The Story of a Bad Boy by Thomas Bailey Aldrich
Chapter Fifteen. An Old Acquaintance Turns Up
A year had stolen by since the death of Binny Wallace-a year of which I have nothing important to record.
The loss of our little playmate threw a shadow over our young lives for many and many a month. The Dolphin rose and fell with the tide at the foot of the slippery steps, unused, the rest of the summer. At the close of November we hauled her sadly into the boat-house for the winter; but when spring came round we launched the Dolphin again, and often went down to the wharf and looked at her lying in the tangled eel-grass, without much inclination to take a row. The associations connected with the boat were too painful as yet; but time, which wears the sharp edge from everything, softened this feeling, and one afternoon we brought out the cobwebbed oars.
The ice once broken, brief trips along the wharves-we seldom cared to go out into the river now-became one of our chief amusements. Meanwhile Gypsy was not forgotten. Every clear morning I was in the saddle before breakfast, and there are few roads or lanes within ten miles of Rivermouth that have not borne the print of her vagrant hoof.
I studied like a good fellow this quarter, carrying off a couple of first prizes. The Captain expressed his gratification by presenting me with a new silver dollar. If a dollar in his eyes was smaller than a cart-wheel, it wasn't so very much smaller. I redeemed my pencil-case from the treasurer of the Centipedes, and felt that I was getting on in the world.
It was at this time I was greatly cast down by a letter from my father saying that he should be unable to visit Rivermouth until the following year. With that letter came another to Captain Nutter, which he did not read aloud to the family, as usual. It was on business, he said, folding it up in his wallet. He received several of these business letters from time to time, and I noticed that they always made him silent and moody.
The fact is, my father's banking-house was not thriving. The unlooked-for failure of a firm largely indebted to him had crippled "the house." When the Captain imparted this information to me I didn't trouble myself over the matter. I supposed-if I supposed anything-that all grown-up people had more or less money, when they wanted it. Whether they inherited it, or whether government supplied them, was not clear to me. A loose idea that my father had a private gold-mine somewhere or other relieved me of all uneasiness.
I was not far from right. Every man has within himself a gold-mine whose riches are limited only by his own industry. It is true, it sometimes happens that industry does not avail, if a man lacks that something which, for want of a better name, we call Luck. My father was a person of untiring energy and ability; but he had no luck. To use a Rivermouth saying, he was always catching sculpins when everyone else with the same bait was catching mackerel.
It was more than two years since I had seen my parents. I felt that I could not bear a longer separation. Every letter from New Orleans-we got two or three a month-gave me a fit of homesickness; and when it was definitely settled that my father and mother were to remain in the South another twelvemonth, I resolved to go to them.
Since Binny Wallace's death, Pepper Whitcomb had been my fidus Achates; we occupied desks near each other at school, and were always together in play hours. We rigged a twine telegraph from his garret window to the scuttle of the Nutter House, and sent messages to each other in a match-box. We shared our pocket-money and our secrets-those amazing secrets which boys have. We met in lonely places by stealth, and parted like conspirators; we couldn't buy a jackknife or build a kite without throwing an air of mystery and guilt over the transaction.
I naturally hastened to lay my New Orleans project before Pepper Whitcomb, having dragged him for that purpose to a secluded spot in the dark pine woods outside the town. Pepper listened to me with a gravity which he will not be able to surpass when he becomes Chief Justice, and strongly advised me to go.
"The summer vacation," said Pepper, "lasts six weeks; that will give you a fortnight to spend in New Orleans, allowing two weeks each way for the journey."
I wrung his hand and begged him to accompany me, offering to defray all the expenses. I wasn't anything if I wasn't princely in those days. After considerable urging, he consented to go on terms so liberal. The whole thing was arranged; there was nothing to do now but to advise Captain Nutter of my plan, which I did the next day.
The possibility that he might oppose the tour never entered my head. I was therefore totally unprepared for the vigorous negative which met my proposal. I was deeply mortified, moreover, for there was Pepper Whitcomb on the wharf, at the foot of the street, waiting for me to come and let him know what day we were to start.
"Go to New Orleans? Go to Jericho I" exclaimed Captain Nutter. "You'd look pretty, you two, philandering off, like the babes in the wood, twenty-five hundred miles, 'with all the world before-you where to choose!'"
And the Captain's features, which had worn an indignant air as he began the sentence, relaxed into a broad smile. Whether it was at the felicity of his own quotation, or at the mental picture he drew of Pepper and myself on our travels
I couldn't tell, and I didn't care. I was heart-broken. How could I face my chum after all the dazzling inducements I had held out to him?
My grandfather, seeing that I took the matter seriously, pointed out the difficulties of such a journey and the great expense involved. He entered into the details of my father's money troubles, and succeeded in making it plain to me that my wishes, under the circumstances, were somewhat unreasonable. It was in no cheerful mood that I joined Pepper at the end of the wharf.
I found that young gentleman leaning against the bulkhead gazing intently towards the islands in the harbor. He had formed a telescope of his hands, and was so occupied with his observations as to be oblivious of my approach.
"Hullo!" cried Pepper, dropping his hands. "Look there! Isn't that a bark coming up the Narrows?"
"Just at the left of Fishcrate Island. Don't you see the foremast peeping above the old derrick?"
Sure enough it was a vessel of considerable size, slowly beating up to town. In a few moments more the other two masts were visible above the green hillocks.
"Fore-topmasts blown away," said Pepper. "Putting in for repairs, I guess."
As the bark lazily crept from behind the last of the islands, she let go her anchors and swung round with the tide. Then the gleeful chant of the sailors at the capstan came to us pleasantly across the water. The vessel lay within three quarters of a mile of us, and we could plainly see the men at the davits lowering the starboard long-boat. It no sooner touched the stream than a dozen of the crew scrambled like mice over the side of the merchantman.
In a neglected seaport like Rivermouth the arrival of a large ship is an event of moment. The prospect of having twenty or thirty jolly tars let loose on the peaceful town excites divers emotions among the inhabitants. The small shopkeepers along the wharves anticipate a thriving trade; the proprietors of the two rival boarding-houses-the "Wee Drop" and the "Mariner's Home"-hasten down to the landing to secure lodgers; and the female population of Anchor Lane turn out to a woman, for a ship fresh from sea is always full of possible husbands and long-lost prodigal sons.
But aside from this there is scant welcome given to a ship's crew in Rivermouth. The toil-worn mariner is a sad fellow ashore, judging him by a severe moral standard.
Once, I remember, a United States frigate came into port for repairs after a storm. She lay in the river a fortnight or more, and every day sent us a gang of sixty or seventy of our country's gallant defenders, who spread themselves over the town, doing all sorts of mad things. They were good-natured enough, but full of old Sancho. The "Wee Drop" proved a drop too much for many of them. They went singing through the streets at midnight, wringing off door-knockers, shinning up water-spouts, and frightening the Oldest Inhabitant nearly to death by popping their heads into his second-story window, and shouting "Fire!" One morning a blue-jacket was discovered in a perilous plight, half-way up the steeple of the South Church, clinging to the lightning-rod. How he got there nobody could tell, not even blue-jacket himself. All he knew was, that the leg of his trousers had caught on a nail, and there he stuck, unable to move either way. It cost the town twenty dollars to get him down again. He directed the workmen how to splice the ladders brought to his assistance, and called his rescuers "butter-fingered land-lubbers" with delicious coolness.
But those were man-of-war's men: The sedate-looking craft now lying off Fishcrate Island wasn't likely to carry any such cargo. Nevertheless, we watched the coming in of the long-boat with considerable interest.
As it drew near, the figure of the man pulling the bow-oar seemed oddly familiar to me. Where could I have seen him before? When and where? His back was towards me, but there was something about that closely cropped head that I recognized instantly.
"Way enough!" cried the steersman, and all the oars stood upright in the air. The man in the bow seized the boat-hook, and, turning round quickly, showed me the honest face of Sailor Ben of the Typhoon.
"It's Sailor Ben!" I cried, nearly pushing Pepper Whitcomb overboard in my excitement.
Sailor Ben, with the wonderful pink lady on his arm, and the ships and stars and anchors tattooed all over him, was a well-known hero among my playmates. And there he was, like something in a dream come true!
I didn't wait for my old acquaintance to get firmly on the wharf, before I grasped his hand in both of mine.
"Sailor Ben, don't you remember me?"
He evidently did not. He shifted his quid from one cheek to the other, and looked at me meditatively.
"Lord love ye, lad, I don't know you. I was never here afore in my life."
"What!" I cried, enjoying his perplexity. "Have you forgotten the voyage from New Orleans in the Typhoon, two years ago, you lovely old picture-book?"
Ah! then he knew me, and in token of the recollection gave my hand such a squeeze that I am sure an unpleasant change came over my countenance.
"Bless my eyes, but you have growed so. I shouldn't have knowed you if I had met you in Singapore!"
Without stopping to inquire, as I was tempted to do, why he was more likely to recognize me in Singapore than anywhere else, I invited him to come at once up to the Nutter House, where I insured him a warm welcome from the Captain.
"Hold steady, Master Tom," said Sailor Ben, slipping the painter through the ringbolt and tying the loveliest knot you ever saw; "hold steady till I see if the mate can let me off. If you please, sir," he continued, addressing the steersman, a very red-faced, bow-legged person, "this here is a little shipmate o' mine as wants to talk over back times along of me, if so it's convenient."
"All right, Ben," returned the mate; "sha'n't want you for an hour."
Leaving one man in charge of the boat, the mate and the rest of the crew went off together. In the meanwhile Pepper Whitcomb had got out his cunner-line, and was quietly fishing at the end of the wharf, as if to give me the idea that he wasn't so very much impressed by my intimacy with so renowned a character as Sailor Ben. Perhaps Pepper was a little jealous. At any rate, he refused to go with us to the house.
Captain Nutter was at home reading the Rivennouth Barnacle. He was a reader to do an editor's heart good; he never skipped over an advertisement, even if he had read it fifty times before. Then the paper went the rounds of the neighborhood, among the poor people, like the single portable eye which the three blind crones passed to each other in the legend of King Acrisius. The Captain, I repeat, was wandering in the labyrinths of the Rivermouth Barnacle when I led Sailor Ben into the sitting-room.
My grandfather, whose inborn courtesy knew no distinctions, received my nautical friend as if he had been an admiral instead of a common forecastle-hand. Sailor Ben pulled an imaginary tuft of hair on his forehead, and bowed clumsily. Sailors have a way of using their forelock as a sort of handle to bow with.
The old tar had probably never been in so handsome an apartment in all his days, and nothing could induce him to take the inviting mahogany chair which the Captain wheeled out from the corner.
The abashed mariner stood up against the wall, twirling his tarpaulin in his two hands and looking extremely silly. He made a poor show in a gentleman's drawing-room, but what a fellow he had been in his day, when the gale blew great guns and the topsails wanted reefing! I thought of him with the Mexican squadron off Vera Cruz, where,
'The rushing battle-bolt sung from the three-decker out of the
and he didn't seem awkward or ignoble to me, for all his shyness.
As Sailor Ben declined to sit down, the Captain did not resume his seat; so we three stood in a constrained manner until my grandfather went to the door and called to Kitty to bring in a decanter of Madeira and two glasses.
"My grandson, here, has talked so much about you," said the Captain, pleasantly, "that you seem quite like an old acquaintance to me."
"Thankee, sir, thankee," returned Sailor Ben, looking as guilty as if he had been detected in picking a pocket.
"And I'm very glad to see you, Mr.-Mr.-"
"Sailor Ben," suggested that worthy.
"Mr. Sailor Ben," added the Captain, smiling. "Tom, open the door, there's Kitty with the glasses."
I opened the door, and Kitty entered the room bringing the things on a waiter, which she was about to set on the table, when suddenly she uttered a loud shriek; the decanter and glasses fell with a crash to the floor, and Kitty, as white as a sheet, was seen flying through the hall.
"It's his wraith! It's his wraith!"' we heard Kitty shrieking in the kitchen.
My grandfather and I turned with amazement to Sailor Ben. His eyes were standing out of his head like a lobster's.
"It's my own little Irish lass!" shouted the sailor, and he darted into the hall after her.
Even then we scarcely caught the meaning of his words, but when we saw Sailor Ben and Kitty sobbing on each other's shoulder in the kitchen, we understood it all.
"I begs your honor's parden, sir," said Sailor Ben, lifting his tear-stained face above Kitty's tumbled hair; "I begs your honor's parden for kicking up a rumpus in the house, but it's my own little Irish lass as I lost so long ago!"
"Heaven preserve us!" cried the Captain, blowing his nose violently-a transparent ruse to hide his emotion.
Miss Abigail was in an upper chamber, sweeping; but on hearing the unusual racket below, she scented an accident and came ambling downstairs with a bottle of the infallible hot-drops in her hand. Nothing but the firmness of my grandfather prevented her from giving Sailor Ben a table-spoonful on the spot. But when she learned what had come about-that this was Kitty's husband, that Kitty Collins wasn't Kitty Collins now, but Mrs. Benjamin Watson of Nantucket-the good soul sat down on the meal-chest and sobbed as if-to quote from Captain Nutter-as if a husband of her own had turned up!
A happier set of people than we were never met together in a dingy kitchen or anywhere else. The Captain ordered a fresh decanter of Madeira, and made all hands, excepting myself, drink a cup to the return of "the prodigal sea-son," as he persisted in calling Sailor Ben.
After the first flush of joy and surprise was over Kitty grew silent and constrained. Now and then she fixed her eyes thoughtfully on her husband. Why had he deserted her all these years? What right had he to look for a welcome from one he had treated so cruelly? She had been true to him, but had he been true to her? Sailor Ben must have guessed what was passing in her mind, for presently he took her hand and said- "Well, lass, it's a long yarn, but you shall have it all in good time. It was my hard luck as made us part company, an' no will of mine, for I loved you dear."
Kitty brightened up immediately, needing no other assurance of Sailor Ben's faithfulness.
When his hour had expired, we walked with him down to the wharf, where the Captain held a consultation with the mate, which resulted in an extension of Mr. Watson's leave of absence, and afterwards in his discharge from his ship. We then went to the "Mariner's Home" to engage a room for him, as he wouldn't hear of accepting the hospitalities of the Nutter House.
"You see, I'm only an uneddicated man," he remarked to my grandfather, by way of explanation.