At Sunwich Port by W.W. Jacobs
The downfall of Captain Nugent was for some time a welcome subject of conversation in marine circles at Sunwich. At The Goblets, a rambling old inn with paved courtyard and wooden galleries, which almost backed on to the churchyard, brother-captains attributed it to an error of judgment; at the Two Schooners on the quay the profanest of sailormen readily attributed it to an all-seeing Providence with a dislike of over-bearing ship-masters.
The captain's cup was filled to the brim by the promotion of his first officer to the command of the Conqueror. It was by far the largest craft which sailed from the port of Sunwich, and its master held a corresponding dignity amongst the captains of lesser vessels. Their allegiance was now transferred to Captain Hardy, and the master of a brig which was in the last stages of senile decay, meeting Nugent in The Goblets, actually showed him by means of two lucifer matches how the collision might have been avoided.
A touching feature in the business, and a source of much gratification to Mr. Wilks by the sentimental applause evoked by it, was his renunciation of the post of steward on the ss. Conqueror. Sunwich buzzed with the tidings that after eighteen years' service with Captain Nugent he preferred starvation ashore to serving under another master. Although comfortable in pocket and known to be living with his mother, who kept a small general shop, he was regarded as a man on the brink of starvation. Pints were thrust upon him, and the tale of his nobility increased with much narration. It was considered that the whole race of stewards had acquired fresh lustre from his action.
His only unfavourable critic was the erring captain himself. He sent a peremptory summons to Mr. Wilks to attend at Equator Lodge, and the moment he set eyes upon that piece of probity embarked upon such a vilification of his personal defects and character as Mr. Wilks had never even dreamt of. He wound up by ordering him to rejoin the ship forthwith.
"Arsking your pardon, sir," said Mr. Wilks, with tender reproach, "but I couldn't."
"Are you going to live on your mother, you hulking rascal?" quoth the incensed captain.
"No, sir," said Mr. Wilks. "I've got a little money, sir; enough for my few wants till we sail again."
"When I sail again you won't come with me," said the captain, grimly. "I suppose you want an excuse for a soak ashore for six months!"
Mr. Wilks twiddled his cap in his hands and smiled weakly.
"I thought p'r'aps as you'd like me to come round and wait at table, and help with the knives and boots and such-like," he said, softly. "Ann is agreeable."
"Get out of the house," said the captain in quiet, measured tones.
Mr. Wilks went, but on his way to the gate he picked up three pieces of paper which had blown into the garden, weeded two pieces of grass from the path, and carefully removed a dead branch from a laurel facing the window. He would have done more but for an imperative knocking on the glass, and he left the premises sadly, putting his collection of rubbish over the next garden fence as he passed it.
But the next day the captain's boots bore such a polish that he was able to view his own startled face in them, and at dinner-time the brightness of the knives was so conspicuous that Mrs. Kingdom called Ann in for the purpose of asking her why she didn't always do them like that. Her brother ate his meal in silence, and going to his room afterwards discovered every pair of boots he possessed, headed by the tall sea-boots, standing in a nicely graduated line by the wall, and all shining their hardest.
For two days did Mr. Wilks do good by stealth, leaving Ann to blush to find it fame; but on the third day at dinner, as the captain took up his knife and fork to carve, he became aware of a shadow standing behind his chair. A shadow in a blue coat with metal buttons, which, whipping up the first plate carved, carried it to Mrs. Kingdom, and then leaned against her with the vegetable dishes.
The dishes clattered a little on his arm as he helped the captain, but the latter, after an impressive pause and a vain attempt to catch the eye of Mr. Wilks, which was intent upon things afar off, took up the spoon and helped himself. From the unwonted silence of Miss Nugent in the presence of anything unusual it was clear to him that the whole thing had been carefully arranged. He ate in silence, and a resolution to kick Mr. Wilks off the premises vanished before the comfort, to say nothing of the dignity, afforded by his presence. Mr. Wilks, somewhat reassured, favoured Miss Nugent with a wink to which, although she had devoted much time in trying to acquire the art, she endeavoured in vain to respond.
It was on the day following this that Jack Nugent, at his sister's instigation, made an attempt to avenge the family honour. Miss Nugent, although she treated him with scant courtesy herself, had a touching faith in his prowess, a faith partly due to her brother occasionally showing her his bicep muscles in moments of exaltation.
"There's that horrid Jem Hardy," she said, suddenly, as they walked along the road.
"So it is," said Master Nugent, but without any display of enthusiasm.
"Halloa, Jack," shouted Master Hardy across the road.
"The suspense became painful."
"Halloa," responded the other.
"He's going to fight you," shrilled Miss Nugent, who thought these amenities ill-timed; "he said so."
Master Hardy crossed the road. "What for?" he demanded, with surprise.
"Because you're a nasty, horrid boy," replied Miss Nugent, drawing herself up.
"Oh," said Master Hardy, blankly.
The two gentlemen stood regarding each other with uneasy grins; the lady stood by in breathless expectation. The suspense became painful.
"Who are you staring at?" demanded Master Nugent, at last.
"You," replied the other; "who are you staring at?"
"You," said Master Nugent, defiantly.
There was a long interval, both gentlemen experiencing some difficulty in working up sufficient heat for the engagement.
"You hit me and see what you'll get," said Master Hardy, at length.
"You hit me," said the other.
"Cowardy, cowardy custard," chanted the well-bred Miss Nugent, "ate his mother's mustard. Cowardy, cowardy cus--"
"Why don't you send that kid home?" demanded Master Hardy, eyeing the fair songstress with strong disfavour.
"You leave my sister alone," said the other, giving him a light tap on the shoulder. "There's your coward's blow."
Master Hardy made a ceremonious return. "There's yours," he said. "Let's go behind the church."
His foe assented, and they proceeded in grave silence to a piece of grass screened by trees, which stood between the church and the beach. Here they removed their coats and rolled up their shirt-sleeves. Things look different out of doors, and to Miss Nugent the arms of both gentlemen seemed somewhat stick-like in their proportions.
The preliminaries were awful, both combatants prancing round each other with their faces just peering above their bent right arms, while their trusty lefts dealt vicious blows at the air. Miss Nugent turned pale and caught her breath at each blow, then she suddenly reddened with wrath as James Philip Hardy, having paid his tribute to science, began to hammer John Augustus Nugent about the face in a most painful and workmanlike fashion.
She hid her face for a moment, and when she looked again Jack was on the ground, and Master Hardy just rising from his prostrate body. Then Jack rose slowly and, crossing over to her, borrowed her handkerchief and applied it with great tenderness to his nose.
"Does it hurt, Jack?" she inquired, anxiously. "No," growled her brother.
He threw down the handkerchief and turned to his opponent again; Miss Nugent, who was careful about her property, stooped to recover it, and immediately found herself involved in a twisting tangle of legs, from which she escaped by a miracle to see Master Hardy cuddling her brother round the neck with one hand and punching him as hard and as fast as he could with the other. The unfairness of it maddened her, and the next moment Master Hardy's head was drawn forcibly backwards by the hair. The pain was so excruciating that he released his victim at once, and Miss Nugent, emitting a series of terrified yelps, dashed off in the direction of home, her hair bobbing up and down on her shoulders, and her small black legs in an ecstasy of motion.
Master Hardy, with no very well-defined ideas of what he was going to do if he caught her, started in pursuit. His scalp was still smarting and his eyes watering with the pain as he pounded behind her. Panting wildly she heard him coming closer and closer, and she was just about to give up when, to her joy, she saw her father coming towards them.
Master Hardy, intent on his quarry, saw him just in time, and, swerving into the road, passed in safety as Miss Nugent flung herself with some violence at her father's waistcoat and, clinging to him convulsively, fought for breath. It was some time before she could furnish the astonished captain with full details, and she was pleased to find that his indignation led him to ignore the hair-grabbing episode, on which, to do her justice, she touched but lightly.
That evening, for the first time in his life, Captain Nugent, after some deliberation, called upon his late mate. The old servant who, since Mrs. Hardy's death the year before, had looked after the house, was out, and Hardy, unaware of the honour intended him, was scandalized by the manner in which his son received the visitor. The door opened, there was an involuntary grunt from Master Hardy, and the next moment he sped along the narrow passage and darted upstairs. His father, after waiting in vain for his return, went to the door himself.
"Good evening, cap'n," he said, in surprise.
Nugent responded gruffly, and followed him into the sitting-room. To an invitation to sit, he responded more gruffly still that he preferred to stand. He then demanded instant and sufficient punishment of Master Hardy for frightening his daughter.
Even as he spoke he noticed with strong disfavour the change which had taken place in his late first officer. The change which takes place when a man is promoted from that rank to that of master is subtle, but unmistakable--sometimes, as in the present instance, more unmistakable than subtle. Captain Hardy coiled his long, sinewy form in an arm-chair and, eyeing him calmly, lit his pipe before replying.
"Boys will fight," he said, briefly.
"I'm speaking of his running after my daughter," said Nugent, sternly.
Hardy's eyes twinkled. "Young dog," he said, genially; "at his age, too."
Captain Nugent's face was suffused with wrath at the pleasantry, and he regarded him with a fixed stare. On board the Conqueror there was a witchery in that glance more potent than the spoken word, but in his own parlour the new captain met it calmly.
"I didn't come here to listen to your foolery," said Nugent; "I came to tell you to punish that boy of yours."
"And I sha'n't do it," replied the other. "I have got something better to do than interfere in children's quarrels. I haven't got your spare time, you know."
Captain Nugent turned purple. Such language from his late first officer was a revelation to him.
"I also came to warn you," he said, furiously, "that I shall take the law into my own hands if you refuse."
"Aye, aye," said Hardy, with careless contempt; "I'll tell him to keep out of your way. But I should advise you to wait until I have sailed."
Captain Nugent, who was moving towards the door, swung round and confronted him savagely.
"What do you mean?" he demanded.
"What I say," retorted Captain Hardy. "I don't want to indulge Sunwich with the spectacle of two middle-aged ship-masters at fisticuffs, but that's what'll happen if you touch my boy. It would probably please the spectators more than it would us."
"I'll cane him the first time I lay hands on him," roared Captain Nugent.
Captain Hardy's stock of patience was at an end, and there was, moreover, a long and undischarged account between himself and his late skipper. He rose and crossed to the door.
"Jem," he cried, "come downstairs and show Captain Nugent out."
There was a breathless pause. Captain Nugent ground his teeth with fury as he saw the challenge, and realized the ridiculous position into which his temper had led him; and the other, who was also careful of appearances, repented the order the moment he had given it. Matters had now, however, passed out of their hands, and both men cast appraising glances at each other's form. The only one who kept his head was Master Hardy, and it was a source of considerable relief to both of them when, from the top of the stairs, the voice of that youthful Solomon was heard declining in the most positive terms to do anything of the kind.
Captain Hardy repeated his command. The only reply was the violent closing of a door at the top of the house, and after waiting a short time he led the way to the front door himself.
"You will regret your insolence before I have done with you," said his visitor, as he paused on the step. "It's the old story of a beggar on horseback."
"It's a good story," said Captain Hardy, "but to my mind it doesn't come up to the one about Humpty-Dumpty. Good-night."