Dialstone Lane by W.W. Jacobs
Mr. Chalk, when half-awake next morning, tried to remember Mr. Stobell's remarks of the night before; fully awake, he tried to forget them. He remembered, too, with a pang that Tredgold had been content to enact the part of a listener, and had made no attempt to check the somewhat unusual fluency of the aggrieved Mr. Stobell. The latter's last instructions were that Mrs. Chalk was to be told, without loss of time, that her presence on the schooner was not to be thought of.
With all this on his mind Mr. Chalk made but a poor breakfast, and his appetite was not improved by his wife's enthusiastic remarks concerning the voyage. Breakfast over, she dispatched a note to Mrs. Stobell by the housemaid, with instructions to wait for a reply. Altogether six notes passed during the morning, and Mr. Chalk, who hazarded a fair notion as to their contents, became correspondingly gloomy.
"We're to go up there at five," said his wife, after reading the last note. "Mr. Stobell will be at tea at that time, and we're to drop in as though by accident."
"What for?" inquired Mr. Chalk, affecting surprise. "Go up where?"
"To talk to Mr. Stobell," said his wife, grimly. "Fancy, poor Mrs. Stobell says that she is sure he won't let her come. I wish he was my husband, that's all."
Mr. Chalk muttered something about "doing a little gardening."
"You can do that another time," said Mrs. Chalk, coldly. "I've noticed you've been very fond of gardening lately."
The allusion was too indirect to contest, but Mr. Chalk reddened despite himself, and his wife, after regarding his confusion with a questioning eye, left him to his own devices and his conscience.
Mr. Stobell and his wife had just sat down to tea when they arrived, and Mrs. Stobell, rising from behind a huge tea-pot, gave a little cry of surprise as her friend entered the room, and kissed her affectionately.
"Well, who would have thought of seeing you?" she cried. "Sit down."
Mrs. Chalk sat down at the large table opposite Mr. Stobell; Mr. Chalk, without glancing in his wife's direction, seated himself by that gentleman's side.
"Well, weren't you surprised?" inquired Mrs. Chalk, loudly, as her hostess passed her a cup of tea.
"Surprised?" said Mrs. Stobell, curiously.
"Why, hasn't Mr. Stobell told you?" exclaimed Mrs. Chalk.
"Told me?" repeated Mrs. Stobell, glancing indignantly at the wide-open eyes of Mr. Chalk. "Told me what?"
It was now Mrs. Chalk's turn to appear surprised, and she did it so well that Mr. Chalk choked in his tea-cup. "About the yachting trip," she said, with a glance at her husband that made his choking take on a ventriloquial effect of distance.
"He--he didn't say anything to me about it," said Mrs. Stobell, timidly.
She glanced at her husband, but Mr. Stobell, taking an enormous bite out of a slice of bread and butter, made no sign.
"It'll do you a world of good," said Mrs. Chalk, affectionately. "It'll put a little colour in your cheeks."
Mrs. Stobell flushed. She was a faded little woman; faded eyes, faded hair, faded cheeks. It was even whispered that her love for Mr. Stobell was beginning to fade.
"And I don't suppose you'll mind the seasickness after you get used to it," said the considerate Mr. Chalk," and the storms, and the cyclones, and fogs, and collisions, and all that sort of thing."
"If you can stand it, she can," said his wife, angrily.
"But I don't understand," said Mrs. Stobell, appealingly. "What yachting trip?"
Mrs. Chalk began to explain; Mr. Stobell helped himself to another slice, and, except for a single glance under his heavy brows at Mr. Chalk, appeared to be oblivious of his surroundings.
"It sounds very nice," said Mrs. Stobell, after her friend had finished her explanation. "Perhaps it might do me good. I have tried a great many things."
"Mr. Stobell ought to have taken you for a voyage long before," said Mrs. Chalk, with conviction. "Still, better late than never."
"The only thing is," said Mr. Chalk, speaking with an air of great benevolence, "that if the sea didn't suit Mrs. Stobell, she would be unable to get away from it. And, of course, it might upset her very much."
Mr. Stobell wiped some crumbs from his moustache and looked up.
"No, it won't," he said, briefly.
"Is she a good sailor?" queried Mr. Chalk, somewhat astonished at such a remark from that quarter.
"Don't know," said Mr. Stobell, passing his cup up. "But this trip won't upset her--she ain't going."
Mrs. Chalk exclaimed loudly and exchanged glances of consternation with Mrs. Stobell; Mr. Stobell, having explained the position, took some more bread and butter and munched placidly.
"Don't you think it would do her good?" said Mrs. Chalk, at last.
"Might," said Mr. Stobell, slowly, "and then, again, it mightn't."
"But there's no harm in trying," persisted Mrs. Chalk.
Mr. Stobell made no reply. Having reached his fifth slice he was now encouraging his appetite with apricot jam.
"And it's so cheap," continued Mrs. Chalk.
"That's the way I look at it. If she shuts up the house and gets rid of the servants, same as I am going to do, it will save a lot of money."
She glanced at Mr. Stobell, whose slowly working jaws and knitted brows appeared to indicate deep thought, and then gave a slight triumphant nod at his wife.
"Servants are so expensive," she murmured. "Really, I shouldn't be surprised if we saved money on the whole affair. And then think of her health. She has never quite recovered from that attack of bronchitis. She has never looked the same woman since. Think of your feelings if anything happened to her. Nothing would bring her back to you if once she went."
"Went where? "inquired Mr. Stobell, who was not attending very much.
"If she died, I mean," said Mrs. Chalk, shortly.
"We've all got to die some day," said the philosophic Mr. Stobell. "She's forty-six."
Mrs. Stobell interposed. "Not till September, Robert," she said, almost firmly.
"It wouldn't be nice to be buried at sea," remarked Mr. Chalk, contributing his mite to the discussion. "Of course, it's very impressive; but to be left down there all alone while the ship sails on must be very hard."
Mrs. Stobell's eyes began to get large. "I'm feeling quite well," she gasped.
"Yes, dear," said Mrs. Chalk, with a threatening glance at her husband." Of course, we know that.
But a voyage would do you good. You can't deny that."
Mrs. Stobell, fumbling for her handkerchief, said in a tremulous voice that she had no wish to deny it. Mr. Stobell, appealed to by the energetic Mrs. Chalk, admitted at once that it might do his wife good, but that it wouldn't him.
"We're going to be three jolly bachelors," he declared, and, first nudging Mr. Chalk to attract his attention, deliberately winked at him.
"Oh, indeed!" exclaimed Mrs. Chalk, drawing herself up;" but you forget that I am coming."
"Two jolly bachelors, then," said the undaunted Stobell.
"No," said Mrs. Chalk, shaking her head, "I am not going alone; if Mrs. Stobell can't come I would sooner stay at home."
Mr. Stobell's face cleared; his mouth relaxed and his dull eyes got almost kindly. With the idea of calling the attention of Mr. Chalk to the pleasing results of a little firmness he placed his foot upon that gentleman's toe and bore heavily.
"Best place for you," he said to Mrs. Chalk. "There's no place like home for ladies. You can have each other to tea every day if you like. In fact, there's no reason----" he paused and looked at his wife, half doubtful that he was conceding too much--"there's no reason why you shouldn't sleep at each other's sometimes."
He helped himself to some cake and, rendered polite by good-nature, offered some to Mrs. Chalk.
"Mind, I shall not go unless Mrs. Stobell goes," said the latter, waving the plate away impatiently; "that I am determined upon."
Mr. Chalk, feeling that appearances required it, ventured on a mild--a very mild--remonstrance.
"And he," continued Mrs. Chalk, sternly, indicating her husband with a nod, "doesn't go without me--not a single step, not an inch of the way."
Mr. Chalk collapsed and sat staring at her in dismay. Mr. Stobell, placing both hands on the table, pushed his chair back and eyed her disagreeably.
"It seems to me----" he began.
"I know," said Mrs. Chalk, speaking with some rapidity--"I know just how it seems to you. But that's how it is. If you want my husband to go you have got to have me too, and if you have me you have got to have your wife, and if----"
"What, is there any more of you coming?" demanded Mr. Stobell, with great bitterness.
Mrs. Chalk ignored the question. "My husband wouldn't be happy without me," she said, primly. "Would you, Thomas?"
"No," said Mr. Chalk, with a gulp.
"We--we're going a long way," said Mr. Stobell, after a long pause.
"Longer the better," retorted Mrs. Chalk.
"We're going among savages," continued Mr. Stobell, casting about for arguments; "cannibal savages."
"They won't eat her," said Mrs. Chalk, with a passing glance at the scanty proportions of her friend, "not while you're about."
"I don't like to take my wife into danger," said Mr. Stobell, with surly bashfulness; "I'm--I'm too fond of her for that. And she don't want to come. Do you, Alice?"
"No," said Mrs. Stobell, dutifully, "but I want to share your dangers, Robert."
"Say 'yes' or 'no' without any trimmings," commanded her husband, as he intercepted a look passing between her and Mrs. Chalk. "Do-you-want-to- come?"
Mrs. Stobell trembled. "I don't want to prevent Mr. Chalk from going," she murmured.
"Never mind about him," said Mr. Stobell.
"Yes," said Mrs. Stobell.
Her husband, hardly able to believe his ears, gazed at her in bewilderment. "Very well, then," he said, in a voice that made the tea-cups rattle. "COME!"
He sat with bent brows gazing at the table as Mrs. Chalk, her face wreathed in triumphant smiles, began to discuss yachting costumes and other necessities of ocean travel with the quivering Mrs. Stobell. Unable to endure it any longer he rose and, in a voice by no means alluring, invited Mr. Chalk into the garden to smoke a pipe; Mr. Chalk, helping himself to two pieces of cake as evidence, said that he had not yet finished his tea. Owing partly to lack of appetite and partly to the face which Mr. Stobell pressed to the window every other minute to entice him out, he made but slow progress.
The matter was discussed next day as they journeyed down to Biddlecombe with Mr. Tredgold to complete the purchase of the schooner, the views of the latter gentleman coinciding so exactly with those of Mr. Stobell that Mr. Chalk was compelled to listen to the same lecture twice.
Under this infliction his spirits began to droop, nor did they revive until, from the ferry-boat, his eyes fell upon the masts of the Fair Emily, and the trim figure of Captain Brisket standing at the foot of the steps awaiting their arrival.
"We've had a stroke of good luck, gentlemen," said Brisket, in a husky whisper, as they followed him up the steps. "See that man?"
He pointed to a thin, dismal-looking man, standing a yard or two away, who was trying to appear unconscious of their scrutiny.
"Peter Duckett," said Brisket, in the same satisfied whisper.
Mr. Stobell, ever willing for a free show, stared at the dismal man and groped in the recesses of his memory. The name seemed familiar.
"The man who ate three dozen hard-boiled eggs in four minutes?" he asked, with a little excitement natural in the circumstances.
Captain Brisket stared at him. "No; Peter Duckett, the finest mate that ever sailed," he said, with a flourish. "We're lucky to have the chance of getting him, I can tell you. To see him handle sailormen is a revelation; to see him handle a ship----"
He broke off and shook his head with the air of a man who despaired of doing justice to his subject. "These are the gentlemen, Peter," he said, introducing them with a wave of his hand.
Mr. Duckett raised his cap, and tugging at a small patch of reddish-brown hair strangely resembling a door-mat in texture, which grew at the base of his chin, cleared his throat and said it was a fine morning.
"Not much of a talker is Peter," said the genial Brisket. "He's a doer; that's what he is-a doer. Now, if you're willing--and I hope you are-- he'll come aboard with us and talk the matter over."
This proposition being assented to after a little delay on the part of Mr. Stobell, who appeared to think Mr. Duckett's lack of connection with the hard-boiled eggs somewhat suspicious, they proceeded to Todd's Wharf and made a thorough inspection of the schooner. Mr. Chalk's eyes grew bright and his step elastic. He roamed from forecastle to cabin and from cabin to galley, and, his practice with the crow's-nest in Dialstone Lane standing him in good stead, wound up by ascending to the masthead and waving to his astonished friends below.
Mr. Todd came on board as he regained the deck, and, stroking his white beard, regarded him with an air of benevolent interest.
"There's no ill-feeling," he said, as Mr. Chalk eyed his outstretched hand somewhat dubiously. "You're a hard nut, that's what you are, and I pity anybody that has the cracking of you. A man that could come and offer me seventy pounds for a craft like this--seventy pounds, mind you," he added, with a rising colour, as he turned to the others "seventy pounds, and a face like a baby. Why, when I think of it, DAMME IF I DON'T----"
Captain Brisket laid his hand on his arm and with soothing words led him below. His voice was heard booming in the cabin until at length it ended in a roar of laughter, and Captain Brisket, appearing at the companion, beckoned them below, with a whispered injunction to Mr. Chalk to keep as much in the background as possible.
The business was soon concluded, and Mr. Chalk's eye brightened again as he looked on his new property. Captain Brisket, in high good-humour, began to talk of accommodation, and, among other things, suggested a scheme of cutting through the bulkhead at the foot of the companion- ladder and building a commodious cabin with three berths in the hold.
"There are two ladies coming," said Mr. Chalk.
Captain Brisket rubbed his chin. "I'd forgotten that," he said, slowly. "Two, did you say?"
"It doesn't matter," said Mr. Stobell, fixing him with his left eye and slowly veiling the right. "You go on with them alterations. One of the ladies can have your state-room and the other the mate's bunk."
"Where are Captain Brisket and the mate to sleep?" inquired Mr. Chalk.
"Anywhere," replied Mr. Stobell. "With the crew if they like."
Captain Brisket, looking suddenly very solemn, shook his head and said that it was impossible. He spoke in moving terms of the danger to discipline, and called upon Mr. Duckett to confirm his fears. Meantime, Mr. Stobell, opening his right eye slowly, winked with the left.
"You go on with them alterations," he repeated.
Captain Brisket started and reflected. A nod from Mr. Tredgold and a significant gesture in the direction of the unconscious Mr. Chalk decided him. "Very good, gentlemen," he said, cheerfully. "I'm in your hands, and Peter Ducket'll do what I do. It's settled he's coming, I suppose?"
Mr. Tredgold, after a long look at the anxious face of Mr. Duckett, said "Yes," and then at Captain Brisket's suggestion the party adjourned to the Jack Ashore, where in a little room upstairs, not much larger than the schooner's cabin, the preparations for the voyage were discussed in detail.
"And mind, Peter," said Captain Brisket to his friend, as the pair strolled along by the harbour after their principals had departed, "the less you say about this the better. We don't want any Biddlecombe men in it."
"Why not?" inquired the other.
"Because," replied Brisket, lowering his voice," there's more in this than meets the eye. They're not the sort to go on a cruise to the islands for pleasure--except Chalk, that is. I've been keeping my ears open, and there's something afoot. D'ye take me?"
Mr. Duckett nodded shrewdly.
"I'll pick a crew for 'em," said Brisket. "A man here and a man there. Biddlecombe men ain't tough enough. And now, what about that whisky you've been talking so much about?"