Chapter XIV
 

Captain Nugent awoke the morning after his attempt to crimp his son with a bad headache. Not an ordinary headache, to disappear with a little cold water and fresh air; but a splitting, racking affair, which made him feel all head and dulness. Weights pressed upon his eye-lids and the back of his head seemed glued to his pillow.

He groaned faintly and, raising himself upon his elbow, opened his eyes and sat up with a sharp exclamation. His bed was higher from the floor than usual and, moreover, the floor was different. In the dim light he distinctly saw a ship's forecastle, untidy bunks with frouzy bedclothes, and shiny oil-skins hanging from the bulkhead.

For a few moments he stared about in mystification; he was certainly ill, and no doubt the forecastle was an hallucination. It was a strange symptom, and the odd part of it was that everything was so distinct. Even the smell. He stared harder, in the hope that his surroundings would give place to the usual ones, and, leaning a little bit more on his elbow, nearly rolled out of the bunk. Resolved to probe this mystery to the bottom he lowered himself to the floor and felt distinctly the motion of a ship at sea.

There was no doubt about it. He staggered to the door and, holding by the side, looked on to the deck. The steamer was rolling in a fresh sea and a sweet strong wind blew refreshingly into his face. Funnels, bridge, and masts swung with a rhythmical motion; loose gear rattled, and every now and then a distant tinkle sounded faintly from the steward's pantry.

He stood bewildered, trying to piece together the events of the preceding night, and to try and understand by what miracle he was back on board his old ship the Conqueror. There was no doubt as to her identity. He knew every inch of her, and any further confirmation that might be required was fully supplied by the appearance of the long, lean figure of Captain Hardy on the bridge.

Captain Nugent took his breath sharply and began to realize the situation. He stepped to the side and looked over; the harbour was only a little way astern, and Sunwich itself, looking cold and cheerless beyond the dirty, tumbling seas, little more than a mile distant.

At the sight his spirits revived, and with a hoarse cry he ran shouting towards the bridge. Captain Hardy turned sharply at the noise, and recognizing the intruder stood peering down at him in undisguised amazement.

"Put back," cried Nugent, waving up at him. "Put back."

"What on earth are you doing on my ship?" inquired the astonished Hardy.

"Put me ashore," cried Nugent, imperiously; "don't waste time talking. D'ye hear? Put me ashore."

The amazement died out of Hardy's face and gave way to an expression of anger. For a time he regarded the red and threatening visage of Captain Nugent in silence, then he turned to the second officer.

"This man is not one of the crew, Mr. Prowle?" he said, in a puzzled voice.

"No, sir," said Mr. Prowle.

"How did he get aboard here?"

Captain Nugent answered the question himself. "I was crimped by you and your drunken bullies," he said, sternly.

"How did this man get aboard here? repeated Captain Hardy, ignoring him.

"He must have concealed 'imself somewhere, sir," said the mate; "this is the first I've seen of him."

"A stowaway?" said the captain, bending his brows. "He must have got some of the crew to hide him aboard. You'd better make a clean breast of it, my lad. Who are your confederates?"

Captain Nugent shook with fury. The second mate had turned away, with his hand over his mouth and a suspicious hunching of his shoulders, while the steward, who had been standing by, beat a hasty retreat and collapsed behind the chart-room.

"If you don't put me ashore," said Nugent, restraining his passion by a strong effort, "I'll take proceedings against you for crimping me, the moment I reach port. Get a boat out and put me aboard that smack."

He pointed as he spoke to a smack which was just on their beam, making slowly for the harbour.

"When you've done issuing orders," said the captain, in an indifferent voice, "perhaps you'll explain what you are doing aboard my crag."

Captain Nugent gazed at the stern of the fast-receding smack; Sunwich was getting dim in the distance and there was no other sail near. He began to realize that he was in for a long voyage.

"I awoke this morning and found myself in a bunk in vow fo'c's'le," he said, regarding Hardy steadily. "However I got there is probably best known to yourself. I hold you responsible for the affair."

"Look here my lad," said Captain Hardy, in patronizing tones, "I don't know how you got aboard my ship and I don't care. I am willing to believe that it was not intentional on your part, but either the outcome of a drunken freak or else a means of escaping from some scrape you have got into ashore. That being so, I shall take a merciful view of it, and if you behave yourself and make yourself useful you will not hear anything more of it. He has something the look of a seafaring man, Mr. Prowle. See what you can make of him."

"Come along with me, my lad," said the grinning Mr. Prowle, tapping him on the shoulder.

The captain turned with a snarl, and, clenching his huge, horny fist, let drive full in the other's face and knocked him off his feet.

"Take that man for'ard," cried Captain Hardy, sharply. "Take him for'ard."

Half-a-dozen willing men sprang forward. Captain Nugent's views concerning sailormen were well known in Sunwich, and two of the men present had served under him. He went forward, the centre of an attentive and rotating circle, and, sadly out of breath, was bestowed in the forecastle and urged to listen to reason.

For the remainder of the morning he made no sign. The land was almost out of sight, and he sat down quietly to consider his course of action for the next few weeks. Dinner-time found him still engrossed in thought, and the way in which he received an intimation from a good-natured seaman that his dinner was getting cold showed that his spirits were still unquelled.

By the time afternoon came he was faint with hunger, and, having determined upon his course of action, he sent a fairly polite message to Captain Hardy and asked for an interview.

The captain, who was resting from his labours in the chart-room, received him with the same air of cold severity which had so endeared Captain Nugent himself to his subordinates.

"You have come to explain your extraordinary behaviour of this morning, I suppose?" he said, curtly.

"I have come to secure a berth aft," said Captain Nugent. "I will pay a small deposit now, and you will, of course, have the balance as soon as we get back. This is without prejudice to any action I may bring against you later on."

"Oh, indeed," said the other, raising his eyebrows. "We don't take passengers."

"I am here against my will," said Captain Nu-gent, "and I demand the treatment due to my position."

"If I had treated you properly," said Captain Hardy, "I should have put you in irons for knocking down my second officer. I know nothing about you or your position. You're a stowaway, and you must do the best you can in the circumstances."

"Are you going to give me a cabin?" demanded the other, menacingly.

"Certainly not," said Captain Hardy. "I have been making inquiries, and I find that you have only yourself to thank for the position in which you find yourself. I am sorry to be harsh with you."

"Harsh?" repeated the other, hardly able to believe his ears. "You-- harsh to me?"

"But it is for your own good," pursued Captain Hardy; "it is no pleasure to me to punish you. I shall keep an eye on you while you're aboard, and if I see that your conduct is improving you will find that I am not a hard man to get on with."

Captain Nugent stared at him with his lips parted. Three times he essayed to speak and failed; then he turned sharply and, gaining the open air, stood for some time trying to regain his composure before going forward again. The first mate, who was on the bridge, regarded him curiously, and then, with an insufferable air of authority, ordered him away.

The captain obeyed mechanically and, turning a deaf ear to the inquiries of the men, prepared to make the best of an intolerable situation, and began to cleanse his bunk. First of all he took out the bedding and shook it thoroughly, and then, pro-curing soap and a bucket of water, began to scrub with a will. Hostile comments followed the action.

"We ain't clean enough for 'im," said one voice.

"Partikler old party, ain't he, Bill?" said another.

"You leave 'im alone," said the man addressed, surveying the captain's efforts with a smile of approval. "You keep on, Nugent, don't you mind 'im. There's a little bit there you ain't done."

"Keep your head out of the way, unless you want it knocked off," said the incensed captain.

"Ho!" said the aggrieved Bill. "Ho, indeed! D'ye 'ear that, mates? A man musn't look at 'is own bunk now."

The captain turned as though he had been stung. "This is my bunk," he said, sharply.

"Ho, is it?" said Bill. "Beggin' of your pardon, an' apologizing for a-contradictin' of you, but it's mine. You haven't got no bunk."

"I slept in it last night," said the captain, conclusively.

"I know you did," said Bill, "but that was all my kind-'artedness."

"And 'arf a quid, Bill," a voice reminded him.

"And 'arf a quid," assented Bill, graciously, "and I'm very much obliged to you, mate, for the careful and tidy way in which you've cleaned up arter your-self."

The captain eyed him. Many years of command at sea had given him a fine manner, and force of habit was for a moment almost too much for Bill and his friends. But only for a moment.

"I'm going to keep this bunk," said the captain, deliberately.

"No, you ain't, mate," said Bill, shaking his head, "don't you believe it. You're nobody down here; not even a ordinary seaman. I'm afraid you'll 'ave to clean a place for yourself on the carpet. There's a nice corner over there."

"When I get back," said the furious captain, "some of you will go to gaol for last night's work."

"Don't be hard on us," said a mocking voice, "we did our best. It ain't our fault that you look so ridikerlously young, that we took you for your own son."

"And you was in that state that you couldn't contradict us," said another man.

"If it is your bunk," said the captain, sternly, "I suppose you have a right to it. But perhaps you'll sell it to me? How much?"

"Now you're talking bisness," said the highly gratified Bill, turning with a threatening gesture upon a speculator opposite. "Wot do you say to a couple o' pounds?"

The captain nodded.

"Couple o' pounds, money down," said Bill, holding out his hand.

The captain examined the contents of his pocket, and after considerable friction bought the bunk for a pound cash and an I O U for the balance.

A more humane man would have shown a little concern as to his benefactor's sleeping-place; but the captain never gave the matter a thought. In fact, it was not until three days later that he discovered there was a spare bunk in the forecastle, and that the unscrupulous seaman was occupying it.

It was only one of many annoyances, but the captain realizing his impotence made no sign. From certain remarks let fall in his hearing he had no difficulty in connecting Mr. Kybird with his discomfiture and, of his own desire, he freely included the unfortunate Mr. Wilks.

He passed his time in devising schemes of vengeance, and when Captain Hardy, relenting, offered him a cabin aft, he sent back such a message of refusal that the steward spent half an hour preparing a paraphrase. The offer was not repeated, and the captain, despite the strong representations of Bill and his friends, continued to eat the bread of idleness before the mast.