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The Captain's Exploit by W. W. Jacobs

An Extract from Many Cargoes

 

It was a wet, dreary night in that cheerless part of the great metropolis known as Wapping. The rain, which had been falling heavily for hours, still fell steadily on to the sloppy pavements and roads, and joining forces in the gutter, rushed impetuously to the nearest sewer. The two or three streets which had wedged themselves in between the docks and the river, and which, as a matter of fact, really comprise the beginning and end of Wapping, were deserted, except for a belated van crashing over the granite roads, or the chance form of a dock-labourer plodding doggedly along, with head bent in distaste for the rain, and hands sunk in trouser-pockets.

"Beastly night," said Captain Bing, as he rolled out of the private bar of the "Sailor's Friend," and, ignoring the presence of the step, took a little hurried run across the pavement. "Not fit for a dog to be out in."

He kicked, as he spoke, at a shivering cur which was looking in at the crack of the bar-door, with a hazy view of calling its attention to the matter, and then, pulling up the collar of his rough pea-jacket, stepped boldly out into the rain. Three or four minutes' walk, or rather roll, brought him to a dark narrow passage, which ran between two houses to the water-side. By a slight tack to starboard at a critical moment he struck the channel safely, and followed it until it ended in a flight of old stone steps, half of which were under water.

"Where for?" inquired a man, starting up from a small penthouse formed of rough pieces of board.

"Schooner in the tier, Smiling Jane," said the captain gruffly, as he stumbled clumsily into a boat and sat down in the stern. "Why don't you have better seats in this 'ere boat?"

"They're there, if you'll look for them," said the waterman; "and you'll find 'em easier sitting than that bucket."

"Why don't you put 'em where a man can see 'em?" inquired the captain, raising his voice a little.

The other opened his mouth to reply, but realising that it would lead to a long and utterly futile argument, contented himself with asking his fare to trim the boat better; and, pushing off from the steps, pulled strongly through the dark lumpy water. The tide was strong, so that they made but slow progress.

"When I was a young man," said the fare with severity, "I'd ha' pulled this boat across and back afore now."

"When you was a young man," said the man at the oars, who had a local reputation as a wit, "there wasn't no boats; they was all Noah's arks then."

"Stow your gab," said the captain, after a pause of deep thought.

The other, whose besetting sin was certainly not loquacity, ejected a thin stream of tobacco-juice over the side, spat on his hands, and continued his laborious work until a crowd of dark shapes, surmounted by a network of rigging, loomed up before them.

"Now, which is your little barge?" he inquired, tugging strongly to maintain his position against the fast-flowing tide.

"Smiling Jane" said his fare.

"Ah," said the waterman, "Smiling Jane, is it? You sit there, cap'n, an' I'll row round all their sterns while you strike matches and look at the names. We'll have quite a nice little evening."

"There she is," cried the captain, who was too muddled to notice the sarcasm; "there's the little beauty. Steady, my lad."

He reached out his hand as he spoke, and as the boat jarred violently against a small schooner, seized a rope which hung over the side, and, swaying to and fro, fumbled in his pocket for the fare.

"Steady, old boy," said the waterman affectionately. He had just received twopence-halfpenny and a shilling by mistake for threepence. "Easy up the side. You ain't such a pretty figger as you was when your old woman made such a bad bargain."

The captain paused in his climb, and poising himself on one foot, gingerly felt for his tormentor's head with the other Not finding it, he flung his leg over the bulwark, and gained the deck of the vessel as the boat swung round with the tide and disappeared in the darkness.

"All turned in," said the captain, gazing owlishly at the deserted deck. "Well, there's a good hour an' a half afore we start; I'll turn in too."

He walked slowly aft, and sliding back the companion-hatch, descended into a small evil-smelling cabin, and stood feeling in the darkness for the matches. They were not to be found, and, growling profanely, he felt his way to the state-room, and turned in all standing.

It was still dark when he awoke, and hanging over the edge of the bunk, cautiously felt for the floor with his feet, and having found it, stood thoughtfully scratching his head, which seemed to have swollen to abnormal proportions.

"Time they were getting under weigh," he said at length, and groping his way to the foot of the steps, he opened the door of what looked like a small pantry, but which was really the mate's boudoir.

"Jem," said the captain gruffly.

There was no reply, and jumping to the conclusion that he was above, the captain tumbled up the steps and gained the deck, which, as far as he could see, was in the same deserted condition as when he left it. Anxious to get some idea of the time, he staggered to the side and looked over. The tide was almost at the turn, and the steady clank, clank of neighbouring windlasses showed that other craft were just getting under weigh. A barge, its red light turning the water to blood, with a huge wall of dark sail, passed noiselessly by, the indistinct figure of a man leaning skilfully upon the tiller.

As these various signs of life and activity obtruded themselves upon the skipper of the Smiling Jane, his wrath rose higher and higher as he looked around the wet, deserted deck of his own little craft. Then he walked forward and thrust his head down the forecastle hatchway.

As he expected, there was a complete sleeping chorus below; the deep satisfied snoring of half-a-dozen seamen, who, regardless of the tide and their captain's feelings, were slumbering sweetly, in blissful ignorance of all that the Lancet might say upon the twin subjects of overcrowding and ventilation.

"Below there, you lazy thieves!" roared the captain; "tumble up, tumble up!"

The snores stopped. "Ay, ay!" said a sleepy voice. "What's the matter, master?"

"Matter!" repeated the other, choking violently. "Ain't you going to sail to-night?"

"To-night!" said another voice, in surprise. "Why, I thought we wasn't going to sail till Wen'sday."

Not trusting himself to reply, so careful was he of the morals of his men, the skipper went and leaned over the side and communed with the silent water. In an incredibly short space of time five or six dusky figures pattered up on to the deck, and a minute or two later the harsh clank of the windlass echoed far and wide.

The captain took the wheel. A fat and very sleepy seaman put up the side-lights, and the little schooner, detaching itself by the aid of boat-hooks and fenders from the neighbouring craft, moved slowly down with the tide. The men, in response to the captain's fervent orders, climbed aloft, and sail after sail was spread to the gentle breeze.

"Hi! you there," cried the captain to one of the men who stood near him, coiling up some loose line.

"Sir?" said the man.

"Where is the mate?" inquired the captain.

"Man with red whiskers and pimply nose?" said the man interrogatively.

"That's him to a hair," answered the other.

"Ain't seen him since he took me on at eleven," said the man. "How many new hands are there?"

"I b'leeve we're all fresh," was the reply. "I don't believe some of 'em have ever smelt salt water afore."

"The mate's been at it again," said the captain warmly, "that's what he has. He's done it afore and got left behind. Them what can't stand drink, my man, shouldn't take it, remember that."

"He said we wasn't going to sail till Wen'sday," remarked the man, who found the captain's attitude rather trying.

"He'll get sacked, that's what he'll get," said the captain warmly. "I shall report him as soon as I get ashore."

The subject exhausted, the seaman returned to his work, and the captain continued steering in moody silence.

Slowly, slowly darkness gave way to light. The different portions of the craft, instead of all being blurred into one, took upon themselves shape, and stood out wet and distinct in the cold grey of the breaking day. But the lighter it became, the harder the skipper stared and rubbed his eyes, and looked from the deck to the flat marshy shore, and from the shore back to the deck again.

"Here, come here," he cried, beckoning to one of the crew.

"Yessir," said the man, advancing.

"There's something in one of my eyes," faltered the skipper. "I can't see straight; everything seems mixed up. Now, speaking deliberate and without any hurry, which side o' the ship do you say the cook's galley's on?"

"Starboard," said the man promptly, eyeing him with astonishment.

"Starboard," repeated the other softly. "He says starboard, and that's what it seems to me. My lad, yesterday morning it was on the port side."

The seaman received this astounding communication with calmness, but, as a slight concession to appearances, said "Lor!"

"And the water-cask," said the skipper; "what colour is it?"

"Green," said the man.

"Not white?" inquired the skipper, leaning heavily upon the wheel.

"Whitish-green," said the man, who always believed in keeping in with his superior officers.

The captain swore at him.

By this time two or three of the crew who had over-heard part of the conversation had collected aft, and now stood in a small wondering knot before their strange captain.

"My lads," said the latter, moistening his dry lips with his tongue, "I name no names—I don't know 'em yet—and I cast no suspicions, but somebody has been painting up and altering this 'ere craft, and twisting things about until a man 'ud hardly know her. Now what's the little game"

There was no answer, and the captain, who was seeing things clearer and clearer in the growing light, got paler and paler.

"I must be going crazy," he muttered. "Is this the SMILING JANE, or am I dreaming?"

"It ain't the SMILING JANE," said one of the seamen; "leastways," he added cautiously, "it wasn't when I came aboard."

"Not the SMILING JANE!" roared the skipper; "what is it, then?"

"Why, the MARY ANN," chorused the astonished crew.

"My lads," faltered the agonised captain after a long pause. "My lads—" He stopped and swallowed something in his throat. "I've been and brought away the wrong ship," he continued with an effort; "that's what I've done. I must have been bewitched."

"Well, who's having the little game now?" inquired a voice.

"Somebody else'll be sacked as well as the mate," said another.

"We must take her back," said the captain, raising his voice to drown these mutterings. "Stand by there!"

The bewildered crew went to their posts, the captain gave his orders in a voice which had never been so subdued and mellow since it broke at the age of fourteen, and the Mary Ann took in sail, and, dropping her anchor, waited patiently for the turning of the tide.

                    * * * * * * *

The church bells in Wapping and Rotherhithe were just striking the hour of mid-day, though they were heard by few above the noisy din of workers on wharves and ships, as a short stout captain, and a mate with red whiskers and a pimply nose, stood up in a waterman's boat in the centre of the river, and gazed at each other in blank astonishment.

"She's gone, clean gone!" murmured the bewildered captain.

"Clean as a whistle," said the mate. "The new hands must ha' run away with her."

Then the bereaved captain raised his voice, and pronounced a pathetic and beautiful eulogy upon the departed vessel, somewhat marred by an appendix in which he consigned the new hands, their heirs, and descendants, to everlasting perdition.

"Ahoy!" said the waterman, who was getting tired of the business, addressing a grimy-looking seaman hanging meditatively over the side of a schooner. "Where's the Mary Ann?"

"Went away at half-past one this morning," was the reply.

"'Cos here's the cap'n an' the mate," said the waterman, indicating the forlorn couple with a bob of his head.

"My eyes!" said the man, "I s'pose the cook's in charge then. We was to have gone too, but our old man hasn't turned up."

Quickly the news spread amongst the craft in the tier, and many and various were the suggestions shouted to the bewildered couple from the different decks. At last, just as the captain had ordered the waterman to return to the shore, he was startled by a loud cry from the mate.

"Look there!" he shouted.

The captain looked. Fifty or sixty yards away, a small shamefaced- looking schooner, so it appeared to his excited imagination, was slowly approaching them. A minute later a shout went up from the other craft as she took in sail and bore slowly down upon them. Then a small boat put off to the buoy, and the Mary Ann was slowly warped into the place she had left ten hours before.

But while all this was going on, she was boarded by her captain and mate. They were met by Captain Bing, supported by his mate, who had hastily pushed off from the Smiling Jane to the assistance of his chief. In the two leading features before mentioned he was not unlike the mate of the Mary Ann, and much stress was laid upon this fact by the unfortunate Bing in his explanation. So much so, in fact, that both the mates got restless; the skipper, who was a plain man, and given to calling a spade a spade, using the word "pimply" with what seemed to them unnecessary iteration.

It is possible that the interview might have lasted for hours had not Bing suddenly changed his tactics and begun to throw out dark hints about standing a dinner ashore, and settling it over a friendly glass. The face of the Mary Ann's captain began to clear, and, as Bing proceeded from generalities to details, a soft smile played over his expressive features. It was reflected in the faces of the mates, who by these means showed clearly that they understood the table was to be laid for four.

At this happy turn of affairs Bing himself smiled, and a little while later a ship's boat containing four boon companions put off from the Mary Ann and made for the shore. Of what afterwards ensued there is no distinct record, beyond what may be gleaned from the fact that the quartette turned up at midnight arm-in-arm, and affectionately refused to be separated—even to enter the ship's boat, which was waiting for them. The sailors were at first rather nonplussed, but by dint of much coaxing and argument broke up the party, and rowing them to their respective vessels, put them carefully to bed.

 
 
 

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