A Harbor Refuge
by W. W. Jacobs
A waterman’s boat was lying in the river just below Greenwich, the waterman resting on his oars, while his fare, a small, perturbed-looking man in seaman’s attire, gazed expectantly up the river.
“There she is!” he cried suddenly, as a small schooner came into view from behind a big steamer. “Take me alongside.”
“Nice little thing she is too,” said the waterman, watching the other out of the corner of his eye as he bent to his oars. “Rides the water like a duck. Her cap’n knows a thing or two, I’ll bet.”
“He knows watermen’s fares,” replied the passenger coldly.
“Look out there!” cried a voice from the schooner, and the mate threw a line which the passenger skilfully caught.
The waterman ceased rowing, and, as his boat came alongside the schooner, held out his hand to his passenger, who had already commenced to scramble up the side, and demanded his fare. It was handed down to him.
“It’s all right, then,” said the fare, as he stood on the deck and closed his eyes to the painful language in which the waterman was addressing him. “Nobody been inquiring for me?”
“Not a soul,” said the mate. “What’s all the row about?”
“Well, you see, it’s this way,” said the master of the Frolic, dropping his voice. “I’ve been taking a little too much notice of a little craft down Battersea way–nice little thing, an’ she thought I was a single man, dy’e see?”
The mate sucked his teeth.
“She introduced me to her brother as a single man,” continued the skipper. “He asked me when the banns was to be put up, an’ I didn’t like to tell him I was a married man with a family.”
“Why not?” asked the mate.
“He’s a prize-fighter,” said the other, in awe-inspiring tones; “‘the Battersea Bruiser.’ Consequently when he clapped me on the back, and asked me when the banns was to be, I only smiled.”
“What did he do?” inquired the mate, who was becoming interested.
“Put ’em up,” groaned the skipper, “an’ we all went to church to hear ’em. Talk o’ people walking over your grave, George, it’s nothing to what I felt–nothing. I felt a hypocrite, almost. Somehow he found out about me, and I’ve been hiding ever since I sent you that note. He told a pal he was going to give me a licking, and come down to Fairhaven with us and make mischief between me and the missis.”
“That ‘ud be worse than the licking,” said the mate sagely.
“Ah! and she’d believe him afore she would me, too, an’ we’ve been married seventeen years,” said the skipper mournfully.
“Perhaps that’s”–began the mate, and stopped suddenly.
“Perhaps what?” inquired the other, after waiting a reasonable time for him to finish.
“H’m, I forgot what I was going to say,” said the mate. “Funny, it’s gone now. Well, you’re all right now. You’d intended this to be the last trip to London for some time.”
“Yes, that’s what made me a bit more loving than I should ha’ been,” mused the skipper. “However, all’s well that ends well. How did you get on about the cook? Did you ship one?”
“Yes, I’ve got one, but he’s only signed as far as Fairhaven,” replied the mate. “Fine strong chap he is. He’s too good for a cook. I never saw a better built man in my life. It’ll do your eyes good to look at him. Here, cook!”
At the summons a huge, close-cropped head was thrust out of the galley, and a man of beautiful muscular development stepped out before the eyes of the paralyzed skipper, and began to remove his coat.
“Ain’t he a fine chap?” said the mate admiringly. “Show him your biceps, cook.”
With a leer at the captain the cook complied. He then doubled his fists, and, ducking his head scientifically, danced all round the stupefied master of the Frolic.
“Put your dooks up,” he cried warningly. “I’m going to dot you!”
“What the deuce are you up to, cook?” demanded the mate, who had been watching his proceedings in speechless amazement.
“Cook!” said the person addressed, with majestic scorn. “I’m no cook; I’m Bill Simmons, the ‘Battersea Bruiser,’ an’ I shipped on this ere little tub all for your dear captin’s sake. I’m going to put sich a ‘ed on ‘im that when he wants to blow his nose he’ll have to get a looking- glass to see where to go to. I’m going to give ‘im a licking every day, and when we get to Fairhaven I’m going to foller ‘im ‘ome and tell his wife about ‘im walking out with my sister.”
“She walked me out,” said the skipper, with dry lips.
“Put ’em up,” vociferated the “Bruiser.”
“Don’t you touch me, my lad,” said the skipper, dodging behind the wheel. “Go an’ see about your work–go an’ peel the taters.”
“Wot!” roared the “Bruiser.”
“You’ve shipped as cook aboard my craft,” said the skipper impressively. “If you lay a finger on me it’s mutiny, and you’ll get twelve months.”
“That’s right,” said the mate, as the pugilist (who had once had fourteen days for bruising, and still held it in wholesome remembrance) paused irresolute. “It’s mutiny, and it’ll also be my painful duty to get up the shotgun and blow the top of your ugly ‘ed off.”
“Would it be mutiny if I was to dot YOU one?” inquired the “Bruiser,” in a voice husky with emotion, as he sidled up to the mate.
“It would,” said the other hastily.
“Well, you’re a nice lot,” said the disgusted “Bruiser,” “you and your mutinies. Will any one of you have a go at me?”
There was no response from the crew, who had gathered round, and were watching the proceedings with keen enjoyment.
“Or all of yer?” asked the “Bruiser,” raising his eyebrows.
“I’ve got no quarrel with you, my lad,” the boy remarked with dignity, as he caught the new cook’s eye.
“Go and cook the dinner,'” said the skipper; “and look sharp about it. I don’t want to have to find fault with a young beginner like you; but I don’t have no shirkers aboard–understand that.”
For one moment of terrible suspense the skipper’s life hung in the balance, then the “Bruiser,” restraining his natural instincts by a mighty effort, retreated, growling, to the galley.
The skipper’s breath came more freely.
“He don’t know your address, I s’pose,” said the mate.
“No, but he’ll soon find it out when we get ashore,” replied the other dolefully. “When I think that I’ve got to take that brute to my home to make mischief I feel tempted to chuck him overboard almost.”
“It is a temptation,” agreed the mate loyally, closing his eyes to his chief’s physical deficiencies. “I’ll pass the word to the crew not to let him know your address, anyhow.”
The morning passed quietly, the skipper striving to look unconcerned as the new cook grimly brought the dinner down to the cabin and set it before him. After toying with it a little while, the master of the Frolic dined off buttered biscuit.
It was a matter of much discomfort to the crew that the new cook took his duties very seriously, and prided himself on his cooking. He was, moreover, disposed to be inconveniently punctilious about the way in which his efforts were regarded. For the first day the crew ate in silence, but at dinner-time on the second the storm broke.
“What are yer looking at your vittles like that for?” inquired the “Bruiser” of Sam Dowse, as that able-bodied seaman sat with his plate in his lap, eyeing it with much disfavour. “That ain’t the way to look at your food, after I’ve been perspiring away all the morning cooking it.”
“Yes, you’ve cooked yourself instead of the meat,” said Sam warmly. “It’s a shame to spoil good food like that; it’s quite raw.”
“You eat it!” said the “Bruiser” fiercely; “that’s wot you’ve go to do. Eat it!”
For sole answer the indignant Sam threw a piece at him, and the rest of the crew, snatching up their dinners, hurriedly clambered into their bunks and viewed the fray from a safe distance.
“Have you ‘ad enough?” inquired the “Bruiser,” addressing the head of Sam, which protruded from beneath his left arm.
“I ‘ave,” said Sam surlily.
“And you won’t turn up your nose at good vittles any more?” inquired the “Bruiser” severely.
“I won’t turn it up at anything,” said Sam earnestly, as he tenderly felt the member in question.
“You’re the only one as ‘as complained,” said the “Bruiser.” “You’re dainty, that’s wot you are. Look at the others–look how they’re eating theirs!”
At this hint the others came out of their bunks and fell to, and the “Bruiser” became affable.
“It’s wonderful wot I can turn my ‘and to,” he remarked pleasantly. “Things come natural to me that other men have to learn. You ‘d better put a bit of raw beef on that eye o’ yours, Sam.”
The thoughtless Sam clapped on a piece from his plate, and it was only by the active intercession of the rest of the crew that the sensitive cook was prevented from inflicting more punishment.
From this time forth the “Bruiser” ruled the roost, and, his temper soured by his trials, ruled it with a rod of iron. The crew, with the exception of Dowse, were small men getting into years, and quite unable to cope with him. His attitude with the skipper was dangerously deferential, and the latter was sorely perplexed to think of a way out of the mess in which he found himself.
“He means business, George,” he said one day to the mate, as he saw the “Bruiser” watching him intently from the galley.
“He looks at you worse an’ worse,” was the mate’s cheering reply. “The cooking’s spoiling what little temper he’s got left as fast as possible.”
“It’s the scandal I’m thinking of,” groaned the skipper; “all becos’ I like to be a bit pleasant to people.”
“You mustn’t look at the black side o’ things,” said the mate; “perhaps you won’t want to need to worry about that after he’s hit you. I’d sooner be kicked by a horse myself. He was telling them down for’ard the other night that he killed a chap once.”
The skipper turned green. “He ought to have been hung for it,” he said vehemently. “I wonder what juries think they’re for in this country. If I’d been on the jury I’d ha’ had my way, if they’d starved me for a month!”
“Look here!” said the mate suddenly; “I’ve got an idea. You go down below and I’ll call him up and start rating him. When I’m in the thick of it you come and stick up for him.”
“George,” said the skipper, with glistening eyes, “you’re a wonder. Lay it on thick, and if he hits you I’ll make it up to you in some way.”
He went below, and the mate, after waiting for some time, leaned over the wheel and shouted for the cook.
“What do you want?” growled the “Bruiser,” as he thrust a visage all red and streaky with his work from the galley.
“Why the devil don’t you wash them saucepans up?” demanded the mate, pointing to a row which stood on the deck. “Do you think we shipped you becos we wanted a broken-nosed, tenth-rate prize-fighter to look at?”
“Tenth-rate!” roared the “Bruiser,” coming out on to the deck.
“Don’t you roar at your officer,” said the mate sternly. “Your manners is worse than your cooking. You’d better stay with us a few trips to improve ’em.”
The “Bruiser” turned purple, and shivered with impotent wrath.
“We get a parcel o’ pot-house loafers aboard here,” continued the mate, airily addressing the atmosphere, “and, blank my eyes! if they don’t think they’re here to be waited on. You’ll want me to wash your face for you next, and do all your other dirty work, you–”
“George!” said a sad, reproving voice.
The mate started dramatically as the skipper appeared at the companion, and stopped abruptly.
“For shame, George!” said the skipper. “I never expected to hear you talk to anybody like that, especially to my friend Mr. Simmons.”
“Your WOT? demanded the friend hotly.
“My friend,” repeated the other gently; “and as to tenth-rate prize- fighters, George, the ‘Battersea Bruiser’ might be champion of England, if he’d only take the trouble to train.”
“Oh, you’re always sticking up for him,” said the artful mate.
“He deserves it,” said the skipper warmly. “He’s always run straight, ‘as Bill Simmons, and when I hear ‘im being talked at like that, it makes me go ‘ot all over.”
“Don’t you take the trouble to go ‘ot all over on my account,” said the “Bruiser” politely.
“I can’t help my feelings, Bill,” said the skipper softly.
“And don’t you call me Bill,” roared the “Bruiser” with sudden ferocity. “D’ye think I mind what you and your little tinpot crew say. You wait till we get ashore, my friend, and the mate too. Both of you wait!”
He turned his back on them and walked off to the galley, from which, with a view of giving them an object-lesson of an entertaining kind, he presently emerged with a small sack of potatoes, which he slung from the boom and used as a punching ball, dealing blows which made the master of the Frolic sick with apprehension.
“It’s no good,” he said to the mate; “kindness is thrown away on that man.”
“Well, if he hits one, he’s got to hit the lot,” said the mate. “We’ll all stand by you.”
“I can’t always have the crew follering me about,” said the skipper dejectedly. “No, he’ll wait his opportunity, and, after he’s broke my head, he’ll go ‘ome and break up my wife’s ‘art.”
“She won’t break ‘er ‘art,” said the mate confidently. “She and you’ll have a rough time of it; p’raps it would be better for you if she did break it a bit, but she’s not that sort of woman. Well, those of us as live longest’ll see the most.”
For the remainder of that day the cook maintained a sort of unnatural calm. The Frolic rose and fell on the seas like a cork, and the “Bruiser” took short unpremeditated little runs about the deck, which aggravated him exceedingly. Between the runs he folded his arms on the side, and languidly cursed the sea and all that belonged to it; and finally, having lost all desire for food himself, went below and turned in.
He stayed in his bunk the whole of the next day and night, awaking early the following morning to the pleasant fact that the motion had ceased, and that the sides and floor of the fo’c’sle were in the places where people of regular habits would expect to find them. The other bunks were empty, and, after a toilet hastened by a yearning for nourishment, he ran up on deck.
Day had just broken, and he found to his surprise that the voyage was over, and the schooner in a small harbour, lying alongside a stone quay. A few unloaded trucks stood on a railway line which ran from the harbour to the town clustered behind it, but there was no sign of work or life; the good people of the place evidently being comfortably in their beds, and in no hurry to quit them.
The “Bruiser,” with a happy smile on his face, surveyed the scene, sniffing with joy the smell of the land as it came fresh and sweet from the hills at the back of the town. There was only one thing wanting to complete his happiness–the skipper.
“Where’s the cap’n?” he demanded of Dowse, who was methodically coiling a line.
“Just gone ‘ome,” replied Dowse shortly.
In a great hurry the “Bruiser” sprang on to the side and stepped ashore, glancing keenly in every direction for his prey. There was no sign of it, and he ran a little way up the road until he saw the approaching figure of a man, from whom he hoped to obtain information. Then, happening to look back, he saw the masts of the schooner gliding by the quay, and, retracing his steps a little, perceived, to his intense surprise, the figure of the skipper standing by the wheel.
“Ta, ta, cookie!” cried the skipper cheerily.
Angry and puzzled the “Bruiser” ran back to the edge of the quay, and stood owlishly regarding the schooner and the grinning faces of its crew as they hoisted the sails and slowly swung around with their bow pointing to the sea.
“Well, they ain’t making a long stay, old man,” said a voice at his elbow, as the man for whom he had been waiting came up. “Why, they only came in ten minutes ago. What did they come in for, do you know?”
“They belong here,” said the “Bruiser”; “but me and the skipper’s had words, and I’m waiting for ‘im.”
“That craft don’t belong here,” said the stranger, as he eyed the receding Frolic.
“Yes, it does,” said the “Bruiser.”
“I tell you it don’t,” said the other. “I ought to know.”
“Look here, my friend,” said the “Bruiser” grimly, “don’t contradict me. That’s the Frolic of Fairhaven.”
“Very likely,” said the man. “I don’t know where she’s from, but she’s not from here.”
“Why,” said the “Bruiser,” and his voice shook, “ain’t this Fairhaven?”
“Lord love you, no!” said the stranger; “not by a couple o’ hundred miles it ain’t. Wot put that idea into your silly fat head?”
The frantic “Bruiser” raised his fist at the description, but at that moment the crew of the Frolic, which was just getting clear of the harbour, hung over the stern and gave three hearty cheers. The stranger was of a friendly and excitable disposition, and, his evil star being in the ascendant that morning, he took off his hat and cheered wildly back. Immediately afterwards he obtained unasked the post of whipping-boy to the master of the Frolic, and entered upon his new duties at once.