“Of course we shall do something. The firm is not mean, though it avoids unnecessary expense. We’ll put a coat of paint on her, and some pitch, and do up the rigging. She’s a stout old craft, and with one of the smartest sailors afloat in command of her—for we always give you credit for being that—she’ll run many a voyage yet.”
“I’m paid for the risk, guv’nor, as you said just now,” the sailor remarked. “But don’t it seem kind o’ hard on them as isn’t—on the mates an’ the hands?”
“There is always a risk, my dear captain. There is nothing in the world without risk. You remember what is said about those who go down to the sea in ships. They see the wonders of the deep, and in return they incur some little danger. My house in Eccleston Square might be shaken down by an earthquake, or a gale might blow in the walls, but I’m not always brooding over the chance of it. There’s no use your taking it for granted that some misfortune will happen to the Black Eagle.”
The sailor was silenced, but not convinced by his employer’s logic. “Well, well,” he said sulkily, “I am going, so there’s an end of it, and there’s no good in having any more palaver about it. You have your object in running rotten ships, and you make it worth my while to take my chances in them. I’m suited, and you’re suited, so there’s no more to be said.”
“That’s right. Have some more rum?”
“No, not a spot.”
“Because I likes to keep my head pretty clear when I’m a-talkin’ to you, Muster Girdlestone. Out o’ your office I’ll drink to further orders, but I won’t do business and muddle myself at the same time. When d’ye want me to start?”
“When she’s unloaded and loaded up again. Three weeks or a month yet. I expect that Spender will have come in with the Maid of Athens by that time.”
“Unless some accident happens on the way,” said Captain Hamilton Miggs, with his old leer. “He was at Sierra Leone when we came up the coast. I couldn’t put in there, for the swabs have got a warrant out ag’in me for putting a charge o’ shot into a nigger.”
“That was a wicked action—very wrong, indeed,” the merchant said gravely. “You must consider the interests of the firm, Miggs. We can’t afford to have a good port blocked against our ships in this fashion. Did they serve this writ on you?”
“Another nigger brought it aboard.”
“Did you read it?”
“No; I threw it overboard.”
“And what became of the negro?”
“Well,” said Miggs with a grin, “when I threw the writ overboard he happened to be a-holdin’ on to it. So, ye see, he went over, too. Then I up anchor and scooted.”
“There are sharks about there?”
“Really, Miggs,” the merchant said, “you must restrain your sinful passions. You have broken the fifth commandment, and closed the trade of Freetown to the Black Eagle.”
“It never was worth a rap,” the sailor answered. “I wouldn’t give a cuss for any of the British settlements. Give me real niggers, chaps as knows nothing of law or civilizing, or any rot of the sort. I can pull along with them.
“I have often wondered how you managed it,” Girdlestone said curiously. “You succeed in picking up a cargo where the steadiest and best men can’t get as much as a bag of nuts. How do you work it?”
“There’s many would like to know that,” Miggs answered, with an expressive wink.
“It is a secret, then?”
“Well, it ain’t a secret to you, ’cause you ain’t a skipper, and it don’t matter if you knows it or not. I don’t want to have ’em all at the same game.”
“How is it, then?”
“I’ll tell ye,” said Miggs. He seemed to have recovered his serenity by this time, and his eyes twinkled as he spoke of his own exploits. “I gets drunk with them. That’s how I does it.”
“Yes, that’s how it’s worked. Lord love ye, when these fust-class certificated, second-cousin-to-an-earl merchant skippers comes out they move about among the chiefs and talks down to them as if they was tin Methuselahs on wheels. The Almighty’s great coat wouldn’t make a waistcoat for some o’ these blokes. Now when I gets among ’em I has ’em all into the cabin, though they’re black an’ naked, an’ the smell ain’t over an’ above pleasant. Then I out with the rum and it’s ‘help yourself an’ pass the bottle.’ Pretty soon, d’ye see, their tongues get loosened, and as I lie low an’ keep dark I gets a pretty good idea o’ what’s in the market. Then when I knows what’s to be got, it’s queer if I don’t manage to get it. Besides, they like a little notice, just as Christians does, and they remembers me because I treat them well.”
“An excellent plan, Miggs—a capital plan!” said the senior partner.
“You are an invaluable servant.”
“Well,” the captain said, rising from his chair, “I’m getting a great deal too dry with all this palaver. I don’t mind gettin’ drunk with nigger chiefs, but I’m darned if I’ll—” He paused, but the grim smile on his companion’s face showed that he appreciated the compliment.
“I say,” he continued, giving his employer a confidential nudge with his elbow, “suppose we’d gone down in the bay this last time, you’d ha’ been a bit out in your reckoning—eh, what?”
“Well, we were over-insured on our outward passage. An accident then might ha’ put thousands in your pocket, I know. Coming back, though, the cargo was worth more than the insurance, I reckon. You’d ha’ been out o’ pocket if we’d foundered. It would ha’ been a case o’ the engineer hoisted on his own Peter, as Shakspere says.”
“We take our chance of these things,” the merchant said with dignity.
“Well, good morning, guv’nor,” Captain Hamilton Miggs said brusquely. “When you wants me you can lay your hands on me at the old crib, the Cock and Cowslip, Rotherhithe.”
As he passed out through the office, Ezra rejoined his father.
“He’s a curious chap,” he remarked, jerking his head in the direction which Miggs had taken. “I heard him bellowing like a bull, so I thought I had best listen to what he had to say. He’s a useful servant, though.”
“The fellow’s half a savage himself,” his father said. “He’s in his element among them. That’s why he gets on so well with them.”
“He doesn’t seem much the worse for the climate, either.”
“His body does not, but his soul, Ezra, his soul? However, to return to business. I wish you to see the underwriters and pay the premium of the Black Eagle. If you see your way to it, increase the policy; but do it carefully, Ezra, and with tact. She will start about the time of the equinoctial gales. If anything should happen to her, it would be as well that the firm should have a margin on the right side.”