Inquest by W. W. Jacobs
An Extract from
It was a still fair evening in late summer in the parish of
Wapping. The hands had long since left, and the night watchman having
abandoned his trust in favour of a neighbouring bar, the wharf was
An elderly seaman came to the gate and paused irresolute, then,
seeing all was quiet, stole cautiously on to the jetty, and stood for
some time gazing curiously down on to the deck of the billy-boy PSYCHE
With the exception of the mate, who, since the lamented
disappearance of its late master and owner, was acting as captain, the
deck was as deserted as the wharf. He was smoking an evening pipe in
all the pride of a first command, his eye roving fondly from the blunt
bows and untidy deck of his craft to her clumsy stern, when a slight
cough from the man above attracted his attention.
"How do, George?" said the man on the jetty, somewhat sheepishly,
as the other looked up.
The mate opened his mouth, and his pipe fell from it and smashed to
"Got much stuff in her this trip?" continued the man, with an
obvious attempt to appear at ease.
"The mate, still looking up, backed slowly to the other side of the
deck, but made no reply.
"What's the matter, man?" said the other testily. "You don't seem
overpleased to see me."
He leaned over as he spoke, and, laying hold of the rigging,
descended to the deck, while the mate took his breath in short,
"Here I am, George," said the intruder, "turned up like a bad
penny, an' glad to see your handsome face again, I can tell you."
In response to this flattering remark George gurgled.
"Why," said the other, with an uneasy laugh, "did you think I was
dead, George? Ha, ha! Feel that!"
He fetched the horrified man a thump in the back, which stopped
even his gurgles.
"That feel like a dead man?" asked the smiter, raising his hand
The mate moved back hastily. "That'll do," said he fiercely; "ghost
or no ghost, don't you hit me like that again."
"A' right, George," said the other, as he meditatively felt the
stiff grey whiskers which framed his red face. "What's the news?"
"The news," said George, who was of slow habits and speech, "is
that you was found last Tuesday week off St. Katherine's Stairs, you
was sat on a Friday week at the Town o' Ramsgate public-house, and
buried on Monday afternoon at Lowestoft."
"Buried?" gasped the other, "sat on? You've been drinking, George."
"An' a pretty penny your funeral cost, I can tell you," continued
the mate. "There's a headstone being made now—'Lived lamented and
died respected,' I think it is, with 'Not lost, but gone before,' at
"Lived respected and died lamented, you mean," growled the old man;
"well, a nice muddle you have made of it between you. Things always go
wrong when I'm not here to look after them."
"You ain't dead, then?" said the mate, taking no notice of this
unreasonable remark, "Where've you been all this long time?"
"No more than you're master o' this 'ere ship," replied Mr. Harbolt
grimly. "I—I've been a bit queer in the stomach, an' I took a little
drink to correct it. Foolish like, I took the wrong drink, and it must
have got into my head."
"That's the worst of not being used to it," said the mate, without
moving a muscle.
The skipper eyed him solemnly, but the mate stood firm.
"Arter that," continued the skipper, still watching him
suspiciously, "I remember no more distinctly until this morning, when
I found myself sitting on a step down Poplar way and shiverin', with
the morning newspaper and a crowd round me."
"Morning newspaper!" repeated the mystified mate. "What was that
"Decency. I was wrapped up in it," replied the skipper. "Where I
came from or how I got there I don't know more than Adam. I s'pose I
must have been ill; I seem to remember taking something out of a
bottle pretty often. Some old gentleman in the crowd took me into a
shop and bought me these clothes, an' here I am. My own clo'es and
thirty pounds o' freight money I had in my pocket is all gone."
"Well, I'm hearty glad to see you back," said the mate. "It's quite
a home-coming for you, too. Your missis is down aft."
"My missis? What the devil's she aboard for?" growled the skipper,
successfully controlling his natural gratification at the news.
"She's been with us these last two trips," replied the mate. "She's
had business to settle in London, and she's been going through your
lockers to clear up, like."
"My lockers!" groaned the skipper. "Good heavens! there's things in
them lockers I wouldn't have her see for the world; women are so fussy
an' so fond o' making something out o' nothing. There's a pore female
touched a bit in the upper storey, what's been writing love letters to
"Three pore females," said the precise mate; "the missis has got
all the letters tied up with blue ribbon. Very far gone they was, too,
"George," said the skipper in a broken voice, "I'm a ruined man.
I'll never hear the end o' this. I guess I'll go an' sleep for'ard
this voyage, and lie low. Be keerful you don't let on I'm aboard, an'
after she's home I'll take the ship again, and let the thing leak out
gradual. Come to life bit by bit, so to speak. It wouldn't do to scare
her, George, an' in the meantime I'll try an' think o' some
explanation to tell her. You might be thinking too."
"I'll do what I can," said the mate.
"Crack me up to the old girl all you can; tell her I used to write
to all sorts o' people when I got a drop of drink in me; say how
thoughtful I always was of her. You might tell her about that gold
locket I bought for her an' got robbed of."
"Gold locket?" said the mate in tones of great surprise. "What gold
locket? Fust I've heard of it."
"Any gold locket," said the skipper irritably; "anything you can
think of; you needn't be pertikler. Arter that you can drop little
hints about people being buried in mistake for others, so as to
prepare her a bit—I don't want to scare her."
"Leave it to me," said the mate.
"I'll go an' turn in now, I'm dead tired," said the skipper. "I
s'pose Joe and the boy's asleep?"
George nodded, and meditatively watched the other as he pushed back
the fore-scuttle and drew it after him as he descended. Then a thought
struck the mate, and he ran hastily forward and threw his weight on
the scuttle just in time to frustrate the efforts of Joe and the boy,
who were coming on deck to tell him a new ghost story. The confusion
below was frightful, the skipper's cry of "It's only me, Joe," not
possessing the soothing effect which he intended. They calmed down at
length, after their visitor had convinced them that he really was
flesh and blood and fists, and the boy's attention being directed to a
small rug in the corner of the foc's'le, the skipper took his bunk and
was soon fast asleep.
He slept so soundly that the noise of the vessel getting under way
failed to rouse him, and she was well out in the open river when he
awoke, and after cautiously protruding his head through the scuttle,
ventured on deck. For some time he stood eagerly sniffing the cool,
sweet air, and then, after a look round, gingerly approached the mate,
who was at the helm.
"Give me a hold on her," said he.
"You had better get below again, if you don't want the missis to
see you," said the mate. "She's gettin' up—nasty temper she's in
The skipper went forward grumbling. "Send down a good breakfast,
George," said he.
To his great discomfort the mate suddenly gave a low whistle, and
regarded him with a look of blank dismay.
"Good gracious!" he cried, "I forgot all about it. Here's a pretty
kettle of fish—well, well."
"Forgot about what?" asked the skipper uneasily.
"The crew take their meals in the cabin now," replied the mate,
"'cos the missis says it's more cheerful for 'em, and she's l'arning
'em to eat their wittles properly."
The skipper looked at him aghast. "You'll have to smuggle me up
some grub," he said at length. "I'm not going to starve for nobody."
"Easier said than done," said the mate. "The missis has got eyes
like needles; still, I'll do the best I can for you. Look out! Here
The skipper fled hastily, and, safe down below, explained to the
crew how they were to secrete portions of their breakfast for his
benefit. The amount of explanation required for so simple a matter was
remarkable, the crew manifesting a denseness which irritated him
almost beyond endurance. They promised, however, to do the best they
could for him, and returned in triumph after a hearty meal, and
presented their enraged commander with a few greasy crumbs and the
tail of a bloater.
For the next two days the wind was against them, and they made but
little progress. Mrs. Harbolt spent most of her time on deck, thereby
confining her husband to his evil-smelling quarters below. Matters
were not improved for him by his treatment of the crew, who, resenting
his rough treatment of them, were doing their best to starve him into
civility. Most of the time he kept in his bunk—or rather Jemmy's
bunk— a prey to despondency and hunger of an acute type, venturing on
deck only at night to prowl uneasily about and bemoan his condition.
On the third night Mrs. Harbolt was later in retiring than usual,
and it was nearly midnight before the skipper, who had been
indignantly waiting for her to go, was able to get on deck and hold
counsel with the mate.
"I've done what I could for you," said the latter, fishing a crust
from his pocket, which Harbolt took thankfully. "I've told her all the
yarns I could think of about people turning up after they was buried
and the like."
"What'd she say?" queried the skipper eagerly, between his bites.
"Told me not to talk like that," said the mate; "said it showed a
want o' trust in Providence to hint at such things. Then I told her
what you asked me about the locket, only I made it a bracelet worth
"That pleased her?" suggested the other hopefully.
The mate shook his head. "She said I was a born fool to believe
you'd been robbed of it," he replied. "She said what you'd done was to
give it to one o' them pore females. She's been going on frightful
about it all the afternoon—won't talk o' nothing else."
"I don't know what's to be done," groaned the skipper despondently.
"I shall be dead afore we get to port this wind holds. Go down and get
me something to eat George; I'm starving."
"Everything's locked up, as I told you afore," said the mate.
"As the master of this ship," said the skipper, drawing himself up,
"I order you to go down and get me something to eat. You can tell the
missus it's for you if she says anything."
"I'm hanged if I will," said the mate sturdily. "Why don't you go
down and have it out with her like a man? She can't eat you."
"I'm not going to," said the other shortly. "I'm a determined man,
and when I say a thing I mean it. It's going to be broken to her
gradual, as I said; I don't want her to be scared, poor thing."
"I know who'd be scared the most," murmured the mate.
The skipper looked at him fiercely, and then sat down wearily on
the hatches with his hands between his knees, rising, after a time, to
get the dipper and drink copiously from the water-cask. Then,
replacing it with a sigh, he bade the mate a surly good-night and went
To his dismay he found when he awoke in the morning that what
little wind there was had dropped in the night, and the billy-boy was
just rising and falling lazily on the water in a fashion most
objectionable to an empty stomach. It was the last straw, and he made
things so uncomfortable below that the crew were glad to escape on
deck, where they squatted down in the bows, and proceeded to review a
situation which was rapidly becoming unbearable.
"I've 'ad enough of it, Joe," grumbled the boy. "I'm sore all over
with sleeping on the floor, and the old man's temper gets wuss and
wuss. I'm going to be ill."
"Whaffor?" queried Joe dully.
"You tell the missus I'm down below ill. Say you think I'm dying,"
responded the infant Machiavelli, "then you'll see somethink if you
keep your eyes open."
He went below again, not without a little nervousness, and,
clambering into Joe's bunk, rolled over on his back and gave a deep
"What's the matter with YOU!" growled the skipper, who was lying in
the other bunk staving off the pangs of hunger with a pipe.
"I'm very ill—dying," said Jemmy, with another groan.
"You'd better stay in bed and have your breakfast brought down
here, then," said the skipper kindly.
"I don't want no breakfast," said Jem faintly.
"That's no reason why you shouldn't have it sent down, you
unfeeling little brute," said the skipper indignantly. "You tell Joe
to bring you down a great plate o' cold meat and pickles, and some
coffee; that's what you want."
"All right, sir," said Jemmy. "I hope they won't let the missus
come down here, in case it's something catching. I wouldn't like her
to be took bad."
"Eh?" said the skipper, in alarm. "Certainly not. Here, you go up
and die on deck. Hurry up with you."
"I can't; I'm too weak," said Jemmy.
"You get up on deck at once; d'ye hear me?" hissed the skipper, in
"I c-c-c-can't help it," sobbed Jemmy, who was enjoying the
situation amazingly. "I b'lieve it's sleeping on the hard floor's
snapped something inside me."
"If you don't go I'll take you," said the skipper, and he was about
to rise to put his threat into execution when a shadow fell across the
opening, and a voice, which thrilled him to the core, said softly,
"Yes 'm?" said Jemmy languidly, as the skipper flattened himself in
his bunk and drew the clothes over him.
"How do you feel?" inquired Mrs. Harbolt.
"Bad all over," said Jemmy. "Oh, don't come down, mum—please
"Rubbish!" said Mrs. Harbolt tartly, as she came slowly and
carefully down backwards. "What a dark hole this is, Jemmy. No wonder
you're ill. Put your tongue out."
"I can't see properly here," murmured the lady, "but it looks very
large. S'pose you go in the other bunk, Jemmy. It's a good bit higher
than this, and you'd get more air and be more comfortable altogether."
"Joe wouldn't like it, mum," said the boy anxiously. The last
glimpse he had had of the skipper's face did not make him yearn to
share his bed with him.
"Stuff an' nonsense!" said Mrs. Harbolt hotly. "Who's Joe, I'd like
to know? Out you come."
"I can't move, mum," said Jemmy firmly.
"Nonsense!" said the lady. "I'll just put it straight for you
first, then in it you go."
"No, don't, mum," shouted Jemmy, now thoroughly alarmed at the
success of his plot. "There, there's a gentleman in that bunk. A
gentleman we brought from London for a change of sea air."
"My goodness gracious!" ejaculated the surprised Mrs. Harbolt. "I
never did. Why, what's he had to eat?"
"He—he—didn't want nothing to eat," said Jemmy, with a woeful
disregard for facts.
"What's the matter with him?" inquired Mrs. Harbolt, eyeing the
bunk curiously. "What's his name? Who is he?"
"He's been lost a long time," said Jemmy, "and he's forgotten who
he is— he's a oldish man with a red face an' a little white whisker
all round it—a very nice-looking man, I mean," he interposed
hurriedly. "I don't think he's quite right in his head, 'cos he says
he ought to have been buried instead of someone else. Oh!"
The last word was almost a scream, for Mrs. Harbolt, staggering
back, pinched him convulsively.
"Jemmy!" she gasped, in a trembling voice, as she suddenly
remembered certain mysterious hints thrown out by the mate. "Who is
"The CAPTAIN!" said Jemmy, and, breaking from her clasp, slipped
from his bed and darted hastily on deck, just as the pallid face of
his commander broke through the blankets and beamed anxiously on his
* * * * * * * *
Five minutes later, as the crew gathered aft were curiously eyeing
the foc's'le, Mrs. Harbolt and the skipper came on deck. To the great
astonishment of the mate, the eyes of the redoubtable woman were
slightly wet, and, regardless of the presence of the men, she clung
fondly to her husband as they walked slowly to the cabin. Ere they
went below, however, she called the grinning Jemmy to her, and, to his
private grief and public shame, tucked his head under her arm and
kissed him fondly.