The head of the firm had hardly recovered his mental serenity after the painful duty of explaining her financial position to the Widow Hudson, when his quick ear caught the sound of a heavy footstep in the counting-house. A gruff voice was audible at the same time, which demanded in rather more energetic language than was usually employed in that orderly establishment, whether the principal was to be seen or not. The answer was evidently in the affirmative, for the lumbering tread came rapidly nearer, and a powerful double knock announced that the visitor was at the other side of the door.
“Come in,” cried Mr. Girdlestone, laying down his pen.
This invitation was so far complied with that the handle turned, and the door revolved slowly upon its hinges. Nothing more substantial than a strong smell of spirituous liquors, however, entered the apartment.
“Come in,” the merchant repeated impatiently.
At this second mandate a great tangled mass of black hair was slowly protruded round the angle of the door. Then a copper-coloured forehead appeared, with a couple of very shaggy eyebrows and eventually a pair of eyes, which protruded from their sockets and looked yellow and unhealthy. These took a long look, first at the senior partner and then at his surroundings, after which, as if reassured by the inspection, the remainder of the face appeared—a flat nose, a large mouth with a lower lip which hung down and exposed a line of tobacco-stained teeth, and finally a thick black beard which bristled straight out from the chin, and bore abundant traces of an egg having formed part of its owner’s morning meal. The head having appeared, the body soon followed it, though all in the same anaconda-like style of progression, until the individual stood revealed. He was a stoutly-built sea-faring man, dressed in a pea jacket and blue trousers and holding his tarpaulin hat in his hand. With a rough scrape and a most unpleasant leer he advanced towards the merchant, a tattoed and hairy hand outstretched in sign of greeting.
“Why, captain,” said the head of the firm, rising and grasping the other’s hand with effusion, “I am glad to see you back safe and well.”
“Glad to see ye, sir—glad to see ye.”
His voice was thick and husky, and there was an indecision about his gait as though he had been drinking heavily. “I came in sort o’ cautious,” he continued, “’cause I didn’t know who might be about. When you and me speaks together we likes to speak alone, you bet.”
The merchant raised his bushy eyebrows a little, as though he did not relish the idea of mutual confidences suggested by his companion’s remark. “Hadn’t you better take a seat?” he said.
The other took a cane-bottomed chair and carried it into the extreme corner of the office. Then having looked steadily at the wall behind him, and rapped it with his knuckles, he sat down, still throwing an occasional apprehensive glance over his shoulder. “I’ve got a touch of the jumps,” he remarked apologetically to his employer. “I likes to know as there ain’t no one behind me.”
“You should give up this shocking habit of drinking,” Mr. Girdlestone said seriously. “It is a waste of the best gifts with which Providence has endowed us. You are the worse for it both in this world and in the next.”
Captain Hamilton Miggs did not seem to be at all impressed by this very sensible piece of advice. On the contrary, he chuckled boisterously to himself, and, slapping his thigh, expressed his opinion that his employer was a “rum ‘un”—a conviction which he repeated to himself several times with various symptoms of admiration.
“Well, well,” Girdlestone said, after a short pause, “boys will be boys, and sailors, I suppose, will be sailors. After eight months of anxiety and toil, ending in success, captain—I am proud to be able to say the words—some little licence must be allowed. I do not judge others by the same hard and fast lines by which I regulate my own conduct.”
This admirable sentiment also failed to elicit any response from the obdurate Miggs, except the same manifestations of mirth and the same audible aside as to the peculiarities of his master’s character.
“I must congratulate you on your cargo, and wish you the same luck for your next voyage,” the merchant continued.
“Ivory, an’ gold dust, an’ skins, an’ resin, an’ cochineal, an’ gums, an’ ebony, an’ rice, an’ tobacco, an’ fruits, an’ nuts in bulk. If there’s a better cargo about, I’d like to see it,” the sailor said defiantly.
“An excellent cargo, captain; very good indeed. Three of your men died,
“Ay, three of the lubbers went under. Two o’ fever and one o’ snake-bite. It licks me what sailors are comin’ to in these days. When I was afore the mast we’d ha’ been ashamed to die o’ a trifle like that. Look at me. I’ve been down wi’ coast fever sixteen times, and I’ve had yellow jack an’ dysentery, an’ I’ve been bit by the black cobra in the Andamans. I’ve had cholera, too. It broke out in a brig when I was in the Sandwich Island trade, and I was shipmates wi’ seven dead out o’ a crew o’ ten. But I ain’t none the worse for it—no, nor never will be. But I say, gov’nor, hain’t you got a drop of something about the office?”
The senior partner rose, and taking a bottle from the cupboard filled out a stiff glass of rum. The sailor drank it off eagerly, and laid down the empty tumbler with a sigh of satisfaction.
“Say, now,” he said, with an unpleasant confidential leer, “weren’t you surprised to see us come back—eh? Straight now, between man and man?”
“The old ship hangs together well, and has lots of work in her yet,” the merchant answered.
“Lots of work! God’s truth, I thought she was gone in the bay! We’d a dirty night with a gale from the west-sou’-west, an’ had been goin’ by dead reckonin’ for three days, so we weren’t over and above sure o’ ourselves. She wasn’t much of a sea-going craft when we left England, but the sun had fried all the pitch out o’ her seams, and you might ha’ put your finger through some of them. Two days an’ a night we were at the pumps, for she leaked like a sieve. We lost the fore topsail, blown clean out o’ the ringbolts. I never thought to see Lunnon again.”
“If she could weather a gale like that she could make another voyage.”
“She could start on another,” the sailor said gloomily, “but as like as not she’d never see the end o’t.”
“Come, come, you’re not quite yourself this morning, Miggs. We value you as a dashing, fearless fellow—let me fill your glass again—who doesn’t fear a little risk where there’s something to be gained. You’ll lose your good name if you go on like that.”