Chapter XXVIII. The New Captain.

The voyage was more than half completed, and nothing of importance had occurred to mark it. But at this time, Captain Evans fell sick. His sickness proved to be a fever, and was very severe. The surgeon was in constant attendance, but the malady baffled all his skill. At the end of seven days, it terminated fatally, to the great grief of all on board, with whom the good-natured captain was very popular. There was one exception, however, to the general grief. It is an ill wind that blows good to no one, and Ben Haley did not lament much for an event which promoted him to the command of the vessel. Of course, he did not show this feeling publicly, but in secret his heart bounded with exultation at the thought that he was, for the time, master of the ship and all on board. He was not slow in asserting his new position. Five minutes after the captain breathed his last, one of the sailors approached him, and asked for orders, addressing him as "Mr. Haley."

"Captain Haley!" roared the new commander. "If you don't know my position on board this ship, it's time you found it out!"

"Ay, ay, sir," stammered the sailor, taken aback at his unexpected violence.

Robert mourned sincerely at the death of Captain Evans, by whom he had always been treated with the utmost kindness. Even had he not been influenced by such a feeling, he would have regarded with apprehension the elevation to the command of one whom he well knew to be actuated by a feeling of enmity to himself. He resolved to be as prudent as possible, and avoid, as far as he could, any altercation with Haley. But the latter was determined, now that he had reached the command, to pick a quarrel with our hero, and began to cast about for a fitting occasion.

Now that Captain Evans was dead, Robert spent as much time as the latter's duties would permit with Frank Price. The boys held long and confidential conversations together, imparting to each other their respective hopes and wishes. Haley observed their intimacy and mutual attachment, and, unable to assert his authority over Robert, who was a passenger, determined to strike at him through his friend. His determination was strengthened by a conversation which he overheard between the boys when they supposed him beyond earshot.

"I wish Captain Evans were alive," said Frank. "I liked him, and I don't like Captain Haley."

"Captain Evans was an excellent man," said Robert.

"He knew how to treat a fellow," said Frank. "As long as he saw us doing our best, he was easy with us. Captain Haley is a tyrant."

"Be careful what you say, Frank," said Robert. "It isn't safe to say much about the officers."

"I wouldn't say anything, except to you. You are my friend."

"I am your true friend, Frank, and I don't want you to get into any trouble."

"I am sure you don't like the captain any better than I do."

"I don't like the captain, for more reasons than I can tell you; but I shall keep quiet, as long as I am on board this ship."

"Are you going back with us?"

"I don't know. It will depend upon circumstances. I don't think I shall, though I might have done so had Captain Evans remained in command."

"I wish I could leave it, and stay with you."

"I wish you could, Frank. Perhaps you can."

"I will try."

Haley overheard the last part of this conversation. He took particular notice of Robert's remark that he would keep quiet as long as he remained on board the ship, and inferred that on arrival at the destined port our hero would expose all he knew about him. This made him uneasy, for it would injure, if not destroy, his prospect of remaining in command of the Argonaut. He resented also the dislike which Robert had cautiously expressed, and the similar feeling cherished by the cabin-boy. He had half a mind to break in upon their conversation on the spot; but, after a moment's thought, walked away, his neighborhood unsuspected by the two boys.

"They shall both rue their impudence," he muttered. "They shall find out that they cannot insult me with impunity."

The next day, when both boys were on deck, Captain Haley harshly ordered Frank to attend to a certain duty which he had already performed.

"I have done so, sir," said Frank, in a respectful tone.

"None of your impudence, you young rascal!" roared the captain, lashing himself into a rage.

Frank looked up into his face in astonishment, unable to account for so violent an outbreak.

"What do you mean by looking me in the face in that impudent manner?" demanded Captain Haley, furiously.

"I didn't mean to be impudent, Captain Haley," said Frank. "What have I done?"

"What have you done? You, a cabin-boy, have dared to insult your captain, and, by heavens, you shall rue it! Strip off your jacket."

Frank turned pale. He knew what this order meant. Public floggings were sometimes administered on shipboard, but, under the command of Captain Evans, nothing of the kind had taken place.

Robert, who had heard the whole, listened, with unmeasured indignation, to this wanton abuse on the part of Captain Haley. His eyes flashed, and his youthful form dilated with righteous indignation.

Robert was not the only one who witnessed with indignation the captain's brutality. Such of the sailors as happened to be on deck shared his feelings. Haley, looking about him, caught the look with which Robert regarded him, and triumphed inwardly that he had found a way to chafe him.

"What have you got to say about it?" he demanded, addressing our hero, with a sneer.

"Since you have asked my opinion," said Robert, boldly, "I will express it. Frank Price has not been guilty of any impudence, and deserves no punishment."

This was a bold speech to be made by a boy to a captain on his own deck, and the sailors who heard it inwardly applauded the pluck of the boy who uttered it.

"What do you mean by that, sir?" exclaimed Haley, his eyes lighting up fiercely, as he strode to the spot where Robert stood, and frowned upon him, menacingly.

"You asked my opinion, and I gave it," said Robert, not flinching.

"I have a great mind to have you flogged, too!" said Haley.

"I am not one of your crew, Captain Haley," said Robert, coolly; "and you have no right to lay a hand on me."

"What is to prevent me, I should like to know?"

"I am here as a passenger, and a friend of the owner of this vessel. If I receive any ill-treatment, it shall be reported to him."

If the sailors had dared, they would have applauded the stripling who, undaunted by the menacing attitude of the captain, faced him boldly and fearlessly. Haley would gladly have knocked him down, but there was something in the resolute mien of his young passenger that made him pause. He knew that he would keep his word, and that, with such representations as he might make, he would stand no further chance of being employed by Mr. Morgan.

"I have an account to settle with you, boy," he said; "and the settlement will not long be delayed. When a passenger tries to incite mutiny, he forfeits his privileges as a passenger."

"Who has done this, Captain Haley?"

"You have done it."

"I deny it," said Robert.

"Your denial is worth nothing. I have a right to throw you into irons, and may yet do it. At present I have other business in hand."

He left Robert, and walked back to Frank Price, who, not having Robert's courage, had been a terrified listener to the colloquy between him and the captain.

"Now, boy," he said, harshly, "I will give you a lesson that you shall remember to the latest day of your life. Bring me the cat."

The barbarous cat, as it was called, once in use on our ships, was brought, and Captain Haley signaled to one of the sailors to approach.

"Bates," he said, in a tone of authority, "give that boy a dozen lashes."

Bates was a stout sailor, rough in appearance, but with a warm and kindly heart. He had a boy of his own at home, about the age of Frank Price, and his heart had warmed to the boy whose position he felt to be far from an enviable one.

The task now imposed upon him was a most distasteful and unwelcome one. He was a good sailor, and aimed on all occasions to show proper obedience to the commands of his officers, but now he could not.

"Captain Haley," he said, not stirring from his position, "I hope you will excuse me."

"Is this mutiny?" roared the captain.

"No, Captain Haley. I always mean to do my duty on board ship."

"I have told you to flog this boy!"

"I can't do it, Captain Haley. I have a boy of my own about the size of that lad there, and, if I struck him, I'd think it was my own boy that stood in his place."

This unexpected opposition excited the fierce resentment of the captain. He felt that a crisis had come, and he was determined to be obeyed.

"Unless you do as I bid you, I will keep you in irons for the rest of the voyage!"

"You are the captain of this ship, and can throw me in irons, if you like," said Bates, with an air of dignity despite his tarred hands and sailor jacket. "I have refused to do no duty that belongs to me. When I signed my name to the ship's papers, I did not agree to flog boys."

"Put him in irons!" roared the captain, incensed. "We will see who is captain of this ship!"

The mandate was obeyed, and Bates was lodged in the forecastle, securely ironed.

The captain himself seized the cat, and was about to apply it to the luckless cabin-boy, when a terrible blast, springing up in an instant, as it were, struck the ship, almost throwing it upon its side. There was no time for punishment now. The safety of the ship required instant action, and Frank Price was permitted to replace his jacket without having received a blow.