikes a light and sees the little canvas bag tucked away at the back of the drawer. Knew at once what that was. Rams it into his pocket quick. Aha! says he to himself: this requires more light. So he pitches a lot of paper on the floor, set fire to it, and starts in a hurry rummaging for more valuables. Did you ever? He told that East-End parson that the devil tempted him. First God's mercy--then devil's work. Turn and turn about. . .
"Any squirming skunk can talk like that. He was so busy with the drawers that the first thing he heard was a shout, Great Heavens. He looks up and there was the door open (Cloete had left the key in the lock) and Captain Harry holding on, well above him, very fierce in the light of the burning papers. His eyes were starting out of his head. Thieving, he thunders at him. A sailor! An officer! No! A wretch like you deserves no better than to be left here to drown.
"This Stafford--on his death-bed--told the parson that when he heard these words he went crazy again. He snatched his hand with the revolver in it out of the drawer, and fired without aiming. Captain Harry fell right in with a crash like a stone on top of the burning papers, putting the blaze out. All dark. Not a sound. He listened for a bit then dropped the revolver and scrambled out on deck like mad."
The old fellow struck the table with his ponderous fist.
"What makes me sick is to hear these silly boat-men telling people the captain committed suicide. Pah! Captain Harry was a man that could face his Maker any time up there, and here below, too. He wasn't the sort to slink out of life. Not he! He was a good man down to the ground. He gave me my first job as stevedore only three days after I got married."
As the vindication of Captain Harry from the charge of suicide seemed to be his only object, I did not thank him very effusively for his material. And then it was not worth many thanks in any case.
For it is too startling even to think of such things happening in our respectable Channel in full view, so to speak, of the luxurious continental traffic to Switzerland and Monte Carlo. This story to be acceptable should have been transposed to somewhere in the South Seas. But it would have been too much trouble to cook it for the consumption of magazine readers. So here it is raw, so to speak-- just as it was told to me--but unfortunately robbed of the striking effect of the narrator; the most imposing old ruffian that ever followed the unromantic trade of master stevedore in the port of London.