The adventures of Captain Horn/Chapter 43

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It would have been very comfortable to the mind of Edna, during her waiting days in Paris, had she known there was a letter to her from Captain Horn, in a cottage in the town of Sidmouth, on the south coast of Devonshire. Had she known this, she would have chartered French trains, Channel steamers, English trains, flies, anything and everything which would have taken her the quickest to the little town of Sidmouth. Had she known that he had written to her the first chance he had had, all her doubts and perplexities would have vanished in an instant. Had she read the letter, she might have been pained to find that it was not such a letter as she would wish to have, and she might have grieved that it might still be a long time before she could expect to hear from him again, or to see him, but she would have waited—have waited patiently, without any doubts or perplexities.

This letter, with a silver coin,—much more than enough to pay any possible postage,—had been handed by Shirley to the first mate of the British steamer, in the harbor of Valparaiso, and that officer had given it to a seaman, who was going on shore, with directions to take it to the post-office, and pay for the postage out of the silver coin, and whatever change there might be, he should keep it for his trouble. On the way to the post-office, this sailor stopped to refresh himself, and meeting with a fellow-mariner in the place of refreshment, he refreshed him also. And by the time the two had refreshed themselves to their satisfaction, there was not much left of the silver coin—not enough to pay the necessary postage to France.

"But," said the seaman to himself, "it doesn't matter a bit. "We are bound for Liverpool, and I'll take the letter there myself, and then I'll send it over to Paris for tuppence ha'penny, which I will have then, and haven't now. And I bet another tuppence that it will go sooner than if I posted it here, for it may be a month before a mail-steamer leaves the other side of this beastly continent. Anyway, I'm doing the best I can."

He put the letter in the pocket of his pea-jacket, and the bottom of that pocket being ripped, the letter went down between the outside cloth and the lining of the pea-jacket to the very bottom of the garment, where it remained until the aforesaid seaman had reached England, and had gone down to see his family, who lived in the cottage in Sidmouth. And there he had hung up his pea-jacket on a nail, in a little room next to the kitchen, and there his mother had found it, and sewed on two buttons, and sewed up the rips in the bottoms of two pockets. Shortly after this, the sailor, happening to pass a post-office box, remembered the letter he had brought to England. He went to his pea-jacket and searched it, but could find no letter. He must have lost it—he hoped after he had reached England, and no doubt whoever found it would put a tuppence ha'penny stamp on it and stick it into a box. Anyway, he had done all he could.

One pleasant spring evening, the negro Mok sat behind a table in the well-known beer-shop called the "Black Cat." He had before him a half-emptied beer-glass, and in front of him was a pile of three small white dishes. These signified that Mok had had three glasses of beer, and when he should finish the one in his hand, and should order another, the waiter would bring with it another little white plate, which he would put on the table, on the pile already there, and which would signify that the African gentleman must pay for four glasses of beer.

Mok was enjoying himself very much. It was not often that he had such an opportunity to sample the delights of Paris. His young master, Ralph, had given him strict orders never to go out at night, or in his leisure hours, unless accompanied by Cheditafa. The latter was an extremely important and sedate personage. The combined dignity of a butler and a clergyman were more than ever evident in his person, and he was a painful drawback to the more volatile Mok. Mok had very fine clothes, which it rejoiced him to display. He had a fine appetite for every thing fit to eat and drink. He had money in his pockets, and it delighted him to see people and to see things, although he might not know who they were or what they were. He knew nothing of French, and his power of expressing himself in English had not progressed very far. But on this evening, in the jolly precincts of the Black Cat, he did not care whether the people used language or not. He did not care what they did, so that he could sit there and enjoy himself. When he wanted more beer, the waiter understood him, and that was enough.

The jet-black negro, gorgeously arrayed in the livery Ralph had chosen for him, and with his teeth and eyeballs whiter than the pile of plates before him, was an object of great interest to the company in the beer-shop. They talked to him, and although he did not understand them, or answer them, they knew he was enjoying himself. And when the landlord rang a big bell, and a pale young man, wearing a high hat, and sitting at a table opposite him, threw into his face an expression of exalted melancholy, and sang a high-pitched song, Mok showed how he appreciated the performance by thumping more vigorously on the table than any of the other people who applauded the singer.

Again and again the big bell was rung, and there were other songs and choruses, and then the company turned toward Mok and called on him to sing. He did not understand them, but he laughed and pounded his fist upon the table. But when the landlord came down to his table, and rang the bell in front of him, that sent an informing idea into the African head. He had noticed that every time the bell had been rung, somebody had sung, and now he knew what was wanted of him. He had had four glasses of beer, and he was an obliging fellow, so he nodded his head violently, and everybody stopped doing what they had been doing, and prepared to listen.

Mok's repertoire of songs could not be expected to be large. In fact, he only knew one musical composition, and that was an African hymn which Cheditafa had taught him. This he now proceeded to execute. He threw back his head, as some of the others had done, and emitted a succession of grunts, groans, yelps, barks, squeaks, yells, and rattles which utterly electrified the audience. Then, as if his breath filled his whole body, and quivering and shaking like an angry squirrel when it chatters and barks, Mok sang louder and more wildly, until the audience, unable to restrain themselves, burst into laughter, and applauded with canes, sticks, and fists. But Mok kept on. He had never imagined he could sing so well. There was only one person in that brasserie who did not applaud the African hymn, but no one paid so much attention to it as this man, who had entered the Black Cat just as Mok had begun.

He was a person of medium size, with a heavy mustache, and a face darkened by a beard of several days growth. He was rather roughly dressed, and wore a soft felt hat. He was a Rackbird.

This man had formerly belonged to the band of desperadoes which had been swept away by a sudden flood on the coast of Peru. He had accompanied his comrades on the last marauding expedition previous to that remarkable accident, but he had not returned with them. He had devised a little scheme of his own, which had detained him longer than he had expected, and he was not ready to go back with them. It would have been difficult for him to reach the camp by himself, and, after what he had done, he did not very much desire to go, there as he would probably have been shot as a deserter; for Captain Raminez was a savage fellow, and more than willing to punish transgressions against his orders. This deserter, Banker by name, was an American, who had been a gold-digger, a gambler, a rough, and a dead shot in California, and he was very well able to take care of himself in any part of the world.

He had made his way up to Panama, and had stayed there as long as it was safe for him to do so, and had eventually reached Paris. He did not like this city half so well as he liked London, but in the latter city he happened to be wanted, and he was not wanted in Paris. It was generally the case that he stayed where he was not wanted.

Of course, Banker knew nothing of the destruction of his band, and the fact that he had not heard from them since he left them gave him not the slightest regret. But what did astonish him beyond bounds was to sit at a table in the Black Cat, in Paris, and see before him, dressed like the valet of a Spanish grandee, a coal-black negro who had once been his especial and particular slave and drudge, a fellow whom he had kicked and beaten and sworn at, and whom he no doubt would have shot had he stayed much longer with his lawless companions, the Rackbirds. There was no mistaking this black man. He well remembered his face, and even the tones of his voice. He had never heard him sing, but he had heard him howl, and it seemed almost impossible that he should meet him in Paris. And yet, he was sure that the man who was bellowing and bawling to the delight of the guests of the Black Cat was one of the African wretches who had been entrapped and enslaved by the Rackbirds.

But if Banker had been astonished by Mok, he was utterly amazed and confounded when, some five minutes later, the door of the brasserie was suddenly opened, and another of the slaves of the Rackbirds, with whose face he was also perfectly familiar, hurriedly entered.

Cheditafa, who had been sent on an errand that evening, had missed Mok on his return. Ralph was away in Brussels with the professor, so that his valet, having most of his time on his hands, had thought to take a holiday during Cheditafa's absence, and had slipped off to the Black Cat, whose pleasures he had surreptitiously enjoyed before, but never to such an extent as on this occasion. Cheditafa knew he had been there, and when he started out to look for him, it was to the Black Cat that he went first.

Before he had quite reached the door, Cheditafa had been shocked and angered to hear his favorite hymn sung in a beer-shop by that reprobate and incompetent Mok, and he had rushed in, and in a minute seized the blatant vocalist by the collar, and ordered him instantly to shut his mouth and pay his reckoning. Then, in spite of the shouts of disapprobation which arose on every side, he led away the negro as if he had been a captured dog with his tail between his legs.

Mok could easily have thrown Cheditafa across the street, but his respect and reverence for his elder and superior were so great that he obeyed his commands without a word of remonstrance.

Now up sprang Banker, who was in such a hurry to go that he forgot to pay for his beer, and when he performed this duty, after having been abruptly reminded of it by a waiter, he was almost too late to follow the two black men, but not quite too late. He was an adept in the tracking of his fellow-beings, and it was not long before he was quietly following Mok and Cheditafa, keeping at some distance behind them, but never allowing them to get out of his sight.

In the course of a moderate walk he saw them enter the Hôtel Grenade. This satisfied the wandering Rackbird. If the negroes went into that hotel at that time of night, they must live there, and he could suspend operations until morning.